by Maya Banks
Mairin Stuart knelt on the stone floor beside her pallet and bowed her head in her evening prayer. Her forearm slipped to the petite wooden cross draping from a bit of leather around her neck, and her thumb massaged a familiar path over the now sleek surface.
For several long minutes, she purred the words she&rsquo,d recited since she was a child, and then she ended it as she always did. Please, God. Don&rsquo,t let them find me.
She shoved herself from the floor, her knees scraping the uneven stones. The plain, brown garb she wore signaled her place along the other novices. However she&rsquo,d been here far longer than the others, she&rsquo,d never taken the vows that would accomplish 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&rsquo,s words came floating to mind. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.
She wiped her face and began to liquidate 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 act, she ran and flung it open, racing into the hall.
Around her, the other nuns also packed the hall, their dismayed murmurs rising. A noisy bellow echoed down the corridor from the abbey&rsquo,s front entrance. A sob of agony followed the bellow, and Mairin&rsquo,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 brief, paralyzed by the glance before her.
Warriors were everywhere. There were at least twenty, all dressed in battle gear, their faces unwashed, sweat soaking their hair and clothing. But no blood. They hadn&rsquo,t come for sanctuary or aid. The leader held Mother Serenity by the arm, and even from a distance, Mairin could see the abbess&rsquo,s face drawn in ache.
&ldquo,Where is she?&rdquo, 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&rsquo,t react, and she warbled in his seize like a rag doll.
Mairin crossed herself and purred an urgent prayer. The nuns around her gathered in a close ball and also suggested their prayers.
&ldquo,She is not here,&rdquo, Mother Serenity gasped out. &ldquo,I&rsquo,ve told you the woman you seek is not here.&rdquo,
He looked toward the group of nuns, his gawp flickering coldly over them.
&ldquo,Mairin Stuart. Tell me where she is.&rdquo,
Mairin went cold, fear rising to a boil in her belly. How had he found her? After all this time. Her nightmare wasn&rsquo,t over. It was, indeed, just beginning.
Her arms 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 guzzled, willing herself not to be sick.
When no reaction was forthcoming, the man smiled, and it sent a chill straight down Mairin&rsquo,s spine. Still staring at them, he lifted Mother Serenity&rsquo,s arm so that it was in plain view. Callously, he leaned 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.
&ldquo,This is God&rsquo,s house,&rdquo, Mother Serenity said in a reedy voice. &ldquo,You sin greatly by bringing violence onto holy ground.&rdquo,
&ldquo,Shut up, old woman,&rdquo, the man snapped. &ldquo,Tell me where Mairin Stuart is or I&rsquo,ll kill every last one of you.&rdquo,
Mairin sucked in her breath and curled her fingers into ball sack at her sides. She believed him. There was too much evil, too much desperation, in his eyes. He had been sent on a satan&rsquo,s errand, and he wouldn&rsquo,t be denied.
He seized Mother Serenity&rsquo,s middle finger, and Mairin rushed forward.
&ldquo,Charity, nay!&rdquo, Mother Serenity cried.
Mairin overlooked her. &ldquo,I&rsquo,m Mairin Stuart. Now let her go!&rdquo,
The man dropped Mother Serenity&rsquo,s forearm then shoved the woman back. He stared at Mairin with interest, then let his stare wander suggestively down her assets and back up again. Mairin&rsquo,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 fellows advanced on Mairin, grabbing her before she could think to run. They had her on the floor in a split 2nd, their mitts fumbling with the hem of her gown.
She kicked insanely, 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.
&ldquo, &rsquo,Tis her!&rdquo, one of them said excitedly.
He was instantly shoved aside as the leader leaned 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 forearm around her chin and yanked until she faced him.
His smile revolted her.
&ldquo,We&rsquo,ve been looking for you a long time, Mairin Stuart.&rdquo,
Instead of striking her, his sneer broadened. &ldquo,Tsk-tsk, such blasphemy in the house of God.&rdquo,
He stood rapidly, and before Mairin could blink, she was hauled over a man&rsquo,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 ball-gagged then trussed palm and foot and threw over the saddle in front of one of the dudes. 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 yelled, afraid she&rsquo,d gasp with the gag so securely around her mouth.
