Authors: Robyn Young
Hearing a footfall scuff the rock, Robert turned to see Edward climbing up behind him, the hem of his mail coat skimming the stone. The rest of the company remained on the hillside, their eyes on the distant town. Among the dozen knights from Carrick and Annandale were Earl John of Atholl and his son, David. They talked quietly among themselves, sharing around wine skins and flexing muscles sore from the day’s ride. Beyond, on the fringes of a wood, through the branches of which bled the fire of the setting sun, squires waited with the horses.
‘Any sign of them?’ asked Edward, coming to stand beside Robert on the crown of the rock.
‘So close,’ Edward murmured.
Robert glanced at his brother. In youth, Edward, who was only a year younger, had been as a mirror to him – the same strong features framed by the same cropped black hair – but over the past ten years the war had etched a different story in each of them, altering them from one another. Now, at thirty-one, Edward’s face was leaner, harder. Battle scars carved new lines in his expression, stubble shadowed his jaw and dust tracked dark along the creases at the corners of his pale blue eyes. Those eyes filled with a keen hunger as he studied the English camp.
‘Does their force seem smaller than we expected?’
Robert had thought as much himself, but didn’t want to build false hope. ‘It is hard to tell. Let us wait for word.’
‘More waiting?’ Edward forced a smile as he looked at Robert. ‘Christ knows we have had enough practice at that.’ He gripped the hilt of his sword, which hung down in its scabbard, the leather embossed with white enamel crosses. His smile faded. ‘Soon, God willing, it will be time for action.’
In Edward’s face, Robert saw the bitter memory of the years spent living among the English in the service of their king, pretending loyalty, while waiting for the moment they could break its hated shackles. Since their return to Scotland in the autumn, fleeing before the wrath of the king, who had discovered Robert’s secret intent to take the throne, his brother had spoken often of the bloody butchery of William Wallace, which, as a knight of the prince’s household, he had been forced to watch. Robert, too, found the memory of the rebel leader’s death still vivid, acute in its horror despite all the blood he had seen spilled over the years. He wanted a victory over Wallace’s executioners as much as his brother did, but it was need more than retribution that had brought him to this hillside in pursuit of that.
The words Elizabeth had spoken at his coronation three months ago, when the weight of the crown was new upon his head, echoed in his mind.
You aren’t here by right. You are here by revolution and murder. Do you think the rest of the realm will follow you when they know what you’ve done?
He had assured his wife and queen they would, if they wanted to survive the conflict that would be coming, but his forces, although increased since his enthronement, were still not enough to face the iron might of England. Aymer de Valence’s company, sighted in the spring, was only the vanguard. The main body of the English army was yet to come. But come it would, and soon. Robert knew a victory here in Perth would convince more men to follow him; would prove to them his strength and conviction. Only then, with the realm united behind him, could he stand against the English king and drive him and his men from Scotland, once and for all.
‘There,’ said Edward, pointing down the hillside.
Robert followed his finger to see two figures scrabbling their way up. Behind him the rasps of swords being drawn from scabbards sounded as his men were alerted by the snap of undergrowth. ‘It’s them,’ he called, jumping down from the rock to join the company, quickly followed by his brother.
Moments later the two figures appeared, clambering up to the ridge. One was short and wiry, the other tall and broad. Both wore threadbare cloaks over tunics and hose, covered with dust from the barley fields. They looked like a couple of beggars. As Robert went to meet them, John of Atholl moved into step beside him. The ventail attached to the earl’s coif of mail hung free, revealing the tight-lipped line of his mouth. Robert noticed his brother-in-law had his hand on the pommel of his sword. John only relaxed when the figures pushed back the hoods of their cloaks, revealing their faces. Both men were panting hard from the climb.
Neil Campbell nodded to Robert. ‘My lord,’ greeted the Argyll knight, between breaths.
Gilbert de la Hay also bowed, but his large form remained bent for some moments more, his hands on his thighs and sweat dripping from his nose. Robert was used to seeing the powerfully built Lord of Erroll clad in mail and surcoat. Gilbert looked rather comical in the ill-fitting peasant garb, borrowed from one of the drovers in the army.
