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The sound of a man screaming awakened her from sleep.
Marguerite de Montpierre jerked upright, clutching the coverlet as she stared at her maid Trinette. 'What was that?'
Trinette shook her head, her eyes wide with fear. 'I don't know. But we should stay here, where it's safe.'
Marguerite moved to the tower window, staring outside at the darkened moonlit sky. The man's screams had fallen into silence now. Already, she sensed what that meant.
Stay here, her mind ordered. Don't interfere. What could she do, after all? She was only a maid of eight and ten. Both her father and Lord Cairnross would be furious if she went out alone.
But if someone needed help, what right did she have to remain in her chamber? Fear shouldn't overshadow the need for mercy.
'I'm going to find out what it was,' she informed her maid. 'You can stay here if you want.'
'My lady, non. Your father would not allow this.'
No, he wouldn't. In her mind, she could imagine her father's commanding voice, ordering her to remain in her bed. She took a breath, feeling torn by indecision. If she remained behind, she would be safe and no one would be angry with her.
And someone could also die. This wasn't about obedience; it was about trying to save a life.
'You're right. The Duc would not allow me to leave. But he's not here, is he?' Marguerite murmured. She prayed her father would return as soon as possible, for with each day he was gone, her life became more of a nightmare.
Guy de Montpierre, the Duc D'Avignois, didn't know what was happening here, for her betrothed husband had behaved with the greatest courtesy toward their family. The Duc was a man who valued wealth and status, and Gilbert de Bouche, the Earl of Cairnross, would provide a strong English alliance. A youngest daughter couldn't hope for a better marriage.
But although the earl had treated her with respect and honour, his cruelty horrified her. He was a man who firmly believed the Scots belonged in servitude. He'd captured several prisoners of war, and she'd observed them building walls of stone for hours on end.
Trinette shivered, looking down at the coverlet. 'I don't think you wish to anger Lord Cairnross by leaving this chamber.'
Marguerite didn't disagree. But the prisoner's cry haunted her, digging into her conscience. She'd seen Cairnross's slaves and the men were so very thin, with hopelessness carved into their faces. Two had already died since her arrival. And she suspected, from the screaming, that another man lay dying.
'I can't stand by and do nothing,' she murmured. Otherwise it made her no better than the earl.
She pulled on a closely-fitted cote with long sleeves, a rose-coloured surcoat, then a dark cloak. Her maid gave a resigned sigh and helped her finish dressing before she donned her own clothing.
It was past midnight, and soldiers were sleeping along the hallways and in the larger chamber of the main wooden tower. Marguerite kept her back to the wall, her heart trembling as she stepped her way past the men. Her father had left half-a-dozen soldiers of his own as her guards; no doubt they would stop her if they awakened.
She left the wooden tower and moved towards the inner bailey. There, she saw the cause of the screaming. A man, perhaps a year older than herself, was lying prostrate upon the ground. Blood covered his back and his ankles were chained together. Long dark hair obscured his face, but she saw his shoulders move. He was still alive for now.
Marguerite whispered to her maid. 'Bring me water and soft linen cloths. Hurry.' Though she didn't know who the man was, she wouldn't turn her back on his suffering. He needed help, if he was to live through the night.
Trinette obeyed, and after the girl disappeared, Marguerite took tentative steps toward the man. When she reached the man's side, she saw him shudder, as if he were cold. She didn't want to startle him, but whispered quietly in English, 'Would you allow me to tend your wounds?'
The man tensed, his palms pressing into the ground. Slowly, he turned his head and his battered face was swollen and bruised. But the man's dark brown eyes were empty, as if he felt nothing. She knelt down beside him and saw his blood staining the ground.
'I am Marguerite de Montpierre,' she said, switching to Gaelic in the hopes he would understand her. Though she was good with languages and had been learning the language of the Scots for the past year, she worried about her speech. 'What is your name?'
The man studied her, but didn't speak. Pain darkened his expression and he eyed her with disbelief, as though he couldn't understand why she would show pity. A lock of hair hung down over his eyes and she reached for it, moving out of his face.
It was meant to help him see better, but the moment she touched him, his hand captured hers. Though his palm was cold, he held her hand as though it were a delicate butterfly.
The gentle touch startled her. Marguerite's first instinct was to pull her hand back, but something held her in place. When she looked past his injuries, the planes of his face were strong, with the resilience of a man who had visited hell and survived it.
She waited again for him to speak, but he held his silence and released her palm. It made her wonder if Lord Cairnross had ordered the prisoner's tongue cut out. She lowered her gaze, afraid to ask.
When Trinette brought the wooden bowl of water and linen, Marguerite saw the man's shoulders tighten with distrust. 'Stay back,' she whispered to her maid, 'and call out if anyone approaches.'
Marguerite dipped the first cloth into the water and wrung it out. Gently, she laid it upon the prisoner's bloody back and he expelled a gasp when she touched it. 'Forgive me. I've no wish to harm you.'
Though his mouth clenched at her touch, he made no move to push her away. Marguerite tried to wipe away the blood and dirt, hoping the cool water would soothe him. She'd never tended wounds such as these, for her father did not allow her near the soldiers when they were injured.
