The Forest Laird–Sample Chapter
Chapter One: Saviour
His name was Ewan… Ewan Scrymgeour, and he was half Welsh, his given name taken from his mother’s family, and even now, when more than fifty years have passed, I find it difficult to imagine a less likely paladin. Yet paladin he was, to us, for he saved our lives, our sense of purpose, our shattered dignity and perhaps even our sanity when we were at our lowest depth. Possibly the least attractive looking man I ever saw, he quickly became one of the strongest anchors of my young life, and to this day I warm with pleasure in recalling every crease and wrinkle of his maimed and battered, toothless and beloved face.
We would discover later, because I was young and insensitive enough to ask him, that his face had been destroyed long before we were even born, crushed into ruin by a mace at the battle of Lewes in southern England. The weapon had struck him high on his left cheek, shattering the bones of his face and driving out his eye on that side, as well as most of his teeth. But on that first evening when he startled us from an exhausted sleep, we saw only the monstrous, green-framed and hairless face of a leering devil looming over us. We screamed and scrambled to our feet and tried to escape up the steep bank behind us, but he caught us easily, snatching me up to tuck me beneath one arm while he grasped Will with his free hand and twisted him over to lie supine, pinning him to the ground with a massive, booted foot. We were gibbering with terror, both of us, until he silenced us with a mighty bellow of what we took to be raging bloodlust, and when we were mute and stupefied he dropped me from beneath his arm, thrusting me down to huddle at his feet, then removed his boot from Will’s chest and stepped back a pace to where he could eye both of us together. I reached out for Will and he took my hand, squeezing it tightly, and we both prepared to die.
Our fear was very real, because for two full days we had been running in terror, uphill and down, stumbling and falling and blinded with tears and grief, sobbing and incoherent most of the time and utterly convinced we would be caught and killed at any moment by the men pursuing us. We had no notion of the miles falling behind us or the distance we had covered. We knew only that we had to keep running. At times, rendered helpless by exhaustion and unable to go farther, we had stopped to rest, huddled together in whatever place we had found that offered a hint of concealment, but we never dared stop for long, because the men hunting us had legs far longer than ours and they knew we could condemn them for the crimes we had seen them commit. And so, as soon as our breathing had settled down and we could find the strength to run for our lives again, we ran. We drank, too, whenever we found a running stream, but we had nothing to eat and we dared not stop to hunt or fish. We could not even steal, because fled through open country, avoiding people and places that might house them.
But then, only a short time before this monstrous creature caught us, we had arrived at the top of a long moorland gradient and crouched there behind a tall clump of bracken ferns, looking back down the way we had come and astonished to discover that we could see for miles and that there was no one chasing us. We must have stayed there for an hour, straining our eyes for signs of movement on the sloping moor, but all we saw were hares and once what might have been a wild boar, more than a mile below us. There were, we finally accepted, no ravening murderers hunting us.
Soon after that we crossed a ridge and found a different landscape on the far side, where the hillside swept gently down from our feet for half a mile towards a grassy plateau that was bounded on the right by the deep-cut, tree-filled gully of a mountain stream.
Will pointed. “We’ll go down there, into the trees below the edge. No one will see us there and we can sleep.”
It took us half an hour to reach the edge of the gully, and before we did I was reeling drunkenly, unable to think of anything except the fact that we were going to sleep. It may have been the release of tension that undid me, the relief of knowing that, after such a long time, no one was pursuing us and we were actually safe. It was late afternoon by then, and the sun was throwing our shadows long and far ahead of us, and we had been moving hard and fast, with few rest periods, since before dawn. The grass beneath our feet was short and cropped here and the going was easy, so that we soon reached the edge of the defile and jumped down into the first accessible depression we found, a high sided, grass filled hollow enclosed by the tops of the trees that stretched up from below us in the steep, sheltered cleft. Within moments after that we were both asleep.
How long we slept I do not know, but something struck my foot and I opened my eyes to see the most hideous face I had ever seen, glaring down at me, and such was my terror that I screamed and woke up Will. We screamed in unison and tried to escape, but the giant caught us easily and flung us down on the ground at his feet, where we lay as if petrified, both of us, awaiting the wrath of the gargoyle who had caught us, and the sure and certain mutilation and death he would visit upon us, and for a while it seemed as though time and the world itself had stopped moving. But then the gargoyle blinked and shook its head and turned its back on us, and we heard it speak.
“I thought you were thieves, at first, bent upon robbing me. But I was far away from you and thought you men…”
It was a strange voice, unexpectedly soft and gentle, and the words were spoken with a careful, clearly articulated cadence, precisely formed and slowly, almost lispingly uttered, as we were to discover, to compensate for the appalling deformities of the speaker’s face. He spoke in Scots, but with an alien lilt born of his Welsh mother’s tongue. At his first utterance, however, we knew not what to think, still gripped by terror, and we stared at each other wild-eyed, silently debating whether or not we should attempt again to flee while his back was turned. This time, though, now that his back was to us, I was able to see that there was nothing supernatural about him. He was a man like any other, from behind, though enormous in his bulk. It was only when he faced you squarely that you saw him as hideous. He was dressed all in shades of green, from head to foot, his entire head concealed by a hooded cap that was a part of his tunic, and as I watched now, my heart beginning to slow down, I saw him reach up with both hands, tugging, it appeared, at his forehead.
When he turned back to face us, his face was covered by a mask of green cloth that he had pulled down from his hooded cap. It was drawn tight beneath what chin he had, its only openings three ragged-edged holes, one for breathing and one for each eye, and I could see the right eye gleaming at me from its opening.
“There,” he said. “That’s better, no?”
“Better?” My voice was no more than a squeak, but Will made no attempt to speak at all.
“My face. It’s one to frighten children. So I keep it hidden, most of the time.” He turned his head to look at Will, tilting it slightly so that his one eye could run the length of him from head to foot. “So now that I can tell you arena here to rob me, I have some questions to ask you.” He bent suddenly and grasped my ankle and I stiffened with fear, but all he did was twist it gently and pull it up to look at the back of my leg. “Your legs are covered wi’ dried blood . . . caked with it . . . and so are yours,” he added, looking again at Will. “Why? Why just your legs, and why the backs of them?”
