Authors: Kathryn Loch
Tags: #Historical Medieval Scottish Romance
Royal Forest of Inglewood
Midsummer, 1403 AD
welve-year-old Branan held his mother’s hand tightly. “You cannot die,” he said, his voice choked with tears.
“Listen to me,” his mother, Raina Strickland, whispered. Her green eyes blazed with anger and sorrow. Her grip on Branan’s hand felt weak and the bruise on her right temple appeared dark and angry. “I have little time left and you must know the truth.”
“The truth?” Branan asked in confusion. He knew the truth. His father, William Strickland, had beaten his mother so badly, all knew she would never rise from this bed.
“Strickland is not your father,” his mother said through clenched teeth.
Branan gaped at her. He wondered if the injury to her head, which the healer insisted would end her life, had addled her thoughts.
“Your father,” she continued, her face a pallid gray, “was the Scottish-born knight, Raulf MacTavish.”
“Nay,” Branan blurted.
“Hush, dear boy,” Raina said gently. “I was married to Raulf MacTavish. I had just discovered I was breeding when Strickland murdered your father. Strickland hated Raulf.”
“Please, Branan, listen well. After Strickland murdered your father, he forced me to marry him in order to gain the wardenship. I had no choice. If I had not carried you in my womb, I would have willingly died. Instead, I convinced Strickland you were his. I told no one of my breeding until a few weeks after he took me to his bed. If Strickland had known your true sire, he would have killed you the moment you were born.”
Branan’s eyes burned, but he refused to shed his tears. “Why? Why did you not tell me? Why did you let me believe that bastard was my true father?” Ever since he’d been little, Branan had wondered how he could be born of such foul stock.
“I feared for your safety, Branan. I did not tell you because you were not old enough to understand the danger of your heritage. Every day you look more like your father. Soon you will reach the age where Strickland will see his old enemy staring back at him. Forgive me, my son. I never wanted to mislead you, but only now are you old enough to understand the truth.”
Branan’s mind scrambled to keep up with it all. “Who was my father? Who was Raulf MacTavish?”
“Remember the stories of the great knight I used to tell at your bedside?”
Despite his confusion, a tiny smile tugged at Branan’s lips. As long as he could remember, his mother had told him wonderful stories of a gallant knight afore bed. Those stories had taught him chivalry, courage, and honor, for he certainly had not learned them from Strickland.
“Those tales were not fanciful legends, but the truth about your real father.”
“You . . . you mean . . . my real father was that knight?”
“Aye, my son. There is a family near, a family your father and I once called friends. Seek out John de Reigny at the manor house of Newton. Strickland knows them not, but Reigny can teach you more of your father and your family in Scotland. Lord Reigny was Raulf’s best friend and brother in arms. He also knows your Uncle Duguald.”
“Your father’s younger brother in Scotland.”
Slowly, his mother relaxed and closed her eyes. “Forgive me, Branan. I do not wish to leave you, but the choice is not mine to make.”
“Mother,” he whispered, a tear sliding down his cheek.
“Know this well, my sweet Branan. I told your father, only hours before his murder, of your impending birth. He was overjoyed, Branan. He wanted nothing more than to hold you in his arms. But Strickland robbed him of that joy and then stole our lives. When I buried your father . . . I vowed you would one day make Strickland answer for what he had done. Be cautious. Revenge will burn deep within you, but you must learn before you fight. Learn, or you will lie in a grave next to us.”
Branan’s tears broke free. “Mother, don’t leave me.”
“Forgive me, Branan. I love you, my son, but . . . I am so tired . . . I must rest for a moment.”
He waited, praying she would open her eyes. Her hand relaxed on his as she slipped into unconsciousness.
“Momma, nay,” he gasped, resting his head on her shoulder.
But she never moved again.
Three hours later, under the cover of the moonless night, the healer, a priest, and a few servants who had been in the house before the time of Strickland, draped Raina in a burial shroud and carried her secretly out of the castle.
They led Branan to a small grave site about three miles away from Penrith.
Branan stared in disbelief at the weathered gray headstone. A terrible chill crawled down his spine and pricked his skin.