The sight of his blood bothered her, but she forced away her anxiety. This man needed her. As she cleaned his wounds, she kept her touch light, knowing how it must hurt. The whip lash had gouged his skin, leaving harsh ridges that would form scars.
'Why did he do this to you?' she asked, soaking the cloth again. She moistened his cheek with the cool cloth and he touched his mouth and throat, shaking his head as if to tell her he couldn't speak.
'It was you who cried out in pain earlier, wasn't it?'
The man shook his head. Then he stretched out his arm and pointed into the darkness.
And Marguerite saw the motionless body of a prisoner with sightless eyes.
Every bone in Callum MacKinloch's body ached, his limbs raging with pain. He couldn't move if he'd wanted to. The English soldiers had beaten him bloody, then continued with twenty more lashes.
They hadn't killed him yet, but they would. It had become a test of endurance. Although his body was weak and broken, his mind had transformed into an iron band of strength. He hadn't cried out in pain, for he'd lost the ability to speak, almost a year ago. After all the nightmares he'd witnessed, he supposed it wasn't surprising.
Another wet cloth covered the lash wounds and he shuddered. This woman had offered him compassion when no one else would. Why? She was betrothed to the earl, a noblewoman who shouldn't have left the sanctuary of the keep. From his peripheral vision, he caught glimpses of her. Her rose gown accentuated her slim form, and, as she leaned forward, long strands of golden hair hung from beneath her veil.
Callum didn't deserve her sympathy. He'd been locked away for the past seven years, ever since he was a boy. His father had died in the raid and he'd been taken captive, along with his older brother Bram.
He lowered his face to the ground, wondering if Bram had escaped after all. It had been a while since he'd left and though his brother had sworn he would return to free him, Callum didn't believe it. How could he?
No one would save him. It wasn't possible. He was going to die, likely tortured to death.
Callum closed his eyes, wincing when Lady Marguerite sponged at one of the deeper wounds. The feminine scent of her skin cut through the fetid air, like a breath of mercy. He held on to it, inhaling deeply, as if he could absorb the memory of her.
When she'd finished, she lifted the cloths from his back and tried to ease him to sit. Callum glimpsed her face and wondered if he had died after all. Her clear skin and heart-shaped face were fragile, with soft lips and blue eyes that would haunt him for ever. He'd never seen a more beautiful creature in all his life.
'You're cold,' she whispered and removed her cloak, settling it around his shoulders. Her scent clung to it, along with her body heat. He smelled exotic flowers and a hint of citrus, like perfumes from a distant land. As he stared at her, he took in the signs of her wealthnot only the expensive silk gown, but also the softness of her hands and her pale skin.
How could she marry someone like the Earl of Cairnross? The idea of such a man possessing this innocent maiden made Callum's hands clench into fists.
You couldn't stop him even if you tried, came the voice of reason. The whipping had nearly killed him. He still wasn't certain why the soldiers had stopped. They'd left him here, no doubt believing the exposure to the cold air would finish his life.
Instead, Lady Marguerite had intervened. Though he wished above all else that she could help him to escape, tonight it would be a futile effort. A dozen guards patrolled the gate and he lacked the strength. He could hardly stand, much less run away from Cairnross.
Callum struggled to rise, but his knees seemed to fold beneath his weight. Lady Marguerite reached out and helped him balance himself. Though her face flushed at having to touch him, she offered, 'Let me help you.'
He shook his head in refusal, steadying himself against a stone wall. He'd rather crawl on his knees like a dog than make her lower herself in such a way. She'd tended his wounds and given him her cloak for warmth. He couldn't understand why she would want to help a stranger and a Scot at that.
Closing his eyes, he heard her murmur words of comfort in her own language. He heard the softness of her French accent, the soothing tones sliding over him like silk.
When he tried to take a step forward, his legs gave way and he nearly stumbled from his chained ankles. Lady Marguerite moved to his side, bringing her arm around his waist for support. He wanted to tell her no, for he was filthy and bloodstained. She shouldn't have to endure contamination from him.
But she walked at his side, guiding him across the fortress. 'You're going to be all right,' she whispered. 'I'll come to you and bring food. Perhaps when you're stronger, I'll petition the earl for your release.'
He sent her a questioning look. Why? Why would she spare a moment for someone like him?
The troubled look in her eyes suggested that she didn't know the answer. When he removed the cloak she'd given him, his hand brushed against hers. Her lips parted and he wanted to kneel at her feet like the goddess she was.
Callum didn't want her pity. Though his body and voice might be broken, he wouldn't allow her to believe that he was less than a man. His hands threaded with hers, the cold skin merging with warm.
He brought her fingers to his ragged cheeks, absorbing the warmth. A few strands of her golden hair slipped from her veil, resting against her throat. And when he brought her hand to his lips, she inhaled a gasp.
He released her instantly, expecting her to pull back in disgust. Instead, her eyes were shining with unshed tears, her fingers remaining upon his face.
'I won't forget you,' she vowed, pulling her cloak around her shoulders. Then she picked up her skirts and disappeared into the night.
In the shadows, Callum caught a movement and turned his head. The Earl of Cairnross was standing there, watching.
And fury burned within his eyes.