Turbulence and passion drive an unforgettable historical epic... 16th century Europe is the setting for Judith Lennox's thrillingly epic novel Till the Day Goes Down. Perfect for fans of Rosanna Ley and Kate Morton. As England prepares for the threat of invasion, Catholic forces in France, Scotland and Spain plan the 'Enterprise of England', weaving a cat's-cradle of intrigue around the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, to bring her to the throne. In London, Sir Frances Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Secretary of State and master of espionage, pits his intellect against the forces that threaten England. The Anglo-Scots border, too, is a battleground, an anarchic land whose people acknowledge no allegiance but to their family name. But Luke Ridley, illegitimate son of a gypsy, has no allegiances: he must earn his living in whatever way he can. He is caught up in treacheries both of his own and of Sir Francis Walsingham's making. Into the dangerous melting-pot of Northumberland arrive Christie and Arbel Forster. Fragile, amoral Arbel is a catalyst for all the simmering tensions of the borders; Christie has her own obsession: to rediscover the family she lost years before in the terror of the French Wars of Religion. The blood-feud between the Forsters and the Ridleys has been in abeyance; now it begins to smoulder again, its embers rekindled by the passions and betrayals of the past. What readers are saying about Judith Lennox: 'Judith Lennox writes wonderful stories which are compelling and beautifully descriptive ' 'Another wonderful story of power and greed, but always with the thread of passion ' ' Five stars '
Release date: April 9, 2015
Print pages: 352
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Till the Day Goes Down
Arbel Forster, seated on her mother’s four-poster bed amid a tangle of clothing, keepsakes and letters, looked up as Christie entered the room.
Christie nodded, and shut the door behind her. ‘To Northumberland. To your Aunt Margaret.’ She walked to the window, watching the last of the guests straggle along the street, black cloaks and tall hats fighting the March wind. The Forsters’ house, a tall, thin, half-timbered affair, leaned over the narrow street that wound around Salisbury’s Poultry Cross. Christie straightened her own black gown. ‘They’ve all gone now,’ she said.
Arbel, pale hair falling over her face, let out a vast sigh of relief. ‘Uncle Charles – I thought I would die. He snorts so. Even in church.’
‘He has a rheum,’ said Christie, knowledgeably, sitting on the edge of the bed beside Arbel.
Arbel frowned. ‘I couldn’t marry him, though, could I, Christie?’
There was, for the first time in a long, awful week, an echo of distress in Arbel’s voice.
‘Of course not,’ said Christie, firmly.
The idea of lovely, delicate Arbel bedded with the gross Charles Webster was obscene.
There was a silence, broken only by the whine of the wind.
Anne Forster, Arbel’s mother, had died four days previously, leaving the two girls and the servants alone in the house. The funeral, a feeble affair, had taken place that afternoon.
‘Of course you couldn’t marry Uncle Charles,’ said Christie, beginning, like Arbel, to go through the pile of clutter on the bed. ‘You’d have to go to church six times a week and never wear another bracelet or bangle. It wouldn’t suit you at all, Arbel.’
Arbel giggled. ‘And take canary wine with cousin Elinor … and bathe Uncle Charles’s feet –’
‘– in liquorice and honey,’ said Christie, absently. ‘Did you find anything, Arbel?’
Arbel’s small hands lifted silks and beads, papers and samplers. ‘Nothing. I found this, though.’
‘This’ was a lock of hair, once dark, now faded, tied with a red ribbon.
‘My father’s, do you think? Cut from his head as he lay bleeding on the threshold?’
The lock of hair was dropped carelessly to the floor.
Arbel, picking up the papers, crumpled them one by one and threw them in the direction of the fire.
