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Excerpts to "Lady Gwendolyn"

Excerpt 1

 

Madeleine, her maid and companion since childhood, interrupted her reverie.  “Can you believe it?  You’re to be married into such a grand house.  I’d be nervous.”

 

“I am, a bit,” Gwendolyn admitted and stretched her hand out to clasp Madeleine’s.  "I wonder, though, why Father made Richard stay behind.  It seemed a sudden decision, and I wanted both my brothers to attend my wedding."

 

"Your father has his reasons, I'm sure."  The maid's smile did not reach her eyes.

 

"Of course.  I’m most grateful my father allowed you to accompany me.”

 

“He knows better than to separate us.”

 

Gwendolyn squeezed her hand once and sat back.

 

Madeleine returned the squeeze, but they both knew where the line had been drawn. Everything Gwendolyn learned, Madeleine did as well.  She knew how to run a great house, how to dress and conduct herself as a lady, and how to use house politics to her advantage.  But she would never need those things.  She was, after all, a companion, a maid—not highborn.

 

A scream stopped their conversation.  Another scream of pain followed. The litter shuddered to a stop. Yells and curses washed over the women in a cacophony.  Swallowing hard, Gwendolyn raised her hand halfway and paused.  In a burst of courage, she jerked the curtains open, daring to look.  Arrows whistled through the air, puncturing men and animals alike.  Ill-clad ruffians leapt from behind the bracken, brandishing arms and giving offense, attacking anyone within reach.  Lord Hampton fell, mortally wounded, his shield splintered.  Not far from him lay her brother, Phillip, pierced by arrows.

 

She understood instantly as she ducked back in.  Her father and younger brother were dead.  Now only her oldest brother, Richard, and she carried the Hampton line.

 

“They’re slain!”  Her eyes, wide and alarmed, fixed on Madeleine while her mind whirled.  “Richard must be warned!”

 

“Then go!”  Madeleine pushed at her lady’s shoulder.  “Make haste!”

 

“But, Maddy, you should…”

 

“No!” Madeleine argued.  “The farther you are from this, the safer you’ll be.  Your brother cannot lose another.”

 

Without the luxury of time to argue, Gwendolyn unclasped the brooch that held her rich, red cloak around her shoulders.   “Here!  Trade me!  If they think me to be only a maid, perhaps they’ll let me flee.” She ignored hot tears flowing down her cheeks.

 

“The brigands won’t hurt us women, so don’t worry.”  Madeleine glanced toward Ruth, the older, second maid, who sat rooted in fear.

 

“Stay with the dowry if possible.”  Gwendolyn thrust the garment at the woman and grabbed the gray one in exchange.  Taking the gold filigree circlet from her head, she traded it for her maid's of braided cloth.  Once the red cloak with its elaborate embroidery had been secured on Madeleine, Gwendolyn whispered, “God willing, I will see you again ere long.”

 

With no time for more words, she leapt out of the far side of the litter and ducked, crouching and unseen, into the welcomed invisibility of thick undergrowth.  The sounds of the battle followed her as she ran, taking cover where she found it.

 

Swwiiisshh.  Thud.

 

A stray arrow embedded itself in her side, beside her left breast.  Without time to moan, Lady Gwendolyn fell to the forest floor, unconscious, bleeding, and alone.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Remnants of the day’s light barely brightened the far western horizon when something pushed against Lady Gwendolyn’s shoulder, bringing her around.  The soft nose of a gray horse nuzzled her once more, its warm breath puffing against her face.  At first bewildered, she focused on the blue and yellow livery of the gray and recognized them as Hampton colors. As soon as she moved, the pain in her side brought the horror of the day rushing back.  With grim determination, she stood, swaying, and took a tentative step while holding onto the charger's mane.  Encouraged when she didn't faint, in spite of the blinding pain, she ventured another.  In this method, she reached the site of the attack.  No one of her party remained alive, not father, brother, soldiers, or horses.  The litter was nowhere to be seen.

 

“Maddy…” she murmured as she held her side. The bright yellow of the arrow's fletching caught her eye, which followed the shaft to the bloody hole it had made. Nausea and fright engulfed her, sending her to her knees, sobbing and disoriented.

 

“I…I can’t go on.  Let me perish here with my father, my brother.”  Hot, exhausted tears splashed onto the earth as she gave in to desperation.

