Warrior of the Highlands
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“The man goes too far.” Their feud was a crucible, boiling his craving for vengeance to unprecedented fury. MacColla would be damned if he'd see another of his people taken by Campbell.
Especially this woman. This woman who had been badly injured before. He'd not see Haley injured again.
“I must find her,” he growled. “I leave at once. I'll track them. Find them.”
“Aye.” Scrymgeour said gravely. “I'll keep Jean with me.”
Something flashed in MacColla's eyes as he looked from Scrymgeour to his sister. Some complicated internal calculus, a question asked and answered.
“Take her south,” he responded finally. “To safety. My family waits for us in Kintyre. Take her for me, Scrymgeour.”
“I will.” Scrymgeour didn't appear to think then, simply reached his hand to rest protectively at the small of her back. “Leave, now,” he said. “And I'll keep Jean safe in my care.”
“I have to” - Haley lowered her voice into an outraged hiss “I have to, you know, bu thoil learn fual a dhèanamh.” Somehow saying she needed to pee in Gaelic made the task easier.
The man only gaped at her. The small fire flickered between them, casting severe shadows on his face, exaggerating his puzzle ment. She sat silently, waiting stubbornly, all the while wondering at what she might have accidentally said.
She'd sat through the night, refusing to fall asleep, even though two of her three captors had dozed loudly, their backs to the flames.
Of course Campbell hadn't appeared drowsy at all, and stared at her unabashedly through the night. Haley did her best to stare a challenge right back, thinking all the while that the man likely didn't let much slip past him.
“Tha i ag iarraidh mùin” Campbell growled. He didn't take his eyes from Haley, which scanned her with something between distaste and desire. Only he could make some crude remark about pissing sound menacing.
“Go then.” the man announced. His use of English scorned her attempts at Gaelic. He was much younger than Campbell, in his twenties, she guessed. The dirt brown beard that covered his face like a great soiled and furry mask split into a grin.
She didn't need to fake her urgency. She really did have to go - she thought she'd burst from it - but had waited until the third man had awoken and gone off to do his own business.
The more she could better her odds, the greater her chances for escape. From what she gathered, they were riding back to that hideous castle at Inveraray. And she wasn't about to let herself be the next guest in Campbell's cellar.
Haley thrust out her hands, still bound, and raised her eyebrows. They'd untied her feet, but her hands were still tied tightly in front of her.
“No,” the bearded one said flatly, as if to an impudent child.
“Come on.” She raised her hands higher. “What am I going to do?” She turned to Campbell and added, “You're surely not afraid a woman could best you?”
Her gamble worked. Campbell didn't think a woman could best them. He nodded at the bearde d man to cut her bonds, and hope flickered to life in her chest.
She creaked to standing, stiff from holding the same cross-legged position for so long on the cold ground.
“Go with her,” Campbell spat. She shot what she hoped was an innocent look in his direction, and he added. “Be quick about it, girl. It's time for us to leave before your husband finds us.”
“My husband?” Surely he didn't think she and MacColl were married?
The bearded man snorted a laugh, and a slow smile spread across Campbell's face. Haley chalked it up to simply his version of a lewd joke.
She turned to head deeper into the trees when she heard Campbell say, “Go with her.” The bearded man must've made some suggestive gesture because Campbell quickly added, “Do, and I'll punish you myself.”
Haley's mind raced. She'd hoped they'd let her go alone. That she could get a bit of a head start. Then run like hell and hope for the best. But of course that would've been too easy.
She heard his shuffling feet following close behind her and mentally sized him up. He was about five -eight, five -nine tops. Not much taller that she was.
But he'd be armed. She'd seen the glint of a pistol at his waist. She imagined he probably slept with the thing strapped to him. It would take him some time to lo ad it. Fifteen seconds, maybe.
He wasn't wearing a sword. Did he have a knife, though?
That was something to consider.
She wished she'd tucked her own knife into her dress somehow. The blade wouldn't do much damage, but it would've been better than nothing.
She wondered again if he had a dagger. If she didn't manage to escape this time, perhaps she could somehow steal it. She felt her corset tight at her chest. It was stiff, unbending. She could tuck a blade away in her clothes. Maybe tear a slit along the bottom of her corset and slide it in.
The corset. Her heart kicked hard with excitement. Of course - her corset. She already had a weapon.
She was wearing it.
