Cate thought nothing could be worse than the hideous wails and screams of the dying, but she was wrong. The silence of the dead was infinitely worse. Huddled in the damp blackness of the old well, she rocked back and forth in icy, shivery terror, trying not to think about where she was or what might be crawling around her. Her eyes burned with tears that had run out hours ago. She’d screamed and cried for help until her voice was a thin rasp. She was so thirsty, but she dared not pray for water. She was only too conscious of what would happen if it rained. How much water would it take for the old well to ɹll, inch by horrible inch, as she waited for someone to find her? But the English hadn’t meant for anyone to ɹnd her. After the soldiers’ murderous rampage, they’d left her here to die. To slowly starve to death or drown—they cared not which. It was her punishment for trying to save her … A sob choked in her throat. Heat swelled her eyes. Her mother. Oh God, Mother! She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the memories. But alone in the darkness there was nowhere to hide.
They came, barreling through her mind in an avalanche of fresh horror. Cate had been at the river ɹshing when she’d heard the sound of horses. It was the number that made the hair at the back of her neck stand up. In their small, isolated village tucked into the forested hills on the outskirts of Lochmaben, they had few visitors. In these dangerous times, with the outlaw Earl of Carrick (King Robert, as he’d crowned himself) recently returned to Scotland after being forced to ɻee the year before, so many riders could be only one thing: bad. It was either more of Bruce’s men seeking refuge in the outlaw king’s ancestral lands—putting the small village of mostly women and children in more danger—or worse, the English soldiers who’d garrisoned the nearby Bruce stronghold of Lochmaben and were turning over every stone and village looking for the outlaws or the “rebels” who gave them aid. She didn’t bother with her net or ɹshing line (or her shoes, which she’d removed and left on the bank); she just ran. Fear had taken over, with the stories of the fresh wave of English terror racing through her mind. Men drawn apart by horses, women raped, children beaten, cottages ransacked and burned, all in the eʃort to make neighbor turn on neighbor. To ɹnd the rebels and punish them.
Cate had no love for “King” Robert, but even he was preferable to their English “overlords.” God help them, if the English ever learned her village had given shelter to the handful of Bruce’s men who’d survived a massacre a few weeks ago at Loch Ryan. Cate had warned her mother—to whom the other women deferred—not to do it, but Helen of Lochmaben would not be dissuaded. It was their duty, she’d said; even dispossessed, the outlaw king was their lord. Cate was halfway back to the village when she heard the ɹrst scream. Her heart leapt in panic, and she shot forward through the trees and brush, heedless of the branches scratching her cheeks or the stones digging into her bare feet. While ɹshing she’d tied the skirts of her kirtle around her waist, revealing the more comfortable breeches she sometimes hid underneath so as to not upset her mother. The ɹrst cottage on the edge of the village came into view; it belonged to her friend Jean. She opened her mouth to shout for her, but the scream died in her throat. Cate stopped dead in her tracks and felt her stomach turn, and then heave.
Jean’s mother lay on the ground with blood still ɻowing from the bright red gash across her neck. Jean lay across her, pinned to her mother where she’d fallen with a pike through her back. It was as she’d feared. A dozen English soldiers were swarming over the small cottage like mail-clad locusts, a black plague leaving only death in its wake. “If there is nothing worth saving, burn it,” one of the soldiers said. “The next village will think twice about offering shelter to rebels.” Cate’s heart jolted in horror, his words leaving no doubt of what they intended. It was more than punishment; it was a lesson in what came to those who helped the outlaw king. Fear unlike any she’d ever known gripped her. Her mother.
She had to ɹnd her mother. Had to reach her before the soldiers did. Although the sounds coming toward her told her it might already be too late. The English were everywhere. Careful to avoid being seen, she crept through the trees, each step, and each cottage she passed, conɹrming her worst fears. It was a vicious, bloody massacre. The soldiers were sparing no one. Old men, women, children, even babes were cut down before her stricken gaze. Twenty-seven. That’s how many people remained in the once thriving village.
