Our Story Begins: The war for Scotland's freedom continues, as King Robert the Bruce battles on. At his command is an elite army of trained warriors, soldiers dedicated to their king, country—and the remarkable women they love.
An Excerpt From the Prologue & Chapter One . . .
Dundonald Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland, Late June 1297
Fynlay Lamont was drunk again. Ewen Lamont sat in the back corner of the Great Hall of Dundonald Castle with the other young warriors and tried to ignore his father. But every raucous burst of laughter and belligerent boast that filtered back from Fynlay's table near the front of the hall made Ewen want to slide deeper and deeper into his bench.
“That's your father?" one of the Earl of Menteith's squires asked. “No wonder you don't talk much. He does enough for both of you."
The other young warriors around him laughed. Ewen wanted to bury his head in shame, but he forced himself to smile at the jest and act as if it didn't bother him. He was a man now—nearly seven and ten—not a boy. He couldn't run away the way he'd done as a child every time his father drank too much or did something outrageous.
But his father's lack of control—his lack of discipline—was going to ruin everything. As it was, this meeting was like a bed of dry leaves next to a fire just waiting for a spark to ignite.
Though the great lords gathered in secret here today were kinsmen, all descendants of Walter Stewart, the 3rd High Steward of Scotland, they didn't always see eye-to-eye. They had come to see whether they could put aside those differences long enough to fight the English rather than each other. Adding Wild Fynlay to the already volatile mix of men in the room was like holding up a blacksmith's bellows to fan the flames with hot air—lots of hot air.
But like Ewen, Fynlay Lamont of Ardlamont was Sir James Stewart's man, and as one of Stewart's chief battle commanders, his father had a right to be here. If there was one thing Wild Fynlay knew how to do it was fight. It was keeping the fighting contained to the battlefield that was the problem.
Wild Fynlay's epitaph had been well earned. He was quick to fight, quick to argue, and quick to take offense. Rules, law, nothing could bind him. He did what he wanted, when and where he wanted. He'd seen Ewen's mother thirty years ago at a local fair, decided he wanted her, and had taken her. It didn't matter that she was betrothed to his cousin and chief, Malcolm Lamont. It didn't matter if those choices nearly cost him—and their clan—everything.
His father hadn't changed at all in the year since Ewen had seen him last—except for the missing finger. While Ewen had been in the Borders in the service of Sir James Stewart, the 5th Steward of Scotland, his father had gotten so drunk, he'd bet one of their kinsmen that he could pull his hand away from the table faster than the other man could draw his blade. The top joint of the middle finger on his right hand proved Fynlay wrong.
Ewen's reckless, more-savage-than-civilized father was always getting into trouble. He spoke with his sword and his fists—usually in a whisky-induced slur. Fighting and drinking were sports of which he never tired. And wagering. Fynlay Lamont had never met a challenge too crazy or dangerous for him to like. The last time Ewen had been home, his father had wagered that he could fight a pack of wolves with his hands—bare-arsed naked.
He had, and won. Although he'd suffered a serious injury to his leg when one of the wolves had managed to get his teeth on him.
Instead of returning to Rothesay Castle for his training as he was supposed to that winter, Ewen had stayed at Ardlamont to act as chieftain to his clan while his father recovered. It had been six months before Ewen could return to Sir James's household. He'd missed every minute of it. But if there was one thing he'd learned from Sir James, it was the importance of doing his duty.
He sure as Hades hadn't learned it from his father. Duty and responsibility were an anathema to Fynlay Lamont. He left everyone else to clean up his mess. First Sir James, and now, if he got his wish, Ewen.
But Ewen wasn't going to back to Ardlamont. He didn't care what his father wanted. He was going to earn a place in Stewart's retinue and hopefully, if the men in this room could be persuaded, join the uprisings started last month by a man named William Wallace.
King Edward of England had ordered the Scot lords to appear in Irvine on July 7th. The question was whether they would march the five miles to Irvine to submit to the English or march to do battle with them.
Sir William Douglas, Lord of Douglas, had already joined Wallace and was trying to recruit his kinsmen, Stewart, Menteith, and Robert Bruce, the young Earl of Carrick, to do the same. Sir James was inclined to join the fight; it was the others who would need convincing that following the rebellion of a man who wasn't even a knight, against the most powerful king in Christendom, made sense.
With any luck, Ewen would be marching off to his first battle in a few days. He couldn't wait. Like every other young warrior around this table, he dreamed of greatness, of distinguishing himself on the battlefield. Then maybe everyone would stop talking about his “wild" father and the wolves he'd fought, the ships he'd nearly run aground in some half-crazed race around the Isles, or the bride he'd stolen from his own chief.
