The sun was just setting, lighting the skies with a warm, amber glow and lining the fluffy white clouds with a magnificent shade of gold. The temperature had dropped, gradually throughout the day, but it was only now that William really began to notice it. He huddled against the lining of his jacket, pulling it tighter round his body trying to conserve all remnants of heat threatening to escape the small enclosure of his carriage.
As his eyes trailed over the surroundings breezing past at a leisurely pace, he let his mind wander. He certainly did not want to go home without Lady Christiana; it didn’t even bear thinking about. But he began to doubt his skills of persuasion. How would he lure her back to her father’s home? Her mind was obviously very set in stone about that wretched Joseph, given that she had left everything for him: her father, her home, perhaps more importantly her reputation.
It was only when the air grew still around him that William realized he had come to a halt.
He waited for the driver of the carriage to inform him why they had stopped, but when it became apparent that he would not do so, William unwillingly glanced out of the window.
‘Tristan? Whatever is the matter?’
William was responded with emptiness.
Perplexed and a little frustrated, he unbolted the door of the carriage and stepped outside. The gravel crunched beneath his feet as he made his way round to the front. The horses were standing patiently, waiting for further instructions, ducking their heads every so often. However, William realized that Tristan was nowhere to be found.
‘Goodness, where is that foolish man?’ William muttered under his breath, to no one in particular.
He could not lead this carriage himself, even if he knew how. The job itself was well beneath him, he had higher standards to upkeep. But then how was he going to reach Lady Christiana in time? He needed to be quick, perhaps a little shrewd if he was going to get to her before his time had exceeded the limit. It had been precisely two days since he had received that letter. Two days since he had been given a deadline for Lady Christiana’s presence to be made to her father. Two days since he had been threatened with death.
Death was certain, William was sure. Lady Christiana’s father was a powerful, fair man there was no doubt about that. But he would not hesitate twice when it came to his daughter’s well-being. She was his pride and joy, the only thing he was truly proud of.
Right there and then, William decided he must do something. The unexplained disappearance of Tristan would not halt him entirely.
William himself had never been to Gretna Green and it was mere golden luck that he discovered the large wooden sign with painted white letters informing him that he had in fact arrived at his destination.
He allowed himself a small exhale of breath, a sigh of relief, before continuing on foot.
The land in front of him stretched on for what seemed an eternity. Grass was sparse, only dried soil represented the path he was set to take. Small cottages with white picket fences lined him on either side, but he could only stare at them baffled. He could not knock on every door that he would see as it would be so time-consuming. Instead, he would look for the cobbled stone building that would undoubtedly contain the reason his life hung in the balance.
Although he had never physically set foot in this little Scottish village before, he was fully aware of what it was renowned for.
He could not allow himself to dwell on the worst possible outcome for it would certainly drive him insane. It would send him spiralling into deep feelings of helplessness and pure dread. William told himself that he was not that type of gentleman. He was calm and composed, level headed and always resolute on what the right thing to do was.
When he had walked for what could have only been ten minutes, but to William a life time, he saw it. The quaint little building was smaller than he had imagined, with luscious green hedges and vivid flowers scattering the front yard. It was certainly picturesque, anybody could see that, but why people would choose here of all places to make a solid vow of love of loyalty was beyond William. He had always imagined that if he were lucky enough to wed, it would be among friends and family, someone to share the joyous occasion with.
As he stepped closer, voices could be heard.
‘Please, do not do this; you do not have to do this! You are better than what my father tells you!’ A female, obviously in distress, was appearing to plead desperately. William would recognize this sound miles away, a voice so distinct to him that he could pick it straight out of a sea of hectic babble.
Now he was concerned. The lady was anguished, her voice sounded pained.
He wasted no time in bursting through the heavy wooden doors of the church. Four faces turned to him at the exact same time. Two of them were wearing masks of complete and utter horror, one of pure fear and the other of an almost resigned fate. The scene before him would haunt him forevermore; William knew that there and then.
He did not know where to look, what to do. Everything he had ever been taught about how to handle a situation like this seemed to dissipate from William’s conscious mind.
He barely noticed how immaculately dressed Lady Christiana was for this occasion, for the first time, as he saw the reason why she was in distress. Tristan, faithful, meek little Tristan now had Joseph in a firm grip with something pressed to his throat. It certainly did not take a mastermind to figure out what it was. The vicar seemed completely lost. He had no idea what to do.
‘William?’ Tristan exclaimed.
‘Good lord child what are you doing?!’ William’s voice left him in a harsh, brutal snap. His anger surprised him.
Tristan flinched ever so slightly, his grip on the knife loosening, doubt flickering amongst his eyes.
‘I am sorry to have to do this. I truly am. But I have been given clear instructions by Lady Christiana’s father.’
‘To kill Joseph?’
‘To dispose of him efficiently,’ Tristan corrected him.
‘He has already been dealt with,’ William informed, a great deal of his mind focussed on the metal knife Tristan had pressed to Joseph’s throat. ‘You realize what will come of this? Lady Christiana’s father will not bother to protect you once he has gotten what he wanted from you. You will hang for this.’
‘I live to serve him,’ Tristan said. ‘Whether it means I face death as a result of this, I do not care.’
‘But you do,’ William dared take a step towards the knife-wielding maniac. ‘You are but seventeen, a mere child. You have your whole life ahead of you. You do not need to do this. Let me deal with it.’
Tristan was surprised: he had obviously not expected that. ‘You would kill Joseph?’
‘Yes. If that is what Lady Christiana’s father has informed, then we must carry his wishes out. Pass me the knife.’
Tristan was only too happy to hand the knife, along with his victim, to William. Tears were now flowing freely down the young boy’s cheeks. He obviously did not care much for William’s outcome.
‘William no! Please!’ Lady Christiana turned to the older servant, her eyes wide and full of desperation. It tore William to see her this way. Joseph tried to struggle beneath William’s grip, but he did not have much leeway; the knife was dangerously close to his main artery.
‘I cannot do it,’ William stated, pulling the dagger away from Joseph’s throat.
‘What?!’ Tristan demanded. ‘You must! Give me the knife you coward!’
‘You will not speak to me like that!’ William fumed, raising the knife towards the child. ‘I am above you and you will listen to what I say. We will leave Gretna Green without the Lady and Joseph. We will return to her father and we will deal with our fate like respectable gentlemen. Are you willing to die doing the honourable thing Tristan? Or do I need to return alone?’
‘But he will murder us for this,’ Tristan’s voice wavered.
‘Perhaps, yes,’ William allowed. ‘But I cannot go through with the murder of an honest gentleman. It is clear that Joseph is this. If Lady Christiana feels she has made the correct choice, then that is all that matters.’
The silence was deafening.
‘Now let me ask you this again,’ William murmured in a low tone. ‘Are you willing to die for something as honourable as this?’