This story is dedicated to Kathleen. It is the Witch Tale that I wrote for this year’s watchersdiaries ‘Witches and Demons’ ficathon and could be regarded as a prequel to the vampire story Deid Canny that I wrote for their last ficathon. Unlike that story this one is written in conventional English rather than dialect. 7,220 words. Rating R.
Summary: The Borders between England and Scotland in the year 1580. Every girl dreams of a handsome hero to save her from the villains, they say, but there's never such a hero around when you need one and Anne Collingwood's hopes must rest on a disfigured murderer with a death wish. And on her little bit of magic. It's not much, against seventeen ruthless killers, but it's all she has.
Days of No Trust
So here's to the heroes
Come one and come all
Without them well who knows
Well who knows at all?
(Magnum, Days of No Trust)
The farms were quiet with almost all of the menfolk away. The Day of Truce was at hand and they had gone to the meeting of the Wardens, to present their petitions and to defend themselves against the petitions of others, and we women were left at home. It was never truly peaceful so near to the Border, but this was as safe a time as any, and safer than most. Few would dare to go reiving when the Wardens of both England and Scotland were camped at the Border, meeting under the truce banners, and with their retinues mustered about them ready to wreak retribution upon transgressors.
Yet ‘few’ was not the same as ‘none’. This was the year of our Lord 1580, only five years after the Raid of the Reidswire, and that had begun at just such a Warden’s meeting. We were not left unprotected. Hobbie the Bill-man and Tall Davie had stayed home and they were good men with their hands.
But when the Burns came upon us they came in force, eighteen strong, and what could two men do against so many?
Had they attacked at night we might have withstood them, for we would have been upstairs in our Bastle houses with the ladders pulled inside, but they came by the broad light of day. Riding fast upon us, clad in jacks and with steel caps upon their heads, armed with lances and crossbows.
Hobbie struck out with his bill and slew one, cutting the man of the Burns from his horse, but then another of the raiders reined to a halt and took aim with a crossbow. He loosed a bolt and pierced Hobbie’s chest. Hobbie, cousin to my father, let go of his bill and dropped to his knees. A rider thrust a lance into him and Hobbie fell on his face and lay still. Tall Davie had put his bow aside as he worked and he was struck through as he ran for his weapon.
I was out in the middle of a field and there was nowhere to hide. I ran, but two of the Burns riders cantered after me, and I knew that I could not outrun horses. I stopped and faced them as they rode towards me with the sun behind them. They slowed their mounts to a walk and raised their lances to point aloft.
“A bonny lass,” one said.
“Aye,” said the other, and I knew him by sight. He was called Will of the Coat and he had an ill name in Teviotdale and Coquetdale. He twirled his lance around, drove its point into the earth, and released his grip upon the shaft. “Annie Sharptongue, is it not? No man will have her, or so they say.” He laughed. “Well, no man will marry her. I mean to have her here and now.” He moved his horse closer and loomed over me, blotting out my sight of the sun, and I was in their shadow.
I reached out with my mind and took the power into myself. I breathed lightly, stood very still, and I saw his eyes widen.
“What? Where is she?” he cried. “The lassie has gone!”
The other man twisted in his saddle. “She is not behind us,” he said. “Is there a ditch that she has slipped into?”
Will of the Coat gazed all around him. He leaned over and looked under his own horse. His glance passed over me a dozen times, but he saw me not, for I was in the realm of Shadow and he was blind to my presence.
“She is not here,” he said. “I cannot understand this. There is nowhere that she could have hidden herself but she has vanished clean away.”
“A secret tunnel?” asked the other man.
“I see nothing that could be a tunnel,” said Will, “and she disappeared as I was looking full at her.” He turned his horse and returned to where he had left the lance. I followed, staying within their shadow, and thus remaining hidden, although in so doing I was moving away from shelter. “I heard talk,” Will went on, “that Annie is a witch, and that is why she remains a maid still. I thought it just idle gossip, but perhaps…”
“Then she has escaped?” The other man’s voice was sharp. “If she goes to the Warden we shall be hanged. There were to be no witnesses.”
