Half an hour before midnight, the Danish princess sits in the window at Skanderborg Castle stitching delicate French knots into a cambric shirt. Soft notes from the lute hang in the air. From time to time she gazes at the moonlit sea, dreaming about the object of her devotion sitting somewhere across its vast waters.
In the port, the fleet of ships, sails fluttering in the breeze, is ready for the grand journey tomorrow to her beloved Lord, James Charles Stuart, King James Vl of Scotland. Although Peder Munk, the Captain of the lead vessel, The Gideon, has promised her a safe and steady journey, Anne knows that the rolling clouds can whip up sea frets in the time it takes to thread a needle. And everyone knows that a wise woman with the Devil’s mark in her hair can entice all manner of unruly imps into the inky waves to scramble into travellers’ ships.
The last shirt complete, her chief lady takes it to fragrance and package for the collection of the princess’ betrothal gifts.
‘Mistress Elizabeth, fetch me a charm, for I fear the journey will be turbulent,’ she says as her maid turns to leave.
‘Very good, my lady.’
‘Elizabeth, do you believe what they say about wise women?’
‘My Lady, do you mean that they are proficient in healing the sick?’
‘I dare not say what ails my thoughts.’ Anne turns away as her eyes fill. ‘It is just…’
‘My Lady, worry not. Captain Munk is the best navigator in Denmark. Your
Lord, King James, will allow no impediment to your safety.’ These warm
words touch the young princess. She brushes a tear.
‘I have heard talk that these… women can conjure bestial likenesses of… I dare speak it not. Elizabeth, please. My charm.’
‘Very good, my Lady.’ Elizabeth leaves as Anne settles to her bed. She opens a bejewelled locket, a gift from King James, and pores over his picture within it, longing to stroke his deep golden hair beneath the velvet cap.
Five hundred miles away, in Prestonpans, a small fishing village to the east of Edinburgh, three figures make their way to a hidden spot upon the coast. Dr John Fian, a schoolmaster of local repute, and two women from North Berwick, sought widely for their skills as midwives and herbalists, stop before a flooded cave, cloaks flapping in the wind.
‘The wee bairn’ll live,’ says Agnes Sampson, the elder of the women, dumping a heavy bloodied sack on the floor. ‘I am sure of’t. The spell is hidden i’ th’ chimney.’
‘The mother’ll live too?’ says Gilly Duncan, placing her sack on top.
Dr Fian opens one of the sacks, plunging his warm living hand inside prodding the lumps cold dead flesh that the women have collected.
‘Ye’ve done well wi’ these. Now quit yer blether. We’ve work t’dee.’ He jumps into a rockpool at the mouth of the cave, splashing into the darkness. Soon he emerges with a sodden rope in his hand.
‘Here woman, tek this. The both of ye, tek it an’ pull when Ah say.’ The women take up the slack as Fian grunts and gasps, grappling with something large.
‘Now heave!’ He calls from within. ‘Heave, Ah say.’ As he pushes, the women
pull ramshackle rowing boat.
‘Get in,’ he says. ‘Mistress Gilly.’ ‘Take this oar. There’s one for each of ye.’
‘This tryst…?’ says Agnes, hauling the filthy sacks into the boat before clambering in.
‘T’is all arranged,’ the Doctor replies gruffly. ‘They await us on The Grace of God.’
‘Will He be there?’ says Gilly, eyes glistening.
‘Ye’ll find oot soon enough woman. Now row,’ says Fian.
Any further maundering is snatched away on the rising sea breeze as the improbable vessel sets sail for the ship anchored in North Berwick.
In her chamber at Skanderborg, the princess’ sleep is fitful. The bed linen weaves round her thrashing limbs as a dreadful nightmare grips her mind.
Her cabin is cramped. Her protector, George Keith, the Earl of Marischal, snores heavily in his bunk. The thick air reeks of stale sweat and ale. Through the small, round windows of The Gideon,’ other ships in the fleet bob and surge on the towering waves. The Blue Dove and The Falcon of Birren, caper perilously on a weltering wall of water, then plunge into the depths, taking half her household, her damask and cloth of gold gowns, and her musical instruments with them. A scratching sound, a terrible scraping and grating like nails on wood, fills her ears. She cannot move due to a weight like a sack of sand upon her chest. The shadow of the thing abrading the cabin exterior crawls towards the porthole. She cannot fathom its guise. What sea eel has claws? Its thin fingers rattle the clasp. It is trying to get in. Then a bump, as the Earl drops out of his bunk landing on all fours like a large cat. His golden beard is forked like a devil’s. His handsome face is split into a leer, a black tongue rasping through lascivious lips. He leaps onto her bed. The porthole cracks open, and the thing that was scratching slithers in, followed by another, and another…
She awakes sweating to find the gentle Earl at her bedside. She falls into his arms, sobbing. He clasps her slight frame to his chest, inhaling the fragrance in her hair.
‘Good Lady, soft,’ he murmurs. ‘Soft, young maid.’
Would it be wrong for her to seek solace with this man, her Lord by proxy, sent to stand in for her beloved until they meet at last? Her fingers climb his chest. The Earl’s heart bumps beneath the soft stuff of his shirt. His beard is mercifully short. He gently pushes her enquiring fingers away from his face.
‘Lady Anne,’ he says. ‘You were having a bad dream, nothing but a chimera of the night. Rest now. We will set sail tomorrow, and all will be well. Fear not.’ He holds her firmly, repressing his own desires. This child belongs to his King. His own mistress awaits in Edinburgh. He will not give his head and entrails for one night of pleasure, however sweet and honeyed the promise.
