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60 years later...
The litter, piled high with pillows and blankets, creaked and swayed as the horses made their way inexorably west to Lochnith and Fayth Graham's betrothed, Lord Ashton Carlisle. It was late September and the weather was mild; even so, Fayth sweat, stifled by the closed curtains of her litter. But they shielded her from the sight of the heavily armed guard surrounding her. The guards were more than protection. They ensured she'd not escape her fate.
Fayth leaned back against the pillows, loosening the laces of her bodice, untying the throat of the linen shift and spreading it wide. But that brought no relief. The air was thick. The stench of unwashed men and horse sweat permeated the heavy brocaded curtains. She was accustomed to the smell, if not to the elaborate garments her brother dressed her in. Since she was a bairn she'd dressed as a lad to train with her father and brother. And when she wore gowns, she favored simplicity -- and no stays. The tightly laced wooden busks choked her and limited her range of movement. They scraped the healing stripes across her back, courtesy of her oldest brother, Ridley. He'd tried to flog her into agreeing to wed Carlisle. As of the present, he'd still not obtained her acquiescence. But apparently it no longer mattered.
Unable to bear another moment of inaction, Fayth parted the curtains slightly and peered through. A wall of armor-clad muscle and horseflesh surrounded her. Yet that did not deter her. She must escape. The alternative -- marriage to a cruel old man -- was unthinkable.
Mona had warned her what her life would be like if she wasn't able to extricate herself from this marriage. Fayth shook her head, angry, frustrated, refusing to accept her fate, even as she moved toward it. This was not how her life was supposed to be! Before Papa died there had been love, joy, friendship, family. Now there was nothing in its place. Fayth squeezed her eyes shut, pushing the memories away. Nothing would be gained by dwelling on what could not be changed...for now. But there was still hope...there was always hope.
Behind her eyelids new images spun. Fire eating through tapestry and flowers, blood spilling, bodies twisting in agony. Fayth's head jerked, as if to flick away the visions like an insect, but they gripped her. She didn't want to remember what she'd done -- the pain and horror she'd caused. Caroline screamed and screamed. Arms imprisoned Fayth, stifling, suffocating. Fayth fought his embrace, struggled for air as he squeezed. But he was too strong for her.
Enough. Jaw clenched with new resolve, she pushed the errant memories away and peered through the slit in the brocade. The guard beside her was preoccupied, his helm-covered head at an anxious tilt, scanning the surrounding trees. Fayth's gaze tipped upward. Sunlight streamed through the branches like shafts of gold. They were in a forest, in Scotland. The West March was covered with forests and bogs, so she couldn't be sure exactly where they were or how much farther until Lord Carlisle's castle of Lochnith. She searched the trees, looking for a means of quick escape. A glimpse of something in the trees above caught her eye. A glint of metal? Or her imagination, weaving her desperate hope for rescue into fanciful visions? She strained her eyes, but could discern nothing.
She parted the curtains further, easing her head out. There were men before and behind the litter, but no one paid overmuch attention to her. Fayth wished fervently for a pair of breeches and a tunic. A cap to pull low over her hair and eyes. But alas, she would make do with gem encrusted velvet and ribbons.
She would have to be fast, there was no room for hesitation or misstep. Someone shouted at the head of the cavalcade. The guard beside her tapped his horse's side and the horse stepped it up a bit, prancing forward as the guard strained to hear what was being yelled. Fayth paid no attention to the yelling -- the guard was in front of her now.
She slid out of the litter, her feet dangling over the ground, and jumped. She rolled away, so the horse bearing the litter from behind didn't trample her, wooden stays digging furrows into her hips, and leaped to her feet. She was spotted immediately.
"She's escaped! Mistress Graham has escaped!"
The nearest guard yanked on his mount's reins, trying to turn sharply. The horse fought, rearing onto its haunches. Fayth darted into the trees. The clank of metal followed as her brother's knights dismounted to give pursuit.
