| Captive Heart |
By Sarah McKerrigan
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HELENA WAS DRUNK. Drunker than she’d ever been in her life. Which was why, no matter how she struggled against the cursed brute of a Norman oaf wrestling her down the castle stairs, she couldn’t break his hold on her.
“Cease, wench!” her captor hissed, stumbling on a step in the dark. “Bloody hell, you’ll get us both killed.”
She would have grappled even harder then, but her right knee suddenly turned to custard. Forsooth, if the Norman hadn’t caught her against his broad chest, she’d have tumbled headlong down the stone steps.
“Ballocks,” he muttered against her ear, his massive arms tightening around her like a vise.
She rolled her eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over her. If only her muscles would cooperate, she thought, she could wrench loose and push the bloody bastard down the stairs.
But she was well and truly drunk.
She’d not realized just how drunk until she’d found herself in the bedchamber of her sister’s bridegroom, Pagan Cameliard, dagger in hand, ready to kill him.
If she hadn’t been drunk, if she hadn’t tripped in the dark over Pagan’s man, slumbering at the foot of the bed like some cursed faithful hound, she might have succeeded.
Jesu, ’twas a sobering thought. Helena, the daughter of a lord, and an honorable Warrior Maid of Rivenloch, had almost slain a man quite dishonorably in his sleep.
’Twas not entirely her fault, she decided. She’d been up until the wee hours, commiserating over a cup, indeed several cups, with her older sister, Deirdre, lamenting the fate of Miriel, their poor little sister, betrothed against her will to a foreigner. And under the influence of excessive wine, they’d sworn to murder the man if he so much as laid a hand on Miriel.
It had seemed such a noble idea at the time. But how Helena had gone from making that drunken vow to actually skulking about the bridegroom’s chamber with a knife, she couldn’t fathom.
Indeed, she’d been shocked to discover the dagger in her hand, though not half as shocked as Sir Colin du Lac, the brawny varlet over whom she’d tripped, the man who currently half shoved, half carried her down the stairs.
Once more, Helena had become a victim of her own impulsiveness. Deirdre frequently scolded Helena for her tendency to act first and ask questions later. Still, Helena’s quick reflexes had saved her more than once from malefactors and murderers and men who mistook her for a helpless maid. While Deirdre might waste time weighing the consequences of punishing a man for insult, Helena wouldn’t hesitate to draw her sword and mark his cheek with a scar he’d wear to his grave. Her message was clear. No one tangled with the Warrior Maids of Rivenloch.
But this time, she feared she’d gone too far.
Pagan’s man grunted as he lifted her over the last step. Damn the knave—despite his inferior Norman blood, he proved as strong and determined as a bull. With a final heave, he deposited her at the threshold of the great hall.
The chamber seemed cavernous by the dim glow of the banked fire, its high ceiling obscured by shadow, its walls disappearing into the darkness. By day ’twas a lofty hall decked with the tattered banners of defeated enemies. But by night the frayed pennons hung in the air like lost spirits.
A cat hissed and darted past the hearth, its elongated shadow streaking wraithlike along one wall. In the corner, a hound stirred briefly at the disturbance, chuffed once, then lowered his head to his paws again. But the other denizens of the great hall, dozens of snoring servants, huddled upon mounds of rushes and propped against the walls, slumbered on in oblivion.
Helena struggled anew, hoping to wake one of them. They were her servants, after all. Anyone seeing the lady of the castle being abducted by a Norman would send up an alarm.
But ’twas impossible to make a noise around the wad of the fur coverlet her vile captor had stuffed into her mouth. Even if she managed, she doubted anyone would rouse. The castle folk were exhausted from making hasty preparations for the travesty of a wedding in the morn.
“Cease, wench,” Sir Colin bit out, giving her ribs a jerk of warning, “or I’ll string you up now.”
She hiccoughed involuntarily.
Surely ’twas an idle threat on his part. This Norman couldn’t hang her. Not in her own castle. Not when her only crime had been protecting her sister. Besides, she hadn’t killed Pagan. She’d only attempted to kill him.
Still, she swallowed back the bitter taste of doubt.
These Normans were vassals of the King of Scotland, and the King had commanded that Pagan wed one of the daughters of Rivenloch. If Helena had succeeded in slaying the King’s man . . . ’twould have been high treason, punishable by hanging.
The thought made her sway uneasily in Colin’s arms.
“Whoa. Steady, Hel-fire.” His whisper against her ear sent an unwelcome shiver along her spine. “Do not faint away on me.”
