“You can’t just go to war, Colm.” Gabrielle couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Had he gotten up this morning, eaten his breakfast, called his men to arms, and now thought he would ride into battle? “You are not prepared.”
“How am I not prepared?”
Had he never gone to war before? Was that why he didn’t know what he was supposed to do?
“You haven’t declared war first,” she instructed. “Then you must spend weeks, if not months, on preparation. There are weapons to be made and packed in a wagon, food to pack as well to sustain your men during battle, and all other necessary equipment must be carefully placed in wagons and taken along for your comforts.”
He contained his laughter and asked, “Explain these necessary comforts to me.”
She thought about what the nobles took with them when they went to war. “You will need a strong tent so that you will be sheltered from the rain, and a rug to place inside the tent so that you will not have to step barefoot on the hard ground when you get out of your bed.”
“And do I take my bed with me?”
“What about wine? How many barrels should I take with me?”
“As many as you think you will need,” she said. “There are rules, Colm, even for you to follow. In a civilized war—”
“War is never civilized, and you have just described to me how the English prepare for war. By now you should have noticed that I am not English.”
“You still must prepare.”
“I have my sword, my bow, and a sound horse. I have no need for more.”
“Then I will pray that you finish your war before you get hungry or thirsty.”
She tried to walk away, but he grabbed her and kissed her soundly.
“Will you come back to me?” she asked.
And then he was gone.
COLM AND HIS SOLDIERS had been gone from the holding for four days and nights when Lady Joan Dunbar arrived to pay her sister a visit.
Gabrielle was most curious to meet the woman Colm had intended to marry. She made up her mind that, no matter how pretty Joan was or how sweet her disposition, she would not be jealous of her. Colm obviously cared about the woman, or he wouldn’t have agreed to marry her. He might even have loved her. But Gabrielle would not be jealous.
Colm didn’t love Gabrielle. He had simply been trapped by a stupid debt. He never would have given her a second glance otherwise.
Did Joan love Colm? How could she not? He was a handsome, virile, strong man—a protector. And if Joan loved him, so what? Gabrielle still wouldn’t be jealous.
Perhaps she and Joan could even become friends. It would be nice to have a woman with whom to talk of matters that men would have no interest in. And she and Joan did have one thing in common: Colm. Yes, they just might become friends.
But that was not to happen. After spending five minutes with the woman, Gabrielle knew they would never be friends. The reason was simple: Lady Joan was a bitch, and a mean one at that.
Fiona introduced her sister. Joan was much taller and thinner than Gabrielle. She didn’t seem to have many curves. She was more statuesque. Her hair was so long it touched her waist, and the color was as pale as her complexion. Long lashes fanned across her azure eyes. She was pretty, and she knew it.
Joan kept sweeping her hair over her shoulder with the back of her hand in a dramatic gesture meant to draw attention to her curls.
“This is Lady Gabrielle, Joan,” Fiona said. “I explained to her that you and Laird MacHugh were to marry and then Father formed an alliance with Laird Dunbar and forced you to marry him.”
Joan stared at Gabrielle as she asked her sister, “Did you also explain that my husband is dead, and I am now free to marry Colm? And did you explain that I fully intend to do so?”
Lady Joan didn’t get quite the reaction she expected. Gabrielle was so surprised by what she’d said, she burst into laughter.
“Stop laughing,” Joan demanded. “I haven’t said anything amusing.”
“I would offer you my condolences on the loss of your husband, but you seem to have gotten past mourning him.”
Joan wagged a finger at Gabrielle. “I’ve heard all about you.”
“It’s odd that I haven’t heard anything about you.”
“Maybe that’s because I’m not a whore.”
Gabrielle shrugged, and that action further incited Joan’s anger.
“Colm won’t marry a whore, and that’s what you are.”
Gabrielle knew that Joan wanted her to defend herself, but she wasn’t going to accommodate her. “Enjoy your visit,” she said and then walked away.
That night, as Gabrielle was pulling the covers back, she thought about Joan and what she had said.
One day, after she was married to Colm, she would tell him she had saved him from a fate worse than death. Aye, she’d saved him from Joan.
T HE WAR WASN’T CIVILIZED. IT WAS BLOODY AND HARD-FOUGHT.
