When I began to plan for my Blood Brothers trilogy, I wanted to visit some new territory, so to speak. I’ve written books set in medieval France and England—as well as less conventional settings, like Persia—and my Scottish medievals begin at Ravensmuir, inspired by Tantallon to the east of Edinburgh. My Scottish medieval family at Kinfairlie had links to the throne and to France, and their background was Norman. Ultimately, they married into families from the Highlands. The Rogue begins in 1371 and The Beauty Bride in 1421: I like to stay clear of the years that the black plague was in Scotland, 1349-50 and 1362. In my Champions of St. Euphemia series, Fergus returns home from Crusade to Galloway in 1188 in The Crusader’s Vow, while in The Beauty, Alasdair has returned home from Crusade to the Highlands in 1183, which sets those stories on the other side of the plague.
The heroes in the Blood Brothers series are warriors and sons of a successful mercenary. Mercenaries—or blades-for-hire—existed throughout the Middle Ages, actually even longer than that. They traveled to wherever there was a battle, hiring themselves and their companies out to the highest bidder. They were particularly successful before kings established standing armies, because their services were needed by those kings – it was true that vassals owed military service or knights to their overlords or king, but these men weren’t always as well equipped, trained or sufficiently numerous. In the fourteenth century, mercenaries proliferated in Europe – some were nobly born, some weren’t, and they tend to be left out of the chronicles. I like the sons of mercenaries as heroes: they are often conflicted about their legacy and their livelihood, which makes them ideal candidates for the Beauty-and-the-Beast stories I so love to write.
I chose the titles for the books because of their alliteration, and because they reminded me of the titles of historical romances when I first started to read these books. I loved those sweeping stories, filled with history and passion, and that was what I intended this series to be like. (And yes, the swishy type is a bonus.) Since the heroes were warriors, the women needed to have some abilities of their own: the first two heroines are called Witch and Sorceress, but I knew that would only be their cover story to keep unwanted suitors and intruders away. I envisioned them like the witches in MacBeth, surviving on the edge of the wilderness, fiercely independent and fearless.
This series was to be set in Scotland and I was fascinated with the Border Reivers who operated on the Western Marches. Although these border raiders operated from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, most of the stories about them are from the later period, and I expected this series to be set in the late fifteenth or even the sixteenth century. I had mixed feelings about this era, but liked the idea of my heroines being rebels who were indifferent to authority.
Then I dug into my research and—as is so often the case—the pieces fell into place, as if by magic. It seemed as if I’d brought together the perfect combination of elements. Liddesdale is a valley to the north and east of Carlisle, notorious as a retreat for reivers, with a large forest to the east which is today preserved as the Border Forest Park. South of this park, Hadrian’s Wall remains. At the north end of the Liddesdale valley is a castle ruin at Hermitage.
Many of the medieval stone buildings in the area frequented by the reivers are fortified towers, but this is a fortress. Hermitage is said to derive from the French l’armitage or guardhouse and this keep was called “the strength of Liddesdale”. The original structure was built in 1240 by Nicholas de Soulis and was a motte-and-bailey keep. In 1320, his descendant William de Soulis was said to have practiced witchcraft and/or been a magician who could not be harmed by steel or rope. He terrorized his tenants and the story is that they rose up and boiled him in molten lead in a nearby stone circle called Ninestang Ring. The keep is said to be haunted by his familiar, Redcap Sly, and that story was recorded by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsie of the Scottish Border. (We’ll talk more about this next week.) It’s a great story, but William was actually imprisoned by his overlord and died imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle. The current structure, imposing even in ruin, was built by the Earl of Douglas in the late fourteenth century, likely with the services of John Lewin, the master mason from Durham Cathedral.
And so, I have a fourteenth century story inspired by historical events: I now know that the mercenary (and son of a mercenary) Maximilian burned Kilderrick, the motte-and-bailey keep held by Alys’ father, at his own father’s command. Hermitage is the inspiration for Kilderrick, making Alys the sole survivor of a family experienced in border raiding (as the Armstrongs were said to be). Of course, she remembers the fire and blames Maximilian for everything she’s lost. Of course, Maximilian will be the one to build the new keep in stone when he returns to claim the holding – he’ll want to ensure that it is a fortress that can never be taken from him, as his rightful legacy has been. We’ll miss the plague of 1365, although both protagonists remember its ravages. Maximilian arrives at Kilderrick in 1375, fifteen years after he left it smoldering. England and France have signed the Truce of Bruges that will last only until 1378—which means Maximilian will be able to travel from Normandy to Scotland with comparative ease. The Scots and the English will ride to war in 1384, although both sides were already making preparations for the inevitable conflict, which is why Maximilian will be able to secure the financing for construction from the Earl of Douglas in exchange for his alliance.
Is there a ghost in the ruins? Alys would like Maximilian to think so—and as Maximilian’s unwilling bride, she has the ways and means to make her husband doubt his own sanity, as well as the motivation to do so. (Enemies-to-lovers stories are so fun.)
Next week, we’ll talk about the story of William Soulis.