About the book
Betrayal runs deep in families…
Arya Donaldson, daughter of the cruel Laird of Muir, searches for a way out of her father’s chains. Literal chains, as he throws her in the dungeons quite often. On one of her visits down, she meets the man who will change her life…
Someone close to him betrayed Laird Cohen Kirk, and he intends to find out. The problem is, he is locked in the dungeons of his enemy, with no way out. Until the Laird’s daughter helps him escape, on one condition: he takes her with him.
Arya tastes freedom for the first time in her life, but she can’t forget the person she left behind: her sister. Embarking on a suicide mission, they try to rescue her sister from her father’s claws. But Cohen learns a valuable lesson: family doesn’t always have the best intentions…
“Bloody Hell, this lass is a fighter,” one of the guards muttered near Arya Donaldson’s ear. She smirked. That was something at least. She kicked back against him, and he grunted, making her smile even wider. She wanted to hit the other guard too, but he held her arm even tighter, and her movement was far too restricted.
She swung around with her shoulder and managed to hit him in the middle of the chest, giving her that grunt she wanted. The one thing she didn’t do was say anything or scream. She wouldn’t dare give her father, the Laird of Muir, the satisfaction that one of his nearly daily punishments was getting to her.
The two assigned guards dragged her down the familiar steps to her castle’s dungeon, and she thrashed and kicked the whole way. It made her arms sore, and her heart ache, but she didn’t care. It was the only way to fight back against the tyranny that was her father’s control over her life. She was so tired of it, and she was so ready for it to be over.
At this point, that wasn’t an option, but each time she was taken, dragged down that familiar path to her own personal cell in the creaking, leaking castle dungeon, she hoped that it would be the last time. That somehow, fate would assist her, or inspiration would strike her with a way of escape, and it could be the last time.
Finally, the guards pushed her inside of the wrought-iron cell and shut it behind her with a clang. She moved back against the wet stone wall and sank down to the stone floor. She was breathing hard. The floor was covered in hay and gravel, and she plopped down on it as if she was always just waiting to return. A soiled blanket sat in a heap nearby, and she took it up. It was freezing after all.
“Damn!” she muttered under her breath, trying not to think about the cold. She shook her head and crossed her arms. Just like always, she could feel the tears coming, but she absolutely refused to let them fall. Somehow her father would find out, and he would laugh knowing that his rebellious, unworthy daughter was crying because of his chosen punishments. That would only increase them tenfold.
She leaned her head back against the wall and watched as the torch on the wall next to her cell flickered from a breeze that came through the small window. She sighed. Her father’s punishments only lasted a couple of days, and then she would be back upstairs. Having no mother, Arya was Lady of Muir, and she was desperately needed in matters of running the castle. A slight shuffle made her turn her head, and she leaned forward when she saw a man sitting there.
A man. A young man. A young man who was a stranger. Arya was instantly intrigued, and she moved closer. She could see that he had curly brown hair, and he was leaning forward as if he was sleeping. She frowned.
“Faither has never put me here when there was someone else,” she whispered.
She crawled toward the opposite wall of the cell, grateful for the company. But it was curiosity as well that prodded her on. The stranger wore a kilt not of her clan’s colors, and when she got closer, she saw him lean his head back and look at her, and she gasped. She hadn’t been anywhere, nor did she have much experience with men outside her own village and clan, but here was a prime picture of manhood, the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes upon.
As if on instinct, she could feel her face flushing, and she closed her mouth, having only belatedly realized that it’d been hanging open. “Och, I thought ye were sleepin’, Sir,” she said stupidly, her fingers clasping around the iron squares of her cell.
He made some sort of exhalation of breath, and she thought it might have been a laugh except for the scowl on his face. “Nae sleepin’, Lass, just thinkin’ on me fate.”
He barely looked at her, turning back to face forward. She moved ever so slightly, and she saw his face more in the slight light. It made her open her eyes wider, wanting to see him better. He had a dark beard along a sharp jaw, and it was unkempt, likely only because he had been captured. It only added to his good looks and mystery. There were dark circles under intriguing eyes too, and even though he was scowling, his face was strong and manly and good looking.
