Marissa leaned low over the horse's neck, urging the animal to greater speed. The rain lashed her face with icy biting needles. She ignored the discomfort. The sound of the horses giving chase behind her incited crashing shards of fear. Panic shook her fingers as she gripped the horse's mane to steady her balance.
She choked back a sob, unable to shake from her thoughts the image of Leland's lifeless body sprawled on the field, an arrow protruding from his chest. Mere moments later, his attackers gave chase. Terror such as she had never known ripped the breath from her lungs. Had her companion truly been killed? If only she had her sword, she could hold her own against her pursuers.
"Hurry, Pride, just a little farther," she urged the steed, his powerful body taking the wet meadow in great strides. The shouts behind her sounded closer than before. She dared a glance back. Her heart seized. They gained on her! Ahead lay the small stand of trees, just beyond there, home and safety. She could evade the dirty Scots chasing her in the forest, and make a dash for the gates of Montchester.
She kicked the horse's flanks once again, her heart pounding wildly as she prayed for the time to elude her pursuers. There, she was almost to the trees now. Just a few more…
She screamed as a rider drew up beside her, one hand reaching out to catch her hair which had blown free from its covering. The searing pain in her scalp seemed a minor annoyance as a meaty arm came around her waist and yanked her from the saddle. She fought her assailant, gouging her nails into his face. He let loose a yell of pain and released his hold. She fell to the ground and rolled in the muddy field, staring after her horse, which continued on toward the trees and the keep beyond.
Her attacker wheeled around, his mount blowing great plumes of steam in the cool wet air. More horses approached, and despite knowing the futility of her action, she leaped to her feet and ran in the direction of her fleeing horse. Laughter pounded her ears as she found herself surrounded by several mounted Scotsmen.
She raised herself to her full height and debated which way she might go to escape her captors. She suppressed a shudder as she looked at each one, all of them wild and unkempt. The one who'd grabbed her dismounted and stalked over to her. She would show this animal no fear and lifted her chin.
"Looks like we got ourselves feisty lass, men," he said.
He reached out to touch her sodden hair and she slapped his hand away. The mocking laughter in his voice vanished.
"Now, lass, that ain't no way to treat your master." His fingers tightened in her hair and he yanked her close to him. She winced, and tried to untangle his hand.
"Master? Filthy Scottish kidnappers. How dare you! When my horse returns alone, my father's men will soon give chase and arrest you."
"Dinna think so, lass, we'll be long gone afore anyone comes."
"You fool! Montchester is just beyond those trees. My horse has likely already reached it, and an alarm sent up!" She hoped beyond hope the half-truth and her vow proved right. The steed had a mind of his own, and could easily have taken refuge from the rain amidst the trees. Besides, Monchester was a bit further than she led them to believe. Why had she challenged Leland to that race? Marissa held back a moan of frustration. If only she hadn't worn out her horse then, she might have made it to safety. She'd been so close!
"We have plenty of time before your horse reaches Monchester's gates. We leave now. I willna risk losing a prize fair as you." His fast actions soon had her hands bound before her. She let loose a scream of outrage and jerked from his grasp. She barely got three steps before she came up against another. She stared in horror at the face of the man holding her still. A gap toothed smile split his beard, and there was no mistaking the intent in his beady eyes. She jerked free of his hold, but found herself caught once more by her initial abductor. Damn it all to hell, how had she been so careless? Her mind replayed the events of the morning and not for the first time did she rue allowing Leland to talk her into the sneaking away for the unescorted ride, especially so close to sunset. She choked back a sob. Again, she wondered if he truly lay dead in the field. Had these filthy Scots succeeded in murdering him?
She had no chance to think further on it, finding herself tossed over the saddle of the Scots’ leader as he mounted up behind her. One beefy arm anchored around her waist. His low growl in her ear turned her stomach.
"Soon, lassie, we'll take shelter in one of the caves and we can share you properly then. Been a long time since I had me a fine English lassie."
She shuddered in revulsion at his meaning. Never. She would be free of him before she let that happen.
The rain eased as they headed toward the hills and the caves they concealed. She had to get free of these beasts before they reached the winding maze and got lost in them. She could die within days trapped alone in there. All knew the tales of travelers who sought refuge from the weather in the labyrinth of caves, only to be found months or even years later, dead. She tugged at the leather binding her wrists. She had to get free now.
But as her captors picked up their pace, urging their mounts into a run, she knew it was too late. She'd be gone before her father could get out of the gates with men to search for her.
What the hell would she do?