Escaping the tower had been too easy. Diana's clothes chafed at her skin, as if it fit too tightly.
Something was not right.
She stepped cautiously to the entrance of the tower and glanced outside. A rustling came from the bushes nearby and two sets of eyes gleamed in the shadows – one pale gray, the other a golden yellow – the beastly stares of wolves. Diana put a hand out to stay them both.
She peered from the doorway, looking first right then left. The guards had been on a steady rotation ever since she'd been locked in the dank tower. Every six hours.
No one had been near her room in at least an hour. Enough time for her to determine their absence and pick the ancient lock with a mangled pin.
Where had the guards gone?
They knew she would escape if given the opportunity and had clearly been given strict instructions by her father.
A high-pitched whine came from the forest. Hera. Diana could make out the large gray head moving side to side in an anxious bob from where the wolf lay low in the bushes. Zeus watched her, his large black body blending into the forest's darkness so only the glint of his golden eyes remained, steady and determined.
She pushed her hand out again with more finality to stay them both. An ambush on her would result in continued imprisonment. But if Hera and Zeus became involved as they had last time, Diana knew her father would make good on his promise to see them both slain.
The late spring wind blew like winter, but it did not pierce the heavy mantle and cloak she wore. She pulled her hood lower over her face. A clearing surrounded the tower, a good ten strides wide, which would take precious time - enough to leave her vulnerable. Enough for an arrow to be drawn and loosed, or for a pistol to be fired.
Her pulse thrummed faster and she began to sweat beneath the weight of furs draping her shoulders.
Was this how her father had decided to be rid of her?
After years of failing to marry her off, was he going to finally have her killed?
Diana licked her lips, not that it did much good to wet her parched mouth. She hadn't had water in two days, food in one. Hunger she could deal with, certainly she had before when her father tried to starve her into submission. But water…
The sky was dark with the promise of rain. God, she hoped it would. She would lift her face and let the wet droplets bathe her mouth.
She tried to swallow, and her throat clicked in dry protest.
She shifted anxiously on the worn stone beneath her feet. Grit screeched and popped underfoot, echoing on the sad emptiness behind her. She shuddered. Better to be dead than spend another day locked in her prison.
Diana gripped the bolt of wood she'd fashioned into a pick. It'd do nothing for slashing, but it could kill a man if she stabbed it at just the right angle, and it was the best she had.
She bolted from the safety of the alcove, bounding forward in great strides like a deer chased by a hunter. Hera darted from her place in the trees, her large gray coat billowing in the brutal wind.
A low growl started in Hera's throat before she reached Diana, a savage sound Diana seldom heard from the tamer of her two wolves. Hera stopped and glared right. Her nose peeled back from her teeth and she bent her front legs in preparation to lunge. To attack. To kill.
Diana didn't stop running until she was in front of her wolf. Something was out in the woods. She held her breath and strained to listen. Nothing was discernible over the pounding of her frantic heart.
But she knew Hera. Something was there.
Diana tried as best she could to block Hera's large body with her own, a feat made possible only due to the large mantle she wore.
Her efforts were in vain. Hera edged around to Diana's side. The wolf's growls grew louder, snarling, threatening, reverberating deep in a primitive place inside Diana that told her she should be afraid even as her heart reminded her there was no cause for fear.
Diana stared into the nothingness of forest where Hera watched with such intensity. There was something out there.
“You might as well come out,” Diana called. The cold air burned her dry throat, an intense reminder of her thirst.
Not a sound came from the forest in front of her where Hera stared, nor to the side where Zeus's golden eyes were fixed upon her with his unwavering patience.
A masculine voice gave an indiscernible shout from somewhere she could not see. Diana flinched in spite of herself and darted her gaze through the darkness of the forest. Where the bloody hell was he?
Hera's jaws snapped and her breath fogged hot and greedy in the icy air. Diana put a hand to the thick fur of the wolf's hackles where the hair stood on end.
“Who are you?” Diana asked aloud. “Why aren't you coming out? Are you afraid?” She couldn't help the twist of her lips as she spoke. Of course, whoever was in the woods was afraid – at least they should be if they had any sense.
A man appeared suddenly, stomping through the woods with all the grace of a lumbering bear. And indeed he was tall enough to be one. Diana regarded him from the low hem of her hood, seeing him while keeping him from seeing her.
There wasn't much to make out of the man from the distance. Dark hair to his shoulders, a lanky body in a kilt he'd wrapped around his hips and pulled over his shoulders. He had his large hands held in the air, palms out, and eyed Hera. “I'm no' armed.”
He spoke with the thick brogue of the Highlands. At least he knew English. Many of his kind didn't speak anything but Erse.
Diana swept her fingers over Hera's back. The wolf immediately ceased her growling. Her glare, however, did not abate.
