Border Fire

By: Amanda Scott

Chapter 1

“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.

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