William desperately tried to enfold the child as their bodies plummeted down the jagged steps, but he couldn't shield her completely, and Gillian's chin struck the sharp stone.
Stunned by the blow, she slowly sat up and looked about her. Blood poured onto her gown, and when she saw the blood on her hands, she began to scream. Her sister lay beside her, facedown on the floor, not making a sound.
"Christen, help me," Gillian sobbed. "Wake up. I don't like it here. Wake up."
William struggled to his feet with the hysterical child and, holding her tight against his chest, ran through the tunnel. "Hush, child, hush," he whispered over and over again.
Lawrence followed with Christen. Blood trickled down from the cut high on her forehead.
"Lawrence, you and Tom take Christen on to the creek. Spencer and I will meet you there," William shouted.
"Come with us now," Lawrence urged over Gillian's screams.
"The child's in a bad way. She needs stitches," William called back. "Go now. We'll catch up with you. God's speed," he added as he rushed ahead.
"Christen," Gillian screamed. "Christen, don't leave me."
When they neared the door, William cupped his hand over Gillian's mouth and pleaded with her to be quiet. He and Spencer took her to the tanner's cottage on the edge of the outer bailey so that Maude, the tanner's wife, could sew the injury. The underside of Gillian's chin was completely flayed open.
Both soldiers held the child down while Maude worked on her. The battle raged dangerously close, and the noise became so deafening they had to shout to be heard.
"Finish with the child," William ordered the woman. "We must get her to. safety before it's too late. Hurry," he shouted as he rushed outside to stand guard.
Maude tied a knot in the string, then clipped the threads. As quickly as she could manage, she wrapped a thick bandage around Gillian's neck and chin.
Spencer lifted the little girl and followed William outside. The enemy had set fire to the thatched roofs of several of the huts with their flaming arrows, and in the bright light, the three ran toward the hill where their mounts waited.
They were halfway up the incline when a troop of soldiers came swarming over the crest. More of the enemy cut off their retreat at the bottom. Escape was impossible, but the two valiant men still held steadfast to their duty. With Gillian on the ground between them, their legs the only barrier shielding her from the attack, they stood with their backs to each other, raised their swords high, and rendered their final battle cry. The two noble soldiers died as they had lived, with honor and courage protecting the innocent.
One of Alford's commanders, recognizing the child, carried her back to the great hall. Liese, Gillian's maid, spotted her when she came inside with the soldier and boldly broke away from the group of servants huddled together in the corner under the watchful eye of the enemy's guard. She pleaded with the soldier to let her take over the care of the little girl. Fortunately, the commander considered Gillian a nuisance and was happy to be rid of her. He ordered Liese to take Gillian upstairs and then ran back outside to join in the fight.
Gillian appeared to be in a stupor. Liese grabbed her and raced up the stairs and across the balcony toward the child's room to get away from the massacre. Panic seized her as she reached for the door latch. She was clawing at it and silently crying when a sudden crash made her jump. She turned just as the heavy oak doors leading to the great hall burst open and soldiers poured inside with their bloody battle axes raised and their swords drawn. Crazed with power, they swung their weapons against the weak and the defenseless. The unarmed men and women held their hands up as shields in a pitiful attempt to ward off the enemy's razor sharp swords. It was a needless slaughter. Horrified, Liese fell to her knees, closed her eyes, and covered her ears so she wouldn't see or hear her friends' desperate pleas for mercy.
Gillian stood passively next to Liese, but when she saw her father being dragged inside, she ran to the banister rail and knelt down. "Papa," she whispered, and then she saw a man in a gold cape raise his sword over her father. "Papa!" she screamed.
Those were the last words she spoke. From that moment, Gillian retreated into a world of numb silence.
Two weeks later, the young man who had seized control of her father's holding, Baron Alford the Red of Lockmiere, called her before him to decide what was to be done with her, and without speaking a single word, she let him know what was in her mind and her heart.
Liese held Gillian's hand and walked into the great hall to meet the monster who had killed the child's father. Alford, barely old enough to be called a man, was an evil, power-hungry demon, and Liese was no fool. She knew that with the snap of his fingers or a wave of his hand, he could order both their deaths.
