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The Thief of Melnisgarten

 

Melnisgarten 2A complete short story. Also my first foray into fantasy fiction in almost 30 years!

The ancient man sitting by the blazing fire cradled a tankard of ale between his long, thin fingers as he surveyed the expectant faces before him. “Aye, so you want me to tell you a story then?” He gave a slight shrug which nearly dislodged the heavy plaid draped over his shoulders. With a small scowl he adjusted it back into position revealing, just for a moment, the weather beaten armour of cracked leather and rusted mail below. “Well, when you get to be as old as I am you have no shortage of stories to tell, true enough,” he chuckled softly. “I could tell you of the fabled lost cave of the Spider Queen that I heard myself for the first time when I was even younger than you mangy mob!”

His laughing audience of men and women filled the smoky interior of the dimly lit tavern in the centre of a village nestled below the Rainbow Mountains in the central Southlands. Most were simple farmers and labourers who gathered here in the Kings Arms every night to enjoy an ale and a gossip with friends and family. The appearance of the ancient mercenary several days earlier had provided them with the novelty of someone new to talk with, visitors were a rarity this far from the main trade roads and so he was constantly besieged for the latest news from the world beyond the narrow horizons afforded them. Their world stretched only as far as the edge of their fields and woods and few ever ventured more than ten miles from home throughout their lives. A visit to their neighbouring village, some six miles away, was seen as a journey to the edge of the world which held all manner of risk, adventure and unknown dangers.

The old mercenary chuckled again as he ran a hand through the chest length grey beard while the candles made his bald head seem to glow in their light. He shook his head. “No. Not that one,” he decided after he took a sip of his ale. “I’ll tell you a true tale instead. One that I know only too well for I was there at the time and saw much of what follows for myself.” His rheumy eyes studied the expectant faces before him as he said, “very well then. Fill your tankards with ale or that good cider you brew here in your fine village of Cotgrave then gather close and listen while I tell you the true story of the thief of Melnisgarten!”

“I doubt if you have ever heard of Melnisgarten have you? No, I didn’t think you would have. Few have, and that may be just as well when you consider what befell that poor land.” He released a long sigh. “Aye, once upon a time it was a fine country filled with happy people, people just like your good selves here in Cotgrave. It lies far from here on the very shores of the south coast virtually closed off from the rest of the world by the Dragonsback Mountains that seal it in to the north, east and west with only a few narrow passes over the high valleys haunted by all manner of fell beasts. Trolls, goblins and Dark Elves dwell there and only large, well-armed parties ever dare risk taking those routes. No, the only safe road to travel is to the south and that is by boat. There are a cluster of fishing villages below the five hundred foot cliffs that form the southern border accessible only by foot along twisting paths down the face of the very cliffs themselves. Not a place for the faint of heart I can assure you. Even I shook like a leaf when I was crawled down those rock steps I don’t mind admitting!”

For a moment he was silent as his thoughts drifted back over time before he shook them away. “Aye, anyway, it was that very remoteness that made Melnisgarten a peaceful place to live. Below the surrounding mountains the land measured only fifty miles east to west and little more than that north to south, but it was a fertile land of fields and woods that provided more than enough to feed the population with meat, grain and the fish from the sea. While the rest of the Southlands tore themselves apart in war after war, Melnisgarten existed in peace and quiet. They had no king there. No, they had a parliament made up of a spokesman elected from every town, village and hamlet in the land. These men in turn would elect one of their number to act as First Minister and he would serve for a year before stepping down. It was an unusual system of government, but is was one that worked for them and ensured that all in Melnisgarten had equal rights in the eyes of the law.”

“But something happened to change that, didn’t it?” one young woman said.

He smiled kindly towards her. “Aye, something happened right enough,” he replied sadly. “As I said Melnisgarten was a peaceful, happy place, but all it ever takes is one bad apple to spoil everything for everyone else. In this case it was an ambitious man who gave himself the title of Baron Greyshuck. Over the course of several years he gathered around him a force of men willing to do his bidding. He undermined the existing government and spread discord throughout the land until he was finally in the position where he could seize power. The elected representatives were turned out of parliament and sent back to their homes with a simple message: they could keep their position just as long as they did exactly what Baron Greyshuck told them to. Any deviation from his orders would mean they would be replaced, often with terminal force! To further ensure that his rule went unchallenged he recruited a force of mercenaries’ a thousand men strong whose only loyalty was to Greyshuck and his gold. These men did not see Melnisgarten as a peaceful, prosperous land. They saw it as open invitation to use it for their own pleasure and I regret to say that all manner of outrage was committed in those days by men without kindness or conscience to temper their acts.” He looked at the assembled faces as he added, “you are thinking: was he one of those mercenaries? No, I wasn’t although I was there. It is more than fifty years since Greyshuck rose to power and back then I was just a simple lad trying to make his way in life as best he could, but I never did anything that troubles my conscience I can assure you.”

“So were you the thief you mentioned then?” the young woman again spoke out with wide eyes in a pleasant, rustic face.

The old man smiled merrily towards her. “No, he was another man but I was happy to call him a friend. His name was Ossian and he was known as the greatest thief of all time. It was said he stole the golden dragon’s tooth from mad King Jarnk, the sword of Attilos from the greatest warrior of those days. It was even said he could have stolen the Virgin Queen of the Eastland’s virginity during her very coronation if he wanted to, and she would never have even known it was gone! All I know for sure is that if he set his mind to something, he achieved his aim. Aye, Ossian was a real character to be sure but he could never have achieved the half of what he did without the help of his accomplice, and he claimed, lover. A fairer maid I have never seen than the lady Màiri. Her skin was as pale as snow, free from any blemish, her eyes as blue as summer skies and her hair like a field of golden corn.” The old mercenary gave a short laugh, “you can tell that I was little bit in love with Màiri can’t you? Alas she only had eyes for Ossian and no other could ever compete with her love for him, and his for her. Anyway, back to my story. At the time I found myself after much travelling in the city of Melnisgarten itself. To be fair it was not much of city when compared to our own capital city, Kelt, with a population of perhaps only 20,000 souls at the time with the homes, shops and alehouses gathered around a small castle in the very heart of the city. Even back then, Kelt had a population of more than 100,000 so Melnisgarten felt more like a town than a city to a Southlander like me! The castle in Melnisgarten had been the seat of government in happier times, but now was the lair of Baron Greyshuck. Once colourful banners had hung from its battlements but now it was the bodies of those who had displeased him which decorated its walls.”

