Authors: Miriam Minger
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Medieval, #General, #Historical Fiction, #Romance, #Historical Romance
"Aye, it's no matter, and with such a harpy as
Lady Adele beneath your roof I'd be unhappy too. You've only to ask, you know,
and I'd swear Lord FitzWilliam would toss that blond witch into the moat just
to please you. Wouldn't that be a fine sight?"
For the first time in what seemed like ages, Maire
actually smiled, and she thought wistfully that in Flanna she might have found
a friend. Aye, if things were different, and she wasn't so desperate to leave
this place, so desperate to do anything to protect Duncan. Heartache nearly
overwhelming her, she lowered her eyes for the damnable tears that never seemed
"Well, I'd best go downstairs,"
Flanna's soft voice, not at all bearing the wary
stiffness with which she'd first spoken to Maire. "Lord FitzWilliam
wouldn't be pleased to know you're not resting, and Clement made me swear I
wouldn't stay very long—as did Hagan."
"Hagan?" Maire met Flanna's lovely green eyes
to find her blushing, a tenderness touching the young Irishwoman's face.
"The man I agreed to wed. Lord FitzWilliam said I
had a choice—I told you that first day I'd not known a Norman more
fair-minded—and he assured me Hagan was a good man, a widower for two years now
and eager for a bride. I had no words then to thank him, but it seems I've much
to thank him for now. Nor would I have thought I'd be glad you came to Longford
Castle, but I am, my lady—"
"No, no, please, call me Mai—" Maire stopped
herself just in time, stricken, then quickly amended, "Rose will do,
"Aye, very well, Rose."
Grateful that Flanna hadn't seemed to think anything
amiss, Maire could only imagine she was eager to return to Hagan as Flanna
threw a warm smile and then disappeared out the door. That left Maire alone,
and she gazed almost numbly around the vast bedchamber, unwilling to believe
that there was no route left to her to spare Duncan from coming face-to-face
with her brother.
What would Triona do? Her brazen sister-in-law would
think nothing of evading countless guards and jumping feetfirst into a moat, or
even cleverly disguising herself as a villager or servant and secreting herself
among those leaving the castle in the morning, but Maire had no way to conceal
a cumbersome gait that would give her away at a glance. She would obviously
have to wait and hope for some chance that Duncan might take her with him again
on a journey, and that she might somehow elude him—saints help her, but what of
Her plight becoming all the more impossible in her
mind, Maire rubbed temples that had begun to pound. She imagined Duncan might
soon be joining her, and her gaze flew to the crushed rose petals she had laid
on a table by the hearth.
It tore at her to do so, but she went and scooped them
up and threw them into the fire, not wanting Duncan to see them. He might only
be reminded of what she'd said at the church ruins, a blunder she still
couldn't believe she'd committed. And now what she'd nearly said to Flanna . .
"Begorra, Maire O'Byrne, you'll find yourself in a
dungeon yet if you don't take care," she whispered to herself, watching as
the blood red petals curled and blackened and crumbled into ash. Yet would
Duncan truly do that to her? Given what she'd seen burning so fervently in his
eyes, might he be able to see beyond his hatred for her clan? For Ronan Black
Maire turned from the hearth with a sigh, not even
wanting to hope. She even pushed away thoughts of Duncan's unexpected leniency
with his prisoners, and the offer of three days more within which to talk peace
with the O'Melaghlin—a change of heart that had truly astonished her.
He was a man like none she'd ever known, Norman and yet
born of a Scotswoman who must have done much to foster within him a sense of
fairness and honor that had missed the rest of his family altogether. Maire
still could not believe what he'd suffered at the hands of his half
the treachery, the cruelty . . . and his mother
shut away in a tower after her husband had died. Maire no more believed the
poor woman had been mad than that she hadn't been truly wed to Duncan's
father—the embroidered screen attested to that.
Maire suddenly questioned how Duncan could have come by
the thing. Wouldn't his half brothers have wanted to destroy such an exquisite
testimony of love and gentleness? Determined to ask him, she felt almost a
relief to have something else to think about if only for a little while.