Sir Raulf MacTavish, died 1391.
His real father.
Branan watched mutely as the servants dug a fresh grave for his mother. He should have helped, he should have done something, but all he could do was stare at the granite stone and try to comprehend all his mother had told him.
Strickland is not your father.
The servants lowered his mother’s body into the grave and Branan felt sobs wrench through him. The hard, cold ache of loss wrapped around his heart. The priest spoke soft words, committing his mother’s soul to the Almighty. Surely this was all some strange dream and he would awaken to find his mother alive.
He understood only one thing. The man he had been raised to know as his father had beaten his mother again. This time, he had killed her.
Strickland murdered your father.
The servants started to fill the grave. The priest placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I know this is difficult, my son,” the old man said. “I know the truth of your heritage.” He paused and gestured to those around him. “We are the only ones who do.”
“Why . . . ?” Branan choked. “Why didn’t she tell me afore?”
“She had no choice. When you are older, you will understand.”
“What am I to do now?” Suddenly Branan felt very lost and alone—and very much a child.
“Where is she?” a voice roared.
Branan spun around. William Strickland, mounted atop his huge destrier, galloped toward him, along with three knights and a handful of
The priest crossed himself and muttered a prayer in Latin.
Before Branan could summon his wits, Strickland pulled to a stop before him. His eyes were dark, the planes of his face made even more cruel by a neatly trimmed beard, spattered with gray. Strickland’s gaze locked on the headstone for a long moment . . . then he stared at Branan.
“Now I finally understand,” he growled. “You are that bastard’s whelp, not mine.” Instantly, he drew his sword, a large Scottish claymore.
Branan caught a glimpse of a brass-plate hilt. He knew that sword well after gazing upon it almost every day of his life. A few times he had wondered why his father chose to carry a weapon used primarily in Scotland. It had a thistle engraved on the hilt and a deep green emerald set in the pommel.
Reclaim your father’s sword.
Suddenly, Branan understood. Raulf MacTavish, a Scotsman, once bore a claymore. He gazed upon the weapon of his true sire.
Black rage possessed him. Branan screamed in fury.
The priest grabbed him and shoved him backward. Strickland cut downward, decapitating the priest. Blood splashed across Branan’s face and soaked his tunic. One of Strickland’s men lifted a crossbow. It
, and fire burned through Branan’s left shoulder.
“Run, Lord Branan!” someone screamed.
Branan hauled himself up, hatred sending fire through his veins. The black rage pounded deep within him. He would kill Strickland for this . . . for murdering his mother . . . for the beatings . . . for his true sire . . . .
A servant tackled Branan just as another knight shot a crossbow bolt at him. “Run,” the man growled. “Remember your mother’s words.”
Learn before you fight.
A foul taste coated his mouth, but Branan, his thoughts fogged in blackness, picked himself up and ran.
“Get the bastard!” Strickland screamed.
Branan focused on the dense trees a short distance away. Ignoring the agony in his shoulder, he sprinted as fast as his legs could carry him. Crossbow bolts landed near his feet but still he ran, his long legs pumping rhythmically. He threw himself into the forest where the trees and undergrowth grew thick. The dense brush would slow him down, but the knights on their horses would be at a severe disadvantage.
He seemed to alternate between running and hiding for hours, but the knights were not as crippled as Branan had hoped. Just when he prayed it was safe to catch a breath, a bolt sent him diving for cover. Now that Strickland had determined the truth, he would never let Branan live.
Branan had broken the shaft to the bolt in his shoulder, but the barb remained embedded. He bled terribly and he knew his strength would not last much longer. He plunged under a thicket as a knight galloped past him.
“There you are,” a soft feminine voice whispered.
Branan almost yelped as a hand closed on his.
“Be silent,” the girl snapped. “I’m trying to help you, fool.”
Branan blinked in surprise. The girl appeared to be close to his age, with light-colored hair and eyes, but he could see little in the darkness. “Who are you?”
“I’m Catriona de Reigny,” she whispered. “I pray your mother told you about our family.”
“You know John de Reigny?”
“He is my father.”
“Aye,” Branan said, snarling against the pain radiating from his shoulder and into his chest. “But why are you here?”
