Have you observed a sitting hare
Listening, and fearful of the storm
Of horns and hounds, clap back her ear
Afraid to keep or leave her form?
— MATTHEW PRIOR, The Dove
As the hounds began to close in upon me, I lifted my makeshift club and began to beat back their snarling faces, granting me enough time to fall back to the shelter of a large oak. Setting my back against its trunk, I began to concentrate all my energy on breaking the spirit of the worst of my attackers, hoping that I could cow this horde of beasts and thus effect my escape before Captain Baillie and his men joined in the fray.
The sound of a triumphant musket shot close by informed me that my would-be captors were almost upon me. Desperation strengthened my arm and, after hearing the snarls about me soften to submissive yelps, I broke away from their leaping fangs and began to flee that awful meadow as speedily as I was able.
No sooner had I begun my flight, than the dark shape of a horse broke forth from the line of trees to the left of me, passing so closely that the white foam that flew from its frantic, working lips flecked my hair and face in a spray of thick, blood-mixed dew. It drew to a halt several feet from where I stood, its rider drawing upon the reins so tautly that the tortured creature gave an almost human gasp, rearing to its full stature in the moonlight, its breath jetting from its nostrils convulsively. As it returned to earth, I saw that Captain Baillie was mounted upon it, the spurs of his hunting boots bloodied after their long and violent coaxing, his greying hair damp with the sweat of his exertions, but his eyes lighting with a grim joyance upon me as, seeing that I was caught between himself and his hounds, he felt sure of me at last.
But though I saw my antagonist before me, the strength of the cruel hand that held those reins and the grim assurance in those eyes, I felt my own resolve harden. I gripped the branch in my hand and as Baillie came for me, I tilted it straight at his chest like a jousting knight at a tournament. Unprepared for such a retaliation, he tried to pull his horse up short but the poor beast had little time to stall, and so I struck him full in the chest. Choking and gasping from the force of my blow, he fumbled for the reins but was already falling back – I had unhorsed him utterly.
I did not stay to watch his fall, but ran blindly from that place. A musket ball shattered a sapling to my left – I continued to race headlong into the darkness, unable to hear anything above the gasping of my labored breath. So it was that I did not hear but rather felt my oppressor as he caught me by the shoulder and gave me a violent thrust that sent me sprawling into the thorny underbrush. I tried to rise to my feet, only to receive a vicious kick that sent me groveling. I half-turned where I lay, too stunned to yet feel terror; I beheld Captain Baillie standing over me, his face half-bloodied from his fall, his gaze roaming over my dazed, sprawling attitude with a kind of humorless attention, waiting for me to make another move so that he could again ruthlessly quell it.
The hounds had gained us and were now nipping and pawing at me, tentatively looking to their master for some signal that would allow them permission to have their way with me. Baillie kicked away the more ambitious creatures, kneeling beside me with a faint, contemptuous smile and murmuring, “Did I take the fight out of you at last, my lad?”
I allowed him to turn me over as though I were a freshly-killed doe; but when I heard him feeling about in his pockets, presumably for a cord with which to tie me, I turned about suddenly and, delivering him as hard a blow as I could to the stomach – trusting more in the element of surprise than any personal strength I might possess – I tried to scramble away from him.
The hounds, seeing my movements, gained courage and without waiting for their master’s biddance began to compass me, snarling for my throat and sinking their teeth savagely into my legs. One particularly emboldened creature, an ugly brute with cropped ears, leapt frantically for my throat and, as I tried to shield myself with an outstretched arm, I was tripped by the creatures that swarmed about my feet. As soon as I struck the ground, they were all upon me – a dozen warm, heavy bodies, their snouts searching with eager mercilessness for my flesh. My original enemy, the cropped brute, struggled for ascendancy, snapping at his fellows until he had managed to haul his reeking body upon my chest, his jaws still frantically working closer and closer to my throat. I struggled to push him away – he savaged my hand, my blood darkening his muzzle, before launching himself with full vigor at my exposed throat, his jaws closing in upon the tender flesh there. I think my whole being must, in bracing itself for eminent death, have actually taken leave of itself, for my mind became an utter blank and my body went rigid and still in the creature’s possession as he nuzzled at my unripped veins, as I waited for my throat to be opened.
