Crown in Darkness
The rider goaded his horse, digging the rowels of his spurs deeper into the animal's flanks till thin red gashes appeared. The horse, head forward, foam-flecked from nostrils to withers, attempted to move faster, charging the stinging wind as if it was an enemy. It was the darkest, wildest of nights; the wind howled in, almost drowning the clamouring thunder of the waves beneath the cliff but the rider did not care about the elements or that he had apparently left his companions behind. The moon slid between the clouds and the rider turned his head against a particularly savage blast. He thought he saw shadows move there, further back across the cliff, but then dismissed them as phantasms, the product of too much rich food and blood-red Gascon wine. No, he had to reach Kinghorn where Yolande was waiting. He thought of his new French Queen. The beautiful face of a Helen of Troy framed by hair jet-black as the deepest night, olive, perfumed skin and a small curvaceous figure clothed and protected in a profusion of satins, velvets and Bruges lace. He wanted her now; to possess that soft warm body, ripping aside the protests and the pretences. Perhaps she would conceive, bear a son, give Scotland a Prince. A vigorous boy to wear the crown and protect it against the ring of wolves and falcons both at home and abroad. He must reach Kinghorn and scarred his horse angrily with his spurs. The animal, its brave heart near to bursting, gave its best, almost flinging itself forward along the cliffs edge. Suddenly it stumbled, tipping sideways, and crumpled to its knees amongst the loose shale. The rider, flung up against the dark sky, fell through the night, his fingers clawing the air as he plunged down to the waiting rocks.
'Hugh Corbett, Clerk, to Robert Burnell, Bishop of Bath and Wells and Chancellor of England, greetings. My escort and I have now arrived at Edinburgh, secure in both body and soul, though still exhausted after a wearying journey.' Corbett put the sharp quilled pen down and rubbed the ache in his thighs. It had been, he thought, a terrible journey. He and a small escort had left London at the end of March and travelled by horseback through Newark, Lincoln, Newcastle, Tynemouth and Berwick. The cold had been biting, knife-edged eastern winds, flea-ridden ale-houses with only the occasional luxurious break in a comfortable priory or monastery where he could bathe the saddle-sores on his backside and thighs. His body-servant, Ranulf, had become ill and was left at Tynemouth Priory, and there had been other dangers. Corbett turned back to his letter. 'It may interest your Lordship to know that the legislation enacted last year at the Parliament held at Winchester needs to be enforced. Roads and highways have not been cleared a hundred yards back and twice we were attacked by outlaws. Once outside Newark and again near Tynemouth, by crude fellows with crossbows, mallets and rusty daggers, but we beat, them off.' Corbett realised he was understating the incidents: the countryside was plagued by gangs of landless, desperate men. God knows, he, a clerk to the Justices of the King's Bench, had seen such men tried and hanged, twirling by their necks, legs kicking, tongues out, their blackening faces and protruding eyes sufficient warning to any others who tried to break the King's peace. Especially, Corbett thought, after the new measures to enforce law and order brought in by King Edward at the Winchester Parliament of 1285. Edward I of England had now been on the throne for thirteen years and was still eager to enforce his authority in every nook and cranny of his kingdom. Two years earlier, he and his cunning old Chancellor, Robert Burnell, had used Corbett to root out rebellion, treason and murder in London. Corbett, helped by his servant, Ranulf, was successful but the venture had cost him dear. Edward I and his Chancellor, Burnell, were hard taskmasters and had not flinched from sending the woman Corbett loved to a savage death in the fires of Smithfield. Corbett sighed and continued his letter. 'We crossed the Scottish border without incident except for a troop of men wearing the livery of the Lord Bruce, who stopped us and examined our warrants before letting us continue into Edinburgh.'
Corbett broke off to sharpen the quill. Scotland! The men he had met were tough border-raiders dressed in rags but well-armed with steel helmets, boiled-leather jerkins, leggings and stout boots in the stirrups of small
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