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My Lady Captor
By Hannah Howell
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Scottish border-summer 1388
"Sweet Mary, Sorcha, I cannae go down there."
Sorcha Hay understood her pretty cousin Margaret's hesitation, one bred of a horror she shared. At the base of the small, windswept hill they stood upon sprawled the men who had fallen in the latest skirmish between Sir James Douglas and the English Lord "Hotspur" Percy of Northumberland. It was a bloody squabble. This one had been over a banner which the Scots had stolen while raiding in England, causing Hotspur to vow to get it back. Word was that the Scots had won, even capturing Hotspur himself, but it had cost them Sir James Douglas, a brave knight. Sorcha doubted that many of the men scattered on the rocky ground below her felt particularly victorious as they breathed their last.
A gust of wind slapped a hank of her thick chestnut hair across her face. She welcomed the way it obscured her view for a moment. The sight of so many dead men was a painful one. She was also terrified that one of the broken figures on the ground was her brother Dougal. A heavy sigh escaped her as she more securely tied her hair back with a length of blackened leather. She could not give in to her own fears and weaknesses. She had to be strong.
Firmly taking the plump and timid Margaret by one dimpled hand, Sorcha tugged her pale, wide-eyed cousin down the rocky hillside. In her other hand she clutched the worn reins of her sturdy Highland pony Bansith. She prayed she would not need her little horse to carry Dougal's body back to Dunweare.
The human scavengers were already approaching the dead. If Dougal was down there and still alive, Sorcha knew she had to find him before they did. Any man still clinging to life would swiftly have his throat cut even as his pockets were stripped clean. The cold-eyed men and women who scurried over such battlefields wanted no witnesses to their ghoulish thievery. Sorcha hoped she and Margaret had the skill to act as debased as the scavengers.
In an attempt to ease some of her fears, she briefly touched the small bow and quiver of arrows she carried on her back. She and Margaret also wore swords and daggers made specifically for them by their clever armorer Robert. They were not totally helpless.
"Those corpse-robbing corbies will kill us," whispered Margaret, tugging her thick, dull-brown cloak more tightly around her voluptuous figure.
"Not if we join in their thievery," answered Sorcha.
"Nay? If they have no qualms about cutting the throats of helpless, dying men, why should they be troubled about killing us?"
"I am not saying they arenae dangerous, but if we go about the business of picking o'er the corpses as if we do so all the time, they will probably ignore us." Sorcha stopped by the body of a young man, thinking sadly of how short his life had been.
"I cannae touch him."
"Then hold Bansith's reins, Margaret, and keep a very close eye on those scavengers."
As Margaret took the reins, Sorcha crouched by the young man's body. Murmuring a prayer for his soul, she gently closed his empty, staring eyes, careful not to let the others roaming the field see her acting so kindly. She collected up his sword, dagger, and all else of any value, silently promising the youth that she would do her best to see that his belongings were returned to his kinsmen. Sorcha took careful note of his appearance, her only real clue to his identity, before putting her booty in the panniers slung over the strong back of her pony. Reluctantly, her stomach knotting as she fought down queasiness, she moved to the next man.
Sorcha did not stop by every man, performing the distasteful task of stealing from the dead only enough to assuage the keen suspicions of the scavengers. All the while she and Margaret looked for Dougal, but without success. By the time she crouched by the fifth man she felt forced to rob, she was feeling distinctly ill. Although she found some cause for relief in not finding Dougal's body, she was still worried about his fate. It would be a particularly cruel twist of fate to stain her soul with the crime of robbing the slain men only to have to leave the field with no certain knowledge of what had happened to her brother.
"This mon is verra finely dressed," Sorcha murmured then froze, her hands still upon the ornate buckle of his scabbard, as his broad chest rose and fell with a deep breath.
"Touch that sword, ye foul, thieving corbie, and I will send ye straight to hell," the man said in a deep, soft voice made hoarse with pain.
She could not fully stifle a soft cry of alarm as he clasped her wrist in one large hand, the mail of his gauntlet cutting into her skin. A quick glance at Margaret told her that her cousin was too intent on watching the scavengers to notice her current difficulty. Trying to hide her fear, Sorcha looked at the man, shivering inwardly over the fury glittering in his pain-clouded dark green eyes.
"Ye dinnae have the strength to kill every corbie slinking o'er this bloodied field, my fine knight," she whispered.
"Ere I die, I can make sure that a few of you will ne'er pick at a mon's bones again."
"Aye, and ye will die if those other corbies ken that ye are still alive. Howbeit, if ye will heed me ye might yet leave this cursed field alive."
"Who are ye talking to, Sorcha?" asked Margaret.
"Weel, cousin, if ye will babble at me at all the appropriate times, mayhaps the others will believe I am talking to you," replied Sorcha.
"Is that mon alive?"
"Aye, for the moment." After another swift peek at Margaret assured Sorcha that the girl had the sense not to stare at her, Sorcha looked back at the knight. "The first thing ye can do, sir, is to let me go about the ill deed of robbing you."