He paused to take another drink from his tankard before wiping his chin and beard with the back of a kidney-spotted hand. “Aye, those were dark days to be sure. I had decided the best thing I could do was keep my head down, conclude my own business and make haste to leave Melnisgarten in my wake as quickly as possible. It was while I was taking care of that business that my path would first cross with Ossian. Two of greyshuck’s men had caught sight of the lady Màiri and were keen on using her for their own foul pleasure. I found Ossian in a back alley trying to protect her from them and without thinking about what I was doing I pitched in to help him. The mercenaries’ had their backs to me and never knew what had hit them! We left them lying unconscious in the mud and hastened away to the tavern where they had rented a room. There, over a good meal and several tankards of ale we became fast friends. To be honest, I would have crawled over a bed of fire to spend even a single moment in the company of Màiri, but Ossian and I found out we had much in common. Both of us hailed from the city of Kelt and had grown up only a few streets from each other. We were of the same age yet had never met before that day in Melnisgarten several hundred miles from home! Over the course of that night we told each other our story, where we had been, what we had done and shared more than one secret that we had never breathed to another soul. For the next few weeks we became the closest of friends and shared more than one mad adventure while avoiding running afoul of Baron Greyshuck or his men. I had by then concluded my own business and good sense told me it was time to be on my way to pastures new but still I lingered on in Melnisgarten. Aye, part of that was to do with my affection for Ossian, and more to do with my wish to spend just another day in the company of fair Màiri, no matter how foolish my love for her was!”

His eyes glowed with a mixture of sadness and joy at the recollections his story were provoking within him. “She never saw me as anything other than a friend though. Her heart belonged to Ossian, and Ossian alone. It was their love which was to prove their undoing though.” He released a long sigh through his nose. “Ossian may have been the greatest thief who ever lived but Màiri wasn’t. She was caught stealing a golden bracelet by some fat shopkeeper named Mendrum who threatened to hand her over to Greyshuck for justice. You can guess that this would have been a death sentence for her. The only hope she had was that Ossian would do something for Mendrum, so that he would say nothing about the alleged theft. I should add that Màiri claimed that Mendrum was lying. Ossian and I both believed her for she was no thief but we had not been with her at the time. I offered to silence Mendrum once and for all! My dagger had tasted the blood of evil men before then and was thirsty to drink again, but Ossian refused. Even when faced with threats he could not condone murder.”

The mercenary shook his head. “Perhaps if he had listened things would have worked out differently. Ossian and Màiri were summoned to a secret meeting by Mendrum, I was left kicking my heels in the tavern until several hours later Ossian returned alone looking ashen faced. Mendrum had locked poor Màiri away in an attic room within his home guarded by hired thugs. Her safety would only be guaranteed if Ossian was to do a job for that walrus Mendrum. The job? No less than steal the Black Books of Baron Greyshuck where he listed all those he considered his enemies and those he suspected of treachery. Every last person whose name was listed in those books knew that they were under suspicion and could vanish without explanation, or hope for mercy. Mendrum claimed that if the books were taken and destroyed then the people would, finally, be prepared to act against Greyshuck. Without the threat of the Black Books hanging over their heads they could breathe more easily and the dying embers of resistance would be fanned. Or so Mendrum claimed!”

“I was all for storming Mendrum’s house, rescuing Màiri and slaying the fat oaf but Ossian would not hear of it. Even the thought of his beloved being put at risk reduced this proud man to a weak kneed puppy. No, he was resolved to do all he could to save her and if that meant stealing these books, then that is what he would do even though they were held in Greyshuck’s castle guarded by a thousand heartless mercenaries’! There was nothing I could do but offer him what assistance I could. That was little enough to be honest. He was the thief, not I. In the end I could do no more than accompany him the next day as he scouted out any possible weaknesses to be exploited in the castle’s defences. The walls, with their grisly hangings stood fifty feet high, the gatehouse was guarded by never less than twenty heavily armed and armoured men. Short of sprouting wings I could see no way to enter it, but then I was not Ossian! He saw the one weak spot, the one chink in their armour. By one wall stood a small foetid pool where the castle sewer emptied out. Just visible through the stinking weeds and rushes he saw a barred tunnel only inches above the stagnant surface of the pool. It was here that he resolved to gain entry. I thought him mad but he was determined. That very night we crept through the dark streets of the city until we had reached the edge of the open ground surrounding the castle. There we waited as patrols bearing torches came and went until Ossian had worked out how long he had between their patrols. He stripped down to his skin, smeared himself with mud and placed his clothes and tools in an oilskin to protect them from the water and filth. With a final word of encouragement from myself he was off and slipped into the pool as silently as an otter.

All through that night I sat there and watched and waited for him, all the while expecting to hear a hue and cry raised from within, but as the sun began to rise I was forced from my perch and returned to the tavern with a heavy heart. That was the last I saw of him for two days.”

“Those two days were as long as any day I have ever known. Each minute seemed to last an eternity and I was trapped in a web of indecision. I have no idea how many times I found myself gazing at that accursed castle, or found my feet had led me to the street where Mendrum’s house stood. More than once I almost lost all control and came close to attacking it in some mad delusion that I could rescue Màiri from her imprisonment!”

“It was late on the second night since he had entered the pool as I sat forlornly in my room at the tavern that Ossian returned. I had never seen him so exhausted or unkempt, which is no surprise when he told me all that happened.”

He set the tankard down on the worn tabletop before him and rested his hands on either side of it as he shook his head in recollection. “This is what he told me and it still grieves me to recall it. Once in that stinking pond he managed to prise open the bars sealing the tunnel to discover it only wide enough to allow him to squeeze his way along it pushing his oilskin before him. It was just as well he could not see what he crawled through, the smell was bad enough with just enough space to keep his face above the reeking water and filth which surrounded him. It took him most of that night to find a route out of that sewer, a narrow pipe stretching upwards. It was the narrowness which allowed him to wedge his way up until he reached an iron grill which was locked. Happily locks were no obstacle to a man such as Ossian. He had that lock open in the blink of an eye and once out of the pipe found himself in the dungeons of the castle. The cells contained only the dead and the dying, clearly Greyshuck once he had thrown a man into those grim cells forgot all about them until their rotten corpses were dragged out weeks or months later! Ossian unlocked one such cell where only the dead lay and there cleaned himself as best he could safe from prying eyes, and dressed himself. By now he could go no further for he knew that dawn could not be far away. All through that endless day he hid himself in that cell, he had taken the precaution of locking himself inside it lest any gaoler think to check on the welfare of his guests. His precautions were not required though as not a soul thought to bring food or water to any prisoners who still lived.”

“Ossian sat there in silence while time passed by with only a long dead man for company until he estimated it was time to move forward. He unlocked the cell and made his way onwards. Time after time he was forced to hide himself as servants and guards came and went as he explored the castle but finally he found what he was looking for; Greyshuck’s private chambers. Here he was forced to use of all his skills as a thief to find and disarm an endless series of traps and alarms before he could breathe a little easier and explore the rooms given over exclusively for the baron’s pleasure. The tyrant himself was not within, clearly he kept late hours for darkness had long since fallen.”

