A. D. 1565
“Bring him in.”
Stephan Cameron was grabbed roughly about the shoulder and dragged to his feet from his seated position on the floor. He was unable to do it himself; his hands had been bound with a thick rope. He had lashed out at one of Lord Joseph’s men. His reward was a backhand across the face. His left eye was swollen, hard to see through. He was sure that it might be blacking nicely. It certainly hurt like the devil. It was the reason they had bound him. For a young man of fourteen, Stephan was surprisingly strong.
The rough yank to his feet caused him to be a bit unbalanced and Stephan tried to right himself by shuffling his feet. The grip on his shoulder kept him from falling back to the floor but he was not grateful for the help. He’d rather have fallen. The man holding on to him had the look of trouble, with hair the color of coal and eyes to match. He had a peculiar scar running down from his forehead, across the left eye and down to his cheekbone.
“Come on, ye thief, someone wants a word with ye,” the man purred with a silken Irish accent.
The scarred man grabbed Stephan’s shirt at the shoulder and threw him into the room. Stephan stumbled, his bound hands preventing him from catching something to help keep his balance. Only one man came to help him: Vicar Charles.
“Stephan, lad,” he said, “are you all right? Let me help you, my son.”
Stephan appealed to the man. “Vicar, I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.”
Vicar Charles said nothing, just sighed and shook his head. The man at the head of the table answered for him.
“Of course you did nothing, boy. They all say that, do they not, Vicar?”
Stephan turned to face the man, an anger growing inside of him. Lord Joseph Wyeth Turnbull, the Baron of Norwich, sat in his resplendent chair with his feet propped on a small footstool. He looked every inch the “Lord of the Realm” in his silk shirt and brocade suit. His hair was pulled back under the powdered wig; his manicured hands were wrapped around a goblet of what had to be the finest wine in the shire. The room was full of the hangers-on of his court, courtiers and potential bed mates. The rumor was that Lord Joseph had brought courtesans from the French king’s court as a gesture of goodwill, leaving bits in exchange. Stephan knew none of these others. Except for the vicar, he recognized only one other figure in the room.
She stood next to Lord Joseph, her eyes cast downward. She would not look at him. Sarah Miller kept quiet, barely moving. “So, tell us, Vicar,” Lord Joseph said. “Tell us what was stolen from the church.”
The vicar cleared his throat, making his way slowly forward. “When I came to the church, this morning, I found that the offering plate and the candlesticks were missing.”
“They are of silver, are they not?” The baron smiled, pausing only to take a sip of wine. “You did say they were of silver, yes?”
“Yes, my lord,” the vicar answered, “silver.”
Lord Joseph handed the cup to one of the courtesans and stretched the hand out to Sarah, who took it in hers.
“Come, my dear,” he purred. “You have nothing to be fearful of. That boy won’t hurt you.” He stroked her face with the other hand and said, “You must tell the truth.”
She finally looked up, tears in her eyes. “Me and Stephan . . . we was . . . we was out in back o’ the church, ye see. He was . . . we was . . . . ”
“Shh, my dear,” Lord Joseph interrupted, “I think we have the picture here. Just tell us what you know of this little mess.”
She broke her gaze from Stephan and looked directly into the baron’s eyes. “He’s got a bag he carries, with all manner o’ lovelies. And we was . . . well, he telled me t’ go in th’ bag . . . ye know, t’ get one for meself. And . . . and I seen ‘em.”
“You saw them,” Joseph corrected, and his purr was becoming quite annoying. “Tell us, what did you see?”
Sarah’s voice quavered as she spoke, “I seen . . . saw them candlesticks and plate, what vicar was talkin’ about.”
Stephan shook his head. “You . . . you lie, Sarah Miller. Why?”
“Quiet, boy!” Lord Joseph glared at the interruption. “Quiet until I am ready for you.” He kissed the fingers of the hand he held and murmured, “Go on, my pet.”
“He . . . he told me he pinched ‘em, night before,” she said.
“Did he threaten you, my pet?”
Sarah was quick to answer, her tone was sincere. “Oh . . . oh no. No, m’ lord, he did not.”
Her eyes met Stephan’s again and he knew she had no choice. This was all a farce.
Lord Joseph kissed her fingers again and released the hand, waving her off. She crossed back to where she had been behind the chair; her eyes were averted to the floor again.
“You threatened her, you filth.” Stephan was so angry that he was shaking. “I know you did. She knows the truth. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.”
Lord Joseph nodded, grinning.. Stephan was cuffed to the back of his head and fell to his knees, dazed. The vicar again helped him rise.
“If I wish anything from you, Cameron, I shall ask it.” Joseph stood and walked over to him.
Stephan looked over his shoulder and saw the scarred man behind him, a grin on his face.
“Excuse me, Lord Joseph, may I speak?” Vicar Charles put his hand on Stephan’s arm, and held the other hand up to request Stephan’s silence.
