The Scottish Highlands, October 1617
"You cannot force my sister to marry you!" Kristina MacQueen yelled at Blackburn MacCromar, a hulking warlord with long black hair. Candlelight glinting off the metal studs in his leather armor, he stood beside her sister, Suzanna—or Anna, as she was better known—in the small chapel before a priest.
Dark brows lowered, Blackburn glowered at Kristina. "Shut your mouth, bitch!" Lunging toward her, Blackburn slapped her face so hard her neck wrenched. The pain exploded and she stumbled backward.
"Nay! Leave her be!" Anna grabbed onto his arm.
Holding her stinging cheek, Kristina clenched her teeth and glared at Blackburn. Anna was pale, weak and thin, barely recovered from all the blood loss she'd suffered when she'd lost her babe at seven months… after Blackburn had shoved her down the stairs. Only months before that, Blackburn had slain Anna's husband, Chief John MacCromar, and taken over as chief.
Now, tears trailed down Anna's face and she appeared ready to collapse.
"Father, how can you perform this ceremony?" Kristina demanded of the priest. "She already refused to marry him. He murdered her husband in cold blood!"
The priest merely stared down at his prayer book as if he didn't hear a word she said.
"Don't let her move from this spot," Blackburn murmured to the guard he'd placed beside Anna. He then turned toward Kristina and pulled a dirk from the scabbard at his belt.
"Don't touch her!" Anna shrieked, trying to free herself from the guard.
The long blade flashed in the candlelight. Terror striking her like a sharp icicle, Kristina dodged backward, but Blackburn's second-in-command, Red Holme, blocked her escape. Blackburn pushed her against the wall. The rough stones dug into her back. His fingers bit into her chin as he restrained her. With his other hand, he held the knife close to her face. "You listen to me, wench," he hissed. "You will keep your mouth shut during the ceremony or you will find yourself dead. Do you understand?"
"Kristina, please be quiet," Anna begged, her face wet with tears.
"Aye, you'd best listen to your sister," Blackburn said.
Her heart hammering, Kristina clenched her teeth and narrowed her eyes. Equal parts fear and rage stampeded through her. If Anna married him, they were both as good as dead anyway. "You can't force a woman to wed you. 'Tis illegal!"
"She will agree to the marriage." Blackburn smiled maliciously.
Kristina glared past Blackburn to the priest. Was he a man of God or an imposter? "Please help us, Father. I beg of you! This man is a murderer!"
Blackburn's fingers tightened, nearly crushing her chin. "I warned you," he seethed.
She kicked and struggled against him. He held her firm and sliced the blade down the left side of her face. She screamed at the searing pain. When she yanked away from him this time, he let her go. Blood poured from the cut on her cheek and drenched her hands.
Anna's screams echoed until they were muffled.
"Hold your knife to her throat," he ordered Holme.
Before Kristina could escape, the beefy man pinned her arms to her sides, near squeezing the breath from her, and placed his blade against her throat. The sharp tip pricked the skin of her neck but 'twas naught compared to the devastating pain lashing her face.
"I like you, lass, but I always follow orders," Holme growled into her ear.
Was she going to die this day? The gash on her face was deep, several inches long, and it bled profusely.
"You will marry me, m'lady," he told Anna, "Or I will order your sister's throat slit."
Kristina coughed and gagged against the blood entering her mouth from the wound and forced herself to breathe. Nausea flooded her stomach and the sharp pain in her face was near unbearable.
She wanted to gut the bastard, and the one holding her too, but she was no match for Blackburn, Holme and the eight large guards he had stationed inside this chapel. She and Anna could not best Blackburn now. But if she lived, she would kill him.
The ceremony continued. Though Anna was crying and the guard had to hold her up, she finally said, "I do."
After he kissed Anna, sealing the hell-hated vows, Blackburn told the guard, "Carry my wife back to the keep." Blackburn approached Kristina. "I told you she would agree." He smirked.
Snarling, he grasped the front of her bloody bodice, yanked her away from Holme, then threw her against the wall. The back of her head struck the stones. Agonizing pain consuming her, she slid to the floor, and her surroundings vanished.
Stirling, Scotland, October 1619
"Kristina, wake up and ready yourself for a journey!"
In her bedchamber, Kristina MacQueen jolted awake. Had she just heard her mother's voice? 'Twas impossible. Her mother had passed many years ago. The voice had been inside her dream. What had Ma meant about a journey? Kristina had not left the vicinity of her aunt and uncle's manor house in many months.
Hearing the faint hoofbeats of many horses galloping in the distance, she sat up and listened. As each moment passed, the horses' hooves pounded closer and closer until they echoed off the cobblestones just outside the window. Her heart thumping and an eerie feeling prickling along her skin, she swung her feet toward the floor and sat on the edge of the bed.
