England, in the reign of King Richard I
Bad things always happen during the night.
In the dark hours of the night Gillian’s mother died struggling to bring a new life into the world, and a young, unthinking servant, wishing to be the first to impart the sorrowful news, awakened the two little girls to tell them their dear mama was dead. Two nights later, they were once again shaken awake to hear that their infant brother, Ranulf, named in honor of their father, had also passed on. His frail body hadn’t been able to take the strain of being born a full two months early.
Gillian was afraid of the dark. She waited until the servant had left her bedroom, then slid down from the big bed on her stomach to the cold stone floor. Barefoot, she ran to the forbidden passage, a secret hallway that led to her sister’s chamber and also to the steep steps that ended in the tunnels below the kitchens. She barely squeezed behind the chest her papa had placed in front of the narrow door in the wall to discourage his daughters from going back and forth. He had warned over and over again that it was a secret, for the love of God, only to be used under the most dire of circumstances, and certainly not for
play. Why, even his loyal servants didn’t know about the passageways built into three of the bedchambers, and he was determined to keep it that way. He was also extremely concerned that his daughters would fall down the steps and break their pretty little necks, and he often threatened to paddle their backsides if he ever caught them there. It was dangerous, and it was forbidden.
But on that terrible night of loss and sorrow, Gillian didn’t care if she got into trouble. She was scared, and whenever she got scared, she ran to her older sister, Christen, for comfort. Managing to get the door open only a crack, Gillian cried out for Christen and waited for her to come. Her sister reached in, latched onto Gillian’s hand and pulled her through, then helped her climb up into her bed. The little girls clung to each other under the thick blankets and cried while their papa’s tormented screams of anguish and desolation echoed throughout the halls. They could hear him shouting their mama’s name over and over and over again. Death had entered their peaceful home and filled it with grief.
The family wasn’t given time to heal, for the monsters of the night weren’t through preying on them. It was in the dead of night that the infidels invaded their home and Gillian’s family was destroyed.
Papa woke her up when he came rushing into her chamber carrying Christen in his arms. His faithful soldiers William—Gillian’s favorite because he gave her honeyed treats when her papa wasn’t watching—and Lawrence and Tom and Spencer followed behind him. Their expressions were grim. Gillian sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands as her father handed Christen to Lawrence and hurried to her. He placed the glowing candle on the chest next to her bed, then sat down beside her and
with a trembling hand gently brushed her hair out of her eyes.
Her father looked terribly sad, and Gillian thought she knew the reason why.
“Did Mama die again, Papa?” she asked worriedly.
“For the love of . . . no, Gillian,” he answered, his voice weary.
“Did she come back home, then?”
“Ah, my sweet lamb, we’ve been over this again and again. Your mama isn’t ever going to come home. The dead can’t come back. She’s in heaven now. Try to understand.”
“Yes, Papa,” she whispered.
She heard the faint echo of shouts coming from the floor below and then noticed that her father was wearing his chain mail.
“Are you going to battle now, for the love of God, Papa?”
“Yes,” he answered. “But first I must get you and your sister to safety.”
He reached for the clothes Gillian’s maid, Liese, had laid out for tomorrow and hastily dressed his daughter. William moved forward and knelt on one knee to put Gillian’s shoes on her.
Her papa had never dressed her before, and she didn’t know what to make of it. “Papa, I got to take my sleeping gown off before I put my clothes on, and I got to let Liese brush my hair.”
“We won’t worry about your hair tonight.”
“Papa, is it dark outside?” she asked as he slipped the bliaut over her head.
“Yes, Gillian, it’s dark.”
“Do I got to go outside in the dark?”
He could hear the fear in her voice and tried to calm her.
“There will be torches to light the way and you won’t be alone.”
“Are you going with Christen and me?”
Her sister answered. “No, Gillian,” she shouted from across the room. “’Cause Papa has to stay here and fight the battle, for the love of God,” she said, repeating her father’s often used expression. “Don’t you, Papa?”
Lawrence told Christen to hush. “We don’t want anyone to know you’re leaving,” he explained in a whisper. “Can you be real quiet now?”
Christen eagerly nodded. “I can,” she whispered back. “I can be awful quiet when I got to, and when I . . .”
