Incensed by her interference, Edwin lashed out and slapped her across her face. The force was enough to knock her into Bridgid, who grabbed her to keep her from falling.
"If you touch her again, I'll kill you," Bridgid shouted.
Alford raised his hand to let Edwin know he was to wait.
"Please, go and sit down," Gillian ordered Bridgid.
She wanted her out of harm's way, and Bridgid didn't have to be told twice. She backed away from Edwin and then hurried to a chair against the far wall. Her heart was pounding from fear and shame because she realized now that she was far more of a deterrent than a help to Gillian. Too late she understood what her friend had meant when she'd told Proster that if he went with her, the baron would use him to get what he wanted.
"This is between you and me, Alford," Gillian said. "It began in this hall, and it will end here. I know where the treasure is hidden, and I'll show you where it is as soon as Uncle Morgan and my sister are given safe passage out of here. I suggest you bring my uncle to me as quickly as possible, for I will not tell you anything more until I see for myself that he is well. Do we understand each other?"
"Did you notice, Edwin, that she doesn't ask safe passage for herself?"
His friend nodded, and realizing he wasn't going to get Bridgid upstairs now, he rejoined Hugh at the table. Reaching for the jug of wine, he called out, "Why didn't she include herself?"
"Because she knows I will never let her go." He stepped closer to Gillian and said, "You and I have been playing our game for years now, and one of us must lose. I swear to you the day will come when I will break that spirit inside you and you will learn to cower in my presence."
A shout disrupted his train of thought, and the brute came running into the hall pulling another soldier along in his wake.
"You know better than to interrupt, Horace," the baron snarled at the brute.
"We have good cause," he called out. "You'll want to hear this, milord." Turning to the soldier, he commanded, "Tell him, Arthur."
The pock-faced soldier nodded, swallowed loudly, and then blurted, "We have just returned… We went to Baron Morgan Chapman's holding to fetch him here for you, milord, just as you ordered, but when we—"
Alford cut him off. "You were told to go to my home first."
"Yes, milord, but it seemed quicker to us if we—"
"Did you bring me my favorite cloak?"
The question seemed too difficult for the soldier to understand. Horace shoved him. "Answer your baron," he commanded.
Arthur frantically shook his head. "No… no, we didn't think to look for your cloak."
"Where's Morgan?" Alford demanded then. "Bring him inside."
"I can't, milord. I can't. You don't understand what's happened. We went to his estate, and it was… empty. They're gone. All of them gone."
"What are you stammering about? Who's gone?"
"The soldiers," Arthur wailed, terrified because he knew that when the baron was given bad news, he often lashed out at the messenger. Stepping back to put some distance between them, he continued, "Morgan's home was empty and your soldiers have vanished."
"What do you mean, they've 'vanished'?" he roared.
Arthur cringed when he saw the murderous rage in the baron's eyes. "I'm telling you the truth. The men have vanished. The holding was completely empty, milord, and there was no sign of attack or struggle. Not a chair or a stool was overturned, and we couldn't find any arrows or blood anywhere. It's as though they all just got up and walked away."
"Where is my Uncle Morgan?" Gillian demanded.
"Silence," Alford shouted. "What did the servants tell you happened?" he asked Arthur.
"There were no servants there, milord. The place was deserted I tell you. We decided then that the soldiers must have gone to your home and taken the servants with them and that you had ordered them to do so."
"I gave no such order," Alford muttered, his anger barely controlled. "And they will pay with their lives for leaving their posts, every last one of them."
Horace cleared his throat and said, "There is more for you to hear, Baron."
Alford squinted at Arthur. "Well?" he snapped when the soldier stood there quivering in his boots.
"We rode like lightning to your holding, milord, but when we got there, the drawbridge was down… and it was the same. Not a soldier was there."
"What say you?" Alford screeched.
"Your home was deserted."
"And the servants?"
"They, too, had vanished."
Alford became rigid. "My own men dare to desert me? Where could they have gone? Where?" he bellowed. "I will know who is responsible for this…" He suddenly stopped ranting. His head snapped up and he whirled to confront Gillian. "What do you know about this?"
