Alnsworth Castle, 1358
“The English are coming!”
A terrified herald ran through the castle making his pronouncement to the gasps of the castle populace. It was the most interesting thing that had happened all day.
Gwyn dropped her wooden sword and ran out into the courtyard. She had been practicing swordplay in a spare storage room against a vicious sack of barley, her needlepoint utterly forgotten. She raced up the stone stairs to the wall walk, along with Highlanders from the many clans who had gathered at Alnsworth Castle for the May Day celebration.
The English marched into the far side of the valley, several miles away. It should have been a fearsome sight, but Gwyn could not help but be excited at the prospect of adventure. She was always being sheltered from any real danger, and now here she was in the middle of it. Bells rang to warn people, and many of the populace began to run inside the safety of the caste gates as others in the castle prepared the battlements.
“Get everyone inside!” commanded David Campbell, Gwyn’s brother and the laird of the Campbell clan. “Get those battlements up! Step lively now!” They had been expecting the English to come for years. It was Gwyn’s good fortune that she was visiting the castle when they finally came to play.
“David!” cried Gwyn, pointing to people running toward the castle, some of them still a mile or two away. “They may no’ make it back to the castle in time.”
“If any o’ ye lads are hearty o’ heart wi’ a swift mount, go for those who are far afield!” David commanded.
Gwyn did not need any further incentive. Though he had unfortunately said “lads,” Gwyn was certain he was using the male pronoun in a generic, not specific, sense. Anyway, it would not do to tease him about semantics now, with him so busy defending the castle. She had a swift mount and feared nothing.
Within minutes, she had suited up with her shabby, discarded pieces of armor, two mismatched gauntlets, a hauberk too small for most men to wear, and a dented helm. She ran to the stables and grabbed her mount amidst the chaos, riding out with several other men intent on rescuing the stragglers.
Her horse was strong and Gwyn was a swift rider, so she quickly outpaced the others. She raced across the valley and arrived first at a group of children. A young lass who looked to be in her early teens was running as best she could with a toddler in her arms. Beside her were a young boy and girl.
“Give me the bairn,” yelled Gwyn through her helm. She was starting to get hot even though it was a cool day. “We must make haste. The Sassenach are at yer heels!”
The girl handed over the baby and helped the younger ones mount up behind Gwyn. The horse could carry no more. Gwyn met the eyes of the girl. How old could she be—thirteen maybe? Only four years younger than Gwyn herself.
“I will come back for ye,” promised Gwyn, reading the girl’s silent plea. “Keep running toward the castle.”
Gwyn’s ride back to the castle was not as fast. She had a squirming child in one hand, the reins in the other, and small children listing one way then another behind her. When she finally arrived at the gate, she left the children with a serving maid and spun around to make one more trip.
“Dinna go!” yelled someone. “The English are too close. The gates must be closed!”
“There still be wee ones in the fields,” cried Gwyn. She kicked her mount and raced out of the gates.
The English were marching in swiftly, closing in from the far side of the valley. The bright sun glinted off armor, shields, and the tips of their pikes in a display both impressive and terrifying. Mounted knights approached first, followed by divisions of soldiers marching in tight, precise formations. These were not serfs rounded up for a melee; these were seasoned warriors, experienced and deadly.
Gwyn leaned forward, galloping across the valley as fast as she could. She hoped the girl had been able to put some distance between her and the approaching English soldiers. It would not go well for her, a young lass caught by an army of men. Finally, Gwyn spotted her. She was struggling across the fields and did not see the English scout crouching in the tall grass behind her.
“Run!” yelled Gwyn.
The English scout sprinted toward the girl, who screamed and broke into a run. Gwyn raced to the girl, pulling up so sharply the horse reared. The scout was almost upon them, but Gwyn reached out for the girl, pulling her up onto the horse. The English soldier grabbed for the girl, but Gwyn kicked him hard with her boot and the man fell back with the girl’s shoe in his hand.
Gwyn urged her mount onward, and they raced back to the castle. Ahead, the castle gates were closing. Gwyn leaned forward, willing her mount to run faster to slip inside before the gates closed. But, no, they were too late. Gwyn was forced to pull up short as the gates closed before her.
Gwyn stared at the locked gate. Could she truly be trapped outside? But, no, the gates began to open again to allow the Highland warriors to meet the English army. Gwyn sighed in relief and slipped past them into the castle.
“Thank ye. Ye saved my life,” breathed the girl, slipping off the horse to reunite with her family.
Gwyn attempted to contain her glee. A real lady would not enjoy such excitement. A real lady wouldn’t go running into danger. But of course, no one had ever accused Gwyn of being a real lady.