People she had known and cared for her whole life. Don’t think of that now. Her stomach turned again, her body wanting to rid itself of the horror, but she knew she didn’t have time. She had to reach … There! Finally, she spotted the small cottage that she had shared with her mother and her stepfather—her second—until he’d been killed last summer. If any breath had been left in Cate’s lungs, she would have heaved a sigh of relief. Unlike the other wattle-and-daub cottages, there were no soldiers swarming around it. It was eerily quiet. Thank God, she’d reached her mother in time. A scream pierced the illusion of peace like a dagger. Her heart froze in sheer terror.
Though she’d never heard her mother make a sound like that, instinctively she knew it was her. Cate might be only ɹfteen, but she had seen enough of war and English atrocities to have her mind immediately ɹll with ghastly images. But she pushed them forcefully away. Don’t think about it. The scream means she is still alive. That is all that matters. It was all Cate focused on as she crept toward the cottage, at any moment expecting men to burst forth and capture her. Her heart had stopped beating, and she seemed to barely be breathing, as she circled around back. “No, please!” The terriɹed, pleading voice of her mother stopped Cate cold. “Please don’t hurt my baby.
” Cate bit her lip to prevent the sob that gurgled up the back of her throat from escaping. Her mother was more than eight months pregnant with her dead stepfather’s child. Her second child, which she’d had to wait over ɹfteen years to conceive. Between Cate and her mother, it was hard to tell who was more excited about the new baby. A brother or a sister, Cate didn’t care. She would finally have a sibling. Please don’t hurt them. Crawling over the fence that penned in the few animals they had left—a pig, an old goat, a few hens, and one mean cockerel—she looked around for a better weapon than the small knife she carried in the belt at her waist to gut the ɹsh. From the few farm instruments stacked near the back door, she grabbed the most threatening looking: a long-handled hoe. A sharp sickle for reaping the grain would be better, but here in the woods they didn’t have any crops other than the few hardy vegetables they could get to grow in their small garden.
She heard a loud grunting sound and her imagination could no longer be contained. She knew what it meant, but it still didn’t prepare her for the sight that met her eyes when she moved from the back room where the animals were kept in the winter into the living area. Her mother was lying on the table where they’d broken their fast a mere hour ago, a soldier in mail and a blue-and-white surcoat leaning over her. He had his back to Cate, but from the thrusting movement of his hips between her mother’s spread legs it was obvious what he was doing. He had his forearm pressed across her mother’s throat to prevent her from talking—and breathing. Her mother’s already wide eyes bulged wider in fresh panic when she saw Cate over his shoulder. Cate heard the wordless plea to leave, to run and not look back, to stay safe, but she could not heed it. Her mother was the only person in the world she loved. She couldn’t let her die. Cate’s ɹngers squeezed around the wooden handle, her muscles tensing with readiness.
Not for the ɹrst time, she wished she were bigger. She’d always been small for her age, and the famine of war and English occupation had made her slender frame scrawny. But she worked hard, and what flesh she had on her bones was muscle. Calling on every bit of strength she possessed, Cate lifted the hoe high and swung as hard as she could across the soldier’s head. But he must have sensed her approach and turned his head just enough to avoid the strike to the temple she’d intended. Instead, the iron of the hoe connected with the steel of his helm. The force was enough to make him stagger, knocking him off her mother, but unfortunately not off his feet. He cursed and turned on her with a look of such rage and menace that she could live a thousand lifetimes and never forget it. His features—twisted though they were—ɹxed in her memory. Dark, ɻat eyes, a sharp aquiline nose, a thin mustache and neatly trimmed beard.
