"What!" she cried, the indignant blood leaping to her cheek, "hast thou taken the Red Cross? Why, shame upon thee! Shame upon thee! Thou art not worthy the name thou dost bear!"
The young fellow stood before her twisting his bonnet between his hands in somewhat shamefaced fashion. From the likeness between them it was plain that they were brother and sister: but there was a courage and loftiness of purpose in the aspect of the girl which bespoke a higher nature than that of the stalwart lad, who looked half-afraid to face her.
"Others have done it before. They are all doing it," he argued. "They say 'tis the only way of safety now that the English King is so mighty in wrath, and will win by force what he cannot get by friendship. They say he will come himself, and carry away our young Queen to England, to wed her to his son; and that all who seek to withstand him will be slain."
Lillyard's lip curled; her eyes shot forth fire.
"England's Kings have tried ere this to conquer Bonny Scotland. Let them come again, and see the welcome they will get!"
"It is all very fine for thee to talk!" grumbled the lad; "thou art a woman. Thou dost sit at home at ease. It is us men who have to go forth and take all the hard blows. Thou knowest the fate that has befallen hundreds of us Border men at the hands of the English. Why should we suffer it? What care I who gets the best of this quarrel? We are well-nigh as much English as Scotch. What matters it on which side we fight? Thou needst not glower like that at me. Others say the same. It is better to take the Red Cross and serve with Sir Ralph Evers or Sir Brian Latoun, than to be slaughtered like sheep by their trained bands."
The girl was looking away from him over the smiling landscape. The expression of her face was one her brother could scarcely read aright. He cowered a little before it; and yet her voice was quiet enough when she spoke; quiet and almost dreamy.
"It is better to die a soldier's death on the field of battle, than to turn a traitor to one's home and country, and sell one's sword to an alien King!"
"Oh, ay, you talk—you talk!" answered Gregory in a tone of offence; "women can always talk. But if it came to fighting, then they would sing to a very different tune!"
The girl's eyes flashed; she turned their light full upon her brother, who moved uneasily beneath the gaze.
"Then let the men don women's attire and take the distaff and spindle in their hands!" she cried; "and let us women go forth and fight the foe! I trow we should make the better soldiers, if thou art a specimen of the lads of the Border!"
"Go to, for a sharp-tongued shrew!" cried Gregory angrily; "I am none worse than others. Duncan has taken the Red Cross too. Small peace would there have been at home had I refused it. And have a care how thou dost talk to him, Lillyard. He will have thee to the cucking-stool for a scold, an' thou treat him to such words as thou hast treated me!"
Lillyard's hands dropped to her sides, and her eyes dilated. She had not perhaps a very exalted opinion of her half-brother, Duncan; but at least she gave him credit for personal courage.
"Duncan has taken the Red Cross!" she repeated at last. "Art sure of that, Gregory?"
"I saw it pinned upon his arm myself," answered the big lad; "'twas he who called me up and bid me do the same. He told me how the English were mustering, and that there would be another great raid; and that he had no mind to have his house burned about his ears, and all his crops carried off, with the cattle and horses, and nothing left us save bare life, even if we escape with that. And I don't see but what he's in the right," added the youth defiantly, "for all thy black looks, Maid Lillyard."
"Duncan taken the Red Cross," breathed the girl softly, as she stood looking out straight before her with that inscrutable look of hers. "Then this place is no longer a home for me."
"What meanest thou?" cried Gregory angrily. "Thou dost talk like a silly wench, not like our wise Lillyard. What other home couldst thou find? And, as I tell thee, we shall be safe here now; for the English are not to harry the homestead of any of those who have taken the Red Cross."
She did not seem to hear him. She had turned back into the house and was putting together a few of her private belongings. Her brother watched her uneasily, shifting from foot to foot.
"Lillyard, be not so rash. Duncan will never forgive. He will never take thee back if thou dost go now."
"I shall not ask him," responded Lillyard quietly; and then, looking fixedly at Gregory, she said half sadly: "I would that thou wouldst come with me, and tear that badge from off thine arm. Better a thousand times death than dishonour—if that be the choice."
"Women cannot judge of these things," answered Gregory, with masculine arrogance of sex. Lillyard gave a little smile, and urged him no more.
The sun was setting over Ancram Moor as the girl stepped forth with her modest possessions in a bundle. She had no wish to encounter the half-brother, with whom she and Gregory had made a home ever since their father's death. He had been a more autocratic ruler at home than ever the father was. Lillyard did not greatly love him; but she had never before doubted his personal courage or his loyalty to Scotland's cause.
