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MERMAID in a  BOWL of TEARS

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Scotsman's Lament
Excerpt from Mermaid in a Bowl of Tears


Just a note to all the readers- I've been pretty selective in what I'll post as excerpts. I won't ever post anything that gives away a major plot point, and so the chapters I have chosen are ones that stand alone for one reason or another. This excerpt, "Scotsman's Lament", is a chapter that I feel doesn't give anything away, and stands on its own for a variety of reasons.

'Scotsman's Lament' is based on a real event that took place one dark night on a country road outside Belfast, in the winter of 1971. This is my fictional account of that event.

The Cracked Pot was one of the few pubs in Belfast that British soldiers felt fairly safe drinking in, not completely safe, for no man who wore the Queen’s uniform on Irish soil was that foolish. There they could drink in relative peace in the overly warm, smoke-laden fug that seemed to wrap itself around a man like a blanket of comfort.

Sandy McCrorey had been drinking there since the beginning of his tenure in Northern Ireland. Tonight, he’d come reluctantly, dragged along in the wake of friends. It had been a long day, though every day in Belfast seemed like a week. It was the tension, it spread time out like a hand pushing on a pile of sand. Just this morning they’d had some bastard take a snipe at them from the top of a bakery. The gunman hadn’t hit them and though they’d returned fire, he’d disappeared into the warren of chimney pots and slated roofs that grew in tightly packed, mushroom-like clusters. And then there’d been the sweetly smiling young matron pushing an oddly silent baby in a pram. He hadn’t even wanted to look. He knew the Provos had any number of tricks up their sleeves when it came to running weapons in and out of the neighbourhoods.

Tonight he wanted nothing more than to be home, with the cobblestones of familiar streets beneath his feet and the lights of Inverness glowing about him. If he were home he’d pick Fiona up around seven, she’d tuck her arm into his and look up at him with shy adoration shining from her eyes. She’d smell of lemon polish and beeswax as Wednesday was her day to clean the local church. Maybe they’d go to the pictures, maybe they’d just walk until they were up in the hills surrounding the city and the stars seemed so close a man would almost believe he could grab a fistful and give them to his sweetheart. Barring these things, Sandy just wanted a drink, something strong and quick.

The pub was full, only a couple of tables unoccupied and the odd nod greeted them as they sat at a table in the far back left, regulars who were there for the drink and not concerned with the politics of the man on the stool next to them.

Neil went up to the bar and came back moments later with two pints of black ale for himself and Donny, a nineteen year old redhead who looked all of twelve and had only been in Belfast a week. For Sandy he brought a whiskey.

“Here’s something for the aches then, fast an’ to the point like ye asked.”

“Thanks Neil,” Sandy said, tipping his glass towards the boy with the thatch of blond curls, ruddy cheeks and merry blue eyes. Neil was on his second month of duty in Belfast, and thus far his cheery disposition seemed unimpaired by the bleakness of the place.

Denny, the publican, gave a two finger wave from behind the bar. He was a nice fellow, a hard-working Protestant who kept his views to himself. Adorning the wall behind the bar was his collection of license plates from the United States. It was Denny’s grand ambition to have all fifty states of the union represented on his wall. So far he had thirty-nine. Sandy, who had family in the U.S., had managed to procure a Maine plate for Denny and had drunk free for a week afterwards as a result.

Sandy smiled and waved back, only to see the stout publican return the smile and have it freeze in place just as quickly. There was a breath of chill air behind him that told him the door to the street had opened and closed. His spine, from training and experience, went rigid. He turned slowly, so as not to seem obvious and glanced at the newcomers. Three men in workclothes, lads out for a pint after dinner, escaping the wife and kids for an hour or two. Two on the smallish side, one with a tweed cap pulled low over his eyes, another unbuttoning a navy pea coat, the third shaking droplets of rain from a chestnut thatch of hair. The third was taller and younger than the other two, good-looking in a feral sort of way, it was likely that he’d luck with the ladies. His sort usually did and Sandy knew it had something to do with the aura of danger such men projected, though he’d never really understood the appeal.