“You know fine well.” Will’s voice was little louder than my own, but I could hear defiance in it, underlying the fear. “You did it . . . you and your friends . . . used us like women . . . or like sheep.”
“I did what?” The giant, far and away the biggest man I had ever seen, stood there for a moment, opening and closing one massive, craggy fist, and then he quickly stooped and grasped Will’s ankle as he had mine earlier. “Lie still,” he growled, tightening his hold as Will started to kick. “I’ll no’ hurt you.”
I had tensed, too, at his sudden move, thinking to hurl myself to Will’s defence, but then I remained still, sensing somehow that there was no malice now in the man’s intent. And so I merely watched as he flipped Will over to lie face down, then knelt quickly on one knee and pinned him in place with a hand between his shoulders while he pulled up the hem of Will’s single garment, exposing his lower back and buttocks and the ravages of what had been done to him. I had not seen what now lay exposed to me, for neither of us had spoken of what had happened to us since it occurred, but I knew that what I was seeing was a mirror image of my own backside, the tight, white buttocks clenched in agony, the cleft between them choked and befouled with the effluent from what had been done to us, blood and feces and semen mixed and clotted with dirt, and then the pain, the burning, throbbing, endless agony inside me, inside my bowels, overcame me. My stomach revolted and I vomited helplessly, emptily and painfully, hearing the giant say again, “Lie still, Lad, lie still.”
When I finished wiping my face they were both watching me, Will sitting up, ashen faced, and the giant leaning back, his shoulders against the vertical bank at his back. The silence lasted for some time before our captor shook his head. “Sweet Jesus,” he said, and though it emerged from his concealing mask as “Thweet Yeethith” I had no trouble in understanding it.
“Listen to me now, both of you” he said then in that curious, soft-edged voice. “I know the sight of me frightened you. That happens often and I’ve grown used to it. But know this now… I had no part in what was done to you, and no friend of mine would ever do such a thing. I know not who you are, nor where you came from and I never saw you before you came across that ridge up there. But here we are more than thirty miles from anywhere. I know how I came here, but I am wondering where you came from.” He flicked a finger at Will, managing to communicate that he was talking about the mess he had just examined. “When did this happen?”
“Yesterday,” Will’s voice was a whisper.
“When? Daytime, or night?”
“Daytime. In the morning.
“Where? Where were you when it happened?”
“At home, near Ellerslie.”
“Near Ellerslie? That’s in Kyle, is it no’?”
A slight pause, then Will nodded. “Aye, near Ayr.”
“Carrick land. Bruce country. But that’s thirty miles and more from here. How did you get here?”
“You ran? Thirty miles in two days? Bairns?”
Stung by the disbelief in the giant’s voice, Will snapped back at him. “Aye. We ran. They were chasing us. Sometimes we hid, but mostly we ran.”
“Who was chasing you? Where was your father, and what’s his name?”
“Alan Wallace. Alan Wallace of Ellerslie. And he’s dead. They murdered him. And my mother. My wee sister Jenny, too.” Now the tears were welling from Will’s eyes, pouring unheeded down his cheeks, etching clean channels through the caked-on dirt.
“Christ!” The green mask swung back to face me. “And who are you? His brother?”
I shook my head, feeling the tears trembling in my own eyes. “No, I’m his cousin Jamie, from Auchincruive. My name’s Wallace, too. I came to live with Will when my family all died of the fever, two years ago.”
“Aha.” He looked back at Will. “So you’re Will? Will Wallace.”
“William. My real name’s William.”
“Ah. William Wallace, then. My name is Ewan Scrymgeour. Archer Ewan, men call me. You can call me Ewan. So tell me then, exactly, what happened yesterday to start all this.”
It was a good thing he had asked Will that and not me, for I had no idea of what had happened. Everything had been too sudden and too violent and all of it had fallen on me like a stone from a clear blue sky. Will, however, was far from being me, and he was two years older, more than accustomed to being able to think and reason for himself since he had been taught for years, by both his parents, that knowledge and the ability to read and write are the greatest strengths a free man can possess. Will came from a clan of fighting men and women, as did I, but his father’s branch of our family had a natural ability for clerical things and two of his uncles, plus several of his cousins, were monks.
Now Will sat frowning, thinking about what this man had asked him and trying to come to terms with it for the first time since it had happened. I could tell, just from looking at him, that he no longer thought of the green-masked giant as a persecutor or an enemy. The man was merely an inquiring presence that had caught his attention with an intelligent request for information; information that Will was now processing.
“They were Englishmen,” Will said eventually, his voice still low, his brow furrowed as he sought to recall the events as they had happened.
“Englishmen? They couldn’t have been Englishmen. There are no English soldiery in Scotland.”
“I saw them! And I heard them talking. English men-at-arms. I could tell from their armour, even before I heard them growling at each other.”
“Jesus, that makes no kind of sense at all. We have no war with England and they have no soldiers here… Unless they were deserters, come north in search of booty and safety. But if that’s the case, they’d have been safer to stay where they were, in England. King Alec’s men will hunt them down like wolves. How many of them were there? Did you see them all?”
“Aye. There were ten of them on foot and a mounted knight in command of them. He had a white thing on his surcoat . . . a turret, or a tower . . . some kind of castle.”
“And what happened when they came?”
“I don’t know.” Will wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist. “We were down by the old watch tower hunting squirrels, Jamie and me. We heard the noise and ran to see what was happening and we met my sister Jenny running away. She was witless . . . out o’ her mind wi’ terror, frightened to death. Her eyes . . . her eyes were awful . . . she couldna speak, didna even try. She just wailed, high and keenin’, like an old wife at a death… I knew something terrible had happened. So I left her there wi’ Jamie and ran to see—” He fell silent, staring into emptiness and a bleak, awful look settled on his face. None of us moved and after a short time he spoke again, his voice sounding very strange to my ears . . . nothing like the Will I knew.
