Novel Extract from Prize-winning Debut Turn of the Tide
As part of my ongoing website development I’m hoping to be able to offer the opening chapter of Turn of the Tide as a free download to those who subscribe. In the meantime it’s reproduced here as a taster, along with a list of the main characters and the faction to which they belong – which is definitely recommended reading!
Although the main family are fictional, most of the characters are historical, but as one reviewer of Turn of the Tide said on Amazon ‘…these are not the Tudors, these are people you’ve never heard of.’
I hope you enjoy the read, and please do feedback – I’m always interested in reader’s impressions.
*** The opening chapter ends with an historic massacre and would probably be rated a 12 if this was a film (I wish…)
All the main characters are real unless specified otherwise. By convention Earls were often referred to by title rather than family name and lesser nobles by their place of residence. This avoided confusion among the many branches of one clan.
The Cunninghame Faction
Earl of Glencairn – the head of the Cunninghame clan, primary residence Kilmaurs.
Lady Glencairn – his wife.
John Cunninghame – his brother.
William – his heir, termed ‘Master of Glencairn’.
Waterstone – other prominent members of the Cunninghame clan, owing allegiance to Glencairn.
Langshaw – a Cunninghame by birth, but married into the Montgomerie clan.
The Montgomerie Faction
Earl of Eglinton – Head of the Montgomerie clan, primary residence, Ardrossan.
of Braidstane – a Montgomerie laird, close kin to Eglinton.
Hugh – his heir, termed ‘Master of Braidstane’
and John – Adam’s younger sons.
Grizel (fictional) – Adam’s daughter. Though evidence exists of (unnamed) daughters few records remain.
The Munro Family (fictional)
Munro – a minor Cunninghame laird.
Kate – his wife.
Robbie and Anna – his 3-year-old twins.
Archie – his younger brother.
April – May 1586
In all of Ayrshire there was no feudal hatred so long and so engrained
as that between the rival Lords of Eglintoun and Glencairn.
From A History of Ayrshire.
The dying sun held no heat and little colour, nevertheless it dazzled both mare and rider as they crested the rise.
“Easy, lass, easy.” Munro slid his hand from the reins to gentle Sweet Briar, his palm, as he stroked her neck, dragging against the salt sweat. Stifling his disquiet, he pressed again with his heels and, his thoughts focused on the task ahead, allowed the mare to pull away, trusting her instinct to carry them safe over the uneven ground. They flowed swift and smooth across the grassy, pock-marked hillside, flushing a scattering of partridge as they went. Had anyone watched their passing, they would have found it hard to distinguish where man finished and mare began, for both were dun coloured – from the top of Munro’s soft bonnet, devoid of decoration, to the mare’s fetlocks – the only flashes of contrast the dark hooves and the pale oblong of Munro’s face in the fading light.
Another mile, another crest, and Langshaw’s towers ahead of them, drowsing, half in, half out of the shadows. The mare faltered again, her ears flattening.
“Come on lass,” Munro’s hand strayed to the letter tucked into his jerkin, “I haven’t a choice, and the sooner it’s done the sooner food and rest for us both.” He leaned forward to flick at her ear and she snorted back at him, accepting his pressing.
As they came through the arched gateway, a stable lad tumbled from the hayloft, his legs spindle-thin.
Munro slipped from the saddle. “I’ll not be long. Walk her, and find a blanket and some hay, but no oats mind.”
The lad took the reins without enthusiasm or any mark of respect and Munro felt a flash of irritation. He flicked a glance at his clothes, then back to the lad. “It isn’t always politic to draw attention.” He thought it an unmanly thing to take much stock of looks and so, despite his wife’s best efforts, wore his clothing almost to extinction: his leather jerkin polished to a shine around the buttons and his boots heavily scarred along their length. He injected an extra edge of impatience into his voice, “Look sharp. We have travelled a distance and have a way to go yet, and I don’t wish for her to be chilled nor to stiffen.” Behind him the sun slid below the west tower, the last rays, fractured by the battlements, casting a gap-toothed grimace on the cobbles. Munro shivered, turned towards the tower entrance, and pausing at the top of the wooden steps, caught the smell of baking bread, which settled on his stomach like an ache.
