The Striker 1
St. Mary’s Church near Barnard Castle,
Durham, England, January 17, 1313
IT WAS A damned fine day for a wedding. Eoin MacLean, the man who’d devised the plan to use it as a trap to capture the most wanted man in Scotland, appreciated the irony.
The sun, which had hidden itself behind storm clouds for weeks, had picked this midwinter morn to reemerge and shine brightly on the sodden English countryside, making the thick grasses around the small church glisten and the remaining foliage on the trees shimmer like trees of amber and gold. It also, unfortunately, caught the shimmer of their mail, making it difficult to blend into the countryside. The long steel hauberk was unusual armor for Bruce’s men, who preferred the lighter black leather cotuns, but in this case, it was necessary.
From their vantage on the forested hillside beyond the church, the small village on the River Tees in the shadow of the great Barnard Castle looked pretty and picturesque. A perfect backdrop for the equally pretty bride and her knightly English groom.
Eoin’s mouth fell in a hard line, a small crack revealing the acid churning inside him. It was almost a shame to ruin it. Almost. But he’d been waiting for this day for nearly six years, and nothing—sure as hell not the happiness of the bride and groom—was going to stop him from capturing the man responsible for the worst disaster to befall Robert the Bruce in a reign filled with plenty of them from which to choose.
They had him. Dugald MacDowell, the chief of the ancient Celtic kingdom of Galloway, the last of the significant Scots opposition to Bruce’s kingship, and the man responsible for the slaughter of over seven hundred men—including two of Bruce’s brothers. The bastard had eluded capture for years, but he’d finally made a mistake.
That his mistake was a weakness for the bride made it even more fitting, as it was Eoin’s foolish weakness for the same woman that had set the whole disaster in motion.
He felt for the carved piece of ivory in his sporran by instinct. It was there—as was the well-read piece of parchment beside it. Talismans of a sort, reminders of another, but he never went into battle without them.
“You’re sure he’ll be here?”
Eoin turned to the man who’d spoken: Ewen Lamont, his partner in the Highland Guard, and one of the dozen men who’d accompanied him on this dangerous mission deep behind enemy lines. Though Bruce himself had led raids through Durham last summer, the king had had an army for support. If Eoin’s dozen men ran into trouble, they were on their own a hundred miles from the Scottish border. Of course, it was his job to make sure they didn’t run into trouble.
Opugnate acriter. Strike with force. That’s what he did, and what had earned him the war name of Striker among the elite warriors of Bruce’s secret Highland Guard. Like the striker who wielded the powerful blows of the hammer for the blacksmith, Eoin’s bold, just-on-the-edge-of-crazy “pirate” tactics struck hard against their enemies. Today would be no different—except that this plan might be even bolder (and crazier) than usual. Which, admittedly, was saying something.
Eoin met his friend’s gaze, which was just visible beneath the visor of the full helm. “Aye, I’m sure. Nothing will keep MacDowell from his daughter’s wedding.”
The information about Maggie’s—Margaret’s—planned nuptials had fallen into his hands by chance. Eoin, Lamont, Robbie Boyd, and James Douglas had been with Edward Bruce, the king’s only remaining brother, in Galloway for the past month doing everything they could do to disrupt communication and the supply routes between the MacDowell strongholds in Scotland’s southwest province of Galloway and Carlisle Castle in England, which was provisioning them. During one of these “disruptions,” they’d captured a bundle of missives, which included a letter from Sir John Conyers, the Constable of Barnard Castle for the Earl of Warwick, giving the date of Conyers’s marriage to MacDowell’s “beloved” daughter. Dugald had eight sons, but only one daughter, so there could be no mistake as to the identity of the bride.
Lamont gave him a long, knowing look. “I suspect the same could be said of you.”
Eoin’s lip curled in a smile that was edged with far more anger than amusement. “You’re right about that.”
This was one wedding he wouldn’t miss for the world. The fact that it would lead to the capture of his most hated enemy only made it more satisfying. Two debts, long in arrears, would be repaid this day.
But bloody hell, how much longer was this going to take? He was always edgy before a mission, but this was worse than usual. For Christ’s sake, his hands were practically shaking!
He’d laugh, if he couldn’t guess why. The fact that she could get to him after all these years—after what she’d done—infuriated him enough to immediately kill any twitchiness. He was as cold as ice. As hard as steel. Nothing penetrated. It hadn’t in a long time.
Finally, the appearance of riders on the drawbridge, one of whom was holding a blue and white banner, signaled the arrival of the groom.
Eoin flipped down the visor of his helm, adjusted the heavy, uncomfortable shirt of mail, and donned the stolen surcoat, which not coincidentally was a matching blue and white.
“Be ready,” he said to his partner. “Make sure the others know what to do, and wait for my signal.”
