Sir Robert Carey took up his northern post as Warden of the West March in order to escape the complications of creditors and court life. However Carey merely trades one set of troubles for another.
One black night in 1592, Carey is on patrol along the unsettled border anchored by the garrison in Carlisle. It's a disaster. First, there's the fugitive he has to hand over to the warring Scots. Next come Wee Colin Elliot's sheep stealers. And then a gun explodes and takes off the hand of one of Carey's men. Back in Carlisle, Carey soon learns more faulty guns lie in the armoury in place of the sound weapons shipped in only last week. When these explosive deathtraps are stolen, he sets off in pursuit of both batches of guns—and the thieves.
The search ends in Dumfries where King James VI of Scotland—potentially King James I of England when his cousin Elizabeth dies—and his raucous court have assembled. James is as dissolute as ever, lovely Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, Carey's true love, is still shackled to her husband, and seductive Signora Bonnetti takes a serious interest in Carey and in the missing guns. Will Carey be gallant enough to flirt with the Signora—and with treason?
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friday 7th July 1592, late afternoon
Sir Robert Carey woke up to a knock on the door, feeling sticky-mouthed and bad-tempered and uncertain what time of day it was. He was in his clothes with his doublet buttons undone, his boots by the side of the bed. Through the window the diamond mosaic of sky had greyed over. Barnabus Cooke his man-servant came stumping in carrying a bowl of cold water, a towel over one arm, a leather bottle of small beer under the other.
"Afternoon, sir," he said in his familiar adenoidal whine. "Sergeant Dodd wants to know where you was thinking of patrolling tonight."
Ah. Night patrol, therefore an afternoon nap.
"I haven't decided yet," Carey answered.
He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, hearing the elderly strapping creak beneath the mattress. Although the bed had once been honoured by the sleeping body of Her Majesty the Queen of Scots while she was briefly an uneasy guest in Carlisle, that was nearly thirty years before and it had had a hard life since then. He honestly thought a straw pallet on the floor might be more comfortable and certainly less noisy.
While he splashed his face with cold water and drank some of the beer, Carey gathered his thoughts and tried to wake up properly. Barnabus fastened his many buttons, helped him on with his jack. As always there was a depressing moment when the padded, double-layered leather coat, with its metal plates in between, weighed him down like original sin. Then, once it waslaced and his belt buckled so the weight was evenly distributed between his shoulders and hips, his body adjusted and he no longer felt it. As armour went, it was very comfortable, much better than his tilting plate that was in pawn down in London. He had his new broadsword, the best the Dumfries armourers could produce, and Barnabus had oiled it well, though the hilt still felt rough and odd against his hand after he had strapped it on. His helmet was a fine piece, a blued-steel morion, with elaborate chasing on its peaks and curves, well-padded inside. He knew it made him conspicuous, but that was the idea after allhis men needed to know where he was in a fight.
Fully-dressed, he caught sight of himself in the mirror, saw the martial reflection and unconsciously smiled back at it. Barnabus knelt to put his spurs on, tutting at the state of the riding boots which Barnabus's nephew had forgotten to clean. Finally accoutred, Carey clattered down the stairs, his handguns in their case under his arm, weighing perhaps sixty pounds more than he had when he got up.
Sergeant Dodd and the men were waiting with their horses in the courtyard. Carey did a quick headcount, found they were all there and went over to ask Dodd what Long George had to say for himself.
Long George Little was the man standing next to Dodd. He was showing a pistol to him, a new one by the gleam of its powderpan, and Dodd was sighting down the barrel and squeezing the trigger.
"Dumfries work, is it?" Dodd was asking.
"Ay," said Long George, who was actually no taller than Dodd and an inch or two shorter than Carey himself, but gave the impression of even greater height because he had long bony legs and arms.
"What did ye pay for it?"
Long George coughed. "Twenty-five shillings, English."
"Mphm," said Dodd noncommittally.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said Carey with some sarcasm. "I'm delighted to see you, Long George. Where have you been since Wednesday?"
Long George's face was round and his beard a straggling decoration that refused to grow around his mouth but flourished all the way down his neck and into his chest hairs. The face suddenly became childlike in its innocence.
"It were family business, sir," he said. "One of the weans was sick and the wife thought it might be the smallpox."
