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England — Spring 1473
"Stop staring at me."
Liam Cameron cocked one brow in response to his cousin Sigimor's growled command. "I was but awaiting your plan to get us out of this mess."
Sigimor grunted and rested his head against the damp stone wall he was chained to. He suspected Liam knew there was no plan. He, his younger brother Tait, his brother-in-law Nanty MacEnroy, and his cousins Liam, Marcus, and David were chained in a dungeon set deep in the bowels of an English lord's keep. They needed more than a plan to get out of this bind. They needed a miracle. Sigimor did not think he had done much lately to deserve one of those.
This was the last time he would try to do a good deed, he decided, then grimaced. It had not been charity that had brought him to Drumwich, but a debt. He owed Lord Peter Gerard his life and, when the man had requested his aid, there had been no choice but to give it. Unfortunately, the request had come too late and the trouble Peter had written of had taken his life only two days before Sigimor had led his men through the thick gates of Drumwich. It was swiftly made clear that Peter's cousin Harold felt no compulsion to honor any pledges made by his now dead kinsman. Sigimor wondered if it could be considered ironic that he would die in the house of the man who had once saved his life.
"Ye dinnae have a plan, do ye?"
"Nay, Liam, I dinnae," replied Sigimor. "If I had kenned that Peter might die ere we got here, I would have made some plan to deal with that complication, but I ne'er once considered that possibility."
"Jesu," muttered Nanty. "If I must die in this cursed country, I would prefer it to be in battle instead of being hanged like some thieving Armstrong or Graham."
"Doesnae your Gilly claim a few Armstrongs as her kinsmen?" Sigimor asked.
"Oh. Aye. Forgot about them. The Armstrongs of Aigballa. Cormac, the laird, wed Gilly's cousin Elspeth."
"Are they reivers?"
"Nay. Weel, nay all of them. Why?"
"If some miracle befalls us and we escape this trap, we may have need of a few allies on the journey home."
"Sigimor, we are in cursed England, in a dungeon in a cursed English laird's weel fortified castle, chained to this thrice-cursed wall, and condemned to hang in two days. I dinnae think we need worry much on what we may or may not need on the journey home. There isnae going to be one. Not unless that bastard Harold decides to send our corpses back to our kinsmen for the burying."
"I can see that we best nay turn to ye to lift our spirits." He ignored Nanty's soft cursing. "I wonder why there isnae any guard set out to watch o'er us."
"Mayhap because we are chained to the wall?" drawled Liam.
"I could, mayhap, with my great monly strength, pull the chains from the wall," murmured Sigimor.
"Ha! These walls have to be ten feet thick."
"Eight feet six inches to be precise," said a crisp female voice.
Sigimor stared at the tiny woman standing outside the thick iron bars of his prison. He wondered why he had neither seen nor heard her approach. The word mine ripped through his mind startling him into almost gaping at her. The woman standing there was nothing like any woman he had ever desired in all of his two-and-thirty years. She was also English.
If that was not a big enough flaw, she was delicately made. She had to be a good foot or more shorter than his six-feet-four-inch height and slender. He liked his women tall and buxom, considered it a necessity for a man of his size. Her hair was dark, probably black. He preferred light hair upon his women. His body, however, seemed suddenly oblivious to his habitual preferences. It had grown taut with interest. Being chained to a wall had obviously disordered his mind.
"And the spikes holding the chains to the wall were driven in to a depth of three feet seven inches," she added.
"Ye obviously havenae come here to cheer us," drawled Sigimor.
"I am not sure there is anything one could say to bring cheer to six men chained to a wall awaiting a hanging. Certainly not to six Highlanders chained to the walls of an English dungeon."
"There is some truth in that. Who are ye?"
"I am Lady Jolene Gerard."
If she thought standing straighter as she introduced herself would make her look more imposing, she was sadly mistaken, Sigimor mused. "Peter's sister or his wife?"
"His sister. Peter was murdered by Harold. You came too late to help him."
Although there was no hint of accusation behind her words, Sigimor felt the sting of guilt. "I left Dubheidland the morning after I received Peter's message."
"I know. I fear Harold guessed that Peter had summoned help. Harold had kept all routes to our kinsmen tightly watched so Peter sent for you. I am still not certain how Harold discovered what Peter had done."
"Have ye proof that Harold murdered Peter?"
Jolene sighed and slowly shook her head. "I fear not. There is no doubt in my mind, however. Harold wanted Drumwich and now he holds it. Peter was hale and hearty and now he is dead. He died screaming from the pain in his belly. Harold claims the fish was spoiled. Two others died as well."
"Ah. Tis possible."
"True. Such tragedies are not so very rare. Yet, ere that spoiled fish was buried, two of Harold's dogs ate some. They did not die, did not even grow a little ill. Of course, Harold does not know that I saw that. The dogs snatched some of the fish from Peter's plate when his sudden illness drew Harold's attention. I saw it because I had to push the dogs aside to reach Peter."
