A Marcher Lord
Jane Marchant was late for dinner.
She had ridden out to one of the distant smallholdings, a woman with the croup in need of a cough syrup, and she had remained talking in the small cottage, accepted a mug of ale and not realised how late it had become until she mounted up to return and realised that it was growing dark. Arriving back at Etterdale, her uncle’s manor in the county of Northumberland, she realised as she took her horse to the stables that the yard was deserted, the boards already set for dinner. It was a windy, damp autumn afternoon and as Jane opened the door to the great hall she let in a gust of wind which caused all heads to turn her way.
There was a fire roaring in the huge open fireplace. Servants scuttled about nervously with platters of food and conversation was muted. When Sir Thomas Rutherford was angry he tended to lash out at the nearest person with fist, boot or riding whip and he did not especially care if it was a groom or his wife. Jane’s aunt sat silent and nervous at his side not daring to speak. On the other side of him sat his daughter equally mute. Nobody wanted to break the silence for fear of becoming a target.
Jane took deep breath and walked forward into the room. She was not dressed for dinner, still wearing her dark riding habit, much worn and altered to fit, and her hair, a fiery shade of red gold was coming out from beneath her headdress. Her cheeks were flushed from the wind, and she surveyed the hall apprehensively, wondering if she should take her seat or go to her room to change into something less muddy, but looking down at her uncle she realised that it did not matter what she did. A collective sigh went around the room as this legitimate target presented herself and Sir Thomas got up from the high table and strode down the hall to meet his tardy niece.
It was not unusual for Sir Thomas to lose his temper with Jane Marchant. Since she had joined the household a year earlier, she had incurred the wrath of her uncle several times a week. Covertly the household watched as the girl visibly braced her shoulders to meet the onslaught.
“Idle slut!” Rutherford roared, his face going purple with rage. “Spending your time lazing about the house, eating and drinking at my expense, without even the courtesy to arrive for meals on time.”
“I was out riding, sir, and missed the time,” his niece said calmly.
Jane prided herself on remaining calm in the face of her uncle’s rages, even when they ended in a beating as they often did. She had watched, appalled, on her arrival at Etterdale as her cousin and aunt physically cowered away from Sir Thomas. Over the past year it had become obvious why they were so afraid. Sir Thomas was a bully, who lashed out at his wife and daughter as easily as at his servants but Jane, raised in a different world, refused be cowed by him no matter how much she dreaded his violence.
“Riding? With the evenings growing longer and reiving season upon us!” her uncle snarled. “God’s blood, it’s easy to see you were raised by a catholic traitor and a camp follower!”
“Who taught me better manners than I’ve seen so far in this household!” Jane spat back at him, caution forgotten.
Rutherford slashed her across the face with the back of his hand. The force of the blow sent Jane flying, and she crashed into the edge of the table. The silence in the hall was complete. Nobody dared to speak. Jane was on her hands and knees in the rushes, her head spinning. She could taste blood in her mouth. It would be sensible to stay down, to show him he had won, but pride won out. Summoning all her strength, she reached for the table and dragged herself to her feet. The blow had disturbed her coif and her hair, always unruly, was coming loose from its pins. Jane turned to her uncle and faced him again, her head held high.
“You’ll not insult my parents while I live, sir,” she said quietly.
Rutherford could go no redder. His face was almost purple, and the veins stood out in his temple. “Are you challenging me, girl?”
“If you wish.”
Jane’s heart was pounding, dreading the next blow. Outwardly she fought to remain calm, regarding the enraged man with steady green eyes. Understandable to be afraid, but unthinkable in her view to show fear.
He was a big man, her uncle by marriage, and had grown heavy into middle age although a life spent in the saddle defending both country and livestock from English invasion and local reivers alike had kept him fit and strong. Compared to her father, a lean, wiry greyhound of a man, he seemed huge to Jane. His violence towards his wife, his daughter and his servants had shocked her at first. She had never seen her father, a mercenary who lived by violence, raise his hand to her mother or to herself.
Jane flicked a glance at her Aunt Grace. The worst thing was her resemblance to Adele, Jane’s wayward mother. They had been sisters and Grace shared the fair hair and delicate beauty that Jane remembered in her mother until her final hours when the sickness had wasted it away. But although Grace was younger than Adele she was a thin, pale shadow of her, living in terror of the next rage, the next blow. Had any man struck Adele Marchant the way Sir Thomas beat his wife, Jane thought, Adele would have killed him. But then her mother had been the runaway, the girl who broke all the rules, and against all expectation had lived her reprehensible life free and happy until the day she died.
