Mathilda and Margaret are the younger sisters of Robert the Bruce. In bringing the past to life, writers often have to piece together the fabric of time, gathering up scarce facts into a pattern that makes visual as well as literary sense. For these sisters in particular, so rarely mentioned in history’s passing, I have created a fictional patchwork out of just a few intriguing scraps. When I found that Robert had named his two daughters, Mathilda and Margaret, I sensed a close bond must have underpinned such an act, especially since he was busy with politics and war, and the siblings were separated in age by almost two decades. Surely, a mystery lies therein!
Here Mathilda introduces herself to you, a lovely young woman, enthralling in all respects.
“What kind of a name is Mathilda, I ask you! My sisters told me I was called thus after many a grand princess of Europe and that one day I would hold court and marry a prince! Had she lived longer, I would have quizzed my mother: I cannot recall her features for I was just a wee bairn when she passed. And now, it seems my heart holds a space that only her smile can fill. But enough of such bleak thoughts, mothers die all the time as do their children and I was lucky indeed to have sisters who cared for me and my baby sister, Margaret, with such devotion.
My older sisters laughed when they told me that mischief was my second name and for a long time I believed them! I had to be watched by the maids for there were many dangers – hearth fires; drowning in the well; tumbling down turnpike stairs; being caught between hunting dogs, snarling over scraps in the Great Hall or trampled by the stallions out in the bailey when the riders galloped in from the hunt. Somehow my curls proved my saving grace for the flare of a flame or a streak of sunlight would fire them a startling red-gold and I would be whisked up into the arms of our cook or a stable hand, just in time. If they but knew ─ what I longed for was the peace and the quiet of my own company. I ran away often as a youngster but only to seek a shadowed corner where I could gather my thoughts. In a castle, quiet nooks are as hard to find as goose eggs when a fox is about …
The years have passed and I have grown, tall and lithe as a spring-green sapling: my body has blossomed, too. Once, I wished to be free of these stifling castle walls, but gone are those childish whims and fancies. Our garrison shouts and grumbles over the scything clash of metal as the men practice their swordplay and prepare for war. Servitors engage in the raucous tasks of survival ─ killing and salting beasts; grinding oats; hammering shields and helmets. Even our priest’s laughter has a flinty chill to it. Fear curdles bellies and the weary strain on pallid faces makes me want to look away.
Tell no one but I would give anything, at this very moment, not to be a Bruce. Dread lies still and close like an adder about to strike. King Edward sends his English horde against Scotland and my brother, Robert. The accursed ‘dragon’ flies upon its flag: its message reeks of blood ─ no mercy for man, woman or infant. And now, we must flee north or the beast’s breath will scour our skin and its teeth crush our bones …”