She knew not to prod him, fearing he would tell her exactly what the punishment had been. Colm wasn’t the forgiving sort, nor was Liam.
“Were you able to find out who sent them after Liam?”
Before he could answer, two more clansmen came into the hall, begging his attention. Colm ignored them, but Gabrielle couldn’t. “Your clan makes many demands on your time.”
“Yes, they do.”
“You’d best go.”
He nodded. “Yes, I’d best go.” He grabbed her hand as he walked past her and pulled her along. “Saddle my horse,” he ordered one of the men waiting. To another, he said, “I will not listen to any problems until this afternoon. Make that clear to those waiting.”
Gabrielle stepped out of the way to let a clansman carrying a bag of grain over his shoulder enter the open door of the storage room.
He nodded his greeting to her and turned to Colm. “Would you like me to help carry Lady Gabrielle’s clothes upstairs?”
Colm looked into the room and saw the trunks stacked on the floor. “You carry far too many possessions,” he criticized.
Gabrielle laughed. “Does everyone think these trunks are filled with gowns?”
The young man nodded. “The English have need for more than we do.”
“And the MacHughs have need to make judgments without knowing the facts,” she countered. “If you have a moment, I would like you to open one of my trunks.”
“For what purpose?” Colm asked.
“Open one and see for yourself.”
She had captured his curiosity. “Which one would you like me to open?”
Colm pulled one trunk down from the stack and was surprised by the weight.
“Danen, grab one end,” he ordered.
“English clothes weigh more than a trunk filled with stone,” Danen grunted.
“Clothes don’t weigh this much, even English clothes.”
There were four latches. Colm unlocked each one, then lifted the lid. Bags stuffed full were packed inside.
Gabrielle suggested he use his dagger to pierce the cloth, and when he did, grains of salt spilled out.
He was astounded. “You bring salt.”
“Yes. Salt was one of my gifts to Laird Monroe, and now it’s yours.”
“Salt is more valuable than the most precious jewels,” Danen stammered. His green eyes were bright with excitement. “And much needed. Isn’t that true, Laird?”
Colm agreed with a nod. “Are all these trunks filled with salt?”
“All but one. You are pleased?”
“I am. If anyone had known what was inside these trunks, they never would have gotten here.”
He latched the locks and walked outside. A stable boy led Colm’s horse across the courtyard. The skittish animal had tried to rear up twice before Colm calmed him. The Black, as he was called, was a magnificent animal. He was twice the size of Rogue, but Gabrielle doubted his disposition was half as sweet. Colm lifted her onto The Black, then swung up behind her and took the reins.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
A woman carrying a basket hurried toward them. “Laird, if you have a minute, I need but a word about—”
“It will have to wait.”
He wrapped his arm around Gabrielle’s waist and held her tight against him as he nudged the giant horse forward. Gabrielle couldn’t imagine what had come over Colm. He wasn’t running from her to take care of the demands of his clan. Nay, he seemed now to be running from his clan to be with her.
Once they’d cleared the moat, Colm gave The Black a kick and raced into the wind. They didn’t stop until they reached a crest overlooking a beautiful glen with a brook meandering through it. He dismounted and lifted her to the ground. His hands lingered on her waist before he moved away.
“Come sit with me. We need to talk,” Colm said.
His tone worried her. “Is it bad news you have? Is that why you wanted me alone, so I wouldn’t disgrace you by weeping in front of your clan?”
“You could not disgrace me.”
She sat down by a tree and adjusted her skirts to cover her ankles. “I have learned to expect the worst.”
He knelt on one knee in front of her and cupped her chin in the palm of his hand.
“I brought you here so that we would not be interrupted, which, as you surely have noticed, happens quite frequently in my holding.”
“It happens because you don’t delegate. You should, you know. If you would give Braeden and the others, including your brother, more responsibility, you not only would take some of the burden off your shoulders, but you also would show them you have trust in them. You aren’t the only one who can make a good decision.”
“I did not bring you here to have you lecture me.”
“But you will consider what I have said?”
He sat down next to her and leaned back against the tree. “I will,” he said, stretching his long legs out in front of him, then crossing one foot over the other.
He looked relaxed, she thought, but then so did lions before they pounced.
“If it were good news, you would have told me by now.”
“It’s neither good nor bad. Here is what I know. The men who brought your trunks would never have come to my home if they had known anyone had seen them at Finney’s Flat. I had the opportunity to question them at length.”
She didn’t ask him to explain what he meant by opportunity. “And they answered your questions?”
Did she possibly think he had given them a choice? Of course they had answered his questions. He made it all but impossible for them to refuse.
“They all insisted that they never knew the name of the man who hired them. Only their leader knew.”
“Gordon. He was their leader, and I killed him.” She patted his knee as though to console him. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry about what?”
“Sorry you won’t ever find out who sent them after Liam.”
“MacKenna sent them.”
“I will explain, and you will hold your questions until I’m finished.” He waited for her nod and then said, “Baron Coswold had your trunks taken to the abbey. Almost immediately after you left the abbey, he and his soldiers began their search for you. So did the other one.”
“Percy?” Even his name repelled her, and she shivered with disdain. “The two of them are demons.”
“From what I understand, they have both been chasing rumors, trying to find you. Coswold heard that you might be living with my clan, and he needed to find out for certain before he acted. What better way than to send your trunks with men who would report back to him.”
“The abbot didn’t send them?”
“At Coswold’s urging, he did. But I’m sure the abbot thought he was doing a kindness. The problem was finding men to take them. Coswold couldn’t send Englishmen. They never would have gotten this far, and if by chance and luck they did, they would never have made it back to report to him.”
“But how did he…” She realized she was once again interrupting and stopped.
“The men Gordon hired didn’t know MacKenna was paying them, but MacKenna knew who they were. Gordon gave him their names.”
