Icy rain ripped at James's face. The air smelt of oak and moss and rain but beneath it still the tang of long dead fire and ash. Whatever the weather, he welcomed a respite from the grief-stricken court. Marioun was a pale-faced ghost whilst the king grim-faced had sailed for Ireland. Silent and grieving, Walter Stewart had ridden for his own lands.
Master Gautier sloshed through the ankle deep puddles and mud to stand beside James under a bare, dripping oak. "I'm sorry, my lord. In this weather, there is no hurrying the work though the stones will give us a good start on building." One of the workmen prying a stone from the rubble of a fallen wall slipped, splattering mud and cursing. The workman heaved himself to his feet out of the muck. The wagon was still only half full of the stones they'd take to Lintalee to use for the manor.
Those were the walls where James had once sat and watched his father's men marching guard, servants carrying water for the kitchen, girls from Douglas village out of sight beyond the trees gathered giggling to talk under an oak, a man tilling a nearby field. He'd never thought to see be forced to destroy it by his own hand. How hard it was to rebuild what was lost. The pieces that were missing left gaps never again whole.
Frigid water dribbled down the back of his neck, and James craned to look up at the slate gray clouds. The midmorning was dark as dusk. The year before the crops had been poor. This year he doubted they would be planted at all. If they were and the rain did not stop, they'd drown in the fields. It was as bad in England, but he'd have to consider raiding. Better the English starved when he took what they had for his own people.
A gust of wind sent leaves flapping around him. I chose a fine year to build a manor, James thought ruefully. Rivulets edged with ice flowed downhill toward the Douglas Water out of sight beyond the trees.
"I don't fault you. Even a master mason cannot control the weather." He shook water from the folds of his cloak. The wet made his side ache from the red scar of the wound he'd taken at Carlisle and the neck of his sodden wool cloak itched. "Do the best that you can. I'd like to be in the manor by snowfall.”
The man shook his head. "I fear you will not, my lord. Unless this weather breaks… And I pray that it does."
A horn sounded in the distance, half drowned by the drumming rain. "The signal for riders," James said. He took a few steps toward the road. He didn't expect the English in this weather; it was too early for the fighting to start. "Wat!" James called. "Send men out to see who comes."
Wat ran through the slush, shouting for Dauid and Johne to bring horses. "I'll see to it, my lord."
James shook the water out of his eyes. Wat had been with him most of his life since the day James returned to reclaim his father's lands. The man was tough as old leather, but James thought his gray hair said it was time for younger men to do the fighting. Moments later, water sprayed as the three men left at a fast canter. Wat gave James a wave as he passed.
"I could send for more men," Master Gautier said as he scowled at one of the men hefting a stone into the wagon. "But it won't speed the building a great deal. In this rain, even once we move the stones, mortar won't set well no matter how many men I have."
"Send for them then. I won't expect more than you tell me that you can do, but speed it as much as you can."
Lightning sizzled across the sky followed by booming thunder. The mason excused himself and slogged through the muck to have his men stop until the weather eased. They trooped grumbling toward the line of tents. James shook the water out of his cloak again and then turned to watch the road wondering who would be mad enough to ride out in this weather. It didn't bode well for being good news.
When riders came into sight, Wat, in the lead with several men not their own following. Wat waved an arm over his head and called, “Raiders in Teviotdale, my lord.” They splashed at a canter through the mucky road, water spraying.
Thin, sharp-faced Sir Adam de Gordon climbed from the saddle, his mouth drawn up like he'd tasted something bitter. “Lord Warden, English raiders. They must be from Berwick. They seized twenty cattle and captured two men to drive them.” He thrust his head at the two men-at-arms with him. “Too many for the three of us to take on, ten of them.”
James gave a sharp nod. “We should be able to catch them up before they reach Berwick. They'll make for the Merse.” He only had forty men in his tail, but that should be enough for a few raiders. With the king supporting his brother in Ireland, Walter Stewart and he had been left as Scotland's co-regents. He couldn't―no, he would not fail the king by allowing such a raid.
Wat still sat astride his sturdy mount. “We'll need to move fast then. I'll order the men armed and mounted.” He turned his horse toward where the men had already begun to stand from lounging beside campfires. “Wake up, you lot! We've work to do.”
“Archibald,” James shouted and called for his armor. Archibald buckled on his brother's hauberk and coif, his greaves and knelt to put on his boots while James buckled on his sword belt. By then a groom was leading up his black courser. It wasn't armored. James scratched his chin. Mayhap he should start traveling with armor for his horse, but it wouldn't matter for taking down a few raiders. “Get yourself armed, Archie.” He swung into the saddle. “Quickly now.”
