The Eve of St John

She shivered,  not from the cold, pulling her cloak closer round her. It lacked but two days to the Eve of St John and the light had not completely left the sky even though it must be near to midnight. Sitting there beside the fire,  high on the Watchfold, she wondered at the enormity and the absurdity of her plan.

When the chance offered, she knew that she had to take it or regret forever what might have been. The Baron’s riding out that morning had surprised her. The too many years of their unhappy union had taught her that he was not a man to risk himself for anybody or anything without personal benefit. His announcement that he was going to join Arran to defend the realm against the marauding English heretics had seemed out of character.‘Aye weel’, she thought. ‘We live in strange times. I may have misjudged him all these years.’

Strange times indeed. Henry had sent his army north to force the marriage  of the infant Mary to his son Edward and to impose his Protestant heresies on the Scots who still held to  the True Faith.  It was truly ‘a rough wooing’  to be resisted. Maybe  her man had more to him than she had ever thought.

Too little and too late. Her own wooing had been rough and ready. She hated him for all that he was and for all that he had done to her. Her chance was there and she meant to take it.

She had volunteered take her turn in  tending the beacon fire. The Border clans had to know that the English were close at hand. Little did any of them know that she held in her heart and her hope the stories of an older faith  which her Irish grandmother had taught her and that she had her own reasons for keeping rhe flame.

She had three nights. Everybody would think that she dutifully tended the beacon but she truly believed that she could use the Summer Solstice to ask the  pagan gods to grant her heart’s desire. She muttered the well-rehearsed summoning invocation to Aine. Nothing happened. She fancied that she saw a flicker of movement away to the right but put it down to her imagination.

The next day dragged its way to its weary end. As she climbed the hill at dusk, she chided herself for being  a lovelorn fool who had put her faith in the myths and imaginings of bygone days. There was no way in all sanity that a living, breathing man could be conjured to appear at her behest. But then, as she neared the fire, she saw that he was standing there. Joyfully and not really daring to believe it, she ran the last few yards into his arms.

She had no  memory of what they talked about and it was dawn in an instant. As she picked her way down the craggy path to the personal prison that was Smailholm tower, she prayed that it had not been a dream and that she could force the tryst which would seal their love for ever.

Came the night, and she hurried up the steep path to the signal fire. He was there again and he was surely  in thrall to her now. She blurted out  her plans. The bloodhound and English Will. her husband’s spy, would be drugged. The tower guard were hers to a man and would see and hear nothing. Her confessor had been summoned to Dryburgh Abbey to say masses for the soul of some poor knight who had fallen to the English spears.

He seemed strange and distant but she knew now that Aine, goddess of love, had put him in her power and that he could not refuse to come to her chamber on the Eve of St John. Morning  came all too quickly again and she floated down the hill, warm in the knowledge that it was only a matter of hours before her dream came true.

She neared the tower and saw the Baron’s charger standing there, untended and weary. The Baron himself was in the Hall slumped in his chair, untended and weary. English Will was whispering in his ear and she took her chance to slip past the open  door and up the stair to her day chamber. Putting her finger to her lips to warn her ladies, she composed herself at the window and looked out over the Lammermuir Hills, grieving for what could have been.

The Baron came in and harried her ladies out but he seemed less sure of himself than usual.  It had to be the sights that he had seen in the last few days. She asked how the Scots army had fared and he told her that they had won a great victory on Ancrum Moor. But then he asked after the beacon fire and she had a sudden, cold chill in her heart that he knew everything and was just playing with her.

He  turned and walked away, saying that he needed to sleep. She busied herself with the usual domestic chores of the day and went to the bed chamber, hoping to find him dead to the world. He was tossing fitfully and muttering under his breath. She slipped in beside him and lay bolt awake, dreading the moment when he would turn to her and claim what all convention acknowledged to be his right.

Midnight struck and a great stillness fell.   Her lover was standing there at the foot of the bed. She stifled a scream. ‘Never fear, my lady’, he said. ‘The Baron sleeps for now and can not  wake until I depart. Three days ago, he slew me on Eildon Hill. Priests sing  masses and the Abbey bells peal for my soul at Dryburgh, but  to no avail. The three of us are doomed and damned for ever, the Baron for my murder and you and I  for our lawless love.’

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