Authors: Karyn Monk
OR MY BROTHER
WITH MUCH LOVE
The Highlands of Scotland
Her back ached from leaning against the frigid wall, forcing her to rise with slow dignity.
Squinting against the thin veil of light spitting from a torch, she made out the beefy figure of her jailer, Sim. Two others loomed behind him, their faces nearly obscured by the darkness. She studied them a moment, then eased her grip on the small, sharply edged stone she held in her hand.
Robert was not with them.
“They're ready for ye,” announced Sim. “An' a fine evenin' for it, too,” he added, the black cave of his rotting mouth twisting with malevolent pleasure. “The wind is just right.”
Battling the desire to smash her fist into his face, Gwendolyn stepped forward.
“Give me yer hands,” he ordered, brandishing a rough length of rope.
Her fingers clenched into fists, hiding her pitiful weapon as the cord bit into her wrists. She could not imagine what Robert feared she might do as she was escorted to her death by these burly warriors. When her bonds were painfully secure, the two men grabbed her by the arms and shoved her into the dim corridor. The stench of unwashed flesh, rotting food, and human excrement filled her lungs. She moved swiftly along the slime-coated passage, her feet splashing in murky pools of water. A clump of fur scurried across her path. She stopped with a gasp.
The warriors laughed.
“A witch afraid of a wee rat!” snorted one. “Don't ye bite their heads off afore ye bleed them into yer potions?”
“Why don't ye just cast a spell on him, like ye did yer poor father?” taunted the other.
“I'm saving my powers for the spell I plan to cast over you,” Gwendolyn replied, deriving bitter enjoyment from his sudden fear.
They climbed the staircase to the main level of the castle. Here the terrible stench of the dungeons gave way to the heavy redolence of spilled ale and roasting meat. A magnificent feast was being prepared to celebrate her death, and all the clan had been invited to join Laird MacSween and his family on this glorious occasion. The greasy reek of charred animal flesh churned her stomach. She hurried past the smirking guards at the door and stepped out into the warm evening air.
“There she is!” someone shrieked hysterically.
“Witch!” hissed a wild-eyed girl, clutching her baby against her breast. “Ye've given my wee babe the fever!”
“Evil murderess!” snarled a skinny youth who didn't look to be more than thirteen. “It was you who killed my mother last month, wasn't it?”
“And ye caused my poor son to crush his leg beneath that tree,” cried an agonized woman with graying hair, “leavin' him a cripple, ye whore of Satan!”
Everyone in the crowd began hurling awful names and accusations at her, their faces contorted with hatred, their bodies braced for violence. Gwendolyn stopped, afraid.
“Come on, witch,” growled one of the guards. “Move.” He gave her a push, and she stumbled.
The crowd instantly surged forward, clawing at her hair, her face, her gown.
“Spawn of Satan!”
Gwendolyn was terrified. She raised her bound arms in a vain attempt to shield her face as her clan rained blows on her back and shoulders. When she could bear no more, she fell to her knees.
roared an enraged voice from somewhere beyond the fray. “Cease, or I'll tear out your hearts!”
Her attackers hesitated, uncertain who had spoken. They looked questioningly toward the scarlet-and-gold-draped dais on which Laird MacSween reposed with his wife, his young son, and his brother, Robert.
“It seems our guest, Laird MacDunn, has little stomach for justice,” observed Robert dryly. He sighed. “Never mind. It is going to be a spectacular fire. Allow the witch to proceed to the stake.”
“Yes,” added Laird MacSween, not wanting it to appear his brother was giving an order without his consensus. “Let the witch pass.”
Her ring of tormentors eroded, and Gwendolyn was roughly hauled to her feet. She did not spare a glance toward the dais, where she knew Robert would be watching her triumphantly. Instead she fixed her gaze on the crudely constructed platform ahead of her, on which a slender stake had been erected.
The structure was high, to allow everyone in the clan a good view of her death, and had been strategically positioned at the end of the courtyard near the outer wall, as far from the castle as possible. This, Robert had informed her, was because Laird MacSween's wife and daughter had complained that if the stake was placed in the middle of the courtyard, the stench of Gwendolyn's burning flesh would waft into the windows and offend their delicate senses for days. Robert had been equally solicitous about the time of day for her execution. Early evening, he decided, would be best, so the flames could burn brilliantly against the advancing darkness, yet her lovely face would not be veiled by the shadows of night.
As she walked through the pearly, fading light, Gwendolyn felt a warm breath of wind caress her skin. Her jailer had been right, she realized dispassionately.
It was a fine evening.
Dry branches and peat had been heaped on the platform and below it, needing only a spark to burst into flame. Gwendolyn slowly mounted the steps, trying not to contemplate the heat of such a fire. It wasn't her death that she feared, but the method of it. Drowning would have been preferable, or even having her throat slashed. But burning was the execution decreed for those condemned of witchcraft.
Robert had hoped her fear of such a hideous death would break her will and she would finally reveal to him the hiding place of the jewel.
But he had miscalculated her desire to live.
She took her place on the platform and raised her wrists so the guard could slash open the rope. Her arms were wrenched behind her around the stake and bound again, and another cord secured her body to the pike. In the process of burning, the stake would hold her upright and keep her from falling in a crumpled heap into the flames. She found the thought comforting. Somehow, it seemed more dignified to die standing.
After her escorts left her, the abundantly nourished Father Thomas haltingly ascended the platform steps.