I shivered. They meant to kill us all. My mother, my sister, my young brother, and the others of our hamlet. I could perhaps save myself, as long as I could remain in Shadow, but how could I do anything to help the others? To reach the Wardens’ camps at Windygyle would take hours on foot. I would bring back our men to a charnel house.
Yet what else could I do? On a horse I could not hide. I would be ridden down and taken or shot, unless I could get clean away with none seeing me, and I doubted if I could do that. No, on foot it would have to be, unless fortune smiled on me. There was no point in going to one of the other Collingwood villages. Their fighting men would be at the Meet just as were the men of my own village.
I glanced up at the sky and saw clouds. I could not tell if any were near the sun, not without peering around the horse and rider who provided me with the shadows in which to hide, but I had to be prepared for a cloud to cross in front of the sun. There would be no shadows for me if that should happen, only a soft and diffuse light in which I would be open to view, and I felt a cold shiver on my spine as I thought of it.
The men of the Burns wheeled their horses and headed for the houses to join their fellows. I had no option but to go with them, hastily adjusting my course so that I stayed within the shadows, and I was forced to quicken my pace as the horses speeded up. If they broke into a gallop I would be stranded out in the open, visible to any who looked in my direction, and helpless to retreat into Shadow once more.
It did not happen. Their path crossed with the shadow of a tree. I stopped within that shadow and waited for a moment as the two riders rode on. Then I turned and walked along the shadow to the trunk of the tree. There were other shadows there. I moved from one to another and at last placed a solid obstacle between myself and where the Burns raiders were ransacking my home. I left the realm of Shadow and began the long trek towards Windygyle.
I would be too late, I knew, and all I could realistically hope for would be to bring vengeance down upon the Burns. Unless I chanced upon some of the men of my own family on their way to the Wardens’ meeting from another village. Or perhaps a group from the Storeys or the Hedleys, or even the Robsons at a pinch, for they were no friends to the Burns.
It was a possibility. I held on to that chance as I walked, yet my hope was slim, and before long fear overcame me. I broke into a run, panting as I pounded across the rough ground and through patches of gorse and heather, but at last I had to stop. I gasped for breath and heard a pounding in my ears. When my breathing eased I realised that the pounding was still there.
It was the sound of hoof-beats.
A cloud hid the sun. There were no clear shadows. My powers were at their weakest. If the riders came close, and if they were enemies, I would be able only to try to hide among the bushes.
I looked around and located the source of the sound. Five horses. Four riding horses and a pack animal. The four riders wore steel caps and held lances. They were heading in the same direction as I, no doubt also on their way to the meet, and I prayed that they would be Collingwoods.
My count of the Burns came to eighteen, less the one slain by Hobbie the Bill-man, but I had made that count in great haste and would not have taken oath on the figure. I would not be far amiss, however, and four against seventeen were poor odds indeed. But they were all I had, unless they had company close at hand, and would have to do. Perhaps a surprise attack could even the odds.
If they would even help at all, that is. They saw me and diverted their course slightly to make sure that our paths would cross. I accepted this as inevitable and turned around to walk directly towards them. Before long I was close enough to see the faces under the steel bonnets. My heart sank.
I had never seen any of the four men before in my life.
“Seventeen, you say?” Ralph Robson’s heavy eyebrows descended low over his eyes. They seemed to cast shadow enough that I could have used it to work magic. “Are you sure?”
“I made the best count that I could,” I told him. These were Robsons from Tynedale, and strangers to me, although I knew some of the Robsons who lived at the head of Coquetdale. Ralph had the look of a bold man, and fierce, and his three sons that rode with him looked to be good men of arms as well. “It may be that there were one or two who remained on the far side of our houses and came not into my sight, and it could be that I may have counted one twice in my haste, yet I will wager that I am not far out in my count.”
“Seventeen,” Ralph repeated. “And but four of us. I like not those odds. We must go to the Warden and raise a hot trod. Climb up on the back of my steed, lass, and we’ll take you to Windygyle.”