 

The gray nuzzled her again, causing her to look up. Fevered eyes searched the dimly lit trail and the scattered corpses awash in dusk’s shadow.  A slight breeze stirred branches and grass, making it seem as if some of the bodies moved.

 

“Father?  Father, is that you?” Gwendolyn raised one hand. “What? I can’t hear you.”  She sat quietly for a moment, as if listening, and then wailed, “No!  No!  Don’t go.  I need you.”

 

Bowing her head, she wondered what to do.  This was no time to give up.  Richard still needed to be warned.  Her family’s murderers needed to be captured.  With an inner strength unfamiliar to her, she knew what to do. She inched toward a corpse to retrieve the fallen warrior's battle knife, then half crawled, half stumbled to place the arrow against a rowan, hacking at the arrow until it broke in half.

 

Searing pain brought her to her knees, trembling and crying.  After a few moments, the spasm abated, enabling her to stand.   By now, darkness enveloped her under the forest canopy.  Weariness invaded her bones and muscles; the desperate craving to lie down and sleep overwhelmed her.  But, the thought of sleeping among the dead proved too macabre.

 

At least let me walk a short distance toward home ere I sleep, she encouraged herself.  Holding onto the gray for support, Gwendolyn had taken no more than ten faltering steps when she spied a tree stump. With careful, slow movement, she stepped onto it and into the charger’s saddle.  With a click of her tongue, she turned its head for home.

 


 

Excerpt 2

 

Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! The heavy oak door to Richard’s bedroom trembled under its rough predawn assault.

 

“Milord!”

 

“What in God’s name…!”  Richard shot up in bed, his hand instinctively grabbing for his dagger.

 

A blue-liveried servant scrambled to light a rush, his cold, trembling fingers impeding his progress.  A second servant leapt from his pallet, stumbling across the dark floor to answer the summons. A massive House Guard hurried in to stand beside the bed.  He removed his helmet and clutched his chest, trying to calm his rasping breath.

 

“What is it so urgent at this hour?” Richard growled, jerking open the curtains ringing his bed.

 

“Lady… Hampton, sire.  She’s…gravely wounded.”

 

Flinging the bedcovers back, the young Hampton demanded, “What?  Where is she?  Take me to her at once!”

 

The guard lowered his head.  “Yes, sire.  She’s in the barbican.”

 

Waiting only for a robe and boots, Richard sped from the room, and down the stairs.  His boot heels rang staccato on the floors, guards, servants and dogs following his long, impatient strides.  When he opened the main door, wind blew his caramel brown locks into his sea-green eyes—the same green as his sister’s.  At twenty, he bore his father’s features both in face and in character; his granite jaws clenched as he hurried across the moonlit yard.  His strong shoulders and biceps strained for whatever danger lay ahead.

 

Upon entering the tower, Richard saw his family’s physician bent over the trestle, tending to Gwendolyn.

 

“How fares she, sir?”  Richard stood on the other side of the table and reached for his sister's hand.

 

“It’s too soon to tell, sire.”  The old man shook his head and handed a bowl of bloodied water to a guard who’d followed Richard in.  “Get fresh,” he ordered and then looked up at Richard.  “She’s lost a lot of blood.  I’ve no idea how far she rode in this condition.”

 

Richard leaned over, putting his mouth close to his sister's ear.

 

"Gwenie, I'm here.  Can you hear me?  Gwenie?"  He waited a moment.  "Where's Maddy?"  Still getting no response, he straightened, his mouth in a tight, angry line.  “Who found her?”  His eyes scanned the shadowed room and landed on Geoff standing at the end of the trestle.

 

“By your leave, sire.  I did.”  Geoff took one step forward and met Richard’s grave stare with his own.

 

“Did she speak?  What did she say?”

 

“She fell at my feet but, ere she swooned, she told me they had all been murdered.  I carried her here, where she has been as you see her now.”

 

“Murdered!  Did she say by whom?”

 

“No, sire.”

 

“Damnation!”  His eyes steeled themselves in furious resolve.  “Captain!  Your recommendation?"

 

"We should prepare to ride at first light.”

 

"Make it so, then meet me in my chambers."

 

“Yes, sire.”  Beowyn bowed once and stepped out the door to ready his men.

