Authors: Robert Low
The Lion Rampant
To all Scots, everywhere
Table of Contents
Being a chronicle of the Kingdom in the Years of Trouble, written at Greyfriars Priory on the octave of Septuagesima, in the year of Our Lord one thousand three hundred and twenty-nine, 23rd year of the reign of King Robert I, God save and keep him.
In the year of Our Lord one thousand three hundred and fourteen, the King had reigned for eight hard years, driving his enemies with fire and sword so that the Balliol and Comyn were crushed out of the realm and those still alive fled to the south. The aged Earl of Buchan, wasted by the harrying of his people and lands, died there, pleading with the English King Edward for help while ensuring that his former wife, Isabel, languished in a cage on the walls of Berwick for daring to support the Bruce cause. Buchan’s henchman, the cruel Malise Bellejambe, was left as her keeper, a task he pursued assiduously.
But this second King Edward was not his father. He had abandoned all attempts to exert his power in Scotland, preferring to squabble with his own barons, who sought to remove his favourite, Piers Gaveston, and impose restrictions – Ordinances – on his rule.
Thusly, with a free hand, good King Robert chased the occupying English and their Scots allies from the realm. At the start of this year of Our Lord, in all the Kingdom there remained but three great fortresses of major note still held by the English: Roxburgh, Stirling and Edinburgh.
It was now that our king chose to bring the Kingdom to freedom and determined to remove these last bastions from the enemy, so he came and closed off all of these great castles all around. But, without proper weapons of sieging war, it did not look as if the Scots would prevail and the English took heart from this.
Then Sir James Douglas came to Roxburgh …
Heaven is dark and God is ugly. Yet may He do ye hurt. Liar. Fornicator. Torturer. Murderer. May He send ye toads beneath your serk, ants in your beard and up your nethers and flies into your eyes, auld wickedness. Please God in Your mercy let me become the wildfire abune the marsh and let me lead him into the sucking pit. Praise God for ever and ever, let me be the white hart that leads huntsmen to the wolves of the forest that I may lure him to their fangs. Blessings of Heaven, make me the wasp that might fly about his head and never give him peace. God in Your Mercy let me bury him so deep he will never find his way up to Judgement Day, so deep even worms cannot find him. Or give me leave to die, Lord, rather than suffer longer in this Berwick cage from the vile of Malise Bellejambe.
Shrove Tuesday, 1314
Frixco de Fiennes scurried across the cobbles into the shelter of the gatehouse in a drizzling dusk as miserable as wet ash. It matched his mood, especially when he saw the dark shape lurking under the cullis, bouncing slightly and swaying left to right: Aggie, nursing her bairn.
He sighed and went to them, peeling off his hat and beating the drops from it.
‘Aggie,’ he said wearily. ‘You should not have met me here.’
‘None can hear. The guards are in their wee cubbyhole,’ she retorted tartly. ‘Asleep.’
Frixco cursed silently and made a note to rout them out when this business was done; somewhere behind him came a burst of laughter from the main hall, where they were already deep into celebrating the Shrove feast, stuffing their faces on the eve of Lent.
‘Aye, you need not worry,’ Aggie added bitterly. ‘You will not be long with me – the same time it took to make this wee mite.’
Frixco managed a weak smile and wished the woman a hundred miles away and the child with her.
‘I can spare a few silvers only,’ he wheedled and saw that she knew it for the lie it was. Desperation made her lips a thin line and she merely nodded, holding out one free hand for the bag of coin.
Even this was passed over reluctantly and, not for the first time, Frixco cursed the castle cook’s daughter even as he prayed she would keep her mouth closed on who the father of the child was. The image of Sander and his meat cleaver made him close his eyes briefly and then offer a last weak smile.
He had back scorn for it, started for the main hall, remembered the sleeping guards, turned and shuffled past her; Aggie heard him vent his wrath on the luckless pair as she drew up her shawl to cover herself and the babe before stepping out of the shelter of the gatehouse into the mirr.
She did not go back to her cookhouse bed, all the same, to the scowls and the demands her father made to name the man who had filled her belly with bastard. Even now she found it hard to believe that she had let Frixco have his way – but she knew the why of it, in the end. He was brother to the seneschal, with power of a sort, had coin when he could be parted from it and seemed, for one bright summer, her escape from Roxburgh.
Climbing up to the rain-smeared night of the gatehouse battlement she recalled the Prisoner, the one she had brought food to every day for as long as she could safely carry the bowl, spoon and cup without spilling any – seven years at least. He and I are the same, she thought, held in this stone gaol, stitched in on three sides by water. She was fifteen and her life was over.
She went up, above the gate and close to the brazier, sizzling coals spitting as the drizzle landed on them. The wind swept in, blowing the loop of wool off the baby and she covered him up quickly.
‘Away, lass,’ said a voice and she turned into the helmeted smile of Leckie. ‘Ye should tak’ the mite down to the warm and away from this wind. Ye’ll catch yer death of chill and so will the bairn.’
Aggie liked Leckie, if only because he never looked at her askance, or asked what everyone asked about her baby. He was kind, too, and frequently shared his bread and cheese when she came up here, to feel the wind and smell the promise in it, the taste of somewhere else.