"Ah. And was it?"
"Was what, sir?"
"Was it smallpox?"
"Nay, it was chickenpox."
Had he had that, Carey wondered, and decided he had. He remembered his mother putting him in a camomile bath to soothe the itching and cutting his nails down short.
"I might have needed you as a witness at the Atkinson inquest."
Long George shrugged and wouldn't meet his eye. Clearly he had made himself scarce precisely in order to avoid being a witness. "I'm here for the patrol, sir, amn't I?" he said truculently. "That's all ye want, is it not?"
Carey gave him a considering stare. "It will do for the present," he said coldly. Long George gazed into space, put a helmet on, knuckled his forehead and went to find his horse.
They were a little late going out, but the watch at the city gates had waited for them. They crossed Eden Bridge and struck north and east, heading for Askerton Castle and Bewcastle beyond that.
As the sun set behind its grey blanket of cloud, and the night closed in, they slowed down, letting their horses feel their way. It was a black night, blacker than mourning velvet, the sky robbed of diamonds and the countryside full of hushed noise. Most of the cattle were still up at the shielings but the small farms announced themselves with the snoring of pigs and occasionally sheep would wander abstractedly across the path they were using. The men were quiet behind him apart from the occasional clatter of a lance against stirrup or the jingle of a bridle.
Now he was properly awake and his nightsight had come in so he could see the world in subtle shades of grey, Carey couldn't help feeling happy. He knew it was ridiculous when he was theoretically supposed to stop multiple mayhem and feud on the lawless West March of England, with a grand total of nine patrolmen including himself, but still he never felt better than when he was on horseback wondering what might happen. His sister said he was quite mad to enjoy himself so much when at any time he might meet raiders who could kill him, but then she was a woman and would never understand.
However, most of the night passed in jingling boredom. And then at last they were passing by an outpost of forest not far from the Border and Carey was about to order them to turn for home, when they heard a crashing and clattering from between the trees. The men immediately began to spread themselves along the path and tighten their helmet laces. Carey put his hand up for caution. Long George was pouring powder into the pan of his new gun. But whatever was coming was four-legged and certainly not horses ...
The deer burst from the wood, tightly bunched, a group of young staggards and other rascals from what he could see of their antlers, their nostrils flaring and their white rumps flashing. They came suddenly, blindly, upon a line of men downwind of them and dodged in their panic from place to place. Long George lifted his pistol two-handed, screwed up his face thoughtfully and fired. The boom of the shot caused the deer to leap and double their speed, but one of them was turned into a still-moving fountain of blood, with most of its neck destroyed by the bullet. Gradually catching up with the disaster its legs stopped running and its body slumped into the ground, flopping about until it lay still.
"Good shot!" shouted Carey, delighted at the prospect of fresh venison. Long George grinned with pleasure and blew the remnants of powder off his pan.
Carey and Dodd dismounted, waited for the blood to stop and then inspected the beast. It was nicely fat and at least a stag, so although there was no particular honour in killing it, at least there would be good eating.
"We'll gralloch it and drain it for half an hour," said Carey. "The butcher can do the rest when we get it home."
Dodd nodded. "We're not poaching, are we?"
Carey thought for a moment. "I don't think so, we're on English land and anyway, Long George only hit the animal by accident, isn't that right, Long George?"
"Ay, sir. Me gun went off wi'out warning, sir."
The other men sniggered quietly.
"Exactly. And it would be a pity to waste the meat."
Carey did not have his set of hunting knives with him, but Dodd passed him a long heavy knife with a wicked edge that was suspiciously apt to the purpose. Stepping around to the back of the beast, Carey leaned over the carcass and made the belly-cut with a flourish, thinking of the many times he had broken a beast with full ceremony to the music of drums and trumpets in front of Queen Elizabeth at one of her various courtly hunts.
"By God, he does it prettily," one of the men remarked in a mutter to Dodd, who happened to be standing next to him. "Will ye look at him, not a drop on him?"
"Ah've seen it done faster," sniffed Dodd.
"Ay well, so've I, but that's with one ear out for the keeper ..." He paused, cocking his head thoughtfully. Far in the distance, there was more crashing in the deer's wake through the forest.
