Melrose Abbey, January, 1478
Before she knelt, Meg stole a glance behind her. A silent sigh slipped through pursed lips. As he’d promised, her tenacious guard wasn’t standing at the rear of the nave watching. She had a number of things she wanted to accomplish on this pilgrimage, most importantly, gaining an audience with the abbot. After pleading nearly the entire two-day journey from Tantallon Castle, she’d convinced the guard to allow her a modicum of freedom—at least within the walls of Melrose Abbey.
Out of the corner of her eye, a bronze cross flickered. It sat atop an altar in a quiet aisle chapel. Meg tiptoed over. She’d have complete solitude there.
Kneeling, she folded her hands and gazed at the cross. She’d prayed endlessly for guidance, but presently her mind blanked. She closed her eyes. Ah, yes…
Firstly, thank you for our safe passage, and thank you for all my blessings…aside from my unruly red hair and my claw of a hand, but we’ve discussed that hundreds of times. I’m well aware Arthur will be unable to find me a suitable husband. I must take matters into my own hands…and give them over to you, God. That’s where I belong, serving you. Please help me gain an audience with his holiness, the abbot, that I may make my wishes clear and take up the veil…
Someone tapped her shoulder. She glanced up. A pair of white-robed monks stood behind her.
“Come,” one said.
Meg’s heart fluttered. Had her prayers been answered so quickly? “Are you taking me to the abbot?”
They exchanged glances. “Aye,” the tallest one clipped. A jagged scar etched the side of his cheek.
Meg eagerly stood and gestured for them to proceed. The corner of the shorter one’s mouth smirked. They were an odd pair, indeed.
Single file, she walked between the two men. The tallest led her straight to the rood screen concealing the choir. Abruptly she stopped and clapped her hand to her chest.
The shorter one waved her forward with a flick of his wrist.
“I cannot.” She kept her voice low. “I’ve not yet taken the veil.”
The taller monk frowned, stretching his scar downward. He clamped his fingers around Meg’s elbow, his grip a bit forceful for a holy man. “You must pass this way to meet the abbot,” he whispered so softly, Meg could hardly discern his words.
She drew her arm from his grasp and inclined her head toward the entry. If this was what God intended, then she’d proceed. Surely, she would commit no sin entering restricted holy ground for the purpose of declaring her wishes to become a novice.
Crossing through the ornately carved rood screen, Meg walked into the dim choir where only monks who had taken the vow of chastity, poverty and obedience were allowed to worship. The walls were lined with two tiers of choir stalls where each brother would pray from lauds to compline. Their footfalls loudly echoed up to the vaulted ceiling.
A poke in the back caught her attention. The leader had already moved through and held open a thick wooden door. Meg understood the impatient look on the man’s face. She’d seen the same expression from her brother a hundred times before. She hastened her pace. Why was there never enough time to stop and admire her surroundings?
Stepping outside into the frigid air, she used her hand to shield her eyes from the sun shining through the clouds. “I’m surprised the abbot is aware I’m here. I hadn’t yet made a request to meet with him.”
Neither man said a word. They’d just spoken to her, so they mustn’t have taken a vow of silence. Was this an area of the abbey where no one was allowed to speak? Were they near the sacred tomb where Robert the Bruce’s heart had been laid to rest—yet another thing to which Meg wanted to pay homage on this her first pilgrimage.
She quickly scanned the surrounding garden. There were no graves at all. The monks sped their pace yet again. Arriving at a doorway leading through the cloister wall, the shorter stepped beside Meg and grasped her arm. “We’ll be taking a detour, miss.” This was the first time the stout monk had spoken.
Miss? The daughter of a Scottish earl, Meg’s respectful courtesy was “my lady.”
Something was awry.
Meg’s mind clicked.
Her blood turned to ice. English. No mistaking it, this man had an English accent.
“Release me.” Meg dug in her heels and yanked her arm away. Her heart flying to her throat, she shuffled backward and raised her skirts with trembling hands.
Gasping in short bursts, Meg sprinted toward the abbey.
Footsteps slapped the mud behind her. “Bloody hell, Isaac…”
A hand clapped over her mouth and another around her waist. Meg struggled, kicked, scratched, anything to break free. In the blink of an eye, the stocky monk hauled her outside the abbey curtain walls. With not a soul in sight, three horses stood tethered at the tree-line edge.
