Pain ripped his shoulders. Its talons dug deep into his neck as he tried to roll away. Salt water poured into his screaming mouth, filling lungs with a deadly chill. Waves pummeled his body into submission. His mind blurred and tumbled as he rolled over on the sweat-soaked mattress.
A chilling fog wrapped itself around the orderly stone buildings of Penpont Village. Wisps of peat smoke straggling from the cottage chimneys told of dying embers in the grates; the smell of smoke mixed into the ever-present odor of damp heath. Timbers creaked as they shrank away from the cold air. A chained dog howled its unease into the night.
Gradually a larger, more menacing smoke cloud joined the threads of chimney fumes and voices were raised in panic. The village struggled to rouse itself to the danger. In Penpont House, perched on the hill overlooking the hamlet, a night-gowned figure moved anxiously through the narrow doorway towards his bed.
"Jamie! Jamie! Wake up man. There's a fire yonder in the village".
James heard this dimly through the swirling waves of the ocean in his mind. He stirred his lank frame, rolled over and sank back into the waves. A shock of reddish hair swam past his eyes, dragging a face with it.
He reached out feebly, but couldn't feel anything except the cold press of the water. Drifting in the no-man's land between sleep and waking, he let the swirl of the tide sway him this way and that.
He looked for Andie's face again, but it had gone-- swept away from him, separated, vanished ... lost.
The flowing waters eddied around him, holding him, comforting him. A flame flickered in the mirror of the water as it swept towards him.
Strong hands grabbed him roughly and he surfaced again.
"Come, Jamie, come!" he heard his sister's urgent voice. "Quickly. Ye'll be needed down there."
His dry tongue pushed a foul taste out through parched lips, his mouth having been open to his snoring. Gritty eyes tried to open and focus. He forced his legs around to the ground and held his head in his hands as he came back from his nightmare, struggling to make sense of it all. Was it still a dream?
"Here's yer coat and trews, man," his sister broke in. "Yer snoring woke me up, right through the wall. I had to go on the loo in the corner, and it was then I saw the flames flickering on the windowpane. It looks like young Alan McMath's cottage that's going up in smoke."
Struggling into his trousers, James could now hear the calls of the villagers, torn from their sleep to battle the fire. He blinked his eyes to clear the sleep from them. True enough, through the tiny window, he could see the cottage in flames. He donned an old gray coat over his nightshirt before heading to the door.
"Get some buckets from the shop, Isabella. We'll need 'em at the river. I'll go see if Alan and Moihra are safe," he instructed, his voice now steady. With a nod of her tousled head, she left the room quickly to grab her dress.
Tucking the long ends of the striped shirt into his trousers, he stumbled down the stairs into the night, poked his feet into the boots standing at the door, and ran along the rough stony path to the other end of the village. The flames were now flaring high into the sky as the tinder-dry thatch caught hold with a whoosh.
Sparks flew into the night and burning debris rained around the handful of anguished villagers looking on. Some were trying to get close to the building, shielding their screwed-up faces with their arms, but the fierce heat drove them back, making them look like twisted gingerbread men dancing against the flames.
"John." he yelled at one man as he drew near, fear making a lump in his throat. "Are Alan and Moihra out of there?"
"Aye, thank the good Lord," the black shape silhouetted against the flames cried, "They're over there with the widow Kirkpatrick. She be checkin' the lass over, as she's coughin' somethin' awful, her havin' got a right lungful o' smoke. And poor Alan, he's got burnt hands from pullin' off the thatch to try and stop it."
James stumbled over to the other group, cursing his stiff left knee as he went. He recognized the broad shoulders of his brother, and grasped his arm.
"What have you done to put it out?" he asked.
"Nothing can be done about it, I'm afeared. It's got too fierce a hold already. It'll just have to burn down to the walls. Wi' no buckets but this wee one, we've had a Deevil of a job to try and douse it." Despair in his voice, George turned back to the fire, his shoulders drooping.
"I've got Isabella getting more buckets from Andie's shop. It's a pity he's away in Dumfries or he'd be helpin' here now, but she knows where he leaves the latchkey. Och, and here she comes, indeed."
Isabella appeared around a nearby corner, her black skirts swirling behind her. She got as close to a run as her ample weight would allow. Her face had lost its normal smile, being now red with exertion and she panted hard as she swung the rope-handled pails around towards the two men.
The brothers took the wooden staved buckets from her as she sank to the ground, her bosom heaving with exhaustion.
