Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance as Willy gingerly stretched his arm out, testing the muscle that had been damaged by the musket ball. He winced slightly at first, but the pain soon subsided as he worked his arm back and forth. The wound was still sore and would need more time to heal, but it had already healed enough that he could use his arm some.
It had been just over a month since Willy had come to live with the McKenzies. He ought to have been in Ireland already, but a recent series of storms had delayed his departure. It had been a tense five weeks, as the Royalists had been scouring the land for those who had managed to escape the battle at Bothwell Bridge, but so far they had seemed to miss the McKenzie household. Willy could only pray that Dalzell and Claverhouse would be so preoccupied with finding the elusive James Ure that they wouldn’t have time to bother with someone as inconsequential as Willy himself.
Now having endured as much stretching as he could for one evening, the young man lowered his hand, gingerly resting it on the shoulder of Lizzie, who lay sleeping with her head on his lap. It hadn’t been long after the evening meal that the little girl had come to him, puppy in her arms, insisting he tell her a story about fairies. As if he knew any stories about fairies. She had settled for a tale about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and now Willy had both Lizzie’s and Artair’s heads lying on his lap, the pair the perfect image of contentment.
Just then, the sound of footsteps caught Willy’s ear and he turned as Mrs. McKenzie came into the room.
“You’d make a better governess than a soldier, I’d say,” the woman teased, poking the logs in the fire with a metal rod, stirring the flames back to life. “Perhaps we should hire you. Keep Lizzie out of mischief. Though knowing you, you’d be causing as much mischief yourself, aye?”
The woman smiled first at him, then down at her daughter before taking a seat in the chair next to the fire.
“And when have I ever caused mischief?” Willy laughed, giving Mrs. McKenzie a lopsided grin.
“When, indeed!” the woman chuckled.
A crack of thunder shook the mansion, and both Mrs. McKenzie and Willy jumped as the sound of the front door opening and slamming shut erupted from down the hall. The pair turned at the sound of quick, heavy footfall, and a moment later Mr. McKenzie appeared in the entryway, rainwater dripping from his coat and the brim of his hat. His chest heaved with labored breaths, as though he had been running for a very long time.
“John!” Mrs. McKenzie exclaimed. “What in heaven’s name? Where have you been off to?”
“Willy, get up,” Mr. McKenzie said, his tone nearly frantic. “I was just at the Burns house when a troop of Royalists came through. Turned the whole place inside out looking for Covenanters. We need to get you out—”
His voice faltered as someone began to pound on the front door.
“Open up, in the name of the king!” came the muffled command.
Lizzie sat up sleepily at the commotion, and she was still rubbing the sleep from her eyes as Willy bounded to his feet.
“What should I do?” the young man asked, his head nearly spinning with fear as cold adrenaline washed like blood into his veins.
“We need to get you out of here,” Mr. McKenzie whispered, moving back down the hall. “I’ll hold them off as best I can. Now hurry!”
Willy turned a pair of wild eyes toward Mrs. McKenzie, hoping she would have some useful advice, but she looked nearly as frantic as he did.
“Try the back door,” the woman said, pushing the young man toward a second entryway on the opposite side of the room.
“Wouldn’t they be watching that door already?” Willy inquired, pausing to look back at the woman.
Mrs. McKenzie paused at this, but their momentary stupor was broken when Lizzie trotted up to Willy, tugging on his shirt to get his attention. She motioned as if she had a secret to tell, so Willy bent down to listen to what she had to say.
“Go through the window in the bedroom with the blue curtains,” the little girl said in a whisper loud enough for even Mrs. McKenzie to hear. “There are big bushes there that never get trimmed. No one’ll see you.”
“I’m not even going to ask how you know this,” Mrs. McKenzie whispered with a shake of her head. “Thank you, Lizzie. And not a word about it to the soldiers, you hear?”
The little girl set her jaw firmly and nodded.
