October 24, 1346
I cantered into the outer bailey of Hermitage Castle, set on a windswept rise. The guards on the ramparts watched me in silence. I rode alone because Will Ramsay was riding to Dalhousie Castle to let them know he still lived and that his cousin had been killed in the battle at Neville’s Cross. We planned to meet at the township of Roxburgh.
The sky was clear blue, the air crisp with an autumn chill. The leaves on the trees were yellow and falling. There was a wooden palisade, a barracks, a smithy, and some small cots I rode past. In the inner bailey, a timber-framed hall rose above an undercroft accessed by a flight of steps. A chapel with a wooden cross above its door was on one side, abutting the hall. A little apart stood the kitchen, and the stable stood at the gateward end.
Sir John Douglas, one of my cousins twenty years my senior and a big, bluff man, turned from speaking to the castle steward. “Archie!” he exclaimed. “Saints be praised. You live.”
I slid from the saddle and handed the reins to a stable boy. “Through God’s mercy, but why are you here?”
“Come away in. This is nae talk for the bailey.” He clapped my shoulder, although he was half a head shorter than me. We turned toward the stairs to the hall. “I am glad you are free and uninjured. We had nae news of you. It gives me hope for my brother” John strode to the high table, poured two cups of ale, and handed me one.
“Sir William was taken prisoner. As was the King. Many others but more—” My throat closed, and I cleared it. “The bodies piled deep, and that saved me.” I drank down a long swallow. To buy a few moments and put off talking about the horror of that day, I asked, “Why are you nae in Edinburgh? You must hold the castle, and I have nae doubt—”
“Robert Stewart relieved me of my post. He is naming his own man to the post.” He clamped his lips into a tight line. “Tell me what happened. Stewart’s tale made no sense. How was it he returned with his army intact?”
“Out scouting, Sir William and his men were surprised by the English army. Many died as they retreated to warn the King. We hadnae news that the English had raised an army with their King in France. The leaders said the English were too close for us to retreat. It was a mistake having our army burdened with so many wagons. And the ground was all broken with ditches, bad for forming schiltrons. When the first arrows flew, Stewart and Dunbar fled with nearly half of our men. The English were too busy killing to chase them.” I smashed my fist into my palm. “It was a desperate fight. The Earl of Moray was killed at the start. An archer’s arrow killed the Marischal. Maurice de Moravia and Sir Niall Bruce went down. The King was sorely injured—an arrow in the face. He kept fighting, though. I was knocked out and kent nae more. When I awoke, the bodies were so deep that I hid beneath them until I could flee.”
Lady Elizabeth said, “Archie.”
I had not heard her enter, so I turned. “My Lady…” Words fled me. The white barbette that framed her face beneath her fluted coif accentuated her pallor, and shadows underlined her eyes. Mary stood slightly behind her, wide-eyed.
“How is it you return without your lord? Where is my husband?”
“Taken prisoner.” I stepped toward her. “It grieves me to bring such ill news, but he lives. So, surely he may be ransomed.”
Her face paled. She stared at me. Her mouth opened and closed. “Yet you arrive with no hurt.” Her tone was acid. “You who were his squire with a duty to guard him. How can that be?”
“The King knighted me and took me into his own following—”
“You were nae with him? You left him!”
I saw the slap coming but did not move.
“You saw the chance of advancement, and you… you abandoned…” A flush ran from her neck to her forehead, wiping away the pallor. “He treated you like a son, and you abandoned him!”
My cheek stung with the raised welt. “I am sorry, my lady. I am, but I hadnae choice. I swore fealty to the King. He commanded me to join his household knights. And Sir William had his own men to guard him.”
She looked at the far wall as though she could not stand the sight of me, her back as straight as a sword blade. “I want you gone. You have nae place here.” She turned and walked slowly up the stairs to the solar.
Mary opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and shook her head with a helpless look, her eyes wet with tears. She followed her mother.
