Beneath these battlements, within those walls,
Power dwelt amidst her passions; in proud state
Each robber chief upheld his armed halls,
Doing his evil will, nor less elate
Than mightier heroes of a longer date.
Too exhausted to remain awake, I fell into an unquiet sleep, often losing the memory of where I was or into whose hands I had now fallen. The rocking motion of the horse as we rode deeper into the forest added color to my dreams: one moment, I imagined myself back in Complin’s library, feeling the rise and fall of his breath as he comforted my frightened nerves before putting me to the test. The next moment, I was tied down again to that awful prison cell bed, feeling it rock beneath me as I was flogged mercilessly by my arch-tormentor, overcome again by that intoxicating, hellish agony and humiliation.
When I at last shudderingly awoke, I was breathing heavily and a cold, sickly sweat covered my face and throat. I remembered then what had happened – that I had fallen into the hands of some bandits and was now spirited away, for the time being, from Complin’s men. But this knowledge of my new captors did little to either comfort or frighten me. A strange conviction had settled within my heart and shrouded all my hopes and terrors. I felt that I could not escape my enemy; that it was only a matter of time before I was in his power again. I almost regretted having dared resist him, for in my despairing resignation, I now believed that I had invoked a still more hideous curse upon myself as a result and that his vengeance coupled with his desire would undo me more than his original, awful intentions.
The sun had barely risen over the horizon, coloring the sky with a pale, greyish, dismal color. I saw in the distance a clearing and the scattered stone ruins of what appeared to have once been a medieval fortress, perhaps destroyed by the battering of some primeval artillery. Towards these ruins, my captor spurred his horse and as we rode under their shadow, he drew his steed up and dismounted, pulling me down after him. Thanks to Gottfried’s assiduous care, I was still gagged and bound and so could offer little resistance. The bandit, his face half-covered with a handkerchief, met my eyes briefly and then turned his attention to the flagstones at our feet. Feeling about among the scattered leaves, he found a rusted ring of iron and, after unlocking the padlock that secured it, revealed a trap door that led far beneath the ruins of the fortress.
Taking my arm in a brutal grasp, I was forced to march ahead of my captor, down that long, steep staircase, while with his other hand he led his horse after him. Flickering torches lit our way and the smell of roasting meat filled my nostrils. I heard, too, the voices of men ahead, sneering and amused, and as we reached the end of the stairway and turned down a sharp stone corridor, I saw a host of about fifteen bandits seated around a crackling fire. A wary silence descended upon them as, with questioning looks, they turned towards my captor and myself.
“MacAlistair,” said one of them to my captor, addressing him with a nod of deference. “I take it that it was a night of good hunting?”
“Aye,” MacAlistair said. “We found more than horses and food, too.” He unknotted the gag and pulled the handkerchief free. “Tell us your name, boy.”
“My name is Alan Williams.” I found the courage to look all of the men in the eye, trying my best to ignore their brutal smiles and amused whispers. “And I am grateful to all of you for rescuing me from my enemies.”
“And how,” asked one of them. “Will you show us your gratitude?”
I hesitated, not knowing how to answer them.
“Why don’t you begin by joining us for breakfast?” another proposed.
MacAlistair was untying the ropes that bound my wrists and, with a friendly gesture, ushered me closer to the fire. Not since my escape from Stanehyve prison had I felt warmth – and in that chilly April air, I could not hide my gratitude and relief as I drew closer to the crackling flames. I ventured to look at the faces of my captors; they were all watching me, broad smiles on all their faces.
“Well, Master Williams,” said one of the bandits. “And are you the one whose throat the good Judge of Stanehyve has longed to strangle these many months?”
Surprised, I looked from them to MacAlistair, who met my enquiring look with a grave nod.
“We know,” he said, “more in common with you, lad, than you might have thought.”
I came to discover that the bandits into whose hands I had fallen were more aware of my predicament than I had imagined. My trial had been well-publicized in the various local newsletters and broadsides; indeed, it had become something of a cause celebre, particularly thanks to my foolish intervention in Glanville’s trial, when I had accused Complin of cruel duplicity. I had hoped that, given the growing popular resentment against the Judge’s hanging nature, my outburst would have been met with a favorable reaction from the press. In this, as with so many other institutions that I had once put a blind, trusting faith in, I was doomed to disappointment. The Judge’s speeches against me were quoted at length and even improvised upon, the effect being that I was painted as some monstrous cross between a revolutionary Jacobin and a madman.
All this MacAlistair told me as I gratefully accepted the meager portions of cooked rabbit that I was offered as a light repast. At last, when there came a lull in the conversation, I ventured to ask: “You are treating me with great sympathy, sir – you and all your friends. Yet I was led to believe from what you said to Gottfried before bearing me away that I had much to fear from you. Was I wrong to feel such terror?”
“No.” MacAlistair said. “You may have much to fear from us yet, lad. But we shall touch on that later tonight.”
