Authors: Amanda Scott
To Nancy and Charles Williams,
who proved that
Tea and Sympathy
is good for everyone.
Shrill was the bugle’s note,
Dreadful the warrior shout…
The Scottish Borders, August 1596
DRIZZLING, EARLY MORNING
rain had cast a dark, gray gloom over Liddesdale when, without warning, shortly before sunrise, the English army struck.
No beacon flamed. No voice cried out. The enemy had crept up during the night with—for the English—uncustomary stealth.
A single horn sounded the charge, and after that, pandemonium roared. Two thousand heavily armed soldiers under the command of Thomas, Lord Scrope, Queen Elizabeth’s warden of the west march, descended on the unsuspecting citizens of Liddesdale.
Most had little chance to defend themselves when soldiers in steel bonnets and plate crashed through their cottage doors, slashing men, women, and children without mercy. Men or lads who would have run to warn their neighbors were cut down before they could escape.
As the army swarmed over the hills and swept inexorably up the dale, gunshots rang out and steel clashed against steel wherever a Liddesdale man managed to lay hand to pistol, sword, or dagger before meeting his Maker. Women and children screamed, and injured, dying men and horses screamed, too.
At first, the attackers did not bother with livestock. Bent only on punishment, they fired cottages and killed without compunction, most caring little whether the victim was male or female, child or septuagenarian.
Halfway along the dale, on Watch Hill, the grassy ridge between the Liddel and Tarras Burn, a lad of ten summers herded a flock of sheep. His father had said the sheep would not mind the rain, and he did not care if his son minded it or not. Wee Sym would drive them to pasture, willy-nilly.
Sym did not mind the rain, although he had complained about it for form’s sake. He enjoyed the solitude of his days with the flock, and although he and his two canine companions had to keep a cautious eye on their charges, they had time now and again for more interesting activities as well.
The first hint of trouble came from the dogs, unimaginatively named Lass and Laddie. Both abruptly stopped dashing and darting to turn heads as one toward the southeast, their softly folded ears lifting alertly. Attuned to these signals, the little shepherd stopped to listen. At first, he heard only the patter of the rain and the bawling of lambs, but his senses were nearly as well honed as the dogs’, and the horn’s call, distant though it was, was enough.
“Tak’ ’em, Lad! Tak’ ’em, Lass!”
Shouting the orders over one skinny shoulder, he took to his heels, certain that the well-trained Border collies would guard the flock and not wasting one precious second to make sure they obeyed. His toughened bare feet flew down the wet, grassy slope toward Tarras Burn, and when he slipped on a patch of mud, he slid downhill for a bit on his backside but picked himself up again without losing more than a moment’s time. Sharp pebbles did not slow him, or anything else. He knew every bog and obstacle that lay in his path, and his feet were quick and sure.
At the bottom, leaping from stone to stone, he crossed the burn. Now, at the height of summer, it was safe enough, although it was known in spring flood to run with such speed that men said it was possible to drown in it. The burn was so wild then that it would dash out a man’s brains before his head went under.
Most of the area around the burn was boggy, part of the infamous Tarras Moss that, along with the great primeval forest known as Tarras Wood, generally protected the inhabitants on that side of the ridge from English invaders. But, here and there, cottages occupied higher, dryer bits of land.
At the first one, Sym shoved open the unbarred cowhide door without ceremony and shouted for the woman and three children gathered round the fireplace to flee. “Raiders comin’!”
Without awaiting a response, he was off again, finding two men next in a sheep pen, marking lambs despite the drizzle. “Horns!” he shouted at them. “Raiders in the dale!”
“To horse, Will,” the elder snapped to the younger. “Ride for Hermitage!”
“But the laird’s clapped up at Blackness!” the younger protested.
“His captain will ken wha’ to do. I’m for Broadhaugh, m’self.”
Paying scant heed to the exchange, Sym was off again, having known before the men spoke what they would do and where each would go. It was not the first time in his short life that the English had attacked Liddesdale and its neighbors.
More cottages hove into sight, clumped around a small common near one of the many peel towers that dotted the Scottish Borders, this one a dilapidated square tower perched on a rocky outcropping above the burn. Sym saw men, women, and children on the common.
“Raiders,” he cried. “Trumpets!”
In well-practiced actions, the people of the hamlet reacted, women calling to the children and darting into the cottages to grab the various household goods they called “insight,” while the men snatched up arms and fetched ponies.
Sym raced on.
He could see others now on the opposite bank of Tarras Burn, running to spread the alarm. Beacons soon took fire on hilltops despite the drizzle, for the wood was soaked in sheep fat and the beacon woodpiles kept covered until needed.
The lad’s breath came in heaving gasps, but he could not stop. He had farther to go. At the next hamlet he found breath enough to shout, “’Ware raiders!”
Doors opened. People gaped out at him and then darted back inside, reappearing with children and precious possessions, ready to make for the hills and nearby Tarras Wood. The shadowy gloom of the dense forest loomed ahead of him now in the gray mist.
