Her body moved mindlessly as she slipped the saddle from her horse, replaced the bridle with a rope halter, and tied her off once again, all the while eyeing the far end of the stable where a slash of sunlight cut through the dimness. An exit? Motes of hay floated in the air like sparks, beckoning her as if promising the last warmth of freedom. Clouds of dust puffed from the animal as Magda flicked a stiff brush along neck and belly. There had to be a way to get over there without detection.
She felt the heat of a body close in behind her and her mind slammed back into the present. She was Campbell's prize, and she was crazy to think she wouldn't become fair game for the rest of the men of the keep. She needed to escape. Now—or not at all.
The groomsman pressed his groin in at her back as he reached over her shoulder, making like he needed to instruct her on some element of grooming. She heard the rasp of his breathing.
Her eyes scanned around her, alighting on brushes, a bucket of water, stretches of rope and leather. She'd led her life with such formality, had worked to cast herself with such reserve. But reserve wouldn't save her now.
She choked out a coy giggle, bumping gently back into him. He was hard already, his stubby cock stiff at her rump. She caught his eye and forced a pouting smile. "Now, now."
She ducked under the horse's neck, popping back up to gaze at the groomsman from the other side. Magda tried to hold his eyes so she could scramble for anything usable as a weapon, her hands just out of sight. She felt ridiculous summoning all manner of pouts and winks and simpers, but her efforts seemed to have shocked him into rapt attention. She sensed the bench behind her and spun to grab a brush and a length of harness from it. The man moved to walk around to her, and Magda stopped him, redoubling her efforts, teasing his fingers with little touches as she smoothed the brush down the horse's back in as seductive a manner as she could muster.
She had a lead line in her other hand. Carefully, she let it slide down the length of her palm until she felt the cold steel hook at her fingers. Magda gave him a brilliant smile then, even flicking a bit of tongue at the corner of her mouth. Circling her wrist, she wound the length of rope around her hand, securing the hard metal clip at the end in her grip. She stepped back then, sliding her hand slowly from the horse's back, raising her brows in her best come -hither look.
The groomsman licked his lips and bobbed quickly under the animal's neck to join her. As he stood, Magda slammed the blunt end of the hook into his temple, left hand at her right wrist to bolster her strength, and he fell at once.
The horse reared, spooked, and she quickly patted her, settling her back down. Magda looked back to that ray of light cutting into the far end of the barn. Turning, she walked slowly down the corridor, horses in stalls on either side chuffing and whinnying quiet greetings. She came to the source of the light. Magda realized that what had looked from a distance like the far wall, was actually a half door. Though the bottom was clicked shut, the top half was cracked ajar and the source of her sunbeam. Pulling the latch, she stepped through to an outdoor paddock, its resident horse grazing intently on a well-manicured lawn. He heard her approach and glanced up, chewing and blinking at her lazily. He was a magnificent animal, tall—at least seventeen hands high, she thought distantly—and his chestnut coat gleamed, the late - afternoon sunlight picking out shades of red and yellow silk.
She walked to him, and he stood alert, not afraid, but simply focused on her presence. Magda couldn't help but reach her hands up to tangle her fingers in his deep orange mane, and she leaned her weight onto him, his solidness reassuring her.
The horse whickered quietly, nudging her with his powerful head, and Magda felt her breathing deepen and her pulse slow for the first time in days.
Magda knew horses—any number of expensive mounts had been at her disposal as a young Deacon family heir—and this was a fine stallion. He was surely a rare animal by Scottish standards if all those Highland ponies were any indication.
She turned, knowing already what she would find. A leather bridle, just cleaned, hanging from a hook to the side of the door. No saddle was in sight, but an old woolen blanket was folded neatly beneath. Excitement pricked at the back of her mind. She looked around quickly. The half door had drifted shut behind her. The paddock was at the far end of the stable, and enclosed by a low wooden fence. She'd jumped higher in her time, and would bet this horse had too.
Magda cursed herself—she'd been in a daze when they'd arrived—and she hoped now that she remembered correctly, that the stables stood along the edge of the castle compound and that the only other gate she'd need to jump would be the stone wall surrounding the castle compound. Though she recalled seeing portions that were low enough to clear, she hoped they weren't too wide. Magda had been quite the equestrienne in her time, but jumping bareback was a killer, and her leg muscles were already thrashed.
It took a moment to slip the bridle over the horse's head. Magda imagined that he knew what was coming, sensing his anticipation as he readily took the bit into his mouth and stood still while she settled the dusty blanket in place of a saddle.