“They were all dead… Scattered in the gateyard . . . Jessie the Cook, Angus the groom… Timothy and Charlie and Roddy and Daft Sammy. All dead . . . split open and covered in blood and…” He sobbed then, a single, wrenching sound. “My Da was sitting against the wall by the door with his head to one side and his eyes wide open, and I thought he was just looking at them, but then I saw the blood on him, too . . . black-looking, all down his front . . . and then I saw that his head was almost off . . . hanging to one side… My mother was beside him, lying on her face, wi’ a big spear sticking up between her shoulders… I could see her bare legs, high up… I’d never seen them before.” His breath caught in his throat and he hiccupped and shuddered and had to draw a deep breath before he could continue. “The ones alive were a’ strangers . . . what the English call men-at-arms . . . a’ wearing helmets and jerkins and mail, forbye a knight on a horse. The men were a’ talking and laughing, but the knight was just sitting there on his horse, cleaning his sword on something yellow, and then he moved away, a ’round the back o’ the house. And then one o’ them saw me watching them and gave a shout and I ran as fast as I could, back to where I’d left Jamie and Jenny…”
When he stopped this time, I thought he would say no more, but Archer Ewan wanted to hear it all.
“What happened then?”
“What happened after you ran back to Jamie and your sister?”
“Oh . . . We ran back the way we had come, but I had to carry Jenny and they caught us near the old watch tower. Five o’ them. One of them killed Jenny. Chopped off her head and didna even look at what he’d done. He was watchin’ Jamie, wi’ a terrible look on his face… And then they— They did what they did to us and then they tied us up and left us there, in among some bushes against the tower wall. They said they’d be back.”
“How did you escape? You did, didn’t you?”
Will nodded. “Aye. I kept a wee knife for skinning squirrels, under a stone by the tower door, close by where they left us. Jamie was closer to it than me, so I told him to get it for me. He rolled over and got it, then he crawled on his side to me, holdin’ it behind his back, and I took it and managed to cut his wrists free. It took a long time. Then he cut the ropes on his legs and set me loose… And then we ran.”
“And are you sure they chased you?”
Will looked up at the giant in surprise. “Oh, aye, they chased us, and they would ha’e caught us, too, except that there was thunderstorm and you could hardly see through the rain and the dark. But we knew where we were going. They didna. So we gave them the slip and kept movin’ into the woods, deeper and deeper until we didna even know where we were. We ran all day. Then when it got dark we slept for a wee while and then got up and ran again. But they found our tracks and we could hear them comin’ after us, shoutin’ to us to gi’e up, for a long time.”
“Hmm.” The big man sat mulling that for a time and then he nodded his head. “Well, all that matters is that you lost them and you’re here now and well away from them. Who were they working for, do you know?”
Will frowned. “Who were they working for? They werena working for anybody. They were Englishmen! There’s no Englishmen in Carrick. The men there are all Bruce men. My Da’s been the Countess o’ Carrick’s man all his life. It was the elder Robert Bruce who knighted him, and Robert Bruce o’ Annandale, his son, is the Earl o’ Carrick, married to the Countess. My Da’s always been fierce proud o’ that.”
“Aye, no doubt. Then if you’re right, and they were Englishry, they must have been deserters, as I jaloused. Either that or your father must have crossed someone important. And powerful. Was he rich?”
“My Da?” Will blinked, thinking about that. “No, he wasna rich. But he wasna poor, either. We’ve a fine herd o’ cattle.”
“Had, William Wallace. You had a fine herd of cattle. That might have been what they were after. But whether yea or nay, those cattle winna be there now.” He sighed loudly and then clapped his hands together. “Fine then, here’s what we’re going to do.” I was fascinated by the lisping quality of his precisely enunciated speech as he continued, “I have a camp close by, down at the bottom of the gully there, by the stream. We’ll go down there, where there’s a fine, sheltered fire, and I’ll make us a bite to eat, and then you two can wash the blood off yourselves in the burn and I’ll show you how to make a bed of bracken ferns. Then, in the morning, we’ll decide what you should do from here onwards. You agree?” We both nodded our agreement and he harrumphed in his throat and turned to me. “You, Jamie Wallace. If you climb up this bank and look about, you’ll see my bow and quiver lying up there on the grass. Bring them back here quickly, and be careful not to trip and break anything. When you’re back, we’ll climb down the gully while it’s still light enough to see our way. Away with you now.”
I still remember the pain and discomfort of washing myself in that icy mountain stream that night, for it was almost dark by the time we reached Ewan’s camp, and inky black by the time we had reached the stream’s bank and groped our way out into water deep enough to allow us to sit, or squat, and bathe our painfully inflamed nether parts. We had, of course, tried to beg off until morning but the man called Ewan would hear none of that. If we were to refresh our souls and our bodies, he said, we should do it without delay and ignore the discomfort of having to do it in darkness. Besides, he pointed out, the darkness gave us privacy, even from each other, and while we were cleaning ourselves he would gather fresh bracken for our bedding.
The water was frigid, and the rushing coldness of it against my heated body was almost as agonizing as the searing, intense pain in my backside, but I gritted my eight-year-old teeth and grimly set about washing away the evidence of my shame and the sin I had endured. I could hear Will splashing away close by, and hear his muttered curses, for he ever had a blazing, blistering way with words. But the chill of the water, once I began to wash between my buttocks, was intense enough to dull the worst of the pain there, and eventually I rose to my feet again, shivering and scrubbing at the long-dried blood and offal that had caked all down the backs of my legs. I could not see the results, but the altered texture of the skin beneath my hands soon told me that my legs were clean again, and then I did a brave thing and knelt in the stream, bending forward to splash water over my face and head and scrub at both until I felt they too must be clean.
“I’m finished,” Will called to me as I was shaking the water from my hair, and we moved cautiously together back towards the bank, stooped forward and fumbling with outstretched hands for river stones that could trip or hurt us.
Ewan’s campfire was well concealed in a stone-lined pit, but we could see the glow of it reflected up into the branches overhead, and soon we were sitting beside it, each wrapped in one of the two old blankets Ewan had thrown to us with a single rough cloth towel on our return.