She frowned and hiccoughed again. Hel-fire! He didn’t know the half of it. And how dare he suggest she might faint? Warrior maids didn’t faint. ’Twas only her feet tangling in the coverlet as they shuffled through the rushes in the great hall.
Then, as they lurched across the flagstones toward the cellar stairs, a different, all-too-familiar sensation brought her instantly alert.
Sweet Mary, she was going to be sick.
Her stomach seized once. Twice. Her eyes grew wide with horror.
One look at the damsel’s beaded brow and ashen pallor told Colin why she’d stopped in her tracks.
“Shite!” he hissed.
Her body heaved again, and he snatched the wad of fur coverlet from her mouth, bending her forward over one arm, away from him, just in time.
Fortunately, no one was sleeping there.
Holding the back of her head while she lost her supper, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the miserable little murderess. She obviously wouldn’t have tried to slay Pagan in his sleep if she hadn’t been as drunk as an alewife.
And he certainly didn’t intend to have the maid hanged for treason, no matter what he led her to believe. Executing the sister of Pagan’s bride would destroy the alliance they’d come to form with the Scots. She’d obviously done what she’d done to protect her little sister. Besides, who could drop a noose around a neck as fair and lovely as hers?
Still, he couldn’t allow the maid to think she could attack a King’s man without consequence.
What Colin couldn’t fathom was why the three sisters of Rivenloch so loathed his commander. Sir Pagan Cameliard was a fierce warrior, aye, a man who led an unparalleled fighting force. But he was kind and gentle with ladies. Indeed, wenches often swooned over the captain’s handsome countenance and fine form. Any woman with half a brain would be ecstatic to have Pagan for a husband. Colin would have expected the sisters, sequestered so long in the barren wilds of Scotland, to vie eagerly for the privilege of wedding an illustrious nobleman like Pagan Cameliard.
Instead, they quarreled over who would be burdened with him. ’Twas perplexing.
Poor Helena had ceased heaving, and now the pretty, pitiful maid quivered feebly, like a storm-tossed kitten locked out of the barn. But Colin dared not let compassion override caution. This kitten had shown her claws. He let her up, then instantly drew his dagger, placing it alongside her neck.
“I’ll spare you the gag now, damsel,” he told her in a stern whisper, “but I warn you, do not cry out, or I’ll be forced to slit your throat.”
Of course, if she’d known Colin better, she would have laughed in his face. ’Twas true, he could kill a man without a moment’s hesitation and dispatch an enemy knight with a single expert blow. He was strong and swift with a blade, and he had an uncanny instinct for discerning the point of greatest vulnerability in an opponent. But when it came to beautiful women, Colin du Lac was about as savage as an unweaned pup.
Happily, the damsel believed his threat. Or perchance she was simply too weak to fight. Either way, she staggered against him, shuddering as he wrapped the fur coverlet tighter about her shoulders and guided her forward.
Beside the entrance to the buttery were a basin and a ewer for washing. He steered her there, propping her against the wall so she wouldn’t fall. Her drooping eyes still smoldered with silent rage as she glared at him, but her pathetic hiccoughs entirely ruined the effect. And, fortunately, she hadn’t the strength to lend action to her anger.
“Open your mouth,” he murmured, using his free hand to pick up the ewer of water.
She compressed her lips, as contrary as a child. Even now, with fire in her eyes and her mouth tight with mutiny, she was truly the most exquisite creature he’d ever beheld. Her tresses cascaded over her shoulders like the tumbling froth of a highland waterfall, and her curves were more seductive than the sinuous silhouette of a wine-filled goblet.
She eyed him doubtfully, as if she suspected he might use the water to drown her on the spot.
He supposed she had a right to doubt him. Only moments ago, in Pagan’s chamber, he’d threatened to, what was it? Take her where no one could hear her scream and break her of her wild ways at the crack of a whip? He winced, recalling his rash words.
“Listen,” he confided, lowering the ewer, “I said I wouldn’t punish you until the marriage is accomplished. I’m a man of my word. As long as you don’t force my hand, I’ll do you no harm this eve.”
Slowly, reluctantly, she parted her lips. He carefully poured a small amount of water into her mouth. As she swished the liquid around, he got the distinct impression she longed to spew it back into his face. But with his blade still at her throat, she didn’t dare. Leaning forward, she spit into the rushes.
