His Captive, His Conquest by Ashe Barker

Chapter One

Village of Elborne, Northumberland, North of England

June, 1490

“Did anyone see who did this?”

Stephen Parnell, Earl of Romsey and, since his elevation just six months previously, now also Marquis of Otterburn, surveyed the ruined crops. Twenty good acres of wheat, barley, and maize flattened or burned or both. He muttered a string of oaths. The senseless destruction was what disgusted him the most. If the attackers had actually stolen the crops, he would have better understood their motives. But this…

“It were the Scots, my lord.” Harry Fairclough, the captain of Stephen’s guard, scowled at the scene of wanton devastation which until yesterday had represented the hopes of several villages for a decent winter with enough to eat for all. “Young Maggie Plummer was outside using the privy. She heard footsteps and looked to see who was there. She swears she saw the red and green.”

The marquis narrowed his eyes. “The Plummers’ cottage is a good half mile from here. She would not have had a good view, not in the dark and the mist. And those colours can be seen on half the plaids in the borders. Do we know anything more?”

The captain shrugged. “A Scot’s a Scot, my lord. They’re a rabble of savages, the lot of them.”

Given the scene before him, Stephen was minded not to quibble with the sentiment, but he still preferred a greater degree of certainty regarding the culprits since he did not intend to let this attack go unpunished. He preferred to exact his vengeance upon those who had earned it.

“Apart from young Maggie, did anyone else see or hear anything?”

“Not that I’ve been told, but the tracks show the marauders came from the northeast and returned in the same direction. Those are MacKinnon lands, my lord.”

This was true.

Stephen nudged his stallion forward, skirting the perimeter of the wrecked meadow and scanning the ground for any clue as to who had stomped through these fields not six hours before, when the villagers were abed. Who had seen fit to consign the people of Elborne, his people, to a miserable winter of hunger and disease?

A flash of colour caught his eye, in sharp contrast to the surrounding muddy carnage. Stephen dismounted and strode though the flattened stalks to retrieve the scrap of fabric caught on the spikes of a thistle. He rubbed it between his fingers and nodded. Here was the proof he needed.

“It was the MacKinnons, all right. This is their tartan.”

The captain nodded. “I shall get men ready to leave within the hour. We may even overtake them before they reach their villages.”

“Do that. Which is the closest MacKinnon settlement to here?” Stephen had travelled north to make his home in the borders only a few months ago, having spent this entire life up to then in the south of England. He had yet to become familiar with the local habitations, though he had made it his business to be able to recognise each of the clans’ plaids at a glance. As a military commander of several years’ experience, he understood perfectly the need to know your enemy.

This was a skill which had stood him in good stead during the bitter civil war which had ended just five years previously with the victory of Henry Tudor at Bosworth. The House of York had been defeated finally, and the Tudor installed upon the throne he had coveted his entire life.

Henry Tudor was also a man who appreciated the value of knowing his enemies and rewarding those he could trust. Stephen’s brother, Richard Parnell, then the Earl of Romsey, had been awarded the dukedom of Whitleigh in recognition for his service. Richard and Stephen were close, despite the fact that Stephen was the illegitimate son of their mutual father, so when Richard found himself elevated to the status of duke, he decided that his hereditary title could safely be handed to his brother regardless of the circumstances of his birth. The king had no objection, Stephen had also served with distinction in the struggle for the crown, so the title passed from one brother to the other.

The king’s interest in his loyal supporter did not end there. Stephen had spent a peaceful and relatively uneventful few years tending to his ancestral lands and was more than a little surprised to be summoned to court. He had arrived at the Greenwich, the graceful palace which Henry Tudor had chosen for his home in preference to the more austere Tower of London, to be informed that the monarch had need of his services once more.

“There is unrest on my northern borders,” Henry had announced almost as soon as Stephen accepted his mug of foaming ale at the king’s table. “I require someone trustworthy in the area to keep the peace and ensure none of my territories there fall to the Scots. Did you know John Bramwell?”

Stephen had to consider for a moment, then, “Aye. A fine enough man. He was at Bosworth, was he not?”

“He was, and yes, a decent soldier and commander. Unfortunately, he died two months ago, in a skirmish with the Scots.”

