Heaven and the Heather
Elizabeth Holcombe

Excerpt

In 1561 the world was a dismal place for anyone named MacGregor. On August 19th hope arrived on a royal galleon from France bearing Scotland's new sovereign, Queen Mary Stuart. For one of the MacGregor clan, hope did not wear a crown. It bore a crippled hand and a bleak heart.

Chapter One: Le Pays des Sauvages

19 August 1561, Leith Harbour, Scotland:

"Mon pere est mort."

"My father is dead. And I can never go home."

Sabine de Sainte Montagne stared at the paper in her twisted right hand. She had done so many times since she had sailed from Calais on the royal galleon bearing Mary, Scotland's new queen. No matter how many times her gaze swept over the paper, it did not change the harsh truth. She was condemned to be a prisoner in this land.

She had received the letter that bore a crimson wax seal and ribbon as dark as the inside of a wine cask just before stepping upon the gangway at the French port. She did not have opportunity to read it until the galleon was in full sail across the English channel.

Her father had died of the king's evil. She knew well of the elegant whores who languished in the halls of Château de Montmerency as frequently as winter snow came to the Alps. Her Alps. They shadowed her beautiful home. For that she mourned, not of her father. According to the letter from her father's avocat, the château and all within it had been left to a woman Sabine had never met, another of her father's river of lovers, the last lover.

Sabine could not bear to read the letter any longer or to have it in her possession. She crushed it in her mangled fist ignoring the pain that suddenly tore up her arm with the subtle purchase of a lightning strike.

"Adieu, mon papa," she said tossing the paper over the salt-encrusted gunwale. "May you find solace where the heat touches upon your flesh."

Her father had been so in name only. His cruelty, his banishing her five years ago to royal servitude had been his parting endearment. Sabine's curse into the mist that surrounded the galleon was the only endearment she could summon, the kindest words she could say.

He was gone, leaving her nothing but a crippled right hand.

"And a promise to my queen that I shall marry a good man, a Scotsman."

She peered over the wood railing down to the slate black water. It was all she saw of this Scotland. The good man was there, beyond the mist, waiting for her, by the queen's command and her promise to Sabine's father.

Her intended was a man she had only met briefly when he had come to France to express his deepest sorrow to Mary after the death of her mother, Marie de Guise. He was a Scottish noble, not a savage. His appearances gave her reason to believe that, to hope that, but her heart would not soften to this man, this Lord John Campbell, self- proclaimed master of the mysterious Highland kingdom. He was a tamer of the people who lived there, so he said.

"Le pays des sauvages," she murmured. "The country of the savages...l'Ecosse. Scotland. The Highlands."

She had heard the whispered rumors of Mary's attendants. She felt she knew well of this Scotland and of its Highland wilds. Men were said to wear clothes which bared their legs. Women were said not to wear shoes. These savage people lived as they wished, sweeping down from their remote hills and mountains with long, terrible swords ready to fight and die for the meager life they lived in the wild. These were things she had heard ever since Mary had proclaimed that she and the whole of her court would go to Scotland.

Sabine strained to catch a glimpse, but the weather was against her. She gripped the gunwale. One hand held fast to the crusty wood better than the other. The mist was as thick as an Alpine blizzard. An impenetrable curtain to her curiosity, to her fear.

Hope rose in her, because she had a way to escape royal servitude--this land of savages and the man who by the queen's command would marry her.

She would make her life her own, even with the mark of her father's anger upon her crippled right hand. That, one day too, would not exist. Hope was a gift she had given herself. Hope was her companion since the day she was forced from home five years ago.

Sabine reached down under her sapphire velvet cloak which hung heavy and damp from her shoulders. She forced two gnarled fingers around the string of a soft leather sac pinned at her hip. She could not hear the crinkle or clink under the leather, but the small vibrations against her fingertips echoed the only bit of security and familiarity she had known.

