Because no one shouted at her, she was certain she hadn't been seen.
The piglets made her task easy, for they had rolled themselves into little balls and were sleeping on top of each other. Brenna scooped one up in the hem of her skirts, wrapped it up tight, and clutched it against her chest. She thought to run to the kitchens and hide her prize there, and she was sure she would have succeeded with her plan, if her new pet hadn't made such a fuss about it alt.
Brenna didn't realize her jeopardy until she was outside the pen and heard the horrible noise coming towards her. Pigs weren't supposed to fly, but the enraged mama seemed to be doing just that. Her head went down when she reached the yard, and she charged forward.
Brenna started screaming. Suddenly too terrified to think, she ran in circles, around and around the pen, clutching her piglet in her arms as she bellowed for her papa to come and save her.
Papa didn't rescue her; the giant who'd smiled at her did. And just in the nick of time. The mama's snout tripped her, and as she was being pitched to the ground, she felt herself being lifted high into the air. She squeezed her eyes shut, stopped screaming, and looked around again. She was still in his arms, yet on the opposite side of the fence a fair distance away from the pen. How had he ever gotten over the fence?
Chaos surrounded her. Everyone was running toward her and the giant. Her papa was the last one to reach the fence.
She didn't even want to think about her punishment if he discovered what she had hidden in her skirts.
She fervently hoped he never found out.
She knew her savior could feel her pet wiggling between them. She finally gathered enough courage to look up at him to see what he was going to do about it.
He looked surprised, and when the piglet let out another squeal, he smiled.
She was so happy he wasn't angry, she smiled back before she could remember to be shy.
One of his friends stepped closer to the fence. "Connor, is everything all right?"
He turned to answer. Brenna stopped him by putting her hand on the side of his face and nudging him back to her again.
She whispered her plea then. He must not have heard her, because he leaned down closer until their foreheads were almost touching.
The giant suddenly threw his head back and let out a bellow of laughter. She told him to hush, but that only made him laugh all the more.
He didn't tell on her, though, and once he'd put her back down, she was able to run past her papa before he could grab hold of her.
"Come back here, Brenna."
She pretended she didn't hear him and continued on.
It wasn't until she was safely hidden under the kitchen table with her new baby sleeping in her lap that she realized she'd forgotten to ask the man to marry her. She wasn't discouraged. She would ask him tomorrow, and if he told her no, she would come up with another plan. One way or another, she meant to catch him and save her papa the trouble.
He wore war paint to his wedding.
Connor MacAlister's mood was just as grim as the dark blue paint smeared across his face and arms.
The laird wasn't happy about the duty he'd taken on, but he was an honorable man, and he would do whatever was required to gain justice.
Connor had vengeance on his mind and in his heart; though, in truth, he didn't think he was unusual. Every Highlander worth his sword was vengeful. It was simply the way things were.
Five soldiers rode with their laird. The men were also finely turned out for battle, but their collective mood was much lighter, because none of them was going to be saddled with an English bride for the rest of his days.
Quinlan, the first-in-command, rode beside his laird. The warrior was almost Connor's equal in height, but he wasn't quite as muscular through his shoulders, upper arms, and thighs and, therefore, didn't measure up to Connor's strength. That wasn't the reason Quinlan had stayed on with the MacAlister clan, however. It was Connor's intelligence, his relentless thirst for justice, and his unwavering leadership abilities that kept the warrior by his side. As his loyal follower, Quinlan would give his life to keep his laird safe. Connor had already saved him once, and Quinlan knew his laird would willingly do so again and again, regardless of the risk. The other men felt the same way Quinlan did, for Connor treated all of his followers as valuable members of his family.
Quinlan wasn't just a loyal follower; he was also a close friend, and like all the other MacAlisters, he too embraced his grudges, stroking them like lovers for years and years if need be, until he could find a way to right a wrong done to him or his family.
"It isn't too late to change your mind," Quinlan remarked. "There are other ways to retaliate against MacNare on my father's behalf."
"No. I've already sent word to my stepmother that I am taking a bride, and nothing you can say to me will make me change my mind."
