McCarty / THE ARROW
Berwick Castle, English Marches, 6 December 1312
There is nothing wrong with me.
Gregor drew his arrow back and let it loose. One shot. One kill. He wouldn’t miss.
He didn’t. The soldier froze in paralyzed shock as Gregor’s arrow found the narrow patch of skin between his eyes—one of the few places unprotected by mail and the steel kettle-cap the soldiers favored. The old Norse nasal-style helm that the Highland Guard wore would have served them better. But even at this close range—Gregor was no more than thirty yards away—such a small target required skill to hit. Skill like that possessed by the greatest archer in Scotland.
A moment later, the Englishman’s mail-clad body toppled to the ground like a felled tree. Before he’d even hit the ground, the next target already had appeared on the rampart. Gregor took quick aim and fired. He didn’t appear to think; his movements were as smooth and precise as a finely tuned engine of war. But the cool, effortless facade masked the intense focus and concentration underneath. Everyone was counting on him, but under pressure was when Gregor MacGregor was at his best.
The second soldier fell as the arrow found its mark.
After nearly seven years fighting in the Bruce’s elite Highland Guard, no one was better at eliminating key targets in advance of an attack than Gregor. Targets. That’s how he had to think of them. An obstacle in between him and his objective that needed to be eliminated to achieve victory. And there had been plenty of obstacles over the past seven years.
But they were making progress—real progress—and the victory over the English that most had thought impossible was inching closer to reality. Since returning to Scotland from the Western Isles, where Bruce and those loyal to him had been forced to flee six years ago, the king had made steady gains in wresting his kingdom from English occupation. He’d defeated his own countrymen to take control of the North; Robbie Boyd, along with James Douglas and Thomas Randolph, had a firm grip on the lawless Borders; and the isolated former Celtic kingdom of Galloway was about to fall to the king’s only remaining brother, Edward Bruce.
All that were left were the English garrisons entrenched in Scotland’s castles, and one by one those were falling to Bruce as well. But none would be more important than Berwick Castle. The impenetrable stronghold in the Scottish or English Marches (depending on who currently had control) had seen more than its share of this war and had served as the English king’s headquarters on his previous campaigns. Taking it would bring them one step—one big step—closer to victory. But without siege engines, Bruce and his men had to rely on more inventive methods. Like the grappling-hook-and-rope ladders two of Gregor’s fellow members of the Highland Guard were waiting to toss over the wall, as soon as he cleared the battlements of the enemy.
Gregor peered into the darkness, scanning the wall patiently, his pulse slow and steady. There had been three soldiers patrolling this section of the wall. Where was the third?
There! His reaction instantaneous, Gregor let loose the arrow at the first glimpse of steel as the soldier emerged from the shadows of the guardhouse. The man fell to the ground before he even knew what hit him.
Pop, pop, pop, and it was done. The targets had been cleared.
Gregor never missed. Which was why he was so valuable. When stealth was key, the Highland Guard could not risk an errant arrow or one landing in a part of the body that might give the enemy a chance to raise the alarm. Bruce’s success depended on subterfuge. And Gregor would do whatever he had to do to see Bruce permanently entrenched on Scotland’s throne.
Except that he had missed. Gregor bit back a curse of frustration. The third arrow had landed in one of the soldier’s eyes, not between them. To anyone else it might be on the mark—dead was dead—but not for him. For him, it was a miss.
And it wasn’t the first. The past few weeks—months—he’d been off by a few inches more than once.
It’s nothing, he told himself. A temporary rut. Everyone has them.
Everyone but him. He couldn’t afford to be anything but perfect. Too much was riding on this. The king was counting on him. And the small misses bothered him more than he wanted to admit.
Gregor took one more look before using hand gestures to let the others know that it was all clear. Leaving their position hidden in the shadows of the riverbank, the five men crept toward the White Wall. They were the advance guard. The men handpicked by Bruce to go over the wall first and open the gate from within to let in the rest of them. In addition to Gregor and his fellow Guardsmen Arthur “Ranger” Campbell, Lachlan “Viper” MacRuairi, and Erik “Hawk” MacSorley, Bruce had chosen James “the Black” Douglas for the honor of taking Berwick.
