Northern Lights – Episode 07

Five days after her grandmother’s arrival, Maggie Cargill had mastered the art of setting the fire to burn overnight.

When the sixth morning dawned and she roused the dozing fire, it blazed into life and she turned a glowing face to Lilias.

“If it stays lit all day while I’m at work I’ve learned the knack and ye can go home tae Auchmithie.”

Lilias nodded.

“You’ve done well, lass. It gladdens my heart to find your mother’s independent spirit lives on in her daughter.”

Maggie felt sudden concern.

“How will ye fare when you leave? Do ye have friends in Auchmithie that’ll see to you?”

“Aye. Friends in plenty.”

Lilias omitted to add that, in her own experience, when need knocked at the door, friendship often flew out the window.

*  *  *  *

A heavy weight settled upon Alec’s young shoulders after his grandmother’s warning.

Even his kindly master noticed the lad’s low spirits. He handed Alec a canvas bag of tools that had been mended and sharpened.

“Tak’ them to the ketch Annabel, moored for repairs in the harbour. The sea air will clear smiddy smoke frae yer lungs.”

Alec shouldered the bag and set off. It was a crisp November day. At the harbour he found no-one in sight, though the nearby inn was doing a rowdy trade.

A visiting ship lay at anchor a little way out beyond the harbour and a large cutter was moored at the breakwater’s end for sailors ashore.

The vessel resembled an old Naval warship, with fore, mizzen and aft masts and a black hull relieved by a few tiny ports.

Alec delivered the tools to the Annabel and then took his leave.

He had gone a few yards along the quay when his path was barred by four burly men. A whiff of beer and baccy came to him. Four Jack Tars, no doubt, off the visiting ship.

He tried to push past and found himself held fast.

“Here’s a fine fisher laddie, likely keen tae serve King and country,” the leader said jovially.

Alec’s blood ran cold. Now he understood the significance of the ominous prison hulk anchored offshore and the cutter moored for swift departure.

A press gang was in town, plying likely recruits with liquor, or bodily snatching victims like himself!

“Nay, sir, I’m no’ free to serve,” he replied bravely. “I’m already in work, apprenticed to a smith.”

The leader scowled.

“Do ye hear the cheek? He’d tak’ siller frae a smith and refuse the King’s shilling. That’s treason!”

“So it is!” The others tightened their grip on Alec.

At that moment Lilias rounded the corner of the warehouse and came upon the ugly scene. She stopped, blessing the restlessness that had driven her outdoors that morning.

She’d heard in Auchmithie that an impressment ship was prowling the coastline looking for recruits.

Fishermen were preferred to landlubbers for their knowledge of sea and ships.

Alec called out loudly.

“Grandmother, help me!”

Lilias approached the men, standing in their path.

“You’ve no right tae take laddies under the age o’ eighteen. My grandson’s fifteen, so you’ll kindly let him go this minute.”

The man gave her a hefty shove that made her stagger.

“We’ve every right. Warships lack cabin boys an’ powder monkeys for the cannons. Stand aside, auld woman.”

They were strong, ruthless men. Impossible to fight them, but there might be a way to save Alec – if there was time.

Picking up her skirts, Lilias Spink took to her heels and ran as if the devil was on her tail. Which, given her grandson’s desperate situation, was not far from the truth . . .

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!