Krayne Johnstone set one foot inside the vaulted hall of Stirling Castle and came to an abrupt halt. “The air reeks foul in this place.”
“’Tis no wonder, with all the maggot-infested rats swarming aboot,” retorted his cousin Adam, referring to the Littils, Armstrongs and Maxwells amongst the barons summoned to Stirling.
“I’d sooner skewer the lot than share a pot of ale.” Krayne knew he was not alone in sentiment. All clans present were tried and sworn enemies.
Adam shoved an elbow in his side. “Keep yerself ta me and shut off that hot temper. I dinna like this anymore than ye, but I’ll nae ignore our King Jamie and have his wrath scatter the Johnstones ta the wind with nae name nor land nor goods ta call their own.”
Jamie’s fancy tables and polished silver flagons were more likely to be scattered, thought Krayne as a ruckus broke out between Johnnie Armstrong of Kilnockie and Sir Alexander Irvine.
Fists came out and clans bounded together. No one dared to draw their sword. Pristine stewards drew up tight against the wall, clutching ledger books to their chests and gaping in horror. Jamie’s court was overrun with English, relics from his days in captivity and tagalongs that had followed his queen, Joan of Beaumont. They were a dour lot and unappreciative of the jolly Scottish ways.
Krayne folded his arms and put his back to the wall, settling in to watch the brawl.
King James I chose that moment to grace them with his presence. His flowing robes of crimson and ermine put shame to the travel-worn plaids of his hastily summoned barons. Tawny eyes, glowing a tiger’s fierce gold, appraised the scene and came to rest on the blood trickling from the Littil chief’s mouth. The fighting men froze midaction.
“Go clean yourself, man,” he ordered, “afore I lose all patience.”
Stewards scuttled from their corners, bodies untangled, and heads bowed down in shame.
Jamie’s look scorched one baron to the next.
“Right now he’s wishing he were back in England,” said Krayne in a low undertone.
“Jamie might hanker aft the well-ordered court of King Henry,” muttered Adam from barely moving lips, “but ne’er forget he was a prisoner, a king denied his country.”
“Well, he’s made up fer eighteen lost years of royal arrogance in the few months he’s been back.”
The young king swept his gaze from one end of the receiving hall to the other, and then came to a rest on Adam Johnstone, chief of the Annandale Johnstones and his appointed warden of the West Marches.
Jamie was not surprised to find the level-headed baron standing apart from the chaos. He nodded his gratification, then moved on to Krayne, Adam’s cousin and chosen heir to the chieftainship. Krayne was a laird in his own right, and stared him right back in the eye. Jamie couldn’t pull back from that penetrating gaze, feeling magnetised and trapped like a puny hare in the fierce show of loyalty and ancient-bred honour that radiated from the silvery grey stare of Wamphray’s laird.
By St Andrew’s Holy Rood, now…now when I am the prey, I understand why they call him the Grey Wolf.
Would that I, he sorely thought, command the honour of such a man.
Knowing he could scarce claim one baron in his entire kingdom who would not openly plot and defy him, the king waved one arm across the room and recited his new parliamentary laws in a booming voice that echoed within the stone walls.
“…that firm and sure peace… if any man presume to make war against another, he shall suffer the full penalties of the law… if any man presume to rebel against the king, he shall suffer pain of forfeiture of life, lands and goods… I will make the key keep the castle and the bracken bush keep the cow through all of Scotland…”
“Christ’s truth,” muttered Krayne beneath his breath. “I’ve Johnstone ships full of wool decorating the Solway while Jamie herds us here for naught but another lecture.”
Adam shut him up with a kick to the shin.
“Throughout Scotland, from the highest crag to the lowest glen, from the Cheviot Hills to the MacDonald’s islands, my word will rule,” finished the king. “I will reward obedience and eradicate those who ignore my laws.”
“Jamie is nae all bad,” Adam said much later as they trotted through the town of Stirling to join the ancient Roman Road.
“Tell that ta Murdoch and Lennox.” Krayne spurred his horse faster as they left the cobbled streets behind.
“Treason flows through their veins instead of blood. Jamie’s dungeon be exactly what the pair of them deserve.”
“They’re still kin to the king,” noted Krayne dryly.
Adam gave him a searching look. “’Twill serve a sharp reminder ta the rest of us.”
“Ye have my word,” Krayne reassured his cousin. “I gave the order before I left Wamphray. No more moonlight riding fer my lads.”
They rode hard for Annandale with their dozen moss-troopers at their back, stopping only once to rest the horses and then again at Moffat just as dawn was breaking. The parish of Johnstone bordered Wamphray, and the riders stayed together until the juncture of Wamphray Water with the Annan, where Adam rode west for Lochwood Tower and Krayne followed Wamphray Water home.