Lamont nodded, but didn’t wish him luck. Eoin didn’t need it. When it came to strategies and plans, no one did them better. Outwit, outplay, outmaneuver, and when necessary, outfight. MacDowell may have gotten the best of him six years ago, but today Eoin would even the score.
“Bàs roimh Gèill,” Lamont said instead.
Death before surrender, the motto of the Highland Guard—and if they were lucky, of Dugald MacDowell as well.
She was doing the right thing. Margaret knew that. It had been almost six years. She’d mourned long enough. She deserved a chance at happiness. And more important, her son deserved a chance to grow up under the influence of a good man. A kind man. A man who had not been made bitter by defeat.
None of which explained why she’d been up since dawn, running around all morning, unable to sit still. Or why her heart was fluttering as if in a panic. Panic that went beyond normal wedding day anxiety.
She hadn’t been nervous at all for her first wedding. Her chest pinched as just for a moment—one tiny moment—she allowed her thoughts to return to that sliver in time over seven years ago when everything had seemed so perfect. She’d been so happy. So in love and full of hope for the future. Her chest squeezed tightly before releasing with a heavy sigh.
God, what a naive fool she’d been. So brash and confident. So convinced everything would work out the way she wanted it to. Maybe a little anxiety would have served her better.
She’d been so young—too young. Only eighteen. If she could go back and do it all over again with the perspective of age . . .
She sighed. Nay, it was too late to change the past. But not the future. Her thoughts returned to the present where they must stay, and she focused, as she always did, on the best thing to come out of that painful time. The thing that had pulled her out of the darkness and forced her to live again. Her five-year-old son, Eachann—or as they called him in England, Hector.
Eachann had a small chamber adjoining hers in the manor house that had been their home in England for the past four years, since her father had been forced to flee Scotland. But she and her son would be leaving Temple-Couton for good this morning. After the wedding ceremony, they would remove to Barnard Castle with her betrothed—her husband, she corrected, trying to ignore the simultaneous drop in her stomach and spike in her pulse (two things that definitely shouldn’t happen simultaneously!).
Instead, she forced a smile on her face and gazed fondly at her son, who was sitting on his bed, his spindly legs dangling over the side and his blond head bent forward.
The soft silky curls were already darkening as the white blond of toddlerhood gave way to the darker blond of youth. Like his father’s. He was like his father in so many ways, looking at him should cause her pain. But it didn’t. It only brought her joy. In Eachann she had a piece of her husband that death could not claim. Her son was hers completely, in a way that her husband never had been.
She smiled, her heart swelling as it always did when she looked at him. “Do you have everything?”
He looked up. Sharp blue eyes met hers, startling again in their similarity to the man who’d given him his blood if nothing else. Eachann nodded somberly. He was like his father in that regard as well, serious and contemplative. “I think so.”
Stepping around the two large wooden trunks, Margaret glanced around the room to make sure. Just below his small booted heel, she spied the corner of a dark plank of wood.
Following the direction of her gaze, Eachann attempted to inconspicuously kick it farther under the bed.
Frowning, Margaret sat on the bed beside him. He wouldn’t look at her. But she didn’t need to see his face to know he was upset.
“Is there a reason you don’t want to take your chessboard? I thought it was your favorite game?”
His cheeks flushed. “Grandfather said I’m too old to play with poppets. I need to practice my swords or I’m gonna end up a traitorous baserd like my father.” The little boy’s mouth drew in a hard, merciless line, the expression a chilling resemblance to her father. Why is it that she’d never noticed the negative aspects of her father until they appeared in her son? “I’m no traitor! I’ll see that bloody usurper off the throne, and Good King John restored to his crown, if it’s the last thing I do.” Another chill ran through her. St. Columba’s bones, he sounded exactly like her father, too. His head tilted toward hers. “But what’s a baserd?”
“Nothing you could ever be, my love,” she said, hugging the boy tightly to her. This was one word that she wasn’t going to worry about correcting.
If she needed proof of why she was doing the right thing, she had it. She loved her father, but she would not have her son warped by his disappointments. She would not see Eachann turned into a bitter, angry old man who thought the world had turned against him. Who reveled in being the last “true” patriot for the Balliol claim to the throne, and the only significant Scottish nobleman who still had not bowed to the “usurper” Robert the Bruce.
Margaret understood her father’s anger—and perhaps even commiserated with him about the source—but that did not mean she wanted her son turned into a miniature version of him. Despite Eachann’s “traitorous bastard” of a father, Dugald MacDowell loved his only grandchild. Indeed, it was her father’s mention of having Eachann fostered with Tristan MacCan—his an gille-coise henchman—so the lad could be close to him that gave Margaret the push to accept Sir John Conyers’s proposal.
When the time came next year for her son to leave her care—God give her strength to face that day!—Sir John would see to his placement and not her father. Being a squire to an English knight was vastly preferable to being fostered by a man so completely under her father’s influence, even one who was a childhood friend. Her son’s safety came above everything else.
