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Chapter XXI The Siege of Aberfilly
 Punctual to his agreement, Archie Forbes marched south with his retainers. He was loath, indeed, to leave Marjory, but he knew well that a long time indeed must elapse before he could hope to settle down quietly at home, and that it was urgent to hurry on the work at once before the English made another great effort to stamp out the movement. Marjory did not attempt to induce him to overstay his time. She was too proud of his position as one of the foremost knights of Scotland to say a word to detain him from the field. So she bade him adieu with a brave face, reserving her tears until after he had ridden away.  
It had been arranged that Archie should operate independently of Douglas, the two joining their forces only when threatened by overwhelming numbers or when any great enterprise was to be undertaken. Archie took with him a hundred and fifty men from his estates in Lanark and Ayr. He marched first to Loudon Hill, then down through Cumnock and the border of Carrick into Galloway. Contrary to the usual custom, he enjoined his retainers on no account to burn or harry the villages and granges.
"The people," he said, "are not responsible for the conduct of their lords, and as I would not see the English harrying the country round Aberfilly, so I am loath to carry fire and sword among these poor people. We have come hither to punish their lords and to capture their castles. If the country people oppose us we must needs fight them; but beyond what is necessary for our provisions let us take nothing from them, and show them, by our conduct, that we hold them to be Scotchmen like ourselves, and that we pity rather than blame them, inasmuch as by the orders of their lords they are forced to fight against us."
Archie had not advanced more than a day's march into Galloway when he heard that Sir John de St. John was marching with four hundred men-at-arms to meet him.
There were no better soldiers in the following of Bruce than the retainers of Aberfilly and Glen Cairn. They had now for many years been frequently under arms, and were thoroughly trained to fight together. They had the greatest confidence in themselves and their leader, and having often with their spears withstood the shock of the English chivalry, Archie knew that he could rely upon them to the fullest. He therefore took up a position on the banks of a river where a ford would enable the enemy to cross. Had he been less confident as to the result he would have defended the ford, which could be only crossed by two horsemen abreast. He determined, however, to repeat the maneuver which had proved so successful at Stirling Bridge, and to let half of the enemy cross before he fell upon them.
The ground near the river was stony and rough. Great boulders, which had rolled from the hillside, were thickly scattered about it, and it would be difficult for cavalry to charge up the somewhat steeply sloping ground in anything like unbroken order.
With eighty of his men Archie took up a position one hundred yards back from the stream. With great exertions some of the smaller boulders were removed, and rocks and stones were piled to make a wall on either flank of the ground, which, standing two deep, he occupied. The remaining seventy men he divided equally, placing one company under the command of each of his two faithful lieutenants, Andrew Macpherson and William Orr. These took post near the river, one on each side of the ford, and at a distance of about one hundred yards therefrom. Orr's company were hidden among some bushes growing by the river. Macpherson's lay down among the stones and boulders, and were scarce likely to attract the attention of the English, which would naturally be fixed upon the little body drawn up to oppose them in front. The preparations were scarcely completed when the English were seen approaching. They made no halt at the river, but at once commenced crossing at the ford, confident in their power to overwhelm the little body of Scots, whose number had, it seemed to them, been exaggerated by the fears of the country people. As soon as a hundred of the men-at-arms had passed, their leader marshalled them in line, and with level spears charged up the slopes against Archie's force. The great boulders broke their ranks, and it was but in straggling order that they reached the narrow line of Scottish spears. These they in vain endeavoured to break through. Their numbers were of no avail to them, as, being on horseback, but twenty men at a time could attack the double row of spearmen. While the conflict was at its height Archie's trumpet was sounded, for he saw that another hundred men had now crossed the ford.
At the signal the two hidden parties leapt to their feet, and with levelled pikes rushed towards the ford. The English had no force there to resist the attack, for as the men-at-arms had passed, each had ridden on to join the fray in front. The head of the ford was therefore seized with but little difficulty. Orr, with twenty men, remained here to hold it and prevent others from crossing, while Macpherson, with fifty, ran up the hill and fell upon the rear of the confused masses of cavalry, who were striving in vain to break the lines of Archie's spears.
The attack was decisive; the English, surprised and confused by the sudden attack, were unable to offer any effectual resistance to Macpherson's pikemen, and at the same moment that these fell upon the rear, Archie gave the word and his men rushed forward upon the struggling mass of cavalry. The shock was irresistible; men and horses fell in numbers under the Scottish spears, and in a few minutes those who could manage to extricate themselves from the struggling mass rode off in various directions. These, however, were few in number, for ninety were killed and seventy taken prisoners. St. John himself succeeded in cutting his way through the spearmen, and, swimming the river below the ford, rejoined his followers, who had in vain endeavoured to force the passage of the ford. With these he rapidly retired.
