Chapter one

"Missy! Come here right this instant!" Ashley sighed as the baron shouted his ordered. The roar shook the walls around her and she took a moment to wipe the dust from her clothes before she picked up the jug of wine and hurried to the hall. "Missy!" He roared again as she stepped into the hall, jug in hand. Baron Rawson only noticed her when she took his mug and refilled it for the tenth time this evening. He growled at her so she would know he hadn't been pleased, but he was to tired to do much more. Ashley was thankful.

"Is there anything else you require before I take my leave, Baron?" Ashley asked, careful as to not look at his face. He would take that bit of insubordination and use it to release his anger as he had many times before. Rawson was a cruel man who loved to cause pain. He was always in a dark mood that matched his dark looks. Black hair, black eyes, black personality.

Ashley stood and waited for his permission to leave. When he just stared, she began to get the nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach again. She almost wept in relief when Rawson nodded his head for her to leave. She would have run from the room, but pride made her walk.

"Oh, and missy?" Rawson's voice broke her steps and Ashley suddenly wished she had run.

"Yes, m'lord?" Her voice was barely a whisper.

"If I ever find your door locked again, I let you sleep outside with the pigs." His harsh laughter echoed after her as she rushed out of the room. Ashley was still shaking twenty minutes later when she heard the drawbridge being lowered. She had been in the kitchens, scrubbing the floors and pots, since the baron had informed her that this was her duty. The baron made sure she always had some task to do at every waking moment of the day. If she wasn't, then he would find her some other productive thing to endure. When she heard the commotion of the horses she ran to the nearest window, hoping against hopes that Rawson was leaving, but her heart sank when she spotted the barons warriors returning from a recent hunt. Instead of getting a reprieve from her chores, she now had ten times more to do. She was about to turn away when she noticed Rawson running to greet the soldiers, grinning madly over a fairly large bundle one man had draped across the back of his horse.

Rawson seemed overly pleased to see it. What in heavens name could it be? Ashley inched closer to the window, trying to see better, but if she got to close, the soldiers would surely spot her and she would get in trouble for being nosey. She had once before and she hadn't been able to lie on her back for a fortnight. But as soon as she saw what the bundle was, Ashley wasn't concerned about getting caught. She let out a gasp and brought a hand to her throat. It was a little boy.

Ashley stared, horrified, as Rawson pushed the unconscious boy off the back of the horse and let him crumple to the dirt. The boy couldn't have been more then five, but it was hard to tell from that distance and the fact a large black bruise covered one side of his face. Ashley want to scream but held herself in check. She wouldn't help him by screaming. But she knew another way to help. She backed away from the window when the soldiers began to head for the front doors. One of the younger soldiers got the task of dragging the unconscious boy behind him.

Ashley ran from the kitchen, hoping to get close enough to the main hall before the men came in. She knew she shouldn't, but she needed to know what was going on. She stopped just outside of the large room and ducked behind the wooden door. She just made it. Not a second later the front door of the keep burst open and the man came storming in. The large table in the middle of the room was filled quickly and the racket was terrible. Ashley watched from her spot as the little boy was brought in and dumped unceremoniously on the table. Rawson could barely contain his glee as he sat down at the head of the table.

He slammed his fist on the table to gain the attention of his followers. When everyone was looking at him he began to speak. "I am pleased with this hunt and I am wondering what the bastard said." He laughed again and Ashley shivered. Oliver, Rawson's first in command, stepped forward.

"Duncan was not at his holding when we arrived." He answered.

Rawson laughed again. "The coward! He probably knew we were coming. But then, we also knew he wasn't there!" The rest of his men laughed with him. "What did you do to his holding?"

"I'm sorry to say we didn't do as much as we would have liked." Oliver smirked. "The soldiers that were still there didn't put up much of a fight, but by the time we got to the boy, it was near morning. We burned anything in sight and left."

"Ha! That'll teach that arrogant son of a bitch!" The baron shouted. "Did you leave my message?"

"Yes, baron. We wanted to use his wife, but she wasn't in the holding. We found a servant girl instead. I strung her up in front of Duncan's door with his sons plaid. I'm sure that will be effective."

"Good, good. Did the boy put up much of a fight?"

"He tried, but the boys as weak as a woman!" The men shouted with laughter. Wine was passed around the room and everyone was getting thoroughly sotted.