The man smiled, his teeth white against the shadow of his whiskered jaw. Nice teeth. Especially for a full-grown man. “See? That's no' so bad, is it?”
“Who are you?” Diana demanded. “And what do you bloody want?”
If he was put off by her language, he didn't show it. He shrugged and shifted several feet closer. “I came here for ye.”
Hera began to growl once more. This time Diana did not stop her.
So Father had finally done it. “You're here to kill me,” she surmised.
“With no weapons?” He lifted a dark brow.
Diana narrowed her eyes. “If you can't do it without weapons, you aren't even good enough to try.”
“Good thing I'm no' here to kill ye.” He lowered his arms and strode closer, a gesture so relaxed, so obviously unthreatened, she felt the prickle of her own hackles going up.
“What are you here for then?” Her tone was sharp with impatience. She hated that she had to play to his game. “And where are the guards?”
“I'm here to bring ye home with me.” He closed the space between them and put a hand up to Hera. Her growl faded into a whimper. The wolf flicked a nervous pink tongue over her nose and pranced her front paws against the ground with obvious anxiety.
Diana stared at the man for a long moment, glad her face was masked by the massive hood so he couldn't see how her mouth opened and closed wordless for a quick moment. He was tall, and he loomed over her. Dark whiskers covered his strong jaw.
“To take me home with you?” Diana wanted to meet his eye, but didn’t want to sacrifice the advantage of being hidden to do so. “What the hell are you referring to?”
“I am Evander Mackenzie, laird of the Mackenzie clan.” He bowed low as if his name carried some significance she ought to recognize. “And I've come to collect ye, my bride.”
Evander Mackenzie didn't like that he couldn't see the woman he would marry. He gave in to the pull of curiosity and bent toward his betrothed. With the shapeless mantle around her and the hood pulled low, he could discern nothing of his intended. Not that it mattered. He'd marry her if she was covered in warts and passed wind like his grandda.
He wouldn't mind a bonny lass. However, given that no other man had wanted her hand in marriage, beauty was not likely.
Diana Stuart bent her head lower, keeping her face in the shadows. A feat easily done on such a dark day.
Aye, she was ugly, or she'd show him her face with the confident, goading pride all beauties wore. She shifted slightly on her feet and lunged. At him.
He staggered back, unprepared for an attack. Her fist caught him in the face and a hard, sticklike thing raked down his arm before snapping. Diana loosed a string of curses. The lady was unlike any other Evander had ever heard.
She put two hands on his chest and shoved with the force of a large woman. He caught his footing, but the moment it took him to do so was all she needed to flee with the gray wolf at her side.
Frustration burned through him. He hadn't expected this.
He should have. After all, the Earl of Cornwall’s advice had been a warning to be prepared for anything. With exaggerated stress on the final word-anything. The new, young countess had given a little squeak of laughter, which she'd hidden poorly behind her fan. The smug expression on her comely face made it easy to determine which of them was the most eager to see Lady Diana leave. Though the earl himself did not appear to suffer from a broken heart over his loss either.
Evander had not come all this way to let his betrothed escape. He could not lose the coin their union would bring.
Thunder rumbled and the darkening sky grew ominous with the threat of a great storm.
He sprinted across the clearing into the trees where she'd disappeared. A shadow lunged out at him, a terror from the great black of the forest, eyes flashing gold, teeth snapping. Evander skidded to a halt and swept his arm out, catching the beast in its massive head.
It shook its head and righted its level stare at him once more. Its nose curled upward and the white of its teeth bared menacingly in his direction.
Evander gave a sharp whistle, and his men emerged from the forest. Granted, he hadn't thought he'd need them to bring home his wayward wife-to-be. Now though he was glad for having brought them. The wolf gave a savage snarl but held its ground even as the Mackenzie warriors strode forward as one.
“Dinna kill it,” he said to them. It would not do to slay his future wife's pets prior to their wedding. Especially considering her apparent…reluctance.
A dark shape flew over Evander's shoulder – a plaid. The wolf lurched backward, but the voluminous cloth landed on its head just long enough to obscure its vision and give Evander the opportunity to run after Lady Diana.
He dashed through the trees, his body practically exploding with energy after a day of three hearty meals.
How long since he and his warriors had been so well-fed? Four years? Five maybe?
The food alone had been worth the trip, but the dowry certainly had held its own coin-laden enticement.
The thought spurred him faster through a heavy thicket of trees. He had to catch Lady Diana. He could not lose this opportunity.
The coin would be enough to feed his people through the winter – nothing as fine as what the earl had within his grand English manor, but at least enough to stave off the brutal, ragged edges of starvation.
There'd be some remaining, enough to invest in an idea he would never risk his people starving over. Yet it might be the very thing to save them all.
Aye, Evander had to find his betrothed. The lives of too many depended on it.