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The Bruce
Book 7


Escapes and Surprises

THE king, weary, drenched with sweat, and all at a loss, went toward the wood, and soon entering it, held down towards a vale where a water ran. Thither he hastened, and began to rest, and said he could fare no farther.

His man said, "Sir, that cannot be. Abide here, and ye shall soon see five hundred eager to slay you; there are many against two. Since we cannot compass our escape by strength, let us help ourselves all we can by craft."

"Since thou wilt so," said the king, "go forward and I shall go with thee. I have oftimes heard say that if one should wade a bowshot along a stream, he should cause both the sleuth-hound and his leaders to lose the scent. Prove we now if it be so. For were yonder devil's hound away, I should reek nothing of the rest."

They did as he planned. Entering the stream, they held their way along it, and afterwards took to the bank, and went on as before.

And John of Lorne with great array came to the place where his five men were slain. He lamented when he saw them, and said, after a little while, that he should speedily avenge their blood. Otherwise, however, went the game.

He made no delay there, but hastened after the king, and came to the stream side. Here the sleuth-hound stopped, and wavered to and fro, but could go no certain way. And at last John of Lorne perceived the hound had lost the scent, and said, "We have lost this labour. It is useless to go farther, for the wood is both, broad and wide, and he is far off by this time. Let us therefore turn back and waste no more labour in vain." With that he rallied his company and took his way to the host.

Thus the noble king escaped. But some say his deliverance fell out in other fashion. They say the king had a good archer, who, when he saw his lord left all alone, ran always by him on foot till he was gone into the wood. Then he said to himself that he should tarry there and see whether he could slay the hound. For he knew full well that if the hound lived John of Lorne and his men would follow the king's trace till they took him. He put his life on the venture to succour his lord, and stood lurking in a covert till the hound came near. Then he slew him swiftly with an arrow, and withdrew through the wood. But, whether the escape of Bruce befell as I first said, or in this fashion, I know that for certain the king got away at the stream.

The Bruce went his way, and John of Lorne went again to Sir Aymer, who had returned with his men from the pursuit. In that chase they had made but little speed, for though they followed right eagerly, they gained but little; nearly all their foes escaped. It is said that in the pursuit Sir Thomas Randolph captured the king's banner, and by that deed earned the greatest praise and esteem from Edward in England.

When the pursuers were rallied, and John of Lorne met them, he told Sir Aymer all that had happened, how the king had escaped, and how he had slain the five men, and then taken to the forest.

When Sir Aymer heard this he crossed himself for wonder, and said, "He is greatly to be esteemed, for I know none living who can so help himself in mischance. I trow he should be hard to slay if he were furnished equally."

Meanwhile the good king and his man held forward on their way till they had passed through the forest. Then they entered a wide upland moor. Ere they had crossed half of it, they saw on one side three men coming, like idle and wandering fellows. They had swords and axes, and one of them bore a great wether bound upon his neck.

They met the king, and greeted him, and he returned their greeting, and asked whither they went. They said they sought Robert the Bruce, if they could meet with him, and wished to find quarters with him.

"If that be your wish," said the king, "go forward with me, and I shall soon bring you to him."

They perceived by his speech and his bearing that be was the king, and they changed countenance and demeanour, and kept not in their first bearing; for they were foes to the king, and thought to come in treacherously, and abide with him till they saw their time, and take his life. They agreed, therefore, to what he said, but he right shrewdly perceived by their bearing that they nowise loved him.

"Comrades," he said, "till we be further acquainted ye must all three go forward by yourselves, and in the same way we two shall follow close behind you."

"Sir," said they, "there is no need to think any ill toward us."

"Neither do I," he answered, "but I desire that ye go before us till we be better known to each other."

"We agree," they said, "since ye will have it so." And they went forward on their way.

Thus they marched till it was near night, when they came to a large farmhouse. There the men slew the wether they carried, and made a fire to roast the meat. And they asked the king if he would eat, and rest him till the meat were prepared. To this he agreed readily, being hungry, I promise. But he said he would sit apart with his companion at one fire, and the three should make another fire in the end of the house.

