Highland Warlord – Amy Jarecki

The orange glow of dawn skimmed tufts of striated clouds in the eastern sky. But James Douglas hardly noticed. Neither did he pay heed to the icy breeze cutting through his mail and the quilted weave of the aketon beneath. Even the chausses covering his thighs were stiff from the cold. Surely the skies threatened a late snow, though James preferred to be nowhere else this day. From a ridge overlooking the Glasgow road, he sat atop a fine palfry, his breaths billowing a steamy grey. If only the horse were his and not a loan from Bishop Lamberton. But these were dark times and the name of Douglas had all but been smote from the nobility. One day, James intended to own a herd of gallant warhorses. Just as his father had before the wars. Intently, he watched the road for movement. At last, his chance had come. And no matter how hot his impatient blood thrummed through his loins, he vowed to maintain his vigil and remain patient. Soon he would right the wrongs against his father and regain his lands. And the time was nigh.

At last, a robust contender had come forward to claim the throne of Scotland, a man with cods enough to pull together this great nation and send the English back across the border once and for all. And James fully intended to be at the center of the maelstrom. After daylight had spread across the glen, a flicker of metal caught James’ eye first, followed by the white blaze on the nose of a bay horse. He counted thirty riders creeping through the trees with a wagon and sentry in diamond formation at the rear. Not an impressive number for a king or even an earl, for that matter, but perhaps the small retinue would not attract as much attention as an army of five hundred or more. Before he picked up his reins, James closed his eyes and turned his face to the heavens. Dear God, I am not gifted with the silken eloquence of a holy man, but in my hour of need, please grant me the words to convey the strength of my fealty and the depth of my desire to ride at this man’s side. Taking an earnest breath, he cued the palfry down the incline and onto the road while the approach of horses thundered from around the bend. James dropped his reins and raised his hands, driving his mount with his knees. At fifty paces, the retinue came into view.

James grinned at the sight of Robert the Bruce in the lead—he would have assumed no less. By his reputation, the contender was no coward. And what a sight to behold. Clearly a warrior, Bruce presented an imposing image, his armor immaculate, a surcoat emblazoned with the rampant lion, a cloak of black, his shoulders broad. And to add to the picture, the nostrils of his enormous steed flared. The men flanking Bruce drew their swords. “Halt!” bellowed one. James relaxed his knees and let his horse amble to a stop. “James Douglas, son of William, Lord of Douglas, come to pledge my fealty to a worthy man who would be king.” “The lad’s father surrendered at Berwick,” growled the man on the right.

A shot of ire flared up James’ neck, but he bit his tongue. Damnation, he was no lad. The Bruce brushed his beard with gauntleted fingers. “I kent his father well. Lord Douglas surrendered the burgh and his life in good faith, intending to spare those within his garrison.” The man-at-arms smirked. “Little good that did.” Grinding his molars, James slid from his horse. Now was not the time to debate the errs of his da. “I was but ten years of age when my father died in the Tower, his lands given to Clifford by a foreign king.

My lands. My birthright.” “I, too, have lost much at the hand of the usurper.” The Bruce urged his mount forward, though one of the men-at-arms followed. “Tell me, what news brought you to this place on this day at this time?” James dropped to his knee and bowed his head. “My liege, since my father left this world, I have been an apprentice to Bishop Lamberton. Upon receiving your missive, he urged me to ride ahead and pledge my sword.” “I don’t trust him,” growled the man-at-arms. “Wheesht, Neil.” The Bruce dismounted, handed the naysayer his reins, and returned his attention to James.

“You must forgive my brother. He is only looking out for my welfare.” Giving a nod, James eyed the man before he returned his attention to His Lordship. “Very well. Though judging by his girth, I can easily best him in a battle of swords.” “Strong words from an unproven pup. Perhaps a match can be arranged.” Bruce sauntered forward, cocking his head to one side. “Your beard is thick, though your face is that of an unblemished canvas. Pray tell, what is your age?” As a sharp spike roiled in his gut, James clenched his fists.

