The Ghost 1
Carlisle Castle, Cumbria, England, April 16, 1314
YOU ARE DRIVING me wild,” the young knight said as he frantically pressed his hot mouth all over her neck. “God, you smell so good.”
Joan wished she could say the same, but as Sir Richard Fitzgerald—the second-in-command of the Earl of Ulster’s Irish naval forces—had cornered her after the midday meal, he smelled distinctly of smoked herring, which needless to say was not her favorite.
When he tried to press his mouth on hers again, not even the prospect of learning the movements of the entire English fleet could have stopped her from turning her head. “We can’t,” she said softly. The slight breathiness in her voice was not from passion, but from the effort of fending off a determined would-be lover tired of hearing no. “Someone might discover us.”
Which was why she’d chosen this as a place to meet. It was private but not too private. She never left herself without a means of escape.
Deftly twisting out of his tentacle-like embrace with the ease of someone who’d had practice escaping men with hands like a hydra many times before, she looked around anxiously as if to prove her point.
They stood in a quiet section of the garden in the castle’s outer ward, where she’d announced that she was going to take a stroll after the long meal. As she’d intended, Sir Richard had followed her there and had pulled her behind one of the rose trellises.
The young captain scowled, his face flushed with frustrated desire. With his light eyes, blondish-red hair, ruddy, wind-burned complexion, and sturdy build, he bore the marked stamp of his Irish forebears. He was not unattractive. Not that it mattered. She’d lost her weakness for handsome young knights a long time ago.
“No one would discover us if you would agree to come to my room. My squire can sleep in the barracks for the night.”
“I couldn’t,” she said, as if the suggestion shocked her, though it was hardly the first time she’d heard it.
His smile might have been charming to someone with less experience in the ways of men. “Nothing untoward will happen,” he assured her with a gentle brush of his finger on her cheek.
Right. Every time she heard false promises like that, it became more difficult to feign wide-eyed innocence. With some effort, she managed. “Are you sure?”
He nodded, his voice turning husky. “We can just spend a little time alone together. I thought you wanted that.”
She gnawed anxiously on her bottom lip, as if contemplating the illicit offer. His gaze heated as he obviously contemplated equally illicit things about her mouth.
“Of course I do,” she said. “But it’s too risky, and there is plenty of time—”
“No there isn’t,” he snapped, losing patience with the two-week-long seduction that he no doubt thought would have progressed much further than a very few stolen kisses by now. She was supposed to be easy prey. “I received orders yesterday. I’m to leave in three days.”
Finally, the information for which she’d been waiting! Joan had begun to despair of ever hearing anything of import from him. Young knights were usually so eager to boast and brag—which is why she targeted them (that and they weren’t married)—but Sir Richard had been frustratingly closemouthed.
She hid her excitement and relief behind a mask of concern. “Orders? You are leaving? But I thought you had until June to muster at Berwick.”
“I’m not going to Berwick.” He sounded distracted. His eyes had dropped to her chest again—a frequent occurrence. “God, you are so beautiful. There isn’t another woman like you.”
As he looked like he might try to kiss her again, she shuffled “nervously” and spoke quickly. “You’re not? Has the war been called off, then?”
He glanced up from his lustful study of her breasts. She hoped he thought her as stupid as she sounded. If his amused but slightly patronizing smile was any indication, he did.
“No, the war hasn’t been called off. But my duties are on the sea in advance of the army.”
Which is why she was here with him. It was rumored that the Earl of Ulster—Sir Richard’s commander who was currently in York meeting with King Edward—would be in charge of supplying the castles in advance of the English invasion. King Robert the Bruce would love to know of their plans. Though Ulster was Bruce’s father-in-law, he was Edward of England’s man.
She acted as if the news of his leaving was devastating. “But where are you going? When will you be back? Will it be dangerous?”
Whether he would have answered her questions, she would not find out. The sound of approaching voices put a quick end to the conversation. Leaning over, he pressed a quick kiss on her lips that she could not avoid. Herring.
