An excerpt from The Maiden by Kate Foster

An excerpt from The Maiden (Mantle) by Kate Foster one of the shortlist authors for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize.

Click HERE to read our interview with Kate.

Chapter One
The Tolbooth Jail, Edinburgh October 1679

You are sentenced to beheading. God have mercy on your soul. Prepare yourself in prayer.
The sheriff ’s words clang, pious as the bells of St Giles’, all the way from the court back into the jail. Six High Constables haul me across the square, batons braced, just in case. I’m dangerous, the broadsides say. Their other hands grab for all the parts of me they can reach. Fingers and thumbs claw at buttons and bows. Their faces leer too close and blur into a mess of roar and gawp. All I have left to fight back with are my feet, kicking everything away that comes too close.
I’m at the centre of the commotion, yet one step removed, hit by everything in flashes. The sour stench of a vegetable pedlar. The red plume of a hat. The thought of the slam of a blade.
They’d said the judge might believe me.
Wear your white lace gown. Fall to your knees and plead your innocence.
Now the dress hangs from me, dragging in the dirt until I’m back inside, a thunderclap of bolts sealing the door. I should have searched for Johanna in the crowd. I should have taken one last look at the sky.

I’m dragged up the steps into the stink of corridors, past yellow candle lanterns and the debtors and delinquents. They’ve guessed the verdict by the clamour. ‘Chop,’ they hiss, brushing their necks with their filthy fingers, eyes agog.
Once the constables have thrown me back into the top cell and wiped the sweat from their foreheads, their faces say, Well, aren’t you wickeder than you look. They’ve pulled my gown loose. They stare as I try to put the bodice right. Despite the gloom, their smirks shine. I cringe at the furthest wall near the window, the dank of the stones seeping into my skin.
You’ll be taken up to the Tolbooth platform on Monday to be executed at the blade of the Maiden. Find a minister of the Kirk for your last hours. Murderess.
Three days. Will they make Mother watch? Will I ever see Johanna again? Or see the rippling fields of Corstorphine, the gorse roaring up its hill, as bright and bold as I believed myself to be?
Now I am just my own hammering heart, each thump of it inside my chest ticking down the minutes until I’m a dark slick of hair in piss-stained lace, bound and barefoot, keening in terror.
I should have begged harder.
I should have tried to look more distraught at the fact he is dead.
The constables are spick-and-span now, coats smoothed down and hats straightened as they rattle out of the room, leaving only me and the guard. He fills the space of the doorway, his head almost brushing the top. The knuckles of his hands touch each side of the door frame.
‘That advocate of yours will be waiting downstairs,’ he says, not moving an inch.
‘Could you fetch him, please?’ I say. I have learned to keep my voice meek for this particular guard.

‘And what do I get in return?’ The silvery light from the barred window slants across his face. His dark eyes glint.
‘I’ll tell him to pay you the usual two coins,’ I whisper. ‘Oh, but my price has gone up,’ he says. ‘Now that you’re
I will not let him see me flinch at that word. I hold myself still. ‘Then tell my advocate your price,’ I say, and he folds his arms across his great chest and nods, savouring every moment of our exchange.
‘That I will,’ he says. ‘And remember: you can have anything you want here. Make your last days comfortable. For the right price.’ He grins, letting his tongue loll over his lips. His face is flushed with the thrill of being alone with a murderess.
‘Thank you,’ I say, sounding as grateful as I can.
He brings a key from his chain and leaves slowly, locking the door behind him, whistling with those foul, wet lips as he goes.
And I am alone for the first time since the verdict.
There was a sketch of it, in a pamphlet in our library at Roseburn House. Scotland’s Most Abominable Crimes. But it was on the high shelf that I was absolutely forbidden to read from, so I only did when no one was around. An execution machine with a wooden frame and an iron blade. A fearsome contraption the height of two men. Reserved for the beheadings of nobility, its swift mechanism is thought to be less painful than the axe, but none of its victims have lived to bear witness, of course. The pamphlet included a list of those who had suffered at her blade, eternally damned.
Horrible. I’d pushed it back on the shelf and been peely- wally all through luncheon, with Johanna whispering, ‘What have you been up to now, Christian?’
You did kill Lord James Forrester in cold blood.

