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By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
Now Liddisdale has ridden a raid, but I wat they had better stayed at home."
The Borders February 1596
Tattered skirts of mist shadowed the high, gibbous moon as the raiders approached the dark hamlet of Haggbeck in the shadow of England's Cheviot Hills. A thin, crisp layer of snow covered the ground, and there were thirty riders; but their ponies' hooves were nimble and quick, and made little noise for so many.
At a sign from their leader, a group of ten led by Ally the Bastard circled toward the common lands to collect the cattle, sheep, and horses. The main party continued into the hamlet.
The band of reivers had traveled through the night following intricate byways known to few but their leader. He was a man, legend said, who could find his way to hell and back through smoke-filled Limbo and pitch-black Purgatory. The secret haunts of Liddesdale were his refuge, the Cheviot Hills and Tynedale forests his hunting grounds, the Debatable Lands and Bewcastle Waste his playing fields.
Other men respected him as a leader of excellent head, believing his skill for penetrating the darkest night or the thickest mist unmatched by any other of his time. He knew his ground to an inch, and he had an uncanny knack for evading the watchers that the English Queen had set to guard her border.
Those watchers presented a formidable barrier, for from Solway to Berwick, from October to mid-March, by day or by night, the entire frontier remained under watch. Local English nobility and gentry bore responsibility for arming and horsing their men, as well as for inspecting the watches they set over every hilltop, ford, and dale, to guard every conceivable passage over their marches.
In times past, English wardens had sentenced to death any man who failed to resist Scottish raiders, and English landowners were still under strict orders to enforce the rules. But over the years those rules had relaxed, and nowadays English watchers who failed to raise a hue and cry against thieves faced no more than being held liable for the goods stolen during their watch.
Twice already that night, the Scottish leader had waved his men to lurking places while watchers passed within yards of them. Unfortunately, one could not count upon the Queen's guardians to be in the same places each time. Pairs or larger groups of them patrolled together, moving from dale to ford to hilltop and back, ready to catch any careless reiver who showed himself.
The Scottish side had its guards, too, of course, and beacons on hilltops and tower roofs set to give fiery warning of English raids. However, unless a powerful lord commanded otherwise, the Scots tended to be less organized than their English counterparts, relying on other means to warn of attack or to protect against one.
In any event, that night the raiders known the length and breadth of the Borders as Rabbie's Bairns reached their target easily. They had chosen Haggbeck in simple retaliation for an earlier English raid on the Liddesdale holdings of Curst Eckie Crosier. Curst Eckie wanted his cattle back, and if the raiders could collect more, and a few horses or sheep to boot, so much the better.
The leader raised his hand again as the riders neared the hamlet center.
"No sign of anyone waking," he murmured to the big man riding beside him with the vicious, long-handled, curved-bladed weapon known as a Jeddart or Jedburgh ax slung over one muscular shoulder.
"Nay, Rabbie," the man replied. "They be lazy creatures, these English."
"Keep your voice down, Hob. They say all Grahams sleep with an ear to the wind, and we are deep in Graham territory. The river Lyne and Brackengill Castle lie just over that hill to the south of us."
"Aye, sure, I'll keep mum," Hob the Mouse said in a deep, rumbling mutter. "D'ye ken where be the house with iron gratings to its windows, Rab? Curst Eckie said he heard tell of such, and I promised him we'd find it and carry them home."
"Does Curst Eckie covet iron bars for his cottage windows?" Laughter filled the leader's voice.
"Aye, sure, and me, as well. Ye can laugh, Rabbie, but Curst Eckie and me, we'll ha' the last laugh. Once we've got iron fixed to our windows, won't no thievin' Englishmen climb in through them, ye'll see."
"Until some thievin' Englishman steals them back again," the leader retorted with a chuckle. "If you must have them, you'll most likely find them on the biggest house, there in the village center."
One of the riders raised a trumpet, and seeing his gesture, the leader nodded. The man put the horn to his lips, and its clarion call rang through the night. In moments the hamlet was awake. Screams mingled with the shouts of angry men.
The raiders charged the cottages, some dismounting to round up women and children while others dealt with their menfolk. Scuffles broke out right and left as half-dressed men rushed out with swords drawn to defend families and property. The clash of steel on steel soon joined with feminine shrieks and the cries of children startled awake. Over all, the trumpet's martial notes rang out with eerie clarity.
Signing to the hornsman to stay near, the leader watched closely for a telltale glint of moonlight off an enemy pistol or sword, and listened for the familiar twang of bowstrings or any other unusual sound in the night above the din of the skirmishing. He held his sword at the ready in one hand and a pistol in the other.
