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Rhianna MacKay straightened her back, wiped sweaty palms down her worn saffron shirt, and flicked the dark hair from her eyes before barging into the room to confront her father. "I willna be sold off tae Ross!"
He took two steps toward her, and, like a fierce blast, Conar MacKay's hand landed hard against her cheek, knocking her to the icy stone floor. "I be the chief of Clan MacKay. Ye were told tae make yourself ready."
Gaylord, the elderly clansman who'd been in conference with the chief, turned a soft, apologetic gaze to her before exiting the room. Not even the tapestry on the outer wall or the wool rug next to her warmed the winter chill that clenched her heart.
Her face throbbed, and the coppery taste of blood filled her mouth. Rhianna pushed herself up from dirty rushes littered with food and stood tall before her father, not bothering to hide her hatred. She swiped her lip with the back of her hand then spit the bitter tasting blood at his feet and walked out.
Since her mother had died eight years past, Conar MacKay gave her only passing glares unless he punished her for some errant behavior. There were many such instances in her case. He had little use for women other than for bartering tools or to lie between their thighs.
Only her brother, three years her senior, made living with Conar at all bearable.
"Dunna cry little dove," Carrick would say. "On the morrow God's wrath will spill down on Conar, and he willna win that battle."
Carrick had their mother's good heart and oft times could make Rhianna laugh while tending her wounds after Conar had beaten her. More times than not, Carrick steppedbetween them and ended up on the floor himself.
Three months had passed since Carrick had gone to England. He had promised to come back.
Rhianna busied herself throughout the day tending the withering garden and helping the women prepare bitter soup with limp vegetables. Her gaze drifted toward the kirk, which had been closed up for nigh a year after the priest had taken ill and passed on to Heaven. No other would dare venture to the home of the devil, Strathnaver.
Later that night, guided by sorrow and fear, Kara crept down the castle steps and into the war room. She hated this room. Plans that had laid low many of those she'd loved were made here. The day her mother died, the demon that was her father had been planning yet another attack. The bastard barely looked up when told the news.
"'Tis just as well," he spat. "She'd long since lost her use tae me."
From that day forth, Rhianna had done all she could to oppose the chief, using any means she could think of. Her greatest pleasure would be the downfall of Conar MacKay.
Stepping onto the scorched stones of the hearth, she shoved aside the heavy tapestry where behind lay a hidden alcove. It held the secret of the clan. She crossed herself. "Please, Holy Father, give me strength." The prayer did little to ease the lump in her chest or the ball of anxiety in her stomach.
Slinging the edge of her breacan back, she then reached into the small opening and grabbed the treasure. Concealed in a silvery velvet cloth was a smooth ivory-colored stone with veins of jade snaking through it. The magical heirloom had belonged to the MacKays since the beginning of time and had brought good fortune to the clan. She'd seen it only once before.
"Carrick, why ha' ye forgotten me?" she whispered. He'd not returned from his mission, and she could wait no longer. She must flee or be handed over to another ruthless bastard, Ross.
After slipping the precious stone back into its covering, she tucked it deep in the pocket of her skirt where it would not fall out or be easily grabbed by thieves. She tiptoed into the buttery to grab oats and nuts for her journey and, with tear-filled eyes, canvassed the room. Memories too numerous to count flooded her heart. With trembling hands she lifted the large tapestry concealing the secret door that led to an escape tunnel. In one hand, she carried a torch that she had lifted from the wall to light her way down the damp eerie passageway. It ended outside the gates where she doused the flame so as not to be noticed by the guards.
With trepidation, she fled the only home she'd ever known ... the home of her ancestors.
The stark white moon cast dark, ominous shadows through the forest. Smells of rotting wood and stagnant water reminded her of the dungeons at Strathnaver, where she and her brother had played as children, and where she'd be thrown, if caught. A twig broke under her foot, echoing loud in the stillness. Birds took flight, causing leaves to drip water they'd held from an earlier rain. A symphony of night music accompanied her hurried steps.
Nervously, Rhianna reached into her pocket and rubbed the MacKay talisman, finding comfort in its presence.
"'Tis nothing more than tae be far away from his reach I be wanting," she muttered.
Rhianna's feet slipped on the moss-covered forest floor. White mist clawed at her hem while strange-colored clouds gathered in the sky. A shiver of foreboding raced down her spine. She'd never seen the like. Her fingers moved more quickly against the stone. She moved deeper into trees, hoping to escape the strange fog, but it twisted around her ankles and legs and rose to envelope her from head to toe. Fear unlike any she'd ever known gripped her soul. The fog thickened, and the world turned black.