“The Black Books were found in a hidden niche in one wall of the bedchamber protected by further traps and alarms all of which Ossian managed to find a way past. I doubt if there was another man anywhere in the Four Lands who could have managed it, but Ossian did! That was how good he was. The three books of names turned out to be no larger than those shopkeepers use to keep their notes in, we had thought they were sure to be massively tomes with iron clasps rather than these nondescript pocket-books! Still they held life or death for hundreds of Melnisgartens’ citizens within their pages. Thanking the Creator he had found them Ossian wasted not a minute longer in retracing his steps. At this hour of the early morning the castle was much quieter and Ossian managed to reach the dungeons without any real difficulty but as he stripped himself he heard men coming and was forced to hide himself once more in a cell with a dead man. Outside he could hear the gaoler beating some poor soul within an inch of his life before tossing him into another cell. He never so much as even glanced into the cell where Ossian nervously hid. Finally the man left but by then it was too late for Ossian to leave by the pipe, there was no way he could escape from the pond in broad daylight and he had no desire to spend a day lying in the stagnant water waiting below for darkness to return. So once again he spent a day in that cell forced to breathe in the stink of a dead man which was scarcely better than the foulness of the sewer awaiting him later.”

The old man hid a smile at the looks on the faces before him, all were clearly imagining the horror of the scene facing Ossian and the choice he had faced. Spending a day lying in others filth or sharing a grim cell with a corpse was not a choice anyone would gladly face. He took up his tankard and frowned slightly to discover it was empty. A fresh tankard was quickly supplied and he went on.

“Aye, so my friend sat there in darkness all through that day until he estimated it was time to make his escape. That was a thing about Ossian, he could judge the passage of time in utter darkness as well as any other man could working in his field below the light of the sun. With his clothes, tools and, of course, those three precious books all safely sealed within his oilskin he let himself out of the cell and lifted the grill to the pipe. Down he went into a darkness more complete than that within the cell until he lay full length in the water and filth of the tunnel. Once again he squeezed his way along its length until he reached the barred exit. Beyond he could see the lights of the city reflected on the stagnant surface of the pond and knew he was almost safe. Only the risk of the patrols now stood between him and freedom. He made his way beyond those bars and now hid himself within the weeds and rushes until he judged the time had come to escape.”

“Finally he could reach the shelter of the houses where he found a horse trough to wash the filth from himself and then dress again. From there he now joined me to show those damned books that had caused so much trouble. All that was left to do was pass the things on to Mendrum and retrieve poor Màiri from his clutches!” He shook his head once more. “If only life was that simple!”

“Ossian took the books and set out for Mendrum’s house a moment later with me by his side should he have need of my sword although he was sure that I would have no need for it. Together we stood before the man’s dwelling and hammered on his door until the house was roused from slumber. The door was finally opened by one of Mendrum’s hired thugs who unwillingly allowed Ossian to enter, I was only allowed to follow once I had been disarmed. Now with half a dozen of these large, well-armed men serving as escort were we taken to see Mendrum and Màiri to discover the truth behind the whole sorry tale.”

“In a finely appointed hall we found the fat merchant sitting behind his table with Màiri tied to a chair in another corner, what stopped Ossian rushing to her side was the fact that Mendrum was dead! His throat had been slashed open. Sitting calmly beside him was a middle-aged man in the finest clothes money could buy. It took us both a moment to realise that it was Baron Greyshuck himself who faced us. The whole thing had been a set-up. Mendrum had been used by Greyshuck to find the most skilled thief in the land in order to put his own security to the ultimate test. Now that he knew it could be breached heads would roll. Mendrum’s had just been the first of many in the days which followed. Why he had been killed I never learned. Ossian was now relieved of the books but found out that his skills would cost him more than he had hoped to pay. There would be no freedom for either himself or Màiri. Greyshuck had taken a fancy for her as the fairest maid in Melnisgarten and would have her as his own. Ossian was presented with a fresh choice to make. He could become responsible for Greyshuck’s security in order to make sure that no’one else could ever find a way within the walls of the castle, or he could join Mendrum with his throat cut! Poor Màiri was also given a stark choice. Become Greyshuck’s mistress willingly and Ossian and I would be allowed to live, or unwillingly and consign us to death.”

He released an endless sigh. “What choice did she have? Allow herself to become a tyrant’s plaything and spare the life of the man she loved or refuse knowing that it meant his death! And what choice did Ossian have? If he agreed there was always the chance he could retrieve the situation and save both Màiri and himself from Greyshuck. To refuse would mean that chance would never come and he would consign Màiri to a life without hope of rescue. In the end they agreed to the cruel terms offered them.”

“What happened next?” the young woman asked urgently.

“What happened next?” the old man replied with a small smile. “Well that is a story for another night.”

 

First published as part of The Fellowship of the King magazine.

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The Misfortunes of War

 

The signing of the Covenant in greyfriars Kirkyard

The signing of the Covenant in greyfriars Kirkyard

In A Rip in the Veil Matthew Graham reveals to Alex Lind, following her tumble through time from 2002 to 1658, that he enlisted as a dragoon when only a young man to fight for the Covenanters but was left so sickened by events that he returned home. This post is to shed some light on what he may have seen and done that so upset him, mainly the events following the battle of Philiphaugh.

However before we can describe that we need to travel even further back in time to the events that first induced him to take up the sword. Luckily I have Anna here to offer additional background on Matthew himself.

When King Charles I sought to force Episcopacy onto Scotland he was sowing the seeds that would eventually lead to his downfall. The introduction of the Common Book of Prayer in 1637 led to violent riots in Scotland which held true to their Presbyterian faith which set no man above any other. For the Presbyterians there could be no head of the church other than God himself. It also led to the signing of the National Covenant which called for a return to the values of the church prior to 1580 and a rejection of everything which was seen as interference between man and God, this included having the king in London dictate how Protestant Scots could worship.

A General Assembly of the Church of Scotland held in Glasgow in 1638 decided that the Bishops would be deposed and the new prayer book abolished. This was a direct challenge to Charles I as the Covenanters gathered strength and formed an army under James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose and Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll to protect, and enforce, their determinations.

King Charles felt he had no choice now but to face this challenge and in 1639 raised an army of his own in England to put down these rebellious Scots. Gathering a force of 20,000 men he marched them north to Berwick-upon-Tweed. The Covenanting army of only 12,000 men under the command of Alexander Leslie, a veteran of the 30 Years War in the service of the Swedish monarch King Gustavus Adolphus. While these opponents sat in a stalemate there were skirmishes between other smaller Covenanting and Royalist forces in the north-east of Scotland.

Back on the border it became clear that neither army really wanted to fight. To break the deadlock an agreement was reached known as the Pacification of Berwick, which called for another General Assembly of the Church of Scotland where all the disputed questions could be settled amicably. This saw the end of the so-called First Bishop’s War.

Foot soldiers armed with pikes.

Foot soldiers armed with pikes.