‘I was hoping for something –’
Christie found that she could not finish her sentence. I was hoping, she thought, miserably, for an explanation. An account. In 1572 Christiane Girouard sailed to England on board the ship – what was a suitable name for a ship? – the Bonadventure. Yes. In 1572 Christiane Girouard sailed to England on board the ship Bonadventure, and lived happily with her adopted family in Salisbury for ten years. Her father’s name was …
But there was nothing to fill the gaps. The papers were bills, receipts, recipes, shopping lists. Arbel, sliding off the bed, dropped them one by one into the fire, watching the flames seize and devour the deckled edges of the paper. No explanations, then, only Adderstone, an immense unknown.
‘Do you think your Aunt Margaret will mind?’
Arbel’s grey eyes did not leave the fire. ‘About you?’ she said. ‘Of course not. You must come with me, Christie. It wouldn’t be the same without you. I remember mother saying that she was very fond of Aunt Margaret. Aunt Margaret’s brother lives in a castle. Imagine!’
Aunt Margaret’s brother was called Stephen Ridley. Aunt Margaret had once been a Ridley, but now she was a Forster, as Arbel’s father had been, as Arbel herself was. Stephen Ridley lived in a castle and the Forsters in a tower because of the proximity of Northumberland to the Scottish Border.
Arbel’s small, perfect face was bright with excitement. ‘They steal horses and sheep,’ she said. ‘From the Scots. Father died trying to get a horse back from Scotland.’
Christie, privately, thought it sounded silly and disorganized. She had always detested disorganization. It was she who had increasingly, as Anne’s health had deteriorated, taken over the running of the Forster household. Not Arbel: Arbel was destined for something other than housekeeping.
‘I’ll come,’ Christie said, watching Arbel. ‘But I won’t stay.’
Arbel turned at last. The fire was dying down and her eyes were unfocused and dreamy. ‘Dear Christie,’ she said, and dropped another piece of paper on to the flames.
IT had begun to rain by the evening: a cold, fine rain sucked from the grey North Sea.
Rain always seemed colder in Berwick. Berwick was perched on the easternmost edge of Northumberland, eyeing Scotland with an expression of unmistakable defiance. And Berwick had never been the cosiest of towns: alternately Scottish and English for centuries, the scene of burning, pillaging and massacres, it was, in 1582, Queen Elizabeth’s strongest fortress, a necessary guard to the inconvenient postern gate to her kingdom that the Scottish border provided.
Towers and bastions guarded Berwick; so did the Queen’s men: soldiers, over six hundred of them. Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Warden of the English East March, was reputedly Queen Elizabeth’s bastard cousin. Sir Henry Woodryngton, whose family had long known the Borders as a battleground, a treacherous board for a deadly, fascinating game, was Lord Hunsdon’s deputy.
Sir Henry Woodryngton possessed his own players. One of them now endured the night in Berwick’s busy harbour, his collar turned up in a futile attempt to keep water from trickling between doublet and shirt, his eyes fixed on the oily black plain of the sea. Malachi Ratsey was used to the cold and the wind and the rain. He had been, at various times in his forty-five years, a baker, a dog-catcher, a pedlar, a pot-boy, and a cutpurse. For a variety of reasons he had been forced to abandon these employments: poor health, an unsuitable temperament, and a whipping through the streets had all made him think carefully about his future. He was small and quiet, not the sort of person to stand out in a crowd. The sort of person, in fact, who could melt into the stone walls of Berwick’s quayside like lichen.
For Malachi Ratsey had found, at last, a role suited to both his attributes and his needs. Sir Henry Woodryngton, a percipient man, had realized that Malachi was determined and patient, that his hearing was as sharp as a hare’s, and that his small dark eyes noticed everything. Malachi had a prodigious memory, so the fact that he could neither read nor write was rarely a hindrance.
Malachi enjoyed his work. He had haunted taverns and quays and back alleys in other lives, seeking out scraps of food, or a carelessly watched purse, or a fine silk handkerchief Now he rooted out different kinds of leavings, leavings for which the gentleman his employer paid well. He had no need to cut purses or filch pies off window-sills, for he had money to spend at the ale-house or market-place. He could have bought himself a velvet cloak like any gentleman, but he kept to his broadcloth and his linen because he needed to be part of the shadows.