"That's a man running," said Dodd, swinging up onto his horse again and taking his lance back from Red Sandy. Carey looked up, stopped, wiped his hands and blade sketchily on the grass and vaulted up onto his own horse's back just as the sound of feet burst out of the undergrowth and shaped itself into the blur of a human being, head down, arms pumping. He saw them waiting in the darkness and skidded to a halt, mouth open in dismay.
Carey knew prey when he saw it; the man's oddly-cut doublet was flapping open and his fine shirt ripped and stained, his hose were in tatters and his boots broken. He had pale hair plastered to his face with sweat, a flushed face, a pale beard and a square jaw.
"Hilfe, hilf mir," he gasped. "Freunde, helft mir ..." His legs buckled and he went to his knees involuntarily, chest shuddering for air. "Um Gottes willen."
"He's a bastard Frenchman," said Red Sandy excitedly, aiming his lance at the man and riding forward.
"Nay, he's that Spanish agent ..." someone else shouted. Long George was reloading his pistol as fast as he could.
"Nein, nein ..."
"Wait!" roared Carey. "God damn your eyes, WAIT!"
In the distance, they could hear dogs giving tongue. The man heard it too, his eyes whitened, he tried to stand, but he was utterly spent and he pitched forward on his face, retching drily.
Carey dismounted and went over to the man.
"He's a French foreigner," said Red Sandy again. "Did ye no' hear him speaking French, sir? Can I get his tail for a trophy, sir?"
"It wasn't French," said Carey. "It was something else, High or Low Dutch, I think. He's a German."
Red Sandy subsided, mystified at the thought of a foreigner who wasn't French.
"Like one of them foreign miners down by Derwentwater," put in Sim's Will Croser helpfully. "Ye mind 'em, Red Sandy? They speak like that, ay, with all splutters and coughs and the like."
"Qu'est vostre nom, monsieur? Parlez-vous français?" Carey asked as he approached the man who was lifting himself feebly on his elbows. Behind him he could hear the men muttering between themselves. They were arguing over whether the German miners had tails like Frenchmen.
"Hans Schmidt, mein Herr, aus Augsburg. Ich spreche ein bischen ... je parle un peu de Français."
"Well, that's French, any road," said Dodd dubiously as the hounds in the distance gave tongue again, musical and haunting. The German winced at the sound and tried to climb to his feet, but his knees gave way. His fear was pitiful.
"I know, Sergeant," said Carey, coming to a decision, "Have the men move off the road into the undergrowth over there, spread them out. Not much we can do about the venison seeing they've got dogs, so leave it. Red Sandy, you set the men and don't move until we know what's coming after this man. If I shoot, hit them hard. Dodd, you stay here with me."
This they understood. Red Sandy swung his horse back the way they had come and the other six melted briskly into the bushes with their mounts. As the leaves hid them, Long George had the slowmatch lit for his pistol and was cupping it with his hand to hide it. Sim's Will Croser was taking his bow out of the quiver and stringing it. It was ridiculous that in this day and age most of his men had no modern firearms but must still rely on the longbows of their great-grandfathers, Carey thought to himself. They were waiting the devil of a long time for the ordnance carts from Newcastle.
Dodd loosened his sword, took a grip on his lance and slouched down in the saddle, sighing in a martyred fashion as he stayed out in plain view to back up his Deputy Warden. Heart beating hard, Carey could hear the other horses now, crashing through the undergrowth behind the hounds.
The German, Hans Schmidt, had got to his feet, swaying with exhaustion, jabbering away desperately in High Dutch, not one word of which Carey could make out. He could talk to a whore or an innkeeper in Low Dutch, but that was the size of his ability. French came easier to him.
"Nicht verstehe," he said. "Je ne comprends pas. Plus lentement, s'il vous plaist."
For answer the man put his face in his hands and moaned. There was no time left, the hoofbeats were too close. The German began wobbling away, across the field. Carey shook his head, remounted his horse and pulled both his dags out of their cases. They were already shotted and he wound them up ready to fire, but from the sound of it two shots would not be enough.
