Authors: Robyn Young
The castle’s steward hurried from the hall. ‘Sir John!’ He made his way over to the Earl of Atholl, who had dismounted beside Robert. ‘My lord king.’ His gaze darted across the crowd of men filing into the courtyard, some of whom were sinking to the steps of the great hall, helms and shields clattering down beside them.
In the steward’s shocked and silent stare, Robert saw his defeat. It was burned into the remnants of his army like a brand, his failure laid bare in their depleted numbers and haggard faces.
The wheel turns. Always it turns.
The words, his grandfather’s, echoed from some distant time. In his mind’s eye, Robert saw himself bound to a great grinding wheel on its downward spiral towards earth.
It turns for all of us.
‘Clear the hall,’ John ordered his steward. ‘Bring wine, warm water, blankets. And wake my physician.’
As the steward moved to obey, more men hastened from the main buildings to help. A horse collapsed as its rider dismounted. Servants took litters from those who had carried wounded comrades.
Robert, turning to follow John, heard David murmur to his father.
‘Did you see their faces? The townsfolk? Did you see the way they looked at us, Father? As if it was
who failed them?’
‘Let it be, son.’
Nes emerged from the crowd, catching his attention. Robert noticed the knight was gripping the leather pack that contained the box. Looking at it, Robert felt a strange detachment. The thing he had risked his life to steal suddenly didn’t seem so important.
Rain dripped steadily from Nes’s nose. ‘It’s Hunter, sire. He’s in mortal pain.’
Robert followed his gaze to where two grooms were leading his warhorse towards the stables. The destrier was limping between them, his head hanging low. Two nights ago, coming down out of the hills, Hunter had fallen. Nes had cared for him the best he could, but the horse was in agony, the bone of his fractured foreleg having punctured the skin. Robert knew he should have put the animal out of his misery, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it. Hunter’s life felt bound up in his own fate, as if to destroy the horse that had carried him safely through so many battlegrounds would somehow seal this defeat.
‘Do what you can for him.’ Turning, Robert strode in through the doors of the great hall, where John and the others had sought shelter. A low hum of voices filled the chamber, punctuated by the screech of trestle legs on the stone floor as servants pushed the tables aside to make space. The wounded were set down by the fireplaces, which servants were hurriedly stacking with fresh logs.
Robert sat heavily on one of the benches that had been left in the centre of the hall. People milled around him, those from the castle quick with purpose, the newcomers slow and dazed. Feeling something brush against his leg, he saw Fionn. The hound was panting, his grey coat slick with mud and rain. Looking closer, Robert realised there were clots of blood around his muzzle, dried and crusted. Taking the hound by the collar, he began swiping them off.
Robert glanced up to see a young lad holding out a glazed clay goblet, which was chipped at the base. Straightening to accept the drink, Robert’s cloak parted, revealing the red lion on his surcoat.
The boy’s mouth opened. ‘My lord king!’ He snatched the goblet away. ‘Begging your pardon, sire, I’ll fetch a more suitable cup.’
‘This will do,’ said Robert, taking the chipped goblet before the lad could protest. ‘The wine comes out the same.’ He drained the drink, some trickling through the stubble that shadowed his chin. The wine was rich and warming; a salve for his spirit. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Col?’ Robert smiled at the name’s simplicity.
‘It was my father’s name, sire.’
Robert passed back the empty cup, wondering if the lad had ever been outside Aberdeen’s boundaries. He thought of the year he had spent as a page in Lord Donough’s hall in Antrim, his world bordered by four walls, all his responsibilities decided upon by his foster-father. It had been the most simple time of his life. For a moment, he cursed the duty and the ambition that had driven him out of that hall all the way to this one, where it was not silver goblets and platters that lay in his hands, but the lives of all those around him.
‘There’re many here who need serving,’ said John gruffly, appearing at Col’s side.
Robert watched the lad hurry off. He knew his brother-in-law was staring at him, but didn’t meet the older man’s gaze.
The earl broke the silence. ‘We won’t be able to stay here long. Valence will be on our trail. Aberdeen is not Perth. Its defences aren’t strong enough to keep out a determined assault and there aren’t enough boats for us to escape by sea. We have to keep moving.’
