What if the one you love is also the one you are sworn to kill?
Arabella 'Bel' Horden is a mischievous, pugnacious thirteen-year-old. The youngest daughter of a Northumbrian squire and magistrate, she is wracked by guilt after a careless haystack fire leads to the wrongful hanging of an English army deserter.
Sent to boarding school in Yorkshire after another unbecoming act of disobedience, Bel blossoms into a beautiful and quick-witted young woman.
Nathaniel 'Nat' Wilson is ill with fever when his twin brother, Daniel, is falsely accused and hung for the fire started by Bel. Accursed by his mother for the tragedy, he is reluctantly sworn to vengeance against the Horden family.
A peace-loving boy, Nat temporarily escapes his mother's maddened demands through pursuit of his studies in Cambridge.
Years after the violence that first juxtaposed their lives, Bel and Nat's paths finally cross when Nat arrives in Northumberland to discover what he can of the Horden family and their role in his brother's unfortunate death.
As a second Scots invasion sends the land into chaos, will love triumph as vengeance is thwarted?
When Sam's mother called him in, Bel Horden determined she would stay out longer. The day was too important to end now. Thirteen years old, squat and ugly as she knew she was, she was in love with Sam Turner. This was momentous.
She would climb into the forked beech tree and nestle in that smooth hollow between the three branches to enjoy the sensation. The tree had lured her every time she had watched Sam from behind its broad trunk, but her cursed petticoats had made climbing impossible. Now they were tucked into Sam's breeches so she must seize her chance. He had actually unpegged his spare pair from the clothes line and held them out to her when she hesitated to get down in the mud by the ditch he had dug to separate the English and Scottish armies. He had forgotten about his breeches when his mother called.
"She'll come seeking me if I don't go at once and she mustn't know you're here." He had flung the last stick soldiers into the ditch, tossed earth on the bonfire and run.
Bel grinned now as she launched herself into the tree, nails scrabbling at the bark as her fingertips reached for the dip in the fork. The trunk splayed out at just enough of a slope for her shoes to heave her up, fat and ridiculous though she felt in Sam's breeches. For a second she thought she would slide back again but will-power held her flattened to the tree as she reached for the stump of a twig with one hand and clawed the other over into the hollow so that she could get her elbow in and scrabble up the rest of the way. Her pinafore ripped but she didn't care. The dress was unharmed. She stood upright and hauled Sam's breeches higher, tucking her skirts further down. Sam was two years older and taller of course. That had made it all the more wonderful that he had let her be the Scottish general who had so lately beaten the English at Newburn on the Tyne. Perhaps he was deferring to her because she was the young lady from the Hall, but that was of no account. She never would be a young lady.
She sat down cross-legged, scrunching among the dead leaves and twigs in the hollow and hugged herself with delight. She wasn't worried that it was getting dark. She had long since marked certain trees with the sharpest carving knife from the kitchen to create her own secret path through the woods from the Hall to the farm. And now she had a secret friend too. Sam had asked if she would come again. He had no idea how often she had watched him from the wood. It was only because he was playing at being two armies that she had dared to approach this time.
"May I play?"
He had been astonished but quickly agreed the game would be better with two. Now she was a little anxious that he would be in trouble for the filthy state of his breeches tomorrow. He could pretend they blew off the line perhaps. She looked up at the leaves above her. The early September evening was beginning to stir with wind.
I'll leave them on the ground under the line when I go, she decided
But she was in no hurry to take them off. He had looked away when she scrambled into them, just like a gentleman. She stroked their coarse surface. She had always wanted to be a boy and wear breeches but that must change now if she was in love. When she had gazed at him in Nether Horden church in his Sunday best, she had wanted to be his brother. When she had watched him from her wood as he went quietly about his chores on the farm she had thought what a contrast he was to her own brother, Robert, a grown man but mean and indolent.
Now Sam Turner was no longer at a distance. He had spoken with her, laughed with her, their imaginations had twined together as they agreed the battle should be a stalemate, so many casualties lost on both sides and the stream, as he put it gleefully, "absolutely running with blood." Her stomach had curled with excitement that he was actually talking to her, and finally he had asked her to come again.
Home held no attractions for her. Henrietta was worse than Robert. She never lost an opportunity of putting her down or telling tales on her. Her mother seldom talked to her but when she did she became so voluble that she ended up lapsing into her native French.
"Oh, Arabella, you are so rough and wild! You have no grace, no delicacy, no refinement. Why can you not copy Henrietta? See how she moves. How did I bear such a hoyden?" And so on into French. Her father would look at her and shake his head and tell Nurse to scold the obstinacy out of her.
Bel put them all from her mind and peered eagerly about her from her new elevation as the last glow of the sunset began to fade. The Turners' farmhouse was a little distance away to her left. There were no lights showing there yet as it was not dark enough for them to waste candles. To the right of her vantage point was the plank bridge that carried the track to the Hall over the Horden Burn. It was from a tiny tributary of the burn that Sam had dug his ditch and near it on the dirt floor by the trickle of water he had lit his bonfire. He knew better than to light a fire far from water when the hay was in and everything was tinder dry.
