In the darkness, they stumbled in, the boy held by the upper arm with a grip of iron, and the soldier glaring at the boy. The boy was of average height and build, with unkempt hair and piercing blue-green eyes. He wore a Jacobite shirt and a kilt; an empty sheath, perhaps for a claymore, hung across his back. A strip of tartan ran across his right shoulder, fastening with a brooch at his left hip.
“It’s the third time he’s escaped.” The soldier said to the guard.
The guard smiled grimly. “So, the bird’s been caught again.”
The boy glowered, struggling to get away. The soldier only tightened his grip.
“The King’s orders are to guard him with your life, as well as you can out in the middle of nowhere like we are. Don’t let him out of your sight. He’s known to escape when one’s back is turned even for a second.”
The soldier roughly shoved the boy over to the guard, who backed the boy against the wall of the stone castle, pushing his hand against the wall until the boy gritted his teeth to stop from crying out.
“Do you want any help?” the soldier asked, turning to leave.
“No, I’ve got him under control.” The guard met the boy’s gaze and held it for a while. The boy did not flinch, nor did he look away. Instead, he narrowed his eyes and knit his eyebrows together, studying the guard. The guard grabbed his dagger out of its sheath and held it in front of the boy so he could see the glint in the still moonlight.
“See this? It can bite. Don’t be trying anything.”
“I never try.” The boy replied, his voice cold. “I only succeed.”
“It runs in you picts, doesn’t it?” The guard replied, still holding the boy’s hand against the wall, but sheathing his dagger. “But it also runs in the blood of the English.”
The boy shook his head, his thick, shaggy black hair covering his eyes. “That’s what ye think. We Scots were here first. And right proud of it we are!”
“If you’re going to talk, boy, you might as well tell us something of use. What’s your name, and how old are you?”
The boy held his head higher. “I am Alastair McKeathe, son of a Chieftain. I donnae see why my age should matter. Now, will ye please let my hand go, and then tell me why I’m here, I donnae ken that, and I believe I should.”
The soldier let Alastair’s hand go, but grabbed a few chains and clapped them on the boy. “So why are you here? Let’s see, do you want the full list?”
“First, the wearing of tartan,
Second, the playing of the pipes,
third, for fighting and running away from His Majesty’s soldiers,
And fourth, for signing the covenant.”
“And I am the only one that has e’er done all this?”
“’Course not, boy.”
“Then why is it me and not someone else who has ta go through all this?”
“The king wants you.”
“Really? Maybe I can talk some sense ta him. Sometimes I think he doesnae hae a single bit.”
The guard slapped Alastair. “Watch your tongue! You could lose your head for that!”
“Lose my head for sayin’ something? Ach, I think ye’ve gone daft! Besides, I already hae enou’ trouble, sayin’ something couldnae get me in much more.”
“Hush your voice, boy.” The guard dragged Alastair down into a dungeon. Alastair sighed. He knew this route all too well. Somehow, they always put him in the same set of outer cells – a mistake; they were all too easy to get out of.
Alastair collided with the floor as he was shoved into the cell, then lay still as the guard locked the door and walked away. When he was sure he was alone, Alastair yanked his Sgian dhub out of his sock – another mistake they always made, when were the English going to learn the Scots hid weapons like they made kilts?
Deftly he picked the lock on his chains, and then climbed up to look out the cell window. This time he was facing in to the courtyard of the castle, rather than away from it. That didn’t bother him one bit. Using his sgian dhub, he began chipping away at mortar. This task was always long and tiresome, but in the end well worth it. Morning dawned, then noon came, and finally it grew dark. The English never thought to feed a prisoner such as Alastair, and so he was left alone during the day. Alastair slid the rock out a bit, and then stopped briefly as he heard a guard pass outside. Hardly daring to breathe, he waited until he was sure the watchman was gone. Then he pushed it the rest of the way out, then slipped out into the cold night air.
The wall was just across from him, so quickly Alastair ran over to it and up to the ramparts.
“STOP!” The watchman shouted. Then Alastair realized all of his mistakes at once, but had no time to go back and fix them, so he quickly vaulted over the wall, hanging from the ivy that ran up that side of the castle. The Scots had fought a battle there once, and after that, Alastair had come to know it more, each time finding better ways of escape. Every time he was thankful for the ivy. Quickly he climbed down it, then hid in the shadows. He could hear the garrison being awakened and rushing around like madmen trying to find him. He hugged the wall, pressing back into the ivy. In their shouts, Alastair heard something about the “drawbridge.”
He groaned, then took off running for the hills.
Fiona… Fiona… Fiona, darling, wake up.
She rolled over in bed, groggily glancing out the window.
“It’s still dark; I don’t want to get up.”
“Fiona love, look, we need your help, lassie. A message needs ta be delivered to the prisoners in the English stronghold. You’re the only one who can be spared to do it.”
Fiona was a bit more awake now. “How far is it?”
“A day’s journey. Now come on, Fiona, up, you need to get goin’.”
She sat up, reaching for her skirt and plaid. “What’s the message?”
“I’ve put it in your plaid. It’s best ye donnae ken what it is.”
Mither went to the table as she got dressed, putting some food in a knapsack for Fiona. She kissed the top of Fiona’s forehead and gave her a quick hug, whispering a blessing into her ear.
“God protect you, Fiona.”
And with that, she left.
She started walking at a leisurely pace, not wanting to attract any attention in the village. She would run when she got to the fields, though. Fiona loved to sprint barefoot through the fields. She and her brother had shared many good memories there, but then he had left to fight the English and was killed less than a month ago. She held back the tears as she remembered the day the news had come.
