Today, I’m delighted to share an excerpt from J R Tomlin’s new book, The Douglas Bastard.
I was amazed that the small horses could wend their way in the darkness with no trail to follow. An icy wind rattled the branches of the pines. Hooves thudded on the iron-hard, frozen earth. I shivered and pulled my cloak close, following closely behind John. Behind us, the hundred or so men-at-arms rode in silence, half of them with bows on their backs and quivers hanging from their belts. I strained to see the ground, watching for holes that might make my horse stumble.
“Colban, go up on the ridge. Light a small fire when you spot them—just enough that I can see the smoke, mind you.” He ordered Wemyss to remain there to cut off anyone who escaped their ambush.
The cots at Hawick were no more than a couple of dark lumps as we rode past, still circling the road. We sloshed through a shallow, icy stream that would leave no sign of our passing and entered another dense patch of pine. Sir William dismounted. The rest of us followed his lead.
The dirt road was only about five feet across.
“John, keep half the men on this side of the road. I will take the other half on the other. Dinnae fire until I give my cry. No one.” He grasped my shoulder. “And you stay behind us. You have nae part in the fighting.”
David de la Hay took ten men farther along to block anyone who fled in that direction.
A couple of the men gathered the horses and led them along the stream while the others cut branches to use as a screen. I took out my dagger and hacked at some, dragging them near the road until they were a waist-high blind. I chuckled that so far my main job in the few fights we had been in had been carrying branches or stones. I knew that Sir William had a duty to protect me, but I was sure that I did not need protecting. I would make sure my cousin would soon see that.
I hunkered down next to Gamelin behind the piled branches, but the man pushed him back.
I peeked over the top of his shoulder at the long, cold stretch of road, in deep shadows beneath the leaden clouds that hid the daybreak. The cold sank in through my clothes as we hunched on the icy ground, then flakes of snow began drifting through the trees.
Sir William paced behind them one more time, reminding them to wait for the command, then he joined Gamelin, squatting next to him. He loosened his sword in its sheath and checked his dirk.
The snow settled in my hair, and I thrust my hands into my armpits, wondering how the archers would shoot with their fingers stiff from the cold. When I turned to whisper the question, I realized they were staring at where a flock of pigeons had burst from the trees at the turn of the road. The birds rose above the trees and flew in circles.
A thin wisp of smoke was rising from the ridge. I pointed, and Sir William patted my shoulder.
“Nock arrows,” Sir William said. “Make sure you have a good clean shot.”
Here, I noticed, the horses could only go at most double file with barely room to turn. A good spot for an ambush, something to remember. I loosened my dagger in its sheath and got my hand slapped.
A whinny and the clank of a harness came from around the bend. A horse clattered into sight, a destrier, brown coat glistening. Sir William said in a low voice, “Wait—wait—”
The guard rode at the head of the supply train at an amble, one hand relaxed on his thigh. His shield hung from his saddlebow. A long line of sumpters and more guards came behind.
The guard in the front had almost reached us. I swallowed hard, fought my rapid breathing. Sir William held up a hand, still waiting. Sweat ran down my forehead and ribs, making me shiver. Then another reached us, all the men strung out riding single file. The guard in the lead was halfway to where Sir William’s last man waited.
They were all on their feet. The thwap of bowstrings filled the air, and the thud as the arrows landed.
Sir William yelled, “A Douglas! A Douglas!” He plunged through the thin pile of branches, sword in his hand.
“A Douglas! A Douglas!” Shouts came from every direction.
A man-at-arms kicked his horse in a circle, trying to reverse. Instead, an arrow pierced its chest. It reared, screaming in pain. The rider crashed into the road. Before he could rise, Sir William thrust down through his neck. Riderless horses reared and plunged. A man-at-arms jerked his reins to head the way they had come and jammed spurs into its flanks. It plunged, hooves scoring deep and dirt flying. An arrow winged after him but missed. Another man beside him put a shaft through the Englishman’s chest.
Gamelin and the others were in the road, grabbing the halters of the sumpter horses before they bolted, while others joined Sir William in putting down anyone still alive.
The few English still ahorse kicked their horses into a run. They jammed into men flying the other way. “A Douglas!” Sir William shouted again. “At them!”
Hand on the hilt of my dagger, I edged into the road. I knew if I disobeyed, I would surely get a belting, but my pulse hammered so hard in my ears it was like a drumbeat, calling me to war. I looked for something, anything I could do. Then a hard hand grabbed the back of my neck and jerked me back.
“Out of the way, whelp,” Sir William snarled, shoving me toward the trees.
All across the road, swords slashed as they went. An ax hit Gamelin’s shoulder, and he tumbled back, skidding in the piney detritus and leaving a track of blood. Sir William buried his blade in the man’s belly. The English shouted curses as they tried to flee.
“Gamelin,” I shouted and shoved my way through the branches. I dropped to my knees next to my friend, who was cursing through gritted teeth. There was a tear in his chainmail, and blood was pouring out of a gash in his shoulder. I slashed a piece off my tunic and stuffed it onto the wound.
“You need to learn to stay out of trouble, lad,” Gamelin muttered. His head lolled back.
He was still bleeding, so he couldn’t be dead. I pressed down harder and looked around.
In the road lay dead enemies. A few injured horses were being put out of their pain, but not many. Everyone from both sides of the road was gathering the halters of the sumpters.
“Strip the bodies,” Sir William shouted. His smile was a dour slash. “This should fill our larders for the winter.” Then he strode over to squat beside the injured man. “We will bandage him up. He might make it.” He turned a cold glare on me. “You, I shall deal with when we reach home.”
Here’s the blurb:
The Black Douglas is dead. With Scotland’s greatest knight no more, the throne is up for grabs as enemies try to devour the kingdom.
An orphaned youth returning from exile, Archibald, the Black Douglas’s bastard son, fights for a land being torn apart from within and without. If Archibald is to survive, he must learn to sleep with a claymore in his hand and one eye open because even his closest friend might betray him…
This is an adventure set in the bloody Second Scottish War of Independence when Scotland’s very survival is in question.
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Meet the author
J. R. Tomlin is the author of nineteen historical novels.
She has close ties with Scotland since her father was a native Scot, and she spent substantial time in Edinburgh while growing up. Her historical novels are set for the most part in Scotland. Her love of that nation is traced from the stories of Robert the Bruce and the Good Sir James her grandmother read to her when she was small, to hillwalking through the Cairngorms where the granite hills have a gorgeous red glow under the setting sun. Later, her writing was influenced by Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Nigel Tranter, and Sir Walter Scott.
When JR isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, playing with her Westie, and killing monsters in computer games. In addition to spending time in Scotland, she has traveled in the US, Europe, and the Pacific Rim. She now lives in Oregon.
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