July 1643. Falkirk, Scotland
“Head down, arse up, Roddy!” Colin reached as far as he could to help his little brother up the great oak that stood outside the kailyard. “I’ve been waiting long enough.”
“I’m climbing as fast as I can!” Roddy planted his foot on the branch below and grabbed Colin’s hand.
“Did ye bring them?” Colin had spent the early morning smelling fresh bannocks baking in the kitchens, his wame growling as fierce as thunder.
“Aye.” Roddy reached inside his shirt and pulled out two. “They’re nice and hot.”
Da was expected to arrive any day now according to the letter he’d sent Ma after his most recent victory against the Roundheads in Yorkshire. Colin peered over the stone wall surrounding the courtyard. In the distance, sheep grazed on the summer grass, their fleece recently sheared leaving them looking like naked old men with big pink bellies. No sign of Da.
“Do you two laddies have something to confess?” Ma stood below, her hands on her hips and a smile on her face. The bit of sun that managed to slide between the clouds settled on her head, painting her hair golden. “Mistress Mary says she made a dozen bannocks and there are only ten in the basket.”
Colin took a quick bite of his. “We’re sentinels keeping watch for Da. We need to be fed properly if we’re to do our job.”
“In that case, I suppose ye do.” She held out a jar of honey. “But ye might want some of this to go along with yer loot.”
Colin handed his bannock to Roddy then scrambled past him. “Stay here. I’ll get it.” He jumped down from the tree, the taste of honey already on his tongue.
Ma handed him the jar and tousled his hair. “Mind after yer brother. Don’t let him fall. Remember he’s not as big and braw as you.” She smelled like the bonnie pink flowers she kept on the sill in the solar that reminded him of the cider the tenants delivered in early September. “Yer father would be proud of how you’ve watched over us these months. Almost a man, you are.”
“I’ll be eleven soon.” He felt like a man. After all, he was at least an inch taller than her already. Colin dipped his finger in the honey and stuck it in his mouth.
“Don’t remind me, laddie. I’m in no hurry to see ye grown.” She kissed him on his cheek and turned to leave. “Be sure to watch the weather. There are storm clouds nearby.”
“Aye, Ma.” Colin climbed back up the oak and settled on the branch next to Roddy. He drizzled honey on his bannock, then handed him the pot. The sky grew darker as the minutes passed.
“Did ye hear that thunder?” Roddy asked.
Colin shoved the last of it in his mouth, then shot up. It wasn’t thunder. “Look!”
A team of horses were making their way across the glen towards the castle, but the riders were not wearing the earthy tartans of Da’s men. They were wearing redcoats.
Colin’s pulse thrummed in his ears as the soldier’s grip tightened on the back of his neck. He tried to unwrap the man’s fingers with his own, but he was already weak from struggling. Next to him, Roddy fought like a hen ready to be plucked, the tips of his shoes scraping the stone floor in the grand entrance hall. His spindly legs kicked furiously at the giant holding him off the ground, but even as they connected with the man’s shins, the soldier never flinched.
“Hit him again! Make him yelp loud enough to force the traitor out of his rathole.” The voice of the Englishman holding Colin echoed off the stone walls, his breath reeking of onions and ale, the sleeves of his red doublet stained with old blood.
Roddy’s captor smacked him hard on the side of his head, and he screamed. Colin stood helpless, his mother’s earlier words ringing in his ears. But Da wouldn’t be proud now.
“Leave him alone!” Colin dug his nails into the man’s leathery skin and was answered with a resounding slap to his face. Boiling with fury, he never felt it.
“Do that again and you’ll end up like her!” The soldier swung Colin around to face his mother’s body, lying in the solar in a pool of her own blood. Her shoes were missing and her stockings were torn, one in a bunch around her ankle. Blocked by his father’s large leather reading chair, he couldn’t see her face, but he imagined it streaked with tears. He tried to erase the images that burned behind his eyes of what the men had done to her before they killed her, but her muffled cries still rang in his ears.
The other soldier jerked Roddy by the hair, prodding him to let out another howl.
“That should fetch us the cockard,” he said, sharing a wicked smile with the soldier who held Colin.
Colin wasn’t sure what they meant until his father burst into the room. The sleeve of his uniform was soiled, the torn lace hanging from his cuff like a long-legged spider. When had he returned?
“Let go of him!” His da lunged at the soldier.
In a single heartbeat, the man pointed his pistol at Da and jerked his head towards his comrade. “Get his weapons.”
The other soldier tossed Roddy aside and tugged Da’s dirk and pistol free.
