Authors: Robyn Young
Snatching up her bag, Brigid careened down the hillside, her trembling legs threatening to pitch her headlong down the slope. Her heart hammered in her chest, her breaths came in bursts and the hill never seemed to end. Once on the flat she went quicker, jumping burns and plunging through wider streams, gasping at the frigid waters that swirled around her thighs. The sun was slipping into the sea, throwing the land into blue gloom. Now and then she thought she smelled smoke tainting the breeze. All she could think of was Elena.
When the English razed Ayr, killing her husband and son, Brigid had saved her daughter from the fire that ravaged their home, but not without consequence. Eight-year-old Elena still bore the scars of her ordeal, outside and in. Her daughter would have smelled the village burning. She would have been terrified. Brigid cursed herself for leaving her so long with just a frail old woman for protection. Faint hope reminded her that Affraig’s remote dwelling had always been safe from English raids, hidden by the woods, but as she neared it she saw that hope was in vain.
She cried out, running full tilt towards the blackened patch of earth, out of which thrust a few scorched timbers. Her feet crunched over charred remains of belongings, which turned to ash beneath her shoes. Even the mighty oak that loomed over the dwelling hadn’t been spared. The branches that faced the house were blistered, the leaves shrivelled. She stood there, dragging in bitter lungfuls of smoky air. Here and there among the ruins cauldrons and pots were scattered about, the metal tarnished. She saw a leather-bound book, one of her aunt’s prized possessions, half eaten by fire. Turning in a circle, she searched the woods, desperate for any sign of life. She wanted to scream her daughter’s name, but had neither the breath, nor the heart.
Something moved. Brigid twisted round, focusing on a spot through the trees. In the shadows, she picked out a stooped figure. Her hope lifted, but as the figure limped towards her, she realised it wasn’t her aunt, but a man leaning on a stick. Fear threaded cold fingers through her gut at the sight of the stranger. Searching the wasted ground at her feet, Brigid snatched up a half-charred piece of timber. He didn’t look much of a threat, but the memory of the tents she had glimpsed in the north was still vivid. As the man came closer, she saw he was old, perhaps even older than Affraig. His face was skeletal, his skin like worn leather.
‘Who are you?’ she challenged, speaking Gaelic for the first time in months.
The old man stopped on the edge of the blackened circle, his eyes on the piece of timber she brandished. ‘You’ll find nothing of use,’ he told her in the same tongue, his voice like grit rasping in his throat. ‘I’ve looked.’
‘What happened here?’
‘Same as what happened in Turnberry and all about. The English.’ The man ventured a little closer.
Brigid held her ground, her fingers clenched white around the makeshift weapon.
‘Five nights ago they came. Young knights they were, under King Edward’s son, and thirsty for blood one and all. Women and children weren’t spared the sword.’ His eyes clouded, the wrinkles in his brow deepening. ‘No mercy. They took the castle and burned the rest.’
Brigid shuddered, thinking of her daughter.
‘We fled into the woods, but the English followed us.’
Brigid realised how they must have found her aunt’s house. Anger clenched its fist in her chest. The bastards had probably stumbled upon it and burned it for sport.
Don’t let her have been in there.
‘They hunted us as if we were vermin,’ said the man, ‘sending their dogs after us.’
‘How did you escape?’ Brigid wanted to know, still not trusting him.
‘I hid, like others. Up a tree for two full nights I was.’
‘There are more of you?’ Brigid felt a surge of anticipation.
‘Not now. The others left three days ago. Went into the hills, towards Ayr.’
‘Do you know the woman who lived here? Affraig?’
‘The witch? I knew of her. Never met her.’ The old man’s mouth puckered and he made the sign of the cross. ‘Never wanted to.’
‘She is old,’ Brigid said impatiently, ‘very old. She would have had a child with her – a young girl with scars on her face.’
The old man’s eyes lit up in recognition. ‘Yes, I saw them, before I hid. But not since. Perhaps the English found them?’ He lifted his shoulders in apology. ‘Perhaps they went with the others?’
