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.’Tis a trap.John of Lorne and his highlanders are coming through the woods behind us.”Just months before, John of Lorne had nearly captured Bruce at Dalry Pass.Bruce’s wife, sisters, and daughter had been with him.To assure the women’s safety, Bruce had given all his horses to them and the men who protected them and sent them north out of harm’s way.He and his army, such as it was, had been on foot ever since.Fortunately, Lorne and his highlanders would likely be on foot as well.With brisk efficiency born of countless such close encounters, Bruce issued orders.“James, divide the men into three groups.You escort one east, my brother will take one to the west, and Bryan and I will lead the rest and head south.Circle around and we’ll meet at the old cottage at Loch Dee.”Edward Bruce nodded.“I know the one.God go with you, brother.”“And with you.Now go!”Bruce watched as his orders were carried out, but the sound of a baying hound soon sent him and his band of twenty men running.Their pursuers crashed through the brush behind them and it soon became apparent that, for some reason, only Bruce’s party was being followed.Waving his arms, he indicated that his men should scatter and try to diffuse their pursuers.He ran, Bryan beside him, dodging branches and rocks.The sounds of pursuit continued and the hound sounded closer now, obviously excited.Bruce stopped and listened.Could it be? Breath coming in gasps he said to Bryan, “The dog.I recognize his voice.He was once mine.Lost him at Dalry.”“He knows your scent then,” Bryan said.His expression showed that he, too, realized the peril they were in.“Aye, and a more loyal animal never lived.He’ll stop at nothing to be reunited.He’ll bring Lorne straight to us.”“Then we best run faster.”From the corner of his eye Bruce caught movement.Five men, fleeter than the others, were closing in rapidly.“Look to the right!”Bruce drew his sword and Bryan did the same.“There!” Bruce pointed to a large rock and they ran and put their backs to it just as the men caught up to them.Three came after Bruce; the other two took on Bryan.With a mighty swing Bruce dealt a blow that sheared through one man’s ear and cheek and into his neck.The man went down hard.His two companions retreated.With a moment’s reprieve, Bruce went to Bryan’s aid and with a sideways slash of his sword took off the head of one of the attackers.The first two returned to the fray, their anger renewed.Bruce met them, cutting through one’s arm while Bryan finished off his man.Bruce killed the remaining attacker and for the moment, they were safe.Panting, drenched in sweat, they leaned on their swords until the sound of the baying hound sent them running again.Nearing exhaustion, knowing they couldn’t keep up this pace, Bruce cried out when they stumbled upon a small stream.“Blessed be our God!” Bruce rushed forward, into the cold water.“That dog’s loyalty threatens to be the death of us.We’ll use this stream to lose my scent.”“Aye,” Bryan said as he jumped in, close on Bruce’s heels.Within minutes the dog’s barking faded until finally they could no longer hear it.They left the stream, boots sloshing with water but they dared not stop to empty them.They walked on, determined to make Loch Dee yet this night.Just after moonrise they came to the edge of the woods and glimpsed what had been an abandoned cottage the last time they’d come through Loch Dee.But tonight smoke arose from the chimney.None of Bruce’s men were camped outside, so the occupants were strangers—enemies until proven otherwise.Bryan laid a hand on Bruce’s arm.“You stay in the cover of the trees, my laird, while I see who is here.”He stepped into the clearing, sword drawn.“Hallo the cottage,” Bryan called.After a moment, a man answered.“Who goes there?”“Weary travelers in need of shelter for the night.”There was silence and Bruce quietly withdrew his sword.The whisper of metal on metal was like a reassuring friend’s hand upon a shoulder.He held his breath, waiting.“All travelers be welcome so long as they are loyal to our king, Robert the Bruce.If not, be gone with you.”Bruce breathed a sigh of relief at those words.He couldn’t go on much farther.He sheathed his sword and joined Bryan as the door of the cottage opened, casting warm light upon the clearing.Bryan stood aside, sword in hand but lowered.“Then welcome your rightful king.”With a look of astonishment the man opened the door wider.Bruce entered and noticed a young woman to his right, dressed in men’s clothing.A sword hung at her belt and she carried herself in the way of a fighter.Even more curious, the men with her seemed to defer to her, as if she were the leader.The woman boldly strode into the firelight and he noted that she was but a year or two older than Bryan.She stood before Bruce and bowed.“Your Majesty.I am Morrigan Macnab.”A clanswoman of his enemy, John of Lorne.Bruce placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and Bryan raised his.Her men stepped forward but she waved them off, holding her hands outstretched, palms up in front of her.“We mean you no harm, King Robert.In fact, we offer our swords to your cause, if you’ll have us.”“The Macnabs are for England.” Bryan said, his sword still at the ready.“Aye, my Uncle Angus serves John of Lorne and the king of England.But we do not.”Robert studied the girl.Her men stood around her, protective, yet Bruce sensed she could well defend herself.“I would like to hear your reasons,” Bruce said.“And so you shall.” She motioned toward the warm fire and pan of something cooking.“You look tired and hungry, my king.Come, eat and rest and I’ll tell you my story.”Bruce looked to Bryan and the boy lowered his sword, although he did not sheath it.The smell of the food and the invitation to rest both appealed greatly.“I am grateful for your hospitality, Morrigan Macnab.”As Robert and Bryan ate roasted hen and oatcakes, Morrigan spoke without hesitation.“My father and I fought against you at Methven, my laird.We were with Prince Edward’s troops [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]