Su­sanna Kears­ley "Sol­dier, Wake"

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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 su­san­nakears­ 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.

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