Fayth tried not to panic -- she had no idea where she was going. Well, she did -- she was returning to England, to the village her father had kidnapped her stepmother, Mona, from -- but currently, she was lost. Stones and sharp twigs pierced her feet through her delicate silk slippers. Damn, what she wouldn't give for a pair of boots!
The pounding of feet grew distant and Fayth chanced stopping to get her bearings. She leaned against a tree, her breath heaving in her chest. She could barely hear anything over the pounding of her heart, the roar of blood in her ears. She placed a lace-gloved hand over her chest, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply, willing calm to settle over her. She couldn't think in such a panic.
After several such deep breaths her heart began to slow. The breaking of a twig and the soft crunch of leaves behind her set it hammering all over again as she whirled around.
But it wasn't her brother or his knights behind her. It was something far worse. Her throat closed and she couldn't speak -- could only stare into the terrifyingly familiar face.
"Red" Alex Maxwell smiled, a cold curve of his lips that didn't reach the frigid blue eyes. "I've been following ye since ye left Graham Keep, but never did I think ye'd make it so easy for me."
Why are you following me? The horrified words formed in her head, but her voice was lodged somewhere in her chest, all tangled up with her furiously beating heart.
He wore no helm or cap, his dark reddish brown hair caught at the nape of his neck, holding it away from his face. Her eyes slid over the strong boned face to his temple. The red scar stood out, twisted and ugly. She'd given him that mark, slammed a jug of whisky over his head. Jesus wept, why hadn't she killed him? He'd murdered her betrothed! He'd ruined her life! Why had she lost courage? Had she the daring then, she wouldn't be standing here, caught between two enemies. She would be racing to freedom.
His utter stillness broke and he advanced. Fayth's paralysis gave way to terror. He would not be tricked again. He would rape and murder her this time -- and from the grim determination etched on his face, that was exactly what he planned. She whirled to run -- forgetting there was a tree at her back. She smacked into it and stumbled backward. He caught her arm, swinging her around.
Fayth hadn't spent half her life training with men for naught. Before he could catch her other arm, she ducked, grasping the dirk hilt that peeked from the top of his boot.
He reacted quickly to stop her, but she wedged the blade between them, pressing the tip to his leather-and mail-clad belly. A foolish act. She hadn't the strength to penetrate his armor. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. But there was little else she could do.
He knew it well. He grabbed her other arm with his huge hand and yanked her hard against him. The blade skidded off the leather, pinning her hand and the blade between them.
She could taste her own fear as the scent of him surrounded her. Leather, sweat, and the faint fragrance of soap. He would kill her now for what she'd done to him, to his people -- to her own sister, whom he now claimed as kin. Her body chilled with abhorrence, wondering if he would kiss her again. Like he did at Annancreag...
Fayth's head jerked around. Her brothers were near. They would rescue her from Red Alex. Then what? Take her to her old man husband. She looked up at her captor. He stared over her head, in the direction of the voices. His gaze dropped swiftly to hers, his hand sliding between their bodies and grasping her wrist. He forced the dirk from her hand and slid it back into his boot.
Securing both her wrists in one hand, he dragged her deeper into the trees. Fayth dug in her heels and fought him. He was so huge and she was so small.
An amused smile split his face. "Och, ye want to be carried, eh?"
Fayth shook her head frantically, but it was too late, he tossed her over his shoulder. She kicked to little effect, as his entire body seemed to be formed from granite. A scream lodged in her throat. Perhaps Ashton Carlisle wasn't so bad? So he was a cruel old man? So he had sick lusts? He might die soon, leaving her a rich widow. Compared to whatever abomination Red Alex had planned for her, that seemed quite satisfactory. And suddenly, decision made, she grabbed the long auburn hair trailing down his back and yanked as hard as she could as she let loose a shriek that resounded through the forest.
"Help! Help me!"