“Eat,” he said, and brought each of us a small, tin pot of food. I have no idea what it contained, other than the whipped eggs that held it together, but there was delicious meat in there, in bite-sized pieces, and some kind of spicy root that might have been turnip. He had something else cooking, too, in a shallow pan, but it had nothing to do with what we ate that night. He had raised his mask and tucked it back into his hood, so that he could see better, and was carefully keeping his back to us as he worked. The stuff in the pan was a soggy and mysterious, black-looking mess of plants and herbs mixed with some kind of powder that he shook liberally into it from a bag he pulled out of a pocket in his tunic, and he kept the mixture simmering over the coals in a tiny amount of water, stirring it with a stick and testing it with a finger from time to time—though I noticed he never tasted it—until he was satisfied with its condition and removed it from the heat, setting it aside to cool. Thereafter, and still keeping his back to us while Will and I gorged ourselves on the food he had served us, he set about ripping up what I took to be a good shirt, tearing it into two large pieces and a number of long, thin strips. Will and I watched throughout, chewing avidly and saying nothing but wondering what he was about until Will could contain his curiosity no longer.
“Can I ask you something?”
The big man glanced up from what he was doing, the ruined side of his face masked in shadow. “Aye, ask away.”
“What kind of eggs were those? They were good.”
“A mixture, but four of them were duck eggs. The rest were wild land fowl—grouse and moorhen.”
“Are you not having any?”
“I had mine earlier, just before you came back.”
Will nodded, then said, “You don’t have to hide your face now. We’re no’ afraid any more.”
Ewan’s face creased into what I thought might be a smile. “Are you sure about that?”
“Aye, we’re sure. Aren’t we, Jamie?”
“Aye, we’re sure, right enough.” Then, emboldened by my youth and the sudden realization that I truly was not afraid of this strange man, I asked, “What happened to it? Your face.”
The giant drew in a great breath, then straightened up and shrugged his shoulders. “How old are you, William Wallace?”
“Well, then, when I was a boy, just two years older than you are now, I got hit in the face by a mace. You know what a mace is?”
“Aye it’s a club.”
“It is. A metal-headed club. And it broke my whole face and knocked out my eye and all my teeth on the one side.”
“Who did it?”
“I don’t know. It was in the early stages of a battle, at a place called Lewes, in Sussex in the south of England.”
He then went on to tell us all about how he had gone, as an apprentice boy to a Welsh archer, to join the army of King Henry, the third of that name, in his war against his rebellious Barons led by Simon de Montfort. The present King of England, Edward I, Ewan said, had been a prince then, and had commanded the cavalry and archers on the right of King Henry’s battle line, on the high ground above Lewes town, but the enemy, under Simon de Montfort himself, had surprised them from the rear after a daring night march and won control of the heights after a short and vicious fight. In that early-morning skirmish before the battle proper, young Ewan’s company of archers, running to take up new positions, had been caught in the open and ridden down by a squadron of de Montfort’s horsemen, one of whom had struck Ewan down in passing.
When he had finished the tale, I still had not heard enough. “So if you missed the battle, why do they call you Archer Ewan?”
“Because that’s what I am. An archer, trained lifelong on the longbow. They left me for dead on that field, but I wouldna die. And when I recovered I went back to my apprenticeship. I had lost a year and more of training by then, but my apprentice master was my uncle, too . . . my mother’s brother. So he took me back into his care and I learned well.” He made a grunting sound that might have been a self-deprecating laugh. “I learned very well, for I had little else left to divert me from my work. Where other lads went chasing after girls, I hid and found my solace in my bow and in learning the craft of using it better than any other man I knew.”
He turned away and picked up the pan that he set by the fireside earlier, testing its heat again with the back of a finger. “There, this is ready. Hand me those cloths.”
Mystified, I brought him the two large pieces of torn shirt and watched closely as he folded each of them into four and then carefully poured half of the mixture in the pan onto each of the pads he had made. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of it.
“What is that?”
“It’s a nostrum.”
“What’s a nostrum?”
“A cure, made from natural things. This one is a poultice made of burdock leaves and herbs and a special mixture of other, dried things given me by my mother, who is a famous healer. Usually poultices have to be hot, but this one needn’t be. It’s for you.” He glanced up to see how I reacted to that, but I merely stared at the nostrum.
“There’s one for each of you,” he went on. “What we’ll do is put them into the crack of your arses, where the pain is worst, and bind them into place with those long strips. Then you’ll sleep with them in place, and come morning, you should both be feeling better. You might not be completely without pain by then, but the worst of it will be bye. Now, let’s get them on. They’re cool now, so they’ll not burn you.”
To say that we were reluctant would be nowhere close to the depths of the revulsion Will and I felt, eyeing each other fearfully and acutely mindful of what had happened last time a man had come near our backsides, but the big archer was patient and unmistakably concerned for us, and so we suffered the additional indignity of setting the things in place with his assistance and allowing him to tie them securely. It felt revolting, but I imagined very soon afterwards that the pain of my ravaged backside was subsiding and I sat still, enjoying the heat from the replenished fire and leaning sideways against Will, who was looking around at the archer’s camp. I looked then, too, and noticed that the place, which I had thought must be purely temporary, had signs of permanence about it. The fire pit was old and well made, its stones blackened with age and soot, and there were several stoutly made wooden boxes, or chests, that looked too solid to be picked up and carried away by one man on a single journey. And then I looked more closely and saw that they were fitted into recesses in the hand-cut bank that ringed the campfire and provided us with seats, and they were hinged so that their covering sides hung vertically and could be closed by a latch.
“Do you live here all the time?” Will had voiced the question in my mind
“No,” Ewan said, speaking slowly. “But I spend a lot of time here. My mother lives close by.”
“Why don’t you stay wi’ her?”
“Because she lives in a cave.” Then, seeing the astonishment that statement had produced in both of us, he added, “I stay away because I don’t want to leave signs of my being there. I only go to see her when I think she’ll need more food. To go too often would be dangerous.”
The big archer gave a snort of indignation. “Because someone might see me coming or going, and if they did they might search and find my mother. And if they find her they’ll kill her.”
