“Do you ever wish but for a moment to go back in time?” Genevieve McInnis whispered as she stood in the window of the tiny tower room that had been appointed to her more than a year past.
The summer sun was high and showed no signs of lowering in the sky, and yet she could sense darkness. Knew it was coming. The Montgomerys would not allow the injustice done to one of their own, and now the whole of the McHugh clan—or what was left of it—would pay the price for Ian McHugh’s daring.
She should be afraid, but she’d long ago accepted her fate. Her possible mortality. She didn’t fear it as she once may have. There were worse things than death, as she’d discovered. Sometimes living took far more courage. Facing another day. Enduring. Those things took strength. Far more than dying.
The wind picked up, blowing cool on her face, relieving the sting of the sun. Her question whispered softly in her ears, as if the wind had gathered it up and carried it back on its wings.
If only she’d never met Ian McHugh. If only she’d stayed in her chamber that fateful day when he’d arrived at court and had become instantly obsessed with her.
But his obsession hadn’t been limited to her. He collected things. Women. They were objects he viewed as possessions. He was like a petulant child guarding his favorite toys. If he couldn’t have her, then no man would.
It was the same with Eveline Montgomery, a woman who, like Genevieve, had spurned Ian’s advances. This time, however, he’d crossed the wrong clan, and he’d paid for it with his life. Graeme Montgomery had righted the wrong done against his wife and had spitted Ian on his sword in front of the whole of the McHugh clan.
And now the entire clan waited with anxious worry for the return of the Montgomerys. Ian’s father, Patrick, the laird—as laughable as that thought was—had fled only this morn, because he bore the knowledge that Graeme Montgomery would return to avenge his wife. As Genevieve had prayed that he would.
Finally. Finally, she would have at least a hope of freedom.
Patrick was no laird. Ian had run roughshod over his father from a very early age. Ian made the decisions. Ian bullied his father. Ian had ruled in Patrick’s stead for years now. All that was left for it was for Patrick to step aside and name Ian as his successor.
Only now the clan lay in ruins. Many had fled, avoiding the inevitable bloodbath that would surely occur. Others had stayed only because there was no place for them to go.
Such was the case with Genevieve.
Where would she go?
To her family, she was dead. Believed killed in an ambush as her party made the journey to her betrothed. Ian McHugh had swept in, slaughtering every last man and woman accompanying her to her intended husband’s holding. He’d borne Genevieve back to his own keep, vowing that no man save he would ever possess her.
It was a vow he’d kept.
She raised her hand to touch the scar marring her left cheek. She closed her eyes to prevent the sting of tears. There was naught crying did for the matter. She was long past the stage of tears and self-pity.
When she’d rebuffed Ian’s advances after her capture, as she’d done the first time they were introduced at court, his rage had known no bounds. He’d slashed her face with his knife, swearing before God that no man would ever again look upon her with desire.
He was right. No man could look upon her now with anything but horror. She’d witnessed too many times the instant recoil when she turned her head and the scar came into view.
And in the end it hadn’t mattered that she’d refused Ian’s advances, because he’d taken what he wanted, over and over, until she had no defense against him. No strength. No power. Just numb resignation.
She hated herself for that. Shame and humiliation were her constant companions, and now that he was dead she wanted only to be free of this place.
But where would she go?
Indeed, where would she go?
She closed her eyes, willing her anxious heart to stop tightening in her chest. Dread was squeezing her breathless, and she knew she was on borrowed time. Her fate—and judgment—awaited her.
The door to the tiny prison that had served as her chamber flew open, and Taliesan limped heavily toward her, her face a grimace of pain and fright.
“Whatever are we to do?” Taliesan whispered. “Surely we are doomed. The Montgomery laird will never have mercy on us. Not after what Ian and his father did to the Montgomery lass.”
Taliesan was cousin to the McHugh laird’s late wife. The entire McHugh clan consisted of distant relations and a band of misfits that had been pulled into the clan after being cast out of their own. She was the only friendly face in a sea of animosity that emanated from the other clansmen.
