If You Dare Read online
For Ginny, the sister I never had, because we've been best friends since preschool. And because I'm on the phone with you as I'm writing this and wish you were here.
I would like to acknowledge the wonderful people at the Catalan House of the University of Florida for their gracious gifts of time and knowledge, with special thanks to Mireia Vilamala for her help with translation and to Juan Torras-Costa for his assistance with Andorran geography.
Many, many thanks to Dr. Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart in the Celtic and Scottish Studies Department at Edinburgh University for his help with Gaelic translation and Scottish history.
And I think I will make a tradition of acknowledging all the incredible support Sally Fairchild has given me with this book and the two previous ones. Just when I think I know how fantastic she is, she still amazes.
No reason under heaven excuses bad manners.
- Lady Annal¨ªa Elisabet Catherina Trist¨¢n Llorente
Might makes right.
- Courtland Eadd MacCarrick
Carrickliffe, Scotland, 1838
Read from the Leabhar nan S¨´il-radharc, the Book of Fates:
To the tenth Carrick:
Your lady fair shall bear you three dark sons.
Joy they bring you until they read this tome.
Words before their eyes cut your life's line young.
You die dread knowing cursed men they become,
Shadowed to walk with death or walk alone.
Not to marry, know love, or bind, their fate;
Your line to die for never seed shall take.
Death and torment to those caught in their wake,
Blood obscured the last two lines.
The Principality of Andorra, 1856
"Yes, yes, very well then. Take out his heart. "
For the first time since his beating began, Courtland MacCarrick's split, bloody sneer faltered. The general's impatient command seemed unreal to him, the words sounding hollow and indistinct, probably because Court could see nothing, blinded by blood dripping from a gash on his forehead and by his swollen lids.
The henchmen restraining him whaled two punches into his stomach, unable to contain their excitement at the prospect of killing off a mercenary, and a rival at that. Court could do little to defend himself in his condition and with his wrists bound.
"If you kill me," he bit out as he labored for a breath, "you know my men will avenge my death. You would no' risk that over simply payin' us what's owed?" His voice was thick with brogue, as it hadn't been since he'd left the Highlands years before.
"No one will avenge you, MacCarrick, because they'll all be dead as well," General Reynaldo Pascal said in a casual tone. Though he couldn't see, Court knew the man had a thoughtful expression on his face. The Spanish deserter had never looked like a power-crazed zealot - more like a benevolent statesman.
"My kin will keep comin' until they've stamped you out. "
The general sighed. "In any case. . . " Court could imagine him giving an impatient hand wave, signaling the end of the subject. ". . . do make it painful and prolonged. "
"You will no' do it yourself?"
He chuckled softly. "You of all people should know I hire men to do my dirty work. "
As the two yanked him away, Court said over his shoulder, "Aye, but do the fools holdin' me know that you doona pay them for it?"
They jostled him, heaving him from the room, then strained to pull him down the stairs and outside onto the rough slate street.
As soon as he felt the sun on his face, he heard a woman gasp; an older man said, "Mare de D¨
u," but Court knew better than to expect anything from the people here other than a sharp turning of their heads and the ushering of children inside. Their fear of Pascal was ingrained. Court could be butchered in the town square and no one would lift a finger. Actually, that was a close estimation to what he knew was about to happen.
Yet he didn't feel as though that was the direction they were moving in. He heard the din of rushing water, realized they were traveling to the river beside the village, and futilely turned his head toward the sound. "No execution in the town center?" he rasped. "Careful that I doona feel slighted. "
"We are being more circumspect with our. . . activities," said the one on his left.
"Too late. Pascal's already angered Spain. " He bit out the words with conviction, but in truth it was little more than a hope.
"And we will be ready," the other replied, just before they slammed him up against what had to be a bridge railing. And Court couldn't fight because he couldn't see.
The water was directly below them, pounding furiously over a drop-off. The Riu Valira was always an angry torrent after rains to the north. He struggled to remember how high this bridge was. Would the Valira be deep enough?. . .
He heard a knife being unsheathed. What choice did he have?
"If you do this now," Court said in a low, deadly tone, "my men and my kin will descend on you. They live for killing. " And kill for a living.
Court knew he couldn't talk them out of planting that knife. These weren't merely two among the general's army - these were assassins, part of the Orden de los Rechazados, Order of the Disavowed. Court just wanted time to get his bearings. A second stalled was possibility. . .
If he jumped, they wouldn't chase him down the river. They'd consider his battered condition, with his hands bound and with the impact of the powerful falls, and reason that he would drown for certain.
Unfortunately, they'd probably be right. . . .
The knifepoint pricked his chest as though poised there - almost comforting because at least he knew where it was. Then. . . gone. Drawn back for the blow -
He shoved himself back, the force pitching him over the railing, tossing his feet over his head before he landed in the icy water.
The impact stunned him, his body taking the hit as though crashing into a wall. He sank down so far pain stabbed his ears from the depth, then struggled upward with bound hands.
Though it went against every instinct, he forced himself to reach the surface facedown as though dead. He sensed the pull of the water and realized that facedown in this case meant being swept from the falls' pool headfirst.
The Rechazados shot just as the rushing water began propelling him over the rim of the elevated basin. The bullets ripped through the water so close to him he could feel their percussion, but he didn't flinch even when he was forced to dive from above, then ride another series of falls into the main current.
The river boiled with rapids and swiftly carried him away. Just when he could stand it no longer, he raised his face for breath, but inhaled mostly foam.
The churning force drove him into rocks, the larger ones knocking him above the surface for lungfuls of air, but his weight quickly wrenched him down to the river bottom lined with jagged slate. The fractures snagged his clothes until they were in tatters, and then his unprotected skin. Each hit took him closer to oblivion.
Yet he continued to fight and managed to turn himself feet first. The water had washed away the worst of the blood, and the icy temperature had lessened the swelling, allowing him to see from the slit of one eye.
A high jutting rock approached; he lunged for it, looping his bound arms around it. The current swept on relentlessly until the wracking pressure on the ropes snapped his wrist. He didn't care - he gulped air. After only moments of rest, the bindings sliced away, leaving him to the mercy of the river once more.
He'd been in and out of consciousness for what felt like days when the current finally calmed. In th