Rutherford had taunted Jane with her mother’s shocking conduct from the day she arrived at Etterdale, although Jane noticed cynically that he took care to keep the details from his neighbours and kinsmen when they came to the house. She knew he was looking about him for a match for her, and dreaded his choice. When it came to it, would she be any better than her mother, at submitting to an unknown and unloved husband? Of course her mother had had other choices, a life in the convent or a lover awaiting her. Jane could not see herself a nun, and so far, had met no man who touched her heart.
The silence was broken by the clattering of horses’ hooves on the courtyard outside. A murmur of conversation filtered into the hall. The terrified servants began to stir, sensing relief, an excuse to end the terrible argument. Rutherford’s head lifted, listening.
The door opened, and a groom entered. He was supporting a staggering figure, covered in blood, fair head drooping. Inside the hall the groom lowered his charge to the ground.
“Sir – he just rode in. He’s badly injured, and a stranger.”
Rutherford cursed softly but the little drama had broken the force of his rage. His eyes swept the room, moved over his daughter and settled upon his wife.
“You’ll see to him, madam. Clean him up and find out who he is!” He glanced around and located the captain of his guard. “Davison, see to it that the men are alerted. If its reiving season come early, we’ve no wish to appear unprotected.” The stony gaze shifted back to the tall, stubborn figure of his niece. “And you, girl, help your aunt. The servants make much of your healing skills – use them!”
They took the injured man to one of the upper chambers. Stretched out on the bed, he proved to be young and handsome, fair haired with a neatly trimmed beard and dressed in soaked riding clothes. By the time Jane had been to her still room for supplies, the servants had removed his outer clothes and boots. He was lying on the bed in shirt and hose, her aunt hovering nervously at his side.
“You should go back to your dinner, aunt. I can deal with him.”
“But your uncle wanted to know…..”
“I know.” Jane spoke soothingly, as if to a child when she addressed her aunt. Any wits the poor woman might have possessed had been long beaten out of her by her brutal husband. Grace stood wringing her hands, trying to work out the solution which would save her a beating.
Would she become like that one day, Jane wondered, if she accepted her uncle’s choice of husband and married some boorish local laird? Not all borderers could be like him, of course, but she had met only the immediate neighbours. Her uncle preferred his women to stay close to home, and was especially wary of his niece, whom he did not trust to behave as he believed a women should.
He had raised his daughter, Ellen, to be the shadow of her mother, a fair girl who might have been pretty if she had stood straight and tall and allowed herself to smile from time to time. But what had poor Ellen; three years younger than Jane and betrothed to a man almost three times her age, ever had to smile about? Jane imagined her mother soothing the girl, trying to make her laugh, rinsing her fair hair in chamomile to make it shine, sending her out into the fresh air to put colour into her pale cheeks. She was luckier than Ellen. For all the poverty and hardships she had endured, she had known what it was to have a real family.
“I’ll find out what I can and come to you when I know. It’s probably just an unlucky traveller – it may be early in the season, but it’s a fine dark night for reiving. Are all the cattle and horses in?”
“Captain Davison was seeing to it,” her aunt said. “I’ll tell your uncle.”
“Do that.” Jane’s jaw felt stiff and swollen from her uncle’s blow. As her aunt left the room she turned to the stranger with a pang of sympathy. He was in a much worse state than she was. A huge gash disfigured his brow and from the angle of his right arm Jane was fairly sure it was broken. Beneath his shirt there were livid marks on his body which betokened a severe beating. He’d been kicked, she suspected, and at best would be a mass of bruises in the morning. At worst there might be internal damage, and nothing she could do about it.
He was unconscious. Best to set the arm, at least, while he could feel no pain. She had brought splints and bandages. It was not the worst break she had mended, and it was easier with him limp and inert. Once, on a battlefield outside Reims, she had set the leg of one of her father’s archers, fully conscious and screaming. It had taken four men to hold him down, and eventually he had collapsed, but it had been a bad break. This was simple by comparison.
The arm set and bound, Jane set to work on the various cuts and grazes over his body. She needed no help to remove his clothes – he was a neat, light young man, not hard to handle. By lamp and candlelight she bathed his wounds and set stitches into the gash on his head. She brought heated stones wrapped in cloth to warm him and then, her work done, she covered him and sat back with a sigh on the hard chair beside the bed. She had done what she could for him. It was up to him now.
Her own face was painful. It was pleasant to sit here, not to have to return to her aunt and cousin and the chattering women who would coo and pet and warn her against provoking her bad tempered uncle. No point in them advising her. She was what she was, her mother’s daughter, her father’s blood. Nothing in her early years had prepared her for the role of a meek, submissive woman and she had been taught that no man was her master.
She had been eighteen when her father died a year ago, a clean death in battle as he would have wished. Jane had mourned his passing as deeply as she had mourned that of her mother when she was fifteen, carried off by a particularly virulent form of camp fever. She had nursed her mother, buried her father, and then been faced with the knotty problem of what to do next.
