Claray was standing at the window, debating the merits of leaping to her death rather than marry Maldouen MacNaughton, when knocking at the door made her stiffen.
The loud banging sounded like a death knell. It meant her time was up. They'd come to take her to the chapel.
Claray's fingers tightened briefly on the stone edging of the window, her body tensing in preparation of climbing up and casting herself out. But she could not do it. Father Cameron said that self-killing was a sin certain to land you in hell, and she was quite sure that ten or twenty years of hell on earth as MacNaughton's wife were better than an eternity in the true hell as one of Satan's handmaidens.
Shoulders sagging, Claray pressed her cheek to the cold stone and closed her eyes, silently sending up one last prayer. "Please God, if you can no' see yer way clear to saving me from this . . . at least make me death quick."
Another knock sounded, this one a much louder, more insistent pounding. Claray forced herself to straighten and walk to the door, brushing down the skirt of the pretty pale blue gown she wore as she went. She wasn't surprised when she opened it to see her uncle Gilchrist framed by the two men he'd had guarding her door for the last three days since her arrival. She was a little surprised by the guilt that briefly flashed on his face though. It gave her a moment's hope, but even as she opened her mouth to plea that he not do this, Gilchrist Kerr raised a hand to silence her.
"'Tis sorry I am, niece. But I'm tired o' being looked down on as a lowlander and MacNaughton has promised MacFarlane to me do I see this through. Ye're marrying him and that's that."
Claray closed her mouth and gave a resigned nod, but couldn't resist saying, "Let us hope, then, that ye live a long time to enjoy it, uncle. For I fear yer decision will surely see ye in hell for eternity afterward."
Fear crossed his face at her words. It was closely followed by anger, and his hand clamped on her arm in a bruising grip. Dragging her out into the hall, he snapped, "Ye'll want to be watchin' that tongue o' yers with the MacNaughton, girl. Else ye'll be in hell ere me."
Claray raised her chin, staring straight ahead as he urged her up the hall toward the stairs. "Not I. Me conscience is clear. I may die first, but 'tis heaven where I'll land. Unlike you."
She'd known her words would anger him further, and wasn't surprised when his fingers tightened around her arm to the point she feared her bone would snap. But words were her only weapon now, and if what she'd said gave him more than a sleepless night or two between now and when he met his maker, it was something at least.
Claray tried to concentrate on that rather than the trials ahead as her uncle forced her down the stairs and out of the keep. The man was taller than her, his legs longer, but her uncle didn't make allowances for that as he pulled her across the bailey. He was moving at a fast clip that had her running to keep pace with him. Claray was concentrating so hard on keeping up that when he suddenly halted halfway to the church, she stumbled and would have fallen if not for that punishing grip on her arm.
For one moment hope rose within her that his conscience had pricked him and he'd had a change of heart. But when she glanced to his face, she saw that he was frowning toward the gate where a clatter and commotion had apparently caught his attention.
Hope dying in her chest, Claray turned her disinterested gaze that way to see three men on horseback crossing the drawbridge. Guests arriving late to the wedding, she supposed unhappily, and shifted her attention toward the chapel where a large crowd of people awaited them. The witnesses to her doom were made up mostly of MacNaughton soldiers and a very few members of the Kerr clan. It seemed most did not wish to be a part of their laird's betrayal of his own niece.
"The Wolf," her uncle muttered with what sounded like confusion.
Claray glanced sharply back at her uncle to see the perplexed expression on his face and then surveyed the three men again. They were in the bailey now and riding straight for them at a canter rather than a walk, she noted, some of her disinterest falling away. They were all large, muscular warriors with long hair. But while the man in the lead had black hair, the one behind him had dark brown, and the last was fair. All three were good looking, if not outright handsome, she decided as they drew nearer.
Claray didn't have to ask who the Wolf was, or even which of the three men he might be. The warrior who went by the moniker "the Wolf" was a favorite subject of the troubadours of late. Every other song they sang was about him, praising his courage and prowess in battle as well as his handsome face and hair that was "black as sin." According to those songs, the Wolf was a warrior considered as intelligent and deadly as the wolf he was named for. But he was actually a lone wolf in those songs, because he spoke little and aligned himself with no particular clan, instead offering his sword arm for a price. He was a mercenary, but an honorable one. It was said he served only those with a just cause.
"What the devil is the Wolf doing here?" her uncle muttered now.
Claray suspected it was a rhetorical question so didn't bother to respond. Besides, she had no idea why the man was here, but she was grateful for it. Any delay to this forced wedding was appreciated, so she simply stood at her uncle's side, waiting for the men to reach them.
"Laird Kerr," the Wolf said in greeting as he reined in before them. He then reached into his plaid to retrieve a scroll. Holding it in hand with the seal covered, he let his gaze slide briefly over Claray before turning his attention back to her uncle. "I understand your niece, Claray MacFarlane, is visiting. Is this her?"
"Aye," her uncle muttered distractedly, his gaze on the scroll.