As he entered the solar Lady Margaret Langshaw rose from her seat by the inglenook, one cheek flushed, the draught from the door rippling the tapestry on the wall behind her. She came towards him: a figure come to life. He bent over her hand, her skin, buttermilk-white, unblemished, drifting with the scent of almonds as they touched.
“A request, Lady – from Glencairn.”
“My husband is from home. Can this wait?”
Munro proffered the letter. “It’s for you. Glencairn expects a reply tonight.”
Frowning, she slid her forefinger under the wax seal, her grip on the parchment tightening as she read. She pressed one hand against the bulge of her stomach. “To betray a guest…a kinsman…and to such an end…Glencairn presumes much.”
Slate eyes met blue. Munro made his voice flat. “The Montgomeries are kin in marriage only. You are a Cunninghame.”
She bent to pick up the small shift, fallen to the floor as she rose to greet him, her fingers teasing at the edge of the unfinished smocking. “And for that I must risk my peace and that of my children?”
He dragged his eyes away, focused on the fire flaring in the hearth, on the basket of split logs calloused with moss, stifled the unbidden thought – her bairn is likely ages with my own. Blocking the anguish in her voice and hating his own tone, he said, “We are none of us at peace. Our cousin Waterstone’s lady lies cold in bed at night and his bairns they say still cry out in their sleep.”
“And am I to bring trouble to my lord too?”
“No trouble. Glencairn asks a signal only – the real work is elsewhere.”
“And if it goes awry? The sound of the rout will rebound to my door.”
“Am I to take your refusal to Glencairn?”
She spoke so soft that he had to bend his head to hear her. “I am a Cunninghame, God help me.” A hesitation… “I expect the Montgomeries tomorrow, some ten or twelve only. Braidstane is bid meet Eglintoun to sup here, and make for court thereafter. You may tell Glencairn to look to the battlement, on the west side. And they arrive as arranged, there will be a white napkin hanging.” She was looking past him to the square of window framing the darkening sky. “Beyond that I cannot do more.”
He bowed over her hand. “Glencairn is grateful, lady.”
She dismissed him with the smallest of nods. “Good-day Munro.”
He bowed again and escaped, clattering down the stair. Outside, glad of the sting of the air on his face, he wheeled through the gateway, closing his ears to the sound of children’s laughter floating over the barmkin wall.
* * *
William Cunninghame, Master of Glencairn, turned from the gable window, his dark eyes sparking. He made no offer of his hand to Munro, nor any concession to ordinary courtesy, his voice echoing under the high-raftered ceiling of Kilmaur’s long hall.
“What kept you? The job is done?”
There was only one suitable answer. “She will provide the signal.”
“As she should. And willingly I hope.”
“She can be trusted?”
“Oh yes…” Munro thought of the look with which Lady Margaret had dismissed him. “Your father is a dangerous man to cross. She understands that.”
“As do we all.” William’s laugh was a bark, rolling over the clusters of men grouped in each deep window reveal, muting their conversations as if he swallowed them whole. Munro inclined his head to each group in turn. They numbered about thirty and all were known to him, albeit slightly, for all hailed from North Ayrshire or thereabouts and all shared allegiance to the Earl of Glencairn and the Cunninghame name. What they did not all share – clear, even from his cursory glance – was an equal inclination to answer this summons. Prominent among them was Clonbeith, noted both for intemperance and, more importantly for the current purpose, his skill with a hackbut. And with him, Robertland, another close kinsman, who no doubt thought to make capital from the venture. In contrast, Glencairn’s brother, John, stared at the Cunninghame arms carved into the lintel above the hearth and shifted his weight back and forward from one foot to the other, as if he suffered from a stone in his boot.
Munro studied the floor. – Dear God… There is not a house within twenty miles that will not feel the weight of what we do.
“You took your time.” The Earl of Glencairn filled the doorway. “I had not thought to have to wait supper beyond our normal hour.”
“His horse…” William, with a sideways glance at Munro, lied fluently, “…a lameness delayed his return, but the news is good.”