When they’d first arrived, Pagan’s betrothed had given them a tour of the Scots castle that would be their new home. Rivenloch was an impressive holding, probably magnificent in its day, a little worn, but reparable. The outer wall enclosed an enormous garden, an orchard, stables, kennels, mews, and a dovecote. A small stone chapel sat in the midst of the courtyard, and a dozen or more workshops slouched against the inner walls. A grand tiltyard and practice field stood at the far end of the property, and the imposing square keep at the heart of the holding was comprised of the great hall, numerous bedchambers, garderobes, a buttery, a pantry, and several cellars. ’Twas to one of the storage rooms beneath the keep that he now conveyed his captive.
Placing Helena before him, he descended the rough stone steps by the light of a candle set in the stairwell’s sconce. Below them, small creatures scuttled about on their midnight rounds. Colin felt a brief twinge of remorse, wondering if the cellars were infested with mice, if ’twas cruel to lock Helena in there, if she was afraid of the creatures. Just as quickly, he decided that a knife-wielding wench prowling about in a man’s chamber, prepared to stab him in his sleep, was likely afraid of very little.
They’d almost reached the bottom of the stairs when the damsel made a faint moan and, as if her bones had melted away, abruptly withered in his arms.
Knocked off-balance by the sudden weight against his chest, he slammed into the stone wall with one shoulder, cinching his arm around her waist so she wouldn’t fall. To prevent a nasty accident, he cast his knife away, and it clattered down the steps.
Then she slumped forward, and he was pulled along with her. Only by sheer strength was he able to keep them from pitching headlong onto the cold, hard flagstones below. Even so, as he struggled down the last few steps, the fur coverlet snagged on his heel and slipped sideways on her body. He lost his grip upon her waist and made another desperate grab for her as her knees buckled.
His hand closed on something soft and yielding as he slid off the last step and finally found his footing at the bottom of the stairs.
Colin had fondled enough breasts to recognize the soft flesh pressed sweetly against his palm. But he dared not let go for fear she’d drop to the ground.
In the next instant, she roused again, drawing in a huge gasp of outrage, and Colin knew he was in trouble. Luckily, since he’d received his share of slaps for past fondlings, he was prepared.
As her arm came around, not with a chiding open palm, but a fist of potent fury, he released her and ducked back out of range. Her swing was so forceful that when it swished through empty air, it spun her halfway around.
“Holy . . . ,” he breathed. Had the maid not been drunk, the punch would have certainly flattened him.
“Y’ son of a . . . ,” she slurred. She blinked, trying to focus on him, her fists clenched in front of her as she planned her next strike. “Get yer hands off me. I’ll kick yer bloody Norm’n arse. Swear I will. S—”
Her hands began to droop, and her eyes dimmed as she swayed left, then right, staggering back a step. Then whatever fight she had left in her fizzled out like the last wheezing draw on a wineskin. He rushed up, catching her just before she collapsed.
Cradled against his flank, all the fury and fight gone out of her, she looked less like a warrior maid and more like the guileless Helena he’d first spied bathing in Rivenloch’s pond, the delectable Siren with sun-kissed skin and riotous tawny hair, the woman who’d splashed seductively through his dreams.
Had that been only this morn? So much had transpired in the last few weeks.
A fortnight ago, Sir Pagan had received orders from King David of Scotland to venture north to Rivenloch to claim one of Lord Gellir’s daughters. At the time, the King’s purpose had been a mystery. But now ’twas clear what he intended.
King Henry’s death had left England in turmoil, with Stephen and Matilda grappling for control of the throne. That turmoil had fomented lawlessness along the Borders, where land-hungry English barons felt at liberty to seize unguarded Scots castles.
King David had granted Pagan a bride, and thus the stewardship of Rivenloch, in the hopes of guarding the valuable keep against English marauders.
Despite the King’s sanction, Pagan had proceeded with caution. He’d traveled with Colin in advance of his knights to ascertain the demeanor of the Rivenloch clan. The Normans might be allies of the Scots, but he doubted they’d receive a hearty reception if they arrived in full force, like a conquering army, to claim the lord’s daughter.
As it turned out, he was right to be wary. Their reception, at least by the daughters, had been far less than hearty. But by God’s grace, by midday on the morrow, after the alliance was sealed by marriage, peace would reign. And the Scots, once they were made merry with drink and celebration, would surely welcome the full complement of the Knights of Cameliard to Rivenloch.
Helena gave a snort in her sleep, and Colin smiled ruefully down at her. She’d offer him no word of welcome. Indeed, she’d likely prefer to slit his throat.
He bent to slip one forearm behind her knees and hefted her easily into his arms.