She was struck by a desire to see the screen again, and
wondered if Duncan would mind that she visited the adjoining room she'd sensed
at once was a private refuge. She knew that she couldn't rest, her exhaustion
all but fled in her anxiousness to talk to Flanna.
Maire took up a guttering lamp and was already halfway
down the passageway before her decision was fully made, a warmth enveloping her
as she drew closer to the opposite door. Reminded of the first time she'd gone
to this room—could it be only two days past?—and how nervous she'd felt, she wasn't
surprised at her reaction.
Before she'd fully opened the door, she could sense
Duncan's formidable presence just as surely as if he'd been there, and she felt
to thunder. Begorra, the man
didn't even have to be near and she was lost!
She ventured a step inside, drawing in her breath at
the screen propped and shrouded against the wall. Clearly he couldn't bear to
look at the beautiful needlework for the brutal injury done his mother—
"God's blood, what do we have here?"
Maire gasped as the door was slammed shut behind her,
and she spun around so awkwardly that she nearly toppled into the oaken table,
the lamp crashing to the floor. In the next instant it was righted by a
rough-looking man, wearing a dull shirt of mail beneath his cloak,
straightened and swept her with a glance that froze her
"Lord FitzWilliam's latest mistress, perhaps? I've
heard no news that he's taken a wife."
Maire couldn't speak, her gaze falling to the hunting
knife the Norman held, the blade flashing in the lamplight. He followed her
eyes, a low chuckling that held no humor breaking the ominous silence as he
lifted the weapon to her breast.
"Lay yourself back on the table, wench, and make
not a sound, do you hear? I've been a bit bored waiting for the good baron to
retire for the night, and it's a fortunate thing you've come along to amuse
"Y-you're waiting to see Duncan?" Maire heard
herself say almost stupidly through the terror gripping her. A slow smile
spread across the man's shadowed face.
"See him? Kill him, you mean. Ah, but don't let
that distress you—we've other things to think of, you and I."
The knife tip slipping beneath the curve of her breast,
Maire heard a faint snagging of pink silk and she sucked in her breath, which only
seemed to amuse him. He laughed softly, his own breathing coming faster, but he
sobered when she took a step backward, her movement clearly angering him.
"Lie down, damn you, now!"
She started, trembling from head to foot as she glanced
behind her at the table still spread with maps. "I . . . I can't. It's
A roar of impatience burst from the man and he lunged
to sweep rolls of parchment and books to the floor, the knife gone from her
breast. With a cry, Maire shoved against him with all her strength and knocked
him off-balance. The man crashed into the table while she groped wildly to
throw open the door. She'd never known such a surge of fear when she heard him
curse behind her, Maire no more having stumbled into the dark passageway when
she felt a hand clamp onto her shoulder.
"No! Saints help me, no!"
She heard a pained outcry, dazedly realizing she'd dug
her fingernails into his flesh even as she lurched away from him, suddenly free
from his hold. Tears bit her eyes. Desperately she willed her legs to move,
knowing he was just behind her, his breathing harsh, his curses filling the
God's teeth, woman,
what . . . ?"
She saw Duncan appear at the opposite doorway the same
moment the man caught her, his arm going around her neck to half strangle her,
Maire's knees finally giving out. She went down, but her attacker jerked her to
her feet in front of him, the cold knife blade pressed against her throat.
"Stand back, FitzWilliam, damn you, stand
Through eyes glazed with tears Maire heard Duncan swear
and saw him pull the sword from his belt, but she knew as surely that he could
not help her. Her captor's
warm and sour at her
neck, she was virtually carried into the bedchamber, her legs refusing to
support her. She'd never seen Duncan so pale, no, not even at the bog.
"I said back away, man, or I'll cut her throat,
don't try me!"
"He said—he said he was waiting to kill you,
Duncan!" she blurted out hoarsely to warn him, the man's arm growing all
the tighter around her neck.
