“Who thundering comes on blackest steed,
With slackened bit and hoof of speed?”
— LORD BYRON, The Giaour
Eventually, even Captain Baillie had wearied himself with questions. He still could not fully believe that there was not some secret behind the Judge’s merciless hounding of my life, but he saw that it was useless to press me. Perhaps he read in my eyes a similar bewilderment to his own; or perhaps he sensed that my nerves had grown too accustomed to suffering to plead his brutal case any longer. When after striking me with the back of his hand I began to laugh irrepressibly, blood trickling down my chin, I must have touched some inner spring of rationality in his being, for he halted as Gottfried murmured, “And how shall you account for his bruises to the Judge when we have returned this young man in an hour’s time?”
“If we have returned him in an hour’s time.” Baillie wiped the sweat from his brow. “Tether him up, Gottfried, and then let us talk this over, you and I.”
As Gottfried stood me against a tree and began to feel for a rope or belt to bind me, he leaned closer to my ear and murmured, “You have nothing to fear from me, Alan. Unlike my comrade, I do not wish to use you as an object to barter. If I must, then I will return you to the Judge myself rather than have this haggling prolonged.” He hesitated and then, looking into my eyes: “Remember this, should Baillie fall foul of him.”
Something about the gentle solicitude of his manner made me take heart and I said, “Oh, sir, if you but return me to my mistress, then she will pay you four times over what Complin has promised you.”
He hesitated and then said, with a look half-pitying, half-amused, “You have an innocent face and air about you, Alan, and that is your charm, but you cannot have kept company with a man like John Complin as long as you have without having lost some of that naiveté. Who has sent his hounds after you? Who has put a bounty upon your head? Who will punish whoever fails to bring you to him? Your mistress has already forgotten you. Who then has the greater claim?”
This last intimation against my mistress was, perhaps, the worst blow that I had yet received that evening – most particularly because I had nothing to answer it with. For whatever reason, be it the Judge’s machinations or my mistress’s own loss of love for me, I had not been visited once by her since the passing of my death sentence. Gottfried saw my look of despair and smilingly shook his head. “Think upon what I have said,” he told me. “And perhaps once you have, you will realize where you should bend your energies.”
I would have laughed, had I breath left to do so. The man clearly thought that I should do my part to play on the Judge’s sympathies and this told me how very little he knew of his master’s disposition. Those glances and sighs that might have moved any other man’s heart only hardened his: every tear, every plea only expanded the breadth of his desire. Had I not knelt and abased myself already before that implacability? And had I not, for all my pains, still been thoroughly mauled upon the tooth of that relentless appetite?
Once Gottfried had left me, I drifted into an exhausted slumber. I do not know how much time passed before I was suddenly awakened by the touch of someone’s hand at my wrists. Thinking in my half-dreaming terror that it was perhaps Complin himself, I stiffened in response, but Gottfried’s voice in my ear told me that I had nothing to fear. Before I could question him or indeed form any reply, he gagged me with a thick length of cloth. He then began fumbling at the cords that bound me and I held still, waiting with bated breath to see what he was about. I had not long to entertain false hopes of freedom, however, for he did not loosen the ties at my wrists. He only unbound me from the tree and then, with an ease that completed my sense of baffled abjection, lifted me across his shoulder as though I were a child, carrying me towards the edge of the forest where the horses stood tethered.
“You will tell the Judge that I was the one who remained loyal to him?” the Hessian asked as he lifted me upon one of these horses. “That I strove to convince Baillie to fulfill his charge, but that he would have none of it? You will, my young friend?”
I could only nod, helpless to deliver any other reply. Though I could not help but resent my captor for his resolution, I could also not help but pity the motive that prompted him to beg me. I marveled that such a man should be so much in the thrall of Complin, though. That I suffered at his hands was hardly a mystery, for I was an orphaned servant boy who had no resources to draw upon save my own small share of cunning. But that a man of strength like this Gottfried should fear him so deeply as well – this baffled me. Surely, there was more behind the mystery of the Judge’s omniscient power than what my own experiences had uncovered.
“Good lad,” the Hessian said. “Who knows, perhaps I can repay you in kind upon your return? Perhaps I can persuade the Judge to lighten your sentence.”
I could not reply in words, but I returned his suggestion with a look of such contempt that I believe that even he was silenced by my despair.
Before this peculiar, one-sided discourse could continue, however, a sound like approaching thunder caught our attention. The next moment, shouts began to rise as a host of men on horseback rode into the camp of my captors. Baillie’s newly-awakened men threw aside their blankets and fumbled for their muskets, but the newcomers had the advantage of both surprise and mobility. They did not even bother to shoot, but bludgeoned to the ground whoever stood against them.
Only Baillie appeared able to recover himself in that chaos of horsebacked strangers and darkness. Shooting down one of the brigands, he climbed upon the back of the fallen man’s horse and rode to the outskirts of the camp, aiming with a vicious method at the intruders and felling two or three of them while remaining unseen and unapproachable himself. The tactic had its desired effect: our unknown attackers had little recourse but to seize whatever horses and goods they could seize (though there were precious few to be found of the latter) and to retreat as quickly as they had come.
All the while, Gottfried had hung back, keeping his hand upon his musket but choosing not to interfere in the skirmish, more than likely for fear of losing me. Both he and I heard, too late, the stealthy approach of a horseman at our backs. Before he could meet our foe, I felt a gauntleted hand grip my shoulder and heard a voice say, “Stand where you are and drop your musket, or the boy dies instantly.”
As the man spoke, I felt the cold mouth of the musket press my cheek and I held my breath, hoping that whatever happened, it might happen speedily. Gottfried, his own cheek ashen, still attempted to hide his disquiet and retorted, “And what, thief, makes you think that this prisoner’s death will save your life?” Deliberately raising his musket and pointing it at the man: “The boy is destined for the hangman – shoot him and you do us all a service.”
The man who held me gave a faint laugh and said, “And who is his hangman, sir? Some common Jack Ketch? Or someone…with a higher claim?” There was a long pause, pregnant with awful meaning. “Because if it comes to pass that it is the latter, then methinks that you do not dare allow me to murder your prisoner. How would your master show his gratitude if you returned to him this evening with a limp, cold body in your arms when he has spent this long night nursing the thought of a living soul and body to torment?”
Gottfried knew that his bluff had been called – still, he allowed himself a humorless laugh, saying, “And I suppose that you think yourself the savior of his intended victim?”
As he lifted me from Gottfried’s horse and settled me before him upon his own saddle, my new captor replied with a laugh, “Savior? I would not use so heroic a term for what we intend for your prisoner. We are men of the sword like yourself, and have no use for those formed of gentleness and frailty, save when they like lambs can entertain and sate our appetites. In such rough company, sir, what can your comely lad expect? Perhaps if you and your master are fortunate, we shall later offer him for ransom – but not until we have exacted our stern due. Such is the (perhaps) awful debt that must be exacted by those who have been forced into exile by a society that has unjustly deemed criminal what is only necessary.”
Before Gottfried could reply to this sinister and unexpectedly philosophical utterance, the brigand spurred his horse and I was borne away – far from that camp, far from my former captors, carried along the darkness of a windblown, moonless path that the man who now held me alone knew.
To be continued…