Then with that, Willy took off down the hall, being sure to move as quietly as possible. Already he could hear the sound of the Royalist soldiers pushing their way into the house, and if he hadn’t known any better, he might have been afraid that the wild beating of his own heart might give him away.
The room Lizzie had indicated was dark as Willy entered. Moving like a blind man, he felt his way toward the faintest outline of a window on the opposite side of the room. The soldiers’ voices began to draw nearer as his trembling fingers found the edge of the window pane and he began to inch it up as quietly as possible.
The sound of loud banging and shouting in a room nearby caused Willy to jump, and it was all he could do to keep himself from falling noisily out the window in his haste to get away. It sounded like the soldiers were throwing furniture around now, and the young Scotsman could only imagine the mess they must be making.
Being careful not to step on any twigs or leaves that might betray his location, Willy slowly crawled through the window and lowered his feet down on the other side. A guard nearby coughed slightly and the young man froze in place, but it didn’t seem that the soldier had noticed him. Willy then turned to close the window behind him, sliding it slowly down so as to attract as little attention as possible.
Just then, the sound of loud voices and heavy footfall came to a stop outside the door to the room Willy had just come from. At the same moment, the window caught in its track, and short of yanking on it, the young man was sure there would be no way to close it now.
His heart beating a wild rhythm in his ears, Willy clenched his teeth and strained to close the window, putting in as much force as he dared. The door knob on the other side of the room began to turn, but it seemed the soldiers were distracted talking to each other. If only he could get this window closed. If he didn’t, the soldiers would most certainly suspect something. The night was cold, and even now Willy could feel a steady drizzle soaking his hair and shoulders. No one with any sense would leave a window open in weather like this. It would be too suspicious.
“Lord,” he prayed silently, “if you’re listening, please…please don’t let them find me.”
Immediately the window began to slide again, and Willy barely had time to close it and sink below the window sill before the sound of soldiers’ voices flooded the room inside. The young man exhaled a quiet, shuttering breath, and it was only then that he realized how long he had been holding it.
The bush truly wasn’t all that big. It was more suitable for hiding children than it was for hiding adult men, but with the night being as dark and dreary as it was, Willy hoped that the soldiers wouldn’t think to look behind a bush for their runaway rebel. The young man was almost to the point of relaxing when the sound of booted feet came his way, and he froze when one of the guards came to a stop not more than three yards away from him. A moment later, another soldier appeared around the corner of the house, his pace brisk and stiff.
“Did you check the barn?” the second soldier asked tersely.
“Yes, sir,” the other soldier replied, standing up straight and saluting what appeared to be his superior.
“All the plants? And the garden? You’ve looked everywhere?”
“Yes, sir, we’ve checked every bush and corn stalk on the property. We’ve found no one.”
The man Willy assumed to be an officer turned and scowled into the darkness.
“They act as though they have something to hide,” he said, his voice low. He paused momentarily, then turned to leave, adding as he went, “Fall in. We will return in the morning to be sure.”
Willy watched as the soldiers disappeared around the corner of the house, then leaned his head back against the stone of the wall behind him, his whole body trembling.
“Thank you, Lord.”
“You heard them say that?” Mrs. McKenzie asked as she and Mr. McKenzie watched Willy saddle his horse.
“Aye,” the young man nodded, tightening the cinch on his saddle. “They couldn’t have been standing more than a few meters off. Lord knows they should have found me.”
The couple stepped aside as Willy led his mount toward the barn door. He paused at the entrance and swung up into the saddle, ignoring the throbbing in his arm.
“You have the map I drew for you, aye?” Mr. McKenzie inquired as Willy settled in his seat.
“Here,” the older man said, handing a hooded coat up to the Covenanter. “This should help keep the chill out, at least. Can’t say much for the rain, though.”
“Thank you,” Willy smiled, gratefully accepting the coat. “I’m sure it will be better than no coat at all.”
The young man moved to put the coat on, then paused and glanced around.
“Where is Lizzie?”
Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie exchanged sympathetic glances.