Because, in the end, it did not matter what I said at my trial. No one believed me.
Now they will come and watch in their thousands, at the scaffold at the other side of this prison. Each curled wig and beggar’s bowl tilted upwards in unison.
My ears buzz. That high-pitched ringing that comes with shock and precedes one of my vomiting turns. I can’t be sick. That guard might strip me again, like he did the day I arrived. His breath hot on my neck. My good cape. My coif. My silk petticoat. You’ll have no need for these fancy clothes here. I need air. The cell reeks of chamberpot. I rest my forehead on the cold bars of the window, still hearing how Mother used to scold me: ‘Christian, no. You’ll catch the sun. A lady should not be freckled.’
And here I am. Still a lady. It’s the only decent thing left to call myself.
From below comes the dogged slap of good leather boots on cold stone slabs. Through the small square of bars at the top of the door I watch my advocate, Mr Dalhousie, take off his hat. His beard is unkempt from the way he ruffled and pulled at it as he bumbled and stammered over his sprawling notes in the courtroom. He puts his hands on the bars. I walk over to him.
‘There’s nothing more we can do,’ he says. ‘I will speak to the prison minister. He will pray with you.’ His voice slips in his throat.
‘Mr Dalhousie,’ I whisper, pressing my hands over his fists so tightly my knuckles go white, and tasting my own sour mouth, ‘of course there is something we can do.’
‘I fear not,’ he says. Your defence has not been believed.’ He picks his words carefully. I wonder if he even believes me, for his furrowed brow has always seemed to have a question hidden behind it. ‘The prison minister has counselled other condemned parties, my lady. He is a reassuring presence.’
‘I don’t want you to fetch me a minister.’ I say it slowly, so Mr Dalhousie understands. I have come to realize, too late, that he is not the shrewdest of men, despite the piles of books and papers that threatened to topple his assistants in the courtroom. ‘Go to my husband and tell him that I still love him, no matter what’s happened. And if he has any love left for me at all, then please can he do one last thing? Or does he want to suffer the public humiliation of his wife on a block?’ Mr Dalhousie has likely never heard a lady speak in such crude terms. His Adam’s apple bulges as he swallows. I imagine the excrement stench that boils from the jail’s central pit does not sit well on his palate.
‘I cannot see that there is anything your husband can do now,’ he whispers. ‘Mr Nimmo has already spent a fortune on your legal case, a fortune that he did not have any obligation to spend. And the cost of keeping you in here – well fed and kept safe from these criminals: that has been quite a bill, my lady. I’m afraid it’s time to accept your fate.’
I squeeze his thin fingers with mine and whisper back, ‘Tell my husband that I want to offer my guard a bribe to help me escape.’

Mr Dalhousie never stays long. Long enough, I’m sure, to be able to recount the daily details of my fragile state to his fellow advocates in the taverns. Or to tell Mother and Johanna, ‘She is bearing up courageously. Her headstrong nature has its advantages.’
When I am alone again, I feel my breathing coming back to something close to normal. My mind wills Mr Dalhousie to get to my husband’s front door as soon as he can; pushes him past the glovers and the hatters in the Luckenbooths and into a hackney coach.
All I can do now is wait.
I hear the high street getting busier now: the late-afternoon rush through the horse shit and the bird shit and the human shit to the apothecaries and wigmakers, before it gives itself over to the evening whorehouse trade. The oyster bars and the coffee houses will be steaming with gossip, the gentlemen and guild brethren poring over the broadsides, picking them up at a penny a time: what’s the scandal? And choking on the court reports printed in all their glorious detail.
Mrs Christian Nimmo DENIES murdering Lord James Forrester, the man who was her lover and also her uncle!
Who would have thought? The merchant Nimmo’s wife. With Lord Forrester – shame on them both. Shame on the family. And guilty. Yes, just this morning, did you not see the scuffle? Those constables looked bitten and kicked to bits.
O God, have mercy on her soul.

Gossip runs through Edinburgh like its fleet-footed urchins. It starts in the coffee-house broadsides. Then rumours weave up the narrow closes to the firesides and bedchambers and out into the countryside and its grand homes. To parlours; across backgammon boards; and into the bottom of teacups.
But gossip, like urchins, steals valuables as it goes. Treasures like the truth and reputations.
I close my eyes and remember who I am, for they cannot take that from me. I hold my story fast, reaching backwards to remember when things started. I think it was an autumn day in Roseburn, a year ago. Hardly any time at all.

EDINBURGH, 26th September
Proceedings of the trial of Mrs Christian Nimmo before Sheriff John MacDonald

The sole witness, Miss Violet Blyth, maid to the murder victim Lord James Forrester: ‘I saw it clear as day, sir. Because I was right there, sir. It all happened under the sycamore tree at the bottom of the castle avenue. It was her, sir.’
(Here the witness points to the Pannell, Mrs Nimmo.)
‘No, I hadn’t taken any drink, sir, hardly a drop in my life and just sweetmeats that day. Well, candied cherries, if I recall, sir.
‘Oh, they shouted, sir. I told the constables, sir. She ran his sword right through him. She might be a lady, but she can certainly fight like a man.
‘Yes, you can, my lady. There’s no use you saying it was me who killed him. No one believes that nonsense. I wouldn’t know the first thing to do with a sword, sir.’ Mrs Rita Fiddes, an acquaintance of Miss Violet Blyth: ‘Oh, Violet knew fine well what to do with a gentleman’s sword, if you understand my meaning, sir. She was very experienced in those matters indeed. A very experienced girl.’ (There was sniggering and gasping from the public benches before the case adjourned at four o’clock, as Sheriff MacDonald had an early dinner engagement.


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