"Yes, so I was, but that will have to wait for
another time, won't it, FitzWilliam?"
The Norman moving her with him to the door, Maire felt
as if she were choking, while Duncan risked a step toward them.
"Let her go, man, and I swear you'll have safe
passage from the castle—"
"Do you think me a fool, FitzWilliam? If you hang
your own kind as easily as you did my comrades the other day, what makes you
think I would ever trust your word? Stand away!"
With that, Maire was hauled through the bedchamber
door, grown so dizzy from the vise grip around her throat she scarcely realized
they were halfway down the tower steps until she heard Duncan's roar.
"Give her over, man, and I'll fight you now if
it's revenge you seek. The woman played no part—"
"She does now—out of my way, all of you!"
Her captor's vehement demand sending people who'd
gathered wide-eyed at the bottom of the steps scattering to give them room,
several knights drawing their weapons, Maire fought for breath as once more
Duncan's voice thundered behind them.
"Do as he says, stand away,
Maire had no strength left to struggle even if she'd
dared to; she felt herself more fully dragged along by her captor than before
as they moved through a doorway and out into the courtyard still ablaze with
torches. The noise and commotion only grew, shouts filling the night. A demand
at her ear for a horse to be brought sounded as if it had come from a far
distance, she felt so starved for air.
She couldn't see Duncan, all hope failing her a moment later
when she was half-thrown onto a nervous mount, her captor vaulting into the
saddle behind her and once more pulling her up in front of him like a shield.
"We will face each other again, FitzWilliam, that
I swear!" came the man's fierce shout as the horse was spurred for-ward.
Maire feared that the drawbridge would not be lowered in time before they
crashed into it. The knife still pressed to her throat, she knew if she left
the castle with her captor she was lost.
They passed through the outer gatehouse, Duncan's voice
commanding his startled guards to fall back, while Maire waited until she heard
the horse's hooves striking wood,
beneath them. Only then did she grab desperately at the reins. Their mount was
already so spooked by the furor that it took little to make him rear and spin.
She gasped, the Norman cursing violently as he tried to
regain control, the animal coming so close to the edge of the drawbridge as to
plunge them all into the moat.
"Damn you, woman, damn you!"
Maire saw the flash of the knife, his arm unlifted and
she closed her eyes, her cry of terror cut short when she felt the Norman
suddenly jerk against her. A low gurgling came at her neck, while Duncan lunged
toward the horse and caught the bridle even as her captor tipped to one side
and fell facedown onto the drawbridge.
"By the blood of God . . ."
She stared just as was Duncan at the owl-fletched arrow
sticking from the Norman's back. In the next instant she lifted her gaze to the
nearest trees a hundred yards away. She knew of only one man who could shoot an
arrow from such a distance and so fiercely find its mark. A man who even now
might be aiming right for Duncan . . .
"No. Ronan, no."
Her voice no more than a ragged whisper, she nearly
fell from the saddle in her haste to dismount, Duncan sheathing his sword and
catching her before her feet had touched the ground. Even as her arms flew
around his neck, he ran with her into the gatehouse, his command splitting the
"Raise the drawbridge, now!"
If Maire had thought the commotion intense moments
before, now it seemed that the castle had come alive with the sounds of
preparation for battle. She buried her face against Duncan's shoulder as he
shouted more orders to his men, her heart thundering that Ronan and her
clansmen—and Niall too, was he out there?—were the cause of the uproar.
How had they found her? Jesu, Mary, and Joseph, if
Ronan's aim hadn't been so true and so timely, would she now even live or
"Montfort, take her inside!"
Maire felt Duncan's arms tighten fiercely around her
for only the briefest moment, and then she was given over to the older knight,
whose face was grim in the torchlight.
so intent upon Maire's face that she wondered then if he might have guessed the
truth. Somehow she made herself speak in hopes to divert him, her voice still
barely above a whisper.
"My clansmen, Duncan. Do you think they heard from
someone in Dublin—