A seasonal story in three parts. Catch up on the first part here.
Chapter 2: Solstice
Dougall shivered as they stood in the arena listening to the Laird of Haunn giving the traditional Solstice Speech of Renewal. Uncle Donal believed in using this occasion to ensure that everyone remembered their basic astronomy lessons, and had been known to point at someone and ask them to explain a finer point of planetary science. Haunn were hot on planetary science. There were lots of books on it in the library, and Donal received letters from people all the way from Castle Edin asking his advice and opinion on it.
He had not asked Dougall a question at Solstice since his first year. The question was about the pretty coloured lights in the sky and Dougall’s reply explaining solar activity and excitation of the earth’s atmosphere was so precise that Dougall had immediately been elevated to Uncle Hamish’s technology working party. Dougall smiled as he remembered Dylan asking him how he knew all that. Dougall had read it in the library. Dougall knew Dylan read things in the library too, just not the same things. He wondered where Dylan was. This was the second morning since he’d left. It was quite likely that he hadn’t managed to get to Kerrera till yesterday evening, but he knew that Dylan was always trying to break his speed-record for getting messages to the mainland. Maybe there hadn’t been a boat.
Dougall became aware that everyone was looking at him. In silence. The smith’s daughters were trying not to giggle.
He looked at Uncle Hamish, who was looking mildly amused, but not unkindly so. He looked at Uncle Donal. Uncle Donal was waiting for a reply. Oh dear.
“I’m sorry, Uncle, I mean, sire,” he said, wiggling his ear and trying to clean it at the same time. “Please could you repeat that?”
“No, young man, I will not. You will spend this evening copying May’s Treatise on Inter-Stellar Dust Particles while the rest of us have our Solstice supper.”
Dougall hung his head, his fringe falling forward to cover his eyes as usual. Disappointment at missing the party was tempered with relief, since the food wouldn’t be much good and the library would be warmer than the Great Hall. He paid a little more attention to the rest of the Laird’s speech, whilst still calculating when Dylan would be home, and how long it would take the great people at Buckmore to respond to his special message.
“This strange message arrived yesterday from one of those island castles up north,” said Baden, Steward of Buckmore, handing a piece of paper to Prince Lupin, King of Buckmore, and retrieving the approved seating plans for that evening’s Solstice banquet. “I sent it down to Pippin, but he didn’t think he had any authority in the matter. I tend to agree with him. What do you think?”
Lupin sat back in his office chair and read the message aloud.
“Fuel cell failed causing shipwreck stop strawberry juice unreliable stop send reliable replacement stop Donal of Haunn. Shipwreck, eh?”
“Do we know a Donal of Haunn?” asked Baden.
“Yes, he was one of the chaps I met on my honeymoon. One of the few islands we actually visited,” Lupin grinned remembering his washed out honeymoon a couple of summers back. “Desolate place right on the edge of the world, and they are barely hanging on there, I think. Small place, smaller than Marsh, even. I was keen to give them what technology we could. They are fine scientists, even if they do spend most of their time on astronomy.”
“Apparently there was another message in the same batch, also from Haunn, directed to Princeling George Marsh of Buckmore, and marked Super Urgent with stars and arrows all round it to draw attention to it.”
“Sounds like the engineer in charge slipped a message in,” grinned Lupin. “What happened to it?”
“Since Pippin was flying over to spend today at Marsh, he took it with him.”
“Very sensible,” said Lupin. “I hope he remembered to take all those things Nerys was sending to Jasmine and the new nephews.”
“He did. He didn’t have much room left inside.”
“George needs to get on with this weight-carrying machine he’s designing,” Lupin muttered, then looked at the note again. “We need to find out what’s wrong before we just send a replacement. Bad time of year for this to happen.”
“For them or for us?” asked Baden.
Lupin just nodded. “Find out what George is going to do, would you? Do what you think best but keep me informed.”
“How are you getting on, young Dougall?” asked Heath, sitting next to him at the copy desk in the library and balancing a small plate of food on the armrest. The carrot and swede had been carved into interesting shapes, but they were still just carrot and swede.
“About half-way, thank you Uncle,” Dougall said, reaching for a piece of carrot.
“I expect you miss Dylan, do you? When will he be back, do you think?”
“Oh, not till tomorrow at the earliest. Do you think the Prince of Buckmore will do anything?” Dougall did not want anyone to know of the second message Dylan had been carrying.
Heath looked satisfied at the reply and stood up. “I don’t know. I expect so; they are supposed to be good at this sort of thing.”
“How much do you know about strawberry juice technologies, Uncle?”
“Not too much, I’m afraid, young Dougall. I know it’s progress, like that copier you have there, but I don’t know how they work. I just use them when I have to. How does that work without a fuel cell, anyway?”
“Oh, this uses the solar cell on Ben Craich. We have wires that bring it down to the castle. It’s not strong enough for the ovens at this time of year though. Just small things.”
“Hm. Well, I’ll leave you to your work then.” Heath stood up and moved away.
“Okay, uncle,” replied Dougall, and he turned back to his copying.
Upstairs in the Laird’s chambers Lady Carolyn was in a foul mood.
“It was in the casket where I always put it!”
“Well, maybe you dropped it last time you wore it,” replied Donal, knowing full well that he had to pacify his lady or the Solstice party would be a disaster.
“Of course I didn’t drop it. I put it back here where it belongs! Somebody has stolen my best silver necklace!”