 


 

Excerpt 3

Madeleine and Ruth traveled unmolested, their captors intent on covering as much ground as possible during the remaining daylight.  Ruth had finally quit weeping and now her dull eyes stared ahead, her stubby hands clasped in her lap.

 

For her part, Madeleine studied the men surrounding them.  Most were brutish in appearance and mentality, though strong of body.  Many carried pikes and axes, some had bows, and even fewer had swords.  On the rare instances when they spoke, their guttural tones carried a Scottish brogue to her ears.  She knew the House of Dewar was Scots, and her mind turned its suspicion of the abduction to them.  It didn’t make any sense.  Why would Dewar kidnap the very woman coming to wed his son, Angus?  Why would he steal his own dowry?  No.  There had to be another explanation.  Nor could it be plain thievery.  Her captor had immediately addressed Lady Gwendolyn.  The wedding party had been deliberately beset.

 

She turned her attention next to the leader, the rogue on horseback.  He sat his steed well, an accomplished equestrian.  His livery, though not expensive, was well maintained.  A sword hung from his side and bumped against black leather boots.  He wore no chainmail, but rather a simple brown tunic underneath a gray woolen cloak.  Black hair curled to the middle of his shoulders in such an unkempt fashion that she wondered if it had ever seen a comb.  In profile, she could see that he kept his beard trimmed.

 

Every so often, he would look over his shoulder at his men and at their prize.  Catching Madeleine’s gaze once, he reined his rouncey around and walked beside the wagon.

 

“We will stop for water anon.” The civility of his voice belied the violence of their current situation.

 

Madeleine tilted her head in disinterest and looked away.

 

“I don’t believe I introduced myself,” he continued, a note of mockery underlying his civil, almost polite, words.  “I am Ian of Bryers, at your service.”  In spite of her continued silence, he stayed close.

 

From the corner of her eye, she saw him glance at her circlet of gold.  Next he gazed at her golden-brown braids hanging from beneath her veil and down her back. The veil covered the shoulders of the costly red cloak, its red brooch shining.  Her full lips held his attention next, and she willed herself not to blush.  Her hazel eyes, large and expressive even in disdain, focused on a spot down the trail, though she knew he was now staring at them.

 

“Who contrived this capture?” she broke her silence while she continued looking straight ahead.

 

“Why, me, of course.”

 

Madeleine jerked her gaze to him, her eyes as piercing as her words. “I do not think so, sir.  You have neither the wit nor fortitude for such a scheme.”

 

Ian’s face clouded at the insult.  “Speak freely now, Lady, whilst you can.  For soon you will regret such an opinion.”  Spurring his horse, he cantered to the front of the men.

 

That night, they set up a makeshift camp by a small stream.  The wind blew cold against chapped lips and raw hands, making their tiredness all the more bitter.  Madeleine and Ruth were allowed next to the fire and ringed in by sleeping men.  Thoughts of escape proved idle recreation, as the possibility of such was nil.  Ten steps in any direction, and the women would be caught, with rougher treatment ensured.

 

Ian watched the two women, wondering at them.  It seemed Lady Gwendolyn would do for herself before asking her maid.  Fetching water or brushing the day’s tangles from her hair didn’t seem beneath her.  When Madeleine saw him watching, she stopped her brush in mid-stroke and handed it to Ruth, as if remembering her place at last.

 


 

Excerpt 4

Madeleine watched Ruth stumble through the doorway, unassisted, clearly undone by their long, arduous journey. The circlet on her veil sat askew and her face looked pale and drawn.  She limped while she carried their meager collection of belongings to the fire and dropped them at her feet.  Holding her hands toward the flame, she seemed unaware of the others in the room.

 

Ruth was older by several years and shorter by several inches than Madeleine.  Even on her best day, no one would mistake her for a beauty.  Close-set eyes crowded her too large nose, and thin lips stretched above a round chin.  Friendly enough in the right circumstances, when pressed, she became loud and frantic.  These tactics had rescued her from bad situations on many occasions.  But, that night found her neither loud nor frantic.  Madeleine guessed, like her, all Ruth wanted was a hot meal, a soft bed, and to be left alone.