This General Assembly simply restated their earlier demands and settled nothing between the Covenanters and the king.  In 1640 following moves by Charles to encourage support for further action in England against the troublesome Scots. His moves failed. Meanwhile the Covenanters crossed over the border under Leslie and Graham and quickly occupied Northumberland and County Durham forcing Charles to agree to leave these English counties in Scottish hands until he could find the money to pay the Scots expenses for invading his country! His position was not an enviable one. He was forced to recall Parliament in order to ask for the funds to pay off the Scots. Parliament used the opportunity to impeach and execute his chief supporters including Arch-Bishop Laud. The end of this second Bishop’s War had long reaching repercussions for Britain as a whole and paved the way for what would become the War of the Three Kingdoms (or the English Civil War as it used to be referred to)

Over the course of the next few years the Covenanters were busy between their forays into Ulster to protect Protestant settlers there from Irish rebels, and with keeping a wary eye on the growing warfare now raging between Royalists and Parliamentarians in England.

By 1643 with the Parliamentary forces having suffered a series of setbacks they turned to Scotland for support and signed a covenant with the Covenanters which the Scots hoped would see Presbyterianism replace Episcopacy in their southern neighbour. The involvement of the Scottish army was instrumental in restoring the fortunes of Parliaments’ army but had dire consequences back home in Scotland, and it here that Matthew Graham truly enters the story. So, Anna, what did Matthew think about all this?

Anna: First of all, we must remember that Matthew was a boy – born in 1630, he was young enough to believe there was glory in fighting for God, not quite realising that with fighting came death and blood, and troops running amok. Raised in a Presbyterian home by a father who’d proudly signed the Covenant and who most certainly was not about to have a king or a bishop as an intermediary between him and the Good Lord, Matthew grew up convinced that the Scottish Kirk was right, and he was far too young to comprehend the political aspects of the conflict. For Matthew, it was simple: his Kirk needed defending.

Armour worn by a Dragoon on display at Huntly House

Armour worn by a Dragoon on display at Huntly House

The Scottish Civil War 1644-45

A vicious civil war broke out across Scotland with former allies now become bitter enemies. James Graham, Marquess of Montrose found that he could not now bear arms against his king and raised an army to fight for Charles I. This force was composed of Irish Catholics and some Catholic clans from the Highlands. His use of Irish troops was an anathema to his former friends in the Solemn League of the Covenant, the fact that he won six battles between 1644 and 1645 did nothing to raise his esteem in their eyes.

Montrose’s victory at the Battle of Aberdeen on September 12th 1644 became notorious for the sacking of the city by the Irish troops who murdered over a hundred civilians including women and children during three days of looting, raping and slaughter.

The Covenanters were determined to have their vengeance for this outrage but suffered further defeats as Montrose rode south through Scotland leaving Montrose largely in control of Scotland. The majority of Covenanting forces were busy in England defeating the Royalist forces there. Montrose now determined to hurry to his King’s assistance.

 However his Highland clans refused to march south into England to fight there, instead they returned home to protect their homes and land from the Campbell’s. This left Montrose with a much reduced army of only some 500 Irish infantry and a small number of horse, who marched towards the border where they made camp near the town of Selkirk.

Heading north to meet them was a covenanting force of 5000 horse and dragoons (Matthew Graham would likely have been among them) and 1000 infantry. This army was commanded by David Leslie, General of Horse.

Anna: Matthew was shocked by what he perceives as his namesake’s betrayal. He was also more than dazzled by David Leslie, and was quite convinced he was big enough and strong enough to play a part in the events that would once and for all set the king in his place. Malcolm Graham, his father, had no intention of allowing his fool of a son to join up – Malcolm knew full well that when armies clash people die, and while he was proud of his son’s convictions, he also recognised them for being what they were: youthful dreams in which those who are right ultimately win, without soiling themselves in the process. Malcolm’s attempts to talk some sense into his lad fell on deaf ears, and one night Matthew just sneaked off…

On the 13th of September 1645, exactly one year on from the dark events at Aberdeen, Montrose and his men would suffer the cost of that victory.

The Battle of Philiphaugh

The Battle of Philiphaugh

Leslie advanced up the valley of the Tweed knowing his enemy was somewhere ahead but their location was unknown due to a thick mist that morning. He divided his force into two wings which advanced until the Royalists were spotted only half a mile ahead. One force was thrown headlong into attack while the other wind made a flanking manoeuvre. Despite the overwhelming numbers Leslie had on his side it proved to be a hard fight. Montrose’s Irish infantry were placed behind defensive dykes and hedges which held back at least two charges before the flanking attack proved decisive.

Montrose was unable to rally his now shattered troops despite bravely leading a cavalry charge against the Covenanting Dragoons. He was forced to flee the field with a small force of 30 mounted men who cut their way through the surrounding forces and rode for their lives.

For the infantry there would be no escape. Surrounded, vastly outnumbered and now leaderless they had no choice but to surrender. 100 Irish troops survived the initial fighting and they, along with their wives and children, were herded together in a field under the swords and guns of their captors.

Leslie had promised them quarter but some Presbyterian ministers who were with him forced him to remember the massacre at Aberdeen and the innocent blood spilled there. They persuaded him that his mercy was misplaced and an affront to God.

The death of the innocents

The death of the innocents

What followed was what drove Matthew Graham from the army and back to his family farm. The 100 men, and as many as 300 Irish women and children, were butchered in the field without mercy. The site of the battle, and slaughter, is marked by a simple stone monument.

It is no wonder that Matthew turned his back on this slaughter – but what happened then?

Anna: Around the 20th of September, a shocked Matthew finally crested the lane that led to his home. His father was in the yard, and at the sight of his son, Malcolm Graham did not berate or yell, he just opened his arms. Matthew fell into them, attempting to explain what he’d seen, and how he’d hidden under a bramble, hands clapped over his ears to stop himself from hearing, eyes squished shut not to see. It hadn’t helped much. Never again, Matthew told his Da – just as a troop of Horse came riding down the lane.

It didn’t help that Malcolm begged and wheedled, it didn’t help that Matthew’s mother cried, or that Matthew himself looked about to faint. He had joined up and was expected to ride with his troop. Their brethren in England needed help to once and for all squash this king and his Episcopalian ideas, and Matthew Graham, no matter that he was yet downy cheeked, had pledged himself to the cause. A weeping Matthew was dragged off, astride his horse. It would be close to four years before he saw his home again.

 From the idyllic young man who joined the Covenanters in a fit of youthful enthusiasm, to the battle hardened man who witnessed unimaginable horror – both at Philiphaugh and elsewhere – his was a heavy cross to bear. How much did this shape the man he became?

Anna: Matthew lost all illusions as to war. When he met Alex, he was still firmly convinced he had fought for the right cause, but what he’d seen done in the name of the cause sickened him. So instead of trusting blindly in his officers, Matthew quickly learnt to trust his own conscience, his own sense of morality – which is why he looked the other way when desperate royalists slipped away from the siege in Colchester – or why he risked dire punishment by smuggling precious water into the besieged town, knowing full well there were women and bairns in there.  No young man should spend his formative years in an army, but many did back then. Some lost touch with their humanity. Some, like Matthew, grew into men of convictions.

The betrayals he suffered later at the hands of his brother could only have added to the weight he bore on his shoulders.

