Highland Avengerby Hannah Howell, Angela Dawe
New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell continues the dramatic Murray saga with this compelling story of passions surging in the face of fear. Contains mature themes.See more details below
New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell continues the dramatic Murray saga with this compelling story of passions surging in the face of fear. Contains mature themes.
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By Hannah Howell
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScotland, spring 1480
Cold salt water matted her hair so badly Arianna could feel it pulling at her scalp. The rising wind did not help, yanking her hair free of its pins and whipping it around her head. It hurt when it slapped her in the face, something it did all too often as she made her stumbling way across the heaving deck of the ship in search of Adelar and Michel, but she had no time to fix it now. When she found the boys she intended to scold them until their ears burned.
The boys were far too careless with their lives, too innocent to be fully aware of the danger they were in. They thought they traveled with her to Scotland to live with her and her family, not really understanding that they were running for their lives. They were too young to heed any warning she gave them for long. Nor could they understand that they were the only part of her ill-fated marriage that she clung to.
There was someone on the ship who wanted her boys dead. Clenching her cold, wind-chafed hand over the hilt of her dagger, she swore yet again that she would do anything to keep them alive. She had thought that, by leaving France, she had escaped pursuit, but the ones after her boys had obviously set one of their men on the ship. She had every intention of burying her dagger deep in the man's black heart.
"Jesu! The little bastard bit me!"
The angry male voice sliced through the sounds of wind, rain, and creaking ship. Arianna turned toward that voice. Through the sheets of rain pelting down from the sky, she saw two men struggling to hold firm to two writhing, kicking boys as they dragged their small captives toward the ship's rail.
One dagger. Two men. Not very good odds, she thought as she moved silently but quickly toward them. Her boys were fighting valiantly but she knew they would lose the battle. They needed her help to save them.
She was not sure exactly who had hired the men and doubted she would have the opportunity to gain any answers from them. It did not matter. Arianna knew it was their uncle Amiel or the old, deadly enemy of the Lucettes, the DeVeaux. Or both, she thought, and nearly snarled. Amiel did not appear to care that he was now in league with a family that had caused the death and misery of so many of his own kinsmen. It should not have surprised and shocked her as much as it did. The man was trying to murder his own nephews to gain all they had inherited from their father. And, she strongly suspected, it had been Amiel who had killed their father, Claud, as well, murdered his own brother along with the mother of the boys. Dealing with an ancient enemy was a small sin next to those.
Just as she was within reach of the men, the wind slapped her hair into her face again. Arianna shook her head back and forth to throw off the cold, wet hair that nearly blinded her. As she did so, out of the corner of her eye she saw something that firmly grabbed her attention despite the threat to her boys.
Approaching through the rain was another ship. Unless some miracle occurred within the next few moments, something she had never been blessed with, that ship would soon ram the much smaller ship she stood on in the side. It was not only the boys she had to save now but herself as well. It began to look as if they would all soon end up in the rough, storm-tossed water.
Taking a deep breath as she sheathed her dagger, Arianna screamed as loudly as she could. Both men whirled round to stare at her. Still screaming, she pointed toward the ship bearing down on them. As she had hoped, the men were seized with the need to save their own lives. They dropped the boys on the deck and ran toward the side of the ship the other ship continued to aim for.
Aim for, she thought suddenly as she grabbed both boys by the arms, and knew it was exactly what the larger ship was doing. It was purposely heading straight toward them. There would be no stopping it. Her heart ached for the others on the little ship who were about to die at the hands of her enemy. She could do nothing to help them, however, and turned her full attention to the two small, shivering boys she held. There was a small chance she could save them and that was all she would allow herself to think about now.
"They were going to toss us into the sea," said Michel.
"Aye," she said as she dragged them over to the bow where she had earlier seen several empty kegs lashed to the deck. "I fear ye are about to end up in the sea anyway." She released them and used her dagger to cut the ropes holding the kegs to the ship.
"Then we will die," said Adelar.
"Nay. I willnae allow it." She glanced back toward the approaching ship and knew she had little time left to try and live up to that boast. Only the fact that it was battling the force of the wind-driven sea had kept it from already slamming into Captain Tillet's ship. "Do ye remember how to swim?"
"A wee bit," replied Michel in the mix of French and Scots accents that she found so endearing.
"'Twill do. I am going to get ye into the water, lads, and ye are to swim to shore." She turned the boys until they faced the shoreline they had seen earlier in the day but which was now hidden by dark storm clouds and heavy rain. "I will toss these kegs into the water and then both of ye will follow them. Ye are to grab hold of the kegs as soon as ye can. Soon there will be a lot of wood in the water so, if these kegs prove troublesome to catch, grab something else. Anything else that will help ye keep your heads above the water. Dinnae let your fears steal your wits. Fix your eyes upon the shore, hold fast to the wood, and kick your legs as I showed ye when I taught ye to swim."