Alex growled like an angry bear and dumped her on the ground. Fayth kept hold of his hair, pulling him down with her -- ready to take a hank of it as a war trophy -- until she realized he'd released her. She scrambled to her feet. He was after her immediately, but this time she kept watch for trees and ran, not looking back. She could hear him pursuing her, could practically feel his hot breath on her neck. Terror gripped her, lending power to her legs and she ran faster. It was her gift in lieu of strength, her father had always said. She was no match for a man, but she was faster than any could hope to be and had the stamina to leave them coughing in her dust.
A grim pleasure came over her as she heard him fall behind. She resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to taunt him as she sometimes did her brothers. So intent was she on her escape, that she stumbled when her brother, Wesley, appeared from the trees.
She veered away, stopping short to find herself confronted by her oldest brother, Lord Ridley Graham. She turned frantically as men-at-arms materialized from the trees to form a circle about her. Red Alex was nowhere in sight. Of course, he wasn't stupid. They'd string him up from a tree if they got their hands on him, no questions, no trial. He was one of the most hated and feared reivers on the borders.
Ridley advanced on her, his pale blue eyes icy with fury. He'd removed his helm and sweat plastered the thinning golden brown hair to the sides of his head.
"Just where are you off to, little sister?"
Fayth blinked innocently. "I had a female concern." Her smile was strained. "It is now resolved. Come, we must be on our way." She lifted her skirts, shaking off the dead leaves and dirt clinging to the fabric, and started back toward the track.
Ridley caught her arm, turning her back to examine her. "Look at you!"
Fayth glanced down again, seeing the tear in her skirt and the missing gems. His gaze was on her hair and Fayth patted the plaits self-consciously. Her infernally wavy hair was escaping to bush about her face.
"How can I present you to Lord Carlisle like this?"
"Perhaps his eyesight fails. He's an old man after all."
"Goddamn it, Fayth, I should flog you for this!"
Fayth raised her shoulders in a resigned sigh, as if she really didn't care. But she did. Papa had never struck her. She'd taken some blows on the training field, but that was different. Since Papa died six months past, Ridley had taken to slapping her or even flogging her with a strap when she displeased him. She'd fought back at first. But he was her brother and knew all her tricks. And besides being larger and stronger, he never hit her with an audience -- appearances were everything. So she'd taken to clenching her teeth and enduring his abuse. It was over quicker that way.
They passed Wesley, who stared at her with a bewildered expression. Poor Wesley, he simply couldn't fathom why she refused to accept her fate. Why she couldn't be the bootlicking lapdog he was. No, Fayth didn't even know Wesley anymore and that hurt worse than aught else.
After giving orders to the men, Wesley joined them. "You yelled for help. I heard you."
"I saw a wild animal. A boar, I think."
"A boar?" Wesley's expression brightened and he turned, hand on sword hilt. "It's been years since I've seen a boar."
"Not now, Wesley!" Ridley barked.
Resentment clouded Wesley's face, but he complied, falling into step beside Fayth, who was being dragged along roughly. Wesley was only a year older than Fayth's two and twenty years, though at times he seemed much younger. He should be his own man now, not Ridley's reluctant servant. But Papa had left him nothing and Ridley promised rich rewards.
Wesley elbowed her sharply.
Fayth frowned at him.
He shook his head meaningfully, his mouth a thin, hard line, the scar on his cheek standing out darkly.
Fayth knew this was his way of begging her to behave, but she would have none of it. "What's the matter, Wesley? You want to chase the boar? Then just do it. Why do you need Ridley's permission?"
Ridley came to an abrupt halt and looked between the two of them. He was not ignorant of Fayth's games and so he eyed her accusingly. He squeezed Fayth's arm so hard she gritted her teeth to hold back a groan.
Wesley stared incredulously at Ridley's gloved hand. "Christ, Ridley, are you trying to break her arm? Let her go!"