Though Denny was more friendly to some and less so to others, Sandy had never seen him be less than cordial to a customer in his pub. But the normally cheerful publican had a stone face on him at present and his lips were held tight against his teeth as he served the three now lounging against the counter.

Sandy gave them a closer look, while appearing to peer down into the amber depths of his whiskey. They didn’t appear so different from the regular clientele, Belfast toughs, though the youngest had an air about him. As if feeling Sandy’s thoughts on him he raised his head, tilting it up as a cat would to scent the air. Even at a distance his eyes stood out against his face as though lined in fine pen, pretty eyes, the lavender blue of forget-me-nots. The eyes met his own without warning and Sandy started from the impact and the embarrassment of being caught staring. The man smiled, tipping his head in a friendly manner, except that Sandy felt even such a simple gesture held a wealth of unspoken threat.

He took a shaky breath and re-applied himself to his whiskey. Christ, this city made a man paranoid, where the simplest acknowledgement of one’s presence caused such chilling thought. He’d once said to another soldier- a Glaswegian on his way home after a year in Northern Ireland- that the man must be glad to leave the place behind. The soldier had considered him for a moment, taking in, Sandy had suspected, his youth and inexperience.

“Ye’ll know the saying about the beauty of things bein’ in the backside an’ not in the face, endearing more by their departure than their arrival. Well Belfast has got both an ugly arse an’ face, an’ I’d be a fool to think I’ll not carry her with me the rest of my days,” the Glaswegian had said and then left Sandy to the untender mercies of youth, inexperience and a city with too much history.

A bit of corduroy jacket brushed past his shoulder then and he realized to his chagrin, that the only empty spot in the pub was the table directly behind the three of them.

“Evenin’ to ye lads,” said the young one as he passed, a flash of teeth and eyes and rain-damp hair.

“Evening,” the three of them murmured politely, the mood at their table suddenly as damp as the streets outside.

The tables were bunched tightly, the Cracked Pot being a small establisment and Sandy could smell the wet wool and tobacco scent of the men’s clothes as they sat. As well as a sharp whiff of some expensive aftershave.

“Yon laddies are a quiet bunch,” Sandy heard the voice behind him say and knew the man was referring to the three of them. A tendril of cigarette smoke, translucent blue, curled around his neck, making his eyes water and his throat itch. He sneezed, three times in quick succession. Behind him he heard the rustle of cloth as the man turned around.

“Smoke botherin’ ye?”

“No, it’s fine,” Sandy said hastily, burying his face in his whiskey glass, the fumes making his eyes water once again.

The man rose and Sandy had to strain his neck to see his face. The Cracked Pot had been built in the 1600’s and its ceiling was of a height to accommodate the stature of the human species at the time. These however were different times and the man’s thick thatch of chestnut hair brushed the low, smoke-blackened beams that had held the pub up for three hundred years.

The man made to move past them, his pint in one hand, the half-smoked cigarette in the other.

“Got to piss,” he said apologetically, flashing a mouthful of perfect, startlingly white teeth at the three of them. The space between tables was practically non-existent and the man seemed slightly unsteady on his feet, odd, Sandy thought, he’d not seemed drunk when he and his companions had entered the pub. Likely this was not their first stop of the evening though. Therefore it wasn’t surprising when the man slopped most of his remaining drink on Donny’s shoulder while trying to negotiate a couple of inches of smoke threaded space.

Donny jumped out of his chair with an audible curse, knocking into the man who stumbled back slightly, knocking the drinks on the table behind him.

Two rather sturdy looking, redfaced men jumped up, obviously deep in their cups with fists at the ready.

The man with the forget-me-not eyes smiled with distinct pleasure, “Are yez lookin’ for a fight boys?” he asked in an amiable tone and then threw his empty pint glass to the floor. There wasn’t even time to hear it smash when all hell, in the form of several drunken Irishmen, broke loose.

Sandy only had the impression of several things happening all at once. Fists thunking solid against flesh, chairs being pushed back and then used as weapons, the air ripe with the smell of wet wool, spilled ale and smoke and filled with the triumphal roars of men in the joyous state of a full-fledged donnybrook. A glancing blow off the side of his head brought him stumbling to his feet.

The big man stood dead centre of the room, eyes sparking with blue flame, flinging men off right and left as if they were no more than kittens. Which of course only caused more fools to charge him.

