Palm pressed against cold earth, winter’s lingering hold numbed Christina’s fingers. Out in the field, far from the shelter of the trees, blustery winds swelled around her as she waited – hoped – for warmth in the dirt beneath her skin. But she felt nothing. The land was frozen. Winter was not finished with them yet.
“Another fortnight, at least.”
Christina glanced up at the man beside her. Short in stature, his grey hair curled as it came to rest against his shoulders. In service to her father and her grandfather before him, his stooped frame was as familiar as the ground she crouched upon now, never one without the other. Watching his sharp eyes roam the sky, as if appealing to the billowing clouds for leniency, she pulled her hand back under the snug comfort of her cloak and stood.
A sudden gale threw her hood back. Strands of auburn hair swept across her face. Brushing them aside, she spotted the men waiting for her at the edge of the clearing.
The daughter of a nobleman, she was never alone. Watchful eyes followed her every move. Most days, at least one brother hovered nearby, but this time was different. Her grandfather had sent her and her alone to check on the land. No one else was there to tell her what she could and could not do. Turning away from the lingering men, she walked farther into the field.
Flat and fertile, the land of Annan extended a few miles south to the Firth of Solway, the channel of water that began the western border between the land of the Scots and the Kingdom of England. Annandale belonged to her father. He ruled as lord. By now, the fields should have been ploughed and the seeds prepared for sowing. But spring’s warmth had not come. Ever since the death of her mother, the soil seemed reluctant to begin anew.
Reaching the edge of the clearing, Christina glanced behind her. The men in the field remained where they were. No one moved to follow. Lifting the hem of her cloak, she headed towards the river.
Thickets of pine swayed gently overhead as she passed through the trees. Sheltered from the open air, the wind no longer filled her ears or felt sharp against her face. She strolled, enjoying the sound of leaves rustling around her as she wandered past fallen logs and prickly shrubs. Light streamed through an opening up ahead. She heard the river in the distance. Reaching out to touch the blue-green needles protruding from the branch, she emerged from cover and approached the water.
The River Annan carved through the Scottish Lowlands, its wide girth twisting back and forth over the landscape before emptying into the Irish Sea. Christina had played along the muddy, grass-filled shore often as a child. Choosing her path carefully, she stepped across the bank. Frost-covered tussocks sagged beneath her weight. Crouching at the edge, she dangled her fingers into the channel. The water felt cold against her skin. She watched the current flow steadily past for a few moments and then glanced up. Darkened clouds met her gaze. She would be expected in the village before night fell. Taking a drink, she stood and shook the water from her hand. She turned to find a man staring at her from inside the trees.
Her feet stilling, she watched with guarded apprehension as he took a step towards her. He looked like a farmer, his clothes filthy and worn, but he was not of Annandale. She did not know him. Catching sight of the long knife looped in his belt, her concern increased as he came closer. She waited for him to explain his presence but he offered her none. Looking upon her with an unabashed smirk, he stopped an arm’s length away. She was trapped between him and the river. Her stomach twisting in knots, Christina opened her mouth to shout.
A hand slammed down over her lips before she could make a sound. It felt like she had been slapped, the man’s grip on her face tight and unrelenting. She tasted blood. The sharp stench of him filled her nostrils. With her heart pounding in her ears, she struggled against the arms that held her in place. She reached down for the knife hidden inside her cloak. Fingertips straining, sudden relief washed away her fear as her palm wrapped around the carved, wooden handle. She did not hesitate to wrench the blade from its sheath. Turning it upwards, she drove the knife into his throat.
His arms fell down and away. Dropping to his knees, he clutched at the hilt beneath his jaw, failing to pull the steel out. Blood trickled from his mouth as he choked. Reaching forward, he grabbed the skirt of her dress. Christina pushed his hand off. Desperation looked up at her before he stilled and toppled into the mud.
Her breath felt ragged against her throat as she looked at the body before her. His eyes were open, but there was no life left. Kneeling before him, she pulled the knife from the man’s neck, the handle slick and warm. The ground around him grew dark. Red hues crept like pointed fingers through the soggy grass towards her. Wiping the blood off the blade, her hands trembling, she tucked the knife back into her cloak.
Bewilderment kept her there. She tried to make sense of what had happened, but could not. He should not have been watching her in the woods. He should not have grabbed her that way. Her gaze unable to leave the lifeless form, she knew, in the end, it would not matter. She had wandered off alone, unprotected, and now a man was dead. Her father would not care if her actions were justified. Consequences would follow.
She shoved the man’s shoulder in frustration. He flopped over onto his back. She thought about dragging him into the river but quickly abandoned the idea. He was a head taller than her and twice as wide. She would never move him on her own.
