The Scot's Pursuit by Keira Montclair

Prologue



King Edward I’s castle, Berwick

June 1307



King Edward I sat abed in his chambers in the royal castle in Berwick. His face was pale and he moved little. Healers tended to him frequently, but everyone knew they only delayed the inevitable. The king was nearly seventy years old, and he’d lived a full life. Soon it would end.

The stench in the room was one of death.

The man he’d summoned, the sheriff, had brought a new ally, one who claimed to be equally dedicated to eliminating Edward’s threats in Scotland. First and foremost among Edward’s enemies was Robert the Bruce, who insisted on calling himself the King of Scotland, although the Scots did not have the ability to choose their own ruler. The king’s son already sat on a chair in the corner of the chamber.

“Close the door and all healers out,” Edward barked.

“This is for all three of you. I’m not well, but I want Robert the Bruce’s head on a pike before I die.” He pointed to the sheriff and his man. “I know you were born Scottish, but you are agents of the English Crowne, and I expect you to do what you must to ensure that man dies before I do. If not, I will return to haunt each of you. The bastard is in Scotland. Find him and bring him to me, dead or alive. Whoever helps me dethrone Robert will be granted extra land and coin.”

The king moved into a fit of coughing, powerful enough to send the sheriff back a step, and waved his hands at those present. The healers hurried inside, flocking around him.

“I am counting on you to find the scurrilous blackguard,” he said, coughing. “If you don’t, I’ll go after him myself.”

One healer said, “’Tis impossible, my king. You cannot even walk much due to your weakness.”

“Then I’ll have my men carry me on a litter, if I must! This is your last chance to end the fool Scots’ pursuit of freedom.” His bout of coughing started again and he rolled onto his side in bed.

The end was near indeed.

The healers ushered the visitors out, and the sheriff found a private space where he might talk with his companion.

“We need to make a plan,” said the sheriff.

“Aye,” said his man. “But how are we to do what he asks? ’Twill be impossible to take an army that large into the Highlands. Bruce has allies everywhere, burning the land and hiding in the mountains. We don’t know the land that well.”

“Mayhap we won’t need to bring an army but steal one. Who has the finest and largest army of warriors in all the land?”

“Alexander Grant,” replied the new man. “But did you not already try to force his hand? Many men lost their lives. I’ll not die for this. If it isn’t a sure, sound plan, I cannot support it.”

The sheriff shook his head in distaste. “The fools kidnapped a bairn. What a daft idea that turned out to be. And how could we have guessed the Grant’s health would have improved enough for him to use his sword again? I tried to warn Vernauld that it was not a wise approach, but he refused to listen.” He shrugged dispassionately. “He paid with his life, but we can learn from his mistakes. If we kidnap one of the Grants, the chieftains can be persuaded to unleash their warriors on the Bruce’s forces.”

“I don’t like any of the Grants,” the other man said, his beady eyes dancing at the thought of taking the famous clan down a notch.

“So which one do we kidnap?” the sheriff asked. “You know the clan better than I do. Making another attempt on Alexander Grant would be too risky.”

The Scot scratched his chin, giving careful thought to all he’d heard. “There’s a festival there in a fortnight. Many visiting. The gates will be open, so we could easily get some men inside to steal someone important. ’Twill be the best time.”

“But which one? We don’t know one from the next. He has many descendants.” The sheriff began to pace, his hands on his hips. “Attempting to steal one of his sons or grandsons could lead to a bloodbath. One of the grandsons killed Vernauld by himself, took several others with him.”

“’Tis an easy solution. Steal a woman. He has three daughters and countless granddaughters, but stay away from the granddaughter with the white hair. I’ve heard she’s as bad as Gwyneth Ramsay. She’d give our men trouble for sure.”

“So steal away a dark-haired woman.” The sheriff paused, hope in his gaze again.

The Scot rubbed his jaw as he thought. “There is one who looks like the Grant. Long dark hair and blue eyes like his sweet Madeline.”