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By Amanda Scott Forever
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One His hands and his feet they ha' bound like a sheep ... And they locked him down in a dungeon so deep ...
Scotland, near the English border, July 1388
Awakening in dense blackness to find himself bound hand and foot, lying in acute discomfort on cold, hard dirt, twenty-four-year-old Sir Walter Scott of Rankilburn became aware of a disturbing sense that all was not well.
Then memory stirred and confirmed the fact.
Lammas Gibbie's deep voice echoed through the blackness. "Tam, I'm thinking he be moving."
"Be that you, Wat, or just a few rats fussin' over summat or other?" the huge man called Jock's Wee Tammy asked.
"I'm awake," Wat said, although the raspy voice scarcely sounded like his own. His throat was parched and his head ached. "Someone must have clouted me, for my head's pounding as if the devil were inside. It's blinded me, too."
"One o' them villains clouted ye, right enough," Gib said. "Ye're no blind, though. We've nae light is all. Tam and me canna see nowt, neither."
"How many of us are in here?"
"Just us three in this cell," Tammy said. "They caught some o' the others, too, though. We canna hear them, so likely, they've stowed them elsewhere."
Wat gathered enough saliva to swallow before he said, "Sorry, lads. Seems I've well and truly landed us all in the suds this time."
"Aye, well, what comes does come," Tammy replied.
Wat grunted but saw nothing to gain by pointing out that what was likely to come was hanging for all of them.
"'Tis the Douglas's fault as much as yours," Gib muttered. "If he hadna ordered this unnatural state of idleness, we'd no be in such a fix, because Murray would more likely ha' taken English kine instead o' yours, but as it is ..."
Silence fell. James, second Earl of Douglas, although only five years older than Wat himself, had already held his powerful title for four years, since the death of his father. William, the first earl, had been the most powerful man in Scotland-even more powerful than the King of Scots or anyone else in the royal family-and James's popularity in the Borders had increased the Douglas power even more.
Not only did James Douglas control far more land than the royal Stewarts did but he could raise an army of twelve thousand in less than a sennight, whereas the Stewarts would be lucky to raise a thousand men in twice that time. Unlike kings of England, who could simply order their nobles to provide armies for them when needed, the King of Scots had to apply to his nobles for their support. The nobility was not required to provide it, and the Stewarts, considered upstarts, were unpopular.
Among his many other titles, Douglas was also Chief Warden of the Scottish Marches-the three regions directly abutting the border with England-and as such, he had demanded peace among the unruly Scottish Borderers so that he could better expend their energies in keeping the land-greedy English in England.
For nearly a century, English kings had fought to make Scotland just another region of England, and the present king, Richard Plantagenet, was one who believed it was his God-given right to reign over both countries as one.
Douglas, on the other hand, was equally determined to prevent such a conquest. Having learned that the English were preparing to invade the country yet again and knowing that when the time came, he would have to raise his army quickly, James had forbidden the Scottish Borderers to cross the line without his permission lest the English catch and imprison or hang them. To keep peace among the Scots themselves, he had forbidden them to raid each other's herds as well.
For years, though, "reivers" on either side of the borderline had raided other men's herds as a matter of course whenever their families ran out of meat. Although it was illegal and they were subject to dire penalties if caught in the act, the Borderers looked upon reiving as nothing less than economic necessity. They were as likely to raid their own neighbors' herds as those across the line. And when need drove them, Borderers were unlikely to heed anyone else's orders, even the Douglas's.
Wat had often remarked on the futility of those orders, but he knew he could not blame the earl for their predicament now. The responsibility for that was his alone.
His hands and feet were numb. He tried shifting position and stifled a groan when jolts of pain shot through his limbs and set nerves in his fingers and toes afire.
"How long have we been here?" he groaned.
"A good while," Tammy said.
"Ye snored," Gib added.
"Snored?" Indignation momentarily replaced suffering. "I was unconscious!"
"Nonetheless, ye snored," Gib insisted. "Likely, ye can blame them three pots of ale ye drank afore we left Raven's Law."
Wat remembered the ale. He should not have drunk so much of it. However, that was not the only error in his hastily conceived plan.
It had seemed so simple then. After spending the previous day at the horse races in Langholm, he and some friends had returned to Raven's Law, his peel tower in Ettrick Forest, to learn that in his absence, raiders had lifted his entire herd of cattle. They'd also taken a pair of valuable sleuthhounds and seven horses.
"I was right about who stole my beasts," he muttered.
"Aye, yon devil Murray had them right enough," Tam agreed. "He still has them, come to that. Mayhap we were a bit hasty, ridin' out straightaway to raid-"
"To recover what is mine," Wat interjected.
"Aye, well, that's as may be," Tammy said doubtfully. "But yon Murray will no agree that ye had the right to take his beasts home along wi' yours."
"Sir Iagan Murray has more kine than any man needs to feed one threaping wife, a pair o' dour sons, and three o' the homeliest daughters in Scotland," Gib said.
