Oh, MacKenna despised this man. With every breath he took, his hatred grew until it threatened to consume him. Not one day passed without at least one dark thought about the laird, and what was most galling for Owen was the knowledge that MacHugh wasted not one minute thinking about any of the MacKennas. They weren’t even important enough to hate.
Owen recognized this sin of jealousy. Envy was eating him alive, and he felt powerless to do anything about it. He dreamed of destroying MacHugh, and though he wouldn’t dare admit his sin to his confessor, he would gladly sell his soul to the devil to get what he wanted.
His list of wants was long. He wanted MacHugh’s power. He wanted his allies: the Buchanans, the Maitlands, and the Sinclairs. He wanted his strength and his discipline. He wanted the fear the laird instilled in his enemies; he wanted the loyalty he commanded from his friends. He wanted his lands and everything else MacHugh controlled. Most of all, Owen craved revenge.
Today was the day he would finally rid himself of his jealousy. Today was the day he would get justice.
And what a glorious day it was for an execution…or many executions if all went well and a large number of MacHughs were killed. Pity he couldn’t watch, but he had to separate himself from the executioners so that when he was accused of the crime, he could protest his innocence and have holy witnesses at Arbane Abbey to vouch for his presence.
Owen had carefully thought out the plan and had handpicked the soldier who would oversee the burial.
“Timing,” he had explained, “is most important. You must wait until you see Laird MacHugh up on the ridge overlooking the flat before you bury his brother. He’ll know who it is, but he won’t be able to stop it. Have no worries. His arrows cannot travel such a distance, and his steed cannot fly. By the time he reaches his fallen brother’s side, it will be too late, and you and your good men, will have gone into hiding.
“A contingent of soldiers will be waiting to the west behind the line of trees. As soon as MacHugh gets close enough, they’ll circle and attack.”
He rubbed his hands with malicious glee as he added, “If all goes well, Laird Colm MacHugh and his brother Liam will both be in the ground before nightfall.”
The soldier Owen had placed in charge of the burial was a thick-shouldered, thick-headed man named Gordon. Owen had made him repeat his orders to make certain he fully appreciated the importance of timing the burial just right.
The warriors had little trouble capturing Liam MacHugh. They ambushed him just as he passed through a thick grove of trees. They beat him severely and removed his boots, tied a thick rope around his ankles, and dragged him behind his horse to the deep narrow hole they’d dug in preparation.
While they nervously waited for MacHugh to reach the ridge and also waited for Liam to regain consciousness so he would know what was going to happen, six of the seven soldiers got into a discussion regarding the burial.
The discussion turned into an argument. Three soldiers wanted MacHugh’s brother buried headfirst with only his feet above the ground. When his toes stopped wiggling, they would know for a certainty that he was dead. Three other soldiers were in favor of dropping him into the hole feetfirst. They wanted to hear him scream and beg for mercy until the last shovel of dirt was thrown across the top of his head.
“He might not wake up,” a soldier argued. “I’m in favor of stuffing his head in first.”
“He didn’t even give up a whimper while we were beating him. Why do you think he’d start in screaming now?” another asked.
“Look at the mist coming on. It’s already covering the ground and creeping up my boots. You won’t be able to see his head anyway if this muck gets any thicker.”
“Pull that hood off and toss some water on his face and he’ll wake up,” yet another suggested.
“He’s going in headfirst.”
“Feetfirst,” a soldier shouted, shoving one of the men who had disagreed with him.
Gordon knew the argument would soon turn physical. He kept his eye on the top of the ridge and announced that he would be the deciding vote.
Liam MacHugh would go to his grave feetfirst.
I T WASN’T UNUSUAL FOR A BRIDE TO MEET HER GROOM FOR the first time at their wedding ceremony, but Gabrielle hoped to at least get a glimpse of the man before then. The only piece of information she had about Laird Monroe was that he was an older man. No one had told her how much older, though, and she was filled with trepidation. What if he turned out to be an ogre? Or so old he couldn’t stand straight? Or had no teeth and could only eat mush? She knew that his age and appearance shouldn’t be important to her, but what if his manners were atrocious? Or worse, what if he was cruel to those around him? Could she live with someone who mistreated the men and women who depended on him?