Now she nodded and smiled and moved away, anxious now to be in warmth and shelter, pausing for one last look out beyond the raised bridge and the rutted track that led to it – and led away from it, to that fabled Somewhere Else.
‘Nae rebels on a night like this,’ Leckie declared firmly, thinking she was fretting about the dark beyond the fortress, and she smiled again. Rebels preoccupied everyone’s thoughts now. Roxburgh was one of the last big fortresses held against them in this realm; everywhere else had fallen to the usurper king, Robert Bruce, and now panic was rife.
But nothing moved in the deep pewter dim save for a grazing scatter of black cattle, shadows in the mirk. She moved off, crooning to the babe.
‘Hush ye, hush ye, the Black Douglas will no’ get ye the night.’
At the foot of the gatehouse rock, half a dozen black kine milled slowly, as if searching out the lusher grass that grew around the jakes fall. When one put an elbow in something wet and noxious, his curses were immediately hissed to silence by the others.
Sim Craw, fumbling furiously, threw off his black cloak in a fury of frustration and fought the coiled ladder off his back.
‘Aye,’ said James Douglas, merciless and bitter. ‘Ring a bell, Sim. Let them hear where we are.’
‘The hooks were stabbin’ me,’ Sim muttered back. ‘And I have crawled in shite besides.’
‘Whisht, the pair of you, or we are undone.’
The other two turned at the sight of the wet, scowling face thrust at them. A wee wet mirror of the Black Jamie Douglas, Sim noted. The only folk who have not noted that Jamie and Dog Boy are kin are the pair themselves. James the Black because he is lord of Douglas and will not admit that the Dog Boy, a mere cottar of no account, is a byblow of his father. Dog Boy because, even if he suspects it, will not want to shame his boyhood friend and now liege lord with it.
Sim, as ever, never voiced any of it, but simply scowled back at the pair of them.
‘I hope you have the spear, Dog Boy,’ he whispered harshly and had back an exasperated grunt.
‘I have, shoved through the grass as I crawled. And it is Aleysandir, not Dog Boy. I have said this afore.’
‘Aye, aye,’ muttered Sim, untangling the confection of rope and wood and iron. Dog Boy had never been the same after finding out that he had a real name. Sim recalled how and when that had been uncovered: from the houndsman rolls at Douglas Castle when Jamie and Dog Boy had raided it. Christ betimes, a fistful of years ago now.
That was when Sir James had found his own new name – the Black Douglas – for what he had done to the English garrison in his own dispossessed keep. He had taken it from the occupying English by as clever a ruse as the one they now planned, but knew he could never hold the place – so he had wrecked it.
He and his men had soiled everything spoilable, from fodder to well, stacked the cellar with loot, pissed on it, and then lopped the heads off the surrendered English – and their Scots lackeys – before roasting the lot in a fire. The Douglas Larder, they called it with grisly humour and the memory of it was as black as the stones they left. Blacker still was the scowl of Jamie, but only because he had had to do this to his boyhood home and his rightful inheritance.
There was no scowl on him now, all the same, only the mad gleeful grin that always made Sim’s flesh ruched as goose-skin.
‘Ah, you are a cunning man, Sim Craw,’ James Douglas enthused in a hissed whisper, clapping the man on his sodden shoulder. ‘This will take the shine off Randolph.’
Sim eyed the dark, wild-haired lord sourly. As if this is for the glory of Douglas over Randolph, the latter sitting at Edinburgh and wondering how to take its castle, us sitting at Roxburgh and pondering the same. Now the lord of Douglas is out to scoop Roxburgh in a single blow and it is mainly to put Randolph’s nose askew … not for the first time, Sim marvelled at how the diffident, lisping lord of Douglas could turn, in an eyeblink, into a red-handed killer with a heart the same shade as the Earl of Hell’s own cloak.
Using my cunning to further himself, he added moodily to himself as the ladder finally unveiled its grapple-hooked top, with the slot for a spearshaft. Twenty feet of it was coiled up, the rope steps bolstered with wool-padded wood to keep them just far enough from the wall for a foot to fit – his da and other well-diggers had taken the idea from the miners at Leadhouse and Sim had recalled it from his boyhood, and then adapted it for this one purpose.
Now he moved to the crag of rock on which the blocky gatehouse was built and looked up, shaking mirr from his eyelashes. He nodded to Dog Boy, who put his back to the rock and cupped his hands, while Sim took the long pike-spear and shafted it into the slot on the ladder, handing it to James Douglas.
Then he stepped into Dog Boy’s hands, heard him grunt and curse.
‘You are getting fat, Sim.’
Fat and auld, Sim agreed, stepping on to the Dog Boy’s shoulders, then up to a toehold on the rock, then higher still on the treacherous wet until he could climb no more. He reached out one hand and felt the slap of the spearshaft in it, and raised it, waving it as high as he could, balanced precariously with the sibilant mirr making tears on his face. Teetering, he lifted it higher still with two hands, straining until he felt the ladder on top of it slide over the crenellation; he heard the grate of it catching.