A musket shot rang out and the grotesque head of the creature suddenly flew back as though something had seized it from behind. Then its neck lolled again in my direction and I saw that half of its skull had been blown off, leaving only the jagged lower part of its jaw behind. It was still working reflexively, moving like a fleshy, broken hinge made of jagged teeth and tongue, while from the moist stump where the rest of the creature’s head had joined its body, a flood of warm blood and torn flesh ran thickly out, covering my throat and face with the thick gore of the creature that, given another moment, would have had me drowning in my own blood.
Choking and spluttering, covered with shattered fragments of blood and bone, I dimly saw Captain Baillie striding towards me, beating back his own yelping and cowering hounds with the butt of his musket. He kicked aside the twitching body of the dead beast that lay athwart me and then, an awful smile beginning at the corners of his lips, set his boot crushingly upon my throat. After watching me convulse in helpless, shameful panic, for what seemed an eternity – my punishment, I suppose, for having dared to resist him – he at last lifted his foot from my throat and hauled me to my feet.
“Have I taken all the fight out of you now, my lad?” he asked again, this time unsmilingly as I choked and gasped in his arms. I nodded helplessly and he said, “A pity, isn’t it, that I don’t believe you now?”
I felt him strike my chin, felt a moment’s brutal pain, and as I fell forward into his arms and felt him lift me over his shoulder, I experienced a pang of bitter shame at my own frailty, but this was brief as I sank at last into merciful unconsciousness.
I awoke to find myself lying on the ground, my cheek resting against the rough dirt, my hands bound behind my back. A bright, moving light shone in my eyes and, as my vision gradually regained focus, I saw that I was lying beside a makeshift campfire.
“If this does not soften his heart towards your suit, then I cannot imagine what will,” I heard a man remark with, I imagined, the hint of a Hessian inflection in his accent. “But I would not take advantage of this particular charge to press him too earnestly.”
“True, Gottfried, but I am too young to have played the part of an errand boy for so long, even to a man as powerful as our mutual friend.” This was Captain Baillie, his voice wry with a sardonic, bitter humor. “Why not turn his desire to our advantage?”
“The judge rewards his friends well – but his punishments for disobedience are most severe. Thanks to you, friend, we have all enjoyed his largesse. I should hate a moment’s presumption to turn his blessing to a curse.”
“And who speaks now of disobedience?” Baillie enquired. “I only speak of a just payment for my services. This young creature’s capture is of great worth to Complin – can there be any doubt of that?”
“But it is that very fact that should caution you against any rash action,” Gottfried countered. “We all beheld his mood this morning when he heard of the boy’s escape. Do you believe that he wished us to preserve our young friend’s life out of some tender feeling? Mein Gott, Captain Baillie – I once believed that he merely wished this wretch hanged, but I believe there is something still worse that he covets, more than I suppose he covets anything in all the world. Now, knowing our employer to be a man with this sort of disposition and desire, do you truly wish to haggle with such a man over the terms of your repayment while his mind is still fixed upon gratifying so awful a desire? Would you not fear that his fury would spend itself upon you rather than this little one?” Here, I felt a booted foot nudge me slightly, brutally emphasizing this last point.
For a long moment, Baillie made no reply. Then he rose and crouched beside me, turning me over to see whether I had awakened or not. Taken by surprise, I could only blush with shame as I knew that he and his men must know now that I had lain there and listened to their peculiar debate.
“Well, well, I do believe that our young friend is ready and willing to join our merry conversation now.” He lifted me into a sitting position and, taking a deep drink from a bottle of strong-smelling liquor, observed me closely. “Perhaps,” he mused. “Perhaps this young wretch can settle our dispute. What think you, Gottfried?”
The being whom he addressed and whom he had been conversing with all this while was a tall blonde Hessian; in his boyhood, he must have been the possessor of an angelic beauty, but age and exertion had lent a ravaged quality to his high, sunken cheekbones and the long livid scar that marred and uplifted the corner of his mouth imbued his expression with a look of eternal, smiling irony. A long coat hung from his shoulders, the sort that I had seen Continental soldiers wear in newspaper caricatures, and the straight sword at his belt combined with a certain martial sternness in his bearing, made me wonder what such a man was doing in the wilds of Scotland in the service of such a one as Complin. He must have noticed the curiosity in my gaze, for a trace of amusement hovered about his lips as he turned his own eyes from me to Baillie, saying, “The young wretch who fought you quite handily?”