Malachi was at Berwick harbour because he had heard (a whisper in the darkness under the creaking, blistered sign of the Three Wheat Ears) about the merchant ship due in that night. The Speedwell’s master was a loyal and respected citizen, the Speedwell’s cargo nothing more than kegs of French wine, bales of Flanders cloth. But the whisper had mentioned that the master’s son had gambling debts, and that the small galleon had taken an unconventional route along the French coast.
The Speedwell docked just after midnight. Malachi, chafing his hands in the shadow of the quayside, saw her masts and rigging like lace against the clouded moon. He drew back into the darkness as the ship approached the quay and the first rope was flung into outstretched, waiting hands.
You watched ten times, twenty times, and saw nothing. You watched, and remembered every detail of everything you saw, because one day – weeks, months, years away – a single word or action might make sense of a larger pattern. You watched when you were cold and bored and hungry, because the reward was the squeeze of excitement in your stomach when you realized you had found something worth the waiting.
Tonight, Malachi could feel the excitement, like the rush of warmth after a glass of wine. The Speedwell was a sea-worthy, well-maintained vessel, newly painted and well armed, capable of making a man’s fortune. The sort of vessel, in fact, that any man would be reluctant to part with. Malachi waited, his cold hands buried under the folds of his jacket, while they hauled the cloth and the wine on to the wharf. The harbour-master’s man, yawning, counted barrels and bales, list in hand. The master and the pilot joked, their laughter almost dying before it reached the bulwark sheltering Malachi.
You watched ten times, twenty times, and saw nothing. As the men started to drift away to their wives or to the brothels in Berwick’s back streets, Malachi began to feel cold. The lanterns bobbed along the quayside, doubling themselves in the glassy water, words and laughter ebbed away like meaningless seagull cries.
Still he watched.
Still there was (obstinately) the excitement in the pit of his stomach. Only his aching throat and cold feet told him that he had been wrong, that there was nothing for him here. The Speedwell’s masts and furled sails were pasted against an uncompromising sky; Scotland, less than five miles distant, was lost in darkness. Malachi wiped the rain from his face with his hand, and then stopped, frozen into bas-relief by the sound of footsteps from the ship.
A flicker of movement in the blackness. Not all the sailors had left the Speedwell.
Malachi hoped he had made no sound. The gentle rain still muffled the rustle of his clothes and the scrape of boot on stone. He had almost made a mistake.
He saw the sailor cross the deck and jump the gunwale to the quayside.
IT also rained at Adderstone, fifteen miles from Berwick.
Adderstone Tower, perched like a carrion crow on a hill between Wooler and the coast, took the rain as steadfastly as it had taken Scots invaders, Scots and English raiders, and all the other adversities that a close proximity with a foreign (and frequently hostile) country might fling at it. Armies on their way to Otterburn, to Homildon Hill and to Flodden had marched past Adderstone. Adderstone’s men, armed with swords and lances, bills and pitchforks, mustered for their sovereign when required, and fought for their country, harassing the enemy on small, neat-footed hill-ponies.
Adderstone manor house, built at the turn of the century, might have made some superficial concession to peacetime, but the adjoining tower’s walls were fully six feet thick, its windows unwelcoming arrow-slits, its towerhead topped with the jagged, stubby fingers of crenellations. Elizabeth’s England and James VI’s Scotland might remain officially at peace, but try telling that to an Armstrong, an Elliot, a Scott, or a Kerr. Or to a Forster or to a Ridley, for that matter. The great riding surnames on both sides of the Border were the armies of occupation now, leaving their pele towers, their castles and their bastle houses at night to thieve someone else’s sheep, cattle or horses.
There was a law of a sort – the law of hot trod and March treason – and government of a sort. The Lords Warden of the six Border Marches, three Scots and three English, were charged by their sovereigns with the uncomfortable task of keeping in check a people whose activities constantly bubbled only fractionally above the abyss of anarchy. The rest of England might know peace, albeit an increasingly uneasy peace, but the Borders nightly prepared themselves for war.