“How did you get this information?”
“It’s amazing what a man will remember when pressured to do so. The one named Hamish told me he heard Coswold and MacKenna had come to some sort of an arrangement. He called it a pact. Coswold knew King John wouldn’t give you to him, and so he promised you to MacKenna. He would get Finney’s Flat, and in return Coswold would be able to see you whenever he wanted. It’s my understanding they intended to share you.”
Gabrielle felt ill. “I did not think these men could sicken me any more than they already have, but now you tell me they meant to share me? As they would a wife? Oh, my God…”
She tried to get up, but Colm gently pulled her down beside him. “Another one of the outcasts admitted he overheard Coswold whispering to one of his confidants. Yes, Coswold wanted you in his bed, Gabrielle, but he also wanted information he believes you hide.”
Colm thought it peculiar that Gabrielle didn’t ask him if he had any idea what kind of information Coswold thought she might have.
“You know what he wants, don’t you?” he asked.
She rested against his side. “He wants the treasure of St. Biel.”
She told him the legend as it had been told to her countless times.
“It is said that St. Biel’s King Grenier did not send all the gold to the pope, but hid it away. It is also believed that the treasure is so vast, whoever finds it will have the power to rule the world. No one has ever found it, but it makes an interesting story.”
“So why does Coswold believe it exists?”
“I don’t know.”
“And why does he think you know where the treasure is?”
“There are some who believe that the secret was passed down from the king to his daughter, and she in turn passed it down to her daughter…”
“Did your mother ever talk about this treasure?”
“She told me all the stories. She thought that greed is why some believe this legendary treasure exists.”
“What about the people of St. Biel?” he asked. “Do they believe the myth?”
“Some do, others don’t. They have few needs. They have enough food to eat with fishing and hunting, and enough wood to heat their homes. They live a simple but rich life.”
“In other words, they wouldn’t want the gold.”
He had wrapped his arm around her waist, and she stroked it with her fingertips while she thought about her mother’s homeland. Her touch was as light as a feather, but had a powerful effect on him.
“Now it is my turn to ask you questions, Colm. You said that Coswold needed to be certain I was living with your clan before he acted. What does that mean? What do you think he intends to do?”
He shook his head. “I have yet to find out what is in his twisted mind, but I will, Gabrielle.”
“In the name of King John, he banished me, remember? And Percy was united with Coswold in condemning me. Yet you say, as soon as they left the abbey, they began to search for me?” Her fingers traced the scar on his hand. “How did you know I was innocent? You said you knew that Isla had lied.”
“The moon. She said the moon was bright and that she was able to see you, but it rained that night, Gabrielle. There was no moon. I know because I was searching for Liam, and it was too dark to continue. I had to wait until morning light.”
“I don’t think the monk lied. I believe he saw me when I went to look in on Liam.”
“That is what I think as well.”
“Are you betrothed to another woman?” She blurted the question before she lost her courage. “Lady Joan? Did you promise to marry her?”
“I was going to marry her.”
“Three years past.”
“Her father decided another alliance would make him stronger, so she was married to Laird Dunbar. Like Monroe, he was an older man.”
“She’s coming here, isn’t she?”
“I had not heard this, but she will be welcomed. Her sister is married to one of my men.”
The question she most wanted him to answer she couldn’t ask. Did he love Joan? And if Gabrielle asked, would he tell her the truth?
“What will you do about MacKenna?”
“Then you will go to war against the MacKenna clan?” she asked, and before he could answer, she added, “What if Coswold adds his army to MacKenna’s?”
“You will not worry about Coswold or Percy,” he replied. “They have no power over you.”
If that were true, why then was she so afraid?
K ing John was demanding an accounting, and Baron Coswold was fit to be tied. He had been ordered to meet with John at Newell’s castle, where the king was taking his leisure after a failed campaign against the Welsh. A large number of John’s barons were so incensed by their king’s attacks that they threatened to rise up against him. Coswold expected John to be in one of his black moods.
Percy had also been summoned to Newell’s castle to give his version of what had taken place at Arbane Abbey, and Coswold could only imagine the lies his enemy would tell.
Coswold allowed Isla to accompany him. He had grown accustomed to talking to her about his worries without concern that she would repeat anything he said. Her station in life was solely dependent upon his good graces, and she would do nothing to jeopardize it.
She took good care of him. She saw to his every comfort and made certain the servants ran his home to his liking. Coswold never walked into a chilled room or picked up an empty goblet. She knew what foods he liked and what foods he avoided. Coswold also knew that eventually he would have to take a wife so that he would have heirs, but even then he planned to keep Isla around to continue to do his bidding.
She had become even more solicitous since he’d allowed her to go with him to Arbane Abbey, and now she could barely hide her excitement. He knew why. She had heard that Percy would be there with the king. Oh, what a fool she was to think she would ever have a future with Coswold’s enemy. Back at Arbane Abbey when Isla had accused Gabrielle of whorish behavior, at first Coswold was annoyed at the spectacle, but then he realized it might be used to his advantage.
“Are you eager to see Baron Percy again?” he asked her on the trip to Newell’s castle.
“It is true that I am.”
“Isla, he doesn’t even speak to you.”
“Yes, he does,” she insisted. “Upon occasion.”
“You waste your time longing for him.”
She hid her smile. “There is talk that he will soon be married.”
Coswold shrugged indifference. “Then he must have given up on Lady Gabrielle. It’s about time. He could never have her.”
“I think he wants another now,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow. “How would you know this?”
“Gossip,” she said hastily. “Have you heard from the men you told me you sent on an errand? You seemed to be worried when they didn’t return immediately.”
Coswold had told Isla he had hired men to take care of a matter for him, but he hadn’t told her what the errand was.