One of the small storerooms looked seldom used. It held little more than broken furnishings and tools, piles of rags, and various empty containers. It had a bolt on the outside and a narrow space under the door for air, which meant it had likely been employed at one time for just this purpose, as a gaol of sorts. Indeed, ’twas an ideal place to store a wayward wench for the night.
He spread the fur coverlet atop an improvised pallet of rags to make a bed for her. She might be an assassin, but she was also a woman. She deserved at least a small measure of comfort.
After he tucked the coverlet about her shoulders, he couldn’t resist combing back a stray tendril of her lush golden brown hair to place a smug kiss upon her forehead. “Sleep well, little Hel-hound.”
He closed and bolted the door behind him, then sat back against it, crossing his arms over his chest and closing his eyes. Perchance he could steal one last hour of sleep before morn.
If all went well, by afternoon the deed would be done, and the rest of the Cameliard company would arrive. Once Pagan was decisively wed, ’twould be safe to release Helena.
He marveled again over the curious Scots maid. She was unlike any woman he’d ever met—bold and cocksure, yet undeniably feminine. At supper, she’d boasted of being an expert swordswoman, a claim none of her fellow Scots had disputed. And she’d regaled him with a tale of the local outlaw, trying to shock him with gruesome details that would have unnerved a lesser woman. She’d exhibited the most unbridled temper when her father announced Miriel’s marriage, cursing and slamming her fist on the table, her outburst checked only by the chiding of her older sister. And her appetite . . . He chuckled as he remembered watching her smack the grease from her fingers. The damsel had eaten enough to satisfy two grown men.
And yet she inhabited the most womanly form. His loins swelled with the memory of her naked in the pond—the flicker of her curved buttocks as she dove under the waves, the gentle bounce of her full breasts as she splashed her sisters, her sleek thighs, narrow waist, flashing teeth, the carefree toss of her sun-streaked hair as she cavorted in the water like a playful colt . . .
He sighed. There was no use getting his braies in a wad over a damsel who currently slumbered in drunken oblivion on the other side of the door.
Still, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Helena was unique. Intriguing. Vibrant. He’d never met a woman so headstrong, so untamed. As fresh and wild as Scotland itself. And as unpredictable.
Indeed, ’twas fortunate Pagan had chosen quiet, sweet, docile Miriel for a bride, and not Helena. This wench would have been a handful.
More than a handful, he considered with a wicked grin, recalling the accidental caress he’d enjoyed moments ago. Jesu, she had a delectable body. Mayhap he could eventually charm the maid into allowing him to take further liberties. His loins tingled at the thought.
Earlier, when he’d foiled her assassination plans, imprisoned her in his arms, and, in the flush of anger, threatened to break her, she’d skewered him with a green glare as raging hot as an iron poker. But she’d been besotted and desperate and not in her right mind.
By the time she awoke in the morn and recognized what she’d done in a drunken furor, she’d likely blush with shame and weep with regret. And when, by the light of day, she realized the mercy this Norman had shown her—his patience, his kindness, his compassion—she might feel more agreeable to his advances. Indeed, he decided, his mouth curving up in a contented smile as he drifted off to sleep, mayhap then she’d welcome his caress.
HELENA HATED COLIN DU LAC. With all of her heart. With every fiber of her being. Forsooth, if she didn’t hurt so much this morn—all that loathing on top of the terrible throbbing in her head—she would have manifested that hatred by slamming her fist against the oak door and screaming at the top of her lungs.
But today her rancor had to be of the silent, smoldering kind, for too much wine had left her with a sour taste in her mouth and a dull headache that threatened to crack her skull.
Sitting on the pile of rags her gaoler must have heaped into a rude pallet for her, she dropped her head onto her bent knees and pressed at her aching temples.
Why had she gotten so drunk last night? And why had she been so damned impulsive? If she’d only bided her time, she might have been able to think of a better way to prevent Miriel’s wedding. A cleverer way. One that didn’t entail trying to murder the bridegroom in his sleep.
But now, as Helena languished, powerless, in the cursed cellar, no doubt poor Miriel stood trembling beside her churl of a groom, shyly murmuring the vows that would make her his chattel forever.
Helena shuddered. She’d caught a glimpse of Pagan Cameliard last night as he rose naked from his bed. The man was easily twice Miriel’s size, broad of bone and thick of muscle. Forsooth, he’d vowed not to take Miriel against her will, but Helena didn’t trust the Norman. And when she imagined her innocent sister being mauled by such a brute, she felt sick.
“Shite!” she barked in frustration, wincing as the oath sent sharp pain streaking through her head.