Gillian jerked away from Liese just inside the entrance and walked forward alone. She stopped when she reached the long table where Alford and his young companions dined. Without a hint of expression on her face, and with her hands hanging limply at her sides, she stood motionless, staring vacantly at the baron.
He had a pheasant leg in one hand and a wedge of black bread in the other. Specks of grease and meat clung to the red scraggy stubble on his chin. He ignored the child for several minutes while he devoured his food, and after he had tossed the bones over his shoulder, he turned to her.
"How old are you, Gillian?" Alford waited a full minute before trying again. "I asked you a question," he muttered, trying to control his rising temper.
"She cannot be more than four years old," one of his friends volunteered.
"I'd wager she's past five," his cohort suggested. "She's small, but she could even be six."
Alford raised his hand for silence while his eyes continued to bore into the little girl. "It's a simple question. Answer me, and while you're at it, tell me what you think I should do with you. My father's confessor believes you can't speak because the Devil has taken possession of your soul. He pleads the right to force the demon out, using very unpleasant methods. Would you like me to tell you exactly what he would do?" he asked. "No, I don't suppose you would," he added with a smirk. "Torture will be necessary, of course, for it's the only way to get the demons out, or so I'm told. Would you like to be strapped down to a table for hour upon hour while my confessor works on you? I have the power to order it done. Now answer my questions and be quick about it. Tell me your age," he demanded in a snarl.
Silence was her response. Chilling silence. Alford could see that his threats didn't faze her. He thought she might be too simpleminded to understand. She was her father's daughter after all, and what a naive, stupid fool he had been to believe that Alford was his friend.
"Perhaps she isn't answering you because she doesn't know how old she is," his friend suggested. "Get on with the important matter," he urged. "Ask her about the box."
Alford nodded agreement. "Now, Gillian," he began, his tone as sour as vinegar, "your father stole a very valuable box from Prince John, and I mean to get it back for him. There were pretty jewels on the top and sides of the case. If you saw it, you would remember it," he added. "Did you or your sister see this treasure? Answer me," he ordered, his voice shrill with his frustration. "Did you see your father hide the box? Did you?"
She didn't give any indication that she had heard a word he'd said. She simply continued to look at him. The young baron let out a sigh of vexation, then decided to stare her into timidity.
In the space of an indrawn breath, the child's expression changed from indifference to loathing. The hatred burning bright in her eyes quickly unnerved him and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up and the gooseflesh rise up on his forearms. It was unholy for a child of such tender years to show such intensity.
She frightened him. Infuriated by his own bizarre reaction to the girl who was little more than a baby, Alford resorted to cruelty once again. "You're a sickly looking child, aren't you, with your pale skin and drab brown hair? Your sister was the pretty one, wasn't she? Tell me, Gillian, were you jealous of her? Is that why you pushed her down the stairs? The woman who sewed you up told me you and Christen both went down the stairs, and one of the soldiers who was with you told the woman you pushed your sister. Christen's dead, you know, and it's all your fault." He leaned forward and pointed a long, bony finger in her face. "You're going to live with that black sin for the rest of your life, however short that might be. I've decided to send you to the end of the earth," he added offhandedly. "To the bitter, cold north of England where you will live with the heathens until the day comes that I have need for you again. Now get you out of my sight. You make my flesh crawl."
Trembling with fear, Liese stepped forward. "Milord, may I accompany the child north to look after her?"
Alford turned his attention to the maid cowering near the entrance and openly cringed at the sight of her scarred face. "One witch to look after another?" he scoffed. "I don't care if you go or stay. Do what you will, but get her but of here now so that my friends and I will not have to suffer her fetid stare a moment longer."
Hearing the tremor in his own voice sent Alford into a rage.
He picked up a heavy wooden bowl from the table and hurled it at the child. It sailed past her head, narrowly missing her. Gillian neither flinched nor blinked. She simply continued to stand where she was, her green eyes glistening with hatred.
Was she looking at his soul? The thought sent a shiver down Alford's spine.
"Out," he screamed. "Get her out of here."
Liese dashed forward to get Gillian, and then ran out of the hall.
As soon as they were safely outside, she hugged the little girl to her bosom and whispered, "It's over now and soon we will leave this foul place and never look back. You'll never have to see your father's murderer again, and I'll never have to look upon my husband, Ector. The two of us will make a new life together, and God willing, we'll find some peace and joy."
