Highland Protectorby Hannah Howell
Someone would see Ilsabeth Murray Armstrong hang for murder.
When her dagger is found buried in the body of one of the king's men, there is/b>/i>
The Murrays are back! From New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell comes an all-new story of the beloved Scottish family, and two lovers entangled in a plot against the king. . .
Someone would see Ilsabeth Murray Armstrong hang for murder.
When her dagger is found buried in the body of one of the king's men, there is little room for doubt--the perpetrator must pay with her life. But Ilsabeth is no killer, and only one person can help clear her name: Sir Simon Innes, a man so steely and cool that no danger can rattle him. . .and no woman in distress can sway his heart.
Until now. Simon has spent his life searching for truth in a world fraught with deception. But the hauntingly beautiful fugitive seeking his aid affects him so deeply, he wonders if he can trust the flawless judgment he has always relied on. For all signs point to Ilsabeth's guilt, except one--the unparalleled desire he feels at her slightest touch. . .
Praise for Hannah Howell and her Highland novels. . .
"Few authors portray the Scottish highlands as lovingly or colorfully as Hannah Howell." --Publishers Weekly
"Expert storyteller Howell pens another Highland winner." --Romantic Times
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By Hannah Howell
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScotland, summer 1479
"I bow in awe of the sacrifices ye are willing to make for our great cause, Walter."
"Dinnae bow too low, dear cousin, for my sacrifice will be but short-lived."
"How so? I do believe that anyone accused of murdering a king's mon is doomed to be, er, short-lived and treason brings one a most horrific death."
Ilsabeth halted, the words murder and treason stopping her dead in the act of sneaking up on her betrothed. She had left him an hour earlier, hidden away in the woods, and then slipped back to his home to see if she could discover why he had begun to act strangely. Another woman had been her suspicion. Sir Walter Hepbourn was a virile man and had not been expending much of that virility on her. Ilsabeth had begun to suspect that he was heartily feeding his manly appetites somewhere else, and even though they were not yet wed, such faithlessness was not something she could tolerate.
Murder and treason had never crossed her mind. And the murder of a king's man? That was treason in and of itself. The mere thought of such a crime sent chills down her spine. Why would Walter have anything to do with such crimes, or even know enough about them to speak of them?
Keeping to the shadows cast by Walter's large stone house, Ilsabeth dropped to her belly and inched closer. Walter and his cousin David sat side by side on a large stone bench at the end of the garden Walter's rather overbearing mother took such pride in. Both men were drinking and enjoying the early evening, undoubtedly savoring the encroaching cool after a surprisingly hot, sunny day. It was a strange place to talk of such dark subjects as murder and treason.
"I intend to rescue my dearly betrothed, of course," said Walter. "She will have to flee Scotland but I have a fine wee house on the coast of France in which I can keep her. Her gratitude will keep me warm for many a night."
"Jesu, ye are nay still thinking of marrying her, are ye? T'was bad enough when she was just an Armstrong wench, but then she will be seen as the daughter of traitors."
The shock and disgust weighting every word David spoke stung Ilsabeth's pride like nettles but she hastily swallowed her gasp of furious outrage.
Walter gave a harsh laugh. "Still? I ne'er intended to wed her. I thought ye kenned that. She is an Armstrong, for sweet pity's sake. M'father would spin in his grave if I tried to mix his family's blood with that of one of those low reivers. My mother would soon join him. Nay, I but played the game. Howbeit, she is a sweet morsel and I dinnae wish to see her in her grave until I have had a wee taste."
"Ye mean ye havenae had a wee taste yet?"
"I tried but it quickly became clear that someone taught her the value of her maidenhead."
"Ah, weel, I had thought ye had gotten betrothed to her so that ye could take that with ease."
"Nay, it was the best way to get close to her kinsmen, aye? I can see I erred in nay telling ye all my plans. We needed someone to bear the blame and I decided her family would serve. Now I will nay only be free of suspicion, but free of her cursed family as weel. If I step right, I may e'en get some of their land once our angry king rids this land of them. Or I shall get it when the new king is seated upon the throne."
