Mairin Stuart knelt on the stone floor beside her pallet and bowed her head in her evening prayer. Her hand slipped to the small wooden cross hanging from a bit of leather around her neck, and her thumb rubbed a familiar path over the now smooth surface.
For several long minutes, she whispered the words she’d recited since she was a child, and then she ended it as she always did. Please, God. Don’t let them find me.
She pushed herself from the floor, her knees scraping the uneven stones. The plain, brown garb she wore signaled her place along the other novices. Though she’d been here far longer than the others, she’d never taken the vows that would complete her spiritual journey. It was never her intention.
She went to the basin in the corner and poured from the pitcher of water. She smiled as she dampened her cloth, and Mother Serenity’s words came floating to mind. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.
She wiped her face and started to remove her gown to extend her wash when she heard a terrible crash. Startled, she dropped the cloth and whirled around to stare at her closed door. Then galvanized to action, she ran and flung it open, racing into the hall.
Around her, the other nuns also filled the hall, their dismayed murmurs rising. A loud bellow echoed down the corridor from the abbey’s front entrance. A cry of pain followed the bellow, and Mairin’s heart froze. Mother Serenity.
Mairin and the rest of the sisters ran toward the sound, some lagging back while others shoved determinedly ahead. When they reached the chapel, Mairin drew up short, paralyzed by the sight before her.
Warriors were everywhere. There were at least twenty, all dressed in battle gear, their faces unwashed, sweat drenching their hair and clothing. But no blood. They hadn’t come for sanctuary or aid. The leader held Mother Serenity by the arm, and even from a distance, Mairin could see the abbess’s face drawn in pain.
“Where is she?” the man demanded in a cold voice.
Mairin took a step back. He was a fierce-looking man. Evil. Rage coiled in his eyes like a snake waiting to strike. He shook Mother Serenity when she didn’t respond, and she warbled in his grasp like a rag doll.
Mairin crossed herself and whispered an urgent prayer. The nuns around her gathered in a close ball and also offered their prayers.
“She is not here,” Mother Serenity gasped out. “I’ve told you the woman you seek is not here. ”
“You lie!” he roared.
He looked toward the group of nuns, his gaze flickering coldly over them.
“Mairin Stuart. Tell me where she is. ”
Mairin went cold, fear rising to a boil in her stomach. How had he found her? After all this time. Her nightmare wasn’t over. It was, indeed, just beginning.
Her hands shook so badly that she had to hide them in the folds of her dress. Sweat gathered on her brow, and her gut lurched. She swallowed, willing herself not to be sick.
When no answer was forthcoming, the man smiled, and it sent a chill straight down Mairin’s spine. Still staring at them, he lifted Mother Serenity’s arm so that it was in plain sight. Callously, he bent her index finger until Mairin heard the betraying pop of bone.
One of the nuns shrieked and ran forward only to be backhanded down by one of the soldiers. The rest of the nuns gasped at the bold outrage.
“This is God’s house,” Mother Serenity said in a reedy voice. “You sin greatly by bringing violence onto holy ground. ”
“Shut up, old woman,” the man snapped. “Tell me where Mairin Stuart is or I’ll kill every last one of you. ”
Mairin sucked in her breath and curled her fingers into balls at her sides. She believed him. There was too much evil, too much desperation, in his eyes. He had been sent on a devil’s errand, and he wouldn’t be denied.
He grasped Mother Serenity’s middle finger, and Mairin rushed forward.
“Charity, nay!” Mother Serenity cried.
Mairin ignored her. “I’m Mairin Stuart. Now let her go!”
The man dropped Mother Serenity’s hand then shoved the woman back. He stared at Mairin with interest, then let his gaze wander suggestively down her body and back up again. Mairin’s cheeks flamed at the blatant disrespect, but she gave no quarter, staring back at the man with as much defiance as she dared.
p height=eight="0em" width="1em" align="justify">He snapped his fingers, and two men advanced on Mairin, grabbing her before she could think to run. They had her on the floor in a split second, their hands fumbling with the hem of her gown.
She kicked wildly, flailing her arms, but she was no match for their strength. Would they rape her here on the chapel floor? Tears gathered in her eyes as they shoved her clothing up over her hips.
They turned her to the right and fingers touched her hip, right where the mark rested.
She bowed her head as tears of defeat slipped down her cheeks.
“ ’Tis her!” one of them said excitedly.
He was instantly shoved aside as the leader bent over to examine the mark for himself.
He, too, touched it, outlining the royal crest of Alexander. Issuing a grunt of satisfaction, he curled his hand around her chin and yanked until she faced him.
His smile revolted her.
“We’ve been looking for you a long time, Mairin Stuart. ”
“Go to hell,” she spat.
Instead of striking her, his grin broadened. “Tsk-tsk, such blasphemy in the house of God. ”
He stood rapidly, and before Mairin could blink, she was hauled over a man’s shoulder, and the soldiers filed out of the abbey and into the cool night.
They wasted no time getting onto their horses. Mairin was gagged then trussed hand and foot and tossed over the saddle in front of one of the men. They were away, the thunder of hooves echoing across the still night, before she had time to react. They were as precise as they were ruthless.
The saddle dug into her belly, and she bounced up and down until she was sure she was going to throw up. She moaned, afraid she’d choke with the gag so securely around her mouth.
When they finally stopped, she was nearly unconscious. A hand gripped her nape, the fingers easily circling the slim column. She was hauled upward and dropped unceremoniously to the ground.
Around her, they made camp while she lay shivering in the damp air. Finally she heard one say, “You best be seeing to the lass, Finn. Laird Cameron won’t be happy if she dies of exposure. ”
An irritated grunt followed, but a minute later, she was untied and the gag removed. Finn, the apparent leader of this abduction, leaned down over her, his eyes gleaming in the light of the fire.
