Roger did as ordered, swiftly kicking him in his side. Liam didn’t move.
“I don’t think he’s going to wake up this time,” Kenneth said. “I’m guessing he’s dying now.”
“You shouldn’t have beat him so hard, Gordon,” Hamish muttered.
“We all took a turn,” Roger reminded him.
“We only did what we were told to do,” another interjected.
Gordon nodded. “That’s right. We were only following orders, like the good soldiers we are.”
Kenneth pushed the hood on his robe back, scratching his ear. “Tell me again. What did Liam MacHugh do?”
“I’ve told you ten times already,” Gordon shouted as he gave Kenneth a mighty shove, nearly knocking him into the hole.
The soldier scrambled to regain his balance. “Tell me again,” he said.
“We caught Liam, and we’re killing him to bring his brother down off the mountain so the soldiers hiding in the east woods can catch him unawares.”
Kenneth scratched his ear again as though to remove a pesky bug. “What are they gonna do with him when they catch him?”
Gordon shook his head. “Kill him, you simpleton, and bury him next to his brother.”
Kenneth wasn’t offended by the name calling. “What clan are the soldiers from? You know, the ones hiding over there.” He waved his hand toward the east, squinting to see if he could spy any of them.
“Never you mind what clan they belong to,” he answered. “The less you know, the better for you.”
“Look! Liam might be waking up,” another soldier announced, nudging their captive with his foot.
Roger cackled with delight. “Good. He’ll be knowing what’s happening when we dump him into the hole. Have any more water to throw on his face, Manus? Get him good and awake.”
Before he could get an answer, Kenneth said, “He never waked up. I’ve been watching his face, and his eyes haven’t even fluttered open once. He’s as good as dead.”
“But maybe like Gordon said, if we threw water on his face…” another soldier suggested.
“I used up the last of it,” Manus said. “We could spit on his face.”
The men thought that was a fine idea and began to laugh. Gabrielle heard the last two names as they pushed and shoved one another, acting like they were at a festival. Fergus and Cuthbert. She knew it was important for her to remember all seven names, for one day there would be retribution.
Hamish’s snorts of laughter stopped when he happened to look up and spot Laird MacHugh.
“There he is! There he is!” Hamish shouted as he struggled to get his hood up over his head. “There’s the MacHugh!”
Everyone, including Gabrielle, looked to the ledge. A silhouette of a warrior on horseback moved like a golden blur against the sun.
“We’ve got plenty of time,” Kenneth said. “The MacHugh can’t fly down here.”
“Look at all the men following him. I’m counting up to twenty already,” Manus shouted, his voice trembling with fear.
Gordon was getting jumpy. He thought he’d heard a noise behind him. He whirled around, his hand poised on the hilt of his sword. When he couldn’t see a threat, he turned again to look to the east and then the west. Nothing.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” he said. “Get him in the hole. We’ve got to cover him with dirt and be on our way.”
Roger and Cuthbert rushed to Liam and hauled him to his feet. The captive’s head dropped forward. Fergus grabbed him by his hair and jerked his head back. “His eyes are closed again,” he said, obviously disappointed.
“His eyes were never open,” Kenneth replied.
They were dragging Liam to the hole when a far-off rumble caught their attention. In unison all seven turned just as warriors on horseback broke through the trees at the far end of the glen. Their horses pounded the ground as they closed the distance. So far away, they were but dots on the horizon.
“It could be the Buchanans,” Manus shouted. “Can’t see them good at all yet, but I’m guessing it’s them.”
“They’ll kill us! They’ll kill us all!” Hamish screamed. He twirled in a circle like a cornered wood mouse trying to decide which way to scurry. “Where can we hide? Where?”
Cuthbert and Manus dropped Liam’s limp body. Urgency cracked Gordon’s voice when he ordered, “Get him up. Hurry, damn you. Get him up. When I was pulling him off his horse, his eyes opened, so I’m the only one he’s seen. I’ve got to kill him before he goes into the hole. There isn’t time to bury him and let him suffocate.”
Cuthbert and Manus didn’t obey the order. Neither did Roger or Kenneth or Hamish or Fergus, for all of them had already run for cover.
Gordon drew his sword. At the same time, Gabrielle reached for an arrow and notched it to her bow in anticipation.
