Authors: Margaret Skea
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Historical Fiction, #Scottish
Munro slipped from the saddle. ‘I’ll not be long. Walk her, and find a blanket and some hay, but no oats mind.’
The lad took the reins without enthusiasm or any mark of respect and Munro felt a flash of irritation. He flicked a glance at his clothes, then back to the lad – it wasn’t always
politic to draw attention. He thought it an unmanly thing to take much stock of looks and so, despite his wife’s best efforts, wore his clothing almost to extinction: his leather jerkin
polished to a shine around the buttons and his boots heavily scarred along their length. He injected an extra edge of impatience into his voice, ‘Look sharp. We have travelled a distance and
have a way to go yet, and I don’t wish for her to be chilled nor to stiffen.’ Behind him the sun slid below the west tower, the last rays, fractured by the battlements, casting a
gap-toothed grimace on the cobbles. Munro shivered, turned towards the tower entrance, and pausing at the top of the wooden steps, caught the smell of baking bread, which settled on his stomach
like an ache.
As he entered the solar Lady Margaret Langshaw rose from her seat by the inglenook, one cheek flushed, the draught from the door rippling the tapestry on the wall behind her. She came towards
him: a figure come to life. He bent over her hand, her skin, buttermilk-white, unblemished, drifting with the scent of almonds as they touched.
‘A request, Lady – from Glencairn.’
‘My husband is from home. Can this wait?’
Munro proffered the letter. ‘It’s for you. Glencairn expects a reply tonight.’
Frowning, she slid her forefinger under the wax seal, her grip on the parchment tightening as she read. She looked up at Munro. ‘To betray a guest . . . a kinsman . . . and to such an end
. . . Glencairn presumes much.’
Slate eyes met blue. Munro made his voice flat. ‘The Montgomeries are kin in marriage only. You are a Cunninghame.’
She bent to pick up the small shift, fallen to the floor as she rose to greet him, her fingers teasing at the edge of the unfinished smocking. ‘And for that I must risk my peace and that
of my children?’
He dragged his eyes away, focused on the fire flaring in the hearth, on the basket of split logs calloused with moss, stifled the unbidden thought – her bairn is likely ages with my own.
Blocking the anguish in her voice and hating his own tone, he said, ‘We are none of us at peace. Our cousin Waterstone’s lady lies cold in bed at night and his bairns they say still cry
out in their sleep.’
‘And am I to bring trouble to my lord too?’
‘No trouble. Glencairn asks a signal only – the real work is elsewhere.’
‘And if it goes awry? The sound of the rout will rebound to my door.’
‘Am I to take your refusal to Glencairn?’
She spoke so softly he had to bend his head to hear her. ‘I am a Cunninghame, God help me.’ A hesitation . . . ‘I expect the Montgomeries tomorrow, some ten or twelve only.
Braidstane is bid meet Eglintoun to sup here, and make for court thereafter. You may tell Glencairn to look to the battlement, on the west side. If they arrive as arranged, there will be a white
napkin hanging.’ She was looking past him to the square of window framing the darkening sky. ‘Beyond that I cannot do more.’
He bowed over her hand. ‘Glencairn is grateful, lady.’
She dismissed him with the smallest of nods. ‘Good-day Munro.’
He bowed again and escaped, clattering down the stair. Outside, glad of the sting of the air on his face, he wheeled through the gateway, closing his ears to the sound of children’s
laughter floating over the barmkin wall.
William Cunninghame, Master of Glencairn, turned from the gable window, his dark eyes sparking. He made no offer of his hand to Munro, nor any concession to ordinary courtesy,
his voice echoing under the high-raftered ceiling of Kilmaur’s long hall.
‘What kept you? The job is done?’
There was only one suitable answer. ‘She will provide the signal.’
‘As she should. And willingly I hope.’
‘She can be trusted?’
‘Oh yes . . .’ Munro thought of the look with which Lady Margaret had dismissed him. ‘Your father is a dangerous man to cross. She understands that.’
‘As do we all.’ William’s laugh was a bark, resounding over the clusters of men grouped in each deep window reveal, muting their conversations. Munro inclined his head to each
group in turn. They numbered about thirty and all were known to him, albeit slightly, for all hailed from North Ayrshire or there abouts and all shared allegiance to the Earl of Glencairn and the
Cunninghame name. What they did not all share – clear, even from his cursory glance – was an equal inclination to answer this summons. Prominent among them was Clonbeith, noted both for
intemperance and, more importantly for the current purpose, his skill with a hackbut. And with him, Robertland, another close kinsman, who no doubt thought to make capital from the venture. In
contrast, Glencairn’s brother, John, stared at the Cunninghame arms carved into the lintel above the hearth and shifted his weight back and forward from one foot to the other, as if he
suffered from a stone in his boot.
Munro studied the floor – dear God . . . there is not a house within twenty miles that will not feel the weight of what we do.
‘You took your time.’ The Earl of Glencairn filled the doorway. ‘I had not thought to have to wait supper beyond our normal hour.’
‘His horse. . .’ William, with a sideways glance at Munro, lied fluently, ‘a lameness delayed his return, but the news is good.’
Glencairn shot another look, a little warmer this time, at Munro, who forced himself to smile in return. Glencairn was, like his son, tall, but without William’s languid manner, though
both took great stock of their dress. He wore the latest cartwheel ruff over burgundy trunk hose and a cream, brocaded doublet, lined with the same blood red. Stationing himself at the head of the
table, he grasped the carved horn of the Cunninghame unicorn which crowned the back of the heavy chair, the gold ring on his forefinger catching the light.
