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By Sarah McKerrigan
WARNER FOREVERCopyright © 2006 Glynnis Campbell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Borders
HELENA WAS DRUNK. Drunker than she'd ever been in her life. Which was why, no matter how she struggled against the cursed brute of a Norman oaf wrestling her down the castle stairs, she couldn't break his hold on her.
"Cease, wench!" her captor hissed, stumbling on a step in the dark. "Bloody hell, you'll get us both killed."
She would have grappled even harder then, but her right knee suddenly turned to custard. Forsooth, if the Norman hadn't caught her against his broad chest, she'd have tumbled headlong down the stone steps.
"Ballocks," he muttered against her ear, his massive arms tightening around her like a vise.
She rolled her eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over her. If only her muscles would cooperate, she thought, she could wrench loose and push the bloody bastard down the stairs.
But she was well and truly drunk.
She'd not realized just how drunk until she'd found herself in the bedchamber of her sister's bridegroom, Pagan Cameliard, dagger in hand, ready to kill him.
If she hadn't been drunk, if she hadn't tripped in the dark over Pagan's man, slumbering at the foot of the bed like some cursed faithful hound, she might have succeeded.
Jesu, 'twas a sobering thought. Helena, the daughter of alord, and an honorable Warrior Maid of Rivenloch, had almost slain a man quite dishonorably in his sleep.
'Twas not entirely her fault, she decided. She'd been up until the wee hours, commiserating over a cup, indeed several cups, with her older sister, Deirdre, lamenting the fate of Miriel, their poor little sister, betrothed against her will to a foreigner. And under the influence of excessive wine, they'd sworn to murder the man if he so much as laid a hand on Miriel.
It had seemed such a noble idea at the time. But how Helena had gone from making that drunken vow to actually skulking about the bridegroom's chamber with a knife, she couldn't fathom.
Indeed, she'd been shocked to discover the dagger in her hand, though not half as shocked as Sir Colin du Lac, the brawny varlet over whom she'd tripped, the man who currently half shoved, half carried her down the stairs.
Once more, Helena had become a victim of her own impulsiveness. Deirdre frequently scolded Helena for her tendency to act first and ask questions later. Still, Helena's quick reflexes had saved her more than once from malefactors and murderers and men who mistook her for a helpless maid. While Deirdre might waste time weighing the consequences of punishing a man for insult, Helena wouldn't hesitate to draw her sword and mark his cheek with a scar he'd wear to his grave. Her message was clear. No one tangled with the Warrior Maids of Rivenloch.
But this time, she feared she'd gone too far.
Pagan's man grunted as he lifted her over the last step. Damn the knave-despite his inferior Norman blood, he proved as strong and determined as a bull. With a final heave, he deposited her at the threshold of the great hall.
The chamber seemed cavernous by the dim glow of the banked fire, its high ceiling obscured by shadow, its walls disappearing into the darkness. By day 'twas a lofty hall decked with the tattered banners of defeated enemies. But by night the frayed pennons hung in the air like lost spirits.
A cat hissed and darted past the hearth, its elongated shadow streaking wraithlike along one wall. In the corner, a hound stirred briefly at the disturbance, chuffed once, then lowered his head to his paws again. But the other denizens of the great hall, dozens of snoring servants, huddled upon mounds of rushes and propped against the walls, slumbered on in oblivion.
Helena struggled anew, hoping to wake one of them. They were her servants, after all. Anyone seeing the lady of the castle being abducted by a Norman would send up an alarm.
But 'twas impossible to make a noise around the wad of the fur coverlet her vile captor had stuffed into her mouth. Even if she managed, she doubted anyone would rouse. The castle folk were exhausted from making hasty preparations for the travesty of a wedding in the morn.
"Cease, wench," Sir Colin bit out, giving her ribs a jerk of warning, "or I'll string you up now."
She hiccoughed involuntarily.
Surely 'twas an idle threat on his part. This Norman couldn't hang her. Not in her own castle. Not when her only crime had been protecting her sister. Besides, she hadn't killed Pagan. She'd only attempted to kill him.
Still, she swallowed back the bitter taste of doubt.
These Normans were vassals of the King of Scotland, and the King had commanded that Pagan wed one of the daughters of Rivenloch. If Helena had succeeded in slaying the King's man ... 'twould have been high treason, punishable by hanging.
The thought made her sway uneasily in Colin's arms.
"Whoa. Steady, Hel-fire." His whisper against her ear sent an unwelcome shiver along her spine. "Do not faint away on me."
She frowned and hiccoughed again. Hel-fire! He didn't know the half of it. And how dare he suggest she might faint? Warrior maids didn't faint. 'Twas only her feet tangling in the coverlet as they shuffled through the rushes in the great hall.