“A rescue party from there would be too late,” I protested. “Please, good sir, come back with me now and drive them off.”
He shook his head. “If there were eight, or perhaps ten, I would do so, lassie, for a Robson is more than a match for two Burns. But seventeen? More than four to one? It would be throwing our lives away for no purpose.”
“No purpose? They will slay my mother and sister. I heard one say that there were to be no witnesses. Please, I implore you, aid me now.” I looked from Ralph to his three sons.
There was sympathy on the faces of Allun and Tom, I saw, but they shook their heads and my heart sank. The other son, Jamie, smiled at me. I could not help but shudder. His face was a fearful sight for he had but half a nose. The right side of it had been sliced away, no doubt by a knife or some such sharp implement, and the scars from the wound ran on across his cheek and down his lip. They were red and angry and gave him a fell appearance. Yet his words made me feel shame that I had looked upon him with distaste.
“I’ll come, lassie, and fight yon Burns for you. Mayhap I can set upon them one at a time and, if not, it seems a worthy cause in which to die.”
“You will not, laddie,” his father said, his face set in a stern expression. “I’ll not have you throw your life away on a fool’s errand.”
“Hardly a fool’s errand, Da,” Jamie said. “This bonny young lassie needs help. And here’s me, that can give that help, and it’s not that I’ve that much to lose. They’ll hang me at the meeting, like as not, and I might as well die here as there.”
“Hang you?” I asked. “What for?”
“There’s a bill of complaint against me for the killings of Archie Nixon and Will’s Jock Elliot,” Jamie answered. “I’d as soon die on a lance as have my neck stretched.”
“The Warden will not hang you, Jamie, for it is good cause that you had,” his brother Allun said.
“Aye, but kill them I did, and the Elliots have a canny bit influence with the Wardens,” Jamie replied.
“Why did you kill them?” It was forward of me to ask, but I could not help myself.
“Why, Will’s Jock did this to me,” Jamie said, pointing at his nose. “I was paying court to his sister, and it did not sit well with him, and he took it upon himself to ruin the match.”
“And the other man?”
“He held my arms.”
“You shall not be hanged,” Ralph Robson insisted. “It is Kerr of Ferniehurst who is to be there for the Scots, not the Keeper of Liddesdale, and the Elliots hold no sway with him. Stand up and speak your piece and that will be an end to it.”
“An end to it? Then I shall no more be known as Jamie Half-nose? The lassies will smile at me again, instead of turning their heads away, and all shall be well?” Jamie shook his head. “I am resolved to do this thing, Da, and I will not be turned from my path. I would take it kindly if you would come with me, and my brothers, but I shall go alone if I must.” He looked at me and his mouth lifted at the corners. It would have been a nice smile if the wounds had not marred his features. “I’ll ask but one thing in return, lassie. A kiss.”
His face was spoiled, but his manners were fair, and a kiss would be no great hardship. “Gladly, Jamie Robson,” I told him. “Yet do not be eager to throw your life away, for it would help me not at all if you rode to the rescue only to die at once. There shall be a kiss for you once my family are free.”
“And one before we go?” he bargained.
“You shall have two kisses,” I agreed. “But you must live to get the second.”
“Then it is a deal that we have,” he said. “Climb up behind me, lassie, and guide me until we are in sight of your farm.”
“You’re a fool, Jamie,” Allun said, “but I’d not want you to die alone. I’ll come along.”
“I’m with you,” Tom said, “but if we are all slain, Jamie, then I shall never speak to you again.”
“I forbid it,” Ralph Robson said. “I’ll not be left without sons. There is no threat of the rope hanging over you two.”
They protested, but their father was adamant, and I doubted if they would change his mind. I had no time to wait for the resolution of an argument, in any event, and I went to Jamie’s horse. I held out my hand, and he took it, and swung me up onto the steed behind him. “Take word to the Wardens, and to my father,” I said to Ralph.
“Aye, I’ll do that, though I fear they will be able to do naught but bury the both of you,” he said. “Reconsider, lassie. This is foolishness.”