Scraps of paper rested inside. Worthless to anyone except her. Sabine clenched her eyes shut feeling her right hand cramp a little. She fingered a small, fist-sized woolen ball. Each day, with its help, ignoring the pain in her hand became a little easier.

She extended her fingers as far as she was able. The tips of her two middle fingers brushed the cool, familiar feel of four gold pieces. Four? She stretched her fingers again, ignoring the pain, held her breath and made a quick mental count.

Un...deux...trois...quatre....

"Cinq," she breathed. "Good."

These five pieces of gold, a gift from her mother, countless years ago before she died, would save Sabine's life. These five pieces would give her freedom from all that lay before her like a borderless dark path, dismal and foreboding. She would never marry a man she had barely made acquaintance, much less loved, and for the purpose of keeping of a royal promise to her father. The queen would never see the folly of that promise, 'twould be treason to inform her.

With the gold she could travel far away from the savage land that remained veiled behind a stubborn mist. The queen would not miss her. She had ten other attendants and five ladies-in-waiting. Sabine could return to France, sort things out, then continue with the course of her life, by her will.

"Hope," she breathed, "mon amie."

Above her the great sails lowered from the mist. Shouts from the galley's crew shattered the muted, misty silence.

"Le port! L'Ecosse!"

She opened her eyes and stared forward. But where? As much as she strained, she could not see a thing! Her fears of coming to this land would be easier to face if they indeed had a face. Mist was all she had seen after they had rounded the east coast of England ruled by Mary's cousin, the flame-haired Queen Elizabeth, and protected by her fleet of overbearing ships.

Her heart tightened at the pictures that remained in her mind. Her beloved Alps and the way the seasons made them magical. She puzzled why home, that held so much cruelty still called to her heart. Scotland was a fearful unknown, the devil she did not know. France, her home for better and worse, was the devil she had known all her score of years.

"L'île des sauvages," Sabine whispered. "Why would Mary wish to return here?"

"That question is not yours to ask, impudent fool."

She whirled around to face one of the queen's five ladies-in-waiting, all Marys. This was the uppity one, Lady Mary Fleming. Her earth-colored hair was concealed beneath a dark velvet cowl. Her face, prunish at best, held perpetual disapproval.

Offering a brief curtsy, Sabine eyed the proud Scotswoman, the only one of the royal court, other than the queen, whose blood ran from this land hidden by the misty pall. She prayed the loathing in her eyes was similarly shrouded.

"Madame," Sabine said, with a nod. A sudden puff of wind stirred about her, teasing several thick, corkscrew strands of black hair about her face. She lifted her chin higher. 'Twas not just the Scots who held the repute for fierce pride.

Lady Fleming narrowed her pale eyes. Her gaze dropped to Sabine's right hand and paused. "Get ye to the others," she said, forcing her gaze up. "A common femme de chambre with spirit is as worthless to Her Majesty as a blind footman."

"I emulate Her Majesty's independence of spirit to glorify her," Sabine said proudly. She meant this with all of her heart. Mary was indeed independent, going against her French councilors and returning home as sovereign. Home. Were royals the only ones destined to find home?

"Insolence will be your undoing, la petit chien!" Lady Fleming grabbed Sabine by the arm. "To the bowels of this ship with the others of your station. Now!"

"Sauvage," she whispered, shrugging away her grasp. "You've come home."

Lady Fleming raised a hand to strike her. It would not be the first time. "What did you say?"

"I said, 'you're fortunate to have come home', m'Lady." Sabine stared hard at her. The breeze heightened. It buffeted the hood from her head and sent the tumble of black curls spiraling about her face.

The Scot slowly lowered her hand.

"Ever since your father sent you to Her Majesty's gracious service, you've been but a bane to my very existence."

"I did not ask for her charity."

"Five years have not tempered your selfish yearnings. Your concern should be for the needs of your queen. Now, to your position."

