“I think more,” Braeden said.
Liam walked back. Footprints angled off toward the thicket that reached all the way to the cliff. “It looks like a couple of them split off here.”
Braeden followed him as he traced the broken and cut branches. When they reached the cliff overlooking the turn in the path, Liam stopped. “This is where they hid,” he said. “They were waiting for her to pass beneath them.”
“Look,” Braeden said as he reached down and pulled something from a thorny twig. He raised a shred of green fabric in his fingertips. “Lady Gabrielle was wearing a green dress today.” He looked bleakly at Liam. “I’ll organize the men to search for these bastards. You take two soldiers and ride hard to Laird Sinclair’s holding to give Colm this grim news.”
Liam nodded. It was a duty he dreaded more than death.
G ABRIELLE AWOKE WITH A POUNDING HEADACHE. SHE opened her eyes and tried to understand what was happening to her. She looked around a room that was unfamiliar, as was the bed she rested on. The ceiling was low, close enough for her to touch if she sat up. She was in some sort of loft. The smell in the air was musty and stale. Whatever this building was, it had not been used in a good long while. Sticks of straw poked her back, and the cover someone had thrown on her was rough against her face. She felt a sting on her cheek and reached up to touch it. When she lowered her hand, there was a trace of blood on her fingers. She then saw the scratches on her arm.
The fog slowly cleared from her mind. Rogue. She had been riding Rogue. And there was an animal. No, no. She thought the noise she heard was an animal foraging for food. There was a rustling sound. Then came a blinding pain.
Below, a door squeaked open, and she heard the shuffle of people filing inside. Gabrielle was suddenly wide awake. She wanted to crawl to the edge of the loft and look over, but was afraid she would be seen or heard.
She couldn’t tell how many were underneath her until she heard their voices.
“You better hope she wakes up, Leod, ’cause if she don’t, he’s goin’ to kill you and bury you on top of her. I ain’t never seen anyone act like that. Did you see the crazed gleam in his eyes? It was like the devil was starin’ out at me.”
“I only did what I was told to do,” Leod protested. “You heard what he said. Put her down quick before she can scream and then hand her off to you so you can carry her, and that’s what I did, Kenny. I put her down. I don’t care how mad he gets, we got stuck doin’ all the work. While the rest of them are waitin’ off to the east, we’re crawlin’ up the side of the cliff, tryin’ not to make a sound while we push through that thicket. Waitin’ on our bellies for hours and hours without movin’ at all. The skin’s torn off my hands and arms from the thorns. My legs are crampin’, too. He shouldn’t be yellin’ at me or you ’cause we did the work.”
“I know we did, but you shouldn’t have used your sling to get her.”
“It’s what I use to get my birds.”
“A woman ain’t the same as a bird, Leod. Besides, you break your birds’ necks.”
“It’s the only way I know to kill them and keep the fat on them for cookin’.”
“You could have broken her neck.”
“I used a small stone so I wouldn’t.”
“I sure hope she wakes up. Does my face look bloody?”
“It does. We should’ve had more help,” he whined.
“We had Andrew right behind us.”
“What good was he? He’s so small and scrawny, he looks like he’s ten, and he can’t lift anything heavier than a bucket. He should have sent another man with us, not a boy.”
“His looks are deceiving. He’s near as old as we are. He just looks young and puny, but I hear he’s killed more than his share, and I’m meanin’ people, not birds. He uses his knife on them. Strolls up lookin’ so innocent and bam! in slides his blade.”
“Did you ever see him do it?”
“No, but I heard others talkin’ about it. I’d run fast if Andrew comes smilin’ at me. You best go on up the ladder now and see if she’s breathin’.”
Gabrielle heard the sound of the ladder being dragged across the floor. The top slammed against the loft.
“I don’t think this can hold me,” Leod balked. “Get that kid. Make him do it.”
“I told you. Andrew ain’t no kid, and if he goes up, he’ll diddle with her before he comes down.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to still her pounding heart. She heard boots on the rungs of the ladder, and she lay perfectly still as the man came near her. He smelled foul.
