Crimson tongues of fire licked at the dry thatch on the roof of the stone cottage. The blaze flared up into the night sky with the brilliance of a bonfire. A flock of white-faced sheep, bawling in fright, milled about the fenced enclosure adjacent to the fiery dwelling.
Seven men inside the sheep pen only added to the confusion. One stood alone with his back to the gate. The other six rode horses in the shrouded anonymity of dark cloaks and hoods.
Kyle Shaw advanced on the scene just as the horsemen began to close in on the lone man on foot. From what he could see by the light of the flames, steel glinted in every man’s hand. The drawn hoods marked the horsemen as raiders who preyed on helpless folk and left them bereft of their stock and sometimes their lives.
The man guarding the gate looked anything but helpless. He brandished a long weapon over his head to keep the raiders from driving the sheep from the pen. His comportment was more like that of a warrior than a cottar, and he seemed well able to defend himself. He was nearly as tall standing on the ground as the raiders were seated on their dark horses.
Kyle rode toward the sheep pen at a full gallop, intent on foiling the raid in progress. He leaned forward to urge his sorrel gelding to leap the low stone fence. The horse landed in the churned mud among the sheep, sending the woolly creatures scurrying in all directions.
On approaching the raiders, Kyle drew his battle axe from the leather loop on his saddle. Although a sword hung from the belt at his waist, the axe was his weapon of choice. With a tapered blade on one side of the metal head and a spike on the other, it was deadly at close range.
“Stand down in the name of the law!” Kyle bellowed. His voice cut through the cacophony of bleating sheep, shouting men, and roaring fire. His deputation was as yet unofficial, but no one there would know that.
The nearest raider, who appeared to be the leader, swung around to face the intruder. He beckoned with his sword for one of his companions to come with him. The other raiders remained in position to continue their harassment of the man on foot.
The two raiders started toward Kyle, taking care to maintain a six-foot span between their horses.
Kyle spurred the gelding forward to meet the raiders head on. He recognized the formation in which they rode, for he and his comrades-in-arms used that same tactic many times in battle to strike Flemish horsemen from both sides at once.
When the raiders were nearly upon him, Kyle veered his mount to the left to force a confrontation with the leader.
While the other raider thundered by on the far side, the leader swung his sword in passing at Kyle, who raised his battle axe to block the forceful stroke. He brought the gelding around and rode back to where the leader was wheeling his mount to take him on again.
The leader charged, striking out with his sword.
Kyle presented the shaft of his axe to deflect the blow. The edge of the sword blade stuttered along the protective strip of metal riveted along the length of the hardwood handle.
The leader swung back his arm for another stroke. Kyle urged the gelding to crowd his horse, forcing him into the lethal strike zone of the short-handled axe. The clang of metal rang out as Kyle thwarted the downward stroke of the sword with a backhanded swing leveled at the man’s neck.
The leader flinched to the left at the last second, suffering only a glancing blow to the back of his right shoulder, rather than the loss of his life. He reeled in the saddle as he swung his mount’s head around and set spurs to its flanks. The horse thundered across the enclosure toward the low stone fence, scattering sheep in its path.
The other raider, who by then had circled back, was now bearing down on Kyle, who pivoted the gelding to face him.
Moonlight glimmered on the steel head of the battle axe in Kyle’s hand. The sight of the weapon poised and ready to strike appeared to intimidate the raider, for at the last instant, the man stood up in the stirrups and hauled back on the reins.
The raider’s mount made a valiant attempt to stop, but its muscular shoulder slammed into the gelding’s chest. Both horses scrabbled in the soft mud to keep their footing, snorting and rolling their eyes.
Kyle grabbed at the saddle bow to keep his seat.
The raider took advantage of his foe’s momentary inattention to thrust the sword at him at point-blank range.
The churning movement of the horses spoiled the raider’s aim, and the tip of the blade skidded along the leather scale armor under Kyle’s dark red cloak, bruising the flesh beneath instead of piercing it.
The raider cursed his luck, more concerned it seemed with missing an easy target than with moving out of range. Before the raider could rectify his fatal error in judgment, Kyle leaned toward him and delivered a hacking blow to his skull. The axe struck the man’s head with a metallic clunk, to Kyle’s surprise.
A savage oath died on the raider’s lips as he tumbled from the saddle. The frightened horse bolted, dragging the dead man through the muck for several yards before his booted foot slipped from the stirrup.
Kyle turned the gelding and rode over to where the man on foot still held the other raiders at bay.
None of the raiders appeared eager to test the lone man’s prowess with the weapon he wielded. At the sight of their leader departing in haste, all four readily abandoned their post. They wheeled their horses and took flight, plowing through a sea of sheep that parted to let them pass.
As Kyle drew closer, he recognized the long-handled weapon in the hands of the lone man on foot. It was a Lochaber axe, favored by Scottish folk for its versatility. With an eighteen-inch blade on one side of the head and a sharpened hook on the other, it served as a tool to reap grain and to pull fruited branches within reach.
Its other use was far more formidable.
In half a dozen bounding strides, the man on foot overtook the retreating raiders. He thrust out the Lochaber axe to drag the slowest horseman from his mount with the metal hook. A single chop with the wicked blade silenced the scream that came from the crumpled figure of the raider writhing on the ground.
The two riderless horses followed the other raiders over the low stone fence and trotted after them into the night.
The lone man turned his bearded face toward Kyle, his hands on the long handle of the Lochaber axe, his booted feet braced in the mud. The glow from the flames on the roof gilded his scowling countenance. A leather belt bound the waist of his homespun tunic, the frayed hem of which reached only to his bare knees.
Since pursuit of the raiders in the darkness was futile, Kyle halted the gelding ten feet from the man. He returned the battle axe to the loop on his saddle and held up his open hands to show they were empty. He remained mounted in case the man mistook him for a raider.
“Kyle Shaw, deputy sheriff of Ayrshire,” he said. “Do you want help dousing that fire?”
The man cast a fleeting glance at the smoke rising from the smoldering thatch. Most of the straw-like material was reduced to ashes, leaving the charred rafters to jut skyward, reminiscent of enormous ribs. The four stone walls of the cottage remained intact, blackened with soot, but undamaged by the blaze.
The man’s gaze returned to Kyle’s face. “Too late for that now,” he said with the soft burr of a Scotsman. He rested the butt end of the axe handle on the toe of his boot. “How came ye to be here, friend?” His manner was amiable, but he kept both hands on his weapon and never relaxed his stance.
“I saw a light from the road. I hoped to find a place to rest for the night before continuing on my way.”
“And ye just happened to pass along that lonely stretch of road,” the Scotsman said, a dark eyebrow cocked in disbelief. “At this hour?”
“Aye,” Kyle said, returning the man’s steady gaze.
“It is unwise to meddle, even if ye are a man of law, as ye claim.”
“Reginald de Crawford, sheriff of Ayrshire, will vouch for my deputation.”
After a moment of thought, the scowl faded from the Scotsman’s face. “The name’s Macalister.” He slung the axe across his brawny shoulders like a yoke, draping a hand over either side of the long handle as he started toward the wooden gate.
Kyle wondered at the abrupt change in Macalister’s attitude at the mention of Sheriff Crawford’s name, but he made no comment about it. As he nudged the gelding forward with his heels to keep pace with the man’s stride, he reflected on the letter he’d received six weeks earlier from Sheriff Crawford. In that brief communiqué, the sheriff wrote of his concern over growing civil unrest in the shire and the increase of rebel activity. He implored Kyle to come back to Ayr at the earliest opportunity to resume his former office of deputy.