All her life had been spent on campaign. Her father, Gerard Marchant had been a priest in his youth, a catholic family from the northern hills of England, devout but reluctant, pushed into the monastery, in the years before Henry of England had destroyed the ancient foundations, by his ambitious family. Her mother also came from a good catholic family, destined for a brilliant match with one of the great family of Percy, until she met and fell hopelessly in love with the young priest.
They had fled to Europe, pursued by two angry families and had disappeared into the mercenary bands who roved the continent, selling their services to the highest bidder. Gerard had been skilled with the sword and the bow, and had quickly risen to captain his own band, and Jane had been born beside a camp fire, her childhood playmates the children of whores and mercenaries, and her family a band of tough, ruthless fighters.
A hard life, following an army’s tail and increasingly risky for a child growing into womanhood. Her father’s men protected her fiercely, but there were others who saw her as fair game. Her father taught her to use a bow and a dagger, and her mother taught her an extensive knowledge of herbs and medicine which she had been taught by her own grandmother. Adele Marchant had been the camp doctor, with Jane’s help, and when she died, her fifteen year old daughter stepped into the role without hesitation.
She grew up between tent and castle, hovering precariously on the brink of womanhood during a lengthy siege somewhere in Austria, riding beside her father through France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy. Always, somewhere there was war, from the petty squabbles of minor nobility to the great battles of the giant powers of Europe, England, Spain, France, and Austria. By the time she reached eighteen Jane had seen – and treated – wounds and infections all over Europe. She had laid out and buried dead men mutilated in battle or raddled with smallpox. Life was dangerous, interesting, exciting and no fears for the future troubled her.
With her father’s protection Jane felt safe and secure, but on his death her position became precarious. Despite her unconventional upbringing, she was from good family, but this would mean nothing to the men around her. Six months, she knew, and she would be a camp follower, scavenging in the army’s tail, moving from one protector to another. Or she could enter a convent, in France now, since there were few if any nunneries left in England since the King’s depredations. There was a little money, enough to take her back to England, and to the only family she knew of – her mother’s sister Grace, married for many years to a border knight. Jane slept with her dagger under her pillow each night while she tried to make her choice.
It was made for her in the end, by a twenty year old archer, newly joined, who slipped into her tent in the darkness and attempted to rape her. Jane’s screams had raised the alarm, and her dagger had slashed his shoulder, effectively quelling his ardour, but she knew it was only a matter of time. She was not the stuff that a camp follower was made of, and she was fairly sure that she was not cut out to be a nun. So she fled to the coast and bought passage to England, then made her way north to Etterdale and the fortified manor house of Sir Thomas Rutherford.
Rutherford had accepted her with grim resignation. The little money she brought with her would pay for a small dowry, and although she was not a beauty, neither was she so ill favoured that a man would not want her. In fact there were times that Rutherford, watching her as she found her way about the farm and house, felt that men looked a little too hard at his wayward niece. Still, she was young and healthy and a marriage alliance with friend or enemy could be a useful thing in the complicated border system of kinship and loyalty.
Life on the borders had been unlike anything Jane had experienced before. She had been told by her parents that it was a wild, lawless place, where men stole and raided with little hindrance from authority. Nothing had prepared Jane for the shock of her first raid, while her uncle was away in Carlisle. He had left a group of men at arms to protect his stock and his home, but the reivers had come in strength, a hundred or so of the Scottish Armstrongs and Elliotts – possibly even a few of the English ones too, since kinship mattered more than country in this wild landscape – sweeping down on their hardy little ponies, known as hobbies, booted and armed and ready to kill. They had taken the sheep which had been brought down from the hills for the winter, and three of her uncle’s men had died trying to defend them. Jane had stood at the door of the hall, a loaded gun steady in her hand, and watched in impotent rage. She remembered one of the leaders of the raid looking at her, a squat tough borderer in padded jack and helmet. He had grinned.
“Stay within, lass and you’ll not be harmed.”
Jane had steadied her dag ready to fire. “Come closer, and you will,” she said clearly, and he had roared with laughter and blown her a mocking kiss before wheeling his pony and departing. Jane had wondered then about the fate of other women, less well defended than she. A wife alone in some bastle house with her man away might have suffered much more than a few insults and the loss of her stock. She knew how men behaved to unprotected women in wartime, and on these borders, there was never peace.
Her uncle had raged and cursed, but there was no thought in his mind of reporting the loss to the warden. It was his right, he told her, to reclaim his own. Calling up all his men and many of his kinfolk from the surrounding area he had led his own raid across into Liddesdale to return with his sheep, increased by a number of Elliott and Armstrong beasts and a dozen good ponies which had certainly been stolen.
