Authors: Robyn Young
‘You’re not in a position to make demands,’ growled Alexander. Grabbing Humphrey’s hair, he pulled his head back, scoring his neck with the dagger until blood trickled. ‘Don’t think for a moment I’ll not kill you and take my offer to another!’
There was a knock at the door. Alexander was distracted, only briefly, but it was all Humphrey needed. Grabbing the man’s arm, he forced it from his throat, twisting Alexander’s wrist until the man hissed and dropped the dagger. As the blade clattered to the floor, Humphrey kneed him in the stomach. Alexander dropped to his knees with a winded gasp, Humphrey pinning his arm at an excruciating angle.
‘Sir Humphrey?’ came a man’s voice through the door. It was his squire, Hugh.
Grabbing the dagger from the floor, Humphrey thrust it at Alexander’s throat. ‘Agree to my offer,’ he murmured, ‘and you’ll get what you want. Refuse and after I’ve killed you I swear, by God, I’ll go straight to Berwick and take bloody retribution on your cousin.’
‘Sir? Are you all right in there?’
Alexander looked up at Humphrey, his dark eyes filling with pain and desperation. He nodded once.
‘I am fine, Hugh,’ called Humphrey.
Loudoun Hill, Scotland, 1307 AD
From Glen Trool they moved north by way of lonely, windswept moors, following the winding courses of stony rivers, hidden by hills. All around them the land unfurled from the clutches of bitter winter, warmth burgeoning in the air and life springing in the earth, offering up new bounties in the woods and the fields. Around campfires at night, feasting on meat for the first time in weeks, the men relived their ambush of the English, buoyed up by their remarkable victory. Many spoke of Merlin’s vision, believing their triumph against such overwhelming odds was proof of its veracity. Robert and those closest to him, who knew the truth of the prophecy and its origin, did not dissuade them from such speculation.
On the fringes of Carrick, deep in the forest beyond the Bruce castle at Loch Doon, held by the English, they camped for twelve nights while Robert sent messengers into his earldom to the places where those tasked with collecting the rents were due to gather and wait for word. They returned to him gradually, hauling handcarts filled with sacks of money and supplies or leading pack-horses weighed down with coins from tenants eager to hear word of their long-vanished lord. Some were even accompanied by young squires from the halls of Robert’s vassals, keen to join the king’s war-band, along with farmers, shepherds, drovers and fishermen. But not all that came out of Carrick was welcome.
Along with news of the loss of two of his men, caught by enemy soldiers near Turnberry, were reports of doors shut in the faces of the rent collectors and of widespread fear and suspicion among his tenantry. Many of those who had since returned to homes and settlements after fleeing the devastation caused by Prince Edward the year before were too scared of angering their English overlords to aid him. Others were deeply resentful of their absentee earl, who had left them without defence or aid, at the mercy of the invaders. This news, although not wholly unexpected, weighed heavily on Robert, whose mind lingered on Thomas Randolph’s impassioned outburst on the slopes of Glen Trool. Although his nephew was misguided and hadn’t been told all the facts by his gaolers, Robert knew the sentiment of his argument was based on an unpalatable truth. If it wasn’t then so many of his countrymen – not just kinsmen of Comyn, but his own vassals and those, like David of Atholl, whom he had counted as friends – would not have turned against him.
A year ago, outside the walls of Perth, he had known he needed a victory over the English in order to inspire more men to join him and to help erase the stain on his reputation, tarnished by John Comyn’s blood. He had failed, utterly, and all the months since, on the run, losing more followers, had only cemented that defeat and his failure as king and guardian of the people in the eyes of many of his subjects. His success in Glen Trool was a start, but a desperate ambush wasn’t enough to serve as a foundation for his return to the throne. William Wallace only earned the full respect of the nobility of Scotland when he faced the English at Stirling on an open field, and won.
And so, when the last men joined them from Carrick with tidings that Aymer de Valence had gone to fortify Ayr, Robert led his ragged army north, coming out into the open barely twenty miles from the English-held garrison town. Here, in the shadow of Loudoun Hill, he waited, knowing it would not be long before the English got word of their presence.
