Two weary riders lounged in the saddles of their even wearier mounts on the crest of a small mound, gazing down at the scene below. The gracious manor house sat amid manicured gardens. Lush lawns sprawled on three sides, intersected by neat paths. There was even a small maze, though it looked to be somewhat overgrown. The turquoise ripples of the English Channel glimmered beyond, sparkling under the rays of midmorning sunshine. “That must be the place. Ashingburn Manor.” Robert McGregor stood up in his stirrups to afford himself a better view of the elegant house. “Aye,” his companion concurred. “Still, I cannae bring myself to think this is anything but a wild goose chase.” Robbie could not find it in himself to disagree. The chances of their quest yielding a happy outcome were slim, though he would be glad enough to be able to return to his brother in Scotland with news of the fate of the one they sought, one way or the other. “Ye’re right. The child is likely dead by now. It has been nigh on half a year since she was snatched.
” Beside him, Archibald Montgomery inclined his chin in a grim nod. “‘Twas a cruel thing that was done. If we had but known sooner…” “My sister-by-marriage should ha’ trusted her husband. Things might ha’ gone very differently had she done so. Jamie is no’ an ogre, she should ha’ told him.” Archie gave a snort that might be interpreted as agreement, though probably not. It was not that long since Eleanor of Ashingburn, the bride of Robbie’s older brother, James, had conspired to have Archie murdered in his bed. The intentions of the would-be assassin had been thwarted but Archie could not be blamed for harbouring a degree of resentment, in Robbie’s opinion. Still, any ill-feeling he might have borne had not prevented him from doing the bidding of James McGregor. He had ridden the length of England at Robbie’s side in search of the baby abducted from Eleanor prior to her marriage.
Eleanor had become pregnant following a vicious encounter with one Richard Culpepper, one of King Henry’s most trusted inner circle. Naturally, the young woman’s complaint that Culpepper had forced himself upon her had not been accepted. Branded a liar and whore, she was banished from the royal household and had returned in disgrace to her home where her baby had been born. Richard Culpepper had subsequently descended upon Ashingburn Manor and snatched the baby away. On learning of this, James had wasted no time in requesting that Robbie and Archie leave Scotland at a moment’s notice and travel south in search of the missing infant. There had been no question, really. Even at this late stage, if there was any prospect whatsoever of restoring baby Cecily to her grieving mother, they should make every effort to do that. They had spent the better part of a fortnight riding to the south coast of England to seek out the manor house in Dorset, which had been the last place anyone had seen baby Cecily. It was the obvious place to start their search. “Looks prosperous enough,” Archie observed.
“Clearly, the Ashingburns were no’ obliged tae do Henry’s bidding due tae any want for funds.” “That was never suggested,” Robbie agreed. “D’ye see any sign of anyone being at home?” According to Eleanor, her parents—the Earl and Countess of Ashingburn—lived here along with their household of servants. No wisps of smoke billowed from the chimneys, though that could be explained by the warmth of the day. Still, there would be cooking to be done in a house of this size, water to heat… “We shall see soon enough.” Archie dug his heels into his mount’s flanks and started the steady descent. Robbie rode beside him, and the half dozen soldiers Jamie had sent as their escort brought up the rear. They clattered across the cobbled courtyard and came to a halt before the stout wooden door. “You wait here.” Archie slid to the ground and tossed his reins to Robbie.
As captain of Jamie McGregor’s guard, Archie considered it his right to lead any assault and this day’s work appeared no different to him. He marched up and hammered on the solid oak with the side of his fist. Robbie remained mounted, along with the rest of the men. No one came scurrying to answer the knock. Archie thumped the door again and shouted out to whoever lurked within, “Open the door or I shall do it myself, wi’ my boot. We are here tae speak wi’ the earl an’ countess an’ we’ll no’ be leavin’ till we have.” His words had no effect, so Archie banged on the door one final time before raising his booted foot and slamming that into the darkened timber. The door shook on its hinges. Archie beckoned to a couple of his men to join him, and the three of them prepared to kick down the door. Suddenly, it swung open.