Those were evil days for the dwellers upon the Border; and it cannot be wondered at, if many in that region sought to trim their sails to the favouring breeze of the moment. There had been sufficient admixture of the two races here to lessen somewhat the passionate loyalty to country that ruled in more distant parts. When the Scotch ravaged the English borders, the inhabitants sometimes preferred to make terms with them than to fight, and to bribe them to retire; and when the English forces invaded Scotland, burning, plundering, and butchering through the devastated land, it was scarcely to be wondered at that some willingly temporised. If it were true that the little Queen was to marry the King of England's son, and unite the two countries in one, what need to cherish such strong hatred and angry feeling?
But the war was felt to be unjust and unprovoked, and much irritation was aroused. Henry VIII. of England had shown his intolerant and impatient temper in a fashion which brought about the defeat of his cherished plan. He angered the Scots by his demand to have the little Queen in his own keeping; and, by his persistence and autocratic conduct, he drove the adverse party into the arms of France, and caused a rupture in those very negotiations by which he had set such store.
Even then had he shown moderation and patience, he might still have won a diplomatic victory, when the proposed scheme had so much to recommend it; but the haughty monarch had never learned the meaning of that word, and in his ripening years was losing the self-control which in his younger days he had sometimes exercised over himself. Upon hearing the news of the negotiations with France, he had declared instant war, and had sent two bold knights to start a Border raid, whilst his ships should convey an army to their aid by way of the Frith of Forth.
All the Border country was in a tumult of alarm. Help was promised them from the Scottish army; but meantime this terrible raid had been made, in which above a thousand men had been either slain or made prisoners, nearly two hundred houses and towers destroyed, and such quantities of sheep and cattle slaughtered or driven away as to render the area of country completely desolate.
It was therefore perhaps no great wonder that those of the Border folk who did not feel very keenly with regard to this war, should gladly avail themselves of the offer made by the English commanders, and promise to befriend them and to fight on their side if their persons and goods might be saved from hurt. Those who made this concession were decorated with a Red Cross, which they undertook to wear in battle, to distinguish them, and which they were glad enough to have on at other times, as it was impossible to know at what moment a band of raiders might not appear, and how soon it might not be needful to display the badge of friendship.
But to the high spirit of Lillyard this kind of compromise was odious. As is sometimes the case in families, she seemed to have inherited everything that was distinctively and vehemently Scotch. The admixture of English blood seemed not to have touched her. To think of making such a compromise with the English was to her mind an act of black treachery.
Perhaps her feelings on this point had been unconsciously strengthened by her attachment to a young Highlander, whose mother had somewhat recently come to live in this Border country, where a little property had unexpectedly come to her.
Young Gordon was a Scotchman to the very marrow of his bones, and his mother was full of the legends and traditions of the Highland home they had quitted, to which Lillyard would sit and listen by the hour together. And so close a bond of sympathy had sprung up between the two, that when Gordon spoke openly of his love, and begged Lillyard to look upon herself as his promised bride, his mother was almost as eager as the son for her consent.
It was natural that Lillyard, in her trouble and dismay, should bend her steps towards that humble homestead, where the widow, Madge Gordon, had been settled by her son, ere he went forth to join one of those bands of soldiers that fought sometimes here, sometimes there, as occasion demanded, and helped to keep in seething life and activity those terrors and those enthusiasms of patriotism which were the life and soul of the struggle.
The old woman looked up with a smile as Lillyard entered her cottage; but she spoke no word, for something in the girl's face restrained her.
"Duncan and Gregory have ta'en the Red Cross," said Lillyard, in a low, hard tone.
"The deil fly away with all cowards who would sell their country to the usurper!" breathed the fierce old woman.
"So I have come to thee, mother," added Lillyard simply.
Madge rose and folded her in her arms.
"Thou hast come to thine own home, lassie," she said. "Alan will be braw and glad when he comes and finds thee here."
A quick flush mantled Lillyard's cheek. Her troth plight to Alan Gordon was a very recent thing. She could not think of it without a thrill. Would he come to the Border country in aid of the struggling Scotch, writhing beneath the savage raids of the English? Surely the leaders of the many bands of soldiers, regular and irregular, would fly to the aid of their brethren when they heard what things were being done! Ah, yes, she would see her Alan before long! And he would not chide her for seeking a home with his mother!
"I could not stay," said Lillyard, as the two women sat at their frugal supper together; "it was like a knife in my heart to see that traitor badge. I could not stay with those who had taken it. And to be told that were I a man I should do the same!—that it was easy for women who sat safe at home to talk of courage and devotion!—that were women called upon to face the foe like men, in battle array, they would be glad to save their skins by any chance that offered!" And Lillyard threw back her head and drew a deep breath of anger and scorn, whilst the eyes of the old woman flashed in the firelight.
"Said he so—the coward callant! Much does he know of the lot of the woman, left alone and unprotected in her cabin, whilst lawless hordes of brutal soldiers harry the land, and slay and outrage! Do we not say, 'Would Heaven I had been born a man, that I might go forth to the battle? Better a thousand times to die sword in hand upon the battle-field, than to be butchered in cold blood like the dumb brute beasts!'"
