Written in 56 minutes. Did a spellcheck but not a reread.
Elizabeth watched numbly as the men remaining at festival completed the caber toss. She couldn’t remember what excuse she offered to Emily as to why Cameron had stayed behind with Francis at the tent, but her sister-in-law seemed to accept it.
Emily clapped happily as her husband strode out onto the field, having replaced Jason in the competition while Elizabeth tried very hard to avoid looking at the Cassadines just a few feet away—Stavros was so close, she could scarcely breathe.
She could feel Johnny behind her and tension radiating from Jason’s first in command was palpable. He was careful not to stand too close but neither did he let much space come between them. If Stavros made a move, Johnny was ready.
She was still practically vibrating, her mind racing, and everything inside screaming to run, to get her babies away from this man. To be safe behind the walls of Braegarie.
“Nearly done,” Johnny muttered behind her. “You’re doing well, my lady.”
“Not so bad for a Lowland lass,” Elizabeth said, reminding him of the first relatively nice thing he’d ever said to her nearly three years earlier when they’d traveled from Edinburgh. She flashed him a smile full of nerves and he just raised a brow.
“You survived a Highland winter and you’ve given our laid two strong sons. I think it’s safe to call you a Highland woman,” Johnny said. His mouth tightened as the caber toss came to an end. “Let’s head back to the camp site—”
“Oh, but Nikolas and his men won!” Emily said. She grabbed Elizabeth’s sleeve. “Won’t you want to celebrate with us?”
“I’m feeling a bit tired,” Elizabeth said. She flashed Emily a smile and avoided the prickle of unease as Stavros joined them. “And the boys are napping. Cameron can be disoriented when he wakes from a nap.”
“Oh, well, then come by the camp later,” Emily offered.
“Yes. With Morgan gone to help Camerons, you must let us look out for you,” Stavros said.
“That’s why he left me,” Johnny said, stepping slightly in front of Elizabeth. “And I can look out for my lady quite well enough. Excuse me.” He took Elizabeth by the elbow and drew her away without another word.
“I thought we were trying not to draw attention to us,” Elizabeth said, feeling a strange spurt of amusement trickle through her anxious terror. It felt almost ridiculous to want to laugh, but maybe that was the hysteria.
“I also don’t like him and he knows it,” Johnny replied. “I’m Jason’s first in command. It’s insult to suggest that I can’t protect you.” They rounded the hill and found Francis and some of the other men milling in front of the tent. Elizabeth’s heart began to race in relief — Francis looked almost relaxed which meant the boys were safe inside.
“If Jason isn’t back by nightfall,” Elizabeth said, “I want you to split us up.”
Johnny scowled. “What—”
“I’ll stay with you or Francis, but send the boys home separately.” She swallowed hard. “They come first, Johnny. And if Stavros comes for me, I don’t want the boys anywhere near. He’ll be focused on me. Please.”
Johnny grimaced, but didn’t respond.
“How was the competition?” Francis asked. “The boys woke a little while ago,” he told Elizabeth, “but Lu was able to get little Jake back to sleep. Cameron was looking for you.”
“I’ll see to him.” She ducked beneath the flap.
“Johnny?” Francis prompted.
“Jason should have realized by now that I’m not following,” Johnny said. “I was supposed to have met with him, and I would have caught up already. I’m hoping he’s on his way back now.”
“And if he’s not—”
“If he’s not—” Johnny turned and looked towards the edge of the lake. They couldn’t see the Cassadine encampment, but he could picture it in his mind. Stavros might have been insulting Johnny with the invitation to look out for Elizabeth, but there had been a look in his eye that had sent shivers down his spine—and Johnny O’Brien didn’t scare easily.
“If he’s not,” Johnny repeated, “then you’ll take Francis, Lu, and two of your best men quietly with the boys. You’ll head for Braegarie.”
“Elizabeth and I will go over to the camp to distract them,” Johnny continued. “I want the boys away from here as quickly as possible. If you travel through the night, you’ll be home by mid-day tomorrow.”
“And you and Elizabeth will follow?”
“I’ll take her another route,” Johnny continued. “She wants the boys safe, and that means I can’t risk Stavros running into you if he comes after her. We’ll distract him for a few hours while you get safely on the road. She’s right. If he’s looking for her, he’ll leave the lads alone.”
Francis’s lips thinned, but he nodded. “Aye, that sounds like the safest best. You and Elizabeth will be able to move more quietly and quickly on your own.”
“Aye, the rest of the encampment will stay here. No one will even know we’ve left until the morning. I’ll leave Milo behind with a note for Jason if he returns.” Johnny took a deep breath. “He’ll never forgive himself if anything happens to her. Not after he pushed her to come to this festival.”
