Excerpt from The Heather Moon
Her eyes were a cool, delicate green even in torchlight—but her gaze was hot and furious. If her gloved hands and booted ankles had not been bound, William Scott thought, she might have thrown herself at him in a rage.
Of the men gathered in the dungeon cell watching the girl, William stood closest. He advanced toward her while his English host—her captor—stayed cautiously near the door and his guardsmen.
She watched William warily, her nostrils flared, eyes narrowed, breath heaving beneath her leather doublet. Despite male clothing and the agile strength of her resistance, none of them would have mistaken her for a lad. She was clearly female, with well-shaped curves beneath doublet, breeches, and high boots.
Besides, William thought wryly as he took a step forward, only a woman could cast a glare that would make armed men hesitate.
She reminded him of a cornered wildcat: lithe, tawny, eyes blazing. Yet he saw a flicker of fear in her gaze. He remembered all too well what it was like to be confined, bound, and watched like a mummer's animal. Though he had been a lad at the time, the day of his own capture—the day of his father's hanging—burned clear in his memory.
He edged a bit closer. "Be calm, lass," he murmured.
Her glance darted from him to the others, sparking like green fire. She looked down at the man who lay collapsed at her feet. Large, blond, bearded, and considerably older than the girl, he seemed barely conscious. Blood seeped from a wound on his brow. The girl stood over him like a fierce guardian.
William advanced steadily, palm out. "Calm, lass, we only want to talk to you."
She shuffled back, keeping her balance despite her bound ankles. Tendrils of long, dark hair spilled over her eyes. She shook back the silken veil and glared at him.
"Take care, man. She will attack," Jasper Musgrave warned behind him. "I know her. A savage—half Border Scot, half gypsy. A wild girl, that one. They say no man will wed her, though her Scottish father bribes and begs men to be her suitors."
William saw understanding and a flash of hurt in the girl's eyes at the words. "She's no savage," he said over his shoulder. "Look how she defends herself and her companion. She thinks we mean them harm."
"And so we do!" Musgrave laughed harshly, shifting his great bulk a step or two closer. "She and her father and the rest of their comrades took my horses."
"That's her father?" William had seen the prisoners only moments ago, when Jasper Musgrave had led him down here the dungeon in this English castle. Though it was past midnight, he and Musgrave had sat late by the fire drinking Spanish sherry and negotiating a complex matter of couched bribery and cautious acceptance. The good, mellow sherry had not made up for the sour discussion.
Musgrave's men had then informed their lord that they had captured two Scottish reivers who had stolen some horses. The rest of the thieves had fled, but two were now imprisoned in Musgrave's dungeon. William had been asked to witness their interrogation, as Musgrave's guest and a member of a reiving surname himself.
"Aye, father and daughter," Musgrave was saying. "Border scum from the Scottish side. They and their kin have plagued me for years. My land lies south of his land, with six miles between our towers. Now I'll see them hanged for their mischief at last." He gestured toward the man collapsed on the floor. "Fortunate for us he took a sore hurt. Otherwise Archie Armstrong would have got away again."
"Armstrong!" William glanced at him. "Of what place?"
"Merton Rigg," Musgrave said. "Half Merton, some call it, because the tower sits directly on the—"
"Directly on the Border line, in the area called the Debatable Land," William said quickly. "Merton sits half in Scotland and half in England, since the house was built before the current border was shifted. I know of it."
"Well, the English part of that land is mine," Musgrave muttered. "The case has been in the Session courts for years. No judge will settle the boundaries, since it would entail a change in the national borders." He peered at William. "You know Armstrong of Merton Rigg?"
"My father rode with him, long ago."
"Your father! A notorious scoundrel. You had the favor of your King James once, but he's dead and gone, leaving his kingdom to an infant heiress. You have no king's favor now, William Scott, and you're a rogue yourself." Musgrave folded his hands over his belly. "But you are just the rogue we need—a canny Scot with ties to the crown, yet sense enough to join our cause."
"Aye, sense enough," William muttered bitterly. He noticed that the girl was listening, eyes keen, breath heaving. He glanced at her father, a brawny heap on the earthen floor, blood smeared over the man's face and head.
Despite the wound, and the pale whiskers, William recognized Archie's once-reddish head and strong features. Archie Armstrong had been his father's close comrade, a huge, blond, jovial man. William had been a boy when Armstrong's two sons had been hanged, but he remembered his own father's distress over the incident. Archie's daughter was younger than her brothers, William realized, and years younger than his own thirty years.
As Musgrave murmured to the guards behind him, William suddenly recalled something further about Archie Armstrong. An image sprang to mind with a near-physical shock.
He remembered seeing Archie Armstrong on the day of his father's death. William had ridden through a glen, his horse led by the men who took him prisoner that day, a captive of the Scottish crown. He had looked up to see Archie on horseback on the crest of a hill, watching the party ride past. Archie had lifted a hand in salute to William.
A dark-haired child sat in Archie's lap that day. She had waved to William. He remembered waving back. And he recalled, too, how desperately he had wanted to break free and ride to the refuge and care of his father's friend.
Now he stared at Archie's daughter. This wild half-gypsy girl must have been the little girl he had seen that day. Her solemn salute, and her father's, had meant everything to him once, a shining memory of honor and safety that he had treasured as a boy, a captive of the crown for years.
"Archie is a scoundrel," Musgrave was saying. "He'll lend his hand to our scheme—or he'll get the noose. The girl—I am not decided," he drawled.
His tone made William's skin crawl. "Archie? He's a minor laird and a small midnight raider," he said casually. "He's no use and no harm. If I were you, I'd just let him go."
Inside, he felt a powerful urge to protect these two Armstrongs and keep them away from the dark scheme in which William was already involved. If he could help it, this proud, reckless Borderman and his daughter would not be brought into it.
Fists clenched, he resolved then to do whatever it took—anything—to set them free. He owed Archie and his daughter that much.