Ridley's hand tightened so Fayth gasped, rising on her tiptoes to somehow contain the pain. Just as Wesley's eyes narrowed and he stepped forward, Ridley released her. Fayth stumbled against Wesley, who caught her, cradling her abused arm in his hand.
They both stared at Ridley's retreating back. "Move!" he shouted, not even turning.
Wesley led Fayth forward, muttering under his breath.
"Help me, Wesley."
Wesley shook his head, avoiding her gaze. He'd left his helm with his horse and the mass of brown curls shone in the sunlight. Fayth wanted to touch him, to shake him until he was her Wesley again.
"What would Jack think of you now?"
Wesley looked at her then, his face closed in anger. "Much has changed since Papa and Jack died. You're the only one who doesn't understand that."
"I don't understand why it has to change," Fayth persisted, praying she was getting through to him. "You promised me I wouldn't end up like Caroline -- you promised!"
"You knew what was at risk when you botched the Maxwell raid. Ridley advised you of the consequences. There's no one to blame but yourself." Seeing her mutinous expression, he said in a softer tone, "I just don't understand. What else is there for you? You must wed. Why not Carlisle? At least you'll be rid of him soon. Why must you fight us?"
Fayth shook her head sadly. "You're no different than Ridley. Don't forget how Papa shunned his methods -- said he was without honor. You had honor once."
"Ridley makes things happen."
"Ridley speaks naught but falsehoods. How do you know all he promises you is truth?"
His hand that had been cradling her arm steadily tightened until he squeezed her as tightly as Ridley had.
"I know," he ground out through clenched teeth, as if trying to convince himself.Fayth tried to yank her arm away. "Let go! You're hurting me!
Wesley released her abruptly, his face paling as he looked from her arm to his own gloved hands.
They reached the dirt where Ridley awaited them. He sent Wesley away with a look and shoved Fayth into the litter so she fell facefirst into the mound of pillows. She lay still, contemplating what she would do next. Should she tell them Red Alex was in the forest? There was a time when Wesley had wanted to avenge Jack's death as much as she did. He might still want to hunt Red Alex down. Though she'd happily dance on Red Alex's grave, it was unlikely they'd find him. Half the men on the borders were after Red Alex's hide and none had come close to snagging him. She toyed with the idea of setting Ridley on the outlaw as the cavalcade began its slow snaking journey through the forest. She sighed. Ridley probably wouldn't believe her anyway. He'd accuse her of creating yet another diversion to aid her in more escape attempts. And he'd be right.
An unusual sense of hopelessness washed over her. Her whole life since Papa's death seemed a series of near escapes. All she wanted was for life to return to normal -- as it had been before Papa died. Fayth's eyes drifted shut as fatigue filled her in heavy waves. A strange lethargy settled over her and her mind became blissfully blank. No thoughts of her brother, who forced her into this union; no thoughts of Jack, the man she almost married, or his murderer, the black-hearted Red Alex; no thoughts of her sister, Caroline, whom she'd betrayed and hurt...
Caroline. No, even in sleep Fayth could not escape what she'd done. The memories oozed through the thick haze of her mind. The fire again, the screaming. Fayth gasped, forcing her eyes open. Sweat stung them. Icy fingers trailed down her spine, even as her body swelled with an inexplicable restlessness. Bile soured her throat and she pushed a curtain back, securing it open. The cool breeze couldn't sweep away the lingering feel of Jack's murderer, holding her like a lover. And he'd almost had her again, there in the wood. I've been following ye since ye left Graham Keep. Why? Why would he follow her? Was he bent on revenge for what she'd done? The thought that he might possibly want revenge -- after all he'd done to ruin her life -- made her seethe with contempt.
The body of an enormous -- and gaudily arrayed -- stallion suddenly blocked her field of vision. Fayth's gaze rose until she met Ridley's winter blue eyes and bearded face. His plumed helm rested on his knee.
