Devil of the Highlands Chapter Seventeen

Evelinde stepped through the door in the castle's curtain wall when Fergus held it open for her and moved out onto the small bit of land between the stone wall and the edge of the cliff. Her gaze slid over the lonely, desolate spot, but there was no sign of Biddy. Her attention then moved to the pile of stones that was Jenny's resting place, but there were no flowers there to speak of Biddy's recent visit.

Frowning, she turned back to see Fergus pushing the stone door closed behind them. "She is not here." The soldier peered over the area and shrugged. "Mayhap she's already going back."

"We would have passed her," Evelinde pointed out.

"Nay, there is more than one path. I just picked the quickest one. Biddy may have gone another way." He shrugged again, then raised an eyebrow. "What diya want with Biddy?"

Evelinde managed a crooked smile. She'd been trying to think how to tell him what she'd learned and what she suspected all the way out here and simply been unable to decide how to start her explanations. Evelinde supposed it was actually a good thing that Biddy wasn't here else she'd have led the man blindly into a situation that might have been dangerous.

"Lass?" Fergus prompted. "What are ye needing with Biddy? Mayhap I can help."

Evelinde smiled wryly, knowing he couldn't answer the questions she had for Biddy, but after a moment, she asked, "Fergus, what do you recall of her sister's death?"

"Jenny." He said the name sadly. "Losing her upset Biddy something terrible. She was very fond of her sister."

"Fond enough to kill the man who was responsible for making her kill herself?"

Fergus was silent so long she didn't think he'd answer, but finally he moved over to the grave of stones and peered over them. "Ye found the letter."

Mouth suddenly dry, she asked, "The letter?"

"Aye. Maggie found it some years ago. I should have destroyed it then, but they were Jenny's dying words, and I didn't have the heart to take it from Biddy." He turned a sad face to her and shook his head. "So I tucked it back in her chest so she never even knew it was gone."

"Maggie found the letter?" Evelinde asked faintly, realizing she'd made a big error in judgment. A foolish one when she really thought about it. She'd known in her heart of hearts that Biddy wasn't a killer. She'd also known that Fergus held feelings for her and that he was capable of killing. As a soldier, that was all he trained for—defending his home and people by killing others. She never should have come out here with him.

"I doona ken why ye had to stick yer nose in, lass."

Evelinde took a wary step back as he started forward.

"If ye'd just let the past lie… Now I'll have to kill you, too, to protect Biddy."

"To protect Biddy from what?" she asked grimly, continuing to back away as he approached.

"To protect her from anyone finding out she shot the arrow into Darach."

Aware that she was drawing close to the cliff's edge, Evelinde began to move sideways rather than back as she asked, "You have known all this time that she killed him and have been protecting her?"

"Nay, she didna kill him," he countered firmly. "I did."

"But you just said she shot the arrow into Darach," she pointed out with confusion.

"Aye, she did," he acknowledged. "But that isna what killed him. He was mending, so I smothered him in his sleep on the third day after he was shot."

Evelinde stopped moving. Relief had washed through her as she learned that Biddy wasn't a murderer after all, alas that news didn't help her now. Hoping to keep him talking while she figured out a way to escape him, Evelinde asked, "It was not the infection that killed him?"

Fergus shook his head. "It was his own stupid inability no to follow his cock that killed him."

Her eyes widened in shock, but he didn't apologize for cursing in front of her. She doubted he even noticed he had. The man was suddenly furious.

"He had a good woman to wife, did Darach!" Fergus said, suddenly shouting. "Biddy loved him. The woman thought the moon and stars rose in his eyes and forgave him every transgression," he said almost plaintively. "Dear God, any man would kill to be loved like that."

Evelinde nodded her understanding, "Or kill others to gain it."

Fergus scowled, but said, "Aye. He didna deserve her. It was bad enough that he was crawling under the skirts of every servant and wench he came across while she wept her eyes red, but then to go after her sister?" He spat on the ground. "Biddy forgave him those other women, but I knew she wouldna forgive that. She loved Jenny something fierce."

"You told her?" Evelinde asked uncertainly. She was more than a little confused by the suggestion that he had. The letter she'd read had seemed to imply that Jenny was telling Biddy something she didn't know when she revealed the affair and subsequent events.