This was the most ambitious—and dangerous—attempt they’d made to take a castle by subterfuge yet. Two stone guard towers along the riverbank of the Tweed were linked to the main fortifications atop the motte by the steep winding wall with the apt name of “breakneck stairs.” So scaling the wall and taking the lower towers was only the first challenge; they would then have to climb the breakneck stairs and take the upper guard tower before the English became aware of what was happening.
Their task would be aided significantly by the ingenious ladder. Sir James Douglas or, depending on whom you talked to, Sir Thomas Randolph (the good-natured rivalry between the two men for the position of the king’s most trusted knight was becoming legend, and they often vied for credit for the latest escapade) had come up with the idea of attaching iron grappling hooks to a rope ladder fitted with wooden footboards. It was light enough to be carried by two men and far easier to hide than the fixed wooden ladders used to scale walls. This would be their first attempt at using one.
Gregor scanned the area of the rampart above for additional soldiers, as Campbell and MacSorley—who as a seafarer had plenty of experience with grappling hooks—went to work tossing the hooks over the wall and securing the ladder into position. With the fierce Island chieftain’s uncanny ability to slip in and out of shadows, MacRuairi would go up first, and Gregor would follow, setting up in position along the wall to observe and, if necessary, get rid of any unexpected problems while the rest of the men made their way up the ladder.
Observation was Gregor’s secondary role. It was his job to make sure they weren’t the ones surprised.
The first part of their mission went smoothly—too smoothly, which always made him twitchy. He’d been on enough missions to know that the only thing you could count on was that something always went wrong.
But the ladders worked better than they could have hoped. Within five minutes, Gregor was in position along the wall where he could see both guard towers, and the other men had cleared the wall and dropped down beside him.
With the dark leather light armor, the blackened nasal helms, and skin darkened with ash, they blended into the moonless night. Only the whites of their eyes stood out as they looked to him, waiting for his signal. Scanning the area one more time, he gave it.
The men spread out. MacRuairi and MacSorley went toward the guardhouse leading up to the breakneck stairs, while Douglas and Campbell headed down the stairs of the lower tower to open the sally port to the sea, where the rest of their men—a force of fifty, given the size of the garrison at Berwick—would be waiting.
Gregor kept his eyes on the wall, ready to loose the next arrow if necessary, knowing the next few minutes would be the most dangerous. Discovery now would leave the five warriors at their most vulnerable: inside the castle with nowhere to go, surrounded by two towers of sleeping soldiers. Silence was imperative until the towers could be taken, and the gate opened.
Gregor’s ears pricked at a faint sound. His gaze shot to the second guard tower, where MacRuairi and MacSorley were a few feet from entering. His brethren heard the light clicking sound, too, and froze.
Gregor had his arrow nocked and ready. He drew it back, poised to let it sail as soon as the first glimpse of the white of a man’s eyes emerged from the shadows.
Tick, tick, tick.
Damn it, that didn’t sound like footsteps. It sounded like a . . .
A moment later, a mangy-looking terrier—its head no more than a foot off the ground—trotted out of the shadows toward the two warriors. It had probably been scavenging the castle for rats when it heard something and decided to come investigate.
With Gregor’s gaze fixed at the height of an average man, it took him a moment to make the adjustment down. Bloody hell. The thing was so ugly it was almost cute.
The dog scampered to a sudden stop. It was about a dozen feet from MacSorley and MacRuairi, giving Gregor such an easy mark he could shoot it with his eyes closed. But he didn’t. He looked at the pathetic excuse for a dog and hesitated.
The dog seemed to be having second thoughts about approaching the two imposing-looking warriors, proving that it was smarter than its half-starved, unfortunate appearance suggested. Appearing to lose interest, it started to turn away, when something flashed in the moonlight.
The blade from MacRuairi’s drawn dagger.
The dog darted into the shadows of the guardhouse like it had just seen a ghost, letting out a torrent of terrified yapping behind it.
God’s bones! The dog might be small, but in the quiet night air the shrill, high-pitched bark might as well have been a thunderclap. It had the same effect: disaster.
Gregor unfurled the arrow, but it was too late. The dog was lost in the shadows and the damage had been done. They might as well have rung a bell inside the towers, as soldiers poured out to investigate.
The quiet, sleeping castle had become a hornet’s nest.
With them caught in the middle.
He swore, knowing that not only had the dog cost them their chance at surprise—and the chance of taking the castle—but they were also going to have a hell of a time getting out of here without being caught.
