Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Son Mourns

The room was blessedly silent. James leaned his head against the cool, damp stone and hammered his fist into it as hard as he could. It hurt when the skin split and blood dripped down his wrist—a welcome pain. It made the pain in his chest seem less.

How could he? To give up.  Their father had let Robbie die. Now he had abandoned James—alone—imprisoned.

James turned and propped his back against the wall, cradling his bleeding hand against his chest and blinking back the burning in his eyes. He wouldn’t weep. He wouldn’t! Not for a father and king who cared so little for him.

The door creaked half-open and Gruffudd stood in the opening, a flagon in his hand. “Sir Thomas sent this for you. He’s not so bad once you’re in his good graces, and I think you need it.” He closed the door behind him and poured some wine into a cup.

James nodded but he looked away, swallowing. He felt as though there was a stone in his throat. Perhaps the wine would help, so he took it with his left hand, his right still dribbling blood.

“Have anything to wrap that?” Gruffudd asked.

James took a deep drink of the wine—sweet and not much watered. With a sigh he hooked a stool with his foot and sank down on it. He turned his hand to examine the split. “It’s nae so bad. It will stop soon.”

When Gruffudd had helped himself to a cup of wine, he flung himself on James’s bed, propping up a knee with an arm flung over it. “Your bed is softer than mine.” He gave a wry twitch of his mouth.

“Is it?” James poked at the shallow split on the side of his palm for a minute, but the bleeding had already almost stopped. He looked up at Gruffudd and the words tumbled out. “Your father. Do you—honor him?”

He gave James a rather apologetic look. “My father is a strong man, you see.” He shrugged and took a sip of the wine. “Too strong mayhap. He could not abide the English ruling over us. Grey de Ruthyn seized out lands and because we are Welsh the English shrugged at it.” He swirled the wine in his cup and looked pensive. “That doesn’t matter. But… Aye, I honor him--failed him though I did.”

“I—I did not—honor mine.” James looked sadly at his cup of wine and swallowed down the rest in a gulp. “He was a poor king. I kent that when I was still but a lad.”

“I’m sorry.”

He couldn’t stand the hot anger burning through him, and he jumped to his feet. The stool toppled. He hurled the cup against the wall. “Damn him!” It clattered onto the floor, a smear of wine marring the wall.

Gruffudd shook his head. “It may be that he could not help it. He was as he was.”

James’s shoulders slumped. He righted the stool, eyes burning with tears he would not let fall. He walked slowly back and forth across the room before he sat back down. Propping his elbows on his knees, he sank his hands into his hair and gripped. “He let them kill Robbie. Did nothing. He never did anything. If he was so grieved at my capture, why did he nae do something? Only my mother did—when she lived. Wha’ kind of king is that?

“You will be different.”  

“Why do I feel so—so lost though?” His voice choked. “I should nae care.”

“He was your father. He would not have grieved so if he hadn’t cared for you, lad.”

James rocked where he sat and tears began to run down his face. “That makes it worse. Don’t you see?”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A King: Caged

More of my current work-in-progress:

The courtyard rang with steel upon steel. Under his mail and helm, sweat trickled down James’s face and his back as Gruffudd pressed his attack. Their blades met in a harsh clash and slid down until the guards locked. He looked up into Gruffudd’s narrowed eyes. James heaved as hard as he could, throwing his opponent back.

His sword up, ready for the next swing, the tip of James’s sword hovered a hand’s breadth from Gruffudd’s. Stronger and older, if James didn’t defeat him quickly, he wouldn’t, so in a sudden fury of movement he slammed an overhand blow that would have rung Gruffydd’s helm like a bell—if it had landed. But it didn’t. Gruffudd slipped to the left, out of danger, and brought his own sword across and into James’s face. James yelped as jumped back, spun to the side and slashed up and around to hack at his opponent. But supple as a snake, Gruffudd dodged. Another hack almost slashed across James’s stomach but he made a fierce downward blow to knock it away.