Lady Fleming stole one more glance at Sabine's hand before padding across the deck toward a huddle of the femmes de chambre, ten in all, clucking at them, waving her arms. The queen was on her way. Sabine took a deep breath and walked carefully across the deck slick with sea spray. She stopped and curtsied low. She loved her queen, but she loved France more. To leave royal service would be treason, yet she could not perish the thought. Not as long as a loveless marriage and a life in Scotland were her only choices. Perchance, her queen would understand. Perchance. The coin weighed against Sabine's thigh. Hope. Royals were not the only ones who possessed it.

Mary Stuart, the queen of the Scots, passed before her entourage. Sabine caught a glimpse of golden brocade against dark velvet, strands of pearls and jewels, and hair that rivaled the fiery foliage of autumn in the French Alps.

The galleon lurched. A sudden stinging oily scent mingling with the mist made Sabine's eyes water. Distant shouts rang up over the gunwale.

Sabine stood upright.

"L'Ecosse," she whispered in frightened awe.

She turned around and looked over the gunwale. Through the mist the grey wharf teemed with grey, dour people. The stench of tar and garbage rose up to greet her. Sabine cupped her left hand over her nose and mouth. The crowd on the dock stared up at the royal galleon. Their pale faces shone out from beneath moldy hoods and mist- dampened cowls.

Sabine swallowed hard.

This place was just as dismal as she had feared.

She clutched her hood, drew it up over her head. She willed one foot forward toward the gangplank, into the mist.

Scotland. Mon Dieu! She walked slowly, eyes searching the wharf for any of these savages that came down from their mountains with swords in their hands and death on their lips.

Her sac banged against her thigh. Soon she would seek a way out of this wilderness.

* * * *

"I will demand justice for my clan. I will seek revenge for the murder of my father and brother."

Niall MacGregor, chief of his besieged clan, saw the shadow of a large ship looming over the wharf. The vessel was magnificent, worthy of royalty. Hope surged in him for the first time in forever. This was the queen returning to Scotland. With her there was hope for his clan.

He fervently wished his father, the great chief of his clan, could be here instead of dead beside Niall's older brother, Colin. Yet, they lay in graves a fortnight old on the side of Beinn Tulaichean, which guarded Niall's home and his clan in the Highlands. He had left his home for one purpose, revenge against an auld and persistent enemy.

His father and brother had come to the Canon Gait, neutral ground just north of Edinburgh eleven miles from Leith, and had died there.

"Peace," Niall silently hissed. "Our enemy gave them peace eternal.

Niall looked away from the ship as another wave of mist roiled in between his hiding place in a shadowy, narrow close and the great galleon. His eye caught sight of a post and a notice nailed on it.

He read quietly to himself: "By order of the Privy Council of Scotland and the Isles..."

His throat tightened. Privy Council. Lord John Campbell was the bloody privy council in the Highlands, so he declared with his castle, men, and vast wealth and influence. Campbell would shoulder with the newly arrived royalty. Rumor was that he had already gone to France to express grief to the new queen over the death of her mother. It was rumored that he alone had influenced Mary to return to Scotland, that as tithe for his kindness, she had gifted him with one of her attendants, personally arranged the betrothal. Some French maiden was the queen's political pawn who would bring Campbell and the Highlands closer to court.

Niall knew Campbell's true character which Mary was so blinded to. No viler, nastier heart beat in Scotland. No man hated Clan Gregor more than Campbell. The proof was printed on a wrinkled and torn notice before Niall's eyes.

He stared at the paper. The words, printed in the darkest ink, the boldest letters, slammed him in the face.

Be it known to all good subjects of Her Majesty, Marie Reigne, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, that conscription has been imposed against all who embody allegiance to Clan Gregor, all claiming themselves as MacGregor, and the like. All nobles and good and loyal subjects of Her Majesty are ordered to forthwith pursue Clan Gregor with fire and sword. It is forbidden for all lieges to help Clan Gregor in any way with food, drink, weapons, shelter, care for the sick, or transport.