This they did. They drew to the house end, and sent him half the wether, and roasted their meat quickly and fell to eating right keenly.

The king had fasted long and travelled far, therefore he ate eagerly. And when he had eaten he had a great desire to sleep, which he could not resist. For when the veins are filled the body ever becomes heavy, and heaviness draws to sleep. Being thus overwearied, and seeing that he must needs sleep, he said to his foster-brother, "Can I trust thee to keep watch while I take a little sleep?"

"Yea, sir," he answered, "while I can hold out."

Then the king nodded a little space. He did not sleep altogether, but glanced up often suddenly, for he feared the three men at the other fire, whom he knew to be his foes. Therefore he slept like the bird on the bough.

He had slept but little thus when such a heaviness fell on his man that he could not keep his eyes open, but fell asleep and snored loudly.

The king was now in great peril, for should he sleep thus a little while he must surely be slain. The three traitors took good heed that he and his man were asleep, and forthwith they rose up, and drew their swords, and made swiftly at him as he slept, and thought to slay him ere he could wake.

They went a great part of the way towards him, but at that moment, by God's grace, the king blinked up, and saw his man sleeping beside him, and the three traitors coming. He sprang nimbly to his feet, and drew his sword, and met them. And as he went he set his foot heavily on his man. The man wakened, and rose dizzily, but the sleep so mastered him that, ere he got up, one of them coming to slay the king gave him such a stroke that he could help him no more.

Then was the king more straitly beset than he had ever yet been, and but for the armour he wore he had assuredly been slain. Nevertheless he fended himself so in that struggle, that by God's grace and his own manhood he slew the three traitors.

His foster-brother was slain, and he was wondrously at a loss when he saw he was left alone. He lamented his foster-brother, and cursed all the other three, and set out alone towards his meeting-place.

He went forth wrathful and vexed, tenderly mourning his man, and held his way all alone towards the house where he had agreed to meet his men. It was then very late at night. Presently be came to the house, and found the goodwife sitting on the settle. She asked him straightway what he was, and whence he came, and whither he went.

"I am a wandering man, dame," said he, "that journeys here through the country."

"All wanderers," she answered, "are welcome here for the sake of one."

The king replied, "Good dame, who is he that causes you to have such special liking for wandering men?"

"Indeed, sir," quoth the goodwife, "I shall tell you. He is our good king, Robert the Bruce, who is rightful lord of this country. His enemies now keep him in distress, but I look ere long to see him lord and king over all the land, so that no enemies shall withstand him."

"Dame, dost thou love him so well?" said he. "Yea, sir," she said, "as God sees me."

"Dame," said he, "behold him beside thee, for am he."

"Speak ye truly?" she cried.

"Yea, certes, dame!"

"And where are your men gone, that ye are thus alone?"

"At this moment, dame, I have none."

"It must in nowise be so," she cried, "I have two bold and active sons. They shall forthwith become your men."

They did as she devised, and there and then became the king's sworn men. Then the woman made him sit and eat. But he had been only a short while at the meal when they heard a great stamping about the house. Then at once they started up to defend the place, but soon afterwards the king knew James of Douglas. Then was he blithe, and bade them quickly open the doors, and his men came in, all that there were. Sir Edward the Bruce was there, as well as James of Douglas, who had escaped from the pursuit, and had met the king's brother, and hastened with him to the appointed trysting place, with a company of a hundred and fifty men.

When they saw the king they were joyful at the meeting, and asked how he had escaped. He told them all that had happened; how the five men had desperately beset him, and how he had passed through the stream, and met the three thieves, and should have been slain sleeping, but that he wakened, through God's grace; and how his foster-brother was killed. Then all together they praised God that their lord had escaped.

They talked a while back and forth, till at last the king said, "Fortune has troubled us this day, scattering us so suddenly. Our foes will lie securely to-night, for they think we are so scattered and in flight here and there that we shall not be gathered together these three days. Wherefore if one knew their camping-place, and came suddenly upon them, he might easily with a handful of men do them hurt, and escape without damage."

"By my faith," said James of Douglas, "as I came hitherward I passed by chance so near their quarters that I can bring you where they lie. And if ye make speed ye may yet, before morning, do them a greater hurt than they have done us all day, for they lie scattered as they list."