"Who died besides Peter?"
"The two men most loyal to Peter. The cook presented the fish as a special treat for the three men as it was their favorite dish. It was claimed that not enough fish was caught to prepare the dish for everyone. They were also served the last of the best wine. I believe that is where the poison was, or most of it, but I can find no trace of it. Not upon the ewer it was served from or the tankards it was poured into. I did not get hold of them fast enough and they were scrubbed clean."
"Did ye question the cook?" asked Liam.
"He has disappeared," she replied.
Sigimor cursed and shook his head even as he hastily introduced his men. "Then I fear Harold will go unpunished. Ye have no proof of his guilt and I am nay in a position to help ye find any. It might be wise if ye find somewhere else to live now that Harold is the laird here."
"But, he is not the lord of Drumwich. Not yet. There is one small impediment left."
"What small impediment?"
"Of course. Reynard is nearly three years of age now. His mother died at his birthing, I fear."
"If ye are sure that Harold killed your brother, ye had best get that wee lad out of his reach," said Liam.
Sigimor noticed that Jolene only looked at Liam for a brief moment before fixing her gaze upon him again. Liam might not be at his best, being dirty and a little bruised, but Sigimor was surprised that the little English lady seemed to note Liam's highly praised beauty, accept it, and then dismiss it. That rarely happened and Sigimor found himself intrigued.
"I have hidden Reynard away," she said.
"And Harold hasnae tried to pull that truth from ye?" Sigimor asked.
"Nay. I am very certain he would like to try, but I have hidden myself away as well. Harold does not know all the secrets of Drumwich."
"Clever lass, but that can only work for a wee while, aye? Liam is right. Ye need to get yourself and the bairn away from here."
Jolene stared at the big man Peter had hoped could save them. That the Highlander would honor an old debt enough to ride into England itself was a strong indication that he was a man of honor, one who could be trusted to hold to his word. It was certainly promising that not one of the men had yet asked anything of her despite their own dire circumstances, but were quick to tell her to get herself and Peter's son and heir out of Harold's deadly reach. They were also big, strong men who, if set free, would certainly hie themselves right back to the Highlands. Harold would not find it easy to follow them there.
It did trouble her a little that she could not seem to stop looking at the big man named Sigimor. Most women would be breathlessly intrigued by the one called Liam. Despite the dirt and bruises, she had easily recognized Liam's beauty, a manly beauty actually enhanced by the flickering light of the torches set into the walls. Yet, she had looked, accepted the allure of the man, and immediately turned her gaze back to Sigimor. At three and twenty she felt she should be well past the age to suffer some foolish infatuation for a man, but she feared that might well be what ailed her now. The fact that she could not see the man all that clearly made her fascination with him all the stranger.
She inwardly shook herself. There was only one thing she should be thinking about and that was the need to get Reynard to safety. For three days and nights she had heard Harold ranting as he had Drumwich searched and its people questioned. Last night Harold's interrogations had turned brutal, filling the halls with the piercing cries of those he tortured. Soon one of the very few who knew the secrets of Drumwich would break and tell Harold how to find her and Reynard. Pain could loosen the tongue of even the most loyal. It was imperative that she take the boy far away and, since she had no way to reach any of the rest of her family, these men were her only hope.
"Aye, I must get myself and the boy away from here, far away, to a place where Harold will find it dangerously difficult to hunt us down, if not impossible," she said and could tell by the way Sigimor stared at her that he was beginning to understand why she was there.
Sigimor's whole body tensed, hope surging through him. She said she was in hiding, yet she stood there within plain sight apparently unconcerned about being discovered. There was also something in the way she spoke of taking the boy to a place far away, a place Harold would have great difficulty getting to, combined with the intent way she was staring at him, that made Sigimor almost certain she intended to enlist his aid. He noticed that his companions had all grown as tense as he was, their gazes fixed firmly upon Lady Jolene. He was not the only one whose hopes had suddenly been raised.
"There are nay many places in England where ye could go that Harold couldnae follow," Sigimor said.
"Nay, there are very few indeed. None, in truth. Trying to reach my kinsmen has already cost one man his life. That route is closed to me, as it was to Peter, so I must needs find another."
"Lass, it isnae kind to tease a mon chained to a wall and awaiting a hanging." He caught his breath when she grinned for it added a beauty to her faintly triangular face that was dangerously alluring.
"Mayhap I was but trying to get you to make an offer ere I was forced to make a request. If you offer what I seek, I can ponder it, quickly, and accept, telling myself all manner of comforting reasons for doing so. If I must ask, then I am openly accepting defeat, bluntly admitting that I cannot do this alone. Tis a bitter draught to swallow."
"Sigimor!" Liam glared at his cousin, then smiled sweetly at Lady Jolene. "M'lady, if ye free us from this dark place, I give ye my solemn oath that we will aid ye in keeping the bairn alive and free in any and all ways we can."