 

When the rest of Ian’s men gathered around the trestle, food was brought in.  The ensuing mad scramble left one in danger of being pummeled by gouging elbows and swinging fists.  Knowing there would be nothing left if they waited, Madeleine nodded at Ruth and watched her wearily push her way through the melee.  Grabbing some bread and a bowl of hot broth, she carried it back to Madeleine, where the two women shared their meager supper.

 

When everyone’s hunger abated, thoughts turned to other matters.  From his place at the table, Ian watched Madeleine for a moment and then called to one of his men.

 

“Bring me your saddlebag.”  With that in hand, Ian counted coins.  “I believe one-hundred sovereigns is right?”

 

Father Simon rubbed his palms together as he watched Ian work.  Soon, his small locked chest held the money and Father Simon returned its key to the depths of his great pocket.  Madeleine observed the transaction from the corner of her eye.  That much money would ensure her imprisonment for longer than she cared to guess.  It also ensured her death, if it came to it.

 

“I trust you have sufficient accommodations for your two guests.” Ian pointed his chin in the women’s direction.

 

“Aye.  They will be two birds in a gilded cage.  As long as they behave themselves, they should do well.”

 

“Good.  Then let us take them to it.”  Rising stiffly, Ian flexed his shoulders and stretched his back.  A few steps carried him to the women.

 

“Lady Hampton, our host has prepared your room.  Please, allow me.”  He held out his hand as an invitation, but the expression in his eyes carried an order.

 

Without a word, Madeleine gathered her muddy skirts and rose, refusing his help.  Her first faltering steps moved her only a short distance.  As she continued to walk, her limbs shifted more freely, though every step remained filled with throbbing pain.  Father Simon led the way, holding a burning rush high above his head.  Ian took Madeleine’s elbow and followed.  Ruth, carrying the women’s belongings, was escorted by one ruffian who continued leering at her with his jack-o-lantern teeth.  Behind them, with another rush, followed a novitiate, nervous and seeming eager to please the priest.

 

Their path led down two flights of stairs and through a thick, locked door.  From the dank air, Madeleine knew them to be underground.  Several barred cells lined one wall; the vaulted ceiling caused even the faintest sound to echo.  At the far end stood another door, smaller than the first.  To this, Father Simon inserted a key and pulled it opened.

 

“Milady,” he gestured to the interior.  “If you please.”

 

There was no window or light in the rectangular room, no brazier for a fire, no blankets or even straw for a pallet.

 

“Sir, this is too rough,” Madeleine complained to Ian.  “Or do you wish my death from these inclement elements?”

 

Ian studied the surroundings and turned to the priest.  “This will do.  But I prefer if the lady had blankets, water and fire for warmth.”

 

“If you wish.” Father Simon frowned before ordering the novitiate to bring the items.

 

“He’ll need help,” Ian said.  “Assist him, Will.”

 

Within a short time, the requested necessities were placed in the cell and a fire started.  Its glow sparsely lit the room, revealing its dank and inhospitable nature. Stains marked water’s incessant travel from ceiling to floor on the outside wall.  In the corners, black moss competed with mold for space, leaving the air musty and hard to breathe.  A chill covered all, making the damp even more invasive.

 

“If that is all,” the priest snapped, “I must return to business.”  He gave the cell key to Ian and led his novitiate out.

 

“Milady,” Ian stepped outside the cell and started to close the door, “I will send Will with more food, wood and water later.”

 

In a flash, fear of her predicament flooded away her composure.  Lady or maid no longer mattered.

 

“Wait!  Sir, please.  Don’t do this.”  Madeleine moved toward Ian and placed a trembling hand on his forearm.  “You cannot abandon us to such a place. There is no air here, nor light, and it feels of the grave.”  Seeing him step back to leave, she cried out.  “Please! I have nothing here to give you but, if you’d put us in a room with a window, I swear on all that’s holy I will not venture to escape.”  Seeing his countenance unmoved, she stretched a hand toward him again. “And, more, I’ll request that you’re paid for your troubles.  My…my betrothed will see to it.”

 

She leaned forward to look closely into his eyes, her own filled with dread.  “I—I am frightened,” she confessed in a whisper.  “Is the ransom a ruse?  Am I as good as dead already?”  Falling to her knees, she pressed her hands in supplication and lifted her tear-stained face.  “Please—Ian—don’t leave me buried thus.”