He bumped his head on the sloped ceiling. The straw mattress shifted when he leaned over her. He put his hand on her chest, and while she pretended to be unconscious, his fingers moved across her breasts. She wanted to kill him.
He jerked his hand away when Kenny yelled at him. “Is she breathing or not?”
“She is, but she’s still sleepin’.” He shook her. “She won’t open her eyes.”
“Then get down here. I hear him comin’.”
Leod muttered a curse as he climbed down.
“Leave the ladder where it is. He’ll want to see her.”
The door opened again, and the person they were waiting for entered. She didn’t need to see his face to know who he was. As soon as he opened his mouth, she knew: Baron Coswold.
Gabrielle went from stunned disbelief to rage in less than a heartbeat. Why was Coswold here? What did he want from her now? But there was no time to try and understand his motives. Instead, she needed to find a way to escape.
“You’re certain she sleeps?” Coswold demanded, and before Leod or Kenny could answer, he said, “How long have you been here? Were you talking? Did you say anything she might have heard?”
“We just came inside, didn’t we, Kenny?” Leod said. “We didn’t have time to talk. I walked in, got the ladder, and climbed to see if she was breathin’ and if her eyes were open.”
“She’s alive,” Kenny said.
“But she ain’t awake.”
“Bring her down here,” Coswold ordered.
“But she ain’t awake yet,” Kenny reminded.
Gabrielle heard a scuffle, then “I’m gettin’ her. I’m gettin’ her for you.”
The man climbed into the loft again and lifted Gabrielle off the bed. He carried her to the edge and dropped her limp body into waiting arms.
“Pull the chair out and put her there. Leod, get rope and tie her.”
Gabrielle continued to feign sleep while she was pushed and prodded. Her head hung down, and her hair covered her face. She knew Coswold stood over her. She felt his beady eyes on her, heard his panting, and breathed in his sickeningly sweet perfumed oils.
Leod wrapped a rope around her waist and pulled the ends tight behind the chair. Then he wound another rope around her wrists and tied it in a double knot.
“She’s good and tied,” he said. He sounded proud of his handiwork. “She can’t get loose.”
She felt the knots between her fingers and thought it might be a trick. Surely he knew that she would be able to undo the knots. Was he trying to prove she was awake? Or was he that stupid? She had her answer when he walked away.
“Get me a cup of water,” Coswold commanded.
When he had the water in his hand, he said, “Get out. Both of you.”
Kenny snickered. “He’s wanting to be alone with her.”
“What’s he going to do with her tied to the chair?”
“Get out and stay out until I call you!” Coswold shouted.
As soon as the door closed behind the men, Coswold grabbed Gabrielle’s hair and jerked her head back. He threw the water in her face.
She moaned and slowly opened her eyes. His horrible face was in front of hers.
“Wake up, Gabrielle. Wake up.”
He deliberately hurt her, using the heel of his hand against her forehead to shove her head against the back of the chair. Then in contradiction he knelt down in front of her and very gently brushed her hair away from her face, stroking her cheek with the backs of his fingers.
His touch repulsed her.
He dragged a chair over and sat down facing her. Bracing his hands on his knees, he studied her curiously.
“I mean you no harm, Gabrielle.”
She didn’t respond. She saw the maniacal look in his eyes.
“I want to ask you a question. That’s all,” he said pleasantly. “When you have given me a satisfactory answer, you may go home. Just one question and one answer. You will cooperate, won’t you?”
She didn’t answer. He tilted his head and studied her, waiting. Then suddenly he lashed out and slapped her with the back of his hand.
“Are you ready to hear my question?”
She refused to answer. He struck her again. “Where is the gold?”
Before she had time to react, he said, “I want the treasure of St. Biel. Where is it?”
She braced herself for another attack and said, “There is no treasure.”
He didn’t hit her. “Yes, there is. I went to St. Biel and became a believer. The king did not send all the gold to the pope. He hid it.”
“If that is true, he took the secret to his grave.”
Coswold wagged his finger at her. “No, no. The secret has been passed down. Your mother knew, didn’t she? And she told you.”