Fiona turned her attention to where she was going; looking up to the rolling green hills she would be in at night. Looking at them made her heart swell with pride. She was a Scot, and was she ever proud of it. Her brother used to tell stories of their past, about Wallace and Bruce, of the things he learned from their auld neighbor. Now sometimes Fiona would go and listen to their neighbor tell about Scottish history, and every time she left more proud of her Scotland than ever before. Yes, she did call Scotland hers. But more than Scotland was hers, she was Scotland’s.
Her thoughts made the journey to the fields seem short, and then she took her shoes off, slung them over her shoulder, and broke into a run. Her brother’s voice rang in her head, the tips he had given her about running faster and him laughing as they played tag or raced. She loved the way his hair had gotten tousled as he ran, and the way he’d always try to fix it by shaking his head. Fiona would laugh, and then go up on her tippy-toes to fix it for him.
The fields seemed extremely small that day. Maybe it was because Fiona was in more of a hurry than ever before. Maybe it was because thoughts of her brother consumed her, or maybe it was because she loved to feel free, especially now that the British were closing down on the Scots. Before she knew it, Fiona was pulling her shoes back on and going into the hills. It was tiring work, walking in the hills, but Fiona had done it so many times it was beginning to get a wee bit easier.
By late sunset, she was well into the hills and soon saw the castle ruins, a marker to her, saying she was almost to the stronghold. Fiona made a small bed of leaves behind one of the few still-standing walls, then went to sleep.
Early the next morning, after a small breakfast of bread and cheese, she began walking again, and soon the drawbridge to the stronghold was being dropped for her. She walked in without anyone taking a second glance at her. Fiona breathed a quiet sigh of relief, but her relief didn’t last long.
A British soldier guarded her path to the keep. He was tall and stood with his legs apart and hands clasped behind his back. His back was turned, but with him there she wouldn’t dare try to get into the keep, it would be too risky. She watched him carefully and darted behind a pillar.
I have to get this message inside. I’ve got to warn them about whatever it is.
She looked back at the soldier, then toward the keep.
Now or never.
She took a step out into the open.
Run before they get a chance to see you. She heard her brother’s voice in her head. Come on, Fiona, go, go, go!
And she did run, but as she passed the soldier from behind, a second soldier spotted her.
“Hey you, stop!” He shouted.
She wanted to look back so badly, but held herself from doing so; it would only slow her down.
The first soldier whirled around. She ran faster, but he was faster than she was and before long, he chased her into a corner. The other soldier was with him now.
There’s two of them but there’s only one of me. They know I’m not supposed to be here, that I’m a covenanter.
Neither of the soldiers moved, both watching Fiona closely. The one motioned to the other, but still nothing happened. One took a step toward her, and she darted out the other way, but the first soldier roughly grabbed her arm.
Terrified, Fiona jerked free, starting to run again. She didn’t go far before he caught her again, this time with a stronger grip latching on to both arms. The other soldier came around in front so he could look at her.
“So, lass, what’ve you been doing here?”
She said nothing, looking off to the side, praying that nothing would give her away.
The soldier pushed Fiona toward the other, who gripped her shoulders firmly. The first knelt down in front of her, getting to eye level.
“Answer his question, lassie.”
Still she remained silent, staring off into space. She jumped as he grabbed her chin and turned her face toward his.
“Look here, we know what you’re doing here. We were told about someone coming to deliver a message. We didnae expect a girl like you. Tell us the message, promise to stay away, and we’ll be lettin’ ye go.”
Fiona was surprised when he spoke – he had a hint of a Scottish accent… from near the same place she was from.
“The message is only fer those to whom it’s directed ta, an’ no one else.” She replied.
“Well, I’d be careful, lass. Ye may want ta tell us sometime soon. Here, I’ll take her down. Ye can go back to yer post.”
The other soldier took Fiona and dragged her down to a prison cell. He shoved Fiona inside and quickly shut the door, locking it and slipping the keys onto his belt. She glared at him, but then he spoke, lowering his voice to a whisper.
“I’m Abraham McKeathe. Listen close, lass. Ye ken I work fer England, but I’m on yer side. I’m a Covenanter at heart, and belong in the highlands, but me mither made me sign up to join the army, and sign to be in the Church of England. I been tryin’ ta get away ever since, but haven’t been able to yet.”
“Yer a McKeathe?” She said, too loudly.
“Shh!” Abraham McKeathe put his hand over her mouth. “I can deliver yer message ta the other prisoners, and maybe help ye get away.”
“I trust ye, Abraham McKeathe – I’m a McKeathe too, and somethin’ tells me yer a man o’ God, on my side or not. And McKeathes always keep their word.”
Fiona took off her plaid, handing it to Abraham. “It’s in there somewhere – I donnae ken, me mither just told me it’s there somewhere.”
Abraham put the keys back in his belt.
“I should be goin’ now. They’ll be wonderin’ where I’ve gotten to.”
The next morning, Abraham came down to the jail to bring Fiona food.
“I been thinking, Fiona, an’ I think I ken how ta get out… kinda.”
“They’ll pass me up for an English soldier, which I am. You’re the problem, lassie.”
She fingered a lock of hair thoughtfully. “There’s no secret tunnels or anything in here, are there?”
He looked at her, suppressing a laugh. “Where’d you get that idea?”
“My brother tells stories. He’s the greatest story teller I know.”
Abraham smiled. “Well, I’ll have to see what I can tell, then you can see. When we get to your home, we could have a day of story-telling.” His eyes twinkled at the thought.
“I’m afraid… it wouldnae work. My brother, he was killed not a month ago.”
“I- I’m sorry.”
She was quiet for a few seconds. “But really. How are we going to get out?”
“I wish you didnae hae red hair, lass.”
“I cannae help it.”
“I ken, I ken… but wi’ red hair, you’ll be fairly recognizable anywhere. They’d post a notice for small, red-haired lass. An’ you’d be a goner.”
