As Monroe made his way to them, MacKenna challenged him. “You are not the firstborn son of Laird Monroe. He had no sons. You, therefore, cannot claim primogeniture.”

“I am his brother’s firstborn son,” he shouted. “And since my uncle is now deceased, I claim Lady Gabrielle and Finney’s Flat for myself. From this day forward, the land will be called Glen Monroe.”

Coswold was determined to take control again. “You can demand all you want, but you aren’t getting her, nor are you getting Finney’s Flat.”

“Glen MacKenna,” MacKenna corrected. “As of today, it’s Glen MacKenna.”

“What deceit is this?” Percy hissed at Coswold. “What kind of a pact have you made with this man? Does he know you want her for yourself?”

“You are a fool, Percy, a damn fool.”

Neither one was going to get her, Coswold had realized. He’d given up the possibility of marrying Gabrielle. The king had put one obstacle after another in his path, and as lustful as Coswold was for Gabrielle, he wanted the gold every bit as much. Aye, he lusted after the treasure. And so he had made his deal with MacKenna. The laird would get her and the land, and in return Coswold would have access to her. He was convinced she had knowledge of St. Biel’s treasure, and, whether with charm or with torture, he would get it out of her.

Fortunately for him, Percy didn’t even know the treasure existed and neither did MacKenna or King John. MacKenna was such a greedy pig, he hadn’t shown any curiosity when Coswold insisted that he be able to see Gabrielle whenever he wanted. All the laird was interested in was controlling Finney’s Flat.

Coswold wasn’t worried that MacKenna might not live up to his part of the bargain. If necessary, Coswold could summon enough soldiers to destroy the entire MacKenna clan.

Harold Monroe wasn’t about to go away quietly. He had to scream to be heard over the chaos that had erupted. “I claim the right to marry the lady and be given Glen Monroe!”

Everyone in the crowd seemed to have an opinion and decided to express it.

Coswold raised his hand for silence. The command was ignored.

“Quiet, everyone! Baron Coswold wants quiet now so he can be heard.” In an attempt to be helpful, Henry Willis, one of Coswold’s henchmen, shouted the demand from directly behind Coswold’s back. He added several obscene curses as well when the crowd didn’t immediately obey.

At the sound of Henry’s voice, Coswold flinched, then whirled around to glare at the offender.

“Do not scream in my ear,” he demanded.

Henry gritted his teeth. He didn’t like being corrected in front of an audience, and he especially didn’t like disappointing the baron. Coswold was his liberator. He’d liberated him from a trip to the gallows, and Henry idolized him, for the baron had given him an identity and made him an important man.

Henry knew what he was. In appearance he certainly wasn’t much to look at. He was a wide-necked brute of a man with a flat face, small ears, and thick lips. His eyes were no bigger than two beads of perspiration. His hands were big though. Big and strong. Perhaps because he knew he was so unattractive, he wore a perpetual sneer.

He made up for his unpleasant appearance with his special talents. He could snap a man’s neck quicker than he could drop to his knees, and he would do so without any provocation or a moment’s remorse. There were only a handful of men in the world he feared, and Coswold was one. Henry knew that Coswold used him and his cohorts, Cyril and Malcolm, to do his unpleasant work, but they were well-paid and given respect by the baron’s peers.

Henry heard Malcolm snicker and shoved an elbow in his side. Since Coswold was still glaring at him, Henry said, “I won’t be yelling again, but Baron,” he continued in a rush to redeem himself, “maybe if you used force, you’d get them to do what you wanted.”

Coswold was exasperated. “We had to leave our weapons outside the gates, remember? Oh, to have my sword now. I’d run it through Percy just to shut him up.”

“I’d be honored to run him through for you,” Malcolm blurted. The hireling only came to Henry’s shoulder and had to push his way to the front so he could be seen by the baron.

“What if you were to bring more of your people inside the abbey? Even without weapons they’d be giving Percy a message of how powerful you are. Besides, look at those Highlanders strolling in here as if they owned the place. I lost count, there are so many of them,” Henry said.

“They aren’t important and have no interest in this proceeding. I certainly have no interest in them. Now both of you be quiet while I finish this. I have no need for more of your suggestions.”

