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Shared by the Highlanders by Ashe Barker – Sample

Shared by the Highlanders by Ashe BarkerChapter One

Helvellyn, Cumbria, April 2014

I lie back, resting my shoulders on the springy heather beneath me. It’s good to relinquish my backpack, if only for a while. Lightweight aluminium is a vast improvement on the bulky scouting equipment I used to be saddled with when, as an eager teen, I first embarked on my enduring love affair with the wild outdoors, but still it’s a relief to set it down for a few minutes.

I stretch out, gazing up at the deep blue of the spring sky above me. A few clouds hover up there, but nothing to cause me concern. It’s a cold, clear April day, the air crisp and fresh. Perfect for hiking. I have two, possibly two and a half hours of decent daylight left before I should set up my tent. My plan is to spend the night up here on the upper slopes of Helvellyn and complete my hike down into Glenridding tomorrow.

I’m alone, and happy to be so. Solitary hiking is my passion. It gives me the space I need to think, to clear my head, to recharge. I can savour the glory of the wild, rugged Cumbrian landscape at my leisure and my pace. No one to share it with, it’s mine. All mine.

I sit up and peruse the far horizons. I can see clearly for perhaps fifty miles, though I always find distances difficult to judge, despite my years of experience tramping these hills. It’s a vista both timeless and constantly changing. A shift in the weather, different light conditions, the seasons, all combine to create an ever-shifting scene. Yet still, it has a permanence about it which I find solid, comforting.

There are those who would claim this is to be a vast, wild country, untouched by humans and the better for it. I understand that sentiment, though it is not especially accurate. Dry stone walls crisscross the hills, evidence of the optimistic but ultimately futile attempts of previous generations to contain nature. The sheep have always known better, scrambling effortlessly over those puny barriers. Still, I suppose the now derelict walls denote ownership, marking out boundaries if those are needed.

The hand of humankind is even more apparent in the ribbon of shiny tarmac snaking across the hillside on the opposite side of the valley. The occasional car traverses the distance, crossing the Kirkstone Pass in this interlude between blizzards. That particular road is impassable for several weeks every year, and indeed was only reopened a couple of weeks ago following the last heavy fall of snow. It came late in the season and hopefully it will be the last we see of that for this winter, but the weather is unpredictable to say the least here. That’s one of the reasons I love Cumbria; you never know what mood you’ll find her in. Today though, she is balmy and fresh, the temperature a comfortable thirteen degrees.

The Kirkstone Inn is just visible, a popular watering hole for travellers and hikers alike. I’ve gazed over this hillside where I now sit from the comfort and sanctuary of the taproom at the Kirkstone Inn on many occasions. The view is breath-taking, and I defy anyone to find a more dramatic location for a pub.

Lifting my gaze, I can just pick out the rhythmic sweep of massive turbines, the tips of the blades briefly visible on the horizon. Wind power is a fact of twenty-first century life, though there are many who would protest the despoiling of this landscape with the majestic presence of these huge structures. For myself, I sort of like them. The past is always with us, preserved in these ageless hills. But the graceful swirl of those glimmering wings is a reminder that the future beckons, and is all the richer for the care we take of our environment now. We owe it to the generations who went before, and to those yet to come.

Other manmade landmarks, unobtrusive but evidence of the symbiotic relationship between civilisation and these untamed hills, nestle among the rugged uplands. A farm, the old stone built structures now dominated by the huge metallic barn and slurry tanks, lies at the foot of the slope. A small and much older structure is situated a few hundred metres from where I sit, a one-room square building, presumably an animal shelter of some description, left behind by a century long passed, and now abandoned. The roof is gone, leaving the interior open to the elements.

The remains of a huge, gnarled oak tree cast a dominant shadow over the building, which seems to almost cower in the space beneath. I wonder what happened to cause the demise of this mighty tree. A lightning strike most probably, snuffing out in an instant a life that had continued untroubled for hundreds of years. The carcass of the tree retains its dignity still, a tall, thick trunk stretching upwards, and an errant side bough spreading across the ground, embracing the ramshackle shed.

I lift my gaze to once more scan the horizon and as I watch, the turbines disappear before my eyes, swallowed in a bank of mist rolling across from the opposite hills. Fog descends in moments here, and is no real cause for alarm. I know exactly where I am. I have my compass and can find my way back in close to zero visibility if need be. It won’t come to that though. I’ll just make camp earlier than I intended, and wait it out.

