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Haddington, Scotland—February 1356
After ten years away, he had come home.
War had come with him.
Fog, cold and damp, darkened the fading light of a February day and crept around the corners of the church before them. The iron links of his chainmail chilled the back of his neck and the English knights by his side shivered on their mounts.
Winter was no time for a war.
Gavin Fitzjohn looked over at his uncle, King Edward, proud lion at the peak of his prowess. More than twenty years ago, this king led the English on a similar charge into Scotland.
That time, the King's brother had left behind a bastard son of a Scottish mother.
Today, that son, Gavin, rode beside his uncle, just as he had done for the last year in France. There, they had wreaked havoc on soldiers and villagers alike without a qualm until the smell of blood and smoke permeated his dreams. But he had done it because he was a knight in war.
Now, the King assumed Fitzjohn was fully his.
But this was not France. Now, Edward had brought the scorched earth home. In the fortnight since they had retaken Berwick, his army had slashed and burned what little the retreating Scots army had left standing.
Gavin's horse shifted, restless. Through the windows of the church, the choir where services were sung glowed like a beckoning lamp, light and lovely as any church he had seen across the Channel.
The villagers huddled before their spiritual home, uncertain of what was to come. Gavin watched a man at the crowd's edge, hands clasped, eyes closed, lips moving in prayer.
The man's eyes opened and met Gavin's.
Fear. Strong enough to taste.
His stomach rebelled. He was sick to death of killing.
A squire ran up to the King, carrying a torch. In the darkening twilight, the shifting flames cast unearthly light and shade across the mud-splattered surcoats and armour.
He looked at his uncle. No more, he thought, the words a wish.
But anger, not mercy, gripped Edward's face. The Scots had talked truce only to gain time to prepare for war. So, when Lord Douglas finally rejected the English offer of peace, Edward vowed to give them the war they wanted.
The King motioned the squire towards Gavin.
'Take the torch,' he said. The fire flickered between them like Satan's flames. He nodded towards the church. 'Burn it.'
The squire shoved the torch into Gavin's outstretched hand. He took it, as he had so many times before, but his grip was unsteady and the firebrand trembled. Or was that just a trick of the wavering light?
The villagers' wary glances shifted from him to the church. What would happen to them if they lost their link to God?
A baby's wail bounced off the church's stone walls.
He shoved the torch at the squire, trying to give back the flames.
'What are you waiting for?' Edward roared, releasing all the frustration of a failed campaign. Storms had sunk his ships. There would be no new supplies and nothing left to do but retreat. He meant to leave destruction behind him.
'Leave it. They never warred on us.'
'They laid waste to their own lands, so we'd have no cattle to eat nor ale to drink.'
Edward's knights grumbled their agreement. Hungry bellies made vicious warriors.
Gavin looked from the torch to the church. Stone walls were no protection. He knew that. He had lit fires large and small from Picardy to Artois. Heard the crackle of the roof catch fire, seen the timbers crash to the floor and ignite wooden altars, felt the heat sear his chest through his breastplate. Cinder burns pitted the gold lions and lilies on his surcoat.
But this was different and had been from the moment they crossed the border. He had breathed the familiar smell of the earth, felt the gentle slope of the hills rise below his stallion's hooves, looked up at the perpetual grey mist of the sky. And knew.
No matter how long he had been away, where, or with whom, this was home.
'What's the matter, Fitzjohn?' the King yelled. 'Is your Scottish whore's blood holding you back, boy?'
His mother was no whore. But the King had never forgiven Gavin's father for his sin, even after death. 'There's no reason for this,' he answered. 'These folk fight us no more.'
'Your father would have done it!'
His father had done worse.
But Gavin no longer could.
He dropped the torch and heard it sizzle as it hit the soggy ground. Then, he pulled off the red, gold and blue surcoat bearing his father's arms and held it over the sputtering flame until it was ablaze.
'My father might have done it. But I will not.'
He grabbed the reins and turned his horse away to ride into the darkness alone.
He was not the man his father had been.
Or so he prayed.