"I know only what I have just heard."
He didn't believe her. He reached for his dagger at his waist, realized it was on the table, and went to get it. Then he slowly, deliberately walked back to her and held the blade in front of her face.
"I'll slice your throat, you bitch, if you don't tell me the truth. Where are my soldiers?"
"I don't know," she answered. "Would you like me to guess?"
He pressed the point of the blade against the side of her neck, a look of perverted pleasure in his eyes as he deliberately pricked her skin. He took yet another step closer to her and then froze, slowly looking down at the knife Gillian had pressed against his belly.
"Shall we find out whose blade is quicker?" she whispered.
He jumped back. "Seize her," he shouted to Horace.
Bridgid jumped up and ran to Gillian, but Horace saw her coming and shoved her aside. He grabbed Gillian's arm and tried to snatch the weapon away from her. She cut him twice in the palm of his hand before he was able to get the knife.
"I know what happened to your soldiers," Bridgid shouted.
"Move back, Horace," Alford ordered.
Shaken, Alford poured himself a drink, then turned and leaned against the table's edge. "Tell me what happened to them."
"They're dead," Bridgid answered. "All of them. Did you think you could take a child from a powerful laird and not suffer the consequences?" Gripping her hands together, she laughed. "You're next. You and your friends."
Edwin scoffed. "They won't come to the heart of England. They wouldn't dare."
"Yes," Hugh agreed. "If it was the Highlanders, they've gone back home by now. They've certainly finished—"
"Oh, they've only just begun," Gillian called out. "They don't care about gold or treasures. They want the three of you, and they won't stop until you're dead."
"She speaks lies," Horace shouted. "The Highlanders are savages, and our soldiers are vastly superior."
Gillian laughed. "Then pray tell, where are they?"
"How many soldiers do you have posted along the perimeter?" Hugh asked.
"Whatever the number, perhaps you should double the guards. One cannot be too cautious," Edwin interjected.
Alford shrugged at their worries. "If it will please you, I will double the guard. See to it, Horace," he commanded. "No one can get into this holding. I've made it impenetrable. Why, I've over two hundred men here, all hand-picked and all loyal to me. Add their number to the soldiers who escorted the two of you, and we are an invincible force."
"There were forty men who rode with me," Hugh said.
"Twenty-two came with me," Edwin said.
"So you see? We have nothing to fear."
The commander had only just left the hall when he came racing back. "Milord… you have company coming."
"Who is it?"
"My God, it's the heathens?" Edwin shouted.
"Nay, Baron, it's not the heathens. It's the king himself and a full contingent of soldiers. The watch spotted their banner, milord, and the drawbridge has been lowered."
Alford was astounded. "John is here? The king of England is at my door?"
"How many soldiers do you suppose ride with him?" Alford asked.
"The watch reported near to sixty or seventy men."
Alford snorted. "So my troops outnumber his," he remarked.
Hugh laughed. "You always try to outdo him, don't you?"
"Whenever I can," he admitted. "He is king, however, and that puts me at a distinct disadvantage. Still, I do what I can."
"We can certainly relax our guard now," Edwin said.
Alford clapped his hands and ordered the servants to prepare a feast for their honored guest. Hugh and Edwin hurried upstairs to change their tunics, and Alford waited until they had left the hall before grabbing Gillian.
In a low hiss he whispered, "You listen to me. You will keep silent about the treasure. Do you hear me? You will not tell the king you know where Arianna's box is hidden. I swear I'll kill your uncle and your sister if you defy me on this."
He shoved her away from him. "Go and sit in the corner. Hopefully the king will pay you little attention."
Bridgid followed Gillian and sat next to her. "I've made a mess of things, haven't I?" she whispered.
"No," she answered. "Don't worry. It's going to be over soon."
"Are you afraid?"
The women fell silent when Hugh and Edwin came running back into the hall. Hugh was pulling his tunic down over his stomach as he joined Alford, and Edwin was trying to rub off the stain he'd just noticed on his sleeve.