When they ultimately stopped, she was almost unconscious. A palm gripped her nape, the fingers lightly circling the slender column. She was hauled upward and dropped unceremoniously to the ground.
Around her, they made camp while she lay shivering in the damp air. Eventually she heard one say, &ldquo,You best be witnessing to the lass, Finn. Laird Cameron won&rsquo,t be blessed if she dies of exposure.&rdquo,
An irritated grunt followed, but a minute later, she was untied and the gag liquidated. Finn, the apparent leader of this abduction, leaned down over her, his eyes gleaming in the light of the fire.
&ldquo,There&rsquo,s no one to hear you scream, and if you utter a sound, I&rsquo,ll rattle your jaw.&rdquo,
She nodded her understanding and crawled to an upright position. He nudged her backside with his boot and chuckled when she whirled around in outrage.
&ldquo,There&rsquo,s a blanket by the fire. Get on it and get some sleep. We leave at very first light.&rdquo,
She curled gratefully into the warmth of the blanket, uncaring that the stones and rams on the ground dug into her skin. Laird Cameron. She&rsquo,d heard talk of him from the soldiers who drifted in and out of the abbey. He was a ruthless man. Greedy and anxious to add to his growing power. It was rumored that his army was one of the largest in all of Scotland and that David, the Scottish king, feared him.
Malcolm, bastard son of Alexander&mdash,and her half brother&mdash,had already led one revolt against David in a bid for the throne. Were Malcolm and Duncan Cameron to ally, they would be a near unstoppable force.
She gulped and closed her eyes. The possession of Neamh Á,lainn would render Cameron invincible.
&ldquo,Dear God, help me,&rdquo, she purred.
She couldn&rsquo,t permit him to build up control of Neamh Á,lainn. It was her legacy, the only thing of her father&rsquo,s that she had.
It was unlikely to sleep, and so she lay there huddled in the blanket, her mitt curled around the wooden cross as she pleaded for strength and guidance. Some of the soldiers slept while others kept careful observe. She wasn&rsquo,t loser enough to think she&rsquo,d be given any chance to escape. Not when she was worth more than her weight in gold.
But they wouldn&rsquo,t kill her either, which granted her an advantage. She had nothing to fear by attempting to escape and everything to build up.
An hour into her vigil of prayer, a commotion behind her had her sitting straight up and staring into the darkness. Around her, the sleeping soldiers stumbled upward, their palms on their swords when a child&rsquo,s sob rent the night.
One of the boys hauled a kicking, wiggling child into the circle around the fire and dropped him on the ground. The child crouched and looked around insanely while the dudes laughed uproariously.
&ldquo,What is this?&rdquo, Finn demanded.
&ldquo,Caught him attempting to sneak one of the horses,&rdquo, the child&rsquo,s captor said.
Anger slanted Finn&rsquo,s features into those of the demon, made more demonic by the light of the fire. The boy, who couldn&rsquo,t be more than seven or eight years old, tilted his chin up defiantly as if daring the man to do his worst.
&ldquo,Why you insolent little pup,&rdquo, Finn roared.
He raised his arm, and Mairin flew across the ground, throwing herself in front of the child as the knuckle swung and clipped her cheek.
She went reeling but recovered and quickly threw herself back over the child, gathering him close so she could cover as much of him as possible.
The boy struggled insanely under her, screeching obscenities in Gaelic. His head connected with her already sore jaw, and she eyed starlets.
&ldquo,Hush now,&rdquo, she told him in his own language. &ldquo,Be still. I won&rsquo,t let them hurt you.&rdquo,
&ldquo,Get off him!&rdquo, Finn roared.
She tightened around the little boy who eventually stopped kicking and flailing. Finn reached down and curled his forearm into her hair, yanking cruelly upward, but she refused to let go of her charge.
&ldquo,You&rsquo,ll have to kill me very first,&rdquo, she said cooly when he coerced her to look at him.
He dropped her hair with a curse then reared back and kicked her in the ribs. She hunched over in anguish but was careful to keep the child shielded from the maniacal brute.