“My home is not far. We saw your mother’s burial and feared there might be trouble. My family and I are keeping an eye on you.” She paused and sucked in a breath. “’Tis my father’s promise to your dead sire.”
A shudder passed through Branan’s body.
“I will take you to safety, Branan MacTavish.”
He blinked at her, stunned.
“’Tis your true Scottish name.”
“Why . . . why should I trust you?”
She gestured to his shoulder, still bleeding badly. “You don’t have a choice. That wound may kill you yet. Now come on.”
“Aye,” he whispered and crawled after her. “It seems I must put my life in your hands.”
She flashed him a smile that made him feel strange. “No one knows this forest as well as I, not even my brother.”
Branan followed her, crawling on his belly through the thicket. A terrible chill possessed the core of his being.
Too much blood loss. She’s right, this wound may kill me yet. But I cannot die. Not now. Not until I know the truth of my father. Who was he?
Another thought chilled him even more.
Who am I?
December 1415 AD
acTavish!” a lad’s voice cried.
Branan quickly stepped out of the wood shop, wiping the sweat from his face, and saw young Marcus sprinting across the bailey as if the hounds of hell snapped at his heels.
“Aye?” he asked, instantly worried.
The youngling slid to a stop, panting, his eyes wide. “Riders comin’. I didna recognize their arms because of the mist.”
The sound of galloping hooves reached Branan, echoing with an ominous strength in the thick, misty air. The clouds hung low this morn, as if the sky had descended to touch the earth. He scowled and grabbed his inar from its peg. Hastily hauling it on, he straightened the snug-fitting, sleeveless leather jacket and seized his claymore. Branan stepped into the bailey. Uncle Duguald and several other warriors joined him.
“Shall we close the gates?” Duguald asked.
“Nay,” Branan replied, listening intently. “I ken only three mounts.”
Duguald nodded, but his knuckles whitened over the hilt of his claymore.
In moments, an English knight with two mounted serjants broke through the mist and charged up the hill to the keep. For an instant Branan’s rage surged, threatening to leap out of control. Had Strickland finally found his haven?
Branan forced down the emotions. Nay, Strickland would not find him on clan lands. And if he had, he would send a much larger force than this.
“What the devil?” Duguald muttered.
The approaching knight, riding a huge bay, raised his hand in peaceful greeting, but Branan’s suspicions did not ease. Others of the household gathered in the yard, many bearing weapons.
The knight pulled his blowing mount to a stop before Branan and jumped to the ground, pushing back his chain-mail coif.
Branan blinked, taking in the man’s smiling face and sparkling blue eyes, his long blond hair in a tattered braid. “Gavin?” he whispered in shock. “Gavin de Reigny?”
“Branan, you dog! How are you?”
Gavin enveloped Branan in a manly embrace that threatened to crack his ribs. His concern vanished and he laughed, thumping Gavin on the back in warm welcome.
Duguald and the other clan members visibly relaxed.
“Good glory,” Gavin said, stepping back and gazing up at him. “You’ve grown.”
“Ten years, man,” Branan said, suddenly conscious of the brogue he had developed. “Ye’ve grown a bit as well.”
Gavin nodded. “Just returned from France. King Henry had a few points to settle at Harfleur and Agincourt.”
Duguald stepped forward and embraced Gavin. “Well met, laddie. How be yer da?”
“He is well, as is my mother.” He paused and glanced at Branan. “And Catriona.”
Branan smiled, eager to hear all about his much-loved foster family. “Tell me, Gavin. I want to know everything.”
“Perhaps we should sit and talk.”
“Aye, Gavin, where are my manners?”
“Get ye inside,” Duguald said, guiding Gavin forward. He bellowed for the servants to set food and drink.
Gavin looked up at the gray stone castle and whistled softly. “’Tis a fine keep.”
“Thank ye,” Branan said.
They entered the keep through two exquisitely carved doors made from imported English oak. The castle was not large, but solid and very defendable. MacTavish land was fertile and the clan prospered. They sat at the large table in the great hall. Branan took the chair that had once been his father’s. A servant poured them wine and Gavin took a drink, sighing contentedly.
