When one thinks of ‘pursuit’, one usually thinks of chases, whether on foot, horse, by car, or some other form of transport, usually with a villain pursuing the hero (or vice versa). When it was mooted that the Gumbee writers should next turn their attention to such scenes I was in a bit of a fix, because I haven’t tended to include that sort of action in my books. I did think of one such chase, but the end result of that was a fight, and we have already covered fight scenes in earlier blog posts.
So, here is my slightly different take on the theme of pursuit.
This episode occurs very near to the end of The Withered Rose. The background is a bit complicated, so I shall do my best to outline it briefly.
Kieldrou (the heir to the count of Trall) and Sturgar (the earl of March) have become enemies, for a number of reasons which I don’t need to list here. Their bad feeling was exacerbated when Sturgar accused Kieldrou of seducing his wife, Atela. Kieldrou had done no such thing, although it then came to light that Atela had fallen in love with him. (This appeared in an earlier blog post, on ‘peril and tension’.)
Since then, Kieldrou felt guilty that he had done nothing to help Atela, who was now trapped with a husband she no longer loved, and who knew that she had lost her heart to another. When he was ordered to travel back to the March, to help deal with a threatened invasion from Hussania, he was initially reluctant, because it would put him back in contact with Sturgar; but he also knew it would give him a chance to check up on Atela’s well-being.
However, when he arrived at the castle of Revenar he discovered that Atela was not there: Sturgar had left her at home. Kieldrou immediately became suspicious, fearing that Sturgar had harmed her. So he stormed out of Revenar and resolved to see for himself that Atela was all right. The problem was, Sturgar was none too happy about Kieldrou riding off to his home to check up on his wife.
They rode through the remainder of the afternoon, and then through the night. They pushed their horses hard, although they took care to rest their mounts, in order to preserve them. As it was, they did not ride with as much speed as Kieldrou wished, and he cursed often as they thundered across the fields, occasionally joining the winding road, but mostly taking as direct a route a possible.
They had collected half a dozen of the Hollowdene men to ride with them, men whose own horses were fresh, fed and watered. Within a few hours all the mounts were blown, but Kieldrou urged them on. He dreaded what they might find at Marchkeep, and he would brook no delay in their arriving there.
Sturgar followed them. The earl had summoned half a dozen of his own men, and towards midnight they caught up with the Trallians. Kieldrou was ready to fight, and his own followers gathered round, hands on their swords. But the Marcher men offered no steel. Instead, the two groups continued on their mad dash towards Marchkeep, each party riding separately, but neither allowing the other to draw ahead. It was a race, and none of the fifteen men really knew what the purpose of it was, nor what they would find at the winning post.
When the dawn began to break, and as the first rays of the sun began to cast new shadows on the land, bathing the fields and hills with a faintly golden glow, the riders crested a rise to see the town and castle of Marchkeep ahead of them. They were still some five miles away. Kieldrou and Sturgar sat on their horses, twenty yards apart, and glared at each other. They had not spoken a word to each other since the groups had met up at midnight. They still did not speak, but the deadly looks they cast at each other were eloquent enough.
Sturgar turned his head and spat on the ground.
Kieldrou kicked his heels, and his horse plunged down the slope.
(There is another section here, which looks at the events from Atela’s perspective. However, it gives away too much of the plot, so I won’t include it here. Also, it was inserted in the novel to break up the chase somewhat, and also to bridge the time when Kieldrou and Sturgar are riding those five miles to the castle. We pick it up on their arrival at Marchkeep.)
Kieldrou leaped from his saddle. He was exhausted, but his anger with Sturgar and his concern for Atela drove him on. He was aware of Fernhelm dismounting beside him, but he did not acknowledge his friend’s presence – Fernhelm would stick by him, whatever happened, and they did not need to communicate: so attuned was their friendship that they would act in concert without words or gestures of direction.
He was also aware of Sturgar’s party clattering into the courtyard behind him. He ignored the earl’s shouts, and ran up the steps towards the doors of the keep. He could hear the raised voices as his men jostled with Sturgar’s, but they did not appear to be exchanging blows, merely argument; so he cast them from his mind and concentrated instead on his purpose of finding Atela, ensuring that she was safe.
A lone guardsman stood by the doors. He stepped forward to challenge the intruder, looking past Kieldrou at the fracas in the courtyard, seeking orders from his lord who was hurrying to catch up with the Trallians. Kieldrou barged the man out of the way and pushed open the door. Fernhelm growled when the guard, off balance, sought to bring his spear to bear, and the man backed away, seeing too much risk in confronting the two men on his own.
Kieldrou strode into the castle hall, glaring around. It was still early in the morning, and only a handful of people were about, servants going about their business. They quailed before the baleful glares of the tall Trallian and his equally fearsome sword-man, and hurried out of sight.
The Trallians headed towards the door in the north wall of the hall, which they knew would take them to a staircase and the upper levels of the castle. It was a spiral stair, and they bounded up it, hands trailing the stone walls for balance, until they came to the first landing. They could hear Sturgar following, although the earl no longer shouted at them to stop – the clanking of his spurs on the stone steps told them he was there.
“Further up?” Fernhelm asked, and they continued to climb the winding staircase.
They reached the next landing, and turned the corner, almost colliding with the woman who was running towards the stairs, clutching her skirts above her ankles. It took Kieldrou a few moments to recognise Atela’s tire-woman. She was sobbing, and she took huge gulps of air as he grasped her arms.
“Oh, my lord,” the woman gasped through her tears. “It’s you. Come quick. She’s bolted the door and I can’t get her to open it.”
Kieldrou cursed, and the two Trallians rushed down the corridor. Behind them, Sturgar ran to keep up.
Kieldrou pushed at Atela’s door, but it was bolted fast. “Atela!” he shouted. There was no answer. “Atela, open up!”
Sturgar shoved past him and tried the door. He cursed, and banged his fist on the panels. “Atela! For Hogra’s sake, pull back the bolt!”
Kieldrou hurled himself at the door. It shuddered under the impact of his shoulder, but otherwise would not budge.
“Fernhelm, take the woman away.”
Fernhelm nodded, and drew the sobbing maid from the vicinity of the door. Given the room he needed, Kieldrou stood back, and lashed out with his foot. His booted sole connected with the panel, just about where the bolt should be. The timbers shivered, but held. He kicked again, and again. The noise echoed in the corridor.
He stepped back, resting his back against the far wall of the corridor. Fernhelm was standing with the maid a little way away, holding her in his arms and trying to console her. Sturgar stood in the middle of the floor, staring at the door. The Earl’s face was pale, all the ire of the last night drained away. He kept his gaze on the door, never once looking in Kieldrou’s direction.
Kieldrou roared with renewed anger, and flung himself once more at the door. His body slammed against the panels. With a crash, the bolt on the other side gave way, the door flew open, and he stumbled inside.
I have to stop it there, otherwise I would spoil the plot. Suffice it to say that this is the denouement of the entire novel.
It is hard to create the required level of tension in such a scene. In the chase itself one has to choose one’s words carefully in order to give the sense of speed and urgency, which is much easier to do in, say, a film, where the use of cameras and music provides valuable assistance. Ideally, a chase/pursuit scene should make the reader’s heart race, even if only a little. In this excerpt I have chosen the ‘tension’ is created, I hope, by not knowing what Kieldrou will find when he gets to Marchkeep – and, at the end, what he might find on the other side of the door.