Lawrence put his hand over her mouth. “Hush, golden girl.”
William lifted Gillian into his arms and carried her out of the chamber and down the dark hallway to her father’s room. Spencer and Tom guided the way, carrying bright candles to light the corridor. Giant shadows danced along the stone walls keeping pace with them, the only sound the hard clicking of their boots against the cobbled floor. Gillian became fearful and put her arms around the soldier’s neck, then tucked her head under his chin.
“I don’t like the shadows,” she whimpered.
“They won’t harm you,” he soothed.
“I want my mama, William.”
“I know you do, honey bear.”
His silly nickname for her always made her smile, and she suddenly wasn’t afraid any longer. She saw her papa rush past her to lead the way into his chamber, and she would have called out to him, but William put his finger to his lips, reminding her that she was to be quiet.
As soon as they were all inside the bedroom, Tom and Spencer began to slide a low chest along the wall so that
they could open the secret door. The rusty hinges groaned and squealed like an angry boar whose mouth was being pried open.
Lawrence and William had to put the little girls down in order to soak and light the torches. The second their backs were turned, both Christen and Gillian ran to their father who was down on his knees leaning over another chest at the foot of the bed and sorting through his belongings. They flanked his sides and stretched up on tiptoes, their hands on the rim of the chest so they too could peer inside.
“What are you looking for, Papa?” Christen asked.
“This,” he answered as he lifted the sparkling jeweled box.
“It’s awful pretty, Papa,” Christen said. “Can I have it?”
“Can I have it too?” Gillian chimed in.
“No,” he answered. “The box belongs to Prince John, and I mean to see that he gets it back.”
Still down on his knees, their father turned toward Christen and grabbed her arm, pulling her close as she tried to wiggle away.
“You’re hurting me, Papa.”
“I’m sorry, love,” he said, immediately lessening his grip. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I do need you to pay attention to what I’m going to tell you. Can you do that, Christen?”
“Yes, Papa, I can pay attention.”
“That’s good,” he praised. “I want you to take this box with you when you leave. Lawrence will protect you from harm and take you to a safe place far away from here, and he’ll help you hide this evil treasure until the time is right and I can come for you and take the box to Prince John. You mustn’t tell anyone about this treasure, Christen.”
Gillian ran around her father to stand next to Christen. “Can she tell me, Papa?”
Her father ignored her question and waited for Christen to answer.
“I won’t tell,” she promised.
“I won’t tell no one neither.” Gillian vehemently nodded to prove she meant what she said.
Their father continued to ignore his younger daughter for the moment because he was intent on making Christen understand the importance of what he was telling her. “No one must ever know you have the box, child. Now watch what I’m doing,” he ordered. “I’m going to wrap the box in this tunic.”
“So no one will see it?” Christen asked.
“That’s right,” he whispered. “So no one will see it.”
“But I already seen it, Papa,” Gillian blurted out.
“I know you did,” he agreed. He looked up at Lawrence then. “She’s too young . . . I’m asking too much of her. Dear God, how can I let my babies go?”
Lawrence stepped forward. “I’m going to protect Christen with my life, and I’ll make certain no one sees the box.”
William also rushed to offer his pledge. “No harm will come to Lady Gillian,” he vowed. “I give you my word, Baron Ranulf. My life to keep her safe.”
The vehemence in his voice was a comfort to the baron and he nodded to let both soldiers know that his trust in them was absolute.
Gillian tugged on her father’s elbow to get his attention. She wasn’t about to be left out. When her papa wrapped the pretty box in one of his tunics and gave it to Christen, Gillian clasped her hands together in anticipation, for she assumed that since her sister had been given a present, she
would be getting one too. Even though Christen was the firstborn and three years older than Gillian, their father had never shown favoritism for one over the other.
It was difficult for her to be patient, but Gillian tried. She watched as her father pulled Christen into his arms and kissed her forehead and hugged her tight. “Don’t forget your papa,” he whispered. “Don’t forget me.”
He reached for Gillian next. She threw herself into his arms and kissed him soundly on his whiskered cheek.
“Papa, don’t you have a pretty box for me?”
“No, my sweet. You’re going to go with William now. Take hold of his hand—”
“But Papa, I got to have a box too. Don’t you have one for me to carry?”
