Carrickliffe, Scotland, 1838
Read from the Leabhar nan Sùil-radharc, the Book of Fates:
To the tenth Carrick:
Your lady fair shall bear you three dark sons.
Joy they bring you until they read this tome.
Words before their eyes cut your life's line young.
You die dread knowing cursed men they become,
Shadowed to walk with death or walk alone.
Not to marry, know love, or bind, their fate;
Your line to die for never seed shall take.
Death and torment to those caught in their wake,
Blood obscured the last two lines.
The Principality of Andorra, 1856
"Yes, yes, very well then. Take out his heart."
For the first time since his beating began, Courtland MacCarrick's split, bloody sneer faltered. The general's impatient command seemed unreal to him, the words sounding hollow and indistinct, probably because Court could see nothing, blinded by blood dripping from a gash on his forehead and by his swollen lids.
The henchmen restraining him whaled two punches into his stomach, unable to contain their excitement at the prospect of killing off a mercenary, and a rival at that. Court could do little to defend himself in his condition and with his wrists bound.
"If you kill me," he bit out as he labored for a breath, "you know my men will avenge my death. You would no' risk that over simply payin' us what's owed?" His voice was thick with brogue, as it hadn't been since he'd left the Highlands years before.
"No one will avenge you, MacCarrick, because they'll all be dead as well," General Reynaldo Pascal said in a casual tone. Though he couldn't see, Court knew the man had a thoughtful expression on his face. The Spanish deserter had never looked like a power-crazed zealot - more like a benevolent statesman.
"My kin will keep comin' until they've stamped you out."
The general sighed. "In any case..." Court could imagine him giving an impatient hand wave, signaling the end of the subject. "...do make it painful and prolonged."
"You will no' do it yourself?"
He chuckled softly. "You of all people should know I hire men to do my dirty work."
As the two yanked him away, Court said over his shoulder, "Aye, but do the fools holdin' me know that you doona pay them for it?"
They jostled him, heaving him from the room, then strained to pull him down the stairs and outside onto the rough slate street.
As soon as he felt the sun on his face, he heard a woman gasp; an older man said, "Mare de Deu," but Court knew better than to expect anything from the people here other than a sharp turning of their heads and the ushering of children inside. Their fear of Pascal was ingrained. Court could be butchered in the town square and no one would lift a finger. Actually, that was a close estimation to what he knew was about to happen.
Yet he didn't feel as though that was the direction they were moving in. He heard the din of rushing water, realized they were traveling to the river beside the village, and futilely turned his head toward the sound. "No execution in the town center?" he rasped. "Careful that I doona feel slighted."
"We are being more circumspect with our...activities," said the one on his left.
"Too late. Pascal's already angered Spain." He bit out the words with conviction, but in truth it was little more than a hope.
"And we will be ready," the other replied, just before they slammed him up against what had to be a bridge railing. And Court couldn't fight because he couldn't see.
The water was directly below them, pounding furiously over a drop-off. The Riu Valira was always an angry torrent after rains to the north. He struggled to remember how high this bridge was. Would the Valira be deep enough?...
He heard a knife being unsheathed. What choice did he have?
"If you do this now," Court said in a low, deadly tone, "my men and my kin will descend on you. They live for killing." And kill for a living.
Court knew he couldn't talk them out of planting that knife. These weren't merely two among the general's army - these were assassins, part of the Orden de los Rechazados, Order of the Disavowed. Court just wanted time to get his bearings. A second stalled was possibility...
If he jumped, they wouldn't chase him down the river. They'd consider his battered condition, with his hands bound and with the impact of the powerful falls, and reason that he would drown for certain.
Unfortunately, they'd probably be right....
The knifepoint pricked his chest as though poised there - almost comforting because at least he knew where it was. Then...gone. Drawn back for the blow -
He shoved himself back, the force pitching him over the railing, tossing his feet over his head before he landed in the icy water.
The impact stunned him, his body taking the hit as though crashing into a wall. He sank down so far pain stabbed his ears from the depth, then struggled upward with bound hands.
Though it went against every instinct, he forced himself to reach the surface facedown as though dead. He sensed the pull of the water and realized that facedown in this case meant being swept from the falls' pool headfirst.