I stand, hoist my backpack across my shoulders again, and secure the waist strap. There’s a preferred camping spot of mine about a mile uphill, and I’d like to reach that before calling it a day. There are those who would say that one patch of moorland is much the same as another, but the availability of fresh water available from an underground spring and a modicum of shelter afforded by a clump of trees makes all the difference as far as I’m concerned. I set off again, determination in every step.

The mist reaches me in minutes, enveloping me in its damp chill. This is a cold one, the freezing temperature seeping through my thermal layers. It’s thick too, and I am quickly reduced to navigating by compass and GPS alone. I crouch to study my map, calculate an accurate bearing and follow it. I value the easy simplicity of GPS, but there’s nothing to beat the timeless certainty of doing it the traditional way.

My progress is slow. I can be sure of finding my campsite by compass, but the instrument won’t alert me to trip hazards and other obstacles lying in wait for the unwary lone hiker. The last thing I need now is a twisted ankle, or worse, so I have to watch where I put my feet.

I lose track of time, but I know I must be nearing my destination. I stop, crouch again to spread my map on the ground, and recalculate my current position. About a quarter of a mile to go. I straighten and strike out again.

Then I stop dead.

Voices. Up ahead. Close by. Male voices, two of them I think, though the sound is muffled by the fog. And something else… horses’ hooves?

Silence falls again. I wait, peering into the fluffy whiteness surrounding me, my ears pricked, listening for anything, any sound at all. Was I mistaken?

Seconds pass, stretching into minutes. I hear nothing else. The quiet all around is heavy, oppressive almost. For the first time I can recall I feel uneasy, up here on my own. There’s no reason I should be; the hiking community is friendly enough. I’m not seeking company, but neither am I averse to it, within reason. If some other group is also making for my preferred spot I can live with that. We’ll share, maybe pass a pleasant enough evening, then go our separate ways in the morning. I give myself a mental shake and continue to pick my way forward.

Several minutes pass, and I hear nothing more to alarm me. The occasional rustle of windswept bracken, a ripple of breeze, all normal enough. If there were other walkers close by at one point, and I’m now beginning to seriously doubt that, they must have moved away again, out of earshot. My plans for the night remain unchanged.

I stop and set down my backpack again, convinced I must be at my site by now. I dig in my pocket for my phone to check for a GPS reading, shivering in the biting temperature. This is no ordinary freezing fog, I’ve never known cold like it. I stand, lifting my phone in search of a signal. I turn on the spot, peering at the small screen.

Suddenly, I’m seized from behind. My throat is paralysed by the shock, I open my mouth to let out a shriek, but no sound comes. My phone flies from my hand, and my stupid, irrational, irrelevant thought is that I’ll never find it again in this damn fog. I hit the ground, and the wind is knocked from my lungs by the weight of a heavy body rolling on top of me. I lie still, disbelieving, then panic sets in and I fight. I fight for all I’m worth, for my very life.

I strike at the unseen shape pinning me down, and bruise my knuckles on hard, solid bulk. Somehow I manage to find something resembling my voice.

“Get off me, you bastard,” I croak, all the while pummelling the unrelenting mass above me.

“Yield then, laddie.” The answering voice is tinged with a soft brogue, Scottish, I think. And, laddie?

“Let me go. Get off, you’re hurting me.”

“It’ll get worse, lad, if ye don’t cease that wriggling. We have you, and ye’ll not be getting away.” If anything the grip pinning my shoulders to the earth below me tightens. The huff of warm breath against my cheek is terrifying yet reassuring too. Solid, and real. And this man is quite immovable. I see no alternative but to do as he says. I yield.

My assailant seems to know the instant I give up the fight. He lifts his weight from me, and I can breathe again. I suck in several lungsful of oxygen, my mind racing. Who? Why? Where did he come from?

“I have ‘im. Ye can stop cowering over there in this bloody fog like a startled toad. Come and give me a hand.”

“Ach, are ye struggling to subdue one wee laddie then? I always kenned ye for a weakling.” A movement to my right catches my attention. I turn my head to see a pair of booted feet emerge from the mist. Behind this newcomer, almost obscured by the swirling white fog, is a pair of horses, their breath adding to the pea souper blanketing us all. I shudder, the extent of my predicament deepening.