“That makes you no better than them,” his niece had said.
“It makes me a reiver, lass, no better or worse. Best get used to it, because it’s how life is lived on the borders. Raiders will come and go, English and Scots, and out here it’s kin that matters not nations. Edinburgh and London are a long way from here and have made us their battleground for centuries. There’s no shame in reiving!”
The young man in the bed stirred and moaned. Jane moved closer to the bed. His eyelashes quivered and his eyes opened.
“Where am I?” he said softly.
“At Sir Thomas Rutherford’s house, in Etterdale. You’re safe enough, although you’ve had a wild time getting here.”
His eyes focused on her face. “Wild….yes, very. I was set upon by a dozen or so men…….this is still in England?”
“Yes, ten miles or so from the border. Are you fit to talk? I’m Jane Marchant, niece to Sir Thomas. I think he’ll want to see you.”
“And I to see him – most urgently. I’m a courier, come from London, and I need to see Sir Thomas – please…”
Jane got up. “You’ve come a long way to end so badly, sir. I’ll get him.”
“Was it you who tended my hurts, mistress?”
“Thank you. My name is Upton – Geoffrey Upton. I’ve never had such a pretty doctor before!”
Jane felt herself blush and took herself swiftly out of the room, her face burning. He was handsome, and his voice was gentle and cultured. Men were not new to her, but Upton’s practiced compliments touched something different in her. She was used to men lusting after her, but the open admiration in his blue eyes was pleasant and harmless and a long way from the rough and ready manners of the men of her father’s company whom she had grown up with.
Dinner was long over, and Sir Thomas was playing dice sitting at one of the long tables in the main hall. The hall was the focus of life at Etterdale, and most of her uncle’s retainers ate, slept and lived in it. There were two or three upper chambers to give Sir Thomas and his family a measure of privacy which the lower orders did not expect to enjoy and Jane shared one of these with her cousin and their tiring woman.
Sir Thomas looked up as Jane approached.
“His name is Geoffrey Upton, sir, a courier from London, and he would like to speak with you urgently.”
Sir Thomas got up. “A courier, eh? Then I’d best see what he has to tell me. A courier in war time is lucky to have made it so far.”
“I doubt they knew what he was, sir – probably looked like a harmless traveller and was robbed like every other such.”
Sir Thomas gave a grin which suggested that any stranger fool enough to travel the borders without an armed escort deserved to be robbed, and stalked off to the sickroom. Jane followed discretely behind. Her belly was rumbling, and common sense told her to make for the kitchen and the left overs as she had eaten no dinner. But common sense warred with curiosity in her breast. Her father had shared everything with the women in his life, and she was frustrated by her uncle’s refusal to do the same.
Her uncle did not sit down. He towered over the recumbent guest.
“I’m told you’re a courier, sir.”
“Aye. With letters for my lord Somerset which can’t wait. I’m to meet another runner at the inn by the Black Ford on the Liddel. I…”
“The Black Dog. Aye, I know it.” There was a grin on her uncle’s face. “Hang around that place, laddie and you’ll catch more than a courier. Mind, you’re as like to find it full of English as Scots. Nell of the Abbey runs that place and she’s not so picky about her custom, which might explain why the place is still standing. English or Scots, all men need their drink and women – and there’s plenty of both to be had at the Black Dog.”
Geoffrey Upton blushed and glanced warningly from Rutherford to Jane. Sir Thomas ignored the hint, and Jane did not mind. She did not particularly want to tell her new admirer that she had spent many a night in childhood petted and cuddled by women like Nell of the Abbey. She was faintly touched by Upton’s assumption of her innocence. After her uncle’s constant harping on her disreputable past it was refreshing.
Upton had moved on to other matters. “Sir Thomas, can you spare a man to take the letters for me? Lord Somerset will thank you for it.”
“Aye, well he can do it when he gets them. We’re at war, sir. I’m bound to ride north in three days time, under Somerset’s orders to meet him at Dunglass. I can take your letters then, but not before.”
“You’ll be marching with a small army, Sir Thomas – nothing like as fast as a single horseman. He needs this information now. For the love of God, will you send somebody?”
“I will not, sir. I know nothing of you or your mission, but it’s clear you’ll not be riding anywhere soon. We’ll tend you until you’re well and I’ll take your letters. Once you can ride you can join us or return south. With that you’ll have to be satisfied.”
“You don’t trust me,” Upton said shakily.
“I don’t know you,” Rutherford said bleakly. “But you’re not a borderer, friend or foe, so I’ll keep you safe until you can be vouched for. Stay and heal and if you’re honest, you’ll be safe. Ride out and I’ll have you shot!”