A fist battered violently at the home's entrance door below.
"Saints. Who could that be?" she whispered. It had to be the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morn, for she heard no one moving about the house and her room was chilly. The visitor couldn't be the physician calling to treat Uncle Gilbert, who suffered from gout, rheumatism and various other ailments. Nay, he wouldn't bring that many horses with him on a house call. Maybe 'twas the creditors, come to expel them from their home. When her uncle's health had declined, so had his funds.
Could it be news of her older sister? She had not heard from Anna in many months.
Ready yourself for a journey, her mother had said in the dream.
Good heavens! Had someone come for her, to take her to Anna?
Heart hammering, Kristina leapt from the warm bed. Though she couldn't see, she knew the placement of the furniture in her room and could easily navigate the space without bumping into anything. After tiptoeing across the cold wooden floor in her stockings, she approached the door and turned the knob to open it a crack, then listened. The maids were in an uproar on the ground floor below.
"What's the racket?" Aunt Matilda yelled as she tromped by Kristina's chamber and down the stairs. "Who is it?" she demanded near the front door.
"Chief Blackburn MacCromar!" The snarled response was bellowed from outside, just below her window.
A chill of terror and revulsion flashed through Kristina. "Saints, preserve us." She shut the door and barred it, her fingers trembling. She had not been near the malicious bastard in two years. He had finally come for her.
Anxiety and nausea froze her to the spot. What would he do? Would he kill her for a certainty this time?
After Blackburn had sliced Kristina's face and slammed her head against the stone wall, she had not known anything for days. When she'd awakened, she'd been blind and had not seen anything since.
Anna had been the only one there to protect her. If not for her, Blackburn might have easily finished Kristina off in her weakened state.
When Blackburn had left on a trip, she and Anna had run away. After bringing her here to hide with their aunt and uncle, Anna had fled toward Edinburgh, to lure Blackburn away from her, she'd said. What a strong and brave woman her sister was, and how she admired her. Anna had only slipped back a couple of times since, to bring money she'd earned from singing.
Why would her mother, in a dream, expect her to take a journey with such a cruel man as Blackburn?
Had he found Anna?
"Dear God, nay. Please keep Anna safe," she whispered, nausea clutching at her stomach.
Kristina had to be ready for the blackguard. Feeling along the plaster wall, she found her storage chest, the oak wood and the metal studs cold against her palms. Kneeling, she opened it and dug through the scratchy woolen and linen clothing, feeling for the small knife in its leather sheath. Finding it, she strapped it to her thigh above her stocking. She knew the blade was sharp, for she'd whetted it herself.
Was it sacrilege to hope for an opportunity to kill Blackburn? Regardless, she would protect herself and her sister as best she could.
She tied a small linen pouch containing a few supplies, silver coins and her mother's gold and garnet earrings around her waist. The earrings were the last things of her mother's that she possessed. Not wanting to be without them, she either wore them or had them close by at all times. Blackburn had stolen the rest of her mother's jewels, along with the ones Anna's first husband had given her, and sold it all. Kristina would not want him to see these earrings.
Shivering from the chilly room, she struggled to pull on two layers of her warmest clothing over the smock—no easy task, as she was unable to see and had no assistance as she usually did. Once she'd adjusted her clothing into place, she secured the wide leather belt over her arisaid.
Where could Anna be now, all these months later? "Dear God, let her be well," she whispered. "And please forgive me if I have to kill a man to protect myself."
Heavy footfalls pounded up the steps, riveting Kristina's attention. Chills of fear slid along her spine.
"Search this place!" Blackburn ordered.
Doors opened and slammed. Heavy boots thudded back and forth.
Kristina's hands trembled and her stomach knotted as she pulled on her leather boots, then her thick woolen cloak. She found her cane where she'd propped it by the bed. 'Twas long, lightweight and made of pine, not nearly strong enough to use as a weapon. She was wise enough to know she couldn't defeat Blackburn with a stick, but she did need it to get around wherever she went.
"Where is she?" the male voice growled outside her door. "Out of my way, you hag!"
Panic quickened Kristina's breathing and her heart rate. She felt as if she were headed to her own execution… and she might be. The barbaric murderer who had forced Anna to marry him two years ago could easily kill Kristina… but he might suffer a couple of stab wounds in the process.
Though she had not wanted to ever prepare for this day, she had, for she knew Blackburn would never stop searching for Anna… unless he was dead. Unfortunately, no one had killed him yet.
He was obsessed with Anna, wanting to possess her and abuse her in equal measure. But Kristina—he would not give one rotten fig for her. He had merely used her to bend Anna to his will.
Had he not done enough damage to Kristina already? Blindness. A horrid scar down her face. What had she done to him? Naught but try to protect her beloved sister.
