The force and speed of the weapon were so great, the tip went through skin and muscle and into the saddle. The pain was instant. She cried out softly, and instinctively tried to push the white hot agony away, but when she touched the arrow, a pang shot down her leg, and it was only then that she realized she was skewered to the saddle.
She suddenly became enraged and was turning to get a look at her attackers just as Bridgid's scream pierced the air. Gillian spun around and saw Bridgid's horse stumble and fall, throwing her to the ground. And then suddenly the screaming stopped and Bridgid lay completely still.
"No," Gillian shouted as she kicked her horse to get back to her friend.
Bridgid's arrows were strewn about the ground, and only then did Gillian remember she wasn't defenseless after all. She grabbed one of her arrows and swung her bow up. A man on horseback broke through the trees, racing to intercept her, but Proster rode toward her from the other direction, shouting at her to get away as he notched an arrow to his bow and took aim. A second later there was a bloodcurdling scream, and the man slumped to the ground, an arrow imbedded in his belly. He continued to howl, squirming like a snake in the dirt. And then the squirming stopped and the scream became a death rattle.
The other attacker rushed Gillian then. Proster notched another arrow. For the barest of seconds he hesitated as he recognized the man, but then he let the arrow go. His enemy threw himself flat against his horse, and Proster's arrow narrowly missed. Frantic, Proster searched for another arrow as the horse's thundering hooves galloped toward him. He flung the bow down and struggled to get his sword out of its sheath.
As the attacker closed the distance, his attention was on Proster, and Gillian seized the opportunity. She raised her bow, prayed for accuracy, and dispatched her arrow. Her aim was true. The arrow struck the man in the center of his forehead and flung him backward over his horse. He died instantly.
Gillian was panting with fear and then began to gag. She threw her bow to the ground and broke into sobs. God forgive her, she had just killed a man and had even begged for His help. She knew she had no choice. It was their lives or his, but the truth didn't ease her torment.
She took a deep breath and steadied herself. Now wasn't the time to fall apart, she told herself as she wiped the tears from her face. Bridgid was hurt and needed her.
Proster reached her friend first. He held Bridgid in his arms, but her head was slumped down and she wasn't moving. There was blood trickling from her forehead.
Even as she heard Bridgid groan, she cried out, "Is she breathing?"
"Yes," Proster answered. "She struck her head on a stone, and it knocked the wind out of her."
Bridgid groaned again and slowly opened her eyes. Gillian was so relieved, she began to cry. "Thank God," she whispered. "You're all right, Bridgid? You didn't break anything?"
Dazed, it took her a moment to figure out what Gillian was asking, and then she answered. "I think I'm all right," she said as she put her hand to her forehead. Grimacing from the pain her touch triggered, she let her hand drop back to her lap and noticed then that it was covered with blood. Turning in his arms, she looked up at the soldier. "Proster, did you save us, then?"
He smiled. "It seems so."
"You followed us."
"Yes," he admitted. "I saw you crossing the meadow and I wondered where you were going. Then you turned to the north and I became more puzzled. I kept expecting you to come back, and when you didn't, I decided to go after you."
"Thank God you did," Gillian said.
"Who were they?" Gillian demanded. "Did you recognize the men who attacked us?"
"Yes," he answered, his voice grim now. "Durston was one and Faudron was the other. They're both Sinclairs."
"Faudron?" Bridgid cried out. "But he's one of our laird's commanders."
"He isn't any longer," he said bluntly. "Lady Gillian killed him."
"Were there more than two?" Bridgid asked, and before he could answer her, she said, "They could come back—"
"There were only two."
"You're certain?" Bridgid asked. "If there were more—"
"There weren't," he insisted. He looked at Gillian when he added, "It was an ambush, and you were their target, Lady Buchanan."
"How could you know that?" Bridgid asked.
"The arrows were all aimed at her," he answered patiently. "Their goal was to kill you, milady," he added. "And if Bridgid had seen their faces, they would have killed her too. I'm sure they didn't think they would need more than two men to kill one woman. The element of surprise was on their side as well."
