Colm knew he had to hurry with his questions, for he wanted to get as much information as he could from his weary brother before exhaustion caught up with him. Liam was already drowsy. He could barely keep his eyes open, and he was having trouble concentrating.
“How many were there?” he asked.
“How many what?” Liam asked wearily.
Colm held his patience. “Soldiers, Liam. How many soldiers watched over you?”
“Four. There were always two either inside the room with me or just outside my door.”
Brodick glanced at Colm when he asked, “And these men carried weapons?”
Liam actually smiled. “No, they did not.”
“The question amuses you?” Brodick asked, trying to understand Liam’s reaction.
“Aye, it does. When you see these men, you will understand why. But I will assure you of this, Laird Buchanan. They do not need weapons.”
“They are invincible? Is that what you suggest?” Braeden asked as though the notion of such praise of an outsider’s strength should be taken as a personal affront to his own might.
“No man is invincible,” Colm snapped. “What did these soldiers tell you, Liam? Did they explain how you came to the abbey?”
“No. They talked to one another, but they wouldn’t talk to me.”
Both Colm and Brodick waited for Liam to explain further. When he didn’t, Brodick asked, “Why wouldn’t they talk to you?”
“I don’t think they understood me,” he said finally. “And I certainly didn’t understand them. They spoke a language I’ve never heard before.”
Colm was becoming even more frustrated. “Gelroy must have understood them.”
“I’m not sure he did. I never heard him speak to them.”
“Then how did he—” Colm stopped. It was pointless to continue questioning his brother. Liam needed rest, and Colm hoped that when his brother grew stronger, he would be able to remember more about the men who had taken him captive.
Besides, he reasoned, Gelroy would tell him what he wanted to know.
He removed his sword and sheath and handed both to Braeden. “Take Liam home,” he ordered.
He went to his horse to get his bow and arrows and gave those to Braeden as well. “And send the Buchanans home.” With a glance at Brodick, he added, “All the Buchanans.”
Before Colm could argue, Brodick swung up onto his mount and said, “I am going back to the abbey with you.”
Braeden nodded. “Do you want any of us to go inside the abbey with you?”
“I do not.” Colm’s voice was unyielding.
Braeden was used to his laird’s gruff ways. “Then may I suggest that half of our men take Liam home, and I and the others will wait outside the gates with your weapons, Laird.”
Brodick’s commander stepped forward to stand beside Braeden. “And since my Laird Buchanan is going with you, I suggest that I also wait with our laird’s weapons outside the gates. The other Buchanan soldiers will see Liam safely home.”
Brodick agreed. “It would be to our advantage to take our swords should we have the good fortune to run into the men who tortured your brother.”
“I prefer to use my hands,” Colm said.
“Even if others have swords?”
Colm gave him a hard look. “What do you think?”
Brodick shook his head. “I think you’re just itching to kill someone, aren’t you?”
“I am going to kill whoever did this to my brother,” Colm answered.
This wasn’t a hope or a promise. It was a solemn vow.
T HE COMPETITION BETWEEN BARON COSWOLD AND BARON Percy had turned deadly. Or so it seemed.
Each man went to great lengths to find out what devious schemes the other was plotting. Spies were everywhere. Certainly not all of Baron Percy’s companions were loyal to him. One—William, his herald in fact—was secretly in the employ of Baron Coswold. The herald was a well-compensated informer who committed to memory every word said and every action taken by Percy and his conspirators, and reported back to Coswold.
When word of Laird Monroe’s murder reached Percy’s camp, the traitorous herald left the abbey on a false errand and rushed to give Coswold the news. The baron had made certain that William knew where he would be at all times, and the informer was therefore able to catch up with him just as he sat down to supper with Laird MacKenna in MacKenna’s palatial great hall.
The terrible news didn’t get the reaction William expected. Neither Coswold nor MacKenna seemed the least surprised. Coswold merely shrugged indifference and MacKenna, apparently just as unaffected, looked bored as he reached for a chunk of black bread and popped a wedge into his mouth.
