I had been sitting in the Tower chapel for fifteen minutes, watching the guards, priests and courtiers move in and out. It was relatively empty at the moment; only the Earl of Rochford's wife sat in the chapel, probably praying the ol' bastard of a husband would die soon. He had been imprisoned in the Tower for twenty years, during the days of Longshanks' reign. It was unlikely Edward's son would be lenient to a man of eighty nine, but his poor wife had gone and fallen in love with Rochford's cousin. Until Rochford died, she was stuck without title or estates, stripped of her bloodline by Edward II.
I myself bowed my head and began to pray, knowing that only God could save Talbot from my father. But I needed to find out what information he would acquire. According to Talbot, it was not a matter of strength or wits that kept a spy from blabbering on under torture. Knowing my father, and what he was capable of, no man of any valor could withstand his methods of interrogation and not utter a word. I began to wonder what possible purpose there was to being in the Tower, at this very moment. Reason foretold that I was powerless to save the spymaster. Reason also told me to leave in case I was mentioned. But I couldn't. I had to know. I had to…be there.
My chance came right after I finished the Lord's Prayer. The Lady Rochford had left, and along with her the priest to see her out. There was a door to the right of the altar; I had seen two guards go past minutes ago. It was just as the Lady de Winter described.
The corridor was dark and uninviting, and I could make out narrow steps in front of me, along with the faint echo of a man screaming. Courage, young one, a voice called from inside me. I absentmindedly nodded. For a few minutes I felt my way down the stairs, both my arms spread out against the thin walls on either side of me to keep me from falling. It went quite deep into the Tower. The screaming echo grew louder, and many more voices were heard.
Finally, a faint light reached my eyes. Just twenty feet below the spiral staircase stopped, and a torch lit up a door. Presumably leading into the torture chamber. I sighed, and gently peeped into the open top of the door. Blackness. I opened the door softly, and stepped inside. I walked a few feet blindly, quietly, waiting to hear a voice. I was in a corridor that led to three other doors. I heard footsteps, and quickly hid behind a large barrel in the dark. A door closed, and two figures came out.
"His Majesty will not be happy. That was a complete waste of our time," an annoyed voice stated. It was my husband.
"Oh I wouldn't be too sure of that," the other man said, and I felt a shutter down my spine. My father sounded almost cheery.
"He did not reveal anything about the Bruce's army. And now you have made sure he will never say anything else."
I heard my father guffaw. "Sometimes I think I could have found a brighter suitor for my daughter, Robert. I did not expect much from this one. We now know that the Bruce is aware of our plans to invade, and our numbers. We can certainly use this to our advantage. I will inform the king of this. You must ride out to the Earl of Pembroke. The Bruce will now be expecting his attack, and will counterattack. The element of surprise is past. We must gather our forces sooner than expected, and ride out to meet you. In the meantime…."
I listened as my father told Baron de Clifford of how Pembroke should attack the Bruce's forces while the English arrive. I kept low and hidden, hoping desperately my heart was not as loud as it felt in my chest. Soon they left, walking right past me without noticing.
After a minute, I stole into the doorway where they had exited from, and I felt my knees give way.
He was lying in the center of a Rack, a torture device I had heard my father frequently used on his victims. From ten feet away I could see one of his arms was dislocated, and his left leg was barely hanging off his body. But that was not the worst. My father had had his sport with him, and used boiling water against his flesh. His mouth was slit open. I let out a gasp, trying desperately not to throw up.
I had thought him dead, but at the sound my gasp he opened one eye slightly, and looked to the source of the noise. I tried to come closer, but fear prevented me from moving. A noise escaped him, and it was then that courage took me. I slowly walked up to him, seeing firsthand the ooze of raw flesh and blood covering his almost naked body.
"Oh Talbot," I whispered, tears running down my face. I could not touch him, for I knew that would bring unbearable pain. "I'm going to get you out of here." The words were useless, and both of us knew it. I reached inside my pocket, grasping the thing I did not want to bring.
Before I left for the Tower, I had brought it along as a last resort. In the back of my head I knew it was going to be like this. My hand shook as I brought it out of my pocket and showed it to him. "I…I don't know if I can…I don't think I'm strong enough…" I blubbered, but looking down into his eyes I realized this was the only thing I could do for my friend. Everything else was futile. I opened the vile, and gently let the drops of liquid fall into his mouth. I waited until I was sure he had some of it swallow.
"You have done well, my friend," I whispered. His body began to convulse, and his mouth gargled as he lay, his eyes widening. It was over within seconds, and with the last beat of his heart his eyes lay staring at me, even as life already left his broken body.
