Liese tilted Gillian's head up so she would look at her. "Remember this moment, child. This is what cowardice does to a man."
Liese never looked back. Baron Alford refused to order his soldiers to escort the pair north. It amused him to think that the two witches would have to walk. The young brothers Hathaway came to their rescue, however. Waldo and Henry, tenants to the northwest, used their plowing horses and their cart to take them the distance. Both men were heavily armed, for there was also the threat or marauders lurking in the countryside waiting to pounce upon unsuspecting travelers.
Fortunately, the trip was uneventful, and they were both welcomed into the household of the reclusive Baron Morgan Chapman. The baron was Gillian's uncle by marriage, and though he was in good standing with the realm, he was considered an outsider and was therefore only infrequently invited to court. There was Highland blood running through his veins, and that made him untrustworthy and somewhat tainted.
He was also somewhat of a fright to look upon, for he was well over six feet two inches tall, had frizzy black hair, and wore what seemed to be a permanent scowl. Alford sent Gillian to this distant relative as punishment, but her exile to the end of England proved to be her salvation. Though her uncle was outwardly gruff and unapproachable, beneath the exterior beat the heart of a saint. He was a gentle, loving man who took one look at his pitiful little niece and knew that they were kindred spirits. He told Liese he wouldn't allow a child to disrupt his peaceful life, but immediately contradicted himself by devoting his full time to the duty of helping Gillian heal. He loved her as a father and made it his mission to get her to speak again. Morgan wanted to hear the child laugh, but worried that his hopes were too high.
Liese also made it her duty to help Gillian recover from the tragedy that had befallen her family. After months and months of patient coaxing and comforting without any results, the lady's maid was close to despair. She slept in the chamber with the little girl so she could soothe her and quiet her when the nightmares sent Gillian into fits of screaming.
Bits and pieces of that horrific night when her father died were firmly locked inside the child's mind. Because of her tender years, it was difficult for her to separate truth from imagination, but she did remember fighting over the sparkling jeweled box and trying to grab it out of her sister's hands so she could have a turn holding it, then plunging down the stone steps that led to the tunnels underneath the castle. The jagged scar under her chin was proof she hadn't imagined it. She remembered Christen screaming. She also remembered the blood. In her hazy, confused memories, both she and Christen were covered in it. The nightmares that haunted her during the dark hours of the night were always the same. Faceless monsters with red glowing eyes and long, whiplike tails were chasing her and Christen down a dark tunnel, but in those terrifying dreams, she never killed her sister. The monsters did.
It was on one such night during a terrible thunderstorm that Gillian finally spoke. Liese awakened her from her nightmare, and then, as was her ritual, wrapped her in one of her uncle's soft Scottish plaid blankets and carried her across the room to sit by the fire.
The heavyset woman cuddled the little girl in her arms and crooned to her. "It ain't right the way you carry on, Gillian. You don't say a word during the day and then you howl like a lone wolf all night long. Is it because you've got the pain all stored up inside you and you need to get it out? Is that the way of it, my little angel? Talk to me, child. Tell me what's in your heart."
Liese didn't expect an answer and very nearly dropped the little girl on her head when she heard her whisper.
"What did you say?" she asked, a bit more sharply than she intended.
"I didn't mean to kill Christen. I didn't mean to."
Liese burst into tears. "Oh, Gillian, you didn't kill Christen. I've told you so over and over again. I heard what Baron Alford said to you. Don't you remember that, as soon as I carried you outside, I told you he was lying. Why won't you believe me? Baron Alford was just being cruel to you."
"No, she isn't dead."
Gillian looked up at Liese to see from her expression if she was telling the truth or not. She desperately wanted, and needed, to believe her.
"Christen's alive," Liese insisted with a nod. "You listen to me. No matter how terrible the truth might be, I will never, ever lie to you."
"I remember the blood."
"In your nightmares?"
Gillian nodded. "I pushed Christen down the steps. Papa was holding my hand, but then he let go. Ector was there too."
"You've got it all mixed up inside your head. Neither your father nor Ector was there."