The enemy was first spotted, a mile or so west of Loudoun Hill, by the glints on their spear-heads. Shielding their eyes from the morning sun, the Scots watched them come from their position on a broad meadow, where three wide ditches had been cut through the grass at intervals, one after another, with the middle trench overlapping the parallel lines made by the other two. The smell of up-cast soil, warmed by the May sunshine, was rich on the air. The meadow was bordered on either side by tracts of marshland, swamped by the spring rains. At the Scots’ backs the slopes of Loudoun Hill, a great crag that thrust unexpectedly from the gentle landscape, rose steeply. A tough climb for men on foot, the cliff was impossible for horses to scale and offered a last-ditch refuge should they need it. Their supplies and the revenues from Carrick were stored on the summit under guard. It had seemed an ideal place for Robert to array his army, but for the meadow itself.
High and dry, it was perfect ground for the heavy cavalry Robert knew he would face. If his men weren’t to be ridden down where they stood, he had to modify the terrain to his advantage. During a council with his commanders five nights ago, walking the field, he decided, based on the advice of Neil Campbell, who had fought with Wallace at Stirling, on using ditches to help funnel the English cavalry into smaller, less overwhelming groups. The trenches, dug laboriously over several days, his men using tools taken from nearby farmsteads, along with sticks and their bare hands, formed barriers both for the enemy to tackle and for the Scots to fall back behind.
Now, looking at the ditches, Robert found himself thinking these three holes in the earth were perhaps all that stood between him and utter annihilation. There was no time to dwell on the wisdom of his strategy, as away along the western road the vanguard of the English came into view. The confusion of colour and metal slowly divided into horses and men, trappers and surcoats. Pennons and banners flew above the lines of cavalry and infantry. There were different arms among them, but most at the head wore the blue and white of Pembroke. They filled the road as far as Robert could see, a great snake, winding inexorably towards him. He guessed there were two, maybe three thousand.
Swinging his shield from his shoulder, Robert forced his arm through the grips on the back. Unsheathing his sword, gifted to him by the high steward, the gold pommel flashing in the sun, he walked down the slope into the ranks of his waiting army, followed by his commanders. Wide-eyed farmhands clutching spears stood alongside thick-necked galloglass wielding their axes and veteran knights, swords in their mailed fists. Robert stood in their centre, turning in a circle to address them, his voice rising as he reminded them why they had come to this field.
He spoke of their families, their wives and children, mothers and fathers. He reminded them of their homes; the lands they worked and the land they loved. He conjured the ghosts of the men who had died deaths of heroes and martyrs, fighting those who would crush them beneath the fist of conquest. Andrew Moray, William Douglas, John of Atholl, Christopher Seton, Thomas Bruce, William Wallace. He told them these men were watching from the halls of heaven, watching them here on this field; they who were the inheritors of this long and bloody war, who carried within them the torch of those who had gone before. He told them this torch was a living flame of courage and honour, and that with it they would light a holy fire all along this hillside.
When he had finished, he walked down through their lines, beating the flat of his blade on the scarred surface of his shield. His commanders went with him, doing the same, until the meadow was clashing with sound. Robert halted in the gap between the first and second ditch, his men spreading out around him. There was James Douglas, determination clear in his face, here, so close to the lands of his father. Beside him was Malcolm of Lennox, his handsome face gaunt and drawn after the hardships of the past months, but no less resolved, his men arrayed around him. There were Gilbert de la Hay and Neil Campbell, Cormac and Angus MacDonald, surrounded by the doughty men of the Isles, wielding spears and lances, taken from the English dead at Glen Trool.
Ordering his spearmen to form a line, three men deep, from the edge of the first ditch to the second, Robert moved in behind them, pulling up the ventail of the mail coif he wore beneath his helm, covering his throat and jaw in the metal mesh. He had thrown James Stewart’s cautions to the wind, along with his own fears. Thomas Randolph’s accusations had awoken something fierce within him. Whatever met him here today, whether death or glory, no one would ever call him a coward again. Beside him was his brother, Edward, blue eyes glittering with the expectation of violence. Knights from Carrick and Annandale, who had served the brothers loyally for years, crowded close. Above them all, the banner given to Robert by Christiana was a vivid sweep of yellow against the spring sky, held aloft by Nes, his face lit with pride at the honour.