The Buchanan warriors were still too far away for their arrows to reach the seven men, and the MacHugh warriors racing down the mountain were also too far away to save one of their own.
Suddenly, there was another commotion. Soldiers waiting to ambush the MacHugh broke through the trees and headed across the flats toward the Buchanans. A full-scale battle was about to erupt. If they didn’t hurry, Gabrielle and her guards would soon find themselves in the thick of it.
Gabrielle kept her gaze locked on Gordon, the leader of this pack of rats. His captive wasn’t moving. Liam was down on the ground, lying on his side, and Gordon kept nervously glancing to the north. He took a couple of steps back, hesitated, and then moved forward again. Gabrielle knew Gordon couldn’t run away and leave Liam, who had seen his face.
“Stephen,” she whispered. “If I miss—”
“But if I do…be ready.”
Gordon made up his mind. Turning in her direction, he swung his sword back, his intent to slice Liam in half.
Gabrielle’s arrow stopped him. Her aim was true, and the tip of the arrow cut through flesh and rib, piercing his black heart.
Seconds later the ground seemed to buckle beneath her feet as the Buchanans and their enemies clashed on the battlefield. The sound of metal slamming into metal was earsplitting. The killing had begun.
The pandemonium moved toward her. Gabrielle prayed that Liam MacHugh wouldn’t be trampled by horses or men before she could get to him. Blessedly, Christien and Faust made quick time and arrived at her side with the horses. Gabrielle climbed onto Rogue’s back and started toward the open field, pulling her cape over her head, hoping in the chaos that no one would see her.
Stephen blocked her. He knew what she wanted done. “Christien and I will see to the task. Lucien and Faust will take you back to the stream we crossed. Hurry, Princess. You must get away from here.”
She didn’t waste time arguing. She prodded Rogue with her foot and headed back through the forest. Moments later at the stream, Stephen and Christien caught up with them. Gabrielle thanked God they hadn’t gotten trapped by the battle.
“Is he alive?” She dismounted and rushed to Stephen’s side. Liam MacHugh was draped over his steed’s saddle.
“He’s still breathing,” he answered.
“Hurry then. I know where we can get help.”
A NOTHER GRISLY BATTLE CRY RENT THE AIR. TORTURED screams followed.
The MacHughs had joined the fight. Forming an impenetrable line, they advanced. The Buchanans followed their lead, and within minutes the two clans had trapped the enemy between them. They showed no mercy. It was an eye for an eye, and when it was over, the field was littered with bodies.
The frantic search for Liam MacHugh began then. Colm MacHugh leapt from his horse and ran to the hole the enemies had prepared for his brother. His relief was great when he saw the hole was empty. There was only one body on the ground near the mound of dirt. Colm didn’t recognize him. He was studying the unusual markings on the arrow embedded in the man’s chest when Laird Brodick Buchanan joined him.
“Who the hell is he?” Colm asked.
Brodick shook his head. “I’ve never seen him before.”
Colm jerked the arrow from the dead man’s chest. “Is this a Buchanan arrow?”
“No. I thought it was yours.”
“MacKenna’s behind this,” he said.
Brodick shook his head. “Those aren’t his soldiers on the ground, and this isn’t one of their arrows. The markings…I’ve never seen one like this before. There’s no sign of MacKenna here.” He picked up a piece of rope. There was blood on it. “They tied your brother with this.”
“I still think this is somehow MacKenna’s doing,” Colm insisted.
“Without proof, you cannot accuse him,” Brodick reasoned.
“Liam couldn’t have gotten far.” Colm scanned the woods surrounding them. “We’ll keep looking until we find him and whoever has him.”
“The Buchanans are with you,” Brodick pledged. “As long as it takes to avenge this black-hearted deed.”
The two lairds divided their men into smaller units to scour the area, but after hours of searching, each group reported that they had thoroughly covered the flats and the forests, but to no avail.
Liam MacHugh had vanished into thin air.
L IAM MACHUGH WAS IN SORRY SHAPE. SOMEONE HAD TAKEN a whip to his back, and his skin had been shredded into bloody ribbons. His legs and the bottoms of his feet had also taken a beating, and blood dripped from the deep gash on the right side of his head.