Her mother had often told her that she worried too much, but wasn’t the unknown always a worry? To Gabrielle it was. Oh, how she wished her mother were here to offer advice now. She would calm Gabrielle’s fears. But her mother had died in the winter two years ago. While Gabrielle knew that she had been blessed to have her in her life for so many years, there were times when she physically ached to talk to her. Today was one of those times, for Gabrielle was on her way to her wedding.
Twenty soldiers along with staff and servants accompanied Gabrielle and her father to the Highlands of Scotland. Their destination was Arbane Abbey, where her wedding ceremony would take place in one week. Rooms would be provided at the abbey for the travel-weary group.
The procession up the mountain was slow and arduous. The closer they came to their destination, the more withdrawn Gabrielle became.
The trail was narrow and broken, but her father was able to ride by her side once they had rounded a sharp turn. Baron Geoffrey tried to think of a way to lighten her concerns about the future.
He motioned to the lush valley below. “Do you notice how green everything is here, Gabrielle?”
“Yes, Father, I do,” she replied without enthusiasm.
“And do you notice how invigorating the brisk air is in the Highlands?”
“I do,” she said.
The good baron was determined to raise his daughter’s spirits. “There are those Highlanders who believe that we are high enough to touch heaven. What do you think?”
It wasn’t like Gabrielle’s father to be so fanciful. Her mother had been the fanciful one, full of dreams that she had passed on to her daughter. But her father wasn’t a dreamer. He was a leader of men, a protector, and a terribly practical man.
“I would think they were mistaken,” she answered. “We aren’t high enough to touch heaven here. Only in St. Biel would that be possible.”
“And how would you know this?”
“Mother,” she answered.
“Ah,” Baron Geoffrey said with a melancholy smile. “And what exactly did she tell you?”
“She always said the same thing, that when she stood next to the statue of St. Biel that overlooks the harbor, she was as close to heaven as she could be on earth.”
Gabrielle’s fingers brushed across the gold medallion she wore on a chain around her neck. It had been fashioned from a coin and bore the likeness of St. Biel. She’d had it for as long as she could remember. Her mother had been buried with one just like it.
He noticed the gesture. “I miss her, too,” he said. “But she will always be in our hearts.” Then with a sigh he said, “Do you notice how blue the sky is? As blue as your mother’s eyes.”
“I do notice,” she said. “And I have also noticed how you have pointed out again and again how lovely this land is. Could you possibly have a motive?” she teased.
“I want you to appreciate your surroundings, and I want you to be content here and content in your marriage as well, Gabrielle.”
She wanted to argue. Was contentment the ultimate to be wished for? Were passion and love and excitement only for dreams? Was it ever possible to have it all? She longed to pose these questions to her father, but she could not. She held her tongue. As they continued on, she made up her mind to be more practical, like her father. She was a grown woman, soon to become a wife. It was time for her to put her childish dreams away.
“I’ll try to be content,” she promised.
Their pace was slowed once again because of the rocky incline. Her father saw the look on her face and the sadness in her eyes. “Daughter,” he said in exasperation, “you are not going to a funeral. It’s your wedding. Try to be joyful.”
“I will try,” she promised.
An hour later when the caravan stopped so that the horses could rest and they could stretch their legs, her father asked Gabrielle to walk with him.
Neither said a word until they stopped to rest beneath a clump of birch trees near a flowing brook.
“I have met Laird Monroe and some of his family. He will be kind to you.”
She didn’t want to talk about her future husband, but her father seemed determined.
“Then I shall be kind to him,” she said.
The baron shook his head. “You are a willful daughter.”
She turned to face him. “Father, what is it you’re finding so difficult to tell me?”
He sighed. “Your life is going to change when you become a wife. You won’t be equal in your marriage, and you must accept this.”
“Mother was your equal, wasn’t she?”
He smiled. “That she was,” he admitted, “but she was the exception.”
“Perhaps I will be the exception, too.”
“In time perhaps you will,” he agreed. “I don’t want you to worry about your future husband. I have been assured that he will never raise a hand against you, and as you know, there are husbands who would be cruel to their wives.” There was disgust in his voice when he added that fact.