A tall, slim woman of perhaps forty or so years peered at them, her aristocratic features betraying both alarm and anger. “What do you want?” she demanded, her haughty tone wavering only slightly. Given that he had been about to reduce her door to splinters, Archie’s polite bow might have been somewhat incongruous. He dipped into one anyway and gestured to his soldiers to step back. He cleared his throat. “We need tae speak wi’ the Earl o’ Ashingburn. Is he at home?” The woman just stared, her mouth working as though she wanted to speak but did not know what to say. “Madam?” Archie prompted, when Robbie joined him on the doorstep. “Is the earl here?” She shook her head. “The countess, then?” Robbie suggested.
“I… I am Lady Ashingburn.” Archie and Robbie exchanged another glance, then Robbie made the introductions. “I am Robert McGregor, heir tae The McGregor. Of Skye,” he added, on seeing her blank look. “And this is Sir Archibald Montgomery. We are here on behalf of Sir James McGregor, Earl of Etal and husband tae your daughter.” Something flickered in her hazel eyes. “My daughter? You have news of Eleanor?” Again, they exchanged a look and Robbie wondered just how much they ought to share with the countess pertaining to her daughter’s current plight. It was not as though the woman could do anything to aid her daughter now, except corroborate her account of Culpepper’s actions and the threats he had uttered. “May we come inside?” Robbie asked.
“We have had a long journey an’ our horses are weary. Our men, too.” “You have come all this way? From Northumberland?” “From Scotland, in fact, my lady,” Archie offered. “A jug of ale would be most welcome, an’ perhaps a bite tae eat if ye could manage that.” “Yes. Yes, of course. Come in.” The countess was minded to offer them hospitality, it seemed, despite Archie’s assault on her property. She opened the battered door wider and moved aside to permit them entry. “Your men can go around to the kitchen if they want.
I shall send word to the cook that they are to be given refreshment.” “We appreciate your generosity, my lady.” Robbie glanced about the finely panelled entrance hall, the ornate tiled floor. Yes, there was wealth here, but the house felt cold as the tomb. Their hostess led them into a hall, also panelled. The dark wood walls were adorned with several fine paintings. Unless Robbie was sorely mistaken, he spotted a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, and a mythical scene by Botticelli among the glorious canvases. Still, he was not here to admire works of art, no matter how splendid. The countess sat at a long, intricately carved table and gestured that they should do likewise. A servant hovered by the fireplace and hurried over at a signal from her mistress.
“Bring ale,” Lady Ashingburn ordered. “Or would you prefer cider?” “Ale will be most welcome, madam,” Robbie assured her. “Ale, then. The best. And food. And, please tell Mrs. Dove that we have visitors and she is to ensure that the men outside are fed also.” The girl rushed off to do as she was bidden, and the lady turned to properly greet her unexpected guests. “I am Lady Elisabeth Falconer, dowager Countess of Ashingburn. Please, do you have news of my daughter? Is she well?” Dowager? Robbie was almost certain that he had heard Eleanor mention her parents.
She had not said her father was dead. Indeed, she had told them that the earl was physically threatened by Culpepper when the older man sought to defend his home and his family. “May I ask when your husband passed away, Lady Falconer?” She sniffed. Robbie believed he detected tears in her eyes though she controlled her grief well. “Two weeks ago. He took a fever and never recovered.” “Our condolences on your loss, my lady.” It was clear that Eleanor was not aware of this latest turn of events. It would fall to them to break the news to her when they returned to Scotland. First, though… “Lady Falconer, we have questions we need to ask of ye?” She met his gaze with a determined glare.
It was clear that whilst they may have momentarily shocked her by appearing unannounced on her doorstep, Lady Elisabeth was accustomed to being obeyed. “First, you should answer mine. Do you have news of Eleanor? Is she happy with her new husband? Is he… a kind man?” Robbie hesitated, then, “Lady Eleanor was in good health when last we saw her, my lady. As for the rest… she appeared happy enough.” Or, she had. Once. Before she was sentenced to hang. Lady Falconer nodded. “She is a good girl. She deserves to be happy.
I hope your brother treats her gently, because she has not had an easy time of it.” “Yes,” Robbie said. “So we understand. That is why we are here. Tell me, Lady Falconer, what d’ye know of your granddaughter’s whereabouts?” “G-granddaughter?” Lady Falconer’s features turned a pale shade of ashen. “Aye. Cecily. D’ye know where she is, my lady?” Lady Falconer shook her head, her slender hand clutching at her throat. “I… I do not know. No one knows.