In North Berwick harbour, the bow of The Grace of God towers over Fian’s boat in the darkness. A steady shower has left the conspirators and their grisly cargo drenched. The Doctor takes a small horn from his cloak, blowing a mournful note. After three attempts, a voice from above calls.
‘Ahoy there! A rope.’ A ladder and rope clatters down the portside.
‘First the charms,’ says the voice. Fian ties on the waterlogged sacks. They
are hauled up before the three of them ascend the ladder as best they are able
after the strenuous journey.
On deck, three others are ready for them with hearty drafts and blankets.
‘Good cheer, Doctor,’ says Robert Grierson handing over a pot of brandy.
‘I’ll welcome thee aboard, and the two hens alike. Get ‘em in the cabin.’ He nods to his accomplices Euphame MacCalzean and Barbara Napier. Their wild eyes shine beneath wilder ropes of hair.
‘Our Master is present,’ says Grierson. ‘All is ready. We will perform the ritual
Agnes Sampson, wrapped in a damp blanket in the dingy cabin, feels warmth spreading through her old bones as the brandy does its work. Gilly is slumped in a corner, her bedraggled hair covering her face, her bony hands clutching the brandy flask. All three fall into inebriated sleep as the Grace of God tips and rocks into the night.
Some eighteen hours later, the passage of Munk’s fleet, complete with the Scottish Queen-in-Waiting and her retinue, is neither smooth nor harmonious. Although the Princess’ ship The Gideon is flanked by her sister ships Mouse, and Rose, the strength of the adverse winds, and the currents broiling in the Cat’s Throat Strait, threatens serious mishap.
In her cabin, the young Princess, comforted by Elizabeth and her proxy husband, the Earl, paces to and fro.
‘It is as I feared,’ she cries, ‘my Lord can do nothing to save me.’
‘Peace, Princess,’ says George, the Earl, wiping his furrowed brow. ‘Peder
Munk steers the ship nobly through this strait. You will be delivered whole to your King.’
‘My maids have heard the talk of the sailors. The ship is riddled with leaks…’
‘You must not listen to the idle talk…’
‘I dreamed the other night…’
‘…and that is all it was…’
‘…that our fleet was bewitched…’
‘Bewitched?’ The astonished earl takes the princess’ shoulders and faces her squarely. ‘My Lady, peace.’
‘I have heard, My Lord, that both here and in Scotland…’
‘Again, I say, peace.’ George releases the young princess, turning to leave. ‘No more on the matter. You must resist imbibing this prattle.’
As he shuts the cabin door behind him her shrieks can be heard repeating the same impassioned phrase.
‘Hekser plottes mod mig!’
In North Berwick Harbour, the Grace of God is a brooding sight as the turbid clouds gather over the North Sea. The rocking of the boat is tangible as the sounds of the growing storm whip around its masts. In the cabin the four women sort the mottled body parts from the sacks. Grierson nods towards Gilly, who is swaying listlessly over the lumps of flesh and fingers. He addresses Fian.
‘Is she up t’it?’
‘I’ll see to it,’ says the Doctor, striding over grabbing a handful of the woman’s hair, pulling her head back so her features form a hideous grimace.
‘Get up,’ he says. ‘We’ve work to dee. The Danish fleet is moving.’ Fian drags Gilly to the cabin door, kicking it open.
‘Y’hear that?’ he says. Squalls of driving rain blast the deck as the ship tilts this way and that. ‘That says the time is now. Grab the charms.’
Agnes gathers as many of the bloody stumps as she can carry and stumbles after the men. On deck there is another sound. Agnes knows it, but she cannot yet place it. Whimpering. The tiny mewl of little mouths as if crying for food.
Grierson pushes Agnes. ‘Let us do’t. Come, wench.’ ‘You two, bring the rest o’ them.’ Napier and MacCalzean also laden with mottled lumps cut from hanged thieves, bring up the rear. Lashing rain and sea water washes over them as they approach the gun deck. Here the caterwauling gets louder. Agnes peers through the rat tails of her hair, dropping the grisly remains on the deck.
Chained to the side rails are four large creels containing a mass of squealing and wriggling bodies. Sleek and lithe, they move as one, skinny tails poking through the holes, lashing the deck. Dozens of scratching claws paw at the air. The yowl and keening of their petrified voices competes with the howl of the wind as the storm picks up.
Each basket is manned by a cowled figure, and three more ascend from beneath the gun deck. There is something otherworldly about them as they stand unperturbed by the fierce listing of the ship. The central figure stands tall, raising his arms high, his voice booms out;
‘See that there be no deceit amongst us.’
‘All hail,’ cry the others. Fian yanks Agnes’ arms high as the raging storm buffets the listing ship.
‘All Hail, the Lord of Darkness.’ A surge of exhilaration rushes through
Agnes. Eyes wild, she takes the messy stump of a felon in one hand, pulling a yowling, writhing cat from the creel with the other.
‘Cast the same into the sea,’ calls Fian. ‘Hola,’ he shouts, as Gilly, Euphame and Barbara do as he bids.
Below deck, draped in dark cloak and hat, the Master, Francis Stewart Hepburn, fifth Earl of Bothwell, waits to appear, as the charms to raise the storms splash into the riley ocean. With title, money and treacherous hate, it is easy to find fools to do one’s bidding.