Susanna Kearsley "Soldier, Wake"
Susanna Kearsley is a NYT bestselling author with a string of awards, beginning with the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize for
Mariana. Most recently, she won a Romance Writers of America RITA award for The Firebird. Visit susannakearsley.com for links to her Facebook page, blogs, and other titles.
Soldier, wake: the day is peeping; Honour ne’er was won in sleeping. — Sir Walter Scott, from The Betrothed
The boy fell last.
The weary young knight, ankle-deep in muck and death, looked up before it happened, but he could not reach the boy in time to claim him as a prisoner and stay the baron’s vengeful hand. The baron hated all Scots. He had told the men as much before they’d headed north from Carlisle. “Godless animals,” he’d called them. “As they live like dogs, so shall we see them die like dogs, and leave not one alive to blight King Edward’s realm.”
The baron had been wounded in the siege the month before when the Red Comyn had come silent as a thief across the border and surprised them with a bold attack upon the well-defended walls of Carlisle, and although the walls had held and all the Scots had since retreated, still the baron had been brooding on
that wound so that his hatred festered more than his own flesh, which had since healed.
The young knight, riding with the others who’d been called to war, had daily watched the baron grow more hardened, with a heart that must now surely be as black as the long shadows of the hills that sheltered this small barren bit of valley, where a single hovel built of mud and thatch was all the evidence that any man had tried to tame this unforgiving place.
The boy had come from there. He had been standing with his mother in the doorway when the Scotsmen, nearly thirty of them, had sprung unexpected from the trees behind and charged the baron’s vassals with a fierce resolve that deemed their own deaths worthy if they took an English life along.
They’d taken more than one life each, when all the count was done. But one by one the fierce and fearless Scots had been cut down, and when the tallest one had fallen, with his dark hair wet with gore, the boy had shouted from his doorway and come running through the mayhem, pausing only to pick up the tall Scot’s sword. He’d needed both his hands to hold it, but he’d raised it from the mud and tried his best to strike a blow against one of the older Englishmen.
The older man had merely stepped away to let the blow fall harmlessly, his own arm dropping to his side. He doubtless had a son or two at home himself, and there was pity in his eyes as he stood looking at the boy. But the baron had no pity. The young knight had been close enough to see the baron’s
face as he began to move towards the boy, but there had not been time enough to cross the space between them. And so now the boy lay dead.
A silence seemed to fall across the full length of the valley, broken only by the rushing of the wind and some bird harshly crying from the line of trees. The men said nothing.
Carefully the young knight met the baron’s eyes. “He was a boy.” “He would have grown to be our enemy.” The baron turned away and shouted orders to the men and there was movement once again, but the knight paid no heed. Instead he bent and gently lifted the slight body of the boy, so warm it seemed a thing impossible that there could be no life in it, and grimly, with the burden in his arms, he started walking to the low and lonely hovel, where the woman stood and waited at the door.
She had not moved. Not when her man had fallen, nor yet when the boy had broken from her hold, nor even when she’d seen him killed. She’d simply stood and watched, as she was standing now and watching the knight drawing nearer, and he might have thought her made of stone had he not seen her eyes.
They did not hate, those eyes. They did not seek to blame. But there was loss and sorrow in their depths that he could scarcely bear to meet. He stopped an arms-length from her, and did not know what to say.
She seemed to hear him, notwithstanding. Reaching out, she smoothed the boy’s hair from his forehead, and her hand shook
only slightly as it travelled down to gently close the staring, sightless eyes. And then she stepped back, and without a word she motioned the young knight to come inside.
He had to duck his head beneath the heavy lintel, and he found that even having passed the threshold he could barely straighten to his full height. Everything was dim within the single room. The peat fire smoked and stung his eyes and cast but little light, and there was only one small window fixed with shutters and no glass.
The woman nodded at the bedstead in the corner, and he crossed the earthen floor to gently lay the boy upon the blankets, taking care to bend the elbows up so he could cross the lifeless hands upon the boy’s chest in an attitude of prayer, as he had seen the hands of his own forebears in the effigies upon their tombs at church.
He said a prayer himself, aloud, because it seemed the decent thing to do, and then he crossed himself, and stood there at a loss until the woman spoke behind him. “By what name,” she asked him, “are ye called?” His name? It seemed an unimportant thing. “I am Sir Giles Hatch.”
She gave a nod and murmured to herself, ‘Jehoshaphat’, and he did not correct her, for he knew the loss she’d suffered would drive any woman mad. And when she said to him, “Ye’ve saved yourself this day,” the young knight reasoned that she meant he’d saved his soul from being damned for doing murder of an innocent.
