Several houses were joined end to end, runrig fashion. There was space between some of them where muddy paths led down to the water, and by the time Sarah remembered this was what they were looking for, Ian Og was already making his way between two of the houses. She began to run to catch up with him, but he heard her and with a laugh increased his pace to keep ahead.
‘I’ll race you,’ he yelled over his shoulder and with great strides they rushed pell-mell down the brae.
A sudden cry of protest brought them both to a halt. There was a sickening dull thump of fist meeting flesh. No protest this time. Turning they saw the two soldiers they’d seen earlier, now standing beside an outcrop of rock. One held their young prisoner upright, while the other was pulling back a great fist to deliver another mighty wallop.
Before Ian Og could stop her, Sarah darted forward and grabbed the raised arm.
‘You’ll kill him!’ she yelled in Gaelic.
The strength of the girl would not have been enough to stay the ham fist of Private Leonard Dickens, Lenny to his familiars, but the touch startled him. Glazed eyes turned to look at her. He belched and an acrid cloud of stale alcohol filled the air. Sarah stumbled back in disgust.
‘Well, well.’ The Scots voice was too thin and sneery to match the great fatness of him. ‘A kitten and a mouse.’ He threw back his head in a scornful mirthless laugh and his great belly wobbled. ‘Maybe they’ve come to rescue you boy, I’d say.’
It was a temptation too great for a raging Sarah to resist. Ian Og saw what was to come and stood motionless. With a ferocity that outmatched her diminutive size, Sarah brought up a closed fist and drove it into the bulging belly. Surprise magnified the assault, and there was only a slight delay before an evening’s spirits and a morning’s generous top-up of ale began to revolt. The bully stood erect for a moment, before clutching his midriff and doubling over. Like a stream in full flow, slimy vomit gushed over the stones, narrowly missing brother and sister.
After his momentary stillness Ian Og took his cue and kicked the other soldier hard on the shin. It produced a gratifying groan, but there was no time to watch the man topple, as the young pair grabbed the hapless prisoner and dragged him away, slipping and sliding on the trail of vomit. Scrambling awkwardly, they rounded some rocks and hauled their prize down onto the grassy strip beside the stony shore.
Leaden feet pounded behind them. With hardly a nod to each other, the two continued to haul the boy out across the black crust of the high-tide line, and down the pebble incline, feet crunching loudly until they reached the damp lower line of seaweed. Here they stopped in the shelter of another great mound of black rock, to catch their breath and assess their pursuers.
The two men didn’t follow them onto the stones. Instead they stood on the grassy path watching their quarry. The fugitives would have to leave the shore sometime. The tide was already on the turn and would climb steadily, bringing fronds of dead seaweed and little crab shells to join other detritus at the high-water mark. Biding their time would ensure their prisoner would be forced back into their custody.
‘What now?’ gasped Ian Og.
‘Let me think.’ Sarah shook her head to clear her mind
‘We can’t stay here all day.’
There wasn’t much heed paid to the narrow grassy strip beside the river, under the shadow of the fort’s wall. That’s where Peter and his new friends now stood, undetected.
All the willow wands having been cut and twisted, Sarah tucked them into her belt. She put the looped rope over her head and one arm, to prevent it getting in the way during the climb. With his back to the wall Alistair leaned forward and locked his fingers together. Sarah took hold of his shoulders, and lifted her foot to step onto his palms. Looking down she could see the pale skin on the inside of his wrists and became very aware of how physically close she was to this man, whom she’d only known as a child. Her nostrils were picking up the not-unpleasant smell of his body. Buried within the acrid odour of fish that had so nauseated Peter, there was the sharpness of salty new sweat and a tang of peat smoke.
The moment was gone before she had formed the thought, but the smell stayed in her nostrils as she put her weight and her trust into those hands. She dared not catch his eyes as he hoisted her upwards. ‘Good girl,’ he said encouragingly. ‘We’ll have a tale to tell when this is done.’
