Free Read Novels Online Home

Outlaw King by Julie Johnstone (1)

Prologue

1296

Northern Scotland

Revolt had its own scent. It was one of burning wood and flesh, fetid wounds and rancid sweat, and it lay heavy in the air. Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, smelled it with every breath he took.

“Rebellion surrounds us,” Laird Niall Campbell said, pride ringing in his voice.

Bright-orange flames leaped into the sky from the destroyed guard towers that flanked the raised drawbridge to Andrew Moray’s castle, which Robert had been commanded to invade. Commanded. The word reverberated in his head, making his temples throb. He glanced to his friend who sat mounted beside him. Perspiration trickled down Robert’s back beneath his battle armor, and the moans of captured men reached his ears. Gut-hollowing guilt choked him. “We’re on the wrong side of the fight,” he said low, acknowledging out loud what they both knew.

Niall hitched a bushy red eyebrow as hope alighted in his eyes. “Dunnae tease me, Robbie,” he whispered, ever careful, though they were far enough away from Richard Og de Burgh that the King of England’s man would not be able to hear them. “Dunnae say such a thing unless ye are ready to disregard yer father’s dictate.”

“I’m ready,” Robert replied, meaning it. The desire to follow his heart and defy his father, who demanded blind obedience to a plan that no longer had worth, had been building for months. Now, in this moment, it felt as if it would cleave him in two, it beat so strongly within him.

The time is not yet ripe to act, his father kept claiming. It was, and it had to be, now. Today. He could not take up arms against his own countrymen. He could no longer submit to his father’s foolish order to remain aligned with King Edward in hope of gaining the Scottish throne, which had been stolen from their family by the usurper John Balliol.

“I’m a Scot, for Christ’s sake,” he muttered.

“Have nae I been reminding ye of that verra fact for nigh a year?” Niall’s hand lay on the hilt of his sword, revealing the danger of what they were about to do.

“Ye have, my friend, ye have,” Robert said, his mind swiftly turning. His father should now rightfully be King of Scots, but instead Robert sat here ordered by the ever-reaching King of England to destroy a stronghold in the land he loved, while his father seemed perfectly content to stay in England amid the comfort of the Bruces’ plush English holdings rather than venture back to the wilds of Scotland to rise against King Edward and risk losing everything. Robert could no longer deny the truth—his father lacked the iron will to do what was right.

War meant blood, strife, and possibly death, but subjugation to an English king was a different sort of death, one of the spirit. He could not live that way. “We’ll no longer be safe if we rise against Edward this day,” he said, accepting it, but wanting to give Niall, who was married and had a daughter, one last chance to change his mind and keep his submission to Edward intact.

Niall snorted. “I thrive on danger.”

God knew that was true enough. Niall had always been right there with Robert at the front of every battle, even on the day the Scot’s daughter had been born. Still…

“We will be hunted,” Robert added.

“Let them try to catch us,” Niall said with a smirk. “The devil English king will nae stop until he sits on the throne of Scotland. He will kill all who continue to rebel, and that includes our people. I’d rather be hunted than aligned with King Edward.”

“We will be outlaws, enemies of Edward.”

“Shut up, Robbie,” Niall growled, using the nickname only those close to him dared use. “Quit trying to dissuade me. Ye need me.”

“I do, but yer wife and yer daughter—”

“My wife will dance a jig when she hears we’ve taken up arms with our countrymen. Dunnae fash yerself. Tell me what ye want me to do.”

Robert contemplated that very question. He needed to be canny and proceed in the best way to protect his men. The wind blew from the west, sending billows of white smoke and heat toward them and de Burgh—the king’s closest friend and advisor—who was mounted on his steed, some thirty paces ahead of them. De Burgh looked away, but Robert faced the wind. He, too, would suffer every hardship he demanded his men to endure, and most of the men who had ridden here on his command were in the path of the smoke. It burned his throat, nose, and eyes, making breathing nearly impossible.

Death by fire would be an awful way to die.

Robert swiped a gloved hand across his watering eyes and focused on the falconry building that stood vulnerable behind them. It was on the wrong side of the moat—the land unprotected by the drawbridge. Counting, his gaze moved over the captured Scots lined up in front of the outbuilding by de Burgh’s men. Twenty of the Scot rebel Andrew Moray’s men would die this day on de Burgh’s command, unless the Moray warriors lowered their drawbridge and sent their laird, a leader of the Scottish uprising against Edward, out. Robert could not allow their deaths or Moray’s.

“Andrew Moray!” de Burgh bellowed toward the castle, which was separated from them by the moat alone. The powerful Irish noble’s accent sounded especially thick with anger. “Lower your drawbridge and surrender, or we’ll burn your men alive.”

Robert’s hands tightened reflexively on his reins as the captured men moaned their protest, only to be silenced by the swords upon their chests, no doubt pricking flesh in warning. There was no more time to ponder. He had to act. These men would not lower the drawbridge.

De Burgh was a fool to think he could ride here from England and command these Scots. They hated Edward for his attempt to put himself on a throne he had no right to occupy. “Ride to the head of my men,” he said to Niall, “and wait for my signal. If I can avoid bloodshed I will.”