He had the ɹnely wrought face of a nobleman, not the thick, heavyset features of a brute she’d expected. Norman, she would wager. If not by birth then by heritage. But his refined looks could not hide the evil emanating from him. He was cursing at her and shouting. Her mother was crying, “No, Caty, no!” Not hesitating, Cate lifted the hoe again. She was so focused on her task, she didn’t hear the two men approaching from the other side of the room—men she hadn’t even noticed—as she brought it down hard again on his shoulder. He let out a grunt of pain. “Get the little bitch off me!” One of the soldiers grabbed her arm. The other wrenched the hoe from her hand.
The brute who’d been raping her mother lifted his steel-gauntleted hand and brought it down hard across Cate’s face before she could turn away. But she noticed with satisfaction the blood streaming down his arm. At least she’d done some damage. Her mother screamed and lunged for Cate, trying to protect her with her body. That was when the true nightmare began. The handful of seconds that would play over and over in Cate’s mind. It happened so fast, and yet each second ticked by in haunting precision. Out of the corner of her eye Cate saw the ɻash of silver as the brute pulled his sword from the scabbard at his waist. She opened her mouth to scream a warning, but it was too late. The blade came down in one vicious stroke across her mother’s body, splitting her side to the waist in an instant.
Her mother’s expression went from stunned to horror to pain, where it stayed for what seemed an agonizing length of time. “Love you … father … sorry …” Her voice faded; she staggered and slid to the ground. Cate wrenched free from her captor with a primal scream and tried to catch her. But the second soldier stopped her before she could reach her mother. Cate fought like a wildcat, but he was simply too strong. “What should I do with her, Captain?” he said to the monster who’d just cut down the only person in the world she had left. The brute bent down to wipe his sword on her mother’s sark, leaving a sickly streak of red on the creamy linen. “Kill the mongrel’s bitch. I’d use her to ɹnish, but I need a woman, not a pathetic chit in breeches. Find me one,” he ordered the first man.
The man who was holding her reached for his blade. He had his arm wrapped around her like a vise. Though she knew it was hopeless, she kicked and screamed, trying to free herself. The captain watched her with a predatory smile on his face, clearly enjoying her terror. “Wait,” he said. “I want the rebel brat to pay for what she dared. Toss her in that old well outside.” His smile deepened, his white teeth ɻashing across his face like a wolf’s. “Let her suffer before she dies.” That was hours ago.
How many, she didn’t know. It had been morning when Cate had gone ɹshing, and the skies had been dark for some time. The last embers of the ɹres the soldiers set had burned themselves out some time ago. Everything was gone. Her mother. The babe. Her friends. Her home. All that was left was ash and this hideous pit of death. She’d given up trying to climb out.
Though freedom was only a precious six feet away when she stood, what handholds and toeholds there were in the stone walls crumbled with her weight. She’d tried to wedge her back against the wall, but her legs weren’t long enough to exert enough pressure to inch her way up. Tired, cold, and wet, she knew she had to conserve her strength. Someone would come for her. Someone would find her. But how long would it take? Every minute in this pit felt like torture. Her heart raced in her chest. She hated the dark, and icy fear had become a companion to her grief. “There’s nothing to be scared of, Caty Cat. The darkness won’t hurt you.
” The laughing voice—familiar even all these years gone past—came out of the darkness like a ghost, haunting her with cruel memories. What made her think of him now? she wondered. The father—the natural father— who’d soothed her nightmares when she was a child, but who’d left her and never looked back when she was just five? He certainly wouldn’t come for her. A tear slipped from the corner of her eye and she angrily brushed it away. He didn’t deserve her tears. Her eyes burned ɹercely. For a while her anger kept her fear at bay. But by the next night it had returned. By the following it had turned to panic. By the next it had turned to desperation.