One attacker is bad, but I might have a chance. Two is a different story altogether. They have clearly mistaken me for a boy, probably due to my unisex weatherproofs and my hair being covered by my hood. I don’t disabuse them of that notion.

“What do you want? Please, let me go. I won’t say anything about this, not to anyone.” A ridiculous promise, but I’ll try anything. I can hear the tremor in my voice so they must too. That irks me. I don’t want them to know how scared I am.

“More to the point, laddie, what is it you want, sneaking around the moors in the mist? Were ye thinking to steal from us, maybe ye have an eye on our horses…?”

“Horses? Why would I want your horses? I’m a hiker, not a bloody jockey.”

I should learn to think before I speak, and a hard cuff around the side of my head shuts me up. My ears are ringing, though I don’t think he hit me especially hard. The horror of being thumped is enough to quell my brief flirtation with defiance though. I don’t need to see this man upright to be certain he’ll dwarf my five foot four, and his companion is equally tall. I know better than to provoke them if they are handy with their fists.

The mountain on top of me eases himself to the side, then gets to his feet. He extends his hand down to me, and I take it without thinking. I’m hauled to my feet as though I’m weightless, to stand shivering in front of him. The other man is behind me, blocking any chance of escape, even if I could see more than a yard in any direction.

“Will ye be keepin’ a civil tongue in your head then or do you need further convincing?”

“Let the lad be, Robbie. Can’t ye see he’s scared? If he was a thief I think we’ve maybe cured him of that notion. Am I right, boy?”

I nod, then shake my head, not sure what the right response would be. “I’m not a thief. I’m a hiker. I just want to be on my way, and, and…”

“A what?” This from the man in front of me. Robbie?

“A hiker. I’m doing a twenty miler. I’m expected in Glenridding tomorrow.” I clamp my mouth shout, immediately realising my mistake. I should have told them I’d be missed later today, or better still that the search parties are already scouring the fells for me. As it is, I’ve just informed them that no one will notice me missing for another day at least.

“You’re doing what? Did you say you were from Glenridding? Is that near here?”

“Yes, about ten miles north. On the shores of Ullswater. The youth hostel is expecting me. If I don’t turn up, they’ll report it and mountain rescue will be up here.”

“What are you blathering on about, lad? Why would you not turn up? And what is this youth hostel? Is that some sort of local laird?”

“A… what? No.” I peer at him, only now starting to take in his bizarre attire. He is wrapped in a combination of thick furs, and what looks to be tartan. His feet are booted like those of his companion, but his knees are bare. His hair is long, falling loose and tousled to his shoulders, and is a dark auburn colour. His head is uncovered, though he wears stout gloves. His face is handsome, in a harsh, untamed sort of way. Although he must have shaved in the last few days, his beard is making its presence felt again. His mouth is full, strong, and I catch the flash of perfect teeth as he grins at my discomfiture. But his most prominent feature is his eyes. They are a brilliant green, reminding me of the rich, lush grass of the lower slopes. He regards me in silence, and appears to be in some doubt now as to what his next move might be. His decision is made for him by the other man.

“It’s getting late. We can’t continue on in this, and we’re likely to lose the horses if we even try. We’ll make camp and keep the lad secure till morning. Then we can decide what to do with him.”

Robbie nods, the gesture curt. “Aye, good enough. Pass me your kerchief, Will.”

By the scuffling and grunting at my rear it seems that the second man is struggling to comply. Robbie gives a low curse and grabs my arm. He tugs me toward the horses, then leans past me to retrieve something from one of the saddlebags. He turns me roughly, hurling me against the worn leather of the saddle. The scent of the horse fills my nostrils, but I hardly have a moment to register that before my hands are dragged behind my back. I try to escape, but he ties my wrists together. The bonds are tight, not painful, but I can’t move.

Panic wells again. He’s hit me, and now he’s tied me up. This is not going to end well. My knees start to buckle.

An arm snakes around my waist, holding me up and hauling me back against his chest. “Now lad, don’t be fainting on us. If you give us no trouble we’ll let you be on your way in the morning.”

Why does that promise not inspire confidence in me? “Let me go now. I won’t tell anyone, I’ve said so.”

“Who is there to tell? And why would we be letting ye go free, to rob us blind as soon as we’re asleep? No, lad, when we’re ready to move on, then ye can do the same. Until then, ye’ll stay put.”