"Clever. If it works. The Armstrongs being what they are, 'tis reasonable to think all blame could easily be shifted onto their shoulders, but will it stay there? We are close to ridding ourselves of that foolish king, his sycophants, and all those who lead him where they wish him to go. We cannae afford to have any suspicion turning our way."
"It willnae. The king's supporters will be so busy hunting Armstrongs they willnae have time left to look anywhere else." Walter stood up and stretched. "Come, let us go inside. The insects begin to feed upon me and we need to plan our next step most carefully. When next we meet with our compatriots, I want to be able to present a finely polished plan they will all be willing to follow."
David moved to follow him. "I was hoping for an early night and a warm wench."
"We will soon both enjoy those pleasures. I, too, wish to be weel rested so that I may watch those thieving Armstrongs rounded up and taken away in chains."
Ilsabeth remained still until she was certain both men were well inside the house before she began to crawl away to the safety of the wood separating her father's lands from Walter's. Once within the shelter of its deep shadows, she stood up, staggered over to a tree, and emptied her belly. The sickness tore through her until her stomach hurt and her throat was raw. She then stumbled over to the next tree, slumped against it, and fumbled with the small wineskin attached to her girdle. It took several hearty rinses as well as several deep drinks of the cool cider to clear the vile taste from her mouth, a bitter taste she knew was not wholly caused by her sickness.
"Bastard," she whispered when what she really wanted to do was scream the word to the heavens until her ears rang.
She had been such a fool. Beguiled by a handsome man, the thought of finally having a home of her own, and children. Walter had used her, had used her family who had welcomed him as one of their own.
Her family! Ilsabeth thought the fear that surged through her would have her retching in the bushes again, but she fought that weakness. She needed to have a clear head and to stay strong. She needed to warn her family.
With her skirts hiked up to her knees, Ilsabeth raced through the woods, desperate to reach her home. She did not know when the king's man had been killed, what the man had been doing here, or even where the body was, but instinct told her it would be found soon. From all that she had just heard, she knew it was meant to be found. Worse, she was certain Walter had left behind enough evidence with the body to point the finger of blame straight at her family.
"Wait! Two, wait!"
Ilsabeth stopped so abruptly at the familiar hailing that she nearly fell on her face. Steadying herself, she turned to see her cousin Humfrey racing toward her. As she struggled to catch her breath, her scattered thoughts latched on to that hated name Two. When her eldest sister Ilsabeth, the firstborn, had become Sister Beatrice, the family had asked her if she would take the name, as her mother loved it so. Since she had not really liked her own name of Clara much, she had been more than willing. But, instead of a nice new name, all her siblings and cousins had begun to call her Two, or Twa. When Humfrey reached her side, she punched him in the arm mostly out of habit. It was odd, she thought, how such mundane thoughts and actions had helped to still the rising panic inside.
"Ye cannae go home," he said, idly rubbing the place on his arm where she had struck him.
"I have to," she said. "I need to warn my family of the plot against them."
"Ye mean the one that has the king's soldiers at the gates yelling about murder and treason?"
Muttering curses that had the young Humfrey blushing faintly, Ilsabeth abruptly sat down. "I am too late. This is all Walter's doing."
Humfrey sat down facing her. "How do ye ken that?"
Ilsabeth told him all she had heard and smiled weakly when Humfrey patted her shoulder in an awkward gesture of comfort even as his handsome face grew hard with anger. "He wants our clan to take the blame, to be the lure the king's men chase about as he and his fellow plotters rid us of our king.
"I thought I had time to warn everyone, mayhap e'en stop it."
"Weel, there is still time to fix things."
"How so? Ye have just told me that the king's army is pounding on the gates."
