About the book
A dark prison shelters their love but the truth tears the canvas of their passion...
Adelaine Watson, daughter of the Earl of Daffield, anxiously awaits her brother’s return from war. But when her father returns, he brings back someone else: her brother's murderer.
Falsely accused of murdering an Earl's son, Caelan McLagen, Laird of Loch Mahrais, has accepted his death sentence. That is until the alluring Adelaine starts visiting his cell and he feels the warmth of hope.
Convinced of Caelan's innocence, Adelaine falls madly in love with him and is desperate to find a way to stop her worst nightmare from becoming reality.
When the only eyewitness to her brother's death dies, Adelaine realizes that the real murderer is closer than they thought. With Caelan’s execution hanging above their heads like the executioner's ax, Adelaine must make a terrible choice…
November 1542, Solway Moss, Scotland
If anyone was to blame it was the King, James V, the nephew of Henry VIII of England, and his pride and his stubbornness. He was the reason Caelan McLagen, the Laird of Loch Mahrais, was marching over bloody ravaged land, his wrists manacled, shirt torn, and a once-bright plaid now stained with mud.
His sword, a priceless inheritance from his grandfather, had been taken and thrown on the wagon ahead of him with the rest of the other fighters’ weapons. It was doomed to be another ornament in the English King’s house and the King would never understand its worth.
Caelan did not even want to try to number the men who had died by drowning in the dark river behind them.
Trapped between the river and peat bogs of the moss…so many are gone…so many lives lost to one man’s foolish pride.
There were women at home, undoubtedly keeping watch for a husband who would never come home and children who would grow up without a father. Sons who would only have their namesakes as a heritage and daughters who would not have an example for which to choose their husbands by.
For the sake of one man, a thousand losses.
As he trudged over the wet moorland, stomping over thick moss and breathing in the acid smell of peat, he silently mourned. His feet were numb but he still marched; his pride was broken with his and his fellow soldiers’ defeat. Never in his life as a soldier and a doctor would he have imagined suffering such deep humiliation.
The sky was iron grey, and low rumbles of thunder held a constant threat of rain as they marched south to England. He spotted the bloody face of Laird Sinclair, the muddied head of Lord Kilmaur of Cassilis, and even the limping form of Laird Maxwell.
How the mighty have fallen.
They had been on the march for almost two days, over rugged terrain and through forest land with little rest, only water to drink and whatever they could forage while passing through the forest.
Caelan shot a sympathetic eye over to a man who was hobbling along, his left thigh wrapped with the torn remains of his shirt and another who had a bandage around his lost right eye. He had treated both men in the aftermath of the battle.
They had marched under the direction of the English, only to come to Arnside. Years ago, a tower had been created there to stem the threat of robbery posed by the border reivers. At the foot of the hill, Caelan gazed upon the towering five-story structure of gritty stone with a ragged sense of relief. They would be prisoners but prisoners with a roof over their head and a place to rest their wearied bones. The tower had an adjacent wing of equal height, built in a style that reminded him of some Scottish castles.
English soldiers went through their ranks, sorting the able-bodied men from those who were wounded. They were placed in groups of fifty. The ill were placed in the lowest tier of the adjacent tower and while those more stalwart were sent to the first tower, filling it from bottom to top.
A soldier came to him and placed him in the last group to fill the first tower when a call rang out. “Is there a doctor among you lot?”
His head darted up, wondering if he had heard right when the call came again. A soldier, no, a knight, known by his embroidered surcoat and glistening chain mail, was seated on top of a massive horse and looking around. “Speak now!”
Caelan lifted his hand, “I am.”
The man’s eyes zeroed in on him and he nodded to another soldier, “Take him.”
He was roughly grabbed and shoved forward; he mutely followed the man on the horse as they went toward the adjacent tower. The soldier led him inside. The knight reached up and tugged off his helmet. There were deep lines around the man’s blue eyes and his mouth was set in a thin, grim line.
“Your name, sir?”
“Caelan. Caelan McLagen, Laird of Loch Mahrais,” he said. “I am a doctor also.”
“I am Sir Robert Duglas,” the knight said. “I am the second in command of the contingent Bernard Watson, the Earl of Daffield, sent in aid of His Majesty the King’s conquest. I have some sensitive matters to discuss with you.”
Sensing something pivotal was coming his way, Caelan nodded. “I’ll listen.”
“The Earl’s son, the Viscount of Watson was injured in the battle and the Earl, before hurrying back to England, ordered a doctor to take care of him,” Robert said. “I was not made aware of his injury until a few hours ago. I know that being a prisoner of war might not make you lenient toward the plight of your captor, but I need you to save his life. Will you put away your grievances and just attend to him, man to man and not captor to captive?”
