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The Old Parish Church, North Berwick, Scotland
August 15th, 1592
The air in the tribunal chamber was heavy with the smell of tallow from the multitude of candles burning in the sconces on the walls. From her position in the crowded room, Mariam Swinton coiled her fingers together, twisting and retwisting them as each witness came forward.
She should be there, in the witness box, telling them what she knew, telling the tribunal panel the truth about the statement she had given supporting Donald Ruthven’s claim that Lachlan had used sorcery while at Ravenscraig Castle.
Her words were lies that had not only caused Lachlan’s arrest, but also his torture. Her lies helped streak his back with bloody wounds. Her lies had allowed her own father to prick Lachlan’s flesh with his torturous needle.
And despite all the agony Lachlan had suffered, he had not confessed to any crimes or revealed the names of other witches. Lachlan could have turned her confession back on her and named her as a witch for being different than everyone else.
He had not.
The man had chosen silence over betrayal.
Mariam clamped her teeth together to keep from crying out as guilt coiled tight in her chest. There was still time to speak the truth. Mariam’s gaze met her father’s. His icy expression warned her that if she belatedly spoke out in Lachlan’s defense, she would regret doing so. She bit down on the inside of her cheeks, fighting the urge to object until she tasted the sharp saltiness of her own blood inside her mouth.
She knew Lachlan was innocent. She knew Donald Ruthven had fabricated all of the charges against him. And no matter how much she wanted to intervene; she was powerless to do so. For if she did, her father would take her betrayal out on her flesh as he had done her whole life.
Mariam reached for the shell necklace her mother had given her before she died. The feel of the smooth shell against her palm calmed her even as Cameron Sinclair looked her way, begging her with an intensity that equaled that of her father’s to speak out, to tell the truth, stop the tribunal and all the suffering.
Why could she not do what was right by defying her father and freeing Lachlan of the charges against him? Was it because after all the years she’d spent alone with her father she was as depraved as he was? For it was said that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
Determined to do what was right for the first time in her life, Mariam stepped forward and opened her mouth, ready to speak until her father’s hiss of protest filled the chamber. The others beside her thought the sound was in response to the testimony Elizabeth Ruthven Douglas gave against her husband, but Mariam knew the sound was directed at her. A warning, a command, a promise of what was to come if she intervened.
Mariam snapped her mouth shut. No matter how much she wanted to do what was right, her father would never allow it. Her heart dropped and hope fled. She’d spent her whole life fighting him, trying to grasp hold of the future she wanted. A future he denied her.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Forget the past. Forget your father. At the moment she was safe thanks to King James. Fearing others might hunt her down in order to seek revenge on her father, the king had placed her under the guardianship of Cameron Sinclair. The last year at Ravenscraig Castle had been one of the least fearful of her life.
She opened her eyes only to see Cameron watching her from across the crowded chamber. The look he gave her spoke volumes. It demanded she speak up. It begged her to do something to help. And it promised his own kind of retribution if she did not.
Her fingers trembled as she wrestled with the decision. If she spoke the truth there would be hell to pay from her father. If she did not, and if Lachlan was found guilty, Cameron might never forgive her . . .
The breath she’d been holding whooshed out of her lungs when Lachlan finally stood before the magistrates’ table, waiting for the five men in white wigs and scarlet gowns to either free him of the charges of witchcraft or send him to the hangman’s noose, as if doing so would rid the world of evil.
Lachlan’s accuser, Donald Ruthven, was brought forward to stand before the panel. While she’d been lost in her thoughts something must have happened because a strange device was brought forward and placed between two of the men who were Lachlan’s judges.
“The Greeks used a technique called coscinomancy to determine a guilty party in a criminal offense,” King James announced to the chamber. “And since we cannot decide among ourselves whether Lachlan Douglas is guilty or not, we will let the coscinomancy decide.”
A knot of fear tightened Mariam’s stomach. The sieve with a pair of shears attached was somehow supposed to determine whether Donald Ruthven or Lachlan Douglas was guilty?
She had to do something if it was within her power to do so, no matter the risk to herself. Closing her eyes, she summoned all her will, her strength, her rage. She gathered it up and released it as she snapped her eyes open. To everyone else it felt as though a frenzied wind blew through the chamber. Mariam knew it was something more. It only lasted for a heartbeat, then stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The sieve moved.