But he’d be damned if he let his friends die because of his mistake. Drawing his sword, Gregor turned to face the onslaught of soldiers who were almost on him and shouted the words that had become feared across Christendom. The battle cry of the Highland Guard: “Airson an Leòmhann!”
For the Lion!
King Robert the Bruce sat behind the large table that dominated the small solar off the Great Hall of Dunstaffnage Castle and stared blankly at the three warriors.
Why the hell did Gregor feel like squirming? Bruce wasn’t his father—the king was only seven years his elder—but Gregor hated to fail at anything, and having to explain it to the man who was the last person he ever wanted to let down made it that much worse. There was no one he believed in more than Robert the Bruce, and Gregor would fight to his dying breath to see him claim his throne.
A claim that could have been much closer if Gregor hadn’t buggered up.
A damned dog. They’d lost the chance to take one of the most important castles in the Marches because the best archer in the Highlands had hesitated to shoot a little flea-bitten ratter.
Elite warriors didn’t miss and they sure as hell didn’t hesitate. Gregor was still furious with himself even a week later. Furious, aye, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was how after he, MacSorley, and MacRuairi had narrowly—very narrowly—managed to escape the hornet’s nest stirred up by the damned dog at Berwick, Gregor had nearly gotten them captured a few days later in the village. Or rather, his damned face had nearly gotten them captured.
The king finally spoke. “We lost our best chance to take back one of the most important castles in the Marches from the English because of a dog?”
MacSorley winced. “Aye, well, it wasn’t much of a dog to speak of, but it could have raised the dead with that bark.”
“It was a bit of bad luck, that’s all,” MacRuairi interjected.
If Gregor needed any more proof of how badly he’d erred, the fact that a mean bastard like Lachlan MacRuairi was trying to cover for him said it all.
“I didn’t think any of you fell prey to something so human as bad luck?” the king said with a wry turn of his mouth.
“It wasn’t bad luck,” Gregor corrected. “It was my fault. I hesitated.”
Bruce lifted a brow. “To shoot a dog?”
Gregor gritted his teeth, humiliation burning inside him. He was an elite warrior, the best of the best—he wasn’t supposed to make mistakes like this. He didn’t make mistakes like this. Bruce was counting on him. But he had, damn it, and it had cost them. He met the king’s gaze unflinchingly. “Aye.”
“In his defense, sire, it was kind of a cute little blighter,” MacSorley added with a grin. “And we did find out one thing that is important.”
“What’s that?” the king asked suspiciously, expecting the jest.
“The rumors are wrong: he doesn’t just break hearts, he actually has one.”
“Sod off, Hawk,” Gregor bit out under his breath. But the blasted seafarer just grinned.
The king appeared to be fighting doing the same. Gregor’s reputation was well known. But that wasn’t the way of it. If women wanted to throw themselves at him for something as silly as how he looked, he sure as hell wasn’t going to stop them. What was he supposed to do, fall in love with all of them?
“And there were no other problems? Campbell and Douglas reported how they managed to hold off the English long enough to open the sally port gate and escape. But they feared you might have been trapped trying to go after them.”
That was exactly what had happened, but with the Highland gift for understatement, MacRuairi just said, “It was nothing we couldn’t handle, sire.”
Robert Bruce hadn’t won his crown by being a fool. He narrowed his gaze on the man who’d been one of the most feared pirates in the Western Isles before he’d agreed to join the Highland Guard and fight for Bruce. “Yet it took the three of you a week to return, my best seafarer is hobbling, my best marksman can’t lift his arm, and you are wrapped up around your ribs as tight as a mummy?”
“I didn’t say there weren’t any problems,” MacRuairi clarified. “I said it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle.”
“I think you’ve been around my little sister-by-marriage for too long, Viper; you’re beginning to sound like a damned lawman!”
Janet of Mar, the sister of Bruce’s first wife, was married to their fellow Guardsman Ewen Lamont, and the lass could talk her way out of a shite-storm.
Gregor had had enough. The embarrassment of telling the king what had happened couldn’t be more painful than listening to these two try to cover it up.