"Four is all he had in the store," she gasped, "I think...he's away for more...at the moment."
"Never mind," said James, his blue eyes summing up his sister's condition, "we'll have to make do with what we've got. Here, George, take these down to the water and we'll try to put an end to this fire before it catches hold of young Billy's cottage next door. Get Alec and Fergus to give ye a hand, man."
With that under way he turned around to see young Alan comforting his wife as she sat with a cloak thrown over her nightgown, sobbing into her hands. Married only two years, they had built their life up around their cottage, her pride in it barely exceeding his own.
"Och, dinna fash yerself lassie, we can put a new thatch on. The stone walls will stand, 'tis only the thatch and our furniture." His blistered hands plucked at her sleeve as if to focus her attention as he spoke.
"And everything we have in the world, ye silly man!" she returned heatedly, wrenching her arm away. "I told ye to blow out the candle stub before ye come to bed. But, oh no. Ye had to fall asleep in yer chair, didn't yer! It's a wonder we're not all burned to a crisp!" And she wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
"Hush, Moihra. It'll be all right. I'll make it up to ye, somehow. I'll git a better job.
"And how are ye plannin' to do that, with jobs as scarce as they are. Ye fell asleep in yer chair 'cause ye were worn out from workin' all day. And where do we sleep while ye build us a new cottage?"
"I'll not be knowin' that at this minute, but somethin' will come up, ye'll see," and young Alan chewed his lip in despair as his eyes returned to his blazing cottage.
James moved over and laid his hand on his arm.
"You'll be staying with our family until you find your feet again. My brother Andrew has a spare bed at the back of the wee shop, and I know he'll not turn you away. He's due back in a day or two, so we'll tuck you up in there for now."
His words were interrupted by a crash as the thatched roof finally gave way and toppled in on itself to create a seething furnace inside the low stone walls of the croft. Flames shot high into the air, ignoring the puny spouts of water from the bucket brigade, and a blast of heat made all cringe before it as the fire searched and found more to devour.
Moihra wailed in anguish as she saw her home destroyed in front of her eyes. Two of the shawl clad village women squatted by her and put their arms around her to soak up some of her pain as she rocked back and forth in her agony. Tears forced their way through clenched eyelids and trickled down her smoke grimed cheeks. Her lips shuddered with each jerky intake of breath. Fingers clenched and unclenched as she tore at her 'kerchief in dismay. Her normally stoic manner was gone, revealing a frightened, lost soul in its wake.
The heat was intensifying, and with the wind change, billowing smoke swept around to cover the women like a shroud. Isabella, struggling to control her breathing, sat next to Moihra, her arm around her friend as if to keep the tragedy from touching her. But the smoke grew even more pungent as it eddied around them.
"There, there, now. We'll leave it to the men-folk to finish up here and I'll be takin' ye off to Andie's shop. Ye'll be needin' yer rest. Tomorrow will be a big day for ye."
With that she led Moihra, sobbing loudly, off into the darkness.
Meanwhile James was in the bucket line, handing the wooden vessels from one to the other, trying hard not to slop the contents out before handing them on. Their faces blackened from the flying soot, the villagers passed the buckets down the line like machines, their arms aching, knowing full well that the fire must not spread to the rest of the cottages. Having lived all their lives cheek by jowl with the others in the village, this catastrophe felt as if it had happened to their own kinfolk.
Young Alan was at the head of the line, aiming jets of water onto the fiercest spots of the inferno, which was dying down now as the encircling stone walls slowly strangled its air supply. Bright eyes gleaming out from blackened face, mingled tears of anguish and smoke irritation running down his cheeks, his squinting gaze targeted each finger of fire before he hurled the water at it, gratified to see the burst of ashes, smoke and steam rise from each attack.
Knee deep in the Scaur Water, the tributary that runs into the River Nith, George McCubbin filled the empty pails and handed them up to the bucket brigade on the bank as the burn gurgled and sloshed its way past him.
" 'Tis a good thing the Thornhill Doctor says to bathe these old legs often. It seems I am doin' just that!"
The memory of the accident on Glengar Hill flashed through his mind. Lying in the river overnight. Broken legs twisted under him. The pain diminished somewhat by the frigid water. His brother Andrew finding him in the shallows the next day. Being carried home on Andie's back, arms around his shoulders, numb toes dragging on the heath.
