"I have just told your laird that I did not touch her, and I value my life too much to lie to any of you. Besides, even if she were not your laird's bride, I wouldn't have dishonored her by trying to touch her. She is the most gentle of ladies."

"Balcher won't care about honor," Robert muttered.

Advertisement

Dylan was annoyed. Robert and Aaron and Liam had suddenly turned into the lady's champions. "Not five minutes ago you were outraged by this message," he reminded them. "What has caused this change in attitude?"

"The MacDonalds," Robert answered.

"Specifically Balcher," Aaron interjected.

"The lady belongs to Brodick and no other shall have her," Robert decreed.

-- Advertisement --

So ludicrous had the conversation become, Brodick couldn't hold back his smile. "I have not claimed her," he reminded the warriors.

"But she has claimed you, Laird," Liam argued.

"And that makes it so?" Dylan asked.

Before anyone could answer, Brodick held up his hand for silence. "I would ask one last question of this messenger, and I would like to be able to hear his answer."

"Yes, Laird?" Henley asked, shivering anew.

"You have told me that she called you to the window to speak to you, but you haven't told me what she said."

"She sent an additional message to you."

"A request?" Aaron asked.

Henley found his first smile. "Nay,'twas not a request but an order."

"She gives me an order?" Brodick was astounded by the woman's temerity.

Henley took a deep breath, hoping it wasn't going to be his last, and then blurted out, "She commands you to hurry."

Chapter Five

Gillian was having second thoughts about her rash plan. She and Alec had waited in the abandoned church for almost twenty-four hours now, and that was surely long enough for the laird to reach her, if he had been so inclined.

She felt ill and knew that if she sat down she probably wouldn't have enough strength to get back up again, and so she paced up and down the main aisle while she thought about their circumstances.

"We're going to have to leave soon," she told the little boy. "We simply cannot continue to wait."

Alec sat on a chair with his legs folded under him watching her.

"You don't look so good, Gillian. Are you sick?"

"No," she lied. "I'm just weary."

"I'm hungry."

"You just ate."

"But then I threw up."

"Yes, because you ate too fast," she replied.

She went to the back of the church, where she'd placed her cloth satchel and the basket of food her dear friends the Hathaway brothers had stolen for her. She glanced out the window and saw Henry pacing about the clearing.

"What are you staring at?" Alec asked.

"The Hathaways," she answered. "I don't know what we would have done without them. Years ago they helped me get to my uncle's home. They were very courageous. Neither one of them thought twice about helping me again. I must find a way to repay them," she added.

She handed Alec a wedge of cheese and a thick square of bread. "Please eat slowly this time."

He took a bite of the cheese and then asked, "Uncle Brodick will be here soon, won't he?"

"Remember your manners, Alec. It isn't polite to talk with a mouth full of food."

"You know what?" he asked, ignoring her criticism.

"No, what?"

"We can't leave 'cause then Uncle Brodick will be mad when he gets here and can't find us. We got to wait for him."

She sat down next to him on the chair. "We'll give him one more hour, but that's all. All right?"

He nodded. "I hate waiting."

"I do too," she admitted.

"Gillian? What are you gonna do if you can't find your sister?"

"I will find her," she countered. "I must."

"You got to find that box too," he said. "I heard the baron tell you so."

"I don't know. The box disappeared years ago."

"But you told the baron you knew where it was."

"I lied," she said. "It was all I could think of at the time to get him to leave you alone. My father gave the box to my sister to take with her. There was an accident…"

"But how come the baron wants the old box, anyway?"

"It's extremely valuable, and it's also the key to a mystery that happened a long time ago. Would you like to hear the story?"

"Is it scary?"

"A little. Do you still want to hear it?"

He eagerly nodded. "I like scary stories."

She smiled. "All right then, I'll tell you. It seems that before John was King—"

"He was a prince."

"Yes, he was, and he was madly in love with a young lady named Arianna. She was said to be very beautiful—"

"As beautiful as you?"

The question took her aback. "You think me beautiful?"

He nodded.

"Thank you, but Arianna was far more beautiful than any other lady in the kingdom. She had golden hair that shimmered in the sunlight—"

"Did she get sick and die?"

"No, she didn't get sick, but she did die."

"Did she just up and keel over the way Angus did?"

"No, she—"

"Then what happened to her?"

She laughed. "I'll get this story told much quicker if you stop interrupting me. Now then, where was I? Oh, yes, as I was saying, Prince John was smitten with the beautiful woman—"

"What does'smitten' mean?"

"It means he was taken with her. He liked her." She rushed on when she saw he was about to interrupt her again. "She was his first true love, and he wanted to marry her. Have you ever heard of Saint Columba's box?"

He shook his head. "What is it?"

"A jeweled case that belongs to the Scots," she explained. "A long, long time ago, the sacred remains of Saint Columba were put inside the case—"

"What are'remains'?"

"Fragments of bones," she answered. "Now, as I was saying, the remains were placed inside the box, and the Scots carried it into battle with them."

"How come they wanted to carry bones into battle?"

"They believed that having the case with them would bring them victory over their enemies."

"Did it?"

"I suppose so," she said. "The practice of carrying the box into battle is still going on. They don't take the box into every single battle, just some," she added.

"How come you know about the box?"

"My Uncle Morgan told me about it."

"I'll bet it's the Lowlanders who carry the box, not the Highlanders."

"Why do you say that?"

"'Cause Highlanders don't need a box when they fight. They always win 'cause they're stronger and meaner. You know what my Uncle Ennis says?"

"No, but I'm guessing he said something outrageous."