Arya could feel a strange, new pitter-patter of her heart. A handsome stranger was in her castle’s dungeon, and she wanted to know why. Adventure was pricking at her, and it thrilled her to the core. It was far better than thinking about her father anyway. Why was he here? What had made her father want to capture him? How did he come to be so very handsome?
She smiled, ignoring the stupid questions swirling about in her head. “What is yer name?” she asked, as politely as possible. “We are prisoners together, after all. Ye can tell me yer name.”
She waited a few seconds, but her words just hung in the air. “Why? Will I nae be dead very soon?” His words were sad but also resigned, and she watched as his stubble-covered jaw ticked with emotion.
Arya was unperturbed. She was used to difficult men, and this man was nothing compared to the man who ruled above stairs. She had hours, maybe even days, to converse with him, so she was in no rush. Finally, the dungeon didn’t seem like such a bad place.
She pulled her hands from the metal and leaned against it instead. “I am Arya Donaldson, daughter to the Laird, if ye can believe it.” She chuckled. It was better to laugh about such things because crying and weakness was not an option. Strength. Always show the world strength. Her father had at least taught her that.
Arya waited, knowing that no one would be able to not ask why on earth the daughter of a Laird was currently residing in a disgusting, ill-kept cell in the very castle of her father. She beamed when she heard him finally ask, “What are ye daein’ here then? In the dungeon of a monster father such as ye have?”
Arya sighed and folded her hands in her lap. “Daenae ask me because I daenae ken. Nae truly. ” She shrugged. “I guess we both dislike each other.”
She let her gaze wander about the large room. It felt hollow and empty, and normally she was sitting in the dark for days on her own. The fact that there was another prisoner there with her gave her some courage or hope. She wasn’t sure which.
“I see. That is a sad thing,” he said with a nod. The man kept quiet after that, and he didn’t look her way any longer. She stole glances at him every so often, but then she eventually tired of it and moved away from the iron to lean back against the stone wall again.
Arya tried to let her mind wander instead, for the imagination was adequate to keep her sane while she sat in discomfort. But it wasn’t enough. The fact that there was a person next to her urged her on, and her curiosity to get to know the man took over. But if he would not answer, then she would talk.
“It is the first time I have been in the dungeon with someone else. I like it. Then we can discuss things as we see fit, and we will nae be disturbed. Nay one should care for me reputation now, alone with a man,” she laughed nervously when she saw him scowl at her again. But at least he was looking at her.
“Aye, I daenae think anyone will care about yer reputation, Lass. Besides,” he added, crossing his arms over his very large chest, making the muscles in his arms flex, “there is a wall of iron latticework between us.”
“Aye,” she said scrunching up her nose in distaste, tapping the wall next to her. “What a pity, too.”
Her companion lifted a surprised brow, and she set to laughing again. At least he gave some reaction.
Cohen Kirk wasn’t sure that he cared about anything anymore. He had been betrayed by his own men, and he was simply sitting in a hay-covered and freezing dungeon, awaiting his execution. But Laird of Muir was enjoying leaving him to sit and think about death for a little while because he had heard nothing about when that execution would be.
It made everything feel numb and dark and hopeless. Then a woman had been thrust into the cell next to him, and the only thing he wanted to do was to scowl at her. She was loud, annoying, and disturbing the peace he had tried to gather. Fear was not an option, and he had to come to accept his new fate, even though it made him tremble with anger at the injustice of it.
When she leaned closer to him from her cell, her fingers poking through the square cell holes, he couldn’t help but smile. Inwardly, of course. Her smile and her cheery attitude were at such odds with the place and his own future that it almost felt like he was in a dream or perhaps a really strange nightmare.
When she came into the light, however, he noticed something else. Even though she was slightly bedraggled, she was bonnie. Very bonnie. He couldn’t fully see her, for some of her was in shadow, but he could tell that her mouth was full, and her skin a lovely cream, contrasting the dark curls of her hair. He could also spy her curves, ones that would make a man not on the brink of death heat in desire.
And when she smiled and told him that her father had thrown her into his own dungeon, he was even more intrigued. However, he didn’t have long to think about that because she started to talk to him about nonsense and suggest that the wall between them should be removed.