“No soul should be lost when there is a chance to save it,” Caelan said. “He could be me worst enemy but I’ll save him if I can.”
Relief flooded the man’s face, “You’re a good man, McLagen. Please follow me.”
They took the stone stairwell that curved gently upwards and came to a top floor where a man laid on a cot with a deep grimace on his face. His lower stomach was wrapped in a swathe of blood-stained bandages. The man looked young, very young.
Why is an Earl’s son out fightin’ a war? Shouldnae a place behind a desk be better for him? And why did it take almost two days to discover he was injured?
Sinking to the man’s side, Caelan studied him. “Forgive me for being intrusive as I ken its nae proper, but what is his name?”
“Peter Watson,” Robert said. “He’s a good man, McLagen; he is loving and kind. He does not deserve to die this way.”
“He doesnae deserve to die at all,” Caelan added. “Especially not this way.”
Lightly grasping the end of the bandage, Caelan unwound it to see the stab wound in the man’s side. The wound was scabbing with bulbs of festering pus resting under the skin. It reeked of infection. Caelan squeezed some of the weeping, bloody pus out into his hand. It smelled like poison. This man had been stabbed with a poisoned knife. And after two days of infection, who knew how deeply the poison had gotten inside the poor man? He had to act fast.
“What do you need, McLagen?”
Caelan grimaced. “It’s nea going to be pretty, Duglas, I need to drain this infection and remove the rotting flesh. I need herbs to numb the pain and herbs to heal the wound inside and out. This man has been stabbed and poisoned, a sure way to have him dead.”
“What herbs exactly?”
After rattling off a list of herbs and substitutes if the primary herbs could not be found, Caelan then requested tubs of hot water, and a clean knife.
The man hurried off while Caelan sat with the injured man. He scanned for other injuries but found none. Something was curious though, on the third finger of the man’s right hand, there was evidence that he wore a ring as there was a band of skin that was paler than the rest of his hand.
Is he married?
The thought was quickly replaced by Caelan wondering why it took two days for this man to be reported.
Could it be by design? Delaying this would mean someone wanted him dead.
When Duglas hurried back with the two men carrying water buckets while he was carrying the knife and a bottle. “I’ve sent out men for the herbs, they should be back before night. One of our soldiers had a bottle of spirits, it should help in disinfecting the wound.”
Taking it, Caelan nodded. “It should. Hold him, please, this is going to sting like the devil.”
He popped the top off, grit his jaw and upended a third of the bottle in the man’s wound. The piercing scream Peter let out had the men flinching but Caelan was prepared for it. As Peter settled back down, shuddering with the after effects, the Laird saw his eyes, light brown, almost amber, and they were wide with pain.
Patting the wound dry, Caelan began to remove the dead flesh that was poisoning the rest around it. It was bloody, pus-covered work and it would turn anyone’s stomach, but he had overcome those reactions years ago. He managed to remove the scabbing, infected flesh and cleared the pus away.
Peter was unconscious as the pain had knocked him out. It was both good and bad for him to sleep, but if too much time passed and he did not come back, Caelan would have another problem on his hands. When the men came back with the herbs, he had some of them boiled and the others ground into pulp to make a healing paste.
Duglas had somehow found a needle and thread, so Caelan had been able to sew the wound together before slathering more of the healing paste over the sutures. The knight had stayed with him through it all and when night came, he ordered a cot to be placed beside Peter.
The young soldier looked peaceful in his sleep but Caelan did not dare let himself succumb to sleep until Peter woke up and could take the medicinal brew. He was weary from the battle but he had to take care of the man. Despite his dedication to taking care of Peter, his own exhaustion dragged him down into slumber.
It was a haunting hoot of an owl that had him opening his eyes and looking over his charge in fright. It was dim in the room but he saw Peter’s chest rising and falling and he sagged back on the cot with relief. Peter was not dead.
For now, I cannot tell how far that poison has gone inside him. God forbid it gets to his heart.
He went over to check the man’s pulse and just as his fingers pressed on Peter’s neck, the man grabbed his wrist, fear in his eyes. Elated that he was awake, Caelan said, “Dinnea be afraid, Imma doctor. Yer friend Robert Duglas put me in charge of ye. Ye’ve been poisoned, Peter, but I ken ye’ve gotten past the worst of it. I need ye to drink some medicine, can ye handle it?”
“Yes,” Peter’s voice was weak but Caelan had expected that.
Reaching for the boiled medicine, now in a bottle, he braced Peter to sit up and carefully tilted it to the man’s lips. Peter valiantly drank a few large mouthfuls but spluttered on the last one and Caelan took the bottle away and let him sit up for a few more moments before laying him back down.
“Where am I?” Peter asked.
“In Arnside, Lord Daffield,” Caelan replied. “I’m Caelan McLagen.”
“You’re Scottish,” Peter said.