The screams of the women and children did not disturb him, for he knew his men would not seriously harm or molest any female or bairn. Only one follower of his had ever done such a thing, and the leader had summarily hanged him from the first tree they had come upon after eluding pursuit, as a warning to the others that he would see his orders obeyed.
Huge Hob the Mouse had found his iron gratings, and while others held cottagers at bay with pistols and lances, he and another man liberated the grates by the simplest of methods. They ripped them off the windows with their bare hands.
As they did so, a young rider called Sym's Davy came galloping through the hamlet, shouting, "Rabbie, there's riders coming from the south!"
"Thirty, maybe forty!"
"Has Ally the Bastard gathered the beasts?"
"Aye, sure, about thirty kine and as many horses, but there be sheep, too, Rabbie, and the riders be coming gey fast."
"Can they see Ally and his lads yet?"
"Nay, for they're ahind the hill, yonder east."
"Then ride like the devil, lad, and tell Ally to split his men, half to ride ahead with the cattle and horses, the others to drive the sheep. Tell them I said to abandon the sheep if they must but to get the horses and cattle to Liddesdale."
"Aye, sure, they can scatter the sheep ahind 'em to slow them what follow," Sym's Davy said, grinning. "What of these lads here, then?"
"They'll ride with me. We'll draw the pursuers after us to cover your retreat. Off you go now." Gesturing to his hornsman, he shouted, "Blow them away, Jed. We're off at speed."
The response came in a blast of notes from the trumpet, sounding retreat. The raiders who were engaged in fisticuffs, swordplay, and other such exercises broke off their activities at once. Those who had dismounted leapt to their saddles with whatever booty they had stolen from the cottagers, and in moments the little band was away, the hornsman riding behind his leader, blowing merrily as he rode. The trumpet's notes taunted and teased the Englishmen to follow if they dared.
Hoofbeats thundered through the dale. Looking back, the leader smiled to see that his tactic had drawn the pursuers straight through the hamlet after them. The group following was large enough to make it unlikely that others had turned off to seek out more of his reivers in the rugged landscape. Knowing the hills and glens as he did, he could afford to let them keep his party in sight long enough to draw them well away west of the others. When they had ridden far enough to be sure that Ally the Bastard, Curst Eckie, and the others had got the animals safely on their way to Liddesdale, they could easily lose their pursuers.
Exhilarated by victory, he shouted, "We'll have moonlight again, lads!"
Laughter and cheers greeted his slogan, echoing the trumpet's notes. Deciding minutes later that they had ridden far enough west of the hamlet, he looked back again. They had entered a winding, narrow glen, and he knew the head of it was not far off. The pursuers had neither gained on them nor fallen behind.
The sides of the glen were moderately steep and covered with bracken, shrubbery, drifts of snow, and thickets of birch and beech trees. He knew that whoever led the pursuit would expect him to ride up the gradual slope to the glen's head, rather than attempt a more difficult route. Waiting only until a bend briefly hid them from view, he wrenched his pony's head to the right.
Liddel Water lay but two miles beyond the hill. What snow remained on the open patches of ground was thin and rutted, and so would not instantly reveal their tracks; and thickets would cover them long enough to reach the hilltop if their ponies were swift. Jed the Horn rode on up the glen, knowing from experience exactly what his master expected of him. With luck, their pursuers would continue to chase trumpet notes long enough for the rest of them to make it over the hill. As for the hornsman's own safety, it was comparatively easy for one rider to find a lurking hole and elude pursuit.
The plan worked perfectly. As the riders reached the hilltop, they heard drumming hoofbeats below. Exchanging delighted grins in the pale moonlight, they let the ponies pick their own way down the other side.
Hob the Mouse moved up alongside the leader. "That be one in the eye for the English, I'm thinking."
"Aye, it is," the leader said with a chuckle. "'Tis a fine braw night, Hob. Good fresh air, a compliant moon, and a good stretch of the wit make life mighty fine for a man of adventure."
"Profitable, too," Hob said with a laugh. "Curst Eckie and me, we've got grating enough for both his cot and mine."
"Whisst," Rabbie commanded as they approached a shadowy, shrub-crowned hillock. "Can that be—Ambush!" he cried, realizing that the shadows at the hillock's top were not shrubs but mounted men. He wheeled his pony toward a cleft worn into the hillside by a rivulet, but before he had ridden ten feet, he saw above him a screen of lances and more steel-bonneted men. Grimly, he drew rein.
"Dinna turn aside, Rabbie," a man shouted behind him. "There canna be but ten o' the villains!"
"Nay, lads," he said loudly enough for his voice to carry to the silent ambushers. "In five years I ha' lost only three men—four if ye count the hanging—and I'm no going to lose any tonight unless God Himself ordains it. They outnumber us, and they've cut us off on two sides. There are lances ahead."
"Faith, they'll clap us all in irons!"
