Now King Hobbe [Hood] gangeth in the moors,
To come to town he has no desire;
The barons of England if they might gripe him,
They would teach him to pipe in English,
Be he never so stout,
Yet he is sought out
Wide and far.
The Political Songs of England, translated by Thomas Wright
Rathlin Island, three miles off the north coast of Ireland
Ides of September, 1306
Robert Bruce closed his eyes like a coward, not a king, wanting to make it stop. But the images still assaulted him, flashing before his eyes like the scenes of a nightmare.
Swords whirling and clashing in an endless wave of death. Arrows pouring from the sky in a heavy hail, turning day to night. The fierce pounding of hooves as the enormous English warhorses crushed everything in their path. The silvery shimmer of mail turned dark with blood and mud. The horror and fear on the faces of his loyal companions as they faced death. And the smell … the hideous blending of blood, sweat, and sickness that penetrated his nose, his lungs, his bones.
He covered his ears with his hands. But the howls and screams of death could not be blocked out.
For a moment he was back at the bloody battlefield of Methven. Back to the place where everything had gone so horribly wrong. Where chivalry had nearly killed him.
But it wasn’t a nightmare. Bruce opened his eyes, not to Edward of England’s wrath, but to God’s. The clash was not of swords but of lightning. The hail from the sky was not of arrows but of icy rain. The horrible howling was not screams of death but of wind. And the incessant pounding was not of hooves but of the drum of the coxswain’s hammer on the targe to set the beat of the oarsmen.
But the fear … the fear was the same. He could see it on the faces of the men around him. The knowledge they were all about to die. Not on a bloody battlefield, but on a godforsaken ship in the middle of the storm-tossed sea, while fleeing like outlaws from his own kingdom.
“King Hood” the English called him. The outlaw king. All the more humiliating for its truth. Fewer than a hundred men in two birlinns remained of the proud force he once thought capable of taking down the most powerful army in Christendom.
Now look at them. Less than six months after his coronation, they were a ragtag bunch of outlaws huddled together on a storm-tossed ship, some too ill to do more than hang on, others shivering and white with fear as they bailed for their lives.
Except for the Highlanders. Bruce didn’t think they would recognize fear if Lucifer himself opened the fiery gates and welcomed them to hell.
And no one was more fearless than the man charged with the task of their survival. Standing at the stern with rain streaming down his face and gale-force winds whipping around him, fighting to harness the ropes of the sail, he looked like some kind of pagan sea god eager to do battle with whatever nature threw at him.
If anyone could get them through this it was Erik MacSorley—or Hawk, as he was known since joining the Highland Guard, Bruce’s secret elite team of the most highly skilled warriors in the country. The brash seafarer had been chosen for his swimming and sailing skills, but he had bollocks the size of boulders. He seemed to relish every challenge, no matter how impossible.
This morning MacSorley had snuck them out of Dunaverty Castle right under the nose of the English army. Now, he was attempting to cross the narrow sixteen-mile channel between Kintyre in Scotland and the coast of Ireland in the worst storm Bruce had ever seen.
“Hold tight, lads,” the fierce chieftain shouted above the roar of the storm, grinning like a madman. “This is going to be a big one.”
Like most Highlanders, MacSorley had a gift for understatement.
Bruce held his breath as the wind took hold of the sail, lifting the ship as if it weighed no more than a child’s toy, carrying them over steep, towering waves, and slamming them down on the other side. For one agonizing heartbeat, the ship tilted perilously to the side, and he thought this was it—this was the time the ship would finally go over. But once again, the seafarer defied the laws of nature with a quick adjustment of the ropes and the ship popped back upright.
But not for long.
The storm came at them again with all it had. Wave after wave like high, steep cliffs that threatened to capsize them with every crashing swell, violent winds that battered the sails and swirled the seas, and heavy sheets of rain that filled the hull faster than they could bail. His heart plummeted with each creak and crack as the violent seas battered the wooden ship, making him wonder whether this would be the wave that broke them apart and put him out of his misery.
I never should have done it. I never should have gone up against the might of England and its powerful king. In the real world, David didn’t beat Goliath. In the real world, David got crushed.
Or ended up dead at the bottom of a stormy sea.
But the Highlander wasn’t ready to concede defeat. He stood confidently at the helm, just as unrelenting as the storm, never once giving any indication that he would not get them out of this. Yet it was a contest of wills he could not hope to win. The strength of nature was too much, even for the half-Gael, half-Norse descendant of the greatest pirates the world had ever seen: the Vikings.
Bruce heard a bloodcurdling crack, an instant before the seafarer’s voice rang out, “Watch out … !”
But it was too late.
He glanced up just in time to see part of the mast barreling toward him.
