The Chief

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;
— William Shakespeare, King Henry V , Act 4, Scene III

Lochmaben Castle,
Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland,
August 28, 1305

    “William Wallace is dead.”

For a moment, Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, Lord of Annandale, and one-time joint Guardian of Scotland, couldn’t speak. Though death had been inevitable for Wallace since his capture a few weeks ago, expectation did not lessen the crushing blow of finality. The hope that the brave-hearted Wallace had lit in his heart—in the heart of every Scotsman who chaffed under the yoke of English tyranny—flickered.

Scotland’s champion was dead. The torch would pass to him—if he chose to take it. ’Twas a heavy burden and, as Wallace’s death had proved, a deadly one. He had everything to lose.

Bruce forced back the errant thoughts and acknowledged the prelate’s pronouncement with a grim nod. He motioned for his friend to sit on the wooden bench and warm himself by the fire. William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews, was drenched to the skin and looked ready to collapse from exhaustion, as if he had been the one to ride day and night from London with the news himself.

Bruce poured a cup of dark red wine from the flagon on the side table and sat beside him. “Here, drink this. You look as if you need it.”

They both did.

Lamberton accepted it with a murmur of thanks and took a long drink. Bruce did the same, but the pungent fruitiness of the wine soured in his mouth.

Lowering his voice, he steeled himself for the rest. “How?”

Lamberton’s gaze darted back and forth. With his round, boyish face and cold, reddened nose, he had the look of a hare sensing danger. And a plump one at that. But Bruce did not let the prelate’s unthreatening appearance fool him, for behind the inauspicious mask lurked a mind as nimble, shrewd, and cunning as King Edward’s himself. “Is it safe?” the bishop asked.

Bruce nodded. “Aye.” Lamberton was wise to be wary. They were alone in his private chamber, but Lochmaben Castle belonged to Edward now, and Bruce was being watched. The King of England might call him friend, but he did not trust him. Edward might be a tyrant, but he was a shrewd one. “No one can hear us,” he assured the bishop. “I’ve made certain of it. Tell me.”

Lamberton’s dark eyes met his, and the starkness reflected there augured the horror of what was to come. “He suffered a traitor’s death.”

Bruce flinched. Then suffered Wallace had. His jaw clenched, and he nodded for the other man to continue.

“They dragged him behind a horse through the streets of London for three miles, to Smithfield Elms. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered, but not before they chopped off his manhood, eviscerated his bowels, and burned them before his eyes. His head sits on a pike atop London Bridge.”

Bruce’s eyes burned with rage. “Pride has made Edward a fool.”

Lamberton looked around again, but the only movement was the flickering shadows of the candlelight playing across the tapestry-lined stone walls. His fear was understandable: Men had been sent to the tower for uttering less. When soldiers did not come bursting through the door, however, he relaxed. “Aye. Edward’s vengeance has made a powerful martyr. Wallace’s ghost will haunt him far more than the man did. ’Tis not like Edward to make such a mistake.”

“He’s a Plantagenet.”

Lamberton nodded. It was explanation enough. England’s royal family was well known for their terrifying fits of apoplectic temper. Bruce had been on the wrong side of that temper more than once. Thus far he’d managed to survive, but he knew the next time he would not be so fortunate.

Reading his thoughts, Lamberton asked, “You haven’t changed your mind?”

The expectation in his gaze weighed down on Bruce with paralyzing force. All that he had to lose flashed before him: his lands, his titles, his life. He thought of Wallace’s unimaginable suffering. The pain must have been excruciating, the axe that took his head a welcome blow. If Bruce proceeded in this course, there was every likelihood that he would share the same fate.

In that one instant Bruce wavered. He was, after all, only a man. Not yet a king, though the crown belonged to him. It was in that knowledge, in the belief that permeated every fiber of his being, that Robert Bruce found the courage and resolve. He, not Edward, was the rightful King of Scotland. The realm needed him.

He would take up Wallace’s torch of freedom, no matter what the cost.

“Nay. I’ve not changed my mind,” he said, the steely determination in his voice giving no hint to the moment of hesitation.

Five months ago, he and Lamberton had entered into a secret bond—an alliance against all rivals, including not only the most powerful man in Christendom, Edward Plantagenet, but other Scottish claimants to the throne as well. Getting rid of Edward would be only half the battle; uniting his countrymen under his banner would be just as difficult. It was the deep factions and blood feuds within Scotland that had enabled Edward to get a foothold in the country in the first place.

