MONDAY, LATE AFTERNOON 24th JUNE 1314
THE LATTER PART OF THE SECOND DAY
OF THE BATTLE OF STIRLING (BANNOK BURN)
Having chased King Edward Plantagenet, the younger at full tilt to the edge of the lush plain south of Castle Dunbar, James Douglas drew rein and halted his troops. His fear had been realized. The English king and his half-thousand barded knights, who had withdrawn hurriedly from their desperate straits in the morning’s battle, had reached the stout walls of the distant stronghold.
He sighed in exasperation and with teeth clenched, cursed the lost opportunity whilst taking off his steel and leather helm.
The stifling hot, orange-yellow sun hung low in the western sky.
Exhausted and disappointed, the Scot gazed across the rolling green fields toward the impregnable fortress, set atop dark, ragged cliffs that rose straight up from the rocky shoreline. Since the moment of creation, the North Sea had hammered and smashed at those basalt cliffs, upon which two separate and massive stone edifices then seemed to taunt the youngest of the Scottish generals. Conjoined only by a high stone bridge, the bastions glowed in reddish contrast to the deepening blue of the eastern sky and the unusually calm sea.
Catching nothing of a hoped for but lacking cool breeze off the water, Sir James unlashed the shoulders of his boiled leather body armor and let it slip across the saddle. His quilted gambeson, fairly dripping with sweat, was also quickly doffed before he uncorked the water skin he carried at his saddlebow. Taking a long and well-deserved drink, he then poured water over his head so that it splashed over his face and shoulders to further relieve the heat. He was sure he had never been so hot.
Inhaling deeply, he blew the air out through his determinedly pursed lips and swung his head side-to-side, slinging water everywhere about.
His royal quarry having first hastened to Castle Stirling only to be refused entry by its Scottish warden, next fled in a circuitous route to Dunbar and safety in the fortress, nearly beating his horse to death in the effort. Now the poor beast stood with others of its kind within the castle’s upper bailey, abandoned by the king and his bodyguard as they fled into the citadel.
Douglas swung his right leg over the pommel of his saddle, slid off his foam-covered mount and landed flat-footed on the loamy soil. In a few steps he stood on a slight knoll and squinted at the village a quarter-league away, hard along the southern reaches of the western cliffs.
A stronghold of some sort had occupied that headland since Roman times, and probably before. Having been on the ramparts of the great stone pile, Sir James held no doubt that Castle Dunbar was unconquerable. Even the sea conspired to make it so. If the sea gave permission, the cove below Dunbar’s walls was accessible as a port; if not, even a fishing boat would not dare put in. And forced access to the castle proper, indeed from the open plain to its south, was not merely foolhardy, it was impossible.
While Lord Douglas studied the site, Sir Lawrence Abernethy rode up beside him. “Why wait we here? Yon goes the king! We should be after him!” The able soldier urgently pointed toward the coast road on which a hastening horde of mounted English knights could be seen in flight. King Edward’s personal flag was obviously leading.
“‘Ppears so,” replied Douglas. Again, he poured water over his head and face before emptying the skin into his helm and proffering it to his horse.
“We should hie and capture him, Milord!” insisted Abernethy, who rightly considered the immense ransom to be demanded from the English if they did, indeed, put hands to Edward.
“He hain’t among the baseborn louts headin’ to Berwick, Sir Lawrence,” Douglas said calmly as his horse drank from the helm.
“Why so? His flag goes before his bodyguard, and is within our reach if we but make haste!” The older man grew exasperated at Douglas’ disinterest in such a prize.
“What see ye yonder?” asked the young commander, clarifying his question with, “… ‘twixt the far side of the village and the castle?”
Abernethy squinted his eyes, no longer as sharp as once they were. “I see only few flashes of sunlight off metal,” he admitted.
“I see naught but scores of riderless horses in the bailey,” said Douglas. “… and they are yet under saddle.” Abernethy understood immediately.
“Sendin’ us runnin’ after shadows, are they?” asked Abernethy, and the young lord nodded his head and set his empty helm on the grass.