“Och,” Niall said, “blood will be shed this day, but it will nae be Scot’s blood.”

“We can nae guarantee that, Niall,” Robert replied.

Niall nodded. “I ken,” he said, his shoulders sagging a bit. “Try to prevent a battle then,” he relented, “but I feel in my bones it’s imminent.”

Robert felt it, too, but he had a responsibility to do all he could to protect his vassals. “Go to the men,” he urged.

With a nod, Niall turned his horse from Robert and headed down the hill toward Robert’s vassals. Three hundred and fifty of his men who were loyal to him stood mixed with three hundred and fifty of the king’s men. Robert clicked his heels against his steed’s side and closed the distance between himself and de Burgh, who flicked his gaze at Robert and then yelled toward the castle, “You do not have long to decide!”

“De Burgh,” Robert growled, “ye can nae burn alive innocent men. They follow Moray’s orders.”

De Burgh jerked his head toward Robert. “Innocent?” he snarled. “These Scots rebel against Edward, their liege lord. They deserve their fate.”

“Edward is nae their liege lord,” Robert said through clenched teeth. “John Balliol was their king.” The words sliding from his tongue were bitter but true.

“They should be glad to see such a weak king as Balliol driven from the throne,” de Burgh retorted.

“Edward’s plan all along, I’m certain,” Robert snapped.

De Burgh flashed a smile. “Your people are the ones who appointed Edward to choose the next king of Scotland, all those years ago, if you recall. And he saw Balliol as the man with the best claim to the throne.”

“He saw Balliol’s weakness, and my grandfather’s strength, and that’s why Edward chose Balliol,” Robert growled.

“You sound as if you wish to rebel,” de Burgh said, smirking. “Where is your father, then?” De Burgh made a show of twisting around on his horse as if searching for Robert’s father before facing Robert once more. His lips curled back in a taunting smile. “Ah yes, your father does not have the fortitude to rule Scotland. If he did, he would have risen in rebellion with the people who would fight against Edward in Balliol’s name. Fall in line with me, Bruce,” de Burgh threatened. “You have no other choice.”

“There’s always a choice,” he spat out, finding the hilt of his sword and flicking his gaze toward Niall and Robert’s vassals some one hundred yards behind them. Robert looked to de Burgh once more and motioned toward the captured men. “Release them.”

“You insolent, foolish pup!” de Burgh growled, spittle flying from his mouth. “Stand down! Moray!” de Burgh roared. “I give you to the count of ten before I order my guards to fill the outbuilding with your men, and we can all watch them burn.”

A window at the front of the castle banged open, and a woman—Lady Moray, Robert realized—appeared. “My husband is nae here, so we kinnae send him out.”

De Burgh snorted. “She expects us to believe Moray did not come here to gather more men?”

“Perhaps he did nae,” Robert said, seeing a chance to prevent bloodshed. “Moray rebels by the renegade William Wallace’s side, and Wallace’s men keep to the woods. Perhaps Moray went there first.”

“I don’t believe it,” de Burgh snapped. To Lady Moray, he shouted, “Lower your bridge. I will see for myself if you speak the truth.”

“Nay, ye Irish scum! Ye simper and cater to the English king!” Lady Moray bellowed.

Robert’s fingers curled tighter around the cool iron of his sword. There would be war today, after all. Lady Moray had just shot an arrow of barbed words at a man who wore his pride like a cloak.

De Burgh’s face turned purple. “Burn them!” he cried, his voice trembling with rage. The two guards standing near the door rushed to open it, and as they did, de Burgh flicked his hand to a slight guard who held the torch. “Set the fire when the door is closed.”

Shouts erupted from the captured warriors, and Robert’s blood rushed through his veins and roared in his ears. His life was about to change forever. But his honor would remain intact. He would rise in rebellion, not for Balliol to be returned to the throne as king, but for the people of Scotland to keep their freedom. He could worry of nothing else now.

The terrified shouts of Moray’s men as they were locked in the falconry pierced the roar of blood in his ears. “Tell yer men to halt,” Robert yelled to de Burgh. “Do so now and take yer leave from Moray’s land, or I’ll kill ye.” His heart beat like a drum.

De Burgh bared his teeth. “You have misplaced your loyalty, Bruce.”

Robert flicked his gaze past de Burgh, over the rocky ground that separated the two of them from the warriors in the distance, to Niall. He raised his right hand and swiveled it round, giving the signal to rebel.

Niall smiled, a flash of white against his sun-bronzed skin. He raised his own hand and returned the signal. They would live or die this day, but they would do it with honor.

Tension vibrated through every part of Robert’s body as he yelled, “To arms for Scotland!”

All at once, the hissing, scraping, sliding, and singing of seven hundred blades filled the air, and the clashing of steel sounded in the distance. A woman’s scream ripped through the noise, shocking Robert by how close it was. De Burgh swung his sword at Robert, but Robert parlayed the blow and unseated de Burgh with one move. With no time to waste, he turned his horse toward the outbuilding, and he gaped at the scene before him. The squire who held the torch was running from de Burgh’s guards and toward Robert. The young man suddenly swerved toward the moat and threw the torch toward it. The bright flame disappeared into the water, and Robert raced to save the man who would likely be killed for his actions.

