The Place of Ellestoun, February, 1488
“They say he’s in league with the Devil.” Marion Sempill paused with her hand on the latch. The candle guttered in the draught, giving her a fey, unearthly look. “From the looks of him, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
John caught his sister’s eye, curious, a little concerned. “What’s he doing here, anyway?”
“How should I know?” she retorted. “I’m just a woman!” She patted his arm. “Rather you than me.” Opening the door, she swept from the chill darkness of the stair-tower to the light and warmth of the hall.
John followed close behind.
Outside the sun was shining; there was a faint warmth in the air that heralded the coming of spring. He should have been out hunting deer in the hills. Instead, he was trapped indoors doing his father’s bidding.
Marion halted; lost in thought, he nearly trampled her gown. She glanced back reproachfully, but John couldn’t apologise. He’d seen his father’s face; it wasn’t the time or place for frivolity.
His parents stood with their guest by the fireplace: his father Sir Thomas Sempill, spared him no more than a brief glance, while his mother Elizabeth Ross was too absorbed even to acknowledge his arrival. Her neglect went unnoticed; of far greater interest to John was the man who stood with them: the Lord Montgomerie.
John had heard of Hugh Montgomerie. There wasn’t a soul in the Westland who hadn’t. Over the last few years, Lord Hugh had earned quite a reputation as an arsonist, a murderer, and an abuser of the King’s laws.
It was impolite to stare, but John stared regardless. He’d expected Hugh Montgomerie to be a big scowling hulk of a man; instead, the much-feared Butcher of Eglintoun was a long lean creature with a pale imperious face and dark hair hanging about his shoulders. Montgomerie could only have been thirty or thereabouts, but already he carried himself with the measured elegance of a seasoned courtier.
Before John knew it, Montgomerie’s gaze was on him. It was too late to look away; it was as if in that brief moment, the cold grey eyes had bored right through him.
“It would be splendid to have another son,” Montgomerie said. “I’d welcome a Bishop in the family. Perhaps even a Cardinal! But I mustn’t be selfish. I already have my heir, and my wife would relish a daughter. Rest assured, Lady Elizabeth, that I’ll greet whatever God sends me with a cheerful face and a joyful heart.” He smiled and leaned closer to Lady Elizabeth, who clapped her hands and laughed in coy delight.
“Ah, there you are, John,” Sir Thomas Sempill said. “I’m glad Marion caught you before you disappeared with the hounds.” He grasped John’s arm and steered him before Montgomerie. “You’ve not met my son, my lord?”
“No, I haven’t yet had the pleasure,” said Montgomerie. “Good day to you, Master Sempill.”
“Good day, my lord,” John replied. Looking at their guest, he sensed a restless undercurrent beneath the polished facade. Given the right circumstances, he supposed it might erupt into violence.
For once, then, he’d met a man whose reputation was justified. As he watched his father usher Montgomerie to the stair, exchanging token pleasantries all the while, John wasn’t sure if he should be impressed, or alarmed.
* * *
It was already late morning, but the day had not yet dawned in the laird’s chamber, where the shutters were closed against the cold. Flames roared high in the fireplace, and candles blazed in every corner, a forlorn attempt to hold back the darkness. The black, heavy beams of the ceiling only added to the wintry gloom of the place. But first impressions were deceptive. John looked up and couldn’t resist a smile, for lining every joist and timber were painted strings of flowers and leaves. They lifted the heart, glowing like stars in the velvet black of a midwinter sky, a delicate detail lost on those who gave the room no more than a casual inspection.
“Fetch our guest some wine.” Sir Thomas sat down in a heavy chair beside the fire. He was fifty years old, strong and proud. The thick mane of tawny gold hair he’d once borne had faded largely to silver, but his face remained smooth, flawless, as if untouched by time.
Wine had been left on the carved wooden kist by the far wall, next to the vast curtained bed that dominated the room. John poured two measures, one for his father, one for their guest.
His father gestured to a nearby chair. “Please be seated, my lord.”
“I’d rather stand.” Montgomerie halted with his back to the fire, hand resting on his sword hilt.
“As you wish.” Sempill’s neutral expression did not waver.
“Your wine, Lord Hugh.” John delivered the goblet into Montgomerie’s ring-encrusted fingers.