If only she hadn’t swilled so much wine.
If only she hadn’t tripped over that meddlesome Colin du Lac.
If only, she mused with grim villainy, she hadn’t missed with her dagger.
She pressed her closed eyes with the heels of her hands. She knew better than to think she could have committed cold-blooded murder, drunk or not. Fierce warrior she might be, but she was no assassin. Even if she hadn’t tripped and gone sprawling across Pagan’s bed, she’d have found some excuse not to stab him.
But the Normans had caught her with a knife in her hand and bloodlust in her eyes. Now she’d never convince them she was both incapable and inculpable.
She shivered as she remembered Colin’s words. ’Tis treason. You should hang for that.
Her hand went involuntarily to her throat. Surely ’twas an idle threat. A foreigner couldn’t simply ride up to a Scots castle, marry the lord’s daughter, and then execute her sister. True, once Pagan wed Miriel, he’d become steward of Rivenloch, a position of significant power, especially considering Lord Gellir’s sadly lapsing wits of late. But the three sisters had managed the keep well enough without their father’s help. They didn’t need Pagan’s help either. And they certainly didn’t need him to, as his first stewardly obligation, hang her for treason.
But even if he didn’t drag her to the gallows, Pagan had left her in the clutches of his partner in perfidy, Colin du Lac. Already the man had threatened her with bodily harm. Already he’d hinted at chastisements of a lingering nature. And last night, wrestling her down the stairs, the cur had put vile hands upon her, clutching at her breast as if she were a harlot for the taking.
She hadn’t trusted the knave from the moment she’d glimpsed him at supper, his green eyes sparkling with devilry, his black hair as irreverently overgrown and riotous as his humor, his lips subtly curved with ever-present amusement. He was cocky, the Norman was, and brazen and sly, the kind of man who felt he was entitled to whatever he desired. He’d already helped himself to Rivenloch’s wine and hearth.
She’d be damned if he’d help himself to her.
She narrowed her eyes at the door, as if she could burn a hole through it and sear him on the other side. Of course, he wasn’t there. By now everyone would have gathered at the chapel in the courtyard to attend the wedding.
Muttering a soft oath, she rose slowly to her feet to scour the dim cellar, looking for something, anything, she could use to free herself.
The room to which he’d brought her was naturally the one stocked with utterly useless items—chests with broken hinges, stools with broken legs, dusty bottles and crockery and vials with naught in them, cracked pots, torn parchment, and scraps of cloth too small and worn to be used for anything other than polishing one’s dagger or wiping one’s arse.
Her belly growled in complaint, and she scowled, rubbing her hand over the sunken spot.
One door farther along the passageway was a storeroom filled with cheese and bacon, oats and salted fish. Beyond that was a cellar packed with sugar, spices, and sweetmeats. But, of course, the Norman had locked her in the room with no food.
Mayhap, she thought sullenly, he planned to starve her to death.
She eyed the generous crack at the bottom of the door, where faint light streamed in, taunting her. Then she frowned. If she could slip her arm through that crack . . . somehow lift the bolt out of its latch . . .
She’d need a sword or a long stick, but it just might be possible.
Revived by hope, she dropped to the floor to peer under the door, then inched her hand through the crack. But though she pushed and strained, she couldn’t squeeze past her elbow.
She scraped her arm back in and tried another spot. The floor was uneven. Mayhap the crack was wider elsewhere.
But again her arm jammed.
Twice more she tried, earning naught more than a red and abraded forearm for her efforts.
Then as she squinted under the far left edge of the door, she spied some small object lying on the floor. ’Twas too dark to tell what it was or even if ’twas within her reach. But the possibility that it might be edible convinced her to make the attempt.
Using her left arm this time and pressing her cheek to the cold floor of the cellar, she stretched as far as she could, patting the ground with splayed fingers, trying to locate the object, to no avail.
With a groan of pain and effort, she managed another inch, and her middle finger contacted something cold and hard. Breathless with triumph, she scrabbled at the thing until she managed to maneuver it closer. A series of flicks and urging finally edged the object near enough to grasp. And when her hand closed at last about the familiar contours, she smiled, forgetting all about her aching head.
Colin shook his head as he made his way back down the cellar steps. This day had been strange indeed. Awakening early, he’d checked the bolt on the storeroom, then left to help Pagan prepare for his wedding. And what a wedding it had been, with thunder and lightning cracking the sky and rain pelting the earth with a vengeance, the bride’s handmaiden a shriveled, unmannerly crone from the Orient, the bride’s father an addled old man with the bearing of a Viking invader, and the bride . . .