“Perhaps, but my thought is that one man now will be better than a score in three hours,” said I. “Although four would be better still. Will you not yourself reconsider?”
“I will not,” Ralph said. “Jamie, lad, if you are set on this foolish adventure, take my dag.” He unfastened the scabbard from his saddle and passed the pistol to his son.
“Take my caliver,” offered Allun.
“I’ll take the dag, for when it comes to close work, and be thankful,” Jamie said, accepting the weapon from his father and tying its scabbard to his harness, “but for long work I’ll stick to my bow, Allun, for the flash and bang from the caliver would bring all the Burns down on me in a pack and I would be overborne. Fare well, Da, Allun, Tom.”
“Fare thee well, Jamie,” said his father. Jamie set spur to his horse and we were off.
He would not ride at the gallop, though I urged him, for he said that he wanted the horse to be fresh lest it came to charge of lance. Instead he put the horse to the trot and asked me questions as we rode. He asked about the way that the farms were laid out, and what cover we might find as we drew near, and he asked what arms the Burns bore. I was sore afraid for my family, and would have had him rush headlong to the rescue, yet I could see that there was sense in his words. He was a canny man of arms, it seemed, for all that he was young. I gave him answer as best I could, and kept one eye on the skies, for if I was to take any part in the fight I needed the sun to be clear of the clouds.
At length we drew near to my home. He brought the horse to a halt beside a tree and looked ahead. “They are gathering your beasts, it seems, to drive them off when night falls,” he said. “I see horses moving, and men. If we ride closer we shall be seen. From here I shall walk and lead the horse. Get yourself down, Anne, and wait here.”
That was no part of my plan. “I can guide you closer yet, if we go on foot, with little chance that we are seen,” I pointed out.
He turned to look at me. “A good plan, indeed, but you are not to venture too close. Once we are nearly at long arrow shot I shall go on alone.”
It was plain that he knew his business and I could not argue. “Very well, Jamie Robson, I shall do as you say.”
He swung his leg over the horse, and dropped to the ground, and reached his hands up for me. He helped me down and I stood there, in front of him, with his hands about my waist. It was a good feeling, for he was a bold man and strong, and I wished that I was wearing my fair blue kirtle rather than the plain smock for working in the fields. “This would be a good time for you to claim your first kiss, I think,” I suggested.
“Aye, there will be little enough opportunity once the arrows start to fly,” said he, and he turned his face a little so that the marred side of his nose was away from me.
I had little experience of kissing, for Will of the Coat had the right of it when he had said that there was no man eager to marry me, but I had kissed enough to know that he should be turned towards me. I took his face in my hands and brought it round so that our lips could meet. He was slow to take advantage and so I kissed him soundly. Once I had started he took to it with enthusiasm and we kissed until my breath ran short.
His eyebrows were high on his forehead when we drew apart. “I had thought that you would but kiss me on the cheek,” he said.
“That would be but poor reward if you are to be risking your life for me,” I told him, and then a thought struck me and I put my hand to my mouth. “Oh, I did not think. Your scar looks yet to be sore. Did I hurt you?”
“You did not,” he said. “I shall look forward to the second kiss, if I live.” He took his hands away from my waist. “And if I do not, well, it was a good way to say farewell.”
I led him forward by the best way I knew. We were heading nearly towards the sun and so I kept to the shadows, although I could make no use of their magic when Jamie was there, and we reached the fields of my own farm with no alarm raised.
There were two of the Burns riders there, driving our cattle together with those of our neighbours into a herd, and Jamie looked at them from behind an earthen bank. “I had thought to leave you here and go on further alone,” he said, “but those men will see me without doubt if I go on. I must bring them down from here. Hide yourself, Anne, and if you see me fall take word to my father.”
“I will, if such a thing should come to pass,” I promised. I moved away a small distance and stood in the shadow of the bank. Jamie was looking at the enemy riders and so I merged myself with the shadows and stood unseen close by him.