A few weeks later, in the Cheviot Hills
The falcon paced on her perch that morning, pecking at her jesses, on edge even after Clare slipped the hood over her head to cover her eyes. Strange. Typically, she feared nothing when she could see nothing.
'What's the matter, Wee One?' Clare crooned, as she closed the door and motioned the falconer away. She pretended the birds were part of her duties as mistress of Carr's Tower, but the falconer was rewarded, and well, to tend to their constant needs. She simply preferred to do it herself, particularly with this one. 'Don't you want to take a morning flight?'
She stroked the striped feathers of the bird's breast, talking nonsense until Wee One recognised her voice and stilled her wings. Clare held out a titbit and the bird nipped it from her fingers.
'Ye're spoilin' the bird, Mistress Clare,' the old falconer said. His grey-tinged brows nearly met as he frowned. 'She'll nae hunt if she's nae hungry.'
'It's no more than a crumb.' A bribe was more the truth, something to fool herself into believing the bird cared about her instead of only the food she brought.
She checked to be sure the jesses on the falcon's talons had not come loose. 'I think it does her good to have a treat from time to time.'
Neil shook his head. 'Ye won't think so when ye lose her. If she ever discovers she can eat her fill without our help, she'll nae return to your fist again.'
He had grumbled the same thing to her for years. But except for this small infraction, Clare had studied all the rules and followed every one when she trained Wee One.
She pulled on a thick leather glove and held out her left hand. The bird hopped on to her wrist and Clare swept out of the mews and into the barmkin where young Angus awaited her.
The page, on the edge of squirehood, had been left behind when her father took most of the men to war, so he viewed himself as protector of the ladies left in the tower.
'Get my horse and the dog, Angus.'
He hesitated. 'Ye shouldna go out alone, Mistress Clare.'
She knew that, but she had picked the boy because he would not refuse her. 'Both the bird and I need exercise.
And my father sent word. He'll be home soon. The Inglis are halfway to Carlisle by now.'
In truth, the Inglis might be as close as Melrose, but she was tired of hiding, tired of winter, tired of being caged like the birds. Besides, the wild hills surrounding their border castle offered as much protection as an army. The 'Great Waste', some called it. No one would come here unless he wanted to escape the civilised world.
Angus brought her hound and horse and held the falcon as she mounted. Then, sitting proudly on top of his pony, he rode beside her. As they left the shadow of the tower's wall, she took her first deep breath and looked up at the blue, cloudless sky. They had not seen the like for months.
She turned to see Euphemia, daughter of the widow Murine, galloping after her. Clare stifled a sigh for the loss of her private moment with the falcon and freedom.
She held her horse to let the girl catch up. Far from looking ready to hunt, Euphemia, on the edge of womanhood, looked as if she were ready to fall into bed with the next man she stumbled across. Not because of her clothes—her dress was as temperate as Clare's—but even at sixteen, the slant of her smile and the flutter of her eyelashes put men in mind of night pleasures.
Just as her mother's did.
'I had to come,' the girl said, as she caught them. 'We may not see another day so warm 'til June.' A flush touched her cheek and her dark hair tumbled across her shoulders.
Clare's tight braid insured her hair would never fly loose, even after a day on horseback. 'You may join me, but stay close. She's not been out for days and I intend to be sure she has a good flight.'
She gazed at the sky, looking for potential prey. Instead, she heard the flapping wings of another falcon. Wee One, hooded, swivelled her head, as if searching for the sound.
'What's that?' Euphemia asked.
Clare peered at the bird—male, she thought, from his smaller size. He flew back and forth across their path, fierce, dark, yellow-rimmed eyes glaring as if he wanted them to stop.
'I don't know.' She frowned, suddenly afraid the strange bird might tempt Wee One to freedom. Thinking to escape him, she urged the horse into a gallop, not stopping until she was halfway up the ridge and the tercel was no longer in sight. Waiting for the others, she felt the south-west wind nudge her back.
Maybe summer would come early.
'Look!' Angus whispered as the hound pointed.
A few yards away, a fat partridge huddled under a bush. She would be easy to flush into flight, the perfect quarry for a falcon.