Bracing herself to stand back up, her eyes fell once more to the knife at his side. It looked well-made, as if a blacksmith had taken his time to properly shape and balance the steel. An intricate design adorned the top of the handle. The longer she stared at it, the more it seemed out of place. Like him sneaking up behind her, it did not make sense. Before she could convince herself not to, she leaned forward and ripped open his cloak.
Hands urgently running through the fabric, Christina searched the man’s clothes. Besides a small bag of coin, his coat was empty, as was his tunic. Pushing her arm down his undershirt, her fingers grazed curly, moist chest hair. She gagged. But the moment she touched parchment, she forgot about the bile in her throat.
Clumsy fingers unrolled the small piece of paper. She shivered, suddenly cold. The note trembled in her hands as her eyes fell over the faded marks. She read it in its entirety and then went over it again. The man in the mud before her was not just out of place. He was a spy, collecting information on the castles along the border. He was English, and he was dead on Scottish soil.
Sliding the note up her sleeve, Christina pushed herself to her feet. She could not leave him there now. Tensions between King Edward of England and John, King of Scots, were already at a breaking point. Ten years earlier, the two kingdoms had been close, family and decades of friendship uniting them. But now King John refused to send Scottish knights to fight in England’s war against the French and English soldiers were being slaughtered in the Lowlands. No, the news of another Englishman’s death would not bode well for Scotland or Annandale. Thinking of how her family would be the ones charged with finding the person responsible, Christina grabbed the dead man’s hands and pulled him towards the river.
He did not budge. Mud sucking him down, the Englishman remained firmly planted in the grass. Dark skies indicated someone would come looking for her soon. Desperately searching the shore, she spotted a large branch a few feet downriver. She hurried towards it. Sludge clung to her feet as she carried the log over to the body. Jabbing the branch beneath his torso, she brushed a lock of hair away from her face before placing her hands on the other end of the stick. Movement near the bushes made her pause. She scanned the treeline. Her heart sank when Christopher Seton emerged from cover.
He hesitated. Like a hunter, his eyes cautiously scanned the riverbank before he stepped forward, his feet silent despite the solid frame they carried. His gaze dropped to the Englishman in the reeds. Concern creased his brow. It disappeared just as quickly. He stopped beside her.
Christina waited for him to speak. The scent of oak and earth drifted towards her. She felt conflicted by his presence. Loyal to her house, he had been sent with the other men to accompany her to Annan. His family had served hers for generations. Whether in England or Scotland, crusading to the Holy Land or battling Norwegian invaders, the men in his family always stood next to hers. Close in age, he had been raised under the guidance of her grandfather at Lochmaben Castle alongside her brothers. Christina had known him for most of her life, but he was a still a stranger. He would help her now – of that there was no doubt – but it was who he would tell after that concerned her most.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
Like a perfectly sharpened knife, his voice cut through the thick, murky bog of despair that pulled her under. She shook her head.
An unreadable expression stared back at her, his green eyes obscure. His gaze dropped to the log in her hands. Christina glanced down.
Her cloak was smeared with mud and her arms were caked. The hem of her dress was filthy, no longer blue. Looking back up, she explained. “He’s English.”
His jaw clenching told her he understood. Seton looked away for a moment before he reached out and took the branch from her hands. Christina moved back.
Seton levered the body out of the mud. Tossing the stick aside, he grabbed the man’s ankles and pulled him towards the river. The corpse had stiffened, creating lines in the grass as it went. A large, blackened divot marked where the dead man used to lay.
Watching Seton push the body out into the water, Christina shivered. She tightened her cloak around her. If she was lucky, the man would float the short distance to the sea unhindered. If she was not, her crime would be discovered and someone would be held responsible. Either way, there was nothing she could do about it now. The only problem she needed to be concerned about was the tall figure walking towards her. Not waiting for Seton to tell her to go, she turned and set out for the village.
Night had descended, the last remnants of daylight melting away. She could see the burgh in the distance as they strode through the fields. A dark fortress loomed in the woods up ahead.
Perched on a mound of earth along the river, Annan Castle towered above the landscape. It had been built more than a hundred years ago by her ancestor, the first Lord of Annandale, to guard the road north and rule over the land. But their residence there was short-lived. Only twenty years later, the fortress was abandoned for good. A curse had been cast upon their kindred. Despite her grandfather’s acts of penance, it haunted them still.
She shuddered unwillingly, the movement wracking her torso and making her muscles clench in pain. They were not far from the tavern. She could almost see it. Thinking of the warm, soft bed waiting for her inside, she increased her pace. She stepped from the trees. Seton’s voice stopped her.
