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. “MiserĂ©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. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

A King Uncaged -- capture at sea

This is a draft of a WIP but has been pretty thoroughly proofread. The main character is 12-year old James Stewart, earl of Carrack and only surviving son and heir of King Robert III. Hope you enjoy reading it.

James scrambled up the slimy wood ladder to the forecastle and leaned on the rail near the high bowsprit of the cog. The wind ruffled his hair as it washed away most of the stink from the hides and fleece in the hold. Watching the endless gray sea was the only entertainment he had whilst Sir Archibald and the earl of Orkney huddled with the captain, muttering about English pirates and the English truce with Scotland. William came up to stand beside him, chuckling. “They’ll talk the pirates to death,” he said.

Foam splashed into James’ face and he smiled at his esquire. William was cheerful company but didn’t help the boredom of the journey to France. James sighed and scanned the horizon for something, anything, to break the monotony. He caught sight of a speck of white far to the right of the bow. “Wha' is that?” James pointed.

“I do not ken.” William frowned as high, white cliffs poked above the horizon. “But it isn’t France.”

The captain yelled a command. The sail creaked and snapped. The deck rocked beneath their feet as the cog changed course. Foam splashed high around the bow as they plowed into the waves. The turn put the barren, treeless headland abeam to the cog and James gaped at the first sight he’d ever had of England.  “’Tis bare. Not anyplace I’d want to go.”

Sir Archibald climbed the ladder to join them, forehead crinkled in a frown. “That’s Flamborough Head, so the captain says. From here, we’ll run straight south.”

James stretched over the gunwale to better see the cliffs that sparkled in the bright sunlight. He grunted. “I suppose it’s not more water. And waves. And water. And more water.”

“It is boring,” William said and yawned. 

The sea spray stung James’ eyes and wiped them clear to take one last look at the land of their enemies. As though he didn’t have enough enemies in his own lands. He turned his back, since the cliffs were no more interesting from a distance than was the sea, though the sailors cursing had taught him some words that might be of use to him one day. The thought made him duck his head and grin. The knight looked askance at him so he said, “How long until we reach France?”

“Depends on the weather.  Two  days… mayhap three,” Sir Archibald said.

 A sailor in the crow's nest shouted something that was carried away on the wind. The man pointed toward the rapidly disappearing coastline. The captain called out a command and the cog put about more to the south. Orkney strode to the rail. He grasped it, staring fixedly into the distance.  

Sir Archibald looked down from the forecastle and called out, “Wha’s to do?”

“They’ve spotted a sail. Just rounded the Head and moving this way.”

The captain was shouting commands and sailors swarmed the ropes. The deck lurched under James’ feet as the ship changed course slightly. James narrowed his eyes and tried to pick out a ship in the shimmer of the sun on the sea. There was nothing. “It won’t catch us.” He looked at Sir Archibald. “Will it?”

“Probably just another merchant ship and nothing to do with us.”  But he was frowning fiercely as he glowered at the sea.

“It’s matching our course,” the watch shouted down.

James spotted a speck of white, almost like one of the gannets that swooped over the sea at Bass Rock. “Look,” he said to William.

“It must be gaining on us then.” William pinched the skin at his throat. “That is… worrying.”

“I want to speak to the earl. And you need to go to the cabin, my lord.” Sir Archibald prodded James toward the ladder. “That’s the safest place for you.”

James meekly climbed down the ladder with no intention of hiding in the cabin. He’d go mad wondering what was happening on deck. The captain was standing beside the helmsman his mouth in a pinched line.

“This is not a place I would expect to sight another ship.” The captain frowned. “There are no ports near the Head.” Captain Giese yelled up, “Can you see what is the ship?”

“A ballinger—under full sail and oars.”

Orkney looked up at the sky and shook his head. “Too long until nightfall.” He shared a look with the captain who shook his head. “They will overtake us before we can escape in the dark.”

“We have some lead, but they are light and making good speed. We’re weighed down with cargo. If they are, as I fear, pursuing us--”

“Lord James,” Orkney said, “you should go below.”

“If they catch up to us, will we fight?” James asked, ignoring the order to leave.

“We must,” Sir Archibald said.

“Euer Hochwohlgeboren, on my ship the decision is mine.” The captain made a commanding gesture and silenced them. “I will arm my men but we must see more of what enemy we face.”

“Captain,” the watch yelled down, “they’re gaining fast.”