“Now I feel better.”
Branan gazed at Gavin a long moment, noting the changes that had taken the awkward, gangly youngling he once knew. Gavin was much taller now, standing at six feet, but Branan had at least a span on him. His shoulders were broad and strong, his waist narrow. Branan wondered how much change Gavin saw in him. He took a drink of his wine, feeling the rage which had been boiling in him fade into nothingness now that his boyhood friend was here.
“As I said, I just returned from France,” Gavin said. “I stopped home, then came here.”
“How was France? We know very little of the war and have heard only a few rumors.”
Gavin winced. “Agonizing, but despite illness, starvation, and being outnumbered, we slaughtered the Frogs at Agincourt. King Henry is the only reason we are home alive.”
Branan nodded. “If rumor is to be believed, ’twas the Welsh longbow that saved your sorry skins.” He spoke gruffly, but in truth, was grateful for the weapon that had brought his foster-brother home alive and well.
“Aye.” Gavin stared at his cup, his blue eyes losing their luster. “Branan, my reason here is not completely social. Although, I hope you know we’ve all missed you.”
Branan’s jaw tightened but he tried to remain relaxed. “Is something amiss?”
Gavin slowly nodded as he took a deep breath. “My father was going to come, but you know that lame leg of his. I told him it would be faster if I came alone.”
“He probably didna appreciate that much,” Branan said casually, not wanting to push Gavin, even though his heart screamed questions faster than his thoughts could form the words.
“Aye,” Gavin replied. “Father...believes it is time for you to reclaim your heritage from Strickland.”
The blood drained from Branan’s face and abruptly he was forced to fight back his rage again. It seemed his future, the day which had seemed so far away it never seemed real, was suddenly at hand.
Gavin focused his attention on the wood grain of the table. “Strickland’s growing old. He sired a bastard and named him heir. But you know the Church and the king would not approve of the inheritance, especially if you challenge for your legal birthright. Still, my father fears if Strickland dies, your claim to the Wardenship of Inglewood will be further muddied. And lately, Strickland and his bastard have been terribly heavy-handed with the people, destroying villages that do not pay huge taxes to him.”
Branan’s gut curled into a sickening knot and he took a drink of wine to cool his temper.
“There is more, Branan,” Gavin said softly.
“Catriona has been betrothed.”
Gavin’s words kicked him in his chest. A blinding flash of red shot across his vision and he battled to suck in a breath. He felt his control slipping away like sand through his fingers. God’s wounds! Why did this unexpected news hurt so much? It felt as if someone had shoved a dagger through him and twisted the blade until it snapped.
As he fought to breathe, he knew he was on the verge of completely losing control. Only twice had he lost himself to his rage. First, on the eve of his mother’s death when he’d tried to attack Strickland. The second had come a year later, when a boy had tried to strike Catriona. Branan, although only thirteen, had beaten the lad so badly he’d almost killed him. Both times had nearly resulted in death—the first his own, and then another’s. From that moment, Branan had realized he’d have to learn to control himself or he would become just as ruthless as Strickland, a man he abhorred.
He had to escape this news and grab some air. He set his cup down with a
and rose. “The servants will see to yer meal, Gavin,” Branan said, trying to be pleasant, but he spoke through clenched teeth. Then, giving up on courtesy entirely, he strode from the hall, through the bailey, and out the gates, quickly vanishing into the cold mist.
Branan did not know how long he walked, but he strode over the rough terrain until his leg muscles burned and his breath rattled in his throat. The mist seemed to close about him, beading on his hair and dampening his face. Brown grass mottled the ground, with sharp breaks of dark rock and white patches of aging snow scattered about.
He stopped on a small rise, able to see nothing but gray after a few feet. His anger was finally under some semblance of control, but he understood so little of what was happening in his heart and the dark corners of his mind. Sometimes he felt as if he teetered on the edge of sanity. There was something so black, so powerful within him that it terrified him. It was always there, threatening to wrench from his control, to possess him with madness—to consume him from the inside.
