In late summer 1297, Margaret Kerr heads to the town of Stirling at the request of William Wallace’s man James Comyn. Her mission is to discover the fate of a young spy who had infiltrated the English garrison at Stirling Castle, but on the journey Margaret is haunted by dreams—or are they visions?—of danger.
He who holds Stirling Castle holds Scotland—and a bloody battle for the castle is imminent. But as the Scots prepare to cast off the English yoke, Margaret’s flashes of the future allow her to glimpse what is to come—and show her that she can trust no one, not even her closest friends.
A Cruel Courtship is a harrowing account of the days before the bloody battle of Stirling Bridge, and the story of a young woman’s awakening.
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About the Author
Candace Robb has read and researched medieval history for many years, having studied for a Ph.D in Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Literature. She is the author of the acclaimed Owen Archer novels and the Margaret Kerr Mysteries.
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Perth, end of August 1297
As the summer wore on the presence of King Edward of England's army in Perth began to fray the tempers of the townsfolk. Women increasingly complained of the rude behavior of the soldiers, and theft was rampant, the thieves aware of the backlog of more serious crimes to be presented at gaol delivery sessions than their small felonies. The walls that the army had reinforced and extended now surrounded the town on three sides, cutting off the merchants' access to their warehouses from the ships in the canal. The English might have compensated for some of the inconvenience by allowing general access along the riverfront on the east — it would have quieted tempers and cost them little in security. Instead they restricted access from the River Tay, allowing only one ship per day to offload. Now ships might idly sit at anchor in the river for days, impeding traffic and slowing trade to almost a standstill. Even though the fighting in Dundee at the mouth of the Tay made shipmen hesitant to sail upriver, some still did, and to the townsfolk the restrictions were symbolic of the potential loss of freedom if Edward Longshanks was not defeated.
For several mornings now the English soldiers had found breaches in the town walls, small areas where stones had been taken away. Though it was a minor rebellion they were now questioning all who lingered on the riverfront, so that the townsfolk were fearful of going abroad.
James Comyn had watched an interrogation turn ugly the previous day — a man who loudly protested having his person searched had been thrown to the ground and brutally beaten. That was enough to convince James that he should depart Perth while he could. As a member of the powerful Comyn clan and kinsman of the Scottish king deposed by Edward Longshanks, James was ever wary. He'd intended to leave soon in any case, for he'd been summoned to a meeting with William Wallace and Andrew Murray, the leaders of the Scots who were presently at Dundee trying to force the English troops west toward the highlands where, fearful of being lost in the mist-shrouded valleys, the English would predictably turn south.
As he packed a few possessions an ache in his left shoulder reminded James of the night several weeks past when he had escorted Margaret Kerr to Elcho Nunnery. He'd caught an arrow in his shoulder as he stealthily rowed past Perth — apparently he'd not been stealthy enough. The ache was nothing compared with the pain he'd experienced when the arrowhead had first struck into the muscle. At the time he'd been grateful that the invisible archer on the riverbank had hit him and not his companion in the boat, the fair Margaret Kerr. He still felt the same.
She had been much on his mind the past few weeks, ever since she'd walked away from her husband Roger, who'd been injured by the men guarding the priory as he tried to break in. It was not the first time the lovely young Margaret had confounded James's expectations, but this time he was suspicious of his own feelings, of the relief he felt. He'd thought it was because he needed Margaret to continue her work in support of his kinsman, John Balliol, the deposed king. This work was one of the issues that had come between husband and wife, for Roger supported Robert Bruce for the crown of Scotland. But James found himself seeking Margaret's companionship more and more often — how strange that he'd connived to keep her occupied without understanding he was falling in love with her.
He wished he might ignore the summons from Wallace and Murray — he knew what his assignments were. He'd prefer to begin another journey that was critical to the cause, escorting Margaret and her friend Ada de la Haye to Stirling. He'd agreed to give Margaret a real mission. He hoped he wouldn't curse himself for telling her that the messenger who'd been carrying information from Stirling to the farm of James's comrades down in the valley below Stirling had grown unreliable.
"In fact they've not seen him in a few weeks. I need someone to find out what has happened."
"You're leaving for Stirling?" she'd asked.
He shook his head. "I can't go. I'm known to too many of the English and the Scots in the town."
"I'll do it," she said, fixing her eyes on his.
"Maggie, that is not why I mentioned it. You can't go."
"With the English holding Stirling Castle and town it's a dangerous place. I would not risk you there."
"As a young woman unknown to anyone in Stirling I would be scrutinized no more than the other townsfolk."
"But all are scrutinized."
"That is also so in Perth."
James could not deny that.
By the following day Margaret had recruited her friend Ada de la Haye, also keen to help the cause, as part of the scheme. Ada had a townhouse in Stirling where they might lodge. Both women were ready to depart at a day's notice.
