"We're still going to leave," she said.
She pointed to the opposite end of the room. "You and I are going to walk right through that wall."
His smile vanished. "I don't think we can do that."
He sounded so forlorn she felt like laughing. She realized then that in spite of her pain, she was actually feeling euphoric because she wasn't going to have to leave the little boy in Alford's lair. It had been a wonderful piece of luck that Alford hadn't hidden the child away from her, and she planned to take full advantage of his error in judgment.
She couldn't resist pulling Alec into her arms and hugging him. "Oh, Alec, God is surely watching over us."
He let her kiss his forehead and brush his hair out of his eyes before he squirmed out of her embrace. "How come you think God's watching out for us?" He was too impatient to wait for her answer. "Is God gonna help us walk through the wall?"
"Yes," she replied.
He shook his head. "I think maybe the baron made you daft when he hit you."
"No, he didn't make me daft. He made me angry, very, very angry."
"But, Gillian, people can't walk through walls."
"We're going to open a secret door. This used to be my bedroom when I was a little girl," she told him. "My sister's room was right next to mine, and whenever I got scared or lonely, I would open the passageway and run into her room. My father would become very upset with me."
"Because the passage was only to be used in dire circumstances, and he didn't want anyone to know about it, not even his faithful servants. My lady's maid, Liese, knew about the doorway though, and she used to tell me that most mornings she would find my bed empty. Liese figured out there had to be a hidden door because she knew I was afraid of the dark and wouldn't have ventured out into the hall during the night. Do you see that chest in front of the wall? My father put it there to discourage me. He knew the chest was too heavy tor me to move, but Liese told me that I used to squeeze behind it to get to the door."
His eyes grew wide. "You disobeyed your papa."
"It seems I did," she answered.
He found her admission extremely funny and laughed until tears came into his eyes. Concerned the guard would hear the noise, she put her finger over her mouth as a sign for him to quiet down.
"But if the door goes to your sister's room," he whispered loudly, "how will we get out of there?"
"The passage also leads to the staircase that goes down into the tunnels below the castle. If it hasn't been sealed, it will take us outside the walls."
"Then can we leave now? Please?" he asked.
She shook her head. "We must wait until the baron has gone to bed. He's had so much wine to drink he'll pass out soon. Besides, he might send one of the servants to check on us before nightfall, and if we aren't here, she'll sound the alarm."
He slipped his fingers through hers and held tight, all the while staring at the wall, trying to figure out where the door was. When he turned back to Gillian, he was frowning again. "What if the baron sealed it?"
"Then we'll figure out another way to leave."
She didn't have the faintest idea, but she did know that she had to get Alec out of Dunhanshire before the Highlander arrived. "We could trick the guard into coming inside—"
In his excitement he interrupted her. "And I could hit him on his head and knock him down," he said, acting out his plan by pounding the bed with his fists. "I'd make him bleed," he assured her. "And if I stood on top of the chest, I could maybe even grab his sword, and then you know what? I could slice him up and make him cry something fierce. I'm very strong," he ended with a boast.
She had to resist the urge to hug him again, and she didn't dare smile because he might think she was laughing at him. "Yes, I can see how strong you are," she said.
He grinned with pleasure over her compliment and lifted his shoulders as he nodded.
Were all little boys as bloodthirsty in their fantasies as this one? she wondered. One minute he was crying and clinging to her and the next he was gleefully planning gruesome revenge. She didn't have any experience with children—Alec was the first she had been around for any length of time—and she felt thoroughly inadequate, yet at the same time, she also felt tremendously protective. She was all the little boy had separating him from disaster, and in her mind that meant Alec was still in danger.
"Does it hurt?"
She blinked. "Does what hurt?"
"Your face," he answered as he reached up to touch the side of her cheek. "It's swelling."
"It stings a little, that's all."
"How come you got a scar under your chin?"
"I fell down the steps. It happened a long time ago."