"Do you think Euphemia will finally come back then?"
"Probably not," Connor answered. "She finds it too difficult to return to our land since my father was taken from her. She mourns his passing even to this day."
"What about Alec? Your brother ordered you to end this feud, and you gave him your word to do just that."
"Yes, and this will be my last insult. It will surely pain MacNare for a long, long time. I'll have to be content with that. You know how hungry the pig is for an alliance with the English. We'll use his greed to our advantage. Remember, friend, he shamed and humiliated your family."
"And we warred against him for his treachery."
"It wasn't enough," Connor decreed. "When I'm finished, your father will be able to hold his head up again. He'll be vindicated."
Quinlan suddenly laughed. "I'm thinking God had a hand in this, Connor. We didn't know until this morning the name of the daughter you meant to take. Do you remember her yet?"
"She wasn't easy to forget. Besides, I now have a better reason to give to Alec. That is more important to me."
"Your brother's going to be furious all the same."
"No, he'll be pleased once I make him realize the Englishwoman betrothed herself to me long ago."
"And what will you tell him?"
"The truth. She did ask me to marry her. You haven't forgotten that fact. You laughed for a week."
Quinlan nodded. "She asked you three times, but I would remind you that was years ago. She will surely have forgotten."
Connor smiled. "Will that matter?"
Lady Brenna was suddenly overcome with the eerie sensation that someone or something was watching her. She was kneeling by the side of a shallow stream, drying her face and her hands with her embroidered cloth, when she felt a presence behind her.
She didn't make any quick movements. She knew better than to jump up and run back to camp. If a wild boar or worse were close by, any sudden actions would only draw more attention to herself.
She pulled her dagger free and slowly turned as she stood up, bracing herself for what might be lurking in the dark underbrush.
There wasn't anything there. She waited several minutes for the threat to present itself, and still nothing moved. The only sound she heard was the loud thundering of her own heartbeat.
It had been foolish for her to walk so far away from where her father's men had made the nooning camp.
If anything happened, she had no one to blame but herself, and if she hadn't been so desperate for a moment alone, she would have thought more about the possible consequences. She still would have gone in search of privacy, of course, but she would have taken the necessary precautions and carried her bow and arrows.
Had she left her instincts at home? She thought she must have because she still felt she was being watched, and that didn't make a bit of sense to her.
Brenna decided she was just being foolish. If someone or something was there, she would have heard him or it approaching long before now. Papa had often told her how exceptional her hearing was, and wasn't it a fact that he often boasted to his friends that she could hear the first leaf of autumn falling on a field of battle? Of course, this was an exaggeration. Still, there was some truth in what he said. She usually did hear every little sound.
But she didn't hear anything now. Brenna decided she was simply overwrought. The journey had been difficult for her, and she was tuckered out. Yes, that was it. Fatigue had to be the reason she was imagining threats that weren't there.
Laird MacNare. Heaven save her, every minute she had to spare, her mind turned to thoughts of her future husband. Then she usually threw up. She was thankful she hadn't eaten today, knowing she'd be doubled over now if she had. Granted, she had never met the man and could be jumping to all the wrong conclusions. He might be quite pleasant. All those horrible stories about him could be exaggerations.
Lord, she fervently hoped so. She didn't want to be married to a cruel man, couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like, and, oh, how she'd tried to dissuade her father from making such a choice for her. He wouldn't listen to any of her arguments, but then he rarely did.
He'd been terribly cold in the way he'd told her, too. He shook her awake in the middle of the night, informed her of his decision, and then ordered her to help her mother and the maids prepare her baggage. She would leave for the Lowlands of Scotland at first light. The explanation he gave her on his way out the doorway wasn't comforting. The marriage would help her father extend his fingers into Scotland, and since the king had decided Rachel should marry one of his favored barons, Haynesworth would give Brenna to MacNare. What was implied but not said was more painful for her to bear: her father loved her, aye, but he loved power and influence more.