“Oh. I had not heard…”

“Well, ’tis somewhat awkward. His loss leaves my northern border weakened. Bramwell’s keep at Elborne is undefended, easy prey for the border clans to pick off at their leisure. It cannot be left as it is.”

“No, I can see that. Am I to understand you would wish me to assist in this matter?”

“Aye, I would. Elborne is yours, if you want it. And if you can hold it, obviously. The keep is less than five miles from the border, and from all accounts the damned Scots are hardly ever away from the gates. It is a secure stronghold and well-guarded, but without an experienced, battle-hardened commander there, it is but a matter of time…”

“I see. I shall leave for Northumberland within the week, sire.”

“I appreciate that, Romsey. Which reminds me, it is not just the keep, but the title, also.”

“Title, Your Majesty?”

“John Bramwell was Marquis of Otterburn. He died leaving no heirs, just a sister who I gather has done her best these last few weeks, but the garrison at Elborne requires strong leadership. I need a man who can strike fear into the bloodthirsty, barbaric clans and show them what retribution will befall them if they continue to trespass within my kingdom and harass my subjects. I consider you to be that man, Romsey, so if you take this on for me you shall have the title to go with it. Otterburn is in need of a new earl, and I believe you to possess the necessary qualities.”

“I am honoured, sire, but what of Bramwell’s sister? Surely, she would have aspired to the title.”

The king shook his head. “I need a strong man there, not a woman, however competent. That said, though, you will find yourself soon enough in need of a marchioness, and she would make a fine choice. None better, in fact.”

“I was not looking to marry just yet, sire.”

“I believe that you should. The lady’s name is Katherine, and I am told she is presentable enough.”

Stephen recognised that glint of determination in his monarch’s eye and refrained from further protest. After all, he had yet to meet the lady. They might suit.

“Thank you, sire, for your confidence in me, and for the title. I shall not let you down.”

“Aye, well, you have deserved it. Feel free to select a half dozen or so of my knights to accompany you. Since the wars between my cousins ended, my knights are in sore need of practice and are hungry to prove themselves in battle.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

The king got to his feet and extended his hand for Stephen to kiss the royal seal mounted on his ring. “You will have much to do to make ready, I dare say, so I shall not keep you. I shall expect monthly reports.”

Stephen bowed and placed his lips against the seal. “I shall endeavour not to disappoint, sire.”

He was dismissed, so Stephen backed away towards the antechamber. The king was already extending his hand to the next nobleman seeking an audience.

And now, six months later, he had already had several opportunities to prove the king’s judgement to be sound, at least in some respects. Within the first couple of months, he had successfully repelled raids on Elborne itself by first the Taits and then the Douglases, and had hunted down five separate bands of rievers who had thought his lands might prove to be easy pickings. The Armstrongs, the Elliotts and the Fenwicks had all learned to their cost that Elborne was far from undefended, and the incursions had become less frequent. Indeed, until this latest attack, it had been over eight weeks since they had had any trouble at all from north of the border.

Now, all of that had changed. This was an outrage which could not go unresolved.

“Where are they most likely to be headed?” Stephen demanded, swinging back up into the saddle. “And how much of a head start do they have?”

Harry Fairclough scratched his head. “Byrness, a large village about eight miles to the northeast would be my guess, my lord, and they cannot be more than five hours ahead. Also, they are on foot.”

“Eight miles?” Stephen did a quick calculation. “Assuming that they know the territory, and they will, the men who did this are likely to already tucked up in their cottages by now. No matter. We shall pay these MacKinnons a surprise visit and see how they like it.”

* * *

“I could go, Father.” Flora MacKinnon raked her fingers through the mass of auburn curls as she perched on the edge of her father’s sickbed. “It will take me but a day or two.”

“You are a female,” her father, the Earl of Roxburghe and chief of the MacKinnon clan, informed her, irrelevantly in Flora’s opinion, since that fact had not gone unnoticed in her nineteen summers on this earth. “Collecting taxes is not women’s work.”

“If the tithe is not claimed within the quarter, you and I both know what will happen. Cousin Angus will convince himself that we have forgotten or are not in great need of the funds. He will buy himself a new horse or extend his keep. Then he will cry the poor tale, blathering on about his people going without, and we shall have to either enforce our claim or forgo the money. Again.”

