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Shadow of the Wolf

Shadow of the Wolf

Book excerpt

Prelude - Otterburn, Northumberland, 1388 

 “Two orbs, Fergus; two orbs and one will betray you!”

I heard the voice somewhere within my head, but the words were meaningless so I pushed them away.

  “Watch for the moon!” 

  It was dusk in this Northumberland, with a wind that flattened the grass and caused the tree branches to wave a mad hello, but there was no moon yet so I dismissed the warning and concentrated on what my lord, James, Earl of Douglas was saying.

“We’ll camp here.”

I looked at my Lord and suddenly shuddered. Even in the fading light I could see the two birds hovering over him. The black bird of death waited above his left shoulder, its talons extended and the beak opened wide, ready for the screech of welcome. The bright bird of victory was slightly higher, its wings wafting in the air and its eyes warm with promise.  

           “Is that wise, my Lord?” I looked behind us, to the smoking desert we had left behind us. “Earl Percy is following us with eight thousand lances.”

“And here we will meet him,” Douglas said.

“He outnumbers us, my Lord,” I heard the edge in my voice, but he chose to ignore it.

“If he outnumbers us there will be all the more glory in our victory.” His eyes were as serene as his smile.

           Sometimes I curse the gift of sight that I received from my grandfather, Michael Scott, sometimes called the Wizard, but never more than that day. While all others in our small army were celebrating our earlier victories and awaiting the onslaught of Percy’s men with the joy expected of Border fighters, I was gripped with the black depression of he who knows the future.

           We were in Redesdale, with the gentle green slopes stretching around us and the swift river offering water for horses, men and the vast array of cattle that we had captured and which now filled the air with their bellowing. Men dismounted stiffly, eased swords in scabbards, patted their horses and laughed as the tension of the raid eased. One rider watched us, his eyes musing, as if unable to comprehend the bond between my Lord of Douglas and myself. I returned his look openly, seeing only a man in a long dark cloak; he wore his sword as easily as any warrior, but I sensed something other than a fighting man behind that intelligent face. There was no malice there, so I turned away to attend to my duties.

“Shall I post sentries, My Lord?”

  Glancing to the sky, Earl Douglas shook his head. “It’s already too dark to fight, Fergus. Percy is no fool; he will camp nearby, gather what strength he can from the country and attack us just before dawn, when we are still asleep.” His grin was as evil as anything that escaped from the Pit. “Except, of course, we will not be asleep; we will be awake and ready for him.”

             I nodded. “Yes, my Lord, but I still think. . .”

“Let me do the thinking, Fergus. We captured Percy’s banner outside the walls of Newcastle.” He held it up, so I could clearly see the blue and yellow of Percy, now subservient to the Douglas blue and white. “Percy’s honour demands that he get it back and he is impetuous by nature, hence his nickname of Hotspur.”

  I nodded at that. Hotspur Percy was a brave man but he was known to act before he thought.

           “So then; he will charge forward just before dawn and our spears will spit his array by the hundred. That is what will happen, so, let the lads sleep.”

  Sleep was a precious commodity in that summer of conflict. While some of the men unbuckled their armour and lie in whatever shelter they could, others tended the cattle, or made play with the few women who accompanied us, or sharpened their swords or talked over the events of the past few days. Very few drank; not in the array of Earl Douglas. Carousing was for the long winter when the fires warmed the hearths, snow embittered the fields and only the most desperate reivers dared the choked passes of Cheviot and Ettrick.

           The wind rose later that night, sending clouds scudding across the face of a full moon and shadows flitting over our camp. I lay awake, thinking of the warning of the moon but more of those two birds competing above the shoulders of my Lord of Douglas. One bird I could understand, death or victory was the natural fate of a warrior, but two at the same time? I knew I must be mistaken, and that meant that my powers were faltering, or false. I shook my head and shrugged; if my powers vanished, well, it was no loss. I would still be Fergus Scott of Eildon, and that mattered far more than the visions of any seer.