Bruce opened his eyes to darkness. For a moment, he thought he was in hell. All he could see above his head was a wall of jagged black stones, glistening with dampness. A sound to the left drew his attention. Turning, pain exploded in his head like a hail of knife-edged stars.
When his vision cleared, he could see movement. Men—his men—were trudging up the rocky shore, collapsing at the arched entrance of what appeared to be a sea-cave.
Not dead after all.
He didn’t know whether to be grateful. A watery death might be preferable to the one Edward had in store for him if he caught up to them.
This is what it had come to. His kingdom had been reduced to the dank, black hall of a sea-cave.
A movement a few inches above his head told him that he might find even his claim to this wretched kingdom contested. A big, black spider lurked on the wall above him. She seemed to be making a futile attempt to jump from one rocky ledge to another, but unable to grip the slick surface, she slid off and dangled by a single silken thread, swaying helplessly back and forth in the wind. Over and over she tried to build her web and failed, doomed to failure.
He knew the feeling.
He’d thought it couldn’t get any worse than two devastating defeats on the battlefield, seeing his friends and supporters captured, being forced to separate from his wife, and fleeing his kingdom in disgrace. He should have known better. Nature had nearly succeeded in wielding the final death blow where the English army had failed.
But once again he’d cheated the devil his due, this time thanks to the death-defying seafaring skills of MacSorley. Like the spider, these Highlanders didn’t know when to give up.
But he did.
He was finished. The sea might have spared them for now, but his cause was lost, and with it, Scotland’s chance for freedom from the yoke of English tyranny.
If he’d listened to the counsel of his guard at Methven, it might have been different. But stubbornly holding to his knightly code of chivalry, Bruce had ignored their advice and agreed to Sir Aymer de Valence’s promise to wait until morning to start the battle. The treacherous English commander had broken his word and attacked in the middle of the night. They’d been routed. Many of his greatest supporters and friends had been killed or captured.
Chivalry was truly dead. Never again would Bruce forget it. The old style of war was gone. His halfhearted embrace of the pirate warfare practiced by the Highlanders when he’d formed his guard had been a mistake. Had he fully embraced it and ignored the knightly code, Methven would not have happened.
The spider tried again. This time she nearly succeeded in spanning the gap between the rocks with her silken thread, but was denied victory at the last moment by a sudden gust of wind. Bruce sighed with disappointment, strangely caught up with the spider’s hopeless efforts.
Perhaps because they resonated.
Even after the disaster of Methven, Bruce still held out hope. Then he’d met the MacDougalls at Dail Righ and suffered another devastating loss. In the hunt that followed, he’d been forced to separate from his wife, daughter, sisters, and the Countess of Buchan—the woman who’d bravely crowned him not six months before.
He’d sent the women north with his youngest brother, Nigel, under the protection of half his prized Highland Guard, hoping to meet up with them soon. But he and the rest of the army had been forced to flee south.
The women would be safe, he told himself. God help them if Edward caught them. The dragon banner made even women outlaws, giving their captors free rein to rape. The men would be executed without trial.
After Dail Righ, Bruce had taken to the hills and heather, evading capture by MacDougall thanks to Gregor “Arrow” MacGregor, another of his Highland Guard, who’d led him across Lennox to the safety of Kintyre and Dunaverty Castle.
But it had been only a temporary reprieve. Three days ago the English army had arrived to lay siege to the castle, and MacSorley had barely gotten them out of there alive.
So many failures. Too many failures.
The spider had climbed back up the strand and appeared to be getting ready to make yet another attempt. Bruce felt a surge of irrational anger and for a moment wanted to smash it with his fist.
Can’t you see it’s a losing battle?
His thoughts on the boat came back to him. He’d been as foolish as the spider to think he could defeat Edward of England. He should never have tried. Right now, he could be in a house in Carrick with his wife and daughter, managing his estates instead of running for his life and seeing his friends and supporters die for him.
It was a life he would have been happy with, were it not for the unshakable belief that the crown belonged to him. He was the rightful king of Scotland.
But what did that matter now? He’d gambled everything and lost. There was nothing left.
God, he was tired. He wanted to close his eyes, to drift off to sleep and put the nightmare behind him. Turning his head, he caught sight of Hawk conferring with the leader of the Highland Guard, Tor MacLeod, known as “Chief,” at the water’s edge. The two formidable warriors approached him together.
Sleep would have to wait.
His secret Guard had been the one bright spot in the past few months. The team of warriors had exceeded his own expectations. But even they had not been able to stave off the disastrous repercussions of his mistake at Methven.