Their blades locked again. James’s breath was coming in great heaves. He gulped desperately for air.  Leaning with all the strength he had left into the blades, his muscles strained. Gruffudd smiled and threw him back. James circled him, panting but sword low and ready. Looking into Gruffudd’s eyes he saw a flicker of amusement. James brought his sword up. Gruffudd moved in, twisted behind him, and brought a wide cut from behind to slap his blade on James’s neck hard. A bead of sweat dripped from his chin onto the sword.

“Yield you?”

“Aye.” Gruffudd pushed him away with a slap to the shoulder, and James rubbed a stinging welt across his neck. “That hurt.”

Gruffudd ripped his helm from his head and tossed his head to get his dripping hair from his face. “Better, Lord James. You lack strength yet, but for your years,”—Gruffudd nodded—“you do not fight badly. You might stay alive against me when you are fully a man.”

James took off his helm and leaned his head back. The May breeze felt good on his sweaty face. He leaned on his sword, caught his breath with a shudder, and took a moment to enjoy even faint praise from Gruffudd. Cheerful companion he was but a skilled fighter, and the challenge was exciting.

“Let me see your neck,” Will said, glaring at Gruffudd. “You shouldn’t hit him so hard.”

“Princes die in battle like any man.” Gruffudd looked with an unfocused stare toward the top of the castle gate where his uncle’s head rotted and then jerked his gaze back. “He’ll only learn if he knows what hurt truly means.”

The earl of Orkney, his face flushed red, came out the Tower door and hurried across the yard. “Lord James!” he called. A gray-haired priest in a soiled black robe and a gaoler in livery trailed after him.

James tried to sheath his blunted blade but his hands were bruised and clumsy. He got it in the battered sheath on the second try. “My lord?”  

Orkney paused a few steps away to tug at his doublet. He shook his head, not quite looking at James.  James had never seen Orkney look so—odd. James’s guard nearby shifted, his armor creaking, and a raven croaked whilst Orkney looked everywhere except at James. He finally sank onto one knee and looked into James’s face. “Your Grace…” he said in a voice that shook and James froze at the title. “Your Grace, I am…” James could hear him swallow. “Dire news, sire. I must tell you… Your father--the king is dead.”

He opened his mouth. Nothing came out.  William dropped to a knee.

“Your Grace,” Orkney said. “You understand…”

James nodded wordlessly as the priest stepped forward. The man bowed deeply and said, “At Bute Castle, sire. When—when word was brought to him of your capture, he turned his face to the wall. Would nae speak nor eat nor drink. And he died the third day.”

“Dead…” Cold rushed through James and there was a sound in his ears like a rushing tide. “He… He did not even try then. To save me.” James’s voice was a whisper. He swallowed down a burn behind his eyes and looked up at the sky where a muddy coin of the sun shone through the drifting layer of smoke.

His father. The king. Who had been no true king--not in his deeds. His chest caught and he could not breathe. He struggled—jerked in a gulp of air. The world spun. Closing his eyes, he just breathed until his head cleared. Then he opened them and looked at the men around him who watched him, waiting.

He was the king now. He must act as a king should. That is what they were waiting for, but he didn’t know how. Again his mouth worked. “My lords…,” he choked out. He unbuckled his sword belt and shoved it into William’s hands. Slowly he walked toward the White Tower. “Let me be. I—I must think.”

Monday, September 9, 2013

Proposed blurb for A King Ensnared:

What do you think? Would it tempt you to read it?

Robert III, King of the Scots, is dead, and Scotland in 1406 is balanced on a knife's edge of anarchy. The king's ruthless half-brother, the duke of Albany, has murdered one prince and readies to kill another as he eyes the throne. Young James Stewart, heir to the throne, flees his murderous uncle only to be captured by the English. A man of contradictions, lover, tyrant, dreamer and dynamo, he is haunted by his brother's brutal murder and hardened by his own years of English imprisonment. He is determined to return to free Scotland from his murderous uncle, but that mean might betraying his nation and everything he believes in.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Captive Prince

More of my current Work-in-Progress: 

A week later:

Through the high, narrow window of James’s Tower room, morning light spilled across the floor, bars laying dark stripes on the threadbare carpet. His straw-stuffed bed was hard and uncomfortable. James thrashed and kicked off the light coverlet. In his bare feet, he ran to the little garderobe and pissed into the hole as William, on his pallet on the floor, muttered complaints before he rose.  