Caelan’s lips twitched, “That is the case, aye, but I hold no ill will toward ye.”
“Thank you, Caelan,” Peter’s tone was deeply grateful and a bit sorrowful too. “I’m sorry you’re in this position, caring for one of the men who defeated you. You must have the soul of a saint, anyone else would have killed me instead.”
“I believe every soul is worth saving,” Caelan said. “Evil or good, help must be given to those who need it. Imma not the judge or executioner. Would ye like me to call you Me Lord, yer forename or last?”
Peter’s breath came in shudders, “Whichever you choose. McLagen, I must tell you something but I need you to swear to me first to keep it secret if I live.”
“You will live,” Caelan said staunchly.
“But if I die, you must still swear,” Peter said, his voice low and troubled in the darkness. “Please, promise me, swear to me.”
A bit perturbed, but persuaded by the man’s plea and his deeply troubled words, Caelan decided it would not hurt to ease this man’s emotional agony. “I swear on me name, Caelan McLagen, Laird of Loch Mahrais and me honor as yer doctor that I will take to me grave what ye, Peter Watson, will tell me, as God is me witness.”
“Good,” Peter sighed, “Listen close, Caelan. What I will tell you will sound heinous, but I swear to you, it is all true…”
The Earldom of Daffield
Adelaine clamped her lips tight to muffle the pained yelp that nearly escaped her, as—once again—she stabbed herself with the thing. Glaring at the offending needle, she briefly considered going to the window and throwing the cloth out of it. The embroidery was sloppy anyway and would not make much of a welcome-home gift to her brother when he came back.
Instead of throwing it away, she dropped the sewing and went to the window to look out to the grounds beyond. The tall dark keep was in direct sight and beyond it, she could see the stables, washing houses, coal huts, and the servants’ small gardens. There was a dark cloud on the horizon, and she saw glimmers of lightning inside it. She tilted her head to the side, trying to see if the cloud was moving toward her home. The ends of her hair brushed past her shoulder and down her arm. It was oddly peaceful.
After the King requested armed soldiers to send to Scotland two weeks ago, she always had her eyes on the horizon, looking for her brother Peter, who was a soldier in her father’s forces. Not to say her father wasn’t good company. Harold Watson, the Earl of Daffield in Northumberland had doted on her since the day she was born, and he always took time to speak with her when she needed him.
At six, when she wanted a pony, the very next day it had appeared in the stable. It had the most gorgeous golden coat she had ever seen. At twelve, when she had wanted a trip to the coast, she had gotten a trip to Bamburgh and a three-day stay at an inn with her now-late mother, a maid and her sixteen-year-old brother.
She had always been loved and attended to but Adelaine had one worry.
I’m one-and-twenty now…when is Father going to let me marry?
The sky was getting darker and the clouds thicker. Idly, she wondered if a storm was blowing in from the north, where Scotland was. A week ago, her father, who had accompanied his contingent to Scotland, had come back to report to the King. Then, two days ago, her father had hurried back to Scotland.
She wondered why Peter had not come back with him the first time, but she reasoned that there was a good reason why he had stayed back. Always the peacekeeper, Peter was very good at calming tension; mayhap they had used him to encourage some tranquility between the English and the Scotsmen.
Going back to the handkerchief she was embroidering for his welcome home gift she took the cloth and needle up again. She twisted it over and bit her lip at the lopsided flower and began to carefully stitch it again.
Oh, how I wished I paid more attention when mother tried to teach me so many years ago. Now that she’s passed, I wish I could go back…
The sound of rushing feet had her frowning and getting up to see what was causing the commotion. She placed the unfinished cloth on the chair and took the corridor to get to the foyer’s balcony. It was the perfect height to see the entryway. The breeze from the growing storm was picking up and she smelled rain in the air but stepped onto the balcony to look over the grounds.
Her father’s guards were trotting down the entryway, a coated squire carrying the dark-green pennant with the red lion and golden eagle of their family crest. She saw her father sitting on his large black stallion with the same matching caparison of the colors of the pennant. Leather-clad guards flanked her father. She frowned. Between the two men was another, clad in only a Scottish plaid. He was manacled between them. He even had ropes around his neck like a wild donkey or rabid dog.
Who is he?
The man’s burnished red hair still managed to stand out, even in the darkening sunlight. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and his muscled, battle-scarred chest unexpectedly sent her heart into a flurry. She spotted his face and her breath caught. She did not see his eyes but did see the thick line of his brows leading to a regal nose and lips that flattened in a line. He squared his shoulders and jutted his chin forward. A very proud pose for a man who was obviously a prisoner.
He’s clearly a Scot, but who is he and why did Father bring him here?
Bracing a hand on the rough stone balustrade, she edged closer. Her father had gotten off his horse and neared the prisoner. He said something to the Scot but the man did not answer. Once again, her father spoke and again there was no reply.