I swore softly under my breath, and my chest felt like a band tightened around it. Her disdain stung more than a slap could. I covered my mouth with my hand, pain tightening the back of my throat. She had always been kind to me. The worst was that she was not wrong. I had a duty to Sir William and to the King. Both duties I had failed.
“I am sorry, Archie. She just needs someone safe to blame.” John rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. “I will bring you yon things that are still in the solar. Mayhap you had better wait in the bailey.”
“I will be in the armory for my bow and battleax.” With a nod, I turned and retraced my steps, aware that the servants had observed the exchange.
Colban, a wiry man with a scar down one cheek and hair grown grizzled, appeared through the gate. His eyes narrowed to slits. “I fear you didnae receive a warm welcome.”
“Warm enough.” I rubbed the red mark on my face and tilted my head toward the armory. “Come. We should talk.”
In the dim light of the armory, I turned to him and asked, “Where is Andrew?”
“Scouting. We have to expect the English at any time.” He grimaced. “Gamelin…” The two men had long been companions in arms. “Do you ken…”
“They were ambushed.” I bit my lip, not sure what to say. “He was a good man. I shall miss him.”
He scrubbed his face with a hand. “It could happen to any of us. We all ken that.” After an uncomfortable silence, he cleared his throat. “The battle were, when? A week ago?”
“It willnae be long before they arrive here, then. With our army destroyed, they is bound to come.”
The bins and pegs where weapons were stored were mostly empty, depleted by the needs of the army Sir William, my cousin and Lord of Liddesdale, led into England. I picked up my bow, wrapped in waxed cloth, lying on a far table. After shoving a dozen bodkins arrows and a dozen barbed arrows into an arrow sack, I turned back to him. “No, and Hermitage Castle isnae strong enough to hold against them. John must realize that.”
John stepped through the door. “Of course I do.” John extended a roll of my clothes wrapped in the winter cloak I had not needed, and I took it from his hands. “But we will prepare when they approach and try to negotiate a surrender that keeps us out of English dungeons and assures Lady Elizabeth and Mary kind treatment. They may allow our men to leave.” He sighed. “They will nae doubt insist that the ladies be taken to England, but at least they will be near my brother.”
Colban raised his eyebrows at the bow. “You planning on turning archer?”
“I’ve brought down my share of deer. Is using it against a man so different?”
“So you plan to fight?” he asked.
“Will Ramsay and I do.”
“Ramsay?” He cleared his throat. The feud with the Ramsays had ended, but that did not make John or his brother friendly with them. “I admit they have always been strong against the English.”
“Aye. He is giving his family the news, and we shall meet in Roxburgh. I dinnae expect any help from Stewart or Dunbar.” That was bitter in my mouth. After a moment, I crooked one corner of my mouth in a smile at my old friend, Colban. “You would be welcome.” I tilted my head to Sir John. “And you might want to lead us if the English dinnae throw you in a dungeon.”
John shook his head. “I was never good at the secret warfare William fought. I will find a place with a lord, mayhap even the Stewart. At least he has enough men left to oppose the English if they try to conquer his lands. Forbye, it depends on what happens when the English arrive, but we cannae leave Elizabeth to face them alone. I have a duty here.”
My attention turned to Colban. “What about you?”
“I am nae leader, but I will find you when my duty here be done.”
I nodded. “It would be wise, I suspect, to secret your weapons where they willnae be seized. You will be welcome with or without. Seek us near the ruins of Hawthornden Castle. You ken where.”
A groom brought my horse and a garron on a lead to the armory door.
“Yon isnae mine,” I told him.
“Sir William gave it to you, so aye, it is yours.” John grasped my hand with a firm shake. “God go with you, Archie.”
“And with you.” I shoved the clothes into a canvas saddlebag and tied it behind my saddle, hung the bow and arrow bag from my pommel, mounted, and, leading the garron, trotted toward the outer gate, watched by all of those present.
I did not look back and chided myself that I was tempted. It was no longer my home. When a skinny fox dashed across the road, my mount jibbed. I took him in hand. Will and I had plans to make, so I set off at a brisk canter.