“Could you act like you’re taking me somewhere, as a guard, an’ then we could get out of the stronghold an’ be on our way back ta our croft.”
“Aye, it might work. You’re a smart lassie. I’ll see if I can expand on it. I’ll be seein’ you tomorrow.” Abraham straightened and went back to his post. Fiona watched him go, feeling hopeful. He would have liked Abraham. She thought, leaning back against the cold, stone wall and crossing her arms across her chest.
She felt something push at her shoulder and jerked out of a fitful sleep. Turning to see someone there, Fiona started to scream, but before anything got out of her mouth, a firm hand was clamped over her mouth.
“Shhh… it’s just me, Abe.” He took his hand off of her mouth, and Fiona nodded.
“What are you doing down here?”
“Getting you out.” He pulled a ring of keys from his belt and unlocked the door to the cell as quickly and quietly as possible. “Now look: we’re going to hae to be ready to act anything at any time.”
Fiona cocked her head to the side, questioning his words.
“Meaning you may have to be mute, deaf, blind, lame, or my prisoner at any given time.”
She nodded slightly, and then stepped out of the cell, standing next to Abraham, who closed the door and locked it back.
“And one more thing – pray. Pray hard.”
In the dim light of the prison, she noticed he had traded his army jacket for a worn, rough overcoat like Fiona had seen some of the highlanders wear on cold nights.
“Did you get the message to the others?” She asked, whispering so quietly she could barely hear herself.
He nodded a bit jerkily, then grabbed her arm and ducked behind a corner. Fiona glanced at Abraham, who had pressed himself up against the wall and was looking toward the door. She heard someone moving and her heart beat faster. She closed her eyes, wondering if she’d ever open them again. Then suddenly she was being pulled along, and it almost felt like she was flying.
They ran all night. Abraham ran a good bit faster than Fiona did, and by the time they stopped when the sun began to rise, she was exhausted. Abraham had stopped in front of a small cave, its front hidden by vines. He pushed her inside, then came in right after her.
“We may hae been followed,” he said, catching his breath. “But I donnae ken. If we were, I think we lost them by now.” He sat back against the wall of the cave. “Keep shooting up those prayers. We need the Lord’s protection if we’re to get back to your home. I donnae think we’d hae gotten this far without it.”
He may have said more than that, but if he did, Fiona didn’t remember; she was already asleep.
Alastair knew what he had to do, but he was afraid to do it. British soldiers had taken the fort, and no one had gone to get it back for those to whom it rightly belonged. Now the enemy had marched out, leaving only a few guarding the gatehouse. Someone had to get it back, and now was the opportune moment. But he was alone. Only one Alastair against a squad of men.
He put his fist over his heart, a sign for courage.
Courage. He needed it, that was for sure. Ach, God. Give me the strength I need to do this… and be it your will, help me serve Scotland for ye, and then come safely home to my family.
Putting fear aside and duty forward, Alastair looked up at the gatehouse. It had been built in a hurry; the main entrance was through a ladder inside the fort, and the slats of wood making up the wall were spread far apart enough that a sword could get through. He drew his claymore. Shadows moved across the floor of the gatehouse, and Alastair moved into place quickly. He took a quick stab into the gatehouse, pulling himself up high enough to reach in.
Alastair ducked down as quickly as he had climbed up, though, for alerting the guard of his presence meant almost immediate defense from the fort.
The skirmish that followed was useless – neither combatant had a clear view of his opponent, and the slats of the gatehouse were the only way of offense or defense. Finally, Alastair felt brave enough to slip inside a crack in the gate, and he approached the ladder.
Countless failed attempts of getting up followed. Each time he would swing up on the ladder and stab with his claymore, the guard would jump out of the way and attack. Yet Alastair kept on, feeling the need that was called for here.
He swung up again, only to feel someone step on his hand. Alastair let go and fell to the ground. The guard descended the ladder and now faced Alastair head on. He wore no helmet, and his black hair fell into his dark, slanted eyes. He lunged, and Alastair backed away, then attacked. Again, the guard lunged. This time Alastair knocked his sword out of the way, only to find that the guard was much stronger and Alastair’s attempted deflection failed.
The sword weighed heavily on Alastair’s arm. Hurry up and kill me already, he thought, blocking another blow from the enemy. The enemy locked his sword down on the ground, and Alastair jumped back, pulling his sword free. Immediately, he had to parry another attack. He just barely deflected it, jumping out of the way as his opponent’s sword swiped at his stomach.
This was so much more real than the mock battles with cushioned swords he had fought as a young child. This was real. It was scary. It was life or death, not just win or lose.
Another enemy joined the first. Alastair struggled to fight them off, constantly twisting and turning to hit their swords away only to find the other’s heading at him again. Attempting to stay on top of things, Alastair quickly assessed his situation. Two of them. One of me. I’m working twice as hard as them just defending. I’ve got to get something behind my back. Fighting wildly to gain control, Alastair backed up against the wall. Now I donnae hae to watch my back, he thought. In a split second of rest, he yanked his dirk out of his belt.
Cut left. Cut right. Swoop down. Lunge. Alastair mechanically defended himself, wondering what he had gotten himself into. An enemy’s sword grazed his side, and Alastair gasped in surprise and pain. He twisted around to attack, but as he did so one of the men moved around behind him. Alastair stopped, unsure of where to go. Then something hard smashed into his face and he fell backwards, everything going black before he hit the ground.
Fiona woke around noon, and Abraham gave her a piece of bread and some cheese, and then told her to keep watch while he slept. Fiona spent the time thinking and praying – wondering what life would be like if her family hadn’t signed the covenant, if they could meet in a Church building as they once had… how different their lives would be. Yet their faith, would it be weaker, having not been tested as much? Absorbed with her thoughts, Fiona barely noticed how much time had passed until she saw the sky darkening.
