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“Because she has not struck with the sword, she shall not die by the sword, but on account of the unlawful coronation which she performed, let her be closely confined in an abode of stone and iron made in the shape of a cross, and let her be hung up out of doors in the open air at Berwick, that both in life and after her death, she may be a spectacle and eternal reproach to travellers.” -- Order of Edward I imprisoning Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan
Berwick Castle, Berwick- Upon- Tweed, English Marches,
Late September 1306
They’d come for her.
Bella heard the door open and saw the constable fl anked by a handful of guardsmen, but her mind still didn’t want to accept the truth.
This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.
In the weeks it had taken them to build her special prison, she’d told herself that someone would intervene. Someone would put a stop to this barbarity masquerading as justice.
Someone would help her.
Perhaps Edward would relent, as he’d done for Robert Bruce’s daughter and wife, and send her to a convent instead? Or maybe Bella’s erstwhile husband, the Earl of Buchan, would see beyond his hatred and plead for mercy on her behalf?
Even if her enemies did nothing, surely she could count on her friends? Her brother might use his influence as a favorite of the king’s son to help her, or Robert . . . Robert would do something. After all she’d risked to crown him king, he would not forsake her.
In her weaker moments, she even convinced herself that she might have been wrong about Lachlan MacRuairi. Maybe when he heard what Edward planned to do to her, he would come for her and find a way to get her out.
She told herself these men wouldn’t leave her to this horrible fate.
But no one had come for her. No one had intervened. Edward intended to make an example of her. Her husband despised her. Her brother was a prisoner, even if a favored one. Bruce was fighting for his life. And Lachlan . . . he was the one who’d put her here.
She was alone, but for her cousin Margaret, who would serve as her attendant. The one concession Edward had made to her noble blood.
The constable of Berwick Castle, Sir John de Seagrave, one of Edward’s commanders in the campaign against Scotland, cleared his throat uncomfortably. He wouldn’t meet her gaze. Apparently even Edward’s lackey didn’t approve of his king’s “justice” this day.
“It’s time, my lady.”
The flash of panic came so hard and fast it stopped her heart. She froze like a doe in the hunter’s sights. But then instinct set in, and her pulse exploded in a frantic race. She felt the overwhelming urge to run, to flee, to save herself from the arrow aimed at her heart.
Perhaps guessing her thoughts, one of the guardsmen stepped forward to grab her arm and hauled her to her feet. She flinched at his touch. Sir Simon Fitzhugh, the cruel captain of the guard, made her skin crawl with his florid, sweaty face, stale breath, and lecherous stares.
He pulled her toward the door and for a moment her body resisted. She leaned back, her feet planted firmly on the stone floor, refusing to move.
Until she saw him smile. The excited spark in his eye told her this was what he wanted. He wanted her to resist. He wanted to see her fear. He wanted to drag her across the bailey in front of all those people and see her humiliated and humbled.
The stiffness slid from her limbs as the resistance went out of her. She gave him an icy stare. “Get your hands off of me.”
He flushed with anger at the haughty contempt in her voice, and Bella knew goading him had been a mistake. She would pay for her words later, when she was completely at his mercy. He wouldn’t abuse her person. Though she’d been branded a rebel and found guilty of treason, she was still a countess. But he would find millions of ways to exact his punishment and make her life miserable over the next . . .
Her heart caught in another hard gasp of panic. Days? Months? She tried to swallow. God help her, years?
She pushed back the bile that rose in her throat, but her stomach clenched as she followed the constable out of the small room in the guardhouse that had served as her temporary prison.
The first thing she noticed on stepping outside after over a month of imprisonment wasn’t the brightness of the daylight, the freshness of the air, or the vastness of the crowd gathered to watch her torment, but the sharpness of the wind and the piercing, bone- chilling cold. The heavy layers of wool she’d donned as protection felt as gossamer as the linen of her chemise.
It was freezing, and it was only September. What would December be like—January?—when she was perched high on the tower with nothing to protect her from the brutal east wind but the cold iron bars of her prison cage? A shiver ran through her.
