Authors: Robyn Young
Robert felt the fierceness of his brother’s words spark a fire in him. He glimpsed Col in the crowd passing more goblets to grateful men and other servants crouched by the wounded helping them out of their armour. He saw his men, earls and lords of Scotland, all around him, defeated – yes – but still here with him. He had seized the throne, swearing to defend their rights and liberties, promising them a kingdom free of England’s yoke. He would keep that promise, while he still had breath left in his body. Edward was right. They had come too far to yield. ‘We head west,’ he said, voicing the plan he had been considering these past days on the road.
‘To Carrick?’ questioned Niall.
‘Not yet.’ Robert addressed them all. ‘Before my coronation I sent my brothers to Lord Donough, charging him to raise the men of Antrim. My foster-father will not have been slow to act and—’
‘Your estates in Ireland will not offer safe haven,’ warned John. ‘You will be in easy reach of Ulster there. You cannot expect your past alliance to protect you. Sir Richard is Edward’s man and will do what the king commands. No matter what,’ he added, glancing at Elizabeth.
‘Not Antrim, John. Islay. I told my brothers to take the same message to Angus MacDonald. His family has allied with mine in the past. I believe we may find sanctuary among his people. These last weeks Robert Wishart and William Lamberton have been raising their tenants from their dioceses and garnering supplies. We will send word for the bishops to join us on Islay, along with Lord Donough and the men of Antrim. And there are others,’ he continued, his voice strengthening. ‘The men of Carrick and Ayr. The MacRuaries—’
‘The MacRuaries?’ Neil Campbell cut in. ‘You would trust the mercenaries to follow you, my lord? Those devils would stab you in the back the moment it was turned.’
Robert glanced at Neil, whose vehemence was easy to understand. The MacRuaries were kinsmen of the MacDougall lords, who had killed his father and taken Campbell lands around Loch Awe. ‘Everything I know tells me the MacRuaries value plunder over kinship, Neil. Enough coins may buy their loyalty. As captains of the galloglass they have scores of fighting men and ships at their disposal. They could prove invaluable.’
‘And from my uncle’s lordships of Bute, Renfrew and Kyle Stewart you will find hundreds of tenants willing to fight, my lord.’
Robert saw James Douglas had entered the circle. The young man had been tight-lipped all through the flight from Methven Wood, his gaze often on the land behind them, hope draining from his face with every day his uncle failed to appear. Now, something else burned in his blue eyes, something fierce and vengeful.
‘The steward fell,’ John said quietly.
‘None of us knows what happened to those left behind,’ Robert answered him sharply.
James nodded in agreement. ‘If my uncle escaped the field he would have returned to his lands. But either way, Sir John, his vassals will fight. William Wallace was of their stock. Many still harbour desire for revenge against his executioners.’ He turned his gaze on Robert. ‘I will follow you west, my lord.’
‘As will I,’ said Christopher Seton.
When Neil Campbell and Gilbert de la Hay added their support, Robert felt his confidence swell. He had underestimated his enemy and led his men blindly into Valence’s trap. They had paid a terrible price for that mistake, but these men in this hall had followed him through years of blood. They had suffered other defeats and had fought their way on to victory. He had lost a battle. Not the war. ‘We leave as soon as we are able. All of us,’ he added, for the benefit of the watching women. ‘We will rebuild our strength in the Isles. Then, when we return, Valence will pay in full for every life taken at Perth.’
As his men responded with grim accord, Robert saw his half-sister, Margaret, at the edge of the gathering. She was searching the circle, her face full of question as she looked for her son.
As the assembled men and women began to disperse, Christopher Seton watched Robert cross to his half-sister. Pity filled him as he saw the king’s jaw tighten. No one should have to tell a mother her son was missing, possibly dead. It was against the law of nature. But, then, it seemed the law of man had been dominant these past ten years and nature had sat back to watch, more children being taken by the war than by her whim.