In Kyle’s opinion, one man of law more or less in the entire country would make little difference. King Balliol of Scotland still languished in the Tower of London for leading an unsuccessful revolt against Edward of England. To discourage further rebellion, King Edward had stationed English troops at every Scottish castle large enough to pose a threat. The aggressive tactic only served to inflame a Scottish populace already chafing under the harsh yoke of English domination.
In spite of the uncertain state of affairs, Kyle complied with Sheriff Crawford’s urgent plea. If the old sheriff asked for help, he must truly need it. Reginald de Crawford was a proud Scotsman, like Kyle’s own father, James Shaw. Those two men held each other in high regard and shared a lifelong friendship because of it.
The real reason Kyle decided to return home, however, was far more personal. Bitter words exchanged with his father in their last letters resulted in an abrupt end to their communication. Although that was over five years ago, Kyle’s presence in Ayrshire would afford him the opportunity to seek out his father and try to smooth over the breach.
On reaching the gate, Kyle dismounted to stand beside Macalister.
Kyle was taller than most men of his acquaintance, owing his height to his Viking ancestors, who also endowed him blue eyes as pale as ice and tawny hair that fell in waves to his broad shoulders. Macalister, though, loomed over him by half a head and carried twice his weight on a solid frame built like the trunk of a tree. From what he could see of the man’s features in the vague light of the moon, he appeared to be close to his own age of thirty-three years.
Macalister laid the axe along the top of the low stone fence, but he stayed within easy reach of it. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “All clear!”
His shout brought a couple of shadowy figures out from behind a wooden barn huddled in the darkness a short distance away. Silhouetted against the skyline, they took the shape of a boy and a stub of a man bent with age.
As the old man approached the gate of the sheep pen, his pace slowed. His lined face was closed and wary. His homespun tunic bore the stains of long use, and his cloak flapped around a wiry body spare of flesh. The smell of sheep clung to his clothing.
The boy trailed several yards behind the old man, his eyes wide in his ashen face. From what Kyle could see in the dim light, he appeared to be around eight years of age. He wore only a thin shirt under a homespun tunic gathered at the waist with a short piece of hemp rope. When he reached the gate, he crossed his arms over his scrawny chest to keep from shivering in the cold night air.
“How many dead?” the old man said.
“Two,” Macalister said.
The news elicited a grunt of approval from the old man. “Not near enough for the trouble they caused, though,” he said, spitting through the gap where his two front teeth were missing. His gaze shifted to Kyle. “Who’s that?” he said, squinting in suspicion.
“The deputy that Crawford sent for,” Macalister said.
Shrewd old eyes raked Kyle from head to toe, taking in the leather scale vest over the finery under his cloak. “He don’t look like much,” the old man said with a snort of disdain.
“Ye lost nary a sheep because of him,” Macalister said.
“I know that,” the old man said, annoyed. He waved a veined hand in the direction of the barn. “I watched from yonder.”
The old man hardly seemed grateful, as if he assumed it was Kyle’s duty as a man of law to apprehend malefactors like those raiders, no matter the danger or how paltry the wage. Unfortunately, the assumption was correct, despite the fact that his appointment as deputy sheriff was still pending.
He gave in to an urge to glance back at the old man’s cottage. When he did, the sight of the burned-out roof struck a discordant note in his orderly mind. The reaving of stock was practically a national pastime in this country, given the number of impoverished souls forced to eke out a living in it. Pinching a stray lamb now and then to feed hungry children was one thing, but the willful destruction of a man’s home was something else entirely. It smacked of a sinister motivation behind it.
“Those raiders tonight came for more than sheep,” Kyle said to Macalister. “They meant to do some damage. And I happen to know one of them wore a helmet.”
“Of course,” Macalister said. “They’re Southrons.” His tone suggested no further explanation was necessary.
“English soldiers? But why did they come here?”
“Southrons don’t need a reason.”
“Do you know where they came from?”
“I might, but I’d need to take a look at them to tell for sure.”
“I’d like to see them for myself,” Kyle said.
Wisps of smoke drifted in the air as they all walked across the sheep pen to where the dead men lay sprawled in the muck twenty feet apart. The raw gaping wounds looked black in the darkness, as did the widening pools of blood beneath the bodies. Macalister bent over the nearest corpse and drew aside the dark cloak.
Light from the moon was sufficient for Kyle to see the dull sheen on the chain metal links of a hauberk. Bull hide armor covered the dead man’s upper body, and part of a metal helmet showed through a gap in the fabric of his hood.
“Only Southrons wear such fine gear,” Macalister said. He walked over to the other corpse and used the toe of his boot to turn the body face up. Smears of mud obscured most of the dead man’s features.
“Do you recognize either of them?” Kyle said.
“I cannot tell,” Macalister said, peering down at the upturned face.
Kyle stood aside while Macalister and the old man swooped down on the dead men like vultures. He watched in silence, his face impassive, as they stripped the bodies of everything of value. Even the boy joined in to pull off the boots.
He recognized the need for thrift, for this was a poor country and a prudent man let nothing go to waste. Had he been sworn in as deputy at that time, though, he would have been bound by law to confiscate the spoils as evidence. As it was, he could in good conscience allow them to keep it for themselves.
When they finished, Macalister dragged the bodies, one at a time, to the edge of the pen, where he heaved them over the low stone fence. The restless sheep seemed calmer after that.
The old man held up a small leather purse taken from one of the bodies and shook it next to his ear. The clink of coins within brought a gap-toothed smile to his lined face, making him look years younger. “This will buy a lot more than a new roof.” He loosened the binding tie and peered inside the purse. After selecting one of the coins, he handed it to the boy. “Take this to yer mam, Hob.”
Hob ogled the coin in his hand with reverent awe. “But I want to stay,” he said, tearing his gaze from the money to look up at the old man.
“Ye’ll be safer at home in case those devils return later this night. Away with ye, lad.” The old man gave the boy a gentle shove. “Tell yer Uncle Guthrie all is well here.”
Before the boy could take a step, Kyle laid a hand on his thin shoulder. “Just a moment, Hob.” His tone was kindly, which made the boy hold still, instead of twisting free to run away in alarm. To Macalister, he said, “Do you plan to sell that plunder?”
Macalister’s powerful body froze into wary stillness. Only his eyes moved to exchange an uneasy glance with the old man before his gaze returned to Kyle. “Why do ye ask?” he said in a neutral voice.
“I want that mantle,” Kyle said, pointing to the cloak draped across the pile at Macalister’s feet. “How much will you take for it?”
The old man blew out a pent-up breath in palpable relief.
Macalister’s taut muscles relaxed. “Ogilvy can tell ye that better than me,” he said, tilting his head at the old man.
A sly expression crossed Ogilvy’s lined face at the chance to turn a quick profit. “Two groats,” he declared with authority, “and that’s giving it away.”
“For two groats,” Kyle said, “I could buy a good milk cow.” He shook his head. “Nay, I’ll give you one penny in the king’s silver.” The offer was low, but he reasoned that the old man still came out ahead no matter what he got for it.
Ogilvy scrubbed at the stubble on his chin with his knuckles. “Since it was ye who helped to secure the plunder, I’ll settle for one groat.”
“There’s a hole in the hood that needs mending. I put it there myself. I’ll go as high as two pennies, but no more.”
“Four pennies, then,” Ogilvy said, his expression hopeful. “It surely must be worth that.”
“That’s the same as a groat.”
“I know that,” Ogilvy said, indignant. “I didn’t know if ye knew it.” He heaved a sigh, watching Kyle from the corner of his eye. “I suppose I could part with such a fine article for three pennies.”
“My offer stands at two pennies, or no deal.”
“Done.” Ogilvy spat on his hand and held it out to Kyle, who did the same.