"Not us." Lowering his voice, he said, "Hob, lead the lads back the way we came till you reach that pond shaped like a birch leaf. Do you remember it?"
"Aye, but will ye no go with us, then, Rab?"
"No. When you reach that pond, cut over the lower of the two hills you'll see ahead of you. Kershopefoot Forest begins just the other side of it. Ride north and keep to the forest's cover till you reach Kershope Burn. You can cross into Scotland easily there, and make for home through Liddesdale."
"Aye, sure, but which of the lads will ye tak' wi' ye?"
"None of them. We can't expect that ruse to work twice in a night, especially against so many. They'd just split and follow us. If there is anything that might keep them together, though, it'll be the chance to capture Rabbie Redcloak."
In dismay, Hob said, "Ye'll no just ride bang up to them, laddie!"
"Not I. I mean to lead them a merry chase, but first I must be certain they know what a prize they'll catch if they're quick enough."
"But, Rabbie," Hob protested, "what if they send just a few after ye and the rest after us? They'll see in a trice that ye're nobbut one man."
He grinned. "Aye, but they think that one has the strength and skill of a wizard, and they'll believe that the rest of you are trying to draw them away from me. They'll not think for a moment that it's the other way about, not when they see this in the moonlight," he added, pulling off the dark, furry, hooded cloak he wore over his padded leather jack and breeks, and flipping it so its red silk lining showed.
"But if they catch ye—"
"Then I shall employ my gifts of gentle persuasion to good advantage until you and the lads come to rescue me. If the worst occurs, I shall simply await the next Trace Day and win free by ransom."
"Aye, if Himself will agree to pay one," Hob said doubtfully.
"Never fear. I shall talk my way out of trouble long before we need worry about that."
"Aye, well, ye've a tongue on ye could wheedle a duck off a tarn, 'tis true."
"It is, so go now," the leader said. "They've only waited this long to see what we will do. They won't wait much longer." Raising an arm, he shouted, "Ride, lads! We'll have moonlight again!"
Still waving, he wheeled his pony toward the head of the glen, urging it to a canter. When he believed that both groups of ambushers could see his figure clearly and must realize that his men had not followed him, he pulled back on the reins till the horse reared and wheeled again, making his cloak billow wide and free. As it did, the misty clouds screening the moon parted to illuminate the cloak's fiery red color. Spurring his pony hard, he rode up the slope to his left, opposite the waiting lancers. Keeping well clear of the ambushers on his right at the head of the glen, he charged back into the heart of Graham country.
After only a moment's hesitation, both sets of riders galloped after him, shouting their excitement at having deduced the identity of the most notorious reiver on either side of the Border.
Certain that he could elude them easily whenever he chose to do so, he let them keep him in sight. He knew that the sturdy border pony he rode had miles of distance left in it, and exhilaration surged through him, filling him with energy.
The mist was clearing overhead, which was both a boon and a worry—boon in that he could easily see his way, worry in that his pursuers could see him just as plainly. Twists and turns appeared throughout the rugged, hilly landscape, but he knew them all. His agile brain had been sorting and sifting the best routes for escape from the instant he had seen the first ambushers.
He wasted no thought on the identity of those who pursued him. Since he was deep in Graham country, it was likely that at least some were Grahams, but the area nearby on both sides of the Border was littered with members of that unholy tribe, which was as likely to fight its own as to fight men of other loyalties.
Reaching the top of a bill, he glanced back and saw that several riders had narrowed the distance. Two were within bowshot, so he dared not linger.
Suddenly, from behind, a trumpet sounded. For an instant he thought it was Jed the Horn, but the notes played soon told him that it was not. Then, to his shock, a second horn answered, and a third—one from ahead, the other to his left, and both much too close for comfort. If he did not take care, he warned himself, they would surround him. The moonlight no longer felt friendly.
A dog bayed, then another, and another.
He urged his pony away from the sounds. Only one direction beckoned now. He turned toward the Mote of Liddel, where the river Esk joined Liddel Water a few miles to the northeast. From that point, for a short distance, the Liddel formed the line between Scotland and England. Spurring his pony, he realized that his sole remaining hope lay in the valiant beast's nimble speed.
Cresting a hill a short time later, he saw moonlight glinting on black water in the distance and knew it to be the Liddel. Minutes more and, barring accident, he would cross into Scotland.
They could follow, of course—and legally—by declaring a "hot trod" and informing the first person they met on the other side that they were in pursuit of a dastardly reiver. They could even demand that the warden of the Scottish west and middle marches help capture him. He smiled at the thought, but the smile vanished when he realized that the moonlight glinted not only on water but also on steel. Horsemen moved to line the water's edge. He was trapped.
Excerpted from Border Fire by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 2000 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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