Authors: Robyn Young
The men and women of Perth clustered in the doorways of houses and workshops, watching the procession pass. Wives clutched the arms of husbands, or pushed curious children back behind them, while blacksmiths and leatherworkers hefted tools uneasily in their hands, wondering if they would need to use them to defend their families.
Perth’s citizens were no strangers to the terror of an English army. Since the war began ten years ago, the royal burgh had been sacked, invaded and occupied. They had seen the ships coming up the Tay carrying timber for siege engines and carts laden with meat and grain to feed the army rolling in through their streets, and they had been evicted from their homes to make room for the king’s men, who raided their cellars and ruined crop-fields for the sport of their tournaments. But on this cool day in early June, with the salt-sour breeze drifting in from the North Sea, the mood of the invaders seemed different – less arrogant and aggressive, more grim and purposeful. At the head of the host was raised a great standard that the people of Perth had never seen before. Larger than the other banners, the material faded with age and patched in places, it was blood scarlet with a golden dragon rearing at its centre, wreathed in fire.
Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke and cousin to King Edward of England, rode beneath the red shadow of the standard, his nostrils filled with the acrid stink of Perth’s tanneries and abattoirs, the hides and blood of which had fattened the town with a thriving trade in leather and wool to the Low Countries. The earl’s muscular frame was augmented by the coat-of-plates and the mail hauberk he wore beneath his surcoat and mantle, both of which were striped blue and white, and decorated with red birds. The Pembroke arms were mirrored in his shield and the silk trapper of his horse. His helm, the visor of which was raised, was crested with a spray of goose feathers dyed blue.
From the height of his destrier, Aymer scanned the frightened townsfolk, crowded like rabbits in the dark openings of their wattle and daub homes. The bell of St John’s Church was clanging madly above the rumble of hooves and wagon wheels, but it sounded a warning rather than a call to arms, sending those out in the streets scuttling into the perceived safety of their houses. The townsfolk weren’t putting up any defence. Nor should they, for despite the events of recent months Scotland remained under the dominion of King Edward, as it had since the nobles of the realm submitted to his authority two years ago at St Andrews. Still, Aymer remained watchful, well aware that the fires of rebellion had inflamed the hearts of many Scots and that within these tightly packed dwellings, interlinked by a confusion of rigs and alleys, could be those ready and willing to fight and die for their new-crowned rebel king.
‘You believe he will come?’
Aymer glanced at the man riding beside him, several hands shorter on a shaggy white palfrey. It took him a moment to discern what the man had said, the clamour of hooves making the captain’s French, heavily accented by his native Gaelic, harder to understand. ‘He will come.’ Aymer glanced over his shoulder at the six men who jolted and jerked in the midst of the company, dragged on ropes behind the horses of his knights, their hands bound and their clothes shredded by the grit that peppered the packed-down refuse of the street. ‘I’ll give him no choice.’
Aymer flicked his tongue over the cold threads of silver wire that bound in place his front teeth, taken from another man’s mouth. The deeper he and his men had moved into Scotland, the more his mind had seethed with thoughts of his enemy and the revenge he would finally be able to exact. Here, barely miles from Scone where Robert Bruce had crowned himself king three months ago, Aymer could almost feel the bastard’s presence.
Ahead, the main street opened on to a market square, green with gardens and lined with wooden stalls. It was surrounded by the stone halls of the town’s wealthiest occupants. Some of the buildings had a second storey of timber with ceramic tiles cladding the roofs. The steel plates on Aymer’s gauntlets flexed as he brought his horse to a stop. ‘This will suit us.’ He turned to his knights and gestured to the halls where faces could be seen at the windows. ‘Move in.’
As orders were shouted and men hastened to obey, the rest of the army continued to pour into the square, wagon wheels churning up the soil of the market gardens, soldiers using the empty stalls to dump bags and gear. Once he and his knights were settled, Aymer would have the infantry camp outside the walls, but for now he wanted them with him; a display of might.
‘What can I do?’