Baron Percy had seemed just as uninterested when he’d heard the news. Had both barons expected this to happen? Had they anticipated Monroe’s death, or had they simply wished for it? And why was Laird MacKenna also indifferent? One of his own countrymen had been murdered; the herald had thought there might have been at least a hint of remorse.
Coswold pushed the chair back from the table and motioned for the herald to follow him outside. When they were alone, he ordered him to return to Percy’s camp to keep his eyes and ears open for further developments.
“Go now, while there is still light to guide you. You can make some of the distance back before darkness falls. I’ll arrive at the abbey tomorrow.”
The herald watched Coswold strut back inside and then stood there a long moment scratching his head in confusion. Although he’d wanted to, he didn’t dare ask the baron the question plaguing him. Monroe had been a powerful, and from all accounts a well-liked, laird who was shockingly murdered in the night.
Why wasn’t anyone surprised?
B RODICK WAS IN WHOLEHEARTED AGREEMENT WITH COLM. If given the opportunity, he, too, would kill the bastards who had attacked Liam. The MacHughs were the Buchanans’ allies, and their enemies were, therefore, the Buchanans’ enemies as well. Over a year ago, Brodick had ventured into dangerous English territory on a mission to help his wife. The MacHughs had come to the Buchanans’ aid then, and it was now the Buchanans’ turn to reciprocate.
The MacHugh was a loner, though. He refused to acknowledge the benefit of having anyone other than his own clan fight by his side. Brodick used to feel the same way, and it had nearly taken a war with England to change his attitude. He now recognized the value of these ties, and he considered not only MacHugh but the Maitlands and the Sinclairs, two of the most powerful clans in the Highlands, his closest allies. These lairds had also become Brodick’s good friends.
The two men did not speak for most of the ride back to the abbey. Then, urging his horse alongside Colm’s, Brodick asked, “Do you know how I met my wife?”
An odd question, Colm thought. “She was bringing Laird Ramsey Sinclair’s brother home to him,” he replied.
“That’s right. The boy was only five or six at the time. One of the men in the Sinclair clan thought he should have been named laird over Ramsey. He conspired to take over the clan, and he used the boy to draw Ramsey into the open with the intent of killing him.”
“Why are you bringing this up now?”
“Perhaps Liam was taken for the same purpose. To draw you out.”
“Perhaps, twice now in the past month my soldiers protecting my border have been ambushed.”
“Did you lose any men?”
MacHugh was insulted by the question. “Of course not. My warriors are trained to expect the unexpected.”
“And the men who attacked?”
“Unfortunately, none lived long enough to tell me who sent them, but they were not Highlanders.”
“Outcasts then? Looking to steal what they could?”
He shook his head. “You heard what Liam told us. The orders were to kill as many MacHughs as possible. Outcasts would not be so organized. They thrive on chaos, and like rats they steal and run.”
“’Tis the truth you speak,” Brodick said. “Ramsey’s brother was but a child, but Liam is a grown man. He is nearly as old as you are, is he not?”
“Five years younger but still full-grown.”
“Then why didn’t he expect the unexpected? He has been trained as well as the others.”
“I’ll be asking my brother that very question as soon as he recovers his wits.”
“Whoever is behind these attacks wants to be rid of all the MacHughs, then?”
“So it would seem.”
“Finney’s Flat. That’s what these attacks are about.”
“Aye,” Colm answered. “MacKenna’s behind this. I’m sure of it.”
“But you have no proof.”
“MacKenna is a greedy man. He wants the land for himself, and I’m not going to let him have it. I could not abide having any of the MacKennas any closer to my border. The flats have always been our planting fields, and also a buffer between the MacKennas and us.”
“King John was gifted the land by our king years ago. He owns it until the woman he has chosen marries Laird Monroe. She brings Finney’s Flat as her dowry.”
“I am aware of this pact.”
“Yes, but are you aware that this woman is from my wife’s family. Her father is Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire.”
“You admit to having English relatives?”
“Reluctantly, I admit it. I have become more lenient in my opinions, for if you will remember, my wife used to be English.”
“It doesn’t matter to me what she is.”
