Chapter I: Near Flodden
She stood alone on Branxton Hill, the silver thread from her navel pooling at her feet. It had rained all that morning and all the night before. The field and depression before her was slick with beaten down grasses and stinking mud; but she felt none of it. How could she? Her body lay in a dry stable half a mile to the east. If any could see her here – any one of the armored men grunting on their straining horses, shields and swords and armor squawking in collision and wooden gun carriages groaning across the saturated ground – they might report a strange light on the hill. A break in the rain, perhaps, or a delusion brought on by bad ale and worse food. Few would make out her outline, thinking it a simple drawing against the lowering clouds and then shake her out of their minds.
She looked over the land. She shuddered against the sight of bodies and blood that would come when the rains stopped. She scanned the depression for the place: the indentation his body would make when he fell, an English arrow broken off in his thigh and the headless body of a boy not eighteen across his chest. The flat rock washed up from the flowing mud would meet his head and make him appear dead. He could be rescued, if she could keep him still until the two fools came for him.
Lightening ignited the sky above her and the silver thread rose up and yanked her away.
Morag Muri woke to the thunder. She smelled first the sweetness of the hay, then a heavier, sharper smell. The horse a few feet away had just voided its bowels. She stood up, brushing the hay and dirt from her old, green dress. Then she patted the horse’s flank. “So kind, Prince Brown Hair, to be wakin’ me a-time.” She drew a blanket from beside the barn door and draped her head and shoulders in it before walking out into the storm. She fought the mud washing away a path to get into the village.
Branxton still slept at this early hour. She knew she could not see Jane Easty so near to delivering a first baby, nor could she make certain the weaver and his woman Nan had not used the previous night’s drink to break each other’s heads again with their crockery. The men had gone with King James to fight the English on Flodden Field this day. The women had prayed the night away and now dreamed horrors that would too soon become real.
Morag cursed the boots on her feet – the gray nuns’ latest gift for salving Mother Superior’s throat through the rainy spell. Morag’s bare feet slid from side to side in the heavy boots and the stitching at the ankle scraped at her skin until she was certain her feet slid in her own blood. Still, she supposed she could have none at all. She should be grateful.
At the western end of the town, she found Old Mary’s home. Built in the days of Robert the Bruce, it stood little more than a pile of stones with mud and straw in the gaps and a roof that would need re-thatching if the rain ever stopped. The door was two weathered full boards and two cracked halves to either side curve up to the top beneath the lantern. The wrought iron hinges held it in place, two skeletal black fingers. The latch hung off its pinnings, an indistinct black mass between them. She forced it open.
“Late!” the old crone snapped at her from the fire. “I expected y’ afore dark.”
“Fule woman, I were called to the Fairborns by nightfall.” Morag shook the blanket, then hung it on pot hooks beside the fire to dry. “We’ll be needing that warm and dry afore the night come again.”
“An’ wha’ do Her Grace require i’ th’ night?” Mary asked. She stirred a dark brown liquid in a pot hung over a dying fire.
The younger woman drew up a three-legged stool and took off her cap. Her hair spilled out across her shoulders: soft brown waves with a sun-bleached netting of gold over all. The old woman would not meet her gaze; not many would, claiming the pale, almost unnatural green of Morag Muri’s eyes would bewitch a stone.
“She turned her ankle, getting off her horse.” Morag brushed water from her skirt. “Faith, the woman wunna ha’ me leave her a’ the night. Said she’d die o’ the pain.” She and Old Mary exchange grimaces.
“She’ll no bear child-birthin’ then,” the old woman chuckled, adding lines to her creased face with her amusement.
Morag lay her cloak across a straw-backed chair and drew off the boots to show how the rough insides had scraped her ankles raw. “She’ll need to marry first, I think.”
“Aye. She’s t’ wed wi’ Sir John Lindsay’s son, they say.” Morag looked up sharp at the woman, who averted her eyes again, but grinned for all that. “His firstborn, that walking bear named Andrew.”
Morag sat on a stool by the fire, her feet near the old woman’s. “And Andrew is gang wi’ the rest of them to fight this day. She may ha’ no husband yet.”
“Or she may marry the younger,” the old woman suggested. Her grin disappeared under Morag’s glare. “’Tis said it’s a matter o’ joinin’ lands, the marriage between the Lindsays and the Fairborns.”
Morag took a cloth to grasp hearth arm and swing the pot out towards her. “Then we pray Hairy Andrew survives this day. Be it ready, Mary?”
Morag took the wooden spoon from the old woman and stirred the dark liquid one time widdershins, then twice deosil to counteract any bad luck. Mary offered her a strong drink, the quaff Morag’s mother would have used to drink before gazing into the waters. Morag shook her head. She smiled for a moment, picturing her mother, Catriona Muri, blond hair flying in the wind of an autumn storm, preaching the ways of the Muri Wise Women, known in the countryside as Women of the Wall, and how her daughter must continue their healing ways.
Morag sighed, her smile fading as she recalled how she last saw her mother, dead by the riverside, the blond hair muddied and covering Catriona’s beautiful face.
“Then let’t cool a while. I need sleep.”
Morag reached for the basket, for the herbs she’d collected: simple kitchen herbs, but ones that calmed her spirit, readied her for the next journey she had to make beyond her body. Something her mother could never do, she thought, and yet so simple. A deliberate trick of the mind. She lay down on the earth floor in front of the fire. She chewed the green herbs, felt her body grow heavy and sink away, and she entered the mist.