"The sea is verra fierce, Anna," said Michel, fear making his sweet voice tremble. "'Tis nay like the pond we learned to swim in."
"I ken it, my loves, but the skills I taught ye will do weel enough, be the water calm or rough. And ye only need to truly swim until ye can grab hold of a keg or some other bit of wood."
She hefted up a keg and looked down at the rough water. It was going to be a miracle if they got out of this alive. The chances of all three of them conquering the turbulent waters long enough to grab hold of a keg or other scrap of wood was very small. Unfortunately, the chances of them surviving when the larger ship rammed into theirs were even smaller. At least this plan allowed them to choose where and how they went into the water.
Glancing at the boys and then at herself, noting how they had all dressed to fight the chill of the air and protect themselves from the rain, she quickly set the keg back down. "Cloaks and boots off, laddies. Quickly now. Those things will be naught but anchors dragging ye under once ye hit the water." She yanked off her own cloak and boots and then hastily unlaced her gown, survival more important to her than modesty. "Put them into the keg. Hurry," she pressed, the increasingly terrified cries of the others on the ship telling her that time was rapidly running out on them.
It was all done swiftly, but Arianna's heart pounded out every passing moment like a death knell. After looping a length of rope around her waist, she secured the top on the keg and hurled it into the water. She rapidly tossed in a second and then a third. Kissing Michel on the cheek and praying it was not for the very last time, she dropped the pale, wide-eyed child over the side of the ship. Arianna did not hesitate to do the same with Adelar even though her heart was breaking.
She took one last look over her shoulder as she clambered over the rail. The other ship was so close she could see the hard faces of the men on its deck, yet the ship made no move to alter its deadly course. The way the men were bracing themselves told her they knew what was coming, had planned for it. Praying she and the boys could get clear of the looming destruction in time, she dove into the water.
Arianna hit the water hard, screaming in her head over the painfully frigid shock as she sank beneath the foam-flecked waves. Yet another threat, she thought, and wondered how many more trials she and the boys could endure. Fear and anger gave her the strength needed to push herself back up to the surface. Her eyes stung from the salty water while she frantically searched the waves for her boys. Panic was gnawing at her mind, screaming that she had thrown her beloved boys to their deaths, by the time she finally caught sight of them. Each boy clung tightly to a keg as the ocean waters callously tossed him from wave to wave.
She reached the third keg just before she reached the boys. Fighting against the strength of the storm-driven water, trying to ignore how the cold was leeching the strength from her body, she worked to lash the kegs together with the rope she had taken from the ship. By the time Arianna dragged herself up onto the odd little raft she had just made, she was shaking so hard her teeth clicked together. Then she heard the harsh, terrifying sound of wood splintering, the screams of doomed men cutting through the roar of the storm.
Looking over Michel, who was sprawled between her and Adelar, she yelled, "Paddle, Adelar! Use your hand and all your strength to paddle!"
It took a few more bellowed instructions but Arianna soon felt a slight difference in their movement through the water. They no longer just bounced along aimlessly amongst the waves, but moved with them. Pride clenched her heart as Michel carefully crawled on top of Adelar and added the strength of his thin arm to that of his brother's. She prayed they were increasing their speed enough to get out of the reach of the ones who had just sent two dozen men to their deaths in their cold determination to murder two little boys.
"Enough," she said in what felt to be hours later, her arm so weak and numb with cold she had to struggle just to pull it from the icy water. "The water itself will carry us the rest of the way to shore."
She pressed her cheek against the wet, rough wood of the keg and fought hard to push back the darkness creeping in at the edges of her mind. It was not only the battle to get the boys safely on shore, or the cold, sapping all her strength. From the moment she had realized that Amiel and the DeVeaux had put some of their men on the ship, she had barely slept at all, guarding the boys day and night. Arianna ached with the need to put all her troubles aside and sleep for days. A small, cold hand grasped her own and shook it. She opened her eyes enough to see Michel's too pale little face.
"Are the bad men dead now?" he asked.
"Aye," she replied. "The bad men who were on our ship are dead, as are too many good men. The bad men on the bigger ship are not, however, and I dinnae think the DeVeaux will give up yet. Nay, nor Amiel."
"I am sorry. So is Adelar."
"We didnae truly believe you."
"Ah, weel, mayhap now ye will heed my warnings better. Aye?"
"Aye," said both boys.
