BOOK ONE

FEBRUARY 10th 1306

GREYFRIARS CHURCH NEAR DUMFRIES CASTLE

 “Robbie, I see men in arms hidin’ in yonder wood,” cautioned Christopher Seton quietly to Robert Brus as they led an armed procession, including Edward Brus, Roger Kirkpatrick, James Lindsay, and twenty horsed knights, down the snow-covered trail toward Greyfriars Church.

“We’re near up on the kirk,” replied Robert to Christopher as he pulled his hood tighter to his face against the biting cold wind. “They would be John Comyn’s men waitin’.”

Christopher Seton was husband to Robert’s sister Christian; Kirkpatrick and Lindsay were old friends from skirmishes with the English several years before, and about the same age as Robert. Having heard of The Red Comyn’s deceit, they individually joined Robert’s contingent, each for his own reason.

 “They seem to be greater in number than are we,” added Christopher, “but it is hard to see with the sky growing so quickly black.” He looked at the heavy winter clouds amassing to blot out the dwindling twilight from the sun, already set.

“It matters little,” insisted Robert. “They’ll not attack us for fear of our havin’ John trapped in the abbey. Besides, I don’t expect trouble.”

“Would ye not think them pure assassins?” asked Christopher.

“I wouldn’t fancy John Comyn that stupid,” retorted his brother-in-law.

The troop rode up to the holy building and, with the quick eyes of experienced warriors, took a survey of the situation. Everything looked normal in the gathering dark. There were two horses standing near the four-foot-high, gated fence that surrounded the entrance to the crumbling church.

Light from the candles within made its small windows glow with a yellowish hue that reflected softly off the stone steps, polished smooth by the tread of the faithful generations. 

The mounted knights were placed along the front as Robert, Christopher, Roger Kirkpatrick, who wore a cloth band over the eye he had given for Scotland, and James Lindsay dismounted.

They made their way up the steps and through the main door of the kirk. Edward Brus and Thomas Randolph stayed outdoors and in command of the knights. The dog waited on the steps, preferring to remain outside in the threatening elements rather than enter the church.

In the vestibule, Robert doffed his hooded cloak and handed it to James Lindsay, who laid it on a nearby table. Robert’s upper body armor showed brightly burnished under a loosely worn tunic.

Christopher chose to retain his cloak and, alongside Robert, went through the heavy wooden door into the sanctuary.

.   .

Hearing the door open, John Comyn, standing before the high altar, turned gracefully to greet Robert as one would hail an old friend. “Ah, the Earl of Carrick has arrived! I hope yer journey was an uneventful one, Lord Brus,” greeted John with a wide smile.

“My kinsmen and I, and even my dog, would prefer to be at home by the fire on my own hearth,” replied Robert with solemn aspect as he walked toward the spot where John Comyn waited, his uncle at his side.

Not wanting to inhibit the meeting, Christopher Seton stopped a few paces back from the three men, that they might speak in confidence. He noticed, nearly out of sight behind a low wall beyond the altar, two curious friars watching the unfolding events, but nothing else moved within the unheated room, save themselves.

As Robert looked upon John’s smiling, friendly face, a quiet rush of anger filled his being, but he held his countenance.

“What be this matter ye were so anxious to meet with me about?” asked John, taking the high ground of innocence in his arrogance. Robert turned to Christopher, who reached under his cloak to expose the distinctive black and white pony hide pouch his brothers-in-law had taken from the corpse of John Comyn’s late messenger.

John’s eyes betrayed his knowledge of the all too familiar packet.

“It must have been his second day to the trail when yer messenger came upon our camp and could not resist the warm fire and a hand-out supper,” related Robert. Christopher calmly withdrew the contents from the pouch and, striding forward, handed them to Robert.

“What is this?” asked John feigning ignorance.

“This,” said Robert coldly, “is our agreement, the same in which ye agreed to support me for the throne and I, in turn, would hand over all my lands to ye.”

Robert Comyn, standing only a few feet to the back of John, moved forward a step as a sign of protection for his nephew.

His malevolently flashing eyes piercing the older man’s courage, Robert Brus gestured for him to back up, and he obeyed.

“I ne’er received yer lands,” said John turning his head away from Robert toward the altar, and resting his open palms flat down on the top. It was a disarming gesture, perhaps to hide his deception, perhaps to pray, for he now knew that his plan’s worst possible outcome, and his most deeply-held fear, had indeed apparently become manifest.

“And I am not yet crowned,” replied Robert. “However that bears not on the crux of the matter at hand.”

“Which is?” continued John, madly scheming to escape the trap.

“I offered support for yer attaining the crown of Scotland, with me to receive yer lands in return,” asserted Robert, “but, ye chose instead to have my lands… and relinquish yer claim to the crown to me, as witnessed by yer hand and seal upon this agreement.” Though outwardly calm, he all but trembled with rage.

“Aye, I do believe that was the agreement,” replied John, who prayed that Robert did not also have his letter to King Edward.