Glencairn shot another look, a little warmer this time, at Munro, who forced himself to smile in return. Glencairn was, like his son, tall, but without William’s languid manner, though both took great stock of their dress. He wore the latest cartwheel ruff over burgundy trunk hose and a cream, brocaded doublet, lined with the same blood red. Stationing himself at the head of the table, he grasped the horn of the Cunninghame unicorn which crowned the back of the heavy chair, the gold ring on his forefinger catching the light.
Munro met his gaze. “The Montgomeries are expected at Langshaw tomorrow. Eglintoun and Braidstane both.”
“And Lady Margaret? She will do her duty?”
“She hangs a white table napkin from the battlement. It will be easy seen.”
“A small company only, some ten or twelve men.” The candle in front of Munro flared and he looked down, lest in the momentary brightness any trace of reluctance showed on his face. Clearly not fast enough.
William, picking his nail with a cheese-knife, glanced at Munro. “Have you not the stomach for this fight? I hadn’t placed you for a coward.”
A muscle twitched at the side of Munro’s eye. “I too know my duty.”
“See that you do.” Glencairn sat down, William on one side, Clonbeith and Robertland on the other. They attacked the supper with relish, as if the gathering was no more than a social occasion; their conversation spiced with the latest gossip: The rumour of the return of the pestilence to Perth; how the young minister Andrew Melville, with a taste for presbyterianism, was well set in St Andrews as a thorn in the flesh to Bishop Adamson; the plummetting value of the pound Scots against the English currency. Munro settled near the foot of the table, toying with a cutlet, and noted that John Cunninghame, folded into a space halfway down the long bench, shredded his slab of beef as if he prepared it for a granddame with no teeth.
Clonbeith helped himself to a handful of pickled chestnuts. “This talk of a school at Stewarton. Word is the minister at Ayr subscribes to the notion that everybody should have their letters – lads and lassies both.”
“I have no problem with education for those who can make good use of it.” William looked around, as if daring challenge. “We have a minister in every parish and I daresay derive some benefit…” he acknowledged the ripple of laughter, “…but to educate folk beyond their station, that I can’t see the sense of. There may be reason in a bonnet laird with a grounding in French, if only to avoid being cheated when he buys his wine, but if we can all spout Cicero, who will clear the middens? Tell me that.”
“When you spout Cicero,” slivers of chestnut sprayed from Clonbeith’s mouth, “I’ll clear your midden myself.”
A louder burst of laughter, reaching the length of the table, so that William flushed, half-rose, his right fist clenched.
Glencairn was on his feet, thrusting back his chair, grasping William’s arm. “Save your spleen for the Montgomeries. We ride at dawn. I wish no thick heads riding with me.”
There was a hasty scraping back of benches as most of those present followed Glencairn and William from the hall. Munro slumped back onto the form, knowledge of the proposed ambush a band tightening around his chest. He reached for the ale – thick head or not, it is as well to dull tomorrow’s business.
* * *
He was up and rousing himself under the pump in the corner of the yard while the sky was still black, the only sign of approaching dawn a grey edge to the heavy clouds that bunched overhead. He had a good head for ale, but had taken more than enough, even for him. It had been gone two in the morning, before he had finally drunk himself to a stupor, though no one would have guessed at it as he joined Glencairn. His boots were laced up to his knees, his doublet tightly buttoned against the rain moving in a sweep across the valley. William was already mounted, his black velvet doublet slashed with silver, a peacock feather in his hat, indicating that he had made no concession to the job in hand. Glencairn too was dressed with care, but the others were, like Munro, soberly attired and could have passed for gentlemen of any ilk.
“Easy to see who does the work,” Munro said in an undertone to John Cunninghame, who circled on the cobbles beside him.
The clatter of hooves covered John’s reply. “Have a care you don’t share your thoughts too widely. There are those who would gladly take the favour that your displacement might provide.”
Munro changed tack. “What do we wait for? Are we not all here?”
“That we are, but Lady Glencairn is bid bring the younger children to give us farewell.”
“So…Glencairn’s not as confident as he seems…” Munro broke off as the family appeared at the main door.
Glencairn didn’t dismount, only leaned down, to rest his hand on the youngest child’s head. Shy of her father, she pulled back and buried her face in her mother’s skirts.