When he lifted a brow in her direction, she laughed prettily, reminding him strangely of being out on a warm, summer’s day, laying in the grass. She also began to pepper him with questions.
“What clan are ye a part of? I daenae recognize the colors.”
“What have ye done to end up here? Have ye had a disagreement with my faither?”
“How old are ye? Ye look young, but I cannae tell in the light what age ye are.”
Some of the questions were enough to make him scream with irritation, and then others made him want to laugh aloud, even though his death was looming over him with every second that passed.
Eventually, her questions dimmed, and he sent up a silent prayer, thanking God that she was quiet, and he could actually get some sleep. He slid down to the floor and closed his eyes. It was the best he could do under the circumstances. At least there was a scratchy, if smelly tartan nearby, and he pulled it over himself, shivering underneath it. He didn’t sleep well because thoughts of who in his company had betrayed him were running through his mind over and over.
In the morning, a few hours later, or so he thought, he was woke by the sound of the lass’ voice again. He’d never forget that voice if he happened to live beyond this execution. It was now seared into his brain like a brand.
“Come now, why will ye nae tell me who ye are, Lad?”
He lifted himself up from the floor with a little effort. His arm was a little bruised from having slept on hard, cold stone all night. He turned his face to the lass, and she was watching him eagerly, leaning against the wall of her cell again. He furrowed his brow, wondering why on earth she looked as if they didn’t both just spend the whole of the evening in a dungeon.
A little voice inside him told him that it was no use trying to hide anything from anyone anymore when death was so close. It was right on the horizon. It might even be that day, and it would all be over. His sister might never know what had happened to him. That thought hurt him most of all for he was all she had left in terms of family.
“Me men betrayed me, and I was taken here. I daenae ken why, though. Nor dae I ken which of me men gave me away,” he said finally, and he cleared his throat because it sounded hoarse now that morning had come.
Arya grinned. “Finally, ye have come to understand the life of being imprisoned. Ye must cherish each moment because ye daenae ken when the moment of freedom is.”
He nodded. “Aye, but me moment of freedom will be death,” he said plainly, and he watched as a flicker of a serious expression crossed her face. It was likely the first serious expression she’d ever had. Now that it was morning, more light was pouring through the small window overhead, and it filled the room, removing most of the shadows. Cohen could finally see that Arya’s hair was almost black, and sparkling, bright-blue eyes.
How could her eyes still be sparkling? It bemused him, the fact that she could still contain such cheer and brightness after a whole night in the dark, dank cell, and the fact that they’d just been discussing death.
He wondered if she might be a figment of his imagination. One last, torturous gift given to him by the Heavens before his death was upon him. Or perhaps he had already died and wandered in through the pearly gates. It was not so bad to be trapped with a young, bonnie lass, whose mouth distracted him. However, if it was Heaven, then God had forgotten to remove the iron barrier between him and said lass.
She said nothing for a few seconds, and he was glad for it. He could look at her as he pleased, and it helped to quell the fear that was bubbling up inside him. Besides, he had finally found a way to silence her annoying questions. But on the other hand, he hated it. He didn’t want his last mission on earth to be to quell the cheeriness and energy of a bonnie young lass who was clearly abused by her own father.
He looked away before he said, “I am Cohen Kirk, Laird of Sinclair Castle. There is nae point to hidin’ it any longer.”
When he turned back, he saw that Arya’s blue eyes were gleaming. “Can I ask ye somethin’ then?”
Her eager expression and her smile sent a sort of rush through him. It was a mixture of longing, safety, and home. Even if it annoyed him, her smile was like a jolt of energy, waking him up to life. It made him smile in return, if only briefly, and he thought that he was under a spell. She was so energetic, so full of life that he couldn’t help but react to it. He frowned again, hoping to replace his usual scowl.
“I hardly ken ye, and yet I daenae think that I could stop ye from askin’ somethin’ if I tried.” To his surprise, he actually laughed a little, and she seemed to light up at his teasing.
“Ye are right at that. Well,” she said, clearing her throat, “I would like to ask ye that if ye manage to leave this place, would ye let me come with ye?”