Robert met the guards halfway to the squire, who was now running back toward him. He parried a blow from the left, then the right, and caught a glimpse of Niall riding fast toward him.

“Release the trapped men!” he yelled to the Campbell, but de Burgh’s warriors descended on his friend, now engaged in a battle for his life.

Behind Robert, the loud grating of the drawbridge being lowered stilled all motion for a moment. God’s teeth! Surely, Lady Moray was not lowering it in surrender. Within a breath, the thundering of hundreds of horses’ hooves against the wooden bridge set a buzz in the air that vibrated into Robert’s very bones.

When he glanced around for the squire, he saw nothing but English knights heading toward him. He raised his sword in defense of an oncoming hit, knocked the blade out of the knight’s hand, and nudged his mount out of the way of another Englishman. It turned him directly toward the bridge where Lady Moray herself came riding out, her red hair billowing behind her as she led her husband’s warriors in a charge. They appeared to number almost two hundred, not near enough that they could have withstood an attack from the combined forces of the Bruce men and the English garrison, but they had more than enough to overcome the English if the lady intended to join forces with Robert. But did she?

As she rode, she shouted, “Free our men. Free our men! Someone free our men!”

Robert swept his gaze back to the outbuilding, and the breath was snatched from his chest. The young squire had somehow managed to get to the outbuilding. Niall was there, as well, along with six more of Robert’s men. They held the English guards back, but one broke free and raised his sword to strike down the squire as he stepped toward the door and seemed to be opening it. Robert ripped his dagger from its sheath and flung it with all his might toward the knight. The dagger pierced the man’s hand as he was bringing his sword down and he dropped his weapon. The squire, who’d turned toward his attacker, eyes wide with fear, twisted back around to the door and slung it open. Moray’s men poured out, weaponless.

Robert unhooked his shield from his saddle, and then dismounted amid the chaos, his sword in one hand and his shield in the other. He raced toward the stumbling Moray men and the squire, parrying blows as he went. When he reached the boy, a call to fire at the lad and the Moray men went out from de Burgh. Cursing, Robert looked to his right to find that a line of knights had covered the distance from the scrimmage below to the castle, and they were lined up to shoot. Robert shoved the boy behind him, as a volley of arrows flew through the air. They clanked against his shield.

“Again!” de Burgh shouted, clearly not caring if he struck down his own men.

Robert moved to shield the boy once more, but the squire stepped out from behind Robert and ripped off his helmet. Long blond hair tumbled out over his—no, her—shoulders. Robert could do no more than stare in shock at de Burgh’s daughter, Elizabeth de Burgh. Her clear blue gaze met his for a brief moment.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” came de Burgh’s frantic call.

The chit’s eyes, bluer than any Robert had ever beheld, widened with what appeared to be shock. Had she thought her father may not save her?

She turned to Robert. “Thank you for your aid, my lord.” The words tumbled from her mouth in a rush, and then to Robert’s surprise, she dashed, as graceful as a deer fleeing a predator, past him and toward her father.

Robert stood dumbfounded for a moment at the young chit he’d seen at court but had never met. One of his men lunged toward her, and Robert shouted, “Leave her!”

She raced through the melee, surprisingly agile and quick, and she managed to reach her father unscathed. At once, she was snatched up by the hand she stretched toward her father and slung on the back of the destrier he had mounted once again.

Lady Moray and her husband’s warriors came into the fray of the battle that was now moving ever closer. English arrows flew toward them. She raised a hand as she raced forward, and Robert looked to the rampart of the castle, relieved to see four dozen or so bowmen. Within a breath, more arrows soared through the air, but this time toward the knights lined up to shoot at her. As she reached Robert, he said, “My lady, I would stand in defense of yer home if ye will allow me to.”

She arched her eyebrows over glittering gray eyes. “It’s about time a Bruce came to his senses,” she said with a nod. “I’ll fight alongside ye, for this day ye have saved many Moray lives.”

Robert glanced around at the already fallen men from both sides and made a decision. “De Burgh!” he bellowed, before any more casualties came to pass. “The Moray men fight with me. Stand down and leave, or be prepared to die.”

De Burgh twisted his mount toward Robert while calling an order to his men to hold, and Robert did the same to his and Lady Moray’s men. De Burgh was an astute man. He had to see he was outnumbered and that the best option would be to flee as Robert had graciously offered to allow.

“I name you traitor, Bruce, and I’ll inform King Edward of your treachery.”

“I can nae be a traitor to a man I do nae call king!” Robert reminded de Burgh. A roar of approval arose from his men and the Moray men alike.

A command to his men to depart was the answer from de Burgh, and the English garrison quickly complied, taking their mounts and turning to ride out. As Robert watched them leave, Elizabeth de Burgh twisted in the saddle, her unwavering gaze meeting his.

Beside him, Lady Moray spoke. “That girl forever has my debt. I pray the punishment for her deeds this day is not too grave.”

Robert nodded. Elizabeth de Burgh had mettle, that much was certain. It would remain to be seen if it was beaten out of her after today.

“What will ye do now?” Lady Moray asked.