Settling his twisted legs a little more comfortably on the pebbly bottom of the burn, he filled the next bucket, holding it by its rope handle. Handing it up to young Sandy McNith, his upturned face was the first to feel the light misty rain that started to fall out of the flame-lit night sky.
"Rain it is, and may the Good Lord be thanked!" he shouted, his eyes wide with delight.
The others took up the cry as the heavens opened onto the remains of the small cottage, now smoking and steaming as the hot rock walls spat back at the cold drenching rain.
"Aye, well, ye can all take a rest and we'll let God have his turn at puttin' it out, eh?" suggested James, leading by example. Men, women and the older children wearily put down their pails, eyes like diamonds in their black faces as they sank slowly to the ground, watching the soaking rain complete the task they had started.
"Young Alan," coughed the elder McCubbin, his strong arm dragging the lad away from the horrifying sight. "You come along with me down to the shop, and we'll get you tucked away for the night. You'll need some cream on those hands of yours. The rest of you get along home now. We'll see what there is to do in the morning."
Andrew McCubbin stirred in his slumber, his arm curling around Jessie's waist, holding her close. The straw ticking in the Inn's mattress was enough to keep him from a deep sleep and he had been tossing and turning all night, worrying about the load of goods for his shop. Thankfully, they were now locked in the Innkeeper's stables for safety from wandering pilferers. His young wife, Jessie, unused to lengthy travel, slept the sleep of the just, her long dark brown hair fanning over the bolster, a frame for her pale face. A pert nose snorted softly as her long eyelashes fluttered momentarily and her full lips curled into a slight smile. Her traveling cloak was pulled up over them both for added warmth. His hand cupped her firm breast, fingers softly seeking the nipple, which rose to his attention. He thought of how lucky he was to have her for his wife, and recalled the recent wedding in the village. His mind filled with pleasant thoughts, he held her close and listened to her contented breathing as her warm body snuggled softly into his.
His hands longed to explore lower, but knowledge of what she would say if she wakened, kept him from pursuing his goal. Many a time in their six months of married life, she had stalled his advances, explaining that it would be a sin to use her except to start a family, as the Reverend McLeish had often admonished from the pulpit. And Jessie insisted they were not starting a family yet. She had no wish to be saddled with a bevy of wee ones as her mother had, so early in her life.
Groaning softly under his breath, he closed his eyes and sought solace in his imagination, buoyed up with memories of hurried passions as he bundled some local wench in the damp straw of his father's barn. But try as he might, Jessie's face would not appear on the vision eagerly accepting his embraces.
Fingers of dawn's light crept around the windowpane of the second story room overhanging the inn courtyard. They were soon up and about, leaving the warmth of the large box-bed for the cold of the unheated room. They splashed their faces with icy spring water from the jug and dressed themselves as neatly as possible in yesterday's clothes, to face the last day of their homeward journey. Then they went down the narrow stairs to the public parlor.
"Bannocks and some tea, if you would be so kind," Andrew mouthed to the serving girl as they sat down side by side on the hard wooden bench at the table. As they waited for their meal, they chatted about what had happened during their trip to re-supply their shop.
Dumfries in October 1851 had been its usual noisy, busy self, shops and houses crowding in on each other over the cobbled streets winding around like a tangle of wool. Andrew had spent most of his three days going from agent to agent, shop to shop and even down to the market square, searching for the list of goods needed to stock up his business for the winter months.
Jessie, at nineteen, would have loved to spend her time in the dress and material shops like many of the ladies of the town, but knew that times were hard, and so avoided that temptation. She spent her time in the parlor of the White Rose Inn reading the latest books, bought after much deliberation from the bookseller next door. This purchase was no extravagance, as the books would be handed around her village, thus ensuring value for the money. They would even be used in the small schoolhouse that Andrew had helped build to teach the bairns their letters.
However, she could not help letting her eyes stray to the finery on some of the town's ladies out walking, whose colorful garb was of the latest fashion and cut. Many of these ladies had their dresses sent from Edinburgh or cities south of the border, some even from London. They made a sharp contrast to the normal day-to-day rural garb, which was cut more for comfort than looks, formed from homespun or warpened cloth in the somber browns and soft greens so loved in the inland.
Now, some eight miles up the North Road from Dumfries, having broken their fast, the couple paid the Auldgirth Innkeeper for their night's lodging, and a bit extra for providing safekeeping for their cart of supplies. Grabbing Jessie's hand, Andie ran out into the driving rain towards the stables, which had by now been unlocked for them. Already their old horse had been housed between the shafts of their two-wheeled cart by the stable boy, and was ready to be off. Old Mullin had made this same trip many times before, and knew she was on the last leg of the journey home, so she set off with her two passengers perched on either side of the flat cart, her hairy hooves splashing the mud of the rutted dirt track.