Adelaine got nervous when a dark red color took her father’s face. She knew that face. Everyone who angered her father beyond his patience level knew that face and it was not one to be at ease with. Her father lifted his gauntleted hand and slapped the man across his face and roared, “You will answer me!”
She shrank back in her place. His voice had taken on a tone she knew foreshadowed someone getting beheaded. The man’s jaw worked but then he did speak. It was too low for her to hear but her father scowled and spoke to the guard beside him.
Nodding in obedience, he grabbed the man and walked him from the entryway, through the courtyard, and to the side gate that led to the back grounds. She pictured what was there—washing houses, cold cellars, small patches of herb gardens and the tall, fortified keep. The tower had a dungeon that, as far as she knew, had never been used as her father did not keep prisoners.
What is so special about this man?
She retreated into the house and grasped the unfinished handkerchief. She had not seen her brother but she was happy he was home. She sat on the chair and listened to the faint rumbles of thunder, waiting patiently for her father to get settled in and calm down.
It felt strange that Peter had not come to find her, as she was used to him seeing her first whenever he came home from battle or the capital. Perhaps he was with her father. Happiness bubbled inside her as she left the room to seek out her father and brother. Their absence, especially her brother’s, with his sly pranks and silly grin, had left her horribly bored.
She edged up to her father’s meeting room and heard him speak harshly. “Make sure that murderer has only water and scraps of food until he confesses to his crime!”
“Yes, My Lord,” two voices said instantly.
Adelaine jumped out of the way as the two leather-clad guards hurried away. Then they nodded in acknowledgment with a rushed, “My Lady.”
Murderer? Is that what that handsome man is? But aren’t murderers ugly and well…more sinister?
She peeked around the door and spotted her father glaring at the wall. She meekly said, “Father…is all well?”
He looked over his shoulder but his expression did not soften. When he met her eyes his face only tightened. “Adelaine, daughter…I had hoped to not have to tell you this but…” He retreated around his desk and sank into his seat, his hand covering his eyes.
Looking around, Adelaine asked. “Where’s Peter, Father?”
“That’s it, Adelaine,” the Earl said. “Peter…is not coming home.”
Confused, she sat. “Is he still in Scotland then?”
“His body is,” her father spat harshly. “He was killed, Adelaine. I have it on good report, by a second party, that he was cut. When help was sought, he was then strangled by a savage brute who is more animal than man. He is never coming home to us.”
The words took time to register in Adelaine’s soul but when they did, a crushing, searing pain squeezed her soul tight and sliced through her heart. If she had not been seated, she would have crumbled to the floor on her suddenly-rubbery knees. Tears sprang to her eyes and her vision blurred.
All the happiness she had felt at the prospect of seeing her brother was wiped away, gone in the blink of an eye. The thought that she would never see her brother again, hear his laugh or see that twinkle of mischief in his eye, made her chest swell like a river about to burst over its banks.
“Was it him?” she asked as fury chased her grief.
“The Scot who I saw your men carry to the keep,” she said. “Was it him who did this? Who took my brother from me? Was it him?”
Her father’s lips were thin and bloodless, “Yes, it was him, Caelan McLagen. He keeps professing his innocence, but I have it on good authority he killed Peter, and until he admits his devilish deed he will be kept in irons and starved like the dog he is.”
Plucking an unfinished handkerchief out of her pocket, one that was doomed to never be finished, Adelaine swore on her pain.
Caelan McLagen, you must suffer. May you die and the hounds of hell drag you to your master.
The tinny ring of the iron inner gate slamming shut was echoing in the stone chamber when Caelan sank to his knees on the cold brick floor. The dungeon cell was inventive, he would give the English Earl that much. Never had he seen what looked to be a portcullis inside a dungeon.
He did thank God, though, that he had not been thrown in an oubliette. A pit with a hatch door where he would be left to rot. The dungeon was a reasonable size, big enough to hold at least ten men. Pressing his back on the gritty wall, he was at least grateful to get off his throbbing, blistered feet, even it was because he was thrown in a dungeon.
He had thought losing the battle back in Scotland and marching to the prison there had been bad enough, but when this Earl of Daffield had come to claim his son but had only found his body, Caelan’s life had taken another turn for the worst. He’d been branded a murderer, stripped, lashed and forced to walk more back-breaking miles like the poor Israelites had done from Egypt to the promised land.
His destination, however, was not flowing with milk and honey but rather was made of iron bars and cold stone. It was still a reprieve and Caelan counted his blessings.
The tale Peter Watson had told him had settled deep in his soul and every time, the thought of it made his stomach threaten to revolt. Evil certainly had a name. He pressed his throbbing temple on the cold wall, while swallowing, trying to soothe his parched throat.