Her tormentor noticed. “Feels like an early winter this year, doesn’t it, Countess?” Simon sneered the last, and then pointed up in the direction of the tower. “Wonder how cozy that cage of yers will feel in the sleet and snow?” He leaned closer, his fetid breath singeing her skin. “I might be willing to help keep you warm, if you beg real nice.”
His eyes dropped to her breasts. Though she was covered to her neck in layers of thick wool, she felt unclean. As if the lust in his eyes had somehow touched her, and no amount of bathing would remove the foul stench.
She shuddered with revulsion and fought the urge to follow the direction of his hand. Don’t look. She couldn’t look. If she looked at the cage she would never be able to do this. They would have to drag her across the courtyard after all.
She swallowed the knot of fear, refusing to let him know that he’d gotten to her. “I’d rather freeze to death.”
His eyes blazed, hearing the truth in her words. He spit on the ground, inches from the gold- embroidered edge of her fi ne gown. “Haughty bitch! You won’t be so proud in a week or two.”
He was wrong. Pride was all she had left. Pride would keep her strong. Pride would help her survive.
She was a MacDuff, from the ancient line of Mormaers of Fife—the highest of all Scottish noble families. She was the daughter and sister of an earl, and the disavowed wife of another.
An English king had no right to pass judgment on her.
But he had, in a particularly barbaric fashion. She was to be an example. A deterrent to the “rebels” who’d dared to support Robert Bruce’s bid for the Scottish throne.
Her noble blood hadn’t saved her, nor had her sex. Edward Plantagenet, King of England, didn’t care that she was a woman. She’d dared to crown a “rebel” king, and for that act she would be hung in a cage on the highest tower of Berwick Castle, open to the elements so that all who passed by could see her and be warned.
Bella never could have imagined how much that one act would cost her. Her daughter. Her freedom. And now . . . this.
She’d wanted to do something important. To help her country. To do the right thing. She’d never wanted to be a symbol.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
God, what an idealistic fool she’d been. Just like Lachlan had accused her. She’d been so smug. So self- assured. So bloody certain that she was right.
Now, look at her.
No! He wasn’t right, he wasn’t. She couldn’t let him be. Then it would all be for nothing.
She couldn’t think about the brigand. It hurt too much. How could he have done this?
Not now. Later, there would be plenty of time to curse Lachlan MacRuairi back to the devil that had spawned him.
She fisted her hands at her side, trying to muster strength. She wouldn’t show fear. She wouldn’t let them break her. But her heart drummed in her throat as she marched slowly across the courtyard.
It took her a moment to realize what was wrong. The crowd gathered to witness her punishment should be shouting, jeering, taunting, calling her names, and throwing rotten fruit and scraps of food at her. But it was deathly quiet.
The people of Scotland’s once greatest market town were intimately familiar with the King of England’s ruthlessness. Ten years ago, Berwick had been destroyed and its people massacred in one of the greatest atrocities committed in the long and destructive war between Scotland and England. Women, children—no one was spared in the sacking of Berwick, which had lasted for two long, bloody days and claimed the lives of thousands.
The crowd’s silence was a protest. A condemnation. An admonition to King Edward of the horrible wrong being done this day.
Emotion swelled in her chest. She felt the heat of tears burn at the back of her eyes, the unexpected show of support threatening to snap the fragile threads of pride barely holding her together.
Not everyone had deserted her.
Suddenly, she caught the flash of a movement out of the corner of her eye. She fl inched instinctively, thinking someone had finally decided to throw something at her. But instead of an apple or a rotten egg, she glanced down at her feet and saw the bud of a perfect pink rose.
One of the guards tried to stop her when she bent down to pick it up, but she waved him off. “It’s only a rose,” she said loudly. “Does Edward’s army fear flowers?”
The jab was not lost on the crowd, and she heard the murmur of jeers and snickers. Edward’s knights were supposed to be the flower of chivalry. But there was nothing chivalrous about the deed being done this day.
Simon would have ripped it out of her hand, but Sir John stopped him. “Let her keep it. For pity’s sake, what harm will it do?”
Bella tucked the rose in the MacDuff brooch that secured her fur- lined mantle, and then bowed her head to the crowd in silent acknowledgment of their solidarity.
The rosebud—insignificant though it might seem—gave her strength. She hadn’t been forsaken by everyone. Her countrymen were with her.