THE KING'S BLADE

                                                                   Chapter One

                                               

St. Mary’s Loch, Scotland----spring, 1401

      Lady Megan MacKelloch sidled passed the tinker’s wagon and the men attempting to pull it up the steep muddy hill. She shook her head as she slogged toward the top.  She was glad it was them and not her attempting the impossible. Topping the rise, she bent at the waist, her chest heaving to catch a breath. Bridget was going to be one sorry sister when she caught up with her. Filling her lungs, Meg straightened. Then swiping the sweat trickling off her brow with the back of her hand, she narrowed her gaze on the make-shift village below. The struggle up the rain-soaked hill would be as nothing when compared to finding Bridget amongst the milling crowd and vendor stalls hastily constructed for the meeting of the King’s Justice Council.   She scanned the village then found her eyes focused on the gray stone structure of St. Mary’s Kirk.  Baron Maxwell had warned them to stay away from the proceedings.  Too bad, Bridget refused to heed everything their new stepfather asked.  Meg hardened her jaw, not about to cover for Bridget this time.

      Gathering her skirts in one hand, Meg started down the slippery slope grabbing onto scrub branches to slow her sliding descent.  A rolling rumble sounded from above.  She frowned as she gazed at the clear blue sky above.  More rain meant more mud to fight through as-- 

       “Look sharp below.”

Meg twisted as she realized the warning came from behind her.  She caught only a glimpse of the run-away wagon as the rain-soaked path gave way, sweeping her downhill in the sliding mud.

       “A-a-a-h.”  She shrieked.  Then clamping her jaw, she stared in fascinated horror as the path’s fast-moving debris gathered speed carrying her in the swift moving muck to the village below.  Terror clenched Meg’s stomach as realization struck.

       “I’m going to … die.”  The reality of her words roared in her ears as a tight fist closed over her heart sending it into painful palpitations.

       “C-c-can’t.”  She managed to gasp as a renewed sense of preservation swept through her. Frantically, she grabbed at and missed latching onto a scrub branch as she swept by it.  “Ah-h-h,” she moaned in feverish disappointment.  Scanning ahead for another bush she spied the cesspool sitting at the bottom of the hill.  “No-o-o,” she choked out.  Desperate to save herself, she dug in her heels to slow her descent.  But her delayed reaction catapulted her through the air to land in the mud … with a splat.

      "Oh-h-h,” she sputtered.  Lifting her face, she opened her eyes.  Stunned, she laid for a moment, staring at the mud.  Merciful heavens, had she just survived meeting the Grim Reaper?

Her senses seemed to come alive as she pushed her aching upper body out of the cold, overpowering stench.  She shivered as she leveled herself to her knees and peered through the mud dripping down her forehead.

      Hastily, Meg made the sign of the cross.  A sudden lightheadedness overcame her as she heard chatter and crude laughter.   Turning, she spied a crowd gathering beside the refuse pond where she knelt.

Obviously, she wasn’t dead.

      Her heart sang in relief at the realization but that turned to a quick dismay as another tremor seized her.  

 “Ack,” Meg said as she wheezed from the frigid water saturating her garments all the way through to her skin.  This time she could really claim ‘wrong place, wrong time.’  But would anyone believe her?

     Quivering with cold, she pushed to her feet as the cart splashed to a stop a few feet away.   Her knees buckled.  She plopped back into the mud profoundly thankful at finding herself safe.  “O, Blessed St. Columbine, thank you for your protection,” she muttered as she stared at the wagon sinking into the mud nearby.  

     Struggling to her feet, she frowned as she peeled off the bedraggled veil clinging to her neck.   Grateful as she was, Meg couldn’t help but wonder what else would go wrong with the day?    She brushed her mud crusted hair away from her face as a familiar cold lump settled once again inside her chest. Bowing her head, she began, “Lord, thank you for…”  She froze at the realization of her action.  Hadn’t experience taught her that asking for help from the Almighty gained her nothing? 

     She took a quick breath then groaned softly as she stared at her best cotehardie covered in filth.  How could she explain yet another disaster to her mother?  Especially not when she must first confess that she’d lost her sister somewhere among the crowd roaming the main village thoroughfare.