Sandy dodged several merrily flying fists, only to feel a chair leg make firm contact with the back of his head. The floor came up at an astonishingly fast rate towards his face. The next thing he knew someone had grabbed him by the shoulder and flung him towards the wall, wedging his head between table legs and wall.

It took a few minutes for constellations to quit wheeling in front of his eyes, and in those few minutes Sandy decided a Scotsman’s pride could only take so much and then it was time to weigh in and damn the consequences. Besides, Irish or not, one man against twenty simply wasn’t fair.

Two minutes later caught in the midst of a heaving, grunting mass of wild, mildly pissed Irishmen, he wondered if he hadn’t made a serious error in judgement. Pinned facedown on the pub floor, which was less than pristine, he could only sense rather than see the flailing limbs and hear the grunts and curses of men having a rollicking good time. He caught a flash of red hair out of the corner of one eye and knew Donny had joined the fray. He gave an almighty heave managing to extract himself from under several thrashing bodies, only to catch a hob-nailed boot directly under his chin. The constellations came whirling back and the salted taste of blood filled his mouth.

He crawled back to the scant protection of the wall, blinking through a haze of pain.

The blue-eyed man was still on his feet, apparently unfazed by the fists, feet and furniture coming at him full bore. He was a fighter by nature, that much was apparent. A man who’d known his size and face would bring him trouble all his days and so had learned the skills necessary to deal with such trouble. Barbarians, the Irish, his captain said, didn’t understand the rules of civility, of where and when to make a stand. The man before him certainly fit the description, his entire being a lit fuse of raw, radiant savagery. And yet…somehow his movements were deliberate, instinctual, each thrust and parry of other men’s hands, legs and bodies effortless, graceful as a dance.

From mid-air, he caught a bottle, still flinging off its angelic glow, and tossed it away again. It had not been meant for him though Sandy knew the man might have used it to his own advantage. But his strength had not yet begun to recede and he was still in the throttle of the beast that coursed swiftly through his blood, he’d no need as yet for helpful implements.

Sandy found his feet a moment later and got on top of them with only a slight wobble. The air was now so thick with blood, sweat and liquor that it trundled into his lungs like a creature half-asleep. He squeezed as much of it as he could into him and then waded back into the battle.

The fight had become an entity unto itself with too many limbs, teeth, fists and drink-addled brains and the blue-eyed man, still miraculously standing, was the central nervous system of the whole mass. When he moved they all did. When he ducked they accordingly rippled.

The whole lot of them surged as one body toward the back end of the pub. A narrow entrance hall fed down to a back door, passing a tiny washroom on the way. The doorway flew open under the duress of straining, heaving bodies, giving all and sundry a view of an abundant bare backside liberally adorned with grey, curling hair.

Sandy caught a glimpse of shaking, indignant flesh before sailing onward with the melee.

He caught up hard on the wall opposite the washroom, tossed like flotsam off a thundering wave. Down the wall he slid, looking dizzily upward, uncertain of where he’d ended only to see a huge white face spinning out of the murk at him.

The bastard slammed into him with a force that rattled the teeth in his head and Sandy thought he could hear his skull crack. At first nothing moved and then the world spun in a dark circle, flipping his stomach over. He could feel that his right shoulder was jammed tight against a wall and he remembered that there was a small alcove barely noticeable in the gloom of the narrow hallway. He must have been thrown into it out of the main thrust of the fight, afforded some small sanctuary from the violence that had moved back into the main room of the pub. That didn’t explain who’d hit him in the head with the force of a cannon though and now, judging from the weight resting on his head, was passed out on him.

Once big black petals of pain stopped blossoming behind his eyes, Sandy ventured moving his head and found, to his immense relief, that his neck was not broken, nor was his skull mashed to a pulp. He chanced a look sideways and found a familiar face. King Billy of Orange, done in white marble, tipped over in the fight and saved from smashing his lugubrious face on the floor by landing instead on Sandy’s skull. He tried to move his right arm out to push the statue away and met with a several hundred pounds of marble resistance. He was, for all intents and purposes, stuck fast and helpless. Just then he caught a glint of something sharp from the corner of his left eye. He turned his head slowly, having no other choice, knowing what he was likely to find.