Screaming through the brutal palm clamped over her lips, she kicked and thrashed her entire body until the imposter brutally slapped her across the face. Recoiling, Meg’s feet touched ground. She shrieked and tried to run. Fingers of iron held her in place. A gag filled her mouth while unforgiving hands bound her wrists.
Scarred Monk grabbed Meg by the waist and hefted her onto the horse’s back, belly first. Before she could right herself, the short one lashed another rope around her wrists and tied her hands to her legs under the horse’s barrel.
Margaret cried out through the coarse cloth biting into her mouth. She jerked her arms, only to pull her legs under the horse. Her body slid sideways. God in heaven, why are they doing this? Her gaze darted from side to side as she tried to scream louder, only to be muted by the foul-tasting gag.
The men mounted. One tugged her horse’s lead and raced away at a gallop. Meg clamped onto the horse’s short hair while her gut thumped into the unyielding gelding’s back. Her heart raced faster than the hoof beats. Her chin slammed into the steed’s barrel repeatedly—until stars crossed her vision.
Duncan Campbell followed the servant through the passageway of Tantallon Castle, his brother, John, at his elbow. The missive from Lord Arthur Douglas, the Earl of Angus had been vague to say the least, but on one thing he’d been clear…Arthur’s sister, Lady Meg Douglas, had been kidnapped by the English.
The servant held up his hand. “Please wait here and I’ll announce your arrival.” He opened the door and slipped inside a solar. “Sir Duncan Campbell and Sir John Campbell, m’lord.”
Duncan could picture the earl’s frowning face, and he stood a little straighter. He’d come in his father’s stead. Few men knew he’d taken up the Lord of Glenorchy’s mantle—yet.
“Well, don’t just stand there, show the Highlanders in,” the earl’s gruff voice filled the corridor, adding a depreciating inflection to “Highlanders” as if the Lowland earl believed himself superior.
The valet led them inside and made the requisite introductions. Sitting at a thick walnut table, the Earl of Angus appeared every bit as disagreeable as Duncan had envisioned. Arthur Douglas was only two years his senior. Duncan tipped up his chin. As heir to the Campbell Dynasty, they were peers. There was no cause to bow. John, however, bowed deeply. Blast him. Duncan swallowed his Highland pride and offered a courteous dip of his head. “We came as soon as we received word, m’lord.”
“I expected the Black Knight, not a pair of wet-eared lads who’ve recently attained their majority.”
“At three and twenty, my father had already returned from his first crusade.” Duncan rested his palm on the pommel of his sword. If only he could draw it and slice that smirk off the earl’s face. “I assure you, my men and I were trained under his critical eye. You’ll not find another team better.”
Licking his lips, the earl’s gaze drifted to Duncan’s hilt. “This matter is delicate. One wrong move and it could incite war between our borders and crush the truce the king has worked so hard to maintain.” The earl swiped fingers, bejeweled with rings, across his mouth. “God forbid a Douglas is blamed for that.”
“Your missive said your sister’s been abducted.” John said.
Duncan shot him a stern glare. They’d agreed he’d do the talking. He led his band of stealthy warriors, and Duncan would not have his authority undermined, not even by his younger brother and especially not in front of a peer—one in possession of a vast sum of coin at that.
The earl nodded and pulled a folded missive from beneath his surcoat. “Addressed to me, this was found at Melrose Abbey—in the pew where Lady Meg was praying. The bastards took her in broad daylight with no one the wiser. ’Tis almost as if she vanished.”
Duncan grasped the note and read. “What rift have you with the Earl of Northumberland?”
Arthur spread his palms. “Me? None, but my father sacked Alnwick Castle in ’62. Da’s the reason the Percy’s lost the Northumberland earldom.”
Duncan knit his brows. “But Lord Percy claimed it back.”
“Aye.” Arthur pointed at the vellum. “Now he’s set his house to rights, it appears he’s out for vengeance.”
Duncan placed the missive on the table. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together. “And if you march an army across the border, you’ll risk destroying the truce between England and Scotland.”
“Exactly. Can you ferret her out quietly?”
“If anyone can, ’tis me brother,” John said.
Duncan again glared at his younger sibling. “Sounds easy enough—spirit inside under disguise, find a weakness and slip her out.”
