Highlander’s Haunted Bride – Lydia Kendall

MYRİAM’S first thought as she started to regain consciousness was that she wanted to vomit. Black spots crowded her field of vision when she cracked her eyes open and her stomach heaved in protest at the constant, jarring movement of the horse she was slung over. Each undulating motion made the bile rise to the back of her throat and she quickly slammed her eyes shut again, breathing deeply. Vomiting would be very bad just that second, especially considering the dirty rag that had been forced into her mouth, holding her lips apart and chafing against the sides of her mouth. She could feel the knot of the gag lying against the bottom of her skull beneath her thick plait, but a small exploratory push with her tongue revealed that it was tied too tightly for her to dislodge. What had happened? She tried to concentrate on what she remembered, but her head throbbed with such intensity that she quickly shied away from those thoughts. She would have to try again when it didn’t feel as if she had an anvil pressing on her brain. She could feel a rough rope wrapped around her wrists as they hung loosely off the side of the horse, but when she reached up to pull off the gag, her motion was halted by a sharp tug on her legs that nearly unbalanced her. She reached up again, slower this time, her hand stopping less than a foot from where it started, as it started to pull on her ankles. She grimaced. Whoever had tied her up had done a very thorough job. Her wrists and ankles were tied together, with a rope under the horse’s belly connecting them, and there was a gag cutting into the corners of her mouth preventing any but the most garbled of sounds. At least there wasn’t a blindfold over her eyes. What on earth is going on? She could hear the sounds of at least a dozen horses, their hooves noisy on the hardened parts of the ground, and at least a dozen riders along with them. Some were silent, their presence betrayed only by the occasional click of the tongue to guide their horse, but she could hear a few of them ahead of her, their banter just loud enough in the otherwise quiet, that snatches of conversation floated over to her from time to time.

“Did ye hear the sound he made?” one asked, laughing uproariously at his own question. “Like a stuck pig,” another called from the opposite direction, causing a fit of loud laughter to echo all around Myriam. Bandits. They had to be. But how had she come to be with them? A dull ache flared in her head as she tried to remember what she had been doing before she woke up tied up to a moving horse. Myriam ignored it, determined to get to the bottom of the situation. She had been at home getting dressed in the new gown that her father had bought for her for Hogmanay. Why had Georgina not been there? Still, she must have been preparing to go meet with Erik if she chose to wear that gown. Erik! The note! The memory came more fully. He had sent her a note to meet at their tiny beach clearing.

She had barely made it five hundred yards from the gates before she was assaulted. Did they capture him as well? She hoped not. Other than Erik, no one else knew where she had been headed. And if Erik had been snatched as well, Georgina would assume that they were together, and would not be alarmed until several hours had passed. Even then, she was unlikely to approach Myriam’s father until she confirmed it with the other workers at the stables, which could take hours. Her friend might be fierce when she wanted, but the Laird still intimidated her. Was it mere chance that a band of highwaymen snatched her, or were these brutish men part of something more sinister? She did not know, and it made her uncertain how to proceed. They were less likely to hurt her if they needed her alive to demand ransom, but she could not imagine how they would have known who she was. She desperately needed more information, and the only way to do that was to open her eyes. Her second attempt to open her eyes was excruciating.

Pain lanced through her brain at even the smallest sliver of light. Gritting her teeth, she persevered, only to find her vision completely obscured by the leg of a horse. She groaned in defeat and laid her head back down. A heavy hand patted her familiarly on her behind. “I see ye are awake, lass. Dinna fash, we’ll be arrivin’ soon.” Myriam tried to flinch away but trussed up as she was, she could do little to protest. She would have to bide her time. Sooner or later, they were bound to untie her, even just a little, and then she would run for it. The fact that she had no idea where they were, was only a distant, secondary consideration to the fact that she had been kidnapped.