His weapon was a longbow, better suited to a man on foot than on horse, but it had a range beyond that of the crossbows that the Burns men bore. Jamie thrust two arrows lightly into the earth near at hand, nocked another arrow to his bowstring, and drew. He aimed at one man and then shifted his aim to the other, loosed shaft, and snatched up an arrow. He nocked, drew, and loosed all in one move. Both arrows were in the air at once. The furthest man was the first to be struck. He fell from his mount without a cry. Scant seconds later the other man clutched at his chest and leaned sideways in his saddle. He turned his horse around, Jamie nocking another shaft as he did so, but then the man leaned further over and fell.
“Two,” Jamie said quietly. He held the bow with one hand, took hold of the horse’s bridle with the other, and moved on once more. I followed after him unseen.
He saw something that I did not and he drew shaft and loosed. I watched the flight of the arrow but the target was to the far side of a tree and I did not see it strike home. Jamie nodded to himself, and said “three”, and pressed on.
Our luck could not hold forever, of course. I saw a man come out of my house onto the ladder, and he looked out over the fields from that high place. I think he saw the man who Jamie had just slain, for he called out “Ho, Ringan, what ails you?” An arrow flew through the air towards him, and he must have seen it coming, for he moved aside in haste, and it struck him in the shoulder instead of full in the chest. He fell from the ladder, but he cried out as he fell, and the game was up.
From every corner, it seemed, the Burns emerged. Some were afoot, and some on horse, and some came from the buildings in states of undress. Cries rang out and they ran every which way. Jamie loosed one more shaft but hit no-one, for they were running and dodging, and in the time that it took for the arrow to reach the target the man was there no longer. From behind the house came three of the Burns, riding hard, two with lances levelled and one with a crossbow held to his shoulder.
Jamie loosed one more shaft at a man who had come into sight holding a harquebus. The man fell on his face and Jamie cast his bow aside. He had slung his lance in straps at the horse’s side, and he pulled it free, and then swung himself up into the saddle. He set spurs to the horse and rode to meet the Burns.
It galled me to watch and take no part, but there seemed little that I could do, for I had neither weapon nor training at arms. I contented myself with making my way closer that I could better see what transpired.
Jamie galloped headlong towards the three riders. The crossbowman pulled up short and loosed his bolt. He was the man who had shot down Hobbie the Bill-man. Yet he missed his target, for Jamie slipped aside in the saddle and hung from the side of the horse for a moment, and then swung himself up again. Hobbie’s slayer cursed and set himself to reloading.
Jamie rode with one lance against two with lances levelled. I shuddered, for I thought that his doom was certain, as even should he slay one the other would surely strike home. Yet Jamie showed no fear. Ah, he was a canny one, for as they drew close he pulled out his father’s dag and shot one lancer from the saddle. He dodged the point of the other and thrust his lance into the man’s chest. A twirl of his wrist and his lance was free. He charged on, leaving two dead men behind him, and was on the crossbowman in another moment. The man had cocked his weapon but had not yet loaded the bolt, and he tried to strike aside the lance with the empty bow, but to no avail. Jamie ran him through and rode on.
I tried to reckon up the tally so far. Jamie had slain three with arrows on the way in, and wounded another, and then he had struck the harquebusier and killed him or wounded him sore. That was five. The three riders made eight. Why, near half the enemy force was down already! I would have raised a cheer had I dared.
Two more on horse came towards Jamie and he rode at them with a will. Then his horse stumbled under him, and I heard a ‘boom’, and I looked and saw a cloud of powder-smoke at the doorway of Tall Davie’s house. Jamie’s horse raised its head and uttered a cry the like of which I had never heard a horse make before, and its gallop faltered, and then its legs buckled and it sank to the ground. Jamie jumped free of the saddle as it fell but now he was afoot.
He cast a glance behind him at the fallen men. I think he looked for a dag, but must have seen none, and he turned back towards the riders who were coming at him with lances. He raised his lance as it were a pike, but I had small hope that he could prevail, and I ran to where he had cast aside his bow. In the light I could not hope to draw such a weapon, for the men practiced from childhood and grew strong in the arm, but perhaps I could draw power enough from Shadow. I reached the bow but my hope was dashed for it lay there without arrows. I looked up and saw that the riders were upon him.