Her brothers, David, Finn, and Gil, passed her, riding out of the castle to confront the English soldiers. They were resplendent in their armor and the Campbell surcoats. Even Rabbie, only thirteen, rode alongside, carrying their standard high. It was hardly fair that even Rabbie, the baby of the family, was now encouraged to do things that Gwyn, a lass, would never be allowed to do. The Campbells were followed by Laird Douglas and his knights, Grant and his knights, Laird Maclachlan and his knights, along with others. They galloped toward the English troops with a flag of parlay. Several of the men who had ridden to save the people in the valley followed behind their lairds and Gwyn followed suit.
If David knew she was following behind, she would catch it something fierce, but with so many men from different clans and her own blond head hidden beneath her helm, she judged the risk of being caught minimal. She kept to the back of the pack but still edged close enough to hear what was said.
It was a sunny spring day with a brisk wind that spoke of weather ahead. The English soldiers stood a ways off in perfect formation, an unmoving, inhuman mass. They were the best fighting force in the world, and everyone in the valley knew it. Yet the Highlanders were a fearsome lot and despite many attempts had never been conquered by their strong English neighbor. If it was to be a fight, it would be a bloody one.
The knights all stopped about twenty yards from each other. Silence fell on the valley. Gwyn held her breath. David had always said the English would come someday to try to take Alnsworth Castle back under English rule. That day had come.
The castle was the inheritance of Lady Isabelle, an Englishwoman, and thus went to David when they were wed. The Scots has used the castle to defend Scotland in the most recent war between the two countries. The castle, though on the border between England and Scotland, was in English territory. And the English wanted it back.
“Hail, Alnsworth Castle,” cried an English lord when they were within bowshot of each other. “I come with a message from His Majesty the King of England and France. You are inhabiting the castle and grounds belonging to Sir John Lockton. It is hereby demanded that you remove yourselves immediately or a state of war will exist between us.”
“I am the Laird Campbell,” bellowed her brother at them. “I am the rightful master of Alnsworth Castle through marriage to Lady Isabelle, the Countess o’ Tynsdale. I dinna recognize yer claim of ownership.”
“Alnsworth Castle was granted to Lady Isabelle’s cousin, Sir John Lockton, by His Majesty King Edward the third.” One of the mounted knights held aloft a scroll.
“Yer king is not my king. I dinna recognize his authority over me, my people, or my land. However, I am willing to negotiate a settlement for this fine castle following the terms I have set.”
The knights conferred. “What are these terms?” asked a younger knight.
Campbell nodded to a knight from the Maclachlan clan, who took up a bow. Gwyn gripped her reins. Was it to be war?
The knight released his shaft and it flew true to the wooden shield slung at the side of one of the knights. It stuck into the wood, a small bundle of papers wrapped around the arrow shaft. He had shot their terms in a message attached to the arrow, now stuck to the shield.
“Who are you to make demands of us on English soil?” cried one of the English knights. “You are trespassers here! You must leave at once. Alnsworth belongs to the Locktons by decree of the king. Leave at once or be forced out like any other base thief.”
Without thinking, Gwyn urged her mount forward. The English scum had insulted her brother. If there was to be a fight, she was going to be in it, whether her bother approved or not. Fortunately, David kept a cooler head than her.
“My, but yer words so quickly turn to threats. But this is the English way, no?”
“Enjoy your mocking words, knave,” growled the Englishman. “They will soon be all you have to eat. When you are ready to discuss terms for your surrender, let us know. Until then, we will consider you our enemy and a state of—”
“Wait!” One of the English knights rode forward, removing his helm.
Gwyn’s jaw dropped. The man was surprisingly young, with dark hair and chiseled features. It was wrong to have such a handsome man be her enemy. If there was any justice in the world, her enemies would all be troll-like. But the man before her was the most bonny lad she had ever seen.
“I am Sir John Lockton,” called the young man. “Heir to Alnsworth Castle after my fair cousin Isabelle. Let us send forth envoys to discuss your terms for a peaceable solution. I am reluctant to take up arms against the kinsman of my cousin, yet once roused to anger, the army under the Lockton flag will never be defeated.”
“’Tis the youngest among ye that has the most sense,” called David. “I will agree to send an envoy tomorrow to discuss terms. Until then, enjoy the hospitality of my valley. Good day to ye, Sir John.” David spun his mount as did all the knights, and Gwyn hustled to do the same and ride off before she could be spotted.
She could not help but look back once more at the handsome knight. Truly, it was a pity to waste such fine features on an Englishman.