The ship was full of sound: the captain reeled off commands, swords and knives clanked as they were handed out, crewmen shouted encouragement, and waves slapped the hull as it ploughed through the water. James hurried to the rail. A rippling wake spread out behind the Maryenknyght but it seemed to move like a turtle. Foam curled around the high bow of the pursuing ship. Oars dipped and scooped, churning the water beneath a great square sail.

Orkney commanded William to bring their weapons and soon the three were buckling on their swords though none were in armor. When Sir Archibald said they should don it, Orkney scowled and asked if asked would be pleased to swim in a suit of steel. “I don’t swim at all,” the knight said.

“You can hold onto a piece of flotsam. But not in armor.”

Across the water, the ship was thick with men and bows, stirring as the ship neared. James heard the sound of a fast drum beat in time with the stroking oars. No one was watching him as they stared at the oncoming ship, so James dashed up the ladder and knelt by the rail. Shading his eyes against the sun, he peered at the ship. It was crowded with crewmen, many more than were on their own ship. Sunlight flashed on steel in their hands.

A shout went up from the ship behind and arrows hissed like snakes over James’s head. He flinched lower as the fearsome shower rained down. Men were scrambling to hide from it. A yard long shaft thrummed down a foot behind James and embedded in the deck. James pressed his body as close to the rail as he could, breath coming as though he’d run for miles. He heard an anguished scream as someone tumbled from the crow’s nest.  James turned and ran for the ladder. An arrow pierced a crewman through the throat as another tumbled from the rigging. Two crewmen lay moaning on the deck. Dimly, James heard cheers from the other ship. 

“Douse the sail,” the captain roared. “Throw down your swords.” Men leapt for the lanyards and the sail cracked and thudded as it was lowered.

Orkney spun on a heel and strode to hammer his hand against the railing. “Damn them. Damn them to hell.”

A few more arrows thudded into the deck.   Amidst the sounds of moans, weapons clattered to the deck. A shout came from the nearing ship, “Up oars.” A grapnel clanged onto the railing. Another and another followed. There were shouts and grunts as ropes were hauled until the hulls thumped and the two ships were bound together.  Men brandishing swords swarmed like ants over the railing. Archers aimed nocked arrows from the forecastle. 

A hand grabbed James’s arm hard. He was wrenched off his feet and would have fallen except he was trapped between Sir Archibald’s back and the wooden bulkhead. “Whesht! Stay still.” The knight threw down his sword with a clank. James craned to see around his protector’s back as Orkney raised his empty hands. Captain Giese stood grim faced.

The dozen remaining seamen of the Maryenknyght were herded together, the captain forced to join them, backed up by a scar-faced pirate holding a sword to his throat.

Then a spare, compact man jumped agilely over the railings to land, feet spread. He had black hair and eyes as hard and dark as obsidian. “This ship is now a prize of Hugh-atte-Fen,” he said. "I claim it by force of arms."

“It is a ship of the Hanseatic League!” the captain shouted.  Scar face slammed the flat of his sword to the captain’s head and the man went down to one knee, a gash on the side of his head leaking red.

“No longer,” Hugh-atte-Fen said sharply. “However, you may have a skiff. If you are any seaman, you can reach shore.”

Orkney stepped forward and said, “Sir, we are merely passengers--with safe conduct from the kings of Scotland and France. But if you would have ransom, I will agree to pay it for me and my few companions.”

“And who might you be, sirrah?”

“I am Sir Henry Sinclair, earl of Orkney on the business of the king of Scotland with whom your own King Henry is in truce, I remind you.”

The pirate shrugged. “Truces are of little moment to me, but one of your companions is another matter.” His hard eyes darted from William to Sir Archibald and stopped as he looked at James. “The young man yon knight is trying to hide. Now in him I have some interest for I have sought him for days.” He bared his teeth in a grin. “Lord James, earl of Carrack, prince of Scotland, if I mistake not.”

James squared his shoulders and pushed his way from behind Sir Archibald and past William who clutched at his arm. He wouldn't cower like a craven. Not for a Sassenach or any man on earth. If his stomach felt hard with fear, well, that was his business. He lifted his chin and looked the man in the face, anger making his face flood with heat. “Aye. I am he.”

Behind him, there was a splash as a skiff hit the water and muttering as the crew was driven into it.  But he couldn’t look away from Hugh-etta-Fen’s sneer. “Your servant, my lord earl.  And welcome to England.”