‘Towards Ayr?’ Brigid looked north. It was past midsummer but the nights were still long and this far west it would barely get dark. If she travelled through the night maybe she could catch up to them. Three days wasn’t much of a head-start.
‘Some folk talked of going into the mountains, where the English and their horses can’t follow.’
Brigid’s eyes were already roving over the ruins, searching for anything of use. Catching sight of a familiar forked stick lying beneath the oak she tossed aside the timber and picked it up, keeping a wary eye on the old man. The bottom half of the stick was charred, but the top, which tapered into two prongs, was solid. She stamped it on the ground, testing its strength. It would offer good support for walking and make a decent weapon. Affraig had used it to hang her spells in the oak. Brigid stared into the branches. There were a few cradles of twigs that were still whole, but most had been damaged by fire, the scraps of parchment, sprays of herbs and pouches of bone that hung in the centre of the woven webs burned to tatters. How many destinies had been destroyed? How many prayers would now go unanswered? Her eyes went to the place where Robert’s web had hung. The crown of heather and broom wasn’t there. She scanned the base of the tree, but couldn’t see it. Had it fallen in her absence – its promise fulfilled? She remembered Robert’s question, the day of his coronation.
My destiny. Did it ever fall?
And his dry, disbelieving laugh when she answered him.
‘The English were going north too,’ warned the old man, watching her.
Brigid hefted her bag and gripped the stick. She turned to go, then paused and looked back. ‘Why didn’t you leave with the others?’
The old man gave a croak of laughter. ‘With my legs?’ His laugh subsided. ‘I’ll stay and die in my own lands. God willing, the English will choke on the stench of my corpse.’
With another rough laugh he turned back towards the woods, leaving her alone in the gathering shadows.
Perth, Scotland, 1306 AD
‘Ask around. Find out who holds the authority here.’
The two knights nodded and kicked their horses into a trot. Alexander watched them part at the market cross, each taking a different street.
He looked round to see his squire standing there expectantly. ‘Water the horses, Tom.’
As Tom led the weary animals over to a trough in the market gardens, Alexander crossed to the stalls. Traders’ wares were shadowed from the sun by cloth sheets, beneath which were rows of oatcakes and golden loaves fresh from the bakehouse, the smell causing his stomach to groan. A heavy chop-chop came from a flesher hacking meat off the carcass of a lamb, while women stood waiting, baskets on their arms. Past a girl selling curds and milk, two fishwives were busy gutting salmon. One paused to toss the slop of guts from her bucket on the ground behind her, making several mangy dogs lunge out of nowhere and begin lapping up the waste.
At first glance it was a normal day in the royal burgh, but beneath the hustle and bustle Alexander sensed how subdued the place was. The market didn’t echo with the usual brisk shouts of traders, women gossiping, men haggling over prices. The crowds seemed nervous, glancing at the stone houses of the burgesses that ringed the square, outside which groups of armed men loitered, sunlight sparking off the pommels of their swords. The gardens were scarred with the ruts of wagon wheels, the ground littered with the detritus of a mass of men. But the most obvious sign of Perth’s occupation were the nooses still dangling over a row of empty stalls, twisting slowly in the air. The men hanged there had since been taken down. Only a posy of flowers remained, lying in the dust beneath one of the knotted ropes, wilting in the heat. The townsfolk gave them a wide berth.
Alexander paused at the baker’s stall. While he was fishing in his purse for a coin, a pimple-faced youth pushed past him and asked the baker for two loaves. Grabbing the youth by the scruff of his tunic, Alexander pulled him back. ‘Wait your turn.’
The youth looked Alexander up and down, his expression changing from startled to indignant. ‘Get your hand off me!’
In the pimpled youth’s contemptuous gaze, Alexander saw himself: face streaked with dirt and a beard grown full around his jaw, hair greasy with sweat, his cloak frayed and his boots scuffed bare. He looked, he knew, little better than a beggar. Feeling a surge of anger, he pulled aside his cloak, revealing his broadsword to the sneering youth.