“Well, Gwendolyn, are you ready to finally confess your sins and beg God's forgiveness for the evil path you have chosen?” he demanded loudly, so his audience would be certain to hear.
She turned her head away from his ale-soured breath. “I have committed no sins, Father.”
Father Thomas frowned. “Come, now, lass, you will soon be facing God. He will send you straight to hell, where you will burn for all eternity, unless you plead for forgiveness now.”
“Not even a priest can help you, evil bitch!” a man shouted furiously.
“Nor the devil!” added another.
Gwendolyn eyed Father Thomas steadily. “And if I do confess, will I find mercy here, amongst my own people?”
“You are guilty of murder and witchcraft,” he pointed out, shaking his head. He turned toward his audience, raised his arms, and finished grandly, “No woman guilty of such vile crimes shall escape the everlasting torment of hellâfor
âthe Lord will swallow them up in his wrath; and fire will consume them'
The crowd cheered.
She considered this for a moment. “If I have no hope of avoiding death, then I see no reason why I should refrain from confiding in you, Father.”
He looked startled, but quickly composed himself. He nodded sagely and folded his hands on the great swell of his belly. “God is listening, Gwendolyn,” he assured her.
“I am innocent. Consider that as you sit at the laird's table tonight dressed in your finest robes, and gorge yourself on enough meat and ale to feed a child for a month. Reflect on the fact that you murdered me, Father, and pray that you don't choke.”
His round face grew crimson with fury. “How dare you speak so to a man of God!”
“If you really were a man of God, you would have tried to protect me instead of destroy me.”
“This is the devil talking. You were just a child when your mother was burned, but evidently you were old enough for her to pass her wicked ways on to her daughter.”
“My mother was no more guilty of witchcraft than I.”
“You will burn, Gwendolyn MacSween, so that your black soul can be sent straight to hell, where it belongs.” He quickly made the sign of the cross, then began his labored descent down the stairs.
“God will know I have done nothing wrong,” she countered, “and when He realizes I was murdered, it is
who will be going to hell.”
“Burn her!” screamed someone from the crowd. “Before she works more of her deviltry on us!”
The crowd rumbled with agreement and began to chant, “Burn herâburn herâburn her!”
Laird Cedric MacSween rose from his seat and carefully unraveled a scroll. “Gwendolyn MacSween, you have been found guilty of the charges of witchcraft and murder. According to witnesses, evidence of your evil powers first became apparent some twelve years ago, when several children in your presence saw you cast a spell over a rock, causing it to fly through the air, until it eventually transformed into a bird. That was the same summer four beloved members of our clan died of causes that have since been attributed to your foul sorceryâ¦.”
Robert was watching Gwendolyn from his place beside his brother, his expression resigned, his fingers drumming impatiently on the arm of his ornately carved chair. They both knew it was too late for him to stop this travesty of justice. He had condemned her in a moment of panic, and by doing so, he had lost all hope of acquiring the one thing he so desperately wanted. With her death, the power of the jewel would elude him forever. She tossed him a derisive smile filled with triumph, as if she were the victor in this battle. Then she jerked her gaze away, unable to stomach the sight of him a moment longer.
If, by some miracle, she did have a spiritual existence after this world, she vowed to spend it tormenting Robert to his grave.
Her attention shifted to someone she did not recognize, an imposing stranger mounted on a gray charger, positioned in a place of honor near the laird's dais. This must be Mad MacDunn, she decided. When Robert visited her for a final time early this morning, he had told her Mad Alex MacDunn had just arrived in search of her. On learning she was sentenced to death, he had offered to buy her. Of course his offer was not accepted. But because Laird MacDunn and his men had journeyed far, Laird MacSween graciously invited them to stay and witness her burning, and enjoy the glorious feast afterward. This was the man, then, who had ordered her clan to stop beating her. Perhaps he'd been impatient to get on with the burning.
He was a startling figure of a man, tall and broadly cut, with a wide chest, enormous shoulders, and muscled arms that could easily wield the heavy broadsword glinting at his side. His shoulder-length hair was the palest of gold and of a thickness and shimmer that would make any woman envious, which seemed incongruous with the rest of his ruggedly masculine physique. She could not see his face, because in that terrible moment, as she was about to be burned alive, he was incomprehensibly absorbed with the task of rearranging the already meticulous folds of his plaid.
Unaware of being watched, MacDunn carefully adjusted the deep green and yellow fabric of his plaid and straightened his leather belt. When his outfit was finally fitted to his liking, he glanced at the silver brooch tacking his mantle to his shoulder, frowned, and began to fastidiously polish the already gleaming piece with his sleeve. This action caused him to raise his head, revealing a handsomely sculpted face with a wide, firm jaw, a deeply grooved chin, and well-defined cheekbones. He seemed determined to elicit more shine from his jewelry and rubbed away at it with great concentration.
Only when a serving boy approached him with a tray of refreshments did he reluctantly permit himself to be distracted from his task. He studied the platter of fruit and drink, then withdrew a heavily jeweled dirk from his belt and delicately speared a large red apple. He examined it and, evidently finding some flaw, returned the offending fruit to the tray and chose another. He buffed it well against his plaid before nibbling at it. In that moment, perhaps sensing that he was being watched, he suddenly raised his head and looked at her. His expression was infuriatingly insouciantâthe look of a man who had few cares in his life and did not intend to let something as insignificant as her death detract him from either his attire or his hunger.