He glittered like a jewel. A green velvet surcoat covered his heavy mail sark. A thick gem encrusted chain spanned his chest, holding the ermine lined cloak in a graceful fall off his shoulders. He'd not forgone his passion for indecently short breeches. The slashed green velvet barely covered the tops of his thighs and an obscenely large codpiece covered his groin. His horse was no less adorned, its mane and tail braided with ribbon. Feathers, tassels, and bells jingled and bobbed with every step.
The assessing gaze that raked her found her wanting. He was still furious. "Can you not at least try to do something with that hair?"
"What's the matter, Brother? Are you afraid Scratchton Carlisle of Louseland won't take me if I'm not perfectly arrayed? Surely he's used to scurvy-ridden women, being a Scot."
Ridley shook his head, sighing. "We're not so different, you and I -- if only you could see it."
Fayth scowled. "And is your betrothed an old hag?"
Ridley laughed. They both knew the earl of Dornock's daughter was barely seventeen. "I care naught for her, just as you loathe the idea of Carlisle. Oh, it galls you to admit it, but it's true. You lost your love and now you must make do with what's left. Just as I lost mine -- "
"Mona was never yours! She was Papa's and he'd beat you to a bloodied pulp if he knew how you pawed at her!"
He looked around, annoyed, to see if anyone overheard. "Enough."
Fayth smiled slightly. Nothing could get to him like the mention of Mona. Everyone loved Mona. She was kind, beautiful, wise. But Ridley loved their stepmother in a most unseemly and incestuous manner. His fury had been immense when she'd helped his prisoner, Sir Patrick Maxwell, escape -- and left with him.
"Godspeed her for escaping your sick lusts," Fayth said.
His face was a rigid mask. She might pay for her words later, but he would not strike her now, not in front of everyone. Never in front of Wesley, who watched them, frowning, several horses behind. Wesley. Once Fayth and Wesley had been inseparable. Fayth's betrothed, Jack, had been Wesley's closest friend. It had seemed the three of them were destined to be thick as thieves their whole lives.
Ridley smoothed a hand over his beard, visibly trying to compose himself. "When we arrive at Lochnith, you will wed Carlisle. If you stay put and be a good little wife, I promise you, things will turn out well for you in the end."
Fayth knew much of what he planned from listening at closed doors. The Graham host accompanying Ridley was enormous, swollen to several hundred men-at-arms and retainers. It was necessary, as they traversed the lands of many sworn enemies. Although Ridley had obtained safe passage from them all, he took no chances. He also planned a bit of a foray after the wedding. Fayth's betrothed was gifting Ridley with an estate at the southern end of the Rhins of Galloway -- Gealach, it was called. Currently, however, Carlisle did not hold it. It had been taken by a band of outlaws several years ago and he had been unable to oust them. Ridley was determined to eradicate the outlaws, or destroy the tower trying.
It was all very tiresome to Fayth, being the instrument of men's doings and yet excluded from even discussing them. She sighed, weary of her brother and his plots.
"I want no part in your evil deeds."
"Just like Mona, eh? Well, don't think for a minute that she's free of me. You think she escaped?" He laughed, an ugly, unpleasant sound. "I let her go. I know precisely where she is -- she and her dunderhead knight. And when I'm ready, I'll have them both back."
Fayth said nothing, her stomach shriveling up tight. How had he become so powerful? His reach so far? Mona must be warned. His words strengthened her resolve to escape. She must find Mona and warn her. Unfortunately she had no idea where her stepmother was, but a plan had been forming for weeks now. She would seek out Mona's family. They lived in a little hamlet in the English West March. If Mona wasn't with them, hiding from Ridley, then surely they would have some clue as to her whereabouts. Ridley believed she was the keeper of the legendary Clachan Fala. It was true Mona was a Musgrave and a healer, but Fayth thought it unlikely there was such a thing as the Blood Stone, so why would there be a keeper?