Standing on his shoulders with the wall only inches from her face, Sarah commended her spirit to God, made a sign of the cross and then took a good look at the stones beside her. There had been no hint this morning when she walked past the fort that only a couple of hours later she would be trying to storm its walls. Beneath her feet, Alistair was concerned she might be having second thoughts. ‘Come on, Sarah,’ he urged. ‘Time to make a start.’
He appeared to have no questions about her ability, so she took a deep breath to calm herself and sought the first handhold of the climb. Thinking only of the task, her mind cleared and without another qualm she hoisted herself from the comfort and safety of Alistair’s shoulders, up onto the cold stone wall.
The stones were quite rough but she was able to grasp them at the corners. There were gaps between them into which a strong finger or a flexible toe could just fit. She didn’t know how much experience or fitness the lad might have, but the springy willow twigs she lodged between the stones would give him the extra help he would need to get safely up the wall.
It was slow work, step up, hand up, rod placed, foot up, next hand up, and all the while the number of twisted rods in her belt dwindled until there were none left. She hoped they would be sufficient to do the job. Finally, with a desperate effort Sarah grabbed the edge of the parapet and hauled her upper body over the top. Lying on the edge of the wall with bruised fingers and cramped legs, the support beneath her was a great relief. There were sounds of activity, but no alarm. Slowly she glanced around her. There was no one nearby. She eased herself onto the wooden ledge around the inner wall, and crouched down to avoid being seen by anyone below.
Although this part of the wall did not have cannon, Peter said there were rings bolted to the wall near one of the openings, which Sarah soon found. One end of the rope went through a ring, so she gave it a good tug to make sure it would hold, and then dropped both ends outside the wall before crouching down again.
From a distance, Ian Og quietly breathed a sigh of relief. It was some months since they’d last raced up
‘Quiet!’ The word was less commanding as it emerged between snuffles. She pointed along the road. ‘I don’t know. I think the soldier ahead knows. We have to follow him.’
Hamish was a bit mystified. He was expecting to take a frightened lass and her brother under his wing, and lead them the last few miles to their auntie’s house; but although she was distressed, Sarah had strength within her and he did not question her use of the word ‘we’. Nor did he hesitate to follow as she moved forward to another clump of bushes.
After a few minutes, he whispered, ‘Who are we following?’
Only when she felt sure that the soldier Dickens was far enough ahead did she answer. As she told Hamish some of the day’s events, he marvelled at this determined girl with wet wisps of black hair escaping from the cover of her plaid. She might be only as tall as his shoulder, but she was full of spirit, and Hamish MacNeil thought he had never seen anyone so fine.
If Sarah was asked beforehand, she would not have picked this red-haired, gangly youth to accompany her in her quest to find Ian Og, but there was kindness within him which, despite her distress, she could sense. He was also an ambassador from Angus and she trusted her uncle to choose his allies wisely, even if this one didn’t look able to withstand the weather. While he stood with rain dripping from his nose, she wondered how well he might stand up to a vicious opponent.
However, he was her only aid for the present and there was something in his face that she liked. ‘It’s Ian Og,’ she explained. ‘I can feel that something has happened to him. He’s gone and I don’t know where, but that soldier we are following knows about it.
A hefty boot swung towards his ribs. Hamish rolled over to avoid it, but took the blow on his side. He swallowed hard to stop the vomit rising. He tried to scramble away, but he couldn’t make his limbs act quickly enough. His belt snapped and his plaid got tangled around him.
‘Not so cocky now, eh?’ Dickens mocked. He had the youth at his mercy, and stepped on the loose fabric to hold his prey. He brought back his foot to deliver another vicious kick and for a moment Hamish hesitated, in thrall. Fortunately, his instinct urged him to a great effort and he rolled again away from his attacker towards the steeper edge of the track and then over the side, dragging his clothing with him.
It was the bully’s turn to be off balance. Drunkenly he fell with a thud onto the loose end of the plaid and was carried over the edge. Youth, man and plaid rolled down the rocky scree. At the bottom where the slope met level ground, Hamish came to a halt. He was winded and, apart from his brogues, naked. He felt as if he’d been skinned alive. The pain from the kicking was spreading over his whole body, and he gasped desperately to try and catch his breath.