“Do not underestimate Lord Percy. He’s a slithering snake, that one—nothing about this mission is easy, else I’d have done it myself.” Arthur leaned forward. “You’ve been to England?”
“Aye, let’s say I’ve had my dealings with Queen Margaret and the Lancasters. I was there long enough to develop a foul taste for the Yorkists as well.”
Arthur leaned back and drummed his fingers on his armrests, as if he were considering his options. “You’re awfully confident, but then I’d expect that from a Campbell.”
Duncan had no time for a pompous Lowlander or any slights against his kin. He crossed his arms. “Do you want your sister returned to Tantallon or nay?”
Arthur stood and moved to the sideboard. “She’s a feisty one, Meg.” He poured three tots of whisky. “She thinks she wants to take up the veil, but I’ve an alliance to make with her hand.”
Duncan’s gut twisted. “Do you believe Lord Percy would ruin her?” He could not abide any man who defiled a woman. The thought of it made the blood run hot beneath his skin.
Arthur paled. “If the bastard does, he’ll break the truce for certain.”
Duncan accepted the cup and sipped, savoring the oaken flavor. I must spirit Lady Meg away quickly, lest she be ruined. Boar’s ballocks, the entire country could go to war because of an earl’s sister.
The Earl tossed his whisky back and cleared his throat. “Bring her home and I’ll see you’re rewarded for your trouble.”
Duncan set his cup on the table and fingered it. Then he looked directly into the earl’s eyes. “I’ll need a quarter now.”
Arthur gaped. “A quarter to an unproven pup?”
Duncan stepped close enough so the Earl of Angus was forced to crane his neck. “If it is credentials you’re seeking, I’d be happy to give you a demonstration in the courtyard forthwith—else I’ll be taking the quarter to cover my men’s expenses and be on my way.”
For a moment, Duncan thought Arthur might lead him outside, which he’d welcome. It never hurt to demonstrate one’s abilities to a paying customer.
But the earl ran his finger around the inside of his cup and licked it. “Agreed.”
Duncan let out a slow breath. Perhaps he should have negotiated for half.
Meg paced across the wooden floor, her arms tightly hugged against her ribs to stave off the cold. Her misty breath billowed with every exhale. They’d locked her in a tower someplace in godforsaken England. Her tiny chamber had one arrow-slit, from which she could see little. At least she’d discerned the room was higher than the battlements. Occasionally, a sentry passed on the wall-walk below. Opposite the courtyard sat a chapel with a cross atop a steeple, and that was all she could see.
Before she’d arrived, her captors had ridden for two long days. Fortunately, about three miles outside Melrose, they’d stopped and allowed her to sit astride the horse, though they’d kept her hands bound. She’d asked countless questions, until they gagged her again.
One day those two brutes would see justice, and so would anyone else a party to her kidnapping.
They’d approached this castle in the dark of night. Its enormous outline loomed in the moonlit sky. The fortress of the devil. The heavy black doors of the barbican opened for her like a mouth of a sea monster swallowing its quarry.
Pulled from her horse, there was no time to find her bearings while they’d bustled her up countless tower steps and thrust her inside this miserable chamber. Meg squeezed her arms tighter. The guard who brought her meals spoke in monosyllables. Sooner or later someone must come and explain why she’d been kidnapped from a place of sanctuary. She was the daughter of an earl. That also had to account for something.
The sound of iron keys clanked and scraped in the lock. Meg stood straight and faced the door. By all the saints, she would never allow a one of her captors to think her a coward. A tall and lanky man stepped inside with an appraising smirk. Well dressed in maroon velvet, he could have passed for a king, right up to his richly ornamented doublet and feathered cap.
Keeping her arms crossed, Meg balled her crippled hand into a fist and tucked it beneath her armpit.
He sauntered into the chamber. “Margaret Douglas.”
“Lady Meg,” she corrected. No one ever called her Margaret—that had been her grandmother’s name.
He scoffed, his eyes trailing down her body like he hadn’t eaten in a week. “I’m shocked to see a repugnant chap like the Fourth Earl of Angus could produce from his loins a creature so comely.” He stepped closer.
“I demand some answers.” Margaret scooted backward. “Where am I and why was I stolen from the sanctity of holy ground, aside from being gagged, bound and wrestled into this abominable tower?” She tried to keep her voice from quavering but the sneer stretching his lips unnerved her.