A heavy fist pummeled her door. She jumped, then stood firm, facing it. "Dear God, give me strength," she whispered, releasing a breath.
The latch clattered, but the bar held the door securely closed. "Lady Kristina, if you wish to see your sister alive, you will open this door now," Blackburn roared.
She frowned. His words made no logical sense. If he had Anna, he wouldn't be here. Did he take her for a fool?
"I will kill your aunt! Do you hear me, you little witch?"
Aunt Matilda screamed, turning Kristina's blood to ice. Had he grabbed her?
Kristina hastened toward the door. "Leave my aunt be… and everyone else here! Then I'll open the door. Do you promise?"
As if his promise meant anything. She well knew she could not bargain with the devil.
Kristina drew in a deep, calming breath. She would need all the fortitude and courage she possessed to face this brute. "Are you well, aunt?"
"Aye, but don't you dare open that door, Kristina!"
She didn't listen. She unbarred the door, for she wouldn't stand by while this madman killed her aunt, perhaps her ailing uncle, and everyone else in this house.
Kristina pulled the door open by slow degrees, feeling as if she stood before a gaping abyss, vulnerable, only blackness before her. Her heart thundered in her ears so loudly she could hardly hear. But she smelled him. Blackburn MacCromar stank of sweat, horses, and whisky.
"What do you want? Where is my sister?"
He yanked the cane from her hand, and it clattered away. Roughly, he grabbed Kristina, picked her up and tossed her over his bulky shoulder. Pain slammed into her stomach, near knocking the breath from her, even as fear spiked inside her. "Bastard," she gasped.
Her aunt screamed. Then Kristina felt her aunt's weak, arthritic grip on her arm as she tried to pull her from the monster.
"Get back, you old crone!" Blackburn turned about, shook her aunt off, then strode down the corridor.
"I'll be fine, aunt! Don't worry over me," Kristina called, trying to keep her voice steady, though she wanted to sob, her head dangling upside down. She imagined the horror on her aunt's face. "I'll send word when I can."
She heard sobs coming from her aunt and some of the female servants. Blackburn's boots clomped down the steps and along the wood floors, his men's footsteps following, as they exited the front door into the cool night air. The acrid smoke from burning pitch invaded her nostrils, making her cough. The sounds of hissing and popping torch flames reached her next. Horses neighed and snorted as he carried her among them. The scents of horses and sweaty men increased. How many men were here?
Chill wind blasted them, carrying away some of the odors and freshening the air.
"She can ride with me," a man said. She remembered that callous voice—Blackburn's second-in-command and war leader, the soulless man who'd held a knife to her throat: Red Holme.
Revulsion gave her a tremor as she recalled the nasty, lust-filled looks he'd given her before she'd lost her sight. He had tried every ploy to lure her to his bed. Disgusted by him and his malevolent aura, she'd spurned his advances.
"I brought a horse for her," Blackburn called to Holme. "Can you stay in the saddle, wench?" He dumped her onto her feet, then his voice became mocking. "Or would you feel safer riding with Holme?"
Toppling sideways against the horse, she grabbed onto the saddle. "I can ride alone." She had not been on a horse since losing her sight, but before that, she'd ridden plenty. Surely she hadn't forgotten how. And she wanted to be as far away from Holme as possible.
"Where is my sister?" she asked, keeping her voice steady and neutral.
"You will find out soon enough. Keep quiet or you'll find yourself gagged." Lifting her, he placed her astride the horse. After she shoved her skirts out of the way, she grabbed hold of the saddle and placed her feet in the stirrups.
"She cannot keep up with our fast pace," Red Holme grumbled.
"Aye, she will. Hold her bridle and keep her beside you, Ralston. I want her alive until we reach our destination."
What did he mean? What was their destination and what would he do to her there?
Within moments, the horses started walking forward, then trotting at a brisk pace. The cold wind stung her cheeks, blowing her cowl off and her hair back. Holding onto the saddle and using her legs to grip the horse, she worked hard to keep her balance, leaning slightly forward over the horse's neck.
She wondered about the man Blackburn had put in charge of guiding her horse.
"Ralston?" she said, loud enough to be heard over the hooves pounding the muddy road.
"Aye." He sounded younger than the other two men, 'haps in his early twenties.
"Where are we going?"
"You'll have to ask the chief."
Chief, hah! Blackburn had stolen the position when he'd murdered his own cousin, John MacCromar.
"How many soldiers did he bring?" she asked.
Why on earth would he need that many men simply to capture her? He obviously had other plans in mind, perhaps some sort of attack.
"Any other women in the party?"
Saints. She refused to think about how vulnerable she was.
As they rode, she tried to figure out the situation. None of the men were talking because of the fast pace. 'Twas clear Blackburn knew where Anna was, but mayhap she wasn't so easy to get to.