He turned and stalked out of the room, brushing past Jane. Jane moved to the bedside. Upton’s blue eyes fixed upon her face.
“Mistress Marchant, can’t you talk to him? Perhaps he’ll listen to you!”
Jane smiled and touched the bruise on her jaw. “My uncle,” she said, reaching over to pull up the covers, “says I talk too much. Nothing I can say will help you, sir.”
To her surprise Upton reached up and touched her face. “He did that to you? Then he’s a brute and a bully and if I’d my sword and my strength he’d pay for it!”
The words warmed her; although Jane’s practical side could not imagine this slender youth facing up to her burly, tough uncle. “Then it’s as well you’ve neither,” she said with a smile. “Hush, rest now. Perhaps in the morning you can talk to him again and persuade him.”
She cut off further protests and set off to the kitchen to find food for herself and her patient. There seemed to be no sign of severe injury, but Jane was not keen to leave him alone through the night. Apart from the risk of sudden complications from his wounds, he seemed headstrong enough to try something foolish like getting out of his bed and attempting the stables. With his broken arm he would never make it onto a horse, but Jane knew her uncle well enough to realise that he meant exactly what he said, and the thought of Geoffrey Upton being shot distressed her.
She returned to his bedside with a tray of food, and they shared their supper, Upton propped up on his pillows, Jane eating beside him. Between mouthfuls he shared his history. He was a squire in the household of an English knight, with his way to make in the world and large ambitions. Jane was circumspect about her own background. She did not want this handsome, charming youth, who gazed at her with such admiration to know that she had grown up wild in the army’s tail.
“You were lucky not to be killed,” she said honestly.
“I was unlucky to be taken by surprise.” Upton smiled. “To tell you the truth I’m a good shot with bow and pistol, and not so bad with the sword. But I’ve been made a fool of here…..”
“Oh hush. You’re in reiver country now, sir, and nothing less than a small army will stop these men. Enough that you escaped with your life!”
He slept finally, but restlessly, his curtailed mission clearly weighing heavily on him. Jane dozed beside him, checking him regularly for bleeding or fever. There seemed nothing to alarm her; he was young and strong and would recover well.
He saw Sir Thomas again the following morning, but was no more successful in persuading him to send a messenger. Jane’s uncle was full of his preparations for war, apparently looking forward to going into battle again against his Scottish neighbours, and no doubt settling a few old scores against the Scotts and Kerrs, the Armstrongs and Elliots who faced him across the old border and who had more than once been both raider and raided. War had been coming for months, and for months there had been talk of little else in Etterdale. Nothing new, these wars between England and Scotland and even in her distant travels around Europe Jane could remember talking to men who had fought on one side or another.
The latest was led by Lord Somerset, uncle to the boy king Edward and Protector of England. He was pursuing the late King Henry VIII’s stated policy of capturing the infant queen Mary of Scotland as a bride for the young king, thus neatly uniting England and Scotland under a joint crown. Jane, English by blood but raised in France and further afield, could understand little of the politics. It seemed to her that such a union might end, once and for all, the bloodshed of the borders. But the queen’s mother, the fierce and stately Mary of Guise, was determined that her daughter should make a match in France and so Somerset was here in force, advancing up the East March with a force of eighteen thousand men, calling on the English border landowners to set aside their reiving for this season and join him in legitimate bloodshed and plunder for their country.
“I have to get away,” Upton said to her that afternoon as she bathed and checked his head wound. “Jane – is there nothing you can suggest? I still have the letters and only one is of importance. Let your uncle take the rest, but can you find me a man – just one – who could deliver this letter to the courier at the Black Ford. I can pay him.”
“Ordinarily I’d say a man to be bought in Etterdale is not hard to find,” Jane said, sitting back. “That’s a good clean wound, it will heal nicely. But in wartime and with my uncle about to ride out, no man would risk it. Especially for a man they don’t know.”
“Not their kin,” Upton said bitterly. “They’d have been better to send a borderer on this mission. Do you know this inn? Is it far? Would I make it?”
“In your state you’d never make it onto a horse!” Jane said bluntly. “Yes, I know where it is and it isn’t far. Three miles or so across the border, but I’ve ridden as far once with my uncle when we attended a truce day. I know it.”
Jane’s knowledge came mainly from listening to the sniggers of some of her uncle’s retainers. The Black Dog was a notorious brothel as well as an inn, which catered for both English and Scots troops during wartime and travellers on the road at other times. She had seen the hamlet of Black Ford from a distance during her one visit to a truce day with her uncle and his family, and had pieced together the gossip she had heard.
“Will you try to find a man? Please? For me, Jane!”