Anna: Absolutely. Even worse, the men he had fought for turned their backs on him, more than happy to believe the concocted story Luke fed them. That hurt.

Thankfully his future lies with a beguiling young woman from the far distant future, and the hope that things can only get better.

Anna: And for now, let’s leave him with that hope, shall we?

To discover the wonders of The Graham Sage for yourself please visit Anna’s page on Amazon.

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And So It Begins…

This wonderful tour has been put together by IndieBRAG, here are the stops:

Anna Belfrage Banner-AB (2)

Schedule for the Book Blitz

September 21- The Maiden’s Court

September 22- Of History and Kings

September 23- everyday happy foods

September 24-  Just One More Chapter

September 25- Layered Pages

September 25 – The Many Worlds of Charlene Newcomb

September 26th- Stuart S. Laing

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COMING NEXT WEEK THE indieBRAG BOOK BLITZ

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Blog Schedule

  1. September 21-

The Maiden’s Court

http://www.themaidenscourt.blogspot.com

  1. September 22-

Of History and Kings

Http://www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com

  1. September 23-

everyday happy foods

http://www.everydayhappyfoods.com

  1. September 24-

Just One More Chapter

www.JustOneMoreChapter.com

  1. September 25-

Layered Pages

www.layeredpages.com

  1. September 25 –

The Many Worlds of Charlene Newcomb

http://charlenenewcomb.com/

  1. September 26th

Stuart S. Laing

https://stuartslaing.wordpress.com/

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Review of Rise of the Wolf

Brutal, Bloody, Brilliant

Rise of the Wolf by Steven A. McKay

Reviewed by Stuart S. Laing

The Rise of the Wolf is the third in the marvellous Forest Lord series by Steven A. McKay and delivers, once again, a solid, engrossing read that hits you like a punch in the guts! archerWhen an author takes on such a well-known tale featuring a character such as Robin Hood he is either brave, or foolish. He has to bring something to the tale that breathes fresh life into the story. Something that sets it apart from all the previous tales, or it is simply a pot of reheated left-overs. Thankfully Steven has given a whole new spin on the man with the bow. Those who have read the previous books know to expect to find themselves in Yorkshire, deep in the leafy expanse of Barnsdale Forest rather than the green trees of Sherwood. The change in location, a nod to the earliest ballads of where Robin lived, gives plenty of scope for the author to explore new avenues for Robin and his band of merry (and miserable) men. This is something which readers should be grateful for.

kev costner

not how he would look

Here we have a version of Robin Hood probably closer to how a real outlaw would have lived than that familiar from TV and movie adaptations. While Kevin Costner’s portrayal looked more like a 90’s AOR music video star, who liked nothing more than relaxing in a trendy bar sipping pinot grigio and listening to George Michael, McKay’s Robin Hood is the sort of man who kicks open the door of a rough pub, orders a pint of real ale in a dirty glass, then cranks the juke-box up to 11 and blasts out Ace of Spades till the windows shatter!

He is so much the better for that!

Rise of the Wolf is a full-blooded, rip roaring adventure from start to finish that delivers a series of tremendous set-pieces. From ambushes and betrayal, to love and redemption, the story gallops along at a break-neck pace that leaves you breathless. Characters, old and new, blend together seamlessly as we join Robin as he faces his greatest danger thus far. Sir Guy of Gisbourne, after being horrifically disfigured by Robin in the previous book, is out for blood. Already dangerous, his injury has only made him all the more reckless in his quest for vengeance. Aided by the vile turn-coat Matt Groves, nothing, and no’one, is safe from their relentless pursuit to see Robin, and his men, die as painfully as possible.

This is a story for adults, the action and language is as robust as we would expect from a band of outlaws, but it is not all doom and gloom. The book is laced throughout with a wonderfully dark humour that will have you smiling one moment and grimacing the next. The Sheriff’s tournament designed to lure Robin out of hiding with the prize of an arrow of solid silver had me laughing out loud at the hissed conversation between the Sheriff and Gisbourne as each enjoys the others’ discomfort in turn. Still though, we have to remember how cruel life was then. There will be tears when a much loved character falls prey to the Raven’s cruelty before the end.

The focus on Robin’s family is also a welcome addition to the scenes around the outlaws’ campfire, and the developing character of Robin’s young sister, Marjorie, is one I hope we see more of in the final instalment of the series when it comes along. From being the runt of the litter she will grow to become a vitally important factor at a crucial point later in the book.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one I will enjoy again time after time in the future. Now we have to endure the wait for the fourth, and final, instalment which promises to wrap up the series in what, I am sure, will hold just as many surprises as the ending of Rise of the Wolf delivered.

US – http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Wolf-Forest-Lord-Book-ebook/dp/B0131K97JA/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438303741&sr=1-4&keywords=steven+a+mckay

UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B0131K97JA?keywords=Rise%20of%20the%20Wolf%20(The%20Forest%20Lord%20Book%203)&qid=1438303823&ref_=sr_1_1&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