 

Ian cast his face with indifference.   He stood for a long moment, contemplating her countenance, and she prayed to see a debate or some sign of weakening in his eyes, but he stepped away, dashing her hopes.

 

“Then pray for a speedy ransom.”  With that, he closed the door and locked it.

 

“Noooo!  Please!  Noooo!”  Madeline jumped to her feet; her fists flailed against the thick wood.

 

Her cry echoed through the empty, cavernous room.  Hearing the door lock, Madeleine turned her back to the wall and slid to the floor.  Ruth stood beside the brazier, wringing her hands and shedding noisy tears.

 


 

Excerpt 5

Beowyn turned his head, instantly awake, listening intently for the faint noise.  There!  In the courtyard below.  Throwing off his covers, he rose and stepped around his sleeping men, crossing the room in quick strides to survey the scene from his window.  After opening the shutters a few inches, he searched the moon shadows contorting distance and shape, and saw three figures skulking toward the stables, none of them dressed as priests.

 

Throwing on his garments, he sped through the dark hall and down the stairway, fastening his sword around his waist as he went.  Easing out the front door, he pressed himself against the wall until he felt sure he hadn’t been seen.  Muted voices from the stable carried across the courtyard.  Zigzagging from shadow to shadow, Beowyn made his way to the barn and stood beside a door, studying the interior.  Several horses filled the stalls that lined both sides of the stable.  Most he recognized as belonging to his knights.  Two strange men stood at one end, while a third sat on a mound of hay, their features in dim relief from an oil lantern hanging on its rafter.

 

“I will not hide like a frightened maid! I’m all for leaving.”

 

“Aye, Jonas.  Me as well,” a second voice agreed.

 

“Good, Samuel.”

 

“Bryers will be furious,” a third argued.

 

“Bryers be damned!  If he wants to play games with the lady, then let him.  I’ll not wait any longer, Allan.  This business makes me uneasy.”

 

“Where will you go?” Allan asked.

 

“Yes.  Where will you go?”  From the opposite end of the stable, Beowyn stepped in from the gloom.  His fingers unclasped his cloak and he draped it across a stall gate.

 

All three jumped at the unexpected appearance.  Jonas recovered more quickly than his compatriots and brandished his sword, its blade gleaming.

 

“Who wants to know?” Jonas glowered, danger glinting from his dark eyes.

 

“You be from the House of Hampton,” Allan surmised.

 

“And how would you know that?”  Beowyn drew his sword, the sound of metal scraping leather filling the temporary silence.  “Unless you’ve slain men wearing just such a livery.”

 

“Aye.  That we have.  Enjoyed it, too.”  Jonas hurled his insult and himself at Beowyn, his sword thrusting straight out.

 

Beowyn parried and stepped to one side as Jonas flew into Beowyn’s powerful left uppercut.  Jonas staggered back, an enraged howl erupting from his throat.

 

As they fought, Samuel searched the stable and grabbed a pitchfork, its heavy sharp tines able for the task at hand.  When Jonas stumbled, Samuel ran three steps forward and hurled his new weapon.  At the last second, Beowyn twisted to the side, the pitchfork embedding itself in the post behind him, the ring from its impact singing.  Samuel’s face blanched at his failure and he turned to flee.  Beowyn leapt and grabbed Samuel’s wrist.  With a vicious wrench, Beowyn spun him around, with Samuel’s back against his chest, the edge of Beowyn’s sword pressing against his liver.

 

“Where is Bryers?” Beowyn hissed in his ear.

 

Samuel gulped and his eyes darted from Jonas to Allan, beseeching their assistance.  Neither man moved.

 

“Tell me!”  The blade penetrated farther, slicing through cloth and skin.

 

Samuel felt blood run down his side and Beowyn’s hot breath on his neck.  At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to live.

 

“Bryers is…”  Samuel got no further.  Jonas’ knife whirled through the air end-over-end, until it buried itself to the hilt in Samuel’s chest.  When Samuel slumped forward, Beowyn let him fall to the ground and, giving him no further thought, stepped around him.  Keeping an eye on Allan, who stood unarmed and had yet to enter the fight, Beowyn addressed his adversary.

 

“Tell me now of his whereabouts and you may yet live.”

