Today, we add some prose to our series, with an excerpt from Louise Turner’s historical novel The Gryphon at Bay. Many thanks to Louise, and to her publisher for letting us put this passage on the blog.
Enjoy your reading!
Excerpt from The Gryphon at Bay, a historical novel by Louise Turner
(to be published by Hadley Rille Books in March, 2017)
A spider lurked high in the arch over the window. It had been there four days now: craning his neck, Matthew Stewart could just catch sight of it, crouching patient by its crevice as if it, too, weathered a siege…
Matthew slumped back against the wall with a sigh. He was bored beyond belief. And frustrated, too. His hand itched to hold a sword again, he was sick and tired of being caged in this lofty prison.
“My poor old place,” Lady Lyle said, from where she was sitting by the empty fireplace, bent over her sewing. “You should’ve seen the mess they left it in. They knocked a big hole through the wall of my chamber. Why, the birds’ll be nesting there by springtime.” She shook her head. “And all my precious things. All gone.”
“I know,” Matthew’s mother, Margaret Montgomerie, Countess of Lennox, agreed without even looking up from her needlework. “It’s a dreadful shame.”
Matthew picked irritably at a loose thread on the cushioned seat beneath him. Sometimes he envied the womenfolk, who found comfort in their mundane tasks. Sitting still for hours on end just wasn’t in his nature: if he loitered too long, all his hopes and fears crowded up close like hellhounds and he had to move in order to escape them.
Rising to his feet, he muttered his excuses to the ladies, then headed out to stretch his legs.
Matthew strolled along the battlements, relishing the solitude. Far below, the waters of the Clyde stretched calm and enticing, dotted with a few tiny ships.
Over the last few months, his life had settled into a routine that had by now become second nature. He’d rise early from a troubled sleep and pace the wallwalk, halting on the seaward side to look in vain for English ships.
Then he’d move on, pausing again on the landward side. He’d count the ever-growing cluster of tents and pavilions that made up the King’s host, springing up like toadstools on an autumn morn near the town of Dumbarton.
And once this ritual was complete he’d retreat to the chapel. He’d pray to God for strength and succour. But God never sent arms or men to relieve the stranded garrison. He didn’t even grant Matthew peace of mind.
They were running short of fodder. And short of the luxuries that a man became accustomed to: fresh meat, salt, spices. But they were hardly starving. Every week or so under cover of darkness, a ship would slip into the boat naust at the base of the rock, bringing bread and wheat and barrels of ale.
When he’d finished his patrol, he returned to the hall. Though he’d stalked out in disgust, despairing of the women’s trivial talk, he knew deep inside that he needed the comfort of their presence. It reminded him that there was a world beyond these walls, a world that someday they might all return to.
In his absence, the ladies had been joined by others. Robert, Lord Lyle had settled there, along with Matthew’s younger brother Alex. Lord Robert had taken the boy under his wing, making sure he worked hard at his fighting skills, doing his best to raise the youth’s spirits. Right now they were confronting each other across the table, frowning over a chessboard: grizzled knight and untried youth, channelling their concentration into games of strategy and deception.
“A shrewd move, perhaps,” Lord Robert said. “But only time will tell if it proves to be a sound one.”
Matthew glanced round, mildly interested. He sat back down in his regular space by the window, allowing himself a sympathetic smile as he heard the clack of ivory hitting wood.
“Ah!” Alex dropped his head in his hands. “My queen is lost…”
“Don’t whine, Alex.” Margaret Montgomerie countered swiftly. “You’re far too old for that.”
The door opened, a servant ventured inside. “My lady, you have a visitor.”
The countess looked up, perplexed. “Here?” She exchanged a bewildered glance with Matthew. “We’re not expecting anyone.”
“It’s Elizabeth Sempill.”
“Goodness!” For a moment, the countess’s composure wavered. “Show her in!”
When his gude-sister Elizabeth entered the hall, Matthew hardly recognised her: she’d replaced her usual velvet with a plain grey gown of wool and a white starched hood. She was an imposing woman: tall, rather haughty in demeanour. She must have been thirty-three years of age by Matthew’s reckoning, but she didn’t look it. She seemed ageless, with clear bright skin and glorious grey- blue eyes.
