Friday, October 7, 2011

Countenance of War: Sneak Peek

I'm still working on A Countenance of War, the next book in my series of Scottish historical novels. It takes up a few months after the end of A Kingdom's Cost, and I thought it would be fun to share a sneak peek with you.



James de Douglas pushed aside a thick branch, heavy with spring-green leaves, to peer up the long slope. Draped in wisps of mist, Douglas Castle made a hulking shape against the the golden coin of the early morning sun. In the quiet, a lark trilled. James watched as it soared, reached a peak and plummeted towards earth. He breathed in the moist scent of morning. In the dense woods behind him, another lark answered.

He stepped out of the trees and turned in a circle to look over the field. The ground was broken and rolling here; soft and muddy from the spring rains towards the castle road, stony beyond it. A few trees dotted the hill near the castle, but most had been cleared past the forest's edge to permit a watch for approaching enemies.

Cattle lowed, deep and protesting in the distance. They cleared the rise and a man bent over his horse's withers to smack the lead cow, urging it to a faster pace. The herd was a mass of shaggy red hides and wide swinging horns. At the rear, two men waved their arms, shouting.

A horn blew in the castle. Shouts drifted on the sweet morning air.

The herd thundered past the castle. The rumbling mass gained the rocky road. James's heart pounded in his chest in time to the hoofbeats, and under his steel half helm sweat dripped down his brow.

The castle gate thudded open. Horsemen trailed over the drawbridge. Squinting, James counted. Twenty in all, armor glinting where it caught the rays of the sun.

The English had swallowed the bait.

James grabbed his reins and swung into the saddle. He jerked his horses into a turn further to edge into the dense forest. Dew-damp leaves slapped his face as he rode. He brushed them aside. It was dark amongst the trees, but he made out the shapes of his men. “Wat! Get set. They're moving.” He swung his small kite shield from his back, and flexed his shoulder as he set his hand into the leather straps. Thanks to St. Bride, it had been his shield arm that had been injured at the Battle of Loudoun Hill.

A horse snorted. Metal scraped as one of his score of men on small rough-coated horses pulled his sword free.

Wat said, “Steady, men. Let the thieving English get past us.”

James bent to pat one of his archer's shoulder. Beyond the man ten more in the green of Ettrick foresters stood, well screened by the heavy oaks clothed in the light green of spring from the oncoming cattle and their pursuers. “Nock and hold,” James said. “Easy, now.”

He heard a rumble of cattle hooves, still distant but growing closer.

“Hoi! Move you!” a voice shouted.

The rumble grew louder. Shouts came from further behind. James nudged his horse into the dense leafy branches and shoved them aside. The cattle, at a dead run urged by the shouting waving riders, surged past.

James drew his sword. “Hold,” he said softly.

The riders from the castle had strung out in a line. A bareheaded knight, blond hair streaming, galloped on a heavy bay in the front. James grinned. Thirwell.

“A Douglas!” James shouted and brought his sword down. He slapped his spurs to the horse's flank. It surged forward. “A Douglas!” James burst through the leafy branches, his men beside him.

Arrows sighed over his head. The morning erupted with the screams of men and horses. “Ambush!” the knight shouted.

Another flight of arrows arched up from behind James, from where his few archers stood. The English fought their horses into a turn, shouting. Another flight of arrows fell and two more men slumped from their horses and went down.

“Scotland and King Robert!” James screamed as he reached them. A man swung at him. James hacked and caught him full in the chest, shearing leather and bone and muscle. James wrenched his sword free as the man fell.

He stood in his stirrups, looking for the knight. He glimpsed Wat's horse gutted by an unhorsed Englishman, a swarm of their men hard behind him. Wat vaulted free as his horse died under him. He rose, untouched, laying about him with his sword. He caught an Englishman full in the chest as the fool came at him in a full run. A dozen others slashed wildly to fight their way free.

James shouted, “A Douglas! A Douglas! Don't let them get away.” Thirwell, horse rearing and hooves slashing, lashing out with iron-shod hooves. It shattered a man's head in with a kick. He wheeled and raced for the castle.

James lashed his horse and charged, cutting him off. Their horses slammed together. James's light garron went back on its hocks. His quarry met him, sword raised and swiped a blow at James's face. James slammed it aside. The knight was tall and burly, wearing a chainmail hauberk. Blond hair thrashed around his face as he dodged James's blow. “Douglas!” Thirwell screamed. “You're mine.”

James hacked at his head and shoulders. The man grunted, swinging at him, sweat dripping down his face. “Devil take you,” he knight panted, chopping savagely at James. James barely got his shield up in time and pain exploded in his half-healed shoulder from the jolt of the impact. The man bellowed as he raised his sword high for a blow that would have split James's head like a melon. James buried his sword in the knight's belly.

“He'll take you instead,” James told him.

As James jerked his sword free, Wat shouted, “After them, lads. They're getting away.”

A handful of horsemen galloped toward the castle, a good three horse's length ahead of Wat on an English mount. The rest of his men tailed behind. “Hell mend them,” James said through gritted teeth. No one remained here but a dozen bloody corpses. Pain shot through his shoulder when he moved his arm, but he clapped his spurs to his horse's flank. Bending over its neck, he galloped toward the dust of the pursuit.

Shouts drifted from the walls of Douglas Castle. “Ride!” The fleeing horsemen thundered over the drawbridge. Metal grated, iron upon iron. The castle gates slammed shut.

James pulled up and stood in his stirrups, glowering at the castle gate. Two of the towers still showed black stains from when he had burned the castle once in a futile try to keep it out of the hands of the curst English. A crossbow bolt thudded into the ground a yard ahead. He waved his sword over his head and shouted, “Pull back!” His men milled around him at the foot of the walls in a dusty fog. One shouted a curse up at the men on the parapet. A crossbow twanged.  

He'd have to do better. "Now. Move," he ordered and slashed his horse with his reins.

Wat's bellowed, “You heard him. Back.,” harrying the men into order.  They followed James out of crossbow range.

James reined in his mount and glared back at his castle. He flexed his aching shoulder. He'd not planned the ambush aright. If they'd been a little faster...

Wat pulled his shaggy-coated garron up beside James. He scratched at his beard. “Too bad we didn't get it, but that was Thirwell you took down back there. I'm sure of it. Six of his men I saw go down.”

“You have the right of it. I've rid my castle of one interloper.” James twitched a grin. “Once we're through here, lead the men back to camp. After dark, I'm going to make my way to Will's and see if he has gathered more news.”

Harness creaked and weapons clattered as James's men gathered around the two of them. James cast a glance over all of them looking for injuries. “All here? How many did we lose?”

“Johne,” one of the men said from the back of the throng. “Saw a damned Sassenach unhorse him.”

James circled his horse as he looked them over. Dauid leaned over his horse's withers, blood dripping from a slash to his head. James motioned to young Richerd, who had a good hand with wounds. “You see to the bandaging best you can. I think they won't be in a hurry to bother us, but we'll not tarry. Strip the English of armor and weapons. Wat, you see that any coin on them is evenly split.”

“What about your share?” Wat asked.

James thrust his chin towards the castle topped by a yellow banner scattered with starlings, flapping in the morning breeze. “I missed my prize this time. But I'll claim it the next.”
A Kingdom's Cost is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. A Countenance of War will be available January 3.

1 comment:

Dafeenah said...

Hi. Just stopping by to let you know:
You're a winner chicken dinner. Stop by my blog to see what you won or email to collect your prize dafeenah at gmail dot com !!!