The Renegade–The Noble Robert

US Bruce cover-1

The Hardcover US Edition of “The Renegade”, from Forge Books, 2012

Bruce is sixteen, and has been a afraid of his formidable old grandfather, Robert Bruce of Annandale, all his life. Now, for the first time, he finds himself alone with the old man, who has wakened him in the wee small hours and summoned him downstairs to talk to him.

Lord Robert was seated in his large, padded wooden armchair, close to a blazing fire in a brazier set into a small hearth by the one stone wall, and as his grandson entered he cocked his head to one side and scanned the boy from head to foot, nodding in approval at the heavy woollen robe.

“Cold enough for winter,” he growled, then pointed to the empty chair beside him. “Come, sit here beside me.” The pointing finger changed direction, indicating a table that held a small jug. “But before you do, bring me that jug and the two cups there.”

Rob did as he was bidden and the aroma from the contents of the jug caught sharply at his nostrils as his lordship took it from him, along with the two mugs.

“Good,” his grandfather said, pouring a quantity of whatever it held into each of the cups. “Now bring that kettle, but mind you don’t burn yourself. Use the cloth.”

Rob wrapped the iron handle of the kettle in a much-singed, thickly layered pad of cloth that hung by the fireside and, directed by Lord Robert, poured hot water carefully into each cup.

“Aye, that’ll do it.” The old man picked up his cup in both hands and held it to his nostrils, sniffing appreciatively. “Aye,” he murmured again, “There’s nothing like toddy on a cold night, to keep the chills away. Drink up.”

Rob sipped with great caution, knowing the water was very hot, but even so the sharpness of the drink took him by surprise, snatching at his breath and closing his throat and forcing him to set the cup down quickly lest he spill it in the coughing fit that racked him. His grandfather watched him in astonishment.

“What– What is that?” Rob gasped eventually, gaining control of himself.

The old man’s eyebrows were still arched in surprise, but now he definitely was smiling. Rob saw the smile and it was his turn to be amazed, for the old man’s expression was altered beyond belief, seemingly lit from within by the warmth of that single, unexpected smile.

“It is uisqhebaugh…: He pronounced the Gaelic word wiskievah, “The water of life. Have you never had it before?”

“No, sir, I have not. I’ve heard of it but never seen or tasted it.”

The old man’s smile grew wider. “Well, don’t sound so scunnert, boy. You will soon grow used to it. But it is a taste to be learned, and that is truth. It is the distilled spirits of barley, and it is powerful stuff. When served hot like this, though, mixed with honey and boiled water, it is medicinal and we call it toddy. Try it again, but wi’ care. You’ll find it grows on you.”

Rob sipped again, forewarned this time, and found that the liquid, while still tasting alien and bitter, had a sweetness to it that was not as unpleasant as he had thought. He lowered his cup slowly. “It’s . . . Good, I think… Sweet. Warming.”

“Aye, it’s all of those, Try some more.”

He did, and this time found it almost pleasant, though still bitter, and a thought occurred to him as he stared at the cup afterwards. “May I ask a question, sir?”

“That’s what you’re here for, boy. Ask away.”

Rob was still frowning down at his cup. “It’s about this drink. You said when it’s served hot like this it’s medicinal. What is it when it’s served cold?”

That brought a quick bark of a laugh and Rob could scarce believe he had heard it. “It’s dangerous,” the old man said. “And many’s the thousand men who have learned that to their cost, to say nothing of the tens of thousands who went to their deaths having learned it too late. It is called the water of life, but it can drown a man more quickly than any other water. Fiery and potent and provocative of strange behaviour, it breeds drunkenness far quicker than ale or mead. But you won’t be drinking it cold in this household. Stand up. Take off that covering and let me look at you.”

Rob rose obediently and shrugged out of the heavy woollen robe, then stood unmoving as the old man scanned him, up and down and from side to side.

“Put it back on,” he said when he had finished. “You’re big. Near as big as your father, even now. How old are you, seventeen?”

“Sixteen, your lordship.”

