Carrickliffe, Scotland, 1838
Read from the Leabhar nan Sùil-radharc, the Book of Fates:
To the tenth Carrick:
Your lady fair shall bear you three dark sons.
Joy they bring you until they read this tome.
Words before their eyes cut your life's line young.
You die dread knowing cursed men they become,
Shadowed to walk with death or walk alone.
Not to marry, know love, or bind, their fate;
Your line to die for never seed shall take.
Death and torment to those caught in their wake,
Blood obscured the last two lines.
The Principality of Andorra, 1856
"Yes, yes, very well then. Take out his heart."
For the first time since his beating began, Courtland MacCarrick's split, bloody sneer faltered. The general's impatient command seemed unreal to him, the words sounding hollow and indistinct, probably because Court could see nothing, blinded by blood dripping from a gash on his forehead and by his swollen lids.
The henchmen restraining him whaled two punches into his stomach, unable to contain their excitement at the prospect of killing off a mercenary, and a rival at that. Court could do little to defend himself in his condition and with his wrists bound.
"If you kill me," he bit out as he labored for a breath, "you know my men will avenge my death. You would no' risk that over simply payin' us what's owed?" His voice was thick with brogue, as it hadn't been since he'd left the Highlands years before.
"No one will avenge you, MacCarrick, because they'll all be dead as well," General Reynaldo Pascal said in a casual tone. Though he couldn't see, Court knew the man had a thoughtful expression on his face. The Spanish deserter had never looked like a power-crazed zealot - more like a benevolent statesman.
"My kin will keep comin' until they've stamped you out."
The general sighed. "In any case..." Court could imagine him giving an impatient hand wave, signaling the end of the subject. "...do make it painful and prolonged."
"You will no' do it yourself?"
He chuckled softly. "You of all people should know I hire men to do my dirty work."
As the two yanked him away, Court said over his shoulder, "Aye, but do the fools holdin' me know that you doona pay them for it?"
They jostled him, heaving him from the room, then strained to pull him down the stairs and outside onto the rough slate street.
As soon as he felt the sun on his face, he heard a woman gasp; an older man said, "Mare de Deu," but Court knew better than to expect anything from the people here other than a sharp turning of their heads and the ushering of children inside. Their fear of Pascal was ingrained. Court could be butchered in the town square and no one would lift a finger. Actually, that was a close estimation to what he knew was about to happen.
Yet he didn't feel as though that was the direction they were moving in. He heard the din of rushing water, realized they were traveling to the river beside the village, and futilely turned his head toward the sound. "No execution in the town center?" he rasped. "Careful that I doona feel slighted."
"We are being more circumspect with our...activities," said the one on his left.
"Too late. Pascal's already angered Spain." He bit out the words with conviction, but in truth it was little more than a hope.
"And we will be ready," the other replied, just before they slammed him up against what had to be a bridge railing. And Court couldn't fight because he couldn't see.
The water was directly below them, pounding furiously over a drop-off. The Riu Valira was always an angry torrent after rains to the north. He struggled to remember how high this bridge was. Would the Valira be deep enough?...
He heard a knife being unsheathed. What choice did he have?
"If you do this now," Court said in a low, deadly tone, "my men and my kin will descend on you. They live for killing." And kill for a living.
Court knew he couldn't talk them out of planting that knife. These weren't merely two among the general's army - these were assassins, part of the Orden de los Rechazados, Order of the Disavowed. Court just wanted time to get his bearings. A second stalled was possibility...
If he jumped, they wouldn't chase him down the river. They'd consider his battered condition, with his hands bound and with the impact of the powerful falls, and reason that he would drown for certain.
Unfortunately, they'd probably be right....
The knifepoint pricked his chest as though poised there - almost comforting because at least he knew where it was. Then...gone. Drawn back for the blow -
He shoved himself back, the force pitching him over the railing, tossing his feet over his head before he landed in the icy water.
The impact stunned him, his body taking the hit as though crashing into a wall. He sank down so far pain stabbed his ears from the depth, then struggled upward with bound hands.
Though it went against every instinct, he forced himself to reach the surface facedown as though dead. He sensed the pull of the water and realized that facedown in this case meant being swept from the falls' pool headfirst.
The Rechazados shot just as the rushing water began propelling him over the rim of the elevated basin. The bullets ripped through the water so close to him he could feel their percussion, but he didn't flinch even when he was forced to dive from above, then ride another series of falls into the main current.
The river boiled with rapids and swiftly carried him away. Just when he could stand it no longer, he raised his face for breath, but inhaled mostly foam.
The churning force drove him into rocks, the larger ones knocking him above the surface for lungfuls of air, but his weight quickly wrenched him down to the river bottom lined with jagged slate. The fractures snagged his clothes until they were in tatters, and then his unprotected skin. Each hit took him closer to oblivion.
Yet he continued to fight and managed to turn himself feet first. The water had washed away the worst of the blood, and the icy temperature had lessened the swelling, allowing him to see from the slit of one eye.
A high jutting rock approached; he lunged for it, looping his bound arms around it. The current swept on relentlessly until the wracking pressure on the ropes snapped his wrist. He didn't care - he gulped air. After only moments of rest, the bindings sliced away, leaving him to the mercy of the river once more.
He'd been in and out of consciousness for what felt like days when the current finally calmed. In the lull, he perceived that the freezing temperature had muted the worst pain of his injuries. In fact, he felt nothing but the subtle warming of the water as he drifted into a static pool by the bank.
Succumbing to the blackness was an overwhelming temptation now, nearly stronger than his will, but he forced himself to crawl to the stony shore on one hand and his knees. Free of the river, he collapsed onto his back and cradled his broken wrist.
The sun warmed him, taking away the worst of the chill, and for how long he lay there he didn't know. He only noticed when a shadow passed before it. He squinted to bring a thin line of vision to his one good eye.
He must've sucked in a breath - his bashed ribs screamed that he did - because a woman with shining hair knelt beside him, peering down with widened green eyes. Her lips were parted in surprise, and an unusual stone glinted light from a choker around the pale column of her neck. When she tilted her head at him, a breeze blew a dark curl across her cheek.
Breathtaking. "Aingeal...," he murmured as he resisted the blackness once more.
"Perfect," she answered with utter sarcasm as she rose and put her hands on her hips. "Simply perfect. This animal's alive."
Annalia Elisabet Catherina Tristan, daughter of the family Llorente, had ridden out for flowers to brighten the afternoon tea. Where did the marsh marigolds grow best? By the river. By the cursed river, where apparently the cursed mercenaries wash to shore.
She hadn't known what to think when she'd spied the body from afar. Perhaps a shepherd had fallen in the Valira during a storm to the north? Yet as she approached she'd recognized that this giant was no shepherd, and she hadn't missed the nationality. Around his waist he had a thick, wide belt, the style of which was foreign. Attached to the belt had been a swatch of plaid left from some larger cloth.
Plaid meant Scot. Scot meant killer.
She bemoaned the situation yet again and tugged on the reins looped over her shoulder, trudging forward, pulling along Iambe, her hunter, who had two hundred plus pounds of Scottish deadweight attached to her. Neither she nor Iambe was used to such labor. Annalia sighed wearily - they were both thoroughbreds born for a different purpose altogether.