“The box isn’t a present, Gillian.”
“I love you,” he said, blinking back the tears as he fiercely clasped her against the cold chain mail of his hauberk. “God keep you safe.”
“You’re squishing me, Papa. Can I have a turn holding the box? Please, Papa?”
Ector, her father’s chief reeve, barged into the room. His shout so startled Christen she dropped the treasure. The box rolled out of the tunic onto the floor and clattered across the stones. In the firelight from the flaming torches, the rubies and sapphires and emeralds imbedded in the case came to life, glistening and twinkling brightly like sparkling stars that had fallen from the sky.
Ector stopped short, startled by the dazzling beauty that tumbled before him.
“What is it, Ector?” her father said.
Intent on giving his baron the urgent message from Bryant, the baron’s commander in arms, Ector seemed
barely to be paying attention to what he was doing as he scooped up the box and handed it to Lawrence. His focus returned to his leader. “Milord, Bryant bade me to come and tell you that young Alford the Red and his soldiers have breached the inner bailey.”
“Was Baron Alford seen?” William blurted out the question. “Or does he continue to hide from us?”
Ector glanced back at the soldier. “I don’t know,” he confessed before turning to the baron once again. “Bryant also bade me tell you that your men are calling for you, milord.”
“I shall go at once,” the baron announced as he gained his feet. He motioned for Ector to leave the chamber, then followed him, pausing in the doorway to gaze upon his beautiful daughters one last time. Christen, with her golden curls and cherub cheeks, and little Gillian, with her mother’s brilliant green eyes and pale skin, looked in jeopardy of bursting into tears.
“Go now, and God keep you safe,” the baron ordered harshly.
And then he was gone. The soldiers hurried to the passage. Tom went ahead to unlatch the door at the end of the tunnel and make certain the area hadn’t been breached by the enemy. Lawrence held Christen’s hand and led the way into the dark corridor with his fiery torch. Gillian was right behind her sister, clinging to William’s hand. Spencer followed them, then reached through the opening to drag the chest back before he closed the door.
“Papa didn’t tell me he had a secret door,” Gillian whispered to Christen.
“He didn’t tell me neither,” her sister whispered back. “Maybe he forgot.”
Gillian tugged on William’s hand to get his attention. “Me
and Christen got a secret door too, but it’s in our bedrooms. We can’t tell nobody about it though ’cause it’s a secret. Papa says he’ll paddle us good if we tell. Did you know it was a secret, William?” The soldier didn’t answer her, but she wasn’t deterred by his silence. “You know where our passage goes? Papa says when we come out of our tunnel, we can see the fish in his pond. Is that where we’re going?”
“No,” William answered. “This tunnel will take us underneath the wine cellar. We’re getting close to the steps now, and I want you to be real quiet.”
Gillian kept a worried eye on the shadows following her along the wall. She moved closer to William and then turned her attention to her sister. Christen was clasping the jeweled box against her chest, but an edge of the tunic was dangling down below her elbow, and Gillian couldn’t resist reaching for it.
“I got to have a turn holding the box. Papa said.”
Christen was outraged. “No, he didn’t say,” she cried. She twisted toward Lawrence so Gillian couldn’t get near the box, and then tattled on her. “Lawrence, Gillian told a lie. Papa said I was supposed to have the box, not her.”
Gillian was determined. “But I got to have a turn,” she told her sister as she once again tried to grab hold of the tunic. She pulled back when she thought she heard a sound behind her. She turned to look. The stairway was pitch-black, and she couldn’t see anything, but she was certain that there were monsters lurking in the shadows waiting to grab her, maybe even a fiery dragon. Frightened, she held tight to the soldier’s hand and squeezed up against his side.
“I don’t like it here,” she cried. “Carry me, William.”
Just as the soldier bent down to lift her up with his free arm, one of the shadows against the wall leapt out at her. Gillian screamed in terror, stumbled, and fell into Christen.
Her sister shouted, “No, it’s mine,” and swung toward Gillian as the shadow barreled into William. The blow struck William behind his knees and threw him into Lawrence. The steps were slick with moisture dripping down from the walls, and the men were too close to the edge to brace themselves. They plunged headfirst into the black hole with the girls. Sparks from the torches flew about them as the fiery balls cascaded down the stairs ahead of them.