The dogs broke from the woods in a yelping tide, making his horse snort and sidle. Lymers and sleuth-hounds flowed around them, yelping excitedly, sniffing ground, hooves, bellies. The fugitive at least had sense enough not to run, or perhaps he could not. He had fallen and was curled into a ball with his hands over his face. The dogs gathered round, tails wagging furiously, sniffed curiously at the man, then caught scent of the partly-gralloched deer and gave tongue. They entirely lost interest in their original quarry and gathered about the deer. Some began pulling guiltily at the entrails.
"Off, off. Allez!" shouted Carey, riding over to protect his kill, looking around for the huntsmen.
For a moment it was hounds only, the horses heralded by sound. Then, like the elven-folk from a poet's imagination, they cantered out of the tree shadows, three, four, eight, twelve of them, and more behind, some carrying torches, their white leather jacks pristine and lace complicating the hems of their falling bands and cuffs, flowing beards and glittering jewelled fingers, with the plump flash of brocade above their long boots. Carey was surprised: he had expected one of the Border headmen and his kin, like Scott of Buccleuch or Kerr of Ferniehurst, perhaps even Lord Maxwell. Certainly not these fine courtiers.
The Master of the Hunt whipped the hounds off, and the highest ranking among them rode forward on a horse far too good for the rough ground. Carey recognised him immediately.
"My lord Earl of Mar," he said in astonishment, looking from the dishevelled panting German to the King of Scotland's most trusted advisor.
"Eh?" said the earl, squinting through the mirk. "Who's that?"
"Sir Robert Carey, my lord, Deputy Warden of the English West March."
"Eh? Speak oot, mon."
Carey repeated himself in Scots. Behind him he could feel Dodd sitting quiet and watchful, his lance pointed upwards, managing expertly to project a combination of relaxation and menace without actually doing anything.
The Earl of Mar was glaring at Carey's dags. Rather pointedly, he did not put them away. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see a further six or eight riders milling about in the forest, rounding up stray dogs, while three of the other huntsmen tried to reassert discipline over the hounds who felt they had a right to the deer's innards after their run.
"What are ye doing here?"
"Well, my lord, I could ask you the same question since we're on English land."
"We're on a lawful hot trod."
"Oh?" said Carey neutrally.
"Ay, we are. My lord Spynie, where the devil's that bit of turf?"
A young round-faced man with a velvet bonnet tipped over his ear rode forward. Some crumbs of turf still stuck to the point of his lance, and he was frowning at it in irritation. He was a handsome young man, of whom Carey had heard but had never met, known variously as Alexander Lindsay, Lord Spynie, King James's favourite and the King's bloody bum-boy.
"I see," said Carey, relaxing slightly and putting his dags away but leaving the case open. "Well, my lord, in that case, as Deputy Warden of the English West March, I am a proper person for you to tell the cause of the trod to, and if necessary, I will render you what assistance I can."
The Earl of Mar glared at him. Two of his men had dismounted and were lifting the German to his feet, not very gently.
Knowing he was well within his rights, but feeling a bit of oil might be appropriate in the circumstances, Carey bowed lavishly in the saddle and added, "If my lord will be so very kind."
The Earl of Mar harrumphed. He either ignored or did not understand the edge to Carey's obsequity. "Ay, well," he said. "Ye've already assisted me, by stopping this traitor here, so I'll thank ye kindly and we'll be awa' again."
"Ich bin nicht ..." the German began yelling. His arm slipped out of one of his helpers' hands, he swung a wild punch at the other which connected by sheer chance. Hands plucking at the empty scabbard on his belt, he shouldered past another would-be helper, running at a desperate stagger for the forest, only to be knocked off his feet by a kick in the face from one of the other horsemen. He was hefted up again and his hands tied briskly behind him. Carey had tensed when he made his break, every instinct telling him to help one against so many, but intelligence and self-preservation ordering him not to be such a fool. He had eight menthe Scottish courtiers had at least thirty plus the law of the Borders on their side. And the man was a foreigner.
"I see," he said, looking away as the German was hauled to a riderless horse, still half-stunned and bleeding from the nose, and slung across it like dead game. "May I ask what form his treason took? Is there anything likely to be a threat to Her Majesty the Queen?"
"Nay," said the Earl of Mar, backing his horse with a rather showy curvette. "Tis a private matter between yon loon and our King. We'll be off now."