Having Lamberton on his side was key to any hope of success. Despite his relative youth—Lamberton was a year younger than Bruce’s one and thirty—the Bishop of St. Andrews was head of the wealthiest see, and one of the most important and respected men in Scotland. Even Edward recognized this, having recently appointed him joint Guardian of Scotland.

“Good,” Lamberton said, not bothering to hide his relief. “We must be ready.”

“Has the king’s health worsened?” Bruce couldn’t keep the hope from his voice.

“Nay. He’s risen from the dead once again. A miracle provided courtesy of Wallace’s capture, no doubt.”

Bruce sighed. He supposed it was too much to hope that Edward would be accommodating enough to die in his sickbed. The Prince of Wales did not have the shrewdness or the iron will of his sire. “Then what are we readying for?”

“Wallace’s death will ignite the flame of rebellion once again,” Lamberton said. “We need to make sure the fire spreads in our direction.”

Hatred, far beyond what he felt for Edward, surged through Bruce’s veins. “Have you heard rumors? Is Comyn planning something?” John “the Red” Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, was his greatest enemy and chief rival claimant for the crown.

Lamberton shrugged. “I’ve heard no rumors, but it would be wise to anticipate.”

Bruce squeezed his cup until the edges of the carved pewter bit into his hand. Aye, it wasn’t a question of if his enemy would strike but when.

They talked for a while longer, going over who could be counted on to rise for Bruce’s standard, as well as who could not. Edward’s reign of terror the past few years had not been without success. It would not be easy to persuade Scotland to lift their pikes and spears against the far superior English forces with their heavy mounted knights in full armor.

Farmers and fishermen against the flowers of chivalry. Was it madness to think they stood a chance? Wallace had tried, but look where it had gotten him. His head on a pike and his body cut into quarters and sent to all corners of England. Bruce’s heart sank with the despair of it all—not only at the loss of a great man’s life but also the desperate situation of his country.

But he could learn from Wallace’s mistakes. Wallace had proved that the English were vulnerable to nontraditional warfare. To pirate tactics. Bruce shuddered, the idea still not sitting well.

He stood and paced back and forth before the fire, trying to come to terms with what he was about to suggest. It went against everything he believed in. But they needed to find a way to even the odds. Finally, he stopped and turned back to his friend, who was watching him silently from the bench. “We cannot win,” he said, frustrated by the undeniable truth. “Not in a pitched battle, army to army. The English forces are larger, more organized, and far better equipped.”

Lamberton nodded in agreement. It was nothing they both didn’t know already.

“We must change the way we approach this war,” Bruce ventured. “No more pitched battles or long sieges, no more cavalry meeting cavalry. We must find ways to turn their strength against them.” The bishop was eyeing him intently. “We must fight our war under our conditions.”

“You speak of pirate tactics?” Lamberton said. He cocked a brow in surprise. “’Tis not the way of a knight.”

Lamberton’s reaction was understandable. Bruce could hardly believe he was suggesting it himself. He was one of the greatest knights in Christendom, and chivalry permeated every fiber of his being. To fight like a pirate went against everything he believed in: rules, standards, codes. “If we fight like knights we will lose,” Bruce said resolutely. “Army against army, the English are too powerful. But Wallace showed how victory might be possible—by applying pirate tactics to land.”

“Wallace failed,” Lamberton pointed out.

“But we shall have something Wallace did not.” Bruce paused, removing a folded piece of parchment from his sporran.

Lamberton took it and scanned the list of roughly a dozen names. “What is this?”

“My secret army.”

Lamberton lifted a brow, wondering whether Bruce was jesting. “Of a dozen men?” He scanned the list again. “And from what I can tell only a solitary knight among them?”

“I already have knights; what I don’t have is men who know how to fight like pirates.”

“Highlanders,” Lamberton said; no doubt some of the names on the list suddenly made sense. “What better place to find a pirate than the Norse-blooded Highlanders of the Western Isles.”

“Exactly,” Bruce said. “The number of men is reflective of the fighting style—quick, bold attacks of small teams, using stealth and surprise to strike terror in the enemy.”

“But why secret?”

“Fear can be a powerful weapon, and mystery will only increase the fear in the heart of the enemy. Are they real or are they myth? It also makes them harder to stop if you don’t know who you are looking for.”