"Oh, aye? So ye can steal all I own more easily ere ye cut my throat?" he snarled.
"Nay, fool, so the other thieves slinking o'er the battlefield dinnae ken that ye are alive. We could all be slain then, for they will realize that Margaret and I are not what we pretend to be." She did not waver beneath his hard stare. "Ye had best decide quickly. They will soon wonder why I linger here." Despite the tension of the moment, Sorcha almost smiled as she heard Margaret deride Dougal in colorful terms for his insistence upon joining the neverending battle against the English.
"Why is that girl talking to you?" grumbled the man.
"So that the others dinnae guess that ye still have the breath to speak," replied Sorcha. "After all, we both ken that they are watching us, and I must be talking to someone. Ye are supposed to be dead."
"If ye are not here to rob the dead then what are ye about?"
"My cousin and I are looking for Sir Dougal Hay, laird of Dunweare."
"Ye willnae find that brash laddie here. The English took him."
"I thought the English lost this battle."
"Aye, but they managed to drag off a few of our lads as they fled the field."
Sorcha cursed, ignoring the man's startled look. "Do ye think anyone else on this bloodied field survives?" "There may be a mon or two, but they willnae be breathing much longer. What the English didnae finish, the thieving swine tiptoeing amongst the bodies will, be they English or Scot."
"Shall I wander about and see if I can find another survivor?" asked Margaret.
"Only if ye truly wish to, Cousin," replied Sorcha, resisting the urge to rub her wrist when the man eased his hold on it.
"Now that we have seen that this mon still lives, I think I must."
"Dinnae be too obvious about what ye are doing and 'twould be best if ye leave the horse behind."
"How will I help anyone if I cannae move them?"
"If ye find a live one, we will consider the problem then." Sorcha shook her head as she cut loose the man's purse and added it to her booty. "Try to get the fool to hide. I will need time to think of how we can walk away with this mon or anyone else." She smiled faintly when Margaret whispered a mild curse. "Be careful." As soon as Margaret left, Sorcha turned back to the wounded knight. "Who are you?"
"Sir Ruari Kerr, laird of Gartmhor. I fought with the Douglases."
"And they show their gratitude by leaving ye here to rot. Why didnae the English take ye for ransom?"
"I fell as the English fled with our men snarling at their heels." He closed his eyes. "Once those Sassenach dogs cease to run they will be gathering their ransoms for the men they captured."
Sorcha tensed, a chill seeping through her body. That would not be long for the battle had taken place on the English side of the Cheviot hills. The English did not have far to run to be safe enough to tally their losses. She had been a fool to think her troubles were over simply because her brother's chosen side had won the battle. Of course the English would demand a ransom. It was the only reason to take the highborn soldiers captive. What the English could not know was that they could demand a ransom for Dougal till their tongues fell out, but it would gain them nothing. Sir Dougal Hay might be a laird and may have been dressed as fine as the Douglas himself, but he did not have two coins to rub together.
Dougal was doomed, she thought, her heart heavy with worry and a building grief. Then she looked at Sir Ruari Kerr. She recognized the name and the lands he held. Unlike with Dougal, one could trust in the richness of Sir Ruari's attire. Although she hated to even consider the possibility of holding the handsome knight for ransom, she could not immediately discard the idea. It could be the only way to get the coin needed to buy back Dougal's life.
"I heard that the Scots captured Hotspur himself," she said.
"Aye, they did," he replied, partly opening his eyes to look at her.
"So, willnae the captured Scots be returned to us in trade for him?"
"Only those who are asked for. If your brother is weel kenned by the Douglas clan ..."
"Then ye shall probably have to buy him back."
"And since the English suffered such a resounding defeat, they will no doubt ask for large ransoms in an attempt to salve some of their bruised pride."
"Aye, they will."
"Cousin," Margaret whispered as she hurried up to Sorcha. "I found another mon still alive, a lad actually."
"Where is he?" asked Sorcha.
"On the right-hand side of the field, nearly half the distance down 'twixt here and the trees at the far end of the field, in a thicket."
"Aye, I see the thicket. He is in there?"
"He is now. Using my skirts and cloak to hide his movements, I stood guard while he squirmed into the bushes. Have ye thought of a way to help these men flee this field?"
"How weel was the laddie dressed?"
"Not as fine as this knight. Aye, and his attire is fair ruined by rips, blood, and mire."
"Then we shall claim him as kin and say we are taking his body home."
"We cannae claim this rogue as kin. No one with a kinsmon dressed so finely would be robbing the dead."
"I wouldnae wager too heavily on that, but aye, 'tis what these dogs will think." She frowned at Ruari for a moment then smiled crookedly as she realized what she planned to say would not be a complete lie. "We shall say that we want to take his body back to his kinsmen, for anyone dressed so finely must be important, and his kinsmen will surely reward us for finding his body. Both men must play dead." One sharp look from Ruari's green eyes told her that he understood.