“Thank you so very much.” Montgomerie’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Sit down, John.” Sir Thomas snatched the remaining goblet from John’s grasp.
Stifling a sigh, John settled in an unobtrusive spot by the window. A sliver of clear bright blue was visible through a gap in the shutters; he stared at it transfixed until the frustration grew too much and he slumped against the panelling, arms folded.
“I can guess what brings you here,” Sir Thomas Sempill said. “I hope you’ve come seeking guidance.”
“I don’t need guidance.”
“Then why are you here?”
“You helped me in the past,” Montgomerie said. “I don’t forget such favours.”
Sempill gave a mirthless snort. “So you’re not entirely bereft of honour? That’s comforting to know.”
Hearing the disdain in his father’s voice, John sat up, his resentment forgotten. He swivelled unobtrusively round, planting his feet square before him and clasping his hands loosely in his lap.
“I won’t waste your time, Sir Thomas. Argyll’s washed his hands of King James now. He’s backing the Prince. So am I.”
“Do you think that’s enough to make the Sempills ride with you?”
“I thought you might consider not riding against me.”
“This is treason, Hugh. It’ll give Kilmaurs the excuse he needs to hang you.”
“I’ve nothing to fear. There’s too many of us.”
“What have they offered you?” Sir Thomas Sempill’s voice was chill. “A remission for the burning of Kerrielaw? Or Cunninghame of Kilmaurs’ head on a platter?”
“You malign me. It’s the fate of the kingdom that’s at stake here.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Sir Thomas snapped. “This holier-than-thou air doesn’t suit you. They must be paying you well, I must say. And don’t try and resort to bribery–”
“Nobody mentioned bribery,” Montgomerie countered. “I was trying to appeal to your common sense.”
“Common sense? Christ, don’t patronise me.”
“He’s betrayed our trust in him. He’s incapable of ruling fairly–”
“He’s incapable of favouring you, you mean–”
“He should be removed.”
“He’s the King!”
“Thank you,” Montgomerie said. “It’s good to know where the Sempills’ loyalties will lie in the months ahead.”
“We’ll be fighting for the King.” Sir Thomas pushed himself stiffly to his feet. “Now, I think you should go. Forgive me, if I don’t offer you lodgings. I can’t give succour to a traitor and a rebel. John, go to the stables. See that His Lordship’s horses are made ready.”
* * *
John smoothed the horse’s rough black coat one last time before he heaved the harness into place.
He leaned against its shoulder with a sigh. His quiet existence here at Ellestoun was in jeopardy, thanks to the scheming of men like Montgomerie. Rage coursed through him; he banged the saddle down so hard the horse flinched and grunted.
The sense of shame was quick to follow and he stroked the creature’s neck to reassure it. It wasn’t as if the beast was responsible for its master’s misdeeds.
His father called him weak, because he had the decency to regret angry words and harsh deeds. Sir Thomas would have far preferred his son and heir to be gifted with a stronger spirit and a weaker conscience. But perhaps Sir Thomas Sempill was right. Perhaps John would change, become harder, more vindictive. More like his father.
“You don’t have to do what he says, you know.” It came as a shock, to hear Montgomerie’s voice so close. John hadn’t even heard him approach, but there he was, standing just a few feet away at the horse’s tail. “You could ride with me,” Montgomerie continued, in that same mild, pleasant voice. “I’d see you were looked after. You wouldn’t be the first to change sides. Your kinsman Adam Mure’s already pledged his support.”
“Adam’s always been prone to false counsel.”
“Ah, quite a profound statement! From someone who’s said to be dull and lacking in spirit.”
“Adam said that, I suppose.” He boldly met Lord Hugh’s gaze.
Montgomerie’s steely expression didn’t waver. “I think there’s more to you than meets the eye.”
“Complimenting me won’t help you. I might be dull and lacking in spirit. But at least I have my principles. I’ll be fighting for the King.”
Montgomerie smiled, faintly. “You don’t want to offend your father, do you? You’re in his thrall. I’d guess he never lets you have your say in anything.”
“My time will come.”
“He’s a stubborn old fool. He’ll live to regret this day.”
John irritably secured the final strap-end. “If you think that insulting my father and flattering me will change my mind, then you’re wrong.”