Genevieve never understood what she’d done to encourage such hatred toward her. She certainly wasn’t here of her own volition. And the rest of the clan well knew it. She’d done no harm to a single McHugh, though the same could not be said for her.
She winced as the words whore and harlot echoed in her ears. The insults were hurled at her on a regular basis, and she’d hardened herself to the pain and humiliation they caused.
She was what Ian McHugh had made her. Nothing more. She wouldn’t bear the blame for the actions of another. Nor could she spend the rest of her life languishing in regret for what hadn’t been her choosing.
“Have you heard of their approach?” she asked Taliesan.
Taliesan nodded, her eyes darkening further in dread. “Aye, I have. The watchman bore word barely five minutes ago. The Montgomery army approaches, but ’tis worse than we could have imagined, for the Armstrong army accompanies them. They come united.”
“Sweet Jesu,” Genevieve whispered in horror. “They mean to kill us all.”
’Twas the last thing Genevieve had ever wanted. Aye, she’d dreamed of Ian’s death. A long, horrible death, and she’d been cheated of that when Graeme Montgomery ran Ian through with his sword. His death was far too quick and merciful for the manner of man he was.
She whispered a heartfelt prayer that her sins wouldn’t be the death of them all. All she wanted was a chance. An opportunity to be free. She wanted to live instead of existing in a constant state of fear and humiliation. ’Twas not so much to ask for, was it?
“What do we do, Genevieve?” Taliesan asked in a voice hoarse with fear.
Genevieve squared her shoulders, her spine stiffening with resolve. And pride. “We must see to the women and the children. The men will have to face the consequences of the laird’s foolhardiness. ’Tis naught to be done about it except throw ourselves on the mercy of the Montgomerys and Armstrongs and pray they are indeed merciful.”
Genevieve swept past Taliesan, and when she stepped just outside the door she turned, her voice cracking like a whip.
“Come, now. Let us gather the others. If we are to face our doom, let it be with pride. Pride that Ian and his father failed to demonstrate. If the men of this clan won’t do justice to their name, then ’tis left to the women to stand up.”
Taliesan’s own features tightened and her chin notched upward. “Aye, you are right.”
Genevieve slowed her pace to match Taliesan’s awkward gait and pulled the hood of her cloak over her head to hide her face.
She would gather the women and children of the clan into one chamber, and then she would appeal to the sensibilities of the Montgomery leader.
It occurred to her that she owed this clan nothing. That, even now, she should be fleeing and taking advantage of her only chance for the one thing that had been denied her.
But she had no place to go. No sanctuary. No coin or food on which to survive.
Mayhap … Mayhap the Montgomery laird would be merciful and perchance would place her in an abbey where she could peacefully live out her days, free of the rule of a man who’d been bent on destroying her.
Bowen Montgomery spurred his horse to a gallop as he charged up the last rise that obscured the view of the McHugh keep. Beside him rode his brother, Teague, and they were both flanked, bafflingly enough, by Aiden and Brodie Armstrong.
Many a Montgomery and an Armstrong were turning over in their grave at the idea of the two clans allying with one another to take up a cause. But it wasn’t just any cause. It was one involving a woman who was dear to both sides.
Eveline Montgomery. Wife of Graeme Montgomery but daughter to Tavis Armstrong, laird of the Armstrong clan and, until days earlier, the Montgomerys’ blood enemy.
Bowen still didn’t know what to make of it all. He’d have rather taken up the matter of Patrick McHugh himself and claimed the holding until such time as Graeme determined its fate. It was a task he and Teague easily could have handled themselves, without interference from the Armstrong whelps, but the last thing Bowen had wanted was to start a war when Eveline was in such a fragile state after her ordeal.
His sister by marriage was stalwart, but even the fiercest of lasses would be staggered by her treatment at a monster’s hands.
“Have you a plan?” Teague shouted above the pounding of hooves.
