“And? Get on with it. Tell me more.”
“Time passed, and I was called to the king’s bedside to administer the sacrament of the last rites, for he was dying. His son was by his side and had spent the last hours with him, receiving instructions for the care of his kingdom. Again, the treasury doors were open as I happened by on my way to the chapel. But now the room was empty. There wasn’t any gold, not even one coin, anywhere.”
“How much was hidden away?’
“I don’t know.”
“Guess,” he ordered.
“There is speculation that there was enough to win a war. Gold is power. It can buy anything…even a kingdom.”
“So where is the gold now?”
“I don’t know. It just…disappeared. Perhaps it was all sent to the pope.” He backed away from Coswold and bowed. “If there aren’t other questions, I would like to go home and rest these weary bones.”
“Go,” Coswold said. “But keep this conversation to yourself.”
The priest nodded his agreement and started back up the hill.
Coswold let out a scornful chuckle. How could a treasure so large just vanish with no one to account for it? He shouted after the old man, “So this stupid king of yours hid his gold away and told no one. He took his secret to his grave. How cunning was that?”
Father Alphonse turned around, barely controlling his anger. “Why would you think he didn’t tell anyone?”
B ARON COSWOLD WAS OUTRAGED. HE HAD ONLY JUST RETURNED from St. Biel when he was given the news by one of the king’s messengers that Lady Gabrielle was to be married to Laird Monroe at Arbane Abbey in just three months’ time. How could this be? The news stunned him. The royal messenger also had orders to give Coswold from King John, but the baron found it nearly impossible to concentrate. He asked the messenger several times to repeat himself.
The baron barely managed to control his anger until he returned home. Then he let loose. He was furious with the king for once again breaking his promise. He stormed into the great hall, picked up a pitcher and a bowl, and hurled both into the hearth.
Isla, his sister’s daughter, was there to greet him. She was a timid creature who had idolized Coswold and had hung on his every word since the day he’d taken her in. Isla had witnessed several of her uncle’s tantrums in the past and knew to cower in the corner of the hall until he was finished.
In his fury he forgot she was even in the room. He paced about, kicking and throwing anything in his path, acting like a spoiled child who wasn’t getting his way. He swept a goblet and pitcher from the top of a chest and smirked with perverse satisfaction as it shattered against the wall.
“I have no one to blame but myself,” he ranted. “I’m the fool here for believing that lying son of a whore. Why did I think this time would be any different? When has the bastard pretender king ever told the truth? When?” he shouted.
Isla nervously tugged on her bliaut and took a timid step away from the wall. Dare she answer him? Did he even want her to? She nibbled on her lower lip while she thought about it. If she made a wrong decision, her uncle might turn his wrath on her. It had happened once before, and for nearly a month she’d carried the bruises on her arms where he grabbed her and shook her. That memory helped her make up her mind. Isla remained silent until Coswold calmed down.
Ten minutes later he collapsed into a chair at the table and demanded wine. A servant rushed into the hall with a goblet and a pitcher to replace the ones he’d broken. The goblet was filled to the rim with the bloodred liquid. Some of it sloshed over the side as she placed it on the table. She quickly wiped the spill with a cloth, bowed low, and backed away from the baron.
He took a long gulp, leaned back in his chair, and let out a loud sigh. “There are no honest men in England these days. None at all.”
Spent now, he turned, noticed Isla, and called out to her. “Come, sit with me. Tell me what news you have collected while I’ve been away. What of Percy? What has that bastard been up to?”
A plain woman, Isla was happy for the attention. She rushed to the table and took her seat at the opposite end facing her uncle.
“Baron Percy was sent to the Highlands just as you left for St. Biel.”
“I already knew that,” he said impatiently. “Is he back yet?”
“Aye, he is,” she answered. “But I have heard from his squire that he is preparing to leave for Arbane Abbey within the next few weeks. He was most unhappy about Lady Gabrielle’s coming marriage and was said to carry on something terrible. The squire told me he cried.”
It was the first bit of good news he’d heard since Coswold stepped off the miserable ship. He chuckled as he thought about Percy weeping like an old woman. “He truly did cry? Did anyone see him? Tell me more.”
Isla was about to tell him that she had heard that Percy had kicked and screamed and thrown things when he had heard that the lady was to wed Laird Monroe, but then she realized Coswold had just finished doing the very same thing. He might not take kindly to the comparison.
