Paddy opened his eyes. He wasn’t much into sleeping—not in the woods and atop sharp, jagged stones and pine needles. He'd only dragged himself to the fort tonight because Tommy had begged him to. He’d much rather have been home with Da loading shells and getting the cache ready. Rumor was: British were sighted near Kilbritteny. Da expected a confrontation as early as this week. Besides, he worried about Ailis, his sister who’d been gone too long riding dispatch.
But Paddy’d do anything for thirteen-year-old Tommy, his sandy-haired friend, two years his younger. Tommy had an imagination as wild as hedge roses swallowing the castle in Dunberry, and just as unpredictable, too. The boy slept curled up in the hawthorn and maple leaves piled high at Paddy’s feet. Peaceful—as if nothing rocked his world.
Maybe nothing did. Tommy was an orphan so he’d already lost everything to the war. He’d nothing left but his imagination, and tonight his imaginings brought the two of them into the glen in the hills behind Paddy’s house, a secret fort where they’d pile logs into a lean-to, and where Tommy swore he’d seen Fae folk. Paddy went along with him, like a loyal friend should.
Not that Paddy didn’t believe in the Fae. Everyone did in these parts. And he wanted to see them almost as much as Tommy, even though the stories Grandda told were frightening. The Fae were thieves and robbers, and boy children were their favorite plunder. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t sleep. What with the moon casting ghostly shadows in the woods, and leaves rustling above. He shivered and kicked his friend gently. Tommy groaned.
“Won’t see Fae if your eyes are shut tight,” Paddy whispered, trying to sound older and wiser, but really wanting someone else awake with him. “‘Cept maybe in your dreams.”
Tommy shot upright, blinking and brushing twigs out of his hair. “Did you see them?”
“No. But I hear something. Listen.” Paddy bent his ear to the whisper on the wind.
“I hear it too. Singing.” Tommy’s eyes grew wide.
“Maybe.” Paddy shook the fear away. “Just Puck Creek babbling over the stones, probably.” And then came a haunting intonation unlike that of anything he’d ever heard. A soft and pleasing voice, the lyrics so clear it would be impossible to deny.
Thread of a spider,
Weaving of ties,
Cloak for the human,
Whose service will rise.
Babes in the cradle, and lads in the woods
‘Tis Fianna we’re seeking with periwinkle
Paddy’s skin tingled as he absorbed the meaning of the words. Seeking lads in the woods? He was certain Tommy didn’t know about the Irish Fianna, the young soldiers who worked with the Volunteer Army and whose ranks he had recently joined. But whoever was singing knew about them. He shuddered.
“Fae!” Tommy blurted excitedly.
“Wait!” Paddy reached out, but the boy had already jumped down, picked up his cap and followed the music. Paddy would have pulled him back—would have told him to be careful—if the lad would have listened. But Tommy defied caution, and this was not the time for an argument. Paddy followed, his heart pounding like a drum.
Stumbling over roots and sliding precariously down the bank into the creek, Paddy’s long legs and awkward torso were no match for the speed of Tommy’s wiry frame. Soon the boy’s fair hair, illuminated by the moon, was all Paddy saw of his friend.
Suddenly, a brilliant golden glow like the light of a thousand fireflies lit the woods.
Paddy froze. Fear stopped his heart and his mouth dropped open. Before he could find the words to cry out, Tommy was surrounded by the light.
As abruptly as the glare had appeared, the light dissolved. Darkness penetrated the woods again, leaving spots in Paddy’s eyes and a hole in his heart. His friend was gone.
“Tommy!” Paddy choked, tripping through the brush toward where he had last seen the boy. “Tommy!” The lump in his throat swelled. But there was no Tommy. The boy’s footprints smudged into the mossy ground at Paddy’s feet. There were no other signs of him. Not in the brush, nor the trees, nor across the brook. Paddy held his breath, listening, his heart aching, but even the breeze had subsided. All was quiet. A deep sense of aloneness befell him.