 

“The devil take you!” Jonas screamed, his sword raised.  The blade sliced air as Beowyn leapt backward, his arms spread out.  He brought his own blade across in a forward slash, which Jonas countered, the sound of steel ringing through the stable and spilling into the courtyard. They exchanged thrusts and parries in a heated rush, the opponents evenly matched in height and strength.   Somewhere in the flurry, Jonas cut Beowyn’s left leg, causing Beowyn to stagger at the gash.

 

With barely enough time for Beowyn to recover, Jonas lunged downward, but Beowyn caught the assailant’s weapon with his own. The two men locked in combat, muscles trembling at the exertion, sweat beading both brows.  Gray eyes met brown, both determined to destroy the other.  With a loud grunt, Beowyn finally broke free and twisted to his right just before another furious volley ensued.

 

As the two struggled, Allan finally wrested the pitchfork free from its wooden prison.  Just as he raised his arm to impale Beowyn’s back, an arrow sliced the air and cleanly entered Allan’s throat.  Blood frothed from his wound and from his mouth as he slumped to his knees, a look of surprise on his face.

 

Beowyn glanced over his shoulder to find Kenric standing in the doorway, fletching another arrow. At Kenric’s nod, Beowyn stood back and addressed Jonas, both opponents heaving from their exertion.  “You are outnumbered, sir.  Yield and tell us what we want to know.”

 

“I will not!” Jonas lunged.  His sword nicked Beowyn’s arm, ripping the sleeve and creasing his bicep with crimson.  In his rush, Jonas stepped past Beowyn.  Not feeling the new wound, Beowyn spun full circle on his heel and cleaved across Jonas’ back, severing spine, muscle and lungs.  He dropped to the ground like a stone, instantly dead.  When Beowyn rolled him over with his foot, Jonas wore a tight growl, fury forever etched on his face.

 

Shaking his head at not getting the answer he sought, Beowyn reached for a handful of hay and cleaned his blade before returning it to its scabbard.

 

“Where did you come from?” he finally spoke to Kenric behind him.

 

“Ah.  I heard the sweet sound of steel against steel in my sleep.  Curious, I made my way here, only to find you keeping all the merriment for yourself.  Tut. Tut.  Such greed.”

 

Beowyn retrieved his cloak as his breathing returned to normal.  “I think Bryers is here on the grounds.”

 

“Bryers!  Here?”  Kenric grabbed Beowyn’s shoulder.  “Don’t play with me.  For days, I’ve dreamt of sinking my blade into that blackheart.  After I rescue the fair Lady Gwendolyn, of course.”

 

“Of course.”  Beowyn gestured toward the stable door.  “Shall we?  We have a rat killing to attend to.”

 

“After you, sir.”

 


 

Excerpt 6

Even though Madeleine ducked, brambles still tore at her hands and clothing.  The sounds of the fight behind Ian and her grew fainter as they pushed their way through the midnight forest.  She prayed that Beowyn followed, but could hear no pursuit.  Removing one hand from its grasp on the saddle, she wiped away hot tears as they spilled down her cheeks.  Without Ruth, she had no one, and her lonely status overwhelmed her heart.

 

Though certain no one followed, Ian rode for a full hour.  They stopped beneath a tall rock overhang ringed by trees, where he helped her to dismount.  From there, he began collecting fallen wood for a fire.

 

“Aren’t you going to tie me?” Madeleine asked in surprise at her freedom.

 

Ian straightened and faced her.  “Why should I?  Where will you run to?”  He returned to his task, leaving her to consider the truth of his statement.

 

Unwilling to freeze in the predawn, she also began collecting firewood.

 

“Milady, what are you doing?”  Her actions belied everything he knew of the highborn.

 

“Gathering wood.”

 

“But…”

 

“I’ve no wish to succumb in the night, sir.  The more wood we have, the better chance I have of seeing sunrise.”

 

He took his turn at silent consideration.  Soon, the fire blazed, warming the rock until it reflected heat to captor and captive.  Ian cut several pine boughs and placed them on the ground between the rock and the fire.  With a flourish of his right hand, he offered Madeleine a seat.

 

“Though rough in nature,” he conceded, “it will be warmer than sitting on the ground.”

 

The maid wordlessly took her place, tucked her feet under and arranged the cloak to cover her legs.   Ian joined her, resting his shoulder against hers.

