It seems despite having a billion and one things to do, I’ve passed 33k on this year’s NaNo effort. This is in no small part down to the Edinburgh NaNoBeans, who now meet three times a week for write-ins and are a terrific bunch. And they operate all year round, when editing time looms large. So, with last night’s overpriced Starbucks coffee still bitter on my tongue, I thought I’d pick a chapter and post it up, warts and all. I’ve been very lucky to see a few friend’s works, both polished and rough, and I love giving feedback. Perhaps you think there’s some of this that isn’t too cringey.
We join two young schoolgirls who have managed to find themselves on trial in the 16th-century, alongside the laird of Niddrie and his companion, the 5th Earl of Bothwell. Yeah, don’t ask. I’m a pantser through and through; no plots here.
The guilty parties got to their feet, wearing indifferent expressions. If they let a trace of emotion show, the public gallery would tear them to shreds. It seemed like the entire population of Edinburgh had crammed into the Tolbooth for the occasion. Trials with high-profile defendants were always popular, more so if they ended up swinging from the gallows.
Ade and Kathy could barely see over the wooden barrier in front of them. Like the men, their arms were shackled together, but they were struggling to stop them dropping to the floor. The air was foul, thick with the stench of the great unwashed; smoke from the candles hung in the air, adding an unsavoury smell of animal fat to the mix. They hadn’t met the lawyer who would be defending them; not that it mattered, as they could see from the judge’s demeanour when he entered the courtroom what the outcome would be.
‘It’s eleven o’clock,’ whispered Francis to Archie. ‘Why has this been delayed for so long?’
‘Because unlike you, I had friends who were concerned about my welfare,’ hissed Archie. ‘They petitioned the king himself for a pardon. Unsurprisingly, they were not successful.’
The judge peered down his nose at the specimens before him. ‘Archibald Wauchope, you stand accused of murder and conspiracy to murder. Francis Stewart, and the women known only as Adrienne and Catherine, you stand accused as instruments to murder. Furthermore,’ he said, wrinkling his nose, ‘you stand accused of the heinous crime of witchcraft.’
A great roar erupted from the gallery, a cacophony of cheers, boos, and jeers. They had all been hoping for a good witchcraft trial.
‘Now, wait a minute!’ protested Kathy. ‘I demand a break to see my lawyer—’
‘Silence!’ thundered the judge. ‘You were not permitted to speak, nor shall you be until the allotted time when you may put forward your defence.’ He nodded to the prosecution. ‘You may begin examination of the accused.’
The prosecuting lawyer was a skinny man, thin strands of grey hair framing his stern face. He stepped up to the dock and examined each guilty party with barely-concealed disdain. Stopping at Archibald, he let forth a satisfied grunt.
‘How nice to finally meet you. I must commend you for avoiding justice for so long.’
‘The only justice in this courtroom should be letting me walk out of that door.’
‘Delinquent youths like you will never see outside the walls of this jail.’
Archie pressed his lips into a thin line, glared at the lawyer and spat at him. There was a gasp from the gallery as the prosecution wiped his face.
‘I hope, Archibald, that we can continue this trial in a spirit of civility,’ he said, trying to hide his fury.
Francis was next under his gaze. He wore a serene expression, unruffled by the trouble Archie was causing.
‘You have nothing to fear from me,’ he said calmly. ‘I have some decorum. And besides, I am sure you will find me innocent.’
‘Hm. We shall see about that.’ The lawyer moved on to the girls. ‘And you two. I would like to begin by questioning these girls, Your Honour.’
Ade and Kathy cast a glance towards the door; they could just see two men wearing black hoods over their heads, and shuddered. There was only one sentence for witchcraft.
‘What if we don’t want to answer your questions?’ asked Kathy in a trembling voice.
The lawyer gave a smile devoid of all emotion. ‘Then we get the answers out the hard way.’
‘Just get this over with,’ said Ade with a sigh.’
‘Your clothes are strange, and you claimed to the guards that you come from a year far in the future. We have the contents of your bags, which I will now show to the court.’
He rummaged in Ade’s satchel and produced her packed lunch. ‘What… is this?’ he asked, holding up a banana speckled with brown dots.
Ade grinned at the man’s confusion. ‘That’s my lunch. Why don’t you try some?’