Campbell had not put his name to this piece of rubbish, but the timbre of the words bore his stench. So did the deaths of Niall's father and brother. Of this he needed undeniable proof. He also needed the help of his new queen. The penetrating question was how he, a hunted outlaw by virtue of this paper, would get an audience with the queen, to warn her of the vermin in Scotland, to tell her the truth of his clan.

He stepped from the close, hood over his head, concealing his flame-colored hair, as much a mark of Clan Gregor as was his plaid dyed from an azure heather that grew in profusion in his glen.

Mind reeling, Niall stood alone amid the bustling crowd. No one paid him any notice, his face shrouded in shadow and mist, his stature that of an average man. His will that of a hundred.

"I will not die by fire and sword," he whispered. "Neither will my clan."

He narrowed his gaze at the galleon through a thinning patch of mist.

"By God we will not."

Niall took one step forward.

The mist from the Firth of Forth obliterated just about all in front of him. Oddly grateful for the concealing Scottish weather, he wove his way through the gathering crowd. The mist was as much a part of Niall as his damned ginger hair and condemned name. He made his way to the bottom of the gangplank to seek an audience with the newly arrived queen, to make his clan and their loyalty to her known.

He would sacrifice his freedom, risk imprisonment or death, to tell her that the edict set forth by the Privy Council, by Campbell no doubt, was a lie. All she had to do was hear him out.

"In a bloody dream, perchance," he told himself. There was no way the queen, fresh from her journey, would deem to listen to him. But he damn well had to try.

"Misneach is sìth," he whispered in the comforting Gaelic over gnashed teeth. Then in the tongue the queen was certain to understand, "Fortitude is peace." He paused. She was coming from France. "Le courage est la paix."

A sharp breeze thinned the mist for a moment and pushed the hood from Niall's head. He grabbed it just as he saw her. The woman cautiously stepped off the gangplank, clutching her velvet cloak to her throat, a hood concealing her hair. Niall stopped in the center of the wharf, the crowd flowing around him. Was this stunning beauty the queen? He wished she did not have the hood over her hair. He would know immediately if this breathtaking woman was the queen or not if he saw her hair. It was reputed to have the same fiery hue as his own.

He stood, rapt, a few dozen steps away from her. She turned and caught his stare with the most beautiful amber eyes on a face straight from his wildest...

"...dreams," he gasped.

A dark shadow suddenly raced past him in a fury of hoofbeats almost knocking him off of his feet into a stall laden with fragile-looking baskets of chickens and various other poultry. He caught himself from faltering into the pile of clucking madness and droppings. He stared ahead, a dozen paces away, as darkness settled close to the beauty, halting its mount so near her.

"Campbell," Niall hissed.

The crowd quickly closed in around him. They, too, knew the queen had arrived in Leith that day. Only Niall seemed to know the devil himself had come to greet her on a black steed.

He glanced at the stall of chickens. An audience with the queen. He would have to distract those about her, and, in the same instant, come to her rescue.

* * * *

The man Sabine was ordered to marry by the queen's command had come to greet her. She reached beneath her cloak and tapped her sac to comfort her turbulent mind.

She told herself not to be foolish. Lord Campbell had come to see his queen. Seeing Sabine had to be secondary. This thought brought her little succor.

Sabine followed Mary off the gangplank onto the muddy wharf. Fifteen people preceded her, the ladies-in- waiting and the ten femmes-de-chambre. She was last in the procession. The instinct to turn and flee to the galleon and hide deep within its salty hold surged many times in her. She had to will her leaden feet forward, each step taken with determination.

Urgent whispers rippled through the line of velvet cloaked ladies and attendants.

"Has no one but Lord Campbell and this gaggle of commonfolk come to greet Her Majesty?" Sabine heard Mary Fleming whisper.

