The Harp and the Sea
Lou Sylvre and Anne Barwell © 2020
All Rights Reserved
1605 the Scottish Border Marches
Robert Ker of Cessford, Lord Roxburgh wielded nearly autonomous power at the turn of the 17th century as Warden of the Scottish Middle March. Often called the Debatable Lands, the Border Marches had rough and fluid application of law. A violent nature and loyalty to kin and ally were all the tools Cessford needed to enforce his judgements. His position made him a powerful man, and though he owed allegiance to Scott of Buccleuch, he marched mostly to his own drummer.
But in the year of Our Lord 1603, King James VI of Scotland became also James I of England, and set about unifying the two countries into Great Britain. His “pacification” of the Border Marches in truth meant abolishing the office of Warden, renaming all the Marches the Middle Shires, and killing enough Borderers to make the rest bend the knee. Having lost autonomy, Ker wormed and weaselled his way into the king’s courts at Whitehall and Edinburgh and commenced warring on the people of the March without mercy as a way to impress the monarch.
On a rain-soaked day in autumn, 1605, the rough men who served Ker of Cessford and King James Stuart shoved Robbie Elliot into a damp prison cell beneath Hermitage—a stark and haunted castle located almost dead centre in the Middle March, a place Robbie had once called home. When he heard the heavy oaken door thunk shut behind him, rattling the rusty iron chains and window bars, he fell to his knees in the filthy straw that lay scattered over the stone floor. He and a half-dozen others had been force-marched sixteen miles from Hawick, bound, handled rough, and prodded with sticks. Now Robbie tried in vain to find a few square inches of his body that didn’t cry out in pain.
“There’s water, Robbie.” The weak, high-pitched male voice came from the darkest corner of the cell, and it gave Robbie a start for he’d thought himself alone. “In the barrel there,” the man continued. “It’s clean enough.”
Robbie’s legs obeyed him after only a brief argument, and he stood and walked to the barrel. Dust and chaff floated on the top, but when he dipped the single iron ladle and brought the water to his lips, it had no foul smell. “I’ve had far worse,” Robbie said, and then drank.
When he’d slaked his thirst enough, he turned to his cellmate, who’d stepped out of the shadows. “How’d you come to be here, Keithen?”
“Same as you, I’d wager. I’d heard the warden’s men were on the march, and I meant to hide at my old da’s holding, east of Kelso. But I was caught no more than ten miles from Hermitage castle and strung along with five others—including your stepbrother Jem. We’d thought we’d go no further than the gallows on the hill, but they brought us here.”
“Jem? He’s here?”
“Alas, Robbie, he was a lucky one, for he’ll never see these cells. He fell on the trail, and the warden’s man kicked his head a mite hard. Snapped his neck.”
Robbie piled up some straw and sat, slumping back against the wall, his own head pounding as if he’d been the one kicked. Keithen, who tended to prattle on most of the time, stayed blessedly silent until Robbie spoke up a few minutes later. “Yes, probably lucky to die then, quick like that. Do you ken why they brought us here? What they’re planning for us?”
A sudden rattle of heavy keys beyond the door interrupted the prisoners’ conversation, and a single, crusted pot was pushed inside, its contents warm enough to steam in the perpetual cold of the below-ground keep.
Keithen said, “Porridge, or what passes for it,” and then got up and lumbered stiffly to fetch the pot.
Robbie realised all at once that his insides had gone so hollow he’d be happy to fill them with a brick if it was all he had, and he wasted no time. Given no utensils, the two men scooped the thick, sticky oatmeal with their hands, minding neither the slight burn nor extra flavour of the dirt and blood on their own skin. By the time they finished, Robbie had forgotten his last question entirely until Keithen answered it.
“I heard a couple English talking yesterday—their voices come down clearly through the shaft, just there.” He pointed at a corner of the ceiling, a black, empty rectangle amid the grey stone. “They said we’ll be marched to Carlisle, and wicked James himself, the king, travels there too. They’ll hang us all at once—for his entertainment.”
Robbie said nothing for a long while, his mind focused instead on whether he could find a way to die sooner rather than give the king his satisfaction. He could think of nothing short of refusing water or smashing his head against the stones, and he knew he wouldn’t do either. Although small in stature, he’d proven himself brave in battle when he was no more than fourteen, and he’d borne his wounds as well as any man. But courage has its limits, he thought, and the pain of drying to dust from the inside out or smashing my own skull is beyond mine.
At last he said, “Well, Keithen, some comfort. At least we’ll die among our own, and not alone.”
The distance from Hermitage to Carlisle measured a bit over thirty miles. The trip took three days, due to the need to move more than a hundred prisoners, most of them weak or lame. On the surface, the journey seemed a bit kinder than the forced march from Hawick. If a man fell and couldn’t rise to walk again, the guards tossed him onto the cart, rather than kill him or leave him to die, but that wasn’t compassion. They made no secret of their orders to bring as many as possible to Carlisle alive, for that castle’s lord meant to make a grand spectacle of the mass hanging.
