“Come to gloat, have ye?”
“I beg your pardon?” Tess asked, surprised. It took a moment for her to still the alarmed beating of her heart. The man’s deep rich voice had scared her half to death. She had passed through her uncle’s dungeons earlier and it had been empty. Cautiously, she edged closer to the cell, thrusting her candle forward to shed some light into the shadowy recesses of the prison.
She gasped. Chained spread-eagle to the wall was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Even his bruises, blood, and dirt did not dim his handsomeness. Then she frowned. There was something familiar about the blond giant there, glaring back at her.
“When did you get here?” she asked.
Revan frowned. The piquant little face pressed to the bars was not the face he had expected to see. Neither were the big dark eyes, wide with surprise. He wondered if Fergus Thurkettle was playing some kind of game. For the moment he would play along. “Oh, I just strolled by near to two hours ago.”
“And decided to nap amongst the iron chains, hmmm?”
“ ’Tis cleaner than that bed o’er there.”
Glancing at the rat-gnawed cot in the corner, she silently agreed. What was her uncle up to now? Uncle Fergus, she mused, carried his pretensions to being lord and master of all he surveyed a little too far. It was no longer just a slight eccentricity; it had become an obsession and it was chilling.
“Ye would not say so if ye kenned what was hanging there just last week,” she said lightly.
“Aye? Who was it?”
“Oh, some skinny man who hadna discovered the benefit of a wee bit of soap and water.”
“What happened to him?”
“There is a funny thing. I dinna ken.” She had some dark theories but decided to keep them to herself. “I saw him here, weeping like a bairn. From what little I could learn he hadna committed a crime. I decided I would let him out, but I had to get the keys. By the time I got back—he was gone.”
“W-well, it wasna quite so swiftly. It took two days. I couldna just take the keys, for that would be noticed. So I talked to Iain, the blacksmith. He wasna easy to persuade, but I finally got him to make me a set. By the time I got the keys, the wee man was gone.”
“Where do ye think he went?”
“I dinna ken. Dinna ken why he was here or why he suddenly wasna here. And, now, just why are
“Ah, it seems I tried to reach beyond my station.”
She noticed the bitterness tainting his fine voice, but she did not really understand what he was referring to. Her uncle, while an unreasonable man, had never locked someone up for that before. Then Tess slowly grasped the thread of an idea, one she did not like much at all.
“Oh, were ye sniffing round Brenda, then?”
“Sniffing round? I was courting her.” More or less, he mused but was not about to confess to this chit. Hand in hand with cuddling up to the voluptuous Brenda Thurkettle had been his spying.
“And that is why ye are hanging up in there?” There were a few times when she had contemplated similar punishments for the men who had courted Brenda.
“Aye.” He felt only a small twinge of guilt over that half-truth, then wondered why he even felt that. Some madman had chained him to a wall, and now some curious girl was watching him. There was little doubt in his mind that Thurkettle meant to murder him. He should feel no guilt at all over lying through his teeth if it got him out of this mess. Yet, something about those huge dark eyes made him feel guilty. He told himself not to be such a fool.
“Well, that is a sad and foolish reason to hang a man up like a gutted deer,” Tess said, deciding her uncle had finally lost what tenuous grip he might have had on sanity. “He shouldna shackle a man for having the poor taste and judgment to pursue a woman like Brenda,” she murmured, reaching into a pocket in her doublet to fiddle with her keys.
Revan almost laughed. Brenda Thurkettle was blue-eyed, auburn haired, and had a form to make any man alive ache with lust. No one would accuse a man of poor taste for pursuing a woman like that. Except, he mused with an inner chuckle, another woman. Or, he thought an instant later, someone who knew the person beneath the beauty. Revan began to wonder about the woman he was talking to.
“Are ye meaning to free me?”
“Well . . . are ye sure ’tis
ye did? Court the regal Brenda?”
“ ’Tis all and naught more. Did ye expect some heinous crime like robbery or murder or something?”
She shrugged, slowly tugging her keys out of her pocket. “It can grow rather tedious hereabouts.”
His gaze fixed upon the keys. “Ye live here?”