That was the biggest surprise of all. And to Colin’s amazement, Pagan didn’t seem to mind in the least that he’d wed the wrong sister.
As if all that weren’t enough excitement for one morn, Rivenloch’s guards had spotted an army approaching on the horizon, an army Deirdre was convinced was English. Of course, Colin and Pagan knew better. ’Twas none other than the Knights of Cameliard. But Pagan had chosen not to reveal that fact to the Scots. He’d decided to use their arrival as a drill, a test of Rivenloch’s defenses.
And now Colin had been sent to summon Helena, who, Deirdre informed him, was the second-in-command of the guard.
A woman in command of the guard. He shuddered. What would the Scots think of next?
Of course, he had no intention of setting Helena free. He wasn’t about to put the fighting force of Rivenloch in the hands of a wench who’d tried to slay his captain. She was likely to order her archers to open fire upon the Knights of Cameliard.
But though he had no plans to release the bloodthirsty damsel yet, he couldn’t let her languish uncomforted in her gaol. She was but a maid, after all, young and foolish. Besides, she was doubtless suffering this morn from pangs of overindulgence, remorse, and hunger. He smiled as he unwrapped the still-warm, fragrant loaf of currant-studded bread he’d snatched from the kitchen. He could at least assuage one of her discomforts.
Musing over what his compassion might earn him in the way of thanks, he rapped upon the cellar door. “Good morn, little Hel-fire. Are you awake?”
There was no response.
He pressed his ear against the oak. “Lady Helena?”
She suddenly threw herself against the door with a thud.
Startled, he jerked back.
“Help,” she wheezed through the crack in the door. “Help . . . please . . . I can’t brea— . . . can’t brea— . . .”
Alarmed, he let the bread drop to the floor, then lunged forward, shoving the bolt from the latch and flinging the door open. His heart knifing painfully in dread, he quickly scanned the dim room.
She had flattened herself against the wall, and as he stepped in, before he even had time to regret his lack of caution, she charged at him, pinning him against the wall with a knife at his throat.
“Make a sound, and I’ll cut you,” she bit out. “Move a muscle, and I’ll cut you. Even think of resisting, and I swear I’ll spill your reeking Norman blood all over the cellar floor.”
Still reeling in shock, he muttered, “Where did you get—”
He felt a sharp sting as the point dug into his flesh. He winced. Jesu, the wench was serious, as serious as her sister, who’d marked Pagan with her blade yesterday.
“’Tis your own dagger, fool,” she purred.
The dagger he’d dropped on the stairs last night—somehow she’d acquired it.
With her free hand, she irreverently searched him, patting him about the waist and hips, finding and discarding his eating knife, leaving him the coin he’d won off her father last night. Under different circumstances, Colin might have enjoyed such aggressive handling by a woman. But there was naught seductive or affectionate about her touch, and to his chagrin, he began to sense, as incredible as it seemed, he might indeed be at the wench’s mercy.
Men could be such half-wits, Helena thought, tucking a hastily scratched missive into her bodice as she prodded the Norman forward, her knife at his ribs. They always assumed women were defenseless creatures, devoid of muscle and slow of wit. Helena was neither. Aye, like many women, she was impulsive, but this time that impulsiveness would bear sweet fruit.
“Slowly,” she told him as he climbed the stairs. She needed time to assess the situation in the great hall before they emerged.
To her surprise, as she peered out from the stairwell, she saw the household was alive with activity. Men took up arms. Miriel rounded up the women and children. Servants rushed to and fro with arms full of candles and cheese and blankets. Preparations were taking place for something far more serious than simple wedding festivities. Forsooth, it looked as if the castle prepared for siege.
Before the Norman could make his presence known, she hauled him back by his tunic and pressed him against the wall of the stairwell, placing the point of the dagger against the vein pulsing in his neck. She drew close enough to hiss into his face, “What’s happened?”
Despite the fact that she held his life in her hands, his eyes glittered with some secret amusement, and one side of his lip curved unbelievably upward, as if he was enjoying every moment. Which incensed her.
“Speak!” she snarled.
He complied. “An army is approaching.”
Her heart raced. “An army. What army?”
“What army?” she demanded.
“The Knights of Cameliard.”
She frowned. Could it be true? Did Pagan truly command a company of knights? Deirdre and she had speculated that his title was a ruse, that Pagan was a mere knight-errant with neither land nor coin, who had somehow convinced the King to wed him to a Scotswoman with both. “Pagan’s knights?”