“He vowed that he would marry her with or without the king’s permission and with or without her father’s permission.”
Coswold snorted with laughter. “He has always had lofty dreams.”
She bowed her head. “I wish that he would lower his expectations of a wife.”
He paid no attention to her remark. Coswold gulped down the rest of the wine from his goblet, used his sleeve to wipe the drips from his chin, then poured himself more. “Did Percy tell anyone how he planned to accomplish such an amazing feat?”
“Do you mean how he plans to marry Lady Gabrielle without gaining permission?”
“Aye, that’s what I mean.”
Before he could chastise her for letting her mind wander and not paying attention, she blurted, “Nay, he didn’t explain to anyone. The same squire told me that if the king does not attend the ceremony, then Baron Percy will represent him.”
“So King John is planning to go to Arbane Abbey?”
She nodded. “But the baron doesn’t believe the king will make it there in time, for His Highness told him he has many other commitments he must see to first.”
“And Percy’s hoping John won’t attend, isn’t that right?” He scowled as he asked the question.
Once again Isla nodded. “Percy boasted that the king has given him full power to speak in his name and make decisions with his blessings as well.”
Coswold’s good mood was dampered by the news. “Baron Percy can make any decision he wishes?” he muttered. “This is true?”
“That is what I’ve been told.” Isla dropped her folded hands on the table and cried out, “You must marry Gabrielle, Uncle. For even though it is wrong, I have feelings for Baron Percy. You know this well. Do you not see how I suffer?”
Coswold rubbed his jaw. “He flatters you, Isla, because he sees how a kind word will turn your head and win your loyalty.”
Her hand flew to her heart. “I shall always be loyal to you. When my father died, you took me in and made certain that all my needs were met. I love you, and I would never ever be disloyal to you.” In a rush, she added, “But I know how much you want Lady Gabrielle, and if you were to marry her, then perhaps Baron Percy will look to me for a wife. I know that I’m not as pretty as most, but if you are married, then I will also be related to her, won’t I? And won’t that count for something with Percy?”
He hardly knew how to answer. He almost felt sorry for her, because she had such impossible dreams. Percy would never marry the likes of her. Coswold doubted that any man would give her the time of day, for she was most unattractive. Her skin was sallow and pockmarked, and her lips were but thin lines that seemed to disappear when she spoke. She had made Coswold a good servant and a companion now that she was grown, and he wouldn’t be averse to keeping her in his home until he or she died. But if Isla longed for marriage, who could Coswold find to marry her? She didn’t have much of a dowry unless he added to what her father had left her. He knew that if the dowry were large enough, she would have many suitors, but he was unwilling to give up any of what he had. Now that her parents were dead, Coswold was Isla’s only family. When she realized her uncle wouldn’t increase her dowry, she would get upset, of course, but it would pass, and she would eventually accept her lowly lot. She had nowhere else to go.
“One must always have hope,” he muttered for lack of anything better to say. “Remember, Percy and I are enemies. I don’t think he will forget our animosity, especially if I should marry Gabrielle. It seems, however, that Laird Monroe will be winning that prize.”
“You could change that,” Isla said. “You’re cunning and so clever. You could find a way to marry her. I’ve been told she doesn’t even know she’s to marry the laird yet.”
“I think perhaps you have false hope, but I won’t discourage you.”
“And if I should win Percy’s heart, you would give him permission to wed me?” she asked eagerly.
“Thank you, Uncle,” she whispered. Content now that she had gained his promise, she remembered her manners. “How was your journey? Did it go well?”
Coswold loosened the belt around his waist and, stretching his feet out in front of him, slouched back in his chair. “St. Biel is a miserable place. It’s cold when it should be warm and burning hot when it should be cold.”
“Did you find the treasure for the king?”
“I did not.”
“Does it exist?”
His answer was immediate. “No.”
There was no point in telling her what he really thought. As besotted as she was with Percy, Isla could very well let anything he said slip out at the wrong moment. Love made women foolish.
Coswold wasn’t telling anyone that he believed the treasure existed. He planned to find it and keep it all for himself. He certainly wasn’t going to share a single gold coin with King John, who had lied to him for the last time. With such a vast fortune at his fingertips, Coswold could build an army and take whatever he wanted when he wanted it. Ah, the thought of such freedom made his head spin.