His father's voice stopped him cold. “When it's complete, my castle will be the greatest stronghold in all of damned Cowal—no disrespect, Stewart."
Oh God, not the castle. This time, Ewen couldn't prevent the heat from crawling up his face.
“Where are you going to find the gold?" one of the men laughed. “Under your pillow?"
It was well known that Fynlay couldn't hold a coin longer than it took to gamble it away. It was also well known that his infamous castle had stood half-built for sixteen years, ever since day Ewen's mother had died in childbirth, when Ewen was barely a year old.
Ewen had had enough. He couldn't listen to his father any longer. He pushed back from the trestle table and stood.
“Where are you going?" one of his friends asked. “The feast is just getting started. They'll be coming around with Sir James's special whisky soon."
“Don't bother, Robby," another of the lads said. “You know Lamont, he doesn't believe in fun. He's probably off to polish Sir James's armor or sharpen his blade or stare at the dirt looking for tracks for a few hours."
He was right. But Ewen was used to their jesting about how seriously he took his duties, so it didn't bother him.
“You might try staring at dirt a little longer, Thom," Robby said. “From what I hear you couldn't find a fish in a barrel."
The others laughed, and Ewen used the opportunity to escape.
A blast of cool, wet air hit him the moment he stepped outside the Hall. It had been raining most of the day, and though it was only late afternoon, the skies were near dark against the backdrop of the magnificent new stone keep perched high on the castle motte. Like Stewart's castle of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute in Cowal, his Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire was one of the most impressive strongholds in Scotland, reflecting the importance of the Stewarts to the crown.
Making his way down the hill to the castle bailey, Ewen stopped first at the armory to check Sir James's armor and weapons, and then, having seen to them, went to the stables to make sure his favorite mount had been exercised. It had, so he pulled a bale of grass over and sat to, as Thom had said, stare at dirt.
It was a game he'd played since he was a boy whenever he needed to get away, to see how many tracks he could find or details he could pick up. In the stable, he liked to see if he could match the tracks with the horses.
“What do you see?"
He turned, surprised to see Sir James in the doorway. The sky was dark behind him, casting him in the shadows. Tall and lean, his dark red hair starting to streak with gray, the hereditary High Steward of Scotland exuded nobility and authority. He was a knight, and as all knights he was good with a sword, but Stewart's true brilliance was as a leader. He was a man whom other men would willingly follow into war—and if necessary, into death.
Immediately, Ewen jumped to his feet. How long had he been in here? “I'm sorry, my lord. Were you looking for me? Is the meeting over? What has been decided?"
The older man shook his head and sat on the bale, motioning for him to sit beside him. “Nothing, I'm afraid. I grew tired of the squabbling and decided I needed a breath of fresh air. I assume you needed the same?"
Ewen bowed his head and concentrated on a long piece of dried grass, not wanting him to see his shame.
“You're looking at the tracks?" Sir James asked.
Ewen nodded, pointing to the hoofprints in the dirt. “I'm trying to find distinguishing marks."
“I hear you bested all my knights at a tracking challenge yesterday. Good work, lad. Keep this up, and you'll be the best tracker in the Highlands."
Sir James's praise meant everything to him, and Ewen was pretty sure it showed. He swelled with pride, not knowing what to say. Unlike Fynlay, words didn't come easily for him.
The silence stretched for a few moments.
“You are not your father, son," Sir James said.
Son. If only it were true! Sir James was everything Fynlay was not: honorable, disciplined, controlled, and thoughtful.
“I hate him," Ewen blurted fiercely, instantly ashamed of the childish sentiment and yet unable to take it back.
One of the best things about Sir James was that he didn't condescend to any of his men—no matter how young. He considered what Ewen said. “I wish you could have known him when he was young. He was different then. Before your mother died and the drink took over."
Ewen's jaw clenched belligerently. “You mean when he abducted my mother from his chief?"
Sir James frowned. “Who told you that?"
He shrugged. “Everyone. My father. It's well known."
“Whatever your father's sins, do not lay that one at his feet. Your mother went with him willingly."
Ewen stared at the other man in shock, but if there was anyone who would know, it was Sir James. Ewen's mother had been his favorite cousin, and he was the man they'd gone to for help when the reprisal for his father's rash actions had come from Malcolm Lamont.
“That is why you helped them," Ewen said. Suddenly it made sense. Ewen had never understood why Sir James had come to his father's rescue and prevented his ruin after he'd started a war by stealing his chief's bride.
“Among other reasons," Sir James said. “Your father's sword, for one. He was—still is—one of the best warriors in the Highlands. You will be like him in that respect, I think. But aye, I wanted your mother to be happy."