"Nay. I wanted to, but couldna hurt her like that… but I knew. I came across the pair of them, Darach and Jenny, here in the third week of the first visit. He was charming his way under her skirt like he did every other female. 'Twas like a sickness with him. The man just couldna resist. And Jenny, she was so taken with him, crying out how she loved him, and was so grateful to be loved by one such as the laird." Fergus shook his head with disgust. "Darach didna love her. The man never loved anyone in this world but himself."

"He didna even have enough kindness to lie to the lass. He grunted away on top of her until he spilled his seed, and when she again begged him to tell her he loved her, Darach just laughed, and said, 'Of course I love ye, I love all women, they are flowers to be plucked.' And then he chucked her under the chin like a child who'd just performed a fine trick, and said, 'That was fun. Mayhap I'll give ye another tumble later in the day' and walked off, leaving her here, crushed."

Evelinde bit her lip. She couldn't imagine the humiliation Jenny must have suffered in that moment.

"Aye," Fergus said, reading her expression. "He was nothing but a rutting animal. And he left her here in a terrible state. The stupid chit tried to throw herself off the cliff that day, and maybe I should have let her, but instead I stopped her and calmed her down. In the end, she decided she wasna ready to die. She begged me not to tell Biddy and to help her leave early, and I did. I got the lass out of here before Biddy could realize something was wrong with the girl and force it out of her. I wouldna see Biddy hurt by it all."

"But Jenny came back," Evelinde pointed out.

"Aye," Fergus said heavily. "I wasna here when she arrived two months later or what followed might no have happened." He sighed and shook his head. "She was with Darach's child." Fergus paused and eyed her briefly, then said, "If ye've read the letter, ye ken what happened next."

Evelinde nodded solemnly. "Aye. Darach rejected her, and she killed herself."

Fergus frowned. "We tried to stop her. She had slipped the letter under Darach and Biddy's chamber door before she hanged herself. I was coming above to light the torches—we kept them lit then—and I saw their bedchamber door open. Darach started to step out, then paused and bent to pick up the letter from the floor. He opened it, read it, cursed, and went to Jenny's room, but she wasna there, so he hurried past me and rushed below.

"I followed. He was heading for the curtain wall. He must have thought she'd planned to throw herself off. Halfway there, Darach crumpled up the letter and shoved it in his sporran, but it wasna all the way in and fell out without his noticing after just a couple of steps.

"I picked it up and read it, then tucked it in me own sporran and turned back to the keep. I, too, thought the girl had probably thrown herself off the cliff. I had no desire to see her broken body, so headed back to await the news in the great hall. But when I walked back into the keep, Biddy was screaming. She'd found her sister hanging in the solar."

"If you had the letter, how did Biddy get it?" Evelinde asked.

"Two weeks after Jenny died, I put it in the solar where she'd find it. I hoped she would think the lass had left it."

"Why?" she asked with dismay. The man had just spent several minutes telling her he couldn't do this and couldn't do that because it might hurt Biddy. But in the end he had done the one thing most likely to crush the woman.

"I was sick of watching that bastard Darach act like the loving, caring husband. He'd caused the death, he'd caused the sorrow, and Biddy was grateful for the arm he gave her to cry on about it!"

Fergus closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. "I didna think it through. I wanted her to see him for what he was, but didna consider how she would react. I left the letter and went out on the hunt with the others, happily anticipating her confronting him when we returned and revealing him to all and sundry. Instead, she shot the bastard."

"Are you sure she did?" Evelinde asked hopefully. "Mayhap it truly was an accident."

"Nay. It was Biddy's arrow. The fletching gave it away," he explained. "She'd had a pet swan when she first married Darach. It had died some years earlier, but she'd kept the feathers and always did her own fletching, alternating white swan feathers with those of a goose or whatever was available. I recognized it at once and knew Liam would, too. There wasn't time to remove and replace it with another, so I covered the fletching with blood and dirt, hoping it wouldna be noticed. And it wasna at the time."

"But her arrow didn't kill him," Evelinde pointed out. "You said you did."

"Aye. I smothered him in his sleep, but all just thought it a result of the wound," he explained, then added with regret," Biddy was devastated… But I knew it was just guilt, and she'd mend in time."