“It isn’t the child’s blame.” Lady Glencairn spoke quietly. “She scarce knows her father…”
“See to it that you teach her then, madam.” Glencairn’s voice was also quiet, but far from gentle.
She inclined her head and stepped back as he turned his horse, spurring it towards the gateway. Munro thought of his own farewell: of Kate, white-faced and taut, the twins round-eyed, uncertain. Of his forced cheerfulness. “This call – it may not signify. I could be gone a day or two only.” Of his equal failure to draw a satisfactory response.
Once through the gateway, they rode in a pack, tight at the front, straggling at the rear, according to the quality of the horse, or, more like, the fitness of the rider. Munro sat easily, his grip light, and moved forward without effort until he rode again at John’s side, but made no attempt at conversation, unable to think on anything other than the present affair. They had climbed beyond the cleared ground where cattle grazed, last season’s bracken crackling under-hoof: autumn-gold shot through with curled fronds of fresh green.
William paused on the brow of the hill, turned. “More eager now, Munro? Last evening I thought you less than comfortable with your duties.” His horse pranced backwards, nudging Munro’s, as if to emphasize the thinly veiled threat. “Do you wish it, we could relieve you of your place.”
Munro bent his head, re-gathered the reins and gave himself time to frame a reply. “I have no such wish. I thought only of the King. The talk is…”
William scowled. “Ah, James.” There was a contemptuous twist to his voice. “And we are to pass on our obligations while others hold to theirs? We have lost much to the Montgomeries, and do well to remember it. This call to court – it is an opportunity to strike at their heart, that we cannot pass.”
“Revenge may not be so sweet and the King gets wind of it.”
“Who’s to tell?”
Munro stroked his thumb along the edge of the reins but refrained from answer, as William talked on.
“Annock is a goodly choice. We should have no trouble in accomplishing our present end.”
“And the timing is right.”
“You think it isn’t?” William glared at the rider who dunted him from the rear.
Munro hesitated. “At this pace I fear we make Annock too soon. With the need to keep the horses quiet, it may be that we should walk a distance.”
With a tightening of his face William slewed sideways, skirting round the riders in front of him until he reached Glencairn. Munro saw the heads bend together. Saw the sharp glance cast backwards towards him.
John Cunninghame’s voice at his shoulder. “Careful laddie. It is a thin line you tread. William may not be eager to face a musket, but he fancies himself with a rapier and is aye keen to show his prowess, though not in a game such as this.”
Munro turned. “I know, but there are times when he makes me fair sick with his dress and his airs. No doubt when it comes to the bit he will find a wee jobbie for himself that hasn’t danger in it.”
He saw the slight settlement of John’s shoulders. “For all that you arrived a mite late last night, you have a handle on the way we are to play it. Glencairn and William make straight for court and hope by that to keep the Cunninghame name clear.” There was scepticism in his voice, “We are charged with making as neat a job as we can, then those who are bid, to join them at Stirling, looking as clean as if they came straight from home.”
“Neat is it?” Munro clenched the reins, so that Sweet Briar startled. “One hundred and thirty years of tit for tat and none the winner isn’t what I would judge ‘neat’. And for what? The bailieship? Precedence? Eleventh or twelfth earl? Does any of it signify?”
John waved Munro’s voice down, glanced about, kept his own voice low. “Glencairn doesn’t see the office of King’s Bailie of Cunninghame as a small matter. Nor did our father or grandfather before him. And in truth, to give the charge of the bailiewick over to a Montgomerie hardly seems a master stroke, for all that they were close cousins, indeed the kinship likely increased the affront…But you have the right of it – death breeds death – look in any direction you please and there is a ruin to testify that we are all the losers. It would be a fine thing if it was only the English we had to fear and not the sow who roots in our own byre.” His voice dropped further. “If I had a choice I would rather be anywhere but here, but we are bid and we have come and may pray we succeed. Else…”
Ahead of them, Glencairn had stopped. Below, the ground fell away sharply, the valley spread out like a plaid. The slopes swathed in the brown of last year’s heather were streaked with grey cuts where water ran in thin rivulets down the steep hillsides. In the valley bottom there was evidence of strip farming: turned earth for the growing of hay marching side by side with grazing land. A river snaked through the strips, the banking sharp.