"Do you expect the highlander to retaliate?" One solider asked.

"I know he'll try." Rawson was the happiest Ashley had ever seen him. She actually wished he was angry, but that wasn't as frightening. "He knows what I want."

"And what's that?" One man shouted.

"Why, revenge, of course!" Rawson shouted back. The entire hall boomed with laughter. Ashley didn't find it funny.

"What are you going to do to the boy?"

"Throw him in the dungeon. I want Duncan to see him once more before I kill him."

"The weak boy won't last long enough in the dungeon!"

Rawson laughed again. The sound was getting on Ashley's nerves. "You're probably right. Lock him in a room upstairs. The wench can help him live long enough for my revenge." Rawson gave a nod to a few of the men and they got up to bring the boy upstairs… to her. She held her breath, then sneaked out from behind the door and bolted down the long corridor to the kitchen. Quickly finding the servants passageway, she shot upstairs faster then she thought she ever could. By the time the soldiers kicked open her door, she had calmed her breath and pretended to be sewing.

"Got a present for ya from the baron. It's your job to make sure he stays alive and out of our way!" One burly soldier shouted at her. They dropped the bundle on the floor and Ashley waited until they left the room before ran to the door and threw the bolt, locking anyone out. She didn't care if the baron got angry, she wasn't going to sleep without that small protection.

She kneeled next to the bundle and started when she noticed that he was awake and shivering. Slowly she put a hand on his shoulder to roll him over so she could see the boys face, but when she touched him, he suddenly jumped to his feet and attacked. Ashley fell back in surprise. The boy jumped at her, a sharp object in his hand but suddenly froze when he saw that she was a woman. He dropped the stone and suddenly fell backwards, unable to stay on his feet. Ashley reached for him, shocked at the sudden events that occurred, but paused when she felt something warm running down her cheek. She was bleeding.

"I'm sorry."
The whisper shocked her and she continued to stare at the boy until it finally registered in her mind that he was speaking Gaelic. She stared at him until she remember tat he was injured. In a flurry of skirts she ran across the small room and grabbed the small yellow bag she kept hidden under her bed. Inside was cloths and medicines she had acquired over the years and had kept for tending to the small wounds she often found that needed attention. This was the first time she was using it for someone other then herself.

When she knelt next to the boy again, he repeated his apology. "I'm sorry."

"Why are you saying that?" Ashley whispered to him in Gaelic. The boys eyes widened in surprise and she knew that he had thought that she didn't know Gaelic. She repeated her own question to him and waited patiently for him to answer while she carefully cleansed the cut that she had found on his leg.

"I'm sorry I hurt you. Papa says your not supposed to hurt ladies." He whispered this but Ashley caught it and smiled.

"I'm not hurt." She whispered to ease his fears. "But you are. You must have been very brave to get these injuries."

The boy beamed at her, then frowned. "I wasn't brave. They still got me. I tried to be like papa and uncle Alec, but I failed."

"I don't think you did. I still think you were brave and there is no way to change my mind." Ashley proclaimed. "My names Ashley. What's yours?" She asked while she scouted through her bag to find another cloth.

"My names Thomas, but papa calls me Tommy." He whispered.

"Can I call you Tommy too?" Ashley asked as she carried a bowl of water from the corner of the room where her water basin sat.

Tommy nodded and opened his mouth to ask another question when Ashley pressed a damp cloth against his bruised cheek. He winced and tried to pull away.

"Wait a moment, Tommy. This will help with the swelling. When you see your papa again do you want to look all puffy?" He shook his head vehemently.

"He would think I was weak."

Ashley smiled. "Your not weak. Now, can you hold this to your cheek? I want to finish looking at this cut on your leg. Do you hurt anywhere else?" He shook his head at her last question.

"I'm just tired." As if to prove this point he yawned. Ashley smiled, then quickly wrapped his leg in a bandage. He didn't say a word and it took her a minute to realize that he had fallen asleep. She carefully picked up the little boy and put him down on her bed. She pushed a stray lock of hair off his forehead and she wanted to protect him. It was a sudden realization and it shook her to the core. She hadn't felt like this for four years. She was surprised it came to her so easily.

"I won't let him hurt you." She whispered her promise in his ear, then crawled into the bed and gently pulled him into her arms. She fell asleep seconds after her head hit the pillow.