Saturday, August 24, 2013

A King Uncaged -- To the Tower with You!

From my WIP following young James's capture by the English pirate Hugh-atte-Fen:

The bile-green Thames flowed in ripples around the ship. They sailed past a square, gray keep that rose like a growth above a dreary marsh. Was that the Tower of London where so many ended their lives, James wondered? Orkney made a strangled sound in his throat. When James looked at him from the corner of his eye, the earl just shook his head and glanced toward scar-face. The man had his arms, thick as tree trunks, crossed but his sword was on his hip. His pig eyes never left them and three other pirates had hands on their hilts as they stood guard. Beyond the grim keep was a jumble of buildings that stretched out of sight on a reed choked shore. The wind smelled of horse shit and sweat and smoke and rotting fish. All cities smelled, but none other so strong that it closed his throat.

Dozens of wharves thrust into the water and masts rose around them as thick as trees in a forest. Hugh-atte-Fen called out a command and lines were thrown to the nearest. There were shouts and the ship was hauled in and lashed to the quay.

James craned his neck from one side to the other. On the shore, he made out nothing but a muddle of buildings with reeking chimneys, alleys, spires, and belfries hunched under a canopy of dark smoke that covered the sky. But the quays were all noise and confusion. Crates were being carried off ships. Wagons were being loaded and men shouted, cursed, laughed. Everyone was in an uproar to be somewhere other than where they were.

“My lords.” Hugh-atte-Fen swaggered in their direction and gave another of his taunting bows. “I must go ashore to arrange a greeting suitable to such lofty and honored guests. I shan’t be long.”

Orkney’s lips were pressed together so hard they were white. James wanted to ask him what to expect. But the earl had cut him off with narrow eyed looks at their captors whenever he tried to ask. He looked back at that grim tower and his heart tried to beat its way out of his chest. James gripped his fists so hard that his nails cut into his palms. It hurt but helped him to be quiet. His heart raced. He couldn’t return to Scotland, not until he was a man grown and able to fight his murderous uncle. But he couldn’t stay in England.  To be locked in a dungeon. He couldn’t!

The sun was near its zenith and sweat dripping down James’s back in the wet heat when Hugh-etta-Fen strutted down the quay and up the gangplank, a score of men-at-arms, halberds over their shoulders, at his back. The man patted a fat purse hanging from his belt, his teeth flashing in a taunting grin. “You have been profitable guests, my lords, so I wish you good luck with your new host.”

“Enough chatter.” The sergeant jerked his thumb toward the gangplank. “We’ve orders to move you lot and better things to do.”

“Move us where?” Orkney demanded and Sir Archibald crossed his arms, glowering.

The sergeant motioned to his men and the long weapons were lowered so that they bristled toward the two men. 

Orkney rubbed his dark-circled eyes before he stepped forward. “Keep Lord James between the two of you,” he said over his shoulder as he paced down the gangplank. With William on one side and Sir Archibald on the other, James followed close behind. The men-at-arms formed in a square around them.

The guards shoved their way between two wagons where men were piling casks and crates.  A broad shouldered man didn’t get out of the way and a blow from the staff of a halberd knocked him to his knees. He shouted curses behind them as they marched past and into the warren of narrow streets.

The cacophony assaulted James like hammer blows. From everywhere seemed to come shouts, laughs, screams, bells tolling, distant hammering, horses whinnied and it all mixed with the clanking of armor of their guards. The street squelched with filth under his feet. The upper stories of the buildings jutted out, almost meeting overhead letting through dim shafts of murky light. “Miser√©re mei, Deus…” James muttered under his breath.

The streets milled with crowds: a legless man yelled for alms, drunken soldiers staggered out the door of a public house, hawkers shouted their wares, whores lounged in doorways making offers to their guards as they passed. Everywhere he looked, anywhere he looked, there were people. Vast seas of people and no one he knew. Fiercely, he jammed his hands into his armpits and kept trudging along. When a man carrying a barrel on his shoulder got in the way, two of the guards grabbed him to shove head first into a wall. The barrel leaked ale in a puddle as the man knelt and moaned.

On a street corner a Grey Friar in a soiled robe was praying loudly for Prince Henry, but the crowds paid him no more mind than if he were a yapping dog. They passed four men struggling to work a pushcart free, its wheels stuck in the muck. An acrobat in ragged motley tottered on stilts to the delighted shouts of a drunken throng.

Walking through the streets of the huge, strange city surrounded by armed guards, James gaped at everything, yet he hardly drew a glance. He was glad, but what kind of city was it where prisoners were so common? The Tower of London was out of sight now and they were going in the wrong direction to go there. “Where do you think they’re taking us?” he asked William in an undertone.

William shook his head and from the glazed look he gave James, he was no less confused.  The bells of the Angelus began to chime and James looked up to see the gray stone of a minster rising before them. He nudged William with his elbow.

It wasn’t a great castle. In fact, it was no castle at all but an old abbey, though the entrance porch was new polished stone with elaborately carved faces and splendid flying buttresses on the sides supported the building. 

Men-at-arms threw open the carved, arched doors.

As they were escorted through chamber after chamber, nobles in fine dress, servants in livery and clerics turned to stare, nothing James hadn’t seen before. But the rooms were a jumble of multicolored carpets, statues, tapestries, carved benches, and burnished armorials beneath crossed swords.  James had never seen rooms so awash in colors and  furnishings. When he realized he was gaping, he snapped his mouth closed.