She curtsied before the countess. “Countess Margaret.” “We’ll have no such formalities, Elizabeth,” Setting down her
needlework, the countess rose to her feet. She grasped the younger woman’s arms and kissed her on both cheeks. “It’s a delight to see you!”
“And a surprise,” Matthew added. “I thought the Archangel Michael more likely to grace our place.”
“Mattie!” his mother snapped.
“I understand why I’m not welcome,” Elizabeth countered swiftly. “But I can scarcely be blamed for your circumstances.”
“Don’t listen to Mattie,” the countess said. “He’s weary of this. We all are. How did you pass the gates?”
“They think I’m a midwife,” Elizabeth replied. “I’ve brought gifts.” She drew a leather bag out from beneath her cloak. “Salt. Two pounds of it. And a flask of aqua vita.”
“Oh, how very thoughtful. Thank you!” The countess grasped the bag, smiling. “We’d love you to stay, but…”
Elizabeth waved her hand in haughty dismissal. “I’ve lodgings in the town.”
Matthew laughed inwardly, satisfied by her response. Elizabeth’s name and lineage might have been a source of contention, but there was no denying that she was a bold woman, and resourceful, too.
As a youth he’d often lain awake in his bed for hours, lovestruck and miserable, wondering why a woman of her quality had been granted to his bastard brother William, and not himself. But at long last he was cured. These days when he looked upon her, he was reminded of her brother, John Sempill of Ellestoun. The straw-headed, angel-faced wretch whose defiance had caused all this trouble in the first place.
Matthew yawned and stretched out his legs. “Your timing was impeccable,” he said. “We were talking about your kinsman: he’s Sir John Sempill now. And Sheriff of Renfrew, besides…”
“Oh?” Her reply was non-committal.
“He’s thrown poor Lady Lyle out of her place,” Matthew added. “And seized all her belongings.”
“I’d heard,” she said. She paused, face troubled. “Have you any news of my husband?”
“He rode north with Father. He was well enough last time I saw him.” “Ah.” She seemed wistful.
“Until they return, we’re beleaguered,” Lord Robert said.
“You must keep good heart,” Elizabeth said, firmly. “The path that brought you here’s of little consequence. What matters now is that you’re on the side of righteousness.”
“What news from Renfrew?”
“All’s quiet. They haven’t troubled the lesser households.”
“Not yet, at any rate,” Matthew said. “They may change their minds. One of these days, your brother might come calling,”
“Then I’ll beat him with a skillet, and chase him from my place,” she retorted. “He’s profited enough from this.”
“That’s no way to talk about your brother.”
“Forgive me, please, if I can’t spare a kind word for him. I was supposed to receive the final portion of my dower on my father’s death. There’s still no sign of it.”
“Perhaps you should try grovelling. He’d like that, I’m sure.” “I’ll be dead before that day dawns.”
“Ah, such sweet words,” said Matthew. “You’re more Stewart than Sempill, there’s no denying it.”
“I thought Sir John was very gracious,” Lady Lyle spoke out. “He took your books,” Matthew reminded her.
“Not all of them. And he didn’t take my jewels.”
“Daft woman,” muttered Lord Robert. Lifting his head, he regarded young Alex serenely. “Checkmate,” he said.
Louise Turner is a professional archaeologist, born and educated in Scotland (where she’s lived all her life), and she writes historical fiction set in late 15th century Scotland. She originally started out writing science fiction: she won the ‘Glasgow Herald New Writing in SF’ short story competition in 1988 with a story entitled Busman’s Holiday which has since been republished 4 times.
Louisa’s debut novel Fire & Sword was published by US small press Hadley Rille Books in 2013, and she continues to work closely with Hadley Rille, who are due to publish her second novel (a follow-up) in March this year. Her publisher is very keen both to promote women writers and also to publish work in which women play a major role, and although working within a transatlantic partnership has its challenges, she’s certainly benefitted from Hadley Rille’s support and is very proud and delighted to be a part of their literary stable.