Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sample Sunday -- Chapter One of Freedom's Sword


April 1296

"Just beyond the peak, my lord." The outrider's voice was dulled by weariness. Under a clear afternoon sky, the man pointed up a beech-covered knoll.

Andrew de Moray could already make out the rumble of a moving army. He reined in his charger and jumped from the saddle. When he took off his helm to tuck under his arm, sweat dripped from his blond hair. He tossed his head to flick it out of his eyes. His father motioned for the knights in their party, a score in all, to wait as he dismounted. A faint spring wind blew. Over their heads flapped the de Moray banner, six-pointed stars on a field of blue.

With his father, he climbed the knoll and from within the dappled shade of a beech at the crest, he frowned down on the English host. A dark river of mounted men flowed through the middle of the glen below. On and on they flowed, too far for detail, but moving inexorably, columns of heavy horse, light flashing from steel like ripples of waves. There were brief breaks in the procession but only between divisions, and yet another followed.

His father's master-at-arms, newly hired from the war in France, had been instructing him on how best to count the numbers of a foe. "Twenty divisions, my lord," Andrew said. A chill went through him. It was excitement. Of course. A thrill for his first battle. He braced his shaking hand against a rough tree trunk. "Two hundred to a division, I think, so four thousand, all mounted." He looked at his father whose blond hair, streaked with gray, blew around his face in the sweet breeze.

His lord father squinted into the distance. "More than that. Not all have cleared the bend." He pointed towards a black-and-gold checkered banner. "That looks to me like John de Warrenne is leading them. All mounted, as you say, lances with swords and battleaxes for close work."

"Where do you think the English king is then?" Fighting that dreadful old man who had slaughtered all the people in the city of Berwick would be a proud thing for any Scot, surely, and nothing to fear.

"Who knows? But he isn't here and for that we'd best be grateful." The lord of Avoch shook his head. "I make it to be five thousand." Wagons straggled into sight behind the army.

"We can defeat them though. We have four thousand--almost as many." Though a few of the Scots were chivalry on barded destriers, most were men-at-arms on light, unarmored mounts, a fact that he chewed on as he watched the tide of English might flow through the glen before him.

"I've seen enough." His father turned, cloak whirling over his blue tabard with a triangle of stars across the chest, to hurry down the slope. "We'll need to find a position to block them from reaching Castle Dunbar. I'm thinking Spottsmuir..."

A wet wind smelling of pine and fir and moss saw Andrew and his father's tail of knights back to their camp and the awaiting king. Pale mist twisted around the trees as they rode towards the welcoming fires strewn in a wide swath across a long valley. The thousands of fires made a second wavering haze within the entwining fog. Andrew's father had kept a morose silence all the way back and ignored his questioning looks. A stone knocked loose by the hoof of Andrew's horse rattled its way down the slope, and his father started in his saddle as though coming back from far thoughts.

They descended, their silence broken by the clop of horses' hooves and the clank of their armor. Outlined by the westering sun, a peregrine falcon swooped down upon a fleeing lark.

The Scottish camp sprawled for miles. They rode past hundreds of tents and cook fires where dusk turned the banners an anonymous gray. Midges swarmed around them and he scratched a stinging bite on his neck. The scent of meat roasting mixed with the smell of smoke, so tempting his mouth watered.

They passed a pavilion where John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan, had set up his camp. From there, voices rose in a bawdy song and loud laughter. Andrew was willing to wager none of the laughter was from the Comyn. The king seemed not to move or speak without the Comyn's solemn say-so.

Next to the king's white pavilion, the great gold-and-crimson lion banner of the king of the Scots waved overhead from a towering staff. The Comyn, a tall man with brown hair and beard heavily salted with white and a long, elegant face, paced under it. His had been an angry voice in that fierce dispute over who was the new king after King Alexander of Scotland died with no son. Andrew's father still cursed the day they'd thought to ask Edward of England to judge between the contenders for the throne of Scotland.

"The outriders spoke true," his father said. Andrew pushed the flap of the pavilion aside for the two men and followed them in. The king's servants had softened the ground with rushes mixed with rosemary to sweeten the dusty air.

King John de Baliol, tall and broad shouldered with brown hair that curled to his shoulders, sat with a greyhound at his feet. His red tunic and hose went ill against his sun-darkened skin. The king nodded to each of the two lords as they entered and smiled at Andrew.

Andrew's father gave a deep bow, but John Comyn's was brusque. "They found the English," he said.

The king raised a silver cup to his lips and drank before he spoke. "How many?"

His father's face was bland. "Five thousand chivalry under Warrenne's banner. They're a two day's march from Dunbar at best."

"God be praised." The king smiled his mild smile. "That gives our army time to move into position."

"I saw no sign of English outriders, but surely de Warrenne must know we'll try to cut them off."

John Comyn frowned even more deeply. "Whether they do or no, Castle Dunbar is the key to Scotland. They must have it and we must stop them."

Andrew's father cleared his throat. "We can cut them off at the water of the Spottsmuir. The burn will force them to that route."

