Written in 52 minutes.
Jason abandoned the horse almost as soon as he had rode into the woods—the trees were too tightly clustered together—he couldn’t take the risk the horse would step wrong and throw him—he had to get to his wife—had to get to Elizabeth—
He heard a scream—Elizabeth’s scream—and then it cut off abruptly. Jason’s head turned sharply and he fought to focus in the inky darkness. If he chose the wrong route—if he went in the wrong direction—he’d never get a second chance.
So he listened for just one extra precious moment, listening for the sounds of movement, of bodies, of any evidence—
And heard branches breaking, heard another short grunt—more screaming—his direction assured, Jason started to move.
Elizabeth fought Stavros every step of the way—she dug at him with her nails, with her fingers, with her legs, kicking and scrambling wildly as he pulled her across the clearing, wrapping his hand around a chunk of her hair.
She wasn’t going to go quietly, she wasn’t going to go without a fight—
But this man—this man she had only met less than a day ago—seemed to be imbued with superhuman strength. He grunted and ignored all her kicks, her screams, her jabs and scrapes. She knew he was hurt—knew Johnny had landed a few hits—
But whatever righteous hatred beat in his chest was fueling him, keeping him standing—giving him strength as he hauled her over the wood pile and shoved her against the wooden pyre.
“Please, stop, stop, stop!” Elizabeth sobbed. She raised her voice again. “Help!”
“Shut up,” Stavros grunted as he roughly pulled her arms behind her back and tied them, the coarse rope biting into her skin. Then he shoved some cloth into her mouth. “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts,” he hissed, “the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.”
He stepped back and did something with his hands, with a piece of wood and then suddenly the night was lit with bright flames, illuminating the twisted expression of the man who was going to kill her.
“This is the second death—” Stavros began as he lifted the torch high in the air. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live—”
He was tackled from the side as a dark blur appeared out of nowhere, the torch went flying and Elizabeth kept screaming, the cloth finally falling out of her mouth—the flames licked at some of the kindling—
And the woodpile around her went up in flames.
Elizabeth kicked and kept screaming, even as voice went hoarse and disappeared—she twisted and pushed against the ripe—
“M’lady, m’lady—” She could scarcely hear the worried cries of Max, one of Jason’s men, as he climbed over the woodpile towards her, the flames licking at him. He hissed as a piece of his shirt ignited, batting it out. “I’ll get you out, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to set the fire—”
Elizabeth felt the ropes loosen around her wrist just as Stavros pushed himself up and looked at them, his face twisted in rage. “No!” he roared. “She must pay!” He launched himself at the Highlander and the two of them rolled down the woodpile. Elizabeth struggled to free herself from the rest of the rope, but her hands were twisted and the flames were inching closer—
The bottom of her skirt caught and Elizabeth could feel the heat on her skin, as the rest of the pile became engulfed—Oh, God, Oh, God, this was how it was going to end—she was going to burn—
And then she was free—flying through the air, landing with a grunt against the hard ground and then being rolled.
“Are you burned?” Jason demanded, running his hands up and down her body, checking her legs, checking her feet— “Elizabeth!”
“You—” Elizabeth wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her face against him. “You came. You found me—”
“Are you burned?” he repeated, his voice hoarse.
“I don’t—” Elizabeth shoved Jason away from her as a a dark figure lurched behind him, a large branch in his hand. Stavros grunted as his hit landed in the ground between them and Jason scrambled to his feet as Elizabeth tried to crawl away. Stavros grabbed her foot and started to drag her again, dragging her towards the flames—towards the inferno—
Then her foot was free and she rolled over to see her husband and Stavros on the ground, rolling, punching, and kicking—she couldn’t even—
Elizabeth got to her feet, sobbing, looking around for anything that could turn the tide, that would give her a chance to save him—she wouldn’t run, wouldn’t hide in the trees, not again—
She spied the branch Stavros had used on the ground and picked it up—she watched the fight—she didn’t want to hit her husband—
“You will not stop me!” Stavros growled as he wrapped his hand around Jason’s neck, momentarily getting the advantage on the younger man. Jason grunted and was about to dislodge the insane bastard when Stavros cried out in pain and rolled off him.
Jason blinked, sitting up to see Elizabeth standing behind them, wielding the branch. He struggled to his feet, intending to take it from her, to finally end this—
But Stavros hurled himself up and launched himself at her—Elizabeth stepped aside—and Jason realized what she’d done—where she had positioned herself..
And so did Stavros—an instant to late. He tried to stop his forward motion, but he just stumbled and then—
He fell onto the pyre—his screams echoing in the night as his body was consumed—then they stopped, the only sounds in the night were the flickering of the flames, Elizabeth’s broken sobs, and Jason’s ragged breathing.
Elizabeth looked over at him, her face shadowed. Then she dropped the branch, ran at him, and threw herself into his arms. Jason caught her against him, pressing her tightly against him.