“Untie me, please. I promise not to run away.” Again that tell-tale quiver in my voice

“And I don’t believe you. So there we have the dilemma. Ye’ll stay bound until we’re done with you.” He turns to squint through the gloom at his companion. “Can you manage the horses while I take him? They’ll be less bother, I wager.”

“Aye, I daresay. After you then.”

The auburn-haired giant places his palm in the middle of my back and gives me a shove. He’s not especially rough, but I know better than to offer resistance. I stumble forward, trying to pick my way across the uneven terrain, but unbalanced by the awkward position of my hands. I take a few steps, then manage to trip over a lump of rock and fall to my knees.

The giant steps around me and crouches at my side. “I can carry you, lad, if you prefer.”

I shake my head and try to regain my footing. Robbie shrugs and helps me to my feet.

“How far do we have to walk?”

“A few minutes, no more. Can you manage?”

“I think so…”

“Come on then.”

We continue to make our way up the fell, and I pay close attention to where I’m putting my feet. Even so, it’s not long before I go over on my ankle, giving the joint a painful wrench. I would have fallen face-first to the ground but for the strong hand grabbing my arm, steadying me. There is no further discussion. Robbie turns me to face him, then heaves me over his shoulder. I kick my feet and roll my torso about as I try to throw myself from his grip but his arm clamps tight around my knees. I’m going nowhere.

“Put me down. Now.”

“If I do, it’ll be to gag you. Shut up and keep still.”

“No, I can’t. I’m going to be sick.”

“If you puke on me, you’ll regret it, lad. Be warned.” His tone is a low growl. I can almost feel it rumbling through his body, that huge, solid body I now find myself in such close proximity to. I know when to stop arguing, and instead I concentrate on remaining calm. If I do nothing to provoke him, give him no reason to mistreat me further, perhaps even now I might emerge unscathed.

Who am I trying to kid? There’s no way they’ll just release me unharmed. The only saving grace in this whole nightmare is the fact that they seem to be convinced that I’m a boy. That’s bad enough, and has made me a target for a few casual blows, but how much worse might this ordeal become if they realise I’m a female? They are quite mad, obviously, and amoral. Who knows what they might do to a woman? Alone, up here. Miles from anywhere.

A few seconds later I’m dumped unceremoniously on the ground. The second man, Will, strides past me and secures the two horses to a tree a couple of yards away. Robbie waits until he is finished, then he shoves me back until I’m pressed up against the tree too. The horses snort behind me, their breath hot on my neck even through the quilted hood of my padded anorak.

“I’m going to tie you to this tree. You’ll be here for the night so you can stand or sit, it’s up to you. But you’ll not be moving till the morning.”

“No! It’s too cold. I’ll freeze. Please…”

“You’ll be fine. The horses will keep you warm. So will you be spending the night on your feet, or sitting?” He stands in front of me, arms folded across his powerful chest. His expression is implacable and I abandon any notion of appealing to him.

“I’ll sit.”

“Wise choice, lad. Make yourself comfortable then.”

I sit down and lean back against the trunk of the tree. Robbie digs in one of the saddle bags again, and this time produces a length of rope, He loops it around my chest, then around my waist before tying it off behind the tree. I’m glad of the thick bulk of my anorak, and the thermal fleece lining beneath that. Not only do they provide some protection from the cold but they also conceal the outline of my body. Not that he seems unduly interested in that, thank God. He stands back to regard me for several moments, his head cocked to one side as though something puzzles him. He turns and strides the two or three yards to where his companion is crouching beside a small pile of twigs. I watch as Robbie makes deft work of striking a flint against a rock to produce a spark, which he then nurtures into a small blaze. My gas lighter would do a better job…

Christ, my backpack! Where is it?

I rack my brain, my recollections of the last half hour or so are more than a little hazy and confused. I remember setting the pack down to check my position. I had my phone in my hand; I was searching for a signal when I was assaulted by these two maniacs. I remember dropping my phone, but I never gave a thought to my pack. It must be lying up there on the fell, just waiting for the next passing fell walker. The good news is that an abandoned pack full of gear is sure to alert someone to my predicament. No hiker would just leave his, or her, gear behind. The bad news is, when—if—these two deranged thugs eventually release me, I’ll have no supplies or equipment to help me find my way back to civilisation.

