"He'll be imprisoned at the Tolbooth, of course."
"So they're not going to hang him immediately?" she asked with relief. "There's still time to help him escape then."
"No, lass." Tom stopped abruptly, looking at her with pity in his eyes. "There's no saving him now. James is lost to us. None escape from the Tolbooth."
But Magda walked on, Tom's words merely a drone in her ears. She was certain now of what she had to do.
"This is Canongate," Tom whispered, catching up to her. "We're close now."
They creaked along for a time, struggling not to let the tide of people drive them too far from James. "Sweet Alba," Tom suddenly swore. Pulling his bonnet low, he pressed tight to Magda's side. "Look, quickly, to Moray House." He pointed to a building, two stories high, with its sharply pitched roof it was almost quaint. The elegant stonework around its windows was the only thing to announce it as a place of import.
Then a movement caught her eye, and Magda spotted him. Campbell, receding from a second floor window, disappearing from view as the curtain fell back into place. Even as adrenalin spiked her heart, relief that he hadn't spotted them flooded Magda. Just to make sure, she canted her body away from Campbell's building, only to accidentally knock into the person in front of her.
Magda felt the shadow pass overhead like a great cloud, and a dead chill crept over her. The crowd had stopped, and she looked up to see what she knew instantly could only be the Tolbooth. It was a solid, grim thing, constructed of gray stone, and looming high above the street. A boxy, two-story antechamber clung to the side of the building, topped by a balustrade gruesomely decorated with rotting skulls. One drew Magda's eye, and its wispy gray hair floating in the breeze seemed to ridicule her innocence. The skull angled toward the empty iron spike at its side, corroded black and waiting to be adorned.
The hum of the crowd intensified into loud and distinct calls, and people jostled roughly, trying for a final a glimpse of James.
It happened quickly then. He was whisked from the cart, flanked by burly Campbell men on either side. Planting his feet down hard, he struggled to hold them outside the doorway, frantically scanning the mob for sight of her, but it was in vain. James vanished into the blackness of the Tolbooth, and this time Magda was unable to stop the cry that tore from her throat.
The wet reek of sewage assaulted James the moment he entered the Tolbooth. The wailing of men's voices echoed inside like the cries of feral animals. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the sudden dark pressing in on him. Raw stone gradually came into clarity, as did the handful of doors studding a hallway that disappeared from shadow into blackness.
A turnkey appeared, his hair pulled raggedly into a limp ponytail hanging down his back. He emanated the sour stench of sweat and vomit, as if he were the foulness of the place made manifest.
"The devil take you." One of the Campbell men thrust James toward the prison guard. "You'll soon rot with the MacDonalds."
James quickly righted himself. "And I'll see that the devil holds your place," he replied coolly. Straightening his shoulders, James mustered what dignity he could with his hands bound behind him. The turnkey grasped for his arm, and he flinched away. "I've no fight with you," James told him, and allowed the man to lead him to his cell.
Little light permeated the bowels of the prison . Torches sputtered along the walls, casting the two men in intermittent halos as they made their way, wending along corridors that seemed to branch ever outward like a labyrinth. The mad howling of men reverberated more loudly the deeper they went, and James wondered that perhaps he was off to see the devil, and that hell lay within the very walls around him.
The guard heaved open a door and they walked in among the prisoners. The acrid tang of urine was sharp in the dead air, making James's eyes momentarily tear. Cells crafted of brick and mortar lined the heavy stone walls like a honeycomb. Four iron doors loomed at the end of the passageway, each bearing a black slit proclaiming its occupant imprisoned in total darkness. Men, and what seemed the ghosts of men, were all around him. Some stared wild-eyed, ranting and grabbing for them through the bars of their cages, while others lay still, with their backs to the world as if willing death to claim them.
"Aye, here." The turnkey's voice was a startling rasp at his side. They'd reached an empty cell, and James was grateful to see he had bars instead of a door to hold him.
Something skittered from out of the cell and the guard kicked suddenly and violently, just missing a large rat that raced into the shadows.
"You're to catch those," a voice scolded from behind. James turned to the prisoner inhabiting the cell across from his own. The man bowed his head. "The rats. You must catch them," he repeated. James noted the tight swell at the belly of the man's waistcoat.
Clicking a large square padlock into place, the guard locked him in. Though he'd girded himself, James couldn't help but feel his stomach turn at the sound.
Tamping down a spike of disbelief, James studied the small cubicle that was his cell. He inhaled deeply in an attempt to gather himself, realizing that his last days might very well be spent with nothing but his wits and a single bucket to rely on.
