A short story in three parts.
Chapter One: The case of the disappearing strawberry juice
Dylan sprawled on the edge of the crag, looking for anything useful on the rocky shore below. He’d fled as soon as he heard the screams of rage from Uncle Donal echoing through the rocky tunnels of Castle Haunn. He wasn’t going to get blamed, oh, no. It wasn’t Dylan’s fault the lights had gone out and the ship carrying their provisions had missed the harbour. It wasn’t his fault it was a dark and stormy night, so the captain of the ship had no chance of finding his way to any other safe haven either. But whoever’s fault it was, there would be no extra food, no extra wood and no extra strawberry juice for the next two weeks at least.
It was going to be a cold, cold, yuletide this year.
Down on the shore he shrank against a rocky ledge while the eagle went over. Rich pickings for him, Dylan thought. Poor pickings for Dylan, though. He’d found an empty crate which might have held the strawberry juice bottles, but they’d floated away, sunk, or been smashed to smithereens. He wondered why there was such a shortage. They weren’t allowed to drink it any more. Too precious. He gave up on his search and decided it was time to play games with his brother.
Dougall was not in the power plant room, where he worked. He was not in the library, nor the arena. Dylan checked out the little cubbyhole where they slept, and stayed there as he heard his uncles Hamish and Heath coming closer, discussing something.
“He was trying to help, that’s all.”
“It was stupid, he should know better. Interfering in grownups’ business!”
“He’s still a wee thing; he’s got bright ideas and his heart’s in the right place.”
“That’s my point! He should keep his nose out and listen to his elders!”
They passed Dylan without noticing him. Dylan was very good at flattening himself into his thick dark coat and hiding his white chin and feet so that they didn’t show. He gave a passable impression of a mop. Dylan wondered who they were talking about. There weren’t many ‘wee things’ around the castle. The prince and princess weren’t likely to be classed as ‘wee’ any more. The smith’s daughters weren’t likely to be referred to as ‘he’. That rather left their second cousin Rory and themselves. Dylan got a bad feeling. What had Dougall done now?
Dougall was curled up in the corner of the dry dungeon. His forlorn expression would melt the hardest of hearts. Dylan was used to it.
“What happened?” he whispered through the grill of the dungeon door.
“The power ran out. I tried raspberry juice but it didn’t work.”
“Why didn’t you use strawberry juice? Isn’t that what it runs on?”
“There isn’t any,” Dougall replied, surprised that Dylan didn’t know.
“So, because we didn’t have any left, the ship that was bringing us our winter’s supply crashed into the rocks,” Dylan summarised.
“Yes,” Dougall replied and sank his head lower onto the ground, letting his fringe fall over his eyes so Dylan couldn’t see him crying.
“Why isn’t there any?” asked Dylan, but there was no reply.
There was no reply as Donal, Laird of Haunn, asked his court the same question in the large meeting room upstairs. A few people shifted anxiously in their seats, Hamish and Heath exchanged glances and looked at their laird expectantly.
“I want to know where it’s gone!” Donal was not happy. “I want to know how we are going to heat the place through Yule, how we are going to eat and how we are supposed to celebrate Solstice without our supplies.”
“Perhaps it would help if we found out how long it’s been missing?” suggested Hamish.
“It ran out last night, Hamish. It’s obviously been missing since the weekend.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s right, sire. The keepers of the fuel cell have been worried about supplies for some time. That’s why we asked for the urgent delivery. In fact, hm, they’ve been experimenting with raspberry juice for a few weeks now. It seemed to be working all right if they diluted the strawberry juice with it.”
“Raspberry juice?” The Laird was surprised, but interested. Strawberry juice was like gold dust in the northern climes.
“Yes, sire. It’s plentiful of course, since we grow them ourselves. Those wee wild strawberries don’t give enough juice to be worth picking.”
“Who thought up such a stupid idea?”
Hamish hesitated. “It was one idea out of a number that the team thought up together,” he said, deciding that since his team were responsible, they might as well share it rather than let Dougall take all the blame. After all, they’d gone along with the idea of diluting it. Just not switching over entirely.
“So, Hamish. What are you going to do to make sure we don’t all starve and freeze over yuletide?” asked the Laird, making it quite clear where he laid the blame for their predicament.