She'd marveled at the hideous contraption as Jean had laced her up tight. Most old corsets had ivory busks running up the front. A rib roughly two inches thick and fifteen inches long, stiff enough to hold a woman in tight.
Not so this one.
Hers had a busk all right, but it was made of steel. She'd heard of metal busks but had never seen one, and imagined it would've been cheaper than its ivory counterpart.
At the time, she had unlaced the top a bit, peeked at the buckskin that encased the steel rib. The leather was mottled dark brown, stained with some other woman's sweat.
“Give me a minute,” she called to the bearded man and thought the crack in her voice was just as well. He'd assume she was nervous for other reasons.
She brought her hands to her sternum, and dug between her breasts for the small laces that secured the busk into the front of the corset. Her fingers worked quickly, oosening, fumbling.
She glanced over her shoulder and he stood, smiling. Dark brown decay clung like moss in the crooks of his slanted teeth. It gave her focus.
Relieving herself was the first order of business. If the creep wanted to watch, let him. Turning her back firmly to him, she squatted, tucking her dress up only as far as absolutely necessary. He'd think he was getting a show, but really all he'd see was the back of her dress.
She took a moment to shudder in relief, then groped at the top of her corset with renewed concentration. She worked a finger into the narrow pocket that formed the front panel of the corset. Touched the cool edge of leather that encased her busk.
She had to arch her b ack to shimmy it free, and she gasped with the pain the motion shot through her ribs.
“Hurry yourself, girl.”
She heard him shuffle impatiently at her back.
The busk was heavy in her hand. A reassuring heft, like a length of construction rebar. She tucked it close to her chest.
Her preference would've been to pick at the stitching and pull the steel from its leather enclosure, but she had no time.
Just as well, she thought, as a plan came to her. She slid her hands to the base of the busk, as if it were a bat, and savored the weight in her grip.
A sturdy little club.
Smiling, she stood and walked briskly forward, keeping the clansman at her back.
“Ho!” Haley heard the surprise in his voice as he rushed to catch up. “Ho, girl!”
She walked faster, then faster still. If he was going to talk to her like a horse, let him try to corral her like one.
A clearing lay ahead. The trees thinned, and their leaves glowed light green from the growing sunlight.
“Ho!” His voice was angry now.
But her smile only grew broader as she broke into a jog. She needed to reach the clearing. The sound of his breath closed in, echoing through the silence of the woods.
She burst into a run, stopping just a few feet outside the edge of the grove. Wait.
Her father's voice came to her then, so clear, so eerily vivid as to almost break her concentration. Wait for it.
It wasn't until she felt him burst into the clearing that she finally spun to face him. She pivoted hard, the busk in her hands, the full force of her weight behind it. She spun and slammed it into the side of his head with a satisfying crack.
“Home run, motherfucker.” Her voice was giddy, a match to the high pitch of adrenalin that trembled through her.
She came back to herself at once. She needed to run. Fast.
She figured she had five minutes tops before Campbell came to see what was taking them so long.
But first… She knelt and grabbed the man's pistol and tugged the small leather bullet bag from his belt.
She needed gunpowder. Where would it be?
She patted down the man as quickly as she could, hoping he was truly out cold. Then she felt it. A hard, oval bulb in his breast pocket. Using the very tips of her fingers, she peeled open his soiled and smelly coat. An uneven pocket had been stitched in as an afterthought, and the dull stopper of a brass priming flask poked out from the top.
Hurry up. She grabbed it, shoved it and the bullet bag in her corset, then stood and scanned the horizon. Hills and more hills. She'd need to go back up and over the mountain range.
Her heart sank. The gravelly hillsides and low-lying tangles of brush wouldn't provide any cover.
She rubbed her thumb distractedly over the pistol's wooden grip.
Campbell had ponies. And though they were rugged animals, there would be no way they could make it easily over the steepest peaks. She didn't know about his other clansman, but she knew she could beat Campbell in a footrace.
Fat sod. Haley broke into a run.
As she pumped her arms in the hard slog up the first slope, she came up with as many British slang terms as she could for Campbell.
Bollocks. Wanker. Ugly shite.
Her own version of a mantra.
She switched the gun to her other hand, clutching the thick handle tight.
Catch me if you can.
* * *
MacColla squatted, scanning his eyes along the terrain. Two sets of footprints had left the castle, marked clear in the dirt just outside the entrance. Men's boots, not walking in a straight line. They would've carried her then.