“Chess pieces are not poppets, my love.” She pulled out the board etched with grid lines and the lovingly carved and painted wooden pieces. Some of the paint had begun to flake off on the edges, and the carefully painted faces had faded with use. She’d taught Eachann to play when he was three. He played against himself mostly, as despite prodigious efforts otherwise, she’d never had the patience for it. But he did. Her son was brilliant, and she was fiercely proud of him. “It’s the game of kings,” she said with a bittersweet smile. “Your father played.”
That surprised him. She rarely mentioned his father, for various reasons, including that the memories pained her and mention of him drew her family’s ire. They all tried to pretend that the “traitorous bastard” never existed around Eachann, but if the eager look on the boy’s face was any indication, perhaps they had been wrong in that.
“He did?” Eachann asked.
She nodded. “It was he who taught me to play. Your grandfather never learned, which is why he . . .” She thought of how to put it. “Which is why he doesn’t understand how useful it can be to a warrior.”
He looked at her as if she were crazed. “How?”
She grinned. “Well, you could throw the board like a discus, or use the pieces in a slingshot.”
He rolled his eyes. She couldn’t get anything past him, even though he was only five. He always knew when she was teasing. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mother. It wouldn’t make a good weapon.”
His expression was so reminiscent of his father’s she had to laugh so she didn’t cry. If anyone needed proof that mannerisms were inherited, Eachann was it. “All right, you have me. I was teasing. Did you read the rest of the folio Father Christopher found for you?”
They’d been reading it together, but he’d grown impatient waiting for her. Like with chess, her son had quickly outpaced her hard-wrought reading skills.
She continued. “King Leonidas was a great swordsman, but that’s not what made him a great leader, and what held off so many Persians at Thermopylae. It was his mind. He planned and strategized, using the terrain to his advantage.”
A broad smile lit up Eachann’s small face. “Just like you plan and strategize in chess.”
Margaret nodded. “That was what your father did so exceptionally. He was one of the smartest men I ever knew. In the same way that you can look at the chessboard and ‘see’ what to do, he could look at an army on the battleground and see what to do. He could defeat the enemy before he even picked up a sword.”
Though Eachann’s father had favored a battle-axe like his illustrious grandfather for whom he’d been named: Gillean-na-Tuardhe, “Gill Eoin (the servant of Saint John) of the Battle-axe.” He’d been good with it, too. But she didn’t want to mention that. In spite of her son’s auspicious name, harkening to one of the greatest warriors of ancient times, Hector of Troy, Eachann was small and had yet to show any skill—or love—of weaponry. Her father had begun to notice, which was another reason she had to get her son away. She wouldn’t mind if Eachann never picked up a weapon and buried himself in books for the rest of his life. But Dugald MacDowell would not see his grandson as anything but a fierce warrior. Another MacDowell to devote his life to a war that would never end.
But she wouldn’t let that happen. The constant conflict that had dominated her life—that had torn apart her life—would not be her son’s.
She stood up. “Why don’t you put your game in the chest, while I go to tell Grandfather we are ready.”
He gave her a nod and hopped off the bed. She was almost to the door before she felt a pair of tiny arms wrap around her legs. “I love you, Mother.”
Tears filled her eyes as she returned the hug with a hard squeeze. “And I love you, sweetheart.”
Certainty filled her heart. She was doing the right thing.
Three hours later, Margaret had to remind herself of it. As she stood outside the church door, her father, son, and six of her eight brothers gathered on her left, and Sir John on her right, flanked by what seemed like the entire garrison of Barnard Castle, it didn’t feel right at all. Indeed, it felt very, very wrong.
Were it not for the firm arm under her hand holding her up, she might have collapsed; her legs had the strength of jelly.
Sir John must have sensed something. He covered her hand resting in the crook of his elbow with his. “Are you all right? You look a little pale.”
She had to tilt her head back to look at him. He was tall—although not as tall as her first husband had been—and the top of her head barely reached his chin. He was just as handsome though. Maybe even more so, if you preferred smooth perfection to sharp and chiseled. And Sir John liked to smile. He did so often. Unlike her first husband. Wresting a smile from him had been her constant challenge. But when she’d succeeded, it had felt like she’d been rewarded a king’s ransom. Sir John’s life also didn’t revolve around battle—thinking about battle, planning about battle, talking about battle. Sir John had many other interests, including—novelly—her. He talked to her, shared his thoughts with her, and didn’t treat her like a mistake.
Then why did this feel like one? Why did the very proper wedding, with the seemingly perfect man, feel so different from the improper one, with the wrong man that had come before it?
Because you don’t love him.
But she would. By all that was good and holy in heaven, she would! This time it would grow, rather than wither on the bone of neglect to die. She was being given a second chance at happiness, and she would take it, blast it!