"But why would they want to kill her?" Bridgid asked.
"Do you know why, milady?" Proster asked.
She didn't hesitate in answering. "Yes, but I cannot speak of it without permission from Ramsey and Brodick."
"This is my fault," Bridgid said then. "And I will tell my laird so. I shouldn't have—"
Gillian cut her off. "No, it's my fault for taking matters into my own hands. Bridgid, you and Proster both could have been killed." Her voice shook, and she took a deep breath to calm herself. She wanted to weep, for the pain in her thigh was burning intensely and she was becoming sick to her stomach.
Proster helped Bridgid stand, then swung up onto his horse's back. He was going to get Bridgid's mare, but Gillian whispered, "I need help."
"The danger's over now," Bridgid said. "Don't be afraid."
Gillian shook her head. Proster noticed the arrow protruding from her saddle when he rode forward and, without thinking, reached over to pull the arrow out.
Gillian screamed. "Don't touch it."
And that was when he and Bridgid both noticed the blood dripping down her leg.
Bridgid was horrified. "My God, you must be in terrible pain."
"It's not so bad if I don't move, but I need help getting it out."
Proster leapt from his horse and rushed to her side. Gently lifting her skirt away, he said, "I can't see the tip. It's in deep. It went clear through the leather into the wood. Milady, this is going to hurt," he added as he tried to get a grip on the arrow by sliding his fingers between the saddle and her thigh.
The blood made his hands slick and twice he lost his grip. The third time he tried, she cried out and he let go of her. He couldn't put her through the torture any longer.
"I can't get it out without assistance."
"I could help," Bridgid offered. She reached up and took hold of Gillian's hand to offer her friend comfort.
Proster shook his head. "It will require more strength than you have. I'm not sure what to do."
"It isn't as bad as it could be," Bridgid announced in hope of cheering Gillian. "The arrow didn't go through bone. It looks like it just caught the edge of your skin."
"But it's firmly lodged," Proster pointed out.
"Maybe if we removed the saddle—" Bridgid suggested.
"Dear God, no," Gillian shouted.
"Removing the saddle will only pull the arrow further through," Proster said.
"I'll stay here," Gillian said. "You and Bridgid go and get help. Find Brodick. He'll know what to do."
"I won't leave you."
"I'm not leaving you either," Bridgid insisted.
"Then you stay with me and Proster can go."
"I will not leave you." Proster's voice was firm, and she knew it was pointless to continue to argue with him. He obviously felt honor-bound to stay with her.
"Then what are we going to do?" Bridgid asked.
"If we take it slow and easy, and if I hold my leg down, we could try to go back."
"We'll see how you do," Proster decided. "I'll go get your mare, Bridgid. Do you think you can ride? You took quite a spill."
"I'm fine," she replied.
The two of them watched Proster ride down the hill and when he was out of earshot, Bridgid whispered, "I lied. My head's pounding. It's going to get worse too when my laird finds out what I've done."
"You haven't done anything wrong," Gillian insisted. "Anthony sent us this way. If anyone's to blame, he is."
"You cannot think that Anthony had anything to do with this. He's one of Ramsey's most trusted… he's second only to Gideon…"
"And Faudron was third under Gideon, wasn't he?"
"He betrayed Ramsey," she argued. "And now he's dead."
"Yes, but Anthony—"
"How can you not think he's responsible? Bridgid, it was an ambush. They were waiting for us and Anthony set the trap."
"But why?" Bridgid cried out. Stunned, her mind rebelled against the truth. "My God, it's too much to take in. My head is spinning."
Gillian was immediately contrite for losing her temper. "Why don't you go to the creek and put some cold water on your cut. You'll feel better."
Bridgid nodded and then started down the hill. She stopped suddenly, turned around, and asked, "You do trust Proster, don't you?"
"Yes, I do, but I think you should tell Ramsey what happened and no one else."
"I've never killed anyone before, but I swear to you, when I see Anthony again, I'm going to kill him."