But now James must delay. What stayed him from disobedience was the possibility that Wallace and Murray might have changed their plans and he might be following discarded orders. So be it. Margaret must wait. He had, at least, presented her with a gift. A Welsh archer had arrived in town after escaping from the Hospital of the Trinity at Soutra, an Augustinian establishment that stood on the main road from the border between England and Scotland. The English were using it as an infirmary and a camp for the soldiers. The archer had news of Margaret's brother, Father Andrew, who had been sent to Soutra as a confessor to the English. Margaret had seemed comforted to hear he was well.
Whence comes the knowledge of dreaming when one is dreaming — for a fleeting moment Margaret wondered that, but her sleepy, thoughtful mood quickly turned to dread as she recognized the dream space in which she stood, behind a once unfamiliar kirk, familiar now that she'd dreamt of it so often. It sat on a rocky plateau beneath a great castle that stretched high above on an outcrop. Here below, the kirk was dark except for a lantern over the east door that was for her but a twinkle in the distance; the castle was lit by many torches that danced in the wind of the heights, making the stone walls shimmer against the heavens. At the edge of the kirkyard her husband, Roger, stood atop a huge, scrub-covered rock that rose four times Margaret's height, looking up at the castle. She stood far beneath him in the rock's shadow, terrified because she knew what was to come. I pray you, Lord, let this time be different. Spare him, my Lord God. But the cry came, and then Roger came falling, falling, his head hitting the uneven, stony ground with a terrible sound. Margaret knelt to him ...
An owl's screech rent the fabric of Margaret's dream, letting the true night reach through and waken her. Rubbing her eyes, she rolled over to find her maid, Celia, sitting bolt upright with her hands to her ears, staring into the darkness of the curtained bed in Margaret's chamber. Shivering, Margaret asked her if she'd shared her nightmare.
"It was the shriek of an owl that woke us," Celia whispered, as if fearful the bird might hear her. "My Ma always said such a visitation was a forewarning that the master of the house is to die." She crossed herself. "Master Roger is in danger."
Holy Mary, Mother of God, keep him in your care, Margaret silently prayed.
"What should we do, Mistress?" asked Celia.
Waking a little more, Margaret realized that Celia had not shared her dream, but was speaking of the owl on the roof. It seemed a silly worry compared to her nightmare. "Visitation? Owls hunt at night, Celia, and I'm sure they often alight on roofs. Surely they cannot always mean to warn someone." Margaret spoke loudly to drown out the chilling rustling of the bird's talons in the thatch.
"This one shrieked and woke us, Dame Margaret."
When she was a little girl, Margaret recalled, she, her father, and her brothers Andrew and Fergus were out late one night in the water meadows downriver from Perth. A shadow gliding across the moon had frightened her, and she'd screamed as it disturbed the air above her head. Her father had picked her up, and she'd buried her face in his neck. It was but an owl, he had said, and already far away. It is but a bird, Maggie, a bird of the night.
So, too, might be the owl this night. "If God means to warn me, I should think He would send a clearer message," said Margaret. Such as her dream? "Roger is safe in the infirmary at Elcho Nunnery — the same guards who injured him will do so to any others who arrive unannounced." She prayed that was true. Turning away from Celia, Margaret settled back into her pillow with a loud sigh that she hoped would silence her maid.
"Can the Sight come to you as an owl?" Celia asked.
Could she not be still? "In faith, I know not," said Margaret, "and I am too weary to wonder about that now." Second Sight — several of the MacFarlane clan, her mother's kin, were afflicted with it; her mother had nearly been destroyed by it. All her life Margaret had resented the suffering it brought to her family and for years had been thankful that she had not been so cursed. But that had changed of late. "Go to sleep, Celia. You can conjure more worries in the morn."
But the damage had been done, for Celia had touched on a subject of much concern to Margaret of late. She shivered as her thoughts turned to the possibility that her mind was opening to the Sight. Celia must be cold, too, because as she rolled and tossed seeking a comfortable position she brushed Margaret with an icy foot. The jolt of cold was like the chill Margaret felt when her surroundings grew strange and time past and future fused with the present. Of late, she might be kneeling in the garden tending the beds when without warning the earth seemed to drop away from her and she would gasp for breath, suddenly somewhere else and possessing frightening powers — hovering over people as she listened to their thoughts. They were often strangers and yet she knew them.
"Shall we light a cruisie and talk?" Margaret said to Celia's back, suddenly wanting the reassurance of her pragmatic company.
"It's still night," Celia murmured, "time for sleep."
She had a talent for sleep — the blessing of an untroubled soul, Uncle Murdoch would have said. Troubled or untroubled, that did not seem to matter for Celia.