But Rivenloch was preparing for battle. Why would the Knights of Cameliard assail the keep wherein their commander resided? Unless . . .
Perchance Pagan wasn’t content with mere stewardship of Rivenloch. Perchance the devil intended to claim the castle for his own.
She cursed under her breath as she realized the truth. “They’re laying siege.”
Colin was silent, but his eyes twinkled darkly.
This put a twist in her plans.
She’d intended to steal Colin away and hold him hostage at the cottage in the woods until Pagan agreed to annul his marriage to Miriel. But if Cameliard’s men were attacking Rivenloch, she was needed here to command the men-at-arms.
On the other hand, she might be able to use her hostage for an even greater purpose.
How valuable was Colin du Lac to the people of Cameliard?
She gave him a quick, assessing perusal. He was undeniably sturdy and strong, long of bone and broad of shoulder, probably a competent fighter. But he was also a pretty-faced, cocksure, poetry-babbling knave, the kind of varlet the Scots scorned. Mayhap the Normans measured a man’s value in different terms. If so, was Colin du Lac worth the return of Rivenloch?
’Twas a risky wager, but one she was compelled to take.
“We’re going on a journey,” she decided.
He lifted his brows. “Now? But—”
“Hist!” She raised the blade a notch, forcing him to lift his chin. “You will not speak again until I grant you leave. We’re going to walk through the great hall, across the courtyard, and out the front gates. Take care you do not draw attention to us in any way, for I’ll have this dagger at your ribs, and I warn you, if you disobey, you’ll not be the first man to feel my blade pierce his flesh.”
In the midst of all the chaos, ’twas fairly easy to skirt along the edge of the great hall undetected. Colin gave her no trouble, aside from making small grunts of pain when her blade dug a little too deeply into his side. Even crossing the courtyard wasn’t difficult, though she was dismayed to find the weather unfavorable for travel. Rain had made the ground soggy, and the brooding clouds looked as fitful as a lad with a bloodied knee, deciding whether or not to cry. Neither of them had a cloak, and she wished she’d thought to snatch the fur coverlet from the cellar.
The challenge was getting out the front gates. As the Rivenloch guards had been trained for siege, once the cows and sheep were gathered inside the castle walls, the gates were secured. Thinking quickly, she called up to the guard manning the portcullis. “Open the gates! Three of Lachanburn’s cows have wandered onto our land. We’ll bring them inside as well.”
The guard nodded. Lachanburn was Rivenloch’s closest neighbor, and the relationship between the two clans was one part alliance, two parts rivalry. The one thing they battled over with almost childish glee was cattle. Thus the guard would be understandably glad to raise the portcullis in the hopes of acquiring a few more of Lachanburn’s cows.
Once outside the gates, Helena steered her captive quickly toward the woods. Already an impressive number of Normans crested the hill. She didn’t dare risk discovery. One slip of vigilance on her part, and she could just as easily become a hostage for the Normans.
At last, under cover of the thick pines and oaks of Rivenloch’s shadowy forest, she felt safe.
’Twas tempting to remain at that vantage point at the verge of the woods, to spy on Cameliard’s army, to watch what transpired. But for leverage, she had to go deeper into the forest, to a place only her sisters knew. She nudged him onward. “Move.”
A sly smile stole across his face. “Ah, I see now.” He clucked his tongue. “You know, if you wished to ravish me in the dark of the woods, all you had to do was—”
The last thing Helena needed was the distraction of a pompous Norman who believed he was God’s gift to womankind. Perchance Colin du Lac’s dancing eyes and beguiling grin seduced other maids, but Helena was not a woman easily fooled by such transparent ploys.
She shoved him forward.
A path wound through the woods, one the sisters kept carefully hidden. Leaf fall camouflaged the trail, and in places, overgrowing branches obscured the passage. But the Rivenloch sisters had used it for as long as Helena could remember.
The abandoned crofter’s cottage at its end, roughly five miles hence, had served over the years as both a rendezvous and a refuge.
They’d traveled perhaps two hundred yards when she pulled her captive up short. She needed to take one more precaution. “Lie down.”
The varlet’s eyes sparked with mischief as he arched a brow at her command. To her credit, she resisted the urge to smack the smirk off his face.
“On your belly, with your hands behind you.”
He gazed at her with lusty amusement. “As you wish.”
While he lay helpless on the ground, she rummaged beneath her surcoat and used the knife to cut two strips of cloth from the bottom of her linen underdress. One of them she twisted and knotted about his joined wrists, roughly enough to make him grimace.