Archie ran as James wheeled his mount. His men were throwing saddles on their mounts, buckling girths, checking their swords and yelling jokes about what they'd do to the enemy. Wat shouted at them to hurry. Archie buckled his sword belt with one hand whilst he led his horse with the other. A watery beam of sunlight broke through the rain as James led them off and they fell in behind him.
Sir Adam rode beside him. “We cannot lose those cattle. Can't afford to.” James grunted. Why talk about it? Losing cattle would mean even more empty bellies. No, they couldn't afford any lose as bad as harvest the year before had been.
“Wat, send out four scouts, well spread. A small group could be easy to miss.”
As they rode through the scattered woodlands at a canter, James frowned. In the distance, the hills of the Lammermuirs hunched, dappled by snow beneath smoky gray clouds. “Ten is few to take back enough cattle to feed Berwick if they're as low on food as reports say. You saw the raiders yourself, Gordon? You're sure of the numbers?”
“Aye, from a distance. It might have been twelve. Of a certainty, no more.”
“They've grown bold―or desperate,” James said, still frowning. It was a small raid though if only a score. James was going over in his mind the area of Berwickshire around Coldsteam as they rode along the bank of the gray-blue waters of River Tweed, visualizing the rolling hills and farmland where the raiders might make their escape. It was open country, good country for fighting on horseback. Ill if you wanted to hide. He jerked his head around at a sound above the steady rustle of the water. Hoof beats coming at a gallop. He held up his hand for a halt as one of his scouts dashed through the hawthorns and scrub.
“Nor far behind me,” the man panted. “A good four score and in armor all of them.”
“Holy Rood!” Sir Adam Gordon gasped. “You're sure so many?”
“Aye. They spotted us. Rode down Ranald. They're on my trail.”
“They must have been spread out to raid when you spotted them, Gordon.” James wrapped and unwrapped his reins from his hand. There was a stream near Skaithmuir a little way north, one that might serve as a small defense.
“Sir James!” Sir Adam pointed.
James heard shouts. Horsemen in gleaming mail came through the trees. First there were six knights. Then twelve more. Then twelve more. A double column of knights and men-at-arms streamed through the dripping, bare trees.
Sir Adam opened his mouth and made a sound, but James cut him off. He turned his horse's head and sped for Skaithmuir. “Ride,” he shouted, and he clapped his spurs to his horse's flanks.
He clearly saw in his mind the little stream and its bank that formed a hillock. It would be little enough defense but as a good place to make a stand as you'd find in this country. Fleeing from the English in his own country―as he had for so many years in the past. The thought of it made the blood pound in his ears. Mud flew from the hooves. He led them in a race for their lives. They splashed through the stream, icy water splattering.
A horn made a wavering call in the distance as James's mount slipped and struggled to the top of the rise, splattering mud from their hooves. Outnumbered. “Plant my banner,” he ordered Archibald.
Archibald unfurled it and thrust the pike's head deep into the soft ground. The white banner with its broad blue band and three stars stood steady in the midst of his men. Wat hurried them into a defensive circle, ordering them close together, for mutual protection. They were fixing their shields on their arms and flexing their sword hands on their hilts. “Do nothing but guard my back, Archie,” James said. “No need to make a name for yourself this day.”
He turned his horse in a circle to look over the field. The edge of the stream that half-circled the hillock was hard rimed with ice. Beyond the ground was rolling, spotted with a few trees, but most of the land was cleared for planting in the spring. He watched as a line of men rode into view, shouting and gesticulating. A horn blew again. Harooo.
More men rode into view, armor catching the glimmers of sunlight, joined the mass that was forming. Their leader, tall and massive on a huge courser, rode with his standard bearer at his side, blue with a gold bend, the armorial of Sir Raymond Caillou. Drawing his sword, James watched the man ride up and down the line, shouting. He'd heard of Caillou and tried to remember what. It didn't matter. When the leader died, most often it broke his followers. Caillou must die.
The horn blew again, and the English broke into a gallop, screaming war cries and curses as they came. Caillou waved his sword over his head and bellowed a command.
“Steady,” James said. “Make them come to us up the slope.” He fastened his gaze on the tall knight with the blue shield. The hooves of charging horses threw muck and icy water, the charge slowing as they labored up the rise. Then the English were upon them.
“A Douglas!” James roared. The hillock rang with the sound of steel on steel.
Not for Glory, third novel in The Black Douglas Trilogy, will be released in February.