William desperately tried to enfold the child as their bodies plummeted down the jagged steps, but he couldn’t shield her completely, and Gillian’s chin struck the sharp stone.
Stunned by the blow, she slowly sat up and looked about her. Blood poured onto her gown, and when she saw the blood on her hands, she began to scream. Her sister lay beside her, facedown on the floor, not making a sound.
“Christen, help me,” Gillian sobbed. “Wake up. I don’t like it here. Wake up.”
William struggled to his feet with the hysterical child and, holding her tight against his chest, ran through the tunnel. “Hush, child, hush,” he whispered over and over again.
Lawrence followed with Christen. Blood trickled down from the cut high on her forehead.
“Lawrence, you and Tom take Christen on to the creek. Spencer and I will meet you there,” William shouted.
“Come with us now,” Lawrence urged over Gillian’s screams.
“The child’s in a bad way. She needs stitches,” William called back. “Go now. We’ll catch up with you. God’s speed,” he added as he rushed ahead.
“Christen,” Gillian screamed. “Christen, don’t leave me.”
When they neared the door, William cupped his hand over Gillian’s mouth and pleaded with her to be quiet. He and Spencer took her to the tanner’s cottage on the edge of the outer bailey so that Maude, the tanner’s wife, could sew the injury. The underside of Gillian’s chin was completely flayed open.
Both soldiers held the child down while Maude worked on her. The battle raged dangerously close, and the noise became so deafening they had to shout to be heard.
“Finish with the child,” William ordered the woman. “We must get her to safety before it’s too late. Hurry,” he shouted as he rushed outside to stand guard.
Maude tied a knot in the string, then clipped the threads. As quickly as she could manage, she wrapped a thick bandage around Gillian’s neck and chin.
Spencer lifted the little girl and followed William outside. The enemy had set fire to the thatched roofs of several of the huts with their flaming arrows, and in the bright light, the three ran toward the hill where their mounts waited.
They were halfway up the incline when a troop of soldiers came swarming over the crest. More of the enemy cut off their retreat at the bottom. Escape was impossible, but the two valiant men still held steadfast to their duty. With Gillian on the ground between them, their legs the only barrier shielding her from the attack, they stood with their backs to each other, raised their swords high, and rendered their final battle cry. The two noble soldiers died as they had lived, with honor and courage protecting the innocent.
One of Alford’s commanders, recognizing the child, carried her back to the great hall. Liese, Gillian’s maid, spotted her when she came inside with the soldier and boldly broke away from the group of servants huddled together in the corner under the watchful eye of the enemy’s guard. She
pleaded with the soldier to let her take over the care of the little girl. Fortunately, the commander considered Gillian a nuisance and was happy to be rid of her. He ordered Liese to take Gillian upstairs and then ran back outside to join in the fight.
Gillian appeared to be in a stupor. Liese grabbed her and raced up the stairs and across the balcony toward the child’s room to get away from the massacre. Panic seized her as she reached for the door latch. She was clawing at it and silently crying when a sudden crash made her jump. She turned just as the heavy oak doors leading to the great hall burst open and soldiers poured inside with their bloody battle axes raised and their swords drawn. Crazed with power, they swung their weapons against the weak and the defenseless. The unarmed men and women held their hands up as shields in a pitiful attempt to ward off the enemy’s razor sharp swords. It was a needless slaughter. Horrified, Liese fell to her knees, closed her eyes, and covered her ears so she wouldn’t see or hear her friends’ desperate pleas for mercy.
Gillian stood passively next to Liese, but when she saw her father being dragged inside, she ran to the banister rail and knelt down. “Papa,” she whispered, and then she saw a man in a gold cape raise his sword over her father. “Papa!” she screamed.
Those were the last words she spoke. From that moment, Gillian retreated into a world of numb silence.
Two weeks later, the young man who had seized control of her father’s holding, Baron Alford the Red of Lockmiere, called her before him to decide what was to be done with her, and without speaking a single word, she let him know what was in her mind and her heart.
Liese held Gillian’s hand and walked into the great hall
to meet the monster who had killed the child’s father. Alford, barely old enough to be called a man, was an evil, power-hungry demon, and Liese was no fool. She knew that with the snap of his fingers or a wave of his hand, he could order both their deaths.