After they shook hands to seal the bargain, Ogilvy peered up at Kyle with new respect in his eyes. “Ye drive a hard bargain for a foreigner.”
Macalister laughed, his white teeth gleaming in the darkness. “He’s no foreigner. He’s kin to James Shaw.”
Ogilvy snorted in disgust. “How was I to know? He don’t talk like us, and he don’t look like us.”
Kyle ignored the jibe. Many a lowlander chose to adopt the English mode of dress, preferring fitted leggings under a long-sleeved, high-necked, coat-like garment to a plain cloak over a shapeless tunic. As for his speech, the past six years that he spent among the French had improved his accent, along with his manners.
He fished a couple of silver pennies from his coin purse and dropped them into the old man’s waiting hand. He took the cloak Macalister handed to him, shook the mud from it, and folded it in half. “Tell your ma to wash and mend this before she cuts it down for you,” he said, wrapping the garment around the boy’s thin shoulders. “I want to see you wearing it the next time I come out this way.”
Hob clasped the edges of the wool cloak with one hand and clutched the coin in the other. He tipped back his head to get a good look at his benefactor. His smudged face reflected doubt, as though he was unsure of what he did to merit such a prize. “Thank ye, sir,” he said in a small voice.
“Where do you live, Hob?” Kyle said.
“Just beyond the next field,” Hob said, indicating the direction with his chin.
Kyle ruffled the mop of hair on Hob’s head. “Go on home, then.”
Hob ducked through the bottom slat of the timber gate and scampered away.
Kyle watched the departing boy glance back at him three times before vanishing into the darkness. When he turned to Macalister and Ogilvy, he caught them staring at him, their faces inscrutable.
Macalister was the first to look away. “Let’s get this plunder out of sight,” he said to the old man. He gathered an armful of the booty and picked up his long-handled axe. After opening the gate wide enough to squeeze through, he started toward the shadowed hulk of the barn.
The old man picked up the leather boots with tender care, a pair in each hand, and passed through the gap between the gate and the stone fence. “Be sure to drop the latch, or ye’ll be rounding up sheep till dawn.” He turned and hastened after Macalister.
The two men left the armor behind for Kyle to carry. He tied the unwieldy pieces in pairs and slung them over the saddle. One of the helmets he picked up bore a split in the crown that he’d put there with the blade of his axe. Dried blood stained the jagged edges. The damage was extensive, but in skilled hands, it could be repaired. He hung it, along with the other helmet, from the saddle bow. He led the gelding through the gate and shut it behind him.
He hurried to catch up with the two men as they trudged along the beaten path. “I take it the cottage isn’t yours,” he said, falling in step beside Macalister.
“Never claimed it was,” Macalister said.
“I guess you don’t live here, either.”
Macalister shook his head and kept walking.
“You never told me where you thought those raiders came from.”
“It was just a guess.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
“The closest garrison.”
“So they don’t need to travel so far.”
“I meant, why take the chance?” Kyle said. “If English soldiers are exposed as raiders, they’ll face the noose.” The skeptical look Macalister shot at him prompted him to add, “You don’t think so?”
Macalister took a deep breath and let it out before he spoke. “King Edward needs to fill his coffers,” he said, staring straight ahead as he walked, “and he’s none too particular how he does it. This is sheep country, so the Southrons lay a heavy tax upon wool, whether shorn or on the hoof. Edward approves, as long as most of the collected moneys end up in the royal treasury. What the Southrons don’t tax, they take, like they tried to do tonight. If folks fail to pay the tax, unjust though it is, they’re turned off their land, with nothing to barter once the crops are seized and the stock taken away.”
“What’s the justiciar doing about it?”
“Ye have been away too long. Edward replaced our own justiciars with Southron nobles. As if that’s not bad enough, the clerks make it worse. I’m ashamed to own them as fellow Scots, drawn as they are into crooked ways by the lure of easy money. The clerks collect the tax, as they always did, but now they double the amount due and keep the extra for themselves. The new justiciars allow it because they get a cut of the takings.”
“So, you’re saying that what the English can’t confiscate, they simply take in the raids?”
“There’s nothing simple about it. The raiders know exactly where and when to strike, as though the raids were planned.”
“After I settle in at the garrison,” Kyle said, “I’ll poke around to see what I can find out.”
“The Southrons won’t take kindly to a sharp nose in their affairs,” Macalister said. “If ye aren’t careful, ye’ll stir up a hornets’ nest for yerself.”
By that time, they reached the barn, and a dog inside began to bark, a fierce throaty sound barely muffled through the upright planks on the timber walls.
Kyle and Macalister stood to the side to let the old man open the rough wooden door.
The interior smelled of cow manure and fresh hay. A rectangle of moonlight intruded far enough into the gloom for Kyle to see a tan dog straining at the end of a chain attached to its spiked collar. The beast growled deep in its throat, its lips drawn back in a snarl. He was relieved to see that the chain was attached to an iron ring bolted to the side wall.
The dog was an alaunt, a short-haired breed notorious for its uncertain temperament. Its chest was broad, and the jaws in its bull terrier-like head were massive. Such a beast could track a full-grown stag and pull it down with ease. It was also capable of making short work of any man foolish enough to stray within reach of those bared teeth.
“Down, Fergus,” Macalister said, his voice sharp and commanding.
The dog skulked away to flop down against the side wall. It rested its square head between its paws on the earthen floor, its ears pricked and its eyes watchful.
Ogilvy placed the leather boots on the bed of a wagon that stood against the wall across from the dog. He hovered over them, as though reluctant to let them out of his sight. “Put that stuff over there,” he said, indicating a shadowed corner with a careless sweep of his hand.
Kyle lifted the armor from the saddle and stacked the pieces where Macalister had deposited his load. Between them, they created a substantial pile of goods.
“Have a care where ye peddle these things,” Macalister said, leaning on the handle of his axe, “lest ye rouse suspicion as to how they came into yer possession.”
“Do ye think I’m a dimwit?” Ogilvy said, taking umbrage at the suggestion. “I’m twice yer age, lad, and that makes me twice as smart.” He lifted an oil lamp down from a wooden peg and set it on the dirt floor. After digging in the sheepskin pouch at his waist for a moment, he produced a pair of flints. He struck them together several times, and once the wick flared to life, he hung the lamp back on the peg.
The yellow light from the flickering flame barely illuminated the aisle that ran between the four wooden stalls, two on either side. A ladder at the back led up to a hayloft under the peak of the timber roof. A single horse stuck its head over one of the low stall doors and nickered at Macalister, who walked over to pat its gray neck.
In the stall beside the horse, a black-faced cow placidly chewed its cud as it looked out at them.
The subdued lighting cast Macalister’s blunt features into high relief. His was the open and honest face of a man who said what he meant and meant what he said. His hair was brown, cropped short, and his eyes were dark, peering out over a bushy brown beard.
Kyle felt those dark eyes upon him, gazing with curiosity at the white seam of a scar that ran from temple to jaw on his clean-shaven face. The wound, sustained on a battlefield, came from a Flemish halberd, the wielder of which died shortly thereafter. Although long healed, the scar stood out against his tanned complexion. It was the only blemish on his lean and finely chiseled features.
He fingered his bruised ribs through the leather scale armor. He was tired and hungry, and the last thing he felt like doing was riding in the dark for another hour or so to reach his destination, which was the port town of Ayr on the western coast. “Where will you sleep tonight?” he said to the old man.
“In the loft,” Ogilvy said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
“I’d appreciate it if you put me up for the rest of the night,” Kyle said. The old man’s hesitation prompted him to add, “I’ll pay you for it.”
