IN THE SOUTH OF SCOTLAND
The morning sun had not yet
risen over the craggy mountain, but the sky was well lit above the
small, fog-laced haugh. Birds greeted the king and his squire with songs
and cries of warning as the two made their way through a thicket toward
the river. Crystal clear, the river was fed by numerous small creeks
that flowed out of the distant gray-blue mountains, and a large spring
that bubbled up a short distance away.
At the edge of the sparse
tree line King Robert de Brus paused, warily observing the scene and
abandoning his usual proprietary admiration of the beautiful
heather-garbed valley floor. Seldom was he able to relax his guard.
Seeing naught around him but
the peaceful river valley, the king and his squire cautiously picked
their way down the rock-strewn incline to the river’s edge, pausing
there to survey their surroundings once again. All was quiet.
Robert removed his armor and
clothing and handed it to the squire, then squatted and dipped his large
hands into the cold water, scooping up their fill. Splashing it onto his
naked torso, he shivered from the shock.
“Ah-h-h!” he cheerily
growled. “Andrew! Ye had best come take advantage of this fine, cold
water, Lad,” he yelled to his squire as he repeated the cleansing. The
king had slung his huge sword belt around his neck, and the point
brushed the mud somewhere behind him as the sheathed blade pushed
between his hunkered legs. Dipping into the torrent again, he wet his
face and auburn beard, and again to drench his long locks of fairly
auburn hair. Then, with experience of a man who has long lived with his
enemies about him, his senses perked up at the sound of crackling tree
branches, but he calmly continued his ablutions, his wary eyes furtively
glancing hither and thither.
Andrew Stewart, the
thirteen-year-old squire accompanying him to the stream, stood an easy
ten paces behind the king, holding the royal raiment of rough-made
clothes. The king’s chain mail hauberk and his chest and back armor,
leather and metal plates, having accumulated quite a number of dents
from battles against the English in the previous several months, lay on
the ground nearby. The youth was unaware of the sounds his king had
noticed, and continued to enjoy his adolescent’s daydream as he watched
lazy puff clouds catch the gold and orange colors of the early sun.
King Robert arose from his
washing, his eyes scanning the landscape as he turned toward Andrew. He
motioned for his bloodstained garment and his saffron tabard, sewn for
him with the red lion rampant upon it by a proud peasant woman before
the battle of Loudoun. The wounds he received there were minor and long
since healed, leaving behind but faint linear white scars.
After the bloodletting on
Loudoun Plain, Robert had lost no time in consolidating his precarious
claim to Scotland’s throne. Among his enemies he counted not only the
well-trained and well-armed English troops, but many of the Scottish
nobility as well. Scots opposed to de Brus considered him a usurper of
the throne who murdered John “The Red” Comyn, his nearest competitor,
and brazenly, some said, crowned himself.
Furthermore, there was a
faction of the Scots opposition who yet contended that the rightful
throne belonged to John de Balliol. Indeed, de Balliol had been
ceremoniously crowned at Scone, but shortly abdicated under duress from
Edward I, who contemptuously tore the royal emblems from the Scot’s
tabard and left him forever shamed before his people. He was then
imprisoned in England, eventually being released to retire to a life of
comfort and prestige, if not power, on the continent.
Thus, as Robert stood naked
and dripping wet on the edge of the brightly sparkling stream, he had a
long roster of enemies to choose from, were he to hazard a guess as to
whom it was now approaching with possibly murderous intent.
“Quietly look beyond me Lad
and see if ye ken the likes of them sneakin’ up on us,” said Robert
quietly as Andrew came to him and handed him his linen shirt.
Andrew scrutinized the area
carefully as the king turned his back to the direction of the sounds and
quickly dried his hands and face on the cloth.
“What d’ye see?” whispered
the king as he took the scabbard belt from around his neck and handed it
to the boy.
“On the edge of the wood,”
said Andrew softly, “a bush yonder is shakin.’ Aye, I can see folks
a’hidin’ there,” he whispered as a tingle of fear and excitement
traversed his spine and puckered his buttocks.