On the little table next to the door, a slab of dark oak with iron bands, William filled their basin from the flagon of water. James washed his face and hands, donned clean hose, shirt and doublet from the chest that had been brought from the ship the week before and pulled on his boots. Then he climbed to stand on his bed to look out the window past its iron bars. He took a deep breath and leaned his forehead against the rough stone. Sunrise was a wash of red across cloud of smoke that never seemed to clear from above London. He absently rubbed at the strange pressure in his chest as he wondered when he would ever see a blue sky again.

“That bed will nae be fit to sleep in,” William said. “With you standing on it like that in your boots.”

In the yard below, James spotted a man-at-arms, following a dark haired man who sauntered across the patch of ground within view. It was certainly not Sir Thomas. Possibly another prisoner of this foul place?  A roar nearby made him flinch and was answered with another.  He turned to look around the bare chamber, with its narrow bed, small table and two stools, a thin carpet on the floor. But a fire burned on the hearth, they had been brought food by a gaoler every day, and the lions in the menagerie were only a sound in the distance. William said he had never heard of prisoners being given over to the beasts, but he looked nervous every time they split the air with their roars.

William looked up from pulling on his own clothes. “The English will allow you to buy more comforts when you receive moneys from Scotland. Your lands will…” William’s comment died off at an echo of voices from down the corridor. He kicked at the edge of the carpet with a sneer. “We will use it to send for thick carpet and hangings to stop the draft and decent plate for your table.” Even in the summer’s heat, behind thick stone walls the air was chill.

James propped up the wall with his back. “I don’t care about that. I just want out of this room. I want to see the earl and to know if there is news.”

“The king said you were to have tutors. I’m sure they don’t mean to keep us locked up forever.”

James flopped down onto his bed. There was nothing to do here. He threw his arm over his eyes and bethought of sitting high on the tower of Rothesay Castle whilst his mother still lived, the land green all around until it slanted down to the rolling sea. Masts bobbed on the horizon, men in the fields scythed oats, a little goosegirl poured out grain for her flock. He tasted capercaillie stuffed with apple and pine nuts and thyme with sweetened caudle to wash it down. He could still hear the sound of the chapel bell, his brother’s laughter as he rode out the gate, his mother’s lilting voice. She wore the green that she loved, and it set off the red gleam of her hair and the gold of her coronet. He saw his sire’s drawn, pallid face when they put her in her tomb. And he felt gooseflesh as the cold sea splashed over his feet as he waited that dark night for the ship Maryenknyght. The memories made his throat ache so he sat up with a sigh.

“It’s near time to break our fast,” William said.

James didn’t answer but he supposed William was right and the clatter of feet in the corridor made him slide to the edge of the bed. His belly rumbled, ready for the bread that would stave off their hunger until dinner. There was a noise of the bar being lifted and the locks rattled and the door creaked open.

James stood up in surprise when Sir Thomas Rempston stepped through the door. “Lord James,” he said with a neutral sort of nod. “I have found a tutor for you, a monk from Eastminster Abbey well recommended by the abbot. He has both French and Latin I am told. And the king has provided some coins for your upkeep so if there is aught that you require for your wellbeing…”

“My freedom!” James exclaimed. At Sir Thomas’s raised eyebrows, James lowered his voice. “Surely, Sir Thomas, I need not be constantly confined so.”

“It is not my intent. Once I am assured that you understand your position here, I will give you the freedom of the keep. But if you abuse that in any way, I shall confine you as is my duty.” He crossed his arms and held James’s gaze. “Do you understand?”

James knew his eyes widened but he tried to keep his face blank. “Aye, sir, I do. I mean no abuse. I shan’t challenge your authority.”

“Good. There are others in the Tower who will be company for you.” He snorted. “I have no doubt you’ll soon make the acquaintance of Gruffydd Glendwr. He’s the nearest in the Tower to your age.”

“Then I may leave this room? Go outside?” James couldn’t help the eagerness of the questions. Why should he be grateful for being let out of a cage he should never have been locked in?