MacAlistair, who I came to realize was the leader of this motley crew, allowed me more liberty than any of my former captors – perhaps because he reasoned that I truly had nowhere to escape to. The forests were more than likely still filled with Complin’s men and though I feared whatever the bandits intended for me that night, I feared Complin’s inexorable will far more.
At my request, I was allowed to breathe the air above their underground fastness and to wander the ruins of the ancient fortress that crowned that wooded hill. The day was dusky and grey; from a great distance, greater than I had expected, I saw the distant spires of Stanehyve. It was peculiar to look at the black outline of those clustering chimneys and the tall clock tower and know that I could never return to the only town that I had known since boyhood, save as its prisoner and ultimately its victim. Still stranger was it to think that the only inhabitant of that town that still knew me to be innocent was the man himself who had singled me out as his sacrifice. By all others, I was reviled.
And what were my thoughts regarding the Judge himself? I had glimpsed more of his soul, I think, than any other man; it was part of the reason for my despairing belief that my escape was only temporary. My enemy would seek me to the very ends of the earth – I had seen the utter resolution of his heart and of this I was as unshakeably convinced as I was of the existence of an immortal Hell and Heaven. And given the various constraints that slowed my ability to escape the town, let alone the country, I doubted that he would have to trouble himself too much in retrieving me.
Another memory, one that I sought to repress from my immediate thoughts but which would not be denied, drew me to this morbid train of speculation. I could not forget the blood of my jailer, Mr. Fell, dripping from my hands as I had made my escape. The memory clung to me, threatening to either weigh me down with despair or exalt me with a criminal madness. That I was reviled universally was cruel enough – but that my own heart whispered to herself that I was a murderer was the most torturing curse of all, though reason told me that I had acted only in self-defense. I nearly thought, in the extremity of my mental suffering, that had Complin himself appeared to hang me as a deserter from one of the gaunt, leafless trees that leaned against those fortress ruins, that I would have thanked him for his pains.
The sound of a footstep at my back startled me from my unquiet reverie. It was MacAlistair, his hand resting on the hilt of the sword at his hip, watching me closely in the gathering twilight. For a time, we gazed at one another: the bandit lord with a look of grim curiosity, and I with I know not what haunted expression. He was a peculiar man, this MacAlistair – there was a callous humor in his eyes and I could not forget the way that he had spoken to Gottfried of how he and his men would use me, yet I thought I caught a hint of bitter sorrow as well in the crooked line of his smile. Before I could break the silence or in some other way penetrate the mystery of his grief, he gestured for me to follow him.
Together we returned to the subterranean tunnels, journeying far into the darkness until we at last reached a wide cavern in which the horses were apparently kept; the only breath of fresh air that the poor beasts were afforded came from the fissures in the high ceiling of the cave. Several other robbers were standing about, conversing in low voices and watching MacAlistair’s approach.
“And are you ready, Master Williams, for a night ride?” he asked of me.
“Where will we be riding?”
“You and the rest of my men shall ride whither I ride. That is my first demand of you, Master Williams. Will you ride with me? Have you the heart for it? For it is not the last of my demands this night.”
I nodded. What else could I do, with all their eyes upon me and their hands hovering so close to the muskets that hung at their belts? MacAlistair allowed me one of the horses; I remembered the riding lessons that my mistress had taught me well enough to not make a fool of myself as I took the saddle and when MacAlistair mounted his own steed and gestured for me to follow, I and the rest of the men rode out of the cavern into the twilit air like a host of unquiet spirits from some German romance.
I could not tell in what direction we rode, for the moonlight was uncertain, revealing only the flash of MacAlistair’s silver stirrups and the long shadow of his horse ahead, but in what seemed a short time, MacAlistair drew his mount to a halt and motioned for the rest of us to follow suit. He then dismounted and gestured for me and one other bandit to follow him deeper into the forest on foot. Perplexed but silent, I did as I was commanded and followed the two men into the darkness.
At last, we reached the edge of what appeared to be a narrow woodland path. Still remaining in the shadows, MacAlistair leaned back against a tree, his gaze fixed upon the moonlit clearing beyond the forest. Seeing that both he and his comrade seemed unwilling to go on, I followed suit and sat upon the damp earth, watching the branches above us stir restlessly in the twilight air.
Presently, two solitary figures appeared, walking down the path and speaking in low voices to one another. In the moonlight as they drew closer to where we three were hidden, I could see that it was a young man and woman – they were whispering something to one another. Something fond and sweet, I suppose.
As I watched them, MacAlistair laid his hand on my shoulder. “Now, Alan, I must ask something more of you.” His whisper was low, his breath warmed my face, and his glittering eyes met mine in the darkness. Before speaking again, he pressed something hard and cold into my hand. “I want you to rob those two lambs of whatever they possess. And – ” his gaze followed mine to the dagger that I now held. “—I want you to leave no witnesses to your deed. Everything, Alan, depends on what you perform, or fail to perform, this hour. Your very life will be shaped by it.”