Lamberton studied the parchment again, tapping his chin with his finger while Bruce waited. The bishop’s opinion mattered to him greatly and would be a harbinger of opinions to come. But Bruce did not delude himself; convincing his companions in arms—his knightly brethren—wouldn’t be easy. Finally, Lamberton said, “I must admit, it’s an intriguing idea.”

Seeing he was not fully convinced, Bruce added, “There’s more. It’s not just a band of pirates. What you have before you are the names of the greatest warriors in Scotland in each area of warfare—from weaponry, to seafaring, to reconnaissance, extraction, and infiltration. Just think: Whatever we need, whatever seemingly impossible mission we face, I will have the very best men at my disposal. Imagine what these men can do alone and then imagine them together.”

Lamberton’s eyes lit up and he smiled, the deviousness of the expression at odds with his youthful countenance and priestly vestments. “It’s visionary.” He looked at Bruce with admiration. “A revolutionary idea for a revolution.”

“Precisely.” Bruce smiled, pleased by his friend’s reaction. Handpicking the best warriors to fight in a small team without family or feudal connection—well, nothing like it had ever been done before. There was more than one pair of enemies on the list. But if it could be accomplished … the possibilities were staggering.

“It won’t be easy,” Lamberton said, reading his mind. “Uniting these men will be near impossible.”

“Much like uniting Scotland under my banner?”

Lamberton tipped his head, conceding the point. Neither would be easy, but they couldn’t let the odds stop them. “Who will command this secret army?”

Bruce slid his finger to the name at the top. “Who else, but the man heralded as the greatest warrior in the Western Isles: Tormod MacLeod, Chief of MacLeod. No one can best him in a sword fight. Like Wallace, he’s a man of impressive stature who wields a two-handed great sword. ’Tis said he once defeated a score of men who tried to trap him by circling around him.”

One corner of the bishop’s mouth curved. “Exaggerated?”

“No doubt,” Bruce agreed, returning the wry smile. “But myth can be every bit as powerful as truth. Bards already sing MacLeod’s praises, comparing him to Finn MacCool. Like the legendary Irish hero, he’s revered not only for his own fighting ability, but for those of his men.”

The prelate’s gaze snapped to his. There was no greater hero in Gaeldom than Finn MacCool, the leader of the legendary band of warriors known as the Fianna. A powerful comparison indeed.

Bruce grinned, pleased that his friend had seen the value of the connection. “Aye, MacLeod’s made a fortune training men to fight as gallowglass mercenaries in Ireland.”

“So he can be bought?”

“Perhaps.” Bruce shrugged with a frown. “You know the Island chiefs. Unpredictable at best, outright hostile at worst.” Subjects of the Scottish crown for only a few decades, the stubborn Island chiefs still thought of themselves as independent rulers, “sea kings” who ruled over a vast, isolated territory. The lack of fealty riled Bruce but unlike his predecessors, he knew that to defeat the English and win a crown he needed the support of the Highlands and the Isles. The western seaboard was key not only for access but also for trade and supplies. Bruce stroked his chin, the dark hairs of his short beard extending to a fine point. “I will just have to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Lamberton looked skeptical. “Are you sure that is wise, my lord? These clan chiefs do not take to being forced.”

Bruce grinned. “I have no intention of forcing him. I won’t need to. Money, land, a beautiful woman—every man has his price. We just have to find out what his is.”

Lamberton nodded, though he still didn’t look convinced. “Then you are resolved?”

Bruce paused. Could he completely abandon the knightly ideals of the past to wage a new kind of war—one antithetical to everything he’d learned since boyhood?

To win, he could. In any event, he needed to be ready. And there was no doubt in his mind that with such an army he’d be better prepared. “I am. Bringing these men together won’t be easy, but do whatever you must to see it done. I may have need of them sooner than we wish.”

Lamberton met his gaze, both men sobered by the long road that stretched out before them. A road shrouded in the mist with an uncertain end.

A chill swept through him.

“The clouds are gathering, my lord.”

“Aye,” Bruce agreed grimly. They’d reached the point of no return. He thought of Caesar’s words before starting his civil war against Pompey and said, “Alea iacta est.”

Lamberton echoed the words in the same resigned tone, translating, “The die has been cast.”

God save us all.