Gillian jerked away from Liese just inside the entrance and walked forward alone. She stopped when she reached the long table where Alford and his young companions dined. Without a hint of expression on her face, and with her hands hanging limply at her sides, she stood motionless, staring vacantly at the baron.
He had a pheasant leg in one hand and a wedge of black bread in the other. Specks of grease and meat clung to the red scraggy stubble on his chin. He ignored the child for several minutes while he devoured his food, and after he had tossed the bones over his shoulder, he turned to her.
“How old are you, Gillian?” Alford waited a full minute before trying again. “I asked you a question,” he muttered, trying to control his rising temper.
“She cannot be more than four years old,” one of his friends volunteered.
“I’d wager she’s past five,” his cohort suggested. “She’s small, but she could even be six.”
Alford raised his hand for silence while his eyes continued to bore into the little girl. “It’s a simple question. Answer me, and while you’re at it, tell me what you think I should do with you. My father’s confessor believes you can’t speak because the Devil has taken possession of your soul. He pleads the right to force the demon out, using very unpleasant methods. Would you like me to tell you exactly what he would do?” he asked. “No, I don’t suppose you would,” he added with a smirk. “Torture will be necessary, of course, for it’s the only way to get the demons out, or so
I’m told. Would you like to be strapped down to a table for hour upon hour while my confessor works on you? I have the power to order it done. Now answer my questions and be quick about it. Tell me your age,” he demanded in a snarl.
Silence was her response. Chilling silence. Alford could see that his threats didn’t faze her. He thought she might be too simpleminded to understand. She was her father’s daughter after all, and what a naive, stupid fool he had been to believe that Alford was his friend.
“Perhaps she isn’t answering you because she doesn’t know how old she is,” his friend suggested. “Get on with the important matter,” he urged. “Ask her about the box.”
Alford nodded agreement. “Now, Gillian,” he began, his tone as sour as vinegar, “your father stole a very valuable box from Prince John, and I mean to get it back for him. There were pretty jewels on the top and sides of the case. If you saw it, you would remember it,” he added. “Did you or your sister see this treasure? Answer me,” he ordered, his voice shrill with his frustration. “Did you see your father hide the box? Did you?”
She didn’t give any indication that she had heard a word he’d said. She simply continued to look at him. The young baron let out a sigh of vexation, then decided to stare her into timidity.
In the space of an indrawn breath, the child’s expression changed from indifference to loathing. The hatred burning bright in her eyes quickly unnerved him and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up and the gooseflesh rise up on his forearms. It was unholy for a child of such tender years to show such intensity.
She frightened him. Infuriated by his own bizarre reaction to the girl who was little more than a baby, Alford
resorted to cruelty once again. “You’re a sickly looking child, aren’t you, with your pale skin and drab brown hair? Your sister was the pretty one, wasn’t she? Tell me, Gillian, were you jealous of her? Is that why you pushed her down the stairs? The woman who sewed you up told me you and Christen both went down the stairs, and one of the soldiers who was with you told the woman you pushed your sister. Christen’s dead, you know, and it’s all your fault.” He leaned forward and pointed a long, bony finger in her face. “You’re going to live with that black sin for the rest of your life, however short that might be. I’ve decided to send you to the end of the earth,” he added offhandedly. “To the bitter, cold north of England where you will live with the heathens until the day comes that I have need for you again. Now get you out of my sight. You make my flesh crawl.”
Trembling with fear, Liese stepped forward. “Milord, may I accompany the child north to look after her?”
Alford turned his attention to the maid cowering near the entrance and openly cringed at the sight of her scarred face. “One witch to look after another?” he scoffed. “I don’t care if you go or stay. Do what you will, but get her out of here now so that my friends and I will not have to suffer her fetid stare a moment longer.”
Hearing the tremor in his own voice sent Alford into a rage. He picked up a heavy wooden bowl from the table and hurled it at the child. It sailed past her head, narrowly missing her. Gillian neither flinched nor blinked. She simply continued to stand where she was, her green eyes glistening with hatred.
Was she looking at his soul? The thought sent a shiver down Alford’s spine.
“Out,” he screamed. “Get her out of here.”
Liese dashed forward to get Gillian, and then ran out of the hall.