A moment later, Dickens came to rest several feet away. He was unhurt, but the fall only provoked his temper further. ‘You little bastard,’ he growled, and then when he saw that Hamish wasn’t moving, rose to his feet and smiled in anticipation. ‘I have you now, boy, I’d say.’ Then with sarcasm he added. ‘You and your granny.’
The soldier wasn’t a tall man, but from where Hamish lay sprawled, he was a giant. There was no getting away now. He tried to scramble backwards using his feet, but his breathing was only just beginning to come right again, and his damaged ankle wouldn’t respond.
MacCannie was quite definite. ‘No. We need lots of blood. It’ll have to be there.’
‘We could get an animal.’ It was the forlorn argument of one who knows he has lost.
‘Oh yes. There’ll be one just standing there when we need it.’ There was more than a hint of irony. ‘No … the boy alive is what we need.’
The conversation was casual and Ian Og understood most of what was being said. An icy wave engulfed him as he listened to the men calmly discussing his death. Goliath, with a sigh, hoisted the terrified boy up and then swore, and roughly dropped him back down.
‘Oh no, now he’s pissed himself. I hope he didn’t shit himself as well. I’m not carrying him if he’s done that.’ There was the sound of sniffing and eventually agreement that Ian Og had not done worse than urinate.
‘Well, Ken. I think it’s your turn to carry him now anyway.’ Goliath grinned.
‘Oh no, it’s not!’ The younger one was quick to protest. ‘I’ve got the pistols and the rest. I’m minding the dogs as well.’
‘Well, I’ll carry those things, and you can take a turn to carry the boy.’
As they squabbled, Ian Og just wanted this terrible nightmare to end, and wished he had not been so easily betrayed by his body. Distraught, he began to cry. The tears gushed from him as if to rival his urine. But suddenly, he sensed a strange presence. Abruptly his tears stopped as he could hear familiar words: ‘Come on boy. You’re not going to just lie there, are you? There’s work to be done.’
They were the words of Granny Morag. He stopped himself from crying out. She couldn’t possibly be there with him, but the words were definitely hers.
Although Alistair looked as if he was taking no notice, Hamish’s pedantic path to knowledge and Sarah’s polite discomfort were hard to ignore, and at last he cleared his throat.
‘Hamish, d’ye not think that maybe some practical examples might be simpler for Sarah just now?’
‘But she has to learn the grammar.’
‘Oh yes,’ agreed Alistair. ‘You’re right. But maybe until she gets the hang of the grammar, a few phrases would improve her vocabulary.’
In his heart, Hamish knew his pupil wasn’t progressing as well as she might, so reluctantly he nodded.
Soon Sarah was able to say phrases like ‘Good Morning. I want fish’ and ‘How much oatmeal do you want for it?’
Although Hamish felt his position as instructor was somewhat undermined, he had to admit to himself that the lesson was becoming much more enjoyable.
With a wink at Hamish, Alistair began to widen Sarah’s repertoire. ‘The ugly soldier has a red nose.’ Sarah dutifully repeated this to get the accent right. Alistair nodded approvingly, and fed her the next line.
‘I do not love him,’ she continued. ‘His bum is big.’
Hamish’s eyes grew wider as he tried to keep a straight face.
‘And it’s hairy,’ Alistair added solemnly.
‘And it’s hairy?’ added Sarah quizzically, sensing incongruity. ‘What’s hairy?’ she asked and when her teachers convulsed in mirth she hit them both, but it was a good-natured protest, and soon the three settled down again to the lesson until The Weaver returned and claimed Alistair.
‘Dung of the Devil,’ he shouted at them as they pulled to a halt.
‘Not us,‘ said Dadda, who had caught up with them. He slid down off his horse. ‘We’re here to help.’ He looked at the leg. ‘Broken?’ he said, and when the man nodded in reply he added, ‘The bonesetter will soon see to that. I’ll just pull it a bit straighter now.’
As the man grimaced in pain, Alistair shouted, ‘Where’s JohnJoe? Did they take him?’
‘I don’t think so’. The man nodded up the glen. ‘He’ll be up there somewhere.’