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Masking The Truth

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Read Chapter One

Friday 18th March 1746

The shadow of the tall gallows hung heavily down on the small, dusty village square where almost a dozen men and a solitary, young woman muttered darkly to each other while another larger, silent crowd stood to the other side. Every face was turned towards the grim, door frame shaped structure from which the noose swung lazily. With the doleful ringing of a handbell a fat priest walked into the square with a young man by his side who, despite the rope binding his hands, smiled cheerfully towards those awaiting his execution. Behind him strode the executioner with half his face hidden by a black mask and with a ladder over his shoulder.
“Make way,” he cried dramatically. “Make way for the doomed!”
The trio arrived at the foot of the gallows where the ladder was placed against the frame while the small crowd closest to the gallows began to cry for mercy. The prisoner silenced them with a smile and a shake of his head. “Be of good cheer,” he said lightly. “I have lived a good life. My crimes, such as they are, have brought me here, and now I must atone for them. I have made my peace with He who judges all of us in the end. I am happy to depart this life confident that I go to a better one.” Stepping forward he addressed not only the few people who stood before him in the square but directed his voice out towards the three hundred men and women who sat in rapt silence in the darkness beyond the village square. “Here I stand before you, a simple man of the soil, now condemned to death on these grim gallows. I have been judged guilty by those who hold the reins of power over those such as me. They are safe in their homes, far from here today. Safe in the knowledge that their children will not go hungry tonight. My sin was to steal from them to feed the poor of this benighted village, I gladly admit that I am indeed guilty of that crime, and would commit it again a hundred times over if it meant that no child would have to go to their bed off a night crying with hunger. As for murder? Murder they call it! I killed the Bishop’s man as he sought to force his attentions on an innocent maid! Is that murder?” He shook his head as he walked about the square under the watchful eyes of the hangman. “The true sin,” he continued with a nod of his chin, “is that of the Roman Church which seeks to crush down, and trample underfoot we followers of our Protestant Faith for daring to reject their superstitions and lies!” This caused loud murmurs of approval, not only among the small group he stood among but also among the seated figures who nodded their heads in agreement. “These Princes of Rome have for too long stolen the bread from the mouths of the poor, they dress themselves in red robes of silk and warm themselves with their sins of the flesh while we, aye we, the poor who are dressed in rags go cold for want of a fire. But hear my words my friends, the Kingdom is coming where we shall have all we need! The only fire these creatures of Papacy will enjoy are the fiery pits of Hell where they will toss and turn for eternity!” Several of the seated figures cheered these words before being quickly shushed by those around them. The speaker gave a small nod of his head towards those who had cheered before continuing. “I ask that you do not grieve for me my friends, the sins which have brought me here today have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. All I ask of you is this…” His eyes looked beyond those who stood around him and out into the darkness where three hundred hung on his every word. “Know that He is with you. He walks with you and sustains you when all others have abandoned you! He alone will never forsake or betray you. His hand rests on my shoulder today and tells me that it is time for me to go home to Him. I do so willingly, nay, I do so joyfully for I know that with the death of this poor earth-bound body I shall inherit a better, more radiant one in His Kingdom. There His truth will prevail evermore and the curse of Rome can no longer punish us for following Him. Dry your tears my friends, raise your voices in song in praise for His mercy and eternal glory. In life and in death, let it be known that we gave our all for Him, and that we never again bow the knee to any Prince of Rome!”
As the small crowd began to sing the 23rd Psalm he raised his chin and walked to the foot of the gallows where the hangman had placed another ladder beside the first. Carefully he helped the prisoner ascend one while he climbed the other until the noose could be placed around his neck.
At the foot of the gallows the priest shook a fist angrily at him. “Stinking heretic! You thought you could challenge the power of the Holy Roman Church with impunity?” As boos rang out from the seats the priest turned a baleful look upon them. “Unclean sinners,” he hissed at them. “Mend thy ways lest ye would wish to join this vile heretic here before you!” The booing grew to such a level that he was forced to wait for silence before he could continue as he turned back towards the prisoner. “Stinking heretic! You thought you cou…” He fell silent as he realised he was repeating himself and for a moment seemed confused before one of the villagers murmured something in his ear. With a tiny nod of thanks towards the man he carried on smoothly, “None may dare to think that they can challenge the power of Rome! Its authority reaches into the meanest hovel and stable you call home. Be it palace or byre, your home is under the power of Rome, and with a single word the most splendid figure of the Pope can have you cast down into the dirt if it pleases him…” Again the booing started, louder than ever as the priest stalked towards the seated crowd to wave a finger in warning before returning to the foot of the ladder. “Prince or pauper, all will bow their knee to the church of Rome!”
“Never!” cried the young man with the noose round his neck. “You may kill me, you palsied priest, but neither you nor your Pope in distant Rome can kill the truth we all know and believe in. Neither priest, bishop nor torture can tear us from our faith!”
The priest gave a low laugh full of evil. “The Holy Roman Church will settle for tearing you from this life!” he said cruelly as he stepped forward to twist the ladder away but the hangman quickly removed the noose from the young man’s neck before he could.
“Ye shall not hang this man,” he said in a deep, booming voice. Carefully he helped the prisoner back down the ladder as he added, “If anyone is to hang today, let it be those who most deserve it!”
The villagers surged forward to lay hold of the priest as the prisoner’s hands were released from the ropes which bound them. The pretty, young woman who had stood silently through all this now rushed forward to be enfolded in his arms while the priest was forced up the ladder where only a moment before he had stood.
“A curse on ye all!” the priest spat towards the crowd.
“No,” the young man replied as he looked up towards the priest. “A curse on you and all that you represent!”
The hangman placed the noose over the priests’ neck. Now he looked out over the heads of the villagers towards the seated crowd as he said, “what say you? Let him loose, or let him swing?”
“Let him swing!” the crowd roared back.
“So be it!” he said as he reached forward behind the priests’ back out of anyone’s sight before exchanging a look with the priest who gave a small nod in reply. “God have mercy on your filthy soul!” he said as he pushed the man from the ladder. It fell noisily to the floor while the crowd gasped in sudden horror as they watched the priest topple down towards the dusty ground only to come to a sudden shocking halt as the rope snapped taut leaving him to swing silently back and forth below the gallows. For a moment there was absolute silence then as a curtain dropped to hide the village square from their view the audience within the theatre erupted in applause and cheering. The house lights remained dimmed for a moment before the curtain was raised to reveal the villagers, the hangman, the young man and his lover and even the priest all lined up to take their bow and accept the applause.

* * *

An hour after the final curtain call Ezekiel Moore was basking in the congratulations of the eighty or so specially invited guests who stood on the stage. He could not have dreamt, or even dare imagine a more successful start for the first night of the brand new Royal North British Theatre standing proudly on College Wynd between the Cowgate and Jamaica Street just north of the university buildings. The building had taken almost two years to complete, but from the comments Ezekiel was hearing, it had been worth every penny he had sunk into the enterprise. The building lay on an east to west axis, and while the palatial entrance stood on College Wynd between Corinthian columns supporting an ornate portico, the much less grand rear door opened out onto Horse Wynd. The interior however reflected the entrance with seating for three hundred people in comfort: two hundred in the stalls and a further hundred in the dress circle which curved around the auditorium. No expense had been spared to make sure that the patrons would want for neither comfort nor entertainment. Every seat was upholstered in burgundy velvet which matched the drapes and swags which adorned the walls. Dozens of candles in mirrored sconce’s and lanterns ensured the theatre was brightly lit, and a small army of liveried servants were tasked with either lighting or extinguishing them as the occasion demanded. In the privacy of his bed he had dreaded that this grand opening would be a disaster. Something was sure to go wrong he feared, and for weeks his stomach had plagued him with anxiety as the day grew closer and closer. Ever since the vision had first come to him to build a purpose built theatre that dread had hung over him, something, he had convinced himself had to go wrong. Despite that feeling of dread he had still been looking forward to this evening. Now Edinburgh could rival London in putting on any show it wished. Gone were the days of being crammed into the back rooms of taverns, or draughty halls to watch amateurs toiling to deliver barely remembered lines. Now his patrons could relax, sit back and watch professionals deliver spell-binding performances on a regular basis. He had carefully chosen the Hopkins Players to deliver the opening performance having seen them previously in London on one of his regular visits to the southern city. The choice of play ‘The Faithful Ploughman’ had been a master-stroke he felt. Although it dated back almost a century, its central theme of a young man forced to resist the forces of Roman oppression fitted perfectly with the mood of unrest towards the Jacobite forces who had occupied the city only a few months before. For a time people had dreaded that the Church of Scotland would be outlawed, and despite promises from Prince Charles Edward Stewart that there would be religious freedom for all, suspicion still remained. The play may be no more than tired, old propaganda from an earlier age, but it still served its purpose. The character of the priest was such a pantomime villain it was easy for the audience to join in and boo him at every opportunity. Now as he stood centre stage he felt almost as though he was the star performer himself rather than the actors who had been allowed to remain to mingle with those whom he had carefully selected to join him on stage for drinks and food. Around him were some of the most powerful and influential men in the city. Their continued patronage of his theatre was as good as a bag of golden guineas being dropped directly into his pocket he felt.
“May I congratulate you Mr. Moore,” Robert Craigie, Lord Advocate of Scotland and King George II direct representative for all civil matters in the kingdom, said with a smile as he shook the theatre directors’ hand. “Your theatre is sure to be a huge boon to our city. I wish you continued success my good sir.”
Ezekiel Moore was so overawed by being in the great mans’ presence that all he could was mumble out a word of thanks as he gazed at the smiling face of the most powerful man in the country, outside of the kings’ son who commanded the army chasing the rebels somewhere in the north. “I pray that you enjoyed our show, my Lord?” he stammered out.
“Indeed I did sir. I shall look forward to your next show. What treat shall you present for us next, may I ask?”
“I had thought that Shakespeare may be suitable, my Lord. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet, or MacBeth?”
“Capital idea sir,” the Lord Advocate nodded. “You shall certainly bring some much needed entertainment to Edinburgh. Yes, I shall be sure to purchase a ticket for that.”
“No, not at all my Lord,” Ezekiel stuttered. “I shall be pleased to provide you with as many tickets as you wish, gratis. Your presence alone is reward enough for such a lowly purveyor of diversion, as I dare call myself, I assure you.”
The Lord Advocate nodded his thanks. “Well sir, I shall be sure to tell all and sundry that if they seek to be entertained, then they need look no further than your fine establishment. Now you must forgive me, but I must be away. Duty calls. However, I assure you sir, I shall look forward to my next visit.” With a bow of his stately, bewigged head he made his departure followed by several minions who were never far from his side leaving Ezekiel positively glowing with pride and more convinced than ever that his fortune was all but made. Taking a sip of the wine in his hand he allowed himself to walk on a carpet of air through the men and women accepting their congratulations until he saw two familiar faces.