Dylan sped along the grassy trail at the side of the glen, climbing ever higher and watching carefully for hawks, ravens and eagles that might think he made a better snack than a rabbit. As the fastest and cleverest runner at Haunn, it was his job to carry messages to the other castles. This time, it was a message that needed to be carried all the way across the sea to Kerrera, where it could be sent onwards to the legendary Castle Buckmore. He repeated the message to himself from time to time, to make sure he remembered it all when the time came to write it down and send it by vacuum tube. He also repeated the second message that Dougall had given him.
Dougall had been let out of the dungeon in time to see him off. He made Dylan tell him the official message, then made him remember another one, full of technical detail, that he had to address to a very particular person. Dougall had shown Dylan an old newspaper in the library to help him remember. Dylan liked the picture in it; of a clever princeling who had invented strawberry juice power. Dougall wanted to be like him, but had failed.
As Dylan reached the end of one glen and dropped down into the next, he thought of Dougall’s ambitions. He didn’t think Dougall was wrong to try to fix their problem with raspberry juice. He’d managed to keep the light going for months by diluting strawberry juice with it. Raspberry juice must be some help. Just not enough.
The sun was dipping behind the mountains as he reached the Bridge of Aros and turned along the shore towards Castle Sarlen. With luck he would pick up a cart going to Castle Craig, or even a boat going directly to Kerrera. Otherwise he’d have to run through the night.
His luck held. A fishing boat was just leaving Sarlen for Kerrera and he didn’t even have to see anyone in the castle. There was no time to be lost, Dylan thought to himself. The messages must get through!
Dylan sat on the deck watching the water speed past. He was feeling very pleased with himself. Less than 20 hours from leaving Haunn to get a message into the vacuum tube system! It must be a new record! He was on the last ferry from Kerrera to Castle Craig before the Yuletide festival began and it was packed with people returning to their home castles, well, Sarlen, Craig and Tober Hold anyway. He thought he might try a different route home, one that he’d eyed for some time. It might turn out to be a short-cut.
He got a lift on the top of a carrier taking stores and people from the ferry to Castle Sarlen, and dropped off it just before it entered the small town. No reason to take chances, he thought. He climbed up over a wooded hill, then up onto some moorland, keeping a crag on his right and heading west. He calculated the time left before it got dark and hoped he’d be across the island before then. He’d be able to pick his way along the west coast after nightfall all right, but he wasn’t sure about the moorland or the woods in the dark. It was wetter than he had anticipated, and even his famous ability to find dry routes through the worst bogs let him down. He had wet feet and a wet coat before he’d reached the cover of the trees. He froze as he entered them, to let a huge stag roam across his track, accompanied by four very graceful lady deer. He shook his coat and trotted on, listening to the silence of the forest.
While the moon was up he made good time along the coast. He thought he had just enough moonlight to go over the last headland rather than round. Just over the top, as he climbed down through some crags, he heard voices.
“There’s no point in going back there, then.”
“No, and Sarlen is too well guarded.”
“Och, well, we might as well finish up for a while and make sure it’s not found then.”
Dylan crept closer. Two persons were sitting round a very small fire, sheltered from the wind by crags and rocks. A third stood up as he watched, and walked out of sight, into the hillside. “Bring another bottle back, Mac!” one of the seated persons called after him.
Dylan inched round a small outcrop of rocks and crept up the side of the hill. Could he see where the third person had gone? Was it a cave? He only knew of sea caves, he’d never seen one up in the hills. He heard the other two moving but ignored them. He was sure he couldn’t be seen.
He poked his nose over the crag to look into their hiding place. He looked straight into the eyes of a large, black-haired, black eyed person with a scar across his face. Someone pounced on him from behind. Before he knew it, he was being bundled down the steep rocks into the cave, one person pulling his legs, the other grabbing his hair. It hurt. And what’s more, it hurt his pride.
They threw him into a corner where some pointed rocks jabbed him in very uncomfortable places.
“A spy!” said the black-haired one.
“A nosy parker,” said the second one, brushing handfuls of Dylan’s hair off him where he’d pulled it out during Dylan’s struggles.
“A meddling nephew!” said Uncle Heath, coming forward. At the back of the cave, the contents of some sort of machine were bubbling and hissing and dripping, all surrounded by a weird glow. “Somehow I don’t think you’ll be seeing in the new year, my lad.”
And they tied him, gagged him, and left him in the cave as they tidied up and walked away into the night.
End of chapter 1. Check here for chapter 2