They walked more slowly the second night of their journey, and Fiona was leading more than Abraham now, because it had been so long since he had been with their clan. He walked behind her in silence for a while, but then his curiosity got the better of him.
“Tell me about your brother.”
Fiona picked her way around a few rocks. “His name was Alastair,” she said slowly, trying to decide what all she could tell Abraham without it hurting too much. “But he no one ever called him that, he hated his name. Mither and daddy would always call him ‘son,’ and to me he was always ‘Stair,’ I’d called him that when I was little and never let go of it. He looked a bit like me, his hair was different, and he was the best friend I ever had. He teased me a lot, which I didn’t like at the time, but now I miss his shouting ‘firebird’ when we would run across a field. He taught me how to run and sing, and play the bagpipes. He knew how to dance some, and he taught me that, too. On summer nights, we’d sit outside looking at the stars and he’d tell me stories about the stars. In the winter, we’d gather around a peat fire, and he’d tell us all stories he’d wind from his mind, about things he knew, and sometimes things he didn’t ken but wanted ta. He spent hours up in trees contemplating, thinking about God… he dreamed of being a preacher, after we could worship more freely, and sometimes he would speak to the birds about God. I think he woulda liked ye, Abraham McKeathe.”
Abraham smiled at Fiona’s last sentence, then warily glanced over his shoulder.
She didn’t see what there was to smile at it, so she tossed her head and began to run a little, but Abraham stopped her.
“Don’t run, I think we may be being followed. Whate’er you do, don’t look behind ye. Cover your head with this scarf.”
Fiona put on the black wool scarf Abraham thrust into her hands.
“Now pretend ye donnae understand a word I say, and – well, pretend to be mute an’ deaf. Act as if all is normal now, hear?”
She nodded, trying to stay calm, but inside fear was rising. What would happen to us if we were caught? Probably nothing more to me, but to Abraham… Fiona didn’t want to think about what could happen to Abraham if they caught him. Dear Jesus! Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus… Keep us safe, protect us. We are Your children – hold us safe in the shelter of your hand.
They walked on, trying to move as subtly as possible without looking suspicious. Abraham grabbed her hand, and he squeezed it gently. She took a deep breath and they went a little bit faster, but not enough to attract attention.
Before too long, Fiona heard footsteps behind her, and then rough voices.
“You two! Stop!”
Abraham stopped and turned, and Fiona tried to look confused, praying that everything would be all right. She kept her eyes down; too scared she would look up and give something away.
“Have you seen anyone pass by this way?”
The accent was distinctly British, without a hint of the highland accent. Fiona looked up a little, just to see who it was. Just as she thought, it was a British soldier. There were two more behind him, tall and stiff in their uniforms.
Abraham’s hand tightened a little on Fiona’s, and then he spoke. “No, why do you ask?” She could tell he was doing his best to cover up his accent.
“There’s a young girl who escaped from our prison a day or so ago. She was about the size of the girl you have with you. We don’t know for certain, but there was probably a soldier who helped her get away.”
Abraham’s grip around her hand was so tight now she wanted to pry it off, but she didn’t. “We haven’t seen anyone.”
The soldier walked to right in front of Fiona, and she knew without looking up that he was looking at her. “And what of the girl?”
“She’s deaf and mute, sir, and doesn’t pay any attention to her surroundings.”
Fiona continued to pray. Lord, make them blind to seeing us! Protect us and bring us safely home…
“A good for nothing, eh?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
The soldier waved his hand to say they could move on. Slowly Abraham and Fiona walked away, keeping silent until they knew they were out of sight.
Then Abraham spoke. “I heard the night before we left… they got a new prisoner in one of the smaller forts we took from the Scots.”
Fiona looked questioningly at Abraham.
“From what you’ve told me about your brother, and from what I’ve heard, he seems a lot like your brother.”
Fiona shook her head. “’Stair died with the others. He would’ve come home if he could hae.”
Ow… ow… ow… Me face… Opening his eyes, Alastair moved his hand up to his face, tearing it away after the slightest touch. The skin hadn’t broken, for that he was thankful. But he imagined his forehead and nose were the dark purply brown of a bruise. He opened his eyes wider, only to be met with darkness. Alastair groaned and rolled over, feeling the dirt of a cold dungeon floor beneath his hands. He lost all sense of time in the dungeon. The only thing he knew was that he had failed, and the attempt he had made to take the fort back had been a selfish, stupid thing to do. Lord, forgive me. I know I’ve failed you, I know I’ve done it a million times. When I left to fight, to protect, to provide a way for my family to worship freely – when father and I left, I never expected this, God. I’ve become greedy, wanting honor, wanting to do what I can for Scotland and myself, and not for you… and look where it’s gotten me. I’ve never been farther from home. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus…
Alastair winced as he tried to move. Every bone in his body ached. Chains dragged across the floor, and he felt the cold metal around his wrists. The chains were heavy, but he managed to push past his weakness and struggled to his feet. Briefly staring at the light coming in through the barred windows, Alastair collapsed.
For King and Kirk, King and Kirk. Jesus, my King… and my Kirk. Oh, I want to be home.
He slipped in and out of sleep until the jangling of keys brought him awake. His cell door swung open.
“Ah, so for once the Bird did not fly overnight.”
Alastair scowled, then bit his lip from the pain as a young lieutenant pulled him to his feet.
“The Brigadier would like to see you,” the soldier commented, then sighed as Alastair weakly fell against his shoulder. The lieutenant gently let Alastair back to the ground. “Stay here, lad, I’ll be back with more in a minute.”