Both Malcolm and Henry bowed their heads. “Aye, Baron.”

Percy strained to hear the conversation between Coswold and his men, but the clamor of voices surrounding him drowned them out. When Coswold turned back to him, he screamed, “You will not decide anything!”

Percy screeched like a trapped bird, Coswold thought. “I have already decided her future.”

Percy’s face turned bloodred. “I want her and I will have her.”

Gabrielle had had enough. She couldn’t bear to hear another word from either of these repulsive men.

“May I have your attention?”

Gabrielle had not raised her voice, and only a few men standing near her heard what she said. One of them yelled, “The lady is wanting your attention, Baron.”

Coswold and Percy both turned to her. MacKenna stood between them. All three smiled at her like starry-eyed suitors.

“Which baron do you wish to address?” Percy cooed.

“Both.”

Everyone eagerly waited for her to speak. She would surely choose one over the other, and Coswold was confident that she would obey the king’s writ and abide by his decisions. Percy held the same view, confident she would place her future in his hands.

“Yes, Lady Gabrielle?” Coswold said.

“There seems to be some confusion here,” she began.

“Aye, with all the shouting Percy’s doing,” Coswold interrupted.

“Let her speak!” someone from the crowd shouted.

“All right. All right.” Coswold nodded. “You were saying, milady?”

“I believe I can settle this dispute. You see, I will not marry anyone today.”

“But I have agreed to marry you,” MacKenna said, staggered by her refusal.

“Yes, but I have not agreed to marry you.”

His mouth dropped open. He was astounded and turned to Coswold for help. “Can she refuse?”

“She cannot,” he snapped. “Don’t be difficult, Gabrielle, for I speak on King John’s behalf…”

Gabrielle was weary of their pompous declarations. “Yes, you’ve mentioned that fact several times now.”

Did she mock him? Coswold’s eyes narrowed. He couldn’t be certain. She looked so angelic, and there was no bite to her voice.

“Baron Coswold is mistaken. I speak for the king,” Percy insisted.

She turned her attention to him. “So you have also said countless times. May I ask both of you a question? Where was my father while all of these decisions were being made?”

No one would answer.

“Did you wait for my father to leave to carry out this obscenity?”

“Obscenity?” Coswold roared. “How dare you speak to me in such a way.”

Percy was just as outraged by her attitude, and MacKenna looked like he wanted to strike her, but she held her ground and budged not one inch.

MacKenna considered grabbing Gabrielle by her arm and forcing her to his side, but he looked up and saw MacHugh and Buchanan still watching. Best not touch her, he decided, for he had no wish to make a scene. For the time being, he was forced to treat her with courtesy. Later, he promised himself, when he had Gabrielle alone, he would show her how to be respectful.

“Lady Gabrielle, I am afraid this isn’t your decision to make,” Percy told her.

“I agree.”

Coswold and Percy glanced at each other. “You agree?” Coswold said. “Then why this fuss?”

“It isn’t my decision. It’s my father’s. It’s his right to decide my future, certainly not yours.”

“Are you refusing…” MacKenna began.

Lord, he was as thickheaded as both barons appeared to be. She held herself even straighter. “Let me make my position clear so that there will be no more confusion. My father will decide my future.”

How many times would she have to say it before they believed she meant every word? She wasn’t going to marry anyone today.

“You would go against your king’s wishes?” Percy demanded.

She looked him in the eye. “I know not what my king’s wishes are. He has yet to tell me.”

“I’ve just told you that I speak on his behalf,” Percy cried.

“Yes, you have, but then so has Baron Coswold. Who am I to believe? I think I must wait for my father to decide.”

She bowed to the barons and had every intention of leaving, but a woman’s sudden shout stopped her.

“This is a mockery. A mockery! She’s making fools of all of you. This cannot go on.”

Gabrielle turned to see the woman who had glared at her outside the commons make her way toward them.

Isla ran to Coswold. He looked horrified by the intrusion.

“What are you doing?” he hissed under his breath.

She couldn’t look at him. Lowering her head, Isla cried out, “Pray forgive me for not speaking out sooner, but I couldn’t…it’s…it’s so horrible.”

“Who is this woman?” a man in Percy’s group asked.

“She’s Baron Coswold’s niece,” Percy answered.

