Drake Fletcher accepted the purse of coins with a stoicism that would have made his da proud. A lump formed in the back of his throat, thick and obtuse, but he swallowed it down. He was a man of twelve summers, not some lass tucked by her mother’s knee.
He was on the path to become a knight. Well, after he became a squire, of course.
He thanked the royal steward who had personally bestowed the costly gift upon him. It was an honor any page would have relished, were it not for the circumstances.
“You do realize that with Sir Harold’s passing, you and your family can no longer remain on the land.” The steward spoke gently, but it did not temper the pain of his words.
“The land will be escheated to the king.” Drake repeated the words that had been spoken to him once before by his da. Because he had wed a Scottish chieftain’s daughter, Sir Harold’s land could never be passed down to Drake and would instead be absorbed by the crown.
At the time, Sir Harold, a knight never once defeated in battle, had laughed at the idea of his death.
The jest had lost its mirth.
Drake awkwardly held the weighty bundle of coins in his hands. “’Tis kind of ye to grant us this gift.” And indeed it was. Without land, without a home, they would need it. Even if it would not last long for a family of five.
“Your father was a brave knight.” The royal steward removed his feathered cap and lowered his head so Drake could see his shiny pate. “One of the best I’ve ever seen.”
“I’ll be a knight like him one day,” Drake vowed.
The steward straightened and regarded Drake with a pained expression. “Not with that accent, my boy.” He shook his head. “Not with Scottish blood running in your veins.”
The knot in Drake’s throat fisted tighter and rage fired hot in his veins. His father had died for this country and now it shunned him and his family with little more than a sack of coin to make their pillows cradle their heads more comfortably at night.
“I dinna care what it takes,” Drake vowed, “I will become a knight someday.”
“England would be the stronger for it, I believe,” the steward answered slowly. “I shall pray for your endeavors and for your father’s soul.”
Drake nodded, unable to say another word. Emotions whipped through him, too wild to tame into a semblance of understanding. Anger that the English would cast him and his family out so easily. Disbelief at how quickly their fates had been cast. And the blatant, widening chasm of sorrow that split his chest with powerful loss.
He returned home thus, weighted with the news he bore, the bag of guilt coin at his side and his father’s bound body in the wagon behind the destrier that had not been able to save him.
When he approached, Drake’s mother ran out of the manor with his three young sisters. She took one look at the cart behind the large horse and let out a keening cry. The sharpness of it reverberated off the cold stone manor and raked into Drake’s heart until his own throat ached with his swallowed tears.
The oldest of his sisters, wee Faye with her pale blonde hair and large dark eyes, immediately went to him.
“Were ye in battle as well?” Her lower lip trembled. “Were ye injured, Brother?”
Drake clenched his teeth and shook his head, unable to speak for fear of the tears welling over the dam he’d erected. He was the man of the house now, the one who would have to protect them all. The one who had to be strong.
Their middle sister, Clara, had always had a tender heart. Too young to understand the implication of the cart and what it held, she instead curled herself around their mother, pressing her dark head against their mother’s red one.
Then there was the youngest, little Kinsey, who had only seen four summers. She called to him in her confusion and he went to her at once, lifting her into his arms.
She held his face between her chubby, warm palms and looked directly into his eyes, as brazen as ever. “Where’s Da?”
Drake fought the knot in his throat and held her to him, nuzzling his face into the mass of her silky red hair. He had to be strong. For all of them.
And he was. Even when they were removed from the manor and forced on the road to find new lodgings. Even as the English continued to withdraw their welcome as soon as they heard Drake’s accent. Even as they journeyed to the chaotic border between England and Scotland.
It was said the border between the lands swelled and ebbed like the rolling tide. As a result, loyalties and nationalities muddied beneath the rise and fall, so people who were Scottish lived among those who were English with little issue between them.
They could have returned to the Ross clan, of course, but Drake’s mother refused to allow them succor with such a man. Drake didn’t understand her reasoning at first, especially after the coin was gone despite their rationing. And later, her stubbornness frustrated him further when she’d sold all her jewelry to pay for the meals in their gnawing bellies.
It wasn’t until several years later that Drake understood, when he became something he never thought to be. Not an English knight on a valiant steed, but a reiver.
It had been a slow descent into a life of sin that started with an invitation to partake in the spoils of a recent raid of the English Marches. The spoils being a cow whose meat had crisped with the lick of flames and whose fat hissed as it dripped into the embers.
Drake, who hadn’t allowed himself to truly fill on a meal in several months, wanted to decline even as his feet pulled him toward the tender, succulent meat. It was then he met Bran Davidson, a reiver, aye, but a man whose morals only led him to a full belly and the safety of his sole remaining sister.
Morals Drake could stand behind.
Even as Drake had his reservations of living such a lifestyle, he found himself gradually relaxing as he watched his mother and sisters thrive in a better life. One where his mother’s fingers did not bleed at the end of the night from mending and laundering for their neighbors. One where they all ate until they were full, every night.
It was through Drake’s time as a reiver that he began to hear stories of the infamous Ross Chieftain. A man said to be clever, his sharp mind plucking at delicate spots within one’s heart. If warriors wielded weapons, then rulers wielded people, and Ross was perhaps the greatest chieftain there ever was. None could manipulate a man with more skill.
It was through these stories that Drake knew the man his grandfather truly was. And it was then Drake realized not only did he have to protect his mother and sisters from hunger and war, but also from the one man who could have saved them from it all: the Ross Chieftain.
Drake devoted his life to that protection. He willingly sacrificed sleep at night when reiving was more easily done, and risked his life for the safety of his mother and his sisters.. And though he lived as best he could by the moral rules he’d learned as a page, he even set aside his dreams of becoming a knight like his da.
For how could a reiver with English and Scottish blood clashing in his veins ever be awarded a knighthood?
Continue with the Fletcher family’s story in THE BORDERLAND REBELS, the new series coming soon from Madeline Martin!