“Actually, Master Sempill, I wanted to make sure that you’re doing a reasonable job of tending my horse.” Montgomerie smiled again, more obviously this time: it was an unnerving smile, wild, faintly bestial. “You shouldn’t leap to conclusions. I’m only trying to save your neck. I’ve nothing against you, I’ve nothing against your father.”
“Your horse is ready now, my lord.” John sidled deep into the stall. Pushing his fist into the horse’s chest, he watched in grim satisfaction as it moved back, quickly.
Lord Hugh stepped aside just in time. “Are you always so sanctimonious? You look like you’ve just come face-to-face with the Devil.”
“The similarities aren’t lost upon me. Like the Devil, you’re tempting me. Your horse.” He thrust the reins into Montgomerie’s hand.
“Temptation has nothing to do with it. This is a friendly warning, nothing more. You’ll face more than forty days and forty nights in the wilderness if the King’s defeated.”
“We haven’t lost the battle yet.”
“No, I don’t suppose you have.” Montgomerie teased some hay from his horse’s forelock and flicked it lazily to the ground.
“There you are!” Marion appeared, breathless at the door. “Oh, forgive me. Am I interrupting anything?”
“Lord Hugh’s just leaving,” John told her.
“Oh!” She feigned ignorance. “So soon? John, Father would like a word…”
“Your father calls,” Lord Hugh said. “You’d best run along. Like the dutiful son you are.”
* * *
“It wasn’t an excuse,” Marion said. “One of the servants saw Lord Hugh follow you into the stables. He told Father–”
“God, can he not trust me this once?”
“He’s in his chamber. You’d best go and explain…”
“Alright!” He took her arm and steered her to the door. “Get inside now, Marion. It’s cold out here.”
No sooner had they started up the stairs than they nearly collided with their mother, who came bustling out all brisk and business-like from the hall. “Where’s Lord Hugh?” she demanded.
“He’s just left,” John said.
“But I was expecting him at the board! The cooks agreed to prepare something special. I believe he’s partial to duck—”
John shrugged. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
“This is terrible news! What will everyone think of us, sending a guest away like this? Without feeding him? Or offering him a place to rest for the night? Thomas? Thomas!” Her voice, shrill as a banshee, could have wakened the dead.
Sir Thomas Sempill ventured down the stairs. “Yes, my dear?”
“What’s the meaning of this? John tells me that—”
“He tells you right,” Sir Thomas said, firmly. “He won’t be present.”
“It’ll reflect badly on me!” she snapped. “Can’t you understand that?”
“God,” said Sir Thomas Sempill, and that was it. He glanced at John, a weary, hunted look in his eyes. Then the impassive façade was back. “Come on,” he said. “I want you upstairs. Now.”
* * *
“Get in.” Sir Thomas hauled John into the laird’s chamber. “Sit down.”
John sprawled into the nearest chair with a sigh.
“I’m told he spoke with you alone. What did he say?”
“He asked me to ride east with him.”
Sir Thomas stood before the fire. He stared into its depths, saying nothing. He rarely lost his temper, but John had weathered his father’s rage enough to know the pattern of it.
Sir Thomas whirled around, his face dark, ominous. He marched over and dragged John close, almost dragging him from his seat. “I expect obedience from you!” he snarled, blue-grey eyes bright, unreasoning.
“–I don’t care that you’re my only son; if you take up with him, I swear to God I’ll disinherit you!” He pushed John back down, so hard he gasped.
Scowling, John straightened his doublet. “How can you think me capable of such treachery?” he demanded. “Have I ever questioned your judgement? Have I ever disobeyed you in any way?”
“I’ve always been loyal, but all you ever do is dismiss me as irrelevant. I’m nineteen years old. I’m not a boy anymore.” John broke off. For nineteen years, he’d bowed his head and agreed to everything. Now, for the first time in his life, he’d spoken back.
“No, John, you don’t understand,” his father said. “It’s not your age.” There was a momentary silence, then, “If you want the truth, I’ll give you the truth. It’s because you’re so damned useless!”
“What good’s the knowledge of a few dead ancients when you’re up against an English sword, eh? When I was your age, I’d already slaughtered a score or more English dogs at Roxburgh. You know what your problem is, boy? You’re too damned soft!” He smiled with stern satisfaction. “I hope to God this does come to war. If you ask me, a good battle’s just what you need. Maybe it’ll knock some sense into you!”
Copyright Louise Turner and Hadley Rille Books, 2013