She patted the bed beside her and said, "Why don't you stretch out beside me and try to get some sleep."
"But it isn't night yet."
"Yes, I know, but we're going to be up all night walking," she explained. "You should try to rest now."
He scooted up close to her and put his head down on her shoulder. "You know what?"
"We'll find something to eat later."
"Will we have to steal food?"
From his exuberance she assumed he was looking forward to the possibility. "Stealing is a sin."
"That's what my mama says."
"And she's right. We won't steal anything. We'll just borrow what we need."
"Can we borrow horses?"
"If we're lucky enough to find a sturdy one and no one's around to stop us, then yes, we'll borrow a horse."
"You could get yourself hanged for stealing a horse."
"That's the least of my worries," she said as she shifted in the bed. Every inch of her body throbbed, and there simply was no comfortable position. She moved her bandaged arm down to her side and felt a prick, and only then remembered the surprise she had for Alec.
"I have something for you," she said. "Close your eyes tight."
He bolted upright onto his knees and squeezed his eyes shut. "What is it?"
She held up the dagger. She didn't have to tell him to look, for he was already peeking. The joy in his eyes made her feel like weeping.
"Brodick's dagger," he whispered in awe. "How did you find it?"
"You told me where it was," she reminded him. "I grabbed it from the chest on the way out of the hall. Keep it inside the leather sheath so you won't accidentally cut yourself."
He was so happy to have his treasure back, he threw his arms around her neck and kissed her swollen cheek. "I love you, Gillian."
"I love you too, Alec."
"Now I can protect you 'cause I got my knife back."
She smiled. "Are you going to be my champion, then?"
"No," he giggled, drawing out the word.
He pulled back and told her what he thought should have been obvious. " 'Cause I'm just a little boy. But you know what?"
"We got to find you one."
He nodded solemnly.
She shook her head. "I don't need a protector," she assured him.
"But you got to have one. Maybe we can ask Brodick."
"The mean one?" she teased. He nodded again.
She laughed softly. "I don't think…"
"We'll ask Brodick," he said, sounding very grown up. " 'Cause you know why?"
"You need him."
They didn't like the message. Four of Laird Buchanan's elite guard surrounded the young MacDonald soldier, towering over him like avenging gargoyles as he stammered out his important information while quaking in his boots. Three of the warriors were rendered speechless by the announcement. Aaron, Robert, and Liam were outraged by what they immediately surmised was trickery on Laird MacDonald's part. Everyone in the Buchanan clan knew the messenger's laird to be a sneaky, lying, son of a bitch, and therefore refused to believe a word he said. The fourth Buchanan warrior, Dylan, had the opposite reaction to the news. Though he also believed Laird MacDonald to be a sneaky, lying, son of a bitch, he was so amused and intrigued by the message he was eager to hear the details.
Aaron, the most outspoken of the Buchanan group, shook his head in denial and moved forward with the demand that the messenger repeat every word.
"'Tis as I said before," the young MacDonald soldier insisted.
"Then say it again," Aaron commanded, deliberately moving close so that the man would have to crane his head back in order to look him in the eyes. "Word for word I would hear this foul message again."
The MacDonald soldier felt like a trapped rabbit. Robert stood behind him, Dylan faced him, and Aaron and Liam pressed in against his sides. All the Buchanan warriors were at least two heads above him in height, and they could easily crush him with their weight alone.
He turned to the warrior who had made the demand, then tried to step back so that he could put a little breathing distance between them. "There is a young lady who insists that your laird come to her at once. She waits inside the boarded up church near the crossroads below the Len holding. She claims… to be…"
The dark look on the warrior's face so terrified the soldier he couldn't go on. He turned to Dylan, then stepped back in an attempt to get away from his scorching glare and bumped into the warrior named Black Robert.
"My message is for Brodick and Brodick alone," he protested.
"He is Laird Buchanan to you, pup," Liam growled.