As his brother-in-law spoke, Robert felt weariness pulling at his limbs. It was a deeper exhaustion than he’d felt after the battle or even during the flight through the mountains – helpless as horses fell lame and wounded men bled out in the darkness – a weariness that seemed soul deep. He stared across the gathering, picking out the faces of his brothers, the Setons, Gilbert de la Hay and Neil Campbell. There were so many holes in their number – so many missing. Malcolm of Lennox. Simon Fraser. James Stewart. Thomas Randolph. Their names had been repeating in his mind, each sounding a hollow note in his heart. He had wanted to wait longer in the hills, hoping more survivors would find their way to him, but after only a few score stragglers joined him there, he had forced his men on, knowing the English would not be slow to follow.
He glanced up at the earl’s insistent tone. ‘I heard you, John.’
Edward Bruce headed over with Niall and the Setons. They were followed by Gilbert, Neil Campbell and David.
‘We should post men on the gates at once,’ said Edward determinedly, looking between Robert and the earl. ‘Bolster the town’s defences.’
‘No,’ John replied curtly. ‘I believe we have a day or two’s grace at most. We should spend that time getting what rest we can and gathering supplies. We leave as soon as we are able.’ He told the others what he had told Robert.
David, standing at his father’s side, looked at the floor and shook his head.
‘So – we run?’ questioned Edward roughly.
‘We could make for Turnberry,’ suggested Niall. ‘Gather and arm as many of Carrick’s tenants as we can?’
‘Pit more farmers against English heavy cavalry?’ said Alexander, his voice cold. Rain had tracked lines through the dirt and blood on his face. ‘We might as well throw grains of sand before the incoming tide.’
‘Cousin,’ cautioned Christopher.
Alexander wouldn’t be placated. ‘We have lost. It is over.’ His eyes, on Robert, were filled with condemnation.
Others countered, but Robert wasn’t listening. He stood quickly, hearing female voices rising over the gruff tones of the men. A tall woman emerged from the crowd, eyes searching. Queen Elizabeth’s cheeks were coloured by a flush, raised by her haste. Her black hair was piled up with jewelled pins, but her maid hadn’t managed to gather all the strands and several drifted loose around her face. Her dove-grey mantle was darkened by rain, the sable trim glistening in the bloom of firelight. Seeing Robert, her face lightened with relief. For a moment, as she crossed to him, Robert thought she was going to throw herself into his arms and felt his own open in surprised expectation, but his wife stopped short before reaching him. Her expression changed and she appeared to compose herself, instead offering her husband and king a courteous dip of her head.
Other women were moving in among the men. Christian Bruce was already locked in an embrace with Christopher Seton. In her arms, crushed between them, her four-year-old son, Donald, protested loudly. John of Atholl’s wife went to her husband, clasping the earl’s grime-streaked face. The countess, a sister of Robert’s first wife, kissed John fiercely before hugging David to her. David pulled back from his mother, the proud young man self-conscious at the display. The countess looked over at Robert. His sister-in-law’s joy faded as she took in the beaten, worn-out faces of the men around him.
Robert’s attention was drawn by a small figure who squeezed through the press of adults. With no bows, no formalities, his eleven-year-old daughter flung her arms around his waist, pressing her face into his sodden surcoat. Robert laughed, taken aback by the ferocity of Marjorie’s grasp, then, with a surge of emotion, he crouched and drew her into his arms. Her hair was soft against his cheek and smelled of smoke and lavender. Holding his daughter at arm’s length, he forced himself to smile at her grave expression.
‘You are hurt,’ murmured Marjorie, frowning at a spot over his eye.
Robert’s hand drifted to the place. He felt a sting of pain as he touched it. A graze from a sword? A stray branch in the flight through the woods? He had no idea.
‘Come away now,’ said Elizabeth, grasping Marjorie’s shoulders. ‘Let your father be.’