Opposite her, on the other side of the track was the hay-stack and to the left of it the hen-house. The chickens that had been scrabbling all over the farm were coming to roost there. Many spent the day in the field behind the barn that sloped down to the bank of the Horden Burn. Below the plank bridge the burn flowed through a gorge and she could hear it splashing down its shallow waterfalls. Farmer Turner would come out soon to fasten the henhouse door against foxes. Perhaps she should think of making her escape. She watched a few minutes more as the red crests popped up beside the barn and the last hens pecked their way among the straw to their resting place.
Reluctantly she eased herself out of the fork and slithered down the trunk. As she landed on the ground her eyes were drawn to the corner of the haystack. Someone was staring straight at her. Her spine tingled. It was a stranger – a man with flaxen hair lit by the last light in the western sky. He seemed to be hesitating whether to run or not but a hen came right by his legs and all in a second he had shot out a hand and grabbed it by the neck and turned to plunge down the field behind.
Bel gaped in astonishment at the brazen act and then there came a shout from the track up to the Hall.
"Hold! Put that down or I shoot." And without a pause a pistol shot rang out, there was a squeal and the sound of feet plunging away into the darkness. With squawks of protest the hen flapped to the ground and came scuttling back to join the others in a scrambling run to the hen-house.
Bel shrank petrified behind the beech. She knew too well who had fired the shot. Her brother Robert. People had now come running from the farmhouse.
She heard Robert say, "I winged him. I'll wager it was a looter from the Scots army. He dropped the bird. She'll live. We can leave him be. He'll not be back."
"I thank you, Master Robert." Farmer Turner's voice sounded out of the dusk. "A blessing you were passing."
"I was sent to find Arabella. Have you seen her come by this way?" The track by the farm led to the village of Nether Horden.
"Nay, but we'll help you look, won't we, Ma? There's villains about."
Bel remained still as a stone while they went down the track, then she peeped out. Seeing that the wind had raised a red glow in the bonfire again she drew a glowing stick from the heart of it to light her way through the wood. Kicking on more dirt she was just going to set off when she heard a noise from below the bridge, a scrabbling sound and a grunt of pain. Terrified that the robber was after her she threw the stick away and plunged into the wood.
Once hidden she crouched down and unbuttoned and wrenched off Sam's breeches, kissed them, rolled them into a ball and threw them back towards the clothes' line. For one more second she looked towards the streambed expecting to see a ghastly face peer above the bank. There was a glow from somewhere. Oh it was her stick. Some dried grass where it fell had caught fire.
She dare not venture onto the track again. The fire would burn itself out. She turned and ran, making her way from one cut to another in the trees. She was thrilled to find that she could still discern them though there was scarcely any light left in the wood. It was flattering, she thought, that Robert had consented to search for her, but she was in for punishment unless she could get home unseen and pretend she had been up in one of the attics all the time. Sam, she was sure, would not betray to his family or to Robert that she had ever been near the farm.
In four minutes' fast running she had reached the back of Horden Hall. No servants were about. They must all be looking for her. Three minutes later she was lying in bed, the curtains drawn round her, feigning sleep.
Daniel Wilson felt his shoulder and realised he was not mortally wounded after all. No one was pursuing him and when he dragged himself up the bank and looked back towards that beech where he had seen the fat boy climb down there was no sign of him. He was cross that he had dropped the chicken. Nat had told him to get one because they had had nothing to eat for twenty-four hours. It was so easy. It had just run by his hand. He saw that some of the scattered straw on the dirt track was ablaze. That would bring the farm people out again, so he would do best to run back to Nat as long as he could remember where he had left him. It wasn't difficult to pick his way, bent double, along the top of the bank. Keeping the streambed to his right he should find the anglers' hut where – if his last picture was a true one – Nat lay curled on the floor, his head throbbing with a fever.
The pictures in his mind of the last few weeks since he and Nat had left home were all jumbled together and it was an effort to sort them into any sequence. As soon as Nat was better it would be all right. Nat was clever. Nat would take charge again.
When the thicker dark of a timber wall materialised among the trees he grinned with relief. At least he had fresh water in his leather bottle from the waterfall but the loss of the chicken shamed him. Nat needed food to give him strength and he himself was ravenously hungry.
He felt round the wall to the door and pushed it open. As it hung lopsidedly from one hinge it scraped the floor and Nat stirred and groaned out, "Dan?"
Daniel knelt beside him and raised his head and held the water bottle to his lips. Nat gulped eagerly
"I dropped the bird. Forgive me. There was a bang. My shoulder. It's bloody but it's nothing much. A scratch."
Nat reared up in the darkness. "You were shot at?"
Daniel nodded vigorously.
"Did no one follow you?"
Daniel shook his head.
"The fat boy saw me but he went away after the bang. There was some fire. The wind was blowing it along."
"Do you mean gunfire? The wind carried the sound?"
"Fire on the ground. I got the water to bring you. Have some more. Are you well now?"
But Daniel knew his brother was not well. He could feel his body shaking with the fever. He himself was never ill. Their mother often said, "You, Daniel, are my strong boy. There is often a little runt with twins. Nat is the little runt." It was hard to understand that because Nat had grown to within an inch or two of Daniel's height now that they were both nineteen and though Nat's shoulders weren't as broad, he was usually hale and hearty. More than that, his body was as quick and agile as his brain. He would not have lost the chicken, Dan thought sadly. What can I do for him now?
He lay down close to him and wrapped his arms round him to make him warm again. In a few moments he was asleep.