“I’m not your lordship, I’m your grandsire. Call me Grandfather.”

“Grandfather.”

Another laugh, brief and abrupt. “You sound as though you’re tasting it on your tongue for the first time, like another new drink. You’ve never liked me, have you?”

The strange taste in Rob’s mouth was instantly forgotten, replaced by a sudden conviction, born of nothing more than the old man’s question, that the next words he spoke would be of great import. Cautiously then, his slow movements belying his racing thoughts, he sat up straighter and pulled his shoulders back, acutely aware of the piercing scrutiny of his grandsire’s pale blue eyes. His first impulse was to protest that the imputation was untrue but he found himself shying away from the blatant lie and wondering how to answer otherwise. All his confused, lifelong feelings about this man reared up again and yet they were confounded by the incontrovertible evidence of the past few minutes wherein he had seen the old man smile and heard him laugh and speak quietly, even gently; things he had never experienced before tonight and would not have thought possible an hour earlier. And now this pointed question, sharp and straightforward, demanding an answer. He ground his teeth together, braced himself and looked directly into the fierce old eyes.

“You have never given me reason to, sir.”

“Explain that. What do you mean?” There was no passion in the question, no anger or outrage. And that gave Rob the courage to continue. He set his cup down with great care on a small table by his chair, then spoke what was in his mind, aware, without knowing why, that he was doing the right thing.
“I have never seen you smile until tonight, sir; never heard you laugh. In all my life you have never spoken to me directly, other than to order me out from under your feet when I was a child… Except for once, in the stables when I was seven. I was passing through from the rear to the front, on my way to the tower, and as I reached the middle of the floor you came in the far door, obviously in haste. I stepped aside to give you room and came close to some fresh hay, and you shouted at me to stand away from it and not make a mess of it. And then you saw it was already scattered and you cursed at me for having done it… I felt hard done by and unjustly condemned, since I had touched nothing, and I cried as you rode away, still muttering to yourself. That is my single clearest memory of you.”

Lord Robert stared at him, his face expressionless. “I did that? I don’t remember it. But you most obviously do, and I don’t doubt you… I cursed you? What did I say?”

Rob shrugged. “I don’t remember that, sir. I knew only that you were angry at me without cause, and I was hurt . . . by your readiness to think ill of me.”

“Hmm…” The patriarch looked down at his cup for long moments, then raised it and sipped deeply before looking back at his grandson’s pale face. He nodded then, and wiped the corners of his mouth with a thumb and forefinger, completing the movement by scratching his chin audibly. Then, while Rob sat watching him, he sniffed loudly and nodded a second time.

“So be it then, boy,” he growled. “That memory has festered in you these what, nine years? I jalouse it’s too deeply rooted now to be pulled out easily. But hear what I am going to tell you now, for I speak not only as your grandsire in this but as the Lord of Annandale and Chief of the House of Bruce. I am Bruce and I never lie. Many resent me for that. It makes them uncomfortable. But it is a part of me that none can question or deny. My word is my worth and I do not deal in falsehoods. Do you hear me, boy?”

Rob nodded, mute, and was answered by a nod in return. “Then hear me further. I was not angry at you that day, all those years ago, no matter what you thought. Had I been, I would not have forgotten it.” He held up a hand, as though to cut short a protest before Rob could voice one. “I am not saying I was not angry. In all probability I was, for I anger easily even now, and I was worse when I was younger, unwilling to accept the behaviour of fools or the uselessness of idiots. Someone else must have angered me that day and you but caught the brunt of it, I fear, the rough edge of my tongue. But it was unintentional and you were certainly not the cause of my foul temper. You but fell victim to it… So I would make amends, if that is possible. Is there something you can think of that would serve, this late, to counterbalance the hurt you took that day?”

Rob sat numb and mute for long moments, overwhelmed by the differences so quickly shown between the man who had spoken those words and the man he had believed him to be, but then he shook his head. “No, sir,” he said quietly. “You have already healed it. I see now that the fault was more mine than yours. It was the boy, the child, who saw what was not there, too young to see or understand the reality of things.”

