Heart's Thief (Highland Bodyguards, Book 2)

Heart’s Thief

 

Highland Bodyguards,

Book 2

 

 

By

Emma Prince

 

Heart’s Thief (Highland Bodyguards, Book 2) Copyright © 2016 by Emma Prince

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact [email protected]

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. V 1.0

Chapter One

 

 

 

Early August, 1315

Lochmaben, Scottish Lowlands

 

“What the bloody hell happened?”

Colin MacKay kept his features carefully smooth at King Robert the Bruce’s angry bellow.

The Bruce yanked off his nasal helm and hurled it across the tent. The helm slammed into the tent’s canvas wall with a muffled thump, then thudded to the hard packed dirt floor.

“Carlisle shouldnae have been so difficult to take,” the Bruce snapped. He began to pace the length of the tent, which served as the humble headquarters for the King of Scotland.

Colin slid a glance at Finn Sutherland, who stood silently at his side. Finn shook his head, the slightest of movements. Colin knew his friend well enough to comprehend the warning in the gesture.

“The ladders should have been enough. The trebuchet should have been enough.” The Bruce reached the tent’s back wall and spun on his heels. He pinned them with hard eyes. “Speak, damn ye!”

Finn, one of the bravest, fiercest men Colin had ever known, shifted uncomfortably under the King’s glare. Dark brows lowered, Finn pressed his lips together, remaining silent.

“We couldnae have accounted for this cursed rain, sire.”

The words were barely out of Colin’s mouth before he regretted them. Only the weak blamed factors like the weather for their failures.

From the dark look on the Bruce’s face, his King agreed with that sentiment.

Aye, the rain had been their bane all summer. With the wind at his back after the victory at Bannockburn last year, the Bruce had been storming through the Lowlands and even into northern England, reclaiming castles and towns that Longshanks had pried away from Scotland years ago.

But after months of victories against Longshanks’s ineffectual son, King Edward II of England, the weather itself seemed to turn against the Scottish cause. Nigh incessant rains had slowed the Bruce’s army as it moved across the Lowlands. Crops drooped and molded, making the task of feeding Scotland’s soldiers all the more difficult.

And now they had suffered their greatest setback in years. Carlisle Castle sat in the northernmost corner of Cumberland, practically a stone’s throw from the stretches of Lowlands the Bruce had reclaimed for Scotland. The castle would have been a jewel in the Bruce’s crown, proof of his army’s strength and a not-so-subtle threat that would have spread from the Borderlands all the way to Edward in the south.

The castle should have fallen quickly and easily to the Bruce’s army, ten thousand men strong. But after less than a fortnight of sieging, the Bruce had been forced to abandon his efforts and return to Lochmaben.

“The ladders would have worked if it hadnae been for the boggy ground,” Colin tried again. Though it was a weak excuse, he needed to at least attempt to soothe the Bruce’s rage. There were too many other fronts of the battle, and too much at stake, to waste time on fits of frustration.

The Bruce had been about to pace his next length of the tent when he rounded on Colin.

Good
. Colin could take the King’s anger, let him burn himself out, and then help him move on to their next challenge.

“Aye, the ladders should have worked. But it was rash no’ to bring the siege machines. We wouldnae have wasted five days building new ones.”

It had been a strategic decision on the Bruce’s part to leave their trebuchet and siege towers in Lochmaben. He’d wanted to move quickly, to strike Carlisle in a surprise attack. But when the ladders had sunken into the marshy ground surrounding the castle, unable to gain purchase, the error of favoring speed over the war machines’ strength had become clear.

The army had hastily built a siege tower to scale the castle’s walls, but that too had become stuck in the mud, rendering it useless. And though the trebuchet had fired on Carlisle’s walls relentlessly for several days, little more than a few chips had been made.

“Mayhap if we had led with the tactic we used at Edinburgh Castle…” Finn offered. At the Bruce’s withering look, though, Finn fell silent once more.