A good man at arms indeed was Jamie, for he slipped aside past a lance and drove home his own, taking the horse in the flank and sending it screaming to the ground. The rider was caught with his leg under his mount and he struggled and cried out. The other rider was Will of the Coat. He thrust out with his lance and pierced Jamie through the shoulder. Jamie seized on to it and wrenched it from Will’s hand, drew it forth from the wound and cast it aside, and then drew sword. Then it seemed that his strength gave out and he dropped to his knees. His shoulder was red with blood. The sword fell from his hand and then Jamie fell flat on his face.
I could not help myself. I ran out from Shadow, and into the light, and across the field. For weapon I had only a small knife against a man full armed. Yet I remembered that I had made use of Will’s own shadow before, and I thought that perhaps I might do the same again, and anyway I was resolved not to let Jamie die.
“Help me, Will, for I fear my leg is broken,” called the man who had been hurt when his horse fell. He had freed himself from the dying beast but lay near it and held no weapon. “I am in sore peril here if more of them come.”
“There are no others,” Will said, and there was wonder in his voice. “This mad man attacked us alone, it seems.” Then he saw me, and his eyes grew wide, and a smile spread across his face. “Or rather alone save for a girl. ‘Tis Annie Sharptongue.” He swung down from his horse and faced me. “So, girl, you went to raise a trod against us, but could find only one gallant rider. Glad I am that you did not find more such men. He has killed my uncle and my cousin, and others besides, and I am ill pleased. Yet I shall take payment from you for my kin. No pleasures have I had at your house, for your sister is over young for my taste and your mother too old, and it is good that you have returned to me.”
I moved to come at him from the side, and he turned, but he could not have known what was my intent. He saw the knife, and laughed, and as I lunged at him he caught my arm with ease. “Why, Annie, you have spirit and to spare,” he said.
And then I struck. Not with my flesh, but with my shadow. I reached out with my free arm so that my shadow entered his, and with the shadow of my hand I took hold of the shadow of his heart, and I squeezed.
His hand opened and my arm was free. His eyes grew wide and his jaw gaped. He raised his hands and clutched at his chest and then at his throat. His face turned dark and his eyes bulged out. His lips moved but he uttered no words but a gasp. And then he fell on his face and lay still.
“Will? What ails you?” called out the injured man. “To me, Burns! The attacker is down, and I am sore hurt, and a girl of the village is here. She has slain Will of the Coat!” He fumbled at his side, and drew forth his sword, and waved it in the air.
The other Burns men were approaching now. They were the ones who had been inside the houses when we arrived, I think, and one or two were yet without their jacks and burgeonets, but all had weapons in their hands. There was no shadow to give me sanctuary, and I doubted if they would come close enough for the trick that I had used against Will of the Coat, and it seemed that things would go ill for me.
They did not close with me, but instead they turned and fled, for horses were pounding towards the farms from the north. Four riders with lance, bow, and caliver. There were yet seven of the Burns alive and unwounded, by my count, but they had no longer any heart for fight. They took horse and left apace, leaving their dead and wounded behind, and the newcomers chased them for a short ways and then rode to where I tended to the fallen Jamie.
“Does my son yet live?” asked Ralph Robson, for it was he, and his two other sons, and a man that I did not know. He swung down from his saddle and stood above us.
Jamie stirred himself. “I live, Da, though I know not when I shall use my arm again.”
“’Tis glad I am to hear it,” said Ralph. “You have fought right valiantly, son, and I am sore shamed that I came not earlier. We rode for Windygyle, and then chanced to meet Bow-shy Jack Charlton here, and with the extra man I deemed that we could give a good account of ourselves and we turned around.”
