“Perhaps,” Franklin allowed. “But what if Liam were to die before Colm MacHugh could get here? And after Gelroy has told him Liam’s alive. What then?”
“You mean to say after you tell him Liam’s alive,” Gelroy snapped.
“I believe you’re borrowing trouble,” she said. “And this Colm MacHugh must be told. He’s surely frantic by now. If someone I loved disappeared, I don’t know what I would do.”
Though they had been discussing the issue in low voices, Gabrielle felt they should move into the hallway so they wouldn’t disturb Liam.
“He can’t hear us,” Franklin said. “He’s still in a deep sleep.”
Gelroy followed Gabrielle into the hall and closed the door behind him. “I promise you, milady, that Franklin and I will work this out. Have no worries. One of us will make certain Colm MacHugh is informed of his brother’s whereabouts.”
“My guards have asked me to inquire if you would like their assistance sitting with Liam during the nights ahead. He shouldn’t be left alone.”
Gelroy was both pleased and relieved by the offer. “I would be most appreciative for their help. Franklin and I promised you that we wouldn’t tell anyone how this poor soul came to be here, but we have also decided that it would be for the best if we didn’t mention Liam at all. There would be too many questions and speculations. We’ll keep his presence secret for as long as possible. So you see, we cannot ask any of the others to sit with him because the secret will then be out.”
Franklin stepped forward. “Gelroy told me that he doesn’t know what happened to Liam or who inflicted the severe beating, but he and I promise you, whoever it was won’t get another opportunity to do him harm while he is a guest here. With the help of your guards we will all make certain he remains safe.”
“I wish I could be more helpful and take a turn sitting with him, but I realize—”
Lucien interrupted. “You cannot, Princess.”
“It wouldn’t be proper for you to be in a man’s room, no matter if he were sleeping or not,” Franklin told her.
She didn’t argue, for she knew he was right.
Turning to Gelroy, she said, “And one of you will go to the MacHugh holding?”
His shoulders slumped. “Aye. One of us will go.”
“You understand, milady. Whoever goes won’t be coming back,” Franklin said matter-of-factly.
Gelroy was nodding agreement when Franklin patted him on his shoulder. “I’ll miss you, Gelroy.”
“It is a dangerous journey?” she asked.
“Not particularly,” Franklin answered.
“Will it take long to get there then?”
“Not overly long,” Gelroy answered.
“It isn’t the getting there that’s the worry, milady. It’s the getting out of there that has us worried.”
Gabrielle was certain their fears of the MacHughs were exaggerated. They couldn’t be as fearsome as the priests were insinuating.
“You’ll go soon?” she pressed.
“Very soon,” Gelroy promised.
The priest’s definition of very soon was different from Gabrielle’s. It took him three full days and nights to gather his courage to head out. By that time Liam had improved enough that Gelroy could feel confident he would survive, but the priest was still apprehensive. Even though he knew he must carry the news to Laird MacHugh, he still had his doubts that he would be returning to Arbane Abbey.
Father Gelroy finally rode out on a borrowed mount, but his destination wasn’t the MacHugh holding. After putting considerable thought into the matter, he decided instead to go to MacHugh’s loyal ally, Laird Buchanan. Gelroy foolishly believed that Brodick Buchanan would be easier to talk to and less likely to physically react to the news that Laird MacHugh’s brother had been severely beaten.
The closer he got to the Buchanan land, the more violent his trembling became until he feared he would shake himself off his horse. But God took mercy on him. As he was resting under a huge oak tree just below the Buchanan holding, he spotted a horse and rider coming down the broken trail.
Now he had a dilemma on his hands. He didn’t know if the rider was friend or foe. Should he try to hide? No, the rider had already spotted him. Gelroy said a prayer and decided to hope for the best.
Lo and behold, it was Baron Geoffrey riding toward him. He made the sign of the cross in thanksgiving, and as soon as the baron was within shouting distance, Gelroy called out to him. He reminded him that they had met before at the abbey, nearly two years ago. Without mentioning the baron’s daughter, Gelroy asked the baron if he had been with the Buchanans. “It seemed to me you were coming from their land.”
“I was,” Baron Geoffrey answered.
“Do you know the Buchanans well?”