The Rechazados shot just as the rushing water began propelling him over the rim of the elevated basin. The bullets ripped through the water so close to him he could feel their percussion, but he didn't flinch even when he was forced to dive from above, then ride another series of falls into the main current.
The river boiled with rapids and swiftly carried him away. Just when he could stand it no longer, he raised his face for breath, but inhaled mostly foam.
The churning force drove him into rocks, the larger ones knocking him above the surface for lungfuls of air, but his weight quickly wrenched him down to the river bottom lined with jagged slate. The fractures snagged his clothes until they were in tatters, and then his unprotected skin. Each hit took him closer to oblivion.
Yet he continued to fight and managed to turn himself feet first. The water had washed away the worst of the blood, and the icy temperature had lessened the swelling, allowing him to see from the slit of one eye.
A high jutting rock approached; he lunged for it, looping his bound arms around it. The current swept on relentlessly until the wracking pressure on the ropes snapped his wrist. He didn't care - he gulped air. After only moments of rest, the bindings sliced away, leaving him to the mercy of the river once more.
He'd been in and out of consciousness for what felt like days when the current finally calmed. In the lull, he perceived that the freezing temperature had muted the worst pain of his injuries. In fact, he felt nothing but the subtle warming of the water as he drifted into a static pool by the bank.
Succumbing to the blackness was an overwhelming temptation now, nearly stronger than his will, but he forced himself to crawl to the stony shore on one hand and his knees. Free of the river, he collapsed onto his back and cradled his broken wrist.
The sun warmed him, taking away the worst of the chill, and for how long he lay there he didn't know. He only noticed when a shadow passed before it. He squinted to bring a thin line of vision to his one good eye.
He must've sucked in a breath - his bashed ribs screamed that he did - because a woman with shining hair knelt beside him, peering down with widened green eyes. Her lips were parted in surprise, and an unusual stone glinted light from a choker around the pale column of her neck. When she tilted her head at him, a breeze blew a dark curl across her cheek.
Breathtaking. "Aingeal...," he murmured as he resisted the blackness once more.
"Perfect," she answered with utter sarcasm as she rose and put her hands on her hips. "Simply perfect. This animal's alive."
Annalia Elisabet Catherina Tristan, daughter of the family Llorente, had ridden out for flowers to brighten the afternoon tea. Where did the marsh marigolds grow best? By the river. By the cursed river, where apparently the cursed mercenaries wash to shore.
She hadn't known what to think when she'd spied the body from afar. Perhaps a shepherd had fallen in the Valira during a storm to the north? Yet as she approached she'd recognized that this giant was no shepherd, and she hadn't missed the nationality. Around his waist he had a thick, wide belt, the style of which was foreign. Attached to the belt had been a swatch of plaid left from some larger cloth.
Plaid meant Scot. Scot meant killer.
She bemoaned the situation yet again and tugged on the reins looped over her shoulder, trudging forward, pulling along Iambe, her hunter, who had two hundred plus pounds of Scottish deadweight attached to her. Neither she nor Iambe was used to such labor. Annalia sighed wearily - they were both thoroughbreds born for a different purpose altogether.
She was ill equipped for a rescue - or truly anything more involved than gathering flowers - so the conveyance she'd fashioned consisted of a rope tightened around his chest, pinning his arms to his sides, then another rope pulled under both his arms and tied to the saddle.
But why was she dragging him up the steep mountain incline to her home? Scots were hated in Andorra, and yet she was taking one straight through the narrow rock entrance - the only entrance - to the three higher plateaus separating the river from the manor. Her ancestors had gated the passage, and for five hundred years it had kept the horses on their ranch in - and strangers out.
Surely he was one of the Highland mercenaries brought here by Pascal. Their tiny, almost hidden country so high in the Pyrenees wasn't exactly overrun with Highlanders. But what if he was the singular Scot who came here for other reasons? And she let him die? She thought he'd called her an angel and he'd looked so relieved to see her, as if he had every confidence she would save him.
If he was one of Pascal's men, she'd simply have to heal him, then kill him herself.
After plodding past the crystal lake Casa del Llac derived its name from, she and her baggage arrived in the manor's central courtyard. "Vitale!" Annalia called for her steward but received no answer. Where was he?
