Reining her horse into the open, she called out to him. “Father, would you allow some help?”

He was at first startled, and then he nodded vigorously. “I would be most thankful for assistance,” he called out.

Lucien and Faust had already dismounted and were headed to the wagon. Lucien noticed how the priest struggled under the weight of the bag and took it from him. “Where would you like this?” he asked.

“Just inside the door on the left is a storage building. If you stack the grain there, I would be most appreciative.” He pulled a cloth from the belt of his robes and mopped the sweat from the back of his neck. Smiling, he started toward Gabrielle. “Welcome, I’m Father Gelroy.”

He’d just crossed the path when he noticed the injured man draped across Stephen’s saddle.

“What have we here?” he demanded. He rushed to Stephen’s side to get a better look, and he was so shocked by the man’s condition he made a hasty sign of the cross. “What happened to this poor fellow? Is he alive?”

“He is,” Christien answered.

Stephen dismounted and lifted Liam into his arms. “This man is in need of assistance as you can clearly see. Is there a healer here?”

“Aye, there is, and more than one,” he answered in a rush. “Come. Follow me.”

Lucien and Faust made quick work of unloading the grain. Gabrielle dismounted and handed the reins to Lucien.

The priest hurried to the door ahead of them. “Does this man have a name?”

Gabrielle answered. “His name is Liam MacHugh.”

Father Gelroy’s reaction was swift. He came to such an abrupt stop he actually swayed, then whirled around. His expression was one of disbelief, and the color had disappeared from his face.

“Did I hear you say MacHugh?” He was so rattled, he’d shouted the question. “Tell me I didn’t, but did I?”

“Father, please, lower your voice,” Stephen instructed.

The priest put his hand to his forehead. Gabrielle noticed it trembled.

“My God. You’ve got Liam MacHugh and he’s barely alive. If he dies…”

Gabrielle stepped forward. “We are hopeful with the healer’s help he won’t die,” she said quietly.

Father Gelroy forced himself to calm down. “Yes, yes, we must all be hopeful,” he stammered. “I’ll tell you this. There will be hell to pay if he dies. Quickly now. Inside with him. The room next to mine is empty. We’ll put him in there. Once I’ve shown you the way I’ll go in search of Father Franklin. He’s more skilled, I believe, than the others.”

Lucien and Faust stayed with the horses while Stephen and Christien, carrying Liam, followed Gabrielle and the priest into the abbey. The corridor he led them down was dark, narrow, and smelled like the inside of a wet cave. All the doors were of dry splintered wood in arched frames. Father nodded to one as he rushed past and said, “That’s my room.”

He stopped in front of the next door, gently rapped on it with his knuckles to make certain it was still unoccupied, and then lifted the latch. He pushed the door, stepped inside, and held it open for them.

The room was tiny, with a small window set high above a wooden pallet that served as a bed. A gray wool blanket covered the straw mattress. A stool and a small chest were the room’s only other pieces of furniture. A water bowl and pitcher flanked by two candles sat on top of the chest.

“Put him on the bed. Gently now,” the priest said. “Let him sleep on his side so his back…good Lord, his poor back…” He took a breath and slowly let it out. “I believe Father Franklin is at vespers. I’ll tell him to bring his medicines. When I come back, I’ll fetch my stole and oils and give Liam MacHugh the last rites.”

Gabrielle protested. “But that sacrament is only for those who are dying.”

“Can you tell me he isn’t dying?”

She bowed her head. “Nay, I cannot.”

“Then he must have the sacrament of Extreme Unction so that he can go to heaven unblemished.”

He turned to leave, but Christien stepped in front of the door, blocking his exit.

“Father, it would be for the better if no one knew how this man came to be here.”

“Then I must first know if any of you had anything to do with his injuries. It’s a foul question, but I must have an answer.”

“He was in this condition when we came upon him,” Christien told him.

“I thought as much, for why else would you carry such a burden?” the priest returned. “I promise you I won’t be saying a word to anyone about Laird MacHugh’s brother, but I would like to know what happened.”

“Will you keep our confidence as well?” Christien asked. “It would be for the better if you don’t know who we are.”