     Meg took a deep breath to slow her breathing.  Scrunching up her ruined skirt, she lifted one booted foot from the sucking mud and struggled to find a firm foothold on what she believed to be solid ground.  She raised her head hoping to find Bridget perusing one of the vendor stalls.  But with hundreds attending the King’s Justice Council at St. Mary’s Kirk, the jostling crowd obscured her view.

     “Look at the wet hen,” a thick border voice shouted.

Meg dipped her chin.  Hadn’t she learned that the best way to handle a situation like this was to ignore the ignorant jeering?  She gritted her teeth as she heard a few in the crowd chuckle.

     “Nay, looks more like a scarecrow.”  A mocking bass said.

She took a bracing breath as laugher rippled through the crowd. This wasn’t the first time she’d been the brunt of someone’s joke, she reminded herself.

     “Nay, it’s a nightmare to scare our children with,” a female said as the crowd roared with laughter. 

Meg twisted, opened her mouth then stopped.  She had been taught to respond to the less fortunate with kindness.  If she couldn’t be a gracious lady to them then she wasn’t to say anything at all.  Searching for those mocking her, Meg realized that she’d turned too late.

      It could’ve been anyone in the crowd.  The thought didn’t take away the sting of embarrassment flushing her face.  Ack!  But what difference did it make when she was--?

     “Allow me,” a rich baritone voice said from somewhere behind her.

      Caught off guard by the velvet tone, she turned then barely managed to control her gasp when she caught a brief glimpse of the man’s tall form.  Suddenly, the cold and wet no longer mattered.  Struggling to breathe, her eyes rose to his clean-shaven square jaw, skimmed passed his hawk-like nose to be trapped and held by the kindest set of gray eyes she’d ever encountered.  And to think she had always considered the color gray cold.

Her heartbeat raced at the thought.  Heavens, soon she would join the convent.  She’d best not be cataloguing a man’s features like that.  She caught her breath as he quirked his sleek black brow at her.  Merciful heavens, he must surely think her a twit!

      Dismayed by her realizations, Meg pulled herself together.  “Thank you, kind sir, but I’m afraid I can’t accept your chivalrous gesture.” She said knowing her brisk tone ran counter to her thumping heart.

     “Why?” the man asked, his powerful body moving with an easy grace as he extended a hand toward her.

     Meg’s eyes froze on his clean, calloused palm.  Sir Gilbert had warned her about all the strangers there for the King’s Justice Court.   Dare she trust this one?  Her wet toes curled inside her muddy boots in affirmation.  She had to admit that she found the man’s polished manners a welcome change.   “I prefer to do this my own way,” she said, making a shooing gesture with her hands.  “Please stand aside.”

     “Good manners dictate I assist you,” he countered extracting a kerchief from inside his cuff.

     She gazed at him then sighed at his gallant gesture.  Sweet Blessed Angels!  Just because the man had a fine set of gray eyes, a kind smile and a voice like velvet didn’t mean that she should make a ninny of herself.  She managed a nonchalant shrug.  “Be assured then the consequences rest with you.”

     “She has a point, Lord John,” a man, shorter in height by several inches, said as he stopped beside her rescuer.  “The Kirk’s doors close in a few minutes.”

     “True.”  Her rescuer nodded.  “This will only take a moment.  My lady,” he said, turning back to her.   “Please, take a hold of the kerchief and I’ll pull you onto solid ground.”

     Afraid the person helping might disappear in a blink, she seized onto the pristine white square.  Meg wasn’t sure how it happened but in a flash she found herself standing on firm ground with the man’s soiled kerchief wadded in her fist. 

     Before she could gather her scattered wits, the man gave her a courtly bow.   “Adieu, my lady, until we meet again.”   He pivoted, his dark blue cape swirled around his deerskin boots as he disappeared amongst the now quietly gaping crowd.

     “But wait, I didn’t have a chance to--,” Meg began as she pressed a hand to her chest as her sister, Bridget, skidded to a halt beside her.