“Can you abide having the Monroe clan to look down on from your mountain?”
“What about you?” Colm countered. “Can you abide having them so close? The Buchanans border Finney’s Flat on the west.”
“Aye, but we have a forest of trees between us.”
“I have no grudge against the Monroes. As long as their laird doesn’t interfere when we plant the fields on the north end of the flat, I won’t mind his presence.”
They’d reached the top of the hill above the abbey and could see the crowd of tents to the south.
“Those tents belong to the English,” Brodick said.
“They cannot all be here for Monroe’s wedding, unless your English relatives invited them.”
“Not this number,” Brodick answered. “Monroe wouldn’t want them here, either. Nay, there must be another celebration at the abbey.”
Once down the hill, they passed off their horses to Braeden and Dylan.
“Be on guard,” Colm said as they walked to the gates.
“I’m always on guard,” Brodick assured him. He pulled the rope to ring the bell. A moment later, a priest opened the massive wooden door.
The abbot, a shiny little man, who from the size of his belly never missed a meal, motioned them forward. He had already jumped to his own conclusions as to why the two were there.
“You’ve come to offer your condolences, haven’t you?”
Before either laird could respond, the abbot continued, “You must be terribly disappointed to have missed the funeral mass, but with the unusually mild weather it was necessary for his family to take him home and put him in the ground as quickly as possible. Did you think you might speak to the family? A pity you missed them. Shall I show you to the chapel so you might pray for his soul?”
Colm and Brodick looked at each other, and then Colm turned to the abbot. Though addressing a man of God, he didn’t guard his words.
“What in God’s name are you talking about?”
The abbot took a quick step back and patted his chest in an attempt to calm himself. He had lived a quiet, contemplative life in the monastery for years, and the excitement and turmoil of the last few days was taking its toll on his nerves.
“You don’t know? I just assumed…it’s Laird Monroe,” he rushed on when he saw the mean look in Laird MacHugh’s eyes. “He’s dead. Isn’t that why you came here? To express your sympathy?”
“Monroe’s dead?” Brodick was staggered by the priest’s announcement.
“How did he die?” Colm wanted to know.
The abbot lowered his voice when he answered. “He was murdered.” He paused to make the sign of the cross before adding, “Murdered he was, and in the black of night.”
“When did this happen?” Brodick asked.
“How was he murdered?” Colm asked at the same time.
The look in the lairds’ eyes frightened the abbot. Laird MacHugh seemed the more threatening of the two, angrier as well. The priest’s voice trembled as he gave his answers, but he could barely keep up with the rapidly fired questions from the two giants.
Colm noticed that every time he moved, the abbot flinched. He clasped his hands behind his back as a sign of trust, so the meek abbot would know he meant him no harm.
The abbot rushed to explain. “Here I was thinking you came all this way to pay your last respects, and it’s apparent you didn’t know about Laird Monroe’s tragic death. Now I see what has happened. I’ve misunderstood, haven’t I? I’m so sorry I greeted you with such sad news when it is clearly evident you have come here for a much more joyful occasion, the wedding.”
“How can there be a wedding if the groom has been murdered?” Brodick asked. He was beginning to think the abbot was missing part of his mind.
“Laird Monroe is no longer the groom…since he’s been murdered,” he hastily concluded.
“We’re not here about any wedding—or any funeral for that matter,” Colm said. “We’re here about my brother.”
The abbot responded with a quizzical look. “Your brother?”
Colm considered grabbing the man by his neck and shaking him but knew it wouldn’t be prudent to attack a man of God. From the abbot’s blank stare, it was apparent he knew nothing of Liam.
The abbot was sweating profusely. He wiped his wet hands down the sides of his robe. The laird’s eyes had turned a dark gray, the color of a brewing storm.
“Things have been happening so fast. We’re not used to this much activity in our monastery. Another match for Lady Gabrielle is just now being decided upon. It’s chaos.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Two barons from England are now in the great hall, each claiming to be speaking on King John’s behalf. A crowd of English is gathering in the commons. I recommend that you wait upstairs if you don’t want to become involved.”