The priest shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that. The second I saw this beautiful lady I knew who she was. There have been whispers of her coming for weeks now.”

He turned to her and bowed low. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Gabrielle. Have no worries, for if I am introduced to you in the future, I will be pleased to meet you then as though for the first time. Your secrets are safe with me.”

“Thank you, Father,” she said, but she doubted he heard her, for he had already rushed out of the room.

“It’s time for you to leave, Princess,” Stephen said.

Christien nodded agreement. “Aye, it’s time.”

The two guards looked worried, and she was sorry to disappoint them.

“I cannot leave him just yet. He’s too vulnerable. Someone must watch over him while he is in this weakened state. Before I go, I must be certain that he is in capable hands and that he has the proper medicines.”

She wouldn’t be swayed. The argument that Father Franklin would be one more man they would have to trust to keep their confidence wasn’t valid in her opinion. Father Franklin was also a man of God and would not break the promise they would get from him.

“The more people who know, the better the chance of the trail leading back to the man you killed…” Stephen began.

“This man’s life is more important.”

“We cannot agree, Princess,” Christien said, “but we will do your bidding.”

Liam still hadn’t opened his eyes or made any sounds at all, not even a groan when Father Franklin, who Gabrielle had to admit was quite capable, sewed his skin together. He’d wanted to forgo the stitches and sear the wound with a hot poker, but she wouldn’t allow it. There seemed no need since the bleeding had stopped at last. There was another reason. Though she doubted the warrior would care about appearance, he was quite handsome, and a scar from stitches wouldn’t be as terrible as a burn scar.

Once she was assured that nothing more could be done for the wounded man, Gabrielle finally consented to trust his care to the two priests.

The sun was setting when Gabrielle finally left Liam’s side.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

G ABRIELLE’S ARRIVAL AT THE FRONT GATES OF ARBANE Abbey was met with great jubilation.

The abbot had given orders to summon him the minute she appeared, and he now hurriedly rushed forward, tying his cincture around his rotund stomach and breathlessly calling out for food and drink.

With a grand bow, he stammered, “Such an honor. It is such an honor to offer you our humble hospitality, milady. Yes, we’re truly, truly honored.”

He clasped her hand and squeezed. He didn’t let go until she forcefully pulled her hand back.

She introduced her guards to the abbot and said, “We thank you for opening your rooms to us, and I thank you for allowing my wedding to take place here.”

“We are thrilled to have the honor. Everyone has been making preparations for the holy sacrament for some time, and now, to think it’s only a week away. This union will surely secure a peaceful and lasting bond between our two noble countries.” Snapping his fingers, he motioned for a servant to hurry and make preparations. “You must be hungry and thirsty. Come inside. We have refreshments for you and your soldiers. I understand they do not leave your side when you are away from home. Is that not true?”

“It is true, but I am happy for their company.”

A pretty young woman rushed forward and thrust a bouquet of flowers in Gabrielle’s face. Gabrielle took them and thanked her, smiling when the woman made a quick and awkward curtsy.

“These are lovely,” she called out as the woman scurried away.

“Was your journey pleasant?” the abbot asked.

Gabrielle didn’t laugh, but she wanted to, wondering what he would think if she blurted the truth about their journey. They had been inside the abbey for hours now, but the abbot couldn’t know that. Gabrielle and her guards had gotten back on their horses and had circled through the forest so they could approach Arbane Abbey by its front gate. Their trip had taken a few minutes at the most, but since they were keeping silent about Liam MacHugh, she could only say, “It was most pleasant, but I would like to change my gown before I have refreshments.”

The cloak hid the stains from Liam’s blood. Since the weather was still warm, the abbot must have thought she was ill to be wearing such a heavy garment.

“Yes, of course. Brother Anselm waits inside to show you the way to your rooms. I pray they meet with your satisfaction.”

“I’m certain I will be most comfortable.”

“We began to worry when the time passed and you hadn’t arrived. We expected you hours ago.”

“I’m sorry to have caused you concern. Your countryside is so lovely I lost track of the time.”

The abbot seemed satisfied with her answer. He took her arm and started walking.