“Yes, he did, didn’t he?” Baillie straightened my collar and coat with a heavy, restless hand, brushing the dirt from my cheek before giving me a harsh slap. I sought to avoid the burning contempt of his eye, but he grasped my face and forced me to look at him, to acknowledge the seething passion that now gripped him, as he evidently began to recall my struggles and the exertions that I had put him through. “You nearly met your end at the teeth of my hounds – I had to shoot one of my finest fellows because of you. What were you thinking when you fought me so rashly, you little whelp?”
“That it would be better to die than to be caught again?” I replied. “Though I must admit that when I felt their teeth, I began to have my doubts.”
Above the laughter of his men, Baillie exclaimed, “Ah, well at least you’re not an idiot! For a moment, I thought that you actually entertained some daring notion that you might have escaped me. Now,” he glanced at Gottfried. “We here have been debating how best to return you to the Judge.”
“Whatever he is paying you, my mistress the Lady Rebecca Claremont would doubly recompense you if you were to return me to her.”
Baillie and Gottfried exchanged glances.
“The mistress whom you meant to ravish?”
I sighed. “So you, like the rest of my townsmen, have been beguiled by the Judge into believing me a villain.”
“In truth, I was,” Gottfried admitted. “Though now that I look at you, I find the idea more difficult to credit.”
“Aye, it would take a bold villain indeed to carry out such a scheme and this lad is shivering in my arms like a maid.” Baille paused and added, “Though he fought like the very devil when I first caught him.”
I knew by the relentless look in Baillie’s eye that I would not escape his company without paying some price for the bruises that I had given him. What I had seen of him already this night, moreover, had told me much of his nature, of a maiming brutality that would brook no mercy. I dropped my gaze again, hoping to hide the sinking terror that I felt at the thought of the power that now held me and longed to humiliate me. But then, oddly, I recalled the previous night when I had lain tortured and helpless, wholly encompassed within Complin’s power, and I knew then that as monstrous as this man must be, he could never shake the very foundations of my soul in the way that his master had in the past and, I now feared, would again were he to have his way. This memory, though it affirmed my horror of the Judge, provided me with a peculiar armament against my new host of tormentors. I had endured worse than Baillie and knew that, whatever trial awaited me at his hands, it could never surpass or even match the refined brutalities of my arch-torturer.
Baillie could not have known the strange logic of my thoughts, but he must have caught something in my changed expression, for he remarked to Gottfried, “I always wondered at Our Lord Justice’s fascination with putting Mr. Williams to the test, but now that I have been in his presence, I begin to understand the nature of it. One moment, the wretch looks terror-stricken, the next he gives me the most insolent look in the world as though he dares me to do my worst. Why, it fairly turns my stomach.”
Gottfried, whose measure I had not yet taken though I sensed that in his own way he shared Baillie’s sportive cruelty, lifted my chin with his hand and, after holding my gaze for a long moment, gave a brief nod. “I do not know it, but I sense that his fear is for our master, not us. You would do well, my friend, to imitate his prudence. It is your lack of respect for Master Complin that tempts you to betray his trust.”
“All I wish is to demand that he fulfill his former promises to us and pay us in full so that we can depart this godforsaken land once and for all – and I suggest that we withhold this young man’s return until we have our reward.”
“And I tell you again,” the Hessian said with the same cold, measured patience. “That you damn all of us the moment that you seek to bargain with such a man. You must not let him think for a moment that you wish to usurp his power.” After a pause, he added in a lower voice, “I do not have to tell you what it has been rumored that the Judge does to those who displeasure him. You have seen it with your own eyes. I know that for my part, the memory is branded upon my heart. You know that it will not be your death that he will seek, but your utter degradation. If you cannot think of your life, at least think of your pride. If you believe our present state to be ignoble, you know that a far worse one yet awaits us, should he choose to curse us.”
Baillie gave a slight shudder as though seeking to break the spell of horror that had possessed him during the duration of Gottfried’s mysterious narrative. “What strange star directed our paths to such a being? Why could we not have become simple highwaymen or pirates and make our fortune or die upon the scaffold like ordinary men?”
“I know not,” said the Hessian, giving me a glance. “But I bless the Fates that did not give me a star like the one that hangs over our young prisoner.”
TO BE CONTINUED…