“Even so,” the earl grumbled, “I cannot expect this of you, and in any case, I have need of you here. I shall wait until your brother returns. Rob can go and get what we are owed.”

“Robbie might be weeks yet. King James is well known to enjoy holding court, and he likes our Rob’s company. He will want him to remain at Holyrood as long as he can detain him. We would do well to remain on good terms with the new monarch, so—”

“All right, all right. Cease this pestering, lass.” The earl, usually so affable, had become increasingly irritable of late. He paused to cough into his handkerchief, folding the fabric quickly, though not quite fast enough to conceal the speckles of red.

“You are coughing up blood, Father.”

“Rubbish. You are seeing things, girl. ’Tis just a temporary malady, that’s all. In a day or so, I shall most likely be well enough to go to Byrness myself.”

Flora knew this not to be true. Her father had been confined to his bed this last three weeks with some malady of the chest, and the physicians did not expect a speedy recovery. Perhaps more worrying, the earl’s memory had been failing. By bedtime he would likely not even recall that there was an issue with Cousin Angus and the tithe, let alone what he meant to do about it.

Meanwhile, their dues remained unpaid. It was common knowledge among the clan that their chief was not himself of late and Flora was convinced that Angus was taking advantage. He would not be the only one. This did not set a good example for the rest of their clansfolk.

“I will make ready to leave for Byrness,” she announced. “I shall take Will and Duncan with me as escort. We shall come to no harm within our own lands.”

“I need Will and Duncan here, with me. If the bloody Taits get wind that I am laid up in bed and decide to mount another raid, we shall require our best men. Take a couple of the house servants, and I expect you back within the week, mind. No dallying to visit your cousins.” He seemed to have already forgotten that he had forbidden her to go only minutes before.

Flora smiled. She told herself that her father would always see sense eventually, she had but to persuade him. She preferred not to acknowledge the true reason for his change of mind.

The visit to Byrness had become a matter of some urgency. The MacKinnon clan coffers required replenishing, and whether the earl appreciated it or not, they could not afford to let Cousin Angus fritter their funds away on horseflesh. And, much as she would enjoy spending a day or two in the company of her female cousins, she knew her father needed her here at Roxburghe Castle.

“I shall make all possible haste, Papa.” She kissed him on his whiskered cheek. “Now, you get some rest and do not concern yourself with me or the taxes. We need you to get well.”

The laird’s response was an unintelligible snort, which Flora took to be her dismissal. She hitched up her skirts and marched from the chamber. She had much to do and intended to be on the road within the day.

* * *

“This is the settlement?” Stephen lay facedown in the heather and peered over the brow of the hill. He could just make out the rooftops of the cottages below. Smoke billowed through the rough thatches, a sign that the inhabitants were up and about. “How many people live here?”

Harry Fairclough screwed up his eyes to better examine the village nestling in the valley. “There appear to be twenty or thirty dwellings, as well as a forge. And a mill, with a granary beside it. Quite a prosperous place, by the looks of it. I’d say, perhaps a couple of hundred, including the women and the children.”

Stephen nodded. “I’m not especially interested in the children. Tell our men to leave them be. But we want as many of the able-bodied men as we can round up, and women, too.”

Harry turned to him, his expression one of bewilderment. “Round up, my lord?”

“Yes. Round up. We shall be taking them back to Elborne. Make sure everyone understands. These MacKinnon barbarians are to be captured, not killed if we can help it.”

“But why would we do that?” Harry was incredulous. “There is nothing to be gained by taking prisoners for whom no ransom is likely to be forthcoming. These are just peasants.”

Stephen edged back, out of any possible sight from the village, then got to his feet. “They will not all be peasants. There must be a chief among them, and he will likely be direct kin to the laird himself so might fetch a decent price. As for the rest, our crops are ruined. We could attack now, and we would have the element of surprise. We would probably slaughter most of the inhabitants of this place and we might feel avenged. But our crops would still be ruined, and we will still go hungry this winter. If we try to repair the damage ourselves, we shall have but a few acres cultivated by the time the planting season is done. But if we set this lot to work beside our own farmers to restore our harvest, we can replant all our fields before the weather breaks.”

“They will never agree to that. They would die first.”

“If that is their choice, then so be it. We shall be no worse off. But as I see it, men from this village destroyed our crops, so this is the least they can do in reparation. Do you not agree?”