Robert thought briefly of his father ensconced in Durham at one of their English manors. He would need to send a messenger to give his father fair warning of what had occurred this day. What he did with that information was on his head.

“My lord?” Lady Moray said.

He caught the lady’s inquisitive gaze. “I’ll send word to my father of my actions—”

“Honorable actions,” she said, reaching out and squeezing his forearm.

He inclined his head in gratitude, certain his father would not feel the same. Swallowing a sudden swell of emotion for the rift he had placed between himself and his father this day, he said, “Then I’ll ride to Hugh Eglinton’s castle. I’ve received word that the nobility leading the rebellion have been given safe haven there to meet and plan, and amongst the party is also William Wallace.”

Lady Moray’s eyebrows arched. She bit her lip for a moment then spoke. “Ye ken many of those men fight in the name of Balliol. They fight for his return to the throne.”

“Aye,” Robert replied. “But Balliol abdicated and I have heard that the Comyns”—saying the name of his family’s bitter enemies, who years before had used their great power to put their cousin Balliol on the throne instead of Robert’s grandfather, always made Robert’s throat tighten—“are imprisoned by Edward. I go to fight for Scotland, as I did this day.”

She nodded. “I pray for ye that it will be enough to see ye well.”

“I’ll gladly take yer prayers,” he replied, sensing deep within that he would need them.

“I’ll send a messenger ahead of ye with word of yer deeds for me to my husband who is at Eglinton Castle,” she revealed with a secretive smile. “That way, ye are more likely to keep yer head when ye approach the Scots. Many think ye a traitor.”

“I know it well,” Robert said, “but I will face it and prove them wrong. Do nae risk yer man.”

“I owe ye,” she whispered fiercely. “Ye saved my men. I will pay my debt by hopefully saving yer life when ye approach Eglinton. Grant!” Lady Moray bellowed and within a breath a young Scottish warrior appeared. Lady Moray smiled at the young man mounted beside her. “Grant rides like the wind. He should reach the castle before yer large gathering of vassals.” Robert inclined his head at her words. To Grant, she said, “Ride to yer laird. Take word of Bruce’s actions here today, and tell my husband, Bruce is our friend.”

“I will, my lady,” the warrior said, before turning his horse and galloping away. They watched him in silence for a moment before Lady Moray spoke again. “Dunnae tarry, Bruce. Scotland needs yer fighting strength. Ride hard.”

“I vow it!” he swore, turned from Lady Moray, and gave the signal for his men to follow suit. Niall brought his horse beside Robert’s and together they led the men away from Moray’s castle. As they did, Robert felt Niall’s steady gaze upon him. “What is it?” Robert finally asked.

“Please tell me this means we dunnae ever have to go back to the English court and pretend to admire the English king nor like English food.”

Robert chuckled, some of the tension unknotting from his shoulders. “God willing. Niall, I will ride to Eglinton with my men to join the rebellion. Are ye certain ye wish to ride with me? What of yer clan, yer wife, yer daughter?”

“My clan is secure under my brother’s care in my absence. As for my wife and daughter, it is thanks to ye that my daughter is alive. Dunnae think I’ve ever forgotten, nor has Calissa, how ye saved our Brianna when those English knights captured her. She is safe at home with her mother now, and I will stay with ye and fight for our land and to free our people.”

“If ye ride with me, ye may ride to yer death,” Robert said, his tone grave.

“I’ve ridden next to ye since we were young and trained together at the Earl of Mar’s castle, Robbie. If I’m to ride to my death, there is nae anyone I’d rather be beside, but I think we ride to freedom. Let us see it together, aye?”

“Aye,” Robert agreed. There would be no changing Niall’s mind, and Robert both appreciated his friend’s loyalty and feared for him. But Niall’s decision was set, and there were no arguments left to be made, so Robert urged his steed into a gallop to which his men matched their pace.

They rode relentlessly through the remains of the day, over hard terrain, under the baking sun, and into the early evening hours. When he finally spotted Eglinton Castle in the distance, he ordered the party to halt and turned to Niall. “I’ll venture up alone,” he announced, determined to protect Niall should the other Scottish nobility greet them with swords and wish to fight, despite Lady Moray sending word. Many saw them as traitors, thanks to his father’s orders to continue obeying Edward even when the Scottish nobility started to rebel against his rule, and Robert was not convinced Lady Moray’s words would have much effect on those who distrusted him.

“The devil ye will,” Niall replied, his tone hard. “I’m nae going to linger back here with the men and let ye get all the glory. I’ll go with ye, thank ye. All those who dared to call us traitors will ken the part I played in striking against de Burgh and, therefore, the English king.”

Robert opened his mouth to argue and then promptly shut it. It would do no good. “Ye’re as stubborn as a goat,” he grumbled instead. “And I do nae have time to mince words with ye. Come along.”

Niall chuckled as they moved their horses down the path that wound up to the castle gates. As they rode, Niall said, “It’s heartening to see that ye have finally learned I’m the stronger of the two of us.”

“If ye think I’d ever believe that,” Robert teased, “ye must have hit yer head.”

“Name yerself,” a guard bellowed, interrupting their banter as they approached the gate.