It did not really surprise her that he did not know her, but she was growing weary of being consistently unnoticed. “Aye, I am Tess, the niece. I have lived here nearly five years.” She stared at him, contemplating. “I remember you now. I saw ye strolling about with our Mistress Brenda, taking her for a wee ride upon those matched horses. Verra nice. Was that a new doublet?”
“Aye, it was. Well?” He gently shook the chains attached to his wrists and ankles.
“Dinna rush me, I am thinking.” She rubbed her chin with one hand. “Ye are the manservant to that fat laird, Angus MacLairn. Aye, that wouldna please Uncle. Howbeit, if ye
“Are ye intending to let me out of here or not?”
“Oh, dinna fash yourself.” She set her candle down and unlocked the cell door. “Here now.” She brought her candle into the cell and set it down on a small wobbly table by the cot. “Ye werena caught
in flagrante delicto
with Her Highness Brenda or the like, were ye?” She was not sure she ought to free a man awaiting a forced wedding even if Brenda cast her favors to nearly every man for miles about.
“Ye ken what I mean—mucking about, tussling, rolling in the heather. I dinna care to set myself into the midst of that sort of trouble.”
“ ’Tis nothing like that, I swear it. Why would ye even think that?” He had the sinking feeling he had been thoroughly fooled by Brenda, had missed a perfect opportunity.
“Well, the thrice-cursed fool is certain to be caught soon. Ye canna do something as often as she does that and not get caught. Do ye want your legs freed first or your arms?”
“My legs,” he grumbled, then scowled as she knelt by his feet to unlock the shackles. “Ye are dressed like a lad.”
“My, ye do have a keen eye, Sir Halyard,” she murmured as she freed his legs, then stood up to unlock the shackles at his wrists. “Hell’s fire, wrong key.” She moved back to the light to clearly study them.
“Here, hold but a moment. How the devil did ye get in here? I just realized I didna hear ye come down the stairs. Ye were just there.”
“Well, there is a secret way out. Uncle had it made to allow the family to slip away if the need arose. Aha! Here is the key.” She returned to unlock the manacles at his wrists.
Once free, Revan slowly sat down, rubbing his wrists to start the blood flowing again. As he did he covertly studied his rescuer. She was a tiny little thing, and the somewhat ill-fitted doublet and hose accentuated her slenderness. At a glance he would guess her to be very young, but something about her husky voice told him that guess would be wrong.
“They hung my sword, hat, and cape over there upon the wall.”
Even as Tess went to fetch his things, she asked, “Ye always wear your sword when ye go courting?”
“I was planning to take Brenda riding. I thought I might need it.” He grabbed his boots from where they had been set by the damp stone wall and yanked them on.
She held his things out to him, watching as he slowly stood up. He was big: tall, broad-shouldered, and lean. The perfect male. Inwardly she sighed. He was every lass’s ideal lover but definitely a man only the Brendas of the world could hope to win. As she watched him buckle on his sword, fixing the leather belt around his slim hips, she wondered why Brenda had not defended him to her father. This one had to be the best of her crowd of admirers. By far.
She considered asking what he had done to get on the wrong side of her uncle, then she stopped in horror. Someone was coming. She heard a door creak open and saw a glowing light on the stairs that led to the dungeon. Someone was coming to see the prisoner she had just released. She turned to warn Revan only to be grabbed by him, his sinewy arm wrapped around her upper body. Since the cold steel of his dirk was pressed against her throat, she made no attempt to fight as he dragged her out of the cell.
“Where is the way out?” he hissed in her ear as they edged away from the approaching men.
“Keep backing up,” she whispered fiercely. “Ye will come to the wall. What looks to be a large rack of shelves is, in truth, a door.”
“How do I open it?”
“A loop of rope hangs down on the left side. Ye pull it open.” She tensed as much from the cold blade as from her uncle and his two closest men-at-arms, Thomas and Donald, as they reached the bottom of the stairs, turned, and saw them.
“God’s beard, what goes on here?” Fergus Thurkettle bellowed even as he drew his sword and pointed it at Revan.