Then all agreed it was best to hasten and come at them, and they did so forthwith, and came on them at daybreak, as the light began to appear.

It so happened that a company had taken quarters in a village a mile or more from the host. Two thousand, they were said to be. There the noble king directed his attack, and presently, all his force having come up, the sleepers were assailed and a hideous uproar arose. Others that heard the cry ran forth in such fear that some were naked fleeing hither and thither, and some dragged their arms after them. The Bruce's men slew them without mercy, and took such cruel vengeance that in that spot more than two-thirds of them were slain. The rest fled to their host.

When that host heard the noise and cry, and saw its men come fleeing naked here and there so wretchedly, some whole and some sore wounded, it rose in great affright, and each man went to his standard, so that the army was all astir. The king and those with him, when they saw the enemy thus afoot, set out for their place of refuge, and soon reached it.

And when Sir Aymer heard how the king had slain his men and retired, he said, "Now may we clearly see that a noble heart, wherever it be, is hard to overcome by force. For where the heart is valiant it is ever stubborn against difficulty, and I trow no fear can discourage it utterly, so long as the body is free. As much may be seen from this encounter. We deemed Robert the Bruce so discomfited that, as well as could be judged, he should have neither courage nor desire to undertake such hazard. For he was so far mastered as to be left alone, and parted from all his folk, and he was so over-wearied by the pursuit of his assailants that he should have desired rest rather than fighting or marching. But his heart is full of valour, and cannot be conquered."

Thus spake Sir Aymer. And when his companions saw how their labour bad been in vain, and how the king had slaughtered their men, and was at full liberty, and that they could not trouble him, it seemed to them folly to remain longer there. They said this to Sir Aymer, and he forthwith determined to go to Carlisle and sojourn there for a time, and keep spies about the Bruce, to know always what he did. His plan was, when he saw his chance, to dash with a great force suddenly at the king. So he took the road for England, with all his company, and each man went to his own house. He himself went to Carlisle with intent to stay there till he saw his opportunity.

Meanwhile Bruce remained in Carrick with all his gathering, and would sometimes go hunting there with his men. So it happened that one day he went to hunt, to see what game was in that country, and it chanced that he sat by a wood side with his two hounds alone, but having his sword, which he always carried. He had sat but a short time there, when he saw coming speedily towards him from the wood three men with bows in their hands, and he straightway perceived by their appearance and manner that they nowise loved him.

He rose and drew his leash to him, and let his hounds go free.

God for his greatness' sake now help the king; unless he now be wise and strong he shall be set in great distress. For these three men were assuredly his deadly foes, and had watched busily to see when they could take vengeance on him for John Comyn's sake. That chance they now thought they had, and seeing him alone in the spot, they thought to slay him forthwith. If they could manage, after they had slain the king, to reach the wood again, they should have nothing to fear, they thought, from his men.

They went quickly towards him, and bent their bows as they came near, and he, greatly fearing their arrows, for he was without armour, made haste to speak to them. "Of a sooth," he said, "ye should be ashamed, since I am one and ye are three, to shoot at me from a distance! But if ye be brave men, come near and try me with your swords. Vanquish me in that way, if ye can, and ye shall all win much greater fame."

"By my faith," then said one of the three, "no man shall say we dread thee so greatly that we must slay thee with arrows."

With that they cast away their bows, and came on at once.

The king met them boldly, and smote the foremost so hard that he fell dead on the green. And when the king's hound saw these men thus assail his master, he sprang at one and took him so fiercely by the throat that he threw him head over heels. Then the king, who had his sword up, and saw himself succoured so well, ere the fallen man could rise again, attacked him in such fashion that he broke his back. The third man, when he saw his fellows thus slain beyond recovery, took his way to the wood again. But the king followed quickly, as well as the hound beside him, and the dog, seeing the man go from him, dashed swiftly at him, and took him by the throat, and drew him down. And the king, being near enough, gave him such a stroke as he rose that he dropped to the ground stone-dead.