Servants frantically rushed about preparing the great hall for their noble guest. Additional logs were added to the fire in the hearth, the table was cleared, and after a fine linen cloth was spread upon it, tapered candles in silver holders were placed in the center.
Hugh and Edwin stood with Alford off to the side and discussed the king's reasons for coming to Dunhanshire.
"Perhaps he's heard your soldiers have left their posts at your estate and Baron Morgan's," Edwin speculated.
"They didn't leave their posts," Hugh argued. "They fled in the face of battle, and they should all die for their cowardice."
"The king couldn't have heard that news yet," Alford pointed out.
"If he hasn't heard the news, then why is he here?" Edwin asked.
"I think I know what he wants," Alford said. "There's talk of another journey to France, and he's probably going to press me to go with him."
Bridgid nudged Gillian. "Did you see Alford's reaction when he heard that his soldiers had vanished? I thought the vein in his forehead was going to explode."
"Bridgid, when the king comes inside, don't lie to him. If he asks your name, tell him the truth."
"But then Alford will know I'm not your sister."
"You cannot lie to the king of England."
Bridgid stopped arguing and agreed to do as Gillian asked. "It's bad timing that John decided to visit his friend now. Why do you suppose your king is here?"
"I know why," Gillian answered. "I sent for him."
The day of reckoning had finally arrived. John, king of the realm, didn't walk into the hall; he strutted. At least twenty soldiers, all in shiny new garb, marched in behind him in pairs, then fanned out, forming a circular cocoon from one side of the entrance to the other. The walls were quickly lined with heavily armed soldiers who had but one intent—to make certain their king remained safe.
Gillian and Bridgid made a formal curtsy to one knee, bowed their heads, and waited for the king to grant them permission to stand.
Bridgid peeked. Curious to get a good look at the man she had been taught was the devil incarnate, she was a little surprised he didn't have horns growing out of his head. John was quite ordinary looking, actually, with dark, wavy hair in need of a trim and a thick, wiry, brown beard speckled with gray. His size was ordinary too, and she guessed that the top of his head wouldn't even reach the shoulders of Ramsey or Brodick or Iain.
The three barons genuflected to their king, and after John had granted them permission to rise, Alford crooned, "What a wonderful surprise, my lord."
"Yes, indeed," John replied. "What mischief have you gotten yourself into now, Alford," he drawled, a hint of amusement in his voice.
"No mischief," Alford assured him. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, my lord?"
"I haven't come to see you," John said, impatient as he turned his back on Alford and strode purposefully across the hall.
Gillian and Bridgid were suddenly staring at a pair of shiny boots.
"Stand," John commanded.
The ladies did as he ordered. Bridgid looked the king right in his eyes, but then she noticed that Gillian's head was bowed and so she hastened to imitate her.
"Which one of you fair ladies is Gillian?"
"I am Lady Gillian, my lord," she answered.
Alford came running. "May I ask, my lord. What business do you have with my ward?"
"Your ward, Alford? Did I give her to you then?"
Gillian slowly raised her gaze, and the king was so startled by the intensity of her green eyes and her exquisite features he drew a sharp breath. He spoke his thought aloud. "She is magnificent. Why hasn't she been brought to my court?"
"I didn't think you would want the daughter of a murderer in your court," Alford said. "As you know, I firmly believe that Gillian's father was involved in the plot to kill Arianna and steal the treasure, and I felt that you would have been constantly reminded of the tragedy every time you saw Gillian. That is why I didn't bring her to court, my lord. I didn't think you should have to bear such pain."
John's eyes narrowed. "Yes, of course. You have been a very thoughtful friend, Alford."
The baron inclined his head and then remarked, "Gillian has been living in the north of England with her Uncle Morgan… Baron Chapman. And she has only just returned to Dunhanshire. I'll send her upstairs so you won't have to look upon her any longer."
"You'll do no such thing. Go and sit with Hugh and Edwin while I have a word in private with these two ladies."