Brodick laughed. “Now who’s telling lies? Your face gives you away.”
Embarrassed, Gelroy admitted, “I do have trepidation, but I will do my best to minister to the MacHugh clan.”
“Go and gather what you wish to take with you,” MacHugh ordered.
Brodick waited until the priest was out of sight before speaking. “I’ve heard it said that once a priest finds a home with any clan, it’s impossible to get rid of him. I’ve a feeling you’re going to be stuck with Gelroy for the rest of your days.”
Had Gelroy heard Brodick’s prediction, he wouldn’t have agreed. The sooner he could complete his duty and be away from the MacHughs, the better.
He didn’t wish to irritate the laird by dragging his feet, and so he ran all the way back to his quarters to pack his holy water and oils, his stole, and the rest of his possessions. Laird MacHugh had ordered one of his younger soldiers to accompany the priest, and Gelroy thought the laird did so to make certain he wouldn’t try to run away.
God only knew Gelroy wanted to flee, but with Lady Gabrielle in such need, he had to put his own fears aside. All he could think about was finding a way to help her.
He thought she would be worried about her guards waiting for her. It wouldn’t do for them to join in this monstrous persecution. Four guards and one woman standing against a hundred incensed men…no, no. The guards must stay outside the gates until this dreadful drama was over. Then, God willing, they could help Gabrielle find shelter away from these terrible people.
Gelroy headed for the front gates. The warrior blocked him. “You’re to go back to Laird MacHugh,” he said as he took the two bags filled with Gelroy’s things. “I’ll see that these get tied to one of our saddles.”
“Pray be patient with me,” Gelroy replied. “I must give Gabrielle’s guards orders to continue to wait. She would not want them to come inside the abbey, for there is danger here. It will take but a minute.”
The warrior agreed with a quick nod.
Stephen stood with Gabrielle’s horse just north of the gate. He came forward when he spotted Gelroy with the Highlander.
“Gabrielle will be joining you soon. Do you have her clothes and other necessaries with you?” Father Gelroy asked.
Stephen shook his head. “We have some of her things. Her maids packed her trunks. We plan to catch up to them by late this afternoon. Why do you ask?”
He hated to lie, but Gelroy excused the sin by telling God he was only protecting the guards and Gabrielle from a mob wanting blood.
“She wanted me to make certain because her plans have changed. She will tell you in just a few minutes when she joins you. She bids you stay and wait for her here.”
Stephen had no reason to doubt the priest, for he knew that Gelroy had become a friend to Gabrielle.
As Gelroy hurried back to the wall, the MacHugh clansman accompanying him remarked, “You lied to that man. Why?”
“To protect him and the others. The lady would want it so,” he added. “She wouldn’t wish for them to try to interfere in this debacle, as they would be sorely outnumbered.”
His escort continued to follow Gelroy and wouldn’t leave his side until the priest was halfway up the stairs. Gelroy knew that the man was also suspicious that he might decide to hide. When he reached the top step, he stopped and waited for one of the lairds to bid him to come forward. Brodick noticed him and motioned to him.
Gelroy cleared his throat to get MacHugh’s attention and said, “Laird, I cannot leave until I know that Lady Gabrielle will be safe from these monsters. With your permission, I’ll go and stand by her side.”
Before MacHugh could respond, Gelroy straightened his shoulders and turned to Brodick. “Laird Buchanan, Gabrielle’s father isn’t here to defend her honor, and you are her only relative. You must help her.”
“Do not tell me my duty, priest.” Brodick’s voice was harsh. “I know it well.”
“Yes, of course you do,” he said, nodding vigorously.
Dismissing Gelroy, Brodick watched the crowd below. They were being whipped into a frenzy by Coswold and Percy.
“Colm, I’ll take her home with me. I can protect her there.”
“Keeping her safe won’t restore her honor,” Colm said grimly.
Brodick agreed. “She deserves better.”
“Her father…he isn’t like those barons?”
“I wouldn’t allow him on my land if he were,” he replied. “I know him to be a righteous man.”
“Send word to him that his daughter is staying with you, and he’ll come and get her.”