He took another step.
Margaret’s shoulder blades hit stone. Her heart hammered so forcefully, she feared it might thump out of her chest. She straightened her spine against the wall. “And you, sir, are shameful coming in here, eyeing me like roast mutton without so much as an introduction.” She pursed her lips and tried to swallow. Her gaze darted to the door. He’d left it open, but a gauntleted hand grasped a poleaxe just beyond. No chance to flee—yet.
He stopped inches away. “I am Lord Percy, the Earl of Northumberland,” he said with an air of arrogance. “And you are my prisoner.”
She would not allow his English title to impress her. She’d lived in the castle of an earl her entire life. Meg willed herself to steel her nerves. “Why?”
“Let us just say your father had something to do with your unfortunate state of affairs.”
That is madness. “My father has been deceased for fifteen years.”
“Mercifully, he has.”
How dare he be disrespectful? “You are a barbarian speaking of the dead with such disdain.” She tried to slip aside, but his arms shot out and pinned her where she stood. “Where am I?” she demanded, staring at a ruby in the center of his medallion suspended from a heavy chain.
He pinched her chin and forced her to look up to his cold steel-blue eyes. His smug sneer made Meg shiver. She took an instant dislike to his gaunt face, made longer by a twisted English nose. “I beg to differ, my sweet. Scottish swine are not fit to dine at English tables.”
She jerked her chin from his grasp and her head hit stone. Meg ignored the pain jarring her skull. Lord Percy hadn’t answered a one of her questions. “Please.” Perhaps being polite would gain her more information. “Will you at least tell me where we are?”
She gasped. She’d heard the stories. Her father sacked this castle in 1462. “Whatever it is you want, my brother can pay handsomely.”
Lord Percy dropped his arms and laughed, not a warm laugh you might hear at a Yule feast, but a grating cackle, filled with scorn. “Do you think I’m seeking financial gain?”
Margaret took advantage of the gap he’d opened and scuttled toward the empty hearth. Dare she ask? “Then what is it you seek to gain by kidnapping a woman?”
He ambled toward her. “Ruination.”
God, no. Ruined, she’d never be accepted as a novice. She’d be a burden to her brother for the rest of her days. Then the deadly glint in Lord Percy’s eyes brought on another chill. “Do you aim to kill me?”
“Not yet. I’ll use you first. ’Tis not your ruination I’m seeking—I want complete destruction of the Earl of Angus and George Douglas’s spawn. I want to meet all of Scotland on the battlefield and watch them bleed. When your brother marches an army across the border, he’ll break the truce and pull our nations into war.” He spread his arms wide with a sickly sneer. “And it will all be blamed on him. The fool-born Earl of Angus will then know what it feels like to lose lands and title and have his name soiled throughout the kingdom.”
She’d be the cause of a war? Her family’s ruination? Meg’s gut heaved. Glancing down, her hand clamped over her mouth to keep from vomiting all over his long, pointed leather shoes. “You’re mad.”
“I’ll have my revenge. My title was stripped because of your father. Do you have any idea what it cost me to have it reinstated?”
Meg could only imagine the cost, but groveling to his peers would have been involved. Humiliated men would stop at nothing for vengeance. What if Arthur did lead an army across the border? He won’t. Her brother was as shrewd as he was the Earl of Angus. Besides, she could not be the cause of war.
Death would be preferable than the senseless slaughter of Scotland’s fighting men. If she could convince Lord Percy his tactics were in vain, he might just kill her now and be done with it.
Boldly, she held out her left hand—the claw—a cleft consisting of a healthy thumb and a pointer finger fused to a stumpy nub that looked malformed. “Do you honestly believe my brother would risk leading an army against England merely to rescue a deformed sister?”
She didn’t miss the flash of doubt in his eyes, quickly covered by a frown. “He’ll come.”
She squared her shoulders and stepped into him, an aggressive move. “What makes you so certain?”
Lord Percy crossed his arms. “I left my calling card. No hot-blooded Scot can resist a challenge, especially a Douglas.”
Meg whipped around and faced the empty hearth. The earl did know her family well. For centuries, all factions of the Douglas Clan had earned their reputation for hot temper and hot blood. Though she fought to control it, she too was woven from the same cloth—but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing it now.