"We cannae carry both men on Bansith. She is just a wee pony."
"True. We must make a litter. Ye will have to fetch what is needed, Margaret, as I daren't leave our pony or this mon unguarded."
"Ye havenae tended to his wounds, Sorcha."
"We are pretending he is dead, Cousin. Ye dinnae bind the wounds of a dead mon," Sorcha explained in a gentle voice. "We will see to his injuries as soon as we are out of sight and reach of these human carrion." Sorcha began to fully detail what she would need to make a litter.
Ruari covertly studied the two young women he was now dependent on. The one called Margaret was a well-rounded fair-haired beauty with wide blue eyes and all the dimples any man could ask for. The woman called Sorcha was the one who drew his keenest interest, however, and he found that curious. Margaret was far more suited to his usual taste. Sorcha's heavily lashed, huge brown eyes were her best feature. They were dark pools reflecting a keen wit, strength, and determination, qualities he had never considered flattering in a woman. She had a small face, her fine bone structure clear to see. Ruari suspected that if she ever curved her full, tempting mouth in a smile, there would be no sign of a dimple. Her hair was thick and hung to her tiny waist, the rays of the setting sun touching upon reddish highlights in its rich chestnut depths.
Inwardly frowning as he recognized his attraction to the woman, an attraction strong enough to be stirred despite his pain and weakness, he carefully inspected her tiny figure. The drab gray gown she wore was snug, hugging every slim curve. Small high breasts, a tiny waist, and slim, shapely hips stirred his interest even though such a figure had never caught his eye before. She moved with a lithe, easy grace he had to admire.
What troubled him more than the fact that he was attracted to a woman who met none of his usual requirements was that this tiny woman was saving his life. That was surely going to produce a lot of jests from his kinsmen. The highly praised and honored Sir Ruari Kerr saved by an insignificant lass from an insignificant branch of the Hay clan? Ruari winced as he all too easily imagined the laughter of his kinsmen.
The sound of a footfall drew him from his bout of self-pity. One of the scavengers was approaching his rescuers. Ruari hastily assumed the posture of a dead man, praying he could keep his breathing shallow enough to be indiscernible. He heartily cursed his wound and the loss of blood which left him so weak. It insured that he could not fight. If death approached, he would like to be able to at least try to strike out at his killers before they cut his throat. All he could do was lie silent and pray that Sorcha Hay was as clever as she seemed to be.
Sorcha warily eyed the tall thin man as he stopped in front of her. She did not like this sign of strong interest on the part of the battlefield thieves. She definitely did not like the delay this intrusion caused. Now that she knew Dougal's fate and what she needed to do to help him, she was anxious to leave this place of unshriven dead and the treacherous humans who preyed on such misery.
"I see that ye build a litter," the man said, his voice soft and cold as he fixed his dark, unblinking stare on Sorcha. "Have one of you injured yourself?"
"Nay, sir, but I thank ye for your concern," Sorcha replied, cautiously setting her hand on her sword beneath her cloak. "We but need something to carry two bodies."
"Two bodies? Why do ye wish to remove the dead from the field?"
"Not all the dead, sir. Just two."
"Dinnae be clever, lass," he muttered, pointing one long, bony, and filthy finger at her. "Ye had best tell me what I wish to ken or ye and your bonnie companion may join these corpses."
"My cousin found one of our kinsmen upon the field, and we wish to take him home. We intend to take this mon as weel."
"Oh, aye? And I am to believe that he is a kinsmon, too?"
"Nay. I didnae claim him one, did I? He is richly dressed, of a breed not often left to rot on the battlefield. I thought that returning his body to his kinsmen may weel bring me a coin or two."
"Ye ken who this mon is?" the scavenger asked, eyeing Ruari speculatively.
"Aye, weel enough. The markings on his scabbard and his clan badge tell me to take him to the Kerrs of Gartmhor. I ken where that is."
"They are a wealthy clan," the man murmured, idly caressing his sword.
"They are, but I dinnae think they will pay so much for a corpse that 'tis worth ye dying to gain it." She nudged back her cloak so that he could see that she, too, had a sword.
When Margaret stepped up beside Sorcha, her hand on her sword as well, the man held his hands out in a conciliatory gesture. "Be easy. Ye have claimed the booty, and I honor your rights to it."
The moment the man slinked away Sorcha ordered Margaret, "Take Bansith and get that laddie ye found, then come right back here so we can toss this hulk of a mon on the litter."
"Are we to leave this place now?" asked Margaret as she grabbed the pony's reins.
"As swiftly as we can. The glint in that adder's eyes made me verra uneasy."
"But he said he would honor your right to the booty."
"That mon wouldnae ken what honor was if it grew legs and walked up to spit in his skinny face. Go on, Margaret, and be verra careful."
"Shouldnae ye go help her?" asked Ruari after Margaret left.
Excerpted from My Lady Captor by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2009 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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