Reiver, Chapter 1

A Battle

Homildon Hill, 14th September, 1402

Edmund Collingwood fidgeted in his saddle. He looked about him as the morning sun lifted itself into the sky. His heart pounded in his chest and his throat felt tight, despite the calm of the day. Across the small valley to his left, the southerly wind created ripples in the grass on the rise of Harehope Hill. Its low moan, combined with the dulling effect of his helmet drowned out the small sounds of two armies waiting to engage. He could not hear the snickering of the horses, nor the stamping as they shifted their hooves on the ground, nor the tiny clink of the bridles as they chewed on their bits. Nor could he hear the occasional cough as men readied themselves for what was to come.

Ahead, down the gentle slope to the north, the English army lead by Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy had gathered, cutting off the route north to Scotland. The peaty odour in the atmosphere hinted at hidden spring water underlying the turf and he wrinkled his nose at the acid tang.

“Be reet clarty doon there in a bit,” he said turning to his brother. “’Tis boggy, I reckon.”

***

“Aye,” Robert grumbled. He didn’t feel much like conversation. In the calm before the carnage of battle his chest felt tight and his stomach felt queasy. The bitter taste of acid reflux on his tongue foreshadowing what was to come. He swallowed it back, pulling a face as the sour bile went back down his throat. Like Edmund, he wore a steel pig face bascinet that came down over his ears with the visor lifted, allowing him to look about. Once the visor was down, vision was—as Edmund once observed drily—limited.

***

Edmund smiled. Robert was always tense before battle and he could see the pallor of his brother’s skin and patina of cold sweat beneath the opened visor. Both men wore jacks made of leather with armour sewn into them, giving the outward appearance of a studded design. Lightweight and flexible, the jack allowed for movement on the horse as well as giving some protection from sword thrusts. Likewise their long leather buskins provided light protection. Their main defence was their ability to move quickly on horseback. For weapons, each wore a falchion sword—a slightly curved, single edged, blade ideal for slashing at ground troops from the saddle as well as their lang spears. Each sat astride a hobbler—a small, sturdy horse ideal for the terrain of the borders and for the role of light cavalry. As members of a reiver clan, raiding was in their blood and harrying the enemy while moving quickly was the reason Archibald Douglas had engaged their services on this mission.

Although a direct battle such as this had not been the intention, now it was inevitable, Edmund, unlike his brother, was relishing the confrontation, his adrenaline was flowing causing his heart to pound. The bitter taste on his tongue was one he relished. He was impatient to be about the English army below.

Always the same, he thought. This stillness before the action.

In these quiet moments it was odd how the little things stood out, like the delicate purple harebells still in bloom among the grass, soon to be crushed under hooves and feet as two armies met in bloody conflict. He turned his head to the right and looked across at the makeshift corral where the source of the conflict was gathered: A herd of cattle stolen from their rightful owners during a raid that had taken them as far south as Newcastle during late August and early September. They chewed the cud, oblivious to their involvement in the dispute.

It was inevitable, he concluded, that the raid, instigated by Archie—Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas—would result in the ire of the Percys, and, predictably, upon hearing of the thefts, an enraged Hotspur had rallied his troops and along with George Dunbar—Earl of March—headed off the raiders between Wooler and Coldstream as they returned north with their booty.

As the raiders had attempted to encamp near Milfield on their march north, heading for the border at Coldstream, they had been rushed by Percy’s army and hastily retreated to the high ground at Homildon where they regrouped. Now cornered by the English battle was inevitable.

On this fine September morning, Hotspur’s army encamped below them in the valley. Archie had instructed the infantry to form schiltrons where they waited for the next move. As the two armies shuffled for position, Edmund watched the English closely and wondered if Archie had a battle plan beyond forming schiltrons, for there was no indication so far that he had.

The raid had gone well enough, he mused to himself as he looked down the slope to the English army, studying their archers as they now assembled at the head of the line. To his left on the other side of the ravine between Homildon Hill and Harehope Hill, he could see a cavalry detachment and some more archers forming up. Not that he was too worried by the knights, but those archers were a concern.

A lot of canny good schiltrons will be against those fellows.

They were within range by his reckoning and the rain of arrows would spell certain death to many of Archie’s 10,000 strong force, consisting mostly of spearmen who had little defence against the longbow. Although the Scots had archers, they lacked the English longbow favoured by Percy’s troops with its longer range, giving the English an advantage. The weapon was lethal up to nearly 300 yards and Edmund was becoming increasingly anxious now that they were well within that distance of the enemy to the left. He glanced across at Archie, but the man appeared not to notice the threat—or, if he had, was unconcerned by it.