MacHugh made no pretense of a surprise attack. He had made sure that MacKenna knew he was coming by sending word to surrounding clans that he was ready to avenge his brother.
When the news reached the MacKenna holding, the laird rallied his soldiers to battle, but he hadn’t had time to call his allies. He swore that the MacHughs would never step foot on MacKenna land. MacKenna would meet the enemy head-on and make the first strike.
MacKenna never varied his strategy, believing what had worked in the past would work again. He would strike and retreat, again and again, with wave after wave of assaults. Although his men weren’t as well-trained, they were twice in number, and he could move fresh troops in after each wave. He had another advantage as well: his archers. As the MacHughs poured down the mountain and crossed the flats, there would be no place to hide. Even if they managed to reach the border of the flats, his archers would be waiting to finish them off.
Colm counted on MacKenna’s stupidity.
It never occurred to Laird MacKenna that the MacHughs could cross the flats in the dark. Even fools would never try to ride across what they could not see. Without light, their horses could stumble and falter. But the MacHughs didn’t ride their horses, they silently led them across. By morning light they had made a wide circle and were in position behind their enemy. They advanced, forcing the MacKennas to engage in battle or run. Most of them ran.
Once they flushed the MacKennas into the open, they fought with their swords and with their fists. The battle was quickly won, for the MacKennas fought like the cowards they were. One even tried to use another as a shield against MacHugh’s sword. Colm killed them both with one hard thrust, his blade cutting through two bodies just below their hearts.
Colm was always the first to go into battle. He led his men. MacKenna was always the last, fighting only when there was little actual danger of getting killed.
Bodies covered the field like rushes. Every dead MacKenna was turned over in search of the laird. But he was not to be found. Colm stood in the middle of the carnage, his sword dripping MacKenna blood, enraged that MacKenna had slipped away.
“Find him!” he roared.
The MacKenna keep was blocked off. The hunt continued.
Colm found his enemy three long days later, hiding like a coward in a grotto near the bluff overlooking Loch Gornoch. With swords drawn, two of MacKenna’s soldiers stood guard in front of their laird.
Braeden leaped from his horse and ran to Colm’s side.
“Stand back,” Colm ordered. His eyes locked on MacKenna as the two MacKenna soldiers ran for their lives.
Grasping his sword in both hands, Colm raised his arms high over his head.
The last image Owen MacKenna saw was a looming shadow.
The last sound he heard was the music of the sword.
G ABRIELLE STOOD AT THE WINDOW IN HER CHAMBER and watched a group of boys fighting with wooden swords. She heard one of them yell that it was his turn to play Laird MacHugh, and she soon learned that meant he got to win. There were always two winners on their pretend battlefield, Colm and Liam. She wondered if the laird and his brother knew how much they were admired by their clan.
The mischief-makers, Ethan and Tom, stood on the sidelines begging to be allowed to join in, but the older boys kept pushing them back and ignoring them. She was surprised the little ones gave up so easily. They put their heads together, giggled loudly, and then took off running around the side of the castle. They had already moved on to their next adventure.
Hearing the children’s laughter lightened Gabrielle’s mood. She had been so melancholy since Colm left, and he had been gone such a long time. Was he safe? Please God, keep him safe.
She knew what evil MacKenna was capable of, for there was proof that he had plotted Liam’s torture and murder. In the last few days she had heard numerous stories about Laird MacKenna, and each one painted a picture of a tyrant who used others to carry out his sadistic plans. His loyalty to his clan went only as far as the benefit he received personally. If his followers displeased him, they were expelled, or worse, killed. He even used women and children as shields against hostile neighboring clans. Housing them near the fortress walls, he made sure any laird who dared attack the MacKenna holding knew they were first killing these deterrents.
As Gabrielle listened to each horrendous tale, she thought back to the man she had met at Arbane Abbey. Laird MacKenna’s generosity to the monks had no doubt been part of his scheme. The abbot had been deceived, and so had she. At his introduction, Gabrielle had thought the man amiable and attractive, and now that she knew the truth, she admonished herself for making judgments based on appearance. She had been wrong about him, and she had been wrong about Colm as well. Had she only looked at Colm’s rough exterior, she would never have seen the heart of the man.