She would worry about survival later. When they finally stopped, she chanced an upward look, her body heaving with the effort of lifting herself up, and saw that they had arrived at an old hut. It looked abandoned. The door hung half-off its hinges and Myriam could clearly see a hole in its thatched roof. She allowed her body to drop again with a small grunt. Worse than the dilapidated appearance of the ramshackle hut they were apparently planning on inhabiting, was the fact that she did not recognize it at all. One of the men untied the rope keeping her wrists tethered to her ankles and pulled her off the horse, carelessly throwing her on the ground near the door. She landed awkwardly, jarring her elbow and letting out a cry of pain. The man sneered at her, showing off a set of rotting teeth. She recoiled and looked around her, hoping for an easy escape, but it seemed impossible.

She counted nine men and was relieved not to see Erik anywhere among them. He will come for me. She knew that with absolute certainty. It was as clear to her as her own name. And in the meantime, she would keep her eyes open for an opportunity to escape. She glanced around and caught the look on one of the men’s faces, a slow lecherous grin that made her cringe. Erik, hurry. C H A P T E R 1 TWO MONTHS EARLIER ERİK COULD HEAR the lively bustle of the busy castle from nearly a mile away and thought that it boded well for him. Surely, such a large castle would have space and work for one more person. He shivered slightly in the crisp morning air as a breeze blew over the large loch, ruffling his blond hair and easily finding the crevices in his threadbare coat.

He had not had much luck at the last three farms he had tried. Though they had an overabundance of work to be done for the harvest, they also had an overabundance of mouths to feed and little hope that the crops would yield enough to do so. He had been turned away, not unkindly, but with each rejection his desperation grew. “Ye should go to Mackay Castle,” one of the older men had advised him at the last farm he tried. “The Laird is always lookin’ for new people.” It would not have been Erik’s first choice. He would have preferred to stay on one of the smaller farms, as he was less likely to be discovered there, but with no other prospects and winter rapidly approaching, it was either the large castle or death by exposure. He could see the castle now, its looming form casting a large shadow on the loch behind it. It was an interesting placement for the clan’s keep. On the top of a small island and surrounded by the loch on three sides, it was connected to the road by a sturdy bridge.

He approached quickly, eager to see if they would accept him. At this point, he would be willing to work in any available position, if they were willing to take him in. He was strong, with muscles he had gained from years of hard work, despite the fact that he had lost a lot of weight in the past few weeks. He did not know what he would do if they turned him away. Erik looked down at his ragged coat with a grimace and tried to straighten it. The leather of his shoes was starting to peel away from the soles and his socks were so liberally spattered with mud that he doubted they would ever regain the soft grey color they originally had. He was close enough now that he joined the stream of people walking toward the gates. He could feel their eyes as they stared at him, unkempt and haggard, and wished that he had taken the time to wash in the loch before approaching. It would certainly have made a better impression. Well, there was nothing to do for it now.

He was there to beg for a job, so it did not matter if he looked like a beggar. He pulled back his blond hair and forged ahead. One of the guards stopped him at the end of the bridge. “Halt!” he placed a strong hand on Erik’s shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. “I dinnae ken ye. What business do ye have at Mackay Castle?” Erik looked up at the red-headed warrior. “I’m looking for work,” he said as politely as he could. “Do ye ken who I need to speak with?” The guard looked him up and down with a barely concealed sneer. “Ye need to speak with the steward,” he said indifferently. “He’s over there at the stables.

” “Thank ye kindly,” Erik said as he passed the gatehouse and then walked in the direction the guard had indicated, looking around curiously. The main building was at the highest point off to his right with the kitchens on his left, nestled into the barn and stables. He could smell the aroma of freshly baked bread permeating the entire yard from that corner. Next to the stables was a large smithy and just beyond that he could see a water gate with several boats anchored at the edge of the lake. It was a vast, sprawling group of buildings, much larger than what he was used to, and he hoped it would be big enough for him to be lost in the crowd. As it was, dozens of people were bustling in every direction, each one of them busy with their work. The steward was easy to spot despite the crowd. Of all the people milling about, the short, rotund man was the only one who was pristinely clean. His plaid was a bright green and blue, unmarred by the dust and grime of outdoor work. He was standing near an older man with greying hair as Erik walked closer.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are ye the steward?

.

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