Fergus fell silent, his gaze on the stones covering Jenny, but she suspected that wasn't what he was seeing. Evelinde was sure his thoughts were in the past and took the opportunity to glance around, her eyes seeking a path of escape or at least a weapon she might use to save herself. She never really completely took her attention off Fergus, however, and when he apparently finished his ruminations, raised his head, and took a step toward her, she quickly asked, "Why kill Cullen's father, Liam?"

"Liam." He uttered the name almost like a prayer.

"Ten years had passed," she pointed out. "Why kill him so long after the first death? Surely you had got away with Darach's murder by then?"

"Aye, I thought so. Those years passed peacefully, and I had almost forgotten all about Darach… until the arrow came back to haunt me." He clucked unhappily "I didna ken it at the time, but Liam had apparently taken Biddy's arrow to his room the day it was removed from Darach. I thought it had just been thrown away else I would have stolen into his room and taken it at the time, but I had no idea and thought all was well."

"That mistake forced me to killed Liam," Fergus said with what she thought might be true regret. "I didna like to do it. Cullen's father was a fine man, much finer than his brother ever was, and his death was truly unfortunate."

"And still you killed him," Evelinde said quietly, her gaze sliding quickly around the area again. There were several rocks she might be able to put to good use but little other than that.

"It was for Biddy," Fergus explained, reclaiming her attention. "It was all my fault, and I couldna let Biddy pay for it."

When she just stared at him silently, he explained, "Liam apparently kept the arrow because something about it bothered him. The blood obscured the coloring, so it must have been the length that did it. Biddy's was as short as the boys', and so were her arrows," he pointed out, then shrugged. "It may have been that, but whatever it was, it was enough to make Liam keep the arrow in that chest in his room, bloodied and all."

Evelinde's eyes widened as she realized the arrow she'd seen in the chest in their room was the one that Darach had been shot with.

"But the blood dried up and over the years got brushed off every time he took something out of, or put something into, the chest. By the time he noted that there were white feathers among the darker ones, he thought little of it… until the day he came down to the cliff and found me cleaning rabbits."

"Rabbits?" Evelinde asked with bewilderment, not sure what one thing had to do with the other.

Fergus nodded. "Biddy hadna been hunting since Darach's death. She used to like it before that, but after shooting her husband, she never picked up her bow again until I convinced her to join me hunting almost ten years to the day after Darach died. She'd been sick for a couple of weeks and stuck indoors else I doona think I'd have convinced her to accompany me, but in the end she decided she would and would catch some fresh rabbits to make a nice stew for supper.

"I soon regretted pushing her into it," Fergus said on a sigh. "When we returned, I sent her in to start chopping her vegetables while I brought the rabbits here to clean and skin them." His gaze slid to the pile of stones. "As much as Biddy liked to come here to visit her sister, I did, too. I often visited Jenny and talked to her while doing some task or other. The first time it was just to assure her that Darach was rotting in hell for what he'd done to her. But 'tis a peaceful spot, and I kept returning."

He shrugged unhappily, and said, "That day, I brought the rabbits here to tend them, and Liam came looking for me. When he praised me on the number of rabbits, I wryly admitted they were all Biddy's catch. It was only then I noted the recognition in his eyes. Had I realized he'd know the arrow's fletching I would have claimed they were my own and let him execute me for killing Darach, but 'twas too late. I could not convince him then that it had been me who had killed Darach. He would not listen, and I had to kill him.

"Liam never saw it coming," Fergus assured her as if that might make a difference. "He had dismounted and was standing with his back to the cliff. I launched myself at him and pushed him over the edge without a fight."

"And little Maggie?" Evelinde asked, her gaze now slipping to the door in the curtain wall. She knew that once he finished explaining everything, he would turn his attention to killing her. She needed to figure out a plan to save herself, and Evelinde was thinking that she might hit him with a rock and make a run for the door in the curtain wall.

"I was sorry to have to kill little Maggie."