Colin exhaled slowly under the hard-eyed stare of his King. “I dinnae ken what to say, Robert. We tried the ladders. We tried the trebuchet and the tower. We tried scaling the back wall, as we did at Edinburgh, but they were prepared for it. I ken ye dinnae want to hear this, but mayhap we willnae take Carlisle.”

At the use of his given name, the Bruce’s anger deflated slightly. Though he was King of all Scotland, the Bruce preferred for his most trusted inner circle of warriors and advisors to call him Robert—they were family, he insisted. Their lives were in each other’s hands. No one took that more seriously than the King himself.

The Bruce raked a hand through his graying russet-brown hair. He seemed to notice for the first time that he, like Colin and Finn standing before him, was soaking wet and covered in mud. They’d ridden hard from Carlisle that very afternoon, though the sting of defeat no doubt overrode the Bruce’s physical discomforts at the moment.

“Forgive me, Colin, Finn.”

The Bruce suddenly seemed far more tired than Colin could ever remember seeing him. Only a few weeks past, the King had turned forty-one, but his energy and focus had grown along with the Scottish cause’s successes over the last several years. In defeat, the lines on his face looked deeper, his body more bent with time and this loss on the way to freedom.

The King moved behind his wooden desk, pulling out a chair. “Please, sit,” he said, motioning to two other chairs near the desk.

As Colin eased himself into one of the chairs, he too suddenly felt the effects of nine long years of warfare. More than just the weight of his chainmail over his soaked tunic was making his bones ache.

“Walter! Warmed wine, please,” the Bruce called to the man stationed outside the tent.

The three of them waited in silence only broken by the muted drizzle of rain against the tent’s canvas roof.

As Walter entered quietly with three goblets of wine, the Bruce seemed lost in thought, his auburn brows drawn together.

When the tent flap slipped closed behind Walter, Colin cleared his throat. “Training for the Corps is going well.”

The Bruce looked up from his wine. “Ah. I forgot to ask about that.”

A fortnight ago, Colin and Finn had been called from Roslin Castle in the Highlands by a missive that told them to meet the Bruce in Lochmaben with all haste. They’d barely had time to don their chainmail before the Bruce had led his army from Lochmaben to Carlisle with Colin and Finn at his side.

The Bodyguard Corps, as the men were coming to call themselves, was a project of particular interest to the Bruce. Almost a year ago, the Bruce and his inner circle, including Colin, had come up with the idea of a secret group of elite warriors who would serve as bodyguards to those targeted by the English.

A new era of warfare was dawning. After being trounced by the Scots at Bannockburn, the English were now resorting to striking at individual targets important to the Scottish cause of independence—even women and children. Those in the Corps were training hard in the Highlands to rise to this new challenge.

Though he’d been distracted by the sour events of the last ten days, Colin was sure the Bruce would appreciate an update on the Corps. If naught else, it would hopefully take his mind off Carlisle.

“Robert Sinclair takes great pleasure in torturing us,” Colin said, lifting his mouth into a smile he knew would put his King at ease. “And Ansel Sutherland joins us most days for training.”

“Ansel and Lady Isolda are well?” the Bruce asked, still staring despondently into his wine.

“Aye, verra well. He again sends his thanks for allowing his family to live so close to Roslin Castle. Isolda is carrying a bairn to join young John in the fall.”

“The Corps is still small, but we are ready and awaiting yer orders,” Finn added.

The Bruce swirled the wine in his goblet and sighed. “Thank ye both.”

A long silence stretched. Disquiet tickled up Colin’s spine even as he look a long sip of the warmed wine.

He’d always been able to read people effortlessly. Normally all it took to put others at ease was a grin or a lightly spoken word. Something must truly still bother the Bruce. He was not only unaffected by Colin’s disarming smile, but was also uninterested in the Bodyguard Corps, his most personal project.

“Something troubles ye, Robert,” Colin ventured, his low voice breaking the silence.

The Bruce leaned back in his chair, exhaling through his nose. “It is just… How did those bloody English ken how to defend against our men scaling the walls as we did in Edinburgh? How did they ken to stock the castle with enough boulders and arrows to outlast a siege ten times longer than we gave them?” He shook his head slowly in disbelief.

