When she was free to do as she pleased, Gabrielle loosened the grip on the reins and gently nudged Rogue. The horse lunged into a full gallop, and by the time they reached the top of the nearest hill, Gabrielle felt as though she were flying. She laughed over the sheer joy she felt at that very moment. The burdens pressing down on her began to drift away.
As usual, Stephen took the lead. Christien and Lucien flanked her sides, and Faust, the youngest, rode last, protecting her back. The four soldiers could have been brothers, so alike in appearance were they with their white-blond hair, blue eyes, and deeply tanned, weathered skin. They dressed alike as well, in a soldier’s uniform, all in black, but with a small, barely noticeable emblem of the royal house of St. Biel just above their hearts.
Their personalities were quite different, though. Perhaps because he was the oldest and the commander over the other three guards, Stephen was the most serious and rarely smiled. Christien spoke his mind more often and was the easiest to rile; Lucien had a wonderful sense of humor, and Faust was the quiet one.
All spoke in their native tongue. Like Gabrielle, they could understand and speak Gaelic, though they preferred not to.
Gabrielle knew how fortunate she was to have the loyalty of these four men. They had been her protectors most of her life. They had shielded her when her adventurous nature took her into precarious situations, and had kept her secrets—even from her father when she didn’t want him to find out about some of her escapades. Her safety was always their primary objective, but she valued their confidence as well. On numerous occasions they had saved her from peril, even at the risk of their own lives.
Just last month Faust came to her defense at the village market. She was making her way among the stalls when two drunken men began to follow her, their smirks divulging their lascivious intentions. The minute they moved in her direction, Faust stepped in front of her and laid the men on the ground before they knew what happened.
She also recalled an incident that occurred last year. She was heading toward her father’s stables to see the new foal that had been born. Just as she was rounding the corner of the stable, the hitch on the grain wagon at the top of the hill broke, sending the cart careening down at her with ferocious speed. She had barely turned to see it coming before Christien grabbed her shoulders and threw her out of its path, taking the impact of the wheel on his leg. His ankle was so bruised and swollen, he couldn’t walk on it for weeks.
She cringed at the thought of the trouble she had caused these steadfast men, but then she smiled thinking about some of the other times they had been there to look after her. There were the nights when she was a little girl that Stephen kept watch so that she could sneak out of her chamber and listen to the musicians in the courtyard. She also remembered the afternoon that, despite her father’s warnings, she and her friend Elizabeth climbed a willow tree by the river and fell into the muddy waters. Lucien had rushed the little girls to the cook to be washed and given clean clothes before Baron Geoffrey was ever the wiser. And she could never forget when she was nine years old and the band of ragged wanderers made camp in the meadow next to her father’s castle. She had been cautioned to stay away from them, but she indignantly felt that all visitors were guests and should be treated as such. The cook had been baking berry tarts for the evening meal, and so Gabrielle waited until they were placed in the open window to cool and then gathered them in her skirts. She was happy to see the guests gobble down the treats with great relish, and she would have lingered to visit, and might even have accepted their invitation to ride with them for a while, had she not turned to see Christien and Lucien standing ten feet behind her with their arms crossed and scowls on their faces. When her maidservant questioned the unusual stains on Gabriel’s skirt that night, the guards did not mention her disobedience, but later when they were alone with the little girl, they warned her about the harsh ways of the world.
Christien and Faust were the newest members of her guard, but Stephen and Lucien had been with her for as long as she could remember. Through all of the important, as well as the trivial, events of her life, one or more of them had been by her side. Even in her lowest moments, they were there. When her mother took a turn for the worse and Gabrielle was once again summoned to her bed, Gabriel knew in her heart that this would be her final visit. For two long, sad days, she and her father sat with the dying woman, holding her hand and stroking her brow. Many servants and physicians came and went during that time, but outside the chamber door, for every minute of those two days, all four of Gabrielle’s guards stood watch. Not one would leave his post.
As Gabrielle now rode with them toward Finney’s Flat thinking of all that they had done for her, she said a prayer of thanksgiving for these dear friends.