“Ye mistake me, lad,” Ogilvy said. “I don’t want yer money. That was a kindly thing ye did for my grandson. The least I can do is what little ye ask. Hob don’t lack for warm things to wear. He just forgets to put them on. He’ll treasure that mantle, though, and he’ll wear it, because ye gave it to him special.” He started to walk away, but he turned back. “What made ye do it?”
“He reminded me of...” Kyle said. He let the sentence die away, the words tight in his throat. Ogilvy’s innocent query, like a well-aimed arrow, pierced an old wound that never really healed. He finished by saying, “Someone I used to know.”
Ogilvy nodded his gray head. “There’s not a soul alive who never lost somebody or something,” he said with uncharacteristic empathy. “A few years back, my son died of the fever. It grieved me sore, but I wasn’t the only one to suffer from his passing. Hob lost a father. Hob’s mother lost a husband. Guthrie lost a brother-in-law who was closer to him than a real brother.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “I still think on him from time to time.” He shook himself to recover from his momentary lapse. “Ah, well, it does no good to dwell on it, does it?” He turned away to rummage through the jumble on a low shelf. When he located a small stool and a wooden pail, he ducked into the cow’s stall.
The old man’s words gave Kyle a measure of comfort as he led the gelding into an empty stall. He stripped off the saddle and bridle and slung them across the wooden partition. He removed his cloak and the scale armor and hung them up beside the tack. After filling the manger with sweet hay, he picked up his cloak and draped it over his arm, ready to turn in for the night.
In a short while, Ogilvy came out of the cow’s stall holding a pail half full of frothy milk. “I usually get more than this from her. With all that going on earlier, I forgot her milking. I hope it don’t throw off her yield for too long.”
Ogilvy upended the pail and slurped at its contents. He passed the container to Kyle, who downed several mouthfuls.
The milk was warm and rich with butter cream, the best Kyle had ever tasted, or so it seemed in his present state of hunger. He handed the pail over to Macalister, who drank some of the milk and gave the rest to the dog, who lapped it up and licked the sides of the container.
When they were ready to settle down for the night, Macalister took the dog outside to chain it near the sheep pen in case the raiders returned. He came back a few minutes later and helped the old man bar the door of the barn.
They all climbed the ladder to the loft, with the old man in the lead holding the oil lamp. When they each found a suitable place to sleep, the old man blew out the flame.
Kyle removed his boots and stretched out on the fragrant hay under his cloak, his dirk near at hand. Nights spent in open fields beside companions of dubious character made him wary of trusting too readily.
He hardly noticed the acrid smell of the smoking wick that lingered in the air. His last thought before falling asleep was of taking the two dead men with him when he went to the garrison in the morning, since their bodies were his only proof that English soldiers might also be raiders.
Sometime later in the night, a distant but unrelenting sound penetrated the cobwebs in his head. He strained to hear over the sonorous snoring that came from Ogilvy’s corner of the loft.
Recognition of the source of the sound jerked him to full wakefulness.
The dog outside was barking.
Kyle sat up and pulled on his boots. The hay to his left rustled as Macalister stirred. Ogilvy rolled onto his side, and his snoring ceased. The dog’s barking seemed louder in the ensuing silence.
The darkness inside the barn was absolute. Kyle crawled over to the edge of the loft, mindful of the abrupt eight-foot drop just ahead. He felt his way to the ladder, with Macalister right behind him.
The scrape of his boots against the wooden rungs echoed in the hollow barn. When he reached the earthen floor, he felt along the wooden stalls to the front door as quickly as he dared, collecting the battle axe from his saddle on the way.
Macalister was more familiar with the configuration of the barn and reached the entranceway first. He removed the bar and opened the wooden door. The first light of dawn flooded the interior, bright after the stygian darkness inside. He retrieved his long-handled axe from where he’d propped it against the wall beside the door and stepped outside.
Kyle hastened after Macalister, following him along the dirt path to the sheep pen. The taint of smoke still hung in the chilly air. A thin mist swirled around their feet, boiling up in their wake. Except for the barking of the dog and the intermittent bleating of sheep, he saw nothing to cause alarm.
The dog fell silent at its master’s approach, wagging its tail and whining softly.
“Good boy,” Macalister said, patting its furry head.
After a moment, the sheep settled down and ceased milling about the enclosure.
“Do you see anything amiss?” Kyle said, walking up to the wooden gate. His gaze swept the outer perimeter of the sheep pen.
“Not a thing,” Macalister said, looking around him. “But Fergus did. He’s not one to sound off without cause.”
Belatedly, Kyle realized the serious error he’d made. He swore under his breath as he ducked through the top slat of the gate. Once inside the pen, he strode along the stone fence, searching for black smears of blood on the cap stones, which marked where Macalister had disposed of the bodies. When he found the place, he leaned forward to peer at the ground below. A cursory glance confirmed his fear. Even if wolves or other predators had come during the night, the bodies were too heavy for them to drag away. As he headed back to where Macalister stood by the gate, a cock crowed in the distance.
The whole expanse of the eastern sky grew brighter. The dark hulk of the barn began to take on shape and color. The surrounding trees loomed against the skyline, each branch a vivid green with spring budding.
“The raiders came back,” Kyle said.
“How do ye know?”
“The bodies are gone.” Kyle gnashed his teeth at his own lack of foresight, knowing he should have taken steps to prevent the loss of his only real evidence.
“Too bad about that,” Macalister said.
Kyle glanced over at the roofless cottage. “Do you need me to stay to help clean up?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Macalister said, following his gaze. “I’ll give the old man a hand.”
“I’ll be on my way, then,” Kyle said.
He returned to the barn to gather his belongings and saddle up. Ogilvy was still snoring in the hayloft when, a few minutes later, he mounted the gelding and rode outside.
With a parting wave to Macalister, he set out along the dirt lane that took him through a stand of trees beyond the open yard. He’d failed to notice the small woodland the night before, although its presence explained where the raiders went and how they disappeared so completely in the darkness.
When he drew nearer to the main road, he saw the grassy field through which he’d ridden in the moonlight to get to Ogilvy’s cottage. It was a wonder he made it through there at all, riddled as it was with marshy places glazed with standing water. Any one of those shallow pools might conceal a bog that could swallow both horse and rider in under a minute. His mount would no doubt sink more quickly, for unlike the hardy but smaller pony common to Scotland, the gelding was a tall muscular warhorse that he’d brought with him from across the sea. As a reward for such sureness of foot, he promised the horse an extra measure of oats when he reached the garrison.
The morning was clear and radiant under the burnished blue vault of the sky. The air was crisp and fresh after the recent rain, and the road stretched out before him like a thin ribbon. The open country all around was well suited for grazing sheep, being a rolling tableland of grassy hills and dales. To the east, a distant wall of trees marched along the horizon, and to the west, an occasional stone cottage broke the monotony of the landscape stippled with green spring growth.
He took his time covering the last few miles of his journey to Ayr. All was quiet around him, except for the jingle of harness and the snuffle of the horse’s breath. At that moment, the strife and dissension that threatened to tear apart his homeland seemed far removed, as though such troubles were the lot of those who lived on distant shores. Yet, there was no reason to doubt the reports that had reached him in Flanders, while he served as a mercenary in the army of King Philip IV of France. With no king on the Scottish throne and Edward of England camped on their doorstep, all of Scotland stood on the brink of revolt.
All too soon, the red sandstone bell tower of St. John’s Church came into view over the tops of the trees ahead. Beyond that, the crimson and gold pennant of England fluttered above Ayr Castle within the garrison walls. The emblem was as yet indistinguishable, but he saw it for what it was, a symbol of English domination.
Ayr Castle sat on the south bank of the River Ayr overlooking the Firth of Clyde, guarding the mouth of the river to keep seafaring marauders from sailing upstream to raid inland towns and villages.