As soon as they were safely outside, she hugged the little girl to her bosom and whispered, “It’s over now and soon we will leave this foul place and never look back. You’ll never have to see your father’s murderer again, and I’ll never have to look upon my husband, Ector. The two of us will make a new life together, and God willing, we’ll find some peace and joy.”
Liese was determined to get away before Baron Alford changed his mind. Permission to leave Dunhanshire liberated her, for it meant she could leave Ector behind as well. Her husband had gone over the edge of sanity during the attack on the castle and was too befuddled to go anywhere. After witnessing the slaughter of most of the soldiers and the household staff and narrowly escaping with his own life intact, his mind had snapped and he had turned as crazy as a rabid fox, roaming the hills of Dunhanshire during the days with his dirty knapsack filled with the rocks and clumps of dirt he called his treasures. Each night he made his bed in the southeast corner of the stables, where he was left alone to stew in his own nightmares. His eyes had a glassy, faraway look to them, and he constantly alternated between muttering to himself about how he was going to be a rich man, as rich as King Richard himself, and shouting obscenities because it was taking him so long to get his due. Even the infidels and their leader, Alford, who now claimed Dunhanshire for themselves in the absent king’s name, were superstitious enough to give Ector a wide path. As long as the demented man left them alone, they ignored him. Some of the younger soldiers, it was observed, dropped to their knees and made the sign of the cross whenever Ector passed by. The holy ritual was a talisman to
ward off the possibility of catching the crazy loon’s affliction. They didn’t dare kill him, for they firmly believed that the demons controlling Ector’s mind would leap into them and take control of their thoughts and actions.
Liese felt that God had granted her a dispensation from her marriage vows. In the seven years that they had lived as man and wife, Ector had never shown her as much as an ounce of affection or spoken a kind word to her. He believed that it was his duty as a husband to beat her into submission and humility so that she would be assured a place in heaven, and he took on his sacred responsibility with a gleeful vengeance. A hard, angry man who as a child had been coddled and shamefully spoiled by doting parents, Ector presumed that he could have anything he wanted. He was convinced that he should live the life of leisure, and he let greed control his every thought. Just three months before Gillian’s father was killed, Ector had been promoted to the coveted position of chief reeve because of his clever way with figures. He then had access to the vast amount of money collected in rents from the tenants and knew exactly how much the baron was worth. Avarice took hold of his heart, and with it came a bitterness as rancid as bile because he hadn’t been rewarded with what he believed was his share.
Ector was also a coward. During the attack, Liese witnessed her husband grab hold of Gerta, the household cook and Liese’s dear friend, and use her as a shield against the arrows hailing down on them in the courtyard. When Gerta was killed, Ector had dragged her body over his and had pretended to be dead.
The shame was unspeakable, and Liese could no longer look at her husband without hatred. She knew she was in jeopardy of losing her own soul, for to despise another of God’s creatures the way she despised Ector was surely sinful.
She thanked God for giving her a second chance to redeem herself.
Concerned that Ector might take to the notion of following her, Liese, on the day she and Gillian were scheduled to leave, took the child with her to the stables to say good-bye. Clutching the little girl’s hand in her own, she marched into the stall where her husband now made his home. She spotted his dung-and-blood-spattered knapsack hanging on the peg in the corner and turned her nose up in disgust. It smelled as foul as the man pacing about in front of her.
When she called out to him, he flinched, then ran to grab his knapsack and hide it behind his back. His eyes darted back and forth as he crouched down almost to his knees.
“You old fool,” she muttered. “No one’s going to steal your knapsack. I’m here to tell you I’m leaving Dunhanshire with Lady Gillian and I’ll not ever see you again, praise the Lord. Do you hear what I’m saying to you? Stop your mumbling and look at me. I don’t want you coming after me. Do you understand?”
Ector let out a low snicker. Gillian squeezed closer to Liese and grabbed hold of her skirt. The woman immediately set about soothing her. “Don’t you let him scare you,” she whispered. “I won’t let him do you any harm,” she added before turning her attention and her repulsion to her husband again.
“I’m meaning what I say, Ector. Don’t you dare try to follow me. I don’t ever want to look upon you again. As far as I’m concerned, you’re dead and buried.”