"The name is Ainslie," he heard behind him.
"I am James Graham," he said, meeting the other prisoner's eyes. "Marquis of "—
"We've no need for surnames here," Ainslie interrupted. "A title will earn you naught but death."
"Indeed?" James assessed the man. His bulging eyes and yellowed skin belied the gentlemanly clothing that now hung loose on his sinewy body. "Well I am still pleased to make your acquaintance." He imagined Ainslie was once a young man of promise, and wondered what he could have done to suffer such a hideous fate.
"May I ask…"
"You may," Ainslie said at once. "Taxes."
"Pardon me?" James thought for a moment that the man had misunderstood his question.
"What did I do to find myself in the Tolbooth?" Ainslie brushed at a spot on his sleeve as if picking off a bit of dust in the midst of a drawing room conversation, rather than the filth of prison. "That was your question, yes? Well, sir, my crime is that I found myself unable to pay my taxes. An ill-conceived trust, one perjurious solicitor, and two purloined accounts, and here I stand before you, moldering like last week's bread."
"But what of escape?" James leaned against the bars of his cell. "Have you a mind for it? You seem at worst a wronged man, not a criminal."
"Escape?" Ainslie laughed. "Where to? Out the door, and I'd be mobbed and ransomed the moment my lungs met fresh air. Venture down and I'd be manna for rats."
"Down?" James asked in earnest, gripping the iron bars. "They say another city lies tunneled beneath us." Ainslie spoke slowly, clearly savoring the sudden attention. "But I have my doubts as to whether a man could find his way out from there, and a death in the vaults beneath the Tolbooth is a death all the same, is it not?" He combed his fingers through the mass of his long beard, clearly hoping to appear civilized at all costs. "No, my poor, dear man.
None has ever escaped the tyranny of the Tolbooth." Ainslie considered for a moment, then added as an afterthought, "Though there is half-hangit Maggie."
"Who?" James asked, startled by this absurdity.
"You've not heard of Maggie Dickson?" Ainslie smiled. "Aye, she too found herself imprisoned in Edinburgh's Tolbooth. The lass had been with child, and as the bairn's father was not her husband, she'd hid the truth. But truth, like a bad tooth, must come out, and come out it did. She was hanged for her offense. But," he adopted a dramatic tone, and James wondered if Ainslie wasn't the perjurious solicitor he'd spoken of, "as her family was bringing her to be buried, they heard a banging on the coffin. They opened it, of course, and there lay Maggie. Angry and sore, aye, but alive, and live she did for another forty years."
James raised his brows in question, and Ainslie elaborated, "Her sentence was hanging, and hang her they did. You can be hanged but once for a single misdeed."
"Perhaps we'll be so lucky, aye?"
"As Maggie?" Ainslie asked. "No. friend, luck like that is a rare stroke indeed."
"Do you need to practice it one more time?"
"No, I certainly do not." Tom told Magda, no longer hiding his impatience. He examined himself once more in the looking glass, ensuring that he truly looked the part he played. It had been easy to find himself a priest's cassock. A few coins slipped to a St. Giles washerwoman and he was as good as ordained. Suitable clothing for Magda, however, had been harder to come by. In the end, they'd settled for the simplest possible disguise. She'd pose as his impoverished attendant, requiring only that she skulk silently at Tom's side.
James had been in the Tolbooth two days now. Tom assured her that James's enemies would crave a very public hanging, and though Magda knew that bought them time, she couldn't help but dread that she might be on the verge of witnessing history as it had really happened.
Magda was amazed at how easily they could enter the Tolbooth with a few coins to grease the way, They'd sacrificed the last of their coin to the turnkey, insisting they give a condemned man his last rites.
"We've come to administer the viaticum, sir," Tom informed him in his most austere voice. "The last Holy Communion," he added when faced with the guard's dumb stare, "for a man on the brink of his death."
"Ach," the turnkey spat, "he was too long with the papists. And good riddance, says I."
"You too shall be forgiven," Tom intoned ominously as he glided into the cell, and James was forced to turn his back to hide the look on his face.
" Nomini spiritus sanctu…" Tom knelt at the door to the cell and began to pray in a loud atonal voice, and the turnkey quickly cleared from the cellblock as if exposed to a contagion. Magda had a strong suspicion that Tom wasn't getting the words right, but she had to assume that the only people nearby who'd recognize the Latin mass would likely be behind bars.