‘What did you find out?’ Robert pressed, gesturing to David of Atholl, who was holding a wine skin.
The young man stepped forward and handed the skin to Neil, who gulped gratefully at the wine, before passing it to Gilbert.
‘Those are Valence’s men down there all right.’
‘You saw Valence himself?’ Robert asked sharply.
Neil shook his head. ‘But his standard was raised in the camp and several men we saw were wearing his colours. Most of the others had the cross of St George on bands of cloth. Here,’ he added, clasping his upper arm.
‘Like Falkirk,’ said John of Atholl darkly. ‘Infantry,’ he said, glancing at Robert.
‘How large is the force by your reckoning?’ Robert questioned.
‘Maybe as many as a thousand.’
‘Our scouts put the company they saw crossing the border in April at two thousand,’ ventured Edward, at Robert’s side. ‘Where are the rest?’
‘Inside,’ answered Neil.
Robert’s brow furrowed. ‘You were able to enter the town?’
‘No, my lord,’ said Gilbert, straightening and pushing a hand through his sweat-soaked mop of blond hair. ‘The gates were closed for curfew and the few people we saw on the road outside were being questioned by English soldiers. We couldn’t risk getting too close.’
‘We spoke to a cowherd out in the pastures,’ explained Neil. ‘He told us the English have more men inside Perth. They’ve taken over the houses of the burgesses.’
‘Could he say how many?’
‘Couldn’t even count his cows, my lord,’ responded Neil wryly.
‘But he confirmed the stories of townsfolk being put to death,’ said Gilbert. ‘Valence is letting it be known far and wide that he’ll hang more each day until you appear before him to accept judgement for – in his words, my lord – your treason and the murder of his dear brother.’
‘Dear brother?’ Robert’s harsh laugh was devoid of humour. Aymer de Valence and John Comyn had been brothers by marriage alone. The two men had been close for a time in youth, mostly, he thought, because they shared a dislike of him, but that early friendship hadn’t survived the war. ‘Did you learn anything else?’
‘Just one thing.’ Neil’s scarred face was grave. ‘The cowherd mentioned a banner raised in the market square. He said it was decorated with a golden dragon.’
Robert’s mind filled with the image of a great standard, blood scarlet in colour, with a fierce winged serpent at its centre, shrouded in flames. It was an emblem as familiar as his own coat of arms and one he had loved and come to loathe by turns. In youth he had seen it lifted over tournament grounds, a mark of pomp and pride. Later, he had seen it hoisted above battlegrounds like a fist; a symbol of terror. It was the dragon banner of King Edward of England and to raise it was to declare no mercy.
The men around him looked grim. They all knew the meaning of the banner. Chivalry flew in the face of it. Robert’s gaze drifted to Perth’s ramparts, where the campfires of the English were glowing brighter with the approach of dusk. Despite the fact he had been expecting it for months, and preparing for it as best he could, the coming conflict had still seemed distant, unreal almost. Now it was before him, evident in that sprawling encampment, and all too real with the red menace of that standard.
War was finally upon him.
Methven Wood, Scotland, 1306 AD
Robert rode through the woods at the head of the company, dead branches and sprays of pine cones splintering under the hooves of his grey palfrey, Ghost. The trees that cloaked the hill thinned to the right where the land fell sharply into the valley cut by the River Almond. Beyond, in the distance, the mountains of Breadalbane were stark against the wine-dark sky.
While he had been spying on Perth, the greater part of his army had spread out among the trees on the other side of the ridge. Almost one thousand strong, they were a diverse assembly of drovers, shepherds, farmers and tradesmen armed with spears and clubs, young squires girded with keen-bladed swords and archers from Selkirk Forest in green woollen hukes. There were also a number of Highlanders bearing long-handled axes and clad in their customary short tunics, their bare legs covered with bites from insects that came as a plague on the midsummer winds. Among these commoners were some of the highest-born men of the realm, garbed in surcoats and mail, surrounded by retinues of knights and servants. Many rested on the grass, helms and shields beside them. The amber glow of torches highlighted their faces, full of question and expectation as their king rode in, his gold mantle cascading over the rump of his horse, emblazoned with the red lion of Scotland.