I felt my own body shaking. "I will miss you dearly," I said. I placed the vile back in my pocket, and left the torture chamber. I was not noticed as I came back up into the chapel, nor did anyone follow me as I left the Tower. I did not stop until I reached my own chambers at the palace. Robert was not there, and I angrily yelled at Sarah to leave me. Yet still I could not let grief take me. Instead, I went straight to my bed, knowing tomorrow I would have to leave England.
I was informed at dawn by Robert's manservant that he had left urgently in the middle of the night, and he would send word when he could. I nodded, grateful that he had left quickly. This would mean less questions to my own escape.
I informed Sarah that I needed a holiday from court life, and wished to retire to the Baron de Clifford's country estate while my husband was away. As she got my clothes ready, a knock appeared at our door. Sarah answerd, and told me it was a servant sent with a message from the queen.
"The Queen?" I repeated, and tore the letter away from her. Seeing Sarah looking curious, I said, "Would you be so kind as to collect the tapestry in the next room? I do not want to leave it in the city."
As she left, I opened the note. It was written in French. My heart pumped faster and faster. "I went to visit our mutual lady friend last night and she informed me of your troubles. Present this card enclosed and seek an audience with me today. Do not leave."
The Queen was known for her trustworthy nature, and wisdom. By having me request an audience instead of vice versa, it could not implicate her in any matter that came from this moment forward. I had not yet met the Queen, though I had seen her in the dining hall a few times from afar. She tried to stay as far from her husband as possible.
A few hours later I was dressed in my finest gown of green velvet and gold threading, and presented my card to the guards next to the Queen's Presence Chamber. I bowed before her, keeping my head down.
"Leave us alone." She stated, her voice calm but firm. The guards bowed and left the chamber.
I lifted my head, and stared at the regal figure before me. She was seventeen years my senior, but her body remained slim, her face hardened with childbirth and years of exile from His Majesty. After Wallace was killed, he had confined her to the Norfolk lands for her lying in, but after her son was born, the child was taken to London while she was to remain in the country for several years. The despair of losing her child to have it grow up with her monster of a husband had left her looking weathered, yet still beautiful.
"Come closer," she commanded, and I obeyed. I looked up at her, wanting desperately to trust her, to confide in her, but still kept my mind distant.
She smiled. "You are the daughter of the Butcher of Perth." My father had retained many titles, some nicknames designated for his cunning, others for his cruelty.
Not quite sure what she meant by the referral, I quickly countered, "Yes, Your Majesty. Daughter to the Rapist of Edinburgh, Wife to the Widower of England's Foes…seeking an audience with Longshanks' daughter-in-law." Many would have considered this statement an insult to the royal family. The only people who called the king's father Longshanks had been the Scottish supporters. I was making a daring move, explicitly defending my allegiance to the Bruce and declaring my own family as enemies.
Her mouth broke into a smile, and she got up from her throne, and stood in front of me, clasping my right hand. "Oh, Lady Aris," she whispered, "When Lady Reston informed me of your…views…I felt my years of loneliness instantly evaporate. Come, let us walk in the garden and speak freely, here is not the safest place for prying ears…"
Minutes later, we were outside and walking, arm an arm in a sign of a queen's affection. Personally I thought the shock of me was the reason she held on to me so tight. It had been a long time since she could speak of such things.
"Your capture produced quite a gossip at court those many months ago. I myself confess I did not expect them to return the daughter of the Earl of Gloucester unharmed. But here you are, and in their employ no less. I wonder how that was managed."
"Is it so hard to envision a person willing to stand up for what is right?"
She smiled again. "Your words are true, Lady Aris. In fact, it is harder than you realize. But I see you know what it feels like to be married to a killer of good, honest men."
"Your Majesty, I must be plain. Recent events make it imperative that I rejoin the Scottish with all the knowledge I possess. I am humbled by your words, and it…it is nice to know I am not alone in this country. I must know what you want of me."
"A man once told me he saw much strength in me…you remind me of him. Tell me something, Aris…is it a man you fight this passionately for? Risking your life for?"
The question caught me off guard, and I quickly looked around to make sure no one was nearby. I turned to face her. "For a time, that might have been true. But that is in the past, and my quest has more to do with an oath I took long ago to end my father's tyranny."
"I see." She grabbed her stomach, and let her fingers caress the lilies that surrounded us. "You may think you can bury the past, but its ghosts come to haunt you from time to time. It was close to twenty years ago that I met the man that captured my heart. He is long dead, but sometimes I feel as if he is right beside me, beckoning me to remain existing in this world of pain and suffering. For what purpose I know not, for life without him…is like a life without light. I lost him to this place. And ever since I have been but a shell of my former self, doing only what I can to ease the sufferings of my husband's people."