As the vanguard of the English reached the lower slopes of the meadow, they fanned out. The tension among the Scots rose. A few men peeled away to relieve themselves while they still could, others flexed necks and shoulders, swung weapons to loosen muscles, or rubbed slick palms on cloaks. Insects swarmed in the air. Robert fixed on the distant banner of Aymer de Valence and felt a line of sweat trickle down his cheek. A rabbit appeared on the meadow and sat grazing, taking no notice of the tight mass of Scots at the high end of the field, or the English forming up below. All at once a horn bellowed, shattering the still. The rabbit bolted into its burrow and a flock of birds cast from the trees on the crown of Loudoun Hill.
The cavalry came first in one long line, no breaks between, the destriers moving from steady walk to trot, then at last to ground-shuddering canter. To the Scots, they came as a great wave, rising to meet them in a storm of billowing blue and white trappers, sunlight flashing on hundreds of blades. Robert, feeling the earth quaking beneath him, roared at his men to stand their ground. Those in the front lines gripped their spears; a forest of barbs thrust outwards, butts wedged against the ground. Others, clutching swords, dirks and axes, pressed in around them. The horn sounded again from the English cavalry, this time three blasts of warning as they crested the slope and saw the ditches carving wide brown lines through the meadow ahead. The outer flanks slowed and fell in behind the middle section that now pushed forward in an arrow, aiming for the gap between the first and second trenches, where the Scots crowded, braced for impact.
The first wave of cavalry smashed into the heart of the Scottish lines amid the baying of battle cries. The collision was brutal. The front rows of Scots were forced back by the shock of it, men colliding with comrades, some staggering, others falling, but the press behind them wouldn’t let them fall far. Screams sounded as horses were impaled on the points of spears. Some riders were hurled over the heads of the first ranks of Scots and sent tumbling into the mass behind. Only their shrieks rose as they were savagely despatched by dirks and stamping feet. The English knights, riding in behind the first wave, had to pull their horses up short to avoid crashing into their comrades, who had met, in the Scots, an immovable wall.
A destrier in front of Robert, skewered by two spears, was struggling to free itself, teeth gnashing, eyes rolling white. The two Islesmen holding the spears, fought to keep their balance as the beast reared up, blood streaming from its punctured neck. Robert lunged between them, plunging his sword into the thigh of the knight astride it, clad in the colours of Pembroke. The man’s sharp cry was muffled by his helm as the sword pierced his mail. Robert tugged the blade free, hoisting his shield as the knight brought his sword swinging down at him. The blade smacked hard against the wood. Suddenly, the destrier collapsed, one of the spears snapping off in its neck. The knight toppled sideways. As he hung there for a moment, snared by the stirrup, Robert twisted his wrist and drove his blade through the slit in the man’s helm. Blood erupted. The knight slid from the saddle, disappearing among a whirl of trappers and trampling legs.
All along the front lines horses bucked and thrashed, caught in the crush as the Scots pressed forward, stabbing with their spears, or hacking and chopping at the writhing barrier of beasts and men. Aymer de Valence’s banner was lifted above the turmoil. Some English knights attempted to turn and break out of the deadlock, but found themselves hemmed in by those who had ridden in behind, channelled by the ditches. Others, on the edges, were knocked or jostled into the trenches. Horses tumbled into the furrows, riders crying out as they went down under the weight of their armoured steeds.
Robert yelled a command and, now, men clutching dirks, many of them galloglass, rushed between the spearmen and ducked in under the legs of the horses. With swift, brutal movements, they slit open the animals’ stomachs. As the beasts buckled, entrails spilling, knights were dragged from saddles, their helms torn off like shells, the Scots eager to get at the vulnerable flesh beneath. The air was rent with screams and the thick squelch of mud, soaked in blood, urine and dung as horses voided their bowels in pain and terror. A sour stink choked the air. Men sweated and groaned, gasping as they pressed against one another in a vile orgy of death.