“Isla, what’s come over you?” Appalled by her behavior, Coswold grabbed Isla’s arm, squeezing as hard as he could. What was she thinking to make such a scene?

“Uncle, I’m so sorry to upset you, but the truth must come out before you or Baron Percy decide her future. I will not let her humiliate you.” Although there were no tears in evidence, Isla let out a loud dramatic sob. “It would be blasphemy for an honorable man to marry her.”

“Why? What are you saying?” Percy demanded. He sounded more confused than angry. “What blasphemy do you speak of?”

Isla pointed to Gabrielle and screamed, “She’s unclean. She’s…she’s a whore!”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

T HE DAMNING SILENCE THAT FOLLOWED ISLA’S HORRIBLE accusation lasted only as long as it took for everyone in the commons to draw a deep, gasping breath. Then the crowd erupted into bursts of anger and outrage. Within minutes, sides were taken, those for and those against Gabrielle.

Gabrielle couldn’t move. How could she respond to such an absurdity? It was preposterous.

“Let’s hear what she has to say.” Percy waved his arms and demanded the crowd quiet down.

Coswold’s voice shook with fury. “Yes, everyone be silent now. I would hear what Isla has to say for herself.” His niece was ruining all of his carefully thought out plans, but all eyes were on her now, and he couldn’t ignore her. “Isla, why would you call the Lady Gabrielle such a foul name?”

Isla timidly glanced up and saw that everyone was closing in on her. “Because it’s true,” she answered in a meek voice.

“Speak up,” Percy said. “Tell us why you made this outrageous claim.”

Isla raised her voice slightly and repeated, “Because it’s true.”

Murmurs spread through the crowd.

“How do you know this?” Percy demanded.

“I saw her,” Isla said.

The murmurs grew louder.

“Go on,” Coswold ordered. “Tell us what you saw.”

It was easy for Isla to cry real tears now. Her uncle had such a tight grip on her arm, her skin was burning.

“It was the middle of the night three nights ago, and I was awakened by a noise in the hall. I opened my door to see what it was.” She pointed to Gabrielle. “She was sneaking around the corner. I knew I shouldn’t, but I was curious and decided to follow her. I stayed well behind her because I didn’t want her to see me.”

“How could you see where you were going in the dark? Did the lady carry a candle?”

She hesitated for the barest of seconds and then blurted, “The moon was bright. There was no need for a candle.”

She struggled to get away from her uncle, but he wouldn’t release her. In fact, he tightened his hold.

“Where did Lady Gabrielle lead you?” MacKenna asked the question.

“She stopped in front of a door and tapped lightly. I hid behind a pillar. The door opened, and after looking both ways, she went inside.”

“Did you see who opened the door?” Percy asked.

Isla dropped her gaze to the ground again. “It was a man.”

“And do you know this man?” her uncle asked.

“No,” Isla said, “but I had seen him at the banquet that night. I believe he was the envoy from France.”

Percy called to his followers. “Find him. Bring him to us.”

One of them answered immediately. “He’s no longer here. He and his companions left yesterday.”

MacKenna grew impatient. “If it was dark, how could you recognize the man?” he asked Isla. “Perhaps it was her father. Perhaps it wasn’t a man at all, but a maidservant.” He was grasping for an explanation. If Isla’s accusations were taken seriously, his entire scheme would be destroyed. He could feel Glen MacKenna slipping through his fingers.

Isla’s courage was gaining strength. “It was a man,” she stated emphatically. Pointing at Gabrielle again, she said, “And what she was doing makes her unclean.”

MacKenna scanned the crowd as everyone reacted to the shocking news. When he looked up, he saw MacHugh and Buchanan watching with scowls on their faces. His mind raced. How much had they heard? Once again, his reputation and his authority were at stake. If he was going to emerge from this situation with his dignity and his plan intact, he had to think fast.

He looked at Isla with mock compassion when he said, “I’m sure your intentions are noble, but perhaps you are mistaken, my dear. Is it possible that you could have confused what you saw for something innocent?”

“It was no mistake,” Isla said defiantly. “I saw her when she came out of the room. Her hair was down and her gown was unlaced. The man came to the door, and he wore no tunic or shirt.”



----