The enormity of that left us speechless, but Will, having seen his own mother killed the previous day made no attempt to speak, his eyes suddenly brimming with quick-starting tears. It was left to me to ask the obvious question, even as I feared the answer.
“Why would anybody want to kill her?”
“Because she’s my mother and I’m an outlaw. So is she.”
“An outlaw?” I was stricken with awe. “How can somebody’s mother be an outlaw?”
I was sitting with arm’s reach of him, totally unaware by that time of his ravaged face, and he glanced at Will, who was weeping silently in a place of his own, and then turned back to me, reaching out a long arm to tousle my hair. “Aye,” he said quietly. “It’s daft, isn’t it? But she is, because I saved her life and was outlawed myself for doing it.”
He turned and looked into the fire and I drew my blanket closer about me, sensing a story to come, and sure enough, he began to tell me about it, speaking slowly and clearly in that wonderful soft-edged voice. “D’ you recall my saying she was a famous healer? Well, she was. She lived in a wee place east of here, about twelve miles from where we’re sitting now. It doesna’ even have a name; just a wee clump o’ houses near a ford over a river. But she was known in a’ the countryside and whenever somebody got sick, they’d send for her. The land belonged to an auld laird called Sir Walter Ormiston, one o’ the Dumfries Ormistons, but when he died it passed to his eldest son, a useless lump of dung called William, like your friend there. But he liked to call himself William, Laird of Ormiston . . . the old man had been plain Ormiston, but the son demanded to be called the Laird of Ormiston, by everybody. I think it made him feel important. Anyway, this Laird William had a wife as silly as himself, and a wee son called Alasdair. The bairn took sick and the Laird had my mother brought to the big house to see to him. I was away at the time, but on my way back home from Ayr, thank God, when this happened. She was a great healer, my mother, but she couldna compete wi’ God’s will, and the bairn died. The father went mad, and his wife called my mother a witch; said she had put a curse on the bairn.
“They locked her up in a cellar in the big house, and I heard all about it the next morning, before I even reached home. So I went directly in search of her and got there just as they were going to hang her from a tree. I was too far away to reach them and stop it, too far away even to shout at them and be heard, and for a while I just stood where I was and watched. I couldna believe what I was seein’. But they put a rope around her neck and threw the other end over a high branch, and then three men gathered up the other end of the rope, meaning to run away with it, hoisting her up into the air…”
He stopped talking and I had to bite my tongue to keep still and wait, but it was Will who spoke up.
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I was too far away to stop them, so I used my bow and shot them a’ when they started to run, before they could hoist her off the ground. The rope burnt her neck, but they dropped her before she was even in the air, and by the time she fell I was running towards them. I stopped when I saw Laird William, and took a shot at him, but he was running to hide behind a tree and I took him in the shoulder. Sent him flying, but didna kill him. By the time I reached my mother there was just me and her and the three men I had killed. Everyone else had scattered, for fear I’d kill them, too…”
He drew a great, deep breath and blew it out mightily. “That was two years ago; the end of my life as it had been. I took my mother up on my horse with me and we escaped, but we could not go home again, for they put a price on my head for murder . . . the attempted murder of Laird William. I knew they would, but by the time the word got out we were far away, my mother and I. I took her into the forest and we stayed there for a few months, but then when the hullabaloo had died down I brought her back here, close enough to her own land to be familiar, but far enough away from everywhere to be safe. She had never been away from her home since she first came here from Wales as a lass, and she didna like the deep forest, safe as it was. But she’s a strong old woman, wi’ a stronger character, and she insisted we come back. And so we did. We hid in the woods here for a month or two longer, while I looked for a safe place for her, and one day I found the cave she lives in now. It’s hard to find at the best o’ times and she’s safe there, and happy enough, but the ground below the hillside at the entrance to her place is boggy, and it’s too easy to leave tracks that might be followed. That’s why I stay away most of the time.”
“Except when you think she needs more food,” I said.
“Aye, that’s right.”
“What kind of food does she like?”
Ewan smiled at me. “The same kind you do: meat, oats, milk. She has a few goats that run wild but come to her call, and that gives her milk and cheese. And she grows her own small crops in the clearings among the trees on the hillsides above the cave. I bring her oats and fresh meat from time to time, and meat that I smoke out here so that it will keep.”
“What kind of meat?”
“Deer meat. Laird William’s deer. I’m a poacher and a thief o’ his deer. It’s thanks to him that I’m an outlaw and so I show my gratitude by killing and eating his deer.”
I must have been drowsing by then, for my head jerked upright, startling me awake and I sat up, blinking my eyes to clear them.
“What’s it like to be an outlaw?”
The big man smiled at me now and I saw his face clearly, but saw nothing ugly there now. “It’s like being sleepy . . . you learn to accept it and you hope it won’t last. But even an outlaw has to live by laws, though he makes them himself.”
That was too deep for me and I shook my head at him as he said, “Your cousin’s asleep already. Now let’s get you both to bed. We can talk more tomorrow. Is your poultice still in place?”
It was, and I hitched it tighter. It felt unpleasantly heavy and sticky as I climbed out of the ring around the fire pit and made my way blearily to the mound of bracken ferns that was my bed, but I no longer felt sore and I have no memory of reaching the bed.
We awoke the next morning to the sight of Ewan standing on top of the ring around the fire pit, gazing down at us with what passed for a smile on his face.
“Will you sleep all day then, you two? I’ve done an entire day’s work while you lay snoring there. Up, now and down to the stream and wash the mess from your arses, quickly. I need you to help me cut this up, and then we’re going to visit my mother, so up with you and scamper about!”
If we were bleary eyed at all, that vanished at once, for he held the gutted carcass of a small deer draped on a rough cloth spread over his shoulders, its pointed hooves held together at his chest in one massive fist and its tiny antlers lolling behind his head. We sprang from our ferny beds as he lowered the dead beast to the ground and then we ran down the short distance to the burn with his hectoring voice in our ears all the way.