“Nothing will happen,” Francis said confidently. “We’ll get Elizabeth and the boys back to Braegarie, and then Jason can hunt this animal down and end the threat for good.”
“Has your man abandoned you?” Alexander Cameron demanded, almost good-naturedly as he and Jason left the barn where David Hume and his wife had been hiding out from de la Bastie. “He should have found us by now—”
“Aye, he should have. We settled out David and Alison here just two weeks ago,” Jason admitted. “He knew where we were going.” He exhaled slowly. “There might be trouble. He wouldn’t have left if there was—” He’d had to leave his family behind—it was his duty—but the only reason Johnny wouldn’t have followed is if there was a threat to them.
Had Elizabeth’s nightmare come true? Had one of the boys fallen ill?
“Then we should get back to the festival grounds,” Alexander said, reading the expression on Jason’s face. “You’ve done your duty by us and the Humes. It’s our turn to do the same.”
Elizabeth did her best to smile and enjoy the evening by the Cassadine encampment, though she knew with the rise of the moon in the sky that her sons were already on their way home.
She’d kissed and hugged them both fiercely, praying this wasn’t the last she’d see of them. She knew Johnny would do his best to get her home safely—she knew Jason was probably already on his way back—
“Are you missing my brother that much?” Emily teased as she sat down next to Elizabeth. “Johnny should relax. I’m sure Stavros was just having fun with him earlier—” She eyed the scowling Irishman who was less than three feet from them. “It’s the last night of the festival. He should go have a good time—”
Elizabeth smiled faintly. “He takes his duties very seriously. And I’m only a few months from childbed,” she reminded Emily who flinched slightly. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I wasn’t thinking—”
“No, of course. It’s quite fine. Nikolas—he tells me it’s all right, and I believe him.” Emily took a deep breath. “But is it wonderful?” she asked wistfully. “Being a mother?”
“Aye,” Elizabeth said, tears stinging her eyes. “‘Tis the hardest thing I’ve ever done but the most amazing at the same time. Cameron—I love to watch him following Jason. He wants to do everything, be everything—he’s so impatient to grow up.” She closed her eyes, picturing the face of her eldest son, with his sunny blond hair and bright blue eyes.
They were gone from her — vanished like they had in the dream. Jason had gone first, then the boys. Was this how it would start?
“I hope one day that I’ll be able to have it,” Emily said. “Not just for Nikolas and his family, but for me. I want to be a mother. More now that I’ve seen Jake and Cameron. You and my brother are so happy. You’re a family. I want that.”
“You’ll have that,” Elizabeth told her. “Families come in all shapes and forms, Emily. But I know you’ll have what you deserve.”
“Lass—” Johnny murmured. “We should—”
“Aye.” Elizabeth rose to her feet, hoping that the anxiety and worry in her eyes didn’t show when Stavros also rose to his feet from across the fire pit. “Thank you so much for the meal—”
“Do you need to go already?” Emily said, with a pout. “We’ll all be leaving in the morning.”
“I’m still—” Elizabeth bit her lip. “My son is young,” she said, raising her voice slightly as Stavros came closer. “And I need to see to him.”
“Oh, aye—” Emily nodded. “I’ll come by in the morning. I hope Jason is back by then.”
“So do I,” Elizabeth said. She smiled brightly, then hugged her sister-in-law. “You mustn’t tell anyone,” she murmured in her ear. “Promise me you’ll keep this to yourself—you’ll be with child by the end of the year.”
Emily blinked at her as she pulled back, her eyes widening. She nodded. “I’ll write,” she said, faintly. “And I will listen to what you’ve said.”
“Elizabeth,” Johnny said, taking her by the elbow. Elizabeth followed him and said nothing until they had rounded the hill that separated the encampments.
“Did Francis get on his way when he was supposed to?” Elizabeth asked numbly.
“Aye. I saw the signal from Milo. He’ll have been on the road for hours already. He took the best of our men, Elizabeth. The boys couldn’t be safer.”
“Thank you. For doing as I asked.” When they reached the tent, she stopped to look at him. “When do you want us to make our escape?”
“I want to wait for some of the celebrations to dim a bit more. Most are still going strong,” Johnny said, scanning the area. “And I’m hoping Jason will be back sooner rather than later. He should be on his way now. The Humes were maybe two hours away—” He looked at her, but she couldn’t read his expression in the shadows of the night. “This would be a great time for you to get a vision, lass, and tell us how this ends.”
“I wish I could,” Elizabeth said with a sigh, “but the Sight has never been predictable. I wish we could slip away now.”