The king's company, which was near, when they saw their master so suddenly attacked in this fashion, sped in haste to him, and asked how the chance befell, and he told them fully how all the three had assailed him.

"Indeed," said they, "we can well see it is a difficult venture to take on hand such an encounter with you, since without hurt you have so quickly slain these three."

"In truth," said he, "I slew no more than one. God and my hound slew the other two. Their treason, indeed, overwhelmed them, for right stout men were they all three."

When the king thus, by God's grace, had escaped, he blew his horn, and his good men rallied quickly to him, and he made ready to fare homewards, for he would hunt no more that day.

He lay for some time in Glentrool, and went very often to enjoy the hunt and get venison for his men, for the deer were then in season. All that time Sir Aymer, with a noble company, lay in Carlisle, watching his chance. And when he heard for certain that the king was in Glentrool, and went to hunt and enjoy himself, he thought to come upon him suddenly with his armed force. By leaving Carlisle and making a forced march, riding all night, and keeping in cover during the day, he thought he should surprise the king. Accordingly he got together a great host, folk of the greatest renown, both Scots and English. They held their way all together, and rode by night, so that they reached the wood near Glentrool, where the king had his quarters, without his knowing aught of their coming.

He was now in great peril. Unless God by His great might should save him, he must be taken or slain; for they were six where he was one.

I have heard that when Sir Aymer with his stalwart following came within a mile of the king, he took counsel with his men in what manner they should act. He told them the Bruce was lodged in so strait a place that horsemen could not attack him, and if footmen gave him battle he should be hard to vanquish if he were warned of their coming. "Therefore I counsel that we send a woman secretly to spy upon him. Let her be poorly dressed, and ask food for pity's sake, and see their whole arrangement, and how they lie, while we - and our host are coming through the wood on foot, arrayed as we are. If we can so manage that we come upon them there, before they know of our coming, we shall find no stoppage in them."

This counsel they thought the best, and they straightway sent forward the woman who was to be their spy, and she quickly made her way to the lodges where the king, fearing no surprisal, went blithe and merry and unarmed.

Very soon he saw the woman, and knew her a stranger, and therefore looked at her the more carefully, and by her countenance bethought him that she was come for no good. Then he quickly made his men seize her, and she, fearing they should slay her, told them how Sir Aymer, with the Clifford and the flower of Northumberland in his company, were coming upon them, and at hand.

When the king heard these tidings he armed at once, as did all that were there, and they gathered in a close body, near three hundred in number, I believe. And when they were all come together the king caused his banner to be displayed, and set his men in good array.

They had stood but a little while when they saw, close to them, their enemies coming through the wood on foot, armed, spear in hand, and hastening with all their might.

The noise and outcry soon began, for the good king, who was foremost, made boldly at his foes, and snatched a bow and broad arrow out of a man's hand, who was going beside him, and hit the foremost enemy in the throat so that windpipe and weasand were split in two and he fell to the ground.

At that the others paused. Then at once the noble king took the banner from his standard- bearer, and cried, "Upon them, for they are vanquished all!" And with that word he swiftly swept out his sword, and ran so boldly upon hem that all his company took hardihood from this bravery. Even some that at first had made off came again hastily to the fight, and met their foes so furiously that all the foremost were overthrown.

And when they that were behind saw the foremost borne back they turned and fled out of the wood. The king slew few of them, for they right soon made off. It altogether discomfited them to find the king and his company thus fully armed to defend the place which they thought to have won by stratagem without fighting. This suddenly dismayed them, and when he made at them so fiercely they ran with the greatest speed out of the wood again to the plain. By the failing of their purpose at that time they were foully disgraced. Fifteen hundred men and more were beaten by a handful, and they retreated shamefully.

For this reason there arose among them a sudden and great debate and difference, each with the other, regarding their mischance. Clifford and Vaux came to strife. Clifford hit Vaux a buffet, and the others drew to sides. But the wise Sir Aymer, with much trouble, parted them, and returned home to England. He knew that if strife rose among them he should not keep them together long. He returned to England with more shame than he brought out of it, seeing so many, of such renown, beheld so few offer them battle, and were not bold enough to make an attack.


 


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