Water dripped from Robert’s
hair onto his shirt as he looked at it. “Might have to wash the bugs out
of this one day soon,” he smiled and slipped the louse-ridden garment
over his head.
Andrew, however, didn’t
notice the king’s smile. His wide eyes were on the thicket beyond.
“They’re a’comin’, Sire,” he whispered urgently to Robert.
“How many?” asked Robert,
still not turning.
“Three’s all I see, one old,
two young, walkin’ fast this way,” relayed the youth, briefly. “Losels
by the look of ‘em,” he added.
“Where’s yer bow, Lad?” asked
the king as he calmly reached for his sword.
“By yonder tree... but I
hain’t got but the one arrow,” said Andrew, glancing toward the bow.
“Aim straight for one of
‘em’s head so they don’t see it comin’. Hie!” said Robert, and he turned
to face the assassins. Andrew ran for the tree and stood behind it while
retrieving his weapon.
The three men suddenly
stopped at seeing the enormous knight standing less than twenty paces
“Ye men need not die this
morn,” said Robert in a strong voice as he calmly drew his sword from
The older man looked at his
two companions, flanking him with their swords and daggers at the ready,
“Ye ones be with me still?” asked the man, though his throat had gone
suddenly dry and his armpits tingled as he began to sweat in the crisply
“Aye, Da,” they both answered
“Land we’ve been promised,
and ‘tis land we need,” added one of the sons, stiffening the resolve of
the other two even further.
“Then let’s be at the deed,”
cried the man, and the three charged the king and his squire.
Andrew swiftly nocked the
single arrow, and drawing it full back, loosed it on the young man then
leading the charge and thus closest to the king. Trying to discern if
they would cease their run, Robert watched as the shaft reached its
target and the youth fell dead at the running feet of his father, but
the father and his remaining son slowed not at all. His face set in a
mask of resolve, Robert at last dropped the blade’s scabbard and held
the mighty sword with both hands, ready for the fight.
Andrew stood well back, for
he had seen the damage levied by the large sword in the hands of his
king and he wanted not to be an accidental victim of the blade.
The younger runner came
headlong at Robert and swung a first, too-broad arc with his sword,
momentarily losing his balance. Robert easily sidestepped the son’s
blow, but the father swung a wild, glancing blow from the other side,
carving a shallow slice from Robert’s shoulder.
“Enough, fools!” shouted
Robert, but the attackers heeded him not. Thinking the wound had
rendered him weaker, they came toward the king in even greater
excitement. Robert needed only a single slash of his sword at neck level
to silence both father and son.
The young man died almost
instantly; the father lingered momentarily. Robert stood over him in his
death faint and asked, “Who sent ye to take my life?”
The man saw his son lying
dead beside him. He tried to rise on one elbow, but simply made the
blood rush more quickly from his gaping wound.
“Ye are dead, ol’ man. Who
sent ye?” repeated Robert.
“Yonder son... dead?” gurgled
“Aye,” replied Robert, “as
dead as ye will be in a moment more.”
The man rested his head again
on the heath as tears of brief mourning for his two sons welled in his
eyes and followed the furrows at the corners of his aged brow to
disappear into the hairs of his beard.
“Who sent ye!?” Robert
repeated again, knowing time was quickly running out. “And what is meed
for such murder?”
“‘Twas...” the tough old man
sputtered and coughed, “... Umfraville... promised a croft… ‘pon
yer head…” Then he exhaled a long, rasping groan and was dead, sinking
heavily into the sparse heather.
The man they intended to
assassinate stood sorrowfully over the three churls and heaved a great
sigh as Andrew left his hiding place and rejoined his lord. Standing
silent, the hunted monarch looked about, searching for possible
additional assassins. Seeing none, he turned back to the carnage and
shook his head in frustration. After a moment a scream erupted from his
troubled heart. “FATHER IN HEAVEN!” he yelled to the sky, and his voice
dropped to a mere whisper, “Why is my country devouring itself alive?”
Andrew stood near and kept
watch while his wounded king said a silent prayer. When Robert again
turned toward his squire, his eyes were welled up with tears for the
Scots peasants, turned to assassins by the promises of his enemy.
The Story Continues in
Rebel King - Book Two - The