Friday, October 4, 2013

A Young King and His Enemies

As he bent over the book on his table, James lay down his quill and ran a finger across a bright illustration that filled half the page. A wheel held a woman in finery at its height but had flung a king in ermine and a ragged peasant onto the ground. Kings, princes and beautiful ladies awaited their turn on the wheel. He was chewing his lip and frowning over it when a sharp thud on the table made him jump.

The black-robed monk, Brother Odo, rapped the thin birch cane on the table again and James looked up into his piercing stare. The monk was a small man, no taller than James, slender and quick, with sharp features and threads of gray in his dark hair. The tonsure atop his head shone as though he polished it. James bit the inside of his cheek to stop his grin, which hurt less than that rod would have had it smacked his hand.

“You were not given Boethius to daydream over.”

“Aye, Brother. I only wondered wha’ the wheel meant.
“The wheel means a wheel. Consolatio Philosophiae is but a story that that Boethius wrote whilst imprisoned, as are you. Now you are to use your time more productively than staring at pretty pictures.” He pointed a narrow finger at a word. “Tell me what those four lines mean—in English.”

A word of his own Scots often earned James a stinging rap on the knuckles or sometimes a caning, so James sighed and examined the line the brother was pointing to. His Latin was mainly that of the church prayers and Boethius’s book made him struggle. He took a deep breath, and licked his lips. He could grow to hate this foul tome, though the illustration made him think--perhaps too much.

Who formed my studious numbers,” he translated aloud from the Latin,
Smoothly once in… happier days,
Now helpless in tears and sadness
Learn a mournful tune to.… to…” He sighed, bracing himself. “attollo… I don’t remember.”

“Raise!” The birch whistled when the rod slashed across James’s shoulders. “Learn a mournful tune to raise.”

It was only the sound that made James wince. The cane stung but was nothing to a blow from Gruffudd’s practice blade. His knuckles were skinned from sword practice the day before and his shoulders were bruised from being knocked from his horse riding at the quatrain. Besides, even Bishop Wardlaw said that the sting of a cane was a fine aid to memory.

Brother Odo made a disgusted sound in his throat and motioned to the parchment, much marred where James had sanded out errors. “Write it out. Cleanly, boy.” He thumped the cane down on the table. “I expect the next ten lines written out when I return in the morning.”

“Aye, Brother Odo,” James said, meekly keeping his eyes on the parchment until the door thumped closed behind his tutor.

Smoothly once in happier days

But there was no point in thinking of happier days. Those days were done, though later he would give more thought to that wheel. James thought Brother Odo might be mistaken about it having no meaning when it cast men from the heights to the depths. The tutor always wanted to talk about the translation of the words and never what the story meant. He suspected the monk had no imagination at all. Shaking his head, James closed the book. He would write out all the lines even if it meant burning down his last candle, but for now in the practice yard, he would find Gruffudd and William and perhaps some of the other prisoners and something fun to do. He jumped up, checked both in the corridor ways to be sure Brother Odo was out of sight and hurried down the narrow stairs, out into the sunlight.

He gaped at a line of riders streaming through the open gates, two dozen in polished steel. And there rode the earl of Albany in the middle with Master John Lyon who had brought word of King Robert’s death. James did not know the big man beside them, red-faced under his dark, wiry beard and belly straining against his embroidered doublet.

Orkney vaulted from his horse and tossed his reins to a sergeant who was muttering a protest which the earl ignored as he strode toward James. “Your Grace. I have news I would give you privily.”

The stranger was climbing heavily from the saddle. “He’s no more ‘grace’ than I am. Less than my lord father,” the man rumbled.

James looked past Orkney who was slowly shaking his head and took a slow deep breath. 

“Murdoch?” James asked Orkney in a carefully controlled tone. If he had ever seen his cousin before, James could not recall it.

Orkney jerked a nod.

Murdoch Stewart, earl of Fife, eldest son of the Duke of Albany, swaggered across the bailey yard. “If it isn’t my little cousin, James.”

Thrusting his trembling hands into his armpits, James narrowed his eyes at the man. “Aye. As was my brother, Robert.” His face felt scalded with heat. “Were you at Falkirk Castle when he was murdered? Cousin.”

Murdoch threw back his head and laughed, exposing trembling jowls under his beard. “Aye. And I was there when parliament voted that we had no fault in his death.” His laugh broke off like a snapping branch and he scowled. “Before the Battle of Homildon Hill when I was taken prisoner.”