Feeling a hand on his arm, Christopher turned to see Christian, her eyes clouded with worry. Donald had quietened, resting his head in the curve of her neck, his blond hair brushing her chin. The boy’s face was screwed up in a frown, sensing, but not understanding, the tension in his mother and the adults around him. Such a little mite, thought Christopher, to be head of one of Scotland’s greatest earldoms. He cupped Christian’s cheek. ‘Don’t look so frightened, my love.’
‘How can I not?’ Christian tilted her head from his touch, not wishing to be placated. ‘My brother has lost half his army and our countrymen have joined our enemies, with the full strength of England still to come for us.’
‘You heard Robert: Islay will offer refuge while he gathers more forces. You and Donald will be safe there, I promise.’
A cry made them both turn. As Margaret Randolph collapsed Robert reached to grasp her, but she sank to the floor, her cry stretching into a wail. The Countess of Atholl moved to hold her.
‘My poor sister,’ murmured Christian. She hugged Donald closer. ‘Thomas was barely out of boyhood.’ Her eyes switched back to Christopher. ‘Do not make promises you don’t know you can keep. They feel like lies.’
The strength of her tone took him aback. She was a quiet woman for the most part, gentle in manner and speech, but he was starting to learn that when roused there was a forcefulness in her that would come unexpected and sudden – thunder from a blue sky. His love for her had come quickly, bubbling up like laughter, but his deepening respect had turned it into something solid, immutable. ‘Then I’ll swear I would die protecting you both.’
Christian exhaled, her face softening. ‘Don’t say that either.’ She hefted Donald higher on her hip so she could take Christopher’s hand. ‘Gartnait was a good man.’ She looked down on the tousled head of the child that had come from that marriage. ‘But I never truly loved him. Not as I know it now.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘You can say you’ll always come back to me, no matter what. That, you can swear.’
Christopher wondered about the logic of making another promise that might be a lie, but judging by the look on her face she wanted him to make this one. ‘You have my word.’ At her smile he felt a question, playing at his lips these past few months, begin to emerge.‘Christian, I . . .’ He faltered. ‘What I mean to say is, I need your brother’s permission, but if such an agreement was forthcoming, would you consider—’ His attention was caught by Alexander, who pushed past him, heading for the doors. Christopher frowned, seeing the embittered look his cousin shot Robert before disappearing in the press of men. He turned back to Christian, whose face was alight with expectation. He could see it in her eyes, shining now, the worry gone: she knew what he had been going to ask. He could tell, too, what her answer would be. A grin threatened to spread across his face, but he forced back his joy. ‘Give me leave for just a moment, my love.’
Tearing himself from her, Christopher pushed his way through the crowd, which was already stirring with new purpose, commanders relaying the king’s plan to their companies, servants hastening to gather supplies. Christopher paused in the hall’s doorway. The courtyard was crammed with men and horses, many hunched under the eaves of outbuildings, sheltering from the rain. Torches threw fractured shadows up the walls of the bailey. Christopher caught a glimpse of Alexander, headed in the direction of the stables. His cousin’s hood was pulled up, a pack on his shoulder. Quickly, he descended the steps into the yard, churned to a thick soup of mud.
Alexander had been quiet for days now, but not in the same way as their companions. His had been an angry, restless silence. Christopher had been too preoccupied with his own thoughts after the battle to question his cousin’s cold reserve. He knew Alexander harboured resentment towards Robert, for making decisions he hadn’t agreed with and ignoring his counsel, but tonight his bitterness seemed different. He thought of his cousin’s words earlier and the look on his face.
We have lost. It is over.
Dodging kitchen boys hurrying to the great hall with armfuls of blankets and buckets of water, Christopher made his way to the stables. His boots slipped in the mire and rain trickled down inside the collar of his cloak. When he reached the stable block, he found himself in a chaos of grooms and horses, over which a stable-master was yelling to make himself heard. An agitated charger reared up, almost hauling the young boy gripping the reins off the ground. Christopher turned in a circle, scanning the courtyard, but saw no sign of Alexander.