“Vicar, what can you possibly offer as defense? This miscreant had the items in his bag. You identified those items as the ones stolen from our church. There is no more than this.”
“Yes, my lord, I have,” Vicar Charles continued, “and it would so appear that the boy is guilty. But he does have the right to his own defense.”
Lord Joseph laughed, clutching his middle, as if the Vicar had told the funniest joke possible. He turned around and gestured to the others in the room and they joined in his laughter. When the baron turned back around, he was not smiling. “He has no defense, Vicar. He is guilty. And I am ready to pass sentence.”
“My lord,” Vicar Charles interjected, “this is not a true court, there should be no sentence given.”
The baron smiled. “To spare the family name, of course. The shame from such an act. It will be a private affair.”
“Then, perhaps you’ll allow me to be in charge of the boy’s punishment, “ the Vicar quickly chimed in. “After all, the missing items were returned and they are none the worse for the journey. I’m sure Stephan has realized the error of his ways and would be amenable to making restitution. Would you not, Stephan?”
The look in the vicar’s eyes told Stephan to be wary and answer carefully. But, he couldn’t tell a lie just to save his own skin. And to admit fault was a lie.
“I did not do it, Vicar. I cannot say I have learned a lesson when I am innocent.” Stephan looked back at Lord Joseph. He took a deep breath, “I know you forced Sarah to lie. I am innocent. I did not do it.”
Lord Joseph came to Stephan and stood so close, that the two were almost touching. Joseph reached out and patted the young man’s cheek. “Well, Vicar, he does not seem at all repentant to me. Your request is denied.” Joseph turned away, striding back to his chair and speaking the whole time, “I have decided upon his punishment. It will be one that shall teach this young rogue a lesson.”
Joseph turned back, just in time, to say, “One, he will never forget.”
Stephan was shoved forward to a chair that had been placed in the floor before him. He was forced to sit in the chair backwards; his arms were roughly draped over the back and tied to the rungs so that he was facing away from the assembled partygoers. The scarred man ripped Stephan’s muslin shirt from his body, leaving him exposed from the waist up. Stephan closed his eyes.
“Vicar,” Joseph said, “you are a kindhearted man but this ruffian must pay the price. They must all learn a lesson about stealing in my shire. It will not be tolerated . . . no matter who one’s father is.”
Stephan took several breaths to clear his mind and divert it from what was coming. He heard the words, “Whip him till he cries,” and felt the first lash strike his skin. He shut his eyes tight against the pain, and then came another, and another. He felt the lash biting deep into his back, and each strike felt as if it were cutting into his soul. Another, and then another. Stephan bit into the wood of the chair and refused to utter one sound.
Joseph was in front of him, cupping his chin in one soft hand; his face was so close that Stephan could smell the man’s vile breath. “Go on, boy. Cry out. Papa can’t save you now. But I can.”
Stephan still refused. Blood began to trickle down the bruised and torn flesh, causing his skin to itch. Another and another and another! He jerked his head from the man’s palm and bit deeper into the rung, splinters sticking into his lower lip.
“Go on, boy. Cry out! I’ll teach you Camerons what it means. You shall see.”
Stephan spit the wood into Joseph’s face. The baron jumped back, wiping the spittle and splinters from his face. The whip cracked, the lash cut, and finally, Stephan knew only the black.
* * * * * *
Lord Joseph stood over the ruined chair and gave a look of disgust at the boy’s body. “The Camerons, all alike. Stubborn to the end. It won’t carry them this time.”
He reached a hand out to the boy’s head and caressed the hair, running his fingers through it. “Yes, so stubborn,” he murmured to himself. “There was a time . . . long ago . . . when you and I . . . . ”
The fist closed and he jerked the unconscious head backwards and sneered down into the face. He had to resist the urge to spit on it. “Untie the cretin, dump him in the streets. Let his dear papa tend to the family trash.” He released the boy’s head and turned away from the sight.
As his order was being carried out, Joseph approached the Vicar, “You have your articles. Keep them safer put away and this will not happen again.”
“You . . . you did that on purpose,” the vicar stammered. “Why?”
Joseph smiled and the vicar was removed from the room. He fished out five gold sovereigns from a dish on the table and slipped them into Sarah’s hand. “Thank you, my dear. That will be all. You may leave.”
“Oh, please, my lord . . . . ”
“I said . . . you may leave.”
She curtsied and scurried from the room. He watched her leave—admiring the view and wondering if she could alleviate his boredom better than the French whores could. The truth be told, he was bored with everything these days. Still a young man at his twenty-six years, he had toured Europe, seen his father die, and now stood as baron of a small village of idiots. Only one thing kept his amusement—tormenting the Camerons.
Joseph sat back in his chair and crossed one leg. He took the glass of wine again and had a deep drink of it. He wiped his mouth with a lace handkerchief before tucking it back into his sleeve. “Well, let’s see what they do with that, then.”