“I figure King Edward and his household guard are now guests of Lord Patrick, but there’s nae room enough inside the walls for so many knights as arrived with Edward,” opined Douglas, “…so the rest have been sent down the coast to find shelter elsewhere. To Edward’s wit, we shall be drawn away to pursue his flag.”
Lord Abernethy started removing his own leather armor and peeling away the soaked gambeson from his hot, hairy chest. “Not near ‘nough men wi’ us to challenge that number anyway,” he sighed in acceptance.
“I had been prayin’ that his horse would stumble and he’d be trampled to death by his guard,” said Douglas with a grin.
Abernethy took some water from his own water skin and smiled slightly at Douglas’ humor before signaling the rest of the troop to dismount and rest. His thinking had already turned to persuading Douglas to return straightaway to the battlefield where, from what Douglas’ men were saying, an untold measure of forfeited English spoils awaited. His pledge of fealty to King Robert, being mere hours old and given only upon learning that the Scots had won the battle most decisively, nevertheless entitled him and his men to shares of the captured riches.
“Reckon this is the end of the chase, aye?” he asked, seemingly rhetorically.
“Reckon not,” said Douglas, surprising his middle-aged companion.
“But, nae more can be accomplished with the king lock-holed yon!” mildly protested Sir Lawrence.
“We can yet harry him some,” returned Douglas, and much to Abernethy’s dismay he loosened the cinch and hauled the saddle from his horse.
Abernethy shrugged and hoped there would be some booty left for him and his men after wasting time ‘harrying’ the hapless English king. On second thought his mind was more resigned to the facts. At best it’s goin’ to be dark ere we could get a half league back toward Stirlingshire. Even so, knowing Douglas’s reputation, he was relieved that they were not going into immediate action.
“Have the men set up our camp here,” said Douglas, “…and have each man build two fires for bannock makin’.”
“Two fires?” asked Abernethy. “How many bannoks be ye abakin’? Do ye have the makin’s for so many?”
“Nae, but they hain’t any notion about what we have or don’t,” came the reply, pointing toward the castle and the remaining English knights. “We can conjure up ‘shadows’ of our own.”
Abernethy set the men to building too many campfires, though there was neither a pinch of oats nor a loaf amongst them.
Once the sun set the land quickly cooled, much to the Scots’ relief. Douglas closely watched the activities in the village and within the castle, both of which soon glowed with the lights of watch fires and cooking hearths. King Edward was settling in for the night.
Barely having reached his majority, Patrick, Earl of Dunbar, properly surrendered his central position at the supper table to his liege lord, who accepted it easily, glad that there was at least one earl in Scotland who was yet loyal and willing to succor England’s anguished king.
Beside the king sat Sir Henry Beaumont, a Frenchman and one of the knights who, for promised Scottish lands and titles, had joined Edward’s now evident misadventure and lost all but his horse and armor. Even his household furnishings, brought to make him comfortable in his expected new residence, had been abandoned on the road south of the battlefield. His mood was nearly as black as the sullen king’s.
At the king’s other elbow sat his favorite, the young Sir Hugh le Despenser, silently bewildered as to how they had managed to lose the battle on the fields below Stirling in spite of having overwhelming forces.
Patrick of Dunbar took a seat next to Beaumont, and having put a large portion of spiced herring into his mouth and washed it down with a great gulp of wine, bluntly asked Sir Henry, “So why was the battle lost?”
It was not a good question to ask at table, even for a very young nobleman. Not only did Beaumont hear it clearly above the din of the musicians’ tune, but it was easily within earshot of the king as well, and Edward quickly turned and stared at the Scottish earl with baleful distaste.
“My lord Dunbar,” started Edward between chews, “the day’s battle… was not lost on our account! Not on our account…” he paused to consider his next word for a moment before adding “…‘twas that god damned Mowbray! Locked me out of my own castle! Had he not, we would be dinin’ there at this moment and makin’ plans for returnin’ to the field… and finishin’ the battle on the morrow!” More of that mouthful of food went flying as spittle spray than ever slid down his throat.
Even the unsophisticated Patrick knew the rant to be a blind wish, and that he should in nowise make comment. Thus, he just blinked as his non-committal response.