           I well remembered that fateful day. The lone rider had burst across the ridge to the south of our tower, his head unprotected and his horse flecked with froth.

“My Lord!” He had reined up with a display of horsemanship that I could only envy. He dismounted and approached me as I stood just outside the gateway of the tower. “My Lord Fergus!”

I had shaken my head. “I am no Lord,” I had said. “I am just Fergus, younger son of William of Eildon.”

The rider shook his head. “No, my Lord. You are Fergus, Lord of Eildon. Your father and brother were both killed in an ambush. My Lord, the Earl of Douglas sent me to tell you.”

I had looked at the rider, a lithe, bitter eyed fighter with a scar across his shaved cheek and a sword loose in his scabbard. I felt nothing. Here, near the English border, we learned to live with death and treat it as a companion.  

“Your father is dead, Lord Fergus, and my Lord knows you will want revenge.”

I said nothing. I had no desire for revenge. “My father was a warrior. He would want nothing else than death in battle.”

“You are now Lord of Eildon Tower,” the rider said. “My Lord of Douglas desires your presence. He is riding south to seek revenge in Northumberland.”

I nodded. That was direct and honest. The Earl of Douglas was my feudal superior.   He wanted me to ride south with him. “I will fetch my lance.”

           But even as I contemplated the loss of my father and my second sight, I watched the two birds hovering over my Lord, and wondered desperately which one would triumph.

           Groaning, I turned on my side, listening to the slowly diminishing murmur of the camp and the lowing of cattle, safely penned within a circle of men. On the morrow there would be a battle, and on the morrow I would know. Which of the two premonitions was correct? Would the day see the death of my Lord, or another victory to add to the prestige of the Douglases?

 I slept, fitfully and uneasily, and my mind was troubled with dreams of failure. Some were nightmares, but one was so clear that I could taste the dust and feel the sweat rolling down my body.

           I saw a bush, and three black corbies pecking at the eyes of a butchered knight. There was blood everywhere, on the ground, on my clothes, even in the air that I breathed.  I was unhorsed and alone even though I was surrounded by thousands of men, Scotts, Douglases, Elliots, Nixons, Charlton’s, Robsons, some fighting, others drooping with exhaustion or lying wounded on the saturated ground. I did not understand who I was or what I was doing there, but there was the dark shadow of death over the horizon, and the sound of raised voices.  I saw the birds aloft, black and white together, and I heard the shouting and clamour of battle and, faintly, recognised my own voice calling from behind the bush, and my face amidst the welter of blood.

           I awoke with a start and wiped the sweat from my face. Any vision exhausted me, so I shook for some time afterward. This episode was no different. What had this vision meant? Was it to be death for me but victory for Earl Douglas? Was this to be my last day in this world? I shuddered and tried to dismiss the noise of battle that remained within my head.

           The arrow thrummed past, thumping deep into the earth beside my head. I started up in shock. The clamour was all around me, not in my dream, and I was already in the middle of a battle.

           The English are the most expert archers in the world, which is how they win most of their battles. The rules are simple: if you want to defeat them, get in close. My Lord had taken a major risk by camping in the open and chancing the usual hail of arrows that would decimate his warriors before the battle proper started, but he had wagered that Percy wanted to fight face to face and hand to hand.

“A Percy!” The call came, clear as a trumpet through the moonlit night. “A Percy! On them! On them, lords of England!”

  The Earl of Douglas had not been entirely correct; Percy had not waited for reinforcements before he attacked, but had come in the night. Caught by surprise, our men took precious minutes to gather their forces and the English had ripped through the dishevelled ranks, but a century of near constant warfare had bred a fighting race that responded to attack with equal violence.

           I saw Percy’s plan with sudden clarity. “My Lord! They are on both sides! Percy has detached a force to the north while he attacks in person from the south!”