“Except for the walls, the deeper dungeon and chambers that are barred, I grant you and your squire freedom of the keep.” Sir Thomas scowled at him. “In time long past, one of the Glendwrs tried to escape by jumping from the wall and fell to his death. Stupid! Since then prisoners are forbidden there. You’ll be escorted by a guard, but he’ll not impede you unless you try to escape. But do not doubt --if you cause any problems I shall be told.”

James fiddled for a moment with a loose thread on his doublet, looked at the floor, and then nodded. “I understand you, Sir Thomas. I have no desire for durance more than I must suffer.”


“The earl of Orkney? Will I be able to see him? I must need speak wi’ him.”

Sir Thomas let out a breath. “He displeased the king with his impudence, but. . . I suppose there is no harm whilst he awaits his ransom.” He gave James a somewhat kinder look than before. “The menagerie will entertain you, I believe. We have five lions and a leopard for the nonce. Your confinement need not be so terrible.”

James knew very well how terrible a confinement could be. He still dreamt of Robert in an oubliette, desperately gnawing his fingers as he starved to death in the dark. But this was better and James tightened his mouth into a line to hold back a smile of relief to be outside if only for a few hours. “I ken it could be worse, Sir Thomas.”

“Sensible boy.” Sir Thomas nodded and turned on this heel to leave.

Behind him, a gaoler carried in a tray with a loaf of hot bread and a flagon of fresh water.  James muttered a word of thanks as it suddenly occurred to him that it was a good idea to keep the gaolers sweet. He decided to mend his manners though the gaolers were rough men and his inferiors. The man grunted and tromped out.

Grinning, James broke off half the loaf and tilted his head to William who grabbed up the rest. 

“Let’s go!” He strode fast, not allowing himself to run, out the door and down the corridor.   Flickering torchlight touched the granite slabs underfoot and shifting shadows danced across the rough walls. The winding steps down were narrow and slick with wear and damp, but James barely slowed his tumultuous rush.

He pushed the heavy door open and stepped into the most precious sunlight he had ever seen. That it was dimmed by the ever-present London smoke mattered not. He was in the light and the air. He gaped at the high gray walls and the bailey yard. A guard in glittering steel paced atop whilst another with halberd in hand stood at a corner.  

The door crashed closed and he looked over his shoulder to see that they were indeed shadowed by one of the gaolers in the livery of the Tower rather than armor, but he had a sword at his waist. His heavy shoulders and thick neck below a blunt face made James assume he could use the weapon. James decided that he should give him no reason.

A laugh came from around the bend of the tower and a lithe figure wearing a battered helm and armor sauntered into view. When the man saw James, he pulled his helm off and held an arm wide in welcome. He examined James through large, dark eyes under arched brows.  

“Well met, my lord,” the man said in a strong singsong accent. “I heard we had new companions in this charming abode.” His black curling hair was dripping with sweat.

James blinked at him and after a moment nodded in greeting. Obviously not a guard, the man was mayhap twenty with a sarcastic twist to his narrow lips.

“Forgive me. I am Gruffydd ab Owen Glendwr, eldest son of Prince Owen Glendwr.” He snorted a wry laugh. “And fellow ‘guest’ in this fine English Tower.”

James was reminded a bit of Robert Lauder. At least there might be fine company in this dour place. “I’m James.” He shrugged. “Earl of Carrick and son of King Robert of Scotland, if any of that matters here.”

Gruffydd threw a casual arm around James’s shoulder. “Aye, it does, lad. You’d not want to be a villain in this place, stuck in the lower dungeons. Though my lack of coin makes my stay less pleasant than some.” He looked past James to William and nodded a greeting.

“William Giffart, my lord,” Will said. “Lord James’s squire.”

But James was moving back from Gruffyd. He reached for the blunted practice blade in his new friend’s hand. Bouncing on his toes and turning the blade in his hand, he said, “They let us practice in the yard?”

“With blunted blades, certes, but we may practice at sword and even tilt at the quatrain when Sir Thomas feels kindly.”

James’s face split in a grin, but then his face fell a little. “My sword work isn’t as good as I would like, Gruffydd.”

“Then the three of us shall practice together.” The Welshman winked. “They call me a fair hand with a blade, so I’ll teach you what I know. It will keep us from dying of boredom.”