The knight's broken promise
Publication: Harlequin/Mills and Boon (February 2015)
Black Robert. The most feared of all King Edward's men....
When an English knight approaches the charred ruins of her sister’s Scottish village, Gaira of Clan Colquhoun knows better than to trust this fierce-looking man. Yet, struggling to set her war-shaken world to rights, she has little choice.
Robert of Dent will see her to safety. He can promise nothing more. Never again will he make a vow like the one he broke years ago, even though Gaira’s fierce resilience makes him long to protect her.
But what will happen when Gaira discovers exactly who Robert is?
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‘Faster, you courageous, knock-kneed, light-footed bag of bones!’ Gaira of Clan Colquhoun hugged lower on the stolen horse.
How much time did she have before her betrothed or her brothers realised in which direction she had fled? Two days, maybe three? Barely enough time to get to the safety of her sister’s home.
She couldn’t push the horse any faster. Already its flanks held a film of sweat and its breath came in heavy pants with each rapid pound of its hooves. Each breath she took matched the same frantic rhythm.
There it was! Just up the last hill and she would be safe. Safe. And there would be food, rest and the vast warmth of her sister’s comfort and counsel.
She turned her head. There was no sign of pursuit. Her heart released its fierce grip and she eased up on the reins.
‘We made it. Just a bit more and you can eat every last grain I can beg from Irvette.’
She smelled the fire before she crested the hill. The stench was a mixture of blackened smoke, heat, dried grass and rotting cow. The horse sidestepped and flicked its head, but she kept its nose forward until she reached the top.
Then she saw the horror in the valley below. Reeling, she fell upon the horse’s neck and slid down the saddle. Her left ankle twisted underneath her as it took the brunt of her descent. She didn’t feel the pain as she heaved her breakfast of oatcakes and water.
When she was emptied, she felt dry dirt under her hands, crunching grass under her knees. Her horse was no longer by her side.
She stood, took a deep breath and coughed. It wasn’t rotting cow she smelled, but burnt hair and charred human flesh.
The stench was all that remained of her sister’s village. The many crofters’ huts resembled giant empty and blackened ribcages. There were no roofs, no sides, just burnt frames glowing with the fire still consuming them.
The entire valley looked as if a huge flaming boulder had crashed through the kindling-like huts. Large twisted and gnarled swirls of black heat and smoke rose and faded into the morning sky.
She could no longer hear anything. There were no birds chirping, no rustling of tall grass or trees and no buzzing insects. All of Scotland’s sounds were sucked out of the air.
Her heart and lungs collapsed. Irvette. Her sister. Maybe she wasn’t down there. She wouldn’t think. Pushing herself forward, she stumbled as her ankle gave way. It would be useless for the sloped descent.
She looked over her shoulder. Her horse skittered at the base of the hill. He was spooked by the heat and smells; she could call, but he would not come.
Bending to her hands and knees, she crawled backward down to the meandering valley. Blasts of heat carried by the wind ruffled up her tunic and hose. She coughed as the smoke curled around her face. When she reached the bottom, she straightened and took off the brown hat upon her head to cover her mouth.
Her eyes scanned the area as she tried to comprehend, tried to understand what she saw. Thatch, planks of wood and furniture were strewn across the path between the huts and so were the villagers: men, women, dogs and children.
They were freshly made kills of hacked and charred bodies. The path was pounded by many horses’ hooves, but there weren’t any horses or pigs or even chickens.
Dragging her left foot through the ashes behind her, she stumbled through the burning village, which curved with the valley.
At the dead end of the devastation, the last of the crofters’ huts stood. More intact than the others, it was still badly scarred by the flames and its roof hung limply with pieces falling to the ground.
Near the doorway, she looked at the two burned and face down bodies of a man and a woman. The man was no more than a husk of burnt flesh with his head severed from his body.
But it was the woman’s she recognised: the flame-coloured hair burnt at the tips and the creamcoloured gown smeared with dirt. Blood spread along the gown in varying flows from the two deep sword-thrusts in the stomach. Irvette.
Her world twisted, sharpened. She suddenly heard the popping and hiss of water, the crash of brittle wood splintering into ashy dust and a high keening sound, which increased in volume until she realised the sound came from her.
She stopped, gathered her breath and then she heard it: a whisper, a cry, fragile and high-pitched.
She quickly limped into the hut and weaved before crashing to her knees.
‘Snakes and boars,’ she whispered. ‘Thank God, you’re alive.’