"True enough," Comyn said. "I yet have time to lead our army into position. And I will do so."

Andrew's mouth popped open and he shut it with a snap.

His father stared at the earl. "You, my Lord? What of the king?"

King John raised a hand. "I discussed this matter earlier with Lord Buchan. We agreed. He will lead the main part of the army whilst I ride hard with a smaller force for Stirling Castle."

Deep brackets formed around his father's mouth. "My liege, the army will be disheartened..."

"Nonsense." Comyn's thin nostrils flared. "I will lead the battle and my men will follow me gladly. It had best be the same with yours."

His father's face flushed and the muscles of his jaw worked. "My men will obey, my Lord, as will I. But..."

"I had no doubt, Lord Avoch," the king said. "I expected no less, and you shall be in command after my lord Earls of Buchan and Atholl. To do you honor as such, at first light before I leave, I shall knight your son." He turned his smile upon Andrew. "You'll be a fine knight and serve us well."

Andrew gulped in a breath as his spirit took flight. "Sire..." His heart pounded. "My sword is yours, always."

The king looked to Andrew's father. "The men will see my confidence in all of my commanders, including your good self, and know it's my confidence in you that allows me to leave."

His lord father bowed his obedience, but his hands were tensed into fists as he shoved his way out of the king's pavilion. Andrew was conscious of Lord Buchan's eyes on his back as he followed his father's angry stride towards their own camp.

Night had settled, turning all the banners to black. Sparks flew from campfires like wandering stars. Lord Avoch's master-at-arms, Sir Waltir mac Donchie, awaited them before his father's tent. His scarred face creased into a frown when he heard the king would leave. He was a sturdy man of forty years, muscled and hard. Arms crossed over his chest, he surveyed their men. "We should speak to them, my lord, so his leaving is no surprise."

As they went to make rounds, Andrew sat on a tree stump at the crackling campfire and tossed in a chunk of wood. The flames leaped. He propped his elbows on his knees and took a deep breath. He'd make no vigil before an altar as most knights did. The tournament to celebrate his dubbing would be battle.

Battle... He was not afraid. They would surely win.

The camp buzzed with the murmur of men's voices and the scrape of whetstones sharpening steel. Horses at distant picket lines nickered in the murk of evening. Andrew warmed his hands over the heat of the flames and told himself the chill was from the air. A clap on his shoulder made him jump.

Brian punched his shoulder harder. "Want company?" He straddled a log and sat down.

Thin as a whip with lanky brown hair, Robbie Boyd ambled towards them from where a hundred men gathered around Sir Waltir. As Robbie walked past, he gave Brian a shove.

Brian returned the punch and Robbie dodged. "Andrew here won't be the bairn of the castle after tomorrow," Brian said.

"He's grown into being a man, right enough." Robbie looked down with a twitching mouth. "Too bad you'll never grow into those flapping bat wings you have for ears."

"My ears may flap but at least my tongue doesn't."

"Get you gone." With a blow from his shoulder, Robbie tumbled Brian onto the ground and took his place on the log. "Bring over the wineskin."

A snort of amusement came bursting out from Andrew's nose, as Brian jumped up and ran, whooping, to return with wineskin. When Robbie grabbed at it, Brian gave it a squeeze. A thin stream of red squirted Andrew in the face.

Robbie jumped up. "Hoi! Don't waste good wine."

Brian danced away, laughing, but Andrew lunged and grabbed the wineskin. He tilted his head and squeezed a stream into his mouth. God be good, it was sweet. Brian and Robbie would be with him in the battle, and that would be sweet as well.

Battle was what knights were meant for, what he'd spent his life training for. Brian grabbed back the wine. They shared a grin. When the two stumbled away, holding each other up, to wrap themselves in their cloaks, Andrew sat alone until long fingers of dawn lightened the sky and the camp turned morning silver. He realized with a start that around him everyone was in an uproar to be off. Knights shouted for squires. Horses were being saddled and led into lines, as tents were broken. The valley was a fury of noise and motion.

When his father put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, Andrew looked up.

"It's time, lad."

Andrew took a shaky breath and stood. Today he would become a knight. Trying to look serious, biting his lip to hide his grin, he followed his father through the field, squelching through trampled mud and steaming horseshit. They wended through serried lines of mounted men-at-arms that stretched across the valley, horses shaking their mane and stamping to be off. He recognized Brian's voice, "Moray!"

At the front sat a long line of knights, mounted on massive destriers clad in gleaming armor. Andrew wondered if they could hear the thump of his heart, it seemed so loud, beating so hard it might escape his chest.

King John de Baliol stood alone before the tall staff that held his banner, as golden as the sunrise. He was dressed for riding in black silk hose and tunic. A gold and ruby brooch in the shape of a rampant lion held his cloak.

"I have brought you my son, Your Grace." His father held out the hilt of a sword with one hand and its belt in the other.

Beneath his fine brows, the king studied Andrew with eyes like a summer sky. His mouth curved in a smile impossible not to return. Just two days before, Andrew had watched the king bring down two stags with his own bow. He found himself remembering what his father had whispered: He would make a fine huntsman. But the man has no steel in him. He bends before the storm. His father must surely be wrong. This was the king.