“Partly so,” the old man said. “It was. But that does not excuse the heedless hurt of it; the thoughtlessness. You would not have been the first innocent I treated so . . . nor the last… Your father believes I think too much, brooding and ever mulling, scheming and anticipating things that never come to pass . . . forbye trying to live other people’s lives for them. And he may be right. But in my own mind, within the conscience that the churchmen tell us we all have, I sometimes rue my lack of thought, the thoughtlessness that leads to matters such as this needless hurt we are talking about–” He broke off suddenly, peering keenly at the boy. “What is it? You look troubled.”

“No,” Rob said, but even to himself he sounded less than certain, and the elder Bruce leaned closer.

“Don’t start hesitating now, boy. Remember who you are and speak out, whatever is on your mind.”

The words, and the stern gaze that accompanied them, made Rob want to squirm with embarrassment, but he shrugged and spread his hands in resignation. “There’s nothing wrong, Grandfather. It was but a thought–a question–that came into my mind while you were speaking… But it’s a question, I think, that I have no right to ask.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned slightly closer, leaning his weight on an elbow on the arm of his chair and speaking quietly but forcefully. “Every man with a brain has a right, and at times even a duty, to ask questions of anyone, grandson. Questions demand answers, and understanding those answers leads to greater awareness of this world within which we live. Even a refusal to answer will tell much to the man who is wise enough to watch and listen closely, for from the very silence he can jalouse why no answer is being given… Besides, while we’re talking of rights, I might dispute your right to take your old grandsire to task for past failures, but you did it and I respected you for it. That took courage . . . the more so since you expected me to rend you from top to bottom, if I suspect correctly. So ask away. What was your question?”

What was the question, exactly? Rob knew he could not simply blurt it out in the crude words that had first sprung to his mind, not without angering the old man. The matter was impertinent already, without adding insult to the form of it. And so he thought about it carefully, looking for the words in which to couch it without making it any more offensive than it already was. He bought some time by sipping again at his neglected drink, enjoying the taste of it more now that it had cooled, but he could feel his grandfather’s eyes watching him. He coughed gently, feeling the fiery liquor catching at his throat, then shuddered violently and set the cup down again.

“It was what you said about thoughtlessness, sir,” he began. “You said you sometimes rue it, your lack of thought about people’s feelings… And you were speaking of my father at the time.” He paused, then drew a deep breath and continued, “Is that why . . . Is that why you and he are not close?”

The old man frowned, clearly displeased and on the point of saying so, but then he relaxed and sank back into his chair, the response, whatever it might have been, unspoken. He settled his shoulders against the padding at his back and his eyes narrowed to slits and Rob sat wordless, waiting for the quiet wrath that he was sure must come. But his grandfather surprised him yet again, for instead of growling out some scathing rebuke he merely pursed his lips and scratched at his beard as he had done before and when he did speak his voice held no trace of anger.

“I was about to ask you why you would think such a thing,” he said. “That we are not close, your father and I. But to you it’s clearly obvious that we are not and I won’t insult you by pretending you are wrong… Your father is my firstborn son and I love him dearly, as a father does. But I also perceive his weaknesses, as all other fathers do in their sons, and that is what has led to our . . . estrangement. It is a frequent thing between fathers and their sons; a clash of wills and ongoing, petty quarrels that can grow into deep resentment and in turn breed dislike. And yes, to answer your question, there are times when I rue the gulf that stretches between us now, for my own thoughtlessness, my lack of concern for his true feelings over too long a time was largely what drove us apart.”

“But he is a good man, Grandfather.”

“I know he is, grandson. As the Earl of Carrick he has prospered and conducted himself in a way that is beyond reproach. His marriage to your mother was the best thing that ever happened to him . . . It made a man of him when I had despaired of ever seeing him become a man. But by then, of course, the damage between the two of us had been long done.” He stopped, considering that, and then continued, “He is a different kind of man than I was–not worse, nor better, I see now . . . simply different.” That was accompanied by a matter-of-fact shrug of the old man’s wide shoulders. “And truth be told, though it pains me to say so, I did not want a different kind of man, even when he was yet a boy. I wanted a reflection of myself… You know the words, alter ego?”