Now, in one of Adderstone’s many draughty bedchambers, war of a different kind prevailed. Richard Forster and Janet, his bride of two months, were discussing the weather.
‘Do you think I care if there was a tempest – or a whirlwind –’Janet’s bony fingers curled purposefully round a pewter candlestick ‘– or an earthquake –’
‘It was snowing a blizzard, Janet. You wouldn’t expect me to ride from Black Law to Adderstone when it was snowing a blizzard?’
‘Oh, wouldn’t I?’ The candlestick soared through the air. Richard Forster ducked. ‘I’d have expected you to ride through hell and damnation, Richie Forster, to save me from looking a fool in front of those twenty evil, clacking old biddies!’
Picking up pieces of candle and candlestick, Richie said soothingly, ‘I’m sure Mother understood. And as for Mistress Selby and Susannah Grey – well, it was you they’d come to see, not me.’
Janet, five foot to her husband’s six, her cheeks scarlet and her reddish hair escaping from its caul, folded her twitching hands in front of her, and said carefully, ‘They’d been invited to congratulate the bride and groom, Richie. The bride and groom. Even if you’d not a civil word in your head to say to them, you could have passed them their biscuits and sack and canary wine. You could have stopped me having to repeat, I expect he’s been delayed, until I felt like Susannah Grey’s damned popinjay!’
Janet’s small round black eyes sparkled. With anger, not with tears, thought Richie, ruefully. Janet was a Laidlaw of Liddesdale, and the Laidlaws and the Forsters had feuded intermittently for years, taking each others’ beasts and belongings, spicing things, when they became dull, with the occasional murder or kidnapping. Richard Forster’s marriage to Janet Laidlaw was an attempt by Richie’s mother, Margaret, to heal the feud.
He tried again. ‘I had business with Stephen. I thought I’d be back by the afternoon, but you know how it is when the weather turns –’
‘You were seen in a tavern in Rothbury! Lettice Selby’s servant saw you! With Rob –’ Janet picked up the book that lay on the chest ‘– and some strumpet in pattens –’
‘Nan was with Rob.’ Richie moved hastily sideways. ‘Not the book, Janet – it was father’s –’
Erasmus’s Colloquia rebounded off Adderstone’s stone walls and tumbled to the floor.
‘And I’ve never been stared at so much in my entire life. I swear Susannah Grey kept her eyes on my stomach the entire afternoon, the interfering old besom!’
Janet’s stomach, under its layers of buckram and cramoisy, was as flat as her small boyish bust. Unwisely, Richie grinned.
‘Well, we can soon do something about that, Janet,’ he said, and glanced at the bed.
He forgot to duck, that time, and Janet’s silver hairbrush struck him neatly on the temple.
Janet hissed, ‘If you were at home more often, husband, then we might share a bed more often!’
Richie dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. ‘I’d as soon share my bed with a –’ he began, and then stopped as someone knocked at the door.
Rob, Richie’s younger brother, opened the door. Rob was as dark as Richie, but his eyes were not Richie’s grey, but true Ridley eyes, a dark indigo-blue fringed with black. All the Ridleys had dark blue eyes – except the bastard, of course.
‘You’ve cut your forehead, Richie,’ said Rob, innocently. And added, catching the expression on his brother’s face, ‘Mother wants to see you both. Now.’
Without waiting for his wife, Richie followed Rob out of the room.
MARGARET Forster had been a widow for five years. Unlike so many of his name, Richard Forster had died in his bed, cursing Laidlaws and Armstrongs to the end. The letter in Margaret’s hand, which had taken a full month to travel the three hundred miles from Wiltshire to Northumberland, told of a more recent death. It would have been more sensible, thought Margaret impatiently, for some wretched Sibley to have delivered the news in person. Except there were, she reminded herself as she sat down in the parlour, no Sibleys left. Anne had been the last of her name.