* * *

“Mr. Young, Mistress Young,” he said with a wide smile. “Thank you for attending the opening of my theatre. It is a pleasure to see you here.”
“And it is our pleasure to be here,” smiled Robert Young in return. He had met Ezekiel several times in the last few weeks through his wife Euphemia’s father who had printed the commemorative programmes for the evenings’ show. The design of this programme had changed several times and Euphemia had finally been called upon to deliberate on how it should look before Ezekiel had declared himself satisfied. Robert’s reputation as a man who it paid to be on friendly terms with, had also meant the couple had received an invitation. He had earned that name and reputation for himself by successfully extricating several powerful men from potentially unpleasant situations where they had stood accused of crimes they were innocent of. Robert had been able to dig into the mire of the city’s underbelly to find the evidence required to clear their names. Now lawyers and advocates, when needing assistance to keep their clients out of the Tolbooth, regularly beat a path to his door. He enjoyed the challenge provided by this work, and also enjoyed the money which he charged for his services. His wife, despite her misgivings that he was placing himself at risk by rubbing shoulders with the criminal classes, supported him but only on the understanding that he did nothing to place his life in danger. He had three children to take care of after all. Two were under the age of five while the older, adopted, daughter, aged almost sixteen, had been rescued from the streets of the city and taken into their home where she soon became as much part of the family as the son and daughter born to his young wife. All of this was now well known to Ezekiel, who although not requiring Robert’s professional help himself, knew when it paid to get to know people who may be useful at some point in the future.
He shook the proffered hand warmly as he looked at the tall, well-built figure before him. Robert Young was just a whisker under six foot in height with an open, handsome face and shoulder length brown hair gathered back into a queue. It was easier to admire his wife though. Euphemia Young at the age of twenty-five was three years younger than her husband and a few inches shorter, but her heart shaped face was as close to perfection as any Ezekiel had ever had the pleasure of viewing. Masses of loose blonde curls were being valiantly constrained by a lemon ribbon which matched her elegant dress. It was her blue eyes which captivated him though. Every time he met her he could feel himself willing to drown in the liquid pools of those eyes, and were he not married, he would have declared his love for her despite the fact she was already married and less than half his age. Forcing his eyes to move away from her face he managed to speak to Robert to thank him again for attending.
“There is nowhere we would rather be,” Robert replied with a smile, knowing only too well the effect his wife had on the poor man. In truth he was not keen on attending plays and had only come along at Euphemia’s insistence. She thoroughly enjoyed the theatre and he had learned that for the sake of harmony at home it paid to share some of her interests.
Euphemia chose that moment to add, “The play was an unusual choice Mr. Moore, and I would have thought that, perhaps, Ramsey’s Gentle Shepherd would have provided a more local flavour for your launch?”
Ezekiel nodded happily at her words. “Oh, an excellent play Mistress Young, and I can promise you that I fully intend to put on a performance of it within a few weeks. I am sorry my choice for this evening was not to your taste.”
“Not in the least sir,” she blessed him with a smile. “It was very well performed and the cast earned the applause. I just felt it was starting to show its age a little.”
“Perhaps,” he conceded with a slight frown. But the smile soon returned as he added, “I hope the next choice will be more to your taste. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?”
“Oh a fine choice sir, a fine choice. Will you be using the same people? The young woman who played the village maiden would make an excellent Juliet.”
“My thoughts exactly Mistress Young,” Ezekiel enthused in response. “Would you like to meet her? And some of the other cast members?”
“That would be delightful” Euphemia smiled, aware that by her side she could tell that Robert was sighing inwardly at the thought there was no early escape for him. While Ezekiel Moore hurried across the stage to gather some of the troupe she turned her gaze towards her husband who meet her look evenly with a slight smile playing on the corners of his lips.
“What?” he asked innocently. “I never said a word!”
“You didn’t have to!” she said quietly as her eyes surveyed him narrowly. “I could hear you groaning in your head from here! And since when have you turned your nose up at the chance to meet a beautiful woman?”
“The only beautiful woman I wish to meet is the one standing before me right now.”
“Daftie!” she laughed as she gently cuffed his arm but couldn’t stop herself from giggling at his words. “The play wasn’t that bad was it? You were laughing and booing just as loudly as anyone else!”
“What can I say?” he asked with his hands out to his side. “I am a Philistine, and would rather be warming my tootsies by my own fireplace instead of soaking up culture.” If it wasn’t for the amusement in his eyes she may have believed him which earned his arm another cuff along with a laugh.
“Here they come,” she hissed in warning. “Be nice for my sake, please.” Turning to face the theatre impresario who bustled towards them with the actress and the young man who had played the hero in tow in his wake.
“Mistress Young, it is my very great pleasure to introduce you to Miss Susanna Hopkins,” he announced as he reached them and gently moved the young woman forward with a hand in the small of her back.
“Miss Hopkins, may I say how much I enjoyed your performance,” Euphemia said with a broad smile at meeting one of the stars of the show. Face to face the actress, now stripped of her stage make-up looked even younger than she had during the performance although she still wore the simple rustic, peasant outfit her role demanded. The girl’s pale, pretty face and dark eyes were framed by bobbed black hair. “I confess that despite my misgivings about the tone of the play, I thoroughly enjoyed your performance. You and this handsome young man by you made a most convincing couple.”
“Why, bless you for your kindness,” Susanna smiled. “Our acting must be slightly less rustic than the play,” she laughed. “It is rather dated isn’t it? Do you know its original title was Der Treue Pflüger? It was first performed in Germany during the Thirty Years War as propaganda!” She gave an amused shake of her head. “Despite, or perhaps because of its heavy handed characters, it became hugely popular and was soon translated into English and performed on this side of the North Sea. Charles the First actually banned it for being inflammatory, but it was still performed in villages up and down the land. There was no such ban in Scotland, I think your churchmen fully approved of its tone.” She gave another merry laugh then nodded towards the young hero by her side before adding in a pleasant English accent. “Now as for my romantic hero here? I fear that he is as far from my ideal beau as I can imagine!”
Euphemia moved her gaze from the pretty face of the shorter young woman to the man who matched her husband in height and build and now saw the similarity in features. With the dawning of realisation she laughed. “Your brother? Yes, I can see now why he would fail to be your ideal. Although I am sure that there would be no shortage of others who would say that you sir, would make the ideal hero for many a feminine tale.”
The young man, a year or two older than his young sister laughed at her words. “Mistress Young, you are much to kind to a poor actor,” he said in a professionally polished voice. “We lowly actors have no choice but to act the roles assigned us. Even if the roles should have been retired many a long year ago!” He cast a narrow look towards Ezekiel who chose to pretend he hadn’t heard anything. “May I be so bold as to introduce myself as neither my silly sister, nor director have thought to do so? Jeremy Hopkins at your service milady, although I prefer Jem if truth be told.”