“Meet me later,” he whispered before slipping away.
Not a chance in Satan’s garden, she thought with a shudder. At least until she had a means of escape.
Cursing, knowing she might not have another opportunity like this again, she walked out from behind the trellis to greet the ill-timed interruption as the group of ladies came around the corner of a large hedge that surrounded some of the raised flower beds.
Joan had been so close. But her contingency plan had worked too well. She hadn’t wanted to risk being alone with him too long. She didn’t know how much longer she could keep putting him off. It was a dangerous game she played, and she knew only too well what a fine line she walked.
This was not the first time she’d encouraged a man to get information. She’d been spying for Robert the Bruce for almost six years now.
Shortly after her father’s death, the Bishop of St. Andrews, William Lamberton, a loyal supporter of Bruce’s who was being held in England at the time, had approached Joan to see if she would be willing to serve as an intermediary between Bruce and his imprisoned wife. Queen Elizabeth had been captured along with Joan’s mother, but she’d been spared a cage for confinement under the supervision of Sir Hugh Despenser the elder—Joan’s newly named guardian.
The bishop’s offer was exactly the opportunity Joan had been waiting for to do something, and she’d agreed immediately. Although admittedly, at the time, she had no idea what she was getting into. Over the years her role had grown increasingly more important—and more dangerous—shifting from messenger to spy after she’d falsely been declared illegitimate, dispossessed of her inheritance, and sent to live with her cousin Alice Comyn, who had married Sir Henry de Beaumont, one of King Edward’s most important barons in the north. Joan’s position in de Beaumont’s household had given her unexpected access to important information—and important men.
With her “tainted” blood, infamous mother, and no one to defend her, Joan had been easy prey. Men had targeted her for their unwelcome attention since she was fifteen. She’d been too young to protect herself then, but eventually, she’d turned it to her advantage.
Although some men—like Sir Richard—had a hard time hearing no, over the years she had learned to handle even the most determined of pursuers. Thanks in large part to the man who’d served as her personal sentinel since he’d first learned of her work for Bruce.
Lachlan MacRuairi, who’d freed and then later married her mother, had taught Joan how to move around without being seen, how to extract herself from unwanted situations, and, if necessary, how to defend herself. It was because of him that she’d been made a secret member of the elite Highland Guard, Bruce’s highly skilled team of warriors who had been recruited for the most dangerous missions. Only Lachlan knew her identity; the other members of the Guard simply called her the Ghost.
The name fit, probably more than they realized. Most of the time she felt like a shadow. There, but not really there. Seen, but unseen. Unable to touch or be touched, and incapable of feeling.
The ladies stopped to return her greeting but did not invite her to join them on their walk. As this was what Joan expected, she wasn’t disappointed. It was a lesson she’d learned a long time ago. If you don’t expect much of people, it won’t hurt when they don’t give it to you. Her father had been her first example, but many more had followed.
Realizing that it was getting late, and that her cousin would be looking for her soon to help her pick out what to wear for the evening meal (a process that seemed to take most of the afternoon), Joan started to make her way over the portcullis of the interior moat to the inner ward.
As the guardian of the castle for the king, de Beaumont had been given the largest suite of rooms on the top level of the new two-story tower that only had been completed a handful of years ago. As companion to her cousin, Joan had a small antechamber off the “lord’s chamber.” It wasn’t large, but it had a window directly overlooking the countryside beyond the east wall, and most important . . . it was private. Unfortunately, her cousin intercepted her, and it was hours before Joan was able to seek the solitude of her chamber.
At first, she didn’t notice anything amiss. She tossed the plaid she wore around her shoulders on the bed, kicked off her slippers, pulled the pins from her hair, and threw them on the small dressing table before moving to the window.
She froze. The tiny piece of silk thread that she’d tied to the latch on the shutter had been snapped.
Excitement burst through her. Finally! She had him. It was a game between her and Lachlan. Known for his ability to get in and out of anywhere without being seen, he’d been surprising her for years—and she’d been trying to catch him.