And gifts as well, she thought. MacNare had sweetened the kettle by adding more treasures. Granted, the king didn't know about the betrothal and was sure to be angry, but her father didn't seem overly concerned. Greed filled his heart, leaving little room for caution or fear.
Once she'd stopped crying, her mother had tried to give her advice. She suggested Brenna quit worrying.
Everything was bound to turn out all right, providing her daughter learned to get along, and let go of her childish dreams.
Thinking about her parents was making her homesick. She couldn't understand why, given the fact that they had forced her into this unwelcome marriage. Yet, she wanted to go back home. She missed everyone, even her old, cranky nursemaid, who was still bossing everyone around.
Enough of this self-pity. She knew she'd be weeping like a baby if she didn't stop. Her future was determined, and only God would be able to change her fate.
Her father's soldiers were probably anxious to be on their way. She thought they might already be on MacNare land, but she knew they still had a good full day's ride ahead of them before they reached his fortress.
Brenna hastily tried to repair her braid. The thing had fallen apart while she was bending over the water washing her face. She started to refashion the braid, then changed her mind. What did she care what she looked like when she met the laird? She pulled the ribbon free, threaded her fingers through her hair, and, in the process, dropped both her dagger and her ribbon.
She had just picked up her dagger when she heard an abrupt shout from Harold, the soldier in charge of her escort.
She picked up her skirts and went running back toward the camp to find out what was wrong. Her lady's maid, Beatrice, intercepted her. The heavyset woman came barreling down the narrow path, grabbed hold of Brenna's arm, and tried to keep on going. The look of terror in Beatrice's eyes sent chills of dread down Brenna's spine.
"Run, mi'lady," she screamed. "We've been attacked by demons. Hide yourself before it's too late. The savages are going to kill the soldiers, but it's you they're wanting most of all. You mustn't let them find you. Hurry now."
"Who are they?" Brenna demanded in a frightened whisper.
"Outcasts I'm thinking, so many I couldn't keep count, and all with blue faces and demon eyes. They're as big as Satan himself. One has already boasted to kill Harold first if he doesn't tell him where you hide."
"Harold won't tell."
"He did tell, he did," she cried out, bobbing her head up and down for emphasis. "He threw his sword down and was giving them your whereabouts when I saw my chance to run. Your father's men will still die. The heathens only wait now for their leader to join them, and then the butchering is sure to begin.
They'll drink their blood and eat their flesh."
Beatrice panted with her hysteria. In an attempt to get her mistress to move, she tightened her hold on Brenna's arm, drawing blood as her nails dug deep into skin.
Brenna struggled to get away from the woman. "The soldiers were still alive when you left?" she asked.
"Aye, but it's only a matter of time before they're killed. For the love of God, run."
"I can't leave the soldiers. Go, save yourself."
"Are you daft?"
"If they want me, perhaps they'll listen to my pleas and let Father's soldiers leave. It's a poor substitution, one life for twelve. I know it's foolhardy, but I must try."
"You'll die for your stupidity," she muttered as she shoved Brenna out of her way and ran on into the forest.
Panic-stricken, Brenna wanted to follow her maid, but couldn't. It took all of her courage not to give in to the lure, because if the maid was telling the truth, Brenna knew she could well die in just a few minutes.
Dear God, she was scared. Dying required bravery, a noble quality she suddenly feared she'd left at home, but she couldn't let Harold and the others die because of her own cowardice. Even though it was a remote possibility that she would be able to persuade the demons to let the soldiers leave, she had to try to save them, no matter how frightened she was.
She hurried toward the clearing and began her final prayer to God. She didn't waste precious time asking forgiveness for each transgression. It would have taken her a month to get them all remembered, categorized, and confessed, and so she lumped them all together and simply begged for absolution for the lot. She finished her supplication with the request that He please give her enough cunning to find a way to keep on living.
Then she started chanting. "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Oh Lord."
By the time she reached the curve in the broken path just outside the campsite, she was trembling so fiercely, she could barely stand up straight. She remembered the dagger she still held in her right hand, hid it behind her back beneath a fold in her gown, and forced herself to take a deep breath.