Bride abduction was perhaps one less sin to lay at his father's feet, but Fynlay still had plenty of them left. It didn't change the reckless, disloyal act that had broken him from his clan and nearly seen the destruction of the Lamonts of Ardlamont. Nor did it change everything that had come after.
“You shouldn't have allowed him to come," Ewen said. "Not with Malcolm here."
Malcolm Lamont wasn't his chief anymore. His father's actions had caused the Ardlamont Lamonts to break from their chief. They were Stewart's men now.
“There was no choice. Malcolm is my cousin Menteith's man, as your father is mine. Your father has given me his oath he will not break the truce, no matter how hard Malcolm presses him. God knows there is enough disagreement among my kinsmen without the old feud between your father and Malcolm getting in the way."
It was hardly right for Ewen to be questioning his lord, but he asked anyway. “And you trust him?"
Sir James nodded. “I do." He stood. “But come, we should get back. The feast should by dying down by now."
It was, but not for the reason they'd anticipated. They stepped out into the dark rain and heard a loud ruckus coming from the opposite side of the barmkin. It was the sound of cheering, followed by a gasp, and then an eerie dead silence.
“I wonder what that is all about?" Sir James asked.
Ewen felt a flicker of premonition.
All of a sudden men started pouring into the barmkin, racing toward the keep. He could tell by their expressions that something was wrong. “What is it?" Sir James asked the first man to approach. “What has happened?"
Ewen recognized the man as one of Carrick's. “The Lamont chief claimed that no one could climb the cliffs in the rain. Wild Fynlay bet him twenty pounds that he could. He made it to the top, but slipped on the way down and fell onto the rocks below."
Sir James swore. His father had kept his word not to fight, but the challenge had served the same purpose. Tempers were bound to get hot as men would take sides. “Is he dead?" Sir James asked.
“Not yet," the man answered.
A few seconds later, Fynlay's guardsmen entered the barmkin, carrying the body of their chieftain.
At first, Ewen refused to believe this was any different from the hundreds of other times his father had been hurt. But the moment his father's men laid him on a table in the laird's solar behind a wooden partition in the Great Hall, Ewen knew this was the end.
His father's reckless wish for death had come to fruition.
Ewen stood off in the far the corner of the room as first Fynlay's men, and then Sir James, said goodbye.
He could feel his eyes grow hot and hated himself for the weakness, rubbing the back of his hand across them angrily. Fynlay didn't deserve his emotion or his loyalty.
But Fynlay was his father. No matter how wild, irresponsible, and brash, he was his father.
Guilt for his earlier words made Ewen's chest burn. He hadn't meant that he hated him. Not really. He just wanted him to be different.
He would have stayed in the corner, but Sir James called him forward. “Your father wishes to say something to you."
Slowly, Ewen approached the table. The giant warrior whose face so resembled his own looked as if he'd been mashed between two rocks. His body was mangled, broken and crushed. Blood was everywhere. Ewen couldn't believe he was still alive.
He felt his throat grow tighter, anger and frustration washing over him at the prodigious waste.
“You'll make a good chieftain, lad," his father said softly, the deep, booming voice now raspy and weak. “God knows, better than I ever was."
Ewen didn't say anything. What could he say? It was the truth, damn the man for it. He wiped the back of his hand across his eyes again, even angrier.
“Sir James sees great things for you. He will help you. Look to him for guidance and never forget what he has done for us."
As if he could. He and his father didn't agree on much, but on the subject of Sir James they were of one mind: they owed him everything.
Fynlay's voice was growing weaker and weaker, and still Ewen could not speak. Even knowing time was running out, he couldn't find the right words. He'd never known how to give voice to his feelings.
“The best thing I ever did was steal your mother."
“Why do you say that?" Ewen lashed out, the emotion erupting all at once. “Why do you say you took her when you didn't? She came with you willingly."
Fynlay could only manage to lift one side of his mouth; the other side of his face had been bashed in by the rocks. “I don't know what she saw in me." Neither did Ewen. “I think the only irresponsible thing she ever did in her life was fall in love with a barbarian." He coughed uncontrollably, emitting a sickly wet sound as his lungs filled with blood. “She would have been proud of you. You might look like a brute like me, but you are much like her. It tore her apart to disobey her father."
Ewen knew so little of his mother. His father rarely mentioned her. Now, suddenly, when time had run out, he wanted to know everything.
But it was too late. His father was all but gone. The light flickered in Fynlay's eyes. A wild look came over him, and in a final burst of life, he grabbed Ewen's arm. “Promise me you'll finish it for her, lad." Ewen stiffened. He wanted to pretend he didn't understand, but he could not hide the truth from death. “Promise me," his father repeated.
Ewen should have refused. Every time he returned home and saw that half-finished pile of rocks, he wanted to die of shame. It was the reminder of everything his father had done wrong. It was a reminder of everything Ewen didn't want to be.
