Chapter 1

Sunderland

1229

The leaves rustled gently in the trees, branches swaying in the soft autumn wind. Megara Maclean closed her eyes and lifted her face to the warm afternoon sun, knowing that much too soon the weather would turn too bitterly cold to venture outside the keep. Hidden from view by the garden wall, she rested her back against the cool stone of the castle, not relishing the fact that she would soon be cooped up in close quarters with her stepfather for the long winter months. The mere thought of it sent her pulse to skittering and the soreness of her back that had been momentarily forgotten sent up a dull clamor, reminding her of the latest beating she'd endured.

Against the darkness of her lids she let her mind wander to times when life had been much happier. When both her parents were alive and the hardest decisions she and Evy had to make were to choose which color gown to wear that day or what particular design they should embroider on their father's newest surcoat.

If she thought hard enough she could see her family taking their leave in this very garden, her father and mother leaning against the old oak stealing kisses when they thought no one was looking, while she and Evy picked flowers for the hall. If she lingered long enough on the memory she could almost hear her father's booming laughter followed by the musical notes of Lady Lenore's voice as Evy accidentally crushed the lilies in her haste to present their mother her bouquet.

She allowed herself a small smile and opened her eyes, peering through the leaves of a low hanging branch to survey the goings on just outside her little refuge. Her smile faded. Things had certainly changed since her parents had passed on. The once cheerful, carefree atmosphere of the keep had become dismal and gray. The villagers were terrified of the new laird's temper and the keep suffered because of it.

The village, dirty at best, was nigh onto uninhabitable. The villagers themselves were pitiful, dirty urchins who cowered in the shadows of the knights that passed through. The moat surrounding the castle was filled with unmentionables that permeated the air and kept away passersby. They very rarely entertained guests and the merchants had long since given up hope of selling their wares to the new laird. It seemed he cared for nothing but hoarding the gold in his coffers, becoming agitated and irate when a guest dare enter his hall and intrude upon his hospitality. The keep itself would have fallen into ruin had Meg not taken over the role of chatelaine after her mother's death.

Not that her step father took notice. He treated her as he would any other servant, worse if such a thing was possible. Her back still smarted from her latest indiscretion and she had but two gowns left of which she had not needed to mend. They were the only two devoid of bloodstains, no matter how many times she scrubbed the others.

Her gaze drifted to the garden entrance and she started, pushing herself back against the wall as if trying to melt into the very stone. Her step father's steward, a man of no more than a score, was striding directly toward her, his expression grim. Unfortunately, he was one of the select few who knew the location of her favorite hiding spot.

She tensed, the soreness coming back with a jolt that forced her to remain seated until he stood before her.

"Aye?" She couldn't suppress the slight quaver in her voice, her chin tucking itself against her chest in dread of what was to come.

Marcus looked at her sympathetically through beady black eyes, but his voice was stern when he answered her. "My lord wishes to see you in his study, milady."

Meg felt the blood drain from her face and stood up on shaky legs to follow him out of the garden and back into the keep. She cast a last longing look at her private corner, wishing she had been a bit more selective in choosing who should know where she could be found. She sighed mentally. The garden was where she'd hidden in her youth, a place that had been a welcome refuge for her and her sister when her step father's temper was particularly sour. In the end it was probably better that his steward knew where to find them, for she could only imagine the lord's displeasure if he summoned and they were no where to be found.

She followed him up an all too familiar path, passing servants every now and then. Their eyes were the only things to penetrate the gloom and if she hadn't been so used to them hiding in the shadows she would have thought the keep haunted. They sent her pitying looks they didn't bother to disguise before scurrying away to do their duties lest they also be noticed by the Laird of Sunderland and therefore subject to his fury. Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment, but she kept her head held high, knowing the whole keep was aware of what she suffered at his hands.

Meg could only hope Evy was safely tucked away in her bedchamber and would not come looking for her. Heaven help her if her younger sister found her way into the lord's private study while Meg was there. Evy was forbidden from entering the left wing of the keep, a place where Meg was intimately acquainted with much as she wished otherwise.

They stopped in front of the all too familiar heavy oak door and she felt as if she was going to be sick. No hope of escape presented itself and no ideas were forth coming in her mind. She was in no hurry for a repeat of last week's experience.