Edward’s temperament, on the other hand, grew in intensity and loathing as he continued his improvised rationale, “Further, the Scots waged battle like the craven cotters they are! Totally without honor!”
Beaumont’s eyes involuntarily rolled upward.
“The heathen horde sneaked up and attacked us while we yet lay abed!” whined Edward.
“That is forsooth,” supported Hugh. “Even afore ablutions!”
Edward answered his favorite’s inane addition with a cold stare, signaling Hugh to refrain from further comment. Hugh meekly returned his attention to the trencher of picked-over bones before him.
Earl Patrick merely smiled and decided to keep his own mouth shut. It was at that moment that a page came to his ear and excitedly whispered something.
“A’light?!” Patrick’s eyes grew rounder as the word’s meaning penetrated his wit.
“Aye, Sire,” the wide-eyed boy replied, nodding his child’s head rapidly. Patrick quickly arose to his feet.
“What is it!?” asked Edward gruffly.
“Lad says yon village is afire,” announced the earl with a sweep of his arm in the vague direction of the village.
The foursome at the table and their entourage of twenty-one barons and knights hastily made their way to the top of the wall and ran out onto the arched bridge between the structures to peer toward the hamlet. Though the sun had set, the deep blue sky and the beginning blazes were light enough to see figures running among the houses spreading fire the length and breadth of the village. Others from the great hall crowded behind to watch.
“Those god damned Scots. Again!!” groused Edward. Slamming his fist hard against the wall, he quickly drew back his bloody-knuckled hand and refused to show pain. Yet again he was suffering misery of his own making.
“‘Tis the “Black Douglas, yer Majesty,” said earl Patrick enthusiastically as he leant over the wall.
“You know this?” asked Edward.
“Aye, Sire. I sent out a spy after ye arrived and that is the report,” said Patrick, rather pleased with himself for having been so prudent.
“Ye told me nothing,” said Edward.
“Nae, Yer Majesty… I wished that ye be not troubled. Even Lord Douglas can do ye no harm, here!” the earl started to say, but the king interrupted.
“How many?” he barked.
“More than a hundred, but not by many… I was told. My spy hain’t a countin’ sort a man… ‘cept on his fingers’ worth,” the young Scot said, turning back to the burning village where the flames reflected brightly in his wide eyes. He smiled slightly at the spectacle, being excited by the circumstance.
“They would have us come out and challenge them,” surmised the king.
“Leave this place… and in darkness? Ye’d be a fool, Milord,” thoughtlessly said Patrick while keeping his eyes fixed on the flames.
“Fool!? Fool I would be!?” screamed Edward, grabbing Patrick by the shirt and jerking him around.
Sir Hugh took a step backward.
“Yer… Yer Majesty… I uh…” stammered Patrick, who ardently wished he could have the unpolitic words back in his mouth.
“Beaumont!” screamed Edward while still stareing at Patrick.
“Oui, Majesty,” answered Beaumont, who stood only a few feet behind the king.
“Beaumont, stir those knights to action!” bellowed the king. “I want Douglas’ head on a pike this very eve!”
Sir Henry bowed slightly and retreating off the bridge, soon appeared out of the castle gate, down the long sloping causeway toward the back of the village. Those he sought, finally fed and encamped there, were not anxious to go into action without an order being given.
“Let’s get those sons of whores!” shouted Beaumont. “Your king watches you from the rampart!”
A rousing speaker when called upon, Beaumont soon coaxed them into having another go at the Scots. He easily had them ready to avenge themselves on the gang of despised rowdies who had chased them all the way from Stirling. Exhausted beyond their ability to reason, their discipline failed, and most only grabbed their weapons and headed toward the flames looking for anybody to kill so they could get back to their sorely wanted rest.
The Scots were ready and waiting in the shadows of the village.
“Here they come, Lord Douglas,” whispered Mackie whilst fitting an arrow onto his bowstring.
“Wait until they are well past us,” advised Douglas. He had stationed his men in various places on the outskirts of the village so that the English could enter unmolested. The Scots could then come out of the shadows and Edward’s guard would find their enemy was between them and the safety of the castle.
