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King of Storms
By Amanda Scott
ForeverCopyright © 2007 Lynne Scott-Drennan
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Chapter OneEdinburgh Castle Royal Apartments, Tuesday, June 4, 1381
The Earl of Fife, effectively ruler of Scotland, sat comfortably at a table before the fire in his favorite chamber in David's Tower, preparing documents for his father's signature and royal seal. Fife enjoyed ruling Scotland and saw no reason to anticipate anything but that he would continue to do so for many years to come.
Tall and lanky with dark hair and stern features, he wore all black as was his custom, and although well into his fortieth year, he was a fit man and one with few illusions. As great-grandson of Robert the Bruce and third son of the High King of Scots, Fife was politically astute, ruthless, affable-when affability proved useful-and eminently competent. He understood power, wanted more of it, and for the past few years had been taking more and more of it into his own long, slender hands.
Fife knew he was more capable of ruling Scotland than his aging, half-blind, rapidly failing father, the King, or his incompetent, disinterested elder brother, the Earl of Carrick. But, thanks to a foolish notion of Robert the Bruce's that the King's eldest son must succeed him, Carrick was presently heir to the crown.
Before Bruce altered the process, Scottish nobles hadchosen their kings. They did not believe, as the English and French liked to pretend they did, that kings were divinely ordained. The King of Scots was merely the preeminent clan chief. He did not possess a royal army or navy but was completely dependent on the goodwill of his nobles to produce ships and men in support of his causes.
Had Bruce not decreed that the eldest son or nearest male kinsman must succeed, no Stewart could have become King of Scots, because too many noblemen considered the Stewarts upstarts. Even their name was new, derived from his father's previous position as High Steward to the King. Robert the Steward had become Robert II only because he had been David II's nearest male kin when David died childless.
But the way in which the Stewarts had come to power did not concern Fife now. The past was the past, and he knew he would be able to control Carrick as easily as he now controlled their father, but he hoped instead to succeed to the throne himself. He knew that leaders of the Scottish Parliament, given a choice, would always support a strong man over a weak one. More importantly, given sufficient cause, they could legally override Bruce's succession order.
The fact was that both his father and brother were too weak to rule a country rife with noblemen who wielded vast power over their clansmen, knew their own minds, and heartily resented any outside authority. Fife believed he had already shown himself strong enough to rule them and that he therefore deserved to be King. What he did not know was how far he would have to go to seize that right.
He believed he was capable of doing whatever he deemed necessary, but he preferred to produce tangible proof of his greater abilities, proof so clear that the leaders of Parliament would be unable to resist it. A year ago, he had thought such proof lay nearly within his grasp. But foully betrayed, he had failed to capture it.
Still, it was his experience that one could always create new opportunities. One merely had to keep one's eyes open to the omens and prepare for eventualities. His new ship, the Serpent Royal, was such a preparation.
As he finished the last document, a minion rapped to announce a visitor.
"The Chevalier de Gredin, my lord."
Stunned to hear the name, especially in view of the path his rambling thoughts had taken, Fife nodded permission, pushed the documents aside, and watched narrow-eyed as the chevalier entered and made him a sweeping bow.
Etienne, Chevalier de Gredin, ten years younger than the earl, was more colorfully if not as richly attired, and clearly fancied himself a dashing fellow.
He carried a document with a half-dozen red wax seals appended to it.
Straightening, his green eyes on the earl, he said coolly, "You are doubtless amazed to see me, my lord, but I bring you word from his holiness, the Pope."
"Do you? I thought you'd fled to the north with your tail between your legs."
"But no, my lord, only to learn what I could there. However, with none but Norse ships and those of my host available, it was impossible to communicate with the Pope or with my friends in France. So I returned to the Continent, and I am to tell you now that his holiness still supports your endeavors and means to supply ships to aid you. With your kind permission, I am to remain here with you as his envoy."
"As his envoy or as my hostage?" Fife inquired mildly.
"It must be as you wish, my lord," de Gredin said, kneeling submissively. "We both still seek the same goals, to seize the Templar treasure, return it to his holiness, and to see you take your rightful place as High King of Scots."
Letting him remain on his knees, Fife gave the situation brief thought.
The Knights Templar, having served as the Pope's own army, and protectors of pilgrims to the Holy Land during the Crusades, eventually rose to become trusted bankers to the world and guardians of the world's most sacred and most valued items, and thus had amassed enormous treasure. But at the beginning of the present century they had fallen afoul of Philip IV of France and his tame pope, who named them heretics and forced the disbanding of the hitherto highly respected Order. However, when Philip tried to seize their treasure, he found that it had vanished. The Templar treasure had been missing now for nearly seventy-five years.
