The soft jingle of keys stirred Elysande from a fitful sleep. Curled up on the damp, dirt floor, and facing the stone wall, she couldn’t see who was approaching, but didn’t particularly care. It would either be de Buci or one of his men, come to drag her up into the great hall to beat her again. Or perhaps to do something worse this time, since the beating hadn’t worked to get the information he was looking for. Thoughts of those worse things made her fingers tighten around the corners of the smelly, ragged blanket she’d dragged around herself to ward off the chill in the cold dungeon. De Buci had threatened several tortures for their next meeting as he’d had his men drag her away: rape, cutting off a hand or a foot, marking her face with a hot iron so none would look upon her without horror. He’d listed other threats but she hadn’t heard them since his voice had become a muted growl from behind her as she was dragged down into the bowels of hell that was the dungeon of Kynardersley. Elysande had never much considered whether she was a brave woman or not, but this experience had taught her that she wasn’t. Because had she the answer the man was looking for, she would have given it to him about halfway through the earlier beatings. But she didn’t know the answer to his repeated and insistent roar of “Where is it?” “What?” she’d cried just as often, desperate to end the abuse, only to be told, “You know what! Where is it?” But Elysande hadn’t known. That morning, she’d woken happy and cheerful in her bed, in the home she’d grown up in, with loving parents and a castle full of servants and soldiers who she considered family. Now . The sound of the key in the lock finally had her lifting her head off the floor to look over her shoulder.
Elysande stared blankly at her mother’s maid, who now stood at the door to her cell, and then she sat up with surprise. The abrupt movement immediately sent pain rushing through her body, but she ignored it and rasped out a confused, “Betty?” The maid’s eyes widened with alarm. She put a finger to her mouth in the sign to hush, then peered anxiously to the sleeping guard slumped in the chair by the table outside Elysande’s cell. When the man continued to snore loudly, Betty turned her attention back to the keys she held. Pulling out the one presently in the lock, she tried the next on the ring of half a dozen large keys. Elysande watched silently, half-afraid she was dreaming. Then the third key worked and Betty eased the door open. They both winced at the squeal of the hinges, their gazes moving to the guard. But he continued snoring loudly. “Can ye get up?” Betty whispered. Elysande shifted her gaze back to the maid, a little startled to find the woman now standing right in front of her. She hadn’t seen her move.
Rather than answer, Elysande released her hold on one corner of the ratty blanket to reach out to the girl. She wanted to touch her, to be sure she was real, but the maid must have thought it a silent request for help, because she immediately took her arm and began to pull upward. Steeling herself against the pain, Elysande managed to stagger to her feet with the maid’s help, but it was an effort that left her sweaty and swaying as she fought the pain and dizziness that assailed her. “Can ye walk, m’lady?” Betty whispered anxiously, looking close to tears as she clutched her arm to steady her. Elysande swallowed the bile rising in her throat and nodded grimly. She would walk if it killed her. Betty pulled Elysande’s arm over her shoulders and helped her shuffle out of the cell. It was a slow, laborious effort, but once she had her out of the cell, Betty urged her to grasp the smooth bars to help her stay upright, then rushed to the end of the small hall and snatched up a bag by the wall. Elysande frowned slightly, but didn’t ask questions; she merely watched her pull a gown from the bag and quickly begin to stuff it with the fetid straw that covered the hall floor. The maid filled the bag itself last and then hurried into the cell, and arranged her creation under the ratty blanket.
Only when Betty straightened to examine her handiwork did Elysande understand what she was doing. She’d managed to make it look like a huddled figure curled against the back wall of the cell. Like she was still there, Elysande realized as the maid rushed back and closed the cell door. They both stiffened and glanced warily to the guard when the action set up another protesting squeal. But the man remained asleep. Elysande released a relieved breath, and drew in another, only to hold that one when Betty moved cautiously over to the man to set the keys carefully on the table in front of him, where she’d apparently got them. Despite the maid’s caution, they made the faintest clanking noises as she set them down. Still, the man didn’t stir. Releasing a shaky little sigh, Betty moved quickly back to her side and took her arm over her shoulders again. “This way,” she whispered, and led her to the end of the hall where the bag had been.
“Mother?” Elysande asked in a soft voice when the girl pushed and turned the correct stone to open the secret passage. “Aye. She told me how to open it,” Betty admitted. It wasn’t what Elysande had been asking. She wanted to know how her mother was, but as the wall swung open to reveal what seemed like a million stairs stretching upward, she decided that her mother must be all right to have given the girl directions. So she saved her breath and moved into the hidden passage. Hewn into the stone and disappearing up into darkness, the stairs were too narrow for them to move side by side. Betty couldn’t help her here. She would have to manage them on her own. And she would, Elysande told herself firmly, even if she had to drag herself up them on her belly.