Trying. Unsuccessfully, at least, until now. A rare smile turned her mouth. The feeling that filled her chest was so foreign she almost didn’t recognize it: happiness.
Moving swiftly to the ambry door, she pulled it open. “Hello, Father.”
Calling him Father had started out as a jest to make him feel old—he’d just turned forty to her twenty—but she knew it wasn’t just that anymore. The man her father had called a bastard, brigand, and pirate was much more of a parent to her than her own had ever been.
She heard a very un-fatherly curse before the big warrior materialized from behind her gowns. He scowled, although for a man with the war name of Viper there wasn’t much behind it. “How did you know?”
She folded her arms across her chest and quirked a brow the way he did to her. “You don’t expect me to tell you all my secrets, do you?”
Many people who knew him would be surprised to see how easily his mouth curved into a smile. The mean brigand with the black heart had changed, though he’d probably die before admitting it. He had a reputation to uphold after all.
“Not bad, little one. If all my men were so easily trained, my job would be a hell of a lot easier.”
She grinned. Then realizing that she might actually be beaming, she sobered. “As much as I look forward to our little family reunions, I’m assuming for you to have risked climbing through that window your reason for being here is important.”
He nodded and motioned for her to sit. She sat on the edge of the bed and he took a seat opposite her on the stone windowsill. He shot a meaningful glance to the door. She shook her head. “My cousin and Sir Henry are still in the Hall.”
He nodded and continued. “Carrick plans to make an attempt on the castle tonight here along the east wall.” He gave her a dry look. “I know it goes against your nature—God knows it’s against your mother’s—but try to stay out of danger and not go running toward it, will you?”
She laughed. “I’ll do my best, and I appreciate the warning. But I hope the earl has a good plan. The English are tired of Bruce taking back all of his castles—they’ll not give up one of their most important without a fight. I don’t have to tell you how well defended it is.”
“Nay, I had a devil of a time—” He stopped, his eyes narrowing. “If that’s a trick to try to get me to tell you how I got in, it isn’t going to work.”
She blinked at him innocently, which he didn’t believe for a minute.
“Christ, now I know where she got it from!”
Her brows drew together questioningly.
“Your sister. Christina gives me that look every time she’s done something naughty—which seems to be a daily occurrence.”
Joan couldn’t prevent the tiny pinch in her chest. She’d never regretted the decision not to return to Scotland with her mother after Lachlan had rescued her—Joan had chosen her path and knew it was a solitary one—but she did regret not knowing her young half siblings. She had three now: Erik, who would be five in a few months; Christina, who was three and a half; and Robbie, who was almost eighteen months.
“You know what the Bible says: ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap.’?”
Lachlan shook his head with a sigh. “That’s what your mother says.”
He told her what he knew of Edward Bruce’s plan to take the castle, which in her opinion—and Lachlan’s from the sound of it—seemed to be more a “why not take a shot as long as we are here” than a well-thought-through operation.
“So the bulk of the men will attack the main gate, while a small force in black cloaks to blend into the night will attempt to slip over the curtain wall behind the kitchens?” she summarized. “It seems like I’ve heard something like that before,” she added dryly, referring to James Douglas’s taking of Roxburgh Castle and Thomas Randolph’s taking of Edinburgh Castle, which had used similar tactics.
Lachlan shook his head. “The king’s brother will never be accused of inventiveness. But I think he is tired of hearing about Douglas and Randolph and wants to have his own ‘miraculous feat of warfare.’ Just see that you are nowhere near the kitchens after midnight.”
“No late-night snacks for me, I swear it. Even if the cook makes apple tarts.”
He shook his head and chuckled. “Now you sound like Erik. Don’t turn your back on your sweets with that one around.”
She smiled, but when their eyes met, she suspected he’d guessed what she was thinking—there was little chance she’d get that opportunity. At least not while the war was going on and while she remained undiscovered. She was too valuable here. If she were discovered . . . well, they both knew what would happen then.