Why was it there? The first twelve years of his life had been difficult and terrifying. That he readily admitted. For as long as he could remember, he had lived in fear of Strickland. Watching what his mother had suffered at Strickland’s hand had nearly destroyed his soul. Later, as he grew older, he’d suffered Strickland’s wrath by trying to stop him. And to his horror, his actions had only caused his mother more agony. She had borne Strickland’s beatings with courage, but when Strickland turned his fists on Branan, it nearly unraveled her. She would submit to anything if Strickland would only leave him alone.
Then there was his mother’s revelation on the eve of her death. Even now, he could barely wrap his thoughts around the whole thing, let alone understand it.
For two short years he’d found blessed solace with the de Reignys, until Uncle Duguald arrived and John de Reigny had told young Branan it was time to leave. They’d feared Strickland would find him if he remained.
In the black of night, Duguald had spirited Branan away to his father’s clan in Scotland. But it did not end there. Duguald had feared Strickland would discover Branan and hire an assassin. He’d moved Branan from family to family, telling no one he was the son of their murdered laird.
Duguald trained him in the ways of the knight, but it was not until he reached the age of majority that Duguald spoke the truth and allowed Branan to claim his heritage as laird of clan MacTavish.
The black rage within Branan continued to grow in strength. Because of his youth, he had remained a pawn in a game others had devised for him. But no longer. Now Gavin was here and it was time to seize control of his own destiny. No one would lead him like a bull with a ring in his nose. No one would withhold his legacy from him any longer. But was he ready for this day?
Although he fought to deny it, the fact that it was time for him to act filled him with dread. He had finally found a stable home as laird of the clan. He worked hard, but there was a peace in his life—as long as he didn’t think about his past waiting for him in Inglewood.
But the gallant knight knew the strength of his own fear.
His mother’s voice seemed to echo through the thick mist. Branan shivered and pulled his plaid tighter around himself.
He acknowledged his fear, he faced it, and he defeated it.
Branan remembered scoffing at his mother as she’d told him the story.
He could not have been afraid. He was brave and strong.
He was also human, Branan. Every man has his own demons to defeat. That is the sign of true courage—when a man can face his deepest fears and defeat them.
Suddenly exhausted, Branan sat heavily on a rocky outcropping, his head bowed and his eyes squeezed shut. Aside from the turmoil within him, another question plagued his heart. Why did the news of Catriona’s betrothal rend his soul?
“Branan,” Gavin said softly.
Branan looked up, startled, as Gavin trudged up the hill. “How in the hell did ye find me?”
Gavin flashed him a bright grin as he sat beside him. “My sister isn’t the only one who can track, and you were moving with a purpose.”
Branan managed a halfhearted smile and returned his gaze to his boots.
“I’m sorry, Branan, I knew the news of Catriona’s betrothal would hit you hard.”
“How could ye ken when even I didna?”
“We may have been brothers for only two years, but I grew to know you well.”
Branan gazed at him steadily. “We are still brothers, Gavin. That willna change . . . ever.”
Gavin clapped him on the shoulder. “’Tis sooth.”
Once again, Branan’s gaze slid back to his boots. “Who?” he asked softly.
“Richard de Courcy. He is of the gentry, and very rich.”
“It seems,” Gavin continued, “de Courcy made my father an offer he couldn’t refuse, even though Catriona protested. Loudly, mind you.”
Branan felt his lips tug upward. Catriona never did anything meekly, especially not protesting. “When?”
“A date has not yet been set.” He paused for a long moment. “My father might be convinced to change his mind.”
Branan scowled. That possibility seemed just as distant as regaining his heritage from Strickland. Yet something deep in his soul nagged at him.
“I am finding it harder to leave than I thought, Gavin.”
“Aye,” Gavin replied. He looked around and inhaled deeply. “I would find it very difficult to leave this. You have a good home here. You are laird. The choice is yours, Branan. But if you choose to act, the time is now.”
Branan thought for a long moment. The answers to his future could not be found in Scotland. They resided in the land of the Sassenach and his English heritage.
Learn before you fight
, his mother had said.
Had he learned all that he needed? Was he ready to face his future?
Mayhap it was time to face his fears and find out.
“Verra well, Gavin,” he said softly. “We will leave at first light.”