As Sym darted into the forest, he heard a low, thunderous rumble behind him in the dale. He also heard screaming. The raiders had swarmed over the ridge.
His chest ached, but he dared not pause to catch his breath. Hoping the trees would provide cover enough for him to reach the cottages near the center without being run down by mounted soldiers, he ran on. With the slightest luck, any who tried to follow him would find themselves trapped in one of the many bogs that turned Tarras Moss and the forest floor into a treacherous maze. Sym had known them all since his toddler days and easily found his way.
He emerged at last from woodland into a clearing and flew over its grassy slope to the first of three stone cottages, shouting, “Dad! Dougald! Raiders!”
The cottage door opened, and to his relief his father’s tall, lanky figure filled the opening. Even before Sym could gather wind enough to shout again, he saw Davy Elliot cock his head to listen in much the same way that the two dogs had.
Sym stopped running at last and bent over, hands to his knees, gasping to catch his breath. He heard voices and scrambling movement from his parents’ cottage and by the time he looked up again, his father was already emerging from the second cot, where his uncle lived, and heading for the third, which housed his granny and gramp.
His cousin, yellow-haired Anna, ran to help catch the ponies.
When Sym went toward his parents’ cottage to help his mother with the bairns, he saw a familiar dark-haired young woman standing in the doorway. “Laurie,” he shouted, “dinna stand like a post. There be raiders comin’. Tak’ yer pony and gang home!”
“Your mam’s got the baby, Sym,” she replied calmly. “Come and pick up Wee Fergus for her, will you?”
Without argument, he hurried to do her bidding, although it was still a struggle to catch his breath.
Laurie was a special friend. Not only was she merry enough, most days, to enjoy a prank as much as he did, but he liked that she called him plain Sym and not Wee Sym the way his folks did. Around other people she called him Davy’s Sym, the way others called his dad Sym’s Davy. Sym was named for his gramp, and since so many Elliots and Halliots bore the same first names, it was easier to tell them apart by using their to-names. His was Sym’s Davy’s Sym to anyone who took long enough to say such a mouthful. Mostly, though, folks other than Laurie called him Wee Sym and would do so until he did something distinctive enough to make them call him by a more impressive name.
Breaking into his train of thought, Laurie Halliot said thoughtfully, “Do you think you can hold Wee Fergus if I put you on my pony, Sym?”
“Aye, o’ course I can,” he said, still trying to catch his breath. “But what will ye do then, yourself? That pony willna tak’ three.”
“Your father will help me. Come now, be quick!”
But when they went outside again, although Laurie’s pony stood waiting, when she moved to help Sym mount it, Davy Elliot stopped her.
Hurrying toward her with his brother Dougald at his heels, he said, “We canna tak’ your pony. Ye’ll be needin’ it.”
“Not if we’ve still got time enough for you to put me up a tree in the wood,” Laurie said firmly.
“Aye, well, I can do that right enow, but if you’re no goin’ to need the pony, then I’ll put my Lucy and the bairn up. We’ve ponies enough for the old folks, Dougald’s Anna, and ourselves, but the lad there will ha’ to scamper.”
“Nay then, Davy,” she protested. “You can see that he’s purely winded. He’ll bide with me to protect me from the raiders. Can you do that, Sym?”
Sym nodded, fiercely determined to see that no harm befell her.
“Send the others on to the cave, Davy,” Laurie continued in a matter-of-fact way. “Then, once you’ve put us up the tree, you must go after them—and watch well. They will need you when the raiders leave.”
“Ye might fit into the cave along wi’ the rest of us,” Davy said, but his tone was doubtful.
“Nay, you’ve barely enough room for yourselves,” she said. “Quick now, the others are ready. Sym, give Fergus to your Uncle Dougald and come with me.”
Kilting up her long skirts as she ran, as barefoot as Sym, Laurie dashed ahead of them up the wet slope of the clearing to the woods.
Sym did not think that he could run another step, but to his relief, when he had handed Wee Fergus to his uncle, Davy swung him up onto his shoulders. With Sym clinging to his long, dark hair, Davy loped after Laurie.
She had not gone far into the woods before she stopped beneath a tall beech tree and looked back. “This one will do,” she said in a low but carrying voice. “The lower branches are too high for anyone to reach unaided. No one will seek us here.”
From his perch on Davy’s shoulders, Sym looked down at her with a frown and said, “But what if they fire the trees?”
“They are too green and wet from the rain,” she replied. “If the raiders fire aught, they’ll fire the cots. Oh, be quick, Davy! I think I heard a man shout.”
Quick as thought, the tall man swung the boy down and clasped his hands together to make a stirrup. When she put her right foot into it, he hoisted her high, and she climbed like a cat, clearly not caring that both males could catch glimpses of all that she had beneath her skirts.
When she was safe on the lowest sturdy branch, she lay lengthwise along it and reached a hand down for the boy. His father practically tossed him to her, and after she had dragged him up, the two of them climbed higher.
“Go back now, Davy,” she called down to him urgently.
“I can still see ye,” he said.
“Then we’ll climb higher. Now, by the blessed Mary, go!”