“Robert the Bruce.”

“Laird Niall Campbell,” Niall added.

“The turncoat arrives,” the guard hissed.

It was as Robert had expected. He whipped his sword up to the man’s throat. “I’m nae a turncoat. My family did nae support Balliol, but that does nae mean I will nae fight for Scotland against Edward.”

“Come along, then,” the guard relented in a begrudging tone. “The others will decide if ye should keep yer head.”

“Everyone always wants my head,” Robert said lightheartedly, “yet it still sits upon my shoulders.”

Niall chuckled, and the guard glared at the two of them. He guided them up the stone steps, past more guards, and into the torchlit castle. Silence blanketed much of the estate at such a late hour, but muffled voices drifted from down a dark corridor. A flicker of light flamed at the end. The guard stopped and motioned toward it. “The leaders of the rebellion are in the great hall discussing strategy.”

Robert nodded, and he and Niall fell into step behind the guard once more. As they made their way down the corridor, the voices coming from the great hall grew louder and more distinct.

“I’m nae going to risk my life to put Bruce on the throne!” someone bellowed.

Robert flinched, knowing they were referring to his father. The guard who was with them snickered, and Robert glared the man into silence.

“Bruce is the rightful claimant,” came another voice.

“Bah! Bruce swore fealty to Edward as overlord of Scotland!”

“Ye ken he did that to avoid swearing allegiance to Balliol!” someone else shouted.

“Where is he, then?” the other man thundered. “Balliol has abdicated, and Bruce the elder does nae return to Scotland to help us stop Edward. What does he do instead? He sits in his lavish English estate! He has no backbone to rebel! Let us look to John Comyn to lead us in Balliol’s absence. He has managed to escape the imprisonment that befell many in his family.”

Their words were like harsh blows to Robert’s chest. John “the Red” Comyn came from one of the most powerful families in Scotland—Robert’s being the other—and that was the heart of the conflict between his family and the Comyns. The Comyns wanted all the power, including the throne, but not for the good of Scotland—for greed. Comyn cared for the rebellion only insomuch as he wished to protect his vast estates and current power. He did not truly care for the people and their freedom.

Robert gritted his teeth. He would have to fight beside a man who wanted to destroy him in order to save the land he loved. He shoved the guard out of the way, but a hand came to his arm. He turned to find Niall staring at him. “I’ll nae bend the knee to a Comyn,” Niall said. “Ye ken as well as I do that they will do all they can to gain the throne if there is nae any hope to return Balliol to it.”

Robert nodded. “We will fight for Scotland.” He didn’t say that he hoped his father would join them, though the hope lingered.

Suddenly, the door was flung open, and a giant of a man appeared at the threshold. He had to duck to exit the great hall. He strode toward Robert and Niall, his boots thudding against the floor. He stopped in front of them and smiled, a genuine expression that reached his clear blue eyes and made them crinkle at the edges. “I thought I heard a noise out here,” he said in a deep, friendly voice.

“Ye heard us despite all the commotion within?” Robert asked, exchanging a quick glance with Niall.

“Aye.” The Scot nodded as he scratched at his russet beard. “I’ve had to learn to listen carefully, especially when surrounded by chaos. ’Tis how I still survive though the English hunt me. I’m William Wallace of Elderslie.”

“We’ve heard of ye,” Niall replied. “I’m sorry to hear about yer wife.”

Grief swept over Wallace’s face for the space of a breath before murderous rage replaced it. “I thank ye. The English are suffering for the murder of my wife and will continue to do so. And ye are?” His curious gaze took in both Robert and Niall.

“Niall Campbell.”

“Carrick,” Robert said, giving only his title, as was customary.

“Ah, Bruce,” Wallace said, ignoring the given title. “Word of yer deeds have been brought to us by a messenger from Lady Moray.”

Robert nodded and Wallace grinned. “Seems ye made a friend in the lady and she thought to save yer head should anyone want to take it off.” He gazed intently at Robert. “Why have ye come here to us?”

“To help retain Scotland’s freedom, just as ye, Wallace.” Wallace looked unconvinced, so Robert added, “I’ve heard some things about ye as well.”

“Aye? What do they say?” he asked, a twinkle in his eyes.

“That ye fight like a brute beast.”

Wallace chuckled. “How would ye have me fight?”

“To win,” Robert replied easily enough.

Wallace set a large hand on Robert’s shoulder. “I do believe ye are the first noble I’ve met that I have actually liked,” Wallace said, winking at Robert. “Let us see if my opinion is enough to keep yer head on yer shoulders.”

Robert nodded and fell into step with Niall by his side behind Wallace. Wallace entered the room of disagreeing Scottish nobles and rebels, and when Robert and Niall followed all arguing ceased, chairs scraped, and the singing of swords being unsheathed filled the air.

England

Elizabeth pressed her hands against the cold glass of her bedchamber window, which overlooked the beautiful gardens at the king’s court. Her breath caught when her father and the king turned to look up at her as one. She scurried back from the window and bumped into the table behind her. The vase teetered, and she lunged for it, catching it before it hit the floor. But her foot slid out in front of her, and she went down with a hard thud, the breath whooshing out of her and the water in the vase spilling down the front of her gown.