Nodding, the Wolf leaned down, offering him the sealed message. Claray resisted the urge to rub the spot where her uncle's hand had gripped her so tightly when he released her to take the missive. Her upper arm was throbbing, but pride made her ignore it as she watched him break the seal and start to unroll the scroll.
Claray was actually holding her breath as she waited. Hope had reared in her again, this time that the missive might be from her cousin Aulay Buchanan. Perhaps this was his response to her cousin Mairin's plea for help on her behalf. She might yet be saved from the fate the MacNaughton would force on her. Distracted as she was, Claray was completely caught off guard when the Wolf suddenly scooped her up off her feet as he straightened in the saddle.
She heard her uncle's shout of protest over her own startled gasp, and then she was in the man's lap and he was turning his mount sharply and urging it into a run toward the gates.
Claray was so stunned by this turn of events she didn't even think to struggle. She did look back as she was carried out of the bailey though. She saw the two men who had arrived with the Wolf following hard on their heels, and beyond that, her uncle's red face as he began to bellow orders for the gate to be closed and the drawbridge raised. A quick look forward showed the men on the wall scrambling to follow his orders, but the gate was released one moment too late. The spiked bottom slammed into the ground behind the last horse rather than before them, and while the bridge started to rise as they rode across it, it was a slow process and had only risen perhaps two or three feet off the ground by the time they'd crossed it.
The Wolf's horse leapt off the tip without hesitation, and Claray instinctively closed her mouth to keep from biting off her tongue on landing. She was glad she had when they hit the hardpacked dirt with a bone-jarring jolt she felt in every inch of her body. Teeth grinding against the pain that shuddered through her on impact, Claray glanced back again to watch the other two men follow them off the bridge. She was more than a little surprised when the fair-haired warrior caught her eye and gave her a reassuring grin followed by a wink.
Flushing, Claray turned forward once more and tried to sort out what was happening and how she should feel about it. However, her thought processes weren't very clear just now. She'd had little to eat these last three days but what Mairin had managed to sneak to her that morning, and she hadn't slept at all. Instead, she'd spent that time alternately pacing as she tried to come up with a solution to her situation, or on her knees, praying to God for His intervention. She was exhausted, bewildered and, frankly, all her mind seemed capable of grasping at that moment was that this did seem to be an answer to her prayer. She would not be marrying Maldouen MacNaughton today.
Relief oozing through her, Claray let out the breath she'd been holding and allowed herself to relax in her captor's arms.
Conall lifted his gaze from the lass cuddled against his chest and glanced to Roderick Sinclair, who had urged his horse up on his right. The man looked both surprised and amused at the woman's reaction to the situation she found herself in. Conall merely nodded and shifted his gaze back to the lass, but he was a little surprised himself.
Lady Claray MacFarlane had been asleep before they'd got a hundred feet from the drawbridge of Kerr's castle. Conall had been a bit befuddled by that at the time, and still was. He'd basically just kidnapped her. She had no idea who he was, yet hadn't struggled or even protested. Instead, the lass had curled up like a kitten in his lap and gone to sleep. He wasn't quite sure what to make of that and had fretted over it as they'd met up with his men and then galloped through the morning and afternoon, riding north at a hard pace that he'd only just slowed to a trot because the sun was starting to set.
Aside from the fact that the horses couldn't keep up that speed indefinitely, Conall wouldn't risk one of their mounts or men being injured by traveling at such a pace in the dark. They'd have to travel more slowly and with a great deal of care through the night. But they wouldn't stop. Despite the information in the scroll he'd given her uncle, Conall had no doubt Kerr would have sent men after them. Even if he didn't, certainly MacNaughton would. From all accounts the man was determined to marry the lass no matter that her father wouldn't agree to the match.
Conall didn't really understand the man's tenacity on this issue. The lass was bonnie enough, he acknowledged as his gaze slid over the waves of strawberry blond hair that framed her heart-shaped face. But she wasn't so bonnie it was worth going to war with your neighbors over.
"So ye told her who ye are while we were riding?" Payton asked with a surprise that Conall knew was born of the fact that it was hard to talk at the speed they'd been moving. The pounding hooves of so many horses and the rush of wind would have meant having to yell, not to mention taking the risk of biting your own tongue while you did it.
Conall hesitated, but then admitted, "I've told her naught."
A moment of silence followed his announcement as both men turned stunned gazes to Claray sleeping peacefully in his lap.
"But—" Payton began, and then paused and simply shook his head, apparently not having the words to express his amazement.
"She's slept quite a while," Roderick said suddenly, a touch of concern in his voice. "Is she ailing?"
Conall stiffened at the suggestion, his gaze moving over her face. She looked pale to him, with dark bruising under her eyes that suggested exhaustion. Concern now slithering through him, he shifted his mount's reins to the hand he'd wrapped around her to keep her on his horse, then used the back of his now free hand to feel her forehead. Much to his relief, she didn't feel overly warm. But his touch apparently stirred her from sleep. Her lids lifted slowly, long lashes sweeping upward to reveal eyes the blue of a spring morning, and then she blinked at him before abruptly sitting up to glance around.