     “Meg, you must---”.  Her sister panted out of breath then paused.  “Gracious, what happened to you?  You stink!”

     “I know, but---”

     “Never mind,” Bridget said, airily flicking her hand in dismissal.  “Did you see him?  Did you?”

     “Who?”  Meg pulled her ruined cote away from her shivering body.   With her feet half-frozen, she knew the discomfort stamping her feet would bring.  Although mimicking her sister’s temper-tantrum might have its merits.

     “Why, the King’s Blade of course,” Bridget said, switching her head from side to side searching the crowd.  “Where did he go?”

     Meg stared at her sister.  Maybe she ought to pay more attention.  In the future it might keep them both out of trouble.   She frowned.   “Who are you looking for?”

     “The King’s Blade.  You know, the Earl of Crawford’s second son.”

     Meg bit her bottom lip.  Right now, her concern centered on how to explain things to her mother.  Carefully, she tucked the lemon and cloves scented kerchief into her cuff.

     “Don’t you ever pay attention to anything that’s happening?”  Bridget asked as if she were the eldest with the right to admonish a younger sibling.

     “Occasionally, I do,” Meg admitted, holding her cold, wet skirt away from her trembling body.

     “Then you know who I’m talking about.”

     “Not really.”  Meg shrugged, trying to shake off the excess mud caught in the folds of her garment.   What did she care if some Earl’s son was a blade or not?  It had nothing to do with her.

     “How could you not!”  Bridget said, pressing her hand over her nose.

     Meg shrugged.  “Easy, I have enough keeping track of you.  I’m not about to worry about some blade I neither know nor care about.”

     “Oh-h,” Bridget said with a disgusted wave.  “You’re impossible.  I don’t know why I--” She paused.  Leaning forward, she narrowed her eyes.  “Do you know all I can see of you is the whites of your eyes?”    She let out a sharp laugh.  “Mother’s going to have a fit when she sees you all cover in muck.” 

     “And you’ll relish every minute of it,” Meg muttered, waving her hand in the direction of the Maxwell campsite.  Since experience had taught her to complete dreaded tasks first, she said, “let’s get this over with.”

She took a quick peek in the direction the stranger had gone, hoping for another glimpse of him.  While the stink and stains would eventually fade, Meg knew she would never forget the stranger or his kindness.   She rested her hand over the kerchief tucked safely beneath her cuff.  Although she doubted she’d ever have the chance to thank him for his compassion at least she could dream.

                                                                               * * *

     Lord John Lindsay, second son of the Earl of Crawford and better known as the King’s Blade, slipped into the crowded vestibule as the Kirk’s bell pealed.  With his nod, his two men closed the heavy studded doors and dropped the bar locking all inside.  His muscles tightened in readiness as he moved down the congested center aisle.  He paused to observe his men stationed strategically around the inside the church’s gray stone interior.

With the exits secured and all the spectators weapons confiscated, John tipped his head and quietly acknowledged Andrew, his best friend.  Beside Andrew stood Torrin Byers, John’s second in command, both positioned near the dais constructed to replace the main altar.  On the raised platform sat the seven members of the King’s Justice Council.  Behind them stood a contingency of their own armed guards ready for anything the unruly Johnstones might attempt.

     He stared at the seven men as he waited for the proceedings to begin.  Presiding over the council, Sir Gilbert Maxwell sat at the far end of the table.  A man John knew who believed in one’s right to live in peace.  A man not afraid of making difficult decisions. 

     John hadn’t looked forward with any anticipation to the beginning of this trial.  In fact, he dreaded the outcome.  Although the King’s justice would be served today, it was bound to stir up trouble among the feuding families living in Scotland’s border area.  People needing to find peace and gain a sense of pride in their country, not more animosity.

     He shook his head.  No question, all the killing, raping and pillaging had to cease.  One of his main duties lay in enforcing King Robert III decree of establishing peace in the border area.  He understood that meant all offenders must be brought to justice.  The Crown didn’t need dissension amongst its subjects.  The threat of England invading Scotland on the pretext of ferreting out rebels’ was enough concern without adding in more carnage and resentment existing between the people of the two nations.  Yet there had to be a way to deter those committing the atrocities.  He rubbed the back of his neck.