Harry regarded him for several moments, then his craggy features split in a wide grin. “I do, my lord. I shall tell the men our plan.”

* * *

“I wish I could remain longer, but my father requires my presence at Roxburghe Castle, especially with Rob still away at court.” Flora set the baby she had been rocking in her arms back in his basket, then smiled at her cousin. “He is a beautiful child, Mattie, and the very image of his father. You and Charles must be so proud.”

“We are.” Matilda Elliott, now wife to Charles MacKinnon, one of Flora’s many cousins, beamed at her three-month-old offspring. “Are you quite certain you will not remain to eat with us? We have plenty.”

“I cannot. I must leave now if I am to be home by this time tomorrow. The wagons are already loaded with the grain, and the horses are hitched to the back.”

It had been as she suspected. Angus MacKinnon had indeed already spent the monies owed to his laird, but Flora had succeeded in impressing upon him the folly of his actions and had convinced him to relinquish grain and horseflesh to the agreed value of the unpaid taxes. Angus was not best pleased but had no real alternative if he hoped not to face the wrath of his earl.

“Very well. I understand.” Mattie kissed her on the cheek. “Please convey our best wishes to the earl. I trust he remains in good health.”

“He does, yes, and would have liked to come here himself but has too many other matters demanding his attention at this time. Next time, I am sure…”

Flora had been careful not to divulge the possible seriousness of her father’s illness. It would not do to unsettle the clan with talk of who might succeed her father as chief of the MacKinnons. Her elder brother, Robert, was the obvious choice and her father’s heir as far as the earldom was concerned, but it would be a clan decision when the time came. The MacKinnon clan would vote for their new laird.

“Perhaps we can visit Roxburghe Castle before too long. I shall ask Charles if—”

Matilda’s words were drowned in a cacophony of ear-splitting shouts and the sound of galloping hooves.

“What the…?” Flora dashed to the door of the house to peer outside, then recoiled in horror. Men on horseback, dozens of them it seemed, stampeded through the centre of the settlement, swords raised. Poultry and livestock scattered. Panicking villagers fled before the onslaught, many tripping and falling in their desperation to escape.

The attackers were English. She saw that at a glance. The livery of the Marquis of Otterburn was well known throughout the borders. But why would an English nobleman attack a defenceless Scottish village without apparent cause or warning?

“What is this about?” she demanded of Mattie. “Why are they here?”

“I… I do not know. I…”

“You are lying. What has happened?”

“I think, perhaps…” Mattie flushed under Flora’s discerning gaze.

“What, Mattie?”

“Last night. There was… a raid, I think. Some of the men… went to Elborne.”

Elborne? The seat of the Marquis of Otterburn.

“Why did they go there?” Flora’s tone was ice-cold.

“Reiving,” came the simple reply.

“In God’s name, have they not the sense they were born with? All know what this new English lord is like. He will not stand for it.”

“I think… Charles said that with their harvest ruined they will have nothing this winter. This southern noble may go back where he came from.”

Flora opened the door a crack to look outside again. “This does not strike me as going back where he came from. They are circling the village.”

Matilda grabbed her baby and hugged him to her chest. “They mean to burn us out. Dear Lord…”

“We can—”

“People of Byrness, you shall have but one warning.” The voice rang out loud and clear, the English accent unmistakeable. “Come out, now. You will assemble in the centre of your village, all of you. Men. Women. Children.”

“But why…” Matilda moaned.

“I shall count to five. If you are not outside by the time I finish, I shall order my men to fire the cottages.”

There was pause, then. “One.”

“We cannot. We must hide…” Panic gripped Mattie, and she darted past Flora, obviously intending to make a mad dash for the woodlands to the rear of her home. She managed less than ten paces before she was confronted by a man in armour and sporting the Otterburn purple. His sword was raised, ready to strike.

“No, please…” Flora dashed to where her friend cowered with her child. “We shall do as you say.”

The soldier lowered his sword and tipped his chin in the direction of the clearing in the middle of the settlement. Already, their clansmen and women were starting to gather. Flora grabbed Mattie by the elbow and urged her into the throng.

They were quickly joined by the rest of the villagers. Flora elbowed her way through to where Angus stood, hands on hips, glaring furiously at the mounted men who surrounded them.