First, she had to escape. She slid a look at Ridley. He still stared at her with extreme displeasure. Fayth retreated inside the litter and drew the curtains, preferring no view at all to his face.
Fayth had been unable to orchestrate another escape before they arrived at Lochnith and she was imprisoned again. She prowled her chambers, her desperation growing. Guards were stationed outside the door. Since Fayth had a proclivity for enlisting the help of servants, she'd not been allowed any attendants. She wasn't even allowed a lady's maid until after the marriage had been consummated.
At the thought of the approaching wedding night, Fayth recalled Mona's warnings about Carlisle. He's a cruel man, with evil desires. Your wifely duties will be unbearable -- and will quite possibly kill you, if you don't kill yourself first. Should you be forced to go through with this union I will prepare poisons for you that will kill him slowly, make it look as though he succumbed to an ailment.
Fayth patted the pocket sewn into the underside of her kirtle. The poison Mona had given her. It was meant for Carlisle. Fayth didn't know if she could do it. If she couldn't even kill Jack's murderer, how could she hope to poison an old man?
Fayth clutched the vial through the silk of her skirts. The very idea made her ill. She knew her brothers had something dreadful planned for Carlisle, that this marriage and peace were a ruse. She was sickened she'd been made a pawn in it. Just like Caroline. Only somehow, Caroline had found love and happiness, foiling Ridley in the end.
Fayth stared at the door, gripping the vial so hard she was in danger of shattering it. What if Carlisle wasn't cruel? What if Mona was mistaken? Fayth knew he had a son, several daughters, and an assortment of bastards. Back at home, before she'd been barred from speaking to the servants, she'd heard talk of Carlisle and his children -- of beatings and incest. Of them running away, only to be caught and tied to poles like animals. There was even a rumor he'd killed one of his bastard sons for fancying lads.
Fayth surveyed the room. The gleaming walls were paneled and hung with Turkish carpets. A huge canopied bed dominated the room, set on a raised platform. Fayth shuddered and backed away.
She went to the door and opened it. The guards were Grahams, not Carlisles. Damn. The Grahams were well versed in Fayth's ways and immune to her wiles.
"Get back inside," one said.
She ignored him and tried to walk between them, but they crossed their lances, barring her way. She ducked beneath the lances. One of them planted a huge hand on the top of her head. He turned her and shoved her back into the room. The door slammed shut behind her.
"By God, you're a knave!" she shouted at the door. How dare he handle her so! Her pride stung from the indignity.
She scanned the room, her gaze falling on the narrow window deeply recessed in the wall. Fully aware of the multiple flights of stairs she'd been forced up, she threw open the shutters and stared down at the people milling about below, worrying her already ragged fingernails with thoughts of lashing sheets together and scaling the wall. Her shoulder ached with the memory of the last time she'd attempted that feat, pulling her arm right from the socket. She rubbed her shoulder, grimacing.
A sharp knock on the door startled her from her contemplation of the ground. She turned her back to the window, knowing whoever it was would not wait for permission. The door opened and Ridley entered, his insouciant gaze finding her. He was so pleased with himself these days. Fayth's mouth curled into a sneer that only grew nastier when Wesley entered behind Ridley. Wesley's gaze bounced off Fayth before wisely looking elsewhere. The angry redness was gone from the wound on his cheek, though it was ugly and twisted where Red Alex had cut him. He'd not had it tended immediately, so it had festered. When finally lanced and drained it had grown far beyond the original cut. Though it finally healed, the process had left him disfigured.
Fayth's sarcastic greeting died in her throat when a third man entered the room, leading a large, furry dog. He was a formidable man, barrel-chested and stocky -- solid as a stone wall. His thick iron gray hair waved over his shoulders. He was shorter than both her brothers, though twice as wide. She found herself unable to form a sentence, frozen by the hard gray eyes that inspected her body with possessiveness. She'd been told he was three score, and though the youthful color had been leeched from his hair and eyebrows, they were as lustrous as a youth's, shining like highly polished armor. His dark craggy face was lined, but from a hard cruel life, not from the ravages of age. And the lust in his eyes...he looked perfectly capable of acting on it.