Directly in front of him, not more than a few inches from his throat, was the broken end of a bottle held firm in a dense meaty hand. Whiskey still dripped from its squared off edges, a whiff of it serving as smelling salts to his brain. He swallowed, feeling the surge of blood in his neck and how close the veins and arteries ran to the surface of the skin. He looked up the arm and into the eyes of his attacker.

The man was barrel-chested, a sheen of sweat gleaming on his ruddy face, brown eyes filmed by alcohol and bloodlust. Sandy knew men could kill with very little feeling in such a state. He also knew that he was younger, stronger and quicker and that if he’d an inch of room to manuever he could disarm the man swiftly, it was part of his training and by now as ingrained as the sound of his own name. But his elbows were pinned hard to his sides by the wall on one side and the statue on the other. His throat bobbed involuntarily, thick with panic. He was, he knew, about to be gutted like a fish.

The sound of his attacker’s wrist snapping was as sharp and hard as the shriek that accompanied it. The man’s face turned pale green and then he slid into a boneless faint, crumpling slowly onto the floor. Sandy half-choked on the acid flooding his mouth, his abrupt release surprising him.

“Grab yer pals,” the blue-eyed man said, tipping the statue back into place by levering one broad shoulder under it, his words a terse command, “an’ head out the back.” Sandy obeyed what seemed the most sensible suggestion he’d heard all night. It was likely the police would be here soon, and then there’d be more explaining to do back on base than even a man of tender years had time for. He rounded up Donny and Neil, by grabbing the arm of one and yelling in the face of the other. They ran, each with unique bumps and bruises, to the back entrance over the inert forms of the first fallen, through a hedge of woolly chests, and a veritable steaming forest of gashed, cut, contused, broken and bloodied flesh.

Outside the night was cold, their breath making long curling streams on the air.

“Car’s this way,” Sandy’s defender said, emerging from the dark to their left and pointing to a French make that sat wedged between a garage and another car. He paused a moment to light a cigarette, the glowing tip throwing a red cast over his face. The effect, Sandy thought, was particularily demonic.

“What about your friends?” Sandy asked, noting the two other men were nowhere to be seen.

“Joe’s got his own car, they’ll follow where we lead.” Seeing their hesitation he added, “I’ll drive ye back to base, ye’ll not want to be out an’ about, those haircuts are a dead giveaway an’ word on the street is the Republicans are lookin’ for someone to pay for Martin Diggin’s death.”

The car was blue, the front end slightly dented, but immaculately clean and polished. It seemed this Belfast working tough was a man who cared about his vehicle.

Neil got in the front, Donny sat behind him and Sandy slid in directly behind the Irishman, who gave himself a onceover in the rearview mirror before putting the keys in the ignition.

“What’s yer names boys?” their driver asked, raising one large hand to wipe some of the steam off the windshield, while giving a quick glance about at the soldiers that surrounded him.

“I’m Donny,” the youngest spoke first, still high on adrenaline and ale.

‘Donald, eh?” The man grinned as he shifted the car into drive, “As in ‘I’ve just come down from the Isle of Skye, I’m no’ very big an’ I’m awf’ly shy.’

The short Scot lurched forward, face flushed as red as his hair with temper.

“Ach Donny sit back,” Neil said, then turned his blue eyes back on the dark-haired man who’d a tatoo of a serpent coiled round his wrist, feeding itself its own tail. “If he’d a copper for ev’ry time someone sung that he’d be a rich lad would our Donny. It devils him somethin’ fierce to hear it.”

“An’ what’s yer name laddie?” The dark-haired man fixed his gaze in the rear view mirror, meeting Sandy’s eyes directly. Sandy had remained silent to this point, trying to assess the extent of his injuries.

“Alexander,” he said carefully, wary of giving out his name and yet not knowing how to withhold it without seeming rude. Alexander McCrorey had been raised to be polite to a fault. Afterall the man had just saved him from a bloody end.

“Do they call ye Sandy then?”

“My friends do,” Sandy replied in a polite tone that could not be mistaken for chumminess.

