Days of No Trust. Part 1 of 2. Summary: In the year 1580, on the Borders of England and Scotland, young Anne Collingwood’s home is attacked by a ruthless band of Reivers. Can her knowledge of Shadow magic help her survive and prevent the slaughter of her family?
Days of No Trust
So here's to the heroes
Come one and come all
Without them well who knows
Well who knows at all?
(Magnum, Days of No Trust)
The farms were quiet with almost all of the menfolk away. The Day of Truce was at hand and they had gone to the meeting of the Wardens, to present their petitions and to defend themselves against the petitions of others, and we women were left at home. It was never truly peaceful so near to the Border, but this was as safe a time as any, and safer than most. Few would dare to go reiving when the Wardens of both England and Scotland were camped at the Border, meeting under the truce banners, and with their retinues mustered about them ready to wreak retribution upon transgressors.
Yet ‘few’ was not the same as ‘none’. This was the year of our Lord 1580, only five years after the Raid of the Reidswire, and that had begun at just such a Warden’s meeting. We were not left unprotected. Hobbie the Bill-man and Tall Davie had stayed home and they were good men with their hands.
But when the Burns came upon us they came in force, eighteen strong, and what could two men do against so many?
Had they attacked at night we might have withstood them, for we would have been upstairs in our Bastle houses with the ladders pulled inside, but they came by the broad light of day. Riding fast upon us, clad in jacks and with steel caps upon their heads, armed with lances and crossbows.
Hobbie struck out with his bill and slew one, cutting the man of the Burns from his horse, but then another of the raiders reined to a halt and took aim with a crossbow. He loosed a bolt and pierced Hobbie’s chest. Hobbie, cousin to my father, let go of his bill and dropped to his knees. A rider thrust a lance into him and Hobbie fell on his face and lay still. Tall Davie had put his bow aside as he worked and he was struck through as he ran for his weapon.
I was out in the middle of a field and there was nowhere to hide. I ran, but two of the Burns riders cantered after me, and I knew that I could not outrun horses. I stopped and faced them as they rode towards me with the sun behind them. They slowed their mounts to a walk and raised their lances to point aloft.
“A bonny lass,” one said.
“Aye,” said the other, and I knew him by sight. He was called Will of the Coat and he had an ill name in Teviotdale and Coquetdale. He twirled his lance around, drove its point into the earth, and released his grip upon the shaft. “Annie Sharptongue, is it not? No man will have her, or so they say.” He laughed. “Well, no man will marry her. I mean to have her here and now.” He moved his horse closer and loomed over me, blotting out my sight of the sun, and I was in their shadow.
I reached out with my mind and took the power into myself. I breathed lightly, stood very still, and I saw his eyes widen.
“What? Where is she?” he cried. “The lassie has gone!”
The other man twisted in his saddle. “She is not behind us,” he said. “Is there a ditch that she has slipped into?”
Will of the Coat gazed all around him. He leaned over and looked under his own horse. His glance passed over me a dozen times, but he saw me not, for I was in the realm of Shadow and he was blind to my presence.
“She is not here,” he said. “I cannot understand this. There is nowhere that she could have hidden herself but she has vanished clean away.”
“A secret tunnel?” asked the other man.
“I see nothing that could be a tunnel,” said Will, “and she disappeared as I was looking full at her.” He turned his horse and returned to where he had left the lance. I followed, staying within their shadow, and thus remaining hidden, although in so doing I was moving away from shelter. “I heard talk,” Will went on, “that Annie is a witch, and that is why she remains a maid still. I thought it just idle gossip, but perhaps…”
“Then she has escaped?” The other man’s voice was sharp. “If she goes to the Warden we shall be hanged. There were to be no witnesses.”
I shivered. They meant to kill us all. My mother, my sister, my young brother, and the others of our hamlet. I could perhaps save myself, as long as I could remain in Shadow, but how could I do anything to help the others? To reach the Wardens’ camps at Windygyle would take hours on foot. I would bring back our men to a charnel house.
Yet what else could I do? On a horse I could not hide. I would be ridden down and taken or shot, unless I could get clean away with none seeing me, and I doubted if I could do that. No, on foot it would have to be, unless fortune smiled on me. There was no point in going to one of the other Collingwood villages. Their fighting men would be at the Meet just as were the men of my own village.
I glanced up at the sky and saw clouds. I could not tell if any were near the sun, not without peering around the horse and rider who provided me with the shadows in which to hide, but I had to be prepared for a cloud to cross in front of the sun. There would be no shadows for me if that should happen, only a soft and diffuse light in which I would be open to view, and I felt a cold shiver on my spine as I thought of it.
The men of the Burns wheeled their horses and headed for the houses to join their fellows. I had no option but to go with them, hastily adjusting my course so that I stayed within the shadows, and I was forced to quicken my pace as the horses speeded up. If they broke into a gallop I would be stranded out in the open, visible to any who looked in my direction, and helpless to retreat into Shadow once more.
It did not happen. Their path crossed with the shadow of a tree. I stopped within that shadow and waited for a moment as the two riders rode on. Then I turned and walked along the shadow to the trunk of the tree. There were other shadows there. I moved from one to another and at last placed a solid obstacle between myself and where the Burns raiders were ransacking my home. I left the realm of Shadow and began the long trek towards Windygyle.
I would be too late, I knew, and all I could realistically hope for would be to bring vengeance down upon the Burns. Unless I chanced upon some of the men of my own family on their way to the Wardens’ meeting from another village. Or perhaps a group from the Storeys or the Hedleys, or even the Robsons at a pinch, for they were no friends to the Burns.
It was a possibility. I held on to that chance as I walked, yet my hope was slim, and before long fear overcame me. I broke into a run, panting as I pounded across the rough ground and through patches of gorse and heather, but at last I had to stop. I gasped for breath and heard a pounding in my ears. When my breathing eased I realised that the pounding was still there.
It was the sound of hoofbeats.
A cloud hid the sun. There were no clear shadows. My powers were at their weakest. If the riders came close, and if they were enemies, I would be able only to try to hide among the bushes.
I looked around and located the source of the sound. Five horses. Four riding horses and a pack animal. The four riders wore steel caps and held lances. They were heading in the same direction as I, no doubt also on their way to the meet, and I prayed that they would be Collingwoods.
My count of the Burns came to eighteen, less the one slain by Hobbie the Bill-man, but I had made that count in great haste and would not have taken oath on the figure. I would not be far amiss, however, and four against seventeen were poor odds indeed. But they were all I had, unless they had company close at hand, and would have to do. Perhaps a surprise attack could even the odds.
If they would even help at all, that is. They saw me and diverted their course slightly to make sure that our paths would cross. I accepted this as inevitable and turned around to walk directly towards them. Before long I was close enough to see the faces under the steel bonnets. My heart sank.
I had never seen any of the four men before in my life.