"Yes… yes, Laird Buchanan," the soldier hastily acknowledged. "I overstep myself."
"Aye, you do," Robert muttered from behind. Dylan stepped forward to question the messenger. Brodick had already been summoned to the great hall but had not yet arrived, and so the commander over the elite guard of Buchanan warriors decided to take charge of the questioning. He knew the MacDonald soldier was scared, and so he clasped his hands behind his back as a signal that he wouldn't harm him and impatiently waited for him to regain his composure.
"Continue with your message," Dylan demanded.
"The lady, she claims to be his bride," the frightened young man blurted out. "And she demands that your laird escort her to his home so that she may take up residence."
Robert nudged the soldier to get his attention and accidentally sent him lunging forward. He bumped into Dylan, who didn't budge an inch, quickly righted himself, and whirled around to face the warrior. "I do not lie," he insisted. "I repeat only what I was bid to say."
"What is your name?" Robert asked. He thought his question a mild one and therefore was surprised by the messenger's reaction. The young man actually paled like a frightened woman.
"Henley," he blurted out with a sigh, thankful he'd been able to remember it. "My name is Henley."
Dylan demanded Henley's attention by prodding him to turn around again. The soldier quickly obeyed the order, dizzy now from twirling about in the center of the giants. He tried to concentrate only on the Buchanan commander, but it was difficult, for the other three were deliberately pressing in on him.
"Why did the MacDonald send a boy to give us this message?" Dylan asked contemptuously.
Henley's Adam's apple bulged and wobbled as he swallowed. He didn't dare contradict the commander by arguing that he was a man, not a boy, and so he said, "My laird felt that a younger man would have a better chance of surviving your laird's temper. We have all witnessed your laird in battle and know of his remarkable strength. Many have claimed that they have seen him fell his enemy with but a flick of his wrist. We have also all heard that it is… unwise… to displease him. Laird MacDonald is not ashamed to admit that he respectfully fears your laird."
Dylan smiled. "Respectfully fears?"
Henley nodded. "My laird also said that Brodick…"
Liam shoved the messenger hard, sending him crashing into Robert. The warrior didn't flinch, but Henley felt as though he'd just run into a stone wall. He turned to Liam then, wishing with all his heart he had the nerve to suggest that if the warrior wanted to gain his attention, he simply say his name.
"Brodick is Laird Buchanan to you," Liam reminded him.
"Yes, Laird Buchanan," Henley quickly agreed.
"You were saying?" Aaron prodded.
Henley turned to his left to answer. "My laird said that Laird Buchanan is an honorable man and that he would not prey upon an unarmed man. I do not carry a weapon."
Henley was forced to whirl to the right when Dylan asked, "And does your laird also tell you that Brodick is reasonable?"
Henley knew that if he lied, the warriors would know it. "Nay, he said just the opposite," he admitted.
Dylan laughed. "Your honesty protects your hide."
Aaron spoke then, forcing the messenger to turn completely around.
"We don't kill messengers," he said.
"Unless, of course, we dislike the message." Robert grinned.
Henley turned back to address their leader once again. "There is more," he said. "I fear the rest will truly displease your laird." The quicker he got his message delivered, the quicker he could get out of their trap, and if God proved merciful, he would be well on his way home before Brodick arrived.
The laird had been summoned from the training fields below the holding and was irritated by the interruption, but when he heard that there was an urgent message, his heart leapt with hope that the news was from Iain Maitland, telling him that his son, Alec, had been found.
Gawain, another one of his trusted guards, dashed Brodick's hopes when he told him that the plaid the messenger wore was from the clan MacDonald.
The disappointment frustrated and angered him. He turned to Gawain and said, "Tomorrow we go back to the falls and search once again. Do you argue with me this time, Gawain?"
The soldier shook his head. "Nay, I know that it's futile to argue with you, Laird. Until you believe in your heart that the boy is dead, I'll continue to search as diligently as you."
"Do you believe Alec drowned?"