Despite her eager look as she peered at him from her cell, he shook his head and instantly refused. “Nay, Lass, I willnae take ye with me. Ye live here, first of all, and second of all, it is very unlikely that I will be leaving here still alive, that is.”
Even though he thought his answer was very logical, and his concerns very founded, she gave him the most dejected look he had ever seen in his life. He had to look away because it had already cut him to the core. He clenched his fists, eager to forget the feeling in his chest. He’d never felt the weight of someone’s disappointment like that.
In a softer voice, he said, “I am sorry, Lass, but it will nae dae. I cannae take ye with me.”
She sighed, and he closed his mouth, not wanting to say anything else. Why did he have to explain his reasons to her? He wasn’t going to take her with him. If he managed to escape, he would get out, far away, and he would find the bloody traitors who had allowed him to be taken. He would have his vengeance one day, and that was all he would want to focus on. Not the safety of a strange lass who asked a lot of questions.
The door to the dungeons screeched open. Two guards entered with trays. Keys jangled as they opened the doors and slid the trays of food across the floor, one for Arya and one for him. They said nothing, but slammed the doors after themselves, and the two prisoners were left in silence again.
Cohen dragged the tray toward himself, but he was watching Arya out of the corner of his eye. He hadn’t known her for more than a night, and yet her silence discomfited him. After a few minutes with the guards gone, Arya’s voice again filled the dungeon, and he didn’t feel so guilty anymore.
“I have a plan to escape, ye ken. I have spent a lot of time down here, and so with yer help, I think the plan could work. But ye, of course, must agree to take me with ye.”
He clenched his jaw, feeling grim. There was no way he could bring a lass with him. A lass from a rival clan who had no connection to him whatsoever. She was not a relative nor was she a potential bride. She was just a loud, pestering woman who wanted to be free.
Well, that might have been reason enough, but he shook his head. “Nay,” he said a bit louder, and she was quiet once more, only this time it was more of an angry rather than a sad silence.
Useless. The man is bloody useless!
Arya didn’t really think that, but she was furious that this Cohen Kirk had no interest in escape, and he didn’t want to agree to take her with him! Men! They were endlessly disappointing and cruel. She had to think of a way to get him to help her. He was the first lifeline that had come her way in a very long time, and she had to get him to understand that! It was her only and perhaps final chance to get out from under her father’s thumb and not through marriage to one of her father’s ridiculous men.
Perhaps her father knew that she was thinking of him because he burst through the door, his angry eyes searching for her in the gloom. There was a small window which let in the light, but it wasn’t enough. Arya smirked.
Poor Faither hasnae spent enough time in the dungeons below to ken how to see properly in its darkness.
“Arya,” he said in his low, grumbling tone. “Give me the damn keys!” he yelled, and a guard hurriedly rushed from the doorway to hand him the mass of keys. He had imprisoned so many for so many years that he knew the one he wanted.
He shoved the key in the lock and swung the door open, looking down at his eldest daughter as if she was the devil incarnate. Arya was used to it, and she jumped to attention.
“Faither,” she said with disdain.
“Bloody nuisance,” he complained. “If only ye’d listen, then we could be done with all of this. Ye could be out and married, and I wouldnae have to deal with ye any longer.”
Arya knew that most certainly he would never be done with his punishments as long as she lived in his castle. He was cruel, and he enjoyed cruelty.
“Faither, are ye certain ye want to say all this in front of our guest?” she said in a dry tone, and her father’s face flushed with fury.
“How dare ye ridicule me, Lass. Ye are just a useless wench! I daenae ken why yer maither had to have only lasses!” He grabbed her arm and dragged her out in front of Cohen’s cell. Arya was so surprised by the movement that she’d nearly lost her breath.
She pushed against her father’s solid frame, praying to all the gods or anyone who would listen that her father would become instantly old and feeble, and she could finally hit him down and put him in his place. She received no answer, and his frame was just as strong as it usually was.
“Bloody Hell!” he cried. “I will sell ye off the next minute, Arya. I daenae want ye around any longer. Ye are a drain on everything.” Arya pulled away again, trying to get out of his grasp, wishing that she was stronger and better than him at fighting, but she wasn’t.