“And mine,” the man said, with another of those quick, flashing grins into the mirror, “call me Robin, as in ‘for bonny, sweet Robin is all my joy.’ At least,” he gave a wolfish grin, “that’s what the lassies tell me. Now Neil if ye’d be so kind as to reach under the seat there, there’s a bit of somethin’ to keep the blood warm while we drive.”

Neil emerged with a bottle that glinted darkly in the faint glow of the dashboard.

“Have a drink then pass it along Neil, it’s guaranteed to cure all that ails ye.”

Neil took a drink and began to cough immediately, “Holy Christ,” he gasped, passing the bottle onto Robin, who took a long, smooth drink without so much as blinking.

“What the hell is that?” Neil asked, wiping his forearm across his eyes.

“Poteen, an old Irish recipe, me mam could drink it like ‘twas honeyed milk,” Robin said, swinging the car smoothly around and down a dark, back lane. Behind them the lights of the other car swung swiftly around the corner as well.

“Tastes like bloody diesel fuel,” Neil said as Robin passed it into the back seat. Not wanting to appear unmanly Donny took a polite swallow, eyes bugging out as he did so. He shoved the bottle under Sandy’s nose and Sandy smelled an aroma that cut his breath off at the top of his throat. Not being beyond the issues of male pride himself though, he took a tentative sip and thought he might lose use of his taste buds permanently. Neil was right- it did taste like bloody diesel fuel. An uneasy feeling uncoiled in his stomach along with the poteen which could have had everything to do with the inedible mess rations he’d had that evening, or nothing at all.

Twenty minutes and a few more swallows of whiskey later and the feeling was considerably eased. The man named Robin chatted amiably as he drove through sleeping neighbourhoods. He seemed nice enough, just another working-class swell from the streets of East Belfast. His dad, he said, was a member of the local Orange Lodge, marched in the parades and beat the drums but himself, he didn’t go in for that sort of thing. Live and let live was his motto he said.

“Would ye boys would be interested in a party?” Robin asked, lighting a new cigarette off the remains of the old one. “I’ve a friend lives out Ballymena way. The place’ll be hoppin’, plenty of girls, three to an arm if ye’ve the inclination.”

“Ach, don’t be tryin’ to tempt Sandy with girls,” Neil said, “he’s got himself a sweetheart back home, he’s devoted is our Sandy.”

“Are ye then Sandy? It’s a lucky man who finds a good woman to love him.” Drunk as he was Sandy didn’t miss the slightly sneering undertone in the man’s voice. He didn’t let it bother him, man had likely had a few bad experiences with women and now thought none were to be trusted. But he’d known Fiona all his life and had loved her for half that and he’d trust her with his very existence.

Fog was beginning to settle into the streets, long floating tendrils of it, the lights coming fewer and far between as they reached the outer perimeters of the city.

Robin slowed the car slightly, “Look up there will ye lads? It’s quite the sight isn’t it?”

The three soldiers obligingly looked up to the left where Robin’s eyes were trained. Sandy had seen it before, one could hardly miss it, nor help but hear about the legends that surrounded it and the man that lived within it. ‘Kirkpatrick’s Folly,’ lit like a brace of candles against the dark sky on its lonely hill.

“I used to gaze at it when I was a boy, an’ wonder what it was like to live in such a world,” Robin said, a strange note in his voice, an emotion closely related to unquenched yearning, but somehow darker. He shifted the car down, reducing their speed to a near crawl. Sandy had the odd sense of drifting, like a ship lost at sea without anchor. As if the whole world were no more than liquid black sky, with nothing solid to gain purchase on beneath his feet.

“Is he as handsome as they say?” Donny asked, neck cricked into an unnatural position in an effort to see the house more clearly.

“Aye,” Robin laughed, a stream of smoke accompanying his words, “most bloody gorgeous bastard yer likely to see in yer lifetime.”

“You’ve seen him then?” Neil asked, and Sandy wondered rather fuzzily when he’d started smoking.

“Aye, I’ve seen him,” Robin said, but there was no laughter in his voice this time. Sandy shivered at the tone, even though he was having difficulty keeping his eyes open. He felt the car shift up to a higher gear, was blurrily aware of their speed picking up and the fairylights of the Kirkpatrick house melting into a brilliant, stinging stream.