"Are we stopping?" Her voice was soft and still husky with sleep as she took in their surroundings.
Conall opened his mouth, intending to say, "Nay," but what came out was, "Do ye need to, lass?" as he realized she might wish to relieve herself after so long in the saddle. Actually, he could do with a stop for the same reason.
Claray turned a shy smile to him, and nodded with obvious embarrassment. "'Tis the truth, Laird Wolf, I do."
Conall blinked at the name he'd battled under for the last twelve years, surprised that she knew even that much about who he was, but then shifted his gaze to survey the landscape around them. He'd come this way often and knew exactly where he was and what lay ahead. Lowering his eyes to her once more, he said, "There's a river no' far ahead if ye can wait just a few moments. But if yer need is urgent, we can just stop here."
Claray considered the trees bordering either side of the path they were on, and then peered over his shoulder and stiffened, her eyes widening.
It made Conall glance over his shoulder as well. He had no idea what had startled her so. The only thing behind them were his men. But then perhaps that was what had overset her. There had only been the three of them and her when they'd ridden out of Kerr. She'd been asleep by the time they'd met up with his warriors who had been waiting in the woods around Kerr while he, Payton and Roderick had ridden in to get a lay of the situation. In the end, they hadn't needed the men, so it was good he'd left them behind. He suspected an entire army riding up to the keep would have got an entirely different welcome than just he and his two friends had received.
Turning back to Claray, he raised his eyebrows in question. "Here or the river?
"I can wait 'til we reach the river," she assured him quickly, and then managed a smile.
"I'd like to splash some water on me face to help wake meself up ere I tend to other business."Nodding, Conall tightened his arm around her and urged his horse to a gallop, leaving the others behind. Moments later he was reining in next to a river that was really just one step up from a babbling brook. Claray seemed pleased, however, and flashed him a smile before sliding under his arm to drop from his mount. She did it so quickly that Conall didn't get the chance to even attempt to help her down, and then he dismounted himself and headed into the woods on the other side of the clearing to water the dragon.
When he returned a couple moments later it was to find that the others had caught up. Roderick, Payton and Conall's first, Hamish, were waiting in the small clearing by his mount, while the rest of the men were gathering on the path beside it, some dismounting to wander into the woods on the opposite side of the trail to take care of their own business, others watching the horses
"Where's Lady Claray?" Payton asked as Conall walked to his horse.
Conall nodded toward the trees she'd disappeared into as he mounted.
Payton's eyebrows rose slightly. "Ye let her go off into the woods by herself?"
Settling in the saddle, Conall glanced to him with surprise. "O' course I did. She's tending personal needs and would no' want an escort for that. Besides, 'tis no' as if she's like to get lost."
"Aye, but . . ." Payton grimaced, and then asked, "What if she tries to escape?"
The suggestion amazed him. "Why would she try to escape? We came to save her."
It was Roderick who said, "Mayhap. But ye said ye'd had no chance to explain, so she does no' ken that. She may flee out o' fear o' what ye plan to do with her."
Conall frowned at those words in Roderick's deep rumble. The man was not much for talking. Which was why when he did speak Conall, and anyone else who knew him, listened.
"She did no' seem afraid," Conall muttered, his eyes scouring the woods Claray had disappeared into. He was now worrying over the fact that she hadn't yet returned, and fretting over whether she hadn't burst into a run the moment she'd got out of sight and was even now trying to fight her way through the forest.
"Nay, she did no' seem afraid," Payton agreed, but sounded more troubled by the knowledge than relieved before asking worriedly, "Does that seem right to ye? I mean, ye did just scoop her up away from her uncle and ride off with her moments ere she was to marry another."
"She was to marry Maldouen MacNaughton," Conall reminded him grimly, still disgusted by the very idea. "The man's a lying, conniving, murdering bastard."
"But does she ken that?" Roderick asked.
"Probably no'," Payton answered for him. "All she probably kens is that he's handsome, wealthy and would marry her. And no doubt he's taken the trouble to be charming to her in the wooing." The warrior shook his head. "Meanwhile, ye carried her off with no explanation at all. Even were she no' taken in by his good looks and sweet lies, surely she must still be concerned about being kidnapped?"
"I did no' kidnap her," Conall growled. "Her own father sent me to rescue her."
"But she does no' ken that," Roderick reminded him.
A knot forming in his chest now, Conall turned to peer toward the woods again. He debated the issue in his head, and then cursed and dismounted. He had no desire to embarrass the lass by intruding on her privacy while she was relieving herself, but now he was concerned she might just be making a run for it. He wouldn't have explained that he was her betrothed—that had to remain a secret—but he could have explained that her father had sent him to fetch her back. That should have soothed her, he knew, and he berated himself for not doing so. Especially before letting her rush off.
Silently calling himself an idiot, he strode into the woods.