He stepped forward and gave a brief summary of how they’d gone in to rescue Campbell and Douglas, fearing they’d been trapped, and instead become surrounded themselves. They’d managed to fight their way out through about thirty soldiers, but he had taken a blow to the arm with a sword, MacRuairi had broken a few ribs when a war hammer connected with his side, and an arrow had landed in the back of MacSorley’s leg while they were running from the castle. As the other men had been forced to flee, leaving them without a quick means of getting away, with the English swarming and MacSorley’s leg gushing blood, they’d thought it best to lay low at a safe house in the village until the English gave up their search.
“A sound plan,” the king said with a nod.
Gregor held back a grimace. “It should have been.”
Christ, this was like pulling his own teeth. “But our presence became known and the English surrounded the cottage where we were hiding. Fortunately, the previous occupants had dug a hole under the floor to preserve their winter stores, and we hid in there while the soldiers searched.”
“That couldn’t have been too comfortable.”
That was putting it mildly. Three well over six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered warriors jammed in a space no more than five feet by five feet for nearly an hour had been hell.
“Good thing my cousin smells so sweet from all that bathing,” MacSorley said, referring to MacRuairi’s well-known penchant for cleanliness. “The whole place smelled like roses.”
MacRuairi gave his cousin the cold, I’m-going-to-stick-a-knife-in-your-back-when-you-least-expect-it look that had earned him the war name “Viper.”
“You were damned lucky not to be taken,” Bruce said.
No one argued with him.
The king sat back in his chair, crossing his arms contemplatively. “So is anyone going to tell me how your presence in the village became known?”
Gregor didn’t need to look to know that MacSorley was fighting laughter and dying to make some kind of jest—especially as it was one of his favorite topics to jest about. You’d think that after seven years he’d grow tired of it.
Gregor should be so damned lucky.
Usually, it didn’t bother him, but this time it could have gotten them all killed. His mouth fell in a hard line. “It seems the farmer’s young daughter couldn’t keep a secret and decided to tell a few of her friends we were there.”
“A few?” MacSorley said. “The enterprising lass sold nearly a dozen tickets to see the ‘most handsome man she’d ever seen in her life.’ ” He added the last in the dreamy, singsongy voice of a sixteen-year-old lass that made Gregor itch to put his fist through that gleaming grin.
“Tickets?” Bruce asked incredulously. “You can’t be serious.”
MacRuairi nodded, smirking. “Aye, at a half-penny apiece. And all these years, we’ve been getting to look at him for free.”
Gregor shot him a glare. Now MacRuairi was making jests? Christ, hell had truly frozen over.
“I told you not to remove your helm,” MacSorley said, still smirking.
“For three days?” Gregor replied exasperatedly, raking his hair back with his fingers. It was so bloody ridiculous. It wasn’t the fact that he was an elite warrior in the Highland Guard taking on the most dangerous missions that was going to get him killed, it was his cursed face.
Although he had to admit there were times when it wasn’t a curse—in the alehouse last night, for example, with that pretty, buxom serving lass who’d crept into his bed—but it sure as hell didn’t have a place in war.
Just once he’d like to meet a woman who didn’t take one look at his face and pledge her undying love. Or at least one who wasn’t married to one of his brethren.
Gregor stood silently as MacSorley and MacRuairi exchanged a few more barbs pointed in his direction. By the time they were done, even the king was chuckling.
Aye, it was bloody hilarious. He supposed there were a lot worse things than having women throw themselves at him, but sometimes it began to wear.
After a minute Bruce sobered. “So how long do you think it’s going to be before someone connects ‘the most handsome man she’s ever seen’ who was part of the failed attack on Berwick with Gregor MacGregor, the famed archer and ‘most handsome man in Scotland?’ ”
Gregor cringed again. Christ, he hated that moniker. “I don’t know, sire.”
That his anonymity in the Highland Guard had possibly been jeopardized was one of the worst parts of the whole fiasco in the village. They were all still reeling from the traitor Alex Seton’s defection to the enemy. He’d betrayed them all. God help their former brother-in-arms if they ever came face to face with him in battle. Although Seton’s former partner Robbie Boyd had been certain Seton would inform the English of their identities, thus far he hadn’t. But with what had happened in the village, Gregor knew it was only a matter of time before he was unmasked.