She didn’t see his hand raise up before she felt it, slapping across her cheek in a hard movement. She stood stock still, always shocked by the first of his blows whenever he came.
He seemed satisfied by her silence, and he nodded, his voice a low growl. “There, that will teach ye.”
Naturally, tears sprang to her eyes, and she stood still, not wanting to turn to face Cohen. It was his cell they stood in front of, and she bit back the humiliation her father was causing her.
“Come,” he said, pulling on her roughly again until they were out of the dungeons and moving up the stairs. Finally, she was able to spring free from his grasp. A guard was following them, but he made no move to grasp her again now that she was walking on her own.
“I ken the way well enough, Faither,” she spat. “Ye daenae need to hold on to me the whole time.”
“Just enough for that Laird to ken that I have control over me own daughter.”
That is what ye think.
“Now,” he continued, acting as if he hadn’t just pulled his daughter from a dungeon and slapped her in the face. “There is much to dae. Stop bein’ so lazy and get to it. Olivia needs yer help.” At the top of the stairs, he pushed her away from him, and she moved to the kitchen. It had been a ritual for so many years that she knew what he wanted without him needing to say. Even if she had gone through the motions of this so many times, it never seemed to hurt any less.
Once she knew that he was far enough away, she slipped into a side alcove and fell to the floor, bursting into tears. To cry in private was one thing. In public, quite another, and alone, it was her only chance to truly vent her grief at the cards that fate had dealt her. Her father was a monster, just as Cohen Kirk described, and she and her younger sister Olivia were merely victims to his madness and fury.
It was thoughts of Olivia which eventually pulled Arya from her bout of tears. She couldn’t let Olivia, perfect innocent Olivia, see her like this. So broken and useless. Arya stood up again and wiped her tears. She had to think of something. She felt her fingertips steal around the misshapen stones of the wall, and it was like her body needed a base from which to spring.
Her final rebellion against her father would be to leave and take his precious prisoner with her. It might get her killed, but it might also get her freed, and that was something worth fighting for. She took a breath, imagining the life before her if she could free herself, and it sparked her courage. It would have to be done, and she would return to the dungeons tonight when her father would be fast asleep, hazy with wine.
Shite. The lass has a real blaigeard for a faither.
Cohen felt like an idiot. He was put to shame when he saw Laird of Muir slap his daughter across the face as hard as he possibly could. So, she hadn’t been lying when she told him about what she’d had to suffer. It was not a surprise that she wanted to get out of this hellhole.
Cohen shrugged his guilt away. It was not as if he had any plans of escape or that Laird of Muir had any plans to let him go. That wasn’t the way of things, and he knew that he was destined for the gallows whenever Laird of Muir decided it.
Hours passed. Once night fell, the chill returned tenfold, and Cohen sat in the dim cell with the thin blanket wrapped around him, wishing that he could have a hot bath and a warm fire in front of him. His stomach ached with hunger, and his throat was dry with thirst. He closed his eyes and dreamed of Sinclair Castle where he would be treated as the Laird he was.
He realized that he must have fallen asleep when he started to see Arya in the dream, sitting beside him by the fire, only partially clothed. He jolted awake at the sound of a door opening and closing, and he squinted into the darkness, trying to shake the sleep from him. The torch was still lit, but he still couldn’t see well. It was too late for food, and his heart sunk, wondering if the Laird had chosen the dead of night for his execution.
“Lad!” a woman’s voice called, and Cohen sat up straighter, recognizing it.
“Arya?” he asked, and she appeared at his doorway with a mischievous grin. She waved a set of keys in the air.
“Ready to be free, Laird of Sinclair?” she asked in a teasing tone, and he was so dumbstruck that she had succeeded, he couldn’t think of anything to say. He just nodded.
“Good.” He heard the movement of the key in the lock, and he got to his feet when she swung open the door. He felt weak, tired, and dirty, but he sure as Hell wouldn’t lose this chance to escape.
“What did ye do?” he asked, and Arya shushed him.