* * *

While his wife chatted happily with the siblings Robert allowed himself to fade into the background content to watch and listen to the assembled throng made up largely of familiar faces who he exchanged smiles and nods with. Not every smile or nod was friendly however for there were several men there who he knew only too well; men who had either called on him for help and resented the fact their secrets were known, and those who had been disadvantaged through his prying. None were any real danger to him he knew. Others who had thought to put an end to his work had found themselves face to face with a man who had taken it upon himself to guard Robert and his family from harm. Nothing was really known about the accidents some men had suffered after being too vocal against him, but the rumours alone served as a warning to those who took real offence to him and his work. Robert himself knew only these rumours for he had never sought to confirm them with the man who he knew was responsible. Rumours were enough. His attention was drawn back to the actors by his wife as the man who had played the role of the priest sauntered over to stand by him.
“Good evening sir, James Hopkins at your service,” he said as he thrust out his hand towards Robert who shook it. “I trust our poor efforts weren’t too execrable for you?”
“No, not at all,” Robert hastily replied as his eyes ran over the figure before him. Something about the way the man had walked during the final scene now struck him as he noticed how sprightly he had been before, and again now as he walked over to join him. Remarking on this the middle-aged man laughed.
“Aha! You have an eye for detail sir,” he said, clearly amused. “Yes, there is a very good reason for that I assure you. It has all to do with the unhappy priest’s demise.”
“The hanging?” Robert’s eyebrows drew down in concentration before a smile lit up his face. “I admit I was astonished when you tumbled from the ladder! I thought that something dreadful had gone wrong and we had all played witness to a tragedy.” Again his eyes roamed over the figure before him and while the family resemblance to the son were clear to see in his face now that the make-up and stage warts had been removed, it was the man’s general shape which he focused on. Now that he considered it, not only had the priest shuffled awkwardly in that final scene but he had seemed bulkier too. “A harness? You wore some manner of harness below your robes! That is how it was done! Am I correct sir?”
The actor laughed merrily again. “You really do have an eye for detail don’t you? But I wonder if you, perchance, noticed my daughter Susanna also played the role of several men during the play? You didn’t? Splendid! The power of illusion sir. That, and skilfully applied make-up and costumes, what! My daughters all play male roles to bulk out certain scenes in plays. They even fence with each other, and the male players! Alas my good sir, when it comes to the priests’ demise, there are certain secrets of our craft which must remain just that: secrets! What I can share with you is that the Hopkins Players, this lowly band of itinerant wanderers composed largely of my wife and children, are one of the very few troupes who are capable of performing the final scene of that dismal play on-stage. Most others are forced to perform it through a shadow-play on a sheet behind the stage. While it is safer for amateurs that way, it lacks the dramatic effect on the audience. Your words that you thought you had witnessed a tragedy are reward enough, for the illusion obviously worked as intended. Had you said you were quite blasé about the priests death, I would have hung my head low in abject shame, for I would have failed in my task to entertain and, yes I confess it, to shock the audience just a little.”
“Well sir, I assure you that you achieved your end admirably.” Despite his misgivings about attending the play in the first place he was warming towards the father of the troupe whose ruddy face showed only enjoyment at his trade. His enthusiasm was contagious and Robert found himself enjoying talking with the man enormously as they chatted cheerfully for several minutes more before the man seemed to recall himself.
“Egad sir, I have been so busy enjoying speaking with you that I had quite forgotten why I had come over here in the first place.” He gave a rueful shake of his grey haired head. “I have been asked by that gentleman over there whether my daughter could be engaged to perform a selection of soliloquies by the Bard, at a soiree he is throwing this evening.” His finger indicated a stout figure in his early sixties who stood with several young men and women in their early twenties. “Mr. Moore advised me to speak with you. He says you know everyone who is worth knowing in town. Also I do not wish to send my daughter off with persons unknown. One cannot be too careful these days.”
“My Lord Richardson?” Robert asked as his eyes followed the finger.
“You know him?”
“Only by sight,” Robert replied. “He is said to be famously wealthy. He owns one of the big houses on the Canongate, set in its own grounds, but I do not think I know the others around him though.”
“Wealthy you say?” James said with a calculating look. “He tells me the others are his son and the young man’s friends. Well if he is wealthy, I think I can safely say that the cost of having my daughter perform has just doubled!” With a chuckle he excused himself and joined his son and daughter. The trio stepped to one side and had what seemed to be a heated discussion between father and son before the latter stormed off while the father and daughter crossed the stage to join Lord Richardson and the throng gathered around him. Robert watched this with some interest. It seemed clear the son was not happy about the daughter being engaged to perform privately. Whether this was due to professional jealousy and he felt that he should have been the one taken on, or for some other reason he couldn’t tell but let the matter slip from his mind as he re-joined Euphemia.
“About time!” she winked at him. “I see you have made a new friend!”
“The Priest?” he laughed. “Yes, he was a most entertaining conversationalist, but would not be drawn on how he was hanged.”
“Or where his quarters are either I take it?”
“His quarters?”
Euphemia rolled her eyes. “Hanged. Drawn…”
He groaned as he took her arm and escorted her towards the exit. “And you accuse me of bad puns!”

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