That’s not the end of the world though. I have a decent sense of direction. And at least I’m wearing the most important bits of kit, my boots and my all-weather jacket. I have a good chance. If they let me go.

The two men are talking quietly. Occasionally one or the other of them will cast a glance in my direction. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to study Will. He’s also a striking, handsome man, even if the pair of them are violent brutes. About the same height and build as Robbie, Will has dark hair, tied in a small ponytail at the back of his neck. I can’t make out the colour of his eyes, but his voice is softer. I get the impression he may be the gentler of the two, and I recall he interceded for me when Robbie was being especially rough. It was Will who asked Robbie to go easy on me, who pointed out how terrified I was. Maybe he would help me. If things don’t go well tomorrow.

As I watch I note that Will appears to be in some discomfort. He is breathing rapidly, and seems to be in pain. Robbie passes him a knife, which Will uses to prod something on the small fire. The smell of cooking reaches me. They must have killed a rabbit or something earlier.

Again, I long for my pack, crammed with chocolate, dried soup, cereal bars, and a pack of tuna sandwiches. Not the most appetising fare but good for the great outdoors. Whilst I’m out on the fells I always go for something light to carry and easy to prepare. I can eat when I get back.

If I get back.

The aroma of fresh cooked meat is tantalising. My assailants will eat well this evening even if I don’t. Maybe I can locate my pack in the morning and have access to my supplies again. If the mist lifts, and as long as no one else gets there first. Ever the optimist, I settle in to wait out this long night.

“Are ye hungry, lad?”

“What?” I come awake from a light, fitful doze and peer up at the shape looming over me. It’s Will, a battered-looking metal plate in his left hand. He lowers it to give me a good look at the generous helping of cooked meat. My mouth waters, despite the stiffness in my joints. I’m uncomfortable, and the bitter cold is seeping into my very bones. I can’t believe I actually managed to fall asleep when my body feels like it’s seizing up. I shift, try to find a less painful position, but there isn’t one. I want to cry, tears are pricking my eyelids but I blink them back. To surrender to a fit of sobbing would give my deception away. If they discover I’ve been pretending to be a boy, I don’t know for sure what will happen, but I’m reasonably certain it won’t be good.

“Some food. Do you want it?”

I’m surprised, but pathetically grateful. “Yes, please.”

Will kneels beside me and balances the plate on my thighs, stretched out in front of me on the hard, cold earth. He picks up a piece of the meat and holds it close to my mouth. I stifle any thoughts of rampant germs; this is no time to be fastidious. I open my lips obligingly and Will feeds me. The rabbit is remarkably palatable, succulent and juicy, the flesh permeated with the wood smoke of the fire. Will smiles as I chew it, then lick my lips.

“More?”

I nod, and he feeds me another piece, then another after that. In minutes the plate is empty. Will wipes it with his sleeve and places it on the ground.

“Will you be needing a piss then?”

“A…?” In fact my full bladder is reaching desperation stage, but I can’t contrive any way to relieve myself without betraying my secret.

“A piss. If you want me to untie you for a couple of minutes I will. But the first sign of trouble from you, lad, and you’ll feel my boot up your arse. Are we clear?”

I nod, still not sure how this is going to work out but short of any better options. Will moves to the other side of the tree and within seconds the ropes holding me fast loosen and fall to my waist. I start to attempt to push myself up into a standing position but my legs are useless, like jelly. Will seizes my elbow and drags me to my feet.

“I’ll free your wrists too, just for a minute or two. Unless you want me to do the honours for you?”

I back away from him. “No! No, thank you. I can manage.” Somehow.

Will grins, and gestures me to a dark spot a few feet from us, just behind where the two horses are tethered. “Do it there, lad. And stay where I can see you.”

“I, I need to… I need a private place.”

“My fine rabbit found its way through your innards so quick? Okay, you can squat if you want. But stay in sight.”

I sense no further concessions will be forthcoming and can only hope this vile individual doesn’t take it upon himself to inspect the site after I’m done. As it is, it takes all the determination I can muster, and a hefty dose of desperation, to shuffle the several feet to the edge of the clump of trees surrounding our camp and fumble to undo my all-weather trousers. My back to Will, I crouch and relieve myself, then deliberately wait a few moments longer to create the illusion I’m not quite done yet. I right my clothing again, with difficulty as my hands are frozen, and pick my way back through the fog to where he’s waiting for me, the kerchief dangling from his fingers ready to retie me.