“That reminds me. I have something for you,” Lachlan added.
“A tart?” she jested, trying to cover the oddly emotional moment.
It didn’t work. “Nay,” he said seriously. “This. You are one of us now, and since a tattoo isn’t appropriate, I thought this might suffice.”
He handed her a gold bracelet. It was about two and a half inches wide and in the shape of a cuff. It opened with a hinge on one side and two tiny latches on the other. It was beautifully designed with a carved ornate pattern on the outside that reminded her of the old crosses in the churchyards back home in Buchan in the northeast of Scotland. But it’s what she saw on the inside that made her gasp.
She looked up at her stepfather with her heart in her throat. The design lightly etched on the inside of the cuff was familiar to her, although she’d never seen it. The Lion Rampant and spiderweb was the mark tattooed on the arms of the members of the Highland Guard. Hers was personalized with something else that was important to her—two tiny roses. The pink rose had become a symbol among the people to protest her mother’s cruel and barbaric punishment.
She didn’t know what to say. She feared if she said anything, he would know how much this meant to her, but hiding her emotions was part of the armor that enabled her to do her job. “It’s beautiful. Thank you,” she managed. “This means . . . a lot.”
Maybe understanding more than she would have liked, he nodded. “Rock made it.” Joan had heard of the newest member of the Highland Guard—and the feat he’d performed in climbing Castle Rock to help take Edinburgh Castle. “I don’t need to tell you to be careful with it. Enough people know what that means.”
She slipped it on. “I will.”
“Leave it with the priest at St. Mary’s if you ever need me.” He looked at her for a few moments longer as if undecided about something. “I should probably go. The others are waiting for me.”
She nodded. It was hard when he left. She always felt so . . . alone. Most of the time she liked it that way. But the short, infrequent meetings with Lachlan were the only time she could talk to someone without being on guard.
Lachlan pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to her. “I probably shouldn’t be giving you this, but here is the powder you requested from Helen.”
Helen MacKay—known as Angel—was the de facto physician of the Guard.
Joan tried not to wriggle under his intense scrutiny, but those eerie green eyes had a way of penetrating. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping,” she explained.
She thought he might call her lie right there, but he refrained. “Helen told me to remind you not to mix it with spirits—the effects are intensified.”
“I’ll remember that,” she said blankly.
He wasn’t fooled. “You better be careful, Joan. If your mother finds out what you are doing . . .”
She lifted her chin. “I can take care of myself, Lachlan. I’ve been doing so for six years.” Eight if she counted back to when her mother left.
“I don’t ask you how you discover all this information—”
“Good,” she said, cutting him off. “It’s none of your concern.”
He ignored her warning. “But I’m hearing rumors.”
She stiffened and gave him a hard look. “You better than anyone know better than to listen to gossip.”
The lies that were spread about him were far worse than anything they might say about her.
“Maybe so, but I also know there is usually a little bit of truth to them.”
She pursed her mouth closed, signaling that she wasn’t going to talk about it anymore.
He sighed. “You keep your thoughts hidden better than any warrior I know—your mother used to do the same thing—but don’t think I haven’t noticed how sad you seem lately. I can’t remember the last time I saw you smile.”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. But seeing that she hadn’t convinced him, she added, “I know you are worried, but you don’t need to be. I know what I’m doing.”
Whatever it takes so that no one else ever has to see her mother in a cage.
The damned fools were going to get him killed.
Alex was riding at the head of the long train of English soldiers when they first caught sight of the smoke.
“Scot raiders,” their scout confirmed shortly thereafter, having raced back with the news. “A few furlongs ahead.”
Two years later and the word still made every muscle in his body tense with . . . frustration? Anger? A sense of futility?
Raider, the war name of his former partner in the Highland Guard, Robbie Boyd. The man who’d pushed Alex for seven years until he’d pushed him too far.
