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The Middle March, Scottish Borderslate summer 1528
Something was wrong. He could tell, even from this distance, though he could not explain how.
John had not set eyes on his family's brooding stone tower in ten years. Not since he'd been sent to the court of the boy king. Now that king was grown and had sent him home with a duty to perform.
One he meant to complete quickly, so he could leave this place and never return.
A shaft of sunlight cast sharp-edged shadows across the summer-green grass. His horse shifted and so did the wind, bringing with it the sharp, painful wail of keening.
That was what he had recognised. Death. Someone had died. Who?
He gathered the reins and urged the horse ahead, thinking of the family he had left behind. Father, older brother, younger sister. His mother was dead these twelve months. They had sent him word of that, at least.
His sister was the only one he cared to see again. No surety that they mourned a family member. Others were part of the tower's household. But he galloped across the valley as if the time of his arrival might matter.
At the gate in the barmkin wall around the tower, he was challenged, as he had expected. The man was not one he recognised.
Not one who would recognise him.
He removed his polished helmet to show friendly features, glad of cool air on his face again. 'It's John Brunson. Sir John now, knighted by the king.' He had waited years and miles to say so. 'Tell Geordie the Red his youngest son is home.'
Tell him I'll not be here long.
The man leaned back on his pike. 'There'll be no telling of anything to Red Geordie Brunson. He lies dead in his bed.'
And John, silent, couldn't summon up even the pretence of sorrow.
John or Sir John, there was no convincing the man to let him in. Despite the fact that people were gathering for the wake, they made him wait until they fetched his brother, Rob, to verify his identity. He could not blame them. That was the way of the Borders.
In truth, he'd found little more trust in the men surrounding the king. They were just less obvious about their suspicions.
Rob, bearded now and taller and broader than John remembered, stood on the wall walk, arms folded in doubt, letting John sweat beneath his full harness of armour. It was as much for his moods as his dark hair that they'd called him Black Rob. Now, new lines scored his brow and John wondered how many of them had deepened since he woke to find himself head man of the riding clan.
'You claim to be my brother?' Even Rob could not recognise him with a glance. John had been twelve, only half-grown when he left.
'Aye. You're looking at the son of Geordie the Red.'
'A Storwick could say the same.' His sceptical disdain was everything John had remembered. And hated. 'What brings you here?'
He did not ask what brings you home, as if he would not call Brunson Tower John's home, either.
But everything was different now. Instead of begging Rob's permission and asking his help, now John would tell his brother what must be. 'I'm sent of King James, fifth of that name.'
His brother snorted. 'That's no talisman of entry.'
Ruled by his advisers for the last fifteen years, the young king's name struck no terror on the Borders. But John knew the king well enough to know that it would. And soon.
'Look at my eyes and you'll know me.' Johnnie Blunkit they had called him. The only Brunson with blue eyes.
'If you're a Brunson, then what's your father's father's father's father's name?'
He searched his memory, blank, then tried to summon the ballad of the Brunsons. Only the opening lines sang in his head.
Silent as moonrise, sure as the stars, Strong as the wind that sweeps Carter's Bar.
There was little else he remembered of his people. And less that he wanted to.
'I may not be able to name my great-great-grandfather, but I remember well enough, Black Rob, how you tried to teach me the sword. Your own blade slipped and I've still a mark on my rib to show for it.'
Some of the ladies at court had found the scar quite appealing.
Rob's frown did not ease, but he jerked his head to the guards. The gate opened, creaking.
John rode in, searching for something he might recognise. Was that the corner where he and Rob had practised with dagger and sword? This the spot where he and his sister had buried their toys? It felt no more familiar than any of the succession of castles he and the king had slept in over the years.
And no more welcoming.
A slender young woman with flowing red hair stepped into the courtyard. 'Johnnie?' Bessie.
His sister, at least, knew him. When he'd left, she had been eight and they had been the youngest together, united against the world.
Now, she was a woman grown.
He swung off the horse and hugged her, letting her squeeze him back, holding the embrace longer than he would have because it gave him something to do. Time to think. And a moment's illusion that he still belonged here.
'Ah, Johnnie, I always told them you would come home.'
He held her away so he could see her eyes. Brown, like all the Brunsons except his, but today, red with tears.
He shook his head. 'Not for long, Bessie.' Never again. 'I'm Sir John now. I ride beside the king.'