"Oh, aye," he said, his voice rough and abrasive, his Scots broad. "She'll do."
Deep in her belly, Fayth knew at that moment that everything she'd heard about Carlisle was truth, felt it so strongly she had to restrain herself from bolting.
The dog yipped, drawing Fayth's attention away from the soulless eyes. The dog was not a breed she was familiar with, so tall it came nearly to its master's waist and lean with muscle. With its thick black and white fur, and long narrow snout, it looked part wolf. Its eyes were clear and healthy; one a dark brown and the other a blue so pale it was almost white. Fayth realized vaguely that Ridley had been making introductions and that she'd been correct in assuming this was her future husband, Lord Ashton Carlisle.
"You fancy her?" Carlisle asked.
"The dog?" Fayth asked hesitantly.
"Aye. Do you like her?"
Fayth nodded. "She's beautiful. What breed is she? She looks somewhat like a wolf."
Carlisle contemplated the dog. She sat on her haunches and gazed up at him, whining softly. "I know not her breed, though I believe her too pudding-hearted to hiv wolf in her. I came by her...accidentally." On the borders, that translated to "I stole her." His smile was smooth, well oiled, exposing a rack of strong, white teeth. "I give her to ye." He released the leather leash binding the dog to his side. As soon as the tension was relieved from the leash the dog left Carlisle and came to Fayth.
Fayth held her hand out for the dog to sniff, then rubbed its ears. "What's her name?"
"I was told she was the finest sleuth dog on the borders, but thus far she's proven herself useless. So, that is what I call her -- useless, worthless mongrel. If ye dinna want her, I'll probably kill her -- she eats too much."
Fayth held the dog's head against her thigh. "Thank you, my lord. I like her very much."
They all stared at her with open suspicion; even Wesley's eyes narrowed in disbelief. They'd been expecting defiance, sarcasm, rudeness. She still had the capacity to surprise them, of that she was thankful.
Carlisle crossed the room, coming to stand before her. The scent of ale and peat smoke drifted from him. He wore no beard, only a thick silvery mustache. "Ye promised me a wildcat, Graham. She's meek as a mouse."
Fayth lowered her eyes submissively, though her hands kneaded the dog's fur. So he didn't like meek? It was too much to hope Carlisle would call off the betrothal and wedding because of her "meekness," but Fayth would keep it up, just in case.
Ridley didn't respond immediately, but his footsteps echoed across the wooden planks as he joined them. " 'Tis an act, nothing more." He took her face in his hand, forcing her to look at him. He smiled slightly. "She'll not be able to keep it up long, mark me."
"Unhand her," Carlisle said, frowning. "She's mine now and no one shall touch her."
Ridley dropped his hand and stepped away. "Of course."
A spark of hope ignited in Fayth. Carlisle had given her a gift, however coarse he was about it -- he was a Scot, after all, and couldn't help his poor manners -- and he appeared to be shielding her from Ridley. Perhaps he only treated his children poorly? Could it be that he would be a good husband?
On impulse Fayth asked, "You have children here? I'm looking forward to meeting them."
Carlisle stared at her a long moment, unblinking. "Dinna get yer hopes up -- a more worthless, ungrateful, selfish group of brats ye'll niver meet. Even the bastards think o'er much of themselves."
Fayth's heart sank. He was estranged from his children. Never a good thing.
Carlisle grasped her chin as Ridley had. His fingers were harder, rougher as he turned her face this way and that. He yanked at the ties of her shift, pushing the collar wide. Fayth gasped, trying to cover herself, but the hard look he gave her made her lower her hands.