A detachment of fifty men were sent off with the prisoners to Bruce, and Archie, with the main body of his followers, two days later joined the force under Sir James Douglas.
Upon the following morning a messenger from Aberfilly reached Archie.
"My lord," he said, "I bring you a message from the Lady Marjory. I have spent five days in searching for you, and have never but once laid down during that time, therefore do not blame me if my message is long in coming."
"What is it, Evan? nought is wrong there, I trust?"
"The Lady Marjory bade me tell you that news has reached her, that from each of the garrisons of Ayr, Lanark, Stirling and Bothwell, a force is marching toward your hold, which the governor of Bothwell has sworn to destroy. When I left they were expected hourly in sight, and this is full a week since."
"Aberfilly can hold out for longer than that," Archie said, "against aught but surprise, and the vassals would have had time to gather."
"Yes," the man replied, "they were flocking in when I came away; the men of Glen Cairn had already arrived; all the women and children were taking to the hills, according to the orders which you gave."
"And now, good Evan, do you eat some supper, and then rest. No wonder you have been so long in finding me, for I have been wandering without ceasing. I will start at once with my followers here for Aberfilly; by tomorrow evening we will be there."
Archie hurried to the hut occupied by Douglas, told him the news, and said he must hurry away to the defence of his castle.
"Go, by all means, Archie," Douglas replied. "If I can gather a force sufficient to relieve you I will myself march thither; but at present I fear that the chances of my doing so are small, for the four garrisons you have named would be able to spare a force vastly larger than any with which I could meet them in the field, and the king is no better able to help you."
"I will do my best," Archie said. "The castle can stand a stout siege; and fortunately I have a secret passage by which we can escape."
"Never mind the castle," Douglas replied. "When better days come we will rebuild it again for you."
A few notes on a horn brought Archie's little band of followers together. Telling them the danger which threatened Glen Cairn, Archie placed himself at their head, and at a rapid step they marched away. It was five-and-forty miles across the hills, but before morning they approached it, and made their way to the wood in which was the entrance to the subterranean passage leading to the castle. Archie had feared that they might find the massive doors which closed it, a short distance from the entrance, securely fastened as usual. They were shut, indeed, but as they approached them they heard a challenge from within.
"It is I, Sir Archie Forbes."
The door was opened at once. "Welcome, Sir Archie!" the guard said. "The Lady Marjory has been expecting you for the last five days, and a watch has been kept here constantly, to open the doors should you come."
"The messenger could not find me," Archie said. "Is all well at the castle?"
"All is well," the man replied. "The English have made two attacks, but have been beaten back with loss. This morning some great machines have arrived from Stirling and have begun battering the walls. Is it your will that I remain here on guard, now that you have come?"
"Yes," Archie answered. "It were best that one should be always stationed here, seeing that the entrance might perchance be discovered by one wandering in the wood, or they might obtain the secret of its existence from a prisoner. If footsteps are heard approaching retire at once with the news. There is no danger if we are warned in time, for we can turn the water from the moat into it."
Archie and his followers now made their way along the passage until they entered the castle. As they issued out from the entrance a shout of joy rose from those near, and the news rapidly flew through the castle that Archie had arrived. In a moment Marjory ran down and threw herself into his arms.
"Welcome back, Archie, a thousand times! I have been grievously anxious as the days went on and you did not return, and had feared that some evil must have befallen you. It has been a greater anxiety to me than the defence of the castle; but I have done my best to be hopeful and bright, to keep up the spirits of our followers."
"It was no easy task for your messenger to find me, Marjory, for we are ever on the move. Is my mother here?"
"No, Archie, she went a fortnight since on a visit to Lady Gordon."
"It is well," Archie said, "for if in the end we have to leave the castle, you, who have proved yourself so strong and brave, can, if needs be, take to the hills with me; but she could not support the fatigues of such a life. And now, dear, we have marched all night and shall be glad of food; while it is preparing I will to the walls and see what is going on."
As Archie reached the battlement a loud cheer broke from the defenders gathered there, and Sandy Grahame hurried up to him.
"Welcome back, Sir Archie; glad am I to give up the responsibility of this post, although, indeed, it is not I who have been in command, but Lady Marjory. She has been always on the walls, cheering the men with her words and urging them to deeds of bravery; and, indeed, she has frightened me sorely by the way in which she exposed herself where the arrows were flying most thickly, for as I told her over and over again, if the castle were taken I knew that you would be sure that I had done my best, but what excuse should I be able to make to you if I had to bear you the news that she had been killed?"