Reluctantly, she turned.
Untying the strings around his neck, Seton handed her his cloak. She looked at him in confusion. He explained. “You are covered in blood.”
Glancing down, she saw nothing. Running her hand lightly against the front of her cloak, the wool crusty and hard, she noticed the discoloured stains splattered across the dress she wore underneath. She took the cloak from his hand. Throwing it around her shoulders, she walked towards the inn.
The village was quiet. The cold kept everyone inside, huddled around fires or wrapped in warm blankets. Christina took a deep breath to prepare for the man she knew would be waiting for her just outside the tavern door. Every word she spoke, each twitch in her face would be scrutinized. She turned the corner. Cailean emerged from the shadows the moment she came into view.
His glare was piercing. Eyes quickly assessing her, his forehead scrunched into a scowl. “You have been gone too long.”
Though the Gaelic words were spoken softly, he spit them out like an accusation. He looked that way ever since she could remember, the frown a permanent feature in her childhood memories, dark irritation constantly clouding his eyes. Perhaps the only thing that had changed over the years was his beard. While still full and untamed as ever, if she stood close enough, as she did now, she could see tiny hints of grey peeking out from beneath the red.
“Where were you?” he asked.
Determined not to break beneath the stare that cut into her, she answered without hesitation. “By the river.”
He matched her pace. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” She refused to tell him about the Englishman. Though Cailean did not serve her father, escaping his watchful gaze was stressful enough. There was no need to make it impossible. If Seton decided to tell her family, she would deal with the consequences then. She was not going to cut short what freedom she had left.
Cailean smirked. He moved even closer. “Then why is there blood on your lip?”
Christina lifted her fingers to her mouth. Her bottom lip was swollen and tender to the touch. Finding the cut, she ran her tongue across it and tasted metal. Cailean waited for her answer. “I fell,” she said.
His smirk widened for a moment before it disappeared, as if he found her words amusing. Keeping his eyes on her all the while, he waited for her to relent and tell him the truth. She remained silent.
The sound of her name rescued her from her predicament. Breaking away from Cailean’s stare, she turned to find her father’s men waiting with the horses ready. One of them stepped forward.
“A messenger arrived,” he said. “We are to take you back to Lochmaben tonight.”
Uncertainty bloomed to life in her chest. She did not ride in the dark often. It was perilous and prolonged the journey. Wanting an explanation for such a request, she looked at the men expectantly. They stood there awaiting her reply. She knew she did not have a choice. Nodding, she followed the men to her horse.
Lochmaben Castle was an intimidating fortress, especially in the dark. Built of stone in the year 1162, it was difficult to attack and easy to defend. A deep canal encircled the stronghold’s approach. Riding across the bridge in the dead of night, Christina urged her horse through the open gate and the thick walls that surrounded the bailey. It should have felt like coming home. Lochmaben was her favourite place to be. Spotting her eldest brother’s horses near the stable, the unease she felt in Annan grew. She did not know what his arrival meant. Pulling to a stop in front of the keep, she dismounted and entered the tower.
The sound of laughter greeted her. Moving to the staircase, the noise increased as she climbed, candle-lit sconces lining the walls. Stepping out onto the second floor, she straightened her shoulders. A few months had passed since she had last seen her brother. Upon her grandfather’s request for her to live with him at Lochmaben, Christina had left her siblings behind. Her brother had not been pleased. But the former Lord of Annandale was not a man often told no. Reaching the doors of the grand hall, she hoped her brother had not come to take her back.
The room was full. Her brother’s arrival always drew a crowd and the hall brimmed with people eager to lay eyes on the young Mormaer of Carrick. He had not come alone. Familiar faces sat around the long table, her grandfather at the head. No one noticed her at first, but as the elderly man’s sharp gaze spotted her by the door, he pushed himself to his feet. The room quieted. Christina walked forward.
Her grandfather left the table, his long strides making short work of the room. Slowing as he reached her, he took her hand and squeezed it as he passed. It was not until he let go that she felt the note in her palm. Closing her hand, she slipped it into her pocket before she glanced back to watch him leave. Conversations began around the hall once more. Christina turned to face the man who had come.
To say Rob Bruce was an admired son of Scots would be an understatement. Over six feet tall, he was a force to be reckoned with, sword or no sword. Knighted at sixteen, their father bequeathed him their mother’s land of Carrick only two years later, making him a mormaer. It was a significant gesture. The acquisition gave him not only wealth but power. Not that he needed it. Even the English king favoured him. Looking across the table, Rob staring back, she saw the side of her twenty-one-year-old brother those outside the family rarely did – distant, demanding, and cold.
