Tower of London
Tierney MacDougall had seen terrible things on the battlefield, but nothing compared to the bleakness of the prisoners in the Tower of London.
Though his father was a powerful chief in Scotland, he’d betrayed his own country, and was now allied with England, but that did not afford Tierney any manner of comfort. Especially when Longshanks had sentenced Tierney to a traitor’s death, along with the dozens of other Highlanders crammed into this cell, for they did not share his father’s Sassenach sympathies.
They were rarely given food—or what could pass as edible. An overflowing bucket sat in a cramped corner for the men to relieve themselves, which they’d long since given up on. Flies, fleas and rats swarmed the cell, bouncing from host to host, a veritable smorgasbord for their pesky hunger.
It’d been a year since he was seized on the battlefield. A year since his father had abandoned him, shaking his head and backing away as though his son meant nothing to him. A year of this filth and torment. A year of beatings. A year of starvation. A year of being told he’d die on the morrow. Half the men he’d first come with were executed or had died from illness. Those who survived wished they’d gone.
There were days when Tierney felt the same way. To finally walk that long path to the green, to climb the scaffold, be stretched, gutted, hung and torn apart might actually be better than what he was resigned to in the darkness. But then he’d remember the reason he was here in the first place. Honor. Duty.
The way he’d stood on the battlefield, the once lush grasses crushed beneath hundreds of boots, the greenness smeared with red, and the stink of fires and blood and death, flattened under his feet. How his father had met his gaze, eyes hard and filled with disappointment. How in that moment Tierney had wanted to battle his own father. His own countrymen. How could they have betrayed the Bruce the moment he needed them most? How could they have thought the English were better than their own countrymen, their own blood? How could they choose Longshanks over freedom?
Every day since then, Tierney asked himself these questions, and was never able to come up with a suitable answer. For their could be none that he wished to contemplate, or that he would ever understand.
And so, by the end of the day, one word repeated itself in his mind, again and again: Retribution.
He would not die in the Tower of London, nor on its bleak green. He would not remain here for the rest of his life, his bones turning to dust and mingling with those who’d died already and been left to rot.
Nay, one day, Tierney MacDougall was going to get free of this place. He was going to return to his beloved country, and he was going to seek out retribution for his king. And, he would never forgive his father for what he’d done that day. Never forgive the man who’d brought him into existence for betraying his country, his king and his son.
There came a clanking sound from outside the cell that Tierney was used to—the sound of the warden slapping his pummeling rod against the iron gates of their cells as he walked the corridor searching out who he would beat next.
“MacDougall,” he shouted.
Tierney glanced up from where he sat leaning against a wall, inconspicuous in a sea of bodies.
“MacDougall,” the warden said again, slapping the iron. “Rise, you fool.”
Still he sat, and none of the other men stirred. For how many MacDougalls were in this cell? At least thirteen at his last count.
“Son of Ewan MacDougall.”
No one moved, but the air in the cell became fraught with tension. The men knew how important Tierney was to the clan. If Tierney’s father ever died, Tierney would be their next chief. Even imprisoned, he was their leader.
But now he was being called to stand. To separate himself from his men. Over the past year, he’d been called forth more than a few times, every time to face the man who’d arrested him on the battlefield—John de Warenne. Evil bastard. And every time, he was beaten within an inch of his life.
“Stand, son of Ewan MacDougall.”
Was today the day he’d die? Or was he destined only to endure another beating?
Anger burning through his veins, Tierney managed to stand. Sliding his body up the slick cell walls. He supposed it was a silly to hope he might one day escape this place. A fool’s fantasy.
“Approach the door,” the warden ordered, slapping the iron again.
Tierney slid between the bodies, his boots riddled with holes, and wetness from the floor seeping into the splits. Dampness from being at the bottom of the Tower, or urine, vomit, maybe a mixture of it all.
When he reached the iron bars, he stared into the eyes of the warden, not bothering to lower his gaze. The warden did not appear at all affected.
“Arms up, you wastrel.”
Tierney lifted his arms above his head, keeping his face blank of expression and staring right into the bastard’s eyes. They could beat him. They could starve him. They could take away his freedom. But they would never break him.
“Turn around,” the warden growled.
Tierney did as he was asked. The warden shouted for the rest of the men to back away from the doors, and they did so at a snail’s pace, all their energy sapped.
The door creaked open on rusty iron hinges, and the warden grabbed one of Tierney’s shackled wrists, tugging him out before slamming it again. The warden assessed him, a good half a foot shorter than Tierney. Though the man tried to keep any sense of worry from his expression , there was a flicker of it in his eyes when he took in the fact that after a year of vicious imprisonment, Tierney was still well-built and strong.
“Do not try anything, scum, or I’ll see ye do not make it up the stairs.”