Stephen pulled her attention from her thoughts when he veered to the east. Gabrielle followed. After the horses had a good run, she slowed the pace. The rugged landscape surrounding her was craggy and covered with a dazzling green blanket. There were spills of bright purple heather, white chickweed, and milkwort dripping down the hills. Her father had told her that all of Scotland was lovely, but Gabrielle, looking over the vast landscape, thought the Highlands were stunning.
The higher they rode, the colder the air became. The scent of pine was thick, and the cold wind felt wonderful against her face.
They had been climbing almost two hours when they suddenly reached the tip of a plateau. Stephen had already scouted the area and explained to Gabrielle that there was really only one way to get to their destination.
“Since we’re coming from the south, the direct route would be straight ahead, but as you can see, the way is thick with trees, and it might be difficult to get our horses through. We could probably manage it, though.”
“And if we can’t manage it?” Christien asked.
“Then we’ll go another way,” Lucien answered.
“Finney’s Flat is on the other side of those trees?” she asked.
She blocked the sun from her eyes with her hand and looked to the east and then the west. The line of trees seemed to extend for as far as the eye could see. The plateau was massive.
“How deep are the trees?” she asked.
“I didn’t try to go all the way through,” Stephen said. He glanced up at the sky to note the position of the sun and then said, “We have quite enough daylight to find out.”
“If the closeness of the trees is a concern, could we approach Finney’s Flat from the east or the west? Would that be quicker?” Lucien posed the question.
Christien answered. “Princess Gabrielle’s father told us that there were woods on the east side of the flats, and beyond those woods is Loch Kaenich. There are also thick woods lining the west side of Finney’s Flat, and beyond those woods live the wild Buchanans.”
“Wild Buchanans?” Lucien was curious about Christien’s description of the clan.
“That is what Baron Geoffrey calls them, and from some of the stories he’s told, I don’t think the name’s an exaggeration.”
“It’s my understanding that none of the clans allow trespassers,” Faust interjected.
Gabrielle frowned as she turned to look at the soft-spoken guard. “Faust, we’re on MacKenna land now, and no one has tried to stop us.”
“Nay, Princess,” he answered. “We aren’t on MacKenna land. ’Tis true that their holding does border Finney’s Flat on the south, but we’re on the southeast tip, and that little piece of land is controlled by Laird Monroe, your future husband. That is why we have been left alone.”
She slowly scanned the horizon. The area looked completely deserted to her. Since they had begun their long journey across the Highlands, she hadn’t seen another soul. Were the people who lived in this vast wilderness in hiding so they wouldn’t have to interact with outsiders, or were they simply few and far between?
“Stephen, what if we were to try to cut through the east and approach Finney’s Flat from the north side?” she asked.
“Princess, do you not see the mountain straight north of us?” he asked. “The Buchanan laird told your father that toward the bottom of the mountain there is a limey cliff with a wide stone overhang above Finney’s Flat…”
“Your father, the baron, told us that the path winding down from the overhang is the only way to get to the bottom, and it is heavily guarded. If you squint against the sun, you can see it,” Lucien explained.
“The mountain from the base of the trail to the land above is controlled by the clan MacHugh, and they do not suffer trespassers.” Faust made this comment.
“Suffer trespassers?” She smiled as she repeated his words.
“They are…quick to rile,” Christien said. “And quick to react.”
“We could not allow you to go there,” Stephen said.
“Laird MacHugh is a dangerous man,” Faust said.
“Aye, we have heard the MacHugh clan is quite fierce, and their leader is a savage,” Christien told her.
She shook her head. “I would not be so quick to judge a man because someone has spoken ill of him.”
“What is your pleasure then, Princess?” Stephen asked. “How would you have us proceed?”
“We’ll walk through the forest directly ahead of us,” she said. “It is the fastest route, is it not? And it will be good for us to stretch our legs.”
Stephen bowed his head. “As you wish, Princess. I would suggest that we ride as far as we can into the woods so that our horses will be hidden from the curious who happen by. Faust, you will stay with the mounts when we are forced to walk.”
