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By Patricia Potter
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Patricia Potter
All rights reserved.
Flodden Field, England September 9, 1513
Kimbra Charlton steeled her resolve as she accompanied the women who combed the fields of dead. Dressed in her mourning gown, she huddled against the side of the pony cart with other reiver women.
Cedric Charlton, her late husband's cousin, had ridden to her cottage hours earlier to say that tens of thousands—both Scots and English—lay dead on Flodden Field. They had to rush to beat other reiver families if they wanted the best that could be gleaned from the battlefield.
The Charltons had been called to fight with the English, but Cedric had no wounds, no blood on his jack. She suspected that he, and most of the reivers, had left the field before the battle, only to return later to rob the dead and dying after the battle was spent.
She concentrated on the squeaking wheels and tried not to cough in the acrid smoke that grew denser with every turn of the wheels. She inched away from the other women who talked excitedly about what they might find. She didn't share their anticipation.
How much lower could she sink?
She tried to think instead of better days, of riding with her husband, Wild Will Charlton, on raids across the border. It had been rare, a woman riding with reivers, yet Will had been an unusual man. Reiver through and through, he'd been bemused by what he considered her adventurous nature, had given in to her pleading and taught her to ride and aim an arrow.
He'd never known the fear inside her, the knowledge that someday she might have to run for her life, just as her mother had fled many years ago. She'd never shown the fear her mother had taught her.
He might never have married her if she had.
Though she had learned to enjoy the raids, the freedom of them, to her they were not the game they were to others. She'd picked up a bauble here and there for herself and had hidden them away. That was something else her mother had taught her.
In the two years since Will had died, she had sold them all to support her daughter and herself.
She thought back to her first raid. She had asked Will to take her, but he'd just laughed at her "fancy," just as he'd laughed at her dream of reading. But then one night, she'd disguised herself as a man and had stolen Magnus, one of the finest hobblers on either side of the border. Will had said she was the best of the lot and with a great bellow of laughter defied his friends to say nay on future rides.
But motherhood had ended those adventures.
A pang of loss struck her as she thought of her husband. Tall and handsome and strong, Will had had a devil-may-care smile and a broad humor that sent a room roaring into laughter. He'd loved their daughter, even as he yearned for a son. He had regarded her in men's clothes with a broad grin on his face. "No one else has ever had a lass like you," he said.
And she had indulged him, admiring her husband who was among the boldest of the Border Reivers, and who had chosen her—a woman without dowry and with an unknown past—to be his bride. He'd always fought for her, and now she would fight for his daughter.
Reiving was a family business for the Charltons. They raided both their English neighbors as well as the Scots across the border. The Charltons had been reivers for a century or more and considered it a respectable profession. It had been a fine game as well. Stealing cattle. Taking hostages for ransom. Each side took its share, and rarely was anyone killed. In truth, even when the Scots and English met in battle near the border, 'twas said the borderers often protected the same neighbors they'd raided the week before.
But one raid went wrong. Will was hit with an arrow. The wound, despite all her ministrations, had turned to inflammation. She would never forgive herself for that. If only she'd done more ... or known more. Those terrible days were burned in her mind like a brand ...
There had been fifty raiders that night. Having heard of a great black horse said to have an Arabic sire, they'd attacked an Armstrong holding. She hadn't ridden, staying home instead with her ailing daughter. She'd helped Will dress in his customary clothing: a jack covered with leather, a doublet of fustian, and dark hose. She'd placed his steel bonnet over his dark hair.
She'd been there with him in spirit, knowing exactly when they would cross the Bewcastle Waste, a wild area of fell and moor. Their hobblers—small, swift, hardy horses—were black and gray, chosen to blend into the darkness.
She'd waited as the night slowly passed and dawn came, and fear started to tug at her. It had been midday when the riders came and Will stumbled as he'd dismounted. Blood covered his hose.
"'Tis nothing," he said and submitted mildly enough to her cauterizing the wound. But it had been too late. The poison had spread, and despite all her herbs, all her poultices, he'd died three days later in agony he obviously tried not to let her see.
A jolt of the cart brought her back to reality. She smelled death now as they neared the place of battle. An eery silence had settled over the countryside. She heard only the creak of wheels, the occasional whisper of the men riding to the front of them. There was no sound of night birds, no rustle of animals running from humans.
God forgive her for what she was about to do, but she had no choice.