Who knew how long she’d suffer the hospitality in Northumberland’s dank tower? “I may be your prisoner, but I’m no criminal.” She pointed at the hearth and faced him. “I need wood for the fire to take the edge off the cold, and I insist upon being granted leave to visit the chapel.”
He stepped into her, his hot breath on her neck. “How is it you see fit to make demands when I hold your life in my grasp?”
“You said you need me alive.” She narrowed her eyes in challenge. He’d said he would use her for leverage—that gave her some room to make a few small requests. “What good would I be if I succumbed to the cold—froze in the night? Must I remind you ’tis the dead of winter?”
His gaze dipped to her breasts. “I’ll allow a fire, but you can pray on your knees in this very room.”
Meg crossed her arms and opened her mouth for a rebuttal, but Lord Percy spun on his heel and marched out the door. Before she could dash across the floor, the hinges creaked and it slammed with a boom that shook the chamber. She pounded her fist on the hard wood. “Are you afraid to keep me, a mere woman from Sunday mass—from compline, from vespers? Have you no decency? Are you to be damned to the fires of hell?” With every word her voice rose and echoed through the tower. “I thought the English prided themselves on their manners, my lord.”
She took a deep breath and leaned against the door. With any luck, her shouts were loud enough to be heard all the way down the tower stairs. Heaven help her, he’d disgustingly stared at her breasts. She shuddered down to her toes. If he tried to take her virtue, Arthur would seek vengeance for certain. She could never allow that to happen.
What chance of escape would there be? If she could convince Lord Percy to allow her to the chapel and perhaps a turn on the wall-walk, she’d devise her escape. Could she take a guard into her confidence? Meg paced. There had to be a way out. She must keep her wits and think.
Listening to the woman’s tirade, Henry Percy’s neck prickled. He’d nearly drawn his dagger and slit the vixen’s throat when she showed him her hand. In no way had he expected a cripple. Was she a witch? She certainly spoke bile. Did the Earl of Angus want to be rid of her? No. All Douglas spawn had a sharp tongue. Obviously, Lady Meg was no different. He would not allow doubt to sicken his mind. His plan was sound. Meg’s beauty far outshone her deformity.
Henry trusted his spies. He’d spent months waiting for his chance to steal the Earl of Angus’s youngest and according to his informant, most beloved sister. Henry’s trusted men had followed discreetly while she made her pilgrimage to Melrose. Half the distance to Alnwick, the opportunity was too fortuitous to let pass.
Isaac, his scar-faced sergeant-at-arms, followed Henry down the winding tower stairs.
“See to it she has wood for her fire. If she dies and word gets out, our cause will be lost.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Escort her to the chapel each night after compline. I’ll not be judged by God because I refused to allow the wench to pray.”
“As you wish.”
Henry stopped and shook his finger under the guard’s nose. “Do not allow her out of your sight.”
Isaac chuckled, stretching the jagged scar on his right cheek. “My men will guard the slip of a girl with weapons drawn.”
The earl held up his fist. “Do not mock me.”
“Never, my lord.” Isaac held up his palms. “Where would she hide within these walls? There’s no escape.”
“Women are conniving enigmas. One never knows what they’re little minds are scheming. I bid you keep a tight rein on her, and never allow Lady Maud to see her. The last thing I need is for my wife to become involved. She might sympathize with the guttersnipe.”
Again Isaac chuckled.
Henry slid his hand over the pommel of his sword. Isaac’s grey eyes always made him uneasy. “You find me amusing?”
“Pardon, my lord, but guttersnipe is the last word I’d use to describe Lady Meg. She’s anything but a wastrel.”
A ping of desire shot through the tip of Henry’s cock, followed by a flame of hatred blasting in his chest. “Keep your mind out of your braies. If anyone lays a hand on the woman, it will be me. I’ll tug up her skirts, bend her over and defile her in front of Angus—and not before. I want her brother to hear the virgin scream when I tear through her maidenhead whilst he watches.”
Isaac’s jaw twitched.
“Not to worry. You’ll see it all, standing beside me while you hold a dagger to the bastard’s neck.”