“So you decided to crawl out of your hiding place after all. You’re a bit too late for your wife, though. Trista, was it?”
Da’s face fell as his gaze moved from the soldier to the blood seeping across the stones behind them in the solar. “Don’t want that to happen to your boys, do you, Blackburne?”
Da’s eyes narrowed, and his tightened jaw worked back and forth. His hand instinctively reached for the weapon on his hip that was no longer there.
The soldier cocked his pistol and steadied it at Da. Colin could tell Da was fighting the urge to leap forward and rip out their throats, but the pistol pointed at his chest kept him back.
“Let them go,” Da uttered between clenched teeth.
Ping. Ping. Ping.
The ping of Ma’s beloved lantern clock, a wedding gift from Da, traveled across the room from the mantle, marking the passing of another hour.
“That’s not the way this works. You’ll answer to Fairfax first, and then we’ll see about your lads.”
A blade pressed against Colin’s throat. The sharp sting of an open wound made him freeze. Da’s eyes widened, and a flash of panic disappeared from his features as soon as it came. “I’ll do as you say. But if you lay another hand on my sons, you’ll have to kill me, and you won’t get the information you need, then, will you?”
It had been hours since anyone had spoken. They’d been thrown into the back of a cart, where Colin lay next to Roddy and Da, fighting his need to cry, to scream and curse. His body trembled, teeming with grief and fear. Ma was dead.
He and Roddy rested their heads against Da’s shoulders, which bounced and rattled as the wheels traveled over the ruts in the road. There was no comfort in it, though. Colin’s muscles ached, his skin stung where the rope chafed his wrists, and sweat and dirt seeped into his small neck wound.
Da shifted, nudging Roddy higher on his chest. Roddy’s lips were shut tight and his eyes were closed, but Colin had seen that look before and knew he wasn’t sleeping. He was likely just forcing himself not to cry.
Colin could stand the silence no longer. “Da? Where are we going?”
Da took a deep breath, and Colin and Roddy’s heads raised and lowered with it. “England.”
England was far, and according to Colin’s friends back in Falkirk, it was a land filled with righteous pillicocks.
“Do ye think they plan to kill us?” Colin asked. The words were hard to say, sticking in his throat like porridge without enough milk.
“Nay, laddie.” Da’s voice was barely a whisper, his Scottish accent once again strong now that he was away from the Englishmen, who sat smugly on their horses out of earshot. He tipped his chin down and kissed the top of Colin’s head. “Don’t think of such things.”
He didn’t want to think of such things, but he’d seen what the men had done to Ma. He pressed his eyes shut, praying the bloody images of her would disappear. “Why did they do it?”
“Do it?” Da asked.
“Those things . . . to Ma. She didn’t even have a weapon. Ye told me before, ye never strike a man with yer weapon if they mean to do ye no harm. She meant to hurt no one.”
Da was silent for a moment. Colin could feel that he was shaking his head. “I suppose they did it to hurt me. We’ll never really know.”
And what about him and Roddy? They’d taken her away from them too. Colin couldn’t help but cry. He wanted to be strong, but his thoughts wouldn’t let him.
Roddy lifted his head off Da’s chest, his eyes full of worry. “Is she in heaven, Da?”
“Oh aye, she is.”
It felt good to hear Da say that.
“Can we pay her a visit?” Roddy asked.
Colin stared at his brother’s wide blue eyes, and was reminded that Roddy was only a boy of seven. He didn’t understand much beyond climbing trees and teasing the goats in their pens.
Colin felt Da’s chest tighten underneath his cheek. “Nay, laddie. Ye can only go to heaven if God wills it.”
Roddy’s bottom lip popped out, quivering. “When will God will it?”
“For you? I pray not for a long time.” Da spoke to Roddy quietly, explaining the truths about death and its finality. Colin already knew most of what he said, having lost his favorite colt two years earlier to a cold winter when the stable door was left open. They’d found the colt stiff at the edge of the river, his withered body covered in ice. It was a hard lesson to learn then and an even harder one now.
Da wondered aloud, his voice wobbly. “Yer mother deserves a proper burial. Who will take her body to the kirkyard? Who will ring the bell?”
Colin prayed one of their servants would escape from his binds and find her body before the creatures gleaned it of all that made her human.
“I always paid my tithes to the church. Perhaps someone will take it into his heart and see to a decent grave.” A tear escaped the corner of Da’s eye and landed on the collar of his black doublet. “Och! If I’d only come a few minutes earlier, I could’ve saved her.”