As the warriors drew near, Bruce could see signs of weariness etched on their battle-hard countenances. It was about time. Unlike the rest of them, the Highlanders didn’t seem demoralized by the series of defeats that had forced them from Scotland. Impervious to the frailty of normal emotions, nothing seemed to rattle them. Although he appreciated their determination and resilience, it sometimes made his own frustration feel like weakness.
“How’s your head?” MacSorley asked. “You took quite a knock.”
The mast, Bruce remembered. He rubbed the side of his head, massaging the large knot that had formed there. “I’ll live.” For now. “Where are we?”
“Rathlin,” MacLeod said. “At our destination safe and relatively sound.”
MacSorley lifted a brow. “Did you doubt it?”
Bruce shook his head, used to the Highlander’s jesting by now. “The rest of the men?” he asked.
“Safe,” Tor responded. “They’ve found shelter in a nearby cove since this cave can hold only about a dozen men. I’ve instructed Hunter and Striker to approach the castle tomorrow for provisions. You are sure Sir Hugh will help?”
Bruce shrugged. “The Lord of Rathlin is loyal to Edward, but he is also a friend.”
Tor’s mouth fell in a grim line. “We cannot chance staying here for long. Once the English realize we are no longer at Dunaverty, they’ll have the entire fleet out looking for us. With your ties to Ireland, this will be one of the first places they look.”
The Bruce family had held lands in Antrim along the north coast of Ireland for years. And his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, was the daughter of the most powerful earl in Ireland. But his father-in-law, the Earl of Ulster, was Edward’s man.
“Once I have the supplies, it will not take longer than a day or two to repair the boats,” Hawk said.
Bruce nodded, knowing he should give orders but unable to shake the overwhelming sense of futility weighing down on him.
What did it matter?
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the spider leap once more from the rocky ledge. “See that spider?” he said, pointing to the wall on the right. The men nodded blankly. Bruce was sure they were wondering whether he’d lost his mind. “I keep waiting for her to give up. That’s about the sixth time I’ve seen her try to cross that span only to fall into nothingness.” He shook his head. “I wonder how many more times it will take before she realizes it will never work.”
Hawk flashed him a grin. “I wager that’s a Highland spider, your grace, and she’ll keep trying until she succeeds. Highlanders don’t believe in surrender. We’re a tenacious lot.”
“Don’t you mean stubborn and pig-headed?” Bruce said wryly.
Hawk laughed. “That, too.”
Bruce had to admire the affable seafarer’s ability to find humor even in the most wretched of situations. Usually Hawk’s good humor kept them going, but not even the towering Norseman could rouse Bruce from his state of hopelessness tonight.
“Get some sleep, sire,” Tor said. “We’ve all had a long day.”
Bruce nodded, too weary to do anything but agree.
Light tugged at his eyelids and a gentle warmth caressed Bruce’s cheek like a mother’s gentle embrace. He opened his eyes to a beam of sunlight streaming through the cave. A new day had dawned bright and sunny, a sharp contrast to the apocalyptic storms of the day before.
It took a moment for the sleep to clear and for his gaze to focus. He looked at the rocks above his head and swore.
Well, I’ll be damned.
Spanning about a twelve-inch space between two rocks was the most magnificent web he’d ever seen. The intricate threads of silk glistened and sparkled in the sunlight like a magnificent crown of thinly woven diamonds.
She’d done it. The little spider had built her web.
He smiled, for a moment sharing in her triumph.
Methven. Dal Righ. The deaths and capture of his friends. The separation from his wife. The storm. Maybe they weren’t God’s vengeance after all, but his test.
And the spider was his messenger.
He noticed the seafarer stirring a few feet away and called him over. “You were right,” he said, motioning above him.
It took Hawk a moment to realize what Bruce meant, but when he saw the web he grinned. “Ah, she did it. A good lesson in perseverance, wouldn’t you say?”
Bruce nodded thoughtfully. “I would indeed. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again. Words to live by.”
And something he’d forgotten.
He didn’t know whether it was the spider or the dawn of a new day, but it didn’t matter. The black hopelessness of yesterday was behind him, and he felt reinvigorated for the fight ahead. No matter how many times Edward knocked him down, while there was breath in his body Robert Bruce would go on fighting.
King Hood or nay, he was the rightful king of Scotland and would take back his kingdom.
“You have a plan, sire?” Hawk asked, sensing the change in him.
Bruce nodded. “I do indeed.” He paused and gave the brash seafarer the kind of bold proclamation he would appreciate: “To win.”
Hawk grinned. “Now you sound like a Highlander.”
Bruce would bide his time. For the next few months, he would disappear into the mist and get lost among the hundreds of isles along the western seaboard, gathering his forces to try again. And again.
Until he succeeded.