He’d one last twinging thought, as the night swallowed the lights of the house on the hill, that he was past the point in his consumption of alcohol where a man was capable of making decent judgements.

Within a minute he was fast asleep.

Inside the pub, Denny cracked one last skull for good measure then surveyed the wreckage in front of him. Broken glass, cracked table legs, blood and ale mixed in gruesome pools and plenty of groaning and moaning amidst the carnage.

“Billy,” he said sharply to his son.

Billy looked up from where he was neatly piling glass in a dustpan.

“Where’d the three young soldiers go?”

“They left with the punter that started this damn mess.”

“What?” his father said sharply, “When?”

“Don’ know,” Billy replied, “maybe twenty minutes ago, not much more.”

“Oh Jaysus,” his father said, bat sliding to the floor, “I should ha’ known.”

Billy cocked a sandy eyebrow, “Known what Da’?”

“The whole thing,” he gestured helplessly at the mess that surrounded him, “’twas done on purpose.”

Billy looked at his father quizzically, “Don’t worry Da’ we’ll find the bastard an’ make him pay for the damage.”

Denny shook his head, “Send the bill to the local Sinn Fein office then, I hear that’s where the IRA is pickin’ up their mail these days.”

“Ye think he was IRA?” Billy asked, the full ramifications of the situation suddenly dawning on him.

“Aye, an’ those poor lads went with him, may God have mercy on their souls.”

Sandy woke to the darkest night he’d ever known, bladder uncomfortably full, mouth feeling as though it was filled with damp cotton and the smell of cigarette smoke strong in his nostrils. It took a moment or two to clear the fog in his head, to realize where he was and how he’d gotten there.

Ahead of him the tip of a cigarette glowed hot red, like a coal in a cave. The car was going slow, the road rutted with large potholes beneath the car’s wheels. Where the hell were they? The thought was accompanied by a surge of nausea and he had to swallow back a hot stream of bile that bit at the back of his throat. Behind them the headlights of the other men had disappeared.

“Where are we?” he asked, voice coming out like a frog with bronchitis. Beside him Donny’s head lolled against the seat, his red hair visible even in the pitch dark.

“Shortcut to Ballymena,” their driver replied, swerving abruptly to avoid something in the roadway. He must have the eyes of a cat on him to see anything in this light, Sandy thought, putting a hand out to steady himself against the swaying car.

“Pull over would ye man?” Neil said from his position in the front passenger seat, “I’ve got to piss somethin’ terrible.”

“Are ye certain ye can’t wait? My friend’s place is just up head of the lane here.” Robin asked, casting a quick smile across one broad shoulder at the inebriated Scot directly to his left.

“No, I can’t wait,” Neil grunted slightly to emphasize his point.

“Alright then, if ye say so.” Robin stopped the car and as the engine died, the uneasy coil slipped its knot in Sandy’s belly once again, the night seeming terribly quiet suddenly. Still he’d a cramp in his bladder that was only going to depart along with the four pints he’d consumed. Donny slid across the seat and out the door, catching his boot on the frame and lurching forward into a ditch.

Sandy’s first impression was that it was considerably colder outside than had been the cramped quarters in the car’s back seat. His second was that it was black as the devil’s thoughts out here away from the city lights. Dark and silent. A shiver pressed itself like a spasm of quicksilver up his spine, and spread frost-like out along the sheathes covering his nerves. The primal brain telling the conscious mind what it should have known all along. That something was very, very wrong with this situation. It was then that he saw the other two men, the two he’d thought had given up following and gone home. The two who stood now, in the dark, mere shadows, rifles slung taut over shoulders, leveled at waist height, fingers blunt on the triggers.

The man named Robin had gotten out of the car, Sandy could see the flash of his teeth in the dark and hear Neil’s zipper grate as he fumbled it down. Sandy could feel the taste of fear, hot and bitter as scorched iron, flood his mouth. The three of them were unarmed, their senses dulled by drink. He thought he might be sick and then swallowed the nausea, he didn’t want to be found covered in his own vomit. His parents deserved better and so did Fiona.

