By: Joanna Chambers


With thanks to my lovely critique partner, Carolyn Crane, for her enthusiasm and good advice on this, and other stories, and to Sunita (a.k.a. Vacuousminx) for beta-reading and offering typically insightful comments.

Chapter One

8th September 1820, Stirling, Scotland

The crowd for the executions of John Baird and Andrew Hardie had grown steadily all morning. When David had arrived to take up his place, he’d had room enough to stretch his arms wide. Now he was hemmed in on all sides, and by every kind of person—men, women and children, low- and high-born.

There were hundreds of supporters for the two men about to be hanged and beheaded, but there were plenty of people here for the sheer spectacle too. The general mood was that of any execution—a gently seething combination of morbid glee and bloodlust that could easily spill into violence but that, for now, had a holiday feel. All around, people pushed and shoved, seeking out the best views and shouting for their friends. Hawkers announced their wares in raucous voices as they elbowed their way through the throng, peddling hot pease and beans, sawster, oranges and gingerbread. The mingled sweet and savoury scents combined with the smell of too-close, unwashed bodies. David swallowed back a sudden urge to retch and wished he’d thought to bring a nip of whisky with him.

The redcoats were out in force—soldiers from the 13th Foot. They held back the rowdy rabble gathered on either side of Broad Street; two thin lines of scarlet coats, silver bayonets bristling. Behind them, a swarm of spectators jostled and heaved.

A sharp elbow caught David in the ribs, making him grunt. His aggressor was a woman in a dirty apron and cap who smelled strongly of drink. Evidently she wanted to be closer to the front, the better to see the brutal pageantry of it all. Once past David, she ploughed through a group of young men. They cursed her roundly, but she ignored them and blundered on.

David didn’t grudge the woman her view. He hated executions. He was here because it was the only thing left that he could do for James and Andrew. He had tried his best to save them, but their trial had been a foregone conclusion. Flushed out into the open like hunted foxes, Hardie and Baird had sealed their fates months before, when they marched on Carron to take up arms and demand a say in who governed them. Little did they know that some of their number—the most committed and eager for the fight—were, in fact, hunting hounds sent by Whitehall. Agents provocateurs.

They never had a chance.

David shifted his feet, weary in body and soul. The last day and a half had been interminable. First the journey from Edinburgh, then the long hours at the inn, with nothing but his own thoughts for company. He’d come into town too early this morning, unsure how heavy the crowds would be. Already he’d been waiting more than two hours, stranded in a sea of people, some who looked as sick at heart as himself and others who might as well have been at the circus.

A sudden rumble at the top of the street caused the spectators to turn their heads as one.

“It’s the procession!” a young woman ahead of David informed her neighbour excitedly. She wore a serving girl’s apron and her fair curls peeped out from under her cap. She looked as wholesome as new-baked bread, and David couldn’t imagine why she was here, rising up on her toes and craning her neck for a better look.

At first all David could see was a company of mounted dragoons, picking their way slowly down the hill from the castle, but as they drew nearer, he could just about make out the shape of a horse-drawn hurdle in their midst, carrying the condemned men.

It was the music, though, that reached him first, a full minute before the hurdle passed. A hymn. One his mother used to sing as she worked in the farm kitchen at home, O God, Our Help in Ages Past. The hymn moved with the procession as it progressed down the hill, each new segment of the crowd taking it up, bearing the prisoners along on uneven waves of song.

The hymn had an extraordinary effect. The hawkers’ cries ceased and the excited spectators settled, until the only sounds breaking the silence were the clatter of the horses’ hooves, the dragging rattle of the prisoners’ hurdle on the cobblestones and this solemn choir of voices.

David sang too, his tenor voice a little hoarse, the familiar words dredged up from some long-forgotten corner of his memory.

Time, like an ever rolling stream

Bears all who breathe away,

They fly forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

As the procession passed David, he caught a fleeting glimpse of the prisoners through a small gap between the mounted redcoats. They sat side by side on the hurdle, the headsman opposite them, a still, hooded figure, all in black.

Behind the hurdle and its military escort walked the local dignitaries. The magistrates and Sheriff MacDonald himself, carrying his stave of office. As they moved onward, the calming effect of the hymn seemed to dissipate, and a few supporters of the condemned men bayed insults.

Once the procession had passed David, there was little to see for a while. The hurdle came to a halt outside the courthouse but there were so many redcoats bustling around that David saw nothing of the prisoners getting out. A woman in front of him reported that they had gone inside.

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