Robert the Bruce—The King Tries Again
At last the winter passed. In the spring Bruce sailed over to the island of Arran, bringing with him thirty-three boats and three hundred men. He was within sight of Scotland, yet he did not dare to land on the mainland, for he knew not how great an army of English soldiers might be there ready to fight with him. So first he sent a messenger over. It was agreed that if this messenger found that the English were not in great force, or if he found many friends willing to help Bruce, he was, upon a certain day, to light a beacon fire on a hill near Turnberry, Bruce's own castle. King Robert would then embark at once and sail over to Scotland.
The day arrived, and as the hours went by, Bruce waited upon the Arran shore, hoping and longing. Minute after minute passed, but no light appeared. At last about noon a little column of smoke shot up growing denser each minute, till at length the fire blazed forth so that Bruce had no doubt but that it was the signal for which he waited.
All was in readiness in the hope that the signal would come. Now with a cheer the men sprang into the boats and pushed off. Eagerly they bent to the oars, and when night fell they were well on their way across the channel, steering still by the beacon light, for they had no other compass or guide.
But on the shore of Scotland, Bruce's messenger anxiously awaited his master's coming. He hoped against hope that the King would not come, for the fire had not been lit by him, and the whole country was full of English soldiers. There was no chance of success.
The boats drew near. They touched the shore. Full of new hope, Bruce sprang to land only to be met by his trembling servant, who begged him to fly. "The English leader, Lord Percy, is in possession of your castle. He has a strong garrison there. Besides that, the whole country is full of English soldiers," he said.
"Traitor, why then did you light the fire?" cried Bruce.
"Oh, sire," replied the man, "as God sees me, the fire was never lit by me. Indeed, until the night came I knew nothing of it. As soon as I saw it, I hastened here to warn you, for I knew that you would start, thinking the signal to be mine."
Angry and disappointed, Bruce turned to his brother Edward. "What shall we do?" he asked. "Must we go back?"
"Nay, here I am, and here do I stay," replied bold Edward Bruce.
"Brother," said the King, "let it be as you say. It is good to take what God sends to us, disease or ease, pain or play."
Then, in the darkness of the night, the Scots attacked the English and defeated them. Lord Percy, hearing a great noise, and not knowing how strong the Scottish army might be, did not dare to fight. He shut himself up in the castle until he found an opportunity to leave it and flee to England.
The tide had begun to turn.
But the King had yet many adventures to pass through, many misfortunes to endure. To tell all the stories of these adventures would take too long, so I can only tell a few. Perhaps, when you are older, you will read a book called The Bruce which was written by a man named Barbour, who lived soon after the time of Bruce. There you will find all the stories.
Bruce was now much in need of more soldiers, so he sent two of his brothers to bring men from Ireland. There they gathered seven hundred, and set sail once more for Scotland. But, as they landed, they were attacked and utterly defeated by a Scottish chieftain who was fighting for the English. Many were slain, many were drowned in the sea, and the rest were taken prisoner. Among these were Bruce's two brothers, whom Edward at once put to death. Thus, within the space of a few months, the King had lost three brothers, besides many dear friends.
He had lost, too, the help of the Irish soldiers. Again his little army was scattered, again he was hunted from place to place, his enemies trying to take him in many ways, by force or by treachery.
Among Bruce's own men there was an ugly one-eyed villain. Bruce had been warned against this man, but still he trusted him and believed him to be faithful. But the man was greedy, and when the English offered him money if he would kill Bruce, he consented to do it. So this wicked man waited until he could find Bruce alone, that he might the more easily kill him.
One morning, as Bruce walked in the woods, accompanied only by a little page, he met the one-eyed villain with his two sons. One was armed with a sword and spear, the other with a sword and battle axe, and the man himself held a drawn sword in his hand.
King Robert had not expected to meet with any enemies, so he wore no armour and carried no weapon except his sword, without which he never went anywhere. His little page had a bow and one arrow. Now, when the King saw these three men coming towards him with fierce looks and in their hands drawn swords, he knew that what he had been told was true, and that the one-eyed villain was a traitor.
"What weapon have you there?" he asked, turning quickly to the page.
"A bow and one arrow, sire," said the boy.
"Then give them to me," said the King, "and stand back a little and watch. If I get the better of these traitors, I will give you weapons enough in return. If I am killed, then run as fast as you can to save yourself, and tell my men what has happened to me."
The boy did as he was told, although he would have liked to fight for his master and shoot the arrow himself.
While Bruce had been speaking, the three men had been coming nearer and nearer. Now they were quite close. "Stop," cried the King, "move not another step if you value your lives."
"Sire," replied the old man, "why do you greet me with such words? Surely you know that I love you. Who should be nearer to you than I?"
"Traitor," replied the King, "you have sold my life for English gold. Come one step nearer and you shall die."
As he spoke the King fitted his arrow to the bow and took aim at the one-eyed man. Seeing the King stand there so fierce and bold, the man hesitated. Then he thought of the English gold which had been promised to him. "After all," he said to himself, "it is but one man to three. Surely we can conquer him." So he made a step forward. That moment the bow string twanged and the man fell dead, pierced through his single eye, for Bruce was a splendid archer and never missed his aim.
With yells of anger, the two sons sprang upon the King. But quick as lightning, he threw away his bow, and drew his sword.
One son raised his battle-axe, but as he did so his foot slipped. He missed his aim, and before he could recover himself he fell dead, pierced through the heart by the King's mighty sword. The spear of the second son was levelled at Bruce, but with one great blow he cut the wooden shaft of it in two, and with a second struck the villain's head from his shoulders.
The fight had lasted but a few minutes. When it was over, the King put up his sword, looking sadly at the three dead men. "They might have been gallant and faithful soldiers," he said with a sigh, "had they not been so greedy of gold."