You raze me, I’ll raze you more. The retaliatory raids that characterized the war in the Borders had driven Alex to London two years ago, yet here he was back in the north and the first thing that confronted him was fire—or the smoke from it.
“How many?” Pembroke asked. Aymer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke, was the leader of the two hundred knights and men-at-arms who were making their way north to answer King Edward’s call to muster.
Since he’d left Scotland and the Guard, Alex had been in the south of England able to avoid the fighting and the prospect of meeting his former compatriots across a battlefield. But no longer. King Edward had ordered him to march north with Pembroke ahead of the army to prepare for battle against Bruce. Like many of his Scot countrymen in Edward’s allegiance, Alex served in an English earl’s retinue.
“Not many, my lord,” the scout answered. “Two score—perhaps less. The man leading them wore a surcoat of white with a red chevron.”
Alex swore silently. That coat of arms was only too well known.
Pembroke could barely contain his glee. “By God, it’s Carrick! We’ve a chance to take Bruce’s only remaining brother. Ready your men,” he ordered the knights around him, including Alex. “We’ll circle around them from all sides. I don’t want any chance of him escaping.”
Despite the English being on the losing end of such confrontations most of the time over the last six years, it apparently never occurred to Pembroke that they might be the ones who would need to escape. English arrogance was one of Alex’s many frustrations.
Though experience taught him that it would likely be futile, he tried to urge caution anyway. “Carrick wouldn’t be raiding this far into England so close to Carlisle Castle with only forty men. Perhaps we should wait until the other scouts report back?”
Something about this didn’t feel right, and Alex had learned a long time ago to trust his senses. He’d also learned that things like odds and superior numbers didn’t matter to Bruce’s warriors. And perhaps most important, he’d learned to never rush into battle without knowing exactly what you were up against.
They didn’t even know the terrain they were working with—and it was getting dark.
Pembroke gave him a scathing glare. “And risk losing him?” His eyes narrowed. “You would think the brother of one of the most famed knights in Christendom would be eager to fight and prove himself. Perhaps you aren’t eager to cross swords with your old compatriots?”
Alex ignored the insult and thinly veiled questioning of his loyalty—it had been his constant companion the past nine years no matter what side he was fighting on. Born in England and raised in Scotland, Alex was suspect to both. Sometimes he wondered if he would ever belong anywhere.
But it was much harder to ignore the reference to his brother. Sir Christopher Seton had indeed been one of the greatest knights in Christendom, Robert Bruce’s closest friend and companion, and the person Alex most looked up to in the world. Chris had been executed along with Alex’s other brother, John, eight years ago because of Pembroke’s treachery. At the Battle of Methven, Sir Aymer had given his word as a knight that he wouldn’t attack until the next morning, but he’d broken that word and sent his men into Bruce’s camp in the middle of the night.
One of the reasons Alex felt he could no longer fight with the Highland Guard was that he was tired of furtive tactics and wanted to take the fight to the battlefield like a knight. Yet here he was taking orders from the man whose dishonorable treachery had cost him the lives of his brothers.
Irony was a capricious bitch.
It took everything Alex had not to respond and let the pompous bastard get away with the smug reference to his brother. But Pembroke was wrong if he thought Alex needed to prove anything. He might have at one time, but he’d proved himself many times over fighting alongside the best warriors in Christendom. The best of the best; that was why Bruce had chosen them. Each warrior of the Highland Guard had brought an important skill of warfare to the group. Except for Alex, that is. He was good with a dagger, but he’d been recruited because of his brother. Chris couldn’t join—he was too well known—but he wanted his younger brother to be a part of it.
Alex had started out on unequal footing, and it had taken years for him to climb his way up from the bottom rung. But he’d done it. When he’d left, it hadn’t been his warrior skills that were the problem. Hell, he’d even defeated Boyd, the strongest man in Scotland, in hand-to-hand combat, and no one had done that in years.