And by the ɹfth it had turned to the most horrible feeling of all: hopelessness. Gregor MacGregor gazed around the charred shell of the village, a grim set to his celebrated features. The past year of war had shown him some of the very worst of mankind, but this … Bile rose to the back of his throat. He had to ɹght to keep the contents of his stomach down. His companions—especially Eoin MacLean and Ewen Lamont, who’d been here not a month ago—seemed to be having the same struggle. When MacLean disappeared behind one of the burned-out buildings, Gregor figured he’d lost the battle. “It’s true,” Lamont said. “Bloody hell, it’s true. Who the hell could do something like this?” The gruʃ tracker’s eyes were stark with disbelief as they met his. “All those women and children.
” His voice cut oʃ and then dropped to a ragged whisper. “They killed them all.” Lamont turned away. He didn’t seem to expect a response and Gregor didn’t have one to give him. What could he say? It was true. The blackened bodies they found at each holding left no doubt. Rage replaced some of his horror. No more, he vowed. Once Bruce was on the throne, nothing like this would ever happen again. The importance of this mission to Bruce was evident by the man who spoke next.
Tor “Chief” MacLeod, the leader of the king’s secret band of elite soldiers known as the Highland Guard, hadn’t left the king’s side for more than a few hours in recent weeks. Personal bodyguard, enforcer, protector, advisor, MacLeod was everything for Robert the Bruce. Yet the king had sent his most trusted man to check on the loyal villagers who had given a handful of his men shelter after the worst disaster of a short reign that had been filled with disasters. The fearsome West Highland chief cursed, his stony expression revealing a rare glimpse of emotion. “For once I wish our informants had been wrong.” Gregor nodded. “As do I.” They’d come as soon as they heard the ɹrst whisper of rumor that the English had retaliated against the village that had given the “rebels” aid. Leaving their temporary base in the hills and forest of Galloway, they’d raced the forty miles or so east through Dumfries to Lochmaben. But they’d never had a chance to prevent the slaughter that had taken place here.
As soon as MacLean rejoined them, MacLeod turned to him and his partner, Lamont. The two Guardsmen were among the handful of men who’d escaped the disaster at Loch Ryan and taken refuge here. “No one could have foreseen this. This is not on you— either of you. Do you understand?” His voice was hard and commanding, without a hint of compassion or reassurance. Lamont and MacLean were warriors; they understood orders, not coddling. Neither man responded for a moment. They exchanged a glance, and then Lamont gave a short nod, one that was mirrored a moment later by his partner. “Good,” MacLeod said. “Then let us give the villagers a proper burial and return to the king to tell him what we have found.
But do not doubt that what has been done here will be avenged.” He turned to Gregor. “Gather the bodies and bring them here.” They were standing in what had been the village kirk—identiɹable by the scraps of the robe left on the body of the priest. “The three of us will dig.” Gregor nodded and began the grim work of gathering the charred remains of the dead. Someone will come for me … Cate dreamed of knights from troubadour’s tales. Of strong, handsome warriors on white chargers with shimmering mail, colorful tabards, and banners streaming in the wind as they rode in to the rescue. Noble knights. Valiant knights.
The knights of her childhood. The knights she’d once believed in. A knight like her father. “My father is the greatest knight in Christendom!” The boast she’d made when the other children teased her about being a bastard had only provided more fodder for them after he’d left. “Where’s the greatest knight in Christendom now, Caty?” they’d taunted. Not here. She woke with a start. Delirious with hunger and thirst, barely strong enough to unfurl from the ball that she’d been rolled in for God knew how long, at ɹrst the sound of voices confused her. She’d prayed so hard and for so long without response that when it ɹnally came, just when she’d resigned herself to her fate, it seemed a cruel taunt of her imagination. But then the voices grew stronger.
Men’s voices. Was it the English soldiers? Had they come back to torment her? To finish what they’d started? A ɹst of irrational fear gripped her, and her raw lips—which had parted to cry for help—clamped shut. But then she realized she had to take a chance. If the men were friends, it might be her only chance of rescue. And if they were English … Perhaps they would put her out of her misery. She opened her mouth to cry for help, but in some kind of cruel, twisted irony, her voice strangled in her throat. Tears of desperation and frustration sprang to her eyes. She willed her voice to work with everything she had left, but it wasn’t enough for more than a faint whisper. “Help! Please, help me.” She started to cry at the futility, precious fluid rolling down her cheeks.