Gabrielle knew she could get help for the warrior at Arbane Abbey, and though she was in a hurry to get there, the injured man’s immediate needs came first.
They rode along the bank of the stream until they were far enough away from the fighting to stop. Stephen lifted the lifeless body of Liam MacHugh from his horse and placed him on the ground next to Gabrielle. She gently laid his head in her lap and pressed a cloth to the wound at his temple, trying to stop the bleeding, and then she quickly cleaned the other cuts as best she could with a strip of linen she’d torn from her undergarment and dipped in cold water. The man needed medicine to ward off infection and a soothing salve for his back. He also needed someone to put a needle and thread to him to pull together the ragged edges of skin around the gash. She didn’t want to be the one to sew him back together, for she didn’t wish to cause him any more pain.
The turn of the stream was tucked in between the pines a fair distance away from Finney’s Flat. They were isolated and she hoped safe from intruders. While Lucien and Faust guarded the area, Stephen and Christien stayed close to her. Just as she was about to call for her guards to move him, Liam’s head wound started bleeding again.
“Princess, you’ve got blood all over your gown,” Stephen remarked.
“I’m not bothered by it,” she replied. “But I worry about this poor man. He’s lost so much blood.”
“I don’t think he’s going to make it,” Christien said. “And we should be prepared for that possibility. What would you have us do with the body?”
Gabrielle wasn’t shocked by Christien’s bluntness. He wasn’t being callous. He was a compassionate man, but he was also the most pragmatic of the four guards.
“If he dies, then it is God’s will, but I will do everything in my power to help him survive.”
“As will we,” Stephen assured her. “However, Christien has made a valid point. This MacHugh warrior has not seen you.”
Her smile was gentle. “How could he? He has yet to open his eyes.”
“You don’t understand our meaning,” Christien said. “You could be in great danger.”
Stephen agreed. “We don’t know who these people are or if any of them may have seen us. Your arrow killed the leader of the men at the grave, but the others got away. If they find out you’re responsible for his death, they might seek revenge. No one must ever know you were there.”
Gabrielle glanced around at the somber faces of her four guards and realized Stephen was right. But it wasn’t for her safety alone that she was concerned. If the men at Finney’s Flat found out she had killed one of their own, they wouldn’t just come after her; they would retaliate against her guards as well. She couldn’t let that happen.
“What do you propose I do?” she asked.
“When we get closer to Arbane Abbey, Lucien and Faust will accompany you inside and escort you to your quarters,” Stephen suggested.
“You could use your cloak to hide the blood on your gown,” Christien said.
“And what of this injured man?” she asked.
“We’ll find another way to get him into the abbey. The monks will surely have the medicine he needs.”
Christien nodded. “If he dies, there is the possibility that Laird MacHugh might blame you. You heard what those cowards said about him.”
“They called him ruthless,” she said. “Yet they were going to bury an innocent man alive. Why would I believe a word any of them said?”
She stopped them before they could argue. “This man is now our responsibility. I won’t hand him over to anyone. We will all find a way into the abbey that will not draw attention. Only when I am assured that he is well cared for will I leave his side.”
“But Princess—” Christien began.
She continued. “These monks are men of God, are they not? I will simply ask them to keep silent as to how Liam came to be at the abbey. If I can get them to promise, they cannot and will not break their word.”
“There are other ramifications,” Stephen said. “You cannot get in the middle of a war.”
She knew they weren’t going to let up. “We shall compromise. Once Liam is safe and looked after, I will separate myself.”
“And you will tell no one what happened?”
“I will tell no one.”
I T WAS SURPRISINGLY EASY TO GET INSIDE THE ABBEY UNSEEN. Not only was the door on the south end of the curtain wall that surrounded the monastic buildings unlatched, but it was also propped open. A priest had placed a stone in front of the door so that it would be easier for him to carry in bags of grain from the wagon across the path.
Gabrielle and her guards watched him from the cover of the trees behind the abbey. She thought the bags looked like they weighed more than the priest did. He wasn’t quite an old man yet, possibly still in his early forties, she guessed, but he didn’t have much muscle. He first tried to put the bag on one shoulder, nearly toppled over, and ended up wrapping his arms around the middle of the bag and letting the bottom drag between his legs.