Beaumont had done well. The king’s men charged into the center of the settlement in a blood lust, and since they were beyond the eyes on the castle bridge the French knight slowed to allow the lesser knights to rush on in front of him. He cared not. The battle for Stirling was over and whilst it raged he had lived up to his agreement; as a result, he was left all but penniless and saw no reason to give his blood to the English king as well.
At that moment Douglas shouted, “Loose!” and MacKie released his first arrow into the chest of his closest enemy. Then another arrow and another found their marks before anyone knew what was happening. The six leading knights suddenly dropped their swords and, grabbing at their wounds, sank lifelessly to the ground. Others became confused at seeing their comrades fall so easily when none had yet seen their enemy.
Flaming thatch roofs began to give way and one at a time collapsed onto the few inhabitants who had been too frightened to flee. Swirling columns of fiery ashes and thick black smoke rose into the sky. Racing about in the bright glow, the English ran headlong into fishermen’s nets the Scots had strung across the several narrow pathways and were instantly ensnared in the web-like strands, becoming easy prey for Scottish arrows and blades.
Suddenly a loud voice shouted, “A DOUGLAS! A DOUGLAS!”, and panic instantly ensued. Hearing the fabled name slash through the air seemed more deadly than any sword, real or imagined. ‘Twas then that Douglas, Mackie, and three Templars showed themselves coming out of the surrounding darkness with their blades drawn. Always keeping on their persons or in their kits the feared white surcoats with bold red crosses, the Templars were suddenly, boldly flaunting them.
In the heat of the flames the images of the Templars standing alongside the dreaded Black Douglas was more than the Englishmen’s courage could stand, and they began to back up as if they were witnessing some unholy apparition.
Beaumont arrived just in time to see what was happening and knew that if he did not stay the mission was lost. He brusquely pushed aside the nearly immobilized knights until he was ahead of them. “Onward!” he yelled. “They are but flesh and blood, same as we!” and he waved his sword in the air to begin his charge.
Douglas and his small body of men moved back a few steps, then suddenly disappeared, challenging the luckless knights’ perceptions of their own sanity.
“Where did they go?!” screamed Beaumont, searching for them in spite of the unbearable heat engulfing him.
“Yon, Sire,” cried one of the knights, and he pointed ahead of them.
What appeared to be wavering ghostly white forms with large red crosses reappeared two houses beyond where they had stood.
“On them… they flee!” said Beaumont as he ran toward the illusive figures.
The red crosses parted enough for MacKie to get another four arrows off. Three of the arrows hit their marks squarely, and three more English fell.
Beaumont himself was wide-eyed and fearful of venturing on, and twisted one way and another as he tried to catch sight of them. Instead he saw the bodies of the king’s men in the awkward positions in which death had dropped them.
Douglas had slipped back farther, to the houses that were the first set afire at the raid’s beginning. They burned low and gave off less heat and light.
Confusion began to overcome even Beaumont as lack of sleep dulled his perceptions and he concluded that his enemy was escaping. Espying Douglas, he chased after him, but the youthful lord moved beyond the brightness of the firelight and into the darkness beyond.
It was then that Beaumont realized they were being entrapped. He froze in mid-stride.
Sir Lawrence Abernethy, mounted and armored, seemed quickly to rise up in front of the attacking household knights, screaming his banshee-like war cry and bringing the chargers to an abrupt halt as other mounted Scots closed in from behind with their own terrifying war whoops. The trap was fully sprung and the killing started in earnest.
The Scots struck the first blows against the surrounded English, trapped against the flames of the burning, wretched hovels.
Douglas and his archer, and the Templar knights stood their distance and allowed the others to do the fighting they had so expertly set up.
The English, nearly blinded by the flames and smoke, swung their swords in as wide a swath as possible, killing friend and foe alike. Because they had not just come from the brightness of the village fires, the Scots were more likely to dodge the wild blades.
There was pain, suffering, and death in the fallow field for some minutes, and only the very fortunate escaped the Scots’ wrath, including Beaumont. Many feared their fellow guardsmen as much as their enemies and withdrew as they could.