As a single cloud passed in front of the moon, strengthening the darkness, Paddy noticed a small piece of fabric glowing at his feet. Periwinkle in color, it shimmered with its own light. Paddy picked it up, awed at how the color seemed to transfer into his hand, penetrating his flesh.
“Magic,” he snarled. “Fae!” He crumpled the cloth with his fist, and shoved the fabric into his pocket. “I’ll find you Tommy, I swear. By the sword of Saint Michael, I’ll find you and bring you back home.”
Run into Hiding
Far in the distance, the light in the window of the stone cottage faded in and out of the heavy fog, teasing Ailis’ tired bones. She wished she were already there, curled up on a stool by the peat fire, toasty and dry with a right size of porridge warming her insides.
The cloud grew thicker as she walked, and soon could not contain its own weight. Mist soon turned into heavy droplets that saturated the wool on her shoulders. She smelled like a wet ewe, and felt as cumbersome as one. With her chin tucked into her coat, water dribbled off her lashes and down her nose.
Two days and a night on a horse, and all her energy had been robbed. As grateful as she had been to ride dispatch on Arion, the neighbor’s gelding, the journey had been long, grueling, and dangerous. Now the last stretch on foot from Mr. Reilly’s barn to her house felt impossible. Mud clung to her boots as she trudged over the rocky terrain. Her feet were sopped, toes cold, knees like rubber.
Haunting memories of British soldiers she had encountered loomed over her. Their degrading comments, their threatening commands. The wanted poster they flashed in front of her with Liam’s name printed boldly over the photograph that his auntie had taken of him last year, plastered as a centerpiece next to his best friend’s images.
Wanted. Dead or Alive.
Liam Clarke. Danny McClain. Brian Caniff.
1000£ per head.
She shuddered, sick to her stomach.
With rain beating against her cheeks, and with her eyes peeled to the mud-spattered path, she failed to see the figure approach her.
“A soft evening to you.” Liam said as he wrapped his arms around her, his energy lifting her spirits.
“A soft evening surely, thanks be to God,” she returned with a laugh of respite. What better relief on a cold rainy evening than to be in his arms? The coarse canvas of his coat swathed tight around her shoulders.
He bent over and looked into her eyes. Browned from the weather, his dark hair clung to his face, wet and wringing. His uniform was drenched already, though he’d met her only a few steps from the door. His dark eyes smiled when he lifted her chin. “I was worried about you.” He kissed her as the rain wet their faces. He tasted sweet, like mint tea and herbs that her mother had probably given him moments before.
“And I, you. I heard horrible news while in Pedlar’s Crossing. Upton . . .”
“Don’t talk of war.” He held his finger over her lips and kissed her again. This time he pulled her closer to him. The rain let loose, pouring on their bodies like a dark waterfall. She shivered from chill and broke away. “I have dispatch for the Third Brigade,” she whispered.
“I’m authorized to take it. Let’s go inside out of the rain, first.” He ushered her up the steps.
“Wait!” She stayed his hand before he opened the door. “There’s a warrant out for you and Danny. They know you were in Upton. They have a wanted poster with your image on it. Brian too. I think they’re headed this way.”
Liam stared at her for a long moment. “When?”
“I met four soldiers on the road this morning. Two were officers, but they weren’t with their troops and I saw no others near.”
“Were they headed here?”
“Not when I left them. They turned back the other way.”
“They’re probably from Cork. I don’t suspect they can get here until morning. Late tonight at the earliest. Don’t tell your parents. Don’t say a word until I have time to talk to my men.”
The door swung open and Paddy, her fifteen-year-old brother, blocked the entry. “Saints be blessed! I hoped that might be you!” His eyes popped open wide when he eyed the bundle she pulled from her pocket. “What’s that?”