Aymer glanced at the captain, his eyes flicking to the blue standard hoisted above him. The white lion at its centre was replicated in the shields of the mass of men, over five hundred strong, now moving in around their commander. They were a rough band, clad in scraps of armour stripped from battlegrounds. Most of their shields, from small bucklers to the large kite-shaped shields favoured by English knights, had been crudely daubed with the lion over the original arms, the old colours bleeding through the paint. Aymer wondered how many had been taken from dead and dying comrades of his. So far, he had hesitated to use their strength, cautious to trust their pledge of loyalty, made on the border in the spring. His gaze moved back to the captain, who held the reins of his palfrey looped in his gloved right hand. His left arm ended at the wrist, the scarred bulb of flesh jutting from beneath the sleeve of his gambeson. The captain might be a hated Scot, but they shared the same enemy. Aymer tongued the wire that bound his front teeth. Bruce had taken something from them both. ‘Do your men know the lands about here?’
‘One of my master’s estates isn’t far. Some of them know this region well.’
‘Pick a trusted few who know it best. I have a task for them. For now, have the rest patrol the streets and stop any trouble before it’s started. Make sure they are forceful, Captain. I want the people of Perth to know who their master is.’
As the captain moved to relay the command to his motley company, Aymer noticed three men approaching from one of the halls, outside which a crowd was starting to gather. Better dressed than most of the townsfolk he had seen, with jewelled brooches pinning their cloaks, he took them for burgesses or town officials. A few of his knights were eyeing them, hands on the pommels of their swords. With a jab of his knee, Aymer turned his destrier. The beast snorted deeply and struck the ground with its iron-shod hoof.
The three men came to a halt, faced by the warhorse’s armoured head. Beneath its silk trapper swung a heavy skirt of mail. Such horses were trained to kill.
One of the men stepped forward uneasily. ‘Sir Aymer, I am the sheriff here. It is an honour to welcome you, but might I ask what business brings you to Perth?’
Aymer’s eyes narrowed. ‘You know full well, Sheriff, what brings me to this godforsaken hole. I have come for the traitor, Robert Bruce, and all who support him.’ His imperious tone was loud enough for the crowd of Scots gathered beyond to hear. ‘My men and I will occupy your town until the knave appears before me to accept his judgement.’
As English knights, swords drawn, began entering the halls and roughly ushering out women, children and servants, one of the burgesses with the sheriff started forward. His comrade clutched his arm to stop him.
The sheriff went to protest, then halted as his gaze alighted on the six men tethered like dogs to the cruppers of the knights’ horses. Two were lying prone on the ground. One was groaning, his arm pulled from its socket during the brutal drawing through the street. The others had struggled to their knees, bound hands clasped as if in prayer. ‘My men!’
‘Your men, Sheriff, were caught tracking us as we approached the city. When pressed they confessed to being Bruce’s spies.’
‘That’s a lie, sir!’ shouted one of the tethered men. He was silenced by the mailed fist of one of the knights.
The sheriff paled. He turned to Aymer, raising his hands. ‘I swear, Sir Aymer, these are my men, not Robert Bruce’s! I can vouch for them personally. When we heard rumour of your approach I simply sent them to seek word of your arrival. They aren’t spies!’
‘We should not have to remind you people of the price of rebellion,’ Aymer continued, his dark eyes not leaving the sheriff’s. ‘When the rotten limb of that treasonous whoreson, William Wallace, still dangles from your gatehouse tower. But, clearly, another lesson is needed.’ He turned, motioning to his knights. ‘Hang them up. Use the stalls.’
The six men began to shout and struggle as Aymer’s knights hauled them to their feet. The one with the injured arm screamed to the sky. Those who fought their captors were punched in the stomach. Doubled over, choking, they were dragged to the stalls, feet scuffing lines through the dust.
‘Do not do this! I beg you!’ The sheriff moved towards his men, but found his way barred by the swords of English knights. He turned to Aymer. ‘Have mercy, for Christ’s sake!’