She sat there with her bottom pulsing in pain, and her mind awhirl with horrid possibilities about what punishment the king was demanding her father dole out after what she’d done at the Morays’ castle. Banishment from her parents, her brothers, and her sisters to some remote place? A nunnery for life? She shuddered. She may only be twelve summers, as her mother and older sister always loved to remind her, but she did know some things, contrary to what they seemed to believe. She understood fully that she had far too much zest for life to spend hers in a nunnery or someday be a docile wife, for that matter. She inhaled a long breath and tried to slow her racing heart. Her father loved her. He would reason with the king. He would protect her.

Wouldn’t he?

Worry niggled at her as she set down the vase beside her and drew her legs to her chest, shivering with a chill of which she could not seem to rid herself. The memory of her father giving the order to burn men alive filled her mind. There had to be some explanation. There simply had to be. Because if there was not, then her father was not the man she believed him to be. And if he was not good and honorable, then how could she trust he’d protect her?

Still quivering, she set her palms to the cold, wet floor and scooted over enough to see in the slash of sunlight coming through the window. She could recall her father’s face just before he had locked her in this bedchamber, and the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Never had she seen such rage from him. He’d been nearly purple and unable to speak, and it said a great deal that he had not come to see her even once in the past sennight, nor had he allowed her out of her bedchamber. She had thought he would have by now. In fact, she had been sure he would visit so he could tell her he was vexed, very vexed, but that he loved her and had been compelled somehow to give the horrific order to burn the men.

She twined her hair around her finger, her agitation increasing. She was not sure how much longer she could endure being locked in here alone. The only person she had seen since returning to the king’s court was the chambermaid who brought a tray of food three times a day and emptied the chamber pot. She let out a ragged sigh. Perhaps she should be grateful she was being fed. She began to rock back and forth, going through the events that had led her to disguise herself as a squire and ride out with her father, his men, and Lord Carrick, Robert the Bruce.

It had been two things truly. She’d been irritated that her father had dismissed her request to ride with him that day so completely, loudly, and publicly. She’d not known the “mission,” but she had known she wanted to be part of it, and she could not see why she should not. Father had always allowed her to do things other girls did not. She rode as a man did, she spoke her mind, and she had even accompanied her father and his men on hunts.

The other compelling factor had been Lord Carrick himself. She had not met him, though the young man had been at court for some time. He was always surrounded by other lords and lavishly dressed women batting their eyelashes at him, but it was the way his dark gaze looked through the ladies and the simpering lords as if they were not there—or perhaps as if he wished to be anywhere but there himself—that intrigued her so. Once she had overheard her father tell the king that Bruce concerned him. He feared the young lord harbored secret compassion for the wretched Scots’ cause. Those words had burrowed into her heart, for she secretly thought that it was wrong of her godfather to try to make himself king of a land to which he had not been born, to a people who did not want him as their king. She did not dare utter such a thing out loud, of course; even she knew it was foolish to always speak one’s mind.

A soft tap came at the door followed by, “Elizabeth?” in a low, worried murmur.

Elizabeth jumped to her feet at her cousin’s voice, nearly slipping in her haste. “Lillianna!” she cried out, pressing her palms to the thick, dark wood of the door. Never had she been so happy to hear her dearest friend’s voice.

Lillianna was more of a sister to Elizabeth than her three true sisters were. Lillianna was the only female Elizabeth knew who shared her leanings toward things that were considered restricted for women—riding as a man, archery, swimming, and learning more than how to embroider and select food for supper. Her cousin also was an excellent eavesdropper, a talent she’d taught Elizabeth when Lillianna had come to live with them two years ago after the death of her mother.

“I’m so glad to hear your voice!” Elizabeth said. “What news do you bring? Is it terrible? Am I to be banished? What did you learn?”

“Not very much, I’m afraid,” Lillianna moaned. “Whatever has been decided about your fate has thus far been discussed behind doors too thick for eavesdropping. I’m not even supposed to be here. Your mother and father expressly forbade me from coming to see you, and Aveline has been trailing me, keeping watch.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes at her older sister Aveline being her usual perfectly awful self. “How did you manage to escape her?”

Lillianna snickered. “I told her Guy de Beauchamp wished to see her in the solar.”

“Oh, Lillianna!” Elizabeth laughed, feeling so grateful for her cousin and only true friend. “Aveline will be livid when she learns you tricked her. She has a tendre for Lord de Beauchamp. Though I cannot see why. There is something about him that unsettles me.”

“Perhaps it’s the way he is always staring at you as if you are a great treasure he wishes to add to his collection when you become of age,” Lillianna said sarcastically.

“I will never marry a man such as Guy de Beauchamp,” Elizabeth vowed. “I don’t care if he is one of the wealthiest lords in the land. Aveline can have him!”

“As if you will have a choice of who you marry.” Sadness blanketed Lillianna’s voice.

Elizabeth wished she could hug her cousin. “Are you thinking of your mother and father?”

“Yes,” Lillianna said, her tone hushed. “I will likely be forced to wed, just as my mother was forced to wed my father. And look how that turned out.”