He didn’t appear to be paying any attention to her. “I’m getting my reward soon now . . . it’s all going to be mine . . . a king’s ransom,” he boasted with a raucous snort. “Just like I deserve . . . his kingdom for a ransom. It’s going to be mine . . . all mine . . .”
Liese tilted Gillian’s head up so she would look at her. “Remember this moment, child. This is what cowardice does to a man.”
Liese never looked back. Baron Alford refused to order his soldiers to escort the pair north. It amused him to think that the two witches would have to walk. The young brothers Hathaway came to their rescue, however. Waldo and Henry, tenants to the northwest, used their plowing horses and their cart to take them the distance. Both men were heavily armed, for there was also the threat of marauders lurking in the countryside waiting to pounce upon unsuspecting travelers.
Fortunately, the trip was uneventful, and they were both welcomed into the household of the reclusive Baron Morgan Chapman. The baron was Gillian’s uncle by marriage, and though he was in good standing with the realm, he was considered an outsider and was therefore only infrequently invited to court. There was Highland blood running through his veins, and that made him untrustworthy and somewhat tainted.
He was also somewhat of a fright to look upon, for he was well over six feet two inches tall, had frizzy black hair, and wore what seemed to be a permanent scowl. Alford sent Gillian to this distant relative as punishment, but her exile to the end of England proved to be her salvation. Though her uncle was outwardly gruff and unapproachable, beneath the exterior beat the heart of a saint. He was a gentle, loving man who took one look at his pitiful little niece and knew that they were kindred spirits. He told Liese he wouldn’t allow a child to disrupt his peaceful life, but immediately contradicted himself by devoting his full time to the duty of helping Gillian heal. He loved her as a father and made it his mission to get her to speak again.
Morgan wanted to hear the child laugh, but worried that his hopes were too high.
Liese also made it her duty to help Gillian recover from the tragedy that had befallen her family. After months and months of patient coaxing and comforting without any results, the lady’s maid was close to despair. She slept in the chamber with the little girl so she could soothe her and quiet her when the nightmares sent Gillian into fits of screaming.
Bits and pieces of that horrific night when her father died were firmly locked inside the child’s mind. Because of her tender years, it was difficult for her to separate truth from imagination, but she did remember fighting over the sparkling jeweled box and trying to grab it out of her sister’s hands so she could have a turn holding it, then plunging down the stone steps that led to the tunnels underneath the castle. The jagged scar under her chin was proof she hadn’t imagined it. She remembered Christen screaming. She also remembered the blood. In her hazy, confused memories, both she and Christen were covered in it. The nightmares that haunted her during the dark hours of the night were always the same. Faceless monsters with red glowing eyes and long, whiplike tails were chasing her and Christen down a dark tunnel, but in those terrifying dreams, she never killed her sister. The monsters did.
It was on one such night during a terrible thunderstorm that Gillian finally spoke. Liese awakened her from her nightmare, and then, as was her ritual, wrapped her in one of her uncle’s soft Scottish plaid blankets and carried her across the room to sit by the fire.
The heavyset woman cuddled the little girl in her arms and crooned to her. “It ain’t right the way you carry on, Gillian. You don’t say a word during the day and then you
howl like a lone wolf all night long. Is it because you’ve got the pain all stored up inside you and you need to get it out? Is that the way of it, my little angel? Talk to me, child. Tell me what’s in your heart.”
Liese didn’t expect an answer and very nearly dropped the little girl on her head when she heard her whisper.
“What did you say?” she asked, a bit more sharply than she intended.
“I didn’t mean to kill Christen. I didn’t mean to.”
Liese burst into tears. “Oh, Gillian, you didn’t kill Christen. I’ve told you so over and over again. I heard what Baron Alford said to you. Don’t you remember that, as soon as I carried you outside, I told you he was lying. Why won’t you believe me? Baron Alford was just being cruel to you.”
“No, she isn’t dead.”
Gillian looked up at Liese to see from her expression if she was telling the truth or not. She desperately wanted, and needed, to believe her.
“Christen’s alive,” Liese insisted with a nod. “You listen to me. No matter how terrible the truth might be, I will never, ever lie to you.”
“I remember the blood.”
“In your nightmares?”
Gillian nodded. “I pushed Christen down the steps. Papa was holding my hand, but then he let go. Ector was there too.”