But somehow he found himself nodding. Duty and loyalty meant something to him, even if they never had to his father.
A moment later, Wild Fynlay Lamont breathed his last breath.
With his father's death, Ewen's time in Sir James's service came to an end. Instead of marching off to Irvine to join Wallace and fight the English, Ewen returned to Ardlamont to bury his father and take over his duties as chieftain.
Sir James told him to be patient. To practice his warrior's skills and make himself ready. When the time came, he would be called upon.
Eight years later, when Robert Bruce made his bid for the throne and handpicked a team of elite warriors for his secret army, Ewen Lamont was the greatest tracker in the Highlands and ready to answer the call.
Coldingham Priory, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, English Marches, Ides of April, 1310
Ewen didn't hold his tongue, which more often than not, caused him problems. “You sent a woman? Why the hell would you do that?"
William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews, bristled, his face red with anger. It wasn't the blasphemy, Ewen knew, but the not-so-subtly implied criticism.
Erik MacSorley, the West Highland chieftain and greatest seafarer south of the land of his Viking ancestors, shot Ewen an impatient glare. “What Lamont meant to say," MacSorley said, attempting to mollify the important prelate, “is that with the English tightening their watch on the local churches, it could be dangerous for the lass."
Not only could MacSorley sail his way through a maelstrom of shite, he could also talk his way out of one and come out smelling like a rose. They couldn't have been more different in that regard. Ewen seemed to step in it wherever he walked. Not that he cared. He was a warrior. He was used to wallowing in muck.
Lamberton gave him a look to suggest that muck was exactly where he thought Ewen belonged—preferably under his heel. The churchman addressed MacSorley, ignoring Ewen altogether. “Sister Genna is more than capable of taking care of herself."
She was a woman—and a nun at that. How in Hades did Lamberton think a sweet, docile innocent could defend herself against English knights bent on uncovering the pro-Scot “couriers of the cloth," as they'd been dubbed?
The church had provided a key communication network for the Scots through the first phase of the war, as Bruce had fought to retake his kingdom. With war on the horizon again, the English were doing their best to shut down those communication routes. Any person of the cloth—priest, friar, or nun—crossing the borders into Scotland had been subject to increased scrutiny by the English patrols. Even pilgrims were being harassed.
Perhaps sensing the direction of his thoughts, Lachlan MacRuairi interjected before Ewen could open his mouth and make it worse with Lamberton. “I thought you knew we were coming?"
The thin, nondescript bishop might look weak, especially compared to the four imposing warriors who were taking up much of the small vestry of the priory, but Lamberton had not defied the greatest king in Christendom to put Robert the Bruce on the throne without considerable strength and courage. He straightened to his full height—a good half-foot under the shortest of the four Guardsmen (Eoin MacLean, at only a few inches over six feet)—and looked down his long, thin nose at one of the most feared men in Scotland, as MacRuairi's war name of Viper attested. “I was told to look for you at the new moon. That was over a week ago."
“We were delayed," MacRuairi said without further explanation.
The bishop didn't ask, probably assuming—correctly—that it had to do with a secret mission for the Highland Guard, the elite group of warriors handpicked by Bruce to form the greatest fighting force ever seen, each warrior the best of the best in his discipline of warfare. “I could not wait any longer. It is imperative that the king receive this message as soon as possible."
Though they were in England, it was not Edward Plantagenet, the English king, of whom Lamberton spoke of, but the Scottish one, Robert Bruce. For Lamberton's efforts in helping Bruce to that throne, the bishop had been imprisoned in England for two years, and then released and confined to the diocese of Durham for two more. Although recently the bishop had been permitted to travel to Scotland, he was back in England under English authority. It was where Bruce needed him. The bishop was the central source for most of the information winding its way to Scotland through the complex roadway of churches, monasteries, and convents.
“Where did she go?" MacLean asked, speaking for the first time.
“Melrose Abbey by way of Kelso. She left a week ago, joining a small group of pilgrims seeking the healing powers of Whithorn Abbey. Even if the English do stop them, they will let her on her way once they hear her accent. What cause would they have to suspect an Italian nun? She is probably already on her way back by now."
The four members of the Highland Guard exchanged glances. If the message was as important as the bishop said, they'd best make sure.
MacSorley, who had command of the small team for this mission, held Ewen's gaze. “Find her."
Ewen nodded, not surprised the task had fallen to him. It was what he did best. He might not be able to sail or talk his way out of a maelstrom like MacSorley, but he could track his way through one. He could hunt almost anything or anyone. MacSorley liked to say Ewen could find a ghost in a snowstorm. One wee nun shouldn't give him too much trouble.
End of Excerpt
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