I was surprised at the differences I saw there in daylight, for the stream was narrower and faster than I had thought the previous night, and it swept around us in a bow, the outer edge of which followed a steep, treed bank every bit as high and sheer as the one at our backs on the gully’s other side. The only way to see the sky from there was by looking directly upwards through a narrow, open strip between the overhead branches and I saw at once that Ewan’s camp was as safe and secure as it could possibly be, for anyone finding it would have to do so by accident. Not even the smell of wood smoke would betray it, for by the time the smoke reached anyone’s nostrils It would have been filtered and dissipated by the thick foliage on the slopes above.
The water didn’t seem as cold, either, as it had the night before, and we washed the remains of Ewan’s poultice from our bodies quickly, comparing opinions on the difference it had made, for neither of us could any longer feel the burning, throbbing ache that had seemed interminable the day before.
By the time we got back to the banked fire pit, where heat still smouldered under a covering of crusted earth, Ewan had almost finished skinning the small deer. As soon as he had done so he severed the head and lower legs—I was amazed by the colour and the sharpness of the curved blade of the knife he used—and wrapped them in the still-steaming hide before lifting the entire bundle into the centre of the cloth that had previously covered his shoulders, and tying the corners together.
“Here,” he said. “One of you take that shovel and the other the pickaxe, then carry this between you and bury it along the bank of the stream. But bring back the cloth. And mind you take it as far from here as you can carry it. Dinna think to bury it close by. Bury it deep and stamp down the ground and pile stones over it. We dinna want to be attracting scavengers, animal or otherwise. Then get back here as quick as you can.”
It took us some time to follow his instructions, and we barely spoke a word to each other, so intent were we on doing exactly as he had said, and as we made our way back we walked into a delicious aroma of cooking meat. He had rekindled the dormant fire and now a flat, iron skillet filled with delicious, freshly killed meat and some kind of onion was sizzling on the coals.
We ate voraciously, as though we had not fed in weeks; those two days of running had whetted our appetites to the point of insatiability. The deer liver was perfect, coated in flour and salt and lightly fried with the succulent wild onions, and when the last fragment was devoured we sat back happily.
“How’s your bum?” The question, addressed to both of us, was asked casually as Ewan wiped his knife carefully, removing any signs of food from its gleaming, bluish blade. When we had both assured him that we were much better he nodded. “Good.” He gestured with a thumb over his shoulder to where the deer carcass lay covered with fresh ferns. “I’ll cut some of this up into bits that we can carry, and leave the rest here to smoke later. Then you can help me carry my mother’s share to her.”
Will nodded. “Does she live far from here?” I had been wondering the same thing, and the big outlaw shook his head.
“Not far, a two-hour walk . . . far enough away to be safe when anyone comes here hunting me. Laird William suspects I’m still around, so every now and then, patrols come looking for me. But I’m well hidden, around here, so they haven’t found me yet.”
“Are you no’ afeared they’ll find your mother?” Will asked.
Another head shake. “She’s to the north o’ here, across the hills up there, on the far edge o’ William’s land. I leave signs to the south and south-east, from time to time, to keep them hunting down there. Besides, she knows how to take care o’ herself…” Ewan took up his knife again and began to strop it against a much-used device that had been lying beside his foot. I looked closely at it, never having seen anything quite like it before, a strip of leather, perhaps a foot-long and a thumb’s length in width, that he had fastened somehow, probably with glue, to a heavy strip of wood. The leather had a patina of long use, its colour darkened almost to blackness by the friction of a lightly oiled blade, and as I watched him test the blade’s edge with the ball of his thumb I was emboldened to ask him a question that had been troubling me.
He had no beard, and without really being aware of it, I had come to recognize that that was part of why he had frightened me so badly when I first looked at him. He had made no attempt to cover the deformity of his face in a world where all men went unshaven and where a beard would have done much to conceal the frightfulness of his visage, that made his bare face all the more startling. If he would wear a mask, why not a beard?
I had seen beardless men before, but very few, and my father had been the only one I knew personally. As a child, I had watched with fascination as he went to great pains, daily, to scrape his cheeks and upper lip free of hair, using a thin, short-bladed and amazingly sharp knife that appeared to have no other purpose. It was hard work to shave a beard, I knew; a meticulous and time consuming, seemingly pointless task, except that my father’s commitment to it had a purpose that I discovered by accident one day, listening to my mother speaking to a friend. My father, it transpired, had an affliction of the skin that he could only hold at bay by shaving daily. He might perhaps miss one day, but three successive days without the blade would bring his face out in boils and scaly excrescences. I never did discover why, or what this malady sprang from, but from that time onward I accepted my father’s daily regime as necessary. Now, however, watching Ewan wield his strange, bluish knife, I knew his blade was far sharper than my father’s, and that he probably could use it to shave quite easily, but there was a smoothness to his facial skin that seemed to show no sign at all of being scraped. And so I dared to ask the question in my mind.
“Ewan, why have you no beard?”
He looked over at me in surprise, then laughed.
“For the same reason I have no eyebrows. I can’t grow one.”
I gazed at him in astonishment, noticing for the first time that it was as he said. He had brows, the undamaged one boldly pronounced, but they were hairless. He laughed again. “I was born bald, young Jamie. And I have never grown a single hair anywhere on my body. Look…”
He stretched out a hand towards me, making a fist and curling it downwards to stretch the skin on his exposed forearm. The skin was perfectly smooth, tanned and heavily corded with muscle but innocent of any trace of hair.
“No hair at all?” I asked.
Not a single strand. That’s why I wear a mask and a hood. My bare head makes me too easy to notice. Folk will remember a hooded, masked outlaw, but they won’t be able to describe him. But a bald and beardless man is another matter altogether.”
I was amazed, my mind racing to absorb what he had said, and my next question was a logical one. “Did you not wear a hood, then, before you were an outlaw?”
The big archer laughed again. “No, why would I? I didna need one. I had no reason to fear people knowing who I was. I had nothing to hide and nothing to protect. But that’s all different now, as it is with you two. And what about you two? Where will you go next?”
Will had been listening closely to our conversation and now he looked at me, his eyebrows raised questioningly. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I think we ought to go and see the Countess.”