On his approach, Old Giles raised the portcullis with a wary wave and Krayne galloped straight into the bailey…to find that all hell had broken loose.
Amber fought against consciousness. She didn't want to be pulled from the sweet lull of darkness. Here, she didn’t have to struggle against walls crushing her lungs, horrid little monsters nibbling her flesh, nightmare visions of Stivin begging for help while she looked on helplessly.
But she couldn’t stay. She was being dragged to the surface. Her lids opened sluggishly, then rounded wide and alert at the black-haired beast looming over her. Firelight glinted off steel and she would have screamed, but it felt as if her heart had jumped into her throat.
“Dinna fear.” The oak-smoked burr eased the pitch of terror, enough so for her to recognise the beast as Krayne. He sheathed the blade and showed her the raven curl he’d hacked off. “I need this fer yer uncle.”
Amber nodded, heart still throbbing against her ribcage, vaguely wondering if it was worth her time and effort to protest the futility of his actions once more. Then she became aware of her surroundings. “The pit… Where am I?”
A ghost of a smile touched his lips. “I thought ye might be more comfortable here.”
Relief bought him a return smile, but it didn’t last. Although the shock was gradually ebbing, the piercing silver of his eyes kept her blood high. She pressed a hand to her chest in a protective gesture, and gasped. Her eyes dipped, then shot straight up to his and froze.
Where was her gown?
What had he done?
“Nothing yet.” Krayne answered the accusation in her eyes with a gravel-hard voice, then promptly spun about and strode away.
Nothing yet. A shadow crossed her heart and chilled her blood. He will be back, and he won’t find me lying half-naked in bed.
Krayne Johnstone might have saved her from the hell pit, but she wasn’t that grateful.
He stopped and turned beneath the open archway that led into the adjoining chamber.
He was just standing there, looking at her. His jaw was so tightly clenched, she imagined she could hear his teeth crunch. The wolf looked ready to pounce.
Wiping a hand across her forehead, Amber made a brave show of crumpling before his eyes, managing to pull the fur over her as she slumped down on the bed.
“Christ.” He hurried back.
“I’m fine,” she whispered, rolling her head away so she didn’t have to meet his eyes. “Please leave me. I fear that black pit has sapped my strength.” She turned a little to peer at him from beneath half-lidded eyes.
“Rest.” The word rumbled warmly with concern.
She closed her eyes and concentrated to slow her breathing. Finally she heard him move, the padded footfalls of his leather soles fading to silence, then a squeak as a door opened. Amber gave it a few more moments, then rolled onto her front and up on her elbows, glancing this way and that, but ready to drop into feigned slumber at the slightest sound.
The bold stamp on the room and superb, if sparse, furnishings told her she was in the laird’s bed. The thick pelt of an exotic brown bear covered the window. Various forest creatures had given their fur to warm the stone floor. The bed was made from birch rather than pine, stained a rich brown and stood high off the ground. A sturdy chair and writing table of the same stained birch completed the decor.
She lifted herself onto her knees, assured that it was now safe. This was her chance to escape to Spedlin and rescue Stivin, because a lock of her hair wasn’t going to do the job. If the Johnstone brothers would just refrain from tossing her over their shoulders and into pits long enough to actually hear—
“The laird said ta help wi’ yer bath.” A sullen voice broke into her thoughts.
Amber started, her gaze flicking to the arched doorway to see a robust woman of about two score years standing there. A halo of red-orange frizz escaped the braid draped across her shoulder to frame a rounded, ruddy face. Too late, Amber realised that she’d never heard the outer door squeak closed.
The idea of bathing was fairy dust to her weary body and battered spirit, and almost worth postponing her escape for, but Amber wasn’t smiling yet. At Spedlin, a bath was a wooden barrel sectioned off by a thin sheet strung across a kitchen corner. She’d tried it once, and that was once too many. The only baths she’d since enjoyed were courtesy of the frigid stream or a quick rub down in her chamber.
Muttering, “I’ve nae the time ta sit abou’ repeatin’ myself aw day,” the woman shook her head and disappeared from sight.
Amber threw off the covers and slid from the bed. She peeked behind the bear fur, but found only a series of arrow slits in the stone wall that were too narrow to squeeze through. The bed itself was pushed up against an oak door and, though she held little hope, Amber tested the knob. It turned, but the door was either locked or jammed. The only way out, it seemed, was through the archway.
The adjacent chamber was a living area. Two padded stools were arranged around a chess table. A set of chairs with wide seats, carved backs and sturdy arms graced the hearth. There was another table for more general use, tapestries on the walls and woven rugs to walk upon.