The townsfolk of Ayr lived and worked in the shadow of the garrison walls. Their harbor was never at rest, open to trade from both the river and the firth. A hundred years earlier, King William the Lion recognized the value of the port town’s location on the western seacoast and raised Ayr’s status from a fishing village to a royal burgh. As a result of the imperial boon, commerce flourished and the burghers prospered. Eventually, they built a bridge over the River Ayr, which enabled the burgeoning population to spill onto the north bank.
Kyle approached the outskirts of Newton, which the new town that sprang up on the north side of the River Ayr came to be called. He shared the road with folks from nearby villages headed into town with their dog carts and pony-drawn wagons filled with goods to trade and sell at the marketplace in Ayr.
The wind carried to him the nauseating smell of the tannery mingled with the stench from the slaughterhouse farther down the river. Malodorous though they were, those industries were vital to the town’s economy. That was where farmers and herdsmen took their sheep and cattle for slaughter. That was where butchers and fleshers, skinners and tanners prepared the woolfells, hides, and meat for export.
It occurred to him that exportation was a good way for the raiders, whom he now knew to be English, to dispose of their spoils for profit. Though the attempt at Ogilvy’s was unsuccessful, others in the shire had lost their stock to night raids, according to Macalister. The stolen animals could be loaded onto a merchant vessel bound for market across the sea, with the ship’s master paid well to ensure his cooperation. The raiders would hardly use the port of Ayr, though, because of the risk of owners recognizing their own stock. They likely funneled their booty through some other quay along the coast, but the question was which one?
The bells of St. John’s rang in the morning hour of terce, calling the faithful to Sunday Mass. He crossed the stone bridge leading to the south bank of the River Ayr. The sun glimmered on the surface of the water below rushing toward the Firth of Clyde a short distance away. Beyond the garrison walls to the right, the masts of merchant ships in the harbor jutted skyward like skinned saplings. Seagulls screeched and circled overhead, fighting for scraps of rotted entrails from the slaughterhouse and squabbling over refuse from the castle midden.
The old town of Ayr lay before him, a maze of cobbled lanes with gutters down the center that reeked of slops from chamber pots. Cramped wooden houses and shops lined the streets. Women in oatmeal-colored bonnets ambled toward the marketplace, their empty baskets on their arms. Men sat on their front steps, gossiping with their neighbors. Street urchins and their mongrel dogs disrupted traffic, frightening ponies and provoking shouts of anger.
Kyle turned west onto Harbour Street and followed it to St. John’s Church, with its square bell tower reaching for the heavens. He tied the gelding’s reins to the rail out front and ascended the stone steps. He opened the huge doors to enter the vestibule, letting the doors close gently behind him.
Inside, Mass was already underway. The priest droned on in Latin, and his words echoed from the vaulted ceiling. The interior was cold and heavily scented with beeswax candles and old wood. Mullioned windows set high in the stone walls on either side cast a muted illumination over a small crowd of people standing together, facing the altar.
Kyle remained behind those in attendance and glanced around him. There were some who made an ostentatious display of their wealth, dressing in rich velvet robes and mantles trimmed with fur. Others wore mended but clean homespun as their Sunday best.
As his eyes grew used to the dim lighting, he noticed a thin woman in a shadowed corner with a veil on her head. She knelt on the hard flagstone floor, her hands folded in prayer, her thumbs pressed against her heart, as though to hold it in place. She looked more like the Madonna in the niche above her than a flesh and blood woman, until she lifted her bowed head. Though her face was unlined, she was well past the bloom of youth. Her eyes were squeezed shut, crinkled at the corners, and her lips quivered in silent prayer. Her anguished expression made him wonder what mortal sin she’d committed in the past for which she must atone with such fervor.
Before long, the priest uttered the final benediction. Kyle stood aside as the crowd began to shuffle out through the double doors and into the sunlight. The church was almost empty when the thin woman in the corner climbed to her feet and smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt. As she turned to leave, a stout woman with the face of a gargoyle latched onto her elbow. The gargoyle woman steered her through the entranceway and down the steps with such haste, the veil slipped from the thin woman’s head, revealing a thick braid of light brown hair trailing down her back.
Kyle left the church and went over to where the gelding stood dozing at the rail. He untied the reins and led the horse to the marketplace, which was situated in the open stretch of sandy ground between St. John’s and the garrison wall. The sun was warm there in the protected lee, so he removed his cloak and tucked it into his saddle roll.
The marketplace bustled with activity. Merchants presented their goods under striped canopies. Vendors showed off their products in colorful stalls. Peddlers hawked their wares in singsong cadence. Customers haggled for bargains, their voices excited and shrill. Chickens in wicker coops squawked. Dogs fought over scraps of food. A goose escaped from its cage, and a handful of children chased after it trying to catch it. Their laughter and shouts added to the din. On the far side of the grounds, a spitted sheep’s carcass hung over an open fire, with a small boy beside it slowly turning the handle. The smell of animal droppings blended with the aroma of roasted mutton.
Kyle ambled through the stalls, threading a path toward the roasting meat. Along the way, his idle gaze wandered over the people around him. As he passed a cloth merchant’s cart, he noticed a woman looking at a stack of green woven fabric. From the profile she presented to him, he guessed her age to be around twenty-five years. She appeared to be in mourning, for her garment was black, a harsh contrast to her fair skin. A strip of black linen served as a belt around her slender waist. The black bonnet on her head covered all but a single strand of light auburn hair, which blazed in the sun with the vivid color of life.
His pace slowed to watch her reach out a slim hand to touch the ribbons on display. She fingered the silky streamers, caressing first a forest green one, then a bright gold one, as though unable to make up her mind between them.
Then, for no reason that Kyle could discern, she turned her head and looked directly at him. Her delicate features were lovely, with a sprinkle of reddish freckles across her nose and hazel eyes that changed to green in the sunlight.
He stopped to stare openly at her, his hunger forgotten. Although her beauty drew him, it was the air of sadness about her that held him. The generous mouth made for laughter curved down at the corners, and the straight line of her shoulders bowed slightly, as though weighed down with a heavy burden. No stranger to the pain of loss himself, he recognized the signs when he saw them. While unaware of the cause of hers, he knew it was heart-deep and very bitter.
After an awkward moment, she lowered her gaze and stepped around him. The soft fabric of her skirt fluttered in the breeze as she made her way through the crowd. By the time he gathered his wits about him, she was more than twenty feet away.
“Who was she?” he said, turning to the cloth merchant.
The cloth merchant merely shrugged his shoulders.
Kyle watched the departing woman for a moment longer, her head up and her step firm, as though she knew what she wanted and how to get it. He was about to turn away when he saw a helmeted English man-at-arms in light armor sidle up beside her.
The man-at-arms said something that apparently agitated her, for she increased her pace. He thrust out his arm to block her way, forcing her to acknowledge his presence. She turned away from him and started in another direction. He grabbed her wrist to stop her. She pulled back and twisted her arm to break free of his grip.
Kyle strode toward them with the gelding in tow, unmindful of those he bumped into along the way. When he arrived on the scene, he laid his hand on the man-at-arms’ shoulder and spun him around. “Leave her be.”
The astonished man-at-arms released the woman’s wrist. He shrugged off Kyle’s hand, his upper lip curled in a sneer. “Who do you think you are?” he said. His face, or what could be seen of it behind the nosepiece of his Norman helmet, might have been comely but for the stamp of dissipation upon it. His jowls were fleshy from overindulgence in food, and his eyes were bloodshot from too much ale and too little sleep.
“As deputy sheriff,” Kyle said, “it’s my duty to keep civil order in the shire.” He took a step closer, forcing the shorter man to look up at him. “You don’t look civil to me.”