Though Alex would like nothing more than to prove himself to Pembroke—a fist through that smug smile would be a good start—he resisted the urge. Alex was here to help put an end to this, damn it. If it meant he had to work with arses like Pembroke to do so, he would. The people in the Borders—his people—had been bearing the brunt of this war for too damned long. No more faces in the flames. So he gritted his teeth and tried again. “I will be the first one to lift my sword if we determine Carrick is alone. Just give me a few minutes to find out.”
“He could be gone in a few minutes,” Sir Robert Felton, the captain of Pembroke’s household knights (and even more of an arse than his lord), interjected. “It doesn’t take long to steal a few dozen head of cattle.” He gave Alex a hard look. “And I’ll take the lead with Kingston, la Zouche, and Vescy. With your sword arm still weak, you won’t be much use to us. You can stay in the back and protect the baggage cart with your men.”
After a couple of weeks being around Felton, Alex had new respect for Kenneth Sutherland’s ability to contain his well-known temper. Felton had been Sutherland’s nemesis when he’d returned to the English fold as a spy a few years ago, and Alex didn’t know how Sutherland hadn’t ended up killing him. Alex would like nothing more than to do so right now. But then he would have to use his right hand. His arm was fine, but he wasn’t ready to admit that yet.
This time not only were his teeth gritted, but his fists were clenched around his reins as well. “I take orders from the earl. I wasn’t aware he’d put you in charge.”
“He hasn’t,” Pembroke said with an admonishing glance at Felton. “I shall lead.” In addition to Felton and the knights he’d mentioned, Pembroke added a few others, and then turned to Alex. “Felton was right. We need someone to protect the carts, and until your arm is strong enough you are the obvious choice. Stay here, and I’ll send for you if you and your men are needed.”
Had Felton not been the one to suggest it, Alex might have been glad not to have to face his former friends just yet. Hell, he was glad—Felton or not. He’d hoped to never be in this position.
A few moments later, the bulk of the army rode off, leaving Alex, the dozen men he’d brought with him from his estates in East Lothian, and the fifty or so servants and skilled laborers who accompanied the army, from the stable lads who tended the horses, to the smiths and their apprentices who repaired the armor and shoed the horses. The “small army” as it was called was a vital part of any conventional force, but it also complicated the process and prevented them from moving quickly. By contrast, the small strike forces that Bruce employed weren’t hampered by all the added weight and logistics. That was part of what had made them so successful.
The first clash of battle sounded like a thunderclap; it filtered through the cold evening air as if it were a hundred feet away rather than a half-mile or so. The roar of the attack, the shouts of surprise, the clatter of steel . . . the cries of death. It was fast and furious. Or at least it should have been with nearly two hundred men to forty. But after about five minutes something changed. There was a shift in the sounds of the battle that told him something had happened. A short while later, he found out what.
One of Pembroke’s men-at-arms came racing back. “Take what you can and make for the castle. The Scots are on their way.”
Alex swore. “What happened?”
“Carrick’s men weren’t alone. The Earl of Moray and at least another fifty men were nearby and came as soon as they heard the attack. We were forced to retreat. Sir Aymer and the others are racing to the castle.”
Being right didn’t make Alex any less furious—or frustrated. Sometimes it seemed as if the wall he’d been banging his head against in Scotland had followed him to England. For two years, he’d been trying to get the English to stop underestimating their opponent so they would see a reason to negotiate and bring an end to this bloody war. But all that men like Pembroke seemed to see were their superior numbers, armor, and weaponry. Things that hadn’t stopped Bruce’s men for eight years. Pembroke might have double Carrick’s men, but the arrival of the king’s nephew would have changed the odds. Alex ought to know, as he’d been responsible for some of the Earl of Moray, Sir Thomas Randolph’s, training himself.
Alex shouted orders for his men to take what they could of the valuable plate and the silver Sir Aymer was bringing north to pay the garrison at Carlisle, rounded up the livestock, and ordered the small army to follow the old Roman road to the castle, which should only be a few miles away. The small army wouldn’t be hurt. No matter what horrible stories they told of the “barbarous Scots,” Alex knew that Bruce had given orders only to kill those who fought against them. It was the cattle and coin to provision the army that he was after.