“She’s taking your leaving rather hard,” Mrs. McKenzie replied. “Refused to come out of her room after we told her. I suppose, being a child, she thinks that if she doesn’t say good-bye, you won’t leave.”
“Poor lass,” Willy sighed. “I can’t stay, though. It would put us all in danger.”
“We understand that, lad,” Mr. McKenzie nodded. “She will, too. In time.”
“Well, I had best be off,” Willy said, turning back toward the barn door. He was about to spur Bonnie forward when he spotted movement from across the yard.
“Wait!” a voice familiar voice shouted.
A moment later, Lizzie came puffing into the barn, a satchel clutched tightly in her arms. Her pale cheeks were tear streaked and her bare feet were muddy, but she still had that familiar, determined gleam in her eyes.
“Child, what are you doing out here with no shoes on?!” Mrs. McKenzie exclaimed.
The little girl didn’t respond as she held the satchel up toward Willy.
“Take it. It’s a going-away present,” she said, her eyes trained on the young man who loomed above her. “And don’t open it ‘till you get to your boat.”
“What is it?” Willy asked, accepting the gift hesitantly. It was rather heavy, he noted.
“It’s a present. That means it’s secret ‘till you open it,” Lizzie replied, her bottom lip quivering.
“Ah,” the young man smiled, looping the satchel strap across his chest. “Thank you, Lizzie.”
Mr. McKenzie picked up his daughter as tears began to pool at the corner of her eyes again, lifting her up so she could give Willy one last hug. The girl threw her arms around the young man’s chest as she began to sniffle.
“I’ll see you again, won’t I?” she asked, looking up at him through her bright green eyes as tears trickled down her cheeks.
Willy swallowed hard as a knot began to form in his throat.
“I don’t know,” he replied honestly.
“You had better come back,” Lizzie commanded, frowning at him. “And bring a fairy back, too, if you catch one.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Willy chuckled as Mr. McKenzie stepped back.
“Thank you. For everything,” Willy said, looking around at the three people who had been like family to him for so many years. “God be with you.”
“And you, lad,” Mrs. McKenzie replied, giving him a sad smile.
Taking one last look at the people he was leaving behind, Willy raised his right hand in salutation, then bent low over Bonnie’s neck and spurred her forward. Abandoning himself to the rain and the night, Willy finally allowed a few tears to slide down his face.
It might have been midnight by the time Willy drew Bonnie to a stop under a stand of trees tucked just out of view of the road. The sky had cleared up some, and small slivers of moonlight glittered between the rolling clouds above. The journey had been slower than Willy would have liked, but it was imperative that he keep as far away from the road as possible should a Royalist patrol decide to travel down that same road.
The young Scotsman slid to the ground with a groan. It was surprising how out of shape he had become in the past month, and the soreness in his muscles attested to the fact that he had done no riding since the battle at Bothwell Bridge. After tying Bonnie to one of the smaller trees, Willy sank to the ground. His movement stirred something in Lizzie’s satchel, and the young man jumped several inches sideward as whatever was in the satchel began to squirm.
Quickly undoing the latch, Willy flipped the satchel open and sat stunned as Artair crawled out of the bag. The puppy stretched and yawned as though he had just woken up from a nice, peaceful nap on a pillow and not from a long, desperate trip by horseback.
“That little imp,” Willy finally said as the realization of what Lizzie had done finally hit him.
Artair jumped up and began licking his face.
“Lizzie…what is a fugitive supposed to do with a puppy?”
Artair yipped at the question as though he had some sort of answer, though if he did, Willy certainly couldn’t understand it. The young Scotsman shook his head in disbelief.
“Well, I suppose you’re stuck with me now,” he sighed at length, lying down on the wet earth in an attempt to get some measure of sleep before continuing his journey. “You can keep watch, aye?”
The puppy yipped and began to chase his tail. A sigh escaped Willy’s lips as he threw one arm over his eyes to shield them from any dull silver moonlight that might slip past the clouds.
“Or not,” he muttered, “as the case may be.”