She tried not to think about MacKenna and what must be happening, but late at night when she was huddled under the covers, sleep would elude her, and her imagination would run rampant. All sorts of horrible images would come into her mind. She would imagine Colm lying injured, all alone, with no one to help him.
The possibility that he might die was too unbearable to consider. His clan needed him.
Shoving one worry from her mind, it settled on another. Why hadn’t she heard from her father? There had been enough time for him to have gotten word to her or to the Buchanans. The longer she waited to hear, the more convinced she became that Wellingshire was under siege and that King John’s soldiers had taken him captive. Gabrielle knew her father would never surrender.
So many were suffering now…and all because of a lie. Gabrielle hoped that one day she would know why the woman had said such heinous things about her. How could she so blithely destroy someone she didn’t know? Where was her conscience? Had Isla felt any remorse? Or had she, like so many others, discovered a way to justify her evil deeds?
Gabrielle didn’t have any answers. She knew only that fear could paralyze her if she allowed it. She needed to keep busy. If she worked hard enough and moved fast enough, there would be no time to worry.
Now, as she straightened up her chamber, she said another prayer that God would watch over her father and Colm.
Feeling a chill in the air, she went to the window to lower the tapestry. Before the heavy fabric fell into place, she glanced once again at the boys playing below. Something caught her eye and she quickly pushed the curtain back.
“Oh, dear Lord.”
She picked up her skirts, threw the door open, and ran as fast as she could. She nearly broke her neck flying down the stairs.
Liam was in the hall when he heard her shout. He kicked a chair out of his way as he came running. “Gabrielle, what’s wrong?” He caught her as she tried to run past him.
“Ethan…Tom…with swords,” she gasped.
“Yes, I saw the boys playing outside, but what—”
“Real swords,” she stammered. “They’ve got real—”
She didn’t have to continue. Liam understood what she was trying to tell him. He was much faster than she was and had already vanished down the second set of stairs. Gabrielle pushed a clump of hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath, then picked up her skirts again and chased after him.
There weren’t any blood-curdling screams, which was a good indication the boys hadn’t cut themselves. Still, she wanted to make certain they were all right. By the time she reached the first floor, she had picked up a good amount of speed. The door was just closing as she ran outside. It struck her on the hip, knocking her off balance and sending her spinning down the steps into the courtyard. She might have been able to save herself from falling on her face if her legs hadn’t gotten caught up in her gown. She tripped over her own feet and once again went flying through the air, though this time she was sure to land on her head.
Colm saved her from breaking her neck. He had Tom wrapped firmly in one arm when he saw her. Tossing the boy to Christien, he grabbed for Gabrielle and she landed against his chest with a thud.
Gabrielle uttered an unladylike expletive she hoped no one heard, looked up, and only then realized she was in Colm’s arms. She was so happy to see him, she kissed him. He hadn’t shaved, and she felt the bristles of his beard against her cheek. He squeezed her just enough to let her know he was happy to see her, too. At least that is what she wanted to believe.
She stepped back. “You are well?”
“And the battle?”
“And the outcome?”
She knew he wasn’t going to tell her anything more, and though she thought he could have been a little less rude about it, she was too happy to see him to let it irritate her.
Liam walked past them with Ethan tucked under his arm. The boy was yelling for Liam to put him down so that he could get his sword. With Tom in tow, Christien followed them inside. The child chattered away and didn’t seem to mind that the guard paid no attention.
For a moment Gabrielle and Colm were alone. “I have missed you,” she said.
She hoped he would tell her that he had also missed her, but he only gave her a quick nod. And then he broke her heart.
“Gabrielle, I know I told you I would marry you in six months’ time…” he began.
“Yes, and a month almost has already passed.”
“It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. I can no longer keep my promise.”
Willa stopped him from saying more. “Laird, begging a minute of your time…” she called as she approached, wiping her hands on her apron. “Those little imps have been at it again. They’ve gotten into the pens in the back and terrorized my poor hens, and now they won’t lay their eggs. I swear I saw one of them hide when Ethan and Tom ran past. I’m afraid you’re going to have to ban them from the yard.”