  There was no doubt in this vision; I could see the English as plain as I could see my own hand as it struggled with the buckles of my armour. While Percy strove with a frontal attack to win glory, his Border riders, Charltons and Bells, Forsters and Storeys and the rest, had circled around us and came from the rear.

           “So Percy is in front?”“ The earl grinned, his teeth gleaming in the silver shine of the moon. “He well merits his name of Hotspur, that one. He is a man of mettle and well worth the edge of my sword!”

  Leaping on his horse, he lifted his voice. “It is Hotspur himself, lads! To me! A Douglas! A Douglas!”

  The response came from a thousand throats as men took up the challenge made famous by the Good Sir James, the Black Douglas who had always been at the right hand of King Robert as he fought to retain the independence of Scotland.

           “A Douglas! A Douglas!”

“My Lord,” I admonished, pointlessly, “you are not full armoured yet! You have to don your helm!”

           “No time, Fergus my lad!” He grinned at me, and I could see by the battle madness in his eyes that he was past reason. Only blood would quell him now. “Come on, Fergus, mount and ride with me! For Scotland! For Glory! A Douglas!”

  That began the mad dash across the moon lit valley, with Earl Douglas leading a growing force of warriors toward the main English battle. Men joined us as they were, some fully booted and spurred, others with only a helm, or a breastplate, or a pair of greaves, one or two only in their shirt. One gallant knight, who must have been with maid, was wearing no more than the skin his mother had provided, but still yelling the same refrain that was on all our lips that mad August night. 

           “A Douglas! A Douglas! You will all die, lords of England!”

           With no more heed to our safety than a rat catcher to his quarry, we galloped along the side of that valley, dodging through a belt of woodland and throwing ourselves on Hotspur’s battle array.

“A Douglas!”

           My Lord was in the first rank, his head bare of protection and his face exposed to sword, lance and mace as he led from the front, as Earl Douglas should always do, as any commander of Scottish horse should do; as any true hero should do.

“A Douglas!”

  Our initial impact shook the English lines, throwing them backward in confusion, even though they outnumbered us four to three and had the advantage of surprise and full armour. But we were Scots, remember, our blood was up and we followed the Earl of Douglas, that most peerless of knights.

“A Douglas!”  

           The Percy ranks crumbled; they began to fall back, and then a fluke of the wind covered the moon in cloud and the light died. The sound of blows faded, the battle slogans eased away as men sought their neighbours and wondered who was friend and who was foe. I hauled back the reins of Bernard, my brown gelding, tipped back the pot helmet that protected my head and peered around the field.

           All I could see was a mass of men; Scots or English I could not tell, for all looked the same in the darkness.

           “My Lord?” I called, once, tentatively and then shouted to be heard over the groans of the wounded and the hair-lifting shrieks of the dying. “My Lord of Douglas?”

“Here, Fergus! Here, knight of Eildon!”

  I rode to him, pushing through the confused ranks that might have been Douglases, Percies, or fiends from the Pit for all I knew that night. The naked man was there, laughing heartily as he bound up a wound in his arm, and I swear I saw a maiden on horseback, tossing back her long dark hair, but she may have been a Valkyrie choosing her prey, or some other creature from the other side. I did not stare, in case she noticed my presence.

           The wind altered, pushing aside the clouds again and with the return of moonlight the battle began anew with the warriors of both nations relishing the challenge as they charged forward, slashing, stabbing, hacking and killing. The clamour of steel on steel drowned the pollution of men in agony.

           “There’s the Douglas!” The voice carried the harsh accent of Northumberland and a whole press of men pushed forward, thrusting with the nine-foot long Border lance as each tried to gain the honour of killing the Earl.

  Now it was my turn to fight as I hauled out my sword, the same weapon as my father had used and his father before him, and spurred forward to defend my Lord.

            I had spent half my life practising swordplay, and had exchanged blows with bands of raiders, but that was the first time I used it in full battle, and I was not afraid. I remembered the mantra my uncle had taught me. “When dealing with lances,” he had said, “cut off the tip.”

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