Sunday, July 24, 2011

Conspiracy Begins in 'A Kingdom's Cost'

Chapter Two

King Edward's face empurpled with rage. "His father was always my enemy--always. A friend of the outlaw, William Wallace. I'll not have the boy. Get out. Out! Before he takes Wallace's place on the scaffold."

Lamberton bowed deep before he turned. Blaming James for his father was harsh even for King Edward. He'd forgiven men who'd been in open rebellion, but now the only choice was to get the lad out of the king's sight. Another plan ruined, but a small one.

With a hand on James's shoulder, Lamberton urged him towards the door, the lad with a ramrod spine of indignation. No one spoke. No one else moved. Lamberton barely breathed until they reached the shattered stone rubble of the gatehouse. He took a deep breath. They'd live yet another day.

James untied Lamberton's gray palfrey. His hands shook and his lips were white, they were so tightly clenched. For a moment, Lamberton got James's full stare, black, wide-eyed, and fuming. After a moment, he removed his gaze to scatter it over the shadowy reach of the valley.

Lamberton took the reins from his hand. "Don't take it so hard, lad. I'll find a solution." He swung into the saddle.

James gave a jerky nod. "I know you mean to, my lord." James jumped into his saddle, settled his feet in the stirrups and gathered the reins. "But I fear this I must solve for myself."

Lamberton sighed and then nodded down the rutted road towards town, its watchtowers and church spires dark against the gathering dusk. Stirling town had surrendered with no fight. Now it was full of English soldiery, but there were yet places a bishop could be secret. "I have someone to meet. After dark."

The city gate was open when they reached the bottom of the hill. Lamberton raised his hand in blessing as he rode past four drays lined up, loaded with barrels and bales of hay. A driver slipped a coin to one of the king's guards and was waved through the gate.

The guard looked Lamberton over, raking him with a narrow-eyed stare.

"Bishop Lamberton returning from the king," Lamberton said.

The man waved them past and turned back to the wagons.

Lamberton kept to the edge of the street, nodding as James dropped his hand onto the hilt of his sword. Down the street, a Gray Friar was praying loudly for the health of the English king, but passersby paid him no more mind than a howling dog. The town milled with the usual crowd even in the growing murk: mostly soldiery in their mail with swords rattling, but also baker's boys hawking their hot pies and breads and whores leaning out of windows with their breasts half-bared. He passed two men dragging a dead ass out of an alley by its rear legs and an acrobat standing on his hands to the cheers of drunken English soldiers. But no one gave Lamberton and James a second look.

Next to the high spire of the Church of the Holy Rood, Lamberton turned into an alley. In the deepening dusk, the way was dark. He dismounted and looped his reins to the rail of a walkway that ran along the building. At his nod, James swung off his mount.
Lamberton motioned towards the street. "Check to be sure no one is in sight."

James gave him a puzzled look but tied his reins and walked towards the street, keeping in the dense shadow of the church's walkway. He paused and looked back over his shoulder, then went on. Near the street, James stopped, watching for a moment and then returned the way he had come.

"There's no one near, my lord."

"Come." Lamberton shoved open the side door of the Church. Their footfalls rang softly on the marble floor as he entered, James at his heels. The rich scent of incense hung in the air. He stopped and blinked, letting his eyes adjust.

A man knelt alone at a side altar. Light from a row of candles reflected in his golden hair. Deo gratia. He is here.

Robert de Bruce, Earl of Carrick, looked over his shoulder. He rose, tall with a broad forehead and strong features, dressed in black silk and a black cloak. His blue eyes caught a gleam in the faint light. He took a step and grasped Lamberton's shoulders in a hard grip for a moment, then shook his head.

Lamberton nodded towards the high altar and led the way past it and through a wooden door on the far side. He entered a square room with plain wooden walls, one wall covered with hooks where priestly vestments of white, purple and red hung. Gold censors stood on a small table in the corner next to a stack of blank parchment and a stand of lit candles. He let out a small sigh of relief. "I wasn't sure that you'd come."

"I told you I would. We must be ready..." He paused to frown at James.

Lamberton smiled slightly. "William le Hardi's lad and my squire." He nodded to James. "Keep watch outwith the door. See that we're not disturbed. Or overheard."

James bowed quickly to both men and closed the door behind him.

"He'll serve us well one day, Robert. Now..." He motioned to the table. "I didn't care to have these prepared beforehand. I'll write the agreement now. But hear you, this will be treason that the leopard would never forgive. So put your mind to it. Yea or nay. There will be no turning back."

"Wallace agreed to give me his support. In spite of everything?"

"He was wroth when you bent a knee to King Edward. But after Comyn betrayed him at Falkirk, withdrawing his chivalry from the battle, Wallace would do anything to keep that man from the throne. Yes. He gave me his oath."

Bruce stared at a fist he clenched tight, seeming to study it. "What was I to do?" His voice was low and hoarse with emotion. "How could I lead a fight for a crown while my father lived, and I knew him too weak to hold it? When Edward had harried and pillaged my own lands to a smoking ruin? I had to buy time. That meant swearing to him."

Lamberton sighed. "I told Wallace as much. Now that he's returned from France, he can see you had little choice. He's a fighter. You know strategy was never his weapon."

"So be it." Bruce raised hot eyes to Lamberton's. "Write the words of our pact, and I'll put my seal to them."

Lamberton dipped a quill in ink. help at all times and against all persons without exception... by solemn oath before God.

Bruce took the quill and scrawled his name.

Beside it, Lamberton neatly penned his own. It was done. If ever King Edward saw this before they were ready to make their move, Lamberton knew nothing would save him from a dungeon or Robert de Bruce from a scaffold.

Bruce frowned. "There's still John Comyn's claim to be dealt with. I doubt that he will agree to our bargain. Can you convince him, think you? With the enmity between the two of us?"

Lamberton allowed himself a smile. "A prize as rich as that? Your earldom of Carrick... Annandale... To be the richest noble in Scotland for giving up a crown he would have to wrest from Edward Longshanks. That's temptation indeed."

"If you hadn't stepped between us the day the he dared to strike me..." Bruce shook his head doubtfully.

"I know the man's greed. I'll pick the right time and put it to him. He'll agree."

As Robert de Bruce used a candle to drip hot wax onto the document and pressed his into seal it, Lamberton laid his hand on the man's shoulder. "The day will come, my friend. You will be the king who leads us to freedom."

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