Elizabeth bit her lip as agitation roiled within her. Uncle Brice had beaten Aunt Kara for supposedly being unfaithful, and she had died from the beating. But Elizabeth knew, as everyone in the family did, that Uncle Brice had really killed Aunt Kara because of a long-festering rage that her aunt did not love her uncle.

It was not even that Uncle Brice had loved Aunt Kara and wanted the affection returned. He had only married Aunt Kara because she had been a seer, and he had wanted to know the future. But she had lost her abilities when the man she had truly loved had betrayed her. According to legend, a seer like Aunt Kara only had the power of sight when she was in love, so when she couldn’t be made to love Uncle Brice, her power did not return and he had never forgiven her. No one truly knew what had finally made him snap and kill Aunt Kara after so many years, but he had. Yet being a powerful lord, he had gone unpunished for the death of a simple Scottish lass.

Elizabeth inhaled deeply, burying the worry that was trying to rise. She had enough to be concerned about and the problem of one day being forced to wed against her will was at least several years off. “We shall both use our very clever minds to come up with a plot to marry men of our own choosing. We will aid each other!”

“You are so naive and hopeful, Elizabeth. ’Tis one of the reasons I adore you so. I cannot linger, though I wish I could. I came to warn you that your mother is coming to see you today.”

Elizabeth tensed. Her mother never had a kind word for her, only criticism, and Elizabeth could only imagine what she would say about ignoring her father’s orders. Likely, she was livid. Not out of care for Elizabeth, of course, but over being embarrassed at court by Elizabeth’s actions. “You better depart, then. I’d not want Mother to take out her vexation with me on you.” And her mother would; Lillianna knew this. Mother cared for Lillianna even less than she did Elizabeth, which was barely at all. Elizabeth felt sure her cousin had only been permitted to come live with them because it had made Mother look charitable and warm-hearted.

“I’ll return tonight if I’m able,” Lillianna said.

“Only if it’s safe. I don’t want you bringing trouble to yourself on my account.”

“I’ll be careful,” Lillianna promised, then the tap of her footsteps fell on the floor.

Elizabeth stood there listening until the sound of Lillianna’s departure faded. Silence descended momentarily but was broken once more by the tap of shoes upon the floor. She sucked in a sharp breath, fearing it was her mother. She hoped Lillianna had not been seen.

A distinct jangling of keys and the clink of a lock made Elizabeth’s heart race. The door opened, and her mother, looking perfectly coiffed and richly garbed, stepped into the room. Blue eyes that she’d been told a thousand times were the same color as hers narrowed on Elizabeth. “You cannot depart this room looking like that.”

Her mother’s unfriendly tone made her clench her teeth, but the news that she was to depart hit her like a ray of hope. “I’m to be released? I’m forgiven?”

“Forgiven?” Sarcasm laced Mother’s words. She stepped in front of Elizabeth, close enough that she got a full whiff of the pungent oil her mother liked to wear. “You are not forgiven. You are lucky to still have your head, you silly, willful girl!”

The slap came fast and hard, leaving a sting that brought tears to Elizabeth’s eyes.

“Marietta!” Elizabeth’s father boomed from the doorway. “Don’t raise your hand to Elizabeth again!” Relief flowed through Elizabeth, but as her father settled his dark, unfriendly gaze on her, it vanished. “She has to be taken through the great hall to depart, and I’ll not have anyone seeing her skin marred with red welts that will remind them of her deed.”

“She is the talk of the court!” her mother wailed. “Let them see we punished her!”

Elizabeth’s stomach knotted at her mother’s words.

“Clearly, you have not been in the great hall this morning,” her father said to her mother. “Elizabeth’s deed is no longer on everyone’s lips. Bruce is the talk of the court now.” His voice was lethal. “It seems he left the rebel Moray’s castle and rode from there to join the other Scottish lords and renegades to rise against Edward.”

“Pity,” her mother murmured. “I had a hope to marry Aveline to Bruce but that won’t do now. He’ll lose his estates for certain.”

Her father frowned. “I have a marriage in mind for Aveline already, so don’t vex yourself. Now, wait outside. I wish to speak with Elizabeth alone.”

“Richard,” her mother exclaimed, “you promised me I would have charge of her now!”

The news made Elizabeth cringe.

“Woman!” her father roared. “You will, but you will have it after I have spoken to her.”

Her mother, eyes wide and no doubt sensing she had pushed Father as far as he would be pushed, backed out of the room, shutting the door as she left.

Elizabeth pressed her back against the wall, wishing she could disappear into it.

Her father’s eyes seemed to harden as he looked at her. “You have made a fool of me.”

Elizabeth clenched her hands. “Father, no. I—”

“Silence!” The word whipped across the space and hit her just as hard as her mother had.

She flinched away from him and fisted the slick material of her gown in her hands.

Her father’s gaze raked over her. “I always had a particular tendre for you, so I gave indulgences I did not with your brothers and sisters, ones I should not have allowed.”

Color rose in his cheeks as he spoke, and Elizabeth stared at the rosy bloom that spread down his neck. Father saying that he’d had a particular tendre for her echoed in her mind. Had she destroyed his love for her, then? Her belly felt suddenly hollow.