To achieve his dreams, he had to be practical. Gabrielle held the key to the whereabouts of the gold. He was certain the secret of the hidden treasure had been passed down from one generation to the next. If he couldn’t have her, in order to glean the information from her, then he would make certain Gabrielle was given to someone he could manipulate. And he had the perfect man in mind.
“In a few days I must go on another long journey,” Coswold remarked.
“Must you go far?”
He nodded. “All the way to the Highlands.”
She gasped. “You’re going to Arbane Abbey?”
“I must first meet with King John to answer his questions about St. Biel. Fortunately, he’s in the north now, and when we are finished with our meeting, I’ll continue on to the Highlands.”
“To the abbey.” She nodded as she made the statement.
“I have another destination in mind, but when I’m finished there, I will head to the abbey. I should arrive in plenty of time for the wedding.”
Isla took a deep breath to summon her courage. “I know it’s wrong for me to ask for anything more, but is there a chance I might go with you? I would love to see the princess marry. I’m certain it will be a grand ceremony.”
Now she was lying to him. She wasn’t interested in seeing Lady Gabrielle wed. Percy would be there, and she wanted to see him. Coswold was about to refuse her request, then changed his mind. His niece might be of help to him.
She lowered her head in dejection, accepting his refusal before he had even given it.
“Aye, you may come.”
Her head snapped up. Overjoyed, tears immediately welled in her eyes. Soon she would see the love of her life, and perhaps she would find a way to make him love her. Anything was possible. And Isla would do anything to marry Baron Percy.
T HEY WERE GOING TO BURY THE MACHUGH’S BROTHER IN the center of the battlefield, and to amuse themselves, they decided to bury him alive.
The field chosen for his execution was called Finney’s Flat, hallowed ground for the MacKennas. The clan was now calling the valley Glen MacKenna, for so many of their own fine soldiers had been slaughtered there. When the last battle had ended, the ground was stained black with MacKenna blood.
Laird Colm MacHugh had been responsible for the carnage. The mighty chieftain and his fierce warriors had poured down the mountain like a cauldron of oil boiling over, their scalding fury destroying everything in their path. Their gleaming swords raised, their united battle cry vibrated the jagged rocks. To the MacKenna soldiers waiting below to do battle, it had been a terrifying sight.
MacHugh was the most spine-chilling sight of all. Until that day some of the MacKenna soldiers had refused to believe the laird actually existed, for the tales of his ruthlessness in battle and his feats of Herculean strength couldn’t possibly be accurate…unless, as some of the whispered rumors alleged, the MacHugh was in fact more beast than man.
Some who had gotten a glimpse of him swore he was half lion, half man: his chiseled face, his golden hair similar in color to a lion’s mane, and his ferocity in battle like that of an animal. Invisible one second, he pounced the next, methodically ripping his prey apart limb by limb.
Or so it was told.
The more enlightened warriors scoffed at such a fanciful notion. The MacHugh was but a shadow with supernatural power, they argued. He disappeared at will, but when his shadow approached, a poor soul could ward off death only by dropping to his knees and praying for mercy. The MacHugh was invincible, impossible to grasp or capture. The only warning that he was about to strike was the music that came before. Shadow music. His battle cry blended in perfect harmony with the whistle of his blade as his sword sliced through the air. When a soldier heard that sound, he was already dead.
Laird Owen MacKenna knew all too well that Colm MacHugh was flesh and bone. Twice in the past year MacKenna had stood in the same great hall with him and twenty other lairds. They had gathered for meetings at the request of Scotland’s king. The mighty MacHugh hadn’t directly spoken to him either time, but MacKenna felt the sting of his words just the same. When matters affecting their adjoining lands were brought forth, the king and the other lairds turned to MacHugh for direction, as though his land and his strength held more importance than MacKenna’s. And always in contention was Finney’s Flat. The valley ran adjacent to both the MacHugh and the MacKenna holdings. The land was fertile with nary a rock in sight, perfect for their sheep to graze and perhaps a bit of barley planting, but neither clan could claim it. It belonged to John, king of England, granted to him years earlier by the king of Scotland as a conciliatory gesture. Each time MacKenna tried to take a piece of the land for himself, MacHugh saw to it that he was pushed back.