***

At the foot of the hill, Hotspur sat astride his horse, looking up at the Scots on the high ground, with the shallow valley between the two armies. The humiliation of defeats at the hands of Archie’s father were as fresh in his mind as the day they happened.

A lithe, energetic man with a temperament well described by his nickname he pulled on the reins, causing his horse to twist and stamp the soft ground as he glared at the Scots in the lee of the hill, their pennants and flags fluttering in the breeze as his fury bubbled over.

“Let’s be at them!” He spurred his horse readying for the charge.

The cooler head of George Dunbar prevailed and he placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Harry! Stay! Let the archers do their work afore we ride to meet the enemy.”

Hotspur reined in his horse again and cast an angry look at his comrade.

“Where is the honour in that?”

“No need to die unnecessarily, Harry. This battle will be won by the yard-shaft, no doubt.”

“Pah! Common archers are no men of honour. This will be a mere killing field, not a knightly battle!”

***

Dunbar looked at the slim, dark haired man with his thin face and bright, excitable eyes before him and sighed. One day, he thought, Harry’s impetuous nature will be the death of him. War was a matter of strategy, not of dying in glorious battle, but to win and survive and the longbow provided their army with just such a means. They had an advantage, despite the low ground and he knew it.

***

For Harry Hotspur however, there was no chivalric code for the archer—the common man conscripted to merely slaughter the enemy in his hundreds. To kill those knights who should be doing battle with each other and dying with honour in hand-to-hand combat. Where was the glory and the honour in dying under a hail of arrows in a muddy field? Besides, he wanted to stare Archie Douglas in the face as he cut him down in revenge for Otterburn, for his stolen pennon and for the humiliation of East Linton.

“Pah!” He said irritably, conceding the moment to Dunbar with a baleful glare. “As you wish.”

Having temporarily stayed Hotspur’s desire to dash headlong at Douglas’ positions in a suicidal charge, Dunbar turned away and watched as the archers took up their positions to the left of the Scottish army and raised an arm to give the order.

***

When it came, it came quickly. The skies darkened as a cloud of yard-shafts descended in a rain of death. The shields and light mail of the Scottish army were no defence and men fell in their hundreds. The English longbow dealt its deadly blow as each man could keep three shafts in the air at one time. Horses reared in panic and the Collingwoods reigned back their hobblers as they twisted and turned, neighing in terror, to avoid the sky-borne destruction. Edmund turned to Archie as he wheeled his terrified horse.

“We must move, Archie! Or be slain weor we stand!”

Douglas seemed as if in a trance and did nothing as he watched his army being destroyed before his eyes. It was in that moment Edmund realised that fine Avant armour from Milan was no indication of military competence and Archie was found wanting when it mattered.

“Mutha of God! Archie, give the order! We canna remain heor an’ be slaughtered without meeting the enemy!”

Sir John Swinton, one of Douglas’ captains took it upon himself to make a move. “Better to die in the charge than be massacred here! Forward, men! Forward!”

He and a small detachment of cavalry charged down the hill toward the English ranks. As they rode, the archers steadily retreated while continuing to shoot at the advancing riders, killing them all.

“Archie!” Edmund shouted, “Wor bein’ massacred, we must do something! Give the order!”

Seeing that Douglas was doing nothing, Edmund shouted to the Scottish archers. “Shoot, damn you! To the left!”

It was pointless. The shorter Scottish bow was no match for the English longbow. The arrows fell short while the English continued their onslaught. As the Scots advanced, the English retreated, remaining in range and continuing the deadly volley of arrows. Eventually, the Scottish archers gave up the uneven fight and scattered as the English moved forward in a counter attack, pushing the Scots even further back.

As if rousing from a trance, Archie Douglas stirred in his saddle and looked about him. “Charge! Forward!”

“Thank the Lord for tha’!” Edmund responded looking across at Robert who gripped the reins and spurred his hobbler into a trot, following him down the hill, lang spears raised and into the thick of the English army.

As they descended the hill, the archers stepped aside creating a gap for them to enter and rained arrows down upon them, leaving the Scottish army dead and dying on the field.

Edmund felt the pain of an arrow as it found its mark, smiting him in the left shoulder and throwing him from the saddle.

He fell heavily and lay there as the few Scots who managed to break through the English lines were pursued and struck down by the cavalry as they made a forlorn break for the Tweed and safety.

It was over in less than an hour and it was a rout.

Hotspur had his revenge.

And among the stillness of the corpses and blood-soaked grass, the purple harebells still waved their tiny heads in the gentle breeze.