"Good. Now, I want ye to cling tightly to these kegs. Ere the storm struck us I caught a wee glimpse of the shore. Do ye remember me showing it to you?" Both boys nodded. "The water should push us toward it now without much aid from us." She silently prayed there were not too many rocks between them and the safety of the shore for their crude little craft could not withstand any battering. "And do ye remember all I told ye to do if ye end up alone on that shore?"
"Ye will be with us, Anna," Adelar said, a touch of panic rippling in his voice.
"I pray that is so but I still ask ye if ye remember all I told you."
"Aye. We are to find your kinsmen, the Murrays, and tell them all that has happened."
"And who the bad men are," added Michel.
"Exactly. Now, dinnae fall asleep if ye can help it. Ye must cling fast to these kegs and be ready to swim to shore if the need arises. Slip your arm beneath the rope holding us together as that will help ye. I dinnae think it will be long now ere we stand upon solid ground again. These waves, for all they are a pure misery, are swiftly pushing us in the right direction."
Arianna hoped she sounded as confident of their success as she wished the boys to feel. She did not want them to sense her fear or the weakness that was making her very bones ache. Yet, as she reminded them of what they should do the moment they reached the shore, her mind kept whispering if. If some survivor from the wrecked ship did not come upon them and decide he needed their tiny craft more than they did. If the men hunting them did not find them. If they were not hurled upon the rocks in sight of land.
Her mind was so crowded with all that could go wrong, Arianna was tempted to stand up and scream, to bellow out her fear and anger up into the storm clouds. It was not fair, she thought, and winced at the childish whine she could hear beneath the complaint in her head. That did not change the truth behind the words, however. Michel and Adelar were several years away from even the hint of manhood, just boys and innocent of any great sin. Arianna knew she had not committed any great sins, either, although she could all too easily think of many a small one. Nothing that warranted death by drowning or watching two boys she loved as if they were her own sons die.
A part of her wished to curse God, but she sternly suppressed it. Being quick to anger was one of her many faults, but now was not a good time to give in to it. Now she needed to fill her mind and heart with earnest prayers, maybe even a few promises of some good deed she would do or something she would give up if He only spared the boys.
But it was hard to think clearly anymore. The blackness creeping over her mind was slowly conquering all her attempts to remain conscious. With the last of her strength she twisted some of the rope holding the kegs together around her wrist. She prayed it would be enough to hold her on the keg as she rode it to shore.
"Ach! I think e'en my bones are wet. This cursed rain has pounded its way right through my skin."
Brian MacFingal grinned at his brother. "Ye do look a wee bit like a drowned rat, Simon." He glanced up at the sky. "'Tis done now and I am thinking the sun will soon peep out to dry us."
The way Simon and young Ned glanced up at the gray skies and tried, but failed, to hide their doubt, nearly made Brian laugh aloud. He suppressed the urge because they might think he mocked them. At five and twenty, Simon was a strong, handsome man, skilled with sword and knife, but a lot of his boyish uncertainty lingered. Ned was but seventeen, all arms and legs, and none of them blessed with much grace. Brian remembered that awkward time all too well. He would not sting the boys' young pride with laughter.
"Trust me," he said, "the sun will soon be shining upon us. The clouds move away fast."
Simon nodded. "Aye, I can see that now. So, at least we willnae be poured upon as we collect our goods."
"Something to be thankful for."
"Do ye think we will gain as much coin from this ship's cargo as we did the last?"
"We should. In truth, I have recently spent many an hour trying to think of a way to make this venture easier on us and on those bringing us the goods to sell." Brian frowned. "Yet, the secrecy of this venture is difficult to give up."
"Aye. The more people who ken about it, the more chance there is of our goods being stolen."
"That is the problem that weighs heaviest on my mind. But we are too far from the safety of Scarglas whene'er we make this journey. While our profits are good enough to compensate us for the trouble, 'tis nay always time we have to spare. The long journey home laden with goods also puts us at risk. Howbeit, I have nay found a safer way to do this."
"Mayhap we should just change the route we take a wee bit. It might add time to the journey, but we could seek shelter with trusted friends and kin each night."
Brian nodded. "That is also a plan I have been thinking on a lot. Yet, I wonder if that would then require us to share some of our bounty with the ones who shelter us, mayhap even have to protect us from time to time."
"Losing a wee portion of the profit would be better than losing the whole of it as weel as a few lives."
"It would. There is no arguing that truth."
And it was just that truth that kept Brian returning to the plan that included stops at places where they could shelter in safety. They would also be places where a few extra swordsmen could be gathered if trouble rode at their heels. Brian knew it all made sense but he had to fight to subdue his reluctance to lose even one coin brought in by this new venture he had begun. The money was helping Scarglas grow stronger. Even more important, it was helping him to gather enough coin that he might, one day soon, be able to get a piece of land for himself.
Excerpted from Highland Avenger by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2012 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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