The lad backed away, eyes on the blade, his bread forgotten. Alexander watched him turn and flee before he let his cloak fall back in place. Once, he had been lord of a rich estate, his hall filled with servants, his stables crowded with horses, meat and wine to grace his table and minstrels to entertain him. Now, violence was his only authority – his retinue reduced to the paltry sum of two knights and a squire, the only men who had left Aberdeen with him. Everything else had been taken from him by his decision to follow Robert Bruce.
After the baker had served him in silence, Alexander took the loaf and leaned against an empty stall. Passers-by shot him suspicious glances and went out of their way to avoid the unsavoury stranger. Tearing off a few pieces of bread, Alexander chewed without pleasure, his appetite gone. While he was standing there, he noticed a man ride up to one of the stone halls. He watched him dismount and disappear inside. Moments later, several others emerged and crossed to the market gardens, from which they began to haul a wagon, drawing it up outside the hall. Alexander handed the bread to Tom when the lad joined him with the horses. He kept his eyes on the wagon as armed men moved around it, issuing orders to grooms, who harnessed four horses to the front.
‘Ewen’s back, sir.’
At Tom’s voice, Alexander drew his gaze from the wagon to see one of his knights riding into the square.
‘It is as you thought,’ Ewen said as he reached them. He swung down from the saddle. ‘Valence is going after King Robert. He’s already headed for Aberdeen.’
Alexander had expected as much, but he had hoped Valence would have left a commander in Perth in his stead – someone with the authority he needed. None of the guards he had seen at the gates or over by the stone halls wore the colours of Pembroke. ‘Did you discover who has been left in charge of the town?’
‘Those I spoke to weren’t very forthcoming. Too scared for the most part. But I was told prisoners taken from Methven Wood are being held there.’ Ewen nodded to the hall.
Alexander wondered if the wagon was being readied to cart prisoners. He sucked the remnants of bread from his teeth. Were friends and allies locked up in that building? James Stewart perhaps, or Malcolm of Lennox? The shadow of guilt that had trailed him from Aberdeen darkened, but he forced it away. ‘We’ll wait and see what Will finds out.’
Alexander lapsed into silence. His manor at Seton was scarcely more than a day’s ride – frustratingly close. His lands in East Lothian had been forfeited to the English crown for his role in the rebellion, but King Edward was a shrewd man and Alexander was certain the king would look beyond his crimes to see what a blow his desertion would strike at Robert. He couldn’t let guilt overrule reason. All ten years of loyalty had brought him was bad fortune. The attack outside these walls at the hands of Valence and their own countrymen – which he had warned Robert about and yet again been ignored – had been the last nail in the coffin of his faith. While he trusted Robert would deliver them from Edward’s tyranny he had fought with every sinew for the man and his cause. But he hadn’t believed in a long time. Now, the English had raised the dragon and Alexander refused to relinquish the last things he had left – his life and his freedom – to fight for a doomed king whose own subjects were turning against him.
He thought of Christopher, standing in the rain in the courtyard of Aberdeen Castle. Alexander had watched his cousin from the shadows of the stables, knowing the young man was searching for him. Compassion had urged him to call out, but sense had kept him silent. Christopher was as a brother to him, but although he was English, born and bred, Robert was his true master and he would follow his king down into hell if ordered. There would have been no persuading him otherwise. Alexander could only hope, by submitting to Edward, that he would be able to secure his cousin’s safety. In time, God willing, he would be reinstated as Lord of Seton, Christopher would be free of Robert’s influence and they would no longer be outlaws on the run, living hand to mouth. Life as a nobleman under an English king had to be better than no life at all.
Alexander was roused from his thoughts by Ewen, whose eyes were on the main street. A company of men was advancing on the market square, some riding, others marching alongside. Alexander’s eyes narrowed on the white lions emblazoned on blue shields and surcoats. He cursed. Valence had left someone in charge, just not someone he wanted to parley with.
At the head of the company rode Dungal MacDouall, former captain of the army of Galloway, now leader of the Disinherited: men whose lands had been divided among the barons of England when John Balliol was exiled in France. MacDouall held the reins of his horse one-handed, sitting back against the cantle. The Galloway men were laughing and calling to one another, a few banging on their shields with their swords. It was the entry of men who had just won a victory.