I shake my head. “You don’t need to do that. I can’t move from the tree, and my hands are so cold. Please.”

He cocks his head to one side, then, “Your hands, lad. Show me.”

I hold out my hands, palms down. Will takes one in his and squeezes.

“Fuck, these are like lumps of ice. Ye should have said, laddie. Go warm them at the fire.”

I don’t need to be asked twice. I stumble over to the small blaze and stretch my hands out to it. The heat wraps itself around my numb fingers. It hurts, but feels so good too. I rub them together, the tingle in my fingers an indication that the circulation is improving.

A slight movement in the misty gloom beyond the fire attracts my attention. It’s Robbie, lounging on a pile of furs and wrapped in his plaid. His hands are also bare, his knees too, but he doesn’t appear cold. Maybe he’s more acclimatised than I am.

“You can sit if you want, lad, and get properly warmed up. I won’t bite you.” His voice is low, and were it not for the precarious situation I find myself in I might even consider it sexy, especially with that Scottish brogue to add a seductive richness to the mix.

I don’t answer. My response is to sink to my knees, loving the comforting sensation as the heat from the fire reaches my face. I hold my hands closer, watching them redden in the firelight.

“What’s your name, laddie?”

I glance up, and bless the day my parents opted for a name that could be shortened to something androgynous. “Charlie.”

“Charlie, eh? And where are you from, Charlie lad? Did you say Glenridding?”

I nod. Glenridding’s as good as anything else to say, I suppose. I’m wondering whether to elaborate and explain that I’m just staying at the youth hostel for a few days, but my home is in Manchester when I sense rather than hear Will approaching behind me. He eases himself onto the ground at my side. His movements are awkward and he hisses in a sharp breath when he shifts his weight. Robbie notices, as I do.

“Is it worse, then?”

“Aye. I’ll last the journey though, then Morag can fix me up.”

“Mmm, rather you than me, cousin.”

Will groans. “Even Morag’s tender mercies will be preferable to this.”

I risk a glance at him and even in this light I can tell Will’s features are ashen. He’s in a lot of pain. Why should I care? The fact that one of my assailants is debilitated is to my advantage, potentially. Except I’m not wired that way. My training as a paramedic is already kicking in.

“You’re injured. How did that happen?” I ask the question by instinct, already assessing the likely damage.

Will slants a grimace my way. “Thrown from my horse. Cracked a couple of ribs, I daresay.”

“Would you like me to look at it?”

“You, lad? Why would ye want to be looking at my busted ribs? Anyway, there’s nothing to see.”

“You’re having difficulty breathing. Do you have any pain in your chest?”

“Aye. It’ll pass soon enough, I expect.”

Oh, for an X-ray facility, or failing that just a stethoscope. Even without those though I could probably work out what’s wrong if he’d let me have a closer look.

“Did you say you fell from a horse?” I’m beginning to suspect some sort of trauma from the impact of the fall, maybe even a pneumothorax. If I’m right that could indeed right itself in time without treatment, but if it worsens it would require urgent intervention. That could prove awkward, out here on the fells in the middle of the night.

“Would you be some sort of healer then, laddie?” This from Robbie who is watching us with an intent expression.

I return his gaze, bemused by his odd phrasing. “I suppose so. I’m a paramedic. That’s my job. At home.”

“Paramedic? Is that what you English call your healers, then? It’s not a word I’ve heard before.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not a healer. I drive an ambulance, that’s all. I scoop them up and leave the healing to others. I can manage some serious first aid though. Enough to perhaps make you more comfortable, at least until you can get to a hospital.”

I turn to Will, and I’m already reaching for the thick blue and green tartan draped across his chest and shoulders. He leans away from me.

“Oh, no you don’t, laddie. What’s to stop you punching me in the ribs and making a run for it?”

“I wouldn’t do that. I just want to help you. In return for the food.”

“And on top of that, the first sign of any bother from him and I’ll knock the lad senseless. Come on, Will, you may as well let him see. What harm will it do?”

I’m not sure Robbie’s support is exactly what I was looking for, but it has the desired effect on Will who relaxes somewhat, though he still eyes me with a degree of lingering suspicion. “All right, you can take a look. But nae messing, right?”