Liese was determined to get away before Baron Alford changed his mind. Permission to leave Dunhanshire liberated her, for it meant she could leave Ector behind as well. Her husband had gone over the edge of sanity during the attack on the castle and was too befuddled to go anywhere. After witnessing the slaughter of most of the soldiers and the household staff and narrowly escaping with his own life intact, his mind had snapped and he had turned as crazy as a rabid fox, roaming the hills of Dunhanshire during the days with his dirty knapsack filled with the rocks and clumps of dirt he called his treasures. Each night he made his bed in the southeast corner of the stables, where he was left alone to stew in his own nightmares. His eyes had a glassy, faraway look to them, and he constantly alternated between muttering to himself about how he was going to be a rich man, as rich as King Richard himself, and shouting obscenities because it was taking him so long to get his due. Even the infidels and their leader, Alford, who now claimed Dunhanshire for themselves in the absent king's name, were superstitious enough to give Ector a wide path. As long as the demented man left them alone, they ignored him. Some of the younger soldiers, it was observed, dropped to their knees and made the sign of the cross whenever Ector passed by. The holy ritual was a talisman to ward off the possibility of catching the crazy loon's affliction. They didn't dare kill him, for they firmly believed that the demons controlling Ector's mind would leap into them and take control of their thoughts and actions.
Liese felt that God had granted her a dispensation from her marriage vows. In the seven years that they had lived as man and wife, Ector had never shown her as much as an ounce of affection or spoken a kind word to her. He believed that it was his duty as a husband to beat her into submission and humility so that she would be assured a place in heaven, and he took on his sacred responsibility with a gleeful vengeance. A hard, angry man who as a child had been coddled and shamefully spoiled by doting parents, Ector presumed that he could have anything he wanted. He was convinced that he should live the life of leisure, and he let greed control his every thought. Just three months before Gillian's father was killed, Ector had been promoted to the coveted position of chief reeve because of his clever way with figures. He then had access to the vast amount of money collected in rents from the tenants and knew exactly how much the baron was worth. Avarice took hold of his heart, and with it came a bitterness as rancid as bile because he hadn't been rewarded with what he believed was his share.
Ector was also a coward. During the attack, Liese witnessed her husband grab hold of Gerta, the household cook and Liese's dear friend, and use her as a shield against the arrows hailing down on them in the courtyard. When Gerta was killed, Ector had dragged her body over his and had pretended to be dead.
The shame was unspeakable, and Liese could no longer look at her husband without hatred. She knew she was in jeopardy of losing her own soul, for to despise another of God's creatures the way she despised Ector was surely sinful. She thanked God for giving her a second chance to redeem herself.
Concerned that Ector might take to the notion of following her, Liese, on the day she and Gillian were scheduled to leave, took the child with her to the stables to say good-bye. Clutching the little girl's hand in her own, she marched into the stall where her husband now made his home. She spotted his dung-and-blood-spattered knapsack hanging on the peg in the corner and turned her nose up in disgust. It smelled as foul as the man pacing about in front of her.
When she called out to him, he flinched, then ran to grab his knapsack and hide it behind his back. His eyes darted back and forth as he crouched down almost to his knees.
"You old fool," she muttered. "No one's going to steal your knapsack. I'm here to tell you I'm leaving Dunhanshire with Lady Gillian and I'll not ever see you again, praise the Lord. Do you hear what I'm saying to you? Stop your mumbling and look at me. I don't want you coming after me. Do you understand?"
Ector let out a low snicker. Gillian squeezed closer to Liese and grabbed hold of her skirt. The woman immediately set about soothing her. "Don't you let him scare you," she whispered. "I won't let him do you any harm," she added before turning her attention and her repulsion to her husband again.
"I'm meaning what I say, Ector. Don't you dare try to follow me. I don't ever want to look upon you again. As far as I'm concerned, you're dead and buried."
He didn't appear to be paying any attention to her. "I'm getting my reward soon now… it's all going to be mine… a king's ransom," he boasted with a raucous snort. "Just like I deserve… his kingdom for a ransom. It's going to be mine… all mine…"