There it was. It was not merely the sting of defeat that needled at the King. But could he be seriously considering foul play?

Colin set his goblet on the Bruce’s desk slowly. “What are ye saying? That they kenned we were coming?”

A flash of urgency lit the Bruce’s dark eyes as he too set his wine aside. “Doesnae that explain everything? No’ the rain, of course,” he said with a wave of his hand. “But the rest of it. How did they ken that we would attempt to distract them on the west wall while a group scaled the east wall?”

Finn cocked a dark brow but remained silent. To say the man wasn’t much for words was a vast understatement, so as usual, it fell to Colin to speak.

“Word of how we took Edinburgh spread quickly. It is no’ beyond reason to think that those in Carlisle had heard of our tactic and kenned to watch for it.”

The Bruce propped his elbows on his desk. “Aye, mayhap. But what of the fact that they were clearly prepared? I would almost believe that their stones bred and multiplied behind the castle’s walls. And their arrows and spears seemed nigh endless.”

That was true enough. The Bruce’s army had been the recipient of a relentless hail of attack from the castle’s longbowmen. Hurled rocks had kept them from getting near any of the three gates. Even without the rain turning the ground to mush, the Bruce’s forces would have been hard-pressed to scale their ladders under such constant fire.

“And there were so bloody
few
of them,” the Bruce went on before Colin could gather his thoughts. The Bruce smacked the wooden desk with his hand. “Only a few hundred men to guard the walls against our force of thousands. There is something foul afoot, I swear it.”

This was a dangerous line of thought for a King. If the Bruce were to constantly look for conspiracy behind his failures, soon he would believe that he couldn’t trust anyone. Nevertheless, Colin couldn’t deny that everything the Bruce said pointed to black dealings.

“Spies?” he murmured at last. “Or a traitor in our midst?”

As if to underscore the dark possibility, a low growl of thunder rumbled through the tent.

The Bruce looked between Colin and Finn slowly.

“Nay, no’ a traitor,” he said at last. “Only a small handful of men even kenned about the plan against Carlisle, and I cannae believe one of them would aid the English.”

“We have spies in the English court,” Finn said lowly. “Is it so hard to imagine that Edward may have infiltrated our camp? A spy doesnae have to be in yer inner circle to hear things.”

The Bruce tugged on his russet beard, which was liberally slashed with gray. Rainwater from the trek between Carlisle and Lochmaben trickled onto the desk below the King’s beard, but he barely seemed to notice.

“I hardly spoke of my plans at all, except—” The King’s eyes locked on Colin and then Finn once more. Realization dawned slowly across his face. “Except that in the missive I sent to Roslin Castle to call ye both down, I mentioned Carlisle.”

“Robert, ye cannae think that
we
—”

“Nay, Finn, nay. But think, man. The letter traveled a great distance. It could have been intercepted at any point along the way.”

Colin shook his head slowly, confusion clouding his thoughts. “But your missive arrived intact, the seal unbroken. Obviously it wasnae stolen.”

“No’ stolen, aye, but might someone have read it somehow?”

There were ways to open a letter without breaking the wax seal, of course. The most likely culprit would be the messenger himself, though the Bruce was extremely careful in selecting his carriers.

“Ye think someone opened yer missive, read it, resealed it, and allowed it to be delivered while the culprit himself passed the information on to Andrew Harclay?”

Harclay was the constable of Carlisle, as well as the sheriff of Cumberland. He’d been the one to set up the resistance to the Bruce’s siege. Despite having only a few hundred men to the Bruce’s ten thousand, he’d somehow managed to turn the Bruce away.

“That would explain Harclay’s preparedness,” the Bruce said. “Though I can tell from yer frown that ye find my theory far-fetched, Colin.”

Colin quickly smoothed his features. It was unlike him to lose control like that. “I agree that the English were strangely prepared,” he replied. “Bloody hell, it seemed as though they had every blacksmith and fletcher in the city making arrows and spears in the week before we arrived. And they must have had piles of rocks as high as the walls stacked every few yards behind the parapets. I am just…”

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