While her friend continued on to the creek, Gillian held her leg steady against the saddle and slowly maneuvered her horse back down the hill so that she could get a closer look at the fallen men. She'd seen Faudron before, but she didn't remember meeting anyone named Durston. She shuddered at the bloody sight, and after one quick, necessary glance, she knew that Durston wasn't the man she had seen riding into Dunhanshire.
When Bridgid called to her, she turned around and went back to the top of the hill. She found that if she gripped her thigh tight and pushed down hard, the wound wasn't jarred by the movement of the horse's gait and the pain was bearable.
Proster had collected Bridgid's bow and arrows and was now helping her onto her mare.
"You're certain you can ride, Bridgid?" he asked.
Proster swung up onto his mount, glanced up at the sun to judge the angle of descent, and then said, "Hopefully we won't have to go far before they find us."
"Do you think they're looking now?" Bridgid asked.
"I hope they are," he answered.
The three of them set out at a snail's pace. Gillian had to keep stopping because of the discomfort. She finally got up the nerve to look closely at the laceration and was relieved when she saw it wasn't as horrible as she thought. The arrow had caught the outside of her thigh and had gone through flesh, just as Bridgid said. Now that she knew the injury wasn't severe, the discomfort didn't seem so bad. Until she tried to pull the arrow out. She nearly passed out from the bolt of pain that shot through her.
"Do you think they're looking for us?" Bridgid asked.
"We've been gone a long time," Gillian said. "Surely someone's searching for us by now."
"Ker and Alan both saw me leave," Proster said. "I told them I was going to follow you."
Bridgid jerked on her reins and turned to Gillian. "They'll tell their commander," she whispered. "They'll tell Anthony, and he'll send more men…"
Gillian tried not to panic. "No," she said. "He doesn't know his men failed."
Proster turned back when Bridgid and Gillian didn't follow. He assumed Gillian needed to rest for a few minutes.
A mist was rolling into the forest. The thick swirling fog may have been harmless to touch but it was deadly to ride in, for like a thief, it would rob them of their sight.
"We've got to get to high ground before dark," Proster said.
"No one will find us in this mist," Gillian said, feeling miserable now and disheartened.
"Anthony won't find us either," Bridgid pointed out.
Unaware that Anthony had sent them into an ambush, Proster misunderstood Bridgid's comment. "Ker and Alan should tell Anthony that I followed you, but I don't think they will."
"Why not?" Bridgid asked. "In Gideon's absence, he's their commander."
"It won't matter," Proster said. "They don't respect or trust him. He's made it clear he has no use for any of the MacPherson soldiers, and he's humiliated Ker and Alan and all the rest of us countless times. No, they won't tell him."
"But when it's noticed that we're gone, Anthony will have to send out search parties, won't he?"
"Yes, but I doubt he'll send any soldiers this far north. He'd send soldiers to search the more populated areas. Why did you take this route? Did you get lost?"
"No," Gillian answered.
"Yes," Bridgid said at the same time.
"We went riding and lost track of the time," Gillian lied. "And we… no, that isn't true, Proster. We thought that my sister lived in this area, but we were mistaken."
Proster saw the tears in Gillian's eyes and rushed out, "It isn't hopeless. Ker and Alan will tell Ramsey, and I'm sure that Brodick is already looking for you, Lady Buchanan."
"But if he—"
Proster smiled. "Milady, you are the Buchanan's wife. I imagine that Brodick and his guard are tearing the hills apart now looking for you. Don't despair. Your husband will come for you."
Gideon gave them the bad news. Ramsey and Brodick had only just returned to the holding when the Sinclair commander came running across the courtyard to intercept them.
One look at his grim expression told both lairds there was serious trouble.
"What is it?" Ramsey demanded.
Gideon panted as he explained. "Lady Buchanan and Bridgid KirkConnell have disappeared. We've searched everywhere and cannot find them."
"What the hell do you mean, they've disappeared?" Brodick roared.
"How long have they been missing?" Ramsey demanded.
Gideon shook his head. "I'm not certain. When I got back from my father's, Anthony had already left the holding with soldiers to search for them. I was just about to join them."