It had taken almost all of his strength to keep his calm when the Earl had accused him of being a murderer. No matter how hard he had expressed that it was poison from the stab that had killed Peter, his defense had fallen on deaf ears.
Robert Duglas, the only one who could have vouched for him had been absent from the keep the day the Earl had arrived. Since he had no other person to help profess his innocence, the Earl had demanded Caelan be taken and flogged for the death of his son.
Caelan’s body had been thrown into a cart and rolled throughout Northumberland and down to the Earl’s district where he had been forced to walk with his feet bare, another punishment. The Earl had given him one more chance to admit his crime.
“Admit your crime, dog,” the Earl had sneered. “Admit it and I will consider affording you some leniency.”
He had lifted his head and squared his shoulders as the honor of his bloodline and his innocence in this matter had him do. “I didnae kill yer son.”
Now that he was jailed, he briefly wondered what that leniency the Earl could have considered would be.
Mayhap losing one eye instead of two or sent to work in the salt mines instead of death.
A single window, high above him and the size of a single brick, let in the weak sunlight. The throbbing in his head slowed to a weak thrum in time with the pulsing of his wounded feet. He didn’t even feel the lashes on his back anymore.
A harsh clatter of metal had him jumping from his light doze. He looked up to see a man with hard, nearly-black eyes glaring at him. “Wake up, you rat.”
Shaking his head to rid the faint fog inside it, he sat up while the man opened an almost undetectable latch and shoved a wooden cup and a bowl inside, “Eat.”
Hesitantly, he reached for the items and grasped them— the cup had water and the bowl a mishmash of greying meat and dry bread. “Thank ye.”
It was cold but he drank the water first, slowly to not irritate his empty stomach and then nibbled on the bread and meat, which tasted like roasted fowl. It was bland but food was food, and he was in no position to complain.
“Hurry up, scoundrel,” the guard growled. “Not all of us have time to savor every bite.”
As a doctor, he knew the irritation that came from hurried eating on an empty stomach but this time broke his own rule and ate quickly. He was swallowing his last bite when the man demanded the bowl back. He gave it over and was rewarded with a thin blanket thrown at his feet.
“Be grateful his Lordship is not an animal like you are,” his jailer sneered. “He won’t have you dying of consumption before you can confess your crime.”
Taking the thin, scratchy blanket, he wrapped it around his shoulders and leaned back on the wall. He spotted a bucket in the corner of the cell, one he assumed was for his excrement. He looked up to the tiny window as night drew near, his hopes of freedom dying with the day. As he drifted off and the cold seeping in, the last words Peter had said before his death haunted him.
With dawn came another bang on the iron bars which made him jolt awake. He peeled his cheek from the rugged wall and forced his heavy lids open. His gaze met pale grey brick walls and the reality of his present state came crashing down.
“You Scot, wake up! This is not an inn,” a harsh voice yelled through the bars.
The same jailer from before was glaring at him, and holding a cup. “Drink.”
Scrambling to his tender feet, Caelan reached for the cup and took it. He drank quickly and gave the cup back to his jailer. A derisive snort was thrown at him and he sagged back on the wall. Silence was thick and heavy in the room and Caelan forced himself to remember his home.
His home, in Arisaig, rested on banks of the lovely Loch Mahrais, and had never seen conflict until it came to their doors recently. Their arrogant King had rallied thousands of Scots to outdo the acts of the English King on their borders. He had been sure of his victory and they had fought well until a disagreement had splintered their forces right down the middle.
The adage a house divided cannot stand, had never been truer. Their confusion had given the English a clear advantage, resulting in their win and the subsequent death and capture of men who had lives to live and responsibilities to uphold. The King, on the other hand, was sitting free and pretty in his castle while his men suffered, men Caelan was sure the King had not even considered when he decided to go to war.
He remembered the very day before he had been asked to join the campaign against the English. It had been a calm day, so calm that he should have suspected mayhem was about to erupt. He had dealt with a few castle duties but had gone out to pursue his second passion, caring for the sick.
He tended to a child who had broken arm, an older man that had pains in his inflamed knees, and even a farmer who had impaled his foot on a pitchfork.
He had taken the position of Laird due to an unexpected inheritance. His older brother, Cullum, had died from dysentery while he, Caelan, was finishing his time with the older healers in the village. He had been appointed at the age of six-and-twenty and the responsibilities of being a Laird had nearly drained him.
It had taken him a while to learn the art of delegating so he could pursue his real passion, the healing arts, while managing the Clan. The message from the King had been an imperative plea for fighting men with subtle promises for extra aid to the Clans that responded and penalties for those who did not. Needless to say, he had responded.