Gillian put her head down on Liese's shoulder. "Ector's daft."
"Aye, he is that," she agreed.
"Were you in the tunnel with me?" she asked.
"No, but I know what happened. While Maude was sewing you back together, one of the soldiers who was in the tunnel with you told her. You and your sister were awakened and carried to your father's chamber."
"William carried me."
"It was dark outside."
Liese felt Gillian shiver and hugged her. "Yes, it was the middle of the night, and Alford and his soldiers had already breached the inner walls."
"I remember the wall opened in Papa's room."
"The secret passage led to the steps down to the tunnel. There were four soldiers with your father, four men he trusted with your welfare. You know them, Gillian. Tom was there, and Spencer and Lawrence and William. Spencer's the one who told Maude what happened. They led the way down the secret corridor and carried torches to light the way."
"I'm not supposed to tell about my secret door."
Liese smiled. "I know you have one in your bedroom too," she said.
"How did you know? Did Christen tell you?"
"No, she didn't tell," she replied. "I would put you to bed in your room every night, but most mornings you were sleeping in Christen's room. I guessed there was a passageway because I know you don't like going into dark places, and the hallway outside your bedroom door was very dark. You had to have found another way."
"Are you going to paddle me for telling?"
"Oh, heaven's no, Gillian. I'll never strike you."
"Papa would never paddle me neither, but he always said he would. He was just fooling me, wasn't he?"
"Yes," she answered.
"Did Papa hold my hand?"
"No, he didn't go with you into the passage. It wouldn't have been honorable for him to run away from the battle, and your father was an honorable man. He stayed with his soldiers."
"I pushed Christen down the steps and there was blood on her. She didn't cry. I killed her."
Liese sighed. "I know you're too young to understand, but I still want you to try. Christen did fall down the steps and so did you. Spencer told Maude he thought William lost his footing and slid into Lawrence. The stone floor was slippery, but William insisted someone had pushed him from behind."
"Maybe I pushed him," she worried out loud.
"You're too little to make a grown man lose his balance. You don't have the strength."
"You aren't responsible," Liese insisted. "It's a miracle none of you was killed. You needed stitches, however, and so Spencer and William took you to Maude. William stood guard outside the cottage until the battle came too close. Maude said he was desperate to get you to safety, but unfortunately, by the time she was done sewing you back together, Baron Alford's soldiers had surrounded the yard, and escape was no longer possible. You were captured and taken back to the castle."
"Did Christen get captured?"
"No, she was taken away before the tunnel was discovered."
"Where's Christen now?"
"I don't know," Liese admitted. "But perhaps your Uncle Morgan can tell you. He might know. Tomorrow you must go and ask him. He loves you like a daughter, Gillian, and I know he'll help you find your sister. I'm sure she misses you too."
"Maybe she's lost."
"No, she isn't lost."
"But if she's lost, she'll be scared."
"Child, she isn't lost. She's somewhere safe from Baron Alford's clutches. Do you believe me now? In your heart, do you believe your sister is alive?"
Gillian nodded. She began to twine Liese's hair around her finger. "I believe you," she whispered with a yawn. "When will Papa come and take me home?"
Liese's eyes filled with tears again. "Ah, love, your papa can't come for you. He's dead. Alford killed him."
"He put a knife in Papa's belly."
"Dear God, you saw it happen?"
"Papa didn't cry."
"Oh, my poor angel…"
"Maybe Maude can sew Papa up, and then he can come and take me home."
"No, he can't come for you. He's dead, and the dead can't come back to life."
Gillian let go of Liese's hair and closed her eyes. "Is Papa in heaven with Mama?"
"He surely is."
"I want to go to heaven too."
"It isn't your time to go. You have a long life to live first, Gillian, then you can go to heaven."
She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn't cry. "Papa got dead in the night."
"Yes, he did."
A long while passed in silence before Gillian spoke again. In a tiny whisper she said, "Bad things happen during the night."
