Northumberland, England—July, 1314
ELIA DE WOLFE held the gnarled hand of her grandfather as he wheezed. His breathing had grown more difficult over the last three days and she knew his end was near. She only hoped that her father and two brothers would return from the battle in Scotland before death could snatch him away.
He gripped her hand as another coughing fit seized him. Elia held on tightly, willing it to end. After more than a minute of choking and sputtering, he grew quiet, his eyes closed as he fell back against the pillows, exhausted.
It hurt down to her very soul to see him so weak and frail. All her life, Patrick de Wolfe had been like a god—tall and powerful, with the jade green eyes of his mother, Jordan, and the raven black hair of his famous father.
The Wolfe of the North.
Elia had cut her teeth hearing stories of her fabled great-grandfather and his many exploits. William de Wolfe had been known as the best knight in all the land. Even three generations later, men still spoke his name in awe. Her grandfather had not only told her and her two siblings of William’s prowess and exploits but Patrick had handed down the code each de Wolfe must live by—family above all.
Even if it meant going against authority.
Her grandfather opened his eyes and Elia squeezed his hand in encouragement.
“It’s been a good, long life,” Patrick told her. “But ’tis time I go to be with my Bridey.” A wistful smile crossed his lined face. “She grew up in a convent so I know she’s already waiting for me in heaven.” With a chuckle, he added, “Even if she had to shove a few others aside to make room for an old warrior such as me. And by the Living Christ, Bridey will throw open the gates and greet me with the sweetest kiss. Oh, how I’ve missed my girl.”
Elia’s grandmother had died two years before and the light had seemed to go out of her grandfather upon his wife’s passing.
“Tell me about her again, Grandfather,” she encouraged. “About Bridey and how the two of you met.”
She had heard the tale many times, of how Patrick had rescued Brighton de Favereux from a reivers’ attack. How a dying nun revealed to him that Bridey was the secret daughter of King Magnus Haakonsson of Norway and a Scots woman named Lady Juliana de la Haye, a child who’d been raised with no knowledge of her heritage. How Patrick, known then as Nighthawk, had brought the beauty back to Castle Questing, home of the de Wolfes, and fallen in love with her. Even married her, without the king’s permission.
It took her grandfather a while to share the story with her, due to his weakened state. When he grew tired of speaking, Elia took over. A smile played upon Patrick’s lips as she narrated the adventures from long ago.
As she finished, he brought her small hand to his lips and kissed it.
“You know my and Bridey’s story almost as well as I do—and I lived it,” he teased.
For a moment, she saw the man he’d been back then, a handsome knight full of strength and promise, the future in front of him. Then before her eyes, he became the man he now was, seventy and one, old and tired and ill. Elia was glad she had spent time at Patrick’s feet and learned the history of her family through his eyes. Her father, Markus, never had seemed interested in the past. He always said the present was what concerned him. She thought it must have been hard on him, being a descendant from the renowned Wolfe and Nighthawk.
Once again, her grandfather’s breathing grew labored. Elia remained by his bedside, both her hands holding on to his, trying to bring comfort and reassurance to him in his last minutes. She thought about leaving to call for a priest but she was afraid to leave him alone. Finally, he let out a long sigh and stilled, a trace of a smile on his lips, knowing he went to be reunited with the woman he loved. She kissed his weathered forehead and brushed her palm across his eyes to close them.
Elia had grown tired of death. Her mother had died six years ago after giving birth to Anne, Elia’s younger sister, and Anne had slipped away soon after. Then her grandmother had passed two years ago. Now, Patrick was gone, as well. With the Scottish border wars in full swing, she assumed other deaths would occur. She whispered a prayer to the Virgin to bring her father and brothers safely back to her.
Exiting the bedchamber, Elia returned downstairs and left the keep. She crossed the bailey to the stone chapel and entered it, spying their priest as he knelt in front of the altar. He must have sensed her presence for he made the Sign of the Cross and rose.
“My lady? Do you have need of me?”
“Aye, Father. Grandfather has departed this life.”
Sorrow crossed his face. “Nighthawk was a great man.”
“He was,” Elia said softly. “The greatest I have known.”
“I will go to him,” the priest assured her. “Mass will be said for him tomorrow.”
They left the chapel together but when he made for the keep, she decided to remain outside for a few minutes and savor the warmth of the summer day. Soon enough, she would need to prepare her grandfather’s body for burial.
Elia moved through the bailey. Walking always brought her comfort. She went as far as the front gates and then reversed direction to head back to the keep.
“My lady!” a soldier called from the wall walk. “Riders. Lord Markus has returned.”
“Thank you,” she called up. Turning, she motioned over the blacksmith’s boy. “Go to the keep and let Cook know my father and his soldiers will arrive soon. They’ll need food and drink.”
