“What was I? Why was I thus formed? And by what perverse and malignant destiny was I thrown on so intolerable a scene?”
— William Godwin, Mandeville
Many wise men have said that familiarity with crime must soon efface the act of its natural horror. Perhaps there is truth in this – but I, who had committed the most appalling act of all in dabbling so unwillingly in the blood of my jailer – had found little chance to reconcile myself, let alone glory, in my crime. Far worse, I was now compelled by my new captors to repeat the act that made me reprehensible to myself: and upon fellow creatures not only strangers to me, but to all intents and purposes innocent as well. As I drew closer to them, the dagger clasped in my perspiring hand, I considered my awful options well: there was little doubt that if I warned the pair that there were robbers hidden in the forest, that my brains would be blown out with musket balls the minute after. But perhaps the lovers would have a chance to make their escape at my expense, while my soul made its own bloody eternal escape from the Judge.
Yet, as despairing and horror-stricken as my condition was, I possessed no real appetite for death. Nothing that even Complin himself had accomplished and perhaps would accomplish could whet my taste for my own dissolution. My soul recoiled at the thought of such a grim and irrevocable sacrifice and I began to wonder why I valued my life so cheaply that I thought that it equaled theirs. These creatures, perhaps, had families that loved and would mourn them; no one in all the wide world wished me well, save myself. Was it not a cruel thought, then, that even I would trade my poor, unloved self for utter strangers?
With these thoughts revolving in my breast and the dagger still clasped in my unsteady hand, it is little wonder that when I at last emerged from the long shadows of the forest, the unlucky pair started with looks of terror. But I had hidden the dagger within the folds of my coat and some instinct from my former life made me smile as though to reassure them, even while I felt my face grow hot with the mounting blood of my raging heart. The young man was still regarding me with a look of frightened wariness, but the girl’s look of terror had changed oddly to pity.
“Are you well?” she asked, putting her hand out tentatively to touch my arm before dropping it hastily again to her side.
“Whoever you are, please, stay away from us,” the young man whispered, afraid to arouse my temper but wishing to warn me away, as one would a mad beast.
I looked from his unsympathetic face to the bewildered eyes of his prettier (and more trusting) companion. And it was then, as I met her blue, searching gaze, that I felt my soul shaken to the core – for I recognized it. She, she had been among the sea of faces that had watched as I had been put on trial; that same youthful face had listened with rapt belief as Complin had loaded me with crimes; and when the jury had at first pronounced me innocent, that face had fallen with disappointment at the prospect that I would be saved from hanging. She did not recognize in my pale, sleepless face the face of the condemned servant boy in the dock; but I saw behind her curious sympathy, the remembered look of a righteous, bloodthirsty hatred that would have gladly seen me a corpse and thought the air purer once I no longer possessed the liberty to pollute it with my breath.
In that moment of awestruck horror, yet another cruel lesson in the fickleness of mankind, the vanity of their sympathy and hatred, was branded upon my heart. While before, I had seen myself as a monster confronting two innocents, I now felt a misanthropic exaltation over them, as I regarded the two beings before me, unwittingly naked in all their infirmity and moral weakness. Was this the superiority that the Judge felt when he saw the effect that his words had upon the rabble, saw their animalism exposed? If so, little wonder that he chose to sport with them as his playthings rather than consort with them as peers.
The dagger was warm within my hand. The boy’s fear was impotent, the girl’s sympathy – meaningless. Another instinct from my former life, the shadow-twitch of some crippled yet unyielding part of myself, caused me to whisper to them: “Go – before I do something to you.” As they fled, stricken with panic from that place, I felt all my moral strength fade and collapsed to my knees, clutching the dagger to my breast like a treasure.
I felt MacAlistair’s grip upon my shoulder as he dragged me roughly to my feet, slapping the dagger from my grasp with a brutal hand. I met his eyes, my gaze still dark with the murder that I had wished to visit on the two lovers; there was a flicker of surprise in his own gaze as he saw my darkness. He had expected something more like pity or terror, I suppose – some answer to my foolish betrayal of his request. His musket pressed against my breast but I did not flinch at its cold pressure.
“How dared you disobey me?” he asked. “Did you doubt my word?”
As I shook my head, speechlessly bracing myself for my imminent demise, he suddenly took his musket by the barrel and held the butt to me, saying, “Then you have passed my test, Master Williams. Welcome to our company.”