When he returned, two more soldiers were with him, and together they picked Alastair up and carried him to the garrison. The soldiers who had been away had returned in the night, and now they sat in their barracks playing cards, talking, and singing. As the guards carrying Alastair entered, silence blanketed the room. The lone Scot held his head high, reminding himself that even here he was a representative of his King. The lieutenant knocked on a door leading to a room off to the side of the garrison, and the door opened.
Alastair found himself on the floor once more, looking into the cold blue eyes of the Brigadier. Unwillingly, Alastair flinched under his gaze.
“Is it true that you signed the covenant?” The Brigadier asked, his voice cold like his eyes.
“Aye,” Alastair replied, getting his fire back. “And me sisters, mither, grandparents, great-grandparents, and father likewise!”
“And you confess your other crimes as well?”
“I dinnae see how they’re crimes; I ken I’ve fought ye Brits, I ken I’ve worn me kilt, I ken I’ve played me pipes. But sir, me pipes and me tartan are me heritage, just like me faith.” Alastair struggled to his knees, raising an arm high. “For King and Kirk!” He shouted.
The Brigadier slapped Alastair, and the boy fell back to the floor, lying motionless. “Alright, then, laddie,” the Brigadier said, sneering at his use of the Scottish term, “I’ll give you two options – one, you renounce signing the covenant – I’ll let you off this once for the other three crimes – or we punish you, most likely by death.”
“The law I follow is the law that me Creator established in His word. I will never renounce signing the covenant, and I will not bow my knee to yer king and his law so long as it contradicts the higher law of God. If I hae sinned again’ His Sovereign law, show me how, and I will repent of me sins. Else I remain where I lie and not turn again’ what I have said.”
“Brave words for a boy. This is your last warning – turn back now or never.”
“I hae told ye…” Alastair’s voice trailed off as his broken body shut down and he drifted into darkness.
“Mither?” Fiona entered the wall that surrounded their croft, and Abraham followed close behind her. As she closed the gate behind them, two young girls came running out of the house.
“Fiona!” They shouted, coming up to her and hugging her.
Fiona turned to Abraham. “Ina and Cadha, this is Abraham.”
Ina, the bolder of the two, spoke first. “We’re twins,” she said matter-of-factly. “But I’m a mite older than Cadha.”
Cadha smiled shyly up at Abraham.
Mither came out of the house and saw them standing there. After embracing Fiona, she turned to Abraham. “Who’s this?” She whispered to Fiona.
“This is Abraham McKeathe,” Fiona replied. “He’s a British soldier, but risked his life to get me out of the dungeon.”
“Ye can tell me everything later, lass. Let’s get the two of ye inside and cleaned up, then get some bannock and griddle cakes inside of ye.”
Fiona’s father, Sandy, returned from working in the fields not too long later, and they talked around the table.
“I hear ye saved my daughter, laddie,” Sandy said.
Abraham looked slightly uncomfortable, but swallowed his bite of bread and answered. “Aye, sir. The other soldier I was on guard with saw her and wen’ after her. I had to follow him so they wouldnae discover where me true allegiances lie.”
“But ye rescued her and brought her back home, safe and sound. Ach, we can never thank ye enough.”
“Ye need not thank me, ‘tis a pleasure to be back in the highlands after so long. Yet I can only hope it will last, I fear the British will not give up easily.”
“It’s been so many years of war already. Must they press us so much?”
“They donnae understand our convictions, Sandy.” Martha laid her hand on Sandy’s arm as he passed his hands over his eyes.
“It is useless ta fight them for so long – look at what it’s done ta our Scotland. In ruins, it is, and lacking so many lads to carry on with loving our good Lord the way we do. It pains me ta think about it.”
“God will provide away, sir, if it’s ta be his will.”
“Aye, laddie. Sometimes I think the only way to live in freedom would be ta join those who hae gone before us in America. We’d hae freedom to worship there.”
Abraham nodded, but the girls and Mither looked afraid.
“And leave Scotland, our home for generations, an’ all the ties ta the land?”
“Aye, Martha. It may be the only way ta worship as we feel God desires.”
“Firebird, run!” He laughed, chasing her. “Faster, faster, feel the ground fall away beneath your feet… toss your red feathers!” He stopped to flick his hair out of his eyes, but then she halted, turning and straightening his black locks.
The jolting of a wagon woke Alastair. “Fiona?” He whispered, still half in his dreams. Alastair sat up quickly, thinking he was back at home. Just as swiftly, he fell back into the bed of the wagon. “Ach, my head!” he groaned. Ignoring the pain, Alastair returned to his thoughts. Why did I think I was home? I haven’t been home in… ach, what’s it been? Three years? Me Fiona’s grown big now, no longer as much of a lass as a woman now, I’ll wager… with all the laddies around her, and me not there to run with her and watch over her anymore. What I would give to get these three years back and be home at our croft. Oh King Jesus, take me home. Take me home… oh, this pain in my head, take it away… Alastair drifted into sleep again.
It was dark when he woke, and the wagon had stopped. As Alastair opened his eyes, they started again and rumbled across a drawbridge. Lying on his back, he watched the portcullis and gatehouse pass over him, finally realizing that he was at one of the castles.
What was it the guard had said?
The King wants you.
Alastair shuddered. No Covenanter that he knew of had ever met the king and lived to tell the tale. And with his head the way it was, there was no chance of escaping. Now the pain was throbbing, a constant beating reminding him of pain. Oh Jesus, was it worth it? Signing the Covenant and keeping up with our heritage, is it worth this pain?
Before he had even finished his thoughts, Alastair had an answer.
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Whispering to himself, Alastair held onto that truth. “We are more than conquerors…”
The wagon rattled into the courtyard, and guards pulled Alastair out of the wagon. The wagon driver and the soldiers who had brought Alastair to the castle conferred for a time, then Alastair was dragged up many, many stairs.