“Aye, but we want to make sure we’re gone in the cover of the night. I can cover our tracks better.” He flipped the tent flap and gestured for her to go inside. “Go inside, lass. I know you won’t be able to sleep, but try to rest. We’ll be walking through the night.”
Elizabeth flashed him a grim smile and disappeared inside the tent. Johnny slid the flap back in place and turned around, scanning the area around him. Their encampment was surrounded by Camerons and Frasiers, many of whom had either gone with Alexander and Jason or were at the main festivals.
He’d wait maybe thirty minutes to be sure — but he knew Stavros wouldn’t want to chance running into Jason and this—the last night of the festival was the best time to attack. Johnny just hoped Stavros would wait until the wee hours when they were supposed to be sleeping.
But Stavros had watched the interaction between the witch and her protector all day—since the moment O’Brien had stayed behind, he’d known something was wrong. When he’d let the witch come to the meal—Stavros had been convinced.
The woman must have sensed his righteousness, his conviction and dedication to the Lord. Albany and de la Bastie might want her delivered to Sterling, but Stavros had an obligation to God to rid the world of evil.
He went around to the back of the encampment, around the other side of the hill, careful to keep his steps light, the claymore tight in his grasp. He would get the witch away from the protector and take her to the woods where he’d assembled his pyre.
He was looking forward to hearing her screams as the evil was purged from her body.
He crept up behind the tent—but was nearly ten feet away when O’Brien swung around and growled. He flipped the tent flap back —
“Run!” he grunted then he launched himself at Stavros who hissed as a dark shadow lurched out of the tent, stumbling and falling over herself. He shoved the warrior aside but O’Brien was quicker—younger—he found himself on his back, his fingers scrambling and reaching for the claymore that had been knocked from his hand.
Johnny reared back with his own weapon but before he could plant the killing blow, Stavros flashed up with a dagger from inside his shirt and shoved it into Johnny’s gut. The other man fell back, grunting but then slugged Stavros hard in the side of the head—
His head was swimming, little pinpricks of light—he could hear screams and grunts from around him—but he had to get his feet—he had to get to the witch before she could escape—
“You’ll never find her—”
Stavros cut off Johnny’s boast as he shoved his claymore into the Irishman—much deeper than the dagger thrust. Johnny fell back, and Stavros didn’t even wait to see if it was a mortal blow. He was on his feet and running into the woods.
Time to burn the witch.
Johnny rolled over on his back, fire in his gut, blood on his lips. He stared up at the night sky, tears of rage in his eyes. He’d promised Jason he’d protect his family—
He heard a roar—horses were galloping—
Someone skidded in the dirt beside him and Johnny felt himself being lifted up to see Jason’s panicked face.
“Stavros,” Johnny managed. “Sent boys away, but she’s—she’s alone. Running. Tried to stop—”
“My laird, my laird—” Milo Giambetti came up behind them. “Max went after my lady, before the Cassadine—”
“I’m sorry—” Johnny managed even as his vision grayed. “Tried to stop him.”
“Aye, aye, get him help,” Jason told Milo as he got to his feet and took off, swinging himself back onto the horse.
Johnny turned to watch his best friend and brother gallop away and hoped he wouldn’t be too late. Then he closed his eyes.
She was running, she was running so fast her lungs were burning and still she knew she couldn’t get away—he were going to find her— he were going to take her—she wasn’t going to be able to get away—they would find her—Oh, God, was Johnny all right? Was he alive?—
Her foot caught on a root and she went flying—waves of pain vibrating up her leg as Elizabeth tried to get to her feet, planting the palms of her hands against the ground, trying to raise herself up—
The moment she put weight on her ankle, she cried out—and then hissed, because now he find her—
“Did you really think you could run—”
Elizabeth rolled over on her back, her eyes wide as she saw him—”Why?” she choked out. “Why are you doing this?”
Stavros knelt beside her, took Elizabeth’s chin in his hand, his fingers digging into her skin. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her, Elizabeth sobbing, her breath harsh and ragged as she tried to move her legs. If she could just get away—if she could just stop it—
She felt like he dragged her for hours, but it must have only been minutes before they reached a clearing. Stavros shoved her to the ground so that she was on her stomach, her face hitting the dirt. She raised her face just high enough to see the makeshift pile of wood with the tall wooden pole in the middle, strands of rope.
She screamed, and Stavros kicked her hard in the stomach, the wind rushing out of her. Elizabeth fell onto her back, gasping for air, staring up at the night sky.
She’d never see her boys again. Never see Jason. She’d never go home.
She was going to burn.