Bowen gave a short nod but kept his gaze trained forward as they topped the hill overlooking the McHugh keep. ’Twas an easy enough plan. Kill Patrick, avenge Eveline, take control of the keep, and eliminate those who rebelled under Bowen’s command.
“And do you care to elaborate on your plan?” Teague asked in exasperation.
Bowen pulled up, his horse dancing sideways along the edge of the steep rise. Beside him, Teague, Aiden, and Brodie reined in their horses and stared at the keep below.
“I plan to run Patrick through with my sword,” Bowen said calmly. “ ’Tis offensive that he still breathes our air. He is a liar and a coward.”
“Aye,” Brodie said with a dark scowl. “He looked me in the eye and said he had no knowledge of my sister while he knew she lay below in the dungeon, sorely abused by his bastard of a son.”
Aiden’s brows drew together and he gestured below as the rest of the Montgomery and Armstrong soldiers ascended the rise and made an impressive line atop the hillside.
Their armor glinted in the sun, bounced, and reflected a dazzling array of flashing beams. To those below, it must look like hell about to descend. The Montgomery army alone was an impressive enough sight to make the most hardened warrior flee in terror. But add the might of the Armstrong soldiers and it was a fighting force unrivaled by even the king’s army.
Never before had two such powerful clans allied. It would likely never happen again.
“Is that a white flag draped from their guard tower?” Aiden asked in disbelief.
Bowen’s gaze sharpened and honed in on the banner fluttering in the wind.
“It looks like a bed linen,” he muttered.
“Aye,” Teague agreed.
“There are two of them!” Brodie exclaimed, pointing at the twin tower on the other side of the gate.
Sure enough, another linen was unfurled, catching the breeze and fluttering wildly from the wide window cut into the stone tower.
“They’re giving up without a fight?” Aiden asked in disbelief.
Bowen frowned. “Perhaps ’tis a trick.”
“If so, ’tis a stupid trick,” Brodie growled. “They’re vastly outnumbered, and even if the odds were even they would be no match for us. Even if they were able to take a few of us by surprise, they would be quickly annihilated.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Teague said with a shrug.
He drew his sword and urged his horse forward.
Bowen dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and hurried to catch up to his brother.
Behind him, Brodie and Aiden let out a shout that was caught and echoed through the ranks of their men until the entire hillside roared with their battle cry.
When they were a short distance from the wide-open gate to the courtyard, a young lad stumbled outside the walls clutching a sword that was much too big for his small frame, and attached to the end was a crudely made white flag.
There was no need for him to wave it, because his hands shook so badly that the swatch of material flapped madly in the wind.
Bowen reined in his horse in disgust and stared in disbelief at the lad, who couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old.
“They send a child to confront an approaching army?” he roared.
Teague was without words as he stared, dumbfounded, at the sight before him. Aiden and Brodie looked to Bowen, shaking their heads the entire time.
“Cowards,” Brodie spat. “ ’Tis naught I despise more than a coward.”
“Please, do not harm us,” the child said, his teeth chattering as if he were in the dead of winter. “ ’Tis a flag of surrender we fly. We bear no arms against you.”
“Where is your laird?” Bowen coldly demanded.
“G-g-gone,” the lad stammered.
“Gone?” Aiden echoed.
The lad nodded vigorously. “Aye, this morning. My mum says he fled because he knew he was going to die for his sins.”
“Your mum was right,” Teague muttered.
Fear flashed in the lad’s eyes. “Many are gone. There aren’t so many of us left. We don’t want war and would pray that you are merciful in your dealings.”
He kept his gaze averted, his head bowed in a subservient manner, but Bowen could see the lad’s hands trembling and it angered him that this child would be sent into harm’s way.
A woman’s voice rang strongly through the courtyard. It resonated with anger—and fear. And then a slight figure adorned in a cape that completely obscured her features from sight appeared through the gates.
She ran to the child and grasped his arm, quickly pulling him into the folds of her cape until he was hidden from view. Only his feet stuck out.