An old adage declares there is no honor among thieves. The same can be said of traitors. Traitors often hide in the open, in plain sight. The truth is there for people who choose to see it, for those who are determined to see things as they are and not as they wish them to be.
In reality, traitors are nothing more than pretenders. Master manipulators. Actors in a play in which only they know who is who and what is what.
The people around them are but an audience, often seeing only what they wish to see.
When a traitor performs, openly defending the weak, speaking only with highest regard for his king and country, and displaying an unequaled façade of honor, well, who would question his fealty? The traitor shows us only what he wishes others to see and only what he knows they wish to believe.
All the while the traitor silently laughs at the folly he has created, taking great pleasure in the absurdity of the entire situation.
And if he is extremely careful the world will never know who or what he truly is.
However, as is often the case with thieves, traitors, and ne’er-do-wells, fate steps in at the most unexpected times. It rips away the heavy curtain of subterfuge and duplicity, to openly display to the world not what it wishes to see, but what it in fact must see.
Such inaugurations to the truth are often painful and traumatic, leaving the newly inaugurated feeling stunned, stupefied, and bitter. For some, the only means of survival is outright denial. They shun the truth, cursing it, preferring instead, to live in denial. Mayhap because they love the traitor so much, it is easy to justify the traitor’s behavior. Or, they may not wish to believe they could have been so easily duped.
But as in all good plays, there are subtle twists and turns. Some are quite obvious, others, not so much. Mayhap the truth isn’t always what it seems. Mayhap there is far more to it than anyone realizes.
What then, motivates a man? A man like Angus McKenna who has spent his life defending the defenseless, offering hope to the hopeless, lifting up the weak? Honorable. Honest. Steadfast. A leader of men. A man loyal, to king and country. A man above reproach. This is the man Angus McKenna’s people see, the man other leaders see, the man the world sees.
Ever since the day he took his oath as chief of the Clan MacDougall and made the promise to uphold and protect his clan above all other things, Angus McKenna put his family and his clan first. Each decision he made since that fateful day in 1331 was made with only one thought in mind: how will it affect his family and his clan?
Nothing mattered but the safety and well being of his people. Not his own comfort, his own desires, nor his own needs could be taken into consideration when making decisions that would directly affect his people.
What could have made Angus McKenna don a red and black plaid and turn against his king? His country? How could a man like Angus McKenna do such a thing? What could be of such a value that he would plot to murder his king and to forge a pact with the English? A pact that would cause the fall of his country and put it squarely into the hands of the very people he has spent his entire life fighting against.
Gold? Silver? Power? Something more?
Time and experience reveal that things are not always as they appear.
Edinburgh, Scotland, Summer 1347
“Angus McKenna, ye stand before this tribunal today, accused of crimes against our king and the country of Scotland,” the under-sheriff read from the document he held in his thin, trembling hands. He paused, looking toward the dais where the leader of the tribunal, the Sheriff of Edinburgh, sat.
The under-sheriff was a scrawny man, with blood shot eyes and pale skin. It appeared as though he had not slept in days. He stood in stark contrast to the Sheriff, who was a rotund, portly man.
After a heavy sigh and a wave of a hand from the sheriff, the under-sheriff continued. His dull eyes darting about the room, looking everywhere but at Angus McKenna.
Coward, Angus thought to himself. He does no’ have the courage to look me in the eye. Angus found the man’s demeanor amusing.
“How do you plead to these charges?” the under-sheriff asked. Angus noted the slight tremble in the man’s voice, as if he were not only afraid to ask the question, but also to hear Angus’ answer.
Angus stood tall and proud, ignoring the fact that his hands and feet were shackled. He looked the sheriff straight in the eyes when he answered.
His reply was loud and firm. He was determined to remain that way, no matter what the outcome might be. Admittedly, he had done all the things of which he was accused. There was no denying the accusations let alone the charges. He had conspired against his king, his country.
Angus did not care for the arrogant sheriff, what with his fancy ways, false airs and his unearned pride. Phillip Lindsay was a haughty fool, with a mean streak as long as a summer day in the Highlands. It was difficult for Angus to believe the man was the son of Carlich Lindsay, his longtime friend and ally.
The under-sheriff’s eye began to twitch, as he looked first at Angus and then to Phillip. He seemed to shrink, to draw himself inward as if he were afraid the floor beneath his feet would open up and swallow him whole. The tall scrawny man waited for the sheriff to say something.
Phillip Lindsay sitting with his head resting against his pudgy index finger seemed unmoved by Angus’ answer. If he took any joy in the matter, it did not show. Indifferent and mayhap a bit disgusted, whether with Angus or the proceedings, it was difficult to ascertain. No matter, Angus thought to himself. It also did not matter how he pleaded to the charges. Phillip Lindsay would have found him guilty anyway regardless of any claim of innocence Angus may have made.
Before either the sheriff or under-sheriff could speak, Duncan McEwan, Angus’ son-in-law spoke up. His shackles rattled as he took a step forward to stand next to Angus. Although the man was covered in dirt and grime, his blonde hair hanging in filthy strings about his face, his blue eyes still held the look of a proud Highland warrior. He stood straight and tall, proud, and dignified. The fool was as stubborn as Angus, something he had learned no doubt from watching Angus all these years.
“I plead guilty as well,” Duncan said with more than just a hint of pride to his voice.