He gave his last thoughts to her, even as he heard the slick hiss of a pistol emerging from cloth. He hoped she’d find a good man to marry, someone solid in a low-risk profession, not, please God, another soldier. Then he remembered the way the hair at the nape of her neck was like duckdown and smelled softly of the scent she wore.

The first report from the pistol was muffled and Sandy felt the air beside him crumple as Neil fell first to his knees, then face forward into the dying heather that covered the ditch. He’d given Fiona an armful of the summer’s first heather only last July, how many months ago was that?

Donny was screaming now, poor kid, he was only eighteen. Just a baby, they shouldn’t let babies into the army, they didn’t understand the risk. Then just as suddenly Donny stopped, mid-scream, his last word on earth ones of piteous terror. That left only himself. He swallowed hard and straightened his back.

The barrel of the pistol slid cold into the soft and fragile hollow where the spine with its ropes of blood and spiralled strings of vessels exploded into ten thousand million nerve cells. Each one of them screaming for survival. But Alexander didn’t scream, nor beg for mercy. There would be none to witness it, but for his own sake he would die as a soldier, asking no quarter, knowing there would be none granted.

He waited for the click of the trigger, wondering if he’d hear it, or if the bullet would do its work first. And then realized somewhere through the terror that had jumbled his senses that the man behind him was singing. The song came to him slowly, confused as he was by the odd turn of events.

‘The breeze of the bens
Is gently blowing,
The brooks in the glens
Are softly flowing;
Where boughs
Their darkest shades are throwing,
Birds mourn for thee
Who ne’er returnest.’

“Come Sandy, do ye not know the songs of yer homeland? Sing the chorus with me man for sure ye know it.”

The man’s compatriots had seemingly melted back into the night, for he knew without being able to look that they were alone and that the cat had, for some unaccountable reason, decided to play with the mouse. Sandy knew he was not dealing with an ordinary madman, but one who enjoyed the kill for its own sake and not just its political statement.

“I said sing with me Sandy, ye know we can make this hard or we can make it quick. It’s yer own choice, die standin’ with yer dignity intact, or die beggin’ for mercy in a pool of yer own blood. I’m inclined to the former as I’ve other places to be, but if ye’d prefer it the other way I’ll spare the time.”

If Sandy had no one to consider but himself he thought he would have taken the second option just to inconvenience the bastard, but for the sake of his mum and dad and Fiona he’d take the quick death. He didn’t want them to carry the double burden of knowing his death had been long, drawn-out and painful. And so he sang.

‘No more, no more,
No more returning,
In peace nor in war
Is he returning;
Till dawns the great Day
Of Doom and burning,
MacCrimmon is home
No more returning.’

Its dirges of woe
The sea is sighing,
The boat under sail
Unmoved is lying;
The voice of the waves
In sadness dying,
Say, thou are away
And ne’er returnest.

“One more time Sandy for the chorus, ye’ve a decent voice for the music. If ye’d been born on Irish soil we might have made somethin’ of ye.”

Sandy swallowed hard over the bile in his throat, willing it to keep working, willing himself to keep standing. Above him the night was bitter and black with not a star to be found. Inside his boots his feet were aching with cold, toes already numb. It was an odd thing to worry about he thought, cold toes, when he knew he’d be dead within seconds.

‘We’ll see no more
MacCrimmon’s returning,
Nor in peace nor in war
Is he returning;
Till dawns the great day
Of woe and burning-,’

Alexander McCrorey, a lieutenant in Her Majesty’s Royal Highland Fusilliers, did not hear the shot, nor did he hear Robin Temple, voice arcing sweet and aching into the night, finish the song they had sung together.

‘For him, for him
There’s no returning.’

Turning back toward the road the man with the forget-me-not eyes crossed himself and walked away from the still warm bodies of the three young Scots behind him. He did not look back.

 


Copyright 2006
Cindy Brandner

…Brandner possesses a unique gift, shared only with the most effective writers in history, to weave a tale of intrigue, love and adventure, sewn into the fabric of real historical events. Her characters easily become a part of you, the images she portrays of Ireland with its rich and tragic heritage course through you long after the book has been put down…
-D. Lamarche, BC

 

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by M&M