Patience had been, for Margaret, a laboriously acquired attribute. Setting the letter aside, she picked up the sleeve she had been sewing and went back to work. The thin candlelight struggled to illuminate the plain linen cuff. Outside the wind might wreathe round the bare trees and unsown fields, but inside Adderstone’s parlour there was only the roar of the fire and the gentle beating of the tapestries against the walls to show that it was still winter. Margaret threaded her needle and considered the follies of others.
She remembered her dead sister-in-law, Anne Forster, formerly Sibley. Anne had been foolish ever to come to the Borders. It would have been hard enough for any gentle southerner to accustom herself to Border life, but Anne’s temperament had made it doubly difficult. Margaret had no doubt that the Borders had killed a part of Anne, just as they had also killed Anne’s husband and Margaret’s beloved elder brother, Davey Ridley. Just as they might, one day, kill any one of Margaret’s three sons. Margaret had never permitted herself to watch for Richie, Rob or Mark, had never given in to the dangerous luxury of expressing her anxiety. Twelve years ago Anne had watched for hour after hour, her hands gripping the window’s stone sill, her knuckles white. She had watched for her husband for a day and a night, long after any sensible woman would have known that something unspeakable had happened. Mark should never have married Anne Sibley, Margaret could have told him that, but she had not, because Mark was as pig-headed as all the Forsters, and would not have listened. And it had been every bit as unsuitable as Margaret had known it would be – five years, which had cost her both her husband and her looks, and Anne had returned to the Wiltshire she never should have left, with nothing but a fair-haired daisy of a daughter to show that she had once been a wife.
Margaret clicked her tongue in pity and disapproval, and pushed her needle into the cloth. When Anne had gone, taking her daughter Arbel with her, Margaret had been left at Adderstone with her own husband and three sons. She had never, like other women, longed for daughters. She had lost two daughters at birth, and mourned them, but had never missed the discussion of fashion and fripperies that some women seemed to find so important. She got on well enough with Janet, Richie’s wife, seeing, perhaps, some poorly reflected echo of her younger self in Janet’s small, stubborn frame. At the thought of Janet, and the sound of footsteps nearing the door, Margaret frowned, and pulled the thread more firmly. Adderstone’s walls were not completely soundproof.
She noted, and ignored, the bruise on Richie’s forehead, the red stain of anger on Janet’s cheeks, the glint of amusement in Rob’s eyes. Thankful that Mark, her youngest son, was asleep, Margaret Forster permitted herself the smallest of sighs, put aside her sewing, and picked up the letter.
‘This arrived a half-hour past,’ she said, when they had all sat down, Janet and Richie on opposite sides of the room, Rob in Adderstone’s only box chair. ‘Anne Forster died last month of the sweating sickness.’ And seeing no comprehension on her eldest son’s face, she added impatiently,
‘Anne was your uncle Mark’s wife, Richie – you remember.’
She had his attention at last. Richie frowned, his big hands pushing back untidy dark hair from his face.
‘Father’s brother …’
‘I remember Anne,’ said Rob, from the box chair. ‘There was a daughter, wasn’t there?’
Rob’s face was hidden by the carved sides of the chair. In looks Rob reminded his mother of her elder brother Davey: in temperament he was his father’s son. Not one of her sons, thought Margaret wistfully, was quite like Davey. Only Lucas, sometimes, unexpectedly recalled him in a fleeting expression or movement. Which was nonsense, of course, because Lucas and Davey shared none of the same blood.
‘Anne had a daughter called Arbel,’ said Margaret, firmly. ‘For whom we must now make a home.’
Rob’s face appeared round the side of the box chair: slightly slanting dark blue eyes, long mouth, narrow nose. Margaret’s own features were built on sturdier lines: good looks, in the Ridleys, were the province only of the men.
‘Here?’ said Rob. ‘Arbel is to come to Adderstone?’
‘We have room enough for her. And we seem to be her only surviving relatives. This –’ distastefully, Margaret glanced at the letter on her lap ‘– is from some brother-in-law of Anne’s who plainly wants nothing to do with the child. She appears to have nowhere else to go.’