As it happened, they were able to ride a fair distance into the woods, though there were a few tight squeezes through prickly brush. Twice they had to backtrack to find another way around, but once they had crossed a narrow creek, they were able to gather speed. When they reached the last crush of trees, they dismounted. Handing over the reins of her horse to Faust, Gabrielle followed Stephen who parted the brush ahead of them.
The clearing was only a few yards away when Stephen suddenly stopped and put his arm out to block Gabrielle from going any farther. She stood beside him, straining to hear the sounds of the forest. As she waited, she silently adjusted the strap holding her pouch of arrows over her shoulder and shifted her bow to her left hand in preparation. A few seconds later she heard a harsh bellow of laughter followed by a loud blasphemy.
She stayed perfectly still. She heard men talking, but their voices were muffled and it was impossible to understand the conversation.
Raising her hand to her guards so that she would get no argument, she slowly crept forward. She was well-hidden by the trees, but when she shifted ever so slightly to the left, she had an unobstructed view of the flat land beyond. She spied seven men, all dressed in monks’ garb with their brown hoods pulled up over their heads.
For a moment she thought they were standing over one of their own, praying for his soul before they buried him. They were clustered together near what appeared to be a pit. Near the hole was a fresh mound of dirt. When their true intentions became clear, she nearly gasped. An eighth man was on the ground. He wasn’t dressed as a monk but wore a muted plaid. His hands and feet were bound, and he was covered in blood.
Gabrielle moved closer. She felt Stephen’s hand on her shoulder, but she shook her head and continued on. Still shielded by the trees, she watched and listened to the discussion under way.
The men were arguing over which way to drop the bound man into the hole. Three wanted him to go in headfirst. Others vehemently disagreed, wanting the captive tossed in feetfirst. The one who had been silent, most likely their leader, made the final decision.
All were in agreement on one issue: they wanted their captive to wake up so that he would know what they were about to do to him.
Gabrielle was sickened and appalled by the snippets of conversation the wind brought her. What sin was their captive guilty of? What was his transgression? She decided that it didn’t matter what he had done, for no crime, no matter how heinous, deserved such a sadistic punishment. It was inhuman.
As she listened to their escalating argument, she discovered the truth. The only sin their captive was guilty of was one of association. He was Laird Colm MacHugh’s brother.
The leader finally spoke. “Hamish, keep your eyes on that ledge. We can’t put Liam MacHugh in the ground until we see his brother.”
“Gordon, I ain’t deaf. You already told me what to do, and I’m doing it. I got my eyes peeled on that ledge. I’m still wanting to know what we’re supposed to do if Laird MacHugh don’t come to save his brother.”
“He’ll be coming all right,” one of the others answered. “And when he makes the turn at the lookout, he’ll see what’s happening, but no matter how fast he rides, he won’t get here in time. His brother will be long dead, and we’ll be long gone back to the border.”
“And how will he be able to tell it’s his brother going in the ground?” yet another asked.
Gordon answered. “Word’s reached him by now that his brother’s in trouble. He won’t be able to see his face from such a distance, but he’ll recognize the plaid.”
“What if he don’t recognize the plaid from so far away?” Hamish asked.
“He’ll still see us dumping Liam into the hole and burying him. He’ll know.”
“If he can’t see his face, then he can’t be seeing our faces, either. So how come we have to wear these robes? They’re scratching my skin. I feel like I got bugs crawling on me. It smells, too, like pig swill.”
“Quit your complaining, Kenneth,” Gordon ordered. “We’re wearing the robes we stole because we aren’t going to take any chances MacHugh might see our faces.”
“If he ever finds out we did this…” Hamish visibly shivered. “He’ll do worse than bury us alive.”
There was a grumble of agreement. “Maybe we ought to just leave him and take off now,” Kenneth said. He was nervously backing away from the hole.
“Don’t talk stupid,” Gordon said. “Laird MacHugh is never going to find out who we are. Why do you think we were brought up from the lowlands?” He added in a rush before there could be another complaint, “And paid handsomely. Are you willing to give that up?”
“No, but—” Hamish began.
“Enough talk of running away,” he snapped. He turned to the soldier standing over the unconscious warrior and said, “Kick him, Roger. See if he stirs. I want him awake when he goes in the hole.”