Jane looked into his earnest, eager face. The idea struck her for the first time. Her uncle was busy with his preparations, and she was allowed to ride out alone. She knew the Black Ford – it would be a ride of three or four hours, but if she made it there and back within a day she could pretend to her uncle she had got lost. It might earn her a beating, but she had had plenty of those. Sir Thomas would not suspect anything if Geoffrey gave him the other, less urgent letters, and it would not surprise him that his wayward niece had mistaken her way. His opinion of all women was low. The expression in Geoffrey’s blue eyes was hopeful, pleading, and Jane felt an irrational urge to please him. She thought, with sardonic amusement, at how her father would have laughed at his steady, sensible daughter enchanted by a handsome face and smiling eyes.
Jane knew that the likes of Geoffrey Upton was not for her. He was a southerner and probably poor, some penniless squire with his way to make in the world and no money to take on a wife. Her own marriage would be to the solid, dour borderer whom her uncle had in mind for her and she would make the best of it or not. But the young English squire was a pleasant dream and she decided that she reserved the right to enjoy it.
“I could take it myself,” she said slowly. “Tomorrow morning.”
Geoffrey looked shocked. “Into Scotland in wartime? Jane, no! Nothing is worth that!”
“I’d be in no danger,” Jane said, laughing at his horror. She wished she could tell him about the life she had led, the risks she had run. But that would really shock him. “I’d be back before nightfall with no more than a scolding for getting lost. If you would trust me, I could take it.”
“But sweetheart – that place is not for the likes of you! What your uncle said about it….”
“I’d be there just a short while,” Jane said, hiding a smile. “What harm to my reputation if nobody knows I’m there? And few people would recognise me on this border. I’ve only lived here a year, and my uncle prefers to keep his womenfolk close to home. I’ve not met many people, almost none across the border. Geoffrey – let me help you! A few hours ride and it’s done, and you can rest and heal in peace.”
Upton nodded slowly. “I trust you, Jane. You are so brave and so beautiful.”
She could see his intention but made no attempt to move away. He reached for her with his good arm and drew her to him. The feeling of his lips on hers warmed and stirred her although the part of her which had been raised wild was slightly amused by the chaste kiss. Clearly Geoffrey Upton was a well brought up young man. Jane was glad that she could do something for him. Besides, the mission appealed to her. She had been accustomed, during her time with the mercenary company, to be busy and useful and valued for something other than her stitchery and her use in the marriage market. She hoped that with his preparations for war uppermost in his mind her uncle might not take the time and trouble to chastise his niece.
It was arranged that Jane should take the packet of letters to her uncle for delivery to Somerset. Sir Thomas received them with a grunt of acceptance, having expected nothing else. The single letter, the important one, must be hidden for Jane’s journey, in case she should be intercepted and questioned. There was a password which she must learn for the second courier, but when Upton questioned her about where she would hide the letter Jane just laughed.
“I’d best write a line to the courier explaining what has happened,” Upton said. “Do you think you could bring me writing materials, Jane?”
Jane complied and Upton wrote and sealed his letter. Carefully he wrapped the thin rolls in waxed linen and gave them to Jane.
She sat in her room late that night, while her cousin slept, and carefully stitched the rolled up parchment into a satin headdress which she often wore. Under the hood of her riding cloak the head dress would attract no attention and no searcher would find it stitched into the lining of a cloak or gown. Jane was not expecting to be searched or even stopped.
It was a grey, damp September morning when Jane set off. Upton had insisted that she take his horse, a fine dappled grey. “You can tell them I asked you to exercise him,” he said. “If you can manage him. He’s strong.”
Jane forbore to tell him that she could ride anything from a donkey to a knight’s destrier, and had done so in her wandering youth. She had gone to visit him early before her journey and found him awake and anxious, his one good arm stretched out to take her hand and pull her down beside him.
“Jane, are you sure about this?”
“Hush – don’t fret!” Jane placed a hand gently on his mouth and he kissed it, then pulled her closer and kissed her mouth. There was more urgency in him today, perhaps brought on by his fears for her and for the safety of his mission. Jane felt a stirring of pleasure at the feeling of his arm about her, his hand caressing her through the heavy wool of her riding dress.
“I wish you didn’t have to go,” he whispered into her hair. “I wish you could stay here with me.”
“I’ll be back by tonight,” Jane murmured. “But I must go, Geoffrey, while it’s still early. I’ll come to you when I get back to tell you that all’s well.”
“I’ll be waiting for you.” The expression in his eyes set her heart beating a little faster as she left the chamber and cautiously stepped down to the stable yard.
She took the horse, Simnel, from the stable and saddled him herself, attracting no attention from the few grooms about that early. Mistress Marchant had often been known to take off on expeditions of her own, probably, the men guessed, to avoid her uncle’s temper. She was popular with the men and one or two of them threw her a conspiratorial grin, seeing nothing more than truancy in her departure.