Then, as they lurched across the flagstones toward the cellar stairs, a different, all-too-familiar sensation brought her instantly alert.
Sweet Mary, she was going to be sick.
Her stomach seized once. Twice. Her eyes grew wide with horror.
One look at the damsel's beaded brow and ashen pallor told Colin why she'd stopped in her tracks.
"Shite!" he hissed.
Her body heaved again, and he snatched the wad of fur coverlet from her mouth, bending her forward over one arm, away from him, just in time.
Fortunately, no one was sleeping there.
Holding the back of her head while she lost her supper, he couldn't help but feel sorry for the miserable little murderess. She obviously wouldn't have tried to slay Pagan in his sleep if she hadn't been as drunk as an alewife.
And he certainly didn't intend to have the maid hanged for treason, no matter what he led her to believe. Executing the sister of Pagan's bride would destroy the alliance they'd come to form with the Scots. She'd obviously done what she'd done to protect her little sister. Besides, who could drop a noose around a neck as fair and lovely as hers?
Still, he couldn't allow the maid to think she could attack a King's man without consequence.
What Colin couldn't fathom was why the three sisters of Rivenloch so loathed his commander. Sir Pagan Cameliard was a fierce warrior, aye, a man who led an unparalleled fighting force. But he was kind and gentle with ladies. Indeed, wenches often swooned over the captain's handsome countenance and fine form. Any woman with half a brain would be ecstatic to have Pagan for a husband. Colin would have expected the sisters, sequestered so long in the barren wilds of Scotland, to vie eagerly for the privilege of wedding an illustrious nobleman like Pagan Cameliard.
Instead, they quarreled over who would be burdened with him. 'Twas perplexing.
Poor Helena had ceased heaving, and now the pretty, pitiful maid quivered feebly, like a storm-tossed kitten locked out of the barn. But Colin dared not let compassion override caution. This kitten had shown her claws. He let her up, then instantly drew his dagger, placing it alongside her neck.
"I'll spare you the gag now, damsel," he told her in a stern whisper, "but I warn you, do not cry out, or I'll be forced to slit your throat."
Of course, if she'd known Colin better, she would have laughed in his face. 'Twas true, he could kill a man without a moment's hesitation and dispatch an enemy knight with a single expert blow. He was strong and swift with a blade, and he had an uncanny instinct for discerning the point of greatest vulnerability in an opponent. But when it came to beautiful women, Colin du Lac was about as savage as an unweaned pup.
Happily, the damsel believed his threat. Or perchance she was simply too weak to fight. Either way, she staggered against him, shuddering as he wrapped the fur coverlet tighter about her shoulders and guided her forward.
Beside the entrance to the buttery were a basin and a ewer for washing. He steered her there, propping her against the wall so she wouldn't fall. Her drooping eyes still smoldered with silent rage as she glared at him, but her pathetic hiccoughs entirely ruined the effect. And, fortunately, she hadn't the strength to lend action to her anger.
"Open your mouth," he murmured, using his free hand to pick up the ewer of water.
She compressed her lips, as contrary as a child. Even now, with fire in her eyes and her mouth tight with mutiny, she was truly the most exquisite creature he'd ever beheld. Her tresses cascaded over her shoulders like the tumbling froth of a highland waterfall, and her curves were more seductive than the sinuous silhouette of a wine-filled goblet.
She eyed him doubtfully, as if she suspected he might use the water to drown her on the spot.
He supposed she had a right to doubt him. Only moments ago, in Pagan's chamber, he'd threatened to, what was it? Take her where no one could hear her scream and break her of her wild ways at the crack of a whip? He winced, recalling his rash words.
"Listen," he confided, lowering the ewer, "I said I wouldn't punish you until the marriage is accomplished. I'm a man of my word. As long as you don't force my hand, I'll do you no harm this eve."
Slowly, reluctantly, she parted her lips. He carefully poured a small amount of water into her mouth. As she swished the liquid around, he got the distinct impression she longed to spew it back into his face. But with his blade still at her throat, she didn't dare. Leaning forward, she spit into the rushes.
When they'd first arrived, Pagan's betrothed had given them a tour of the Scots castle that would be their new home. Rivenloch was an impressive holding, probably magnificent in its day, a little worn, but reparable. The outer wall enclosed an enormous garden, an orchard, stables, kennels, mews, and a dovecote. A small stone chapel sat in the midst of the courtyard, and a dozen or more workshops slouched against the inner walls. A grand tiltyard and practice field stood at the far end of the property, and the imposing square keep at the heart of the holding was comprised of the great hall, numerous bedchambers, garderobes, a buttery, a pantry, and several cellars. 'Twas to one of the storage rooms beneath the keep that he now conveyed his captive.
