Authors: Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris
EARLY BIRD BOOKS
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Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris
For Adam and Betsy
who love Scotland
even the difficult parts
For Carmel and Steve
and Ruth and Robert
friends in Scotland
I. LAIRD'S PLUNDER
Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord
Wha struts, an' stares an' a' that
Tho' hundreds worship at his word
He's but a coof for a' that.â¦
âRobert Burns, “A Man's a Man for a' That”
I have seen ghosts in a burned-out cottage and the devil on horseback. This is no lie. The first I saw on the day my brother, Lachlan, and I picked our way through the shell of Glendoun. And the devilâwell, he followed soon after.
It was a spring day not long ago. We had heard that something awful had happened to some of the villages in the valleys several mountains over from ours. It was said their laird had burned the people off his land and shipped them to the Americas. Such a brutal end to centuries of kinship, the lairds being of the same blood as their tenants, only lots and lots richer. But as Lachlan said, “Can we believe everything we hear?”
I shook my head. “Cousin Ishbel would say, âBelieve only a quarter of what ye hear and half of what ye see.'” And while we didn't always listen to her, she'd never done us any wrong. She'd come to nurse Ma before she died, and then she'd stayed on to cook for us and keep the cottage. “A woman's hand,” she called it. “Taming the wild beasts,” Da added, meaning us.
Lachlan laughed. “So â¦” He was a year older than meâa year and a dayâand he was always the one who got us into trouble, yet I could never help following him.
“So â¦,” I repeated slowly, pushing my hair out of my eyes.
He grinned. “So we go and check and see if all they say about that laird burning folks out is true.”
“Don't smile about it,” I said. I knew that look. His grin was always the beginning of an adventure. An adventure that usually led us into trouble. “If a laird has burned folks out of their homes, there's nowt to smile at.”
Still, Lachlan's grin was irresistible. So, without Da's permission, we rode Rob Roy out of the byreâLachlan in front and me behindâand headed over the mountain into the next valley. That was where the village of Glendoun stood, fifteen cottages and most of them filled with our distant cousins.
“We'll ask if they've got news, and from there it's an easy ride over the next mountain to see if the rumors are true.” Lachlan was still grinning.
It was going to be an adventure indeed.
Cuckoos sang back and forth to one another as we rode along, and white clouds scudded across the sky. It wasn't a day you'd look to bring trouble. Just a late Scottish spring, a bit raw with wind. The prickly yellow gorse was just budding out in great rough bushes on the hillsides. We startled a dozen rabbits from their burrows, and Lachlan cursed that we had brought no snares along.
“Cousin Ishbel would surely love to make a fresh rabbit pie,” Lachlan said, meaning he would have loved eating it.
We didn't know what we might hear in Glendoun, nor did we especially care. It was an adventure, an escape from our daily chores, a way to satisfy our curiosity. And if Lachlan could see the lovely Fiona, who was known as “The Beauty of Glendoun,” his mood would be lightened, whether she laughed at him or not.
And after, we'd be over the mountain to the next glen.
I found myself grinning like Lachlan.
But when we crested the hill that overlooked Glendoun, Lachlan gasped. He said over his shoulder, “My God, Roddy â¦”
I couldn't see past his shoulder, so I jumped off the horse to look myself. And then I gasped as well. Glendoun was a shambles, no longer the pretty huddle of homes we knew so well. The roofs of all the cottages were gone, the thatch burned through, which left the stone walls open to the sky, to wind and rain and buzzards and owls. And half the walls had been pushed down as well. A kind of haze lay over the place, like the remains of smoke.
I turned and looked up at Lachlan. “Oh, Lord,” I croaked. “What's happened here?”
But I knew, even without his answer. A natural fire would not have taken all the houses like that. They are stone after all. And even without a roof, a house can be lived in, as long as it isn't winter. Anyone can re-thatch a roof. But it wasn't just the roofs that were gone. The doors of the houses had been pulled off as well, the window frames knocked in. Noâit was clear that our laird had made the houses uninhabitable so that the Glendoun folk had to move on.
I felt tears start in my eyes. These weren't strangers who lived far away and over several mountains, but cousins whose names I knewâBig Johnny and Dune and the beautiful Fiona and the rest. They were but an easy ride from us, their farms in our own laird's holdings. I bit my lip and took several steps closer.
Lachlan rode up to me, pulled me back up behind him, and we rode on down the hillside, growing more and more quiet as we rode along, for we knew that no one would be coming out to greet us.
Lachlan slid off Rob Roy's back and peered through the smashed-in door of the first broken-down croft.
“Look, Roddy,” he called, signaling me to him.
I crossed my left leg over and slid down Rob Roy's broad side, letting the reins loose so he could graze where he would.
Sticking my head through the open doorway, I saw an overturned bowl of porridge and a spilt cup of ale lying close to a wall. There was a baby's cot thrown down on its side, and the mattress of the box bed had been pulled onto the hearth and partially burned. The place was so dead, even the smell of smoke had faded like a dream.
“They must have been â¦,” I began.
Lachlan finished for me, “â¦ taken by surprise and chased off like startled birds.” His voice was bitter, and I knew he was worrying about Fiona.
Only two weeks earlier, Glendoun had been full of people like Dune and Big Johnnyâworking, laughing, drinking whisky, singing songs. We'd come over for a wedding and had danced until dawn, going home without any thought of fear.
But now â¦
“What do ye think happened to them?” I asked. “They didna come to our town for help. We would have taken them in.”
Lachlan's shoulders sagged. “I dinna ken. It's as if they've all turned to air and disappeared.”
The narrow fields of barley and potatoes on the outskirts of the cottages had been trampled down. I could still see the mark of boots on the new plants. The little peat-water burn trickled halfheartedly down the glen. Not only were there no people here, but there were no cows or chickens or dogs either.
Now we knew for sure that the stories were true. Only now our lairdâlike others in the Highlandsâwas clearing out
land, sweeping it clean of every living thing to make room for his new English
. Anyone who stood in his way was to be brushed aside like chaff.
I went back into the first cottage and squinted. For a moment it was as if I could see the family of crofters there: the mother rocking the cradle with her foot as she stirred the stew. The father sitting at the table sipping his whisky. A boy carving a stick. A girl at her small weaving. Then I blinked again and they were gone, like ghosts, in the fading light.
“It makes my skin crawl, Roddy,” said Lachlan, coming up behind me. “Ye'd think nobody had ever lived here at all.”
I nodded. “Do ye think the laird and his factor will be bringing
“By the hundreds,” said Lachlan, nodding. “That's what I heard. Thousands even. I don't think I really believed it till now. We'll be the next driven off, ye know. Driven from our hearths and left to starve out in the wilds. Along with the folk of Glendoun.”
“Ye're just trying to fleg me, Lachlan.” He was always doing that, saying things to give me a scare. For years he'd convinced me that there was a goblin hidden among the rocks by the mill and that if I got too close he would jump out and bite me. Even though I was now old enough to know better, I still gave the mill a wide berth.
“Maybe the laird will stop with Glendoun.” I was trying to sound confident. “Maybe that's enough for him.”
“Our laird? He's too greedy,” Lachlan told me. “Look at what he's done here.” He raised his chin to the destruction. “Da says that money's like whisky to our laird. Once he's tasted it, he canna stop at one cup.” Lachlan sounded just like Da then, that rough, certain voice.