“It isn’t that simple. Baron Geoffrey will have to gather his vassals and prepare for war. If the king confiscates his property—”
“He’ll be powerless.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “Gabrielle needs a strong protector. She’s my wife’s cousin. It’s expected that I would shield her, but that wouldn’t prove she is innocent.”
“What do you care what others think?”
“I don’t care,” he countered, “but if Gabrielle were my wife, I would kill any man who would dare attack her honor.”
“As would I,” Colm said.
“But she has no husband to defend her honor.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“I think perhaps you should take her home with you.”
Frowning, Colm said, “And what would that accomplish? What difference would it make if I offered her my protection instead of you? You’re as strong as I am.”
“I cannot marry her.”
The statement lay between them for a long moment before Colm responded. He knew exactly what Brodick wanted. “You ask too much of me.”
“You have a debt to repay. I ask what you can give.”
“Marriage? No. It’s out of the question.”
Brodick shrugged. “It makes sense to me. If you marry her, everyone will know you believe her to be innocent. You would not marry a whore. You’re respected and feared by most of the other clans. You could restore her honor by giving her your name.”
“No. You will have to come up with another solution,” Colm answered emphatically.
Brodick wasn’t deterred. He knew Colm MacHugh would eventually do the honorable thing.
“Do you suggest there might be another laird more powerful than you who hasn’t taken a wife yet?”
“I am not suggesting anything, Buchanan. This is your problem to solve, not mine.”
“A wife for a brother. You save her life as I helped save your brother.”
Colm’s jaw was clenched tight.
A Buchanan called out. “Lairds, Lady Gabrielle is leaving. They’ve opened the gates.”
Brodick looked at the commons just as a man stepped forward and spit on the ground in front of Gabrielle.
Colm saw another man pushing his way through the throng as Gabrielle was walking toward the gates. The man called out to her, but she ignored him and continued on. He grabbed her arm then, swung her around, and hit her face with his fist. Had he not had a firm grip on her, she would have dropped to the ground.
Colm was already heading for the stairs with Brodick right behind him as he called out to one of his men, “Find out who he is.”
All the warriors, both Buchanans and MacHughs, understood the command. Gelroy didn’t. He hadn’t seen what happened below.
“Who is he talking about? What does he want?” the priest asked one of the men who was pushing his way past.
The man didn’t slow his descent. “He wants to know who struck Lady Gabrielle.”
“Someone struck her? Oh dear Lord,” Gelroy replied. He pivoted on the step and rushed behind the others. “But why does he—”
The last warrior to leave answered. “The MacHugh wants to know the name of the man he’s going to kill.”
S HE WAS TRAPPED IN A NIGHTMARE.
An hour ago she was Lady Gabrielle, daughter of Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire and Princess Genevieve of St. Biel. She had been loved, happy, and hopeful for her future. Now Gabrielle was hated, treated like a leper, and she had no future.
It was too much to take in. Survival was what mattered right now. She had to find a safe place for her and her guards. And though she didn’t have a destination in mind, she wanted to get as far away as possible from the heinous barons and their henchmen. Then perhaps she would be able to make sense out of what had just happened.
First, however, she needed time to calm down and quiet her racing heart. She could barely breathe. Strangers screamed foul names at her as she passed them on the long, seemingly endless walk to the front gates.
The humiliation and shame were unbearable. It took all of her concentration to show no emotion. She didn’t hurry her pace—though God knows she wanted to run—and she didn’t allow a single tear to fall, for to do either would have given the rabid crowd satisfaction. Pride was all she had left. She would not let them take that from her.
The side of her face throbbed from the hit she’d taken. She’d seen the fist coming and tried to step back from her attacker, a brute of a man with hatred smeared all over his ugly face, but he latched on to her and wouldn’t let her retreat. Fortunately, she was able to twist away and lessen the impact. He was more than twice her size and weight. If she hadn’t moved, his fist surely would have broken her jaw.
“Don’t damage her,” Coswold had bellowed a scant second before the attacker’s fist slammed into her face.