“You’ve got it all mixed up inside your head. Neither your father nor Ector was there.”
Gillian put her head down on Liese’s shoulder. “Ector’s daft.”
“Aye, he is that,” she agreed.
“Were you in the tunnel with me?” she asked.
“No, but I know what happened. While Maude was sewing you back together, one of the soldiers who was in the tunnel with you told her. You and your sister were awakened and carried to your father’s chamber.”
“William carried me.”
“It was dark outside.”
Liese felt Gillian shiver and hugged her. “Yes, it was the middle of the night, and Alford and his soldiers had already breached the inner walls.”
“I remember the wall opened in Papa’s room.”
“The secret passage led to the steps down to the tunnel. There were four soldiers with your father, four men he trusted with your welfare. You know them, Gillian. Tom was there, and Spencer and Lawrence and William. Spencer’s the one who told Maude what happened. They led the way down the secret corridor and carried torches to light the way.”
“I’m not supposed to tell about my secret door.”
Liese smiled. “I know you have one in your bedroom too,” she said.
“How did you know? Did Christen tell you?”
“No, she didn’t tell,” she replied. “I would put you to bed in your room every night, but most mornings you were sleeping in Christen’s room. I guessed there was a passageway because I know you don’t like going into dark places, and the hallway outside your bedroom door was very dark. You had to have found another way.”
“Are you going to paddle me for telling?”
“Oh, heaven’s no, Gillian. I’ll never strike you.”
“Papa would never paddle me neither, but he always said he would. He was just fooling me, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Did Papa hold my hand?”
“No, he didn’t go with you into the passage. It wouldn’t have been honorable for him to run away from the battle, and your father was an honorable man. He stayed with his soldiers.”
“I pushed Christen down the steps and there was blood on her. She didn’t cry. I killed her.”
Liese sighed. “I know you’re too young to understand, but I still want you to try. Christen did fall down the steps and so did you. Spencer told Maude he thought William lost his footing and slid into Lawrence. The stone floor was slippery, but William insisted someone had pushed him from behind.”
“Maybe I pushed him,” she worried out loud.
“You’re too little to make a grown man lose his balance. You don’t have the strength.”
“But maybe . . .”
“You aren’t responsible,” Liese insisted. “It’s a miracle none of you was killed. You needed stitches, however, and so Spencer and William took you to Maude. William stood guard outside the cottage until the battle came too close. Maude said he was desperate to get you to safety, but unfortunately, by the time she was done sewing you back together, Baron Alford’s soldiers had surrounded the yard, and escape was no longer possible. You were captured and taken back to the castle.”
“Did Christen get captured?”
“No, she was taken away before the tunnel was discovered.”
“Where’s Christen now?”
“I don’t know,” Liese admitted. “But perhaps your Uncle Morgan can tell you. He might know. Tomorrow you must go and ask him. He loves you like a daughter,
Gillian, and I know he’ll help you find your sister. I’m sure she misses you too.”
“Maybe she’s lost.”
“No, she isn’t lost.”
“But if she’s lost, she’ll be scared.”
“Child, she isn’t lost. She’s somewhere safe from Baron Alford’s clutches. Do you believe me now? In your heart, do you believe your sister is alive?”
Gillian nodded. She began to twine Liese’s hair around her finger. “I believe you,” she whispered with a yawn. “When will Papa come and take me home?”
Liese’s eyes filled with tears again. “Ah, love, your papa can’t come for you. He’s dead. Alford killed him.”
“He put a knife in Papa’s belly.”
“Dear God, you saw it happen?”
“Papa didn’t cry.”
“Oh, my poor angel . . .”
“Maybe Maude can sew Papa up, and then he can come and take me home.”
“No, he can’t come for you. He’s dead, and the dead can’t come back to life.”
Gillian let go of Liese’s hair and closed her eyes. “Is Papa in heaven with Mama?”
“He surely is.”
“I want to go to heaven too.”
“It isn’t your time to go. You have a long life to live first, Gillian, then you can go to heaven.”
She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn’t cry. “Papa got dead in the night.”
“Yes, he did.”
A long while passed in silence before Gillian spoke again. In a tiny whisper she said, “Bad things happen during the night.”