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John Craig McDonald

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An Early Fall
by John Craig McDonald   

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Historical Fiction

Publisher:  Oak Tara Type: 


Copyright:  November 2008 ISBN-13:  9781602901513

The Battle of Flodden, the disastrous consequence of James IV's attempt of to invade England in 1513, had a profound effect on all of Scotland, rich and poor. This is no less true in the families of the Guthrie household and of Selkirk burgesses, whose fates are intertwined in a story of murder and lust, bravery and grace.

Scotland, 1513
King James of Scotland’s noose has been tightening around the neck of Sir Alexander Guthrie for years. Now, with England continuing to raid the Scottish Borders, King James decides to attack the neighboring country. To Alex, everything about this venture smacks of the sovereign’s reckless disregard for the people of Scotland. Yet, as a knight, is Alex doomed to leave all he holds dear—powerless to do anything but follow?

Time and ale are wreaking havoc on the traveling musician, Andrew Ritchie. But behind the wild living is the secret of a haunted past…and a face he cannot forget.

Rachel Tanner, a young maid of dubious parentage in the
Guthries’ household, is under the protection of her beloved Father Francis…until one dark night in a stable propels her on a courageous journey


Chapter 1

The Kelso Road from Selkirk
Wednesday, 14th September, midday
here was but one way the men of Selkirk would return and that
was along the Kelso road. It was by this road, then, that the
party of women, children, and old men—some two hundred
souls in all—determined to meet them. They were led by three
mounted riders: Lady Margaret Guthrie; Mistress Jonet Soutar, wife of
the Lord Provost Giles Fleming; and the Guthrie steward, old Findlay
Nearly the whole town lay empty a few miles back. Only the
infirm remained there.
Early on Tuesday morning, the thirtieth of August, the troop of
eighty soldiers—tradesmen, farmers, merchants, really—from the town
and the neighboring Guthrie manor had set off to join his Majesty,
James IV, and his army in the English shire of Northumberland. Then, a
week ago, on Friday, the ninth of September, they had met an English
army commanded by Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, just outside
the village of Branxton.
News of disaster spread quickly throughout Scotland. An
exhausted messenger, a follower of the Earl of Argyle, had arrived in
Selkirk last Sunday on his way to deliver the news to Campbell
clansmen, whose kin had collapsed under the onslaught of Lord
Stanley. Nearly the whole of the Scottish power had been destroyed,
the messenger said, including King James.
Such reports were always exaggerated. So everyone in the burgh
reasoned at first. But why, when more time passed, had none of their
fellowship, not the first man, returned? It was too painful to give much
thought. At first, the townsfolk had gone on as if there had been no
battle, as if it were natural for the days to continue indefinitely into
months, even years if necessary. Walking down the high street, a visitor
would have heard little different than on ordinary days: the clatter of a
weaver’s shuttle, the whir of a distaff, the ringing of hammer on anvil,
the mournful complaint of a cow being driven to market. What was
perhaps not so noticeable, what was seldom heard these days, was the
human music that usually eased the drudgery of the work. And when
evening fell, when melodies of looms and distaffs, animals and anvils
ceased, all was silent. It was in those intervals that the fears came
crowding in.
Then, just the day before, a rumor began to circulate that Mistress
Soutar had received a letter. What it contained, no one knew.
“Up she got without a word and rode westwards, in the direction
of Guthrie Castle. Ghostlike she looked. We dared not follow her.”
Jonet’s apprentices, Will and Tom, nodded solemnly to one another as
they related the movements of their mistress.
She returned the next morning, riding through town with Lady
Margaret and Findlay, stiffly, silently, their eyes fixed straight ahead.
As if by some secret signal, the others joined them. They would not
wait for their husbands or brothers or sons to march the whole
distance. Certainly, the survivors would be approaching soon. Wives
and sisters and mothers would go out to meet them.
The weather conspired to drench the already sodden spirits of the
walkers. It was as gloomy a day as the one the small army had set off. A
steady rain had reduced visibility to only a few hundred yards, and the
deep mud sucked greedily at the walkers’ shoes. The going was slow.
Already they had been walking for two hours—up the steep southern
road towards Hawick for about a half mile to a junction recently
marked by a cairn of gray stone, then east, winding their way for
another three quarters mile on the hillock that overlooked the burgh.
Once past the crest, their way would open up to more level moorland.
But for now they could make little speed. Even with the greatest care,
progress was hampered when one walker slipped and brought down
with her two or three others.
Still, they moved on, steadily, drearily. The children complained
little, so caught up were they in the solemnity of the occasion. Without
breaking stride, mothers comforted their whimpering infants by
covering them with their cloaks and giving them suck.
Most of the party had topped the rise and begun the gentle descent
onto the moor when suddenly, on the road ahead of them, a yellow flag
simply materialized out of nowhere, floating on the mist. Not the
Scottish flag with the Red Lion, rampant, but the battle standard, as
they were later to learn, of a company of English yeomen from
Macclesfield, led by Sir Christopher Savage. Then the outlines of a
single rider. An almost comic vision of a man slumped in his saddle, his
feet nearly dragging the ground, astride a donkey.
Findlay, perhaps pressed by Lady Guthrie, spurred his mount
ahead of the others. All at once, he stopped abruptly, some twenty-five
yards from the object of his haste. The figure paused, too. For a time, all
was motionless, except for the falling of the rain.

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