“Are you hurt?” he demanded, harshly, his fingers tangled in her hair.
“N-No, I don’t—” She drew back and framed his face in her hands. “You came—”
“Always,” he promised her, then he took her mouth, drinking in her taste, her touch, her scent—the reassurance that she was still alive and in his arms— “Always.”
By the time Jason and Elizabeth returned the encampment, there was a crowd gathered around their tent. Jason handed the slightly injured Max off to one of his men before taking a deep breath. He’d known that Johnny’s wound was serious when he’d left him—
He wasn’t ready to see his oldest friend’s body.
“He sent Francis with the boys,” Elizabeth whispered softly. “He tried so hard—”
“I know he did—”
“J-Jason—” His sister’s anxious voice caught his attention, and he turned to find Emily with her cheeks tear-stained and the stone-faced man behind her.
Jason clenched his jaw. “Emily, you’re always welcome, but I think you’d best tell your husband to get out of my sight—”
“No—” Elizabeth shook her head and he swung around to look at her. Her eyes were ravaged and her voice hoarse from the screaming, the nails on her hands all but gone from the scratching and digging—
“He had nothing to do with what Stavros had planned.” Elizabeth took a deep breath, faced Nikolas and her sister-in-law. “Trust me.”
“I do,” Jason muttered. “But—”
“My father was insane,” Nikolas said with a hard swallow. “I knew he was devoted to the Church, but in the last few years, it became worse. But he never—there were always—he followed the law.”
“The law?” Jason bit out. “The law that says a woman can be burned or hung if one thinks her a witch?”
“I didn’t say I agreed,” Nikolas managed. “I just—I never—” He focused on Elizabeth, taking in her destroyed appearance. “I can’t—there are no amends that can be made.”
“No, there aren’t,” Jason said. “Excuse us.” He took Elizabeth by the elbow and found Milo at the front of the tent. “Did he suffer?” he asked the young man.
“Oh, m’lady, you’re all right!” Milo said brightly. “M’laird, the Camerons sent their healer—she says that Johnny might live.”
“He’s still alive?” Elizabeth demanded. Without another word, she flipped back the flap of the tent and was infused with joy at the sight of the burly Irishman stretched out on the palette. He was pale, but his chest was rising. “Oh—Jason—”
Jason helped Elizabeth take a seat before crouching next to Johnny. “Thank you,” he told the warrior. “You saved my family.”
Johnny opened his eyes, just slits. “She’s…you found her.”
“Because you slowed him down—thank you—” Elizabeth frowned when Jason stopped her from coming to his side. “I’m all right—”
“Rest,” Jason told Johnny. “We’ll leave for Braegarie in the morning.” He squeezed Johnny’s hand. “Thank you,” he repeated.”
“Aye, well, took me long enough to get used to her,” Johnny muttered. His eyes closed. “Don’t wanna break in another…lass…”
Elizabeth pushed Jason not to rest too long on the journey home—Johnny was following behind them, much more slowly—but she wanted to be back at Braegarie—she wanted to see her boys—
They reached the keep by the evening of the next day, and Elizabeth rushed right past Jason’s started aunt to the master bedroom.
“My lady!” Lulu’s eyes were wide as she took in Elizabeth’s scratched face and ruined hands. “Are you all right?”
“I am—” Elizabeth looked at bed where she found Cameron curled up in the furs, his face scrunched up in sleep. Jake was also sleeping peacefully, in the cradle where Lulu sat. Her boys were safe. “I’m fine. You can go for the night—”
“Aye, m’lady,” Lulu murmured as she slipped around Jason and left. Elizabeth stayed where she was, her feet fixed to the floor.
“Elizabeth?” He put a hand at the small of her back. “Let me call for Barbara—those scratches—” Jason took a hand in his, grimacing at the pain he knew she was hiding from him.
“They’re safe.” Elizabeth closed her eyes, tears sliding down her face. “It’s all I ever wanted. I wanted them to be safe.”
“They are. We all are,” he told her. Jason drew her into his arms, breathing easier when she relaxed against him. “I’ll call for a bath and for Barbara.”
“All right.” Elizabeth managed a smile, then looked up at him. “It’s over. I don’t—I don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
“I—I should have kept you home,” Jason muttered, but she shook her head.
“No. It was always going to happen,” Elizabeth told him. “Whether Stavros found out about me from Albany or some other way — he was Emily’s stepfather. It was always going to happen. If we’d stayed home this year, it would have been next year. I can see that now. I can feel it.” She took a deep breath. “The vision—the nightmares that followed—I was so sure I was seeing my death. I could feel the heat—”
“But I never saw how it ended. You came and you stopped it. You saved my life.”
“You saved mine, too,” Jason reminded her. He stroked her cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” She leaned up and kissed him lightly. “And I can’t wait to start the rest of our lives. We’re finally free.”