Sunlight streamed in through large, open windows. At the end of a long hall, steps led up to a throne, and on top of that sat the king.
The soldiers knelt, but Alastair remained standing, fighting against the pain in his skull. He could feel the king’s gaze boring into him, but Alastair refused to bend his knee to a king who he believed was disobedient to God’s law, and thus Alastair bent his knee to a Higher Power.
“So, you are the lad I’ve heard so much about,” the king said.
Was that scorn in his voice? Or mockery? Pity? Alastair wondered, standing straighter.
“You’re not past twenty-one, I’ll wager.”
“No matter, I have seen both older and younger break to torture.”
“Yet ye have seen more older and younger remain firm for their King and Kirk.”
“This is not just a matter of who you name as king.”
“I ken, but mayhap all else flows from that belief.”
“You have a sharp tongue and mind for one so young, ‘tis a pity to waste it.”
“Me parents trained me well in the ways of the Lord Jesus, and that includes the fact that ‘tis not wasting one’s life to lose it for their King.”
“No, it is not, as long as you lose it for the right king.”
“Aye, there we disagree. The only king I hae when one who breaks the higher law of God is on the throne is the King Jesus.”
The king looked at the soldiers. “Take this lad away. I have more important matters to deal with. See if you can break him, I fancy having lads like him in my army, they’re strong and well trained.”
Fiona sighed and folded one of Cadha’s skirts, then placed it in a carved wooden trunk. She paused to look out the window, staring at the fields and hills… her fingers traced the carvings in the trunk, thinking of memories, hearing the distant sound of bagpipes in her head. Fiona closed the trunk, latching it, then laid her head on the lid. In her mind’s eye, she saw Alastair grinning as he picked up his pipes, begging her to dance. He began to play, and Fiona jumped and spun, her hair flying out behind her as she turned and bounced. She laughed and Alastair threw himself into his piping…
“Fiona, love, are ye done?”
Fiona lifted her head from the trunk slowly, not wanting to break out of her daydream. “Aye, mama. All of Cadha’s things are packed away.”
Mither’s eye wandered to the fields, and then she glanced down at Fiona. “Ye were thinking of the days with Alastair, were ye not?”
“Aye,” Fiona replied sadly.
Mither sighed and laid a hand on Fiona’s shoulder. “Ach, I miss my son.”
“Do ye think… that maybe, there’s just some way that he’s been delayed in getting home? That maybe he lost his way, that maybe he…” Fiona’s shoulders lurched, and she buried her face in her hands, sobbing. Mither knelt beside her daughter and held Fiona in her arms, rocking her back and forth, as she had done when Fiona was but a wee lass.
“All things are possible with God, Fiona. Yet I donnae dare to think that Alastair is still living.”
“But what if he does live? An’ what if he comes home and finds us gone?”
“Don’t trouble yourself with such questions, lass… the King is in control, an’ if He has planned for Alastair to return ta us, He’ll work it out.”
“Now, love, I need your help in the kitchen.”
“In there, boy.” The guard shoved Alastair into a prison cell. Four men looked up, their faces hollow and beards untrimmed.
“Welcome to the Rat’s Nest, lad,” one of them said.
“Thank ye,” Alastair replied, moving against the wall.
“So, what crime did ye commit?”
“None that I or my kinsmen would e’er call a crime.”
“Ah, so you’re one of the Covenanters, then?”
“Aye, that’s what they call us.”
“We used to have one of them in here with us… I think a few of them, but now they’ve gone on to the great beyond.” The man’s eyes widened as he said “the great beyond,” as if trying to scare Alastair.
“Thank ye for the encouragement,” Alastair answered sarcastically. “Though sometimes I wish I would up and die so that I could be home with ma King instead of stuck here on this sinful earth.”
“How old are you, boy?” A second man asked, this one more kindly looking than the one who had already spoken.
“I turned twenty not a month ago.”
The man’s face softened. “Ah, happy birthday, then.”
Startled, Alastair looked at the man curiously. “Thank ye.”
“Come sit with me by the window, boy.”
Alastair moved slowly over to the window and sat near the old man.
“I’ve been in this hole longer than anyone else here… seen many lads and even a lass or two go off to be killed… all with such courage. Ye look like you’ve been through a lot, boy. Last time I saw my son he was your age. About your height, too. Ah, he was a good lad, my Charles.” The man leaned closer to Alastair, so close that his breath brushed the laddie’s cheek as the man spoke. “Don’t give up hope, boy. I hear they plan to ship some criminals off to America.”
Alastair sighed. “I can only hope that, for I ken the king wants to try to break me into his army.”
“From the looks of you, boy, you’re a tough one, and won’t break that easily.”
“By the grace of me Savior and King I won’t, but I donnae ken, I havenae been able to stand on me own of late.”
“If you trust that Savior of yours as much as I think you do, you’ll know he’s there to support you.”
Alastair lowered his eyes. “Thank ye, sir.” He looked up, and his eyes wandered to out the window. “Has anyone escaped from here?”
“I doubt it.”
“There’s got to be some way.”
“You’ve got to be an escape artist to get out of here alive, boy.”
Alastair grinned. “Heard anything of ‘the bird’?”
“Ever wonder who he is?”
“Ye’re staring straight at him, sir.”
“Well, am I now?”
“Then how do you plan to get out of here?”
“Same as always – use me sgian dhub ta move away a brick and climb down the wall an’ take it from there.”
“You’re risking a lot, son, there are many more guards here than you’ve ever come upon.”
“An’ where will you go once you’re free?”
Alastair stared out the window in the direction he knew to be his home. “Back ta the hills, ta be with me family.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t try it, but I know family can be a high calling, a strong tugging.”