He could have easily sent someone else to do the work, but he and over three hundred of his clansmen had gone with him. Caelan had gone to fight thinking his medical knowledge would serve well on the battlefield. No one, especially him, could have thought that the battle would turn so sour and even more that he would end up in an Englishman’s dungeon for a crime he had not committed.
His mind flitted back to poor Peter Watson, laying on the cot in the tower, battling for his life the night before he died. The next morning, he’d woken up to see Peter thrashing on the bed and when Caelan went to hold him down, Peter’s eyes had flow open, wide with terror. He’d managed to get the wounded soldier to settle down and had gone to get some more medicine, but by the time he had returned, Peter was gone. His eyes were lifeless, and his skin was mottled red, black and blue.
He drifted back asleep, hoping his second-in-command Artur would take control of his Clan in his absence and lead them as he would.
The sole comfort he had, that is if it could be called comfort in any case, was that he had not left a wife and a bairn or two behind. If he had, his suffering would be so acute that he wasn’t sure he could have coped. His mind ran to his mother, Elsbeth, and how she was faring. His mother had a frail disposition and he feared for her health.
He was drifting back to sleep when, through hazy eyes, he spotted a figure, a female figure, standing beyond the bars of his cell. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she had brown hair curling around her shoulder blades. He blinked slowly and when he looked again, she was gone.
Drifting off he wondered if he had truly seen the woman at all. He woke up again when the jailer called him for his evening meal, a repeat of the water, bland meat, and stale bread but he ate it anyway.
When the jailer was gone, he wondered again if what he had seen was real or of his mind had been playing games on him.
Come on, Caelan. There are no causes for delirium. You’re not suffering torture or taken any mind-altering herbs.
He sat back in silence, wondering again if what he did see was real, and who the woman was. The sky was darkening again and the cool evening air was coming in through the window. Then, the door was opened and the Earl stepped inside.
It was the first time he had seen the man in a day and a half. His tall intimidating stature, wide shoulders and heavy gaze under lowered brows, would have scared any other man but Caelan did not allow himself to be scared. He braced his hand on the wall and stood on tender feet.
“Hmph,” the Earl grunted. “At least you have some manners. Are you ready to admit to your crime?”
“I did nae wrong to yer son, Me Lord,” Caelan said calmly. “In fact, if I had not attended to him as quickly as I had, he would have died much earlier. Frankly, I cannot imagine how he spent almost two days injured on the way to the Arnside.”
The Earl bristled, “Are you priding yourself on my son’s death? You arrogant swine! How dare you!”
“I am only stating what happened, Me Lord,” Caelan said firmly. His honor was not going to be challenged by a man who killed by proxy. “Sir Duglas will vouch for me, it was he who drew me attention to Peter.”
“You don’t get to say his name,” the Earl roared. “You’re not worthy say anything about him!”
Caelan clamped his mouth shut, resisting the urge to tell the cocky man that he was speaking to a Laird, a man of his level or possibly even higher.
“Regardless,” Caelan said. “I will nae admit to something I dinnae do. The man was poisoned, I administered herbs to counteract the poison nae hasten it. The only reason he died was that the poison had gotten too far in his blood to be counteracted.”
“No,” the Earl snapped. “The reason he died was that you were a vengeful dog who took the chance to kill another man. One of the few who conquered you. Did it not sting, swine, to be one of the thousands who were forced to bow to an army half your size?”
Again, Caelan had to bite his tongue, harder this time; he tasted the metal tang of his blood. “Be it so, I did nea kill yer son.”
“Keep professing your innocence, you piece of filth. I will have you confess your crime soon enough,” the Earl said icily. “It will not be in your best interest to sleep soundly.”
With that, he spun and strode out. Caelan heard the clang of the upper gates echo in the air as they closed behind him. Caelan sagged back on his patch of cold stone, his eyes closed tightly. He might be a prisoner but not a resigned one. He’d take death before admitting to something he had not done.
Dear Lord, please uphold my strength.
“Please, Lady Adelaine,” her maid, Martha, pleaded as she rested another breakfast tray on the table near her bed. “Please muster the strength to eat something. Your Father would not be pleased to see you this way and know you have not eaten anything in the past three days.”
“Not true,” Adelaine contested. “I had tea and bread last night.”
“Tea and bread are not a meal, My Lady,” the maid said, her light blue eyes reflecting her plea. “It’s just porridge, please, eat.”
Adelaine sat up and grasped the spoon. She had no appetite but her maid was right. She did need to eat something. As she spooned the warm food into her mouth, she reflected on the man she had snuck out to see a few days ago, the man her father told her had killed her brother.
Seeing him huddle in the corner evoked images of a kicked dog and she could not see a better comparison, only a dead dog would have been better. That was what the evil Scotsman deserved—death, like what he had brought to her brother.