“Father, I think you’re more concerned about this marriage than I am. Do you actually wonder what I would do if my husband, or any man for that matter, were to raise a hand against me?”
Somewhat chagrined, he replied, “No, I don’t wonder. I know exactly what you would do because I saw to your training.”
Before she could interrupt, he continued, “However, there will be changes when you marry. You’ll no longer be free to do what you wish. You’ll have to take your husband’s feelings and needs into consideration. You have been self-reliant in many ways, but now you must learn restraint.”
“Are you telling me I must give up my freedom?”
He sighed. His daughter sounded appalled by the notion. “Of a sort,” he hedged.
“Of a sort?”
“And when you are married,” Baron Geoffrey continued, “you will share your husband’s bed and—” Too late he realized where he’d taken the conversation. He stopped, then coughed to cover his embarrassment. What had he been thinking to bring up this topic? Talking about the marriage bed with his daughter was impossible for him. After a moment’s consideration he decided that he would ask one of the older women to explain what would happen on her wedding night. He simply wasn’t up to the task.
“You were saying?” she prodded.
“We’re close to the abbey now,” he stammered. “Just an hour or so away I’d wager, and just as close to Finney’s Flat if we were to ride in the opposite direction.”
“It’s early in the day. There’s time before dark for us to look at the flat.”
“Have you forgotten that I must pay my respects to Laird Buchanan?” He nodded to the west. “When we reach the next rise, I’ll leave you. It will be going on darkness by the time I reach his home. You and the others will continue on to the abbey.”
“Would it be possible for my guard and me to go to the flat while the others continue on? I’m certain it won’t take us any time at all to catch up with them. I am most curious to see this dowry that King John has given me.”
He considered her request a long minute before agreeing. “As long as you take all four guards with you, and as long as you carry your bow and arrows, and as long as you are cautious to a fault. And you must promise me that you will not let the time get away from you and that it will be an uneventful ride. Then I will allow it.”
She held her smile. “Uneventful, Father?”
Seeing the sparkle in her eyes, Baron Geoffrey was suddenly feeling quite in awe of his daughter. With her black hair and her violet blue eyes, so like her mother’s, Gabrielle had grown into a beautiful and delightful young lady. His chest swelled with pride as he thought of her many accomplishments. She could read and write, speak four languages, and speak them well. Her mother had seen that Gabrielle was well-versed in the feminine pursuits, and he had seen that she was well-trained in more practical matters. She could sit her horse as well as any man, and she wasn’t squeamish with her bow and arrows. Truth be told, she was more accurate with her targets than he was.
“Uneventful, Father?” Gabrielle repeated, wondering why he was so distracted.
He shook himself out of his contemplations. “You know what I mean. Do not play the innocent with me. You’re prone to mischief.”
She protested. “I cannot imagine why you would think—”
He interrupted. “Promise me it will be an uneventful ride and that there will be no mischief. I’ll have your word on this, Daughter.”
She nodded. “I promise. There will be no mischief, and it will be an uneventful afternoon.”
Uncomfortable with showing affection, Baron Geoffrey awkwardly patted her on her shoulder and then headed back to the horses.
Gabrielle hurried to catch up. “Father, you worry too much. I’ll be careful as I have promised, so please quit your frown. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Two hours later she had to kill a man.
G ABRIELLE INTERRUPTED A MURDER.
She had wanted a bit of excitement to take her mind off her worries, but she most certainly hadn’t wanted to witness anything this horrifying.
The ride began quite pleasantly, invigorating in fact. After she had dutifully kissed her father on his whiskered cheek and bid him a safe journey to the Buchanans to pay his respects, she forced herself to walk, not run, to her horse, Rogue. She even allowed the soldier Stephen to assist her into her saddle. Rogue pranced in anticipation, sensing that he would soon be allowed to soar into the wind.
Certain that Baron Geoffrey was watching, Gabrielle played the meek maiden and wouldn’t allow Rogue to break into a gallop as was the spirited horse’s custom. She forced him to start out at a much slower gait. She had the feeling that her father knew exactly what she was doing, and so she held her smile as she turned and waved to him one last time before she was out of sight.