The bloodied knights reached the castle walls and told the castle denizens of the horrors of being attacked by Templar ghosts led by none other than the evil Black Douglas. It was decided, come morning they would take their revenge. And they hunkered within the walls and nursed their wounds and sat with great round eyes peering into the village until the embers all died and the grounds below the walls grew dark.
Sir Henry had made it back to the ramparts from which King Edward had been unable to make out anything of the battle.
“Beaumont!” he squeaked from an overused voice and high-strung frustration.
“Majesty,” answered the fatigued and dirty Beaumont.
“What in the name of hell happened? Did you get the Black Douglas?” he asked.
“We saw him,” explained Beaumont, “We chased him but there were too many of them for us to subdue. He seemed to be protected by ghosts!”
“Ghosts?” Edward tilted his head back in doubt.
“… Templar ghosts, My Liege.”
Edward laughed dubiously, but stopped just as quickly to look askance at the French knight before he made a derisive noise with his mouth.
“There have been no Templars for seven years!” he said hesitantly.
“That was what I thought as well, Sire. But there they were… spirits… protecting Douglas!”
“Then he… Douglas… is not dead?”
Earl Patrick became ill and vomited on the wall walk from where he had been watching the burning village. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he was embarrassed.
“Too much into your cups, Lord Dunbar?” asked Edward, moving his position down the wall walk away from the blowing stench. “Or, perhaps you fear the Templar ghosts, hmm?”
“Nae, Majesty. I fear it was the herring at supper.” Edward, having eaten generously of the meat himself, began to feel somewhat queasy of a sudden.
Beaumont was grateful for his moment of grace from the dangerous questioning of King Edward, but it was short lived.
“How many Scotch whoresons did you kill or capture, Milord?” pressed the king.
“Countless, Your Majesty,” he bluffed.
“And how many of ours did we lose?” Edward grew angrier at Beaumont’s vagueness.
“Not many,” again lied Beaumont.
“Not how many?” asked Edward gritting his teeth.
“Sire it was dark. I don’t know,” returned Beaumont.
“The fire was bright. Surely you could see in firelight…!”
“We caught up to them on the far side of the village… in the field… where it was dark, Your Majesty,” squirmed Beaumont.
“But how many did you take into the village… and how many did you bring out?” asked Edward in measured words so he was not to be misunderstood.
“Nearly four score went to the village, Sire…”
“And how many came back?” asked the frowning king. “Or perhaps I should ask how many did not…”
“… Perhaps as many as fifty,” returned Beaumont his head drooped onto his chest.
“FIFTY!?” screamed Edward, “Fifty of my best knights you wasted?!”
Beaumont nodded meekly. His personal thoughts about them being the ‘best knights’ he kept to himself.
Edward was appalled and took a moment to calm his anger.
Sir Hugh came to put a consoling arm around his king, but Edward flung it off and Hugh quickly stepped back.
“Return to the men and post pickets! In the morning, take them all to Berwick where there is a wall around the town and they will not be so apt to wander after apparitions in the dead of night!”
Beaumont would have agreed to anything at that moment. He was worn, defeated and bewildered. He despairingly nodded his head. . .
Well into the next day Douglas and his men stood atop the knoll overlooking the landscape and watched the remaining knights as they rode south toward Castle Berwick, the banner of the king fluttering before them, once again. The local peasants were milling about in the remains of the hamlet, searching for whatever was salvageable in the burned huts. Others were observed in the field disposing of the fallen knights, already picked clean of both clothing and weapons by the Scots.
“Ye wearyin’ the king again today?” asked Abernethy, expecting to mount up and ride after the departing English.
“Nae. We’re goin’ back to Stirlin’,” said Douglas. He pointed beyond the castle to the water. “Look yonder.”
Abernethy strained his eyes. “Two fishin’ vessels puttin’ out to sea?” he asked quizzically.
“Assuredly the King of England escapin’,” Douglas commented matter-of-factly.
“How d’ye know such… when Edward’s banner flies at the head of his retreatin’ personal guard?”
“I ken the man,” came back Douglas as he swung up into his saddle.
The Story Continues in
Rebel King - Book Four - The Last High King