The porridge was sweet and filling but tasted like ash in her mouth. She was unsettled, deeply unsettled. The urge to look into her brother’s killer’s eye and see the evil that rested inside was almost eclipsing her mind.
She had held back that day when she had gone to see him, but the anger and hatred she felt for him was now a fire in her soul. She had to face him today. Eating as much as she could stand given her roiling stomach, Adelaine shifted the bowl away from her.
“Martha, prepare a washing bowl while I take out a dress,” she ordered. “I must see this Scotsman.”
“I do not think that is wise, My Lady,” Martha said. “The man is dangerous.”
“Dangerous or not, I must see him again,” Adelaine said while shifted her sheets and sliding out from under them. “I must see the monster that lives with him. He must be the brother of the devil since he killed my already-ailing brother.”
“My Lady,” Martha’s voice had taken on that worrying tone. “I cannot dissuade you from this but please be safe.”
“I’ll have a squire accompany me,” Adelaine said as Martha left to get the water. As she went to her trunks, Adelaine rummaged through her clothes and took out a deep-green dress with a high neck and long sleeves. She rested it on the bed while Martha placed her shoes.
Martha came with the pitcher and filled the basin. Adelaine washed quickly, dressed, and let her maid fix her hair. She began fidgeting when Martha finished her braid and her fingers were trembling as she slipped her soft embossed shoes on.
Anger was a black pit inside her stomach and an unchristian urge to see this man suffer was lingering at the edges of her mind. As she donned a cape and hurried down to the low levels, a squire, fair-headed, clad in his knee britches, top with the crest of a knight she knew as Sir Bartholomew’s on his breast, came forward and bowed.
“My Lady, Miss Martha asked me to accompany you to see the prisoner. I am David,” he said.
“Thank you, David,” she said, flicking the cowl of her cape over her head. As they walked to the keep she asked. “Is Sir Bartholomew your master?”
“Yes, My Lady,” David replied. “He is my master and my sponsor.”
She shot a quizzical look to him and he gave her a bashful smile, “He gave a helping hand to my mother when my father died and took me on so I could help her in the future too.”
“That’s very kind of him,” Adelaine mused as they came to the keep. A guard stood at the doorway with his hand rested on his sword.
“Lady Adelaine,” he bowed. “May I help you?”
“I’m here with Squire David,” she said. “I need to see the prisoner.”
The guard eyed her and the tall youth, “Are you sure, My Lady? The man is a heathen barbarian.”
“All the more reason to look him in the eye and ask him why he did this heinous deed,” Adelaine said.
“Very well, My Lady,” he said and opened the door, “Please call if you need help.”
As they took the stairs to the lower-level dungeon, she felt her anger rise again. She had to see this man, this murderer, look deep into his eyes and see the fiend that lived beneath.
The room was wide but her father had it fitted with a steel structure that looked like a portcullis, a heavy gate normally found at the main entrance of a castle. This one had latticed grille made of metal, but there were more vertical bars than horizontal.
He was back in the corner, against the wall with his head bowed. She stepped closer and then he shifted and lifted up his head. Seeing his face this close evoked the memories of when she had seen him first. Not knowing who he was or what he had done she had felt an attraction to his handsome face and chiseled body but now that she knew his deed, his looks did not matter to her anymore.
She stood still as he rose, still clutching the blanket around his shoulders. She could see the red ring of chafed skin around his neck where the ropes had been but she did not feel any sympathy. He came closer with a wondering look on his face. Inches away from the bars he spoke.
“I saw ye before…” his voice was low and scratchy. “I kent I was dreaming.”
“Yes, I was here before,” Adelaine said coldly. “I am Adelaine Watson, sister of Peter Watson and I wanted to see the monster that took my brother from me. You’re him, Caelan McLagen, the man who killed my brother.”
The Scot stepped back and his eyes roamed over her—clear green eyes she noted—icily. “Me Lady, I dinnae ken what was told to ye but I dinnae kill yer brother. What would that have profited me? He was ailing and I tried to help him.”
“Liar!” she spat. “You killed him because he defeated your people. Why would you kill a man that only had a knife cut?”
“A knife cut?” the Scot said with wide disbelieving eyes. “Me Lady, yer brother had been stabbed through the gut with a poisoned blade.”
Bristling with anger Adelaine ordered David to open the lock. The Squire went for the keys resting on the hook at the end of the room and with a heavy grunt opened on the iron door. With the rusty hinges, it was made a jarring noise as it open, but when it did, she stepped in, right into the man’s face and slapped him twice. “Stop lying you barbarian! I know the truth!”
His face was red with her handprint but he, when any other would have been infuriated, said calmly. “And who told ye this truth, yer faither, I assume?”
“And what if he had?” Adelaine cried. “That does not make any difference!”
“It does because yer faither doesnae ken the truth of the matter. Dae ye ken of a man named Robert Duglas?”