At the foot of the gangplank she allowed the others to walk away from her. She strained to see along the wharf through the gathered crowd and the mist. The savages were out there waiting. She could feel them as well as she felt the tremor of her own fear of the many unknowns before her.

Sabine stepped forward into ankle deep mud. She grabbed her cloak and gown and lifted them up as best she could while retaining courtly dignity. The others had walked far ahead of her, so her embarrassment was her own. She pulled her feet out of the filthy quagmire with a rude sucking sound. Her slippers were a complete loss.

"Merde," she said under her breath.

"I have a cursory understanding of the French, but I'll wager you're not at all happy with my country so far."

Sabine froze. She stared up the long, bony body of a man immaculately clad in dark stockings, pantaloons, and doublet. Equally as dark were his neatly-trimmed beard and peppery curls of hair under a jaunty velvet cap topped with an ostrich plume. His face was flushed as if he had been on a recent and hard ride.

"Oui," she uttered, "I understand you, monsieur."

"Good," Lord Campbell said.

He stared up and down her.

Sabine, in turn, stared at his pointy face, at the wide eyes, the raised brow, the sneer of surprised disgust on thin lips. His reaction was more common than she cared count.

She hastily glanced away from her betrothed to the queen. The ladies and the femmes-de-chambre, too distant to conceal her, hovered protectively about their sovereign.

"Pardon, monsieur," she said, stepping away from the man in dark velvet and brocade.

"Her Majesty arrived a wee bit early," he said. "We were expecting her in a fortnight."

Sabine tipped her chin up, craving the huddle about the queen. A crowd of spectators had gathered around them-- A ring of pink faces and the grey wool clothing. The queen appeared not vexed by the situation. She looked radiant from the hushed adoration of the crowd about her.

As if sensing her worries, he said, "We have met, you know, on several brief occasions in the French court. Yet, allow me to introduce myself again, as I fear you may have forgotten me. I'm Lord John Campbell, at your service-- " he paused and tossed a glance at the crowd "--and Her Majesty's of course." He looked long at her. "I have ridden from Edinburgh on another errand only to find that Scotland has been made more lovely..." He stole a glance at her right hand, paused, then said, "...now that you've arrived."

"Your thoughts should only be for your queen," she snapped. Were all Scottish men were as rude as he?

"And for my betrothed," he said, taking her right hand and raising it to his lips. He looked at it, paused, and gave the back of her hand a quick, dry kiss, much like the peck of a chicken in dust.

Sabine could only glance away with a bitter swallow as she regained possession of her right hand and tucked it beneath her cloak.

"Ah," he said, looking up the cobbled street, a ghost of relief on his face, "the carriage has arrived. I shall assist Her Majesty. Never fear, I shall return to assist you in good time."

Sabine watched him walk away. Good. She would never fear as long as that fripon was a good distance from her. Escape from him and this nasty country would come none too soon for her.

A cry suddenly rose up in the crowd.

Sabine whirled around and was suddenly filled with more fear than the day she sailed from Calais.

"Mon Dieu!" she cried.

A chicken flailed toward her, parting the crowd,then terrifyingly sought sudden refuge under her skirts. She flapped the many layers of velvet and brocade at the excited bird as it raced about her legs. Tiny claws ripped into her silken stockings scratching her tender flesh.

She dropped her skirts. Birds calmed in the dark. She prayed this was true. Then she looked up.

A horrible man, non, a monster rushed toward her. His dark cloak flapped open. A cross-hatched patterned wool skirt beat against powerful reddened knees above calves wrapped in strips of frayed wool. Piecemeal leather shoes pounded the mud. Hair the color of a fiery sunset after a storm, blew back from his face. Then he threw his body at her feet and disappeared halfway under her gown.

Sabine tried to leap away from the creatures beneath her gown, but the crowd had pressed around her, staring. She could not help but act a consummate fool and scream when savage hands grabbed her legs, taking advantage.