The friars noiselessly peered over the low wall behind which they squatted, their fear growing as the tension between the two men increased.

Robert said not a word as he revealed the dreaded second document in the pouch, the letter to King Edward.

The Red Comyn took the parchment from Robert’s hand and looked at it briefly, then shouted in a somewhat shaky and overly surprised voice, “This be a lie!” He looked at it aghast, to make Robert think it came to him as a shock. “Someone plots against us and attempts to create distrust and overthrow our strategy... someone who forged my privy seal... someone...”

“No one but ye is responsible,” interrupted Robert in controlled anger, “Yer messenger, lyin’ dead in the snow these past two weeks, no doubt has been et by the wilderness, and ye think I have not the evidence to know these things?”

“Dear Robert, ye have obviously misread my intentions...” responded John condescendingly as his nervous fingers danced against the jeweled grip of the dirk he wore strapped around his waist.

“Would ye now draw yer blade against me?” barked Robert gruffly.

Robert Comyn shifted nervously as he crossed his arms in front of his chest, thinking he could act faster from that position if need arose.

Christopher Seton stood firm but aware.

“Robert,” implored John, seeing that the time for dissuasion had gone from him, “it is only that ye have not the mind, nor the heart for properly administerin’ a government. ‘Tis true that there are few who can hope to equal ye on the battlefield, but I...”

“Ye had the choice to be king and ‘administer’ the government if ye thought I was not capable. Nay, John, ye saw a way to claim my lands… and perhaps the crown as well.” Robert through gritted teeth, “Ye lied, and ye betrayed me! Aye, and Scotland!”

With eyes darting toward Robert Comyn to see his demeanor, The Red Comyn breathed deep in anticipation of action, giving away his next move. He drew his dirk and Robert Brus stepped back, pulling his own. Comyn’s blow was strong but wild, and Brus easily sidestepped the swing.

The elder Comyn looked at Christopher to see if his intention was to join the fight. Christopher held his position.

John regained his balance and came at his adversary once more.

With battle-hardened instincts, the Brus grabbed John Comyn’s blade arm, pushed it outward and struck with his own dirk at Comyn’s torso with such force that he pierced the man’s armor and went deep into his upper chest and shoulder.

The Brus removed his blade from the stout hold of Comyn’s armor, but once retrieved, the dirk was lowered, having done its work.

John staggered back and fell against the high altar; he tried to hold himself up but slowly slumped to the floor leaving a trail of blood across the front of the chantry.

“Ye have killed him!” cried Robert Comyn out loud in disbelief.

“He is not yet dead,” growled Robert Brus, “See there, he moves.”

“Revenge me, Uncle!” whispered John through bloody teeth, “revenge me!”

“Aye!” said Robert Comyn, and with a single stroke unsheathed his sword and with all his might, struck Robert Brus full upon the chest.

Caught off balance, his opponent fell backward and struck his head hard against the floor. For a moment, he lay there stunned, unable to move.

Having such advantage, Robert Comyn moved over the immobile Brus and raised high his sword to serve the killing blow, sarcastically spitting, “And this to ye, ‘King’ Robert!”

“Uncle! Behind ye!” cried the wounded Red Comyn. Robert Comyn turned to see the blade of Christopher Seton flash across in front of him.

It was the last he ever saw.

With the speed and agility of the experienced young knight that he was, Christopher had swung his dirk across the throat of Lord Comyn and killed him quickly dead.

“Ye bastards! Ye sons of cur bitches!” shouted John as he lay bleeding at the foot of the altar, his uncle’s body having fallen close enough that the blood from both men mingled on the floor.

Christopher did not reply but went straight away to Robert Brus’ side and helped him to a sitting position.

“We must leave,” whispered Robert to Christopher, who was retrieving the bloodied documents.

“Will ye live?” asked one of the two friars, who came from their hiding place and knelt before John to comfort and, if necessary, to shrive him.

“Aye! I will live!” sputtered John angrily, splattering the friars with speckles of his blood, then shouting to Robert, “I will live… to see yer rottin’ bones in their grave, Robert de Brus!”

“To horse!” ordered Robert as he pushed unsteadily through the heavy door into the vestibule where Roger and James were waiting.

“What was said about yer grave, Robert?” asked Roger as he steadied his friend. “Have ye killed The Red Comyn?”

“I think not!” barked Robert angrily, “Else why does he continue to scream bloody curses!” With that, Robert swung his cloak about his shoulders and, followed by Christopher and James, walked outside to join his waiting knights.

Roger Kirkpatrick stood a moment, listening to the howling curses and blasphemy from within the sanctuary, and determined that John Comyn meant what he said about seeing Robert in his grave. He turned on his heel and opened the stout door into the bloody scene.

The two friars, thinking they, too, might be murdered, were helpless to do anything more than close their eyes and cross themselves, as Roger unsheathed his dirk and opened John Comyn’s gurgling throat.