People began to gather around them, craning their necks to see what was going on.
“There’s no harm in talking to the woman,” the man-at-arms said, blustering. Kyle’s towering nearness forced him back a pace. A flush of humiliation darkened his countenance, for that single backward step caused him to lose face before the onlookers, and he knew it.
“Do you want to talk to him?” Kyle said, turning to the woman.
“I do not,” she said, her tone emphatic.
“You heard the lady,” Kyle said to the man-at-arms. “Now, move along.”
The man-at-arms’ visible features under his helmet turned from brick-red to purple. “What I do with her is none of your business,” he said between clenched teeth. “Captain Sweeney will hear about this.” He gathered his bruised dignity about him and stalked off, pushing his way through the crowd. Every few steps, he threw a venomous glance over his shoulder in Kyle’s direction.
The woman’s eyes flashed green fire in the morning sun. “He’s a pig,” she said under her breath.
Kyle heard her comment and suppressed a smile. “Allow me to escort you to where you wish to go, mistress.”
“I would like that,” she said.
As they set out together, his protective male instincts emerged, a natural reaction to a woman in distress. It was the intensity of his feelings that took him by surprise, for only one other woman had ever moved him so. He walked beside her through the marketplace, scarcely aware of the people around him or the vendors hawking their wares.
“Ye have the advantage of me, Master Deputy,” she said, “for I don’t know yer name.”
“Kyle Shaw, at your service. By the way, who’s the pig?”
“That’s Archer from the garrison,” she said with a shudder. “Thank ye for making him go away.”
“My pleasure,” he said, his pale blue eyes on her attractive profile.
She stopped at the baker’s pushcart, where a pretty young woman in a frilly white cap held a newborn infant in her arms.
“Good morrow to ye, Kyle Shaw,” she said, with a curtsy. She avoided the other woman’s questioning gaze as she waited for Kyle to take his leave.
Kyle liked the sound of his name on her lips. After a slight bow to her, he started once again toward the roasting meat with the gelding in tow. After a couple of steps, he realized he’d forgotten something important.
“Mistress,” he said, turning back to her. “I didn’t get your name.”
“It’s Joneta,” she said, flashing a row of small, even white teeth in a smile.
After breaking his fast on a chunk of roasted mutton and a mug of watered ale, Kyle rode under the iron portcullis of Ayr Garrison. Sunlight glinted on the metal helmet of the guard looking down from the watchtower above a pair of massive timber gates.
A thick curtain wall of stone surrounded the garrison. The barracks, the stable, and the other outbuildings within its bounds were built of wood, situated along the inner wall so as to face the open courtyard, at the center of which was a raised platform and a gibbet. The three-story castle keep, also made of wood, was constructed against the seaward wall, where keen-eyed sentries could scan the Firth of Clyde for invaders prowling the sea.
There was much activity in the courtyard when Kyle arrived. A person of importance had just ridden into the garrison with an escort of armed soldiers and a string of mules laden with supplies. The castellan stood on the top step in front of the main hall of the castle, as though waiting to formally greet the visiting dignitary.
Kyle slowed the gelding to a walk, his head turned to gaze at the visitor who stood out like a peacock among the drably clothed English soldiers around him.
A foreigner of noble rank and bearing, the man sat tall and erect in the saddle. He was about forty-five years of age, with a long face and arched brows. His hair was black with silver at the temples. The dark mustache under his high-bridged, arrogant nose was pencil thin, and his dark goatee came to a point on his chin, giving his features a devilish appearance. His mantle of green velvet was trimmed with ermine, fastened at the neck with a large ruby brooch. His linen tunic was the same green hue, threaded with gold, which glinted richly in the sunlight with every movement. He rode a sleek bay horse, with fringes on its soft leather bridle and tooled with tiny gold studs along the brow and cheek bands. He dismounted with lithe grace, and his manner was courteous to the waiting groom, who took the reins from his gloved hand.
The foreign nobleman seemed oblivious to the commotion around him of braying mules, officers shouting orders, and men scurrying to unload supplies.
Kyle headed toward the stable, drawing curious glances along the way. On the far side of the courtyard, a dozen or so archers shot practice arrows at targets of straw. Several soldiers sat on the wooden benches in front of the barracks, cleaning their gear or sharpening their weapons. Others walked about or stood in small groups, talking and laughing among themselves.
Only one man among the soldiery took an inordinate interest in Kyle’s arrival. He was the kind of fellow nobody seemed to notice, whose weathered features and nondescript garments blended with his surroundings, like a chameleon. He paused at honing the edge of his dagger to give Kyle a long thoughtful look. His farsighted blue eyes under bristling gray brows followed the passage of both horse and rider until the walls of the stable hid them from view.
Kyle entered an elongated low-roofed building that, typical of most stables, was open at both ends, with a wide aisle between box stalls on either side. The gaps under the eaves where the timber rafters met the walls let in light and air, although the ventilation did little to dispel the rank smell of horse urine.
He rode down the aisle without haste in search of the groom. Along the way, horses extended their heads over the half doors, velvety nostrils dilated and ears pricked toward him. Unlike King Philip IV’s royal stable, which housed hundreds of horses, this one had no more than fifty stalls and even fewer horses.
Several yards ahead, a man was backing out of a stall that held a huge black warhorse. The magnificent creature showed no fear at the man’s presence. It only tossed its noble head and pawed the dirt floor.
From what Kyle could see, the man was no groom. His short leather tunic fitted him like it was made for him, and the precious jewel in the hilt of his sword winked and glittered as he moved. He was too engrossed in closing the half door and sliding the bolt into place to heed the gelding’s approach. When the man turned, he drew in a sharp breath at finding a horse and its rider the length of an arm away.
“God’s wounds!” the man cried, his eyes wide in surprise. “That steed treads like a wraith.” He was perhaps in his early twenties, of middle height, with flaxen hair and candid blue eyes. His features were pleasant, and his speech too refined for that of a common man-at-arms.
Kyle reined in and patted the gelding’s reddish-brown neck. “He does walk softly.” His gaze shifted to the horse in the stall. “That’s a handsome black.”
“He is that.”
“Is he yours?”
The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat before he spoke. “Nay,” he said. “I was just looking in on him.”
Kyle’s interest sharpened. The reflexive swallow and the need to explain indicated the man was clearly nervous about something, but about what was not as clear. He let the silence stretch between them, waiting to see what the man did next.
Early on, his father had taught him the significance of certain facial expressions and mannerisms. The ability to read people proved useful to him later when he served as liaison between the provost marshal of the French king’s army and mercenaries accused of criminal offenses. In his experience, suspects under interrogation rarely told the truth, whether from fear or guilt or shame. Those with something to hide often gave themselves away with subtle body movements indicative of lying, like the slight lift of a shoulder or touching the face or neck. Proficient liars were harder to spot, but even those skilled at deception slipped up if allowed to talk long enough. Listening, in his opinion, was just as important as observing.
The man licked his lips, another sign of nervousness. His blue eyes took in Kyle’s bulging saddle roll and the stains of travel on both horse and rider. “Are you billeted here?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Kyle introduced himself as the deputy sheriff.
The man seemed relieved. “I’m Upton. Will you be staying in the barracks?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Why is that?” Kyle said, watching him without appearing to do so.
Upton blinked once before he replied. “No reason,” he said in a voice an octave higher than before.
Hesitation, however slight, often preceded a falsehood, and a rise in tone implied deception. The man was lying, but Kyle let it go for the moment. “Are all of the stalls taken?” he said, changing the subject.
“You might check the ones halfway down the row,” Upton said. “Nobody wants those in the middle.”
“Thanks for your help,” Kyle said with a disarming smile. He nudged the gelding forward and continued down the aisle.