     He peered at the three Johnstone men on trial for murder, rape and malicious destruction of property.   He narrowed his gaze on Willie, a stout, spotted-faced man and the leader of the Johnstone Clan.  A crude man who ruled with an iron fist, barked orders and manipulated people for his benefit. John clenched his jaw as he swung his gaze to Willie’s first born, the arrogant, humorless Fergus, known for carving his mark in his victims before he slowly skinned them alive.  He shifted his sight to Willie’s other son, Desmond.  A sneaky, shallow-minded whiner trapped in a boyish body who had been instrumental in raping the nuns at the Convent of the Blessed Heart.   He knew his aunt would forever live with the shame and degradation of the violation.  Because of her initial assistance, John and his men had tracked and pieced together this case for the Crown.  He’d often thought about the pasteboard tarot-like clue that had led to the apprehension of the Johnstones’.  Not for the first time had he wondered who had sent it.  Yet even with all the evidence he had gathered there were no guarantees or ….

     “Hear ye, hear ye,” the clerk of the council announced in a stentorian voice as he rapped his staff on the stone floor.  “The sentencing phase of the King’s Council is now in session, the Honorable Sir Gilbert Maxwell, presiding.” 

     “Proceed with the reading of the charges as levied by the Crown against Sir William Johnstone, Fergus Johnstone, and Desmond Johnstone,” Sir Gilbert directed.

     John scanned the crowd and quickly located the only other two Johnstones allowed into the proceedings.  He nodded as two of his men moved to stand behind them.   

     “Found and judged guilty of the multiple murders occurring in the villages of Milltown and Mouswald, for the pillage and rape of the nuns at the Convent of the Blessed Heart and the willful destruction of the home property of Baron Giles, this case now enters into the sentencing phase.  How say you, Sir Hugo Turnbulls?”

     The burley, apple cheeked Scot stood then smiled.  “Death.” He bellowed.

     John clutched his sword hilt as Fergus jumped up and planted his feet wide.  “You’ll regret that,” he snarled, baring his teeth.

     John relaxed as his friend Andrew place his massive hand on Fergus’ shoulder and forced him back into his seat.

     “Just remember, I know your daughter’s chamber is second on the right in your family wing,” Desmond warned, cracking his knuckles.  The crowd gasped and began whispering.

     John’s breathing slowed and he narrowed his gaze waiting for Willie’s response.

     But Willie’s nostrils only flared and he said nary a word.

     John took a deep breath and slowly released it as the clerk tapped his staff on the floor, restoring calm.  “How say you, Sir Walter Olivers?”

     The stooped shouldered elderly man stood, slowly and brought his shaky hand to his forehead.  “I need time to think.  Please come back to me when you’ve polled everyone else.”

     John tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword as Fergus hooted in triumph.  Meanwhile, Willie smiled quietly, revealing all his yellowing teeth while Desmond banged his fists on the table in rapid succession   

The clerk thumped his staff on the floor then raised his voice subduing the noise of the crowd.  “How say you, Sir Thomas Armstrong?”

     The crowd whispered in hushed, expectant murmurs.

     Like the crowd, John waited with baited breath.

     Armstrong’s square jaw jutted out.  “Death with confiscation of all property,” he said with a crisp nod.

Veins popped in Willie’s neck.

     “We’ll burn you out,” Desmond threatened.

     “Your eldest lass is mine,” Fergus yelled as spittle sprayed from his mouth.  “I’m coming to get her.” 

     “Hang ‘em high,” came a shout from somewhere in the back of the Kirk

     John pivoted, searching for the culprit, not about to allow anyone to interfere in the proceedings.  No matter how he felt about the Johnstones, no one other than the King’s Council would be allowed to serve up justice this day.  

     The clerk struck his staff loudly on the stone floor then cleared his throat.  “How say you, Sir Kenneth Elliots?”

     Elliot’s unfolded his lanky form from out of his chair and stood, rocking on the balls of his feet.  He stared for a moment.  “I vote for property confiscation,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

     John frowned at Elliot wondering what retribution the Johnstones had threatened him and his family with.