"Still, ye canna blame the man for trappin' us as he did," Tammy replied. "'Tis only natural he'd want tae keep his own beasts."
"Nearly half of the beasts he's got now are mine," Wat said grimly. "And I don't want him to keep them. As to my taking his, he can show no proof of that. He and his men rose up out of the heather before we'd touched one of them. Sakes, I should have realized it was too easy to follow those reivers. 'Tis clear enough now that he expected us to and that's why they were waiting for us."
"That was clever o' them, that heather was," Tammy said. "With all o' them wearin' white feathers in their caps as they were, and lyin' flat, they looked as much like new blooms in the moonlight as the real heather did."
"Murray kens fine that we'd ha' taken his kine, though," Gib said, ignoring the interruption. "Bless us, but anyone would."
"Even if we had taken them, it was Murray's fault for forcing me to come here to collect mine," Wat said.
Tammy laughed. "I'd like t' be in your pocket when ye explain that to your da' and the Douglas."
"It's what either of them would have done," Wat retorted.
"Mayhap they would," Gib said. "But that willna stop them being angry."
Wat knew Gibbie was right. James Douglas knew his power and did not let anyone forget it. Wat had known him since childhood, and facing him after creating such a predicament for himself was not something he would enjoy. Even so, the earl's anger would be as nothing compared with his own father's.
The Laird of Buccleuch was a staunch supporter of James Douglas and would not be pleased to learn that his own son had defied a Douglas order. Just thinking about Buccleuch's likely reaction made Wat wince.
Then, remembering his present plight, he said with a sigh, "I doubt I'll have to face either of them. You must know that Murray means to hang us in the morning."
"He caught us wi' the goods," Tammy said. "'Tis his right to hang us."
"It is, aye, but you'll admit that it does seem devilish hypocritical," Wat retorted. "We did nowt but try to put right the wrong he'd done to me, after all."
"We didna catch him at it, though," Tam reminded him.
In the ensuing silence, the darkness seemed to thicken and close heavily around them until Gib said abruptly, "D'ye believe in heaven, Wat?"
"Aye, and in hell," Wat replied. "Don't you?"
"I do." Gib paused. "'Tis just that ..."
"Sithee, me Annie's in heaven wi' our wee bairn that the English killed alongside o' her when they came three years ago. I dinna doubt that Annie's waiting for me, ye ken, but 'tis likely I'll no be joining her now, will I?"
"Yon Murray's no likely to ha' a priest at hand to shrive us, is he?"
"He may have a chaplain as the Douglas does," Wat said. "But if he doesn't, you've led a good life, Gib, and I believe God counts that above all else."
"Mayhap He does, Wat, but I've broken me share o' His commandments."
"So have we all," Tammy muttered. "'Tis nae use to fret about it now."
Wat's imagination instantly presented him with a string of images from his past that God might find hard to forgive.
He had no idea how much time had slipped by when Tam said quietly, "Ye're gey quiet, Master Wat. Be ye thinkin' or sleepin'?"
"Thinking," Wat retorted. "I doubt if anything fixes a man's mind more sharply on his sins than knowing that in just a few hours he's likely to hang."
It was two hours past dawn when Sir Iagan Murray, Baron of Elishaw, a thickset man of medium height, graying hair and beard, and undistinguished apparel, entered his castle hall and stepped onto the dais at its north end. He sat in his armchair, placed informally as it was every morning at the end of the high table nearest the fire. His wife and three daughters had been standing at their places, waiting, for some time.
His men had eaten earlier and departed to their duties, so the family would enjoy some privacy. But they were hardly alone. Servants scurried about, some clearing trestle tables in the lower hall while others set platters of food on the dais table and poured ale into Sir Iagan's mug and wine into the ladies' goblets.
Eighteen-year-old Lady Margaret Murray stood beside her mother in a plain blue dress that did nothing to flatter her thin figure. An uncomfortably close-fitting white coif and veil primly concealed her long, thick hair and was already beginning to give her a headache. She was glad her father had arrived at last, for the women could not sit down, let alone begin eating, until he did.
Her two younger sisters fidgeted impatiently beside her.
Meg ignored them while gillies moved the ladies' stools in closer behind them and Lady Murray took her seat. Then, hearing a sound of relief from eleven-year-old Rosalie as that damsel plopped down on her stool, Meg shot her a warning look.
Fifteen-year-old, rosy-cheeked Amalie quietly took her seat between them. She was much plumper than Meg or Rosalie, but all three looked more like their English-born mother than their Scottish father.
The two younger girls wore plain veils over long, dark plaits. Rosalie's hair was several shades darker than Meg's, and Amalie's was raven's-wing black. Both had hazel eyes and freckled complexions. Fate had spared Meg the freckles, and her eyes were stone gray with dark-rimmed irises.