Colin doubted that. Ma had been dead long before Da made it home. The first group of soldiers that had arrived that morning had been the ones to kill her. The second group had only come to loot their property and use him and Roddy to get to Da.
Shame and guilt filled his gut. As hard as he’d fought, he hadn‘t been able to fend off the soldiers. “I couldn’t protect her either. I tried, but there were too many of them,” he explained in a small voice.
Da kissed the top of Colin’s head once more. “I’m sure ye did, laddie.”
They rode in the cart for days with only brief stops to rest the horses and find food and drink. The soldiers had let them out to relieve themselves and eat, but they retied their hands immediately afterward. Colin’s shoulders ached from being pulled back, and his wrists were rubbed raw and pink, especially across the bones. Though it was summer, the drizzly nights and mornings kept them chilled until the late afternoon sun burned the dampness out of their clothes.
Behind his closed lids, his mother’s face appeared, her smile warming his cheeks. He knew she would say, Be strong, wee man. Don’t give in to misfortune. But he didn’t feel like a man. He felt helpless. And angry.
Colin cleared his throat, the sting of despair lodged like a hot coal. Da mistook his sadness for thirst.
“Drouthy, are ye? I’m sure we’ll soon stop for water. Lay yer head, laddie.”
Colin settled deeper into his father’s chest, careful not to knock heads with Roddy. “Are the soldiers Roundheads, Da?”
Da humphed. “Aye. Fairfax’s men.”
Colin thought so. They looked like the short-haired soldiers who had come the previous winter to warn Da to stay out of the uprising.
“Is that why they called ye a traitor?” Colin wished he could scratch the itch on the side of his nose, but he rubbed his face on Da’s shirt instead. “Did ye promise them you’d stop fighting?”
“A promise is comfort for a fool. They may have expected a promise from me, but I never gave one.”
Colin knew Da would never stray from his principles. His father had always said that was what made a man a man.
But part of him wondered why his father would fight for King Charles when Colin’s own dominie taught that he was not a worthy man. “Master McClellan says the king’s secretly a Papist.”
“He does, does he?” The wagon rattled over a rut in the road and Da grunted. “He’s nae a Papist, laddie. His queen’s a Catholic, but he’s a Protestant.”
“And he has special powers. He once blessed a silver sixpence, then gave it to a woman who was sick with the scrofula. I heard she healed completely. Master McClellan says it was the devil’s work, though.”
“I have no knowledge of such a thing. But if the woman was cured, it sounds like it may have been God’s divine intervention.”
That’s what Colin had always thought, but he never dared argue with his dominie. That could bring twelve good smacks on the palm with a switch of birch. “Then why are the English against their own king? Is it because they mind his Scottish blood?”
He did want answers, but more importantly, he wanted Da to keep talking, explaining, filling the empty spaces with words about the king or the war. About anything but Ma.
Da took a deep breath. “’Tis nae as simple as that.”
“Well, Master McClellan says he’s a tyrant who does as he pleases, and that’s because he’s been surrounded by flatterers since the cradle. He also says he steals money from the Kirk for grand masques and—”
Roddy’s head lifted suddenly. “Whores! He also said he pays for his whores with the tithes from the good and holy people of Scotland!”
Colin sat up as best he could with his wrists bound and the rattling cart beneath him. “And he has a great taste for fineries. I’ve heard he has tapestries so big, the palace walls cannot fit them, and artwork worth more than all the riches in England, Scotland, and Ireland together!”
“He wears robes embroidered with gold!” added Roddy.
Da’s eyebrows lifted. “Yer dominie seems to have filled yer heads with nonsense. Don’t forget he is a clergyman and does more than fine by the Kirk. His reason for berating the king has much to do with his relationship to the Kirk and little to do with the facts, ye see.”
Da didn’t seem upset by his and Roddy’s account of King Charles. There was something in his eyes that said he’d heard all of this before. Something that said he’d argued against this treasonous talk many times in the past, and now he was tired.
Colin stared at his father, waiting for an explanation. If all of it was false, then what was the truth? “So is the king a good man, Da?”
Again, Da waited to answer. The lump in his throat gave a great bounce before he spoke. “I pray, son. Because my belief in him is what killed yer ma.”
They reached a large estate in Yorkshire late in the afternoon. The mizzle had stopped, yet a few clouds remained. Colin hoped it was the end of their journey. He could no longer stand the smell of their wet clothes and the gassy horses. He needed to stretch his legs and run—all the way back to Scotland if he could. His stomach growled, but he’d rather starve than eat another piece of hard black bread. He vowed that after they returned home to Carronshore, he would never let that bread touch his lips again as long as he lived.