After wiping the blood off his blade with a piece of John Comyn’s cloak, Roger sheathed his dirk and reached for his money pouch. He withdrew two coins and dropped them on the altar, crossed himself and said to the two friars, “Pray for me, brothers, and for them two, sinners all.”

Sinner or no, when he came out of the church and down the few steps to Robert, his one good eye gleamed. “’Tis done,” he said. “Neither his curses nor his threats shall fret ye more.”

 Robert stood next to his steed and clung to the saddlebow to regain his strength and sense of balance. His head was throbbing as if struck by a strong arm wielding a club. He was silent a moment, then quietly said, “This changes everything. We are takin’ Dumfries castle.” His lieutenants looked from one to the other in mild surprise.

“When?” asked Roger finally, as Christopher, Edward, and Thomas Randolph stood close to be within earshot of the conversation.

“Yon men of the Comyns’ don’t know their lords are dead,” said Robert across his saddle to the close group, “so we’ll ride from here toward the castle slowly. When out of sight, we’ll hasten across the bridge and through the gate, and secure the castle.” 

“Robert, are ye mad? We are no force to take a castle,” said Edward. “We are but a little party of twenty-six men and a dog!”

“Aye, but we are a little party of twenty-six men and a dog… and the weapon of surprise!”

.   .

Within a mile’s ride Robert and his men rode through the barbican, across the drawbridge, and up to the secured gate of Dumfries castle. The castle guards knew Lord Brus was expected, and seeing his banner in the torchlight at the gate, opened it straight away and the “little party” rode into the interior courtyard.

Sir Richard Siward, the English constable of Dumfries, hastened forth on foot and greeted Robert Brus. “We’ve been awaitin’ your arrival, Lord Brus,” he said with a bow.

“But what ye have not been waitin’ for is our takin’ this castle as our own,” replied Robert with a smile, hoping to prevent bloodshed.

The confused constable stood silent for a moment, looking at Robert’s face and waiting for further explanation. With none forthcoming, Sir Richard twisted his face up with curiosity and stammered, “I-I-I am afraid I do not understand, Milord.”

“Surrender yer castle, man!” commanded Robert sternly.

Sir Richard’s eyes widened as he at last realized the situation. He immediately wheeled around and ran through the courtyard crying, “Kill them! Kill them all! They are come to take the castle!”

Robert barked orders to his men, who immediately repositioned themselves near the outer walls throughout the courtyard as a large clanging bell sounded an alarm. The garrison was alerted and half-dressed English soldiers poured into the courtyard from their barracks quarters.

Robert’s dog jumped ahead of the men and so struck the first blow, that upon the leg of the nearest oncoming Englishman.

“Fire that door!” ordered Robert to a nearby knight, pointing toward the wooden barracks.

The young knight, a magnificent horseman, spurred his mount toward a hay cart standing at the far end of the enclosure, beyond the barracks door. Leaning out of his saddle until he could almost touch the ground, he caught the handle of a pot of gudgeon grease and threw it into the cart. The tallow spread down through the dry tinder as the young warrior cut across the way, snatched a torch from the hand of a fleeing serf, and wheeling around, jabbed it into the greasy mess, igniting it instantly.

He next grabbed one of the poles on the front of the cart by which the serfs pulled the transport from the field and dragged the roaring fire headlong at the doorway, throwing the already emerged Englishmen into panicky flight. The cart smashed into the open door jamb and wedged itself there, trapping the remaining soldiers inside.

Few of the English scrambled out under the cart and through the mounting flames. One who did was aflame when he reached Robert, who made short work of him from his saddle.

The soldiers left inside were only interested in removing the blazing cart and escaping the rising inferno. Besides, they had no way of judging the strength of their enemy or their placement in the fire-lit courtyard, and so were none too interested in combating anything other than the flames.

Edward Brus gave a war whoop and spurred his horse forward into the onrushing English foot soldiers, thus leading the Scottish knights into the thick of the fray. His battle-ax hacking whatever head or body was within reach caused Thomas, just behind him, to use great care not to get too close to Edward’s wild swings.

Minding the way the battle was developing, Robert was suddenly engaged by another of the defenders and brought him to the ground with a one-handed slash of his claymore.

Several guards stationed on the wall above them began to shoot arrows from their crossbows into the now brightly lit courtyard, catching one of the knights through the neck, and another through the ribs beneath his arm as he raised it to deflect a blow from a battle-ax. Both men died within minutes.

Robert wheeled his mount to shield himself from this new onslaught when an arrow from a long bow pierced the heart of one of the wall guards, and pitched him forward into the square.

“I have no archers,” thought Robert, his eyes searching the courtyard for the source of the responding arrows as another cross-bowman toppled from the wall, an arrow through his thigh. With no shelter on the open walkway, the others took refuge in the corner towers and continued to target the Scots.

An English guard, in the thick of the fight on the ground and seeing that Edward was the single greatest threat to him and his comrades, heroically rushed between the long arcs of the battle-ax swings, viciously stabbed Edward’s horse.

 

The Story Continues in

Rebel King - Book One - Hammer of the Scots

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