Over the collective intake of startled breaths that followed the movement of the sieve in the direction of the guilty man, Mariam forced herself to remain still. She had to appear calm, unaffected by what had just transpired. She had helped in her own way. Letting her gaze rove about the chamber, she startled as Cameron’s gaze connected with her own. A questioning look brought a wrinkle to his brow.
Did he know what she had done?
Nay, there were too many other ways to explain the result, and King James seemed pleased with the verdict. Lachlan was freed of all charges.
As the room erupted in a momentary chaos, Mariam took advantage and slipped out the side door. The best course of action for her would be to return to Ravenscraig Castle with all due haste to wait for her guardian’s return and his decision about her future. For her part in all of this, would Cameron allow her to remain under his protection or would he return her to her father?
The first stirrings of fear caused her steps to falter. Would Cameron force her back to a place she’d hoped never to return? Her heartbeat thudded in her ears at the thought. She couldn’t go back to that man. She would rather die than put herself in such a situation again.
Mariam balled her hands into white-knuckled fists as she watched Cameron and his brothers-in-arms leave the tribunal chamber, heading for carriages that waited out front that would whisk the key players in the trial away to their respective homes. Perhaps if she talked to Cameron now before he had time to sit and think, if she explained herself, he would understand. Or would he assume, like everyone else, that she was not capable of anything except deception and evil?
Merciful heavens. Mariam’s heartbeat hammered at her temples. Until this moment, she hadn’t realized she’d been on trial as well. Ultimately, she had helped Lachlan, but she couldn’t tell anyone what she’d done. If she did, she would end up in the same gaol cell the accused witch had just vacated.
At the realization, Mariam’s composure crumpled, her shoulders trembled and slumped. She had to talk to Cameron immediately, before he sent her away for good.
When the trial had ended, the remaining warriors who comprised King James VI’s Magnificent Seven gathered outside the ruins of the Old Parish Church to give Lachlan and Elizabeth privacy as they let the verdict and the consequences of the trial sink in. Cameron Sinclair, Alexander Ross, Malcolm Hamilton, Rhys Elliot, Quinn Douglas, and Reid Douglas waited beside two carriages: one that would take their brother-in-arms and his wife back home, while the other would see the king safely back to Falkland Palace where he and the queen currently resided.
“Lachlan and Elizabeth have been through the trial of a lifetime in the past few days,” Cameron Sinclair commented as he took the reins of his horse from a waiting stable boy, offering the lad payment for his work tending not only the carriages but also the other six horses while the trial had concluded. “It will be an honor to escort the newlyweds safely home.”
“Their trial is over,” Alexander said, mounting his horse and nudging it toward Cameron’s. “But I fear yours has just begun.”
“What do you mean?” Cameron asked with a frown.
“Your ward.” Rhys’s gaze shifted to something in the distance. “Seems she means to further try your temper this day. She heads for us now.”
Cameron twisted around to see Mariam advancing on them. Her unrestrained red hair was snatched by an errant breeze, making it swirl temptingly about her curvaceous form. When their eyes met, her lips parted. In the span of a single heartbeat, the Mariam he had known for the past year vanished and a madwoman—a witch with red hair—took her place. And as quickly as it had come, the image was gone.
As reason took hold once more, Cameron found himself staring at Mariam as she approached. The two were only six years apart, with her being in her eighteenth year and him in his twenty-fourth. The king had placed her with him when her own father had gone into service as the king’s witch pricker.
In the past few years, John Swinton and his pricker’s needle had exposed nearly five hundred witches in the Scottish Lowlands alone. Tensions were running high between the families of those who were executed and the man responsible for exposing their loved ones as witches.
John Swinton was not only feared, he was hated by most everyone in Scotland. And after there had been an attempt on the life of the man’s daughter by an angry husband whose wife had just been burned at the stake, the king had decided to place Mariam in Cameron’s care. When Cameron had asked the king why he’d been chosen, King James had said it was because Cameron had never lost a battle or any of his own men in any conflict.
Above all others, the king trusted Cameron to keep Mariam safe. But how could he protect her from herself? She seemed determined to act upon her emotions and not with logic. He’d tried to teach her equanimity during the past year, without any success. Lachlan’s trial was evidence of that fact.