James drew in a slow, steady breath and then another. He swallowed down the tears of fury at Murdoch’s laughter. He had no doubt that his brother’s murder was at least partially Murdoch’s doing, but screaming at him or weeping like a lass would gain nothing. “Well, my lord…” he forced the words out. “We are both prisoners now. Whether you think I am entitled to be ‘graced’ or nae. Our differences must wait until we regain our freedom.” A pulsing pain began to throb behind one eye at having to speak to the man he must acknowledge as cousin.

“My father will ransom me. You may be sure.” Murdoch glowered at James and then at Orkney and back to James from eyes that were bloodshot. “But do not expect him to agree to any ransom for you to be freed. Whelp.”

“Your father is not the only noble in Scotland,” Orkney said.

“But he is the regent.” Murdoch shoved past Orkney. “Bring my supplies. I am thirsty,” he called over his shoulder. A servant, who James realized had a badge of the Albany Stewart’s on his shoulder, hefted a tun of wine onto his shoulder and plodded after Murdoch. Orkney squeezed the bridge of his nose and let out a long breath.

“His being moved here from Nottingham Castle was part of my news for you. From wha’ I have heard he spends much of his time drinking so, I doubt his presence will be something you are forced often to suffer.”

“I suppose I knew I would see him one day.” James looked at Orkney’s thin lipped face. “Part though? You said that was part of your news?”

The bailey yard was raucous with noise, men-at-arms talking and leading away their horses to the stables and a couple of sumpter horses being unloaded whilst William and Gruffudd stood near the armory watching. Orkey took James by the arm and led him into a corner where a wall met the tower.

“My ransom has arrived. I was allowed to return only to bid you farewell.”

James felt his stomach lurch. Once Orkney left, he would be truly alone.

“Don’t look so, lad. William will remain with you and I convinced King Henry to allow you a chaplain, so Master Lyon will remain. He can arrange messages between us. Once in Scotland, I’ll do everything for you that I can. There is nothing I can accomplish here.”

“But my ransom…?”

“Albany has--” Orkney took a pained sounding breath. “He has stolen your lands. All your regality. You have nae funds for ransom, if King Henry would agree to it.”


“Henry has sworn you’ll be released is if you swear fealty to him. Fealty as King of the Scots.” 

Orkney scrubbed at his face with one hand. “If you agreed to it, I have no doubt he would give you an army to take Scotland. The damned English have done such before. The Balliols, Toom Tabard and his son, both of them, were put on the throne by English armies.”

“But—wha’ would that mean? If he put me on the throne? Would he throw down the Albanys?”

James’s heart gave a lurch at the thought of destroying his enemies. If they would kill him, why should he not use the English against them?

“It would mean that you owed King Henry obedience, and how much power true power he would allow you, I cannot say. All Scotland would be under his heel. And never—never would our parliament accept such an agreement. Nor would I.”

“So… I would be king at his pleasure and Scotland defeated. And make enemies of my few friends.” James tried to wrap his mind around the idea. “And if he didn’t like wha’ I did, wha’ then? If I did the best for Scotland and not for him?”

“If we already weren’t under their heel, we soon would be because there is no way we would win against him or even more against Monmouth. You would--” Orkney shrugged. “Probably you would lose your throne although he might let you keep it if you knelt at his feet.”

“He has put no such proposal to me,” James said. “Did he to you?”

Orkney nodded. “Though he says that you are yet too young to lead an army. But others might in your name in a year or two—especially once they have put down the rebellion in Wales. I told him no. Eventually, the demand will be put to you directly.” Orkney grabbed his shoulder and gave him a shake. “And you must tell him no.”

James swallowed. “Though it will mean they keep me locked up.”

“It will cost you dear, lad. But saying yes would cost us all more—including you.”

“But… How do I regain my freedom?” Too many thoughts were spinning through his head. 

In Scotland, I can work toward freeing you along with Bishop Wardlaw and the Lauders. You have other friends there as well. But you must take my oath.” Smiling a little, Orkney knelt on the ground and held up his clasped hands. “Take my hands between yours.”

He clasped his ink-stained hands around Orkney’s larger ones.  
“I do liege homage to you, my lord, James, king of Scots, and I will keep faith with you against all creatures, living or dead, and I will defend you and all your successors against all malefactors and invaders, as God help me and his saints.”
Blinking, James knew he should say something. He was sure he had seen his father do this, though it was long ago. James licked his lips and said, “I—I take you as my man and will keep faith with you and defend you and your heirs as is my duty as--as your liege lord.”

James raised his eyebrows for Orkney’s approval and the earl gave him a brisk nod of approval. He stood, and for a moment, he grasped James’s arm. “Do not lose heart, Your Grace. However long it takes, we will free you.”

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