She took a deep steadying breath, gathered what little courage she had about her like a cloak, and raised her fist to knock, but met with air instead. The door had opened and her step father grabbed her roughly by the arm, hauling her inside. He flung her into an armchair by the fire as if she were no more than a rag doll. She yelped when her back made sharp contact with the arm of the chair and cringed when he whirled on her.

Meg couldn't help but cower against the cushions, feeling infinitely dwarfed and helpless; her courage deserting her. "Y-you sent for m-me, m-milord?" she stammered, not sure what had set off his temper this time.

He raked her over with a disdainful eye, starting at her slippers, muddy from the garden, and traveling up to her disheveled hair. She was sure he missed no detail. Meg gulped and felt her face heat with humiliation.

"You look as wild and untamed as some village hag, wench," he sneered. "It looks as if a bird has been nesting in that mane of yours. I should take the switch to you for the embarrassment alone."

She reached up and frantically tried to smooth her tresses, dismayed at the twigs and leaves she was pulling out in the process. "N-nay, milord! I simply fell whilst coming from the stables—"

"Silence. I'll not hear such lies." he snarled.

Almost unconsciously her body began to tremble as she watched his eyes slide meaningfully to the switch lying against the wall near the hearth. In that moment she loathed her step father more than ever. She felt her fury like a fire burning a path through her veins; eager to wreak revenge upon his head for all the misery he had put her and her sister through. She knew however she was no match for the gigantic warrior.

Angus of Sunderland looked at her in cruel amusement, seemingly taking great pleasure in her apparent terror. He was easily two heads taller than she, heavyset, with what could only be described as a warrior's stance. His legs were like tree trunks and his arms a good four times as thick as her own. Her step father had survived countless battles and would likely survive that many more in the years to come.

He crossed his beefy arms over his barrel-like chest and smiled at her. It was the smile that chilled the blood in her veins and made her heart thunder painfully against her ribs. "'Tis past time you were wed. At a score and three you are well past marriageable age and therefore a plight on this household as well as a drain on my coffers. You will be happy to know I have found you a suitor," he paused, his face twisting into a cruel smile. "You will wed Douglas of Warwicke in a fortnight."

Meg felt the world stop; she saw her life crumble around her and her hopes of escape being ground into dust before her very eyes. Wed Douglas of Warwicke? The man was old enough to be her grandsire and was rumored to have killed his previous three wives out of sheer boredom. His cruelty surpassed even her step father's; which in itself was no small feat. She would be escaping one Hell only to enter into another. One she would surely never survive.

"Nay." She looked up at him, her eyes as wide as saucers. "Nay." The rejection sounded good on her trembling lips. She said it more forcefully, feeling her body lift out of the chair to stand defiantly before her stepfather. "I will not. I refuse."

At once she realized her mistake. Angus's face turned a furious, mottled red, his eyes near to bulging out of his skull. She almost feared he would burst if he swelled anymore. Before she could move he'd snatched up the switch and brought it across her face. The sting told her he'd broken skin and she dropped to the floor, covering her head with her arms.

"How dare you disobey me!" he bellowed, blows punctuating his words.

By the time his rage had subsided, Meg was sobbing uncontrollably on the floor, barely managing to hold the remains of her gown from falling off her shoulders. Warmth seeped from her jagged wounds, staining her blue woolen gown beyond repair. The agony of her beating coursed through her body, making her weep harder.

"A fortnight, wench. Get you from my sight before you bleed on my floor." His cold, remorseless voice rubbed like salt into her open wounds.

Meg barely managed to scramble to her feet, biting her lip to keep from crying out at the pain the simple action caused her and bolted for the door. Marcus who had unknowingly led her to her fate looked aghast as she came stumbling out of the solar. She didn't spare him a glance as she ran to her bed chamber on unsteady legs, grateful that she saw no one else.

She barely managed to make her chamber and shut the door before she collapsed on the floor, sobbing and bleeding, her entire being on fire. The old wounds her step father had inflicted were nothing compared to this beating. It had been the worst yet.

Meg didn't know how long she lay on the cold stone floor, but it was long enough for her sobs to recede to mere hiccups. Her body was throbbing and stiff, with a pool of warmth laying about her. She was immensely grateful when someone finally knocked on her chamber door before entering. She didn't wish to bleed to death on the floor.

There was a barely audible gasp and then the scurry of small feet. Her sister's small frantic voice was shrill with panic in the silence of the chamber. "Megara!"