He swiped a hand across his red beard, tugging at the ends. “Your mother warned me that I was ruining you, making you into the opposite of what a lady should be—willful, too curious, wild—but I told her to mind her place.” He shook his head. “I let you linger when I should have sent you away, and because of my weakness, you believe you can do as you please!” He banged a fist into his open palm. “You—” He pointed a finger at her. “You seem to think you have a place at the table of men!” His hand gripped her chin so swiftly she gasped. “I tell you now, you do not. You are a girl and will grow to be a lady, obedient and lovely, and you will learn that your purpose is to serve my house as I command for the furthering of the family. Do you understand me?”

She fought against the tremor in her body. She understood. Her importance to him lay only with what wealth or connections she could bring to the family one day, just as Aveline had always claimed. Elizabeth had not believed it until now. What a fool she’d been! She had no freedom, only the rights her father gave to her. Did he feel no true affection for her? Was there no explanation for the order he had given that day? Her mind spun, making her stomach clench.

Her father squeezed her chin. “Do. You. Understand?”

She stared at the pulsing vein near his right eye. She knew she ought to respond immediately, yet such worry coursed through her, she could not make herself speak, even knowing her silence would have grave repercussions.

“Elizabeth,” he hissed, his color rising again. “Your head is currently on your shoulders because I convinced the king that you could be useful to him eventually. Should I tell him otherwise?”

The king? Her father had convinced Edward that she would be useful to him? But how? Gooseflesh swept down her arms as her father’s fingers curled even deeper into her skin. “No,” she managed to choke out.

“Good.” He released her chin, and she rocked back from him, desperately wanting to rub her aching skin. Instead, she forced herself to fold her hands together and prayed she appeared calm.

Silence stretched between them, and he watched her steadily before he smiled. “You are stubborn and prideful, and you don’t know your place. But you will learn it. By God you will.” He grabbed her suddenly by the arm, half dragged her across the room, flung open the door, and shoved her toward her mother. “Take her home to Ireland, and make her into a lady who will benefit this family.”

The anger and hurt deep inside Elizabeth burst within her and overcame her fear. “You would have burned men alive to keep the king’s esteem,” she accused with a desperate hope that he would deny it.

“Yes,” he replied, his wintry voice and open acceptance of the awful truth making her feel as if her legs would buckle. She placed a steadying hand on the wall as the floor beneath her seemed to sway. “Do you think I became this rich and powerful without aiding men such as the king when they request a favor?” he demanded.

“Favor?” She heard herself gasp, yet her voice seemed very far away. Her ears rang horribly. “How can you call a request to burn men alive a favor?”

Her father’s nostrils flared, and she tensed, fearing he would strike her. But he inhaled a deep breath and said, “I cannot allow anyone to defy me. Ever. Including you. You’d do well not to forget it, Daughter.”

She would not forget. As much as it pained her, she would hold close the memory that her father had traded his honor for the king’s continued support and the wealth it would bring. Never would she marry a man who would do such a thing.

Search

Friend:

Popular Free Online Books

Read books online free novels

Hot Authors

Sam Crescent, Flora Ferrari, Zoe Chant, Mia Madison, Alexa Riley, Lexy Timms, Claire Adams, Sophie Stern, Elizabeth Lennox, Leslie North, Amy Brent, Frankie Love, C.M. Steele, Bella Forrest, Jordan Silver, Jenika Snow, Dale Mayer, Madison Faye, Mia Ford, Kathi S. Barton, Michelle Love, Delilah Devlin, Sloane Meyers, Piper Davenport, Sawyer Bennett,

Random Novels

Lucky Stars ~ Kristen Ashley by Kristen Ashley

Pearson (Four Fathers Book 3) by K Webster

Billionaire Single Dad's Babysitter: An Older Man Younger Woman Office Romance (A Man Who Knows What He Wants Book 35) by Flora Ferrari

Forbidden Wolf (Aspen Valley Wolf Pack Book 8) by Amber Ella Monroe

Seth by VA Dold

The Boardroom: Kirk (The Billionaires of Torver Corporation Book 2) by A.J. Wynter

The Masterpiece by Francine Rivers

After the Fall: Seven Winds, #2 (Seven Winds Series) by Katy Ames

Burn For Me: A MFM Romance (The Banks Sisters Book 3) by Aja Cole

Paranormal Dating Agency: Claimed by Her Polar Bears (Kindle Worlds Novella) (Claimed Mates Book 4) by Kate Richards

Station Commander's Surrogate: Olympus Station #1 (In The Stars) by Aurelia Skye, Kit Tunstall

Packaged Husband (Trophy Husbands, #3) by Noelle Adams

Roman (Bratva Blood Brothers Book 5) by K.J. Dahlen

The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

Unraveled By Blood, A Sweetblood World Vampire Romance by Laurie London

SEAL the Deal (Hot SEALs) by Cat Johnson

Heartbreakers by Ali Novak

Still Not Into You: An Enemies to Lovers Romance by Snow, Nicole

SAVING GRACE: GODS OF CHAOS MC (BOOK SIX) by Honey Palomino

Diesel (Dead Souls MC Book 5) by Savannah Rylan