Clare glanced over her shoulder to be sure they had lost the tercel. Then she removed Wee One's hood, struggling to hold on to the leather jesses as the wind nearly jerked them out of her fingers. She raised her arm and Wee One took off, wings flapping, until she was just a speck overhead. There, she would wait, as she had been trained to do, until the humans sent her prey skywards.
Angus set the dog towards the bush, scaring the partridge into flight, where the bird expected to be away from danger, but the small dot in the sky dived for her prey, falling faster than a horse could gallop. They stirred their horses and gave chase.
They were halfway down the valley by mid-afternoon. The bird had worked, tireless, through the day. She had several fine stoops, killing three fowl. Each time, Clare rewarded her with a taste of the flesh. Then, she whisked the prey into the sack for Angus to carry.
Food rewarded the falcon for a successful flight, but the bird was never allowed to eat without her master's help. Otherwise, she would learn that she did not need the help of humans after all.
The last partridge escaped. Clare called her falcon with a shrieking whistle and smiled as Wee One swooped on to her fist, obedient.
This bird would return to her. Always.
At the thought, the list of duties left undone rushed back, sweeping away the freedom of the day.
She turned her horse around, motioning to Angus and Euphemia to follow her. The morning's warmth had ebbed, and a chilly mist huddled in the valley and obscured the hills, reminding her of the dangers that lurked all around. The Inglis army might be far away, but the Inglis border was not.
That was her last thought before he rose out of the fog, a golden man on a black horse, like a spirit emerging from the mist.
A man without a banner.
A man without allegiance.
The hound barked, once, then growled, as if cowed.
The man's eyes grabbed hers. Blue they were, shading as a sky does in summer from pale to deepest azure. And behind the blue, something hot, like the sun.
Any words she might have said stuck in her throat.
Next to her, Euphemia gasped, then giggled. 'Where are you going, good sir?'
Clare glared at her. The girl was hopeless. They'd be lucky to get her married before she was with child.
'Anywhere that will have me,' he answered Euphemia, but his eyes touched Clare.
Her cheeks burned.
Beside her, young Angus drew his dagger, the only weapon he was allowed. 'I will defend the ladies.'
'I'm sure you will.' The stranger's smile, slow, insolent, was at odds with the intensity in his eyes. 'That's a handsome dirk and I'm sure you could wield it well against me, but I would ask that you not harm my horse.'
His tone was oddly gentle. Where was his own squire? 'Who's with you?'
A dangerous practice.' Did he lie? An army could hide behind him in this mist. Her fault. She had ridden out alone and unarmed and put them all at risk. 'Don't you know Edward's army still rides?'
He frowned. 'Do they?'
His accent confused her. It held the burr of the land closer to the sea, but there was something else about it, difficult to place. Yet over the hill, in the next valley, each family's speech was different. He might be a Robson from the other side of the hill, scouting for one last raid before the spring, or loyal to one of the Teviotdale men who had thrown their lot in with Edward. 'You're not an Inglisman, are you?'
'I have blood as Scots as yours.'
'And how do you know how Scots my blood is?'
'By the way you asked the question.'
Did her speech sound so provincial to Alain? She winced. She wanted to impress the visiting French knight, not embarrass him. 'What's your name, Scotsman?'
'Gavin.' He paused. 'Gavin Fitzjohn.'
Some John's bastard, then. Even a bastard bore his father's arms, but this man carried no clue to his birth. No device on his shield, no surcoat. Just that unkempt armour that, without a squire's care, had darkened with rust spots.
No arms, no squire. Not of birth noble enough for true knighthood, then.
Are you a renegade?' On her wrist, Wee One bated, wings flapping wildly. Clare touched her fingers to the bird's soft breast feathers, seeking to calm them both.
His slow smile never wavered. 'Just a tired and hungry man who needs a friendly bed.' His eyes travelled over her, as if he were wondering how friendly her bed might be.
'Well, you'll not find one with us.'
'I didn't ask. Yet.'
Did he think she'd offer to be his bedmate? She should not be talking to such a man at all. 'Well, if you do, I'll say you nae.'
'I don't ask before I know whether I'm speaking to a friend or an enemy.'
'And I don't answer before I know the same.' Her voice had a wobble she had not intended.