“Aye, my lady.” The child took off running.
Elia remained in place, eager to see her family but reluctant to share the news of her grandfather’s death with them.
The gates opened in anticipation of the party’s arrival and she composed herself.
When the soldiers arrived, they passed through the gates at a walk and not their usual gallop. Alarm spread through Elia. Then she caught sight of her father, and his face told the story. Quickly, her eyes swept through the group. She found her brother, Stephen, and breathed a sigh of relief. Then she looked for Kenneth and couldn’t locate him. Frantically, her heart beating wildly, she ran toward the riders, who’d come to a halt.
Immediately, she noticed the horse Stephen led by the reins carried a body. Her gut told her it was her oldest brother.
“No!” she cried.
Elia reached the horse and saw it was Kenneth’s mount. That meant the body lashed to it must be her brother. She placed a hand against the blanket that covered it and squeezed her eyes closed. Memories flooded her. Kenneth holding out his hands, encouraging her to walk. Sneaking her an extra sweetmeat when no one was looking. Carrying her atop his shoulders. Teaching her to ride.
Now he was gone.
She glanced to her father, who swung down from his horse and touched her shoulder lightly.
“It’s Kenneth?” she asked and he nodded in confirmation.
Tears slid down her cheeks as he enveloped her in his arms, one large hand stroking her head. Elia pulled away, a thousand questions dying on her lips. It didn’t matter what answers her father gave. It wouldn’t change the fact that Kenneth was dead.
Stephen appeared at her arm, anger sparking in his eyes. “Those miserable Scots,” he spat out. “Damn them.”
She hugged Stephen to her, realizing he was her only sibling now and the new heir.
He looked at her, fire in his blue eyes. “The king was unprepared. He didn’t expect a battle at New Park’s woods, where we stumbled upon The Bruce’s men. Edward’s forces were in marching order. Not battle order.”
Elia gasped. As the daughter and granddaughter of talented knights, she’d learned much about armies and the strategies they employed. Archers marched at the back of an army when it was on the move but when battle time came, they needed to be at the front in order to break up spear formations. She could only imagine what a disaster the fight had been for the English.
“The cavalry couldn’t operate in such cramped terrain,” Stephen went on. “They were crushed by the Scots’ spearmen. We were overwhelmed. Our leaders couldn’t regain control.”
“And the king?” she asked, wondering if he had lived through the ordeal.
Stephen’s lips pursed. “He actually stayed behind to fight but Pembroke dragged him away, knowing all was lost. The Scots pursued but, last we heard, he’d escaped.”
“Thank the Christ,” she murmured, as her heart broke in two.
Elia saw her father had given orders and the soldiers who had returned now walked their mounts away. She noticed just how many of the horses carried away the dead and how sorrow would touch many families today.
Markus returned to his children, a grim look on his face. “There’s other news,” he said. “Beyond Kenneth.”
She couldn’t imagine a hurt greater than losing her older brother. Then a thought occurred to her.
“Adelard?” Elia asked.
Her father nodded. “Aye. Your betrothed also fell on the battlefield at Bannockburn. Bravely, as did your brother.”
She nodded, her throat thick. She’d only met Adelard once, the day the betrothal contracts had been signed. Her betrothed had been the same age as Kenneth. Now both young men, each only ten and eight, lay dead. Elia silently cursed the fight between the English and the Scots. Who knew how many others had perished in their fight?
Elia summoned the last vestige of courage. “Father. Stephen. I must tell you something.”
Both men looked at her warily.
“Grandfather took ill three nights ago. He passed on a quarter hour before you arrived home. Our priest is with him now. I must go to wash and prepare him for burial.”
Markus seemed to age a dozen years before her eyes. Grief twisted Stephen’s face until he looked almost unrecognizable. She wrapped her arms about her father, hoping to bring him some solace.
Suddenly, he thrust Elia from him but kept his hands upon her shoulders. “The north is no place for you, my child,” Markus proclaimed.
“What do you mean?” Fear gripped her as she saw determination fill his eyes.
“Robert the Bruce will not be stopped. He’s already recaptured most of the castles the king took in Scotland. Taking Stirling Castle now will only whet his appetite for more. With this victory, he’ll use it to propel invasions into England. I foresee raids at Carlisle and Berwick. Mayhap as far south as York.”
“Surely not, Father,” she said, though her words rang hollow. She’d heard how bloodthirsty The Bruce could be and how he lusted for power. With this recent triumph over the English, the Scotsman would use the momentum to push into England.
And their home lay directly in his path, close to the border.
Her father released her shoulders and tenderly cupped her face. “You are my only daughter, Elia. I would see you safe.” He paused. “I plan to send you far south.
“To the royal court at Westminster.”