The back-stools opposite remained empty, the board before them bare, signs that their brothers were not at home. Simon, the elder, served the Scottish Earl of Fife and Menteith, who was in effect the present ruler of Scotland. Their younger brother, Thomas, having fostered four years with nearby Percy cousins in England, taking his education and learning swordsmanship and other such skills with them, now served a Scottish knight somewhere near Edinburgh. Meg did not miss Simon, for whom she had little liking, but she did miss merry Tom. Neither young man had yet taken a wife.
In due time-which was to say when Sir Iagan had seen both of his sons well established-he would doubtless marry his three daughters to men of property. He had received no offers for them yet, but he frequently assured them that, his power and connections being what they were, he would eventually do so.
That some witless wag had once labeled them three of the homeliest females in Christendom had done naught to aid their prospects. But Meg knew that when it came to marriage, beauty was not everything. Sir Iagan was a man of wealth.
He was also a man of influence. As such, she knew he believed he had no need to dower his daughters heavily. She just hoped he would provide them with enough to entice more than one potential husband. The few men she did know believed that, at eighteen, she was already long in the tooth.
Lady Murray, having told the gillie who attended her what she'd like to eat, said to her husband with her soft English lilt, "I trust you slept well, my lord."
"Indeed, my lady," he replied with a polite nod. "I slept gey fine, though I confess I did not reach my bed until after midnight."
Rosalie said with concern, "Could you not sleep before then, Father?"
"I had important duties to attend, lassie."
Meg said, "Duties in the middle of the night, sir?"
Turning to his wife, he said, "Madam, your daughters display unwarranted curiosity about their father's business. Surely, ye've explained to them that well-bred young women do not pry into the affairs of others."
"I shall explain it to them again, sir, but I own, I am as curious as they are. The only duty that might keep you so late when we have no visitors would be reivers. However, I heard none of the din that usually accompanies a raid."
He smirked, saying, "That, madam, is because my men and I were waiting for them. Having suspected the scoundrels meant to raid my herd, I'd buried two score men in the nearby heather. We captured their leader and six of his rabble. I'll wager ye canna guess who that leader is."
"Who, Father?" Amalie asked.
Sir Iagan frowned at her. "I was not speaking to you."
"No, sir, but how else can we know? Is he in the dungeon?"
Pride in his victory overcame his annoyance, for his chest swelled as he said, "I have all seven of the thieving devils locked up. And, by heaven, I mean to introduce them to my hanging tree as soon as I've broken my fast."
He may have thought the subject of the leader's identity thus closed, but Meg knew their mother was as curious as she was and looked expectantly at her.
Deftly, Lady Murray used the point of her knife to spear a slice of meat from a platter and transfer it to her trencher. As she tore the meat apart delicately with two fingers, she said, "Do you mean to make me guess the leader's name, sir?"
"Ye'd never do it, for it will astonish ye to learn that he is of gentle birth. I recognized him at once. So would ye have done, had ye seen him."
She frowned. "I doubt I could know any man who steals cattle for a living."
"Still, I must suppose ye've seen him, for he's young Wat Scott, Buccleuch's eldest son. Even if ye canna recall his face, ye'll ken his family."
"The Laird of Buccleuch? But he is a man of considerable wealth!"
"Aye, so we'll see if his young Wattie dares to identify himself. Not that I care if he does or not. We caught them all red-handed, and I mean to hang every one of them. Fetch me more ale, lad," he called to a passing gillie.
Lady Murray returned her attention to her food for some moments before she said musingly, "Does young Scott have a wife, sir?"
"None that I ken. Have ye interest in his ancestry, as well, madam?"
She persisted. "You also said that he is Buccleuch's eldest son, and so he must therefore be his heir."
"Aye, and what of it? Ye'll no tell me I shouldna hang the thieving rascal!"
"I hope you know well enough by now that I would not put myself forward so improperly. It does occur to me, though, that when Providence offers up a single young man who will inherit vast properties, one should not rashly destroy the gift."
"And how, prithee, is the man's trying to make off with my herd an act of Providence?" Sir Iagan demanded. "If ye're suggesting that I demand ransom-"
"Nay, for as you must have realized yourself-with Buccleuch being one of Douglas's fiercest allies and Douglas organizing raids into England to judge their readiness for another invasion of Scotland-'twould take much too long to negotiate a ransom. It would also be too dangerous. Whatever you do, you must do quickly."
He nodded, but Meg wondered if he had thought the matter through as swiftly and thoroughly as her mother had.
Lady Murray said matter-of-factly, "We have three daughters, sir. I need not remind you of your duty to find them all suitable husbands. And whilst you may easily find a husband for one, finding three will not be easy. Therefore, to hang such an excellent prospect ..." She paused, meeting his gaze.
He glowered, saying in a near growl, "Ye believe that scoundrel would make one o' them a suitable husband? Are ye daft, woman?"
Excerpted from Border Wedding by Amanda Scott Copyright © 2008 by Amanda Scott . Excerpted by permission.
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