Andrew swallowed the stone lodged in his throat and ran a sweaty hand down the blue tabard covering his mail. He dropped to both knees at the king's feet.

King John lifted the sword and gave Andrew a firm tap on first one shoulder and then the other. "I dub you knight. Be you good and faithful and never traffic with traitors until your life's end."

The knights behind him made a din, hammering on their shields. Brian and Robbie whooped, "Moray! Moray!" The rest of their men joined in until the glen rang with it.

Andrew rose, head swimming. He couldn't feel the ground under his feet. Another cheer went up as the king fastened the sword belt around his waist. Hilt over his forearm, the king proffered the sword; Andrew's hand shook as he took it. His father pounded his back, and then dropped to a knee to fasten on his golden spurs. Even John Comyn of Buchan slapped his arm with a laugh. His head was as dizzy as if he were drunk on red wine.

The king looked around at the cheering men and smiled. When the noise died, he nodded.

Andrew knelt and reached up to place his hands between those of his king. His throat was tight; he had to force his breath, but he made the words of the oath strong.

"I, Andrew de Moray, become your man in life and in death, faithful and loyal to you against all men who live, move or die. I declare you to be my king and liege lord--so may God help me and all the Saints."


Chris Northern said...

I like this fine.

subrosa said...

Jeanne, historical novels have a prominent place in my library, so this is right up my street. I think you've captured the atmosphere of pre-battle preparations well and I don't see any problems with your US English. :)

If you want me to be really pedantic, then perhaps you could replace the word 'knoll' with 'hill'. Knoll isn't a word used in Scotland these days and I think it's derived from old English.

But of course that's nit-picking. Is the story just about the battle, or Andrew or do you intend to continue until the end of Balliol's life? I'm being nosey. You don't have to say.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Good point about knoll. Thanks.

I don't mind saying at all. The novel is about Andrew who is, in my opinion, one of the most under-rated figures in Scottish history, along with his son.

oldnat said...

" His had been an angry voice in that fierce dispute over who was the new king after King Alexander of Scotland died with no son."

I'm also going to nitpick. It wasn't Alexander's lack of a son that was the problem but the death of the uncrowned Queen Margaret (1286-1290)that precipitated the need for an outsider to arbitrate between the consequent competing claims.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Oh, blech, well, he DID die with no son even if that wasn't the reason. Stop being right. It's very annoying. ;-)

I was trying to explain a very complex situation with minimal pain to the reader, but I think I have to change that. I know someone else besides you will come along and point that out. Maybe: " His had been an angry voice in that fierce dispute over who was the new king after King Alexander of Scotland's heir died."

*grumble grumble* That doesn't read as well.

oldnat said...

Historians are real pains! :-)

How about "after Scotland's royal line died out"? Few will know or care about who Alexander was.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Does the silly man falling off a cliff count as dying out? LOL

Conan the Librarian™ said...

I love historical novels, I grew up reading Alfred Duggan, Henry Treece, Rosemary Sutcliff and to a lesser extent Nigel Tranter(His heroes were always the same character!)

Have you read Robert Low? He's shortly bringing out a series of novels about the Wars of Independence, if they are anything like his "Oathsworn" series, they'll be brilliant.

I'm fine with US English too Jeanne. There is nothing worse than a cod Scots accent...
Though how your going to translate "Toom Tabard" into it I don't know:¬)
Alfred Duggan did a brilliant job of renaming Robert Curthose, the Duke of Normandy as Robert Shortarse though.
Off to walk the dugs Jeanne, I'll be back...

L.C. Evans said...

I like to read historical novels, but I've never liked to do research, so I can't imagine writing one. Well-done.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I wasn't talking about writing dialect, but whether it is color or colour. British novels re often "translated" for the US market. I don't know whether US novels are for the UK or not.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Thanks, L. C. I love the research and have a pretty substantial library on this topic, so that makes it easier.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Poor Toom Tabard. I'm actually somewhat sympathetic towards him. I don't think he was a bad man so much as simply much to weak for what he got himself into. I don't know that he was called that in his own time and I don't use the sobriquet at all, but in the story, as in history, he soon disappears into obscurity.

I don't read much Scottish historical fiction. I'm more prone to non-fiction, Barron, Barrow, et al. I have read a little of Tranter's work, but I'm not fond of his writing style. I see that Low is going into the Templar thing.

Anonymous said...

I don't read a lot of historical novels but this one grabbed my attention. Good job.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Thanks, msthriller. :)

The World of the Blue Bells Trilogy said...

I enjoyed it, Jeanne! After all the time I've spent with Bruce, Douglas, Moray, and the rest, I always like seeing them come to life again in fiction, and see other writers' takes on them.

I very much enjoy the research. My frustration is keeping track of it all, there's so much, even on this one small piece of time.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, every single bit takes a lot of research. And then there are all the bits to try to fill in such as how and why did Andrew end up a prisoner at Chester Castle while his father was a prisoner in the Tower of London. A provident error as it happens.