Not so long ago his daughter would have shrugged angrily from Elizabeth’s touch, but under the tutelage of a governess these past two years she had changed from a sullen, difficult child into a serious young girl. She let herself be guided to where her maid, Judith, was waiting.
Elizabeth turned back to Robert. ‘What happened in Galloway? Why are you so few?’
As Robert told his wife how they had been surprised outside Perth by Valence’s forces, aided by the Disinherited, those around him quietened, the women straining to hear over the noise of the hall, the men silent, their faces mirroring the emotion of his words. Christian moved closer, whispering for her son to quiet. At her side was her younger sister, Mary, her blue eyes sharp as she listened to the grim tale.
By the time Robert had finished, Elizabeth’s hand had strayed to her throat. He saw she was grasping the ivory cross she wore on the chain around her neck, a childhood gift from her father, the Earl of Ulster. Its edges had been worn smooth over the years by her worrying fingers. ‘But how did they find you?’
‘Valence’s – or maybe MacDouall’s men – must have been lying in wait. None of my scouts made it from the battle. My guess is they were killed just before the attack.’
Elizabeth shook her head, her gaze slipping from him to take in the men slumped on the hall’s floor, too exhausted to strip off wet cloaks and bloodstained mail. ‘I knew this fate, the day we were crowned.’ Her eyes drifted back to him, full of unspoken meaning.
Robert remembered well her words, uttered that day on the Moot Hill; had thought of them while looking down on the walls of Perth and had felt the doom of them. As he put his hands on her shoulders, distress tightened Elizabeth’s features, rendering her younger than her twenty-two years. He was reminded of the girl she had been in Ireland, trailing miserably behind him those endless miles through the wilderness, both of them trying to escape the prisons devised by her father – his a locked room, hers a marriage to a middle-aged lord. He had led her into danger then for the sake of his ambition. This was little different, only now the danger threatened to engulf everyone around him. ‘It isn’t over,’ he told her, the force in his voice as much for himself as for her.
‘If you could not stand against Valence and the men of Galloway, how can you hope to stand against the rest? King Edward and his knights? The Comyns?’ Elizabeth searched the crowd, her gaze falling on the Countess of Buchan. ‘Lady Isabel told us her husband was raising the men of Argyll against you.’
Robert followed his wife’s gaze to where the countess stood. In her winter-white mantle, Isabel was a pale beauty, her arms folded tightly around her chest as if holding herself together. It was Isabel who had placed the crown upon his head at Scone, him bowing before her outstretched hands. The earls of Fife preserved the right to crown a new king and Edward had been shrewd enough to take into his custody the last kingmaker, a fourteen-year-old boy. Isabel, the young earl’s aunt, was the nearest in blood. She was also the wife of the Earl of Buchan, head of the Black Comyns. Robert had sent John of Atholl to bring her to his coronation by force, but in the end she had come willingly, the faded bruises on her face telling him he was perhaps a better prospect than her husband.
Elizabeth’s fingers crept back to the cross, her brow furrowing. ‘Perhaps my father can help? If you surrender now, he may agree to petition King Edward on your behalf – persuade him to be lenient.’
Robert took his hands from her shoulders at the mention of the Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh. Elizabeth didn’t know about the secret pact made between him and her father just before his submission to King Edward two years ago: that if Ulster endorsed him to the king, Robert would marry his daughter. By that pact, the ambitious Ulster had hoped to see his daughter become queen one day, but Robert knew the man hadn’t envisioned this as the reality – his daughter now a rebel and a target of Edward’s wrath.
Elizabeth took his silence as some indication of accord. ‘He is one of the king’s greatest allies. If any man can convince—’
‘No, Elizabeth. I will not surrender. That isn’t an option.’
Edward nodded adamantly. ‘We’ve come too far to yield.’ He scanned the circle. ‘We, all of us, set my brother on the throne in defiance of John Balliol’s right and took control of our kingdom against England’s will. Does anyone here want to exchange this foothold, precarious though it may be, for one on the platform of a gallows?’ He met Elizabeth’s fearful gaze. ‘Even the Earl of Ulster could not win the king’s clemency now, my lady. I saw what he did to William Wallace. Mercy has become another victim of this war.’