The year is 1307 and Robert the Bruce and his men are living a transient life in the hills and Highlands of Scotland. If it's not Englishmen they're battling or evading, it's other Scots. Near Slioch the Earl of Buchan's army has trailed them down, but with Robert gravely ill, they can no longer flee and must stand and fight. Robert looks to his younger brother, the impetuous Edward Bruce, to lead his men:
Edward was right. I could not sit my horse. He held my limp, burning body to his chest as he sought to preserve me and gave me his cloak. I cannot say that I slept in such a precarious state, propped up in the saddle semi-conscious with naught but Edward’s cramping arms to save me the fall, but I remembered very little of our flight. When we forded a river and the frozen waters cut across my lower legs I was shocked into temporary mental acuity. But just as fast, my mind, echoing the failing strength in my body, dimmed to darkness. Water brought to my lips invoked endless retching. Food had not passed my lips for a week. I recognized the haunting whisper of Death’s specter as it breathed at my neck. I had seen the spirit’s impending visit on my grandfather’s ashen face in his fleeting days and I knew by other’s reactions that that was how I must have looked. By Christmas Day, I could not rise. My heart told me to listen to my dreams and live. My head told me to listen to my body and just let go.
As the snow tumbled down and deep upon the earth, my men straggled uphill, numb and weary. Boyd carried me in his arms and laid me on a thick piling of furs beneath an outcrop of rock, so that the snow would not bury me. I turned my stiff, aching neck to look. There, far beyond a boggy stretch of turf lay a village, wasted and emptied―though whether our work or Buchan’s or perhaps even Pembroke’s I could not tell. Edward began to array our men on the hillside, archers to the fore. And there in the distance . . . the men of Buchan marching forward, straining to churn their legs through the impeding drifts, their horses snorting clouds of ice.
Gil, who knew Latin better than any among us, sank to his knees at my side and began to utter, “ . . . terra sicut in coelo . . . dimitte nobis . . . nos inducas in tentationem . . .”
He made the sign of the cross above me, glanced quickly over his shoulder, laid his hand on my chest and started again. “Pater noster qui―”
I laid my trembling blue fingers over his. “When did you take vows, Gil? Do I look so near to death?”
He feigned a smile, but it slipped away under the shadow of his beak-like nose. My brother-in-law Neil Campbell, his longsword dangling from one hairy-knuckled hand, hovered grimly over Gil’s shoulder.
“Tomorrow will find you hale, my king,” Neil insisted. “For now―Buchan, he is across the way. Rumors were amuck that you were already dead. That is why they’ve waited so long to come after us. They dared not while they believed you among us. But now, we’ve nowhere left to run. Our legs refuse to carry us any further.”
“Time to use your arms, Neil,” I told him hoarsely. “Time to fight.”
“Aye.” Neil tightened one of the carrying straps of his studded round shield and stood.
The name touched on some strength deep and latent within him. He drew breath, raising his shoulders, and nodded. “And Elizabeth.”
Before his sentimental side got the better of him, Neil took off scrambling sideways along the hill. I gestured to Gil to bend nearer to me.
Our archers ran their calloused fingers over their strings for one last test, then jabbed their missiles into the packed snow at their feet. They were well practiced and my faith in them was unfailing. But Buchan had archers, too, and no matter how stray or true the aim on either side, Scots would die this day.
“Edward―bring Edward,” I whispered into Gil’s scarlet-rimmed ear. I tried to raise my head, but the downward pull was too great, my power too little. “Tell him . . . I have a wish.”
Gil left me. It was only a moment and yet more than an eternity when Edward’s hulking shadow appeared above me. He studied me in his callous, cursory manner, half love, half hate, then knelt slowly beside me. There was not a thread of fear abiding in his conscience―only the cool glimmer of ambition at seeing his older sibling, that which stood between him and glory, heartbeats from death.
He bowed his head and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Your wish?” he prompted.
Of all of us this past year, he had fought the hardest and most dangerously, and yet he appeared unscathed, stronger, damn invincible.
I looked him straight in the eye and raised two fingers. Then I lowered one and said, “First, if you must go on without me, that you will finish what I started.”
“That goes without saying, Robert. And?”
My hand began to shake and I let it fall to my chest. “Put me on my horse. Let me lead them one more time.”
He scoffed at me. “And let you fall to an arrow? No.”
“Edward, I am going to die here anyway. You know . . .”
He abandoned me with a surly glance. Ever defiant. Tenfold more so toward me than the rest of humanity. And yet . . .
I watched as Buchan’s archers scurried forth. The call went up:
For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Far, far silence resounding of mortality and snow all around, blinding to the sight.