There was nothing barbarous about Bruce’s men, but it wasn’t until Alex had tried to cure the English of all their ignorant misconceptions and beliefs that he’d really understood it himself. The Scots might be terrifying and appear out of the darkness like brigands, but they weren’t.
But unfortunately, unlike the small army, Alex and his men wouldn’t escape death so easily if Bruce’s men caught up with them.
Alex didn’t delay, heading straight for Pembroke’s cart to retrieve the silver.
He’d just shoveled the last of the fifty pounds’ worth of coins from the wooden box into a linen sack to make it easier to fit in a saddlebag, when he heard the not-so-distant sound of approaching riders.
With a curse, he handed the bag to the last of his men and told him to go. They were leaving a lot of valuable goods behind, but there was no help for it.
Knowing Bruce’s men would be on him at any moment, Alex mounted his horse and took one last look around. A movement out of the corner of his eye stopped him cold.
Bloody hell, where had she come from? A wee lass, not much older than five or six, had just emerged from the trees. Alex watched in disbelief as she started to cross the road that was directly in the path of the oncoming horsemen. He shouted a warning, but she didn’t give any indication that she’d heard him. Couldn’t she hear the horses?
She must have felt them. She stopped suddenly—right in the middle of the road—stared down at the ground, and froze. She had her back to him, but Alex didn’t need to see her face to know that it was struck in terror.
Go, he told himself, looking in the direction of the road leading to the castle. You can still escape. They’ll see her in time.
But it was almost dark, and she was wearing a black cloak . . .
She turned and saw him. Her eyes widened, and for one hideous moment, Alex’s mind flashed back to another. He saw another little girl with wide eyes and full of terror staring at him, but this time from the open door of a loft in a barn with flames jumping all around her.
Flames that he had set.
Oh God, I have to reach her in time. Please let me reach her in time . . .
The memory cleared, but not the sense of urgency. He knew he couldn’t take the chance that they wouldn’t see her. He wouldn’t see another innocent life put at risk—not when he could stop it.
He swore again and swung his horse toward the girl. He didn’t have much time. The first rider had just appeared perhaps a hundred feet behind her. They weren’t much farther away than Alex.
He sure as hell hoped his sword skills hadn’t diminished as much as he feared in the past two years, because even if this worked, he was going to be fighting for his life in a few seconds.
With a snap of the reins and a click of his heels, his stallion shot forward. Staying low over its neck, Alex held the reins in one hand and slowed just enough to lean over and wrap one arm around the girl’s shoulders and drag her out of harm’s way. Turning his horse in to the trees, he set her down. The pounding of horses stopped. Aware of the riders circling around him in the darkness, he told her to go.
Big, dark eyes in a tiny pale urchin’s face stared at him mutely.
Nay, not mute, he realized, deaf. That’s why she hadn’t heard him or the horses. It was the feel of the ground shaking that had alerted her to danger.
“Go,” he repeated again, pushing her in the direction of the trees. “You’ll be safe.”
She must have understood his meaning if not the words, because she gave him a frantic nod and scurried off into the trees.
Even before he looked up, Alex felt a chill of premonition as the men who’d surrounded him emerged from the darkness. The hand reaching over his back for his sword stilled.
Damn it, it couldn’t be.
But it was.
The blood drained from his body in a violent rush. He muttered a harsh curse, recognizing the familiar blackened nasal helms, soot-stained faces, black leather studded cotuns, and dark plaids.
Hell, he wasn’t ready for this. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready.
His hand dropped to his side. After fighting alongside these men for seven years, he knew better. He was good, but single-handedly defeating nine warriors of the Highland Guard was beyond any one man’s skills.
Alex had always known he might pay with his life one day for what he’d done, he just hadn’t anticipated it being so soon.
A familiar voice broke through the silence. “I see you are still polishing that shiny armor of yours, Sir Alex.”