Richie, of an altogether easier disposition than his brother, had shaken off most of his bad humour.
‘How old is Arbel now, mother?’
‘She is seventeen.’
Margaret still retained a clear picture of Anne and Arbel as they had left for the south, so many years ago: the little girl laughing and wriggling, her nurse holding her hand; Anne distant and confused, giving poor answers to simple questions, inadequate responses to Margaret’s well-meaning attempts at sisterly comfort.
‘Of course she must come here,’ said Richie. There was neither question nor resignation in his voice, and Margaret had not expected that there would be. He rose, and walked to the window, and Margaret touched his sleeve as he passed.
‘There’s something else, Richard. Anne brought up another girl with Arbel. To keep her company.’
‘We’re to provide a home for her as well?’ Richie stopped in front of his mother, frowning. Even Janet’s round bright eyes now studied Margaret instead of gazing straight-browed down at her bodice.
‘She has nowhere else to go. She is illegitimate – of French origin, the letter says. Anne brought her up as a daughter – she has been given our name.’ Unexpectedly, Margaret found that some of her irritation was directed at herself. ‘I should have tried to keep in touch. Anne was my sister-in-law, after all.’
Richie took her hand. Unused to gestures of physical comfort, Margaret blinked and cleared her sight.
‘I think we should take them both, Richie,’ she said. ‘They are of the same age, and it would be cruel to separate them after so long. Besides, this other child – Christie – would be a companion to Arbel. I really do not want a grown girl under my feet all day.’
‘Let’s have them both, Mother!’ Rob rose from the chair to throw more logs on to the fire. ‘After all, what house can hold too many seventeen-year-old girls?’
Margaret glanced at her second son sharply. There were rumours, all too credible, that dark-eyed babies wailed and puked in the villages and shielings. Just as they had when Davey had been alive … She set her mouth, a tall, imposing woman in crimson velvet, her greying hair contained in a complicated head-dress. Not beautiful as Anne Forster had once been beautiful, but with a dignity won by years of self-restraint.
Sending Janet to the kitchen for wine and biscuits, Margaret said, ‘Stephen and Lucas must be told of Anne’s death. One of you will ride to Black Law and Catcleugh tomorrow.’
‘Lucas?’ Rob again, staring wide-eyed across at her. ‘Of what possible interest can Aunt Anne’s death be to Lucas?’
Rob, the cleverest and most troublesome of Margaret’s three sons, studied his mother with interest. Margaret’s mouth set in an even thinner line.
‘There is some sort of relationship, however distant. And it would not be right for Lucas to learn of Anne’s death through common gossip.’
‘Or through Stephen?’
Rob retreated back into the chair; Margaret’s palm itched to strike him.
Janet returned with the wine. Margaret, refusing drink, turned her back on the three of them, and stared out of the window at the blackened sky.
And there, she thought, lay the greatest folly of them all: that Davey, who had sown his seed so liberally the entire length of the Marches, had not produced one legal heir. Not one son to bear his name, to inherit one whit of his charm. The grey stone of the windows blurred a little: how could she still miss her brother so much when he had been dead eight years? It was Anne’s death that recalled it all, of course. All that was left of Margaret’s family was Stephen Ridley, her other brother, at Black Law, and Lucas at Catcleugh, while Margaret struggled with the stupid, useless, deadening task of keeping the tatters of her husband’s family in some sort of cohesion.
‘Mother.’ Richie, having finished the letter, touched her shoulder. ‘Rob is right – Luke has no Ridley blood. And he has proved – surely – over and over again that he wants no more to do with your family. I dare say he’d use another name if he had one.’
‘Lovell would do quite well, Richie, don’t you think?’ said Rob.
Margaret did not miss the answering flash of amusement in Richie’s eyes. Not for the first time, she wished that they were still children, and that their father was alive, with a whip in his hand.
She tried again.