Tierney didn’t respond, for what could he say? He’d just have to wait and see if what was above stairs was worth not beating the sop to death and stealing his keys.
The winding stone staircase never seemed to cease. Short and slick, he found it hard to get a foothold. There were no handrails, and the warden had tied a rope to Tierney’s shackled wrists, dragging him up like an animal so he couldn’t hold the wall for balance. Each time he slipped and tugged at the rope, the warden slapped Tierney’s hands with his pummeling rod.
“Enough, you maggot,” the warden growled. “Walk like a man or crawl like a babe, but up these stairs you’ll go.”
Whatever floor they finally made it to, Tierney wasn’t certain, but flashes of light peeked through slim windows, and the scent of death and decay were not as strong.
The warden tossed open a door and shoved him onto a straw-strewn wooden floor. The chamber was barren, save for a bucket full of water, and an empty one beside it. A stool had a linen rag and a round, gray ball of lye soap.
“Strip. Wash.” The warden backed toward the door without removing the shackles at Tierney’s wrists, though he had unlocked those at his ankles.
“Wait.” Damnation, what a strength of will he had to find not to kick the sot in his bloody face. He hated to beg. “How am I to strip with the shackles at my wrists? My leine—”
“Tear the filthy shirt off, I do not care. Just strip and wash.”
Tierney did as he was told. When he was finished, the warden returned with a blade, shaved Tierney’s face and trimmed his hair. He gave him a clean tunic and rough, woolen hose, mumbling how Tierney’s plaid and leine would be burned.
“Why are ye doing this?” Tierney asked, not recognizing the sound of his own voice. How many days had it been since he’d spoken aloud? His throat was scratchy from disuse, his tongue thick.
“A consolation.” The warden sneered.
Tierney frowned, too tired to even try and figure out what that meant. “For what?”
“Your father’s allegiance.”
Tierney bit back the bitter laughter that stung the back of his throat. A bath and a shave, and then back into the darkness, all because his father was a traitor? He’d rather live in filth.
The warden yanked him back through the doors and up another flight of stairs to what looked like a great hall. Tallow candles dripped from the chandeliers that hung from the rafters. A mighty hearth was kindled, and a long dais held a few men, all English, that looked to be important. And every damned one of them were looking at him as though he were just a fly in a massive dung heap.
“Go on, then.” One of them waved him toward a smaller table that had a single place setting. “Eat.”
So, this was how Tierney would meet his end. Food poisoning. His stomach growled. What a cruel torment. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. They fed the prisoners sparingly and usually not enough. The men would fight over it, and as their leader, he’d often gone without in favor of seeing his men fed.
Tierney sat at the table, was served roasted venison, warm bread and ale. He devoured every last morsel and drop, sopping up the meat’s juice with his bread. Then he waited for the poison-induced stomach pains to commence. And his insides did cramp, but not in the way he might have thought. More so, it was from having not eaten in so long and then suddenly gorging himself.
When he was returned below stairs, the warden did not take him to his old cell, but a new one. Much smaller in size, there was a pile of straw on the left side and an empty bucket on the right. No other prisoners were within.
“What’s this?” Tierney asked.
He frowned bitterly and said through gritted teeth, “Another consolation.”
“Aye.” The warden shoved him inside.
“What of my men?”
“What do you care?”
Tierney narrowed his eyes surprised the man would even say such a thing. “Are they being cleaned, fed, given new”— he glanced around—“accommodations?”
“Nay. They are to die on the morrow.” The warden locked the cell. “As you might.”
Tierney gripped the bars. “Take me back to my men.”
The warden laughed. “You do not seem to have a good understanding of how this works. I’m the warden, you’re the prisoner. I give the orders around here, not you.”
“Take me to them. I do not want this consolation.”
The warden sucked in air against his teeth and shot forward, his face close to the bars. “You’ll take what you get. And you’ll shut up about it. Another week down there and you would have rotted. Is that what you want? To die in here? Because the men upstairs would be happy to see it done, your father be damned.”
Thickness filled Tierney’s throat. He had no response. Because no, he didn’t want to die. And if his prayers were being answered, that he might have a chance to survive this and go back to Scotland to seek retribution, then what other choice did he have?
His men, his father’s men, they would tell him he was mad if he came back to them. They would not want him to. They would want him to live and go back to Scotland. To live. And to wreak havoc on their enemies in their name.
“You Scots are nothing but a bunch of animals,” the warden scoffed.
Tierney jerked toward the man, satisfied when the warden leapt back a foot in fear as though Tierney may be able to get through the bars. “And ye English are the filthy dogs that gobble up our scraps.” Tierney growled at the bastard, feeling half mad when he did so, but unable to stop. Before the warden raised his pummel, he knew the beating was coming, and he welcomed it.