‘There is no escaping justice for any who defy King Edward,’ Aymer said, as his knights flung the ropes that had hauled the sheriff’s men through the town over the beams of the stalls, which would support covers on market days. ‘The dragon has been raised. Tell your people under its shadow no mercy will be shown.’
The sheriff stared up at the standard, emblazoned with the fierce winged serpent surrounded by flames that glittered gold in the sunlight. He went to speak, but faltered into impotent silence.
Aymer watched his men twist the ends of the ropes into nooses, pulling on them to test the knots. All around the market square, more townsfolk were appearing, hounded from their houses and corralled like sheep. Aymer scanned their stricken faces, satisfied. He needed an audience for this.
A harsh cry sounded and a woman burst out of the crowd, racing towards the condemned men. ‘
’ she was screaming, ‘
Dear God, my son!
One of the younger men, his chin bloodied from the street, jerked towards her. His face contorted, his mouth working, trying to form words, as the noose was tugged down over his head. Two of Aymer’s knights grabbed the woman before she could reach her son. She fought them bitterly, flailing and scratching, but was no match. The young man closed his eyes, his mouth still moving silently.
One of his companions, an older man with a rough red face, was cursing his executioners, spittle flying from his mouth as he promised them hell and damnation. He bucked away as they drew the noose tight at his neck, but with his hands still bound his attempts were in vain. He continued to resist as the knights heaved on the rope, which sawed slowly over the stall’s beam until he was lifted from the ground. He seemed to hold his breath for a long moment, then let it out in a rush. His Adam’s apple bobbed wildly beneath the constricting rope. One by one, the other five men were hoisted into the air, two begging for their lives until their words were snatched away by the noose. The young man kicked and twisted in silence, the ragged screams of his mother giving voice to his dying.
Aymer turned his horse from the men, who would take some time to strangle to death. He had no interest in watching their drawn-out expiration, the final throes of which would see each man foul himself. The deed was done and already over as far as he was concerned. The bait was set; now to lure the wolf. Riding in a wide circle, he addressed the townsfolk, his voice rising over the noise of the army. ‘This, here, is the price you pay for the treason of your false king. Spread the word among your countrymen that until Robert Bruce appears before me to accept his judgement, I will kill more. All who value their lives and the lives of those they love will make certain this message is delivered far and wide, lest you be next at the end of the rope.’
Methven Wood, Scotland, 1306 AD
Beyond the barley fields and meadows the walls of Perth, rising over the dark defile of a moat, were stained crimson with the last rays of sun. Several miles to the west, from the high vantage of a mossy slab of rock that jutted from the hillside, Robert Bruce scanned the distant town.
At first glance, Perth, corralled by its defences into a tight labyrinth of streets and houses dominated by the tower of St John’s, appeared tranquil in the summer evening. Streams of smoke from cooking fires formed gauzy banners over the rooftops and three fishing boats inched up the broad waters of the Tay, circled by gulls. Looking towards the walls, the illusion of peace was shattered by the large encampment that crowded outside the west gate, close to a meadow where scores of horses were paddocked. Robert’s keen eyes picked out the figures of men moving among the sprawl of tents and wagons, scattered with the amber constellations of campfires. High above the camp a trebuchet squatted on top of the gatehouse tower, one of four siege engines positioned around the town’s ramparts. There were more men on patrol along Perth’s walls.
Robert had been deep in Galloway, hunting the last supporters of John Balliol, when word reached him that Aymer de Valence had taken the town. Rumours, flying from person to person, growing more disparate the further they travelled, were livid with tales of rape and torture, and of townsmen hanged in the market square left to bloat in the heat. The Galloway campaign had proven fruitless, the lands of his enemies filled only with brooding silence, and Robert had been forced to busy himself razing minor strongholds belonging to the Balliol and Comyn families, acutely aware that these were petty victories. In some ways the challenge posed by the English occupation of Perth had been a welcome one and it was with a renewed sense of determination that he had turned his army north to face it.