As she reached the gate in the stone wall which surrounded the house, Jane heard her name called. Her stomach lurched, and she wheeled the horse around. Surely her plan was not going to fall at the first hurdle. However, the sight of her cousin Ellen coming across the yard reassured her. Curious she might be, but Ellen would put no obstacle in her way.
“Where are you going this early, Jane?”
“Out riding.” Jane applied an impish grin. “If I get out early enough my uncle won’t think to stop me!”
Ellen sighed. “I wish you’d think about it, Jane. After what happened the last time….”
“You mean when he struck me?”
“Jane! He did not mean….”
“Ellen – he did mean it. He always means it.” Jane hesitated. Her instinct for caution warred with her longing to help her cousin. “Ellen – come with me. Let’s saddle a horse and just ride for the day. On the way I’ll explain where we’re going. Just once do something for yourself!”
Ellen pulled her shawl closer about her. “Are you mad, Jane? We’re at war! If the Scots come over the border….”
“The Scots have other things to think about than two truanting girls. Come with me!”
Ellen smiled wistfully. If only she would smile more, Jane thought sadly, she would be pretty. But she understood that growing up in her father’s household had given Ellen little to smile about. “I can’t. My mother needs me. But go on, if you must. Before you’re seen. Don’t tell anyone that I saw you.”
Jane laughed and dug her heels in. “I won’t. I’ll see you later, Ellen!”
It was good to be away from Rutherford’s manor, even if only for a day, good to be mounted on a fine horse, to feel free of the constraints of her aunt and cousin’s endless sewing and weaving. Jane could feel the fine mist of upland rain on her face as she set her horse at a canter along the bank of the North Tyne following the narrow track north west towards the Scottish border.
The first few miles were very familiar to her, wide open farmland belonging to her uncle and his neighbours, growing oats, barley, a little wheat and some vegetables. This was not great farming country, although in the valleys like this one it was possible to grow. The harvest was almost in now, gathered hastily before war came. How many of the well stocked barns would be burning, Jane wondered with a little shiver, if war streamed back over the border into northern England? She had seen the devastation wrought by armies in her childhood, stealing what they could carry and burning what they could not.
She turned at the crest of a hill to look back down at the manor house. Built in an L shape, from solid grey stone, it was a formidable structure with a high stone wall about it, made to withstand attack from Scots and reivers alike. But there was nothing there to repel a determined assault, and Jane knew that with the bulk of the men gone to war, Etterdale was open to attack. She shivered again. Perhaps Geoffrey would remain with them for a while. Even one able bodied fighting man might make a difference.
Gradually the farmland petered out and she was in cattle country, the steep hills of the Cheviots looming around her, and now Jane must be more aware, because she was in unfamiliar territory, and she had been on the border long enough to have learned that war or no war, her proximity to the Armstrong and Elliott clans of Liddesdale placed her in danger.
It was bleak country this, nothing like the rich fertile plains of the France of her childhood, or the burning heat of Spanish moor land where she had spent some of her girlhood. Mile upon mile of hills and low mountains spread before her, desolate and treeless for the most part with rough gorse and heather lending colour to the otherwise grey tops. Little valleys and streams ran through the moor land, and once or twice a wider river which needed to be jumped or forded. By the time she reached the Scottish border after a ride of around three hours, Jane was soaked through, but she did not feel cold. She was thinking of her visit to Geoffrey before leaving that morning and the warmth of his one armed embrace and the passion of his kiss remained with her as a glow. By nightfall she would be back with him, and tomorrow her uncle would ride to war.
It would be good to have some time to get to know Geoffrey without the constant presence of her uncle. When he was stronger they could walk and ride together. Of course he would want to move on, to return to his lord and his duty. But for a few weeks she could enjoy the gentle pleasure of his admiration and Jane felt that she had earned the right to something of her own before she was parcelled off to a marriage she dreaded.
Over the great ridge of the Cheviot hills the wind picked up and rain began to fall in earnest. Jane reined in and surveyed the countryside. She was not very familiar with the Scottish side of the border, but she had an excellent sense of direction, picked up from her father, and she judged that if she kept to the left of the river Liddel she had about an hour to ride to the Black Ford and the notorious inn.
She was beginning to feel cold by the time she began her descent towards the river. When she had ridden this way some months ago with her uncle and aunt it had been summer, the river a silver ribbon dividing the valley. Now it was in full flood, a raging torrent which had swallowed up its grassy banks and submerged the lower trunks of the gnarled trees further up. Even the ford might prove to be impassable in this, Jane thought, but she would simply go back the way she had come. In the distance she could already see the outline of the small hamlet which had grown up around the ford. At the Black Dog she could get food and wine and warm herself a little before the long ride back. Jane felt no qualms about patronising a notorious whorehouse. She had never known a patroness to turn down money and Jane was ready with her tale of having lost her way in the misty rain. Once she had located the courier, armed with Geoffrey’s description and passwords, she could hand over the letters and set off for home. She would probably have to complete her ride in the dark, but once back in the North Tyne valley Jane was confident in finding her way.