“Keep yer voice down. The guards are sleeping. Follow me.” She reached back for his hand and pulled him along the dungeons, plunging them further into darkness.
Cohen tensed. Was this a trick? Perhaps this Laird uses his daughter to trick his prisoners into thinking they are friends, and then she leads them to their deaths?
Cohen shook off the worried thoughts and foolish nerves. He would have to trust her. He’d seen the way the Laird hit her. That was no act, and he knew that Arya really did want to be free. He squeezed her hand tighter to give himself more courage, but then they stopped, and Arya dropped his hand.
She began to move both of her hands along the stone wall. “I ken it is here,” she muttered under her breath.
“What?” he asked, his eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness.
“A door. Or rather a passage. We will have to squeeze through it. Och,” she whispered with satisfaction, and he heard the grinding of stone as she heaved and pushed.
Dropping lower, Cohen saw it. Arya had pushed in a large square of stone, and there was a long dark tunnel behind it. It was not the most inviting space he had ever seen, but if it would lead him to freedom, he would take his chances. “Come. There may nae be much time,” she said in a harsh whisper and wriggled into the passage. Cohen watched her for a few seconds until she completely disappeared inside. The stone door was about to swing closed, but he held it open.
He sent up a prayer before he followed her, and he scrunched his nose up when the smell of wet earth hit his nose. All he could do was follow the sound of her once the stone door shut closed behind him. He dragged himself through the small space, trying not to think about how completely trapped he was. And in the dark.
His hands slid across cold, wet stone. He just barely fit, but there was still enough room to move forward easily. Growing up, Cohen had never liked small spaces all that much, but he found that regulating his breathing would keep him from going mad. He dreamed of home, the green fields, his sister Sienna, and he tried to focus on freedom. That was the only way he could get out of this.
After what seemed like an eternity, Arya made a sound of delight, and he wondered if they’d reached the end of their journey. He saw a dim light at the end of their tunnel, and he breathed a sigh of relief, speeding up to get to the end.
Arya grinned at him when he slid out of the tunnel and brushed himself off. They were standing in a storeroom. “The exit to the castle is just here. Come with me.” She led the way, and she opened it, peering into the night. It was cold and silent, and he cursed himself for forgetting his blanket. How would he be able to survive without a blanket in this cold night? It might be too dangerous to build a fire.
He would have to think of some way. After another second, Arya stepped outside and shut the door behind her. “Finally. We are free. Let’s go.”
“Let’s?” he asked. “Ye are nae comin’.”
“Aye, I am,” Arya said defiantly, putting her hands on her hips. “I have gotten ye this far, and ye will take me with ye now.”
“Lass, ye daenae ken how dangerous it is!” He leaned closer, so that he could make his whisper softer. “I daenae want ye to get hurt.”
He could see the steely gaze in her eyes. “Ye owe me now, Me Laird. I could have left ye to die, ye ken. Ye willnae abandon me now.”
He was about to refuse again, not wanting the liability of a lass on his hands as he tried to hide from her father, but the sounds of men on the battlements stirred him to action.
“Bloody Hell,” he whispered under his breath. He clasped her hand in his, and together, they made a mad dash for the forest.
Arya’s heart had never pounded so hard before. It felt like a rock beating against her ribs, and she was afraid it would break out of her chest. She was running for freedom. Finally. The blasted man agreed to help her.
As well he should have done after what I did!
After they heard the movement of the guards, he led her to the trees, but she began to lead the way when they got to the edge of the forest. “Come with me. I have a place.”
She found the path she had tread so many times as a child, winding through the woods. She knew the path so well because it was the one place on her father’s land where she felt safe. She was growing tired, though, with how fast they were moving, and she knew the guards would be upon them soon. But just when she thought her lungs were about to burst, she found it.
“Here,” she said roughly, and pushed him down so that he could squeeze inside. It was the hollowed-out trunk of an old, large oak tree. The base was nearly eight feet wide, and it was like a little chamber in there. She crawled in after Cohen, and then in the darkness, they simply leaned against the wall and caught their breath.
“What is this place?” he asked, still trying to catch his breath.