Near Turnberry, Scotland, 1306 AD
Brigid paused halfway up the slope to catch her breath. Sitting back on her heels, she let her bag tumble from her shoulder and untied the skin from her belt. The watered wine tasted sour, but served to quench her thirst. It had been a hot climb in the late afternoon sun, the air alive with insects that swarmed in the gorse and heather. Her long hair was lank with sweat. She pushed it out of her eyes and surveyed the land that dropped away before her, pleased with how far she had travelled. The loch she had trudged alongside early that morning was now a distant shimmer.
She had worried she might become lost, having chosen the route that would bring her home by way of remote drovers’ tracks through Carrick’s southern uplands, but she had walked these hills as a child, hunting for coneys and adders, blackthorn and dog’s mercury for her aunt’s work. These lands hadn’t changed. She doubted they had since the wild people raised their stone circles and chanted their prayers to the ancient gods. It was strange to be back in this timeless region after the last months spent in towns that were altering by the day. Man could change a landscape in just one season, by sword and by fire.
Feeling dangerously lulled by the sun’s warmth, she forced herself on, legs throbbing as she tackled the last of the slope, the coarse grass scratching her feet through the holes that had opened in her shoes. The bag bumped against her back. Though still heavy with coins it was lighter than it had been, her supplies having dwindled to a hunk of rye bread and some salted herring. Her shabby dress hung loose on her body and her face, glimpsed that morning as she’d splashed in the loch, was gaunt. It didn’t matter. She was almost home. Elena would be helping to prepare the evening meal, or fetching logs for the fire. The thought of her daughter drove her forward.
It was almost four months since King Robert’s coronation at Scone, after which time Brigid had spent several weeks in Perth, selling the healing powders and charms Affraig had sent her with. Her aunt’s craft had been suffering ever since the English raid on Turnberry five years ago, which devastated the community. With three mouths to feed and the last of their chickens having perished in the winter, the opportunity presented by the coronation had been too good to miss. Finally in May, when rumours reached Perth that the English had crossed the border and were headed their way, Brigid had set out for home.
The road felt different on the return journey. There was a sense of dissatisfaction in the settlements she passed through, stopping a few days to sell the last of Affraig’s wares. People were angry, some saying King Robert had damned them by spilling blood on hallowed ground, or condemning him for overthrowing John Balliol, who, despite his exile in France, was still Scotland’s rightful king. Others blamed the Comyns for their warmongering. Neighbours disagreed, men brawled quickly after too much ale and people wanted hexes not love spells. It felt as though the kingdom were fracturing, splitting across new battle lines. There were murmurs of a great muster against Robert taking place in Argyll. The further west she travelled the more armed companies Brigid began to see, until finally she made the decision to leave the road. She knew, all too well, the violence men were capable of.
Scrambling up on to the summit, Brigid was rewarded with a vast panorama. The view was dominated by the sea, a dazzling sheet of copper in the evening sun, ruptured in the foreground by the rocky dome of Ailsa Craig and in the distance by Arran’s mountains. Shielding her eyes, Brigid scanned the land. The line of hills marched north for a few miles, before dropping away. In the distance, a solitary knoll reared over soft green woodland. Somewhere in the dusky shadows between the mound and the woods was Affraig’s house. She need only head down and follow the skirts of the hills, and she would be home. As she took her first steps, Brigid caught sight of the hulking silhouette of Turnberry Castle on the coast beyond the woods. Her eyes told her something was wrong, halting her in her tracks even before her brain translated what she was seeing. Turnberry Castle was there, rising from its sea-bitten promontory of rock, but the village beside it was gone.
The bag slipped from her shoulder as her eyes fell on the blackened area where a small, but thriving settlement once stood. Though the distance made her vision blur, she thought she could see twisted stumps of buildings. It might have been the evening haze, but she fancied smoke still rose from the ruins. She looked south, seeing more scorched areas of earth, remains of farmsteads and crop-fields. Then, to the north, some miles beyond Turnberry, she saw the cause. On the bluffs that looked out over the curve of coastline towards Ayr was a great encampment. Campfires glittered among the expanse of tents.