“I am a man of one and twenty, trained to wield a sword. I’ve not been bested by any knight in Lamberton’s court.” “Indeed? And your claim can be substantiated by the bishop?” “It can.” James rose. “I—” “Watch yourself,” warned Neil. The Bruce sliced his palm through the air but kept his eyes on James and one hand on the hilt of his sword. “Clearly, you were aware that I am headed for Scone. Why did you not wait to approach me there?” Again demonstrating his vassalage, James spread his hands to his sides, though he didn’t kneel this time. “When news was received of Comyn’s death by your hand and the absolution granted to you by Bishop Wishart in Glasgow, I felt you needed my sword now whilst you are most vulnerable.” “I assure you, my vulnerability will endure for months, possibly years to come.

” “Aye, until the English are expunged from Scotland once and for all.” “I appreciate your verve, Douglas. Tell me, have you earned your spurs?” “Not as of yet. I rather hoped being knighted would be an honor bestowed by my king.” Chuckling, the Bruce turned toward his men. “Did you hear that? I’m liking this young man more by the moment.” He then placed a hand on James’ shoulder. “I should enjoy witnessing this sword of yours in action.” “If I ride at your side, I pray to God you will see it raised often against our foe.” “Then come.

” The Bruce turned up his palm to catch a snowflake. “We have tarried here long enough.” *** “If you squeeze your hands any tighter, your fingers will fall off,” said Coira in a sharp and stilted whisper. Ailish arched an eyebrow and leveled her gaze upon her overly protective lady’s maid. Well, at one time, Coira had been Ailish’s nursemaid, but that didn’t allay the fact that Ailish was entrusted with the leadership of her clan and had been for quite some time. “My hands are fine.” Her anxiety ratcheted up a notch as she watched yet another man exit the chamber in Scone Abbey where Robert the Bruce was hearing supplications. This morning, the vestibule had been packed shoulder to shoulder with men. Now, aside from the two women, the hall was completely empty. “I should be next.

” Ailish sat forward when the steward stepped through the door and headed across the floor without even giving her a glance. She immediately sprang to her feet. “I beg your pardon, m’lord, but I have waited this entire day for an audience with His Grace.” The man stopped, a deep frown furrowing his brow. “And you are?” “Lady Ailish Maxwell.” She gestured to the scroll in his fist. “I signed my name to the roll just like everyone else. It is of grave import that I see His Grace at once.” “You must not refer to His Lordship as His Grace until after the crowning this eve.” Huffing, the steward unrolled the vellum.

“Must I warn you that women have no place within these walls?” “Is there a problem?” asked a man, his voice resounding from the doorway. He was tall, broad shouldered, and the look in his eyes was as sharp as a well-honed dirk. If Ailish had ever set eyes upon any king before, this would be he. Bless the saints! She hastened forward, stopped before the man, and dipped into a deep curtsey, bowing her head. “I am Lady Ailish, daughter of Johann Maxwell, Earl of Caerlaverock and I have come to pledge fealty in my brother’s stead.” She pulled her ruby pendant out from under her bodice. “This was my mother’s. It is all I have to prove I am Johann Maxwell’s daughter.” “You simply must hear her, m’lord,” said Coira bustling to Ailish’s side. “M’lady took a great risk to be meet with you.

” Ailish gave the maid a purse-lipped leer. As the eldest Maxwell, she could stand up for herself. Robert the Bruce examined the necklace. “It is a fine piece, indeed.” He stepped back, pushed open the door, and gestured inside. “Is that so?” “It is.” Ailish held up her palm, telling Coira to stay put, then stepped into the chamber. “I’ve come to support you as king and lay claim to Maxwell lands.” He skirted behind a table and sat in an enormous chair, steepling his fingers against his lips. “You said your brother is still alive?” Ailish clasped her hands tightly to allay their trembling.