With great difficulty the hounds where whipped off the stag, some of them still trailing bits of entrail from their mouths as they lolloped unwillingly away. The whole cavalcade plunged back into the forest, heading north again, with the unfortunate German occasionally visible, like a feebly struggling sack of flour across his horse's back. Cheekily the Earl of Mar winded his horn as they disappeared from sight.
* * *
Dodd said nothing as Carey dismounted and went back to the stag to see what could be salvaged. The stag was quite a bit the worse for wear but much of the gralloching had been done. The skin would not be useable though. The men reappeared and, unasked, hung the stag up on a tree branch by its back legs to drain.
They waited by the tree while the most part of the deer's remaining blood trickled out. With suspicious efficiency the men constructed a travois out of hazel branches and argued quietly over whose horse should pull it.
Dodd was still saying nothing, and cocking his head northwards occasionally with an abstracted expression.
"What's the problem, Sergeant?" asked Carey.
Dodd coughed. "It's the trod, sir."
"The Earl of Mar's taken his captive back into Scotland by now, I should think."
"Sir, did ye never follow on behind a hot trod so ye could claim the beasts ye took were part of it?"
"You mean there might be a Scots raiding party following the Earl of Mar's trail so they can claim they're legally coming into England as part of the pursuit?" Carey asked carefully.
Dodd clearly wondered why he was belabouring something so obvious. "Ay, after about an hour or so," he agreed. "To let the ... excitement die down, see."
"I do see, Sergeant. Do you think they'll come by here?"
Dodd's wooden expression told Carey he had asked another stupid question.
"Only, ye can mix the trails about, sir."
"Fine. What would you suggest, Sergeant?"
Dodd's suggestion took shape: they took the deer carcass down from the tree and lashed it to its travois, which Long George and Croser hauled into the branches of an oak to keep it away from foxes.
"We can't actually stop them coming south," Carey said while the others cleared the ground of their own tracks. "They haven't committed any crime and they're following a lawful hot trod, so ..."
Dodd and his brother Red Sandy exchanged patient glances.
"No, see, sir, if we stop them before they've lifted aught, then we'll get nae fee for it, will we? We'll stop 'em after."
"I see. Very interesting. Do you ever ... arrange for raids, so you can stop them and get the fees for them?"
"Ay, sir," said Sandy. "Why, last year the Sergeant and ..."
Dodd coughed loudly.
"... ay, well, Lowther's done it," his brother finished, managing to look virtuously indignant. "But we wouldnae, would we, Sergeant?"
Even in the darkness, Dodd's glare could have withered a field of wheat.
"One of us must track them on foot," he said judiciously. "Sandy's the best man for that job, seeing he's the fastest runner and he knows the land." Red Sandy made a wry face. "Then when he's seen them find the beasts they're after, he comes back to us and we stop them on their way home, red-handed."
"What if they take a different route?"
Dodd rubbed his chin with his thumb. "They might," he allowed. "But I doubt it. They'll keep to the trail the Earl of Mar made with a' his fine men to confuse us from following."
"I rely on your judgement, Sergeant. Shall we take cover now?"
"Ay, sir, it'd be best. Though it might be a long wait."
Dodd and Red Sandy had a quiet conversation as all of them carefully pushed in among the undergrowth. Carey watched in fascination as each man of his troop then took his horse's head and forced the animal to lie down with great rustling surges in the bracken and leaves. Long George swore because he'd found a patch of nettles, a couple of the horses snorted and resisted. Carey found that the right pressure on his own animal's neck and head laid the rough body down with a great lurch and grunting and splaying of legs. They were completely out of sight. He copied Dodd, lying down as well, with one arm over his horse's head, the other arm supporting his own head.
Red Sandy was nowhere to be seen. Carey realised then that he was already outside the woodland, where it met the rough pasture of the hillside, and inspecting them all for concealment.
"There's a man wi' a shiny helmet moving," Red Sandy said accusingly. Carey turned his head to see who was revealing them. "Ay, there he goes again."
Luckily the dark hid his flush as he realised that he was the guilty man. Dodd reached over with some leafy twigs and stuck them in Carey's plume-tube.
"Tha's better," called Red Sandy. "Tell the silly get to stay still, Henry."
