Royal Redemption: Chapter 11

The clash of steel on steel rang out in the clearing as Edward locked swords with one of the Scots who had ambushed his small party. He was conscious of Hugh de Warenne at his back fighting his own battle with a warrior clad in distinctive plaid and wielding the shorter broadsword used by the Scottish lowlanders. The attackers seemed to have come from nowhere, rushing out of the densely wooded areas on either side of the road. The blue war paint on their faces and their bloodcurdling cries added shock and terror to the element of surprise, causing the Englishmen to fumble in their haste to draw their weapons and gather into a defensive formation.

Edward and his small group of soldiers rapidly found themselves fighting for their lives. They were outnumbered by the party of marauding Scots but they were not outclassed. Their longer swords gave them an improved reach and their larger shields afforded greater protection. They were able to defend themselves with the discipline and fortitude borne of long hours spent in weapons training. The fight waged to and fro but gradually Edward sensed that the tide was turning in favour of the English and he urged his men to one final effort which soon had their attackers on the run.

Edward whooped in triumph as he saw the Scots running for cover, carrying their wounded away with them. He turned to check on Hugh de Warenne who had so valiantly defended his back and what he saw in his friend’s expression brought his celebration to an immediate end.

“We haven’t got long,” Hugh gasped. “That was just the scouting party and they’ll soon be back with reinforcements.”

“We’ll ride straight back to Alnwick Castle then,” responded Edward decisively. The Earl of Northumberland had put him in charge of this patrol and he was determined to exercise strong leadership. He hadn’t long returned from Lindisfarne Abbey and he felt his lengthy absence made it all the more necessary to demonstrate his military competence, especially to Hugh de Warenne who was younger than him but more experienced in border conflicts.

“The Scots will expect us to cut and run,” Hugh pointed out. “You’ll be leading us all into a trap.”

“What do you suggest then?” asked Edward rather crossly. His irritation was directed at himself rather than towards his friend Hugh. He was guiltily aware that he had ventured further north than Sir Henry Percy ever travelled without a large contingent of men at arms and his orders had made it very clear that he was not to put the expedition at risk. The countryside had seemed so peaceful that he’d given way to the temptation to explore further north than he should have done. His written instructions, setting out in simple language the limits of his range, were burning a hole in his pocket.

Hugh de Warenne stepped away from the soldiers who were beginning to look questioningly towards their leader. When he had drawn Edward out of earshot he spoke urgently, “We present an easy target if we take the road back to Alnwick. I suggest we seek the closest defensible position and send to a message to My Lord Northumberland requesting reinforcements and assistance.”

“He won’t want to risk sending troops this far north,” Edward objected.

“He sent us up here, didn’t he? He will surely send his men to rescue us.”

The slow blush working up Edward’s cheeks told its own story and he was unable to meet Hugh’s eyes. There was an uncomfortable silence as Hugh absorbed the full implication of Edward’s discomfiture. Then, with the sudden resolve which was typical of him, Edward plunged his hand into his pocket and drew out the written orders which the earl had given him. Without comment he handed the document to Hugh who rapidly scanned the page.

“Oh, Edward,” he said in dismay, “did you not understand these instructions? Did you have a problem reading this?”

There were no longer any secrets between Edward and the other squires about the time he had spent learning to read. When he returned from Lindisfarne, Edward had braced himself to make the shaming admission that he’d been sent to the abbey in order to learn his letters. He’d waited until Hugh took out his Book of Hours one evening and asked if he could look at it with him. Hugh had been surprised by his interest, Edward having once scorned to waste time looking at pictures in a book. Now he studied the text and found, to his surprise that it was a condensed version of the prayers and psalms he’d learnt at the abbey. His respect for Hugh increased immensely as he realised that the young man read the morning and evening office each day and it gave him the courage he needed to tell Hugh that he’d only just learnt to read. Far from being shocked, Hugh took the announcement entirely in his stride but his kindly nature made him acutely aware of Edward’s embarrassment and he hastened to make light of his friend’s late introduction to the written word.

That same sensitivity now led him to question whether or not Edward had fully understood his written orders, wondering whether Edward had been unwilling to ask for help to decipher the instructions. Edward could claim no such excuse and he made no attempt to evade responsibility for their current predicament. “I understood the earl’s orders well enough,” he admitted. “They just seemed unduly cautious and I thought we could risk travelling further afield.”

“Well, you’ll have to defend that decision to his lordship,” said Hugh without rancour. “Let’s try and agree on the best course of action now. Are you willing to move to a safer place while we wait for rescue?”

“Where could we go?” asked Edward, willing now to take Hugh’s advice.

“It occurs to me that we’re not far from Chillingham Castle. It’s only a simple motte and bailey fortification. The palisade is made of wood but there is a moat and a drawbridge. It should be possible to defend it against attackers, at least until reinforcements arrive.”

“How do we send a message back to Alnwick?” asked Edward. Hugh pondered the question for a while, unsure how to implement that part of his plan. Finally, he came to the conclusion that only one course of action was possible.