Smoking, no doubt. Over dice. "Vitale!" This whole place was going to ruin without her brother. "I know you're smoking behind the stable, and I don't care just now!"
Vitale leVieux peeked his craggy face around the side of the stable. "Yes, mademoiselle - " he began before he gasped at the injured man, smoke wafting from his open mouth. His crinkly gray hair bounced as he rushed to her side. "What have you done?" he exclaimed, his French accent sharp. "He's Scottish - look at the plaid."
"I saw the plaid," she said in disgust. Spotting Vitale's ancient dice partners lining up to see the spectacle, she said in a hushed voice, "We shall discuss this inside."
Undeterred, he cried, "He must be one of the blood-drinking Highlanders the general hired!"
One of Vitale's friends mumbled, "Highlander, you say?" When Vitale nodded emphatically, his compadres called goodbyes and shuffled off with their canes for hills unknown.
Apparently everyone had heard the tales of their brutality.
"Why would you save him?" Vitale demanded when they were alone.
"What if he isn't one of the mercenaries?"
"Oh, of course, he must be here for the..." He trailed off, scratching his head as though stumped, then flashed an expression of realization. "I have just recalled - there's nothing here to see!"
And everyone wondered where she'd gotten her sarcasm.
She gave him a lowering look. "Are you going to help me? I need you to get the doctor."
"The doctor went north to join your brother's men." Vitale looked the man over, all nine feet of him, it seemed. "Besides, we bring the injured to you."
"You bring injured animals and children to me, not beaten-senseless giants bleeding from every limb," she corrected. When Annalia was younger, her Andorran nanny had taught her to treat some injuries - broken bones, burns, cuts, and the like, but then she'd probably never envisioned a patient like this one. "It's not proper for me to attend him."
He gave her a patronizing smile. "Perhaps mademoiselle should have thought of that before dragging the enemy into our home? Hmmm?"
Lips thinned, she replied, "Perhaps mademoiselle is displaying the same compassion she showed when she hired Vitale the Old." Though they both knew her taking him in from the streets of Paris to her home in Andorra hadn't been simply because of kindness. Gratitude had compelled her.
He sighed. "What do you wish me to do?"
"Help me put him in the room off the stable."
"We can't lock that room! He could slit our throats while we sleep."
"Then where?" He opened his mouth to answer, but she cut him off, "And don't you dare say back to the riverside."
He closed his mouth abruptly. They both looked down at the man as though searching for the answer.
Vitale finally said, "We should put him in the manor house so we can lock him in a bedroom."
"Where I sleep?"
"Mademoiselle has demonstrated compassion" - he smiled too serenely - "which is but a slippery stone away from hospitality."
She ignored his expression. "The only room downstairs that locks is the study and that's private. I don't want him to know our business affairs."
He gave the man a rousing kick in the hip. When no response came, he cackled.
He turned to her with an impassive face. "So mademoiselle suggests upstairs?"
"We simply can't do it. My horse had problems pulling his weight."
Some of the ranch hands' children ran by then, eyes wide, reminding Annalia of the state of the man's clothing. Most of it had ripped away. A tear spread up his thigh, close to his...She straddled his legs, sweeping her skirt over him for cover. "Run along." Her voice was strident.
They looked to Vitale, and though he rolled his eyes, he told them, "Untie the ropes and go take care of poor Iambe." Facing her, he said, "If you're insisting it must be upstairs, we can attempt it. Besides, do we really care if we drop him?"
So by dint of strategizing, straining, and yes, using the children she'd pleaded with to return, they managed to get him to the nearest guest bedroom and transferred onto the bed. Though she was exhausted, with her palm jammed into her lower back like a washerwoman closing the day, she knew she still had to tend to him.
While Vitale shooed the curious children from the room, Annalia assessed her patient, noting the broken wrist and the possibility of a couple of broken ribs. She removed her riding gloves, then ran her hands through his thick, damp hair past his temple and along the side of his head. She discovered a nasty knot, and the same inspection on the other side revealed a second head injury. His eyes were so swollen she doubted he could open them when awake. To cap it all, ragged cuts covered his skin, no doubt inflicted by the river bottom.