Margaret both resented and envied Celia's slumber as she herself lay in the dark weighing the possibility of God's moving one of His most unsettling creatures to cry the darksome warning that her estranged husband was marked for death. His injuries had not seemed mortal, but wounds could so easily fester and then so quickly kill that even the most skilled healer might lose a patient. Indeed, Margaret had based her confidence in Elcho's infirmarian on little information. But the recurring dream of Roger falling to his death made her question her judgment.
She lay in the dark full of remorse for neglecting him. He was her husband in the eyes of God regardless of their estrangement. She did not wish him harm.
The difficulty was that she had promised James that she would wait for him in Perth and then ride with him to Stirling. He had a mission for her, one that she had begged him to entrust to her, and he had particularly asked that she not involve herself in anything that might prevent her from leaving Perth when the time came. James's opinion of her meant a great deal of late. If something were to come of their relationship over and above their work for his kinsman she wanted James to have the memory of her courage in successfully completing a mission so that he would never look upon her as Roger had done, as a woman to be installed in his household and then largely ignored, never to be a confidant.
That she was thinking of James in a romantic way would puzzle her Uncle Murdoch, who had introduced them in Edinburgh. They had not seemed destined for even friendship, let alone anything deeper, in the beginning; in fact, James had threatened her and she had suspected him of being a sadistic murderer. Even now she tried not to think of the events that had led her to believe that of him. She understood that war changed the rules. She tossed in bed, uncomfortable with her acceptance of that. Losing her heart to someone other than her husband embarrassed her here in the dark of the bed she'd shared with Roger. Eager to be of some use, she had vowed to do all in her power to help James in the effort to restore his kinsman John Balliol to the throne of Scotland. Desiring James had not been part of her plan.
She trained her thoughts on the owl's visitation, returning to the question of whether Roger was safe at the priory. It was not a small thing, to go to him there. With the English, who held Perth, closely watching the countryside around the town and considering no wanderer innocent, she had little room to maneuver. She prayed that her mother might also have premonitions of Roger's danger and warn him. It was because her mother bided in Elcho Nunnery that both Roger and her father were there. Her mother had retired to the priory when Margaret was wed. Her father had been pleased for her to do so at the time, but he'd recently returned from abroad determined to coax her back into living as man and wife. Roger had accompanied her father to the priory, apparently hoping to convince her mother to give him details of a vision she'd had of Margaret standing with her husband and child watching the King of Scotland arrive in Edinburgh. Roger's chosen lord, Robert Bruce, was understandably keen to know whether he was that king. James, too, was keen, but hoped the king was his kinsman. That they had all arrived at Elcho on the same evening had been an unfortunate coincidence — two boats stealthily arriving on the riverbank had thrown the guards into a panic that resulted in injuries to Roger, his companion Aylmer, and her father.
Although the English soldiers left Elcho Nunnery in peace as a favor to her mother, who had to her shame done them an inadvertent service, Margaret feared she might not be included in her mother's protected circle. It was possible the English knew of her connection to James Comyn, and thus to William Wallace and Andrew Murray, who were fighting to return the throne to John Balliol. She should not risk the possibility that the English might be waiting for her to leave the town and the protection of her neighbors so that they might take her for questioning without raising an alarm. But she had agreed to help James, and so she must wait for his escort.
Margaret's resolution unfortunately did nothing to help her sleep, for she had a wealth of worries awaiting her attention. The owl's visit was only the most recent one. She had hoped to enjoy some quiet after the storm of familial troubles that had brought her back to Perth from Edinburgh. She must have been mad to think there would be any peace for her when all her family were involved in the struggle between the Scots and King Edward of England. The immediate danger was a fresh English army approaching the southern border. Margaret had thought the summer's end would be relatively peaceful because King Edward was in the Low Countries, but apparently his presence was not necessary for an attack. Worst of all, the army would be marching across Soutra Hill, the site of the Hospital of the Trinity where her brother Andrew was confessor to the English soldiers. His assignment to the spital, which had been turned into an infirmary and camp for the invading English, was a condemnation, for as he was a Scot he would never be released now that he had heard the confessions of the enemy — which is precisely why his abbot had sent him there.
Worries upon worries, cares upon cares. Yet despite it all Margaret must have drifted off because suddenly the dawn shone softly through the bed curtains that Celia had parted as she slipped out.
"I must go below," said Celia, noticing that Margaret stirred.
"Tom can see to the kitchen fire," Margaret assured her.
"He can't manage everything," Celia said. "If we overwork him we'll lose him."
The new servant was a young man with whom Margaret was mostly delighted; he was efficient and energetic, though she did wonder why he had not chosen a side in the struggles and gone to fight. Celia believed that a man might be just as reluctant to fight as any sensible woman would be. Indeed Celia worried that Margaret's hovering might frighten him off when there were so few young men to help with the heavier work.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Cruel Courtship"
Copyright © 2005 Candace Robb.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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