Dodd grunted softly and didn't look at Carey. Red Sandy hardly rustled the bushes as he took cover himself.
The silence clamped down around them, like the forest and the night. Not even the horses moved, though Carey could see the wide eyes of his own mount, alert but very well trained and not moving a hoof.
Time passed. The damp coolness of the earth began working its way through the layers of leather and cloth to his stomach, the warmth of a sultry summer night was weight on his back. Little trickles of sweat began seeking water's own level down the muscles of his shoulders. There was an ant's nest under his knee. Perhaps the ants wouldn't mind.
Strain his ears though he might, he could hear absolutely nothing of the eight other men hiding only a few feet away from him. Not a snort, not a rustle. He could swear they were even breathing quieter than him.
The back of his head was itching where the leather padding of his helmet was making his scalp sweat. Also he was convinced there were ants running up his legs. Also he had a cramp starting in one foot. Where the hell were these theoretical raiders?
There was a loud rustling and crunching sound. For a moment Carey wondered which idiot could be making it, when he saw a small bundle of spines wander into his field of vision. It stopped short, stared at him out of little black eyes. He stared back. Never before in his life had he been nose to nose with a hedgehog, though he had once eaten one, baked in clay.
The hedgehog snuffled out a slug and began eating it noisily with every sign of enjoyment. Carey was irresistibly reminded of one of the Queen's councillors eating a bag pudding and had to swallow hard not to laugh. He swallowed too loudly. Disdainfully, the hedgehog finished the slug and trundled off into the leaves like a small battering ram.
The cramp in his foot was getting worse. And the ants were exploring dangerously high up his thigh. And he desperately wanted to scratch his scalp. Where were the raiders?
Without moving his head, Carey looked for Dodd. Between the leaves the Sergeant seemed quite at ease, his long limbs sprawled and relaxed, peering over his horse's neck. He wasn't like a statue, more along the lines of a bolster on a bed. Blast him.
Nothing happened. Carey wondered what a German from Augsburg was doing in the Scottish Borders and why King James wanted him and what for: he wove several wonderful webs of possibility, but the facts would have to wait until he got back to Carlisle and even then he might never know unless he went into Scotland. The ants seemed to be excited about the discovery of his boot-top. Perhaps they were planning a new nest. Would they have time to build it? Probably the itch in his hair was a louse. Perhaps the ants would form an alliance with whatever other vermin he had picked up in Carlisle ...
Wondering how much longer he would have to stand this torture, Carey began trying to distract his mind. Inevitably he thought of Elizabeth Widdrington. The last he heard, she had been at Hexham on her way home to the East March. The smile dropped off his face. Her husband, Sir Henry Widdrington, had met her there. She had sent Carey a letter breaking off their friendship, and a verbal message continuing it. God knew what Sir Henry had done to her, to make her write the letter, might even be doing to her now.
He thought of the Latin poem he had recited for her a few days before, one of the muckier ones by Catullus that every schoolboy found easy to remember.
His tutor had translated it, disapprovingly, "Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand ..." It was pleasant to imagine kissing Elizabeth Widdrington, breaking through all her honourable propriety, her entirely misguided faithfulness to her elderly husband, lifting her skirts and petticoat and the hoops of her farthingale and her smock and ...
No, it wasn't only his heartbeat. Hooves pointed the metre: soft unshod hooves on the turf. Carey peered through leaves cautiously and saw horses pass like shadows nearby. There was a pause and another shadow departed, on foot, loping like a wolf in their tracks.
"Sir!" That was Dodd's scandalised hiss. "Sir, wake up!"
"I wasn't asleep," he hissed back quickly. "I was thinking."
"Oh aye. Well, they've come and gone whilst ye was thinking and Red Sandy's gone off after them. Ye can let your hobby up to stamp about a bit now."
Knowing he was bright red and still hindered by the effects of thinking about Elizabeth, not to mention the cramp in his instep, Carey staggered to his feet. The horse lurched up and shook out its mane, Carey brushed astonished ants off his boots and got bitten half a dozen times.
They stayed in the bushes, for what seemed like another hour while Carey tried to keep his mind on his job and off his fantasies. Girls he had known at Court flitted irritatingly to and fro before his mind's eyehe surely was in desperate need of a woman. Sorrel nuzzled at him with his broad low-bred nose, and Carey patted him absently.