No longer was she allowed to join the reivers. No longer did she share in the plunder. She raised herbs—a skill her mother had known and used as a servant—and vegetables in her garden. She'd planted a field of oats, but half of the yield went to the Charltons, and she did not have enough to buy seed next year. If there was an early frost she would lose her herbs.
Since Will's death, she'd fought to keep their small cottage and Magnus, the horse she had stolen. Will's horse had died the year before his death, and he had taken Magnus as his mount. Now Audra and Magnus were all she had left of Will, and she would fight to protect both of them.
Yet she dreaded tonight. Reiving was one thing. It was a way of life on the border. Stealing from the dead was something else. A shudder ran through her body.
I can do it for Audra.
I can rob the dead and go to hell for it. For Audra.
Flodden Field. She'd heard the cannon throughout the evening. She had smelled the smoke that melded into the light mist, turning it dirty and sticky and heavy. She wore her mourning gown, both because it would blend into the night and because she was mourning the loss of part of herself.
The cart continued to bounce along the trail, then over a field. It took hours traveling this way, where a horse would reach it in a quarter of the time. She longed to be riding Magnus, but the animal—as well as her cottage—was the subject of great conflict between her and Will's family, and she could not, would not, wave it in the faces of the Charltons.
She was but a woman, she was reminded readily enough, and not worthy of owning such a mount, even though it was she who had stolen him. In English law it belonged to Will. Nor, according to Will's family, did she deserve to remain alone with her daughter in a much coveted cottage. She was not a Charlton by birth. It should go to a true Charlton who could farm the land.
Her one option was marriage. The Charltons had urged her to choose among the bachelors, but they all repulsed her, particularly Cedric, Will's cousin, who had always consumed her with greedy eyes. Yet she feared Cedric was Thomas Charlton's choice. And Thomas Charlton's wishes ruled among the Charltons.
She would take Audra and flee first.
But where would she go?
She had no family of her own. Her mother, now dead ten years, had been the daughter of a physician when she was raped by a noble. When she found herself with child, she threatened to tell the magistrate, the noble laughed at her and said no one would believe her. The next day her home burned with her father inside. She'd been in the woods picking mushrooms with her maid, or she would have been inside as well. They had seen the flames and hurried back, only to see the noble on his horse, watching the cottage burn.
They'd fled to the border, to her maid's family, and her mother had taken up service under a different name. She had a knowledge of herbs, but she'd feared using it. She always feared the earl's son would find her and kill both her and her child.
Yes, Kimbra knew the power and ruthlessness of nobles.
She still remembered the pinched look of fear on her mother's face when a stranger came to the Murray peel tower. Kimbra was thirteen when her mother died, and after her mother's death, the Murrays employed Kimbra as a maid for their daughter.
Without a dowry and with a parentage of questionable character, she had little hope of marriage until Will had seen her at a gathering of border families for traditional games. She had been serving tankards of ale when she saw someone beating a horse. She threw the contents of a tankard at the offender, and Will rushed to assist her when the man turned on her. Minutes later, he had smiled at her and declared she would be his wife.
She smiled at the thought. He'd defied his family to make it happen. He'd even fought her own reservations. While not a noble, he was cousin to the head of the Charlton family, far too fine for a maid.
The sound of moans and cries erased her smile, as the cart came to a halt. The stench grew stronger. She knew the smell of blood, but that of so many men and horses numbed the senses. Figures, made wraithlike by the mist, moved from one fallen body to the next. The land was smothered with them.
Cedric rode over to them, handing each woman a large sack and a torch. "Take jewelry and weapons," he ordered. "Ye might take boots as well or any fine clothing. The English commander has ordered all Scots be killed. If someone is still alive, call for one of the men." He looked toward her. "Unless ye want to finish him yourself."
She ignored the jibe. He had always resented her presence on the raids.
Her hand dug into the rough cloak she wore and felt the dagger she carried, along with the water flagon.
She took one of the bags. Cedric started after her.
She turned. "I wish to do this myself."
"I should protect ye. There might be some alive."
"You can protect the others. I need no help. I can use a dagger as well as any man."
"Ye should not need to. Ye need a man."
"I had a man. I wish no other."
She turned her back on him and veered away from the others. 'Twas a miserable deed she was doing, and 'twas easier to do it alone. In truth, Cedric made her flinch inside. She had managed to evade his intentions thus far, but he was becoming more and more insistent.
Neither did she join the other women. There was no glory in what they were doing, and she didn't want to hear nervous chatter—or worse, excitement over unexpected finds. She knew she would be allowed to keep one or two items for herself, and she intended to make the most of them. She could sell them if she had to leave.