“Aye. I’ll rest for now, an’ start when night falls.” Alastair sank back against the wall of the prison cell, letting his shoulders relax as he sank into sleep.
A rat scuttled over his foot, jerking Alastair awake. A thin stream of moonlight came in through the windows, and Alastair rubbed his sleepy eyes. His stomach growled, but he pushed his hunger away. Groggily, Alastair took out his sgian dhub and started working away at the stone closed to the floor. His fingers ached after a few minutes of scraping, but Alastair pushed on. A pile of dirt and dust began to grow on the floor as Alastair worked. He paused to rest and look out the window. They were up in a tower, most likely the keep of the castle. Down below there was a walkway that connected the keep to the rest of the castle. Diagonally to both corners were two ominous watchtowers, shadowed against the moonlight. Alastair caught the glint of a helmet in one window, and saw a set of watchful eyes peering out. He ducked and went back to his work.
Alastair stopped working to switch hands and went at it with fresh strength. Before long, his head began pounding, and he felt faint from hunger. Looking out the window once more, he caught a glint of sunlight, and Alastair tucked his knife away and curled up on the floor to sleep, utterly exhausted.
The old man nudged Alastair. Alastair jumped, alert as soon as his eyes were open.
“There’s someone here to see you, boy.”
Alastair climbed to his feet, gripping the walls for support. He made his way toward the cell door. Two soldiers stood nearby, and the jailer opened the cell door. Head down, Alastair shuffled out, and the soldiers marched him away to a small room without windows. They locked him in, and then left. A few minutes later, the door opened again and a Brigadier entered, followed by the King. Alastair rose from where he had been lying down.
“You have one more chance, lad, to recant from signing the covenant. After that we will try to force it from you, and if not, you will die.”
Alastair sneezed, and his head pulsed painfully. “My answer hasnae changed, sir.”
“So you admit to speaking the Scottish tongue, wearing the kilt, and signing the covenant?”
“Ye may be blind if ye cannae see me kilt,” Alastair said simply. “The others are just as plainly true.”
“And you refuse to bow to the rightful king of England?” The Brigadier asked.
“Aye, as long as he opposes the law of King Jesus, I will oppose him.”
The Brigadier slapped Alastair with such force Alastair fell on the ground. His face contorted in pain, but he did not make a sound. “Do you still, lad, now that you are no longer on your feet?”
“My lord Jesus turned the other cheek, ‘twould be sad indeed if I couldnae when I am attempting to live as He.”
Alastair doubled over as a boot hit his stomach. He gasped for air, but the blows continued to rain down.
There was a slight pause, and Alastair gulped. “We are more than conquerors!” He shouted weakly, raising a fist. The Brigadier aimed another kick at Alastair, this one hitting the laddie’s chest. Alastair winced and let out a small yelp.
“You have the night to rethink your decision, boy.” The king and Brigadier left, and soon the soldiers returned. Alastair slumped onto one of their shoulders as they helped him back to the cell.
Weakly, Alastair dragged himself to by the window and collapsed.
“Did they make ye change your mind, boy?”
Alastair opened one eye slightly. “Does it look like I denied me king?”
“You’re a brave one, ye are.”
“Nay, ‘tis not me, in Christ we are more than conquerors. So said the apostle Paul, and I know it to be true.”
“I wish there were something I could do for your battle wounds.”
“Time will heal them. Though I donnae think I’ll be making my escape. Like as not I’ll be facing my death before the week is out.”
“I’ll see what I can do to help you, boy.”
When Alastair woke, his left eye was swollen shut. His shirt was stained with blood, and his whole torso ached. The old man sat near him, watching. But he looked more hopeful than Alastair had seen him before.
“I talked to the guards,” The old man said, smiling. “They said they can arrange for a ‘mistake’.”
Alastair struggled to sit up.
“Stay down, boy. You’re too bad hurt sit up yet.”
“What kind of ‘mistake’?” Alastair wondered.
“Ah, now, you see, there’s a ship that leaves for America tomorrow morning. With so many prisoners coming in, those at the docks will not see one lad different. By the time those back here realize you’ve gone, you will be well out to sea. The young man there,” the old man pointed to another man in their cell, “will be traveling with ye.”
“Thank you very kindly, sir. But what about you?”
“I’m starting to think they’ve forgotten about these old bones rotting away in here. Don’t worry about me.”
Alastair fell back asleep.
Fiona pushed the trunks out of the house. Sadly, she glanced back at their home, then out at the fields. Her father took the trunk, and Fiona turned to him. “Daddy, can I go to the fields?”
“Aye, love, but donnae be gone too long.”
Fiona set off running for the fields. There she stopped and sank down on her knees. “OH GOD… oh Alastair.. where is he, God? Is he dead? Is he coming home to us? What if he comes and we’re gone? Will I ever run these beautiful fields again? Will I ever laugh and fix A’stair’s hair? Will he ever call me his Firebird again?”
Sobbing, Fiona stood again and looked over the fields, then breaking into a run, the wind drying her tears on her cheeks. She stopped breathless on the farthest edge of the field, staring at the setting sun. My last sunset on Scottish soil. Lord Jesus, what is happening to our country?
“Fiona!” Mither shouted, and Fiona turned and ran back, the ground disappearing under her feet as she ran. As Fiona reached her mother, Mither put her arm around Fiona and leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Donnae worry, dear. Nothing will e’er separate us from Christ like the world and death and sin will separate us from the things we love here on this earth. Never forget the word of Paul – we are,”
“More than conquerors,” they said together.
“I know, Mither.”
“Let’s load up the wagon, love.”