Rob, down from the wall, clasped his arm, without warmth.
'I must talk to you,' John began. 'The king wants' 'Whatever the king wants, I'll not hear of it now. It will wait until we've sent Red Geordie to rest with our forefolk.'
It was always thus. All work, all life would stop for the 'dead days' before burial.
Well, that might be the way of the Borders, but the king had no time to wait.
Still, John held his tongue and followed Bessie into the tower. His heavy armour clanked in protest as they climbed the stairs to the central gathering room.
'I found him in his bed,' Bessie said, as if she thought John would care, 'when he didn't come to break fast. Died in his sleep he did, with no one to receive his last words.' She whispered, as if to speak aloud would make her cry. 'Snatched away without a moment to say farewell.' Her voice shook. 'Yet peaceful he looked, like he was still asleep.'
'No death for a fighting man,' Rob muttered behind him.
At the door to the gathering hall, Bessie paused. 'I must make his body ready.' She gave John another brief hug, then climbed the stairs to the floor beyond, where his father lay dead, hovering above him like an evil angel.
She, at least, mourned Geordie Brunson.
They entered a crowded hall, the yawning hearth half filling the outer wall. But instead of sorrowful mourners, he first faced a table surrounded by half a dozen warriors.
'This is my brother, John,' Rob announced, with no acknowledgement of his knighthood and no hint that he might have come for any other reason than to mourn his father.
One by one, the men rose to greet him. Toughened by war and hard living, wearing vests of quilted wool and boots of well-worn leather, each man took his hand, took him in, and gave him trust because he was a Brunson. No other reason given and none needed.
The last one, slender shouldered, sitting with his back turned, rose last. And John saw, astonished, that he faced a woman.
Her brown eyes did not meet his with the warmth of the others.
'This is Cate,' Rob said. 'These men are hers.' He said the words as if it were no more remarkable than blooming heather.
She was tall and spare and blonde as the brown-eyed Viking who, legend said, was the father of all Brunsons. Nose sharp, chin square, cheeks hollow with more than hunger, neither face nor body showed a woman's softness.
A woman who refused to be one. How did he treat such a woman?
He thrust his hand to shake hers, as he had the others, but she did not reach out, deigning only a curt nod. He returned it, his hand dropping awkwardly to his side as he suppressed his resentment. Then he broke away from her stare, his gaze falling, without deliberate intent, to search for breasts and hips. He found only edges, no curves. No comfort for a man there.
And based on the expressions of the other men, none sought.
'Are you a Brunson, then?' he asked. She looked like some cousin, long forgotten.
She lifted her chin and gave a quick shake of her head, ruffling her cropped hair. 'I'm a Gilnock.'
The Gilnock family were distant kin, descended from the same brown-eyed, bloodthirsty Norseman as the Brunsonsand the only family on the Border more unforgiving than his own.
'But she's under our roof now,' Rob said. Under Brunson protection, as might happen when a child was orphaned.
With a quick motion, she dismissed her men and moved closer to Rob and John.
'I must speak with you, Rob,' she said. Her voice surprised John. It was lower than he expected, the words round and deep and shimmering as if she were whispering secrets in the dark. 'Your father died with his word unkept. What happens now?'
'He was not your father,' John retorted, wondering what had been promised. Yet she seemed more a Brunson than he, as if she had donned men's clothes in order to usurp his place.
'He was my headman,' she answered, looking at the new headman when she answered. 'Sworn to protect my family.'
'A Brunson gave you his word,' Rob said, anger edging his words. 'It will be kept.'
On the border, a man's word was good after death. At court, it might not be good after dinner.
'When?' she asked.
'After he's buried,' Rob answered. 'It must wait.' He looked at John, the glance a warning. 'As must other things.'
Cate caught the look and turned to John. 'You do not come because of his death?' Her eyes, assessing him, seemed ready to judge his answer. Not for this woman the warmth he usually felt from her kind. She seemed as cold and fierce as his brother.
Rob might want him to wait for the burial, but his father was dead and the king alive. And impatient. 'I bring a summons from the king.'
'You mean from his uncles or his mother or his stepfather?' Rob looked no more willing to listen than Cate Gilnock.