"Tis a most generous offer, sir," Jolene said, then looked back at Sigimor, "but does your lord give you the right to make such an oath? Does he plan to honor your oath and share in it?"
Sigimor grunted, ignored the glares of his men for a full minute, then nodded. "Aye, he does. We will take the lad."
"Why should we take ye as weel? Ye are no threat to Harold's place as laird of this keep." Sigimor had fully expected her to insist upon coming with them, but he wanted to hear her reasons for doing so.
"Oh, but I am a threat to Harold," she said in a soft, cold voice, "and he knows it well. If not for Reynard, I would stay here and make him pay most dearly for Peter's death. Howbeit, I swore to Peter that I would guard Reynard with my very life. Since I have had the raising of the boy since his mother's death upon childbed, there was no need to ask such an oath, but I swore it anyway."
And there was the reason to take her with them, Sigimor mused. She may not have birthed the child, but she was Reynard's mother in her heart and mind, and, most probably, in the child's as well. It also told him the best way in which he could control her, although all his instincts whispered that that would not be easy to do. None of that mattered, however. He had been unable to save Peter, but he was now offered the chance to save Peter's sister and his son. Even better, in doing so, he could save the men he had dragged into this deadly mire.
"Then set us free, lass," Sigimor said, "and we will share in the burden of that oath."
Her hands trembling faintly from the strength of the relief which swept through her, Jolene began to try to find which of the many keys she held would fit the lock to the door of the cell. Hope was a heady thing, she mused. For a brief moment she had actually felt very close to swooning and she silently thanked God she had not shamed herself by doing such a weak thing before these men.
"Ye dinnae ken which key to use?" Sigimor felt an even mixture of annoyance and amusement as he watched her struggle with the keys.
"Why should I?" she muttered. "I have ne'er locked anyone in these cells."
"Didnae ye ask the one ye got them from which key ye ought to use?"
"Nay. He was asleep."
"I see. Weel, best pray some other guard doesnae decide to wander down here whilst ye fumble about."
"There will be no guards wandering down here. They are asleep."
"All of them."
"I do hope so."
"The men at arms, too?" She nodded. "Is everyone at Drumwich asleep?"
"Near to. I did leave a few awake, ones who might be eager to flee Drumwich once the chance to do so was given to them." She cried out in triumph as she unlocked the door, opened it, then grinned at Sigimor.
Sigimor simply cocked one brow and softly rattled the chains still binding him to the wall. The cross look she gave him as she hurried over to his side, the large ring of keys she held clinking loudly, almost made him smile. He sighed long and loudly when she started to test each key all over again on the lock of his chains and he heard her mutter something he strongly suspected was a curse.
His amusement faded quickly when she stood very close to him. Despite her delicate build, his body was stirred by the soft, clean scent of her. He fixed his gaze upon her small hands, her slim wrists, and her long, slender fingers, trying to impress upon his mind that she was frail. His body continued to ignore that truth. It also ignored the fact that her hair, hanging down her slim back in a thick braid reaching past her slender hips, was black or nearly so, a color he had never favored. Just as blithely it ignored the fact that the top of her head barely reached his breastbone. Everything about her was wrong for a man of his size and inclinations, but his body heartily disagreed with his mind. It was a riddle he was not sure he could ever solve.
"Are ye verra certain Harold's men are asleep?" he asked in an attempt to fix his mind upon the problems at hand and ignore the soft curve of her long, elegantly slender neck.
"Aye. I kicked a few just to be sure." She found it more difficult than it ought to be to concentrate upon finding the right key and ignore the big man she stood so close to.
"Just how did ye do it?"
"I put a potion into the ale and wine set out to drink with the evening meal. I also had two of the maids carry a physicked water to the other men the moment the ones who sat down in the great hall to dine began to drink. Near all of them began to fall asleep at the same time."
"Near all? What happened to the ones who didnae begin to fall asleep?"
"A sound knock upon the head was swiftly delivered. There!" She smiled at him as she released him from his chains, only to scowl when he snatched the key from her hand. "I am capable of using a key."
"When ye can find it," he drawled as he quickly freed the the others. "How long do ye think your potion will hold Harold and his men?"
"Til dawn or a little later," she replied, thinking that six big men chained were a lot less intimidating than six big men unchained, standing and staring at her.
"How long do we have until dawn?"
"Two hours at the most."
Sigimor put his hands on his hips and frowned at her. "Why did ye wait so long to come and free us?"
"I had to lock a few doors, tend to a few wounds inflicted by Harold, and help those who had kindly helped me to escape from Drumwich. Then I had to collect some supplies to take with us and gather up the things Harold's men took away from you. And, considering that I, a small woman, put every fighting man at Drumwich to sleep with the aid of but two maids, I believe your implied criticism is uncalled for."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Highland Conqueror"
Copyright © 2005 Hannah Howell.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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