By dawn they had reached the docks. Abraham carried Cadha, who had fallen asleep in the wagon, on board, and Fiona followed behind carrying her and Cadha’s few belongings. They arranged their trunks and bags on the floor in the hold, saving a spot for themselves. Then Fiona fell asleep on her father’s lap, while Cadha and Ina lay peacefully on the floor. Abraham leaned against the side of the vessel, arms crossed over his chest and eyes closed.
Alastair had to be carried to the ship. He and the other prisoners had berths in the sailor’s quarters, and once the ship had set sail they would be free to do as they pleased. Once situated in a hammock, Alastair promptly fell asleep, unaware of the noise above and around him. When the ship was underway, he woke. Trying to get out of bed, Alastair cried out in pain. A sailor heard and ran to his side, supporting Alastair. The sailor helped Alastair to a sea chest, leaving him there. A few minutes later, he returned with the ship’s surgeon. Together the two of the crew carried Alastair to the surgeon’s quarters, where the surgeon examined him.
“What happened to you, boy?” The surgeon asked.
“I took a stand for me King.”
“Ah. So was it the king’s men that did this to you?”
The surgeon sighed. “I wish there was something that could be done for peace. Can you take your shirt off?”
Alastair pulled his shirt off, for the first time seeing the awful bruises all over his torso.
“Tell me if it hurts.” The surgeon pressed the bruises in different places. On the rib, Alastair drew in a sharp breath.
“Ouch.” He said weakly.
“You may have broken your rib. I’ll bandage it, but beyond that there isn’t really anything I can do.”
Alastair nodded, then let the surgeon bandage him. The surgeon did not want Alastair to be moved, so the boy stayed in the Surgeon’s quarters.
Fiona groaned and pushed the blanket off of her legs. Her stomach churned, her head ached… Abraham sat on a trunk near by, watching her. Mither and the girls had gone up to the forecastle, and father was away talking to some of the other immigrating Scots.
“Any better, Fiona?” Abraham asked.
“Do you think you could make it up to the quarterdeck?”
Fiona shook her head.
“Fresh air would do ye some good, lassie, ye’ve been down on the ground groaning for nigh on three days now. When are ye gonna get your sea legs?”
Before Fiona could stop him, Abraham put his arm under her head and helped her to her feet. Fiona leaned on him for support, and he helped her up the ladders to the quarterdeck.
There Fiona made her way to the railing, leaning over and peering down into the water. Behind her Abraham gently pushed her shoulder, then grabbed her arm.
“Saved ye’re life,” he teased.
“Abraham McKeathe! Donnae be scarin’ me like that!” Indignantly, Fiona stood up straight and looked off into the distance, then she glanced around the deck of the ship, first up to the Forecastle where her mother, Ina, and Cadha were, then to the poop deck, and the galley.
Then someone caught her eye.
His face was bruised, his eye showed signs of being hurt and then healing, and he stood with his arm across his ribs, as if they would break if he moved his arm. He looked so familiar, but because of his wounds, Fiona could not quite figure out…
“Alastair?” she whispered. A grin spread over her face, and she ran to him, wrapping her arms around him.
“Ouch, gentle there, lassie,” he said, looking down at Fiona. “Or should I say Firebird?”
Below decks later that night, Alastair sat with his family, leaning against the side of the ship for support. Mither sat to one side of him, cleaning his face, and Fiona and the girls sat to the other side of Alastair. Sandy and Abraham sat a little ways away, listening as Alastair talked.
When he finished his story, Fiona looked up at him. “But how did ye stay firm through it all, ‘Stair? I cannae imagine what ye were goin’ through, I know I coulnae have survived.”
“First of all, ye’re a lassie, and donnae need to be frettin’ your head over it while ye’ve got me, father, an’ ye’re friend Abraham around ta protect ye and your mother an’ sisters. But secondly, Mither and Father hae taught us well, and I hae hidden the Word in my heart. One verse especially, reminding us that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love, so what e’er happened I would be with Christ when I died if I didnae deny my faith. Especially the part at the end of the verse – that we are more than conquerors.”
Fiona exchanged glances with her mother, and they smiled. “Aye, I ken that verse well. I’ve missed ye, ‘stair.”
“How many nights I prayed to be back wi’ ye, I donnae ken. It was countless times I wished to be home wi’ ye. But how did you decide to leave, Father?”
Sandy looked at his son, amazed at how much Alastair had suffered, thanking God for bringing him home, more a child of God than ever before. “I think Abraham should tell the story first, from the time he met Fiona.”
Abe winked at Fiona as he began his story.
“Once upon a time, there was a brave young lass who was sent to deliver a message…”
Alastair leaned forward in his seat, and Fiona leaned her head on his shoulder. He glanced down at her and smiled. “Firebird,” he whispered, almost inaudibly.
Fiona grinned. Bible quotations taken from the English Standard Version.
A tale of the Scottish Covenanters. ---
This started as four story ideas, then I managed to merge them.. some of you may recognize "A Sword Fight" in here.
I'd really appreciate criticism.
The Covenant was signed in 1638, regarding the use of a prayer book in Churches. Many left the Church, and basically formed the Presbyterians. But they were persecuted by the government, and in the English Civil War from 1648-1649, they sided with parliament and Cromwell, but there was a good deal of trading sides and treachery. Bonnie Prince Charlie's family was exiled to France at the end of the war, and returned in 1745 he returned. My story takes place after Bonnie Prince Charlie, because sometime around then the pipes, tartan, and Scotch Gaelic were outlawed. The battle after which Sandy and Alastair are separated is the Battle of Culloden, in 1746, where the Jacobite/Covenanter Scots were massacred.
However, I took a creative license and made it so that having signed the covenant was still a big deal. I am not sure how illegal it was at that point in time, the legality of signing it was given at one point along with freedom of worship, but then it was taken away again, and I believe it still played a large role in Scottish history.