Sir Andrew de Moray and the Scottish army have suffered defeat and capture in the south of Scotland at the hands of the English, but the news has not yet reached those awaiting their return in the north.
Caitrina de Berkely snapped off her thread and examined the seam she had finished sewing. There was no doubt. The seam was crooked.
She frowned in disgust at the gray underskirt and glanced across the sunlit bower at her sister. Isobail's needlework was always perfect. Everyone told their mother so. Even their father who had no use for such things had said, "Her embroidery is as dainty as she is."
Caitrina peeked at her mother, afraid that she might have noticed that she had stopped working, but her mother was paying Caitrina no attention at all. Her mother was counting a stack of white linen coifs and veils they had readied for Caitrina's departure for the convent, a crease between her fair eyebrows as she refolded them. She said Caitrina should be grateful they were giving her to the church and that she must be properly clothed for the novitiate. Her dower had already been paid.
Caitrina bent over the garment she held and chewed her lip. She could pick out the seam and salvage the skirt. It would take time, and her mother would notice. Sighing, she laid down her needle and watched her sister take a careful stitch in her embroidery.
Perhaps if she was careful she could slip out of the room. At least, she could have a last afternoon of freedom. Tears filled Caitrina's eyes, but she blinked them back. It wasn't fair that she was being sent to be a nun. She would never run along the beach, launch an arrow at a rabbit, or gallop a horse across the hills again. Never gather berries with her friends from the castleton and never have her own home where no one would judge her lacking.
She stood up and started quietly for the door.
"Where are you going, sister?" Isobail said in a voice as soft as one of the rose petals that scented the bower.
"I want to have one last glance of the firth before I go. Would deny me that? I'll never see it again."
Isobail colored, but even that she did daintily just as she did everything. She had even gotten their mother's golden coloring instead of red hair like their father. Her skin was soft and white as freshly skimmed cream instead of dotted with freckles.
Their mother raised her eyes. "You have no need to see the firth today. You will see it on your way."
Caitrina wanted to scream. It was just like Isobail speak up and let their mother know she was escaping.
"Let me see. Your clothes must be prepared for the morrow." Her mother stood and picked up the underskirt. "Caitrina, this must be unpicked and re-sewn. It will not do at all."
The corners of Isobail's mouth turned up in the tiniest smirk. It was all too much. Caitrina spun and bolted for the door.
Her mother said in a grimly soft voice, "Caitrina, come back here. Don't you dare take another step."
She stopped in the doorway and turned back. "What will you do to me? Lock me up?" She took brief satisfaction from the shock on their faces. "You're sending me away, remember?" With that, she whirled and made her escape, running down the stairs.
What had she done that was so bad? How could her father have agreed to send her away before he left to lead their men to fight the English? Isobail was fifteen, a year older. Perhaps by the time Caitrina was born there was no love left over for her. Or perhaps it was that she wasn't the heir they wanted. It wasn't fair. Isobail could dance, and sing, and play the harp. Even worse, she was beautiful like their mother. Their nurse had called Caitrina carrot-top while she doted on Isobail. Caitrina could ride a horse better and the sight of blood never made her cry. But who cared about such things in a lass?
She dashed past the guardroom at the postern gate before her mother could have them stop her, but there were few guards about now. Their father had taken most with him when he went to fight the invaders. Now she'd not see them return, not greet her lord father or feel his strong arms in a hug. She'd thought that he loved her. Tears were running down her face as she dashed down the hill, plunging her way through the prickly gorse.
One spiky leaf snagged her skirt so she stopped to loosen it, watching up the castle to see if they sent anyone after her. No one was in sight except a single guard walking atop the red sandstone wall. She took a deep breath and angrily wiped the tears away with the heel of her hand. She wouldn't waste her last day of freedom weeping.
They weren't pursuing her, but her mother would probably have them look in the village. There were better things to do than to stay there anyway. First, she had to find Donnchadh. He would be as eager to escape his father's mill, as she was to escape the castle.
She arrived, hot and breathless, at the round stone millhouse that jutted above the edge of the firth. Inside, below the floor, the wheel screeched as the tide turned it, blending with the swish of the frothy waves below.
Donnchadh propped up the wall, a faded plaid of green and yellow checks pleated over one shoulder and his saffron tunic hanging to his knees. He gave her a curious look. "I thought they had you locked up in the castle until you leave."
Caitrina wrinkled her nose. "I escaped. For a last day of freedom."
He grinned, showing the homey gap between his front teeth. "Come on, then. Let's go." He looked up the hill before he turned his gaze back to her. "What do you want to do?"
"It's been so warm, I'll wager some of the blackberries are ripe already. Let's go picking. We can eat our fill and then go climbing for eggs." She bent and pulled the back of her skirt through her legs to kilt it in front. She spun in circles, head back. The sun was warm on her face and the air mingled the scent of salt sea with the spice of gorse and heather. She stopped, a little dizzy, and grinned. "Come on. I'll race you."
She dashed along the beach and up a stony path to the top of the rise. Donnchadh let her have a head start. He always did, but she soon she heard the thud of his footsteps.
In a few minutes, they were deep in the blackberry brambles that grew eight feet high. They were covered with ripening berries and the two shooed away squawking birds. Donnchadh yelped when a thorn scraped a bloody line on his arm. She made a face at him. Her leg already bore a long scratch. She stuffed her mouth with a handful of juicy berries and grinned, so he did the same. A drop of purple juice dripped onto his chin.
When she heard a signal horn bugle, she stopped to listen.
"What is that?" Donnchadh asked, frowning.
"I'm not going back, whatever it is, but it's not from the castle." She took her lip between her teeth. "We're not expecting my father to return with his men for weeks yet. It might be news. They were going to fight."
"It could be." He parted the dense blackberry leaves to peer through the brambles. They were west of the castle, a good way beyond the southwest corner of the outer wall. They could see only a short stretch of the road leading out of the gate.
"I think it's too soon for news," Caitrina said. "What do you see?"
"Not much. But... Do you hear that?"
She didn't so much hear it as feel it, a rumble in the ground up through her feet from the road to the west. When she parted the brambles beside him, she could see nothing, because of the pinewoods that bordered the road, but as she stepped into the open, she could see sentries dashing into place on the castle wall.
The sound was horses, large horses. A trumpet winded from somewhere on the road.
"That's not my father's horn. Nor Lord Avoch's. I know the sound from when they marched away." A deep-toned horn called from the castle. A horseman came in sight around the angle of wall, riding fast out from the gate. His armor glittered. He wore the green cloak of their master-at-arms. "It's Sir Ailean," she said.
"Maybe you should go back."
Out of the trees came a column of men-at-arms behind a hundred or so horsemen. She gasped. "Look!"
"Whose banner is that? Do you know it?"
She jumped back into the brambles and peeked through the dense branches. "Just a second. White field—-something on it in red. The horsemen are all knights. But there are a lot of infantry." Row after row of single-edged blades on the end of tall polearms waved like a field of corn in the wind.
"None of our men were carrying those when they left," said Donnchadh.
"It is pikes. I can see the blades flashing in the sun." She swallowed. A huge rock had grown in the middle of her chest. "Holy Mary... I think that's the banner of England. The cross of St. George."