“Harris—he is only nine years of age, but Earl of Caerlaverock and chieftain of Clan Maxwell all the same. I would have brought him with me, had it been safe to do so. But I do not trust my uncle. If he learns Harris still lives, I ken in my bones, he’ll try to kill the lad.” “Ah, yes, it is all coming back to me now. Edward sacked Caerlaverock in the year of our Lord thirteen hundred. I recall at the time, Herbert’s rise to the earldom was cause for unease.” “The man is vile. He dishonors the Maxwell Clan as well as the title of earl. He joined with Edward in the attack on my home.

After days of pummeling the castle with siege engines, captured my father and hung him from the bailey walls.” His Lordship closed his eyes, a pinch forming between his brows. “Did Longshanks not have the castle surrounded? How were you and your brother saved?” “Before Edward’s army breached our walls, Da commanded our cleric to spirit me as well as my brother and sister out the Firth of Solway in a skiff. Harris was but three years of age at the time and Florrie just five. My father’s last words to me were to protect the lad with my life. And I am happy to report Harris, the true Earl of Caerlaverock, is securely hidden behind the walls of Lincluden Priory.” The Bruce sat back. “The nunnery?” She stood a bit taller and squared her shoulders. “I believe it the best place to hide him from my uncle. Please, Herbert mustn’t ken the lad still lives.

” “Understood, m’lady. Rest assured your secret is safe with me. And in time, I will make certain this matter is resolved. There is nothing more important than the preservation of Scotland’s own.” Ailish released a sigh as if she’d been holding her breath for ages. “Bless you, Your Gr—uh… Your Lordship. When I received news of your coronation, I kent you would be the answer to my prayers” “I commend your courage.” The Bruce ran his fingers over his ring’s enormous ruby. “When the time is right, all of Scotland will be liberated. With the news that Caerlaverock’s heir has survived, the charter lands will be restored in your brother’s name.

” “Oh, I cannot tell you how much your words have made my heart soar.” “I must caution you.” Lord Bruce’s eyebrow quipped as he held up his finger. “The English presently occupy over half of Scotland’s border. The task of reclaiming them will be long and arduous. But make no bones about it, I have committed my life to this task.” Ailish had never heard more uplifting news. “As have I. Tell me what I must do. I can act as a messenger or spy.

Anything…” “The best place for you is behind the priory’s walls with your kin.” Ailish bit her bottom lip. Those walls were ever so suffocating—not that she didn’t appreciate the nuns who’d taken her in. It was just she’d been hiding behind the grey stone barbican for six years. If only there was something more she could do to help. She wanted her uncle out of her home so badly, she would gladly pick up a sword and face them herself if she could. “You came all this way to bring news of your brother’s existence. Tell me, why did you not send a missive?” “And miss the coronation? Moreover, miss a chance to represent Clan Maxwell and pledge our fealty?” Ailish clasped her fists over her heart. “In no way would I allow such a momentous event to pass without the representation of my kin.” “I admire your spirit,” he said, drumming his fingers on the wooden armrests.

“Tell me, did the nuns send a retinue to accompany you?” “The nuns?” she asked, doing her best not to laugh aloud. “Alas, they are quite poor and there is but one old guard at the priory, and I assure you he is too valuable to the order to accompany me.” Lord Bruce blinked, his mouth dropping open. “You came to Scone alone?” “With my lady’s maid.” Ailish inclined her head toward the door. “The outspoken woman in the vestibule.” “Are you jesting? The kingdom is riddled with our enemies. You could have been captured— molested, or worse.” The tips of Ailish’s ears burned. Aye, she knew of the dangers, but this day was far too important not to take the risk.

“We dressed in nun’s habits and shared a mule.” “Good Lord, your story grows more precarious with your every word.” “I beg your pardon, m’lord but are you not happy that I have come?”

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