“We are distantly related, and though I had thought to pay my respects and not linger more than one night, a tragedy occurred. A warrior was missing. The men were out searching for him and were expected to come back to the holding yesterday but were delayed by a terrible rainstorm the night before. I had to wait for Laird Buchanan to return home.”
“Could the warrior’s name be Liam MacHugh?” he asked mildly.
“Aye. So you have heard what happened.”
“I’ve seen him,” he said. “He was brought to the abbey, the poor soul.”
The baron was rendered speechless. Gelroy took advantage of his condition.
“You’ll be getting a high place in heaven, even though you’re English, if you’ll go back and tell Laird Buchanan this news so that he can tell Laird MacHugh.”
While Baron Geoffrey was reeling from the information given so casually, Father Gelroy turned around and nudged his mount into a trot down the mountain.
“Wait,” the baron shouted. “You cannot go without—Is Liam still alive?”
Gelroy slapped his horse’s hindquarters to get it to speed up. Without glancing back, he called over his shoulder, “Oh God, I hope so.”
T HE LAIRDS WHO LIVED IN THE NORTHERN HIGHLANDS were a prickly group. They were known to be unpredictable, unreasonable, and ungracious. They were also known to be savages upon occasion. Yet if Baron Geoffrey were to accuse any of them of these flaws, they would believe he was flattering them.
Aye, they were a peculiar lot, and no one, Geoffrey believed, was more peculiar or hardheaded than Laird Brodick Buchanan. Brodick didn’t have any problem letting Geoffrey know that, even though they were related, he still disliked him intensely because he was English. Since Brodick’s wife also happened to be from England and was Geoffrey’s cousin, Brodick explained very bluntly that he couldn’t come right out and say that he hated all the English, just some.
The rude laird also told Geoffrey that he didn’t want him stepping foot on his land, yet Geoffrey knew that if he honored the laird’s wishes and didn’t pay his respects when he was in the area—and every laird in the Highlands would know that he was—then Brodick would consider the slight a grave insult and would have no choice but to retaliate.
The baron had only visited once before, just after Brodick married Lady Gillian. He had been asked by his uncle Morgan to check on Gillian’s well-being. Morgan, Geoffrey’s father’s youngest brother, was a cranky, reclusive old man, who couldn’t believe that Gillian would be content living in the Highlands among the wild Buchanans. To Geoffrey’s surprise, he found Gillian not only content but quite happy. She could not have been more gracious to him, and her kindness more than made up for her husband’s hostility.
Although he would never admit it to Brodick, Geoffrey was impressed with him and his wife. They didn’t live in a fine castle but rather a small cottage no bigger than Geoffrey’s steward’s home. It was apparent that neither Brodick nor Gillian cared about impressing outsiders but, rather, concentrated on more important issues. Brodick’s sole duty was to protect his wife and his clan. Gillian’s duty, at the moment anyway, was to protect her unborn child. She wanted to attend Gabrielle’s wedding, of course, but from the moment she had informed Brodick that he was going to become a father, leaving their holding was out of the question.
The priest who had intercepted Geoffrey and given him the news about Liam MacHugh acted as though he had a pack of wild dogs on his tail. As soon as he had blurted out the news, he had turned and urged his mount into a full gallop and had disappeared into the trees.
Geoffrey headed back to the Buchanan holding, but Brodick wasn’t happy to see him again so soon. He certainly wasn’t in the mood to put up with another social call.
The laird was an intimidating sight as he stormed toward Geoffrey. Tall and muscular, he was fair-haired and battle-scarred, and he wore a scowl as black as night. His first in command, a fierce warrior named Dylan, followed in his laird’s wake. Then two more warriors joined the procession.
Geoffrey rested his hands on the pommel of his saddle and waited for Brodick to reach him. The laird’s greeting wasn’t pleasant, but then Geoffrey didn’t expect it to be.
“I thought I was rid of you, Baron.”
Geoffrey ignored the insult. “Liam MacHugh is at Arbane Abbey.”
His announcement took the scowl off Brodick’s face. “Is he alive?”
The baron quickly recounted what the priest had told him, and when he was finished, Brodick asked, “What in thunder does ‘I hope so’ mean? Liam’s either alive or he isn’t.”
“He must have meant that Liam was alive the last time he saw him,” Geoffrey suggested. “You’ll tell Laird MacHugh?”