“Guests have been arriving and setting up their camps outside of our monastery for days. Most are from England as one would expect, but some came from as far away as France and Spain, all bearing gifts to mark this auspicious occasion. The contingent from your family’s homeland of St. Biel brought the most wonderful gift of all, I believe. It is a lovely sculpture of your patron saint. They have asked us to hold it in our chapel’s sacristy for safekeeping until the wedding, and I’m sure Laird Monroe will want to set it in a sacred place of honor in his own chapel. You’ll see some of the other offerings at the banquet…”

Gabrielle smiled and nodded as the abbot continued to chatter on about the gifts and the visitors and the feasts. It was apparent the abbey had never seen such a celebration, and she was happy to indulge his enthusiasm.

They’d just entered the commons when the abbot stopped and motioned to a man crossing their path.

“You must meet Laird MacKenna. He, too, is a guest, but he’s leaving shortly. Laird,” he called out, “come and meet Lady Gabrielle. She has finally arrived.”

The man turned and walked toward them with a smile that seemed genuine and warm. His stride was long, and he carried himself proudly. His wavy black hair was swept back from his high forehead, and there wasn’t a single scar on his flawless features. He must lead a charmed life, she decided.

He bowed to her. “I have heard it said that you are a beauty, and I must say it was not an exaggeration.”

“I thank you for the compliment.”

“I know you are aware that Lady Gabrielle is to be married here to Laird Monroe,” the abbot said.

“Of course, I know,” Laird MacKenna answered. “He’s my friend,” he said to Gabrielle, “and I will attend the celebration at his request. It will be a great day for both of our countries. Returning the glen…I mean Finney’s Flat…to a Highlander will bring peace among the clans, for Laird Monroe will see that it is used wisely. I look forward to the ceremony.” He bowed again. “Until then…” he said and took his leave.

The abbot waited until he was out of sight and then said, “Laird MacKenna surprised us with such an act of kindness. He brought us a wagon full of grain from his fields. He’s never been so generous before, and we were quite stunned and pleased. The laird has become a thoughtful man. Ah, here is Brother Anselm. He will show you the way.”

The two rooms assigned to Gabrielle were in the largest wing of the abbey. They were surprisingly spacious and had connecting doors on either side. Servants were busy unpacking her clothes in preparation for the festivities ahead. Gabrielle kept her cloak wrapped around her until she was alone in her room. She wasn’t sure what to do about the blood on her cream-colored bliaut, and she couldn’t come up with a plausible explanation as to why it was there. She ended up folding the garment and hiding it in the bottom of one of her trunks.

Later that evening, after her maids had gone to bed, Faust and Lucien led Gabrielle to Liam’s room to check on him. Father Franklin and Father Gelroy were both there and in the middle of a heated argument.

“Has he awakened yet?” she asked in a whisper so as not to disturb the patient.

Franklin smiled at her. “No, he hasn’t, but he’s done some moaning, and I’ve a good feeling he’ll wake up soon.”

“Or he won’t,” Gelroy said, scowling. “He isn’t out of danger, now is he, Franklin?”

“One must have hope, Gelroy.”

“If he dies, Colm MacHugh will tear this place apart, sacred or not. It won’t matter to him. He needs to be told that his brother is here. Hopefully he’ll come to fetch him before Liam dies.”

“If he dies,” Franklin snapped. “But I don’t think he will. I do agree that Laird MacHugh should be told Liam is here. I think you should leave with morning light.”

“I would be happy to take over your duties while you make the trip to the MacHugh holding,” Gelroy responded.

“I’m too old and feeble to make this journey,” he whispered.

Gelroy snorted. “You’re neither too old nor too feeble. What you are is afraid, Franklin. Aye, that’s what you are.”

“And you’re not?”

“Of course I’m afraid. In fact, I’m more afraid than you are,” he boasted in a low voice. “And older by two years, which is why you should go on this errand, and I should stay. My heart couldn’t take Laird MacHugh’s disappointment.”

Before Franklin could work up a rebuttal, Gelroy turned to Gabrielle. “We’ve been bickering about this for over an hour now.”

Frowning, she said, “I don’t understand your hesitance. I would think that Laird MacHugh would be overjoyed to learn that his brother is alive.”



----