Scottish Coast, October 1192
cy rain fell in sheets from a leaden sky.
Duncan MacLellan didn't think he'd ever felt anything so wonderful. Standing in the prow of the rowboat, he tilted his face upward and sighed. “Ah, there's nothing like good, honest Scots rain to wash a man clean after all these years in the heathen desert.”
“By God's toenail, it's so cold my arse is freezing to the seat,” grumbled Angus MacDougal.
“Angus,” Duncan chided.
His companion in arms snorted. “I'm sure God will understand the extremities that cause me to use his name in vain. Damn, if you aren't the only grown man I know who takes his faith so serious-like.”
“'Tis what kept me alive these past three years among the Infidels.” That and the determination to return to claim Janet Leslie for his bride, he reminded himself. By his own might and God's will, he was only days away from doing just that...at long last.
“Pity more of those who took up the cross weren't as honorable and unswerving in the loyalty to God as Duncan,” Father Simon chimed in from his seat in the back of the boat. In contrast to the two brawny knights, he was a thin man, his bald pate still peeling from the desert sun. “Our holy enterprise might not have been such a dismal failure.”
“We did not fail,” Angus exclaimed. “King Richard negotiated a treaty with that foul Saladin, granting Christian pilgrims safe use of the coastal ports.”
“The cost was too high on both sides,” Duncan muttered. The memory of the terrible massacre at Acre, the slaughter of the Infidel hostages by England's Good King Richard still infuriated him. There was no excuse for such wanton savagery. Honorable men did not make war on unarmed folk.
“You've gone all queer about the mouth again, Duncan,” Angus muttered. He frowned at the thick bandage visible beneath Duncan's mail. “Is your wound paining you again?”
“It aches a bit, nothing more.” The slicing scimitar that had cleaved open his shoulder might have ended his life but for the timely aid of the nursing brethren of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
“You should have stayed abed another week as the Hospitallers suggested,” Angus said. “You're pasty as the sails of that cog what brought us home. And none too steady on your legs.”
“I'm fine.” Mentally Duncan crossed himself and pledged to repent the lie as soon as he reached Threave Castle. “If I weave a bit, 'tis the motion of the ship. Not the lingering effects of the fever. Seeing my Janet again, knowing we can finally wed will restore me as none of the brothers' potions could. Truth to tell, I was loath to tarry longer among strangers when I knew you two were leaving.” Instinctively his hand strayed to the pouch hidden beneath his thigh-length tunic. Stitched into it was a fortune in large rubies. The Templars had handled that transaction, exchanging the heavy plunder Duncan had amassed for the more portable gems.
Angus grunted. “I hope your lady appreciates the risks you took to come home to her a wealthy man.”
“She will.” Duncan looked toward the land. A fine mist shrouded the port of Carlisle. He recalled the jumble of docks and squalid buildings only vaguely from the day over three years ago when he'd set sail. But he knew right well the road from there to Threave Castle some eighty leagues distant. Threave Castle and Janet. “More important, her father will give his blessing to our marriage.”
“Three years is a long time for a woman to stay faithful. How do you know she's not found another?”
“Because we are promised to each other. Janet would not go back on her word any more than I would. Even her father must respect the vow, for 'twas sworn on a holy relic.”
“Men do not always honor such things,” Angus said.
“Niall Leslie will.” Niall, laird of Threave and his father's third cousin, was a man of his word. “Even though he considers me worthless, Janet is his fourth and last daughter. He promised her mother before she died that Janet could choose her own husband. She chose me.” The idea that someone as perfect as Janet wanted him still awed Duncan.
“Well, I hope you're right,” Angus said, “else you've wasted three years of celibacy for naught.”
“She said she'd wait for me. Could I do any less?”
“Aye, well, 'tis different for men than it is for women. Men have urges. Or were you blind to those dark-eyed lasses.”
“Pagan women.” Duncan's lip curled. Dark exotic creatures with sultry eyes and undulating hips. Many a Crusader had fallen prey to their seductive lures. Duncan had looked and lusted, but he'd not succumbed. He was made of sterner stuff, his self-control strong as tempered steel, thanks to the hard lessons beaten into him by Cousin Niall. Anxious as he was to see Janet, he was almost as anxious to watch Cousin Niall's face when he beheld the fortune Duncan had garnered.
Cousin Niall would not be calling him worthless scum or son of a harlot. Not when he beheld Duncan, wearing the Crusader's cross on his chest, his hands filled with jewels.
The prow of the boat came to a grating halt on the rocky coast. The sailors tumbled out and began to haul it up. As Duncan stepped ashore, his legs nearly buckled.
“Here now...” Angus grabbed hold of his arm to steady him. “You best take a room at the inn and rest up a bit till you've got your strength back.”
Father Simon hurried over to prop up his other side. “I could delay my journey to the monastery if you like.”
“Nay.” Duncan straightened and gently pulled free of their well-meaning hands. He hated being weak, hated asking another for help. He'd been on his own, more or less, since his mother drank herself to death when he was ten and Cousin Niall had grudgingly taken him in.
“'Tis my Christian duty,” Cousin Niall had proclaimed. But he'd made it very clear that Duncan was a most unwelcome burden. And a tainted one at that. That his favorite daughter had championed Duncan had made Cousin Niall all the more mean and spiteful...when she wasn't looking, of course.
“I'll be fine, Angus,” Duncan said. “I've coin enough to buy a swift horse and a thick cloak to replace this rag.”
“You know where I'll be,” Father Simon said. “Should you be in need of help, send word to me.”
“Or to me,” Angus added.