Sitting behind her, their legs drawn up to escape the worst of the mud, Andrew and Jessie glanced over at the brooding face of Benan Hill on their left, lit by a weak morning sun creeping in under the dark clouds. They turned right at the crossroads onto the road for Keir Mill. Their track wandered down the hill and ran parallel to the River Nith for a mile or so, before passing by the little settlements of Boatcroft and Porterstown.
"Look, there's the Keir Kirk tower ahead," Jessie said, pointing with her left forefinger as she hung onto Andie's coat with her right. By this time the steady rain had become a misty drizzle, making the journey along the heather clad slopes a bit more pleasant, although, as often happens in Scotland, they were wet through.
Andrew looked over at his pretty young wife, seeing the wet shawl draped over her forehead.
"Here, you're getting soaked, lass. Come over a wee bit and I'll share my cloak with you. Och, aye, that reminds me. They were talking in the market square yesterday about a chemist named Mackintosh from up-country. Seems like he made some cloth with a rubber coating on it a few years ago, just to see if it could be done. And now his company is making overcoats out of this cloth, and you don't get wet no matter how hard it rains down on you."
"Well now Andie, do ye think we'd better be getting some of them to sell in our wee shop?" asked Jessie, turning her face up to his.
"Were the times better, lass, I'd be saying aye, but the way things are, I just can't see them selling. We can only just make our way as it is, with the rent the way it is. And old McGurr is talking about putting it up even more."
Jessie glanced at him in concern, then looked away as a gust of wind caught her full in the face. Andie had to hold onto his top hat firmly to keep it in place. Hardened by a lifetime of this climate, they were not in the least perturbed by the rain, and as it finally blew away to the east, Jessie merely threw back her hood, baring her pretty face to the sun's weak rays.
Och, Andie," she murmured, taking his hand in hers, "Wouldn't it be nice to see a bit more sunlight through the day instead of all the rain. It makes life much more agreeable, don't ye think?"
"Aye, lass, that it does, but we'll not be seeing too much of the sun from now on, I'm thinking. There's heavy black clouds over yonder and the winds are getting cold again. We'll just look forward to a good crop next summer. It'll be a long winter, and the crops so thin last year. Folks just haven't much cash at the moment. And we're through Father's inheritance already. Mphhh, it's a hard time coming up, for sure."
They topped a small rise to see the rest of Keir Church come into view. His hands pulled back on the reins as he urged Mullin to a stop.
"Do you see old Willie Douglas's farm over yonder, m' dear. If it were not so wet, we could call in and see them and the wee bairns you used to look after."
"Aye, Andie, 'twould be nice, but we're both soaked and we couldn't go dripping water all over their nice clean hearth. Mary wouldna' thank us for that at all. Let's leave it for another time, and get on home."
"I was just wondering if there was any word from their son Thomas in Australia. Oh, well, only a bit over a mile to go, lass. Come on Mullin. Your stall's awaiting, and some fresh feed."
Mullin's brown ears twitched back at the sound of her name, then flicked forwards again as she got on with the job at hand. Steam snorted from her nostrils and her hairy flanks were soon patterned with soapy foam as her efforts increased. Her last ounce of energy was always kept for the home stretch.
The road took them through the pass formed by the small whitewashed stone cottages of neighboring Keir village, and further along the road they came within sight of Penpont Church spire on the north side of the old stone bridge over Scaur Water. Mullin's hooves picked up their pace, her neck straightened and she almost trotted.
Andrew could see people milling about at one end of the village, but because of the intervening church building, he could not see what they were looking at. The thin wisp of smoke rising from the wreckage looked just like the smoke of another chimney. So it was not until they crossed over the Scaur that they saw the blackened walls of the young McMath's cottage.
"Oh, my Lord!" exclaimed Jessie, "Moihra...and Alan. What's become of them? Hurry on Andie, and we'll see what's to be done."
Andrew clapped the reins onto Mullin's back and the beast, unused to being treated in this manner, nearly bucked. Jessie, deciding that she couldn't wait for Mullin, slid off the cart, picked up her skirts and ran through the thin mud, up to where the others were scrabbling through the wreckage.