Likely, Blackburn planned to use Kristina to lure or force Anna out from her hiding place. That had to be it. Why else would he abduct her in the middle of the night and then ride like the devil? He wanted to use her as leverage. If that were the case, she had to escape and hide. But how? She could see naught, not even a faint hint of light at midday.
She had no inkling what time of night or morning it was, but they rode for about an hour.
"Halt!" Blackburn called out from somewhere up ahead. All the hoofbeats slowed, then drew to a stop. Leather creaked as the men dismounted. A flowing stream splashed nearby. The air smelled fresh and damp, like black dirt in a garden.
Though stiff and sore from sitting in the saddle so long, she dismounted without help. It had been over two years since she'd ridden much, and her muscles had weakened.
Footsteps thumped and swished toward her through damp grasses. "I was going to help you dismount, m'lady," Ralston said.
"I'm fully capable of doing so myself. Is there a place I might… have some privacy?" Her face burned with the awkwardness of the situation. She prayed the men would actually give her some privacy and show her respect.
"Aye, there are some bushes just over here." Ralston took her arm and gently but firmly guided her over the uneven ground. After her feet got tangled in the tall dead grass, he steadied her, then she took higher steps.
After they stopped, she listened, not hearing anyone close by. "Is this private and away from the men?"
"Aye. I will stand guard with my back toward you."
"I thank you." She didn't know if she could trust him, but what choice did she have? "Is it daylight yet?"
"A hint of dawn is just at the horizon."
After she'd relieved herself, Ralston led her from the bushes and toward the talking men again.
"I wish some clean water or something to drink," she said, holding her head high. She would not be cowed by these criminals.
"Do you now, my queen?"
She turned her head toward Red Holme's grumpy voice, the sound of it sickening her. Her whole body tensed. She remembered what he looked like—a tall, hulking man with shaggy red hair and a beard to match.
"Can you now see?" he demanded.
She frowned. "Nay."
"Then why are you looking at me with those eerie blue eyes?"
What in blazes was he talking about? Did she appear to be staring at him? A bitter laugh almost burst from her mouth, but she prevented it. Instead, she listened, hearing him move aside and turning her eyes toward the sound. Everyone said that her eyes appeared fine and healthy. The physician had told her whatever had caused her blindness, it was deeper inside her head and caused from the blow to her brain.
"What's wrong with you?" Blackburn asked nearby.
"She can see!" Red Holme declared as if spooked. "Look at her!"
"Are you mad? She's as blind as a damnable bat."
Her stomach turned at Blackburn's snide tone. Something small bounced off Kristina's shoulder, startling her. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "Throwing rocks at the blind girl? How heroic you are."
"Shut your mouth!" Blackburn ordered. "Your sharp tongue is why you're blind now and why your face is so hideously ugly with that scar."
Kristina ground her teeth. Bastard. She'd like to take her knife and slice his face as he had done to her. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to let the blackguards see them.
Red Holme chuckled as he walked away, the grass rustling beneath his boots. She wished she could accurately throw a dirk at each of them.
She pulled the cowl over her head, hiding her face. Indeed, she felt hideously ugly, as he'd said. She traced a finger over the deep, puckered scar that ran down the length of her cheek, now wet with tears. No man would ever find her attractive—she knew that. Nor would any man want a blind wife who couldn't take care of a household or children. She had no illusions about marrying.
Don't think of it, she told herself. She simply needed to survive this journey and try to protect Anna as best she could.
Boots stamping through damp dead grass approached, and she tensed.
"Here you go, m'lady," Ralston said.
She wiped her tears away, hoping he didn't see. "What is it?"
"Water." He took her hand and placed it around a cold, wet metal cup.
"Is it clean?" Everyone knew disease came from dirty water.
"Aye, I drank some myself. I got it from a small stream flowing down from the hill."
"I thank you." She sniffed it, detecting no rank odors. A small taste told her it was fresh enough. After drinking all she wanted, she handed the cup back to Ralston. "Is my sister all right?" she whispered.
"Aye, far as I know." He kept his voice low.
"Have you seen her?"
"Nay." His brief answers did not satisfy her curiosity.
"Where is she? Where are we going?" Kristina asked.
"Northwest and into the Highlands."
"Through Lochaber and to the west coast."
Saints, how had Anna gotten so far away… and been discovered anyway?
As Ralston's footsteps retreated, she listened to the other men, trying to find out more, but they were too distant or talking so low she couldn't make out their words. If not for her blindness, she might spy an escape route, but her affliction imprisoned her as much as Blackburn did.
"Mount up!" the knave yelled, his voice echoing. "We must ride many miles this day."
Highlander Entangled ©2017 Vonda Sinclair