In the distance she could smell smoke from the fires of the houses. Jane stopped abruptly and sniffed the air. The acrid smell of burning was stronger than she would have expected from the peat fires of a few small hovels. Jane walked her horse cautiously forward, her senses tingling now, alert to possible danger.
Halfway down the hill she stopped again. The hamlet of Blackford was clearer now, and it was very clear that she would not be delivering her letter to the courier at the Black Dog. The hamlet was a smoking ruin, burned she would guess only that morning, and the stench hanging in the air was one of death. The English, damn them, had been this way, and their missing courier was by now either with them or killed by them. Nell of the Abbey’s luck had finally run out. Jane wondered if she and her girls had escaped, and whether the English had been lucky enough to find the house full of Scots spending their pay. No borderers had done this, Jane thought, peering at the smouldering ruins. Nell of the Abbey was a local institution, and Somerset’s army would make few friends on either side of the border with this act.
There was a clinking sound on the hillside, the rattle of harness and the soft whinny of a horse. Jane whirled and peered through the rain. Horsemen, about a dozen of them, and clearly they had already seen her. Their leader, a big man in steel bonnet and padded jack, mounted on a big roan horse comparable to her Simnel was waving his arm, signalling to his men to fan out and cut off her retreat.
Jane had no idea who they were, and did not care. Scots or English, she was at risk being taken alone, riding unescorted through border country. If they were Scots she was likely to end a ravished corpse. If they were local English they would know her uncle and her word might be enough to save her from the casual rape which was so often the fate of women in wartime. But Jane was not prepared to wait to find out.
Her one chance was to head for the river and attempt to cross. After a wet summer and an early autumn it was in full flood, even the ford a risk. Jane peered through the rain. The tree lined banks had burst and trees were deep in the water on both sides. But if she could cross it they might not take the trouble to follow her, and she could double back and cross the border further down. Scots or English, they would hesitate to risk valuable horses in pursuit of a little sport.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Jane plunged her horse down the hillside at breakneck speed. The raiders on their hobbies did not stand a chance of catching up with her. She rode straight for the river, aware of the thundering of hooves behind her as the captain raced after her. Jane rode grimly for her life, not daring to think of the risk to her horse’s knees, and the probable consequences of a fall. Simnel remained sure footed, and arrived between the trees intact.
At the bank Simnel quailed before the dirty grey rush of the water. Jane urged him in, the water tearing at her skirts, dragging the swimming horse downstream. But he was strong and struck out powerfully for the far bank, making slow but inexorable progress.
They would have made it but for a stroke of bad luck. A tree bough, broken off in some storm was being swept along past them and struck Jane squarely in the back, causing her to lose her balance. She plunged into the water trying desperately to hold on to Simnel’s reins but the current was too strong and she was swept away.
Tumbling through the water, dragged down by her heavy clothes, Jane was aware of nothing but the icy grey current and her own exhaustion. Scarcely able to breathe, she was brought up short against the hard body of a horse. For a moment she thought it was Simnel. Then she was dragged up across a saddle, choking and gasping and the roan horse of her captor picked its way carefully back to shore.
On the bank, Jane slid to the ground and lay there coughing. Cautiously she lifted her head. Her first thought was for Simnel.
“He’s safe, with more sense than you have.”
She could see him now, his bridle held by one of the men at arms. Jane pushed herself into a sitting position, aware of a tall figure looming over her. A hand extended to her. Jane took it and was almost lifted to her feet. Her rescuer removed his helmet.
“An unusual fish to catch in these waters,” he said, sounding amused. “And the devil of a day for fishing. Can you stand?” His voice was deep with the unmistakable burr of the lowland Scot.
“I can,” Jane said. Her heart was racing. She looked up at him. A reiver, she supposed, like her uncle, black haired and grey eyed, perhaps thirty or so. Tall with a hawk’s face and piercing eyes. Jane was genuinely afraid, perhaps for the first time since leaving France. She could cope with her uncle’s noisy bullying. Something suggested that this man was another matter entirely. Her heart pounded so hard she felt he must hear it. This was the worst she could have expected. A party of Scots.
The Scot jerked his head towards his mount.
“Then up with you, girl, and we’ll talk where it’s less damp!”
It had not been what Jane expected, but she was not reassured. She took a step back from her captor. “Leave me alone!” she said shakily. “I’m going nowhere with you!”