After a moment, he glanced over his shoulder and saw what he expected to see: Upton hurrying from the stable as fast as his legs could carry him. It occurred to him that the man might have hidden something in the stall, or worse, injured the horse.
He turned the gelding around and rode back to where the sleek black head stuck out over the half door. He dismounted to make a cursory inspection of the horse and its quarters, but he saw nothing amiss. There was no place in the plain square stall to conceal anything. The animal appeared to be sound, despite the mud caked under its belly and down its long legs. The water in the bucket looked clean, and the hay smelled fresh, with no visible poisonous weeds mixed in it. He would check on the horse again later, so he took note of the stall’s location along the row. It was the only one with a pigeon’s nest in the opening under the roof.
He led the gelding down the aisle. Somewhere near the middle, he found fourteen empty stalls, all of which showed signs of long disuse. Old hay moldered in the feed bins, and the earthen floor stank of rancid droppings. He tied the reins to the nearest post and stepped into the first vacant stall. After a thorough inspection of each one, he chose the least offensive of the lot.
Unsure when the groom would return, he rolled up his sleeves, exposing the scars from long-healed burns on his forearms. He set about mucking out the stall himself with a shovel he found in the tack room.
Nearly an hour later, he settled the gelding into freshened quarters and gave its sorrel coat a good brushing. As promised, he poured an extra measure of oats into the newly cleaned feed bin.
He carried a couple of empty wooden pails out into the courtyard to fetch water from the well. On his return, he hung one pail inside the stall for the gelding. The other he used to wash off the mud and grime of his two-week journey from Flanders, after which he shaved to make himself presentable to the sheriff. He dried himself with his soiled shirt, changed into fresh clothing, and buckled his sword belt over the leather scale vest. He stored the saddle and the bridle in the tack room and left the stable carrying his saddle roll with him.
He crossed the courtyard to the sheriff’s office, which was a small two-room outbuilding set against the east wall. The door stood open to let in the sunlight, so he went inside without knocking. The front room was furnished with a pair of stools, a table with a tallow candle on it, and a wooden bench under a window in the side wall. A curtain hung over the entryway to the rear chamber.
He dropped his saddle roll onto the bench and started toward the chamber in the rear. The only sound in the room was the heavy clump of his boots on the timber planking. Before he reached the curtain, a gnarled hand swept it aside from within, and Sheriff Reginald de Crawford stepped through the doorway.
The sheriff looked nothing like the robust man Kyle remembered. The decline in his appearance went far beyond that expected of someone well past sixty years of age. A wasting disease had ravaged his body, leaving him sickly and frail. His linen shirt and woolen leggings hung from his emaciated frame. The blue eyes in his bony face were dull with opiates, and his sallow skin was wrinkled and dry, like old parchment. Even his gray mustache seemed to droop with fatigue.
Shocked disbelief flashed across Kyle’s face for only an instant before he regained command of his countenance. The sheriff’s condition appalled him, and his natural inclination was to conceal it to spare the old man’s dignity. Involuntary reactions like his own just then were similar to what he observed in others during his interrogations. Probing questions often provoked a strong emotional response in a suspect. Those intense feelings, although fleeting, reflected what was really going on inside a person. The body always told the truth, despite the contradictory words coming out of the mouth.
Sheriff Crawford caught the fleeting expression on Kyle’s face and smiled. “Now ye see why I sent for ye.” His rich baritone was at odds with his skeletal appearance.
“If you needed me sooner,” Kyle said in earnest, “I would have come.”
“Ye are here now,” Sheriff Crawford said. “That’s all that matters.” He walked over to the bench and lowered himself onto it with a weary sigh. “I plan to stay with my daughter in Kilmarnock for a while. She says I must rest or I’ll never get well.”
“When are you leaving?”
“On the morrow.”
Sheriff Crawford peered at him with the eyes of a man who knew his days were numbered. “I cannot do very much anymore. Ye must stand in my place for a time. I’ll get Sir Percy’s clerk to enter yer name into the official records. Then, as deputy, ye will be the one who keeps peace in the shire. If Reginald comes back before I do, he will execute the duties of this office, with yer able assistance, of course.” He was apparently well satisfied that his eldest son and namesake would carry on in his place as sheriff of Ayrshire, a hereditary title held by the Crawfords for generations.
Kyle leaned against the wooden table. “When is Reginald expected?”
“Not for some months,” Sheriff Crawford said. “There’s trouble brewing in the north. Moray raised his standard against the English, and from what I hear, he convinced Inverness and Elgin and some of the other castles to stand with him.” He shook his head, his countenance grave. “I’m sorry to call ye back while things are so unsettled, but I don’t trust anyone else to hold this post for my son, even for a short time.”
“What about my father?”
Sheriff Crawford lowered his eyes and shifted his weight on the wooden bench, as though the question made him more uncomfortable than the hard surface on which he sat. “James Shaw,” he said in a flat voice, “was killed five years ago.”
Kyle’s stomach lurched, as if the floor had dropped out from under him. “Killed?” he cried in disbelief. “How?”
Sadness etched every crevice of Sheriff Crawford’s gaunt features. “It happened at Loudoun Hill,” he said, lifting his gaze to Kyle’s face. “I know little more than that.”
Kyle’s fingers curled around the edge of the table, his grip so hard his knuckles turned white. “Why not?” he demanded, his tone harsh. “He was your friend, wasn’t he?” He knew better than to rail at a feeble old man, but at that moment, anger and frustration overrode any compassion he might have felt.
“I looked into the matter right away, but it came to naught. My inquiries to mutual acquaintances met with closed mouths, or else they chattered loud and long, but imparted nothing of use. Some said James was a hero. Others called him a traitor to the Scottish cause. When I think back on it, I believe my being sheriff hindered more than helped at the time.”
“Why is that?”
“Although this high office was bestowed upon my family by Scottish kings of old, I only retain my post now by the grace of Edward of England. It goes without saying that I am bound, as ye will be as deputy, by all strictures imposed under English law. Those I questioned about yer father’s death knew that and likely mistrusted me because of it.”
The bells of St. John’s rang in the noon hour of sext. Kyle gazed out the open doorway, staring inwardly at his own thoughts, oblivious to the sunlight flooding the courtyard or the wind churning up dust from a passing horse.
The news of his father’s death upset him more than he was willing to admit aloud. Five years earlier, he received a letter from his father insisting that he come home because of worsening conditions from English occupation throughout Scotland. For reasons of his own, he wasn’t ready to go back, and he wrote his father telling him so. He never received a reply to that or any subsequent letter he sent to his father. Grief at the loss of his father far outweighed any relief he experienced on learning that death, not anger or disappointment, had kept his father from corresponding with him all those years. He’d let his father down, and he knew it. It was too late to make amends. The only thing left to do now was to find out what had really occurred that day at Loudoun Hill. If treachery was involved, he would bring the murderer, or murderers, to justice. It was what he did as a man of law.
“Where is he buried?” he said, rupturing the uneasy silence that fell between them.
“I don’t know,” Sheriff Crawford said. The sincerity on his face was genuine, but he pressed his thin lips together in a way that suggested if there was more to tell, he was unwilling to do so.
“All right, then,” Kyle said, folding his arms across his chest. “If I am to carry on in your stead, you must catch me up with what is yet to be done in the shire. Are all taxes collected, counted, and delivered to the royal coffers?”
“Sir Percy handles that now,” Sheriff Crawford said, “by order of the English king.”
Kyle chewed on his lower lip. “Very well,” he said after a moment. “Has the Kirk yet paid its dues to the Crown?”
“Sir Percy himself deals with the Kirk, by order of the English king.”