Placing Helena before him, he descended the rough stone steps by the light of a candle set in the stairwell's sconce. Below them, small creatures scuttled about on their midnight rounds. Colin felt a brief twinge of remorse, wondering if the cellars were infested with mice, if 'twas cruel to lock Helena in there, if she was afraid of the creatures. Just as quickly, he decided that a knife-wielding wench prowling about in a man's chamber, prepared to stab him in his sleep, was likely afraid of very little.
They'd almost reached the bottom of the stairs when the damsel made a faint moan and, as if her bones had melted away, abruptly withered in his arms.
Knocked off-balance by the sudden weight against his chest, he slammed into the stone wall with one shoulder, cinching his arm around her waist so she wouldn't fall. To prevent a nasty accident, he cast his knife away, and it clattered down the steps.
Then she slumped forward, and he was pulled along with her. Only by sheer strength was he able to keep them from pitching headlong onto the cold, hard flagstones below. Even so, as he struggled down the last few steps, the fur coverlet snagged on his heel and slipped sideways on her body. He lost his grip upon her waist and made another desperate grab for her as her knees buckled.
His hand closed on something soft and yielding as he slid off the last step and finally found his footing at the bottom of the stairs.
Colin had fondled enough breasts to recognize the soft flesh pressed sweetly against his palm. But he dared not let go for fear she'd drop to the ground.
In the next instant, she roused again, drawing in a huge gasp of outrage, and Colin knew he was in trouble. Luckily, since he'd received his share of slaps for past fondlings, he was prepared.
As her arm came around, not with a chiding open palm, but a fist of potent fury, he released her and ducked back out of range. Her swing was so forceful that when it swished through empty air, it spun her halfway around.
"Holy ...," he breathed. Had the maid not been drunk, the punch would have certainly flattened him.
"Y' son of a ...," she slurred. She blinked, trying to focus on him, her fists clenched in front of her as she planned her next strike. "Get yer hands off me. I'll kick yer bloody Norm'n arse. Swear I will. S-"
Her hands began to droop, and her eyes dimmed as she swayed left, then right, staggering back a step. Then whatever fight she had left in her fizzled out like the last wheezing draw on a wineskin. He rushed up, catching her just before she collapsed.
Cradled against his flank, all the fury and fight gone out of her, she looked less like a warrior maid and more like the guileless Helena he'd first spied bathing in Rivenloch's pond, the delectable Siren with sun-kissed skin and riotous tawny hair, the woman who'd splashed seductively through his dreams.
Had that been only this morn? So much had transpired in the last few weeks.
A fortnight ago, Sir Pagan had received orders from King David of Scotland to venture north to Rivenloch to claim one of Lord Gellir's daughters. At the time, the King's purpose had been a mystery. But now 'twas clear what he intended.
King Henry's death had left England in turmoil, with Stephen and Matilda grappling for control of the throne. That turmoil had fomented lawlessness along the Borders, where land-hungry English barons felt at liberty to seize unguarded Scots castles.
King David had granted Pagan a bride, and thus the stewardship of Rivenloch, in the hopes of guarding the valuable keep against English marauders.
Despite the King's sanction, Pagan had proceeded with caution. He'd traveled with Colin in advance of his knights to ascertain the demeanor of the Rivenloch clan. The Normans might be allies of the Scots, but he doubted they'd receive a hearty reception if they arrived in full force, like a conquering army, to claim the lord's daughter.
As it turned out, he was right to be wary. Their reception, at least by the daughters, had been far less than hearty. But by God's grace, by midday on the morrow, after the alliance was sealed by marriage, peace would reign. And the Scots, once they were made merry with drink and celebration, would surely welcome the full complement of the Knights of Cameliard to Rivenloch.
Helena gave a snort in her sleep, and Colin smiled ruefully down at her. She'd offer him no word of welcome. Indeed, she'd likely prefer to slit his throat.
He bent to slip one forearm behind her knees and hefted her easily into his arms.
One of the small storerooms looked seldom used. It held little more than broken furnishings and tools, piles of rags, and various empty containers. It had a bolt on the outside and a narrow space under the door for air, which meant it had likely been employed at one time for just this purpose, as a gaol of sorts. Indeed, 'twas an ideal place to store a wayward wench for the night.
He spread the fur coverlet atop an improvised pallet of rags to make a bed for her. She might be an assassin, but she was also a woman. She deserved at least a small measure of comfort.
After he tucked the coverlet about her shoulders, he couldn't resist combing back a stray tendril of her lush golden brown hair to place a smug kiss upon her forehead. "Sleep well, little Hel-hound."
Excerpted from Captive Heart by Sarah McKerrigan Copyright © 2006 by Glynnis Campbell. Excerpted by permission.
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