Torches spread a glow among the field of dead. Bodies sprawled out in any number of positions, and the ground was muddy with blood. She moved quickly between the fallen, looking for rings, a jeweled belt, a coat of mail. Anything of value.
She'd heard that the Scottish king had been killed. She was sure his body had already been stripped of anything of value, but perhaps those around him would have items of value as well.
She heard a moan and turned. An Englishman. She leaned over him, and from his wounds knew she could do nothing except offer some water from the flagon she had brought with her. He thanked her with his eyes, and then he died.
She sat next to him for a moment, feeling hot tears in the back of her eyes. She fought them back. She could not indulge herself.
Kimbra stood again and renewed her search. There seemed to be little left. Others had already been here and stripped most of the bodies. She had to look under piles of bodies for an item overlooked. She found two rings, several daggers. Each time she took something from a body, she uttered a prayer on their behalf. Perhaps that would mitigate her guilt, find her some forgiveness for what she had to do.
Kimbra moved on, trying to ignore the stench of the dead, the sensation of spirits moving around her. She stopped, leaned against a tree, trying to breathe normally again.
A dark figure darted toward her, grabbed her bag. She ran after the fleeing thief who had her night's work. Kimbra was faster and jerked the thief's jacket, spinning him around, and grabbing her sack back.
She'd expected a man. Instead, she looked into the thin face of a woman. She didn't know her, yet there was something she recognized. Desperation. And stark fear.
The woman turned to flee.
"Wait!" Kimbra commanded.
The woman stopped, turned.
Kimbra reached in her sack, took out a ring. "Take this," she said. "Bargain wisely."
The woman stared at her. "Why?" she said.
"You look as if you need it more than me," Kimbra said simply.
The woman stared at her, then gave her a brief curtsy. "My name is Mary Armstrong," she said. "I meant you no harm, but my mon died here, and my bairns ha' nothing."
An Armstrong. A member of the family that killed her husband. Yet this woman was like her. Doing what she must for her child.
"Go, Mary," Kimbra said. "Leave before someone takes that from you."
"Thank ye, lady." The woman turned and ran.
Kimbra watched her go, then turned back to her work. The stench, the bodies, the sadness overwhelmed her. She bent over and retched. She kneeled there in the mist, amongst the dead. She thought of Will and all the women waiting for the lords to return.
A keening wail broke over the field. A wife had found a husband.
God help them.
She forced herself to stand and renew her search. If she didn't take what was there, someone else would. She hurried her steps. The first rays of dawn lightened the sky. This was something best done in the shadows of night.
She started to turn when her gaze detected the slightest movement behind a clump of trees not far away. She wasn't certain what she'd seen and was about to move on when a barely audible groan came from that direction. Taking the dagger from her belt, she moved toward the sound.
A man lay still, his body mostly covered by a thicket of dense brush. He had clearly escaped the notice of earlier reivers, since he was still dressed in a finely woven plaid, his upper body covered by chain mail. His legs were bare except for leather boots, and she saw the jagged, open wound on his leg. She set down her bag and stooped next to him. His breath was ragged, but he was alive.
And a lord. She knew that by his clothing.
He had multiple wounds. The side of his head bore a wide purple bruise. His arm was sliced, and his leg had been ripped open by some weapon.
Yet he apparently had dragged himself over here, away from the soldiers and scavengers going from man to man to deliver final blows.
His eyes opened, and she noticed they were blue. Bloodshot. Clouded with pain and suffering. "Water," he whispered. "Please."
She gave him the flagon. He greedily swallowed several gulps.
She heard her name called from a distance. She looked at the eyes staring up at her with gratitude. A Scot.
A Scot was an enemy of her country.
She knew her duty. She knew she should call Cedric or one of the others. Her duty was to end this man's life.
She could not do it. Nor could she call for someone else to kill him.
He would probably die in any event, she told herself.
"Thank ... you," he mumbled. Then closed his eyes.
What to do?
She looked at the man's leg, which had been torn by a sword. It had stopped bleeding but would probably start again if he was moved.
Suddenly making up her mind, she struggled to remove his helmet from his head, then the mail. Both would have attracted attention. Under the mail she found a jeweled crest, and she slipped it into the bodice of her dress. Then she set her flagon next to him. He should find it when he regained his senses.
Excerpted from Beloved Stranger by Patricia Potter. Copyright © 2006 Patricia Potter. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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