Carlisle’s dungeon stank of offal and sweat accumulated through centuries of cruelty. When Robbie stumbled into the broad room with Keithen and a score of others, he first thought perhaps his sanity had fled, for some of the stone had a crimson colour that made him think of raw wounds, and all manner of eerie images had been carved by prisoners into the walls. The smell of damp made him think next of his thirst, but when he looked around, he saw no water barrel such as at Hermitage.
Then an old man—who looked much like Robbie imagined Death would appear—rose feebly and stumbled to a spot on the wall where water oozed from the stone, stuck out his swollen tongue, and licked away the droplets. Silence fell on the crowd of new arrivals as they watched the man, but a guard looking on from outside the iron bars of the door laughed.
“No need for you to lick the stones, Reivers, for the king is here, the gallows are ready, and the hangin’ is set for dawn.”
Robbie guessed dawn had arrived when he heard the rattle of keys moving cell to cell down the aisle. Many of the captive men began to pray, a few to weep, but this wasn’t the final call, not yet. When the door swung open to the room, six guards, heavily armed and armoured, entered the cell and lined the prisoners up against the long back wall, then four more guards entered with a soft, waxy-looking man cloaked in fur and wearing cloth of gold and royal purple.
The shout came from a man alongside the foremost guard, rather a pretty fellow, Robbie thought. The prisoners all bowed after a few received blows, and Robbie didn’t see any point in doing otherwise, so he made the least bow he thought he could get away with. When he straightened he felt the king’s eyes burning into him, so he turned and met the man’s gaze. James but said nothing, only cocking his head to the side as if studying a rare bird.
Still, no one could have been more surprised than Robbie when the king addressed him. “Your name?”
King James raised his eyes again, and one of the guards took a threatening step towards him, the butt of his sword raised, so Robbie added, “Your Majesty.”
A fleeting but cruel smile crossed the king’s lips. “Elliot? You are a Reiver, then?”
“Yes…Your Majesty. By birth.”
“Birth…” The king raised his right brow and turned his head slightly so it seemed he examined Robbie with that one large brown eye. His smile became a smirk. “You are young, though. Have you gone a-reiving?”
“I’m twenty-two years old come the new year, Majesty. And yes, I have ridden out with my clansmen.”
“Ah! But you have another trade?”
Keithen spoke up—quite bravely as he had not been addressed—“Your Majesty, Robbie is a bard, a piper, and has a sweet touch indeed on the strings of the harp.”
Robbie’s fingers twitched of their own accord at the mention of the instrument he so missed, but he said nothing. The king, too, stayed silent, and no one in that dungeon room moved—or even breathed, it seemed.
Finally, James nodded. “I see. I’ve a notion to hear you play, Robert Elliot.” He turned to his guards. “Take him. Feed him, clean him well, and bring him to me.”
The door clanged shut behind the king and his men, and all Robbie’s fellow prisoners moved away from him, crowding themselves in the far corner to give him berth. Some few cast him a pitying look, as if his fate to go before the king was worse than theirs, to hang. And Robbie felt inclined to agree. Keithen came to sit next to him on the straw pallet against the wall, and Robbie turned to him, angry.
“Why’d you tell him that, man? Why did you betray me?”
Keithen twisted his lips into something like a smile. The expression made him look mildly contrite, but he didn’t apologise. He whispered, “Robbie, are you forgetting that the first time you marched out to fight when you were fourteen, I took you under my wing and taught you to soldier? Do you not understand how thoroughly I know you?”
Robbie was afraid he knew what the older man was getting at. “Of course I remember, Keithen. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have died in the very first clash. But say what you’re getting at, straight out.”
“Lad, you have a great gift with the harp and song. You’re not a Reiver true; your only crime against the king is your birth into the Elliot clan. You’re young, and you should have your life ahead. It’s not my words that are going to buy you a chance at it. I know how you are, Robbie, about men—not women. You don’t hide it well. The king, they say he’s like you in that. It’s your person, then, and perhaps your songs, that might spare you hanging. My words just gave him the excuse he needed to separate you out from the rest of us—who are certainly damned.”
Keithen shook his head and blew out an exasperated breath, then concluded, “Live if you can, Robbie. Live for all of us.”
Robbie had followed the guard sent to fetch him up to a small room one level up from the dungeon cell. He’d eaten the food he found on a rough table there, having no qualms about filling his belly at the Keeper of Carlisle’s expense. Not food from the nobles’ table, clearly, but solid fare—mutton stew and dark, heavy bread. Likely what the servants ate. He had both water and dark ale to drink, and by the time he pushed away his bowl, his belly felt packed fuller than it had in months. After the meal, two women came in—one young, one old, both coarse—bearing pitchers, lye soap, and thick cloths. Two men followed bearing a round oaken tub filled with water warm enough to steam.