He gave a nod to show he understood and made to leave, but from the doorway he saw several of the others glancing now
towards the house, and their expressions changed his mind. He turned, and told the woman, “Night is coming, and the men will be too weary to move on until the morning. I will do my best to see you are not … harmed. With your permission, I will stay outside your door here, for I would not wish to leave you undefended.”
“I am never that.” The faintness of her smile was strange, and secretive. She bent to stir the fire and said, “Your leader seeks a word wi’ ye.”
In truth, the baron even now was striding in a rage towards them. “What the devil are you playing at, Sir Giles? I did not give you leave to quit the field!”
The young knight could not think of what to answer without being insubordinate, but neither would his conscience let him move. The woman settled his dilemma when she calmly told the baron, “He was doing ye a service, English, seeking to secure this house, and me, for your own use.” Her face was more a siren’s than a widow’s as she looked towards the baron. “Or were ye prepared to camp the night on cold ground wi’ your men, and have no comfort for yourself?”
The baron could not seem to look away from her. He told the knight, “Well then, Sir Giles, ’twas wisely done. Stay here and keep your watch, and I’ll return when we have finished making camp.”
As the baron walked away, the knight said, “Lady, that was ill-advised. He will be back.”
She gave no sign she’d heard him. She was tending to the fire
still, and he fancied she was talking to the flames. They flared up suddenly, as though they sought to answer, and she reached directly into them with both her arms.
He moved instinctively. He felt the searing heat against his own skin as he took her arms in both his hands and dragged her back while telling her, “Don’t be a fool. You’ll burn!”
Yet to his great surprise, her hands had not been harmed, nor had her sleeves been singed. His hands dropped from her arms as he withdrew in realization, and he crossed himself again. And yet she could not be a witch, he thought, for witches burned. He’d seen them burn.
Again she reached into the flames and pulled a heap of glowing ashes forth that steamed upon the floor. She asked him, “Is the sun behind the hills?” He looked. When had the shadows grown so long? “It is.” “Then there is little time. Come, sit,” she said, and drew a stool into the furthest corner from the bed on which her son’s dead body lay. “I cannot —” “Sit.” She held his gaze with hers, and like the baron he could find no will to disobey her. When he sat, she gave a nod of satisfaction and began to sprinkle ashes in a circle round him, saying, “When my lad was but a bairn, there was a priest who came in passing, and the winter caught him unawares and stayed him here some time. He prayed to excess, but at night he telt us stories from the scriptures, and I mind them still. Your hands,” she prompted, wanting him to hold them out, and so he did,
and carefully she trickled ash into his upturned palms. “I mind the story of Jehoshaphat,” she carried on, “who fought aside the wicked king, and with that king did wicked things, and God was very angry. But God saw that there was good yet in Jehoshaphat, and so,” she said, “while others felt the wrath of God, Jehoshaphat was spared.” When all the ash was in his hands she urged them upwards, indicating he should rub them on his head and face. “I do not understand,” he said. “Ye do not need to.” Outside he could hear the men still calling to each other as the evening closed around them, bringing first the shadowed half-light, then the darkness. And with darkness, it began. The first scream fell with strangeness on his ears, in part because it was a scream and not a battle cry. As young as he might be, he’d grown immune to cries of men at war, but screams … he’d only heard a man scream once before, and that had been within the dungeons of the castle at Carlisle, and while the man was being cruelly tortured.
It unnerved him beyond measure now to hear that first scream followed by another. And another. When he would have stood, she warned him back. “Ye must not move, unless ye wish to share their fate.” “What fate is that?” His voice was hoarse. “The one they chose.” The valley echoed now with screams, and shouts, and with a
low, unearthly moaning that turned all his nerves to ice. He heard the rhythmic thud of running footsteps, and the sound of someone breathing hard. The baron all but flung himself across the threshold, wheeling round to slam and bar the door behind him. “Put your shoulder to the door, Sir Giles, and help me keep them out!”
The baron did not bother with the woman. He appeared to have forgotten her, his eyes filled not with coldness, but with something the young knight had never seen in them before: pure terror.
“Sir Giles!” the baron called, more sharply. “Help me! For the love of God!”
The young knight nearly rose then, but the woman shook her head and held his gaze with hers, and so he did not move.
The door bucked hard against the baron as though something wanted in, and through the heavy wood the sound of those soulchilling moans came yet more strongly. Shifting round, the baron braced his back against the door to hold it closed more firmly. Then, on seeing something in the shadowed corner opposite, he all at once went rigid.
As the woman moved to stand again before the fire the young knight pulled his gaze from hers and looked towards the corner, too. And then he understood. He could not fathom it, nor yet believe it, but he understood. The woman’s voice held reassurance. “Ye’ll survive,” she told the knight.