Meg heard the door close and then her sister's face appeared in her line of vision, albeit blurred. Evy's eyes were luminous with tears in the semi-darkness, her face as pale as death. A small hand reached out to brush the tears away from her face. Her fingertips came back wet with blood instead.

"Meg?" she whispered, as though afraid she was already beyond repair.

"Aye, Evy." She managed a thready whisper. She tried to smile, but was afraid it came out as more of a grimace.

Her sister tentatively reached out and touched the open welts on her back. Meg flinched at the small icy fingers on her skin but immediately relaxed, the pain receding like the tide, numbing her from head to toe. She sighed softly in relief.

"We have to get you up off to the floor, sister, and out of this gown. I'm afraid it is beyond repair." Her sister's calm, soothing voice gave Meg the strength to slowly get to her feet. Of course, she still needed the support Evy offered her as she staggered, but managed to get her balance without too much difficulty.

Getting the gown and shift off was a task, as her limbs were numb and therefore close to useless, but they managed in a relatively short time. Evy instructed her to lie face down on the bed and she did so gratefully. Her hair swung forward to obscure her vision and she was slightly taken aback at the blood that matted the strands together. Surely she had not bled over much? But when she looked through her hair to the place where she had lain, she could see the frightening amount of blood that Evy was now trying to soak up with her ruined gown. She gulped and squeezed her eyes shut, grateful she was lying down.

A short time later, however, Meg realized she had not stopped bleeding. Evy had carried over the basin of water they used for washing in the morning and torn strips of cloth from Meg's already ruined gown to cleanse the wounds. Each strip, she could see, was no longer the periwinkle blue they had been, but a dark ugly maroon color.

There was no pain, and Meg was immensely grateful for it. From the time she had been very young, it had been apparent that Evy had unique abilities. She was as skilled as any healer, though very few knew what she could do. Meg, having been treated so often by her sister, and who no longer bothered to call the village doctor, was the only one left with that knowledge.

Their mother and father had known, of course. They had encouraged Evy to continue to practice her art, giving caution however that she not freely express what she could do. Other people wouldn't understand, they'd said. Meg knew, young as her sister was, she would still be persecuted as a witch. And so the secret had been kept between them since their mother's death four years prior.

Evy stopped her cleansing and dropped the last of the cloth into the bloody basin. She stood and walked into Meg's line of vision. "I must fetch my herbs from my chamber," she said softly in a voice that was much too old to be coming from an eleven year old mouth. "Will you be alright until I return?"

Meg smiled feebly. "Aye, I'm sure I'll manage."

Her sister hesitated for a moment before hurrying out of the chamber to fetch her things. She was back in less time than Meg had guessed, carrying an armful of leather pouches and fresh linens. She set them on the bed where Meg could not see and rummaged around for a bit.

"You'll not make me smell like a horse, aye Evy?" she tried to tease.

Her sister only grunted. "Will it matter what you smell like? I'm sure your delicate sensibilities will be able to withstand what I shall apply. The poultice should not only ease the soreness and pain you'll feel, but also prevent serious scarring. The wounds should heal in a matter of days rather than weeks."

Meg smiled to herself. Her sister had always been too smart and wise for her own good. "Aye, love and when I have healed fully know you what we shall do?"

"Learn to hold our tongues so stepfather won't beat you needlessly?" she quipped, the graveness of her words underlying her flippant tone.

She chose not to respond to that statement. "We shall leave this dreadful place once and for all."

Her grown up attitude dropped suddenly and at once Evy became the young child Meg knew her to be. "Leave?" her voice was a tremulous whisper. "But Meg this is our home."

Meg did not miss the hesitancy in her sister's voice. "Nay, it was our home. We can stay here no longer. Not while that beast resides in the Hall that Father built." She paused and then added quietly, "I'll not see you beaten as I am."

Evy's blue eyes widened. "But where will we go?"

She paused for a moment, unsure of her plans. "London. We'll head for London and make a new life for ourselves."

"What of gold, Meg? We can not steal from the coffers!" Evy darted a look over her shoulder as if she expected someone to be standing behind her with whip in hand for even mentioning such blasphemy.

Meg thought for a moment. Nay, they would not steal. She had nothing of value and there was no way to earn gold in order to take with them. Then an idea struck her. "Mother's jewels. She left them to us, Evy. They are hidden in the bottom of my trunk," she said.

Evy didn't speak for a long time and when she finally answered there was a note of resignation in her young voice. "Once I am sure you are healed enough to travel, we'll leave."