At last they came to the open doors of the audience chamber. The sergeant whispered to a page who gave Orkney a grudging bow and escorted them into the great vaulted chamber. It was flooded with noonday light from immense, arched windows.  James blinked in the sudden light, trying to make sense of the sudden chaos in the vast chamber.  Overhead, the beams soared to an unbelievable height, and around James and his little retinue, men bellowed laughter and shouted to be heard. They churned in a sea of colorful silks and James could see no more than a few feet into the hall awash with courtiers. He chewed his lip and slid his gaze to look from the corners at the earl. Orkney was white to the lips, his mouth pressed in a thin line.

James took a single step forward and squared his shoulders. One of the Englishman, fine as a peacock in blue satin, nudged his neighbor with and elbow and sneered in their direction. James dug his nails into his palms as he forced himself to look through the beautifully dressed rabble as though they weren’t there.

Trumpets blew at the far end of the hall and the babble quieted to a murmur.  “Our most dread lord, Henry, King of England,” a strong voice shouted.

Orkney laid a hand on James’s shoulder and squeezed so hard James it hurt, but James gave a little nod. He kept his eyes straight ahead.

The men around them were bowing low and at last James caught a glimpse of a throne on a far dais. The chamber was huge, he thought, bigger than any he’d ever seen. But then his breath caught. A burly man with a plain gold coronet encircling his dark hair and a neatly trimmed short beard paused half way to the dais. He bent his head as a prelate in a crimson robe dusted with jewels put a hand on his shoulder and said something into his ear. In his rich black tunic and cloth of gold cloak, he threw his head back and hooted a laugh.  James’s stomach twisted in his gut.

Henry Bolingbroke, king of England, laughed hard for a few more moments before he strode to the gilded throne and threw himself down in an inelegant sprawl. His squinting blue eyes fastened on James and he called out, “Come. Bring my new guests before me.”

An usher stepped forward. He motioned to the four of them. Orkney nodded and side by side with him, James approached the throne. Sir Archibald and William followed on their heels.
A few strides from the throne, Orkney halted and Orkney’s hand halted James. They bowed deeply to his captor. The king grinned as he looked James up and down, paying no heed at all to the others.

“A whelp of Scotland.” He snorted.  “James they call you?”

“Aye, your grace. James, earl of Carrick and prince of Scotland and this is my household.” He motioned to the grim-faced earl of Orkney. “Sir Henry Sinclair, earl of Orkney, Sir Archibald Edmonstone, and my squire, William Gifford.”

“You were fleeing to France, I am told, to be educated and properly schooled in French.” King Henry leaned forward with his elbows on the arms of his throne and pondered James for a moment and grinned.  “Your father should have sent you to me straight away. I am after all the rightful king of France and well able to teach you the language.”

James gritted his teeth as his face flooded with heat. "Son Altesse Royale, vous me feriez trop d'honneur."

King Henry looked at him. There was silence as though the men around them held their breaths.  When the king snorted back laughter, chuckles rippled through the chamber.  “C'est vrai, mon enfant. I have no time for schooling a child, but we shall see that you have a tutor who is suitable to your rank.” His glance slid over William. “And you have a squire. That is seemly, but you have no need for a larger household in the Tower.”

“Your grace!” Orkney’s hand tightened on James’s shoulder. “You can’t mean to send the lad to such terrible…”

“Silence,” the king said, rising from his seat, his voice heavy with annoyance. “We did not give you leave to speak. You will be allowed ransom, sir earl, you and the knight with you. Until then I shall hear nothing further from you.” Silence fell and he glowered at around the great chamber. “Now where is Thomas Rempston?”

James glanced back and saw a slight, middle-aged man, dressed in rich blue, with a bald head and a beak of a nose threading his way through the press. When he reached the dais, he bowed deeply. “Your grace?”

The king took his seat on the throne and nodded amiably.  “Sir Thomas, as you see we have more guests to join the other Scots in the Tower. Young James here must have tutors and be kept in reasonable comfort.” He eyed James and his companions with a smile on his lips. “Allow the earl messengers to arrange ransom for himself and the knight—as quickly as possible. I don’t intend to support a large household for the boy.”

Orkney’s fingers were digging into his shoulder so hard, James was sure they would leave bruises. The man made a strangled noise in his throat and words seemed to burst from him, “Your grace. Surely a boy of such tender years--you cannot mean to send to…”

“By the mass, I bade you be silent!” The king pointed a finger at Orkney. Orkney clamped his lips in a thin line under the king's glare and then King Henry turned to Thomas Rempston with a narrow-eyed look. “As my Constable of the Tower, you will see to them.” He flourished a dismissive hand.

It was a stiff and shallow bow that Orkney offered the English king. James gave the earl a doubtful glance from the corner of his eye and followed suit. Sir Thomas Rempston motioned for them to follow him, and outside the chamber, they were once again surrounded by guards.  
“It will take much time for arranging ransom’s, lad,” Orkney said through gritted teeth. “Much time…” Nothing else was said through the chaos of the London streets with its high overhanging houses and milling crowds. At last they came to a long, open marketplace of tents and stalls of every color. On one side, cattle were lowing and bawling in an enclosure. Poultry honked and cackled inside pens, adding to the cacophony of farmers shouting their vegetables, women bargaining, and bakers’ boys calling out, “Bread. Fresh bread.”

Their guards yelled, “Make way!” People grumbled and cursed as they were shoved aside so the guards could march them through to the other side. James sucked in a deep breath when he saw a moat. A bloated body of a dog and brown bits that James refused to consider floated in the stinking water.  James reluctantly raised his eyes to the high, crenellated, gray wall where armored guards paced. Their footsteps reverberated like drumbeats on the wooden drawbridge as they paced across. The heavy gate screeched open and James shuddered. Within the outer walls, on a rise, soared the stern, implacable face of the keep.

He went cold and his vision swam. The next step was the hardest he had ever taken. James forced his legs to move. He walked through. The gates of the Tower of London crashed closed behind him. 

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