Her body turned rigid as her attacker rose before her.

All she could do was gasp.

Penetrating, bright, fierce eyes, the blue of an Alpine river, stole her breath. Damp, wavy, auburn locks framed a heart-stopping face of perfect furrows and ridges. His lips turned upward into a grin. Sabine forced herself to breathe. This was a true savage of Scotland.

"Got ye," he said sounding more Scots than Lady Fleming herself.

Sabine heard herself breathe from far away, "Oui."

She feared her struggle with the sauvage before her had just begun.

* * * *

Niall dropped the chicken. It weaved away into the crowd. His plan had worked. He had not saved the queen but, he was nearer to her, very near to this intended of Campbell's, this royal pawn.

While staring deep into the dark eyes that studied his own with as much intensity, he silently celebrated this wee victory. This woman, a beauty among beauties, was Campbell's prize from the queen. That much he had heard and seen, 'twas no longer rumor. Yet, from the conversation Niall had overheard, from the way this French lass had looked and stood apart from Campbell, she was none too fond of the impending nuptials. He had found a kindred spirit, tenuous at best, but they seemed to share the same sentiments toward Campbell, if his eyes and ears did not deceive him. He feared, though, he would only have a moment to state his demands to her, so a moment would have to suffice.

The woman tipped her chin up a little, revealing the long line of her neck to the stiff collar of silk and lace concealing her throat. Her dark gaze, as sparkling as the spring waters of Loch Katrine, captured and disarmed him.

She had the presence to be queen. She was of noble, regal bearing, as she condescended to him with one gaze.

Niall swallowed again. He was so close to her. His left hand rested inside her cloak, his fingers brushing a soft leather purse. He clenched his fist about it without thinking, a reflex. Dear God, how lovely she was standing there taking small, nervous breaths over perfect lips. She stared hard into his eyes as if she was afraid of him, as if she expected him to do something.

"Scotland sauvage," she said with a toss of her head. Her hood slipped down. Hair darker than pitch spilled out. It glistened in the mist. The tendrils dangled against the porcelain skin of as lovely a face he had ever seen. 'Twas a shame she was a French snot.

Niall's mind turned over rapidly. He must seek an audience with Her Majesty through this woman. He did have a repute for charming the lassies of his glen. This comely lass should be no problem. If she would only lower her chin a wee bit.

The beauty reached up with a twisted hand to replace the hood over her hair. He gave her hand no more than a passing glance. Her eyes were far more interesting.

"Aye, well," Niall said finding his grin, "the true sauvage is--"

"A MacGregor!" A horrid and familiar voice rang out behind him.

Niall jerked around taking the soft leather purse with him. He stabbed his free hand under his cloak for his dirk.

But it was as futile a gesture as deeming to soften one of the royal court to him. Several pairs of hands grabbed him, yanking him roughly away from her, jerking his hands from his knife.

"Ye're ruining a lovely moment, lads," Niall said. Jest was all he could find for the moment. He struggled against his captors

He was whirled about. His head was yanked back by a fistful of his hair, forcing his chin up. His gaze met that of Satan himself.

"Campbell," he rasped.

"The mademoiselle knows you better than you know yourself, MacGregor," Campbell said.

"Then she must also realize that ye are but shite beneath her feet," Niall hissed.

Campbell slapped him. The leather gauntlet stung the side of Niall's face, but he remained steady, giving his enemy not so much as a wince.

"Ye hit like a lassie," he said. "Weak, like your claim to Gregor land!"

"Take this scum to the Tolbooth," Campbell snarled.

"On whose authority do you do this, Lord John?"

Campbell suddenly bowed low to the queen. She was a young yet stately woman with hair more fiery than Niall's. Her clothes rivaled the sun with their brilliance.

"Release this man," she commanded.

The guards obeyed her. Niall stumbled toward the queen.