Scotland, fourteen years later
The fate of the entire MacPherson clan rested in the hands of Laird Ramsey Sinclair. With the recent birth of Alan Doyle and the peaceful passing of Walter Flanders, there were exactly nine hundred and twenty-two MacPhersons, and the vast majority of those proud men and women desperately wanted and needed Ramsey's protection.
The MacPhersons were in a bad way. Their laird, a sad-eyed, mean-tempered old man named Lochlan, had died the year before, and by his own hand, God forgive him. His clansmen had been stunned and appalled by their laird's cowardly act and still could not talk openly about it. None of the younger men had successfully challenged for the right to lead the clan; though, in truth, most didn't want to fill Lochlan's shoes because they believed he had tainted the position by killing himself. He had to have been mad, they reasoned, because a sane man would never commit such a sin, knowing that he would spend eternity burning in hell for giving God such an insult.
The two elders who had stepped forward to temporarily lead the MacPherson clan, Brisbane Andrews and Otis MacPherson, were old and worn-out from more than twenty years of off-and-on fighting with the land-hungry clans to the east, south, and west of their holding. The fighting had intensified tenfold after the death of their laird, for their enemies knew their vulnerability with the lack of leadership. Desperate times called for cunning measures, however, and so Brisbane and Otis, with their clan's approval, decided to approach Laird Ramsey Sinclair during the annual spring festival. The social opportunity seemed the ideal time to present their petition, as it was an unspoken rule that all the clans leave their animosity at home and join together as one family for two full weeks of competition and goodwill. It was a time when old friendships were renewed, harmless grudges were stirred up, and most important, marriage contracts were sealed. Fathers of young daughters spent most of their days frantically trying to protect their offspring from unwanted suitors while at the same time trying to make the best possible match. Most of the men found it a thoroughly invigorating time.
Because the Sinclair land bordered the MacPherson holding on the southern edge, Ramsey assumed that the MacPherson leaders wanted to talk to him about a possible alliance, but as it turned out, the old men wanted much more. They were after a union—a marriage, so to speak—between the two clans and were willing to give up their name and become Sinclairs if the laird would give them his solemn word that every MacPherson would be treated as though he had been born a Sinclair. They wanted equality for every one of their nine hundred and twenty-two clansmen.
Ramsey Sinclair's tent was the size of a large cottage and spacious enough to accommodate the gathering. There was a small round table in the center with four chairs and several mats strewn around the ground for sleeping. Ramsey's commander in arms,
Gideon, and two other seasoned Sinclair warriors, Anthony and Faudron, his trusted leaders, were present. Michael Sinclair, Ramsey's younger brother, fidgeted in the shadows while he waited for permission to rejoin the festivities. The child had already been rebuked for interrupting the meeting and kept his head bowed in embarrassment and shame.
Brisbane Andrews, a cantankerous old man with a piercing gaze and raspy voice, stepped forward to explain why the MacPhersons sought a merger.
"We have young soldiers, but they are poorly trained and cannot defend our women and children against our aggressors. We need your strength to keep the predators at bay so that we may live a peaceful life."
Otis MacPherson, a legend in the Highlands because of his remarkable though highly embellished feats as a young man, sat down in the chair Ramsey offered, clasped his hands on his knobby knees, and nodded toward Michael. "Perhaps, Laird, it would be best if you would listen to your brother's request and allow him to be on his way before we continue this discussion. Children often repeat secrets by accident, and I wouldn't like anyone to know about this… merger… until you have either accepted or denied us."
Ramsey agreed and turned to his brother. "What is it you want, Michael?"
The boy was still terribly timid around his older brother, for he barely knew him, having seen him only a couple of times in his short life. Ramsey had been living at the Maitland holding as an emissary after his mandatory years of training to become a fit warrior and had returned to his Sinclair home when their father had called for him on his deathbed. The brothers were nearly strangers to one another, but Ramsey, though somewhat inept at dealing with children, was determined to rectify that situation as soon as possible.
"I want to go fishing with my new friend," Michael stammered, his head still bowed low, "if it's all right with you, Laird."
"Look at me when you ask your question," Ramsey instructed.
Michael quickly did as he was ordered and repeated his request, adding the word "please" this time.