A few minutes later they found JohnJoe, blood streaming from a gash on his head and still waving his discharged musket. He turned abruptly, brandishing his sword to face this new danger. When he saw who was there, he shouted. ‘Alistair Glic! Is this your work?’ Then his legs seemed to give way and he collapsed.
Swiftly, Alistair was down beside him. ‘No, JohnJoe, not at all.’ He reassured the drover. ‘We came to meet you. Give you an escort, but you were quicker than we thought. Have you any idea who attacked you?’
‘Not sure,’ JohnJoe sighed. ‘I think it was MacCannie and his sons.’
‘Aye. We know he’s in the area.’
‘They were hidden and just came out of the ground.’ He raised his arm. ‘Then they started yelling and screaming at the beasts.’
‘Aye, they had plenty of cover around here to hide in wait,’ said Angus.
‘Which way did they go, JohnJoe?’ Alistair asked.
‘What about the others?’ JohnJoe remembered his men.
‘They’ll mend,’ said Alistair grimly. ‘Which way?’
‘Oh. So it’s my fault that you weren’t paying attention to the two men attacking you?’
‘I was, but I was also paying attention to those three men you let slip past you. And the one you did get in the end nearly had you. You were beginning to need my assistance.’
‘When did I ever need your assistance? Wee shite.’
‘Many’s the time old man, you always needed my assistance to cover up your mistakes.’
Despite the words, the bickering was good-natured and might have continued but Dadda stopped them. ‘How bad is it?’ he asked.
‘I’ve had worse.’
‘Give us a look,’ said Dadda. He lifted Alistair’s hand slightly from the wound. ‘Yeuch! Ackie will stitch that, no bother. We’ll try Grannie Morag’s trick in the meantime.’ He turned to Ian Og. ‘Find me some sally rods. Nice long new ones. There’ll be some by the water, I expect.’
The lad soon returned with a half a dozen green switches, and found the other three engulfed in a cloud of pipe smoke, gazing at Dadda’s victim.
‘So who were they?’ said Angus, bending to check the man’s sporran and taking the tobacco he found there. ‘I don’t recognise any of them. It’s probably a MacGregor.’
Dadda nodded. ‘Probably.’
He took the bunch of rods and gave them a twist before proceeding to pull down long thin strips from one of them. ‘Do me a few more like this’ he said to Ian Og and wound the willow thread around Alistair’s wound. Within minutes the flesh was secure and the flow of blood was reduced to a trickle.
‘Good old Grannie Morag,’ Alistair said. ‘Thanks…
"A. L. MacDonell is a great writer and storyteller and once I started reading her novel I couldn't put it down."
"I loved the drama and flow of the story ,which kept you engaged. A great read."
"A beautifully crafted intriguing story with the writers unique wit throughout."
My heroes in this book were young siblings, Sarah and Ian Og. They were very brave against the harsh times they lived in. During their adventures they encountered all sorts of characters, some quite unsavoury. The author is a wonderful storyteller and kept me gripped the whole way through. I can’t wait for more!
I have just finished reading this wonderful book which was gifted to me. I just loved Sarah 13 years of age and her 11 year old brother Ian Og. I can’t wait for the next book which I see from the back of the book takes place five years later when Sarah is 18 and Ian Og is 16.
I was gripped by the drama and excitement in the story and the courage and bravery of the characters. The novel is descriptive, imaginative and informative in the ways of life in the Scottish Highlands in the 18th century.
There were so many parts of the book which I really liked and it is difficult to choose between them. If I am pushed I guess I would have to say I especially liked how Sarah stood up to a bully much older than her and helped to rescue the young boy.
I loved how this story unfolded. The story flowed and I appreciated the author’s use of language and the brilliant descriptions of people and scenes. Lots of drama and some hair-raising moments.
My favourite character was Sarah, a gutsy, determined young girl of 13, but I also liked her mysterious cousin Alistair who is a few years her senior. Can’t wait to see what happens between these two characters in Book 2 when Sarah is aged 18 !
I loved this book, especially Sarah and how she was so brave and determined at such a young age. I loved how the story was set in the 18th century and can’t wait to read the next book.
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