Duncan nodded, knowing he'd do neither. Though they had been to hell and back together in the past three years, he couldn't let down his guard, even with them. He'd even hated being tended by the Hospitallers.
They parted company at the edge of town. A week or so, Duncan figured, and he'd be at Threave, basking in Janet's gentle love and watching her father eat his nasty words.
The fever came on him two days later, sneaky as an Infidel warrior. At first, he thought the weather was growing warmer. So warm he threw back his cloak and let the damp air cool his body. His mind drifted, back to Janet and the day he'd left Threave. How beautiful she'd looked, neat and serene as a Madonna in a crisp blue gown that matched her eyes. Those eyes were red from weeping, but she'd done her grieving in private.
Bless Janet, his calm, sweet Janet, who never uttered a harsh word or a hasty. one. They'd deal well together. They'd not shout and storm as his parents had. Nor would she disgrace him with her wild ways as his mother had after his father's death.
The land began to heave and buckle. He had trouble staying upright in the saddle. And it was hot; So hot he fancied he was camped at the gates of Jerusalem. Mayhap this was all a dream, and he was not back in Scotland.
Alarmed, he roused and glanced about. The terrain was rugged as the Highlands of his mother's birth, mountain peaks leaping from the rolling hills like giant beasts braying at the sky. Damn, but they were green. This must be Scotland, for no other place had such rich color. He saw the river then, rushing by but a few yards from the road. If he stopped for a moment to bathe his face, he'd feel better.
Duncan swung down from the saddle. His feet touched the ground, his legs buckled. This time there was no strong right arm to catch him. He snagged hold of his horse's stirrup, groaning as pain ripped through barely healed muscles. When the world stopped spinning, he crawled to the riverbank and splashed water over his burning face.
Cool. Cool as the chaste kiss he'd given Janet when he'd ridden off on Crusade. Over the frenzied rush of the river, he heard a low, feral growl.
Dogs, he thought idly.
Looking about, he spied a dozen dark shapes emerging from the woods a hundred yards away. Cousin Niall's hounds come to greet him. He stretched a hand out and waited while the animals slowly worked their way toward him.
Not dogs, he saw as they drew closer.
Duncan tried to stand, but his feet slipped and he went down, striking his head. Darkness closed over him.
Kara Gleanedin stopped and turned in a circle.
The sun was just disappearing behind the ring of mountains that surrounded Edin Valley on all four sides. Steep and forbidding on the outside, the mountains gave way to lush, rolling slopes inside the long glen that had been her clan's home for generations. From her vantage point atop the pass that guarded it, she glanced down the valley.
Long shadows crept out from beneath the trees that covered the mountains. But the only thing moving on the grassy hillsides were the folk of Clan Gleanedin, laughing and playing as they stacked wood for the Samhuinn fires that would be lit three nights hence.
“What is it?” Eoin drew his long knife.
“Inside Edin?” It wasn't unheard-of. Though the outside cliffs were too steep for men to climb, an occasional wolf was known to venture within to raid the tasty flocks of sheep that grazed on the slopes.
“I'm not sure.” Kara looked into the small fire beside the hut where the guards sheltered in inclement weather. Her giftâthe portents that sometimes came to herâcould not be summoned at will. But the feeling was so strong.
There, in the leaping flames, she saw them again. A pack of dark-furred beasts slinking across the field toward the river. Their quarry...
Kara's eyes widened as the figure in the flames came clearer. A man lay on the bank of the river that flowed past the mouth of the valley. The sun glinted on his silver mail so he seemed to glow from within. His head was bare, black hair plastered to his skull. As she watched, he tried to rise, slipped and fell back, his fingers clutching the mud.
The wolves howled in glee, their faces...
“Not wolves!” Kara exclaimed. “MacGorys in their wolf-skin capes.” She ran from the fire and the images she'd seen there. Her coarse woolen skirts swirled about her bare legs as she raced to the spot where they'd tied their horses.
Eoin kept pace beside her. “You've had a vision?”
“Aye. There's a man on the flatlands beside the river. He's hurt or wounded.” As she spoke, she swung onto her shaggy mount. “There's a pack of MacGorys circling him.”
Eoin caught her reins. “It could be a trap.”
“Mayhap.” The MacGorys had tried most everything to conquer them, but the valley was protected from without by stout natural defenses. “Nay. He's not one of them.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.” There was no logical explanation for her gift, except that all the women of her family had been special in some way. “Quick, gather the men.”
“Wait!” Eoin called.
“There's no time.” Kara wheeled her horse toward the pass. Behind her, the others scrambled to catch up.
Heart in her mouth, Kara charged through the natural tunnel that bored through the mountain, the only way into the valley. A hundred frantic paces later, she emerged into the twilight on. a high cliff above the river. Looking below and to the left, she scanned the far bank.
Her eyes caught on a flash of silver and held.
“There! There he is!” Setting her bare heels into the mare's ribs, she sent them careening down to the river in a hail of small stones. The ford lay just ahead. She splashed across it just as the MacGorys began to run. Hide capes flapping about them like great black wings, they hurtled toward the figure prone on the riverbank.
Too late. She was going to be too late.
An arrow whirred over Kara's head, struck the lead MacGory in the throat and took him down. His fellow fiends turned, stared at Kara and her clansmen, then changed direction, coming toward them. Their obscene battle cry sent the birds screeching from the trees.
Eoin howled back a challenge of his own. “See to your stray, Kara,” he called. “We'll carve up theseâ” The slur was lost in the pounding of hooves and the shouts of two score Gleanedins bent on revenge for the MacGorys' first raid six months ago and the maiming of their laird.