"Robert McCubbin! Where are ye, boy? Git ye here this minute!" Agnes was in no mood to be trifled with. Her gout was paining her, and she felt giddy again. She sat down heavily in the chair by the small peat fire. Its smoke added another layer of grime to the already black patina on the stone above the fireplace. Gray eddies wafted out adding their pungent smell to the odors of onions, turnips and leeks hanging in bunches around the room.
Agnes raised her head and her voice again as she heard the back door creak open.
"Robert; come ye here this instant. I need my shawl and I want my feet rubbed. Yer brother Billy can't leave his bed and God only knows where yer sister Isabella is."
"Aye, mother," answered her son quietly from the kitchen, "Right away. And where did you leave your shawl?"
"In my room of course. Or in the kitchen. Or maybe in the pantry. Oh, I dinna ken where. Just find it!"
A moment later Robert entered the room with the shawl flung over his shoulder. A tall lad for his eighteen summers, with auburn hair that showed flecks of russet through it, his good natured face had a resigned look to it, as if he was well used to his mother's demands.
"And how was yer work today?" she asked, coughing into her kerchief. "Did Mr. McGilveray tell ye how long he'll be wanting ye?"
"Aye, mother, he did that." said the lad as he tucked the shawl around his mother's bowed shoulders. "He'll not be needing me at all after tomorrow. He says the big house will be finished off by carpenters from Dumfries, and he'll not need me on it. I'm to pack my tools tomorrow noon and clear out. And me with only a few pounds left in my pocket from Dad's will, and no likelihood of any more work until spring."
"Och, he's a silly wee bogger to do away with ye, Robert," she said, looking up at him from the rocking chair by the fire. "God knows ye've got a way with the wood, and that's a fact. Just lookin' at the carved doorposts outside Andie's wee shop makes me swell with pride. Well, there'll be no mucking about. Ye'll start hiking up towards Moniaive in the forenoon, and be stopping at every house asking for carpentry jobs. Ye'll have to find work right soon."
"Aye, mother, I know that right enough, but I thought I might just help wee Alan put a new thatch on his cottage that burned down last night. It shouldn't take more than a couple of days, and he'll be looking for the help."
"And he won't be paying for it, I'll be bound." replied Agnes, her crabbed hands pulling and smoothing the yellowed lace cuffs of her sleeves.
"Mother! Don't be thinking everything's got to be paid in gold. Alan and me, we learned our letters together. We hiked the braes together when we were bairns. He's almost an older brother to me. I can't let him down. Anyway, I haven't time to do your feet, I've got to put the cows in the byre," he countered over his shoulder as he left his mother swaddled in her shawl in front of the fire.
Agnes looked at his back and muttered, "Hrmph. Ye've got too much of yer father in ye, God rest his soul." and dropped her chin onto her chest, momentarily defeated.
"Damn," cursed George as the amulet swinging from the chain around his neck got caught on the edge of a burned timber and dropped to the earthen floor amongst the charred remains of Alan's chattels. He scooped it up and tucked it away safely before picking up another armload of blackened rubbish. The smell of wet charcoal infused everything as the villagers tidied up the remains of the night's inferno. Men carted away loads of debris, leaving the womenfolk room to broom out the floor of the cottage. The break in the stone wall where the door used to be was filled with villagers going one way or the other. Young Alan worked beside George, sifting through the litter searching for any of his belongings worth saving.
Keeping his head down, he muttered, "I must thank ye, George McCubbin, for yer help last night, and I hope having to stand in the Scaur Water for hours hasna troubled yer poor legs any."
"Och, away with ye, young Alan. Any of us would be doing the same. And how's yer wee Moihra taking it?"
"She's awful fashed about it. Keeps saying we might as well go off to Canada where her brother was sent a while ago. But the letters we get back from him...the winter's so cold ye canna get warm at all. And the free land and food aplenty they were told of, isna' there at all. No, I'm thinking we'll be stayin' here, hard as it is."
"Aye," George replied, "Billy and I can still scrape a living for us all at Penpont House when he recovers from the black cough, so we'll not be too badly off, and we can maybe split a bit of our crop with ye until ye get on yer feet again. But the tatties aren't looking too healthy this year, I'm thinking. They'll need some heavy weedin' before the snows come in."
"And how's yer poor old mum going?" asked Alan stoically as his blackened fingers searched through more charred bits and pieces of his life.