Three Roundhead soldiers guided their cart to the stables in the back and dragged them out of the bed.
“You’ll keep your mouths shut,” one said, slicing off their binds and tossing them aside. The pain of the blood rushing back into Colin’s hands burned to his fingertips. Roddy squeezed his eyes shut and let out a soft whimper.
A tall, broad-chested soldier stepped forward and ran his hand down the sleeve of Da’s doublet. “So you’re Gavan Blackburne. No hodden grey for you, I see.” The soldier tilted his head to the side, admiring Da’s fine black coat. “How does it feel to know your coin is helping to drench English soil with English blood?”
Da slapped the soldier’s hand away. “How does it feel to know yer a traitor to the King of England?”
The soldier raised his fist and pulled it back to strike, but another soldier stepped in and caught the punch in his big meaty hand. He had eyes like a hound’s and a gut so round, it looked as if the buttons on his red coat would pop off should he sneeze. “I’ll take them from here, Kitts.” He turned back to Da. “Follow me.”
Colin followed behind, staring at a dark stain on the back of the large man’s sleeve. It could have been blood, a remnant from combat on the battlefield. But considering the man’s girth, Colin imagined the spot had more to do with bilberry pie than heroism.
They walked through the servants’ entrance of the grand home to a large parlour decorated with portraits of men with carefully coiffed dark curls and pointed beards.
“Where are we, Da?” Colin asked.
“Wheesht,” whispered his father, his index finger at his lips.
A man called out from another room. “Bring him in here, Peters.”
The corpulent soldier, Peters, turned towards Da. “The lads will wait here. Go through that door.”
Da leaned down to Colin. “I’ll be right in there.” He pointed to a set of thick wood doors. “I’ll hear ye if ye holler.”
A bearded man with brown shoulder-length hair stood in the threshold of the room, a glass of something golden in his hand.
“I’ll mind Roddy,” Colin whispered back.
Da patted him on the shoulder. “I know ye will, laddie.”
With that, Da disappeared into the room.
Peters asked, “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, sir. We haven’t eaten anything but hard black bread for days.” Colin motioned his thumb towards his brother. “Roddy thinks he chipped a tooth.”
Peters patted his protruding gut and nodded. “I’m hungry too. I’ll go back in the kitchens and see what we have.”
“Looks like he should forego a meal or two,” Roddy suggested under his breath.
Colin elbowed him. “Wheesht. He’s offering us food.”
“What if the English eat frogs’ brains and horseflies?” Roddy asked.
“Then we’ll eat them too. Now hush.”
It took only a minute for Peters to return with a meat pie and a hunk of cheese. He set the plate down on the game table and started to walk away. “I’ll be back with some stepony.”
Colin was so thirsty, he would drink it even though he knew it would never be as good as his mother’s. If she had it, she’d mix in extra sugar for him and Roddy. Roddy stuffed an enormous piece into his mouth and reached for another.
“Slow down or you’ll get sick!” Colin barked. He took a bite and it tasted so good, he thought he might cry.
Peters reappeared and placed a pewter pitcher and two mugs in front of them. “Here you go. I’ll be back in the kitchens. Don’t make a fuss or I’ll have to set you straight.”
“No, sir. We won’t,” Colin insisted. Roddy’s face was hidden behind his upturned mug.
They finished half of the meat pie and took turns taking bites from the hunk of cheese. Roddy lay back on the divan with his mug resting on his stomach like the drunks at Gertie’s Pub back home. Colin took a deep breath, then spoke. “I could use a soft bed next to a fire right now.”
He wanted to add with Ma brushing the hair away from my face and singing ‘O Can Ye Sew Cushions’ at my bedside, but he didn’t. He couldn’t.
Shouts from inside the hidden room startled him and Roddy, whose swollen belly tightened, spilling what was left of his stepony on his shirt.
“So you raised arms against us! You were at Adwalton Moor!”
Colin edged over to the wall just outside the room where his father and the bearded man were. He peeked through the crack in the door but could see only the back of Da’s doublet.
“You were there, Fairfax. You tell me.” Da’s voice sounded strong and sure, but the disappearance of its Scottish brogue and burr made him sound almost like an Englishman.
“You received the missive, Blackburne. The command was quite clear, as I recall, for you and the others to stay out of the uprising.”
“I read it. Did you expect me to abandon what I believe in my heart for some threatening words on parchment?”
“I do not remember giving you the choice to disobey my orders.”