” “Someone must know,” Archie observed, taking a mug of ale from the lass who served them. “Who d’ye think we should be askin’?” “I really could not say. If I did know, do you not think I would be moving heaven and earth to find my only granddaughter? She… she is gone.” Very probably. But they had come a long way. A fortnight of gruelling riding had brought them to this place and Robbie was not giving up quite so easily. “Tell us what happened. Eleanor said that her baby was taken by a man called Culpepper…” The countess related much the same story they had heard two weeks ago in the hall at Mortain, though she had rather more to say about the rough handling her husband had endured. The soldiers had beaten him badly. After Eleanor left, escorted by Culpepper’s hand-picked men and destined to be handed over to a stranger in a remote keep close to the Scottish border, the brutally battered elderly earl had coughed blood for a fortnight, then taken to his bed.
He never rose from it and his widow was convinced he had been killed by Culpepper as surely as if the man had driven his sword into her husband’s belly, which indeed he had threatened to do. “He is a devil, that young man,” she declared. “He is evil.” Robbie did not disagree. “And what of Henry Tudor? Is he not equally responsible for the misfortunes which have beset your family?” Archie wanted to know. “It is treason to speak ill of the king,” the countess replied quickly, her guard suddenly up. “His Majesty is good and generous, though perhaps on occasions he is badly advised…” “Generous enough tae wrench your baby granddaughter away from her home, and tae give your daughter in marriage tae a man she has never even heard of?” Lady Falconer was silent, though there could be no doubt now that her eyes filled with tears. “I do miss my daughter,” she murmured. “Especially now that my husband is dead. The estate is to go to a cousin so I shall soon be obliged to leave Ashingburn.
Will you… would you be so kind as to tell Eleanor of her father’s death?” “Aye, we shall,” Robbie promised. “And tell her not to grieve, but to live her own life. To be happy, as best she can.” Robbie caught Archie’s eye once more. He did not consider it fair not to let this woman know what had happened. She was Eleanor’s mother; she had a right, surely. Archie nodded. The unspoken question answered, Robbie cleared his throat. “I… I regret tae have tae inform ye, Lady Falconer, that all has nae gone well for your daughter. She… she became involved in a number of … unfortunate incidents, the most serious of which was a plot to kill Sir Archibald, here.
” “A plot to…” Lady Falconer shook her head, her faith in her daughter unshakeable. “No, not my Eleanor. She would never do such a wicked thing.” “I am afraid she did and has admitted as much.” “But… but that is…” She gaped at them, her eyes wide. “That would be murder.” “Yes.” Robbie could only agree. “She… confessed?” He inclined his head. “Then…?” Lady Falconer could not even say the words.
“W-what has happened to her?” “She was sentenced tae hang.” Lady Falconer let out a long, low moan. “No. Oh, sweet Jesu, no. Not my little baby. Not my dear, sweet Eleanor.” Robbie was quick to provide the more recent details. “When my brother learned of the circumstances in which she was sent to him, and of what had happened tae Cecily, he ordered a stay of execution. When we left, he was still considerin’ her fate.” “Then, she is still alive?” “Aye, as far as we know.
” “I must go to her. I… I can help.” She jumped to her feet as though she meant to rush from the door and set off for Northumberland at that very moment. Robbie, too, stood up. “Lady Falconer, wait…” She rounded on him. “Your brother must not hurt her. She… she does not deserve to be treated so. Surely, he must see that. I shall explain. I shall make him understand…” “Jamie does see.
He—” “He shall not harm her. I will not let him.” “My lady…” “Will he allow me to see her? If I go there, will he let me see her?” she demanded. “Surely, he cannot be so cruel that he would not.” Robbie nodded. “I daresay he would permit that, aye, but—” “Then I shall go. Now. Today.” Robbie saw no point in seeking to dissuade the woman. “Very well.
But ye should know, she is at Mortain castle, not Etal. It is in the Scottish lowlands. The journey is long…” “Then, I shall hurry. I must see her before… before…” She bit back a sob. “I need to at least say goodbye. She… she is all I have left.” It was Archie who spoke next. “I dinnae think Jamie will do anything before he hears from us again. He will be waitin’ for news o’ Cecily.”