Mairin Stuart knelt on the stone floor beside her pallet and bowed her head in her evening prayer. Her hand slipped to the small wooden cross hanging from a bit of leather around her neck, and her thumb rubbed a familiar path over the now smooth surface.
For several long minutes, she whispered the words she’d recited since she was a child, and then she ended it as she always did. Please, God. Don’t let them find me.
She pushed herself from the floor, her knees scraping the uneven stones. The plain, brown garb she wore signaled her place along the other novices. Though she’d been here far longer than the others, she’d never taken the vows that would complete her spiritual journey. It was never her intention.
She went to the basin in the corner and poured from the pitcher of water. She smiled as she dampened her cloth, and Mother Serenity’s words came floating to mind. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.
She wiped her face and started to remove her gown to extend her wash when she heard a terrible crash. Startled, she dropped the cloth and whirled around to stare at her closed door. Then galvanized to action, she ran and flung it open, racing into the hall.
Around her, the other nuns also filled the hall, their dismayed murmurs rising. A loud bellow echoed down the corridor from the abbey’s front entrance. A cry of pain followed the bellow, and Mairin’s heart froze. Mother Serenity.
Mairin and the rest of the sisters ran toward the sound, some lagging back while others shoved determinedly ahead. When they reached the chapel, Mairin drew up short, paralyzed by the sight before her.
Warriors were everywhere. There were at least twenty, all dressed in battle gear, their faces unwashed, sweat drenching their hair and clothing. But no blood. They hadn’t come for sanctuary or aid. The leader held Mother Serenity by the arm, and even from a distance, Mairin could see the abbess’s face drawn in pain.
“Where is she?” the man demanded in a cold voice.
Mairin took a step back. He was a fierce-looking man. Evil. Rage coiled in his eyes like a snake waiting to strike. He shook Mother Serenity when she didn’t respond, and she warbled in his grasp like a rag doll.
Mairin crossed herself and whispered an urgent prayer. The nuns around her gathered in a close ball and also offered their prayers.
“She is not here,” Mother Serenity gasped out. “I’ve told you the woman you seek is not here.”
“You lie!” he roared.
He looked toward the group of nuns, his gaze flickering coldly over them.
“Mairin Stuart. Tell me where she is.”
Mairin went cold, fear rising to a boil in her stomach. How had he found her? After all this time. Her nightmare wasn’t over. It was, indeed, just beginning.
Her hands shook so badly that she had to hide them in the folds of her dress. Sweat gathered on her brow, and her gut lurched. She swallowed, willing herself not to be sick.
When no answer was forthcoming, the man smiled, and it sent a chill straight down Mairin’s spine. Still staring at them, he lifted Mother Serenity’s arm so that it was in plain sight. Callously, he bent her index finger until Mairin heard the betraying pop of bone.
One of the nuns shrieked and ran forward only to be backhanded down by one of the soldiers. The rest of the nuns gasped at the bold outrage.
“This is God’s house,” Mother Serenity said in a reedy voice. “You sin greatly by bringing violence onto holy ground.”
“Shut up, old woman,” the man snapped. “Tell me where Mairin Stuart is or I’ll kill every last one of you.”
Mairin sucked in her breath and curled her fingers into balls at her sides. She believed him. There was too much evil, too much desperation, in his eyes. He had been sent on a devil’s errand, and he wouldn’t be denied.
He grasped Mother Serenity’s middle finger, and Mairin rushed forward.
“Charity, nay!” Mother Serenity cried.
Mairin ignored her. “I’m Mairin Stuart. Now let her go!”
The man dropped Mother Serenity’s hand then shoved the woman back. He stared at Mairin with interest, then let his gaze wander suggestively down her body and back up again. Mairin’s cheeks flamed at the blatant disrespect, but she gave no quarter, staring back at the man with as much defiance as she dared.
p height=eight="0em" width="1em" align="justify">He snapped his fingers, and two men advanced on Mairin, grabbing her before she could think to run. They had her on the floor in a split second, their hands fumbling with the hem of her gown.
She kicked wildly, flailing her arms, but she was no match for their strength. Would they rape her here on the chapel floor? Tears gathered in her eyes as they shoved her clothing up over her hips.
They turned her to the right and fingers touched her hip, right where the mark rested.
She bowed her head as tears of defeat slipped down her cheeks.
“ ’Tis her!” one of them said excitedly.
He was instantly shoved aside as the leader bent over to examine the mark for himself.
He, too, touched it, outlining the royal crest of Alexander. Issuing a grunt of satisfaction, he curled his hand around her chin and yanked until she faced him.
His smile revolted her.
“We’ve been looking for you a long time, Mairin Stuart.”
“Go to hell,” she spat.
Instead of striking her, his grin broadened. “Tsk-tsk, such blasphemy in the house of God.”
He stood rapidly, and before Mairin could blink, she was hauled over a man’s shoulder, and the soldiers filed out of the abbey and into the cool night.
They wasted no time getting onto their horses. Mairin was gagged then trussed hand and foot and tossed over the saddle in front of one of the men. They were away, the thunder of hooves echoing across the still night, before she had time to react. They were as precise as they were ruthless.
The saddle dug into her belly, and she bounced up and down until she was sure she was going to throw up. She moaned, afraid she’d choke with the gag so securely around her mouth.
When they finally stopped, she was nearly unconscious. A hand gripped her nape, the fingers easily circling the slim column. She was hauled upward and dropped unceremoniously to the ground.
Around her, they made camp while she lay shivering in the damp air. Finally she heard one say, “You best be seeing to the lass, Finn. Laird Cameron won’t be happy if she dies of exposure.”