The blow had stunned her, and she had staggered back just as a stone struck her from behind. She quickly righted herself and kept walking. Another stone and then another hit her. Though dazed, she still heard the baron’s shout. Damage her? What a ludicrous command. Coswold, Isla, and Percy had already destroyed her reputation and attacked her character. She had been stripped of everything. In the eyes of her countrymen, she no longer existed, and she belonged nowhere. What difference did it make if they disfigured her as well?
The abbot was waiting for her at the gate. He pulled it open, bowed his head, and whispered, “God be with you.”
Did he believe the lies? There were tears in his eyes, but she couldn’t tell if they were tears of sympathy or shame.
She stepped outside, heard the huge door shut behind her, and then the harsh sound of the bolt slipping into place.
Stephen let out a shout when he saw her. He leaped from his horse and ran to her while Faust, Lucien, and Christien all drew their swords in preparation for a fight.
She knew she must look awful. A stone had cut her skin just below her right eye, and she felt blood trickling down her cheek. Her jaw was sore and probably already beginning to swell and bruise.
“Princess, what happened to you?” Stephen asked, appalled.
“I’m all right,” she answered, her voice surprisingly strong, “but we must leave. Now.”
“You’re bleeding!” Christien’s face was red with anger as he swung toward the closed gates. “Who did this to you? We will kill him.”
“No, you will not go back into the abbey,” she demanded.
Faust pulled his tunic over his head and doused it with water from his leather pouch. Leaning down from his saddle, he handed the wet cloth to Gabrielle. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
“No,” she assured him, quickly wiping the blood from her cheek. “I’ll tell you everything, but please, we must be away from here with all possible haste.”
They heard the urgency in her voice and didn’t question the command. Stephen lifted her onto Rogue’s back, handed her the reins, then swung up on his mount. Assuming she wanted to catch up with her father’s staff, he turned south.
“No,” she cried out. “We must go north.”
“Won’t your father—” Lucien began.
“You don’t understand. If the barons change their minds and decide to take me to the king—their King John,” she corrected, “they will look for us to the south. They’ll never find us hidden in the forest.”
“But why—” Stephen began.
“No questions now,” she said. “When we are away from here, I will explain.”
Stephen nodded. “We go north.”
Christien was the last in the procession and the first to feel the ground shake beneath him. The Highlanders approached from the hill below. He called to the others riding ahead of him.
When she turned and saw the approaching horde, Gabrielle panicked, thinking her enemies were in pursuit. But as they drew closer, she recognized the two men leading them: Buchanan and MacHugh. They looked wild and ferocious and proud…and dangerous. A magnificent sight: like a bolt of lightning, beautiful to observe from a distance but terrifying up close.
The sound of the pounding hooves was deafening.
“Let them pass,” she shouted to her guards. She guided Rogue to the left to give the charging Highlanders room, but they didn’t go around. They fanned out. Gabrielle urged Rogue into a full gallop, yet they gained on her, surrounding her and her guards and swallowing them into their midst. Enclosed in this thick circle of warriors, they rolled over one hill and climbed the next.
Anyone looking out from the abbey would have seen only the clansmen heading back to their homes. Gabrielle and her guards were completely hidden from view.
Was that their intent? She was so relieved and thankful to be getting farther and farther away from the barons, she wasn’t going to worry about the Highlanders’ motives. Besides, she’d already spotted Father Gelroy bouncing along on his mount. A grimace on his face, the poor priest appeared to be hanging on to the pommel of his saddle for dear life. If any of them meant to do harm, would they have brought a priest along to witness their dark deeds?
They veered to the northwest. When they reached the edge of Finney’s Flat, a good two hours’ ride from the abbey, she heard one of the men shout that they were on Buchanan land. Rogue was more than ready to rest, and Gabrielle wasn’t going to push her horse any farther without a respite.
She was surprised the Highlanders didn’t trample her when she abruptly pulled up. They stopped with her, but before she even had time to dismount, they were on the ground, surrounding her.
Her guards stood at attention, ready for what might come. Their hands were at their sides, but their stance wasn’t relaxed. They knew that if they even looked as though they were going to reach for their swords, it would be their last earthly act. The Highland warriors would kill to protect their lairds, just as the guards would fight to the death for their princess. As long as the Highlanders didn’t press in on them, they would stand their ground.