“A place of solitude. I found it when I was a child. As ye can possibly guess, I didnae want to spend too much time at home. So, I found this place here. Me sister and I.” Arya rummaged in her bag, to pull out a candle and flint. The light would be well-hidden while they sat inside the tree.
It wouldn’t be enough for warmth, but they would need some light while they ate. “Here,” she said, handing it to him. “I will listen for the guards if ye can try to light this.”
He got to work wordlessly, and as she leaned against the hole in the tree, she heard the flints sound against each other as Cohen worked. Her heart slowed, but it knew the huge step she had taken today.
There is nay goin’ back now, Lass.
She didn’t hear anything, but that didn’t mean the guards wouldn’t soon be out and about. She wondered how angry her father would be once he found out that she was gone. Arya bit her lip and thought of Olivia. The last time that Arya had gone away, her father had punished Olivia for it instead of Arya, and she knew that she couldn’t do that to her sister again.
She turned back to Cohen. Even though she couldn’t yet see him as more than a dark shadow in the hollow of the tree, she knew she had to hang all her hopes on him. He helped her escape begrudgingly, but he would need to help her sister as well. If only there was a way to convince him.
Finally, a spark came to life, and lighting a small cloth she had given him with the flint, he was able to light the candle and set it standing in the earth. With the slight cool breeze coming in from the entrance to the tree, the candle trembled, casting shadows on the trunk walls.
They both stared at it for a few seconds before Cohen spoke. “Thank ye, Lass. Ye didnae have to dae that. Ye saved me.”
Arya looked up and caught his eye. The kind look she saw there sent a little tingle of excitement through her. She had never before been alone with a man in such close quarters, and this man she had only seen through the squares of a dungeon cell. They were free.
“Well, we cannae celebrate our victory just yet. There will be men at first light coming to search. They will ken we are missing as soon as they come to deliver our food and empty the chamber pots. I think we will have to return tonight and steal a horse. That is the only way.”
Cohen nodded, his eyes returning to the flickering flame of the candle. “How did ye do it? Get the key and come into the dungeon?”
She shrugged. “It was nay effort really. I brought them wine after the evening meal, and I mixed it with an herb called dwale. It will make ye sleep for a long while. When I returned a little later, they were layin’ down on the floor, and I could snatch up the key.”
“Ye are a wonder,” he said, and Arya smiled at the praise. He cleared his throat as if he meant not to encourage her and said, “We will have to sleep here tonight. But we have nay food. Nay way to keep warm.”
Arya felt her cheeks warm despite the sharp cold of the outside. “I ken it is nae much, but I have brought a little food and water for us.” She pulled a loaf of bread and a cask of water. She handed it to him, and he looked at it as if it was the greatest gift in the world.
“Ye have thought of everything.”
“I have a small blanket as well, but we will have to…stay close, ye ken. We cannae have a fire, of course.”
Cohen smiled. “Aye. That would be a bit reckless. Nae only because of the guards but because we are in a tree.” He chuckled, and surprisingly, Arya laughed too, her heart feeling lighter than it had in years.
Just being away from her father did much to lighten her mood and her burden. An image of Olivia flashed through her mind, and she felt heavy again, but she was determined to save her too. It was just a matter of getting Cohen to understand that he was the key to their safety. Once they were free, they could each go their own way, and he wouldn’t ever have to see her again.
It was a strange thing to have one’s whole life changed in a matter of minutes. It had been that way when Cohen was first captured, taken to Muir Castle to await execution. His path was cut short in the span of minutes. And yet it happened again, when he saw Arya standing in front of his cell, waving the keys to his freedom in front of him with that mischievous grin.
After they ate and she fell asleep, snuggled close to him, he found it difficult to fall asleep himself as his mind was filled with too many things. Eventually, he did, dreaming of Arya’s smile, her blue eyes, and he dreamed all night of what she would look like in the daylight out under the sun. He could tell in the shadows that she was beautiful, but he couldn’t be certain.
They both woke at the same time hours later, and Cohen found his face in a mass of black hair, and his arm bound tightly around her stomach. When she squirmed against him, he felt his body heat, and he pulled back, fearful that she could feel his morning hardness against her back.