"He says when English soldiers see more than three Highlanders riding toward them, they drop their swords and run away like scared rabbits."

"Not all Englishmen are like the baron. Most are quite courageous," she insisted.

He wasn't interested in her defense of the English. "Aren't you going to tell me what happened to the pretty lady and King John?" After asking the question, he turned and spit on the ground.

She ignored his crude behavior and continued on with the tale. "John took a fancy to the story of the Scottish jeweled box and decided to create a legend of his own. He commissioned his artisan—"

"What does 'commissioned' mean?"

"He ordered his artisan," she qualified, "to make a beautiful jeweled box for him. John has always loved being clever and cunning, and so he also decreed that he would be the only one who knew how to open the box. The artisan took over a year to complete the design and build the box, and when it was finally finished, it was said to be quite grand. It was impossible to tell which was the top and which was the bottom, though, because there were no visible latches or keyholes. The entire exterior was covered in a series of gold strips that crisscrossed, with sapphires as blue as the sky on a sunny day and emeralds as green as—"

"Your eyes?" he eagerly guessed.

"And there were rubies too, bright red rubies—"

"As red as blood?"

"Perhaps," she allowed. "All the precious jewels were set between the golden crisscrosses. Only John knew where to press to get the box to open."

"That's not true. The man who made the box knows how to open it."

"That's exactly what John realized," she said. "And so he did a terrible thing. He ordered the artisan's death."

"Did King John"—he paused to spit again before continuing his question—"kill the pretty lady and put her bones in his box?"

"Oh, no, the box was much too small," she explained. "Besides, John only wanted a lock of Arianna's hair because he was certain she would bring him good fortune when he went into battle. He opened the box, put his jeweled dagger inside, and then ordered his squire to take the box to Lady Arianna's chamber with specific orders that she put a lock of her golden hair into his golden box."

"Then what happened?"

"Lady Arianna received the open box and the dagger from the squire. He went into her chamber and placed it on the table, then took his leave. He later told the prince that she was the only person inside the room. Not even her lady's maid was present."

"I know what happened next. She stole the box and the jeweled dagger, didn't she?"

Gillian smiled over the child's enthusiasm. "No, she didn't steal the box. According to the story, when John's squire left her chamber, he heard her lock the door. He returned later to get the box for the prince, but Lady Arianna wouldn't answer his summons. John then went to her chamber."

"Did she let him in?"

"No."

"Did she tell him to go away?"

"No," she answered. "Not a sound could be heard from the room. John has always been known for his impatience. It didn't take long for him to become very angry because she refused to answer him, and so he ordered his soldiers to break the door down. They used their hatchets. John went rushing inside and he was the one who found her. Poor Lady Arianna was lying in a pool of blood on the floor. Someone had stabbed her."

"Then did John put her bones in his box?"

"No, he didn't. Remember I told you the box was far too small to hold her bones. Besides, neither the box nor the dagger was there. They had disappeared."

"Where'd they go?"

"Ah, that's the mystery."

"Who killed the pretty lady?"

"No one knows. John ordered his soldiers to search the kingdom for the box, but it had vanished into thin air. He believes that whoever stole the box murdered his own true love. Uncle Morgan told me that every couple of years a rumor surfaces that Arianna's box has been seen, and John renews his efforts to find it. The reward he's offered is staggeringly high, but to this day it hasn't been claimed."

"You know what?"

"Yes?"

"The lady's better off dead than married to King John." After making his comment, he once again turned away from her and spit on the floor.

"Why are you doing that?"

"I got to," he replied. "Whenever we say his name, we got to spit. It's a sign of how we feel."

She was both appalled and amused at the same time. "Do you mean to tell me that everyone in the Highlands spits each time one of them says King John's name?"

"Some curse, but Mama won't let me."

"I should hope not."

"Brodick curses when he's got to say your king's name. Are you gonna tell him to stop?" After asking the question, he began to giggle.

The sound proved infectious, and she lightly tapped him on the bridge of his nose. "You are the dearest little boy," she whispered. "But you do ask the most bizarre questions."

"But will you tell Brodick to stop?" he prodded.

She rolled her eyes heavenward. "Should he ever happen to say King John's name and then curse—or spit," she added, "I would, of course, order him to stop."

He burst into laughter. "You're gonna be sorry if you try to tell him what to do. He won't like it," he said. "I wish he'd hurry up and get here."

"I do too."

"Maybe you should have sent the dagger like you were going to," he said. "How come you changed your mind?"

"If I sent Brodick the dagger he gave you, he would know the reason I wanted to see him had something to do with you, but then I worried that someone else might see the dagger, and it was simply too risky. I don't know who to trust."

"But you saw the traitor riding down the path," he reminded her. "You said you watched him from the hilltop while I was sleeping."

"Yes, I did see him, but remember what I told you? We aren't going to let anyone know about that."

"Not even Brodick?"

"No, not even Brodick."

"How much longer do we have to wait?"

She patted his hand. "I think we've waited as long as we can. He isn't going to come for us, but I don't want you to worry. We'll find another way to get you home."

"'Cause you promised, right?"

"Yes, because I promised. What was I thinking? It was a foolish idea to tell that MacDonald soldier I was Brodick's bride."

"But maybe Brodick needs a bride. He might come for us."

"I should have offered him gold."

Alec snorted. "Brodick doesn't care about gold."

She smiled. "It's just as well because I don't have any."

His eyes widened. "You would lie to Uncle Brodick?"

"I lied about being his bride."

"He's gonna be angry when he gets here, but I won't let him shout at you."

"Thank you. You aren't still angry with me, are you?"

"I was," he admitted. "But now I'm not."

-- Advertisement --