He bowed before Scotland's new sovereign. Hope for his clan burned deep inside his soul. He prayed the queen had not heard the lies against his people, had no knowledge of the edict posted against all MacGregors.

"Lord John, what say you to this disruption?" the queen asked.

"Your Majesty, I heartily apologize--" Campbell began.

"I did not ask for apology," she said, voice firm. She waved a hand forward. Still bowing, Niall looked up through his hair. The French lass stepped forward. She was more lovely than her sovereign. Surely, that must be treason in itself.

"Our Sabine, what say you to this disruption? You appear to be the source of it," the queen asked.

Niall's grin escaped. He now knew her name.

Sabine curtsied. "I regret, Your Majesty, that I cried out. I was affronted."

"Affronted? By whom?"

Campbell stepped forward. "That MacGregor, Your Majesty. An outlaw from an outlaw clan. Your Privy Council decreed it, in your name."

"We did not solicit a response from you, Lord John. We are most affronted that policy is made by our Privy Council without our knowledge. We have yet to determine the truth of any accusation you bring to one of our subjects."

Niall held his head higher and threw a wink at his queen. She was a lass after all. The merest hint of a smile played at the corners of her mouth.

"But, Your Majesty, MacGregors are--"

"Enough!" The queen stifled a yawn with bejeweled fingers before her lips. "We are weary from our journey. This matter can certainly wait." She turned away to the carriage and the huddle of nobles that had seemingly appeared from nowhere. Sabine continued to curtsy but took a furtive glance at Niall.

He mouthed her name. Sabine.

She blinked, gasping. Good. He deserved something from her, even if it was a startled reaction. If she had not disarmed him with such beauty, he would not be in this predicament.

"Take him away," Campbell said to the guards.

Niall suddenly dropped to the mud. Like a newt, he slipped through the muck evading the grappling hands. With one hand he reached for his dirk, neatly sheathed, hidden in a fold of his kilt. Brandishing the weapon, he parted the crowd in a hail of gasps and startled breaths. He ran through Leith with speed and fury of a spring storm, to the outskirts, to a forest where his horse was tethered and hidden.

He vowed to see Sabine again, for the sake of his clan. She would get him inside the palace, but how?

He looked down at his left fist. He had not unclenched it since he had been torn away from Sabine. He opened his fingers one by one, revealing a small, leather purse in his palm.

An idea leapt to mind. He sat down in cover of the forest and opened the purse.

* * * *

Sabine stared into the mist as a light rain began to fall.

"He has escaped, no?" she asked Lord Campbell.

She knew the answer to her question. One as bold as that MacGregor could leave her life as quickly as he had entered it. She could still feel his firm touch upon her legs, see his fierce yet heavenly gaze in her mind.

"Curse all MacGregors," Lord Campbell replied to the mist.

Sabine allowed him to escort her to her queen. This vile and savage place was her new home and not for long.

She reached inside her cloak, down to her sac, with her right hand, stretching the fingers, strengthening them, reaching to the symbol of her freedom--

Her heart froze, and her spirit plummeted to harsh reality. She rustled her hand frantically under her cloak until all about her gave her hard stares. She stopped, forced her hand into view and stood quiet and demure as a good attendant should. Inside the depth of her mind and soul she was screaming.

Mon Dieu! Her sac! It and the hope it bore was gone!

Lord Campbell stared at her, face frozen in confusion, unsure of what to think of her. Then he offered her a thin smile and his hand.

Sabine had no choice but to place her hand in his. She offered him her left hand this time. He gladly took it and escorted her to the waiting carriage.

* * * *

Niall sat against a stout oak. He allowed his breathing to calm. His mount chewed lazily on the undergrowth of fern, the chomping a distant sound.

He opened the gut strings wide and reached into the purse. He pulled out what at first glance looked liked brittle autumn leaves, but upon closer inspection they were scraps of paper with images from another place drawn in charcoal.