“No, she couldn’t tell me, because there is no treasure.”
“The priest confirmed it. That’s right. The envoy reported that when the priest brought it up, you said you wouldn’t give it to the MacHughs. So you do know where it is.”
“No, he did not mean gold.”
He struck her again, cutting the corner of her lip. “I don’t think you fully grasp my situation, Gabrielle. The treasure will free me from the king. I have been his pawn for the last time. Even if I could get away from him, I would have no allies. The barons see me as the royal lackey now. If the barons rebel, they will take me down with the king. So you see, I have nothing to lose.”
She thought he wanted her to feel sorry for him. He was demented.
“I thought it would be so easy. I would ask for your hand and I would have you. I had heard the tales about hidden treasure, but I didn’t believe them until the king sent me to St. Biel to make certain his steward wasn’t cheating him. I looked at that magnificent palace and saw for myself several gold coins. I was told they were kept as reminders, but that the rest was sent to the pope.”
Grinning, he tapped his head with his fingers. “But no one could say how much was there to begin with. The more people I asked, the more I was convinced that the king saved most of it for himself. And then I met an old man who had seen it…the gold…stacks and stacks of it. And it just disappeared. Where did it go, Gabrielle?”
“Greed has made you unreasonable. I speak the truth. There is no gold,” she said.
He sighed dramatically. “Yes, there is. After all I’ve done…yes, there is.”
“I cannot tell you, for I do not know where it is.”
“Then you admit that it exists.” He acted as though he had just tricked her into a confession.
She shook her head. “No.”
He sat back, crossed one leg over the other and began to lazily swing his foot back and forth.
A long minute passed in silence. Then her fear turned to terror.
“Do you love your father?” he asked.
She gave a sharp cry. “Where is he? What have you done?”
“What have I done? Nothing yet. Your father doesn’t travel with many men to protect him from ambush. He made it easy for me. I have watched him make his way toward the MacHugh holding. I knew exactly where to attack. Don’t worry. He’s still alive, though his condition is deteriorating. Tell me where the gold is and I will let him live.”
When she didn’t immediately answer him, Coswold said, “Do you think I might be lying? How did I know Baron Geoffrey was on his way here? It will be easy enough to get proof. I will send some of my men to him. If they cut off his hand and bring it to you, you will see for yourself the ring with his seal still on his finger.”
“No!” she screamed. “You would not dare kill a baron.”
“I wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t I? I’ve already killed a laird.”
“Monroe? You killed Laird Monroe?”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t let him have you. I needed to be able to talk to you about the gold. MacKenna didn’t care what I did with you as long as he got Finney’s Flat. Of course, he knew nothing about the treasure. I doubt he would have been so agreeable then. He proved useless to me alive, but now that he is dead, he has been helpful, for we sit inside a crofter’s cottage tucked away on his land. His clan is in such disarray, they have no idea we’re here.”
“My husband will come for me.”
“He will have to find you first, and I made certain my men went in every direction to cover their tracks. Are you willing to lose your father and your husband?”
“Then tell me where the gold is and be quick about it. We cannot sit here for days on end. Your husband would indeed find us then, and I would have to kill him.”
“I will tell you.”
His gasp sounded like a snarl. “Yes, yes, tell me.”
“It’s in Wellingshire,” she lied. “And well-hidden.”
He laughed. “Gold at Wellingshire and your father—”
“Mother could not tell him. I am the only one who knows. It belongs to the royal family of St. Biel.”
“You will have to tell me exactly where it is, for Wellingshire is nearly the size of a small country. Is it hidden in the castle?”
“No, it’s buried.”
“Where?” he demanded. A wild expression contorted his face, so great was his obsession.
“I must show you. It’s the only way. As you said, the estate is vast.”
“Then we will go to Wellingshire.”
“If my husband finds out, he will follow us, and I will not let you kill him. You must send him in the opposite direction.”
“How will I send word?”
“My husband can read and write.”
“I could write a message telling him that I escaped and now am safe with my father. I would ask him to come for me.”