Munro met his gaze. ‘The Montgomeries are expected at Langshaw tomorrow. Eglintoun and Braidstane both.’
‘And Lady Margaret? She will do her duty?’
‘She hangs a white table napkin from the battlement. It will be easy seen.’
‘A small company only, some ten or twelve men.’ The candle in front of Munro flared and he looked down, lest in the momentary brightness any trace of reluctance showed on his face.
Clearly not fast enough.
William, picking his nail with a cheese-knife, glanced at Munro. ‘Have you not the stomach for this fight? I hadn’t placed you for a coward.’
A muscle twitched at the side of Munro’s eye. ‘I too know my duty.’
‘See that you do.’ Glencairn sat down, William on one side, Clonbeith and Robertland on the other. They attacked the supper with relish, as if the gathering was no more than a social
occasion; their conversation spiced with the latest gossip: the rumour of the return of the pestilence to Perth; how the young minister Andrew Melville, with a taste for presbyterianism, was well
set in St Andrews as a thorn in the flesh to Bishop Adamson; the plummetting value of the pound Scots against the English currency. Munro settled near the foot of the table, toying with a cutlet,
and noted that John Cunninghame, folded into a space half-way down the long bench, shredded his slab of beef as if he prepared it for a grand-dame with no teeth.
Clonbeith helped himself to a handful of pickled chestnuts. ‘This talk of a school at Stewarton. Word is the minister at Ayr subscribes to the notion that everybody should have their
letters – lads and lassies both.’
‘I have no problem with education for those who can make good use of it.’ William looked around, as if daring challenge. ‘We have a minister in every parish and I daresay
derive some benefit . . .’ he acknowledged the ripple of laughter, ‘. . . but to educate folk beyond their station, that I can’t see the sense of. There may be reason in a bonnet
laird with a grounding in French, if only to avoid being cheated when he buys his wine, but if we can all spout Cicero, who will clear the middens? Tell me that.’
‘When you spout Cicero,’ slivers of chestnut sprayed from Clonbeith’s mouth, ‘I’ll clear your midden myself.’
A louder burst of laughter, reaching the length of the table, so that William flushed, half-rose, his right fist clenched.
Glencairn was on his feet, thrusting back his chair, grasping William’s arm. ‘Save your spleen for the Montgomeries. We ride at dawn. I wish no thick heads riding with me.’
There was a hasty scraping back of benches as most of those present followed Glencairn and William from the hall. Munro slumped back into his chair; knowledge of the proposed ambush acting as a
band tightening around his chest. He reached for the ale – thick head or not, it was as well to dull tomorrow’s business.
He was up and rousing himself under the pump in the corner of the yard while the sky was still black, the only sign of approaching dawn a grey edge to the heavy clouds that
bunched overhead. He had a good head for ale, but had taken more than enough, even for him. It had been gone two in the morning, before he had finally drunk himself to a stupor, though no one would
have guessed at it as he joined Glencairn. His boots were laced up to his knees, his doublet tightly buttoned against the rain moving in a sweep across the valley. William was already mounted, his
black velvet doublet slashed with silver, a peacock feather in his hat, indicating that he had made no concession to the job in hand. Glencairn too was dressed with care, but the others were, like
Munro, soberly attired and could have passed for gentlemen of any ilk.
‘Easy to see who does the work,’ Munro said in an undertone to John Cunninghame, who circled on the cobbles beside him.
The clatter of hooves covered John’s reply. ‘Have a care you don’t share your thoughts too widely. There are those who would gladly take the favour that your displacement might
Munro changed tack. ‘What do we wait for? Are we not all here?’
‘That we are, but Lady Glencairn is bid bring the younger children to give us farewell.’
‘So . . . Glencairn’s not as confident as he seems . . .’ Munro broke off as the family appeared at the main door.
Glencairn didn’t dismount, only leaned down, to rest his hand on the youngest child’s head. Shy of her father, she pulled back and buried her face in her mother’s skirts.
‘It isn’t the child’s blame.’ Lady Glencairn spoke quietly. ‘She scarce knows her father . . .’
‘See to it that you teach her then, madam.’ Glencairn’s voice was also quiet, but far from gentle.
She inclined her head and stepped back as he turned his horse, spurring it towards the gateway. Munro thought of his own farewell: of Kate, white-faced and taut, the twins round-eyed, uncertain.
Of his forced cheerfulness. ‘This call – it may not signify. I could be gone a day or two only.’ Of his equal failure to draw a satisfactory response.
Once through the gateway, they rode in a pack, tight at the front, straggling at the rear, according to the quality of the horse, or, more like, the fitness of the rider. Munro sat easily, his
grip light, and moved forward without effort until he rode again at John’s side, but made no attempt at conversation, unable to think on anything other than the present affair. They had
climbed beyond the cleared ground where cattle grazed, last season’s bracken crackling under-hoof: autumn-gold shot through with curled fronds of fresh green.
William paused on the brow of the hill, turned. ‘More eager now, Munro? Last evening I thought you less than comfortable with your duties.’ His horse pranced backwards, nudging
Munro’s, as if to emphasize the thinly veiled threat. ‘Do you wish it, we could relieve you of your place.’
Munro bent his head, re-gathered the reins and gave himself time to frame a reply. ‘I have no such wish. I thought only of the King. The talk is . . .’
William scowled. ‘Ah, James.’ There was a contemptuous twist to his voice. ‘And we are to pass on our obligations while others hold to theirs? We have lost much to the
Montgomeries, and do well to remember it. This call to court – it is an opportunity to strike at their heart, that we cannot pass.’