“Latin,” Rob said, dipping his head in acknowledgment. “My tutor, Father Ninian, told me about it. It means ‘another self.'”

“Good lad. That is precisely what it means and it was precisely what I wanted in my son. Another self. And when I saw it was not to be, I was… Displeased, would be one word for it. Your father was my firstborn son by my first wife, Isabella. She was a de Clair, the daughter of Gilbert de Clair who was both Earl of Hertford and of Gloucester, and her mother–your great-grandmother–was Lady Isabel Marshall, a daughter of the great William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, Marshal of England and, some say, England’s greatest hero… He was tutor and Master-At-Arms to King Richard, the Lionheart.”

He grunted then, his expression wryly amused, his eyes focusing briefly on some point beyond Rob’s head, and then he rose and walked to where he had been looking. Rob twisted around in his chair and watched him as he reached out and took down a large, sheathed sword that hung from a stout peg on the partition behind the door, drawing the long, silver blade from the scabbard as he turned back and returned to his chair. “He was also your great-great grandsire, you know–one of eight such from whom you can claim descent–and this was his, the Marshal’s own sword, given to me by your great-grandmother herself, on the day I wed her daughter. She told me then she believed her father’s sword would lose no honour in my hand.” He swung the heavy weapon gently, then sat down again, resting its point on the floor between them, close to the fire. “You would think, with such illustrious heritage behind her, that Isabella would have bred fiery sons… But that was not to be, for she bred much of herself into her children and too much, I thought, into her firstborn son. I was a brash, ambitious young hothead, and Isabella was a delicate and gentle creature–too much of both, you might have thought, to live long in this brutal world–but she lived for thirty-eight years and was my wife for twenty four of those, from the age of fourteen, bearing me two daughters and four sons.”

He fell silent, thinking, and then sighed hugely. “To my own shame, though, I believed the sons she gave me fell far short of what I needed… And your father, my heir, was the first of them.” His eyes creased then, focusing on Rob. “I suppose had I been a different man that might not have mattered greatly. But I was who I was: Robert Bruce, the Fifth Lord of Annandale, and I had vast territories to govern and the need for a strong, hard son to stand with me and follow me. I had high hopes for the Sixth Bruce of Annandale–a son to be forged and shaped and tempered by me, as I had been by my own father, the Fourth of our name. He reared me to govern strongly and dutifully; to live solely as he expected me to live. And when I found out that I could not forge my son in the same way, I became bitter. And harsh. And cruel…”

The old man fell silent, his face, which had been so animated earlier, now strangely empty; his eyes, dull and unfocused, staring into nothingness. There was a stillness to his pose that worried Rob, but then he shivered and clutched at the woollen shawl that draped his shoulders, pulling it closer about him, and only then did Rob notice that the brazier fire had dulled. He rose quietly to his feet and stooped to replenish the fire, thinking that his grandfather had no need of being watched in his grief. He chose short, thick logs of apple wood from the rack by the hearthside and thrust them deep into the glowing coals, one by one. When he was satisfied and went back to his seat he found Lord Robert watching him, all evidence of his temporary lapse gone from his eyes.

“Well,” his lordship said in a more normal tone. “There’s time enough to fix all that, eh, boy? Especially with your help, for I assume you will help me, eh? To make amends.”

“I will, Grandfather.”

“Good, then we’ll do it together. Now, where were we, before that?”

I was crying in the wilderness, like John the Baptist, Rob thought, but he made no attempt to say it. He was too busy savouring the sensation of euphoria that had flooded him as he listened to what Lord Robert had said about his father and how he would like to make amends if he could, and his throat was swollen painfully from the realization of how wrong he had been in his lifelong dislike and fear of this newly revealed man.

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