“If you lead the men to Chillingham Castle then I’ll cut across country back to Alnwick.”

“No,” exclaimed Edward. “I don’t know the way to Chillingham Castle and I’m not having you go off on your own. I need you with me.”

“Look, Edward,” said Hugh reasonably, “these men are recruited locally and they’ll be able to lead the way to Chillingham. We can’t send one of the men at arms back to explain this situation to the earl. I’m his squire and I’m best suited to the task.” Hugh didn’t need to expound his reasoning; Edward appreciated at once the impossibility of sending a common soldier to report on the dangerous situation into which he had led his men. Nonetheless, he was still unwilling to part with Hugh.

“Why do you think you can make it back to Alnwick Castle on your own when you claim it’s too risky for us all to attempt the journey?” he objected.

“Our party of soldiers would be far too conspicuous, Edward. One man on his own has a chance of getting through the Scottish line but together we’d be surrounded and overwhelmed. I’ll be fine. This is our best chance.”

Edward considered the alternatives but no better plan occurred to him. Finally he gave a curt nod and asked, “How do we get to Chillingham Castle then?”

Hugh called over one of the men and instructed him to lead the way. Edward struggled to understand the soldier’s English which sounded very different from the dialect he’d been used to hearing in London. However, Hugh reassured him that the journey would not be difficult and if they left at once they should reach the safety of Chillingham by nightfall. “It’s the home of Sir Humphrey Grey,” Hugh said. “He’s one of the earl’s vassals and he’s sure to give you welcome and succour.” With that he clasped Edward in a swift embrace and then turned to walk towards his horse which was peacefully grazing amongst the trees, its reins dragging in the grass. He mounted in one graceful movement, despite the weight of his chain mail and, touching his spurs to the horse’s flank, turned to wave farewell to Edward and his men.

Hugh’s assurance that Edward would reach Chillingham Castle before nightfall proved correct. It was still light enough to make some assessment of the fortifications as they rode towards the castle and Edward was not encouraged by what he saw. There had been no attempt to replace the hastily erected wooden palisade with a curtain wall built of stone and the moat which surrounded the castle was dry. The drawbridge was down and it was only the sound of their horses’ hooves on the wooden planks which caught the attention of the solitary guard who called a welcome as soon as he spotted the Percy coat of arms.

Edward asked to be taken to Sir Humphrey Grey, leaving his men to stable the horses. The knight was courteous and welcoming to an emissary from his liege lord but his good humour gave way to concern as soon as he learnt that his visitors might be condemning the castle to an attack by invading Scots. He sent orders at once for the drawbridge to be raised and for guards to patrol the ramparts. Edward was privately doubtful of the efficacy of such measures but he and his men spent an uninterrupted night at the castle and then several days with no sign of pursuing Scots.

Edward alternated between irritation that Hugh de Warenne had exaggerated the threat from the Scots and fear that his friend had encountered difficulties on his way back to Alnwick Castle. He used his time organising his men to take their turn guarding the drawbridge and patrolling the ramparts and it was one of his own sharp eyed soldiers who eventually spotted the flash of plaid in the distance. They just had time to get every able bodied man in the castle to defend the palisade before the first wave of Scottish invaders ran shrieking across the open land and down the steep bank of the moat.

Using arrows and spears as well as hot water and boiling oil they managed to repel the attackers for a couple of days and the bodies of fallen Scots lay rotting on the ground beneath the ramparts. But Edward knew that a wooden palisade was most vulnerable to fire and eventually, under cover of darkness, the Scots managed to set alight to the castle’s outer defence.  It then became only a matter of time before the bailey was overrun and so Sir Humphrey gave the order to retreat to the keep before the palisade was breached.

The keep was a square stone building on the top of a steep motte. The walls at ground level were six feet thick and the only entrance was at an upper level, up a steep flight of steps with a portcullis and drawbridge protecting the heavily fortified door. With a well inside the keep, it was possible to withstand a lengthy siege but, with so many people and livestock in a restricted space, it would not be a pleasant wait for rescue. No longer able spend his time coordinating defences of the outer perimeter, Edward was left to ponder the extent of his own responsibility for the damage to Chillingham Castle and the threat to Sir Humphrey Grey and his household.

In the event, it was less than a week before the sound of trumpets heralded the arrival of allies to relieve the siege. Finding themselves suddenly outflanked, the Scots turned to fight the Percy troops who advanced in large numbers and Edward was able to lead his own small force from the keep to engage the enemy from the rear. Facing fully armed knights in chainmail, the Scottish clansmen didn’t stand a chance and before long they were fleeing the field, leaving their wounded and dying on the battleground.