Her son was rising from the bed. Her dead son, with his body bearing still its gaping wound, his eyes full open and accusing.
The knight, within the ashen circle, with the ashes in his hair and on his hands, his face, his shoulders, seemed to hold no interest for the re-awakened boy, whose staring gaze slid past his mother to the baron, who had lost his battle with the pounding force behind the door and was now being beaten backwards, step by unrelenting step, until in one swift final surge the door slammed open.
The tallest Scot, the black-haired one, was at the forefront of his men as he had been in life, though there was nothing of them anymore that could be called alive. Except their eyes, the knight thought. While the men themselves were dead and torn and battered, streaked with mud and drying gore and fresher blood from those they’d killed upon this second unforgiving field of battle, there was yet a light within their eyes of human memory and emotion, and he saw it clearly as the black-haired Scot held back the others, looking to his son.
The boy came slowly, one leg dragging on the floor, but still he came, his own gaze fixed upon the baron.
And the baron, with his back against the wall, searched for his voice, and found it. “Beasts,” he called them. “Animals.” He tried to spit, but fear seemed to have robbed him of saliva, and at any rate, the gesture came too late. The boy had reached him. Strength was given to the dead. And savagery. The young knight closed his eyes, but he could not shut out the sound. The screams.
They stopped and then began again and then grew strangely muffled. When he dared to look, he only saw the baron’s legs
and boots as they were dragged into the darkness by the Scots, whose black-haired leader had remained within the doorway, staring fiercely at the woman.
Tears welled in her eyes, and yet she would not let them fall. Instead she forced a smile in spite of them, and squarely met the gaze of her dead husband, and she gave a slow nod as he reached a hand to take the shoulder of his son. And with what might have been a smile upon his newly bloodied face, the boy turned also with his father and went off into the night.
The woman crossed to close the door behind them. Looking to the knight she told him, “At the sunrise, ye can go.” He’d never seen a dawn so slow in coming. What it showed him, when he stepped outside, was something twice as terrible as he could have imagined. Where before there had been ninety bodies, now there were three hundred, and the crushed grass of the valley glistened dark with dew and blood.
And the Scots were there among the bodies, lying dead and cold as though they’d never risen, with the slain boy resting close within his father’s arm, against his side.
The woman broke the silence of the morning first. “Did not I tell ye I was well defended?” Dazed, he turned to her. “But why spare me?” “Jehoshaphat.” There was no madness in her eyes. “For all ye walked with wicked men, Sir Giles Hatch, ye showed there was yet good in ye. Now go,” she said, “and see ye guard it well.”
He walked the first hour in a daze. He did not even know in which direction he was heading till the sun rose higher and
he felt its warmth upon his face, and knew that he was headed south. Towards his home.
The second hour he met a fellow traveller — an older man as weary and as silent, and they’d gone some way in company with one another before the young knight looked more intently at the other’s face and recognized him as the same man who had, only yesterday, refused to fight the boy.
Perhaps that one small human act, the knight thought, had been his salvation. Or perhaps his wits had saved him. Neither man had energy or will to speak about it, so they walked on, side by side.
In the third hour, they could hear the sound of horses drawing closer, followed by the tramp of many feet, and as they crested the next hill they met a baronet with all his men assembled, heading northward.
“We’re to join Lord Witmer’s men,” a banner man informed them.
“We’re all that’s left of the Lord Witmer’s men,” the knight replied, and when the banner man relayed this to the baronet, who called upon the travellers to explain themselves, the knight spoke of their daylight ambush by the living Scots, for that at least, he thought, might be believed.
The baronet sniffed once and said, “Lord Witmer had three hundred men when he marched out of Carlisle. Thirty Scots could never kill three hundred men.” He looked more closely at the pair of them, and at their blood-streaked clothes. “You have been wounded, I perceive. Go back, and let the whores of Carlisle tend your wounds, and then you may recover your full sense.”
The older man, exchanging glances with the knight, spoke up. “Sir, you’ll forgive my boldness, but no matter what you find ahead, no matter what you see, you must not stay within that valley after sundown.”
Then the knight knew that the older man had been a witness, also, to the rising of the dead. He would have seconded the warning, but the baronet had started off already, with his men obediently following.
The knight and his companion watched them leave, then turned together to resume their southward march. This time, when silence fell between them, it was with a certain sense of understanding.
When the sun dipped low behind the hills, they found a sheltered place within the trees and hollowed out their beds among the leaves. And there was silence in the woods, with only rustling from the furtive little creatures of the night and from the wind among the leaves.
That same wind, as the young knight closed his eyes and started drifting into slumber, carried faintly from the valley to the north a sound that might have been the calling of an eagle.
Or a scream.