Holy Kirk had claimed ownership, and the present Pope, apparently believing that at least a good portion of the treasure had somehow made its way to Scotland, had twice sent men to find and reclaim it-so far, unsuccessfully.
De Gredin was the Pope's man. Therefore, his return was clearly an omen.
Fife's sole interest in the treasure lay in a single item that he believed formed part of it, and that, thanks to an informant, he had reason to believe truly was hidden in Scotland. So if de Gredin and the Pope needed his aid to find the treasure, he could certainly turn that need to his own good. After all, even if they failed to find the treasure, papal support alone might be enough to tip the balance his way when the time came to persuade Parliament that he should be King.
He had no liking for de Gredin, however, and glowered as he said bluntly, "You betrayed me last year. Why should I trust you now?"
Still kneeling, the chevalier held out the sealed document he had brought with him. "Read this, my lord. Then decide what you will."
Holyrood Abbey Woods, Tuesday, June 4, 1381
A faint ring of ripples forming around the hitherto motionless fishing line was the first indication from below of any interest in its neatly baited hook.
Holding the pole gingerly, nineteen-year-old Lady Sidony Macleod stared at the rings as they expanded and multiplied in number. For at least an hour, she had been sitting on a low, flat granite promontory that jutted into the long, narrow loch without seeing a single fish, although the burly, gray-haired gardener who had lent her his pole had assured her the abbey's loch teemed with them.
Now she wondered if she should pull up her line. She did not really want to catch a fish, anyway. She had only taken the pole because it had seemed to lend a greater sense of purpose to her stolen walk than mere escape.
Having a fish as proof of that purpose might be useful, but having to carry one would be a nuisance. Her older sister Sorcha had always carried any they had caught on such expeditions at home.
"Are you sure I'll catch one?" she had asked the gardener.
"Och, aye, m'lady," he'd assured her. "Likely, ye'll catch a fine salmon or trout for your breakfast."
Sidony had found it impossible to refuse so kind an offer, so she thanked him and accepted a small pot of earthworms as well, to use for bait. Then, crossing the three back gardens between Clendenen House and the woods, and slipping through the hedge boundary, she had strolled among the trees, lady ferns, and flowers, finding the ground annoyingly boggy. But soon she had come upon the glassy, dark-green loch, and its serene beauty had drawn her, making her forget the muddy ground.
With gray sky overhead and trees growing to the water's edge, the loch darkened outward from a grayish green color in the center to a raggedy line of black shadows near the shore, where surrounding trees reflected off the mirror-like surface.
The temperature was mild, and the woods seemed unnaturally still. Sidony had followed the loch shore until she had come upon the jutting granite slab. After slogging through muck, the gray-and-white rock looked invitingly dry and clean.
Her boots were heavy with mud, and the hem of the blue kerseymere skirt she wore with its matching tunic likewise bore evidence of her trek. But it was an old dress and not one she cared for. She had put it on to play with her fourteen-month-old nephew, because it would save any finer gown from grubby hands or spills.
Baiting her hook was easy, thanks to similar expeditions with Sorcha near Castle Chalamine, their home in the Highlands. As she pictured the castle and its nearby tumbling burn and dense green shrubbery, a sigh escaped her lips.
She had been away from home for more than a year-too long.
Tears welled at the thought, and one spilled down her cheek just as the pole jerked hard in her hand. Gripping it tight in both hands, she lurched awkwardly upright, trying to avoid falling into the water, stepping on her skirts, or losing the fish.
Larger than she had expected, it did not want to be caught and was fighting so hard that she wished she had not caught it at all and wondered if she could just extract the hook and let it go.
In a similar instance with Sorcha, her older sister had said the fish would die anyway, and might linger in pain for days first. So at last, as it lay flopping feebly on the granite, Sidony picked up a rock and resolutely ended its life.
Staring at the dead fish, she grimaced and looked for a length of ivy she could string through its gills and mouth to carry it. Telling herself that she had been very clever and that she did not want to catch another fish, she picked up the gardener's pole in her left hand and turned back toward Clendenen House.
A few minutes later, finding no track, she realized she had lost her way.
Had the sun been shining, she might have been able to tell what direction to go. Sorcha could tell by the sun, although Sidony was not certain how, because she had never thought to ask. She did know the sun set in the west, though, and had watched it go down the previous night, on the Castle side of Clendenen House.