With a grudging thank you to her horse-loving parents, Magda hauled herself onto his back. She might kill herself trying this, she thought, but it beat anything that Campbell had in store for her.
The horse pranced, his muscles coiled, tense with ready energy. "Oh, yeah," Magda purred, remembering what it was like to ride a horse of this caliber.
She wove the reins lightly around her fingers, and he responded with a nervous side step, his mouth sensitive to her every move. A slight tensing of her thighs and he was off like a shot. Magda had to swallow her cry of joy, feeling this animal beneath her, imagining her freedom just over the fence.
She kicked him into a gallop, and he began to hesitate at the last moment, the fence higher than it had seemed from the far end of the pasture. Magda pulled her knees as high as she could, gripping tightly with her legs. She girded herself; without stirrups to stand from, the horse's leap over the fence would slam her into the hard ridge of his withers.
She loosened the reins to give the horse as much of his head as he'd need to clear the fence. Tangling her fingers high and tight into his mane, Magda shrieked "Heeya!" and with one last crush of her knees into his sides, they flew over the fence, and galloped away.
"Nay, nay, I'd ken the Marquis of Montrose anywhere," the man said. He walked next to James, his wife bobbing her head at his side.
"I'm not the marquis," James said evenly.
James, Rollo, and Sibbald had been on the road for ten days, and the going had gotten increasingly dangerous. Crossing the southern border into Scotland brought them onto roads littered with broken men and Covenanter
patrols. James refused to trade his horse for an animal more suited to his disguise, and they'd been getting more skeptical looks the further north they rode. So much so that James was considering traveling by night instead, at least until they reached the safer Highland territory.
"But whyever are you dressed so, m'lord?" The villager looked back and forth between the well-dressed men and
James, clothed as a groom in threadbare trews and bonnet, riding ten paces behind Rollo and Sibbald.
"I'm not the marquis, good man." His voice was steady and slow. "Although, I am certain the marquis would be touched by your loyalty." James nodded sagely to the villager, allowing himself a small smile at the man's joy at this last bit of information.
Giving a wink to the man's wife, James kicked his horse into a trot to catch up to his companions. His smile broadened to hear the woman's gasp behind him. scandalized by the familiar gesture.
"We approach Dumfries," Sibbald said. "A cup of ale and a proper bed at The Globe Inn has much to recommend it." "And sleep the night in a Covenanting burgh?" Rollo asked. "Aye," James jested, "you could buy your bed with that king's commission sewn into your saddle, and awaken to the sight of some of those red- coated Parliament soldiers." "We press on then," Sibbald grumbled. "And easy it will be for you, lad. You've a younger arse than I. "
"Don't fear, old man, if your arse can hold you just an hour or so longer, I know of a hunter's bothy on Maxwell land. I can't promise ale, but we'll spend the night dry at least."
A small farmhouse appeared to their left, the shutters slamming closed at their passing. James and Rollo exchanged a silent look.
"I'd push as far as we can every day now," James added. "It grieves me to see our country torn so."
"Is Clan Maxwell Royalist or Covenanter?" Rollo asked. "Let's hope we'll not have the opportunity to ask, aye?" James replied, and spurred his horse into an easy canter.
She'd stopped just once. Sweat had slicked her horse the color of burnt sienna, foamy ropes of saliva hung from the corners of his mouth, and Magda worried she would lame the animal. But she hadn't rested fifteen minutes before she heard the distant rumble of hooves, and she hopped back on, ignoring the agony between her legs and the streak of blood on the saddle blanket.
Still triumphing after landing the initial jump out of the paddock, she hadn't been completely prepared for the low stone wall surrounding Campbell lands. Castle Gloom sat higher than she'd realized, the ground sloping sharply down outside the castle perimeter. Her horse had landed the jump over the outer wall solidly, but Magda had slammed down hard onto his back with the unexpected shock of a missed step. She'd felt the dampness a moment later, though she'd guessed instantly that her pubic bone had sliced through her skin with the impact.
"Shit!" she hissed, spotting the water as she emerged from the trees, and she slammed sloppy kicks into the animal's sides. She heard shouts now, distant but closing in.
Panic squeezed Magda's chest. Her body trembled violently, as all rational thought was subsumed by primitive terror.
A large lake blocked her way. The choppy surface was a tempest of deep blues and blacks under the sunless sky. She tugged her reins, regretful of the pain she knew she was inflicting, but she had to pull her horse's head away from the shore. She barraged her horse with kicks now, wringing every last bit of energy out of him, hoping to ride around the lake.