I wondered if I dreamt as I took the musket, feeling the cold pistol against my finger. As I looked at him questioningly, he said: “We accept the enemies of Judge Complin, but we do not accept villains. I knew you were the former, but I could not risk the chance that you were the latter. Not all the men the Judge longs to hang are innocents.”
“Then you are not murderers yourselves?”
“We are desperate men, but not so desperate that we have lost our humanity – or so I pray,” was his grim reply as MacAlistair, taking my hand, led me back into the darkness of the forest.
My better angels had won, had kept me from avenging my sense of injury on two hapless fellow creatures. The sweetness of my victory was rewarded with a heavenly sleep such as I had not had for many nights. I did not turn a corner in the garden of my slumbering Eden and find the Judge standing in some dark grotto of my mind, his hands outstretched like some saint’s, waiting to usher me into the folds of some nightmare. My peace was uninterrupted and if I thought at all of my persecutor, it was only as the memory of a darkness brooding upon the horizon that would eventually overtake me, but had not obscured all my hopes yet.
The touch of a hand on my shoulder made me start awake and I saw MacAlistair sitting beside me, by the dying fire. His brow was lined with grim concern and, speaking in a whisper so as not to awaken the others, he said, “Are you well, Alan? You were murmuring in your sleep.”
I blinked in sleepy surprise and managed, “I was? –what was I saying?”
In the dying embers of the fire, I could barely make out his expression, but his voice was wry with – amusement? horror? – as he replied: “It is no matter. Come, have a breath of fresh air – it will do you good.”
I pulled my crumpled coat and boots on and followed him out of the cavern into the muted light of the early morning. As we passed beneath a ruined arch, the bandit lord turned to regard me. In so short a space of time, MacAlistair had already been many things to me – savior, kidnapper, tyrant, and now savior again. Though I trusted his intentions more than I had those of Captain Baillie or Gottfried (both confirmed creatures of Complin), I was still largely unsure what to make of him. He had said that he did not wish a villain to join his company, but I wondered how a man who lived beyond the reach of the law defined villainy.
“Do you have the musket that I gave you?” he asked me presently.
Surprised, I replied, “No, I left it by my blanket.”
He shook his head. “You must always carry it with you, Alan. These forests are not the streets of Stanehyve. Wretched men haunt this place. And lest you forget,” he added with a wry smile. “You are one of my men now – a bandit.”
I returned his smile a bit uneasily. “Yes.”
“Have you ever fired a gun before, Alan?” His own smile was wider, more amused.
“No, I have not, sir.”
He shook his head at my respectful address. “Those drawing room manners may have amused your old masters, but have no place in our company. I am MacAlistair, no more. Do not mistake my familiarity for a lack of government. I am surely the lord of these men and, if you choose to remain one of us, of you as well.” He paused for a moment, his eye forsaking my face for the far horizon. “I expect that the last day was wasted for your pursuers. Your captors must have reported to Complin of your kidnapping and the Judge must have spent the day in a passion or in planning some form of retaliation, for our scouts saw no sign of his men. But I have no doubt that they will be abroad today in full force to fetch you back. I did not have to stand in the Stanehyve courthouse with the throng to know from hints and rumors that you were – how shall I put it? – favored by the Judge. He will spend all his energies in reclaiming you, of that you may be certain.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking aloud and sounding more assured than I actually felt. “Which is why I cannot remain with your men for longer than necessary.”
“Ah?” MacAlistair raised an eyebrow. “I took you for a helpless lad, but it sounds as though you have already devised a plan of your own.”
“I know enough to know that the sooner that I am away from Stanehyve the better. And yet, escape seems impossible.”
“Indeed, it does,” MacAlistair agreed with a smile.
“But with the help of a man of your resources…”
“I expected such a plea. But I will not risk myself or my men without some recompense. Let me consider your request and I will answer you in a day or several. As it is, we will be remaining beneath ground for some time as the Judge’s men scour the forests for you, so you will have ample time to decide whether you truly wish to leave our company so soon or not.”
“And then you will learn what bargain you must strike with me and, by the by, how to shoot a musket as well.”
“A lesson that I never had the chance to apply myself to,” I admitted.
“With so devoted a friend as Judge Complin,” MacAlistair said. “I’d say that it’s high time that you learned, lad. Perhaps it will ward your ill dreams away at least.”
“Dreams?” I asked. “I slept better tonight than I have in a month.”
He glanced at me, surprised. “Do you think so, lad? You were whispering one name, over and over – and I do not have to tell you what that name was.”