“Forgive me,” he managed to mumble, rubbing his face to wake up a bit more.
She chuckled. She hadn’t turned to face him yet, but her fingers were working through her long, black curls after she sat up, and he noticed her hair went all the way to the middle of her back. “It is dusk. Good. Once it is dark enough, we will go and take a horse. The horses will nae startle when they see me, and we willnae make any sound.”
“Ye daenae think the guards will be out watching for us this eve?”
“They will be, but it is our only option. How far is yer castle?”
“Nearly thirty miles.”
She sighed. “Aye, we will need a horse, and then we will be on our way. Once we saddle the horse and ride, they willnae catch us.”
He wanted so much to believe it. They were so close to freedom, and he could practically taste the lovely food he would have upon his return. “Ye will come to my castle then, Lass?”
Arya turned around and she bit her lip, twisting a piece of hair between her fingers. “For now. It willnae be for long. Nae until I can figure out what to do next.”
“Of course,” he said, for he was now resolved to help her. She was right; she had risked a lot to save him, and he wanted to reward her.
They waited for dark, and once they were certain there were no guards about, Arya reached back and took his hand.
“Are ye ready, Laird Sinclair? It is dark enough that we will need to hold hands until we reach the stables.”
“Aye. Ready.” Cohen slipped his large hand into hers and they squeezed out through the entrance. He followed her lead. She seemed to move by instinct in the forest. It was obvious she had grown up in the area because she moved quietly and confidently, and soon, they were on the edge of the trees, staring at a low, dark building.
“Just there,” she said pointing. “I see nay lights, nay men.”
“What of the stable hand?”
“He will likely be asleep, but ye may have to hold him back if he tries to alert anyone. I can get the horse ready while ye do so.”
Cohen nodded. He was very used to fighting, but in this instance, he had only his fists, for his sword, shield, and dagger had all been taken when he was kidnapped by Arya’s father. There would never be a hope of retrieving them any longer.
He waited for Arya whose eyes were like an owl’s, looking left and right, checking for any movement, and listening for any sound. Once she was satisfied, she looked at him and nodded.
“Now,” she said, and they dashed to the stables, opening the door and shutting it behind them as quietly as they could. There was a low lamp inside, and they could hear the snoring of the stable hand from the shadows.
“Stay here. I will get the horse. Watch for the man,” she whispered.
Cohen nodded and moved closer to the snoring, taking care that his steps were quiet. He wanted to be as close as possible in case the man awoke, and he would have to hold him. He could hear Arya settling the horse she had chosen, and it took some time before she was ready. Leather stretched and metal clicked against each other, but soon, he could hear the soft clomp of hooves on the stable floor.
Once she was closer, she whispered, “The horse is ready. Time to go.”
Cohen nodded, getting up from his kneeling position in front of the snoring man.
“He is nay guard,” he said teasingly.
“Ye must let me take me sister with me,” Arya said suddenly, making Cohen’s ire raise again.
“It is enough I take ye!” He tried to keep his voice low, but he was so enraged that she would try to get him to do even more, to risk even more.
“Please,” she begged, her eyes wide. “She will be just as much a victim to my faither when he finds out that I am gone.”
Cohen shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. We have already left the castle and cannae risk goin’ back.” But at another look of pleading in her eye, he sighed. “How about a compromise? We leave now, so that we may keep our lives, but then I promise to come back and get her.”
Arya hesitated for a few seconds, but then she nodded. “Agreed.”
The stable hand had stayed asleep, shockingly, the whole time during their frenzied discussion, but when Arya opened the door, they both heard the snoring stop, and the man sat up, rustling in the pile of hay upon which he slept.
“Who goes there?” he called into the shadows, and Cohen didn’t waste any time. He jumped onto the horse and reached down for Arya.
“Now,” he said. Just as they heard hesitant footsteps coming toward them, and the stable hand’s voice begin to yell for guards, they were already out the door, racing away, out into the night with Cohen’s arms wrapped about Arya.
She held the reins, and his arms stayed around her waist, pulling her close. It was mostly for warmth, or so he told himself, but it felt good to feel something lovely against him instead of reminding himself of what deadly fate he had left behind.
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