Jack Charlton was another such man as Ralph Robson, stern and fierce, and he held a caliver with the air of one accustomed to its use. He replaced it in its scabbard and smiled at me. “So this is the lassie that turned the head of your Jamie? Aye, I can well see why. It is glad that I am to meet you, girl.”
I felt my cheeks grow hot. I was not sure that I had turned Jamie’s head, as he thought, but it was an idea that was not unpleasant to me. “And glad I am to meet you, sir, and to see Jamie’s father and brothers again. I must away to see how my family fares.”
“Aye, you do that,” Ralph said. “We’ll see to Jamie, and to this man here,” he gestured towards the man with the broken leg, “and then we shall see what is to be done.”
If the Burns had intended to slay my family and neighbours they had not yet done so. My young cousin Rowland, a boy of but seven years, had been trampled to death under the hooves of a horse in the first onrush of the Burns. Some of the womenfolk had been used most cruelly and shamefully. Yet none had been slain save in the first assault, and we were a strong people, and they would recover.
We had lost no cattle, although the herds from our farms had been all mixed together, but the Burns had been killing our sheep. They would have driven our cows back to Teviotdale with them, but driving sheep and cattle together would have been a hard task, and it seemed that the sheep were to have gone with them dead and slung from saddlebows. Our flocks were depleted, and there would be few lambs next year, but at least we had the meat.
We tended to Jamie, and to the women who had suffered assault, and patched up the wounded prisoners in so far as their bleeding was staunched and the broken leg bound up. There was little tenderness about the way that they were treated, but they did not die, and that was as much as concerned us.
In the morning the Robsons set off for Windygyle once more. Jamie’s arm was well bound up, so that his shoulder did not have to bear the weight, and it was judged that he would take no harm from the ride. He had to appear to answer to the bill of complaint lest sentence be passed against him in his absence. Someone from my family had to attend to petition against the Burns, of course, and I put myself forward for the task. My mother spoke to me about this, and about Jamie, and then she agreed that I should go in her place. It was not deemed fitting that a young unmarried woman should speak for the whole family, nor that I should go riding off in the company only of men, and so Tall Davie’s mother came with us too.
We came to Windygyle in the middle of the day, and attracted much attention, for we were a party that included four wounded men and three of those were under guard. We found the Collingwood menfolk and I told my tale for the first time. The next time I told my tale it was to the Wardens.
“Banditry, rape, and murder,” said Sir John Forster, the Warden of the Middle March. He was an old man, white of hair and fat of belly, who had been Warden longer than I had been alive. Sir John was a sly old fox, it was said, and it was rare that the Scots could put one over on him. “This is not the normal run of rascally behaviour that bedevils England and Scotland, but crimes most black, and the punishment should be severe. A hanging or two would be in order, Sir Thomas, think ye not?”
“Murder may well have been planned, true, but it was not carried out,” said Sir Thomas Kerr of Ferniehurst. “The Burns have lost eight dead and have three men sore wounded already. I see no need for hangings.”
Sir John grunted and blew out through pursed lips. “Hmph! I think it likely that the chief despoilers of the women were those who fled and saved their skins. Yet it is true that the young man of the Robsons has already made the Burns pay a heavy toll of blood. Mayhap I might agree to a lesser penalty. A fine, perhaps, and a payment of compensation to the Collingwoods?”
The two Wardens debated the scale of this for a time and then put a proposal to my father. He consulted with the other men and then gave his assent to the Wardens’ plan.
“And now to the matter of Jamie Robson,” Sir John said.
“Aye,” said Sir Thomas. “He stands accused of murdering Archie Nixon and Will’s Jock Elliot of East Liddesdale.”
“Jamie is no murderer,” I spoke out.
“Hush, lass, you have said your piece,” Sir John scolded me, “and you have no knowledge of his deeds before yesterday.” He held up a hand in gesture of silence. “Hush, I say, or I shall levy fine upon you.” He fixed his eyes upon Jamie. “We have heard the bill of complaint from Will Elliot. How do you answer?”
“I do not deny that I killed them,” Jamie said, “but I did not do murder. I slew them in fair fight, one on one, after they had together set upon me and marked my face as you see.”