“I see,” Kyle said. “Am I authorized to convene an assize to sit in judgment, as a sheriff is wont to do?”
“Sir Percy presides over all cases brought to court, both civil and criminal, by order of the English king.”
“And should Sir Percy render an unfavorable verdict, am I to arrange for execution of the felon and confiscation of his chattels, as required for payment of bloodwite?”
“Actually, Sir Percy turned all punitive duties over to the English marshal here in the garrison.”
“By order of the English king, no doubt,” Kyle said dryly. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “The length of my absence from the shire puts me at a disadvantage, so perhaps you can tell me exactly what there is left for me to do as deputy.”
“To pursue brigands,” Sheriff Crawford said, “and to arrest all who disrupt civil order. Those who live in the shire are powerless to defend themselves, so ye must see to their protection. The force of law must be strong enough to contain the predators who seek to devour innocent folk.” He spoke with a fervor that lit his tired old eyes with a feverish zeal.
“Ah, well,” Kyle said. “A noble undertaking, indeed. That is why I was summoned here, and that is what I shall do.”
“Despite the reassignment of certain duties to Sir Percy,” Sheriff Crawford said, “there is still much required of this office. As sheriff, I am required to witness royal documents. Ye are not authorized to do that, even as deputy. Should the occasion arise, either I or my son will handle that. In the event of an invasion from sea-roving bandits, ye will be required, in my absence, to provide stores for the garrison and make sure the burghers are prepared for battle. That has not happened in many years, but I thought I should mention it, just in case.”
Sheriff Crawford made a move to rise from the bench when a sudden frown puckered his brow. His breath came in ragged gasps. His hand trembled as he fumbled in the leather pouch attached to his belt. He took out a small phial, which he shook near his ear to ascertain the measure of its contents. After removing the cork stopper, he took a swig of the fluid inside. He replaced the stopper, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and closed his eyes.
Kyle pushed away from the table to stand upright, ready to help but unsure what to do for the old man.
After a moment, the sheriff’s breathing returned to normal and his drawn brows relaxed. He opened his eyes and got to his feet, wincing as he straightened his stiff joints. He was a tall man, and his extreme thinness made him look even taller.
“Ye can put yer gear in there,” Sheriff Crawford said, indicating the rear chamber with a tilt of his head. He started for the doorway with the phial clutched in his claw-like fingers. “There are things I must do before I leave on the morrow.” He paused after a couple of steps and turned his head toward Kyle. “I’m glad ye are here, lad. Yer father would be pleased that ye came back.”
Gray light seeped through cracks in the shuttered window, waking Kyle from a sound sleep. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. For a moment, he wondered where he was, until he recognized the rear chamber of the sheriff’s office and the man who slept on the pallet against the far wall, as still as death except for the soft rasp of his shallow breathing.
Kyle rose to his feet, taking his cloak, which had served as a blanket, with him. The air was so cold, his breath came out in a white plume. He set to work on the brazier, dropping oak chips onto the banked coals and blowing on them until a tiny blaze flickered to life. The sparse furnishings in the chamber took on shape and form in the meager light. He poured icy water into a pottery bowl to wash his face and shave the stubble on his chin. By the time he finished dressing, the bells of St. John’s sounded the hour of prime, the signal for the start of a new day.
He fastened his cloak at the neck and went outside into the early morning chill. He closed the door behind him before heading for the kitchen, the only outbuilding in the garrison made of stone because of the constant risk of fire. At the sight of smoke pouring from the chimney flues, he quickened his pace in the hope the baking was already underway. There were others moving about in the courtyard, and some were walking in the same direction as he was.
When he reached the low stone building, he stepped through the open doorway into stifling heat that smelled of old grease and raw bread dough.
The kitchen was large, with a huge oven built into the side wall and a fire pit in the center of the floor filled with glowing charcoal. Barrels of salted foodstuff stood against the back wall, along with jars of oil, crocks of grain, and other dried goods. A large pottery crock hung over the fire pit, suspended from a sturdy iron arm designed to swing the pot away from the flames to add ingredients or to cool it down for cleaning. The bottom of the crock was blackened with soot, and the number of chips around the lip suggested the pot was old, which was a silent tribute to the skill of the cook, since pottery cracked and broke if exposed to high temperatures or if cooled too quickly.
Half a dozen townsfolk hired to prepare meals for the garrison glanced up from their chores. Their faces were flushed from the heat, and their sleeveless tunics were streaked with stains. Five of them stood at a wooden table with flour to the elbow, kneading coarsely milled barley and water into a brownish dough and shaping it into small flat cakes. After baking, the chewy flatbreads would serve as a filling meal.
The sixth man tended the crock, stirring its contents with a long wooden ladle and feeding logs into the fire as needed to keep the temperature even.
Kyle walked over to the crock to peer inside. A thick porridge of hulled oats bubbled within. Its surface was studded with yellow lumps that looked like pieces of cooked apple. It smelled fresh enough, but there was no telling how old it really was. Once the liquids in a crock came to a boil, it was common for cooks to continue adding ingredients to it for days.
He looked over at the men kneading the barley dough. It might be an hour or more before the flatbreads were ready, so he settled for the porridge. He picked up a glazed clay bowl and held it out to the crock tender, who barely spared him a glance as he ladled a generous portion into the shallow receptacle.
When Kyle returned to the office, Sheriff Crawford was already dressed, with a packed leather bag on the bench by the door. The lighted brazier in the corner tempered the chill in the front room. They sat at the table and split the porridge between them. While they ate, they polished up old memories, during which neither of them made any mention of James Shaw.
When they finished eating, Kyle went to the stable to make arrangements for the groom to hitch up a wagon and bring it around to the sheriff’s office. He walked down the aisle to the gelding’s stall to check the water level in the bucket and to add fresh hay to the feed bin. He left the stable to go to the kitchen, where he took a couple of flatbreads, which were now ready and hot from the oven. He returned to the office and gave the flatbreads to the sheriff, who wrapped them in a scrap of cloth and put them in his bag to take on his journey.
Kyle sat at the table to wait with the old man until it was time to go, listening to him talk about his grandchildren and the things he would do when he recovered from his illness.
A knock on the door brought Kyle to his feet on the assumption that it was the groom with the wagon. He picked up the sheriff’s bag and opened the door.
A leathery man of middle years stood just outside the office. He looked more like a farmer than a groom in his ragged-edged homespun tunic and coarse cloak. He appeared to be unarmed, except for the bulge in one of his home-tanned leather boots, where a sgian-dubh was concealed.
“I come to see Sheriff Crawford,” the man said, his weathered face somber and intent.
Kyle stepped aside to let him enter and closed the door behind him. He dropped the sheriff’s bag onto the bench and leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb, his arms folded across his chest.
The man tramped into the front room, bringing with him cold air and the scent of horseflesh. He doffed his gray felt cap, ruffling his shaggy brown hair in the process.
“Brodie’s the name,” he said to Sheriff Crawford. “There’s a matter I must speak to ye about.” His brown eyes shifted to Kyle before returning to the sheriff. “In private.”
“I’m leaving for Kilmarnock within the hour,” Sheriff Crawford said. “I don’t know when I’ll be back, so while I’m away, Master Shaw will stand in my place as deputy sheriff. Ye must address yer complaint to him.”
Brodie twisted his felt cap with his large chapped hands. “But he be a Southron,” he said, his disapproval evident in the downward turn of his mouth.
“He’s no more English than ye are,” Sheriff Crawford said. “Now, take yer ease there on the bench, and state yer business.”
Brodie took a seat as bidden, his back ramrod stiff. “It’s my Abigail,” he said, looking from the sheriff to Kyle and back again. “She were defiled and murdered, and it were a Southron what done it.”