At this, the lawyer threw the banana to the floor, prompting some cries of terror in the gallery.
‘Oh for crying out loud, it’s only a banana!’ said Kathy in exasperation. ‘It’s not magic. It’s not going to explode and kill you.’
Scowling, their interrogator pulled out a maths textbook, opened it at a random page and slammed it down in front of the girls.
‘This must surely be witchcraft. See!’ he said, turning the textbook around for the judge to examine, ‘it is covered with arcane markings. This is some kind of incantation.’
Ade rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, it’s called trigonometry. Sine equals the opposite side over the hypotenuse—’
‘What is the witch chanting?’ cried someone from the gallery. ‘She’s trying to destroy us all!’
There were murmurs of agreement, and occasional shouts of ‘Burn her!’
‘I think I’ve heard enough,’ spat the lawyer, setting the textbook down and returning to Archie. ‘So. Why did you shoot James Giffert?’
Archie tensed. ‘I didn’t murder him. We had a disagreement.’
‘There were no signs of a fight when we found him.’
‘He turned up at my house making baseless accusations—’
‘You owed him a large amount of money, it seems. Gambling debts. I would like to be surprised at this revelation, but your sort always seem to get tangled in such webs of vice.’
‘I was going to settle what was owed in full. He attacked me in broad daylight!’
The lawyer sighed theatrically. ‘It would be better, Archibald, if you were to cooperate rather than continue lying in a court of law.’
‘That’s the truth, and if you don’t believe me ask Francis—’
‘Yes, he murdered him. He was in my quarters when he confessed to me. He had a number of men on a list, and he was planning to shoot them all to avoid paying them back.’
A disapproving grumble rolled around the gallery. Archie shot Francis a furious glare, but it was met with a knowing smile.
‘Well, at least we have one honest man in the dock today. Thank you, Francis. But you have yet to explain why you were plotting to murder the king. So, the floor is yours.’
Those were the words that Francis had been waiting for.
‘May I?’ he asked, gesturing outside the dock, the manacles rattling against the wooden rail. The lawyer looked at the judge, who frowned and nodded in reluctant agreement.
‘Thank you.’ Francis sidled past Archie, whose eyes gleamed with fury at his friend’s betrayal. Francis made his way to the centre of the room, turned towards the public gallery and cleared his throat.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have been accused of orchestrating a most hateful crime. Ask yourself, would a man of my standing genuinely desire the downfall of our beloved monarch? What would I stand to gain, when my own position is comfortable?’ Francis waved towards the girls. ‘These urchins have simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have spoken to them and offered my full assistance in helping them back onto a more just path.’
Ade was about to interrupt him, but Francis glared at her for a brief second, unnoticed by the gallery. ‘As for Archie, it truly pains me to see a friend falling on hard times. If my cooperation would see him treated with more leniency, then I will do whatever I can.’
He brought his hands together with a metallic clank. When he pulled them apart again, something had changed. It took a few moments before Ade and Kathy realised what had happened. Turning round and studying the peasants packing the seats above them, they noticed that they weren’t moving. Several of them had frozen mid-sentence, their lips about to curl around a word. Some of them were in the middle of eating their lunch, crumbs of rotten bread suspended in mid-air. The smoke from the candles had stopped too, making odd grey statues over the courtroom. They hadn’t fallen over, so presumably they weren’t dead. Kathy poked Archie; he yelped and turned round, scowling.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Checking you’ve not frozen solid like that lot,’ said Kathy, taking slightly too much pleasure in tormenting the laird.
Archie pulled Kathy’s hand away. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘Look.’ Kathy pointed at the gallery. ‘Everyone’s just sort of… stopped.’
‘Not a bad feat, don’t you think?’
Francis was standing with his hands on his hips, the smile on his face threatening to outshine the candles around him.
‘That was you?’ asked Ade. ‘You didn’t think of maybe letting us know beforehand about your plan?’
‘That would have spoiled the surprise, wouldn’t it?’ Francis was rummaging around on one of the guards’ belts for the keys to the shackles. ‘Aren’t you going to thank me for saving you?’
‘I’d be more inclined to be grateful if you hadn’t just tried to have me thrown in prison to save your own skin,’ said Archie, marching out from the dock and stopping inches from Francis’s face.