“There’s no one to hear you scream, and if you utter a sound, I’ll rattle your jaw. ”
She nodded her understanding and crawled to an upright position. He nudged her backside with his boot and chuckled when she whirled around in outrage.
“There’s a blanket by the fire. Get on it and get some sleep. We leave at first light. ”
She curled gratefully into the warmth of the blanket, uncaring that the stones and sticks on the ground dug into her skin. Laird Cameron. She’d heard talk of him from the soldiers who drifted in and out of the abbey. He was a ruthless man. Greedy and eager to add to his growing power. It was rumored that his army was one of the largest in all of Scotland and that David, the Scottish king, feared him.
Malcolm, bastard son of Alexander—and her half brother—had already led one revolt against David in a bid for the throne. Were Malcolm and Duncan Cameron to ally, they would be a near unstoppable force.
She swallowed and closed her eyes. The possession of Neamh Álainn would render Cameron invincible.
“Dear God, help me,” she whispered.
She couldn’t allow him to gain control of Neamh Álainn. It was her legacy, the only thing of her father’s that she had.
It was impossible to sleep, and so she lay there huddled in the blanket, her hand curled around the wooden cross as she prayed for strength and guidance. Some of the soldiers slept while others kept careful watch. She wasn’t fool enough to think she’d be given any opportunity to escape. Not when she was worth more than her weight in gold.
But they wouldn’t kill her either, which granted her an advantage. She had nothing to fear by trying to escape and everything to gain.
An hour into her vigil of prayer, a commotion behind her had her sitting straight up and staring into the darkness. Around her, the sleeping soldiers stumbled upward, their hands on their swords when a child’s cry rent the night.
One of the men hauled a kicking, wiggling child into the circle around the fire and dropped him on the ground. The child crouched and looked around wildly while the men laughed uproariously.
“What is this?” Finn demanded.
“Caught him trying to sneak one of the horses,” the child’s captor said.
Anger slanted Finn’s features into those of the devil, made more demonic by the light of the fire. The boy, who couldn’t be more than seven or eight years old, tilted his chin up defiantly as if daring the man to do his worst.
“Why you insolent little pup,” Finn roared.
He raised his hand, and Mairin flew across the ground, throwing herself in front of the child as the fist swung and clipped her cheek.
She went reeling but recovered and quickly threw herself back over the child, gathering him close so she could cover as much of him as possible.
The boy struggled wildly under her, screeching obscenities in Gaelic. His head connected with her already aching jaw, and she saw stars.
“Hush now,” she told him in his own language. “Be still. I won’t let them hurt you. ”
“Get off him!” Finn roared.
She tightened around the little boy who finally stopped kicking and flailing. Finn reached down and curled his hand into her hair, yanking brutally upward, but she refused to let go of her charge.
“You’ll have to kill me first,” she said cooly when he forced her to look at him.
He dropped her hair with a curse then reared back and kicked her in the ribs. She hunched over in pain but was careful to keep the child shielded from the maniacal brute.
“Finn, enough,” one man barked. “The laird wants her in one piece. ”
Muttering a curse, he backed away. “Let her keep the dirty beggar. She’ll have to turn loose of him soon enough. ”
Mairin snapped her neck up to glare into Finn’s eyes. “You touch this boy even once and I’ll slit my own throat. ”
Finn’s laughter cracked the night. “That’s one crazy bluff, lass. If you’re going to try to negotiate, you need to learn to be believable. ”
Slowly she rose until she stood a foot away from the much larger man. She stared up at him until his eyes flickered and he looked away.
“Bluff?” she said softly. “I don’t think so. In fact, if I were you, I’d be guarding any and all sharp objects from me. Think you that I don’t know what my fate is? To be bedded by that brute laird of yours until my belly swells with child and he can claim Neamh Álainn. I’d rather die. ”
Finn’s eyes narrowed. “You’re daft!”
“Aye, that might be so, and in that case I’d be worried one of those sharp objects might find its way between your ribs. ”
He waved his hand. “You keep the boy. The laird will deal with him and you. We don’t take kindly to horse thieves. ”
Mairin ignored him and turned back to the boy who huddled on the ground, staring at her with a mixture of fear and worship.
“Come,” she said gently. “If we snuggle up tight enough, there’s plenty of blanket for the both of us. ”
He went eagerly to her, tucking his smaller body flush against hers.
“Where is your home?” she asked when he had settled against her.
“I don’t know,” he said mournfully. “It must be a ways from here. At least two days. ”
“Shh,” she said soothingly. “How did you come to be here?”
“I got lost. My papa said I was nevr to leave the keep without his men, but I was tired of being treated like a baby. I’m not, you know. ”
She smiled. “Aye, I know. So you left the keep?”
He nodded. “I took a horse. I only meant to go meet Uncle Alaric. He was due back and I thought to wait near the border to greet him. ”
“Of our lands. ”
“And who is your papa, little one?”
“My name is Crispen, not ‘little one. ’ ” The distaste was evident in his voice, and she smiled again.
“Crispen is a fine name. Now continue with your story. ”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Mairin,” she answered softly.
“My papa is Laird Ewan McCabe. ”
Mairin struggled to place the name, but there were so many clans she had no knowledge of. Her home was in the highlands, but she hadn’t seen God’s country in ten long years.
“So you went to meet your uncle. Then what happened?”
“I got lost,” he said mournfully. “Then a McDonald soldier found me and intended to take me to his laird to ransom, but I couldn’t let that happen. It would dishonor my papa, and he can’t afford to ransom me. It would cripple our clan. ”