Authors: Robyn Young
A harsh voice cut across the murmurs of the men making ready to depart. Robert saw his father had appeared and was ordering the servants to bring torches. His hulking frame was made even larger by a heavy black cloak that swung from his shoulders as he gestured brusquely for his squire to bring his horse. For Robert, the absence of his white mantle, emblazoned with the red chevron of Carrick, was strange. He looked like a different person. The cloak’s hood was pushed back and his father’s thin hair was dripping with rain. At his side was Edward Bruce, his youthful face pensive. With Niall and Thomas in fosterage in Antrim and Alexander training for the priesthood, Edward was the only one of Robert’s brothers present for this.
Catching sight of his wife, the elder Bruce strode over. ‘It is time,’ he said gruffly, keeping his gaze on the countess.
Marjorie turned to Robert. ‘Farewell,’ she murmured, cradling his cheek with her hand. ‘I will pray for you tomorrow, when you receive the sword and spurs.’
Slipping from him, she paused to kiss Edward, before moving to the wagon her daughters had climbed into. The carriage wasn’t fit for a countess, but she was now too weak to ride. While the porters helped her inside, servants passed torches up to the mounted squires, the flames guttering and hissing in the wet.
Robert faced his father. He wanted to demand why he was dragging his wife and daughters out on the road in the rain and dark, but the look on his father’s face stopped the words in his mouth. That rigid expression was answer enough. Robert felt a surge of anger, not towards his father, but his grandfather, whose actions this day had caused the rift between them to widen, perhaps to a point that could not now be bridged. The old man wasn’t even here to witness it.
‘I will do right by the people of Carrick, Father,’ Robert said suddenly, feeling the need to justify himself. ‘I will govern them by your example.’
His father flinched. His face, mottled by the wine that had soured his breath, flushed a deeper shade of red. ‘When your mother is well enough, I will take Isabel to Norway. King Eric has been without a queen long past mourning. Your sister will offer a decent prospect. You rule your new earldom as you see fit, Robert. But be assured, I will not stay to see it.’
With that, he strode to his horse.
Robert had seen disappointment in his father’s glacial eyes, anger and frustration, but never had he seen such cold resentment. It shook him.
As the knights and squires formed up, their horses jostling, Edward came to stand at Robert’s side. Together, the brothers watched the wagons roll towards the castle gates, which stood in the shadow of the motte that rose above the bailey, crowned by its stone keep. The guards at the palisade hauled open the barriers and the company funnelled through, the gusting light of the torches fading with the thudding hooves.
Glancing down as Uathach strained at her leash, Robert realised his mother’s veil was still crumpled in his hand. ‘Where is he?’
Edward looked round at the sharp question. He studied his brother’s face. ‘Down by the loch with Scáthach, I think.’
Stuffing the veil into Edward’s hand, Robert set off between the buildings. Passing the chapel and kitchens, he headed for a smaller gate in the palisade.
The last light was vanishing as he took the boggy path through the trees that led down to Kirk Loch. Uathach, off her leash now the horses were gone, trotted at his side as he quickened his pace. The patter of rain striking the webbed canopy of branches was loud. After a short distance, the trees opened out on a bank that sloped down to the shore of the small loch. It stretched before him, a pale mirror of the rain-drenched sky. Standing on the reed-fringed banks, looking out over the water, was a tall man in a hooded cloak.
As Robert walked towards him, there was a low growl and a sinewy shape came slinking out of the gloom. He paused for Scáthach to get his scent, then made his way down the bank, leaving Uathach to greet her mother with a volley of barks.
The Lord of Annandale didn’t turn at the sound, nor did he look round as Robert came to stand beside him. ‘They have gone?’
Robert stared at his grandfather, whose face was half hidden by his hood, only his hawk-like nose visible in profile. Despite his seventy years he was still broad-shouldered and erect. Robert felt a new emotion as he studied the man who had raised him as a son, taught him to hunt and to fight, and had forged in him an iron pride in his family’s heritage. It was distrust. Unfamiliar and unwelcome, it tightened in his chest as he thought of how he had become a chess piece, pushed on to the board by his grandfather in a move against his father. He stood now alone, a pawn between two men who wanted to be king.
‘You have something to say, Robert?’ Now the lord did turn, fixing him with his gaze. His mane of hair, trapped by his hood, clouded white on the edges of his hard, lined face.
Robert met the challenge in those dark eyes. ‘He blames me.’
Robert gritted his teeth and looked out over the loch. Rain peppered the surface. He thought of Affraig, whose appearance that afternoon had been the harbinger for the events that followed. He wondered if the witch was still in Lochmaben or whether she had already left for her home in Turnberry, on the same road his family had taken. He thought of her withered hand touching his grandfather’s face with affection; the same hands that brought him into the world eighteen years ago and wove men’s destinies out of herbs, twigs and bones to be strung like webs in the tree outside her hovel. ‘Did you do it because Affraig asked it of you? Was it revenge against my father? For what his man did to her?’
‘Revenge? No, boy, I bestowed this honour upon you because I think you worthy. Affraig came because she believes, as I, that the strength of my line lies in you – not in my son. His time is passing, as is mine. We tried to uphold our claim. We failed.’
Robert listened, unable to reconcile these words with the optimism a week ago at the feast, when they were all still confident King Edward of England would choose the old lord to sit upon the throne of Scotland, empty since the tragic death of King Alexander. This past year, during the trial to choose Alexander’s successor, Robert had watched proudly as his grandfather, an illustrious player on the stage of Britain for almost sixty years, garnered the full-throated support of some of the greatest barons of the realm, in the hope of accepting that accolade. Now, the lion of a man beside him, who had fought the infidel on the sands of Palestine and served four kings, had been pushed aside and he, Robert, had been thrust into his place. Tomorrow, he would be knighted and, taking Carrick from his father, would become one of the thirteen earls of Scotland.