"William would be proud of you," I said, squeezing her hand.
She stiffened at the mention of his name. "I thought…I thought that the birth of our son would hold me together, for if I could see William in his son it would be like he never left me. But Edward has kept him from me…and the boy prince you see today has no qualities his real father possessed. In that regard, Longshanks has won."
She looked back at me. "Yet I remained. To what purpose I knew not…until I heard of you. To know that William's dream is within reach…I knew I must play one more hand."
She indicated we sit on a bench. "My husband has summoned 20,000 men to fight the Scottish. You can catch your husband if you leave now. I can give you several of my horses and French guardsmen to watch you, and give you documents of safe passage."
"Thank you, your Majesty," I said, overwhelmed with joy. "I don't know what to say."
She smiled, "You have given me more than you will ever know, Lady Aris. I have already told your husband's servants to go on without you to the Baron's estates. You must leave now."
We both got up, and the Queen of England embraced me. "Find your man, Aris. Our lives are full of such fleeting moments, we must allow our hearts to breathe. Good luck."
t is a hard week's ride to Stirling by horse, and Robert de Clifford was nearly two days ahead of me. I had to reach the Bruce before he reached Pembroke's forces. It seemed an impossible feat.
We slept little, and I barely talked. The French guards asked little questions, and for that I was grateful. I ate very little, my stomach still lurching from the sites I had seen at the Tower. I knew de Clifford had left his forces with Edward II and was traveling alone with his squire; a broad shouldered youth by the name of Will Somerset. That meant he was traveling light and fast.
By the fifth night, we could see Pembroke's encampment about two miles ahead. I knew without a doubt Robert had reached them. Tomorrow they would move their forces to the plan my father had devised. But no one knew I held the key to such knowledge.
I would not let the three Frenchmen rest, and together we pressed on through the night, changing horses and attire. We would soon be entering Scottish territory, and it would not do to get killed by the people I was trying to protect.
The first night, I had made the French guards copy my letter to the Bruce devising my own plan and knowledge of the English. I knew at some point we would be split up, and it was necessary incase any of us were killed that one of us would be able to reach the Scots.
I had changed out of my dress attire some time before, and now I took comfort in the fact that a man's tunic and leggings were much more to my liking on a horse. Speaking only in French, I conveyed to my companions that now was the time to part ways, and godspeed.
Unsure of exactly where the Bruce would situate his attack, or counterattack, I took the northeast road. One of the Frenchmen, Jean Pierre Lautrec, refused to leave me, and said he had orders from the queen to accompany me no matter what happened.
We were a day's ride to Stirling. That was where the bulk of the Scottish army would be. As we rode on a throbbing sensation shot through me. What was I to do….what was I to say when I saw Patrick?
By then he might be married, a voice crept into my thoughts. Damn this, I have a job to do.
"Halt in the name if the king!" A voice called from behind us. I pulled on my reigns, and Jean did the same. Turning our horses around, we saw three English guards riding toward us. My eyes widened, but I tried to gulp in my fear.
"We are on important business, and request passage, gentlemen," I said.
The one who had spoken was a portly fellow, but his companions were tall and broad chested. The one to his right held his hand against his sheathed sword tilt.
"You do realize we are in the middle of a bloody war don't you? You're embarking on enemy territory."
"I have been given safe passage documentation from Her Majesty the Queen." Suddenly the letter to Robert the Bruce felt heavy in my bag.
"I don't care if you are the f-ing queen herself, I am to let no one pass."
I smiled sweetly, "If you would be so kind, good sir, my cousin lives in Argyll, and has been very sick-"
Jean-Pierre dismounted and handed him our documentation, and the guard threw it to the ground. "Get down now, milady. We have our orders as well."
I looked to my French guard, and he to me. We could not afford to be searched. I nodded, and Jean Pierre unsheathed his sword, sticking it through the fat guard's horse. The horse whinnied and fell, the English guard falling as well. The other two horses, scared by the commotion, reared as their riders tried to control them. "Go, milady!" Lautrec shouted, raising his sword to the second guard.
I kicked my horse, spurring him forward. I could not look back, but just kept my face forward, my grip on the reigns tight. Something whizzed by my shoulder, and lodged itself in the nearest tree. The third guard let loose another arrow, this time catching the back leg of my horse. Down she fell, with me with her. I hit the ground hard on my side, rolling away. Hands grabbed my arms, and before I could protest my hands were being tied together. I wrestled, to no avail. They walked me back to their horses, the body of Lautrec lying beside the killed mare. The portly guard limped along, but kept a tight grip on my arm. Soon they would learn of my identity and purpose.
The guard who had tried to shoot me lifted me up onto his horse, and together we rode toward the English camp. To my husband.