Evelinde's mouth compressed at the words. It seemed to her that Fergus had been awfully sorry over each of the murders, but it hadn't stopped him committing them, or following them with others. He'd no doubt be sorry to have to kill her, too, she thought with disgust, then stiffened as she noted that the door in the curtain wall was open a little. For a moment, she thought Fergus had simply not closed it properly, but then she noted that several faces were crowded in the narrow opening. She recognized Cullen at once, as well as Mildrede, Tavis and—Her heart squeezed as she spotted Biddy and noted the expression on her face. Evelinde had no idea how long they'd all been there listening to Fergus's confessions, but it was long enough to leave Biddy shaken and pale.

"Little Maggie was a sweet lass."

Evelinde forced herself to turn her gaze back to the man lest her distraction warn him they were no longer alone.

"But she had to poke her nose into this business. Like you," he added grimly. "The only difference was she came to me first with her plans to resolve the matter. She fancied Cullen would be so pleased to have his name cleared, he'd vow his undying love for her… the little fool.

"I tried to sway her from looking into it, but she, too, thought Jenny's death might be involved, and turned her suspicions on Biddy. The moment she did that I knew I'd have to kill her. But I liked the lass, and hesitated until the day came when she searched Biddy's room as you obviously did this morn."

Evelinde's gaze skittered in apology to the door, but Biddy's attention was focused solely on Fergus as he spoke.

"When she found the letter, Maggie came running straight to me. I hurried her out here to the cliff. She was so excited telling me of her find, she hardly noticed where I was steering her. If thinking Biddy had killed Darach wasna bad enough, the lass also concluded that Biddy must have killed Liam because he somehow sorted it out.

"And then we stepped through the door and out here onto the cliff, and the wind near to stole the breath from both of us. She turned to me with confusion asking, why we were here and I struck her, knocking her out at once. I then set her on Jenny's grave and tried to sort out what to do. Maggie had to die to protect Biddy, but how? And then I decided just to throw her off the cliff while she was still unconscious. She would just never wake and never suffer."

"And my accidents?" she prompted when he fell silent. "That was you as well."

"Aye. I've been trying to make it look like an accident so no one could turn on Cullen, but ye keep escaping with yer life." He grimaced, then admitted, "And I am sorry about having to kill you, too, as it seems obvious the lad loves ye, but he'll get over ye in time."

Evelinde's mouth tightened at the words. The man had no idea what love was if he thought it was so easily forgotten. However, he was moving forward again, and she searched her mind for another question to keep him talking.

"What of the rumors?" she asked, grabbing at the question, as Cullen began to slide through the partially open door behind the man. "Did you start those, too?"

Fergus paused again. "Not a purpose. It was after Liam's death they started in whispering about murder and wondering about Darach as well. I worried they'd look to Biddy. So, to turn the gossip away from her, I mentioned to someone that I'd heard someone else had seen a dark man fleeing the area about the time that Liam would have died. The next thing I knew the rumor returned to me with Cullen's name inserted in place of 'a dark man.' I have ever been sorry for the trouble that's caused ye, Cullen."

Evelinde had been watching her husband creep slowly and silently up behind Fergus as she listened to the man speak, but his last words made her stiffen as she realized some sound or perhaps her watching had given away Cullen's presence. She glanced sharply to the soldier and was somewhat surprised to find that while she'd been watching her husband, Fergus had been sidling closer to her. Now he was little more than an arm's length away. Before she could rectify the matter and move out of reach, he lunged forward, catching her upper arm and hauling her back up against his chest as he turned to face Cullen, and added, "But ye've handled it well, lad. Yer father would have been proud."

Cullen had stilled, his jaw clenching with frustration as she was caught, but that was the only reflection of his feelings as he glared at Fergus, and said, "He might be were he still alive."

"Fergus," Biddy said quietly, slipping through the door in the curtain wall and moving up beside Cullen. "Let Evelinde go."

The sharp prick of a knife against her neck told Evelinde he wasn't ready to do that. She stood completely still, holding her breath lest she accidentally slit her own throat as she waited for an opportunity to free herself or otherwise bring an end to the situation.

"I did it all for you, Biddy," Fergus said solemnly.

"But I didna want it done," Biddy said sadly.

"Ye shot him," he pointed out with exasperation.

"Aye, but—That was in a moment of rage over what he'd done to Jenny," she said, trying to explain her feelings. "Murder is wrong. I should have—"

"It isna murder when 'tis someone like him. Darach deserved to die," Fergus insisted. "He was a cold, heartless bastard. Had he lived, he'd have just broken yer heart over and over again, made ye more miserable and ruined countless other young lasses."