He gestured downwards raising his voice to combat the wind. “We make good time and need not haste. Nevertheless, follow me close, till we make safe ground. If the Montgomeries see us now, then we must link like the best of friends, and our opportunity is lost.” He turned his horse, heading for the cover of the woods. Beyond them, in the far distance, the topmost turrets of Langshaw reared. A rider broke from the trees as they approached and galloped towards them, slithering to a halt.
“Well?” Glencairn was abrupt.
“A clear signal. The Montgomeries are there. I didn’t have to go close.”
“You took your time then.” Glencairn was turning his horse as he spoke, wasting no effort on thanks.
They cut diagonally across the hillside towards another clump of woodland, and once among the trees spread out, each choosing their own route, but always keeping others in sight. It was a difficult ride: the horses easily spooked, the riders, although most would not have admitted it, also wary. Each time a woodpigeon was raised or a squirrel disturbed in the undergrowth, all looked about, seeing in the shadows the possibility of danger. It was a relief when they emerged at last through the treeline and saw above and beyond them the heather-covered hillside. Glencairn broke into a trot, leading the fan of riders towards the higher ground.
Without warning the rain came, heavy and straight, visibility reduced to almost nothing. The horses, wary of the soft ground, became nervous and difficult to handle and of necessity all slowed. As they crossed the skyline towards the hill that overlooked Annock, Munro steadied Sweet Briar, disappointment rising that there was little fear of being sighted.
Glencairn’s plan was clear: to come up below the ford taking advantage of the natural cover the lie of the land provided. It would likely be a miserable wait. As the rain slid down his neck and trickled inside his jerkin, Munro felt for his gun and bag – hopefully drier than his clothes. Another thought, neccessarily stifled – or perhaps better the pan or match be damp and the plan foiled without loss of face for anyone. He urged Sweet Briar onwards, the slick on her coat seeping through his hose where his knees gripped. As if they crossed an invisible line, the rain stopped. Munro stood in his stirrups and looked back to where rain still fell, merging the valley into the sky, and off to the right a second edge, where the landscape returned, blurred and sodden. Silhouetted against it, another group of riders, moving, slowly it seemed, along the ridge.
The Montgomeries would come this way then. – Dear God, this is a price to pay for old ties.
In front of him, Glencairn had halted, motioning the riders to come up close. He swung his horse to face them, William also. Their twin expressions were evidence, if any was needed, that each was eager for this prey, yet each determined that hands other than their own be soiled. As the last straggler brought his horse to a halt, Glencairn raised a hand. In the silence, broken only by the soft snorting of horses, he said,
“Do you wait here for Eglintoun and his men, and when you are done, make for home. But separate quickly, that you do not draw undue attention.” He turned towards John Cunninghame. “A small company only is bid to court. You brother, and you…” his eyes swept the riders and fixed on Munro, “…you, Munro, make for Stirling. We will put it about that we look for you by nightfall.” He jerked his horse round. “See to it that we do not hear of today’s business from any other source.”
Munro urged Sweet Briar towards the ground that dipped steeply away from the ford. – No doubting the wisdom of Glencairn making an early appearance at court, but as for William, his was the cowardly choice.
* * *
Glencairn and William were no more than an hour away when the first of the Montgomeries appeared on the brow of the hill. From his vantage point Munro watched their coming, focusing fiercely on the horses, on the shrinking distance between them, his gun cocked and resting on his knee. He wasn’t one to spend much time thinking on God, but as he waited, timing the moment, the thought came to him – if God is watching, I trust He sees the principals in this.
Behind Munro the rest of the Cunninghames slipped into position at his signal. His first shot took the leading rider in the belly. He saw him falling, blood spouting through the splayed fingers etched into his side. A second rider urged his horse forward, but before he could reach the water’s edge, Clonbeith took him from the left, shooting him in the head at close range. The third rider turned his horse and drew his sword, shouting to the others to pull back. He was rushed by three Cunninghames at once; who carved him up as he toppled, blinded from the rush of blood in his eyes, spearing his own foot as he fell.