     The three Johnstones whooped and hollered.  “Praise be, the angels are on our side,” Willie exclaimed.

Desmond roared in laughter while Fergus asked.  “Think you got us now, Maxwell?”

     The clerk narrowed his eyes and gave his staff several hard knocks on the floor.  “How say you, Sir James Kerr?”

     John turned his gaze toward Kerr as he stood.

     Kerr’s ruddy cheeks reddened as if he’d just completed a day’s hard labor.  “Death,” he said, flashing a cold smile.

     Cheers erupted in the room.  John moved toward the rowdy bunch standing near the dais.

     Willie’s face flamed.

     Desmond waved his fist at Kerr.  “You’ll regret this.”

     Fergus pointed an accusing stubby finger at Kerr.  “Everything you have is mine.”  He threatened.   

     The clerk beat his staff against the floor.  “How say you Alexander Younge?”

     John stopped moving as the boisterous group quieted.

     Reed thin, his gaunt leathery cheeks covered in a grizzled beard, Younge wobbled to his feet.  “Property confiscation,” he said in a hollow voice.

     “Yea!” Desmond whooped loudly.

     “I told you he’d vote our way,” Fergus shouted.

     Willie slammed his fist into Fergus’ jaw, silencing him as the crowd booed and hissed.

     The clerk whacked his staff up and down repeatedly to gain control.   “Now, how say you Sir Walter Olivers?”

     The elderly man stood once more.  “Confiscation.”  He wheezed then sat.

     John stared at the Council members for a moment in stunned disbelief then watched as Desmond punched Fergus on the shoulder with a hoot and a holler then pounded on the table.

     Willie frowned.  “Fire and brimstone,” he said.  “We’re doomed.”

     “Nay,” Fergus shouted.  “I told you, we’d go free.”

     The clerk pounded his staff on the corner of the table to gain everyone’s attention.   “With three votes for confiscation and three for death, the decision rests solely with Sir Gilbert Maxwell.”

     The room became eerily quiet as Sir Gilbert stood.  So silent, John could hear the twittering of the Popits nesting in the Rowan trees outside.  He held his breath.  Would Sir Gilbert do the safe and expedient thing and only vote for confiscation or would he stand for the King’s justice?

     Sir Gilbert stood then faced the Johnstones.  “I render the verdict of death by hanging.  The family retains what lands they have inscribed in the property book of the Crown’s Assurances.”

     At his pronouncement chaos erupted within the room.  John and his men swiftly moved in to restore peace as Fergus jumped over the table and lunged in Maxwell’s direction. Intercepted by a member of Turnbulls security, he was restrained by Andrew.  Desmond wrestled one of the Armstrong guards for a weapon but failed in his endeavor.

      “You’ll die for this.”  Willie threatened Maxwell.  “The Johnstones will destroy all you hold dear.”

     Finally, with all the Johnstones subdued, cries of retribution against them filled the Kirk.  John moved through the churning crowd toward the vestibule then unbarred the door.  Promptly, John’s men led the three Johnstones outside to stand before the elderly priest in charge of St. Mary’s. 

     Raising his aged hand, he made the sign of the cross.  “We have learned from the Bible that if you push a man, fling anything at him, strike him in any way with the intent to harm him and he dies then you are guilty of murder.  Do you wish to confess your sins?”  He asked as he stepped slowly toward Willie.

     “Nay, stay away.”  Willie yelled then covered his ears.  “You can’t justify our deaths with Bible Verses.”

     “Here’s my answer, old man,” Fergus said then spat at the priest, his spittle landing short of his mark.

     “You won’t ever hear me say I did anything wrong,” Desmond said, puffing out his chest. 

     The priest paused a moment.  “Then may the Lord have mercy on your souls,” he said as he made the sign of the cross.  Turning, he shook his white head and moved away.   

     John squinted into the afternoon sun as he watched his men position the condemned men beneath the looped ropes under the spreading branches of the Rowan trees.  As the King’s Blade, he had a job to do.  But lately, he’d begun to wonder, did he served justice or vengeance

                               A Bride for the King

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