“Sithee,” said the younger of the two women in the cadence of Highland speech. “If the king is no’ happy wi’ the job we do cleanin’ and dressin’ ye, he’ll be punishin’ us. Please, mon, strip and step into the tub!”
They scrubbed every inch of Robbie’s skin to the point he felt too raw to wear clothes, but he donned the shirt, breeks, and stockings they’d brought for him, and put the slippers on his feet. The clothes were of finer cloth than any he’d worn since he’d fled the king’s ‘pacification’ with his cousins a year ago to hide in the caves at Glenshee, the centuries-ago Elliot clan home in the Highlands. He spent only a single thought wishing he’d never come home. He had more immediate concerns. As he dressed, he argued with himself.
I could get used to a full belly and soft slippers.
Sure, and you know what you’ll have to do for it.
Perhaps James is looking for a good bard?
Don’t be daft, Robbie Elliot.
It doesn’t matter, really, does it? For I’ll no more sing for him than serve him in bed.
And so you’ll hang, then, Rob, after all.
“I will,” Robbie said aloud into the now empty chamber, and then sighed. “But I’ll hang with a full belly, and that’s something.”
The sun was about an hour past dawn when Robbie was taken up to the castle proper. It hurt his eyes, and it gave him a start; the hanging had been slated for dawn—why hadn’t he felt anything when so many kinsmen died?
But when he was marched into the king’s solar, he saw out the broad windows the gallows lined up on the greensward, each with a Borderer standing beside it with a guard—he wasn’t to miss the hanging after all. Something sharp twisted inside Robbie’s belly, and he clenched his teeth to keep tears from forming. He didn’t entirely understand his own reaction. He didn’t love most of these men. Many had been cruel to him because they knew him, knew what he was and who he was likely to lie with. But they were kin, even those of rival families, and if Borderers were rough and hard and sometimes lawless, they’d been pushed into it by the avarice of royalty, nobility, and church. “They’re only men,” he whispered, not thinking.
“Be silent,” one of James’s men said, then pushed Robbie forward in front of the king, knocking him to his knees.
“Robert Elliot,” James said. “You will watch this spectacle with us so that you can make a song of it. You’ll sing it at our celebration this night.”
Robbie wanted to refuse, but he couldn’t find breath. The king snapped his fingers and pointed to a corner, and the guard all but dragged him there, facing a tall window. Robbie looked outside. Directly across, Keithen was being led to the rope. Startled, he drew a sharp breath and turned his face away—and that was when he saw Melisandre, Lady Talwyn, the Witch of the Hermitage, standing a short distance away facing the gallows.
She chanted and drew her hands through the air in sweeping gestures, and when she finished on a last loud syllable, Robbie thought—just for a moment—that he saw a curtain of gold light drop over the windows. The witch turned to the king and bowed, though not deeply. “Your Majesty,” she said. “It’s done.”
“Good,” James said from his chair. “The last thing we need, in this world full of demons and dark things, is to suffer a barrage of curses from dying Borderers. You are certain none can penetrate the shield you have set?”
“Go then and collect your reward from Carlisle’s treasury. But know this, if you have tricked us, if any curse touches us this night or if we ever find out you borrow your magic from the Devil and not from the Holy Spirit as you claim, you will burn.”
As Melisandre left, she slid her eyes sideways to meet Robbie’s puzzled gaze for just a moment. As she passed, Robbie could have sworn that in his mind he heard her say, “Not a word, Robbie Elliot. You do not know me!” He knew it for a warning.
Robbie watched his kin hang, and by some gift of ancient gods, he didn’t flinch, neither looked away nor cried out. He watched, but not for the king. He stood witness for the Borderers whose lives were so brutally, so unjustly wasted that day. And while he did not envy them, he did think that his lot, to bear this knowledge and live, might be the worse fate.
When that was over, the king ordered him to take off his shirt. Robbie refused, and the king’s men ripped it off.
The king told Robbie to sing. He refused, and at a signal from James, a guard struck him open handed until he couldn’t stop a cry of pain.
The king asked, “Do you know why we brought you here, Robert Elliot?”
Robbie didn’t answer.
The king’s voice grew husky, and he shifted in his chair. “You seem extraordinary, compared to the worthless souls we hung today. Beautiful, in fact. If you will come to us willingly, Robbie. If you will perhaps sing and play for us, and grant our other wishes, you will live—perhaps a long life. Perhaps in luxury, with all your wants and needs fulfilled.”
The king waited, but Robbie gave no reply, so he spoke again, this time with a tone of anger. “What do you answer, Robert Elliot.”
“No,” Robbie said, and let his disgust and defiance show on his face. “No, Your Majesty. I’d rather die than lie with you, or even sing at your command.”
“Ah,” said James and sighed—a genuinely sad sound. “Well, then you shall.”
James Stuart clapped his hands, and the guards marched Robbie away.