Authors: Julia Hawthorne
The Scottish Borders~1309
Elisabeth Redmond was running for her life.
She checked over her shoulder to find the men chasing her bent across the necks of their mounts, urging their horses on. Her two escorts were dead, and she feared she’d be next if she were caught.
Cassandra was no match for the swift warhorses closing in on them, but Elisabeth did her best to coax more speed from the exhausted mare. A little farther, and she might be able to lose them in the dense forest that led to the eastern boundary of her father’s territory. If only she could get to Redmond land.
When they reached the woods, she breathed a hasty prayer of thanks and guided Cassandra toward a rocky path she hoped would slow their pursuers. The horse scrambled for balance in the loose stones but doggedly continued to climb. She seemed to understand that her own life depended on cresting that hill and finding a place to hide.
The caves Elisabeth and her brothers had played in as children dotted this untamed portion of Caileann. If she remembered correctly, one of them wasn’t far ahead. Down below, she heard the men cursing as their heavier horses struggled up the incline. Where was that blasted cave?
At last she spotted the opening, nearly invisible among the brambles, and she jumped down to lead Cassandra inside. The horse balked, digging her rear hooves into the rocky soil with a frightened nicker. She was shaking, her breathing labored. Much like her mistress.
“There, now,” Elisabeth murmured, stroking the velvety muzzle. “I know it’s a wee bit dark, but it’s much safer than being out in the open.”
After a few more words of encouragement, Cassandra lowered her head as if accepting they truly had no choice but to enter the dank cave. Elisabeth led her inside and made a hasty effort to repair the tangle of brush.
She dared not even whisper, so she stood cheek to cheek with Cassandra, calming the frightened horse with her hands. And with her heart in her throat, she waited.
From his perch in a gnarled oak, Eric Jordanne watched the drama unfolding below with great interest. During his travels, he’d seen his fair share of plays, but none matched the intrigue of the scene before him. The young woman was clearly terrified yet determined to outwit the men now culling the undergrowth for her. Frightened as she’d been, she’d spoken reassuringly to her horse before entering the cave. He liked that.
Russet curls disheveled by the autumn breeze, she seemed to belong here amidst the fragrant heather and wild roses. The Scots would call her a “lass,” and it was a description that suited her well. Her dark gown bespoke her mourning, the dust covering her skirts telling him she’d ventured far afield this day.
By the looks of the men picking their way up the rocky slope, they weren’t familiar with the area, but she’d known where to hide. Which meant she was being stalked on her home land. That he didn’t like.
While he silently munched his apple, Eric counted ten men, six mounted and four afoot. Despite the rugged terrain, they moved with a military precision that puzzled him. Ten soldiers to hunt down a woman on a palfrey? It made no sense at all.
She’d chosen her ground well. Even his keen eyes couldn’t find a trail among the stones littering the hillside. Sadly, once the men began searching the caves, it would be but a matter of time before they found her. What had she done to warrant their attention? Too finely dressed to be a villein, she must belong to one of the noble families hereabouts. He’d not been in Scotland long, but already he knew some of the names. Comyn, Moray, Bruce. When they weren’t fighting the English, they fought each other for land that seemed of dubious value.
Then again, wars were seldom waged for the reasons people claimed. A leader needed to find a rallying point for his forces, particularly if his men hailed from diverse backgrounds. Religion, politics, vengeance, all came to one thing in the end.
The meek might inherit the earth one day, but outside the kingdom of heaven, victory went to the one with the might to take what he wanted. That knowledge had come to Eric painfully, nearly at the cost of his life. He wished to spare the lovely Scottish girl such a harsh lesson.
As one of the soldiers neared her hiding place, protective instincts Eric had thought long dead rustled within him. Of its own will, his hand reached for the hilt of his sword, and he forced himself to remain still. As he studied his adversaries, he made a silent vow.
They would not take what they wanted from her.
Elisabeth’s heart thudded to a stop when a large shadow paused outside the cave entrance. Cassandra flinched ever so slightly, and the shadow moved closer. A hand clad in a silvery leather gauntlet drew aside the vine curtain to reveal the leader of the men who’d been chasing her.
“’Tis glad I am to find you, Lady Redmond,” he said in the cultured accent of a Lowlander. “I’d begun to fear the seelies had taken off with you.”
Cornered but undaunted, Elisabeth glared at him. “I’d do better with the faeries than with the likes of you.”
“What sort of talk is that?” He deflected her defiance with the patient smile of a father soothing his child. “You’ll come to no harm under my watch, I assure you. My men and I will guard you like the crown jewels until we get where we’re going.”
“And where might that be?”
“You’ll know when we arrive.”
He stepped back and motioned for her to pass through the doorway, but Elisabeth stood firm. “You murdered my escorts. I’ll not be going anywhere with you.”
“They were fine men who defended you to the last,” he said in a reasonable tone. “I’m certain that it would grieve them endlessly to know they died in vain.”
A single step back, and she found herself flat against the immovable stone wall. “In vain?”
He didn’t respond, but his intent was clear enough. If she didn’t relent, he’d take her by force. “Very well, then. I’ll go with you.”
Smiling his approval, he ushered her through the opening.
“Might I ask your name, sir?”
“You may call me Gray.”
She sensed that it wasn’t his actual name, but it fit him well. Dressed from head to foot in gray wool and leather, he’d easily disappear from sight in a heavy mist. As he reached for Cassandra’s reins, Elisabeth jerked them out of reach.
“You’ll not be riding on your own,” he informed her sternly. “We’ve no more time to waste chasing after you.”
Without waiting for her agreement, he called one of his men forward. The soldier cast a disparaging look at Cassandra.