John understood his hesitation. James, six years younger than John, had been king since birth, but he'd been under the control of others for the sixteen years since then. 'From none of those. It's his personal rule, now. No one else's.'
They sat, silent, thinking of all this meant.
'A man with much to prove, then,' Rob said.
Did Rob speak of the king? Or himself?
Cate's lips twisted in a smirk. 'So what message is so important that your bairn king would send you here, all dressed in armour, to tell us?'
The harness and badge he'd been so proud to wear had impressed the beauties at court. 'He's your king, too.'
'Is he?' She shrugged dismissal. 'I've never met him, never sworn my allegiance. My family and my own right arm keep me safe, not your king.'
'But he will.' He fought the tug of her voice, a strange combination of scorn and seduction. 'He commands our men to join him in war against the traitor who has held him captive for the past two years.'
The 'traitor' had once been a duly appointed regent, but all things change.
Cate, not Rob, jumped in to answer. 'And the wee king sent you to tell us, did he? You might have spared your horse. Brunson men will ride for no king of Fife. They ride to fulfil the promise of Geordie the Red and put Scarred Willie Storwick dead in the ground.'
He wondered what the man had done to earn such vengeance, but it mattered not. If that was his father's promise, it would be broken.
'The king commands you to fight his enemies, not each other. There'll be no more raiding and reiving and thieving of cattle and sheep. I come to carry out the king's will.'
And to earn his place at the king's side, but that would not sway them.
'And do you also come to stop the sun from rising of a morning?' The curve at the corner of her mouth was a poor substitute for a smile.
If a man had said it, John might have answered with a fist to his gab. 'The king wants'
'The king doesn't rule here.' Rob's words were low and hard, his expression the one that had earned him the nickname Black. 'We do.'
I do, he might have said, for his brother would be the one to say where the Brunsons would ride.
Yesterday, the decision would have been his father's.
'Surely your loyalty does not rest with the English king?'
'My family holds my loyalty,' his brother said. 'Who holds yours?'
He and his family had parted ways years before. Nothing had made that more clear than returning to them. 'We all owe loyalty to the throne. Scotland must be one country or it will be no country at all.'
'I owe nothing to your bairn king,' Cate said, heading for the door. 'Go back and tell him to leave us be.'
No one followed her.
John looked back at Rob, waiting for a decision, but his brother seemed frozen with grief. The son most like his father, Rob had been prepared all his life to lead the family, but uncertainty lay beneath the stubborn set of his jaw.
Borderers had long held themselves above the king of either country.
No, now was not the moment to force a sorrowing son to choose between his father's promise and the king's command.
But if Cate released Rob from his father's promise, then the choice would be easier. John would have to wrestle only with his brother's stubbornness instead of with a dead man's ghost. No, in order for the Brunson men to ride east to meet the king, Cate Gilnock must drop her demands and step aside.
So John would persuade her to do exactly that.
And quickly. The king was expecting John to deliver Brunson men before the first frost.
Brew was served and the sharing of stories began, stories of Geordie the Red at his best. And his worst.
Refusing to share in laughter and tears he did not feel, John left Rob and the rest in the hall and went in search of a place to stow his gear and his armour.
Avoiding the floor where his father's body lay, he made his way to the open sleeping room on the upper level. He had travelled alone, without even a squire, for speed and secrecy, so he wrestled his armour off by himself.
He would certainly not beg his brother for help. Instead, he pondered the problem of Cate Gilnock.
For the few days of the wake and burial, he would leave Rob to mourn and turn his charm on the woman. By the time his father was in the ground, he'd have her ready to release Rob from whatever promise she'd been given.
She looked and sounded like no woman he had ever met, yet underneath, he had no doubt that she was the same as all the rest. With the right handling, she'd be persuaded to peace.
Reason would be useless, of course. Near as useless as, he feared, it would be against his brother. But there were other ways.
His family might confound him, but women did not. He knew how to flatter and cajole them, how to overcome their feigned resistance, and how to coax a smile or a kiss. He and the king had shared their fill of women and John had even taught the younger man a thing or two, though in truth, the king needed little teaching in this realm.
He headed down the stairs to find her, a smile returning to his face. No doubt Cate Gilnock had never been wooed by a man before, acting as she did. All she needed was a honeyed word and a winning smile and she'd soon be releasing Rob from the daft-headed promise his father had made.
And Brunson men would be riding to join their king.