 

“We’ll stay warmer this way,” he explained.

 

She made no comment on his action.  Instead, she asked, “Where are you taking me?”

 

“Ah. You go straight to it.”  With a weary breath, he answered, “First, we will meet up with my men, and then we will escort you to someone who wants to make your acquaintance.”

 

“Someone?  You mean my ransomer?”

 

He watched a branch roll away from the fire.  “Yes.”  Stretching out one leg, he pushed the wood back into the flame with his foot.

 

“Why, sir?  Why did you kill Ruth? Why are you doing any of this?   What harm has my family done to you?”  She searched his face.

 

In spite of his earlier resolve, Ian felt himself fall into her eyes and become distracted by the curve of her full lips.  The firelight softened her exhausted countenance and her closeness affected him in ways he wanted—needed—to deny.

 

“I should apologize for your maid,” he said after a moment. He could see the gentleness of his answer surprised her, as though she expected an argument. “I did not plan on her death, but, in truth, she gave me little choice.  With both Hampton and Dewar guards on my heels, I had to act quickly and had no time for her hysteria.”

 

“Dewar?  They were there?”

 

“Yes.  Did you not know?”

 

“No.  You only spoke of Hampton. Though I wondered whose colors those belonged to.”

 

“Oh.  You called to one as we escaped, did you not?”

 

“Beowyn, our captain.”

 

“Did he see you?”

 

“I don’t know.  Everything was so confused.”  She shook her head in her lie.  “I doubt he heard me over the fighting.”

 

“Good.  Then he’ll not know where to search first.”

 

“It does not matter.  He’ll come for me regardless.”  She tilted her chin in her conviction.

 

“So I would expect.  Having his lady stolen from underneath his nose must certainly sit ill with him.”

 

The resentment in her eyes reflected the taunting in his voice.  “You will not find it so amusing, sir, when you meet his cold steel.”

 

“Why should I meet his steel?  Your brother will pay the ransom; you will return home and wed the virile Angus Dewar.”  In spite of himself, mockery seeped through the word virile.  He watched for her reaction, pleased when she ignored his sentiment.

 

“As if that were all of the matter.  You killed my father and Phillip.  Neither Richard or Beowyn will rest until you have been dealt justice.”

 

“That’s as may be.” Ian shrugged in acknowledgement.  “But, first, we must get through this night.”  He could tell his impudent grin infuriated her.  Watching her eyes flashing and cheeks puffing out in her indignity, he caught a chuckle rising in his throat.  He’d never seen anyone more winsome or noble, yet so helpless.  Leaning forward, he tossed another branch on the fire to hide his amusement—and attraction.

 

The cold deepened and, in spite of the fire, Madeleine’s lips chattered while her hands turned to ice.  When the wind beset them, she visibly trembled and lowered her head.

 

“Lady Gwendolyn, allow me.”  Ian drew his cloak around both of them, pulling her to his chest.  “Pardon the familiarity, but I cannot have you die.  My employer would be most vexed.”

 

The tired maid had no argument.  She burrowed into his side, her head on his shoulder, one arm around his waist, her bent knees resting on his thigh.  He could feel her shaking against him and, not for the first time, wished for different circumstances of both time and birth.

 

“You never answered my question.”  Her voice, muffled by his tunic, reached him.

 

“What question?”

 

“What has my house done to harm you?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Then why…?”

 

“A common frailty of all men, Milady.  Avarice.  I’m doing this for money.”

 

She raised her head to study him.  “Then I pity your soul, for I think somewhere in you lives a good man.  This deed must heap torment upon him.”  Moving her head toward him again, she sought the warm spot on his chest she'd just left and closed her eyes.

 

Ian’s eyes also closed, but not in rest.  Conviction pulled at his very marrow.  He had not expected to be so captivated.  All his life, the privileged had garnered nothing but his resentment.  To his mind, they proved nothing more than a vacuous lot, greedy and arrogant.  Yet, he held in his arms a woman who seemed none of those things.  She confused him, and his moral compass spun uncontrollably, searching for north in the midst of her magnetism.  Leaning his head against the rock, he felt her relax against him while she drifted to sleep.  He tightened his cloak around them both and waited for his own slumber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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