Edward then looked around in triumph and seeing the Percy standard, hastened to greet Sir Henry, the exhilaration of the skirmish and delight at being reunited with his lord obliterating for the moment all thought of his own disobedience. The immediate flare of recognition and relief in Sir Henry Percy’s eyes as his squire ran towards him signalled that he too had put all judgements to one side in response to his first instinct which was profound thankfulness at finding Edward safe and well. He pulled his squire roughly against his chest and buried his face in the familiar golden curls as Edward’s head rested briefly on his shoulder. All the fear and dread which had assailed Harry on the forced march northwards vanished as he held Edward close and he realised for the first time that he couldn’t have borne to lose him.

Edward himself felt he had reached a safe haven in those strong arms. The responsibility of caring for the men he had heedlessly led into danger had weighed heavily on his shoulders and the arrival of Sir Henry Percy meant he could lay his burden down. Harry sensed Edward’s relief as he felt his squire relax against him but the trusting gesture served to recall him to a sense of Edward’s responsibility for the whole debacle. He gently pushed Edward from his side and spoke with authority and resolution. “Check that your men are all accounted for, Edward, and then get ready to leave. I’m going to speak to Sir Humphrey Grey whose castle appears to have suffered significant damage.”

There was something about Harry’s tone which rendered Edward acutely aware that the damage was an indirect result of his own failure to follow orders. He went at once to do Harry’s bidding, tending personally to the minor wounds sustained by some of his men and overseeing the preparations for departure. It was some time before Sir Henry Percy emerged from the keep, accompanied by Sir Humphrey Grey. Edward stumbled through a speech of thanks for the protection afforded to him and his men at Chillingham Castle, a speech which he felt was wholly inadequate in view of the loss sustained by the Grey family. Judging by his expression, Sir Henry Percy appeared equally unimpressed by his farewell speech and Edward mounted his horse and commenced the first leg of the journey back to Alnwick Castle in uncomfortable silence.

They had ridden some distance before Edward could bring himself to break the silence. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry about Sir Humphrey’s castle. I know the Scots only burnt the palisade down because we’d taken refuge inside. Is there anything…”

“Forget about the palisade, Edward,” said Harry with unaccustomed vehemence. “It should have been replaced with a curtain wall years ago in view of Chillingham’s proximity to the border. I’ll get a workforce onto it in the spring. Sir Humphrey is my father’s vassal and he has every right to look to the Percy family for assistance.”

Edward took a moment or two to absorb that message. It seemed that Harry did not regard the damage to Chillingham as a major cause for concern yet, nonetheless, he appeared deeply upset about the whole affair. “I’m sorry I disobeyed orders,” Edward offered in a small voice. “I didn’t think it would get us into so much trouble.”

“No, you didn’t think of the consequences, did you?” observed Harry, more in sorrow than in anger. “The first time the earl gives you responsibility for leading a patrol and you disregard his written orders in favour of following your own inclinations. Do you have any idea of the suffering your disobedience has caused?”

Edward rapidly considered what could be causing Harry such evident distress and a cold fear gripped his heart. “Where’s Hugh?” he enquired urgently. “Why didn’t he return here with you?”

“He was too weak from his wounds and loss of blood to leave his bed. That’s the only reason he didn’t come back for you. He arrived at Alnwick Castle slumped over his horse’s neck. He was barely conscious when we lifted him out of the saddle but he managed to tell us what had happened. Actually, I had to promise to come and rescue you before he would consent to be carried inside.”

Harry delivered the bad news with calculated harshness, partly to suppress his own rising emotion as he recalled Hugh’s gallantry and partly to bring Edward to a full understanding of the seriousness of his mistake. He need not have worried that the culprit would remain unaffected. The shock caused Edward’s hands to drop limply onto his horse’s withers allowing the reins to go slack. Harry had to reach across hastily to steady his squire who was swaying in the saddle, his face white as a sheet. “What happened?” he stammered.

“Don’t worry,” said Harry more kindly. “When I left it was looking as though Hugh will pull through.” That provided some small grain of comfort although they both knew how often men who were recovering from their wounds succumbed to a high fever which could rapidly prove fatal. “It seems he was set upon by a party of Scots whom he fought off singlehandedly. He suffered some deep sword thrusts which had to be stitched and we can now only pray that the wounds heal cleanly.”

“Oh, yes,” breathed Edward, fervently. “Please God he recovers from this.”

“Amen to that,” said Harry, making the sign of the cross.

They rode on for some time, each lost in his own thoughts, but the tension between them had evaporated. Eventually Edward said, “I swore to myself I’d never get Hugh into trouble again after that first day we met when I earned him a whipping. This time my wilfulness and disobedience could have killed him… may yet kill him. I’ll never forgive myself if he dies.”

“You have to get used to seeing men under your command killed in battle, Edward. But there’s no excuse for risking their lives in pointless gestures of bravado.”

“It wasn’t… I just… I wanted to explore further north. It seemed safe.”

“There’s no point in telling me your reasoning; you don’t have to answer to me. Hugh de Warenne is my father’s squire and you were sent out on patrol on my father’s orders. I rather fancy you will have to account for your conduct before him. Now, ride back down the line and check that all is well with the men. I want to get back to Alnwick Castle as quickly as possible and I don’t want any of our troops to fall by the wayside.”