"And what did she say to that, Sandy?"
"Truth, Sir Archie, she's a woman and wilful, and she just laughed and said that you would know you could not keep her in order yourself, and could not therefore expect me to rule her."
"That is so, Sandy," Archie laughed; "but now that I am back I will for once exert my authority, and will see that she runs into no further danger. And now, how goes the siege?"
"So far they have done but little damage, Sir Archie; but the machines which they brought up yesterday will, I fear, play havock with our walls. They have not yet begun their work, for when they brought them up yesterday afternoon our men shot so hotly that they had to fall back again; but in the night they have thrown up high banks of earth, and have planted the engines under their shelter, and will, ere long, begin to send their messengers against our walls. Thrice they assaulted the works beyond the drawbridge and twice we beat them back; but last night they came on with all their force. I was myself there, and after fighting for a while and seeing they were too strong for us, I thought it best to withdraw before they gained footing in the work, and so had time to draw off the men and raise the drawbridge."
"Quite right, Sandy! The defenders of the post would only have been slaughtered, and the assailants might have rushed across the drawbridge before it could have been raised. The post is of little importance save to defend the castle against a sudden surprise, and would only have been a source of constant anxiety and loss. How many do you reckon them? Judging by their tents there must be three or four thousand."
"About three thousand, Sir Archie, I make it; and as we had no time to get the tenants in from my lady's Ayrshire estate, we have but two hundred men in the castle, and many of these are scarce more than boys."
"I have brought a hundred and fifty with me, Sandy, so we have as many as we can use on the walls, though I could wish I had another hundred or two for sorties."
Half an hour later the great machines began to work, hurling vast stones with tremendous force against the castle wall. Strongly as this was built, Archie saw that it would ere many days crumble before the blows.
"I did not reckon on such machines as these," he said to Sandy. "Doubtless they are some of the huge machines which King Edward had constructed for the siege of Stirling, and which have remained there since the castle was taken. Fortunately we have still the moat when a breach is made, and it will be hard work to cross that."
All day the great stones thundered against the wall. The defenders were not idle, but kept up a shower of arrows at the edge of the mound behind which the machines were hidden; but although many of those working there were killed, fresh relays came constantly up, and the machines never ceased their work. By nightfall the face of the wall was bruised and battered. Many of the stones in front had fallen from their places.
"Another twenty-four hours," Archie said to Marjory, as he joined her in the great hall, "and the breach will be begun, forty-eight and it will be completed. They will go on all night, and we may expect no rest until the work is done. In an hour's time I shall sally out from the passage into the wood and beat up their camp. Expecting no attack from the rear, we shall do them rare damage ere they can gather to oppose us. As soon as they do so we shall be off again, and, scattering in various directions, gather again in the wood and return here."
An hour later Archie, with two hundred men, started. No sooner had he left than Marjory called Sandy Grahame and Andrew Macpherson, whom he had left in joint command during his absence.
"Now," she said, "I am not going to remain quiet here while Sir Archie does all the fighting, therefore do you gather all the garrison together, leaving only twenty to hold the gate. See that the wheels of the drawbridge are well oiled, and the hinges of the gate. Directly we see that the attack has begun upon the camp we will lower the drawbridge quietly, open the gates, and sally out. There is no great force in the outer work. When we have cleared that—which, if we are quick, we can do without alarming the camp, seeing what a confusion and uproar will be going on there—we will make straight along to the point where the machines are placed. Let some of the men take axes and cut the ropes, and let others carry faggots well steeped in oil, we will pile them round the machines and light them, and thus having ensured their destruction, we will fall back again."
"But, Lady Marjory—" Sandy began.
"I will have no buts, Sandy; you must just do as I order you, and I will answer to Sir Archie. I shall myself go forth with you and see that the work is properly done."
The two men looked doubtfully at each other.
"Now, Andrew," Marjory said briskly, "let us have no hesitation or talk, the plan is a good one."
"I do not say that it is not a good one," Sandy replied cautiously, "or that it is not one that Sir Archie might have carried out if he had been here."
"Very well, Andrew, then that is quite enough. I give you the orders and I am responsible, and if you and Sandy do not choose to obey me, I shall call the men together myself and lead them without you."
As Sandy and Andrew were quite conscious that their lady would be as good as her word, they at once proceeded to carry her orders into effect. The wheels of the portcullis and drawbridge were oiled, as were the bolts and hinges of the gate. The men were formed up in the courtyard, where presently they were joined by Marjory who had put on a light steel cap and a shirt of mail, and who had armed herself with a light sword. The men gathered round her enthusiastically, and would have burst into cheers had she not held up her hand to comman............
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