She drew a deep breath and smiled—this time for real. “I was too excited to eat anything this morning. I’m afraid it’s catching up with me. But I’m fine. Or will be, as soon as we get to the feast.”
Sir John returned her smile, she thought with a tinge of relief. “Then we must not delay another moment.” He leaned down and whispered closer to her ear. “I don’t want my bride fainting before the wedding night.”
Her eyes shot to his. She caught the mischievous twinkle and laughed. “So I’m expected to faint afterward?”
“I would consider it the highest compliment if you would. It is every groom’s hope to so overcome his bride on the wedding night that she swoons.” He nodded to indicate the soldiers behind him. “How else am I to impress the men over a tankard of ale?”
“You are horrible.” But she said it with a smile. This was why she was marrying him. This is why they would be happy. He made her laugh in a way she hadn’t laughed in a long time. His humor was just as wicked as hers had been. Once.
Following the direction of his gaze, she scanned the large group of mail-clad soldiers. “Is that what you talk about when you are all together? Aren’t you breaking some secret male code by telling me this?”
He grinned. “Probably. But I trust you not to betray me.”
Not to betray me . . .
A chill ran down her spine. Her gaze snagged on something in the crowd. Her skin prickled, and the hair at the back of her neck stood up for a long heartbeat before the sensation passed.
It must have been Sir John’s words, unknowingly stirring memories. Unknowingly stirring guilt.
Tell no one of my presence . . .
Pain that not even six years could dull stabbed her heart. God, how could she have been so foolish? The only good thing about her husband dying was that she didn’t have to live with the knowledge of how much he would have despised her for betraying him.
“Margaret?” Sir John’s voice shook her from the memories. “They are waiting for us.”
The priest and her father, who had been talking, were both now staring at her, the priest questioningly, her father with a dark frown. Ignoring them both, she turned to Sir John. “Then let us begin.”
Side by side, they stood before the church door and publicly repeated the vows that would bind them together.
If memories of another exchange of vows tried to intrude, she refused to let them. Of course it was different this time. This time she was doing it right. The banns. The public exchange of vows outside the church door. The only thing they wouldn’t have was the mass afterward. As she was a widow, it was not permitted.
If she secretly didn’t mind missing a long mass, she was wise enough not to admit it. Now. She wasn’t the wild, irreverent “heathen” from “the God Forsaken” corner of Galloway anymore. She would never give Sir John a reason to be ashamed of or embarrassed by her.
When the priest asked if there was anyone who objected or knew of a reason why these two could not be joined, her heart stopped. The silence seemed to stretch intolerably. Surely that was long enough to wait—
The voice rang out loud and clear, yet for one confused moment, she thought she’d imagined it. The uncomfortable murmuring of the crowd, and the heads turned in the direction of the voice, however, told her she hadn’t.
Sir John swore. “If this is some kind of joke, someone is going to regret it.”
“You there,” the priest said loudly. “Step forward if you have something to say.”
The crowd parted, revealing a soldier—an exceptionally tall and powerfully built soldier. Strangely, the visor of his helm was flipped down.
He took a few steps forward, and Margaret froze. Stricken, her breath caught in her throat as she watched the powerful stride that seemed so familiar. Only one man walked with that kind of impatience—as if he was waiting for the world to catch up to him.
No . . . no . . . it can’t be.
All eyes were on the soldier wearing the blue and white surcoat of the Conyers’s arms. She sensed the movement of a few other soldiers, circling around the crowd in the churchyard, but paid them no mind. Like everyone else, her gaze was riveted on the man striding purposefully forward.
He stopped a few feet away.
He stood motionlessly, his head turned in her direction. It was ridiculous—fanciful—his eyes were hidden in the shadow of the steel helm, but somehow she could feel them burning into her. Condemning. Accusing. Despising.
Her legs could no longer hold her up; they started to wobble.
“What is the meaning of this, Conyers?” her father said angrily, apparently blaming Sir John for the conduct of one of his men.
“Speak,” the priest said impatiently to the man. “Is there an impediment of which you are aware?”
The soldier flipped up his visor, and for one agonizing, heart-wrenching moment his midnight-blue eyes met hers. Eyes she could never forget. Pain seared through her in a devastating blast. White-hot, it sucked every last bit of air from her lungs. Her head started to spin. She barely heard the words that would shock the crowd to the core.
“Aye, there’s an impediment.” Oh God, that voice. She’d dreamed of that voice so many nights. A low, gravelly voice with the lilt of the Gael. Oh God, Maggie, that feels so good. I’m going to . . . “The lass is already married.”
“To whom?” the priest demanded furiously, obviously believing the man was playing some kind of game.
But he wasn’t.
Eoin is alive.
Margaret was already falling as he spoke. Unfortunately, Sir John wasn’t going to get his wish: the bride would faint before the wedding night after all.