Eilish cursed under her breath as the shifting clouds allowed the moon to cast its silvery light over the town. Normally she loved the moonlight, the peace and stillness it brought with it, but tonight was different; the last thing she needed was to be caught out and about after curfew. If caught she risked being thrown into the dungeons or whipped through the town, with her brother a prisoner, her father away doing his duty to the king and her mother long dead, there was only Bess to protect her.
‘Stay close,’ she whispered, placing her hand on the dog’s black neck. In response Bess moved so her long muscular body, built for speed, gently nudged her mistress’ leg.
As they approached the lane that would take them down to the loch Bess stiffened at the sound of voices.
‘Calm,’ Eilish whispered urgently as she stepped back into the shadows, Bess stayed where she was her brown eyes intently watching the soldiers on the other side of the High Street.
‘We’d better hurry, John. The captain’ll kill us for missing curfew,’ one of the men urged his companion.
‘If you hadn’t insisted on stopping at every tavern on route we’d been home hours ago,’ John replied, drunkenly.
‘I didn’t hear you complaining at the time.’
‘Well someone had to keep you from getting into trouble, we’ll both be in trouble if we don’t get back to the palace soon.’
With that they hurried on.
‘That was close,’ her heart thumping Eilish stepped out of the shadows, as quiet as ghosts, alert to any signs of trouble they continued on their way.
‘We made it,’ Eilish said hugging Bess, ‘Now it’s over to you. Hurry!’ she encouraged, slipping a leather bound package from her pouch, Bess took the package in her mouth, stepped into the loch and swam.
As she waited for Bess to return, Eilish, shivering in the wind that had come out of nowhere, strained her eyes to catch a glimpse of the island on which her brother was chained, condemned to starve to death for killing the son of the captain of the guards. The son, like his father, had been a vicious bully. Her brother had got between him and his last victim, a helpless lad who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the ensuing fight he had killed the captain’s son – a loss to no one but his father. Now it was up to her to keep her brother alive until her father, who a messenger had been sent to find, returned.
Back home Bess lay warming herself by the fire; watching Eilish who was sitting at the table eating a late supper of porridge. As she watched Eilish, her porridge half eaten, rose from the table and stood at the open door, looking up and down the street hoping to see her father. Reluctantly pulling herself away from the fire Bess padded over to stand beside Eilish and gently nuzzled her as she followed her anxious glances; the street was empty.
The captain stormed into the mess.
‘Is our prisoner dead?’ he asked.
No one spoke.
‘Is our prisoner, the man who killed my dear son, dead?’ he demanded again his face turning purple.
After a few seconds a young soldier blushed and knocked his drink over as he rose to his feet.
‘Nnnno sssir.’ the soldier informed him.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Simon! The prisoner should be dead by now, why isn’t he?’
‘Maybe he’s getting food from somewhere,’ Simon suggested, blushing.
‘From where? Are the fishes jumping out of the water into his mouth?’
‘I don’t know, Sir.’
‘Well, Simon, find out. Find out tonight.’ the captain raged. ‘Then I’ll kill him and whoever is helping him myself! Go! Go! Find me my culprit. Oh,’ he shouted after Simon who was running out of the room,’ if it the fish tell them I’ll fry every one of them for dinner!
Simon had been wandering around the loch for hours. He knew he’d be punished for shirking his duties but if he could tell the captain who was feeding the prisoner maybe his punishment would be lessened. A couple of times he’d made his way to the rowing boat by the small jetty used by the fishermen, once he’d even rowed out a few feet before changing his mind; if whoever was providing the food noticed the boat missing surely they’d stay away. He’d have to find out who was feeding the prisoner some other way.
He’d just sat down to formulate a plan when he heard and saw a small figure walking softly passed. Rising quietly to his feet he followed. The figure stopped at the edge of the loch, keeping out of sight behind a tree he watched as the dog took the package and swam to the island. ‘That’s how it’s done,’ he murmured, now he’d have something to report to the captain.
‘Well, who’s keeping my prisoner alive?’ the captain demanded first thing the next morning.
‘A girl and a dog.’ Simon replied.
‘A girl and a dog?!’ The captain’s face turned purple as he punched the table in anger. ‘A girl?’ he spat.
‘His sister, I think, and a dog.’ Simon went on to explain how Bess swam to the island with food.
‘If the girl and her dog are so devoted to the prisoner they can starve on the island with him. I want them caught – tonight! Tonight, do you hear?!’
Simon nodded, mumbling to himself, ‘She’s only a girl,’ as he left to make plans.
‘Go Bess. Go.’ Eilish pleaded with Bess to enter the water. ‘Please, please, Bess. Go Bess. What’s the matter? You’ve never done this before.’ Eilish’s voice echoed her frustration. Bess could sense the danger; she could hear and smell the people amongst the trees. She knew that if she swam to the island Eilish would come to harm but if she didn’t her master would starve.
‘Go.’ Eilish’s voice sounded unusually harsh.
Reluctantly Bess stepped into the loch. ‘Wait,’ John hissed grabbing Simon’s sleeve and pulling him back to the ground, ‘give the dog a chance to get away. Then we strike.’
‘Oh, right’ Simon replied unhappily, he didn’t want to be there. He’d somehow avoided a flogging for disappearing the day before, he feared what would happen if they returned empty handed; so he obeyed John and waited.
It felt like an eternity until John rushed from the trees and grabbed the girl, shoving a hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming. ‘We’ll teach you to help the captain’s prisoner,’ he snarled. ‘Or rather he’ll teach you.’ He laughed as he dragged her back towards the trees.
‘Don’t treat her so roughly, John.’ Simon pleaded.
‘She’s only a girl.’
‘A girl who’s sly and bad, messing with the captain’s prisoner, her sort deserves to be treated roughly. You’re too soft, Simon,’ he taunted. ‘Leave the girl to me. You see to the dog,’ he ordered, tightening his grip on Eilish.
‘She’s only a girl. It isn’t right. She’s only a girl!’ Simon muttered to himself as he grudgingly prepared the rope they were going to use to trap and restrain Bess. He’d only just set the rope in place when they heard a splash followed by what sounded like panting; although they waited Bess didn’t appear.
‘Looks like your dog’s abandoned you, or maybe it drowned. What the….?!’ John loosened his grip as out of the darkness, Bess leapt straight at him, clamping her jaws around his arm. He yelled in pain. Eilish ran. Behind her she could hear screaming, snarling, shouting, barking. Then silence. A few seconds later Bess appeared by her side.
Eilish afraid of what would happen to her brother now that she’d been discovered cuddled into Bess for comfort. She must have fallen asleep as she was wakened by Bess clawing at the door and barking.
‘What is it girl?’ she uncurled herself from the hearth rug and went to the door. ‘Is it soldiers?’ she listened for the sound of voices; all she could hear was silence. Still afraid that there might be soldiers waiting to arrest her she opened the door just enough to peer out; seeing her chance Bess shoved past.
‘Come back! Where are you going?’ Eilish, forgetting all about the soldiers, ran after her, catching sight of soldiers she stopped then smiled, as they were being chased back to the palace by her father and the rest of the town’s men.