He picked up one of the papers. Set before his wide eyes were jagged snow-topped mountains. The sun shone on these bold outcroppings to the knife's edge of a fir forest. Niall did not have to see the winter sunlight to know its power and rarity in these select charcoal markings. He also knew this place was not Scotland.

He looked at another paper. A man with a small mustache and pointy chin whiskers stared back at him. One thin brow was cocked jauntily above a glinting eye. The realism was startling. The fact that this man was naked was more startling.

"A lover, no doubt," he mused wickedly. This man was not Campbell. "I wonder if the bastard knows about this."

Amused, he thumbed through the other papers. More beautiful scenery met his eyes, but no more revealing portraits. He looked to his lap. There resting in the center, nested in the dark plaid like an egg--it was a ball made of strips of wool wound round and round.

He picked the ball up. He lifted it to his nose, savored her delicate flowery fragrance. He drew her scent in deep and captured her. A curious possession, aye, but no more curious than this woolen ball.

Niall recalled her right hand. A minor flaw on an otherwise perfect beauty. Perchance, it was not a flaw at all. He gave the ball a squeeze. The muscles in his fingers tightened against the slightly resilient orb. He squeezed as hard as he could until the veins on his forearm stood out against the pale, mud-streaked skin. He relaxed his hand, his fingers felt a wee bit stronger.

The purse still weighed heavy in his palm. He unended it. Five gold pieces fell into his lap.

"A bloody ransom!" was his first reaction.

He then clapped a hand over his mouth. He glanced through the wood, and up and down the road. He remained alone.

Five gold pieces! 'Twas wealth as he had never held before, yet alone seen.

"She'll want this back, oh aye," he said with a grin.

He shoved the papers and the wool ball back into the purse. He dropped the coin one by one into the opening and cinched the gut strings tight.

He was no thief. He was chief of a clan that would be slaughtered of he did not seek out the queen. The MacGregors could remain hidden in their remote glen, fend off an attack, but for how long? As much as he hated to admit it, he needed help.

He could not help but grin to himself. He knew several of the French lass's secrets. Perchance he would know more, after he forced her to do his bidding. If she wanted it returned she would take him to the queen. This leather purse was his key.

Sudden hoofbeats seized his attention. He reached under his cloak for his dirk and held it at the ready while he waited in the tree shadows.

The rider wore a cloak that blew back from his shoulders. It ill-concealed his dark plaid and the chaotic black curls of his hair.

His best mate, Rory Buchanan, a hapless but loyal soul fostered a score ago into Clan Gregor, slowed his mount to a stop before the stand of oak. He puckered his lips and let loose with a poor imitation of a woodcock trill. Niall relaxed and placed his dirk back into its sheath at his hip.

"Aye, aye," he said stepping from the wood. "I hear ye, ye daft bastard." He glanced down the road. "What news of the Canon Gait? Any witnesses against Campbell?"

Rory slumped a wee bit in the saddle. He sighed and raked a hand through the rat's nest on his head.

"What is it?" Niall asked, taking the reins of Rory's mount as his friend thumped to the ground. Rory would not leave his father alone. The Buchanan, a giant, but with as much brains as a midge fly, was the chief's champion, his protector.

Rory looked askance to nowhere in particular on the horizon.

"What news?" Niall demanded.

Finally, after a heaving another sigh, Rory looked his chief in the eye and said, "Nowt."

"Nowt?" Niall stood firm. There were no witnesses? Not a bloody one?

"None." Rory's voice trailed off on a meandering, unintelligible path.

Niall held tight to Sabine's purse. Rain began to fall around him. He looked to the south. One word crossed through his mind and his lips. He shoved the purse into his sporran, a humble satchel that hung from the belt that cinched his plaid to his waist.

He turned and walked determinedly to his mount. He climbed into the saddle over the horse's rain-sicked back and faced the beast north to the palace at Holyrood eleven miles away.

Sabine's purse weighed heavy inside his sporran. She would help him. She had to.