Mairin Stuart knelt on the stone floor beside her pallet and bowed her head in her evening prayer. Her mitt slipped to the petite wooden cross draping from a bit of leather around her neck, and her thumb fondled a familiar path over the now slick surface.
For several long minutes, she cooed 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 finish 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 embarked 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 view before her.
Warriors were everywhere. There were at least twenty, all dressed in battle gear, their faces unwashed, sweat soddening 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 anguish.
&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 grab 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 stare flickering coldly over them.
&ldquo,Mairin Stuart. Tell me where she is.&rdquo,
Mairin went cold, fear rising to a boil in her tummy. 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 gulped, willing herself not to be sick.
When no response 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 look. Callously, he arched 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 ballsack at her sides. She believed him. There was too much evil, too much desperation, in his eyes. He had been sent on a demon&rsquo,s errand, and he wouldn&rsquo,t be denied.
He took hold of Mother Serenity&rsquo,s middle finger, and Mairin rushed forward.
&ldquo,Charity, nay!&rdquo, Mother Serenity cried.
Mairin disregarded her. &ldquo,I&rsquo,m Mairin Stuart. Now let her go!&rdquo,
The man dropped Mother Serenity&rsquo,s arm then shoved the woman back. He stared at Mairin with interest, then let his gawp wander suggestively down her bod 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 boys advanced on Mairin, grabbing her before she could think to run. They had her on the floor in a split 2nd, their forearms fumbling with the hem of her gown.
She kicked frantically, 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 arched 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 arm 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 smirk 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 arm 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 squealed, afraid she&rsquo,d gasp with the gag so securely around her mouth.
When they eventually stopped, she was almost unconscious. A arm 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,