Colin had never heard anyone speak to Da like that.
“I don’t answer to you.”
“Come, come, Gavan. Are we not old friends?” The man spoke in a tone Colin knew would upset Da. Condescending, sarcastic. “Last year, the embarrassment at Hull—”
“Embarrassment? ’Twas treason!” Da shifted forward and slammed his hand down on Fairfax’s desk. Colin jumped at the noise. “Hotham refused the king entrance into the city, for God’s sake! The last I heard, Yorkshire was a part of England.”
“Regardless, ’twas my understanding you agreed to withhold all funding for Royalist causes.”
“Never. I stand by my decision to support the man whom God has blessed with royal blood. ’Tis his divine right. You cannot deny him his throne.”
“There is enough opposition to do just that.”
“You’d better hope you’re right, Fairfax. For if you’re wrong, you’ll surely lose your head.”
“And you, Blackburne? What will you lose?”
Da slammed his hand on the desk again. “You know damn well what I’ve lost! And your men are responsible!”
“I’ll have you know, those were not my orders.” There was a short pause. “But you have more to lose, do you not?”
Colin’s stomach tightened. He wanted Da to fight back, say something full of fire. He’d seen Da argue before. He’d even seen him beat a man until he begged for forgiveness. But Da said nothing. His head dropped and Colin knew that this time, Da was the one who had been beaten.
Fairfax rubbed his forehead. “This is your last chance to name the other lairds.”
Da squared his shoulders. “You want me to turn my back on my own countrymen? Never.” Colin couldn’t see his face, but he imagined his lips drawn tight and his brow furrowed.
Fairfax leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. “Do you not see your fate in front of you, Blackburne?”
“My fate is in God’s hands.”
Fairfax stood and pressed his fingertips into the top of his desk. “No. ’Tis in mine.” He studied Da for a moment, then shouted for the guard.
Colin hurried back to the parlour, heart racing, and plopped down on the seat next to Roddy.
Peters rushed back into the room, wiping crumbs from his mouth on his sleeve. “Milord.”
“Take Blackburne and his lads to the stables. They will sleep there tonight and travel north in the morning. Shackle their legs so they cannot escape.”
Da kicked a pile of clean hay against the far wall of an empty stall, forming a bed with just enough space for Colin and Roddy. The last thing Colin wanted was to sleep another night with horses whinnying till all hours and stinking up the place. It had been five nights since he’d slept in a real bed—his bed—warmed by a brazier and covered with clean linens. His ma had always seen to that, but that was before.
“That man said we’re headed back north in the morning. Do ye think they’re sending us home to Scotland, Da?”
Da shrugged off the question and patted the pile of straw next to him. “You and Roddy settle on this stook. ’Tis clean.”
Colin lay down next to his brother. The stable was dark and humid, and mostly quiet except for the occasional creak of old wood or the scrape of a hoof across dirt. It looked as if it had recently been mucked, so in truth, it didn’t smell that bad. He inhaled the pungent sweetness of the fresh hay, knowing the stench of the horses was soon to come.
Roddy yawned and turned his back to Colin for warmth. Colin wrapped his arm around him. “You’ll be fine, Roddy. Da and I will care for ye.”
Once Roddy’s breathing slowed, Colin tried to reposition himself, but his fettered ankle jerked Roddy closer, waking him. With a few pats to his back, Roddy fell back asleep. Colin wondered what his little brother remembered from the days past. Would he remember Ma with her fair hair and freckled nose, chasing them inside before it rained? Or would he only think of her lying still on the floor with her missing shoe and bloodied stockings? Colin blinked away the tears threatening to fall. It would be better if Roddy forgot her altogether. Remembering hurt too much.
Colin turned towards voices in approach. The swaying light of a lantern appeared in the distance.
The soldier, Kitts, who had admired his father’s coat, stepped out of the darkness. He hung the lantern on a hook and pulled down the fall front of his breeks, pissing on a post not too far from where they rested. The stablehand stumbling behind laughed, then followed suit.
Kitts fumbled with the buttons on his breeks. “Enjoying your stay with the horses, Blackburne?”
Da’s voice was soft but clear. “I can’t say that I am.”
“Well, you’d better get used to it. As of tomorrow—and for the next seven years—you and your lads are the new stablehands at Appleton Hall.”
Da sat straight up. “My children and I are servants to no one!”
“But you are. ’Tis servitude or death.” Kitts lifted Da’s black doublet off the stall door and brushed the dust from the fabric. “And I believe I’ll keep this. You won’t be needing it anymore.”