Down in the smithy a similar conversation was taking place. The smith, Rowan, was trying to pacify his daughters, Eiris and Mhairi, who were in floods of tears since each had lost one of their ankle bracelets. Eiris’s was silver-gilt, to set off her silvery hair, and Mhairi’s was copper, which made a fine accent to her red hair.
“I’m sorry my sweetlings,” Rowan said. “You’ll have to wear two of them and make it look like that’s how they are meant to be. We’ll look for them another day. Dry your eyes now or we’ll be late.”
Prince Engineer George strolled into Io’s bar in the lower courtyard at Castle Marsh and joined a group of green-jacketed soldiers sitting around a table, playing cards. He watched for a bit until someone shouted “Rummy” and laid his cards face up on the table, and the others all exclaimed in various degrees of dishonesty that he’d cheated, he couldn’t have done or that he’d stolen their card. The winner grinned sheepishly and gathered the winnings onto his pile of beans. He seemed to have a lot more than the others.
“Another round, then? And what can I get you, George?” asked the winner.
“Oh, a celery spritzer please, Haggis,” said George with a bashful smile. He sat waiting while Haggis went over to the bar and ordered four more Vexes and a celery spritzer. The barkeeper, Io, nodded and said she’d bring them over.
“What’s up then?” asked Haggis, retaking his seat.
“Oh, well, er, nothing, but I got a strange message last night and I wondered whether you might shed some light on it.”
“Ever heard of a place called Haunn?”
“Haunn? Where might that be?”
“I hoped you might tell me that. It’s not on Fred’s map of the north, and we think it’s in the far north, on an island. The message got onto the vacuum system at Kerrera, and went to Buckmore first.”
“Kerrera? That’s way out west. You want to look at them western isles up north.”
“I don’t suppose you could find Kerrera on a map, could you?”
“Oh, happen I could. I tell you what, though, let’s check with Frankie.” He called over to a big chap sitting near the fire. A moment’s discussion and they stood up. “Take us to that map, then.”
Io stood behind them with a tray of drinks. “I suppose you don’t want these after all?”
“We’ll be back,” said Haggis. “Just don’t let the others have mine.”
“Fat chance,” said one of his card-playing companions, reaching over and lifting all the bottles of Vex off the tray, and setting George’s celery spritzer beside them. “We’ll save this one for you, though,” he added, winking at George.
The light on the bubbling, hissing and dripping apparatus had finally gone out. Dylan had slept on and off and the slight gleam of daylight had reached into the cave and departed again. He could hear the wind and rain outside and he was glad he was sheltered.
He’d been tied tight, but his feet were remarkably slim for such a large framed person, and with some persistent wriggling he had finally got them out of the loops. After that it didn’t take too much contortion to get his feet up to his hands, scratch a loop off them, and then get his hands up to his mouth. His captors had cunningly tied knots round both wrists before binding him, and he had to undo the knot or bite through the rope to get both free. With a gag on, biting was difficult. After a few hours, trying for a while, resting for a while, he managed to slip the gag off his top teeth, and from then on he had enough purchase to gnaw through the rope even with the cotton covering his bottom teeth. It just meant he’d gnawed a hole in the gag as well, by the time he got through the rope. At last the rope parted. He took the gag off, and the rest of the rope from his feet, and rubbed his joints where he’d been tied.
He was tired, hungry and thirsty, but his excellent eyesight had adapted to the dark of the cave and he could explore at leisure. The apparatus was a still, used to refine some liquid into alcohol. He’d never tried alcohol, so it was quite a shock when the first thing he tasted took the roof of his mouth off and scorched the back of his throat. He coughed and retched and looked at what he’d tried. It smelt like strawberry juice with something funny in it. It didn’t taste like strawberry juice, that was for sure. He felt his way around the rest of the bottles. They all seemed like strawberry juice bottles. Most had corks in, and a few others had regular caps. The ones with corks smelt like the contents of the still. He tried opening one with a regular cap. Success! It was strawberry juice! He went to drink it down, then stopped and sipped it. He had to make it last. He needed to think.
Why was Uncle Heath up here on the hillside in the wee small hours hidden away making alcohol from strawberry juice? Strawberry juice was so valuable. Couldn’t he use raspberry juice or something else? What did he do with it? What had they said when he was listening to them? “Might as well finish up for a while,” he thought. Did that mean they’d made all they needed? Would they be coming back to clear this stock out? Dylan felt there were far too many questions going round in his head and no answers coming back at all.
He lay back and slept for a bit.
There were noises on the hillside. Dylan came to with a start, remembering Uncle Heath’s final words. If he wasn’t going to be seeing in the new year did that mean someone was going to make sure of that? Had they just left him to die or were people coming back to finish him off?
He slipped out of the entrance to the cave, moulding himself to the shadows, such as they were at dawn on an overcast day. An eagle was approaching from the west. That was no eagle, it was far too big. Not even a sea eagle had a double layer of wings. In the weak light he could see a long thin tarn further along on the moorland. The noises that had disturbed him were two people moving up to it, as the flying thing came closer and lower. It reached the edge of the water, raised its nose slightly and landed on the water with a line of spray just like a goose, but without the honking of arrival. The flying machine crept to the edge of the tarn and met the people. Someone got out of the machine and all three headed towards Dylan’s hiding place, if you could call a cleft between two rocks a hiding place.
Any sensible person would have taken to their heels, run back down the other side of the hill, and taken the coast route home. Dylan was far too interested in other people’s business. He needed to know what was going on and why. He decided to watch and wait.
End of Chapter 2. The final part will appear on Sunday.