“Help me.” God, this couldn’t be happening! She was strong. She wouldn’t give up. She didn’t want to die. She thought of her mother, of the brother or sister she would never have a chance to know, of her friends and neighbors she’d known her whole life. Someone had to remember them. Someone had to see that the men who did this paid. She tried again. “Help!” It was louder this time. Not much, but enough to give her encouragement.
She sat up a little straighter, looked up through the tunnel of light, and tried again. And again. Her eʃorts were rewarded by a shout, a voice that seemed to be coming closer to her. “I think someone is down there.” It wasn’t her imagination. She cried out again, sobbing with both hope and fear. Don’t go … Please don’t go! I’m here. With a burst of energy, she wobbled to a stand, using the mossy stones of the wall to help keep her upright. She looked up as a shadow crossed over her head. A man’s face appeared above her, peering down.
She gasped. Blinked. Felt her knees grow wobbly—and not from exhaustion or starvation. From his face. The most perfect she’d ever seen. Sunlight blazed behind him like a halo, bathing his tawny hair in golden light. His nose was straight and strong; his jaw ɹrm, lightly clefted, and not too square; his cheeks high and sculpted; and his mouth … his mouth was wide and full of sin. His eyes were light in color—blue or green, she could not tell—set below brows arched like the wings of a raven. There wasn’t one part of him, not one bone or one inch of golden skin, that had not been put in exactly the right position. Dear Lord, he wasn’t a man, he was an angel.
And that meant … I’m in heaven. It was her last thought as the ground rose under her feet. “Is she alive?” A deep voice pulled her from unconsciousness. She had the sensation of ɻoating. Nay, of being carried. A man’s arms were around her. Arms that were strong and safe. He put her down on the ground. The gentle warmth of his breath as he leaned over her caused her eyes to flutter open. Their eyes met: hers and her angel’s.
“Aye,” he said softly, brushing a clump of matted hair from her forehead. “She’s alive.” The gentleness in his voice made her chest swell with emotion. She opened her mouth to speak, but all she could do was lick her dry lips. The next moment a skin was brought to her mouth and the ɹrst precious drops of water slid down her parched throat. She drank hungrily—greedily—until he murmured for her to slow; she would make herself ill. When he pulled it away a moment later, she would have tried to snatch it back had she not been distracted. He was cradling her against his chest, and his heavenly face was so close, all she had to do was reach up and touch it. Green. His eyes were green and framed by the thickest, most glorious lashes she’d ever seen.
Unfair—even for an angel. Alive? She frowned as his words penetrated. “But you’re an angel.” She heard what sounded like a sharp laugh coming from behind her. “Hawk is going to have fun with that one.” Her angel shot an angry glare in the direction of the man who’d spoken, but his words and gentle voice were for her. “You are alive, child. And safe.” The reminder of what had happened made her clutch at him in renewed terror. With her head pressed against his leather-clad chest—a very hard and broad chest—she glanced behind her, for the first time seeing the three men standing there.
She gasped, shirking in fear. They were massive. Clad in black leather cotuns studded with bits of steel and darkened nasal helms (her rescuer’s was on the ground next to her, she realized), the tall, muscular warriors made her shiver. Good thing she hadn’t seen them first or she might have thought she’d died and gone rather south of heaven. Who were they? Not English, she knew by the soft burr in her rescuer’s voice. She looked again, seeing the dark plaids they wore around their shoulders. Highlanders. But which side were they on? The clans from the Highlands fought on both sides of the war: some with Bruce and some, like the MacDougalls, against him, making them reluctant allies of Edward of England, the self-proclaimed “Hammer of the Scots.” Were these men with the English?