“Right.” I move in closer to him and again reach for the plaid. This time he makes no move to stop me as I unwind it, and the furs, from around his shoulders. “Could you remove the shirt too?”

Will manages a low chuckle as he complies, his movements awkward and pained. “An invitation I normally greet with a little more enthusiasm, wee Charlie, especially when it comes from a comely wee lassie.”

I shoot him a sharp glance, wondering if I’ve somehow blown my cover. His expression remains teasing, as does Robbie’s. They are exchanging laddish banter, and including me in it, no more than that.

One glance at Will’s battered and bruised torso is enough to confirm at least some of what I had suspected. Broken ribs, two or three I’d say, on the left hand side, and one has probably damaged the lung. No wonder he’s struggling to breathe comfortably. Barring complications the treatment is simple; just strap it up tight to prevent the ribs from moving, and wait for nature to take her course.

“Can you lift your arm?”

He does so, wincing as his fractured ribs shift inside his chest. I lay my fingers on his side, probing for the site of the injury. I am as gentle as I can be, but there’s no avoiding the pain.

“Shit, Charlie. Ye’ve heavy hands. That’s enough now.”

Will lowers his arm and reaches for his shirt. He starts to put it back on but thinks better of it, settling instead for just wrapping his tartan around his upper body.

Robbie reaches for a flagon beside him and passes it to Will. “Here, have a swig of whisky to dull the pain. The lad hardly touched ye, stop whimpering like a baby. Morag will have worse in store for ye, back in Edinburgh.” Robbie gets to his feet. “I’m going for a piss.”

Will downs a hefty draught of the liquor before muttering something in response. I don’t entirely catch it, but get the impression Will doubts the parentage of his comrade. My help not apparently required, I settle back into my position beside the fire, hoping they don’t find it necessary to banish me back to my cold tree any time soon.

“Aah, oh, sweet Jesus…” Will lurches forward, clutching at his chest, then falls to his side. He is gasping for air, writhing on the ground. His face is contorted in a bitter grimace, painted there by pain and the struggle to drag in his next breath.

I have no doubt at all now about my diagnosis—a tension pneumothorax that has undoubtedly been building since the fall from his horse. Will’s lung has collapsed due to the presence of air in the cavity surrounding it, and the trauma is too massive to ignore any longer. He needs emergency treatment, and he needs it now.

I stand, peer into the inky darkness surrounding us for any sign of Robbie. We don’t have time to get Will to hospital, but I know what needs to be done. Robbie will have to help me. Or he would, if he was here.

I have no medical kit, but the instruments for this are crude enough anyway. I need a narrow tube, and something with which to puncture the lung cavity. I crouch beside Will.

“Okay, try to keep still. I’ll help you, and you’ll soon feel better.”

His response is a long, low groan as he rolls onto his back.

I grab the dagger Will had been using to skewer the rabbit earlier. A quick assessment of the blade confirms it might be narrow and long enough for this. Whatever, it’s the best I can find, but I still require a tube of some sort.

On a flash of inspiration I reach into my inside jacket pocket and pull out a biro pen, the cheap sort you get as freebies from charities sending out begging letters. This one proclaims the virtues of the RSPCA. I use my teeth to pull out the bung plugging one end, and proceed to drag the inner ink cartridge from the other. The remaining outer casing will have to do as a chest drain. It’s a little wider than I would like, but I’m improvising. I grab the flask of whisky that Will had been drinking from a few moments ago and dunk both the dagger and the butchered pen in the liquid. That done, it’s time for the hard bit.

I slide my fingers over Will’s torso, seeking out the spot to make my incision. The second or third intercostal space is favourite, and I locate it quickly. I reach for the dagger and position the tip between Will’s ribs. With no anaesthetic to help him I know I have to make this quick.

I shove the dagger in, hard and sharp but not too deep. I only want to create a passage through the chest wall to the lung cavity, not wreak further internal damage. As I pull the knife out I hear a short, sharp hiss of air and I know I hit my target. However, the wound is clean and closes up as the blade retreats, sealing in the trapped air once again. I remove the biro carcass from the whisky and insert the narrower end into the hole in Will’s chest.