“Not much of a horse,” he muttered, “but she might make a decent meal.”
Elisabeth tightened her grip on the reins and stood her ground. “You’ll do nothing of the kind.”
“Men get mighty hungry when they’ve been away from home too long.”
His veiled threat was obviously meant to intimidate her. Never one to frighten easily, Elisabeth narrowed her eyes and glowered back.
“You don’t lack for spirit, do you?” Gray smiled and held out a gloved hand. “Give her to me. We’ll trail her behind us until we reach safer ground. After that, she’ll have to find her own way.”
She didn’t trust him one whit, but of the ten he seemed the most reasonable. At the least, he wasn’t eying her beloved Cassandra as if he were trying to determine how long it would take to roast her properly.
Reluctantly, she gave him the braided reins, and he led them both toward his mount. Nickering fearfully, Cassandra glanced back at her.
“Go on,” Elisabeth told her with more confidence than she felt. “You’ll be safe.”
Gray quickly secured the mare’s reins to his saddle, then lifted Elisabeth to his horse’s back. He swung up behind her and turned to address his men. “Separate into pairs and meet at the camp.”
As the little band dispersed, Elisabeth cast a longing look back at the crag. Just a little further, and they’d have been home.
Elisabeth awoke with a start when a callused hand covered her mouth. Bound hand and foot, she could offer little resistance, but she fought his hold with all the strength she had. She had no idea which of the brigands had snuck into her tent but whoever he was, he’d not take her easily.
“Don’t be frightened, milady,” an unfamiliar accented voice murmured at her ear. “I’ve come to rescue you.”
Elisabeth stopped struggling, hardly daring to believe what she’d heard. Even in the filtered moonlight, the stranger’s blue eyes shone brightly, brow raised in a silent question. When she nodded, he removed his hand.
He silenced her with a finger over her lips, then swept back the coarse blankets covering her. From the sheath at his waist he took an oddly shaped dirk, the blade glinting as it slashed through the bindings on her wrists and ankles.
“Can you stand?” he whispered.
She nodded again, but as she rose her legs buckled beneath her, and she fell against him. He caught her, and she was enveloped by the heady scent of horses and the forest. Strong hands about her waist, he steadied her until she could stand. Then he released her to roll one of the blankets and placed it on the pallet before covering it with the other. Clever, she thought with admiration. In the dark, it appeared that she was still lying there asleep.
With a hand on her back, he assisted her through the flap he’d sliced into the hide tent. How he’d managed it without waking her, she couldn’t imagine, but at this moment she couldn’t possibly have cared any less.
She wanted to flee as quickly as her feet would carry her, but he stayed her with an arm before her shoulders. They crouched in the shadow of the tent as he closed his eyes, head bowed while he listened. Elisabeth prayed the frantic pounding of her heart wouldn’t distract him. At last, he raised his head. When he pointed to the neighboring tent, she nodded.
They repeated the stealthy maneuver several times and left the armed camp for the relative safety of the forest. There they might encounter the capricious seelies, perhaps a witch or two out at the full moon, but she far preferred creatures of magick to an uncertain fate.
They didn’t move swiftly, nor did they stop. Under the dense canopy of trees, the forest was nearly pitch black and far from quiet. Thankfully, the noises of the night disguised the crunch of her feet in the pungent leaves. Though much heavier than she, her rescuer made scarcely a sound. They paused in a clearing beneath a shaft of moonlight, and for the first time Elisabeth was granted a clear view of him.
He stood a full head taller than any man she knew. With a broad chest and even broader shoulders, he seemed one with the towering oaks. Over his leather trews and belted linen tunic he wore a woolen cloak and judging by the condition of his boots, he’d walked across the breadth of Scotland. His skin was shades darker than any she’d ever seen, but it was his eyes that fascinated her. Brilliantly blue, they studied her with an expression she couldn’t quite define.
From the darkness came a whoosh of steam and a quiet nicker, and Elisabeth stifled a cry as a large chestnut face with a starred forehead emerged from the shadows.
“Please forgive Micah, milady. He didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Though the words were stiffly formal, his rich voice floated over them in an almost musical way. Letting out a relieved breath, she put one hand over her stuttering heart as she reached out to stroke a furry cheek.
“You’re forgiven completely, Micah, with my gratitude for your help.” She turned to his rider. “And you, Sir Knight. How can I ever thank you properly?”
His face twisted with contempt, and she asked, “Have I offended you?”
“Indeed not.” He added a slight bow. “I am Eric Jordanne.”
“That would explain your accent, then. You’re French.”
“I am. And you are?”
“Scottish.” Elisabeth added a smile, hoping to draw one from him.
His somber manner remained as it was, but she detected a bemused twinkle in his eyes. “I meant your name.”
She waited for him to show some recognition of her powerful clan’s name, but he didn’t. Instead, he motioned her toward his mount.
“We must get you someplace safe. I live nearby, and you are most welcome to stay the night with me. In the morn, I’ll accompany you home.” When she didn’t respond, he frowned. “Something troubles you?”
“My horse Cassandra. Those men didn’t—”
She couldn’t bring herself to say it, and he shook his head. “Once she was free, she ran into the forest and found a path I assumed she was familiar with. No doubt she found her way back to your stable.”
Relief that Cassandra was safe faded when Elisabeth realized what he’d said. Perhaps he wasn’t the savior he claimed to be. “You were watching us?”
“You let those men take me?”
“They were ten to my one. Only a fool would have engaged them at the crag. I waited until they were bedded down for the night and I could safely retrieve you.”
His cool logic did little to reassure her. “And if one of them had decided to bed down with me?”