The under-sheriff was startled by Duncan’s voice as it boomed through the room. His eyes blinked rapidly for a moment before he found the courage to speak. “Ye need to wait yer turn, Duncan McEwan.”
Duncan tilted his blonde head to the side and smiled deviously at the skinny man in charge of keeping him and Angus in chains. “Why?” Duncan asked. “The charges be the same fer me as fer Angus. I simply be savin’ ye time and breath.”
“Silence,” Phillip Lindsay ordered in a calm voice. “Ye’ll get yer turn soon enough, ye traitor.”
Before Duncan could respond to the insult, Angus pulled tight on the shackles to keep the young man in place and from making a deadly mistake. “Hold, son,” he whispered firmly.
Duncan pursed his lips together and drew his shoulders back. His dark blue eyes flickered with silent understanding. He gave a nod of affirmation before turning back to the under-sheriff.
“Ye both are accused of crimes against the king, against the great country of Scotland. Ye planned and plotted with the English to murder our king. Ye’ve both admitted to such.” Phillip Lindsay spoke from the dais, his voice carried through the half-empty room. One would have thought throngs of people would be in attendance this day, considering the charges and the circumstances. Mayhap it was the rain that kept anxious, excited onlookers away. Angus did not think it was the rain that kept people indoors. Nay, it was something more, something he could not quite put his mind to. Those few men in attendance were drawn to Phillip Lindsay’s deep voice and turned their attention to him.
Phillip continued to stare at Angus, looking ashamed to call Angus a Scot. So be it, Angus thought as he straightened his back and lifted his head high. He would not let a man like Phillip Lindsay make him feel regretful, ashamed, or humiliated.
Phillip Lindsay’s upper lip curled slightly, as if he were standing too near a pile of horse dung. After several long moments, he let out a sigh of disgust and sat himself upright in his ornately carved chair.
Angus did not believe for one moment that Phillip Lindsay was actually mulling over the charges. Nor did he fight with his conscience over the sentence he should mete out to Angus or Duncan. Nay, ’twas all nothing more than a show for the few men sitting on the benches as witnesses. 'Twas nothing more than play acting, like a bard, a teller of stories.
“I hereby sentence ye both to death. One week from today, ye shall be taken to Stirling, where ye will both be hanged by yer necks until dead,” he declared to the packed room. “Get the traitors out of me sight,” he ordered the sheriff.
Reluctantly, almost solemnly, the under-sheriff led Angus and Duncan out of the dark room. Three of his men were waiting outside. Once in the hallway, the trio surrounded Angus and Duncan and led them out of the building and into the courtyard.
It had been days since Angus and Duncan had seen the sun. From the looks of the gloomy sky and the steady rain that fell, it would be even longer before they would see it again.
Though the courtyard was filled with many people, none would look at Angus or Duncan. Angus wondered if it was fear that kept their eyes cast to the ground or mayhap and much worse, shame.
It was of his own doing. He had shamed his people, his family, and his reputation. There was no denying this. No one, save mayhap for the young man chained to him, would understand the reasons for what he had done. The choice had been his to make three years past and made it he had.
The only guilt Angus felt at the moment was the fact that Duncan was here with him. Duncan was his adopted son as well as his son-in-law. Duncan was just a boy when his family had been killed by a band of English soldiers who had attacked his village. Only three boys had survived the ordeal, two of which were Angus’ nephews by blood. The boys had come to live with him and Isobel and not long after, they had adopted all three lads.
Angus and Isobel had adopted several children over the years, but together, they had only one flesh and blood daughter. Angus did, however, have another daughter whom he had long thought dead, along with her beautiful mum. Through circumstances not of his choosing, he did not learn of her existence until three years ago and then not until after Duncan and Aishlinn had fallen hopelessly in love with one another.
The young man did not deserve to be here for he was no more a traitor in this macabre mess Angus had gotten into than Mother Mary. ’Twas Duncan’s own stubbornness that brought him here and nothing more.
Soon they came to the entrance to the dungeon. When the undersheriff opened the heavy wooden door, the smell of filth, death and despair assaulted their senses. The skinny man grabbed a lit torch from the brace on the wall and led the way down the filthy, damp stone stairs. Through a maze of twists and turns, they made their way to the bowels of the dungeon. They passed numerous cells filled with all sorts of lost souls. Men, and aye, even a few women, who had lost all hope long ago.
Some were thieves, some murderers, and some whose only guilt was being poor and uneducated. Compassion for the poor and uneducated tugged at Angus’ heart. It was through no fault of their own that they were here. If Angus had had any control over the current situation, he’d have done what he could to free them and send them to Gregor, to give them a chance at a somewhat decent life.
Nay, ’twas not to be. Not today. And at no time in the foreseeable future.
He could not help them any more than he could help himself at the moment and the thought pulled at his heart.
Once Angus and Duncan stepped into their cell, the door was closed behind them. Even though they were given a private cell and not tossed in with the murderers, both men knew they were not necessarily safe from harm.
While the under-sheriff appeared both afraid and sympathetic, Angus knew the other guards held no such feelings toward them. And with all that had taken place since the battle at Neville’s Cross last October, it was sometimes difficult to tell who was friend and who was foe.
For three long years, Angus had been playing the role of spy and traitor. He had played it so well that the lines had begun to blur. It had been a very fine line he had walked, a very fine line indeed.