"Ah, yes, ah, yes!" cried Lillyard, "that is what my heart is always saying! Would that I might go and strike one blow for my country, though I laid down my life in the doing of it!"
"Other maids have felt like that, and have done the deed!" cried the old woman, firing up, as she was wont to do when that subject came to the front. And almost without prompting on the girl's part, she plunged into the legends and stories of which she had an endless supply on hand, telling how women and maidens, and even tender children, had done deeds of heroism and devotion, had fought beside their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, and had shamed into courage those who were growing faint-hearted.
Lillyard's eyes glowed brighter and ever more bright as she listened. She sprang to her feet at last, and paced the darkening cabin to and fro with hurried steps.
"What one has done, another may do. Oh, mother, mother, why may not I fight even as those of whom thou hast sung to-night?"
"Daughter, what wouldst thou?" asked Madge, with glistening eyes. She was excited, and uplifted by the cadence of her own words.
"Let me go forth and fight. They say that a battle must soon be fought, and that Ancram Moor is like enough to be the place where the hostile forces will meet. Alan will be there! I feel in all my being that he is coming—that he is near! He will fight, and why not I beside him? Let me but don the kilt and trappings of that young Norman whom thou didst lose, and I will show to those who scoff at woman's courage, what one girl can achieve! Let Gregory and Duncan fight against their brethren if they will; I will strike my blow for the honour of our name! Their treachery and cowardice shall be atoned by the valour of the sister. Maid Lillyard will uphold the honour of her father's name, which they have forgotten and smirched!"
The old woman kindled into enthusiasm as the words were spoken. She had been born and bred amid the clash of arms, the struggles of petty chieftains one with another, the perils of war from brother or from foeman. The blood of a wild race was in her veins, and neither time nor age had cooled it. She understood the mood which had come upon Lillyard, as few of her own kin or neighbours would have understood it. She rose to her feet, laid her hands upon the girl's shoulders, and, after gazing steadfastly into her eyes for several long seconds, led her into the inner room, and opened a great chest.
Next day Alan came; he rode in the three hundred horse under dauntless young Norman Leslie. Gallant and brave, did this band appear in the eyes of all beholders; and cheering was the news they brought, that Lord Buccleuch was on his way with all speed to join them; that other reinforcements had started from various points, and would all converge here; and that the astute Earl of Angus was narrowly watching the English, and was advising the Scotch leaders as to their best course of action in repelling this threatened attack; whilst that he himself would be with them before the day of battle.
It was splendid news for the loyal Borderers, and some who had taken the Red Cross in their hour of fear, were ready to tear it off now that they believed help was at hand. But others, like Duncan and Gregory, were too cautious to be easily persuaded. They feared to lose their comfortable homestead, and to suffer at the hands of the English. Moreover, it was known that the renegades who had taken the Cross and then flung it away, were the especial mark of English vengeance and cruelty.
Great was the joy of Alan Gordon to find Lillyard beneath his mother's roof; and eager was the interest with which he heard her tale. No love had ever been lost between him and the brothers of the maid he loved; and little recked he that, since they knew whither she had betaken herself, they had cast her off utterly.
"'Tis all in a piece with their coward treachery!" he cried. "But what matter, since thou art mine? and when the battle has been fought and won, we two will wed, sweet Lillyard, and thou shalt never lack a home."
She looked up into her lover's eyes, and smiled; but there was something in that smile which he did not fully understand.
Busy and stirring were the days that followed, and full of seething hopes and fears. The forces on both sides were mustering apace, and it was known that the threatened battle could not be long delayed. Both sides were eagerly anxious to come to blows.
The day arrived. No cloud dimmed the brightness of the sky. The two armies were drawn up in battle array; and Alan had but a moment in which to dash in and kiss his mother and his betrothed.
"A glorious victory will be ours!" he cried, "something in my heart tells me so! Thou wilt see somewhat of the fight, even from here, mother. Lillyard, beloved, one more kiss. We shall meet again with hearts full of gladness!"
She smiled a strange smile as she kissed him farewell, and watched the tall figure swinging away over the broken ground. The air seemed full of the blare of trumpets, the stamping of horses, the clangour of steel trappings. The girl's eyes kindled. She drew her breath in sharp, excited gasps.
"Now, mother," she said, wheeling round to where the old woman stood, her gaze resting so earnestly upon her that it might almost have scorched her by its fiery intensity.
"Thou hast no fear, daughter?"
"I know not the meaning of the word!" cried Lillyard. "My heart is yonder. Where my heart is, there would my arm be!"
"Then come, child, come. Thou art of the right stuff; and I will never hold thee back. Go, and may the God of battles be with thee, and give thee part in the glory of victory!"
