Chapter 1: July 1355
Impatiently, our small group splattered along the rain-sodden road from Biggar, where we had stopped for the night, to Melrose Abbey. I was grateful that the rain had stopped, but the ruts had been worked by passing riders and wains into sludge. In the lead, Douglas, Lord of Douglas and my cousin whom I served as a household knight, cursed when his courser slipped in the slick mud. The news from Edinburgh meant that there would be fighting soon, and he meant to be one of the leaders. He had been like that since we left Douglas Castle yesterday, and patience had never been one of his virtues. I rode behind him with my old friend Will Ramsay of Colluthie and twoscore men-at-arms followed.
Will grinned and said in an undertone, "I heard a good jest at that tavern in Biggar, but I had better save it. I dinnae think his lordship is in the right mood."
I smothered a laugh because he definitely was not.
The bells in the abbey's church tower guided us the last mile. Douglas was greeted as an honored guest by Abbot Patrick de Selkirk and the guest master in charge of the hall reserved for travelers. We Douglases had a long history of supporting the abbey and had been involved in its rebuilding after it was destroyed by the English. The guest master showed us to our rooms to wash off the muck of the road and change from our armor into tunics and hose. While the men-at-arms were found room in the lay brothers' cloister, Douglas, Will, and I were bidden to join the abbot for the midday meal and then to attend vespers. At heart, I would have preferred to visit Liddesdale's grave to do what was needed, but the courtesies must be observed.
Abbots were usually elderly, and while Abbot de Selkirk was no exception, the eyes that regarded Douglas from under shaggy, white brows gleamed with intelligence. At a table in his parlor, over a meal of chicken stewed in wine, fresh bread, and apples baked with honey and cinnamon, the abbot questioned us about the French knights he had heard were in Edinburgh, hoping for a new attack on the English. Douglas informed him they had been there for some weeks.
Raising his white brows in obvious disapproval, he said, "I understand you made a truce with Lord Percy, and surely you willnae break that."
"I willnae attack Percy of a certainty unless he attacks me first, but I have nae truce with any other Englisher. And since the attack on the Earl of Dunbar's lands, some response must be made. We cannae let them attack us with impunity." My cousin smiled wryly. "Yesterday, I received a message that the money promised by the French king has arrived at last. It is what we have been awaiting. In Edinburgh, we will thrash out who else will join in our attack."
I clenched my teeth. My opinion was not wanted, but this attack would end any possible negotiations for the ransom, at long last, of King David. But one thing Douglas did not want was peace with England, and it appeared that peace with England was exactly what David wanted. But the deal was done. We would take the fight to the English whether I wanted to or not.
The abbot sighed. "I am sorry to hear that. I fear it may only bring worse down on our heads."
"Blame Sir Thomas Grey, who led the attack. He will pay."
The abbot shook his head. "I cannae approve, but we will pray for you and your men. And for the good of the kingdom."
"The good of the kingdom is to convince the English to stop attacking us," Douglas said in an uncompromising tone which caused even the stern abbot to leave the subject alone. Shortly, we all rose to go to the office of vespers.
Within the vaulted church, it was cool, and motes of dust eddied in the light ,colored by the tall stained-glass windows. I stood with Douglas and Will near the transepts and the great doors were swung open so the men-at-arms and townspeople from the nearby town filed in, a mixed group with a skinny lad supporting his wizened grandfather, a burgher with a belly so big he might have been about to give birth accompanied by his wife, her nose in the air, and a crone so bent I wondered how she could see what was ahead of her. The abbot led the monks to their place in the choir. They were all hidden by the carved wooden rood screen, and the air was spiced with incense. When their voices entwined to chant, "Deus, in adiutorium meum intende. Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina," I shivered at the beauty of it.
At the conclusion of the service, the congregation streamed out the way they had come, and the monks exited into the lengthening shadows of the cloister garden. Douglas and Will followed the congregation, but I steeled myself and walked into the north transept where I had been told his resting place was. It was a simple crypt with only his name and title. William Douglas, Lord of Liddesdale. And the words requiescat in pace.
I laid my hands on the cool stone, my head so heavy with grief that it bent from the weight of it, and my throat was so tight that it ached. I had done what I had been convinced that I had to do. And I had known he would die for his treason. But nothing erased the hatred on his face when he shouted, "Betrayer!"
When he came at me in his murderous rage, if Douglas had not put a sword through his back… Could I have killed him? Or did it matter, since my betraying his treason to the Lord of Douglas was the death stroke? I beat a fist on the stone, welcoming the pain.
"You miss him very much," the abbot said.
Surprised, I jerked a turn. "He raised me. Like a son." I gave a choked laugh. "A rough father who gave me the back of his hand often enough, but the only one I ever kent. And the guilt eats at me."
"You didnae kill him, son. We both ken who did that."
Turning my palms up, I stared at them. "I have killed many men, Reverend Father. Felt their blood thick and slick on my hands. But until that day, I didnae ken death because I put him in front of that sword." I raised my eyes to his. "The guilt is mine as much as it is Douglas's."
"I shall pray for you. For your heart's ease because I cannae see your guilt in it."
I dug in my scrip for a bag of coins I had placed there for this. "Thank you, but it would ease me more if you would remember Liddesdale in your prayers and that you might also pray for the soul of James, Lord of Douglas, my father."
The abbot took the bag and set it on the crypt. It clinked against the stone with silver. He looked surprised, and I thought he had not expected a gift. "It will be put to good use, Sir Archibald, and I will include them both in our prayers. And you as well."