Wesley tensed, mouth thinned, hand on his sword hilt. The scar on his cheek darkened above the fine whiskers of his golden brown beard. Ridley put a hand out, calming his younger brother. Fayth gritted her teeth, keeping her eyes averted, as if she deserved no better than this. The idea of killing him was becoming more palatable every second.
"What is this?" Carlisle asked, yanking the collar off her neck, baring her to the shoulder. He gripped her neck, pushing her head awkwardly to the side to reveal the weal marking her skin.
She flushed with humiliation.
"Oh, that," Ridley said slowly. "A bit of discipline."
Carlisle turned Fayth so her back was to them, his hands pulling at her shift, shoving her stiff bodice downward. The welts, though healing, were scabbed and swollen, and the rough handling caused her some pain. But more than discomfort was mortification. That this abuse should be exposed -- that he should handle her like an animal that must be inspected before purchase.
There was a long silence, then Carlisle asked, "Did she scream?"
"Not a sound. She glared at me and spat. Had she a dagger she would have cut my heart out." The sound of rustling fabric. "She gouged my arm -- see?"
"Indeed?" Carlisle said in a voice thick with pleasure.
Fayth's breath caught. Her skin crawled from his touch.
The door slammed. Wesley. Fayth knew he couldn't bear to watch Carlisle handle her in such a fashion. So he left. There was a time when he would have thrashed a man who touched her with such familiarity. Everything had changed.
"He's suffering from the flux," Ridley said in explanation. "Let's hope he makes it to the privy."
Carlisle didn't respond.
Fayth closed her eyes, her hand curled into the dog's nape to hide the trembling. Oh God help me. She would throw herself from the window before she married this man. Carlisle turned her around. She kept her gaze on the floor, face hot with anger and desperation. His hands were on her face again, forcing her to look at him. He scrutinized her, as if trying to determine the truth.
"I like you, little pretty. I think we'll get on fine."
He released her and turned to leave.
Ridley followed him to the door, but paused after Carlisle passed through. He craned his neck, as if watching the other man disappear along the corridor, then turned back to Fayth, his hand on the door latch. "You're a lucky one, methinks. Blessed by fairies or some such."
"You're the only one who believes in childish stories, Brother."
He ignored the bait. For years Papa and Ridley searched for the mysterious Clachan Fala -- the Blood Stone -- thought to be thousands of years old and imbued with magic. It was the reason Papa had married Mona, hoping to get the Blood Stone for himself. And now Ridley was carrying on the quest with a passion that far exceeded Papa's.
"He's not quite right in the head, is he?" Ridley said, still standing in the open doorway. "Mona had said he was sick of mind, but I didn't believe her. I thought it yet another ploy to save your skin."
"At least someone tried."
He made a moue of mock sympathy. "Poor Fayth, even Mona has abandoned you. Freed the big knight and followed her loins, eh?"
Fayth ignored him, wanting him to just go away.
Seeing she wasn't going to play his game today, he sighed and said, "Oh -- about the poison hidden in your kirtle, I replaced it with berry juice some time ago, in case you decided to use it on me."
He laughed at her shocked expression. By the time she ripped the vial from its pocket and hurled it at the door, he was long gone. Fayth went to the bed. The dog climbed up beside her and lay its head in her lap.
"What shall I do?" she asked the dog, stroking her fingers through the silky fur. She couldn't give up hope. There had to be a means of escape. No castle was impenetrable, from the inside or out -- her father had taught her that. And once she was free, she'd find Mona. Ridley would stop at nothing to get the Blood Stone. And that's what he believed Mona to be doing -- fetching the Blood Stone out of hiding to deliver to Caroline and her new husband, Robert Maxwell.
If he was truly following Mona's movements then she must be warned. And besides, Mona was all Fayth had left. Like Fayth's sister Caroline, Mona had been mother and friend to her. Fayth had lost Caroline, but she would not give Mona up. She chewed at her thumbnail, certain that if she thought hard enough, she could overcome this obstacle and find her stepmother.
Copyright © 2002 by Jennifer Holling