"Aye, but at least I'd have not suffered the guilt I've suffered all these years thinking I'd committed a mortal sin and murdered my own husband," Biddy countered, sounding angry for the first time. "And Liam and little Maggie didna deserve to die. They were both good people, both friends and loved ones whose passing I've mourned."

Her gaze flickered to Evelinde's face, and her lips tightened before she added, "And then there is Evelinde. Ye planned to kill her, too, did ye not? Who would have been next? Cullen, when he tried to find out who killed his wife and sought vengeance? Would ye kill everyone I love in your supposed effort to 'protect' me? I'd rather ye'd killed me that night than any of the others, including Darach. Ye've done nothing but cause me more pain, Fergus. Do ye no see that?"

Evelinde swallowed and shifted her eyes to the side, trying to see Fergus. He was still as stone behind her, but his breathing was rapid, and she wasn't sure how he was responding to Biddy's words.

"Let Evelinde go," Cullen said grimly, drawing her gaze back to his stony face. "Her death will win ye nothing now. 'Tis over."

"Aye, 'tis." Fergus sighed by her ear, then began to back up. "I'm sorry, Biddy. All I ever wanted was to make ye happy and protect ye. Ye deserved better than the cards ye were dealt. But I've managed to muck everything up."

"Fergus, let Evelinde go, and fight me," Cullen growled, moving forward as Fergus continued to drag her back toward the cliff.

"I've no desire to fight ye, lad. I feel bad enough fer killing yer father. I'll no add yer death to the list of me sins."

"Well then, doona add Evelinde either," he said desperately.

"Please, let her go, Fergus," Biddy said quietly. "Cullen and Evelinde love each other. They deserve the happiness neither of us found."

"Aye, mayhap they do," Fergus agreed, but backed up several more steps before pausing to say by Evelinde's ear. "I'm going to let ye go, lass, and when I do, yer to walk straight away from me to yer husband."

"What are you going to do?" she asked with concern.

"Never ye worry about that," he said. "Ye just go to yer husband and love him. Biddy's right, ye deserve each other."

Evelinde opened her mouth again to ask what he was going to do, but Fergus suddenly pushed her forward. Unprepared for it, she stumbled, but Cullen was there to catch her, steadying her with one hand even as he lunged past her to catch at Fergus. Evelinde whirled as his hand left her, eyes widening in horror as she saw Fergus pitching off the cliff and Cullen throwing himself forward to catch him.

Evelinde wasn't the only one to scream out, but she was the only one close enough to make a grab for Cullen as he caught at Fergus and was pulled off-balance. She caught him by the back of the plaid and followed him to the ground as he fell. Cullen landed with his legs on the cliff but his chest hanging over the edge. Fergus, however, was hanging in midair, kept from plunging to the bottom of the rocky incline only by Cullen's hold on his tunic. When his weight began to drag Cullen forward, Evelinde scrambled onto his legs, adding her weight to his own to anchor them.

"Let me go, lad," she heard Fergus say almost kindly.

"Nay," Cullen growled. "Take me hand, yer plaid may rip."

"Take his hand, Fergus," Tavis coaxed, as the men rushed forward to try to help.

Evelinde relaxed a little as Gillie and Rory knelt on either side of her and caught at Cullen to help keep him from going over the cliff with the man he held.

"Take me hand, ye stubborn bastard," Cullen snapped, as Evelinde heard the faintest tearing sound. "I'm trying to save yer life here."

"Why? So ye can later hang me fer murder?" Fergus asked dryly, then repeated, "Let me go. I'm ready."

Cullen was stiff and silent, and Evelinde knew he was hesitating, unwilling to let go the man who had been a first to him for years and probably had trained him in his youth, but also aware that did he save him now, he would then have to punish him for three murders. It would mean hanging him.

Evelinde's heart went out to her husband, knowing how agonizing a decision this must be for him, but then the choice was taken out of his hands. The hard wind that had been pounding at them suddenly died an abrupt death, a brief hiccup just long enough for her to hear the sound of Fergus's tunic tearing away; and then the wind roared back, slapping at them as Fergus plunged downward. He never screamed, the only sound was the shriek of the wind around them.

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