"Aye, and your father is keeping those gates closed tight as everyone else flees. By the time those gates are forced open there will be no one left inside save for a few old men and women who have chosen to stay behind. Old and wee bit infirm, they cannae move quickly enough and refuse to be the ones to slow down all the others."
"They could be taken, killed, or tortured for information," she said, worried for those who would have to face the soldiers yet relieved that her family had fled.
"Nay, I doubt much attention will be paid to them."
"Ye have come to take me to the others then?" "Nay. I have come to help ye flee elsewhere. Ye see, t'was your dagger in the heart of the dead mon."
Ilsabeth buried her face in her hands and fought the urge to weep. It was a weak thing to do and she needed to be strong now. "I had wondered where it had disappeared to," she said, and then looked at Humfrey. "Where am I to flee if nay with my family? I dinnae understand why I cannae just run and hide with them."
"Your father suspects 'tis Walter behind this for the bastard's name was mentioned as the one to lead the soldiers to proof of the Armstrongs' treachery. And now ye have told me that ye heard the mon say as much himself. Your father needs ye to seek help."
"From who? Our kinsmen the Murrays?"
"Nay." He handed Ilsabeth a piece of parchment. "Sir Simon Innes. Those are directions to where he is and a note to him from your father."
"Why does that name sound familiar?"
"Because the mon has saved two Murrays from hanging for murders they didnae commit. Your father says the mon will listen to ye and then hunt for the truth. And, ye can lead him to it, cannae ye."
Ilsabeth quickly glanced at it and then tucked the message from her father into a hidden pocket in her skirts. "I suspect neither of those Murrays was accused of treason."
"I cannae say, but right now all the soldiers have proof of is that the mon was murdered with your dagger."
"They dinnae need much proof of the other to make life for an Armstrong verra treacherous indeed."
"True, which is why we need to get yourself to this Innes mon as quickly as we can. He is a king's mon, too, and one who is widely trusted to find the truth."
Ilsabeth shook her head. "I am to go to a king's mon to ask him to help me prove that I didnae kill another of the king's men? 'Tis madness. He will-nae believe me."
"Mayhap nay at first, but he will look for the truth. 'Tis why he is so trusted. 'Tis said that he is near rabid about getting to the truth. And, Two, there is naught much else we can do to save ourselves. We are all going to be hunted now. E'en our kinsmen the Murrays will be watched closely. They probably have soldiers at their gates, too, though nay as we do, nay there to arrest them. None of us will be able to do anything to hunt down the truth. Save ye. Ye are thought to be inside the walls the soldiers are trying to kick down so they will all think that ye are now running and hiding with us."
"She and a few other women are taking the youngest bairns to the nunnery and Sister Beatrice. One and her sisters will shield them."
"Maman willnae stay. She will go to be with Papa."
"Aye, most like, but ye cannae worry o'er all that."
Ilsabeth thought her heart would shatter. "This is all my fault, Humfrey. If I hadnae brought Walter so close to our family he wouldnae have had what he needed to use us to hide his own crimes."
"Nay, 'tisnae your fault. Your father ne'er suspected the mon of any truly ill intent." He stood up and held out his hand to her. "Come. Ye had best be on your way."
"'Tis a long walk I will be taking," she said as she let him help her to her feet.
"Och, nay, ye will be riding. I have a wee sturdy pony for ye and an old habit One left behind on her last visit home."
"Sister Beatrice," she muttered, unthinkingly correcting him in a way that had become almost a tradition. "I am to pretend to be a nun?"
"Only until ye reach this mon Innes. Ye can claim to any who ask that ye are on a pilgrimage."
Ilsabeth followed him to where a placid Highland pony awaited. While Humfrey turned his back, she changed into the nun's habit. She knew it was a good disguise. Most people saw the nun's attire and did not look closely at the woman wearing it. Rolling up her clothes, she moved to put them into one of the saddle packs and was a little surprised at all she found there.
"I have been verra weel supplied," she murmured.
"Ye ken weel that your father has always been prepared for nigh on anything and everything."