Brodick turned around and walked away from Geoffrey, dismissing him. He was barking orders to his men. He would go with MacHugh to the abbey. There was no doubt in his mind that Colm MacHugh would stop at nothing to find out who had done this to his brother. If God was merciful, Liam MacHugh would be alive when they got there.
W HILE GELROY HAD BEEN WORKING UP THE COURAGE to make the trip to inform Liam’s family of his whereabouts, Gabrielle had been filling her days with social obligations and preparations for the wedding. In the late of night she would leave her chamber to look in on Liam while he slept. Her guards stood watch at his door. Father Franklin explained to his patient when he finally opened his eyes that, even though the abbey was a sanctuary and was therefore considered holy ground by all good, God-fearing men and women, he wasn’t going to take any chances that a heathen might sneak in and do Liam further injury. He told Liam that Lady Gabrielle had arrived for her wedding with a contingent of guards, and he had asked for their help. In his weakened condition, Liam didn’t protest. He was aware that they were watching over him, but he didn’t speak to them, and when they spoke to one another, it was in a language that Liam had never heard and couldn’t understand.
ONCE LIAM WAS CONSCIOUS, Father Gelroy announced that he would be leaving to deliver his message, and he set out the following dawn. He returned at nightfall. When he knocked on Gabrielle’s door, she was happy to see him, but she was surprised that he had returned from his important errand so quickly. She made him comfortable in a chair on the balcony, offered him refreshment, and then took her seat across from him.
“You are well, Father?” she asked.
“I am,” he replied. “And you, milady?”
“I am most well,” she replied, “but I am quite curious. May I ask, how were you able to complete your errand in such a short time?”
“I rode hard and fast,” he boasted.
A servant stood in the doorway with a tray. Gabrielle motioned to her, and she offered a goblet of cool water to the priest. Father Gelroy thanked her with a smile and a nod and then took a hefty drink.
“Was Laird MacHugh overjoyed with the news about his brother? Was he relieved?”
“I imagine he was overjoyed and relieved,” he answered. “You see, I didn’t go to the MacHugh holding. I thought it would be more prudent…yes, prudent,” he repeated, “to go to the Buchanan holding and give Laird Buchanan the news so that he could have the honor of telling Laird MacHugh. The Buchanans are allies of the MacHughs, and their holding is much closer to the abbey.”
“I see.” Gabrielle folded her hands in her lap and asked, “And was Laird Buchanan overjoyed and relieved with the news?”
“I imagine he was,” he said a bit sheepishly.
“You don’t know?” she asked, thoroughly confused.
He cleared his throat. “As it turned out, I didn’t need to go all the way to the Buchanan holding. Your father was just leaving their land by the only safe route, and I was able to intercept the baron and give him the joyful news. I’m certain he was happy to tell Laird Buchanan.”
It seemed to Gabrielle that the priest had made a simple errand quite complicated. His fear of Laird MacHugh was most unreasonable. After all, the priest had good news to relay to the laird. Why would he worry that the man would do him harm?
“Yes, I’m certain he was,” she said.
“Your father should be here soon now,” he remarked.
“I’ll be happy to see him. Perhaps he will go riding with me in the countryside. I don’t wish to complain, but I would love to leave the abbey for a little while.”
“The countryside is crowded these days,” he said. “There are envoys from many countries who have arrived for the wedding. Several barons from England have set up camp here. And as you know, when they travel, they bring all the comforts of home. I have heard that one tent is as big as our church. Your wedding to Laird Monroe promises to be a grand occasion.”
“I’m amazed they would travel this long distance for the ceremony,” she said.
“This is an important event for many people,” he explained.
Father Franklin interrupted with a hard knock on the door. As soon as the servant bid him enter, the priest rushed into the chamber. When he saw Gelroy, he came to a quick stop and motioned for him to join him.
“It appears Franklin’s wanting a private word with me. I think I know what this is about. I missed noon prayers,” he explained. “And I imagine he’s wanting to give me a good lecture.”
A moment later the two priests were in deep discussion, whispering back and forth. Gabrielle’s attention was drawn to the commons below. She leaned over the railing and saw a priest running and shouting to two others coming out of the chapel, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. The commons quickly filled with men, and all of them seemed highly agitated, waving their arms and shaking their heads. A few priests made the sign of the cross, knelt down, and began to pray.