Along their journey south, Duncan had two days to think about how they’d slip inside Alnwick castle. They stopped on the bank of the River Aln, about a mile west of the village. He eyed his men, the best fighting warriors in the Highlands—in all of Scotland truth be told. Each man had been hand-picked by his father and trained since the age of four and ten.
His brother, John, had the sharpest mind but abhorred fighting. He had a daft dream to enter the priesthood. Damned waste of a stealth warrior.
Robert and James Robinson were cousins on his mother’s side, allied with the Struan dynasty. Archibald Campbell, a cousin, heir to the Earl of Argyll. Sean MacDougall and Eoin MacGregor were both heirs to neighboring lairdships.
Together, this band of six noble knights made up the renowned Highland Enforcers, continuing the legacy of Black Colin, Lord of Glenorchy, Duncan’s legendary father.
Robert trotted his horse toward them, returning from surveillance in the village, a frown turned down the knight’s mouth. “It isn’t going to be easy to enter. The castle gates are kept closed all hours. Word is the earl has refused to hear supplications.”
Duncan glanced at his brother. “Looks like we’ll need to pay Alnwick Abbey a visit.”
John arched a brow. “Oh? That’s not like you. Planning to pray our way through the curtain walls?”
Duncan never prayed his way through anything. “We’ll borrow some vestments.”
John ran his fingers down his brown beard. “I didn’t think there was any hope for your soul.”
“There’ll be time enough to pray for me after you take up the cowl.”
“Aye. If I should live so long.”
“You’ve nothing to worry about—especially if we can discover the name of the castle’s priest.” Duncan drew his dirk and dropped to one knee, the others following suit. “John and I will walk in through the front gate—tell the guard we’ve business with the priest.” He drew a circle in the dirt. “In the town square stands the Alnwick Market Cross. There’s enough trade going on there, you lot can blend in without causing suspicion.”
“Four knights won’t create a stir?” Archie asked.
Duncan shook his dirk at him. “You’ll hide our armor first. Then I want you mulling about, learning all you can about Lord Percy without making yourselves suspicious.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” For an intelligent man, Archie asked too many questions.
Duncan flicked the tip of his dirk into the dirt. “Stay sober at the alehouse. Listen. Guaranteed, Percy’s men will be on our trail before we make it to the town’s border.” Duncan skimmed his hand through the air. “Who is Percy’s man-at-arms? How powerful is his army? Will they follow us into Scotland—or will Percy send a mob of heathens like us to sniff out our trail?”
“How do you plan to take Lady Meg out?” Sean asked.
“I’ll figure a way.” Duncan pointed to the MacDougall heir. “Purchase another mount for her.”
The big man spread his palms. “With what?”
Duncan flipped him a gold sovereign. “This should more than take care of it.” He then turned to Eoin. “Watch the castle gate. Keep the horses nearby, but out of sight.”
“Aye? Ye aiming to take a Sunday stroll out the barbican with Lady Meg on your arm?” Archie asked.
“Something like that. Have the horses waiting when we need them.”
Eoin smirked. “I’ll summon a bolt of lightning to strike down the bastards on your tail.”
Duncan had more faith in Eoin’s intuition than the MacGregor heir did himself. “Just have them saddled and ready to ride.” He eyed them all. “The rest of you, too. Gather what information you can and be at the tree-line edge by dark.”
Dressed in a brown monk’s habit, cinched around his waist with a rope, John grumbled. “You should have let me wear the priest’s vestments. Did you ever even read your Bible passages?”
Duncan smoothed his hands over his black priest’s robes—hardly more lavish than John’s. “You know I did. Besides, I’m leading this charade. Put up your hood.” He walked with his brother through the wooded path linking the abbey to Alnwick Castle.
“I’ll be glad when we finish with this task.” John ran his fingers along the inside of his collar and stretched his neck. “England doesn’t agree with me.”
A tic twitched above Duncan’s eye as it always did before he stepped into peril. “Nor me.”
It was dusk after they passed through the barbican and neared the gateway of the castle. With two octagonal towers either side, Duncan studied the fortifications. Four guards stood at the top of the towers, armed with arrows and pikes. The curtain itself was immense. Twice the size of Kilchurn castle, the fortress sprawled in every direction like a mountain range. Cannons lined the curtain walls—must have cost the earl a year’s worth of income. Three arrow slits loomed as dark caverns on each side of the gatehouse.