A lad, knocked sideways by the force of the shot that took him in the shoulder, was screaming as he was hauled from the saddle. Munro heard the sharp snap of his wrist as he landed, saw him kick upwards, the man who had pulled him from his horse doubling away, clutching his groin. The lad, his face drained of colour, was dragging himself onto his knees, his left hand dangling, a jagged edge of bone protruding like a dagger point from his cuff. Munro, his gun re-primed, took aim, but before he could fire Clonbeith plunged into the water, blocking Munro’s line of sight, and smashed the pommel of his sword into the lad’s face, stamping on his damaged wrist. Another scream: high-pitched and animal, as the lad made one last effort to twist away, Clonbeith’s sword-slash taking him on his left side, ripping him open from armpit to thigh.
Out of the corner of his eye Munro saw the last of the Montgomeries, still mounted, turn, his sword raised. Munro swung and fired in one motion, but the shot, higher than intended, took the man in the mouth. The impact tipped him from the saddle, his jaw exploding in a mess of cartilage and bone. He fell backwards onto a jumble of rocks and was scrabbling up again on one leg when from behind a second and third shot pitched him face first into the peat-muddied waters that swirled upwards to greet him.
Munro lowered his gun.
Clonbeith came up beside him, his voice betraying no distaste for the job just done.
“Do you remain and finish the business. The rest will ride on.” He paused
and with barely concealed reluctance added, “And take my horse. You have further to go. He’s fresher and will ensure that you make good time to Stirling.”
And so it was left to Munro and to John Cunninghame to pick their way among the scattered bodies, searching for any life. There was a sour taste in Munro’s mouth as he splashed through the water and reached down to turn over the first body – Eglintoun the Montgomerie earl – to judge by the device stamped on his doublet buttons. He sprawled, one foot still trailing from the stirrup, the horse moving restlessly, trampling the sodden ground. Releasing the foot, Munro led the horse to solid ground. Braidstane, likewise identified by the initials woven into his saddlecloth, was trapped, his leg caught between two rocks as he swung slowly in the current, which sucked at him, but failed to carry him away. The youth that Munro should have dispatched cleanly had not Clonbeith intervened, lay, his sightless eyes open, one hand tangled in the mess of entrails that spewed from his side. Munro wheeled around, emptying his stomach onto the fast flowing stream.
They worked quickly, stripping the bodies of anything that could identify them, the horses likewise, before slapping each one firmly on the rump and watching as they galloped away. The job done, it were as well that neither the victims nor those responsible would be easily identified. Fine chance that any part of the day’s work would remain a secret for long: about as likely as snow falling in midsummer, but it was lack of ready proof that Glencairn sought.
As he followed John, already urging his horse up the slope towards the higher ground, Munro welcomed the return of the rain, thought of his wife – Pray God Kate doesn’t hear anything of my part in this.
Pausing at the top of the rise, John echoed his feeling, “We may be thankful. A downpour will destroy all trace.”
Even dry it would have been a silent journey, for neither had a heart for conversation. John gave his horse no guidance and Munro, noting the uncharacteristic carelessness, understood that he too was less than comfortable with what had been done. A few miles past Annock, the weather, though not their spirits, cleared, and they quickened their pace; so that it was still light as they entered Stirling and presented themselves at Glencairn’s lodgings. Thanks were not forthcoming.
The earl looked up as they entered, but did not trouble to rise, “I trust you can wait. Dinner will be a little delayed. I had not thought to see you quite so soon.” It was a question of sorts.
Munro sensed John searching for appropriate words. “It was a speedy journey, and nothing to hinder us. We came through heavy rain, but left it behind shortly past Annock, though there it seemed as if on for the day.”
“Well, well. I have a room prepared.” Glencairn turned to Munro. “You I trust will find lodgings nearby, but do not lag for we have a guest or two contracted to join us for dinner.”
Munro acknowledged the dismissal and with it Glencairn’s adroitness, not only in placing himself in Stirling timeously, but also in ensuring that they had independent witnesses to prove it.
*** I should point out that aside from the violence in this chapter, the remainder of the book isn’t violent – there are a couple of sword fights, but that’s all. There is also no explicit sex or strong language, so that it is suitable for any reader from 12 to 112!