“The Countess? In Kyle? That’s back where you came from, thirty miles away. How will you get there? And what will you do when ye are there? Have you other kin close by?”
“No. There was only us, and Jamie’s folk in Auchincruive, but they’re all dead, too, in the plague, two years ago. I ha’e two brothers, Malcolm and John, but Malcolm’s training to be knighted and John was knighted two years ago and they’re both with the Bruce forces, somewhere in Annandale. I don’t know how to find them, to let them know what’s happened . . . but they’ll ha’e to be told. But that leaves just us, Jamie and me.”
“And ye’ve no other kin, anywhere?”
Will shrugged. “Oh aye. There’s my father’s brother Malcolm . . . the one my brother’s named for. He lives in Elderslie, near Paisley.”
The big archer blinked and frowned. “Ellerslie . . . and Elderslie? You mean there’s two places with the same name? Are they connected?”
Now it was Will’s turn to frown, perplexed. “I never thought of that before… But they’re no’ exactly the same; they just sound the same. I don’t think there’s any connection.”
“Except that they both ha’e knightly tenants called Wallace.”
“My father wasna a knight, but my uncle Malcolm is. He has lands there, and a house.”
“And how did he and your father get along? Are they friends?”
Will hesitated only slightly. “I think so. They’re brothers, and I know they like each other. Or liked each other…” His voice faltered as he reminded himself of his father’s death, but he refused to give in to his sudden grief and ploughed ahead, “And I’ve another two uncles, or an uncle and a cousin, close by there . . . at least I think they’re close by . . . Thomas and William Wallace. My mother talks . . . talked about them a’ the time. They’re both at Paisley Abbey. One’s a priest, the other a monk.”
Ewan sat up straight and then spoke seriously, shaping his words carefully. “Then you have a whole clan there, in this Elderslie, even if they be all men… are there no women there?”
Will shrugged. “I think so. My uncle Malcolm has a wife called Helen .”
“That’s where you should go, then, to your kinsmen there. There’s nothing left for you where you came from. The Countess would not let you run your farm yourselves, two young boys, mere bairns… And besides, if the men who killed your family found out you were back, they’d finish what they started. I think the two o’ you should go to Paisley, to your kin in the Abbey. They’ll take you to this Elderslie place.”
“Paisley? But that’s miles away,” I said, hearing the dismay in my own voice, and Ewan swung his big head to look at me.
“Miles away? God bless you, Laddie, it’s a lot closer than the place you came from. That’s thirty miles and more back and to the west, but Paisley’s less than twenty miles from here, to the north-east.”
I looked to Will, but he just shook his head, as ignorant as I was, and big Ewan took that as a sign that he was right. “That’s what we’ll do then,” he said, his voice filled with certainty. “My mother will find you something to wear, to cover your bare arses, and she’ll wrap up food for you and give you something to carry it in. And then she’ll tell you the best way to go and we’ll set you on the road, the two of us. You’ll see, it will be easy, and you’ll be in Elderslie in no time, chapping at your uncle’s door.”
From that day onwards, each time I have heard that kind of certainty in someone’s voice, I have held my breath instinctively and braced myself for the worst that could happen, for the days that followed were far from being easy for any of us.
It began that afternoon as we reached the base of the low, forested range of hills that Ewan told us contained his mother’s cave. The land there was heavily treed, but there were great stretches of open meadow too, dotted with dense copses in the low lying lands in the approach to the hills, and they were home to herds of deer. We had been walking for almost three hours by then on a rambling, circuitous route, skirting the open glades and moving along the edges of the woodlands because Ewan had warned us at the outset that it was not only unsafe but foolish to risk crossing the open meadows where we might be seen by anyone from any direction. The deer, which were plentiful and grazed in small herds of eight or ten, ignored us for the most part, aware of our presence as we passed but seeming to sense no danger from us, but that changed in an instant when all movement among them froze and all their heads came up as one. Ewan froze, too, in mid-step, and held up a warning hand to us. A moment later the entire meadow on our left was transformed as all the deer broke into flight at once, bounding high in the air as they fled towards the nearest cover, and when they had all vanished Ewan still stood motionless, urgency in every line of him.
I started to ask him what was wrong but he silenced me with a slash of his hand.
I listened, straining my ears and aware that Will was doing the same, and then I heard what must have frightened the deer, a strange, ululating sound far in the distance, although in what direction I could not tell. From the corner of my eye I saw Ewan turn stiffly to look in the direction in which we had been travelling.
“What is that, Ewan?”
He dropped the parcel of meat he had been carrying and slid the great, strung longbow over his head from where it had hung across his back.“Hounds,” he growled, already launching himself into a run. “Hunting hounds. You two stay here.”
His last words were shouted over his shoulder as he went, but Will and I had no intention of remaining where we were. We looked at each other with no need to speak, then laid our own two cloth bound packages beside the one Ewan had dropped and set off after him. We ran as fast as we could, but Ewan was moving like a man possessed, in great, leaping bounds, paying no attention now to his own warnings about being seen. We saw very quickly that we could not catch up to him but we kept running, pushing ourselves to the limits of our strength and speed, uphill and down, and watching hopelessly as he outstripped us with every frantic stride and finally disappeared among dense undergrowth on another rising slope far ahead.
Will was several paces in front of me as we crested that last slope and mere moments before we broke out into the open we heard a single, chilling howl somewhere ahead of us. It was human, and I was still appalled by the frightening anguish of the sound, afraid to wonder what it meant, when I crashed through the last of the undergrowth and almost ran right into Will. He had stopped abruptly at the top of a steep, grassy hillside overlooking a narrow, tree-hemmed clearing than ran for half a mile north and south on either side of us. I saw movement everywhere down there but I was so winded by the effort of running that at first I could make no sense of what I was seeing and in my haste and exhaustion I stumbled and almost fell, throwing one arm over Will’s shoulders as I hung there gasping, wheezing and trying vainly to take in the scene below.