‘On the feast of St Andrew, John Balliol will be seated on the Stone of Destiny.’ The lord closed his eyes and inhaled, his chest expanding under the sodden folds of his cloak. ‘They will already be preparing the Moot Hill. The men of the realm will soon make their way to Scone.’ His face drew in, his brow knotting. ‘The Comyns will no doubt be first among them, crowing about their victory. Balliol will give his allies whatever offices they desire. Our days in the royal court are over.’ When he spoke again his voice was low. ‘But the wheel turns. Always it turns.’
‘Wheel?’ When there was no answer, Robert pressed him. ‘Grandfather?’
‘On the Wheel of Fortune a man may rise from nothing to the very height of greatness, but tomorrow, when the same wheel turns, he will be brought tumbling back to earth.’ The lord’s eyes narrowed as he stared out over the loch. ‘It turns for all of us.’
‘Are our lands safe?’ Robert asked him, after a pause. ‘Will Balliol and the Comyns retaliate for our attack on their strongholds? For the deaths at Buittle Castle?’
‘I do not believe so. But it is another reason to pass our family’s claim to you. You were not part of that campaign. The blood of their people is not on your hands.’ He studied Robert. ‘You swore that you accepted the charge – to uphold our family’s claim to the throne of Scotland, no matter the pretenders who sit upon it in defiance of our right. Your face now tells a different story.’
Robert felt rain threading coldly down his neck. That afternoon, when his grandfather told him he would inherit both the earldom of Carrick and the Bruce claim to the throne, he had been so stunned that he had sworn the oath his grandfather demanded of him without question. Now, he felt all the hopes of the Bruce line – from his father and grandfather back to his ancestors of the royal house of Canmore – settling on his shoulders. As the eldest son, he had known this time would come; had been in training for it since he was a boy, but he hadn’t expected to assume the office of earl until his father’s death. Now it was before him he faltered, reluctant to reach out and grasp the burden, knowing the weight of it would crush the last freedom of his youth. ‘Am I ready?’ he wondered out loud.
‘I was your age when King Alexander named me heir presumptive. Did I fear to live up to the expectation? Of course. Only the proud and the foolish do not doubt themselves. Do not fear to question your readiness, Robert. The wise man studies the way ahead and makes certain he is prepared. The fool rushes in.’
Robert’s mind filled with the memory of his father and grandfather returning from the campaign in Galloway, six years ago. On discovering John Balliol aimed at the throne, left empty on Alexander’s death, they had swept down into his lordship with the aid of their vassals, burning estates and razing castles. Managing to halt Balliol’s first attempt at kingship, his family had returned to Turnberry Castle victorious, but not without cost. He thought of the cart that had followed his grandfather and father home, filled with wounded men. He chose his next words carefully, not wanting his grandfather to think him a coward. ‘I am ready to take the oath of knighthood and to accept the earldom. But to fight John Balliol, as you and Father did? I don’t know how I—’
‘Fight?’ The lord turned. His face was a craggy landscape of shadows. The rain was easing, turning to mist. ‘I do not mean for you to fight them, Robert. This battle will not now be won by the sword. That time has passed. I – and all the claimants – submitted to King Edward’s judgement in order to avoid further bloodshed. Balliol was chosen with the agreement of the court of the realm. Our people have spoken. To challenge that could tear apart our kingdom.’
Robert shook his head. ‘But to uphold our claim? How will I do that without challenging him? When John Balliol dies his son and heir will be king. The bloodline is set. If we cannot remove him by force, then how will—’
‘You uphold it in your words and in your bearing. You keep it alive in you and in your allies. Our claim is a torch. I have held it aloft for years, drawn men to me by it and lit a path for my heirs. Now, it is your turn to keep that flame alight. Just as, one day, it will be the burden of your sons. It may take a hundred years, but, God willing, if we keep that flame alive a Bruce may yet sit upon the throne of Scotland.’
Robert felt the tension leave his body in a shuddery rush. He almost laughed. ‘I thought you meant for me to lead an army against him.’
‘These are not the dark days of our ancestors. We will not take the throne by civil war.’ His grandfather grasped his shoulder. ‘The first duty of a king is to hold the kingdom together, Robert. Always remember that.’
‘I, to keep faith with God, will endeavour to revenge the blood of my countrymen this day upon them. To arms, soldiers, to arms, and courageously fall upon the perfidious wretches, over whom we shall, with Christ assisting us, undoubtedly obtain the victory.’
The History of the Kings of Britain,
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Perth, Scotland, 1306 AD
(14 years later)
It was noon when the army entered the town. Over two thousand strong, they filled the wide main street heading for the market square, the hooves of the knights’ destriers scuffing up dirty clouds of dust. Foot soldiers marched in their wake, boots crunching on the road, and the wheels of supply wagons groaned round under the weight of their loads. Torches, held by infantry, were pale spectres of fire in the midday sun.
Beneath the richly brocaded folds of mantles and surcoats mail gleamed like fish-scales. Raised lances made a forest of spears, adorned with streaming pennons that fluttered against the great plains of colour borne aloft by the banner-bearers. Across the swathes of cloth, dyed crimson and purple, gold and azure, were black-winged eagles, snarling leopards and square-headed bulls. Broadswords hung in decorated scabbards at the hips of knights, while squires and foot soldiers brandished cleaver-like falchions, spiked axes and hammers: all the instruments of war, honed for the splitting of flesh.