Really sorry for the long delay! I've had to sort things out, but I'm hoping to continue this story to the end. Hope you enjoy.
A shout came from the walls of the fort. Gilbert, despite the pounding of blood in his ears, caught the word 'FIRE' before another flurry of arrows flew up and then arched back down. Again they seemed to head for the pursers. This time, they were more accurate, they had the right range. One horse suddenly tumbled behind Gilbert and he turned in time to see the horseman thrown off. Another arrow pierced the shoulder of the leader, wounding him and causing him to slow briefly. One of the group shouted something as one arrow went into his leg. The column slowed and one or two of the horse reared up, but the riders held steady and quickly re-gained control.
Gilbert shouted to his men, 'Keep moving! We're nearly there.'
Gilbert's men spurred their horses for every ounce of energy they had left. The enemy tried to pursue, but the brief rain of arrows had slowed them down and they would have to ride harder to catch up. As they did, another rain of arrows flew up from the walls. The leader shouted a warning and the horsemen bent down low to avoid as much of the arrows as they could. This time, the storm was more scattered, but it still managed to slow them down. The gates still stood open and as Gilbert watched a small knot of horse and men gathered with weapons ready to fend off the enemy.
It was at this point that the leader shouted something and his men stopped, leaving Gilbert and his men to ride towards the gate. Gilbert turned one last time to watch slowly fade in the distance before they turned and rode away. Even so, Gilbert did not slow his horse until he came to the small band of men. One man came up to Gilbert and saluted. Gilbert returned the salute as formally as his tired limbs could manage.
'Greetings, sir. I trust you had a good journey until now!'
Gilbert was still too exhilarated to give much comment. The blood was still pounding in his ears and he felt slightly giddy, but he managed to look straight at the man. The man gave a slight smile before he continued,
'The constable is waiting for you in your private chambers. He wishes to speak with you.'
Gilbert barely had time to see to his men and their horses before he was escorted to his new quarters. The keep was actually fairly large inside and Gilbert's rooms', near the roof, offered a view of the surrounding countryside, although whether this was a benefit Gilbert had yet to discover. His bedroom was small but cosy room where stood a beautifully carved bed, a table with a few chairs with a jug of wine surrounded by a few simple goblets and a large fireplace where a large blaze was burning brightly away.
Standing by the fire with a goblet in his hand and staring into the blaze was a man tall and bulky but with slightly greying hair wearing rough woollen clothes. He turned to face his visitor and Gilbert saw that his face was slightly wrinkled in places with a few scars still healing and eyes that watched everything. His sword still hung by his side and although the man smiled, it did not reach his eyes.
'Welcome, my lord. Please sit and have a drink.' He bowed slightly, gesturing to the nearby table and chairs. His tone was formal, but his voice slightly gruff and short, as though he was more familiar with the common man than nobility. Gilbert took a seat e as the servants closed the door quietly. Gilbert poured himself a modest amount as the man took a seat himself.
Gilbert spoke first. 'You are the constable here, correct?'
'Yes, sir, I am. Joshua, constable of this fort under his lordship William de Percy, earl of Northumbria. May I ask who you are and why you are here?'
'I am Lord Gilbert of Kent and I have been sent here by his Majesty Henry II of England and with de Percy's permission. I have been ordered to assist in putting down a minor revolt here so I need to know the situation here.'
The constable's shoulders sagged as if under a heavy burden, as though reluctant to explain. 'It's been hell, sir. We were ordered to watch for raiders and the like, but it's worse than ever. We've done our job guarding the bridge, but they have a rapidly growing army if you believe the reports. We have few enough horsemen as it is so we can't always stop them raiding our villages. We can't defend the outlying villages without depriving the garrison here and we can't get reinforcements because, apparently out lines are stretched to the limit.'
Gilbert felt numb. How could this be? Things were worse than he had imagined. 'But, why hasn't William de Percy done anything? He is the most powerful man in this region, surely he's done something!'
'He has, sir. We and the other garrisoned forts along the border are the result. The main force under William de Percy is not far from here, but it's a few days march from us. Besides, they've got their hands full trying to keep order through the rest of the land.'
'What about the rebels? Who is their leader?'
Joshua bit his lips. 'He is Sir Alan Mortimer, formerly of William de Percy's household. He was a loyal knight until his betrayal. He was robbed of his castle as it was built without royal permission. He tried to rebel against his lord. He failed initially, but managed to escape with his men and went on the run for some time. Now he has found sympathy with some of the local people and has also gathered support from some of the dissatisfied Scottish lords and received arms and men for his troubles.'
Gilbert considered the information. This sounded serious. If Sir Alan was not stopped soon, who knew how far he would get before Henry could stop him? And what damage would he cause before then?
'What about King Malcolm of Scotland? Can't he do anything?' Malcolm IV of Scotland had returned the lands of Cumbria and Northumbria to Henry early this year. Henry's use of diplomacy (and implicit threat of force) was enough for the less powerful King of Scotland to agree.
Joshua paused, 'He was informed of the Scottish lords and is apparently dealing with them. But I wouldn't count on his support in saving us. He's got his hands full as well, so we hear.'
Gilbert nodded. Better than nothing. He tried to work out a plan, but had no ideas at the moment. They had some advantages; a well-defended position for one. The ideas of several plans formed in his mind when there was a knock on the door. Without waiting for a reply, a servant hurried into the room and bowed quickly to the men.
'Beg to report, sir. Scouts have returned with news. The rebels are planning to march here and attack us.'
Gilbert rose quickly followed by the constable. Gilbert's mind raced ahead. 'How far is he?'
'Not far. At least a day's march away.'
Gilbert turned to the constable quickly, his mind made up. 'Joshua, we have much to do and little time to do it in. I need a full inventory of supplies right now. Rally the garrison and arm every one you can. Gather the officers and have them come here. I have an idea or two which may help us.'
Joshua saluted and went quickly away, taking the servant with him. As the door closed and Gilbert was left alone, he moved over to the window which gave a view of the land, still under the gloomy sky. He had a faint premonition that the fight, when it came, would be hard and bloody. But if his idea worked, then there was a slim chance of success. If not, then Gilbert personally resolved to kill as many as he could before he fell.