Ordering John of Atholl to summon the rest of his commanders to a war council, Robert urged Ghost into a clearing where Nes was overseeing two servants erecting a tent. A small campfire was burning and an iron pot had been strung up over it. The rich smell of meat mingled with the tang of smoke and pine sap.
‘I had Patrick make camp, sire,’ Nes said, taking the palfrey’s reins. Although recently knighted, Nes had been Robert’s squire for years before that and the gesture was automatic.
The tent was small, with room for just one man, but it was shelter enough on a balmy night like this. Buckets, blankets and other supplies had been stacked on the ground, removed from the pack-horses. The raid on Galloway had called for the army to travel light from Aberdeen, forgoing carts and wagons. Robert didn’t even have the royal standard with him, only his old banner that displayed the Carrick arms. The standard, the only item of Scottish regalia hidden from King Edward after the first conquest, had been presented before his coronation by Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, but after the ceremony, he had asked the bishop to keep it safe until his reign was secured.
This simple forest camp wasn’t much fit for a king, but there was comfort in its familiarity. In the early years of the war Robert had spent more nights with moss and bracken for a bed than silk and feathers.
Feeling something brush his leg, he looked down to see his hound had come to greet him. Fionn, the last of Uathach’s brood, named after the Irish warrior whose legends he had learned in the hall of his foster-father in Antrim, was tall, almost at his hip, with a coarse grey coat. A fearsome hunter who could bring down a fully grown buck, Fionn wore a thick leather collar studded with spikes. Robert ruffled his ears.
Nes handed Ghost’s reins to one of the grooms, who led the palfrey away, avoiding Hunter, cropping the grass nearby. As Robert’s gaze moved over the muscular rump of his warhorse he realised the leather bag Hunter had carried since the coronation was gone. He looked to the pile of gear outside the tent. It wasn’t there. ‘Nes, where is my pack?’
‘In your tent. Safe, my lord.’
Robert’s concern dissipated slowly. ‘Have Patrick bring wine and food for me and my men.’
As the order to make camp went round, the army fanned out across the ridge. Men gathered wood and hacked at the undergrowth to clear pitches for blankets. As Robert crossed to the fire his servants had set, he worried for a moment whether the smoke would be seen from Perth, but the town was miles away and the high point of the ridge and the dense cover of trees shrouded them from enemy eyes. Scouts had already been sent to patrol the boundary of the woods. As he stood, watching the flames, going over in his mind what he had seen of the English camp, Fionn settled down beside him, his great head resting on outstretched paws. One by one, Robert’s commanders joined him there.
His brother, Edward, was first, with Neil Campbell and Christopher Seton. Neil, who had discarded the peasant disguise and was back in his mail and surcoat, took the goblet of wine offered by Patrick. The knotted scar on Neil’s cheek was highlighted by the yellow bloom of the fire; an ugly legacy from the skirmish outside Glasgow a year ago, which had seen the capture of William Wallace. Robert knew deeper scars of that battle lay below the surface, the knight blaming himself for not saving Wallace, in whose company he had found a home and a purpose after the loss of his lands to the MacDougall lords of Argyll. Christopher Seton declined the proffered wine. There was a time when the amiable Yorkshireman would have brought cheer to any gathering, but that fateful night five months ago in Dumfries had wrought its darkness in him and he remained sombre and unspeaking as he crouched beside Neil, his fair hair hanging in his eyes as he stared into the flames.
Gilbert de la Hay arrived, taking a slab of bread and a bowl of the meat stew Patrick was dishing out. At his side was Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, a full foot shorter, wearing a black velvet cloak over his surcoat which showed his livery: a red saltire and four roses on white. Malcolm’s handsome face was pensive as he accepted the wine, his eyes on Robert. Following them were Earl John of Atholl and his son David. Robert at once felt fortified by his brother-in-law’s presence. John, a good friend of his grandfather’s, had become one of his most trusted companions. The older man exuded a reassuring authority that Robert had grown to welcome more and more these turbulent past months. Privately, he envied David having such a man for a father.