And she very nearly did. Elysande was on her hands and knees by the time they reached the top of the stairwell. Gasping with relief as she made it off the last step, Elysande collapsed to the cold stone passage, every muscle in her body trembling with exhaustion. “M’lady?” Elysande sighed at that whisper from Betty. She wanted to just lie there and die, but she couldn’t. Her mother . The brush of cool cloth across her arm and cheek made her open her eyes. She couldn’t see in this stygian darkness, but guessed that Betty was stepping carefully over her to stand by her head in the narrow passage and it was the maid’s skirts she’d felt. “M’lady? It isn’t much farther now.” The girl’s whisper was accompanied by her hands clasping Elysande’s shoulders.
The maid was going to try to help her to her feet. Ignoring her aches and pains, Elysande ground her teeth together and pushed herself up onto her knees. She then braced one hand against the stone wall, grabbed the girl’s arm with the other and managed to drag herself to her feet. “Are you all right?” Betty whispered with concern. “I am fine,” Elysande said, panting, and then took a deep breath to steady herself. “Let us go. I would see Mother.” She sensed rather than saw the girl move away. Elysande took another deep breath and then braced her hands against the cool stone walls on either side of her and shuffled forward, following. She didn’t realize how far behind she’d fallen until Betty opened the secret entrance to her mother’s room and light spilled into the passage from a good ten feet ahead.
Straightening her shoulders, Elysande tried to move more quickly. It still seemed like forever before she reached the opening and then she was blinded by the light in the room. There were only two small candles there to chase away the night’s gloom, but after her time in the dark dungeon, those candles were like staring directly into the sun. Elysande had to close her eyes to protect them. Fortunately, Betty recognized the problem at once and took her arm to lead her across the room to her mother’s bed. Much to her relief, Elysande had adjusted enough by then that she could at least see, though she was still squinting against the light when she dropped to her knees next to the bed. Her strained eyes slid over her mother’s frail form and swollen face and Elysande could have wept at the bruises covering every inch of Mairghread de Valance that wasn’t covered by the furs on the bed. “Mother?” she breathed, clasping the hand closest to her and then quickly releasing it when she felt how swollen they were. Only then did she recall that they had been broken. “Oh, Mama,” she moaned, resting her forehead on the bed with despair.
“Ellie.” That broken whisper made her lift her head at once. “Yes, I am here.” “The Buchanans,” she managed, her voice so faint Elysande wasn’t sure she’d heard her right. “The Buchanans?” she asked with confusion. Elysande was tired and achy, her mind such a clutter with worry, pain and fear that she couldn’t imagine why her mother would bring up the clan. “The Buchanan healer is in England. You must go to him. He can take you to my sister.” “Nay.
I will not leave you,” Elysande said at once, and her mother’s eyes shot open full of fire and determination. “You must,” her mother ordered, and then spoke quickly, telling her what to do. Chapter 1 “Damn me, Buchanan,” Ralph FitzBaderon, Baron of Monmouth, said cheerfully as he reached for his ale. “I thought I was done for, but you worked a miracle and saved my life. I still cannot fathom it. Are you sure you are not part English?” “Nay,” Rory answered distractedly, his gaze flying over the message his brother Alick had just handed him. “Well,” the baron said with a shake of the head. “I think you must have some English in you somewhere.” “Why is that?” Alick asked beside him, and Rory almost sighed to himself, knowing his brother wouldn’t like the answer any more than he had the hundred or so times he’d heard it over the last two weeks. “Because Scots are ignorant heathens,” Baron Monmouth informed him.
“Hardly capable of a mastery over healing such as your brother has. Nay. There must be English in your family history somewhere.” “And yet, there is no’,” Rory said easily as he felt Alick stiffen beside him. Rerolling the message he’d finished reading, he tucked it inside his plaid and stood to leave the trestle table. “Time to go, Alick.” “Aye,” the younger man growled, rising at once and falling into step beside him. “And thank God fer that.” “Here now!” Baron Monmouth protested, scurrying to his feet to chase after them as Rory led Alick toward the large keep doors. “What of FitzAlan? I told you he had a complaint he wanted you to look at.
” “I had no agreement with FitzAlan,” Rory said with unconcern as he yanked the keep door open and strode out into the biting wind. It felt more like January or February than late November and he could smell the promise of snow in the air. It seemed winter was coming early this year. “But I paid you a small fortune!” Baron Monmouth charged after him down the stairs. “The least you can do is see the man. He should be along soon. He—” “Ye paid me to get ye well and I did that,” Rory pointed out mildly, drawing the top of his plaid around his shoulders as he crossed the bailey in long, quick strides. “Ye’re well, the deal is complete and we’re leaving.” “Praise God,” Alick muttered beside him with a combination of relief and disgust that Rory understood fully. This had not been his first visit to England, but he was determined it would be his last.