“Do you have nothing but wool between your ears, Angus MacKinnon? What on earth possessed you to provoke the English?”

“Yer father would nae say so if he were here. The bloody English have come after us often enough.”

Flora punched him on the arm as hard as she could. “Otterburn is a brute. He slaughtered the Armstrongs and the Fenwicks when they reived on his land. And now, he is here. At Byrness. Have you not a care for your people?”

Angus spat on the ground. “The Fenwicks are savages. They needed culling. And the Armstrongs have barely a brain between them.”

“The same might be said for you, cousin. These English will burn your village in retaliation, and murder those we love. There are women here, and bairns…”

“Who is leader here?” It was the same voice which had ordered them from their homes.

Flora spun around, to find a helmeted knight a mere six feet from her, mounted on a huge black stallion. His face was completely concealed by his visor, but she felt the heat and fury of his gaze even so as he surveyed the huddled mass of people before him.

Angus did not move, nor did he speak.

“Let your leader identify himself,” the knight repeated.

Flora dug her elbow into Angus’s ribs. “Are you a coward as well as a fool.”

“Shut your mouth, lass,” he hissed. “Tell the English nothing.”

The knight waited. His mount pawed the ground. Angus remained silent.

“Very well. That one. He will do.” The knight pointed to the man closest to him, a farmer by the name of Cameron. Two of the English guards grabbed him and dragged him from the group, then shoved him to his knees before their leader.

The knight leaned forward over the neck of his stallion to regard the hapless Scot. “What is your name, man?”

Cameron did not even look up.

“I see. Allow me to introduce myself, then. I am Stephen, Marquis of Otterburn. You visited my lands recently, and as a result I find I have a matter of the gravest importance which I mean to discuss with your chieftain. Am I to assume that you are the leader of this band of barbarians? Is it you I seek? Shall I make an example of you?”

Still, the man remained silent.

“Very well. Take his head, then choose another for me. Sooner or later I will succeed in slaying their chief.”

Now, Cameron did look up, his eyes wild. His gaze darted to Angus as though imploring him to intervene. Angus remained impassive.

The English knight, however, did not miss the direction of the man’s gaze. He turned his head to regard the village chieftain, then pointed to him.

“I believe we have found the one we seek. Bring that man to me.”

Angus started to back away, but the English soldiers were too quick. He was seized and hauled forward, then forced to kneel beside Cameron.

“You. Back over there.”

Cameron took no further urging, He leapt up and fled back into the anonymity of the larger group.

“Do you lead these people?” the knight demanded of Angus.

“Go fuck yourself, English bastard,” came the response.

Angus’s belligerence was rewarded when the knight released his armoured foot from his stirrup and landed it on the side of the Scot’s head. Angus crumpled to the ground.

“Throw him onto a wagon and take him back to Elborne. Perhaps a stay in my dungeon will teach him better manners, at least until his laird can be bothered to ransom him.” The knight returned this attention to the rest of the assembled villagers. “Sort the men from the women and children and tie them together in a line.”

There was much struggling and scuffling, but the Scots were no match for heavily armed English soldiers, and soon twenty-seven men were lined up one behind the other, each one’s hands bound to the waist of the man in front.

The marquis rode slowly along the line, counting. He paused at the end. “We need more. Take a dozen of the women. Able-bodied ones, preferably without children.”

The women wailed and pleaded. Some tried to make a run for it, but it was to no avail. The soldiers grabbed them one at a time and hauled them before the marquis. He did a quick assessment, then they were either flung back into the crowd or their wrists bound and they were added to the line.

Flora did not even bother to fight when a meaty, gloved fist closed around a hank of her hair, and she was forced to her knees before the Marquis of Otterburn. She was healthy enough and not encumbered by children. It was a foregone conclusion that she would be selected. He eyed her for several moments, then nodded, and she was secured with the rest of the prisoners.

The next, and final, woman to be added to the line of prisoners was Elspeth, wife to Angus. She was bound behind Flora, and as soon as the soldiers were out of earshot, she leaned forward to murmur in Flora’s ear.

“Do not let them discover who you are, lass. The daughter of the Earl of Roxburghe will be a fine prize, if they but knew what bounty had fallen into their hands.”

Flora nodded. She had already arrived at the same conclusion.