Recalling the many times her father had made them all practice fleeing some enemy, she nodded. "I had just ne'er thought there would ever be a real need for such practices."
"Nay. I ne'er did, either, but am sore glad right now that we did them."
"Do ye go to join my father now?"
"Nay." Humfrey grinned. "I go to take up my work in Walter's stables." He nodded at Ilsabeth's surprise. "A fortnight ago one of the Murray lasses sent word that she had seen a danger draw near to us, that she was certain there was a threat close at hand. Weel, your father then made certain he had one of his own get as close to all of his neighbors as he could. I have a cousin who is a Hepbourn and he got me work in Walter's stables. T'was too late though. I had only just begun to suspect something was amiss. Ne'er would have guessed it would be this."
"Nay, nor I."
Humfrey kissed her on the cheek. "Go. The soldiers will be busy at our gates for hours yet. Put as many miles as ye can between ye and them."
Ilsabeth mounted the pony and looked at her cousin. "Be careful, Humfrey. 'Tis clear to see that Walter doesnae care who he uses or kills to get what he wants."
"I will be careful. Ye, too. And do your best to see that the bastard pays for this."
"That I swear to ye, Humfrey."
Ilsabeth's mind was full of Walter's betrayal as she rode away. His betrayal and her own gullibility. She did not understand how she could have been so blinded to the evil in the man. Her mother had told her she had a gift for seeing into the heart of people. It had obviously failed miserably. The man she had thought to marry was a traitor, a killer, and saw her whole family as no more than lowborn thieves, vermin to be rid of. How could she not have seen that?
She also bemoaned the lack of information she had. For all she had overheard there were still more questions than answers. Just how did Walter, David, and whatever allies they had think to kill the king? Why did they even want to? Power? Money? She could not think of anything the king might have done to make Walter want him dead.
The more she thought on the matter the more she realized she did not know Walter at all. The worst she had ever thought of him was that he was a little vain, but she had shrugged aside any concern over that fault. He had a fine, strong body, a handsome face, beautiful hazel green eyes, and thick hair the color of honey. One glance into any looking glass would tell the man he was lovely so she had told herself that a little vanity was to be expected. But vanity could not be enough to drive a man to plot against his liege lord, could it? Did Walter have the mad idea that he should be king?
As the evening darkened into night, she discovered one thing she did not think about was her own heartbreak. Her heart ached but it was for her family, her fear for them so great at times that she could barely catch her breath. It did not, however, ache for the loss of Walter, not even when she looked past the shock of his betrayal and the fury over what he had done to her family.
"I didnae love him," she said, and the pony twitched an ear as if to hear better. "All this, and I didnae even really love the bastard. Jesu, my family is running for their lives and for what? Because foolish Ilsabeth let herself be wooed into idiocy by a pair of beautiful eyes?"
The pony snorted.
"Aye, 'tis pathetic. All I feel is a pinch of regret o'er the loss of a dream. Nay a dream of that lying bastard, but of having my own home and some bairns to hold. I am one and twenty and I was hungry for that. Too hungry. The greed to fulfill that dream was my weakness, aye?"
With a flick of its tail, the pony slapped her leg.
"Best ye get used to my complaints and my blathering. We will be together for at least three days. Ye need a name, I am thinking, since 'tis clear that I will be babbling my troubles into your ears from time to time."
Ilsabeth considered the names from all the stories Sister Beatrice told so well. Although she preferred horses, good strong animals that could gallop over the moors and give her that heady sense of freedom, she had a lot of respect for the little Highland ponies. She wanted to give this one a good strong name.
"Goliath," she finally said, and was certain the pony lifted its head a little higher. "We will just make certain Walter's snake of a cousin, David, doesnae get near ye with a sling and a stone."
Excerpted from Highland Protector by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2010 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Angela Dawe's work includes film, television, theater, and improvisational comedy, as well as audiobook narration. Among Angela's recordings are The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry and Savor the Moment by Nora Roberts.
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