Monday, 6 February 2012

Excerpt: The Devil of Jedburgh

     There must have been a hundred of them. Black-hearted Kerrs with mud-streaked cheekbones, matted braids falling down naked chests dark from dirt and sun and hair. But the eyes. Black as night, black as their hearts, black as the devil’s soul.
    Breghan ran faster, tearing through the summer-thick foliage. She could hear them rapidly closing in. The high-pitched grunt was neither human nor animal.
    Branches rustled at her left, then at her right. Stubby fingers reached for her, scratching, clawing, poking, until all that remained of her gown was shredded ruins.
    And then they went for her hair and face.
    “No,” she screamed, swatting in every direction before she fell to her knees and covered her face with her arms. “Leave me be. Please, please… let me be.”
    The cruel fingers fell away.
    The grunts stilled.
    Breghan swallowed her sobs, slowly lifting one arm, then the other, afraid to look and afraid not to.
    The leader of the pack stood there.
    A shudder trembled through her. The stories were all true. He stood at least seven feet tall, blocking out the sun with his width. What she could see of his face was horribly disfigured, the skin puckered and mottled red. This one’s eyes were not black. No, the Kerr’s eyes were blood-red and burning bright with the wild rage of a fire-spitting demon. Only one of his names was the Devil of Jedburgh.
    Breghan’s eyes shot open to sunlight streaming through the densely covered branches. Her chest was so tight, she had to fight for every breath as she sat up straight, her gaze darting about in a wild frenzy. A late afternoon breeze rustled the leaves above and skittered shadows across the tangled yellow gorse and long grass. Her snowy mare, Angel, grazed contentedly at the base of the tree she was tethered to. It was a perfectly normal summer afternoon.
    But there was nothing normal about this day.
    Breghan slumped back against the tree trunk.
    How long had she been asleep?
    The long shadows indicated a couple of hours at least. She had to get home, before she was missed. Little chance, she remembered with a groan. Her mother demanded her almost constant attendance of late, plucking at sleeves and pinning up hems, embroidering necklines and sewing fresh ribbons onto old slippers. An entire wedding wardrobe was to be fashioned in under a week.
    A week that ends today. By this time tomorrow, she’d be married to the beast.
    She was no longer the infant to be threatened into obedience by tales of the Black-Hearted Kerr of Ferniehirst, but that was when he lived a mountain range away. Now she was as terrified as a small child.
    She couldn’t make this sacrifice.
    Her father demanded too much.
    I could run away. That desperate thought was followed by a revelation: I already have.
    She hadn’t meant to. She’d simply done what she always did when it felt as if the walls of Castle Donague were closing in on her. She’d mounted Angel and the two of them had raced the morning breeze across McAllen fields. Neither the stable master nor the gate guard had blinked an eye. They knew she never went further than the river.
    This morning, however, she couldn’t stop herself. She’d veered west with the River Tiviot, onto the main road, and then she’d just kept on going and going.
    Now Breghan contemplated truly doing it. She only had to stay away until the Kerr arrived to find his bride gone. His pride and her father’s shame should do the rest. The Kerr would never tolerate being stood up on his wedding day and her father would never dare insist the jilted laird honour their brief betrothal.
    Running reeked of a cowardice that was abhorrent to her nature. Then again, opposing her father might be construed as a show of astounding courage. ’Twas more than her brothers had ever dared. Her father would be furious, but anything was preferable than marriage to the Beast of Roxburgh.
    The rhythmic thud of pounding hooves interrupted her thoughts. Breghan held completely still, grateful for the overgrown shrubbery protecting her position from the road. She peeked over her shoulder, reassuring herself that Angel was deep enough in the woods to not be seen either.
    “Halt,” called one of the men in a heavy burr.
    Eyes squeezed shut, breath held fast, Breghan waited and listened.
    “What is it, Arran?”
    “Movement in the bushes.”
    “Ah, a wee beastie for our sup.”
    “Do you no think of naught but your stomach?”
    “’Twas nothing,” decided that first voice. “We ride on.”
    Relief weakened Breghan’s limbs. In a clumsy moment, she put a hand down to steady herself. The rustle of leaves crunching beneath her palm was barely audible. Breghan froze again.
    Apparently the men and their horses were doing the same.
    She heard only the soft gurgle of the Tiviot water rushing around a nearby shallow bend.
    Into that intense silence, Angel blew her nostrils at the scent of stallion. Moments later, the brambles shook. Breghan didn’t even have time to jump to her feet. Half the bush flattened and she found herself staring at a pair of fawn leather boots.
    Her mouth opened in a silent scream and her gaze travelled up slowly, afraid to look, afraid not to. Dark blonde hair covered the muscled leg between boot and plaid. She didn’t recognize the green thread running through the woven red.
    Her gaze shot straight up, past the thick waist and white linen shirt. The fierce warrior stood so tall and broad, he blocked the sunlight. Her heart slammed against her chest bone and Breghan wondered crazily if she’d fallen back into her nightmare.

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