“Ye best not try anything, Thurkettle,” Revan warned in an icy voice, “or I will cut your niece’s throat from ear to ear.”
“Your method of showing gratitude could use a wee bit of refinement,” Tess murmured, wondering how she could have so misjudged the man now dragging her toward her uncle’s private escape route.
“Curse you, Tess, how did the man get free?”
“Well, now, Uncle, ’tis a question worth pondering,” she managed to reply.
“Ye stupid bitch, ye set him free. Didna ye ken he is a murderer? He murdered Leith MacNeill.”
Revan cursed as he realized Thurkettle had not only planned his death but a way to blame him for a cold-blooded murder as well. “That wee man who didna like soap,” he hissed in Tess’s ear. “Ye will have to find another fool to blame that on, Thurkettle,” Revan said as he reached the door, “because this fool is leaving.” They were both pressed up against the wall. “Pull the door open,” he ordered Tess.
It was hard to move since his grip had all but pinned her arms to her sides. Grabbing the small loop of rope in her hand, she tugged several times before she opened the heavy door enough for them to slip into the small stairway behind it. She could see her uncle and his men edging after them. She grabbed the large iron handle on the back of the door. Without waiting for his order, she yanked it shut after she and Revan were inside. Then she shot the heavy bolt to lock it. A sudden thumping told her her uncle and his men took at least a brief chance at following them.
“Where does this come out?” Revan demanded as he hefted her up slightly so that her feet were off of the ground and made his way cautiously along the dark, slowly rising passage.
“In the stables. What looks to be a large rack for hanging bits and tools upon is a door. Ye willna be able to saddle your mount and ride out of here dragging me about like this.”
“Ye would be surprised.”
“They will be waiting for you.”
“Of that I have no doubt.”
“This is the last time I will do anyone a favor.”
“Shut your mouth.”
Since she could not think of a reply that could prevent him from using her as a shield, Tess decided to obey his curt order.
Revan cursed as he tried to hurry without losing his footing. He was the lowest of scoundrels. There were times, he mused, when being on the right side did not feel all that right. Just before Thurkettle had appeared, he had nearly talked himself out of taking the girl to pry information out of her. Thurkettle had turned that decision around. Although Revan hated hiding behind the girl, she was his only means of escape from Thurkettle’s keep.
When they finally reached the door he ordered her to unbolt it, then kicked it open. At first the sudden light blinded him. Squinting tightly, then slowly opening his eyes, he looked out. He smiled grimly when he saw Thurkettle waiting, five armed men now flanking him. He edged into the stable, moving away from the open door.
“Toss aside your weapons.” He smiled coldly when they hesitated. “Dinna push me, Thurkettle. I have naught to lose in this venture.” Slowly the men tossed aside their weapons. “Now, ye”—he nodded toward a lanky, gray-haired stable hand—“saddle my horse and dinna forget all my belongings—including my bow and shield.” He waited tensely as the man obeyed.
“Ye willna get away with this,” Thurkettle hissed.
“I’m not doing too badly thus far.”
“We will hunt ye down.”
“Will ye now? Dinna nip too close at my heels. I will have this fair niece of yours.”
“Ye canna hold the lass forever.”
“Long enough.” Seeing that his horse was ready, Revan signaled the man, with a jerk of his head, to return to his companions. “Now, get in there.” He nodded toward the tunnel he had just exited. Hissing curses, Thurkettle led his men inside. Revan kicked the door shut, then pushed Tess toward it. “Bolt it.”
Doing as he said, she told him, “If ye move swiftly, ye ought to be clear of the walls ere they can get out.”
“Not clear enough.” He grasped her by the arm and pushed her toward his horse. “Mount.”
“Ye are taking me with you?”
She mounted. There had to be a dozen ways she could break free, but not one came to mind. He swung up in front of her, reaching back and grabbing her wrists firmly. He then quickly tied them so that she was bound to him. When he spurred his horse to a gallop, she hung on, praying the fool did not kill them by riding like some madman in the dark.
Charging out the door of his keep, Fergus Thurkettle saw his prisoner riding off. “Cut that bastard down,” he ordered his archers.