“Robert is my brother’s friend and my father’s second-in-command. What of him?”
“Before that fateful day, he was the one who brought yer brother to me, or rather, me to yer brother. He was dying of a stab wound from a poisoned blade. I did what I could do to the extent of me abilities but the next mornin’ he died. The poison had gotten to his blood to quickly and I was too late to stop it,” the Scotsman said. “Aye, yer troops conquered us, I will admit that but we lost more the battle e’en before we were humbled. We lost more we had hoped to gain. Hundreds of us died in that river, and more were taken as prisoners. What more death could have helped our cause?”
His words sounded sincere but Adelaine did not allow herself to believe them. She had to believe that he was making this up, a story to make himself look good and not the monster he truly was.
She stepped away, tears brimming in her eyes. “You are a monster and I hope you will rot in hell.”
Spinning, she went to the door and strode through it, not looking back to see if David had closed it. The ring of clanging iron told her he had done it but she did not check her speed until she was out of the keep and into the warm sunlight.
Running footsteps had David coming to a halt beside her, “My Lady, are you all right?”
“No,” Adelaine said succinctly. “And I don’t think I will be in the near future. Thank you for accompanying me to see him, David. Please give my regards to Sir Bartholomew.”
“I will, My Lady,” David said, “Please, let me get you inside.”
They crossed the small patch of green between the keep and the manor house and David held the door for her. It was only when they got to the foot of the stairs where she had met him that he said his goodbyes.
He’s going to be a wonderful knight one day, brave and chivalrous.
Heading back to her rooms she began to mull over the words the Scot had said. She had gone to stare into the eyes of a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, the depraved monster that had killed her brother without any remorse. But she had not found that.
McLagen had sounded remorseful over her brother but she could not allow herself to believe it. The Scot had killed her brother in revenge for his people’s loss. That was what her father had told her and that was what she was going to believe.
“My Lady?” Martha asked from her doorway.
“Please, Martha,” she said. “Please leave me.”
She cried herself to sleep, devastated and deeply bruised. Peter’s death had taken a toll on her. He had been her protector and her best friend, looking out for her best interest the way a good big brother should do.
Nothing was going to replace him, of that she was sure. Peter’s death would never leave her mind and with him gone, a large hole in her heart would never be filled. Her eyes were red and raw the next morning and the hollow space inside her had grown larger.
That day, she sat and tried to finish the handkerchief she had started for her brother but knew, what she realized on the day she had discovered that Peter was dead, that it would never be completed. She went to the window and saw the keep, this time however, it was not just the keep in her mind, it was the place where her brother’s killer was living.
The Scotsman’s words came back to her and with her anger gone, she began to consider them. Was he truly telling her the truth? Had he tried to save her brother but the cause had been lost from the start? She nibbled her thumbnail in indecision.
But Father said he had it on good report! That means it must be true…the Scot however…the look had never wavered. He looked at me while he told me how it had happened with my brother…don’t liars have indecisive looks?
She took the unfinished cloth and went back to her quarters, “Martha?” she asked her maid who was puttering around the room. “How do you know when someone is lying to you?”
Her maid stopped then started dusting again, “I don’t have much experience in when people try to deceive, My Lady.”
“But can you think of how they would act when they do try?” Adelaine asked.
“I do not know if you can detect it while they are speaking to you but I’d imagine if you ask them the same story and they say something different, it could be an indication that they are lying,” Martha opined. “He might not be able to remember what he told you the first time.”
Her maid’s words sounded right and Adelaine decided that she could try that. If Caelan was deceiving her she might find out that way. She sat and took out the simple square, and fiddle with the end. “I started sewing this for Peter, but now… he’ll never receive it.”
Martha sat beside her and took the square. “Forgive me for saying this but your sewing needs some work.”
“Just some?” Adelaine asked, with a dry twist of her lips.
“Well…” Martha dragged out the word while twisting the cloth over. “Perhaps more than just a little.”
“Admit it,” Adelaine said with a roll of her eyes, and taking the cloth away. “My sewing is horrible. If I was asked to save a man’s life by stitching up a gaping wound, he’d be dead.”
“It’s not bad,” Martha said, her light blue eyes glimmering with mirth. “It’s terrible.”
“Martha!” Adelaine called in mock outrage. “What liberties you take with me!”
“I apologize, My Lady,” Martha said with a bow. “What may I do to earn your forgiveness?”
“Fetch me a sweet cake,” Adelaine ordered with her nose stuck pretentiously in the air. “And a cup of tea.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Martha smiled and hurried off.
With her gone, Adelaine decided to take Martha’s suggestion and try it. She wasn’t going to take his word so easily. Tomorrow she would try Martha’s suggestion. If he was lying his story would change.
It must change…there is no other way.
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