At last they heard pelting feet, a single man, sprinting down the hill towards them. Dodd cocked his head, led his horse out of the bushes.
Red Sandy himself arrived, breathing hard.
"Bastard Elliots, about seven of them, all mounted," he whispered triumphantly. "Wee Colin Elliot's wi' them. They've taken twelve sheep off one of the Routledges an' they're on their way."
In the distance the sound of protesting baas floated to them, and horses.
Dodd's mouth thinned and his face lengthened, which meant he was delighted. He and Carey swung up into the saddle together and Carey opened his guncase again. Behind them, he heard Long George cursing as he burnt his fingers trying to relight a slow match from the little clay pot of coals he carried on his saddle bow.
"Keep the light hidden," Carey said and got a protesting "Ah know that, sir."
His heart settling to a steady fast thumping, Carey came up close to Dodd.
"This wasn't done by any arrangement, was it?"
"With Elliots, sir?" Dodd was scandalised and Carey remembered that the Sergeant's surname had a fifty-year-old blood-feud running with the Elliots.
"No, obviously not. Well then, let's see if we can catch a few to hang."
Dodd nodded dourly. Clearly, taking the trouble to capture Elliots was not his highest priority. Carey grinned at him, the prospect of a fight raising his spirits as always.
"One or two will do," he amended.
Was that the faintest flicker of an answering smile at the edge of Dodd's mouth? Probably not.
The sheep arrived first, milling about confusedly and baaing. Dodd and he rode between them, straight at the reivers, while the rest came around from both sides of the flock. For a moment there was confused shouting; the reivers weren't sure what was happening: Carey fired both his dags, missed both times. A couple of arrows whipped into the ground, Sim's Will rode past with his lance in rest and his horse tripped over a sheep.
"A Tynedale, a Tynedale, Out, Out!" roared Dodd happily, barrelling lance first at the widest mounted shadow.
Carey hauled his sword out, felt rather than saw something coming at him through the night, turned his horse and struck sideways. The sword went into something, there was a splash of hot blood and the blade stuck. He twisted and wrenched it out. Then a horse cantered past on his other side, its rider jumped onto his back and hauled him to the ground, giving him a headful of spinning lights and a nasty twinge from the ribs he had cracked two weeks before. A snarling face was lit up briefly by a bright red flash; dimly somewhere in the distance he heard a very loud bang and a sound of shrieking, but he was too busy to wonder who had been hit.
He elbowed his enemy in the face while neither of them had any nightsight, rolled to loosen the man's grip and brought his sword hilt down on the white patch of face he could just see under the helmet. He tried to get to his feet, there was a blow on his side, the man was trying to grapple his neck, he managed to pull his dagger free with his left hand as he twisted away and stabbed under the man's arm, heard the grating of metal and a gasp. This time he could get his legs under him, he raised his broadsword up and swung down, there was a satisfying meaty thunk and the man's head came off. He hopped backwards quickly to be away from the blood.
Somebody still mounted came riding towards him with a lance, black shadow on a bigger shadow, the shadow of a lance. Carey's world focused down to its point and time slowed. He waited until the last possible minute, then threw himself sideways into the horse's path. The hobby reared, frightened of the movement, one of the hooves caught him a glancing blow on the helmet, he caught the nearest stirrup, reached up, hefted the man out of the saddle and onto the ground. They both tangled in the lance-haft and fell down together and just as Carey got on top of the man, and was preparing to stab him lefthanded in the throat, he realised it was Sim's Will Croser.
For a moment he simply knelt there stupidly as his sight cleared. Then he got up.
"Are you hurt?" he demanded.
"Nay," said Sim's Will. "Sorry, sir, Ah mistook ye."
Both of them were on their feet, Carey picked his sword off the turf, looking around for enemies but none were left. Hooves thudded off in the distance. He wiped his blade down with handfuls of grass and sheathed it. The body of the man Carey had killed was still bleeding into the ground, four horses were trotting around shaking their heads. Further off the shrieking was fading to gasps. Carey went over to the source of the sounds where two others of his men were standing by helplessly. Dodd cantered up and dismounted.