She stopped before him. Anguish lingered in her eyes. “Cameron, my lord,” Mariam said breathlessly. “You must understand I had no choice but to remain silent. I could not—”
“It matters not. What’s done is done.” Cameron’s nerves reacted to her nearness, but he held himself in check. He might be her guardian but he was not blind to her beauty. He straightened as he pushed the thought from his mind. Mariam had been on trial here today as well, and she had failed. His ward had taken advantage of his generosity and understanding far too often, and she wouldn’t get away unscathed this time. He’d had his fill. “We’re done talking about this today. I will deal with you when I return to Ravenscraig. Understood?”
Her pulse leapt at her throat and the heat of a blush rose to her cheeks. “I understand your anger—”
“I’m disappointed in you more than I am angry. Go back to Ravenscraig now, this minute. I will deal with you when I return in a week or so.”
Cameron steeled his features. “You had your chance to speak up, and you failed to do so. I have no desire to hear your excuses, however noble you think they might be. Go home.”
Ignoring Mariam, Cameron signaled to the captain of his guard. “Ian will see you safely back to Ravenscraig.”
The distress in her green eyes vanished as anger sparked. “For how long might I remain?”
“I have not yet decided,” Cameron said sharply. “Perhaps time away from you will temper my thoughts to your advantage. Or not. Until my return, behave yourself if you can, or you may yet feel my wrath. Understood?”
Anger and anxiety mixed with frustration in her eyes, until she finally nodded. “I understand.”
“This way, milady,” Ian said, ready to escort her back to the stable where Cameron’s own carriage awaited. He watched until they were out of sight before turning back to his brothers-in-arms.
“A bit of a shrew,” Alexander said as he returned to Cameron’s side.
“You must see it, Cameron,” Reid said with concern. “Mariam is nothing but trouble. If I were you, I would send her back to her father, or marry her off as soon as possible and make her someone else’s problem. None of us needs any kind of distraction at present, not when the Wizard Earl is back in Scotland to stir up trouble for the king.”
Cameron frowned. “Aye, our duty to protect King James from the Earl of Bothwell is more important than all else. And now we are down a man with Lachlan leaving Scotland for a while. But I am certain once Mariam has had time to consider her actions, she will come around. She cannot have had the easiest life with a father like John Swinton. She is misguided, but not a hopeless cause. Besides, I alone cannot marry her off. The king must approve any sort of match.”
“You are making excuses for her behavior,” Alexander said.
“Perhaps it is time to get the king involved in finding her a husband,” Reid said.
Rhys scoffed. “A tyrant bride—who needs one of those?”
“I agree with Cameron.” Malcolm who had remained silent finally spoke. “As someone who has been misunderstood his entire life, I see past her defenses as you may not. There is something dark and dangerous about Mariam, but I also see a goodness in her she doesn’t yet see in herself. If Cameron chooses to foster her growth in a different direction for a while longer, we should all support him.”
“Thank you, Malcolm.” Cameron nodded his agreement. “Mariam has her challenges, as we all do, but you must understand I cannot marry her off just yet, or send her back to King James, and certainly not to her father. Both men will only send her down a darker path.” Cameron paused, then added, “I cannot give up on her just yet.”
Rhys groaned. “Why must you always see the good in everyone?”
“I fear it will be your undoing,” Quinn warned, but with a half smile continued, “But if that is what you wish, I support you.”
“As do we,” the others eventually chimed in chorus.
Quinn’s lightheartedness faded as seriousness returned to his face. “But if you have need of our assistance in this matter, any of us would come to your aid at a moment’s notice.”
“Thank you, brothers.” Cameron brought his fist to his chest and tapped it twice in their usual salute to each other. The others echoed his salute before turning their attention back to the task at hand, returning Lachlan and Elizabeth to their home and the safety it would provide for their future.
As they waited for the couple to appear, Cameron’s thoughts strayed to the young woman who was his ward. He was disappointed with Mariam for not speaking out at the trial as she should have, for he knew her statement had been a lie, but beneath that disappointment also simmered a thrill at the idea of conquering her—not in a physical way, but helping her, as Malcolm phrased it, to find the goodness in herself.
A battle lay before him, and perhaps the greatest challenge of his life.
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