"She's the same as ever...a temper on her like the Deevil himself, and her not able to walk more than two steps without feeling dizzy. But if ye were asking me, I'd say a lot of it was put on so as to get attention."
"Aye, yer brother Andrew was saying over his breakfast this morning as how he's brought her a tonic from Dumfries to get rid of the ringing in her ears. Look, there's young Jessie herself, she'll be taking it up to old Agnes now."
George looked up to see the slim figure of his sister-in law striding up the hill towards Penpont House, the sun backlighting her so that she seemed rimmed with fire. Squinting at the brightness, he thought fondly of his older brother, and shifted his cramped injured legs again.
The morning sun lit up the words 'Andrew McCubbin, Esq. General Merchant' over the door of the shop in the main street of Penpont, and forced its way in through the tiny display windows onto a few items laid out on the shelving inside. Boots, bonnets and beads lay side by side with rakes, hammers and bags of seed.
Inside, Andrew was stacking foodstuff into the bins and shelf-boxes, as quickly as he could. He was anxious to get outside to help with the rebuilding. Alan and Moihra had slept the night on a straw mattress in the back of the shop, but Andrew and Jessie were very conscious of their presence. They could hear their every word through the floorboards of the upper room, and knew that it would work the other way round as well. As newlyweds, Andrew's private time together with Jessie was precious, so he was keen to see Alan with a roof over his head once more. Still, the restocking must come first.
The doorbell announced a customer. Andrew's face lit up when he saw his young brother Robbie at the counter.
"And where were you last night when the fire was on?" Andrew asked.
"I was out rabbiting over the other side of Fardingallon. I caught a brace of hares but it started to rain, so I sheltered in the old fort on Glengar Hill. When I got home, the fuss was all over. Still it's nice to see you're back. And what goodies have you fetched us?"
"Just the usual. No fancy goods this trip, as we've not got the money to gamble with at present. Och, but I did get some wee sweeties for the bairns. Would you be wanting one yourself?" he asked with a grin.
Robert blushed and said, "You're forgetting I'm not a bairn any more. Anyway I just popped in to see if you brought back any long nails. I'll be needing a few to hold the new roof timbers in place."
"Aye, I've got them right here," replied Andrew as he twisted a paper square into a cone to receive the nails. "And you can use the timbers out the back if you have the need. Old Dougal Murray paid his last account with them. Seems they were all he could take from his own cottage up near Lairg when they were pushed off their land. He carted them all the way down here to set up a new home. I told him I'd hold them on his account until he needed them, but I didn't know he was going to die on us so soon. So you can use them as you need."
"I'm sure Alan and Moihra will be thanking you themselves, Andie. You know how scarce good beams are."
So saying he picked up the twist of paper holding the nails, winked at his brother and strode out of the shop.
Andrew looked after him fondly and determined to speak to James that very day about finding a lass for Robert.
George's rough hands scrabbled in the charred debris, still searching for whatever may have been spared. The dirt floor was now crumbly from the intense heat, rather than the original hard packed surface that Moihra had swept and scrubbed so earnestly every day since they had taken over the old derelict cottage two years previously.
Suddenly, his fingers hit splintery wood. "That's odd," he thought. "What on earth would be over here in the corner?"
Calling Alan over, he started to scrape off the layer of earth that covered the planks. He came across an iron ring set into the timbers, and realized that this must be the trapdoor to some sort of cellar under the cottage. But why would it be covered with a thick layer of earthen floor? The two friends scrabbled away, revealing a cover made out of old timber, with the iron ring in its center.
"Did ye know this was here, Alan?" George quizzed.
"No. Do ye think it's for storing liquor, or gold maybe?"
"I hardly think there'd be gold under this wee cottage, ye clattie. Come, give us a hand to lift the lid."
The old timbers proved to be stuck firm, and it took both men pulling as hard as they could to heave it out of its position. When at last it popped free, a dank musty smell swirled around their nostrils, making them step back for a moment. Some of the others clustered around, their curiosity heightened. The sun's rays, flowing over the blackened stone wall and striking part of the hole, revealed a glint of silver. Alan knelt down and peered into the hole.
"I'll be damned," he whispered. "It's a broadsword. And the hole goes back under the fireplace by the looks of it."
He reached in and grabbed the blade of the sword, but there was some resistance. A twist and a yank freed it, and he drew it out for all to see the once shiny blade, and firmly grasping the hilt, a skeletal hand, the tatters of a lace cuff still attached to it.
Go on to Chapter Two