‘Whatever name Lucas is or is not entitled to, he bears the name of Ridley. Davey brought him up, and Davey loved him as a son. I have no quarrel with Lucas, and I will not take part in someone else’s quarrel. You will ride to Catcleugh tomorrow, Rob. No –’ just in time, Margaret recalled the unholy alliance of earlier years ‘– you will go to Catcleugh, Richie, and tell Lucas of Anne Forster’s death. You will also tell him that he will be welcome at Adderstone if he wishes to meet Arbel.’
‘He won’t be at Catcleugh.’ Rob stretched out his long legs to the fire. ‘He’s terribly busy, is Luke.’
Margaret saw him glance at his brother again, and cried, exasperated, ‘Even Lucas must employ a man to tend his horses, or a woman to cook his food!’
‘To warm his bed, more like.’ Both brothers laughed that time.
‘You will ride to Catcleugh tomorrow evening, Richard.’ Margaret’s voice was like ice; even Rob shifted in his seat. ‘I dare say Lucas possesses pen and paper, so you may write your message if he has no respectable servant for you to speak to. But you will go. And you, Rob –’ rising, she addressed her younger son ‘– will go to Black Law.’
They did not argue with her then, any more than they had argued when they were children. But Margaret, leaving the room in a straight-backed whisper of velvet, felt unusually tired. Three sons, a new daughter-in-law, and a multitude of sheep, cattle and horses were enough for any woman, she thought. Soon, there would be two nieces as well.
THE rain had eased a little, allowing the swollen moon to show between the clouds. Malachi held back, hidden by a clump of trees, watching the man he had followed from the Speedwell tether his horse to one of the crumbling stone walls of the ruined tower. The building was roofless, the towerhead a rotting aureole of stone lit by the intermittent moonlight. But the lowest floor, although blackened by fire, looked intact, and a light showed in one of the undamaged windows.
They were in Scotland, now, somewhere in the fertile land of the Merse.
Malachi scrambled off his pony and looped the reins over a branch. There were at least two people in the ruined tower: the sailor (who was no sailor) and the man he had ridden to meet. The man who had lit a candle in the darkness, waited. But how many others also waited, perhaps in the open ground, perhaps inside the tower itself? Malachi shivered and hugged himself, and peered through the darkness, his rodent’s eyes narrowed.
But he could hear nothing, see no one. The only movement was the wind in the grass, the trickle of rain on the black branches of the trees. Slowly, Malachi began to walk across the grass separating copse from tower, knowing that now he was at his most vulnerable. By the time he had reached safety, the muscles in the back of his neck had knotted with fear, and his breath was thick and hard. Clambering noiselessly up a pile of fallen masonry he looked through the window. The rain had blurred his sight: he had to rub his eyes before he could see anything through the gaping hole in the wooden floor. The floor had once divided the basement of the tower from the living quarters. The livestock would have sheltered in the basement when the tower was under attack from marauding English or unfriendly Scots. Now, the charred wood framed a candle. A rich cloak made a pool on the shattered remains of the stairs. There was a man there. Malachi knew he was a gentleman because the doublet he wore was of heavy quilted velvet, puffed and slashed at the sleeves. Fleetingly, he reminded Malachi of his master. He, too, wore fine clothes like that and sported a pointed beard like that. He, too, would be at ease in a hovel or a palace.
But the bearded gentleman was not, Malachi felt sure, the man he had followed from Berwick docks. He felt a pang of disappointment as he realized that his quarry was hidden under the shadow of the scorched wooden floor, and that, though he could hear his voice, he might never see his face. He could see the gentleman clearly: the single candle etched a beaked nose and hawk’s profile against the darkness. But Malachi wanted to know whom he had followed through the wind and the rain from the quayside at Berwick. He wanted a face, if not a name, to take back to his master.
But even if he could not see, he could listen. The voices were funnelled up to him by the wind, clear sometimes, at other times almost drowned by the squally weather.
‘These are – useful, my friend.’ The gentleman held a package in his gloved hands. The seal was broken, the ribbon untied. Malachi could see writ
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