My first impression, still sharp edged in my mind today and attributable beyond doubt to the innocence of an eight-year-old boy, was of two points of stillness among an eddy of distant, wheeling, far-flung but fast moving men, some of them mounted, others on foot. One of those points I saw was Ewan Scrymgeour, poised at foot of the slope below us and gazing across the narrow valley bottom to where the other was clearly visible, hanging from a large, isolated tree on the slope up there. That second point, however, was an enigma, a shapeless, brownish bundle that I saw without comprehension. And then in the blink of an eye everything changed and the horror broke over me as the giant archer screamed again and set off again at a run, headed directly for the hanging bundle. Without conscious recognition I knew the eddying men had found and hanged his mother and had been leaving, perhaps to hunt farther afield for him, when he arrived. Now, grouped at either end of the narrow valley, they had turned back towards him, gaining speed as they moved and shouting orders and instructions to one another as they came. As I began to really look, moving my head from side to side and counting heads, I became aware of the pain of Will’s clawed fingers digging deep into my arm.
“We have to help him. They’ll take him.”
Even as I heard the words, I heard the futility in them, too. We had not a weapon between us, and there was nothing we could do. We both knew that; knew, too, that if we were taken here, we ourselves would hang beside big Ewan as outlaws. Neither one of us had any illusions about being safe at the hands of unknown soldiery in Scotland. The attackers were stringing out now, six mounted men spurring downslope hard from our right and two more charging more uphill from the left, the latter followed by six running men who had loosed four large dogs from their leashes, hunting hounds that were now bounding towards our friend, already having passed the two horsemen leading their group.
Somehow, in the space of the moments that I had been looking at his attackers, Ewan Scrymgeour had reached the tree that held his mother, and I saw the flash of his knife blade as he cut the rope then leaped to catch her before she fell to the ground. He barely succeeded, but he did catch her upper body and lowered her gently, stooping over her so that I could not see what he was doing. But then he knelt upright, his head bowed, and I clearly saw him cross himself before he rose to his feet and took up the long bow that lay beside him. His full quiver, with almost a score of arrows, hung at his shoulders from the strap across his back—I had admired them that morning—and now he reached behind him and drew one, nocking it to his bow and turning to look from side to side at the men approaching him.
I had never seen the like of what followed then, nor have I witnessed the equal of it to this day. Ewan Scrymgeour dealt death in a woodland meadow that day as though he were Thanatos, the Greek god of death himself. Standing alone beneath the tree on which his mother had been killed, he slew every man and dog who came against him, shooting them down indiscriminately as they attracted his attention, some within mere yards of him like the first dog that died in the air as it sprang for his throat, and others from relatively great distances. None of the men attacking him had bows, and that was his sole advantage; to deal with him they had to come within spear throwing distance, or within their swords’ length of him, and he killed them one by one before they could. Had he missed any single target, he might have been taken, but he never missed and within a very short time his assailants recognized that truth and lost all desire to fight. But these men had murdered his mother and he shot them down mercilessly as they rode and ran away until only two of them remained alive—a man on foot who had hung back from the outset and plainly thought himself safe beyond range of the archer’s bow, and the leader of the mounted group who had charged down from our right. This latter man, who wore the mail and half-armour of a knight, had held himself well clear of the actual fighting, sitting his horse below Will and I at the base of our slope and watching all the others as the action swirled and eddied. Now, when only these two remained alive, Ewan lowered his bow, still holding an arrow nocked, his eyes fixed on the man below us. But then, before anything else could develop, the last man on foot, beyond bow range, began to run away. I did not think then, and I still do not believe, that Ewan had been aware of the fellow until he began to run, but when he did, the archer turned towards him and raised his bow again. He stepped into his pull, drew the bowstring back to his ear, held it there for long moments, then released. The fleeing man had been close to three hundred paces distant when he broke into his run, and he was running almost as fast as Ewan had run earlier when the arrow struck between his shoulders. Its force, even from such a great distance, tumbled him forward, wide armed, to fall face down, a sprawling, motionless lump. Even at the age of eight and never having seen a longbow used before, I knew that the feat I had just witnessed was extraordinary. But I knew, too, that the mounted knight had missed it, for he had swung his horse around as soon as he saw the other man divert Ewan’s attention and was now driving hard up the slope towards us, his bared sword held high. I could not see his face, for he wore a visored helmet, but I knew he was well aware of us and that he meant to kill us. The fact that we were there meant that we had come with Ewan, and if he could gain no other satisfaction from this encounter, it was plain from the way he angled his mount at us that he meant to leave us dead behind him.
I felt Will’s hand strike my shoulder hard, pushing me down and away from him as he shouted at me to get down and roll, and as I threw myself to the ground I saw him run towards the oncoming man and horse and then dive forward, to his right and into a downhill roll, his head tucked towards his knees. I heard a thunderous thumping of hooves above and beside me, then heard a violent, hissing sound as the point of a hard-swung sword flashed past my face, and I rolled again, downhill, frightened out of my wits as the rider reined in his mount and turned, gathering himself to slash at me again, sure this time of his target. I saw his arm go up and heard myself whimper, and then came a heavy, concussive sound, like a dull, hard hammer blow, and my would-be killer was slammed backwards over his horse’s rump to crash to the ground.
I had not seen the arrow hit him, but when I scrambled to my knees to look it was there, transfixing him, buried almost to its feathered fletching in the very centre of his chest, making nonsense of the layers of armour supposedly protecting him. I could see Will’s feet and legs slightly above me, standing close by, and when I looked up at him his eyes were wide, wider than I could ever recall having seen them. Then, still dazed and hardly believing I had not been killed, I stood up to look for big Ewan, and there he was with his bow by his side, standing motionless where I had last seen him beneath the tree, beside the body of his mother. He was not as far away as he had been from the running man he had shot, but it would be years before I learned to appreciate how difficult it is for a bowman to shoot accurately at a target that is either far above or below him.
“What will we do now?” I asked Will, my voice seeming loud in the dead silence that had fallen.
He was still staring at the arrow buried in the dead knight’s chest, but now he turned to me and blinked, then looked down to where Ewan stood gazing up at us.
“Help Ewan bury his mother,” he said.
 Jaloused: guessed; deduced
 bairns: children