“Did you enjoy your time in Annan?” he asked.
Christina smiled sarcastically. The bitterness of his question was impossible to miss. Of course he was annoyed she had been sent to Annan. As the firstborn son, Rob expected to be handed everything, but it was more than that. Following the death of their mother, their father had taken their eldest sister Isabel to Norway, leaving Rob as acting head of the family. Isabel did not disappoint. Married within a year of her arrival, she became Queen of Norway. Three years had passed, and still, their father did not return. Despite Rob’s titles and his authority, their grandfather continued to do what he wanted. He refused to apprise Rob of his plans, including Christina instead. Rob had more than most, and yet, it was not enough. Staring into his hardened, light-brown eyes, Christina walked to the head of the table and took her grandfather’s seat.
He glared at her as she sat in the chair reserved for lords. The muscles in his jaw clenched, and his hand tightened around his cup. She waited for him to lecture her on obedience and knowing one’s place, but it did not come. Instead, he drained the ale in front of him and stalked out of the room.
Her gaze followed him as he went. He was more miserable than usual, his temperament sour and his patience gone. Not long ago, he would have just told her what was wrong. But they were not children anymore. Distracted by a soft chuckle, she turned and looked to the man sitting next to Rob’s empty chair. She relaxed as soon as she saw her favourite brother’s face.
At nineteen, Neil was two years older than her. There were nine Bruce children altogether – five boys and four girls. Rob was the oldest, then Isabel, followed by Neil, Christina, and Edward, who was barely sixteen. Mary came three years later; then Thomas and Alexander, the two boys born in quick succession. By the time Matilda arrived, her shrill cries echoing off the castle walls, Rob was already thirteen and well on his way to becoming a knight.
“Are you certain you’re not a Comyn?”
Smirking at Neil’s jest, Christina leaned back into the chair. He looked like Isabel, except he was prettier, green eyes highlighting a perfect face. His slender frame made him light on his feet and prone to mischief. While he did not have the following Rob did – especially at tournaments – he received more than his fair share of attention, particularly of the female variety. He took advantage of it every chance he got.
“You torture him more than you should.”
Christina smiled at the light-hearted expression on Neil’s face. It was the reason why she cherished him the most. Unlike Rob, he never took himself too seriously. Reaching for the pitcher of ale, she poured herself a drink.
“I heard you dismissed your ladies-in-waiting.” He smirked. “You have even been riding unescorted into Selkirk Forest.” He shook his head in amusement. “No wonder Rob has been unbearable these last few months. I thought I was supposed to be the difficult one.”
His words carried a cautious undertone. Despite his carefree nature, he was still a Bruce, dedicated first and foremost to protecting the family. Their father’s emotional flight to Norway had not gone unnoticed. It made them look weak, and the Bruce children did not have to be told to understand that it fell to them to restore the formidable reputation of their house. It was the reason why her brothers trained harder and longer than anyone else; why her sisters excelled in every task given to them, mastering the intricate societal relationships that governed the kingdom. They often fought amongst themselves, but whatever they did outside the family, the Bruce children were a united, unbreakable force. Perhaps that explained Rob’s misery. He was afraid her actions would cause the family harm.
“Whose cloak is that?”
The question snapped Christina to the present. She suddenly remembered that underneath the fabric, she was covered in blood. Trying her best to look unconcerned, she took a drink and shrugged. “I do not know. I came across it in the forest.”
A slow grin pulled at Neil’s lips. “And you just put it on?”
She stared back at him with determination. If she showed any sign of weakness or fear, he would pounce like a hunter on injured prey. Ignoring his question, she pretended to be irritated. “Why have you come, Neil?”
The smile faded. Looking down at the cup in his hand, he placed it on the table. When he met her gaze again, there was no denying his concern. “You cannot keep doing this, Christina.”
It did not sound like him.
“You have responsibilities,” he said. “You cannot come here and do whatever you want. It is reckless.”
She nearly scoffed. It was ironic that this lecture was coming from him – the brother caught most often skirting the rules. His face remained serious. Looking away for a moment, she asked, “Why not?”
He smiled sadly. “Why are you wearing someone else’s cloak?”
Her face hardened. She should have known he would see right through her. She had learned how to lie and get away with it from him. She did not bother answering.
“You are not a girl anymore.” He leaned towards her, eyes never leaving hers. “You have not been for a while.”
She pressed her back firmly into the chair. It felt like she was trapped on the riverbank again, all alone as a stranger strode towards her. Her heart pounded in apprehension. Neil’s eyes filled with pain. Her face hot, she waited for her brother to say the words she feared the most.
“Rob needs you. We all do. That is why we are here. We have come to take you to Mar.”