“And I see no cause to doubt that,” said Sir John Forster. “What say you, Sir Thomas? Would a man who rode alone against seventeen, and slew seven and wounded three before they brought him down, need to stoop to murder?”
Sir Thomas Kerr put a hand to his chin and ran it down his beard to the point. “Aye, a good point,” he conceded. “Well, Will Elliot, what say you? Do you still claim that it was ambuscade and murder?”
Will Elliot was a man short and broad, grey in the beard, with a scar across his brow and two dags belted at his waist. He stood up to answer the Warden. “I had thought that no man could face my son in fair combat and take no hurt from it,” he said, “but it could be that I was wrong. I’ll not press for the lad’s neck to be stretched.”
“A lesser punishment, then, for taking the law into his own hands rather than bringing bill of complaint against Will’s Jock and Archie Nixon for their assault upon him,” suggested Sir John. There was a shrewd gleam in the old Warden’s eye as he met the gaze of Sir Thomas Kerr. “It is a day for mercy, as I agreed to be merciful to the Burns earlier.”
“I’ll not see him escape with no punishment at all,” said Sir Thomas Kerr.
“No, he shall not go scot free,” Sir John said. “Jamie Robson, I sentence you to serve six months in my retinue, that you may learn the merits of keeping to the law.”
Kerr of Ferniehurst frowned at this, as did Will Elliot, but neither man raised objection. I could not stop myself from smiling widely, but I held myself back from clapping my hands, and I did not run to Jamie until we had left the Wardens’ court.
“You have yet the second kiss to claim,” I reminded Jamie. I wore my blue kirtle, and I had brushed my black hair full well so that it shone, and I knew that I looked as fair as I could wish.
“This is not the time, I think,” he said, for we were in the midst of the crowd and our fathers were speaking to each other not far off.
“It might be best if you had two working arms to hold me,” I said. He smiled at me and that gave me the courage to gather my nerve and to speak out in a fashion more forward than was customary. “Jamie, there is no young man calling upon me, and if you wished to do so I would not be unwelcoming.”
His eyes opened wide and his eyebrows rose. “Even with this?” He raised his hand towards his nose.
“It does not matter to me,” I told him. “Why, you are more of a man with half a nose than any other lad I know would be with two.”
He laughed, the first time that I had heard him laugh, and it was a merry sound and pleasant to my ears. “Why, Anne, what would any man do with two noses?”
I laughed with him. “I know not. I misspoke, perhaps, but I think you understand me well enough. And your answer?”
“I shall call upon you, Anne, when my duties for the Warden permit,” he said. “But I shall take the kiss that is owing to me sooner than that. As soon as we are out from under the eyes of our fathers.”
“They had best not disapprove,” I said. “I shall have sharp words with my father if he says that we are not to meet.”
“I think that he will say no such thing,” Jamie said. “You are a bold lass, and you know your mind, and a man would have to be brave indeed to risk your anger.” He stepped closer to me and lowered his voice. “Anne, tell me this. How did the man who put the lance through my shoulder come to die? I touched him not, and I saw no blood upon him, and yet he was dead before my father and brothers arrived.”
I lowered my eyes. I did not want to tell him that I was a witch, that I had been taught the secrets of Shadow magic by my mother’s mother’s sister, and that I had used the power of the magic to stop Will of the Coat’s heart. Later, perhaps, but not yet. “It was as if God had struck him dead,” I said, “but I will raise no talk of miracles. He put his hands to his chest before he fell. Perhaps his heart was weak.”
“Perhaps,” said Jamie. “I am thankful for it anyway, for I was weak with my wound, and at his mercy.”
“Are you yet weak with your wound?” I asked him.
“I would not want to charge with lance and dag,” he said, “but I am strong enough to walk a little way with you, should you wish.”
“Then, Jamie Robson,” I said, “we shall take that walk, and you can claim your kiss.”
All characters are either fictitious or have been dead for four hundred years and any resemblance to any living person is coincidental. The right of Paul Johnson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988.