Perched as Edinburgh Castle was on its own craggy hilltop at what she thought was the northwest end of the royal burgh, it was visible from everywhere-everywhere, that is, except her present location, where the canopy was too dense.
She told herself she was just getting an extra bit of freedom and someone would find her eventually if she did not find her own way. The abbey bell would ring for Vespers, and she could easily find Clendenen House from the abbey.
By now people surely wondered where she was, because she had been gone for some time. They might be annoyed that she had not said where she was going, but she had not wanted to wake her sister Isobel or their hostess, or disturb the men, and she had not meant to get lost. It occurred to her then that if someone did come looking for her, she would just get back sooner-if they searched for her. They might not have noticed yet that she was gone. They often did not notice her.
Perhaps someone would hear her if she whistled a little tune.
Ladies were not supposed to whistle, and she was sure the others would condemn such behavior. But the only one of her six sisters presently at Clendenen House was Isobel, who was pregnant again and sleeping soundly.
Sidony did not know many tunes, so she whistled her favorite one over and over. Since whistling was one of her few accomplishments, it did seem unfair that ladies were not to do it. She wondered, as she often did, who made up such rules.
If it were up to her, she would not be so strict.
Just then, to her relief, the abbey bell began to toll, but its reverberations filled the woods with sound. Only as the last echoes were fading was she able to tell that the bell tolled from somewhere to her right.
In the ensuing silence, a horse snuffled.
She opened her mouth to shout, then realized she might be hailing a stranger or even an enemy. Horrid men had once abducted her sister Adela.
Anyone seeking her would call her name. That the rider remained silent indicated a stranger, at best.
Hearing the soft, melodic whistling, the rider had reined in his horse. The tune intrigued him, and he wanted to hear more, but the thickheaded beast he rode, not nearly as well trained as his own mounts, had snorted in protest, making him hope the whistler was no enemy. But although his profession had won him as many foes as friends, few of either would expect to find him in the abbey woods.
Nevertheless, he dismounted, checked to be sure his sword was properly in its scabbard across his back and had not shifted to one side or the other as he rode. Then, looping his rein around a handy branch, he moved toward the whistler with the swift, silent strides of an experienced woodsman, avoiding twigs, puddles, and pebbles as much by long-developed instinct as by looking out for them.
He saw her moments later, a small, slender, but curvaceous beauty with flaxen, almost white, hair hanging in two thick plaits, one forward over her right shoulder, the left one hanging down her back to her hip. The plaits looked soft and smooth. He felt instant longing to touch one, to see if it was as silky as it looked.
She walked tentatively, peering about, but he thought her uncertain rather than fearful.
Her dress was in sad shape, which was a pity, because as beautiful as she was, she would augment any gown. She should wear silk or satin, and have furs and jewels to enhance her beauty, not a large, fresh-caught salmon in one hand and a decrepit fishing pole in the other.
He thought her father should be flogged for letting such a beauty wander unguarded. Still, there she was, and Giff MacLennan was not a man to let opportunity stroll away. He moved closer, stepping on clumps of bluebells to muffle his steps, altering direction to avoid approaching from behind and startling her.
As he drew nearer, he looked down, certain that if he was not looking when she saw him, she would think he had not seen her. He did not want her to screech.
Hearing the change in her footsteps on the spongy ground, he knew she had spotted him. When she stopped, he looked up to find her staring at him, wide-eyed.
Her eyes were beautiful, too, a clear light blue that looked almost translucent. Her lashes, like her eyebrows, were several shades darker than her hair, yet not dark enough that he would call them brown. She gripped the fishing pole tightly in her left hand. The fine-looking salmon dangled from a vine looped in her right.
"Good morrow to you, mistress," he said. "Art lost in these vast woods?"
She nodded, still wide-eyed, her full, soft-looking lips invitingly parted, her round, equally soft-looking, equally inviting breasts rising and falling gently but with increasing tempo inside her bodice. She still had not spoken.
"I can show you the way if you like," he said, flashing his most charming smile. Usually, it drew a responding smile from its target, but she continued to regard him silently and soberly.
"Would you like that, lass, for me to show you the way?"
She nodded again, looking into his eyes in a way that stirred his loins.
Still smiling, he said suggestively, "I would require only small payment from you in return for such a rescue."
He had not thought her eyes could widen more, but they did. Still she did not speak.
He stepped closer, holding her gaze, wondering if she would step back.
The ground felt springy underfoot, but for once he paid little heed.
She was even more beautiful up close, and she clearly invited his attention.
Excerpted from King of Storms by Amanda Scott Copyright © 2007 by Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission.
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