He hadn’t really wanted to come in the first place, but Monmouth had offered him a king’s ransom to travel down into this godforsaken land and heal him. However, two weeks in England was two weeks too many, and even the fortune he’d just made wasn’t worth putting up with the constant sneering insults to his homeland and countrymen that he, Alick and their men had been served. Monmouth’s words just now had been kind in comparison to those of his soldiers over the last weeks. After two days of that nonsense, and the three fights it had caused between the English soldiers and the Scottish warriors who had accompanied them on this journey, Rory had told Alick to take their men and camp in the woods outside the walls of Monmouth. They’d been waiting patiently there for him to finish his work and leave. “FitzAlan will pay you to tend him!” Monmouth cried. The man was still trailing behind them, but couldn’t keep up and was beginning to huff and puff for air as he fell behind. “Go back inside, m’lord,” Rory said firmly without bothering to glance around. “Ye’re on the mend, but no’ yet strong enough to be running about, especially in this cold.” “FitzAlan will pay you whatever you want,” Monmouth insisted, gasping for breath now.
Rory stopped. “God, no, brother,” Alick hissed beside him, alarm in his voice. Rory ignored him and turned back to face the baron. “Whatever you want,” Monmouth repeated in a raspy voice, bending to brace his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. “Baron, there is no’ enough coin in all o’ Christendom to make me stay in England another night,” he said quietly. “Now get ye back inside before ye make yerself ill again. Fer I’ll no’ be staying to mend ye anew.” Alick’s relief was plain to see when Rory swung back to continue to the stables where their horses were even now being led out. Baron Monmouth didn’t try to follow them farther. “I was afraid the coin would tempt ye and ye’d agree to stay to see this FitzAlan.
” Rory shook his head at Alick’s words. “Never. I’m ready to be heading home. I’ve had enough o’ this godforsaken country.” “Aye,” Alick muttered, scowling around the bailey at the people coming and going. Thanking the boy who had saddled and led out his horse, Rory quickly mounted and then waited for Alick to gain his saddle before saying, “Besides, we have something else we must do.” Alick gathered his reins and glanced to him with surprise. “What’s that?” “Collect a treasure and take it to Sinclair.” “The message?” Alick asked, his eyes narrowing. Nodding, Rory clucked his tongue, and urged his horse to move.
“What is this treasure?” Alick called. When Rory ignored the question and urged his horse to put on speed, Alick cursed and rode after him. Not wanting to speak of it until they were well away from Monmouth, Rory rode at a fast trot until he’d crossed the drawbridge, and then set his beast to gallop across the frost-tipped grass of the open area outside the castle walls. He heard Alick whistle behind him, and saw the four warriors their brother Aulay had sent with them appear ahead at the edge of the woods on their mounts. Rory immediately turned in their direction at once and rode to meet them. “Ye’ve broken camp and are ready to head home?” he asked, reining in before them, and wasn’t surprised by their silent nods. Since they carried little when traveling and slept rolled up in their plaids, there wasn’t much to breaking up camp besides putting out whatever fire had remained by morning. “What were ye talking about back there? What treasure?” Alick asked as he drew his mount to a halt beside him. “And who was that message from that ye received this morn?” Rory raised an eyebrow in surprise at the second question. “Did the messenger no’ tell ye when he gave it to ye?” “Nay,” Alick said grimly.
“And he did no’ stay long enough to be questioned either. Just rode up, tossed it at Conn, said to get it to Rory Buchanan and rode off ere anyone could even move. Since I was coming to check and be sure we were still leaving today, I brought it in to ye fer him.” Rory grunted at this news, but before he could comment, Conn suddenly tilted his head to the side and stiffened. “Riders,” Alick muttered after a moment. They all looked toward the opposite side of the clearing, but no one was yet visible through the trees. Even so, Rory urged his horse farther along the trail so that they would be hidden from view. The others followed suit and they sat their mounts, silent and still in the cover of the woods, to see who was approaching. It wasn’t long before a large contingent of soldiers charged out of the trees on the other end of the clearing, riding for Monmouth’s gates. “Think you ’tis FitzAlan?” Alick asked.
“Nay,” Rory said with a frown. “There are no nobles among that rabble. They are soldiers every one.” He watched silently as half a dozen men broke off from the group and crossed the drawbridge, leaving the remaining men waiting outside. Rory then turned his horse and spurred him into a gallop again. He had a feeling the men had something to do with the message he’d received and that it would be a good idea to find the treasure mentioned in it and head north as quickly as possible. With that thought in mind, he kept up the pace for the half hour it took before they reached the point of the trail where the river ran over it. Rory crossed the shallow flow of water and then stopped and glanced around, searching the trees on either side of the path.