‘Sorry, old friend. The situation was desperate, and I had to make sure I was playing the part well.’
‘So, now you’re our friend all of a sudden, is that it?’ said Kathy. ‘You were about to wipe us out at Crichton. Or have you conveniently forgotten that?’
Francis shrugged. ‘When you move in the circles I do, you make and break alliances as you see fit. I decided it would be to my advantage to ensure you escaped alongside me.’
Ade gave a mock regal bow. ‘Well, all hail our benevolent hero.’
‘Do you want to get out of here, or shall I leave you to the gallows?’
‘Fine. Whatever,’ grumbled Ade. ‘But once we’re out of here, I don’t want to see your smug face again.’
There was a clank as the girls’ manacles fell to the floor. Francis turned and started walking towards the doors leading to the other cells.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Archie.
‘Well, since we have the advantage, why don’t we free some more of the poor souls trapped in here?’
Archie’s jaw dropped. ‘Have you completely taken leave of your senses? You want to unleash the contents of the Tolbooth on the city?’
Ade grabbed Archie’s arm. ‘Okay, since you’re clearly the sanest person around here, you should come with us.’
He nodded. ‘Come on. Leave him to his mad plots.’
They noticed the change on the judge first. The whiskers on his chin began to twitch, his eyebrows raised, and his fingers wriggled gently.
‘Um, guys, about that whole freezing people thing? I think it’s about to…’
Kathy didn’t have time to finish. In a flash, the courtroom was alive again. The peasants jolted from their stupor, gawking at each other in confusion. The guards clapped their hands to their belts, seeing the prisoners standing unshackled and outside the dock. And the judge, watching the chaos unfolding before his eyes, got to his feet.
‘Witches! We have all been bewitched! Seize them!’ he thundered.
Before the guards could react to the judge’s command, Archie swung one of the shackles round, colliding with the face of one, and brought his fist into the other’s cheek. They both crumpled against the wall, unconscious, while more came running from the cells to their aid.
‘Quickly, this way!’
Archie was pointing at the window. Kathy and Ade hesitated.
‘Are you serious, Archie? We’re not just going to go out the door like normal people?’
‘Do you prefer to take your chances with that bunch?’ he said, pointing at the grim-faced jailors bearing down on them.
One of them clamped his chubby hand on Ade’s shoulder. She dug the heel of her shoe into his foot, causing him to howl in pain and lurch backwards, and scooped up her rucksack.
‘So how are we going to do this exactly?’ she panted. ‘Just leap out and hope we don’t break our neck when we hit the ground?’
The trio peered outside. The courtroom was on the second floor. It looked like the drop would break their bones at the very least. Only the shadows of the luckenbooths opposite could be seen, dim lights glowing in the houses beyond. If they did make it out alive, they could at least flee under the cover of darkness.
While they were considering their options, the prosecuting lawyer had sneaked up behind them. Now he lunged, his thin face contorted in rage. Archie snatched up a sword dropped by one of the guards and brought it arcing across, a silver streak in the candlelight. The girls watched in horror as the lawyer stopped his assault, looked down and watched the thin red line of blood soaking through his white shirt. He toppled backwards with a terrible gurgle and lay still.
‘You didn’t have to kill him!’ cried Ade. ‘Why couldn’t you just have punched him?’
‘Because,’ said Archie, sheathing his weapon, ‘I only let honourable men live.’
The public gallery was in disarray. Several women in the front row had fainted; others were staring at Archie longingly. Many had simply turned and fled, fearful for their lives. Archie had flung open the window and fixed the judge with a roguish smile.
‘I wouldn’t bother looking for me,’ he said, his features softened in the candles’ yellow glow. ‘If you do send your cretins, they will rue the day they crossed the Wauchope family.’
Archie turned and smiled at the gallery, and a handful of women waved and sighed at him. Kathy rolled her eyes.
‘Do I have to push you out of that bloody window or are you going to jump any time today?’
She watched as he climbed outside onto the narrow sill and lowered himself down the wall, clinging on by his fingertips. The wind blew tangled strands of hair across his face, his cape rippling like a bloodstain behind him.
‘If I’ve been too foolish and I die today… it has been a pleasure meeting you, Adrienne and Catherine. Godspeed.’
And with that, he let go of the windowsill and his tall form vanished into the murky streets below.