“Easy, wench. No need for brutality,” he chided, adding smoothly, “I’m quite amenable to your pleasure.”
“’Tis not a matter of pleasure, sirrah.”
This time there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “In such sweet company, who could not find pleasure?”
She didn’t care for the speculative gleam in his eyes. She wound the second cloth about his head, securing it with a knot at the back, effectively blinding him. In the event he escaped, she didn’t want him to know the path home.
He clucked his tongue. “Now you deprive me of the sight of you. Alas, you cut me to—”
“Up!” She had no time for his flowery nonsense. What she’d heard about Normans was true. They were as soft as babes, with dulcet tongues and downy curls and perfumed cheeks.
She wrested him to his feet, then stole a clandestine whiff of him. He did smell different from the men of her country, but ’twas neither womanly nor unpleasant. Indeed, an agreeable spice lingered on his skin, like the cinnamon Miriel sprinkled on apple coffyns.
“If you’d only let me know your desire . . . ,” he murmured coyly.
The man was incorrigible. “If you continue your prattle, my desire will be to gag you as well.”
“Fine,” he said with a sigh of surrender. “I’ll rest my tongue.” Which he did, though the knave’s suggestive smile never completely faded from his face.
Colin was mystified. Norman women never asked him to be quiet. They loved to talk. And they were always charmed by his flirtations. Every damsel he encountered, from crinkle-faced crones to babes in the cradle, giggled and cooed over Colin’s flattering turn of a phrase.
What was wrong with this wench?
She dug her fingers into his upper arm, maneuvering him forward, and he shuffled blindly through the leaves, his gait awkward.
’Twas the Scots, he decided. They must all be mad. Their men wore skirts, and their maids carried swords. And this maid apparently had a heart as impenetrable as armor.
Not only was she unrepentant of her violence of last night, but she seemed bent on continuing it. He grunted as she poked his ribs yet again with the dagger. God’s blood, did the maid plan to administer a slow death of a thousand nicks?
As they wandered farther into the forest, Colin discovered his other senses grew sharper. Now he could hear Helena’s labored breathing, her light footfall, the soft rustle of her skirts. He took a breath of cool, rain-pure air. Layered over the pungent fragrance of pine was the faint aroma of his captor, an indefinable scent that was simply clean and womanly, as unpretentious as the maid herself. The place where she gripped his arm grew warm, from a touch as deceptively intimate as a lover’s.
They traveled for what seemed like miles without speaking, until Colin began to wryly wonder if she might be marching him all the way back to Normandy.
Helena’s abduction of him had been startling at first, then amusing. But now the wench was taking things too far. If they strayed much farther afield, the people of Rivenloch and Cameliard alike would begin to worry about them, with good reason. After all, bound and blindfolded, Colin was unable to protect the damsel from whatever bands of miscreants lurked in the Scots wilds.
Deciding he’d had enough, he pulled suddenly against her grip, halting in his tracks, earning himself an accidental jab of her knife. “Jesu!”
“What?” she demanded.
“I would speak.”
She sighed heavily. “Go on.”
Charm didn’t work on her. Perchance candor would. “What exactly do you intend, my lady?”
“’Tis not your concern.”
“On the contrary, I’m the one at the point of your dagger. My dagger.”
Her smug delight was almost palpable. “You, sirrah, are going to be my hostage.”
If those words had come at another time, they would have stirred his blood. Abductor and hostage. It sounded like one of the games of seduction he enjoyed—the stable lad and the milkmaid, the sea reiver and the buried treasure, the Viking and the virgin. But he suspected this was no game. “Your hostage?”
“Aye,” she gloated. “If it should happen that the Knights of Cameliard seize Rivenloch, I intend to hold your life as forfeit against its return.”
For a moment, he was struck speechless as he digested her words. Then he realized her mistake. “You think the knights have come to seize the castle.”
“What do you mean, I think?” she snapped. “You said yourself they were attacking.”
“I did not.”
He shook his head. “I said they were approaching. You assumed they were attacking.”
“What?” she whispered. He could almost hear her Scots blood beginning to simmer.
“Curious. Your sister, too, made the same mistake. ’Twas she who gave the order to prepare for siege.”
The point of the dagger suddenly jabbed under his chin, and he flinched in surprise. Perchance, he thought as his vein pulsed beneath the cold steel, he should not have told the warrior maid the truth.
Excerpted from Captive Heart , by Sarah McKerrigan . Copyright (c) 2006 by Glynnis Campbell. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top