When Amber’s gaze reached the far wall, she found what she was looking for. An opening as large as a door led to a stone rampart that could only be part of the battlement wall. The large tapestry usually covering it had been looped up by two hooks on either side, allowing the dwindling daylight in.
The round-faced serving woman was on her knees with her back to the room, sorting through items on a low shelf. Amber would have to wait, and was more than happy to take that bath while doing so.
She walked deeper into the room, saw a large chest against one wall and a good-sized metal tub tucked away in an alcove. The air above the tub shimmered from the rising heat. A lightness stole over her mood at the prospect of a decent hot bath and imminent freedom.
The woman came back with a length of Johnstone plaid and a small vial that released the aroma of sun-kissed roses when a few drops were added to the bath water.
Amber smiled with delight, and the woman’s scowl deepened. Shrugging a shoulder, Amber removed her shift and stepped into the tub. Pleasure cascaded over her skin as she slipped low into the warm, fragrant water.
Turning a friendly grin to where the woman stood with crossed arms, Amber asked, “What is your name?”
Muddy brown eyes gave her a long, sour look. “Isla.”
“Do I know you?” Amber said, wondering what she’d done to earn the obvious disfavour. “Do you know me?”
“I ken ye fer a Jardin.”
Amber raised an eyebrow, waiting for more, but apparently the explanation was complete. She’d assumed the feuds and hate to be a singularly male pastime, as was the case in Cornwall, where women were insulated from the realities of war and seldom, if ever, came face to face with the enemy. A silly assumption, she acknowledged, considering her current hostage status.
Her fingers trailed drops of water over her thighs and abdomen as she mused on the ridiculous notion of an English lady being held captive by a close neighbour. But then again, neither could she entertain the picture of any gentleman she’d grown up with executing a raid—on the lord next door, no less. It wasn’t just uncivilised, it was…words failed her and the small smile of amusement vanished.
She looked inward, and it became personal.
For the first time, Amber saw her capture as more than a huge obstacle preventing her from saving Stivin. There was the pit, then the glint of steel so close to her throat. She’d assumed that no one had any reason to actually kill her…
A frown worked her brow and she nibbled her lower lip. She was a pawn, dragged from her home to be disposed of as the Johnstones saw fit. It mattered not if she were innocent or guilty of the great betrayal. No one was listening, no one cared. She was a possession, valuable enough to protect—for now. These were Stivin’s kin, but they’d been Jardin enemies for a half-score years or more. What would happen once they realised she was worth less than a crippled horse? What would they do when William Jardin rejected their terms of exchange?
“Leave me,” Amber ordered.
“I have nae wish ta be here, but the laird—”
“Asked you to help me,” she finished. Amber sat up straight and met the brown glare defiantly, wondering if the dour Isla honestly thought she wanted to be here. “Then help me to bathe in private.”
Isla didn’t need telling twice. She made a show of huffing and grumbling beneath her breath on the way out.
Amber hurriedly dried off and tugged her shift over her head. It had been sheer folly on her part to insist over and over again how worthless she was.
What was I thinking?
That they’d apologise for the inconvenience and send me back to Spedlin with a farewell pat on the shoulder?
She found her gown crumpled on the floor beside the bed. The rip all the way down the front was a reminder of Johnstone hospitality and how little her honour and dignity meant to these people. She dressed as best she could, pinching the bodice over her breasts with trembling fingers while she guided her feet into scuffed slippers.
The wind whipped the open flaps of her gown about as she stepped onto the rampart, the chill evening air cutting ruthlessly through her shift. Crouching low and close to the battlement wall, she ran, keeping a keen ear on the occasional shout and sound below lest it escalate to a raised alarm. The broody sky abetted the waning daylight and she was thankful for the cover.
Soon the walk broke away from the tower house and she was in the narrow passage dug along the top of the crenulated wall that enclosed the bailey. Approximately midway along the length of the bailey, Amber stopped and leant far over the side of the wall. The curtain wall had to be at least five or six men tall. Beyond that, the thickly wooded bog looked sinister with long shadows and the spongy ground of sphagnum mosses.
Amber experienced a moment of doubt about getting across the morass. Not that it mattered, she thought irritably, for in order to do that, she first needed to find a way down from this impossible height.
As soon as she pulled back from the edge, a blur of raised voices carried on the breeze. She couldn’t make out what was being said, but the direction it came from and the loud confusion set her heart racing.
She couldn’t go down and she wasn’t going back.
Her knees went hollow, cramped from excess energy at the thought of just standing where she was, a hare already snared and awaiting a predetermined fate.
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