Having his identity hidden was one of the reasons he’d been so eager to join the Highland Guard. The anonymity—the mask—gave him freedom. He would earn a name for himself by his sword—or rather, his bow—and nothing else. There were no distractions like there were at the Highland Games. No well-meaning relatives like his uncle Malcolm, chief of the MacGregor clan, telling him how to help his clan by marrying one of the women who were only too eager to take him for a husband. Gregor would defeat the English, help see the man who had been more a father to him than his own secured on the throne, and do his duty to his clan on his own merit. By deed and skill alone.
“Aye, well, neither do I,” the king said, “but I think it’s best if you stay out of sight for a while.” Gregor started to protest, but Bruce cut him off. “Only a few weeks. It will be Christmas soon anyway. I will send for you when we are ready to take Perth.” The king intended to begin laying siege to Perth Castle in early January. He smiled appeasingly. “God knows we can all use a little break. A few weeks to relax and clear our heads. I need you all at one hundred percent.”
The words were directed at all of them, but Gregor wasn’t fooled. The king knew Gregor had been struggling of late. That was the real reason for this “break.” Gregor had let him down. Shame twisted in his gut, but all he could do was nod.
“Besides,” Bruce said, handing him a folded piece of parchment, “this arrived from your brother a few days ago.”
Gregor let out a groan of deep dread, eyeing the note as if it carried the plague. Bloody hell, what had she done this time?
He took the note with reluctance, not wanting to know. Gregor hadn’t had much schooling, but his younger brother John had been meant for the church before their two older brothers had died, and he could write as well as read. Gregor had only a bit of the latter skill, but it was enough to make out the short missive. “Come as soon as you can. Emergency.”
Rather than raise alarm, the note only made him curse.
“Problems?” Bruce asked innocently.
He might be king, but that didn’t mean Gregor couldn’t glare at him from time to time. “It seems I’m needed at home.”
“Something wrong, Arrow? Don’t tell me those golden wings of yours have finally tarnished in your adoring wee ward’s eyes?” MacSorley said, guessing, as the king had, what had provoked the curse.
“She’s not my ward, you arse!” He ignored the reference to the lass’s mistaking him for an angel. Thank God for Helen MacKay. Until she’d arrived and assumed the nickname, MacSorley had called him Angel.
“Then what is she?” MacRuairi asked.
Hell if he knew. A termagant? A penance? God’s test of his sanity? The lass was always landing in some kind of trouble. From the moment he brought her home, she’d been causing “emergencies” of one sort or another.
Like the time she’d entered a local archery contest dressed as a boy in a hooded cloak and bested every one of the local lads, nearly causing a riot. Damn it, that was probably his fault. But he’d never imagined when he told her that she could learn to protect herself that the lass would take to warfare quite so enthusiastically. John, who’d been teaching her, said she was better than some men he knew. His brother was exaggerating, of course; she was only a lass—and not a very big one at that.
But his first impression of her all those years ago had been right. The lass was a fierce little thing. A real fighter. She was also stubborn, proud, opinionated, bossy, and overconfident. All fine characteristics in a man, but not in a young girl.
It was hard to stay angry with her, though. She wasn’t a beauty by any means, but she was cute in an unassuming fashion. Until she smiled. When she smiled, she was as cute as the devil.
She also adored him. Which made him bloody uncomfortable. Especially lately, as she grew older. She’d become a . . . distraction. Which was exactly what he needed to be rid of.
“So when are we going to meet this wee lass?” Bruce said. Not such a wee lass anymore, Gregor recalled uneasily. The last time he’d been home—a year ago, when his mother had died—that fact had been brought home to him in an embarrassing fashion, when Cate had broken down crying and somehow ended up in his arms. And on his lap. “What was her name? Caitrina?”
Gregor nodded, surprised that the king remembered. Six years ago, when they’d returned to camp after leaving the lass with his mother, Bruce had been horrorstruck by what had happened to the villagers. He, like the rest of them, had been deeply moved by the lass’s tragedy and had taken a personal interest in her.
“Aye, Caitrina Kirkpatrick.” Though his mother had called her Cate.
“How old is she now?” Bruce asked.
Gregor shrugged. “Seventeen or eighteen.”
“Hell, Arrow,” MacRuairi said. “If you want to be rid of the chit so badly, why don’t you just find her a husband?”
If he weren’t such a mean bastard, Gregor would have hugged him. Of course! Marriage! Why hadn’t he thought of it earlier?
There was only one problem. He had to find someone fool enough to take her on.