A short time later there emerged from that cottage a goodly youth in the Gordon kilt, and with all the weapons that a Highland lad carries with him into the battle. The bonnet was set upon a mass of tawny floating curls, and the great grey eyes were full of fire and light.
She set herself in their ranks, and went charging down the hill.
Lillyard's great beauty was well known throughout the district. "Fair Maid Lillyard" had been the sobriquet ever since she had been a child. There was something almost dazzling in her aspect to-day, as she stood for a moment in the glory of the golden sunshine, and gazed across towards where the sounds of clashing swords and the booming of guns told her that the battle was raging; and then, with her light broadsword in her hand, she made a forward dash, and was soon in full sight of the fiercely fought fight.
The apparition of this fair girl, who was instantly recognised for her beauty and peculiarly lofty bearing, dressed as a soldier, and with a sword in her hand, evoked a yell of enthusiasm and joy from the whole of the Scotch ranks. It seemed to the men almost as though some angelic being had come down to their aid.
"Maid Lillyard! Maid Lillyard!" was the shout that went up; and when she set herself in their ranks, and went charging down the hill to meet the advance of the enemy, the fury of that charge was something so tremendous, that the ranks of the English were split into a score of scattered bodies, each flying back to the main body for safety, whilst the victorious Scotch pursued them with shouts almost to their own camp.
Who can remember or describe the fierce joy, the fearful peril, the wild exaltation of hand-to-hand fighting? Lillyard was in the thick of the most furious onslaughts, on whatever part of the field they took place. Attached to no company, under no authority, she seemed like a spirit of the battle, free, and with a charmed life, as she hurried hither and thither. All men saw her. A hundred voices testified to the prodigies of valour she performed; but it was only after she had seen the dead body of Alan Gordon lifted from beneath a pile of English corpses—men that he had slain—that that Berserker fury fell upon Lillyard, which has given her name to posterity, and caused the very name of the battle of Ancram Moor to be more generally known as the battle of Lillyard's Edge.
Was it her hand which slew the English leader, Evers, who perished on that field? Many declared it was so; but whether or no this was the case, there is no manner of doubt that Lillyard's strong right arm and dauntless heart carried her through the fierce fight, and that she inflicted her full share of death and wounds upon her country's foes.
As the tide of battle set in favour of the Scotch arms, numbers of those who had borne the Red Cross, and had fought in the English ranks, tore off their badges and went boldly over to the other side, seeing now greater safety there than in the ranks of the alien conqueror.
Of these time-servers were Duncan and Gregory. The latter had little of the soldier-nature in him, and had kept, as far as possible, out of the thick of the fight; but when he saw the Scotch arms victorious all over the field, he eagerly snatched off his badge, and made a dash for his countrymen. He was hotly pursued by half a dozen enraged English soldiers, but being fleet of foot, he might have escaped them had he not caught his foot in what was nothing more nor less than a heap of slain and wounded, and come heavily to the ground, yelling aloud in his terror.
Suddenly he was aware of a great tumult close about him. He raised his head and looked up. What strange vision was it that his eyes rested upon?
A young lad, as it seemed to him for a moment, had raised himself partially from the heap of dead and dying on which he lay. He seemed to be too terribly wounded to stand; and yet, with his swinging sword, he was keeping at bay the English soldiers who were in pursuit of Gregory; and there was something so strange and unearthly in his aspect that the men cried one to another:
"It is no human thing! It is some demon of the battle! I have heard that a spirit is abroad in the Scotch camp to-day. Let us leave it and be gone!"
They turned and fled, and the strange fighter, parting the mass of hair, partly clotted with blood, that hid its face, looked full into Gregory's eyes, whilst he shrank away, crying out in fear:
"It is Lillyard!—it is Lillyard!—or her wraith!"
She bent her clear, strange gaze upon him steadfastly.
"Not her wraith—yet, Gregory. Lillyard herself." The voice, though quite steady, was very weak. "It is not always the woman who fears the stress of the battle. Where wert thou when the fight was raging so fiercely?"
She looked him over from head to foot, and half-unconsciously glanced downwards at herself. The contrast was so marked that a glow of shame flamed in Gregory's face. He cried eagerly:
"I have pulled off my Red Cross, Lillyard. I will fight now beside thee. Thou shalt show me how to be brave!"
She gave him a long glance; a faint smile flickered over her face; then her eyes grew dim, and a ghastly pallor overspread her face.
"I shall fight no more," she said, in labouring gasps. "Lay me beside Alan. The battle-field was our marriage feast. Let our bridal bed be the quiet graveyard."
With that she fell prone upon the heap of corpses where he had found her, whence she had risen, though so mortally wounded, to beat off the pursuing foes who else would have slain her brother.
She and Alan Gordon were laid side by side, and every honour of war was paid to them.