He grunts in pain, but I have no choice now. I’m committed to this, and I know it’s the only reasonable treatment in our circumstances. I ease the makeshift tube into position and crouch over him. In a surgical setting a doctor would use a syringe to withdraw the air for the cavity, but out here there’s just me. I seal the protruding end of the pen with my mouth and suck on it. I place my thumb over the end as I stop to exhale, then repeat the procedure.

The result is fairly instantaneous. Will’s laboured breathing slows, his awful, impotent gasping giving way to more measured inhalation as his lung reflates. Ideally I would have preferred the reflation to be slower, but there’s nothing I can do to manage or control that. I’m just relieved my solution seems to be working.

I start to turn at a sound behind me, then I am grabbed by the arm and whirled to my feet.

“For fuck’s sake, you vicious little bastard…” Robbie lands me a head-splitting clout to the side of my skull. I go sprawling across the ground, my ears ringing, as the auburn-haired Scot follows me. No doubt he intends to deliver the rest of the battering he promised if I did any damage to his friend. I abandon any hope of explaining what has happened, just start to scramble away. Even that seems futile so I just curl into a ball and wait. His expression offers little hope of mercy.

“Robbie, no, he was helping me. It’s fine now. Not hurting any more. And I can breathe.”

“What? But ye…” Robbie turns to his friend, bewildered.

I take the precaution of edging further from the pair. I know I averted the immediate danger for Will and the most acute discomfort is now over with, but I’m not sure how long it will be before he registers real and lasting improvement. And I did stab him with his own dagger. He may not take kindly to that.

“The lad did a good job. I don’t know what happened, all I recall is it hurt like fuck and I couldn’t get my breath. Also, I’ll be needing to be having a wee word with him about his notion of what constitutes the right and proper use for a fine whisky, but he’s eased it a lot. It feels better. A lot better.”

I crack open my eyes to see Will easing himself into a semi-sitting position, the pen still sticking out of the side of his chest. He fingers it, his face a mask of astonishment.

“What was all the caterwauling for then? I thought he’d fucking killed you.”

“Well, he didn’t, though I’m not convinced I can rightly say what he did do. And if you think you could manage the same experience without making as much din, do please feel free. I’d be delighted to bust a rib or two of yours. For God’s sake, go help the lad up.”

Robbie turns his attention back to me, and despite the fact that I can see two of him, his features are a great deal less menacing now. If anything, he looks a little contrite. Just a little though.

“Sorry lad. You know how it is. I thought you’d murdered him. Will and I are cousins, I couldna just let ye go sticking him with a dagger, now could I?”

I don’t dignify that with an answer. Instead I blink and shake my head in an attempt to clear my vision. Groaning, I lift a tentative hand to my ear.

“Here, let me give you a hand.” Robbie leans down and grabs my arms, lifting me bodily to my feet. He holds on to me while I stagger in his grip, fighting to regain my balance.

“I’m fine. I think. Is he…?” I turn to regard Will who is watching us from the fireside. He is already starting to experiment with some deep breathing and seems well pleased with the outcome of my ministrations. Even so, I know he needs to keep the chest drain in place for at least the next few hours and it can’t be comfortable. He is remarkably stoic, all things considered. And he did have the presence of mind to save me from a battering.

“Don’t move it if you can help it. Your lung needs to heal. Hopefully it won’t collapse again…”

“If it does I’ll be sure to hide my whisky from ye, wee Charlie. If I’ve any left.”

The pair of them watch me in silence as I check that the drain is still in place after the commotion. I stem the residual bleeding from the wound with the kerchief that had been used to bind my wrists together. If they insist on tying me up again they’ll have to find something else to use. When I’m finished I sit back and stare into the flickering flames, not at all sure how matters now stand between us.

“We can’t take the risk of you being on the loose while we sleep. You do know that, lad?” This from Robbie. It seems I am to be tied up after all.

“It’s too cold over there. Do you have a spare blanket?”

It’s Will who answers. “No, lad. But you can share mine. It’s the least I can do. We’ll be tying your wrists and ankles, but you can stay here by the fire, with us. Will that do ye?”

It’s a better offer, I suppose. I nod. Luckily my bulky anorak should be sufficient to conceal my female curves, such as they are. Small breasts and angular hips might not be every woman’s idea of the perfect body shape, but for once I’m glad of nature’s ungenerous attitude toward me. If I can just make it through till morning I’m beginning to believe I might live to tell the tale after all.

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