“A gift from Mrs. Reilly.” She handed Paddy the block of cheese. He grabbed it hastily as she glanced over his shoulder at the strangers gathered in the living space of her parent’s cottage.
Warmth from the house enticed her inside. She shook off her scarf and peeled her arms from the dripping fleece, which Liam lifted off her shoulders and hung by the fire to dry.
“We thought the Brits caught you!” Paddy blurted, tossing his curls out of his face. He had already uncovered the cheese from the linen cloth, peeled the wax, and pinched off a bite, popping a chunk in his mouth.
“Save that for tomorrow’s supper.” Mrs. Kilpatrick snatched the brick from Paddy and nodded Ailis toward the table.
A robust woman, Ailis’ mother’s rosy cheeks dimpled when she smiled. A homemaker in all tradition, she was a spinner, a weaver, and a cook, with all the hospitality for which Irish women were known. Never did Mrs. Kilpatrick prevent her husband or her sons, or even Ailis for that matter, from pursuing their dreams, though she gave fair warning if she thought them dangerous. If they wanted to farm, she would plow alongside. If the roof needed thatching, she’d harvest straw. If her men wanted to go to war, though she told them time and again they were breaking her heart, she would load their rifles for them.
“Come out of the weather and eat,” she said. “You’ve been away too long.” Mrs. Kilpatrick shuffled back and forth from the kitchen, laying a pot of soup on the table for Ailis, and fetching a loaf of bread. “A wayward Fae would have returned twice from the underworld in as many hours as you’ve been gone.” Her scolding pricked Ailis’ heart, but behind the harshness, Ailis’ mother’s eyes glimmered with love. “There aren’t enough beads on the rosary for every prayer Da and I made on your behalf.” She wiped her hands on her apron and took Ailis by the shoulders, planting a kiss on her forehead. “Don’t be worrying us like that again.” She turned to Paddy. “Make yourself useful and pour tea for your sister.”
Paddy pulled a chair from the table and gestured for her to sit. Liam took a seat next to her.
“What took ye so long?” her father asked quietly from across the table. Paddy leaned over to hear.
“The enemy is everywhere,” Ailis said. “I had to travel cross-country over the mountain. If it weren’t for Arion, I’d be lost in the bog.”
“He’s a fine steed,” her mother agreed.
“Speaking of lost, wait till you hear what happened to Tommy,” Paddy said. “Ailis. Wait till you hear!”
Ailis wasn’t listening to her brother. Too many distractions drove her from his small talk. The men in the house were in grave danger, yet it wasn’t her place to tell them. She had to say something though.
“There was an ambush in Upton. The Volunteers attacked a train at the station the day before yesterday. Some of our men were killed but they took the greater loss. Security has been tightened. Police are everywhere, even on the backroads. I was stopped.”
The house grew quiet as she spoke. When her eyes met Liam’s, she hesitated to say any more. “It makes no difference who did it. They have a mind to retaliate.”
The stillness soon dissipated, but no one talked much afterward. Ailis studied the guests as she ate her dinner.
She knew Danny. Rarely were Liam and Danny separated during their parades. Liam was an officer in the Column, and Danny his right hand. The other young men who sat huddled by the fire were unfamiliar to her. One of them wore a uniform much like Liam’s and she thought he had the face of the third man on the wanted poster. The others were dressed neatly, but as country boys, with waistcoats and soft work-shirts rolled up to the elbow. Two held rifles on their laps, a Thompson oiler in between them. They polished their barrels with great care. She counted twelve men in the living room in all, including Liam and Danny.
“Ailis.” Liam rose, breaking a smile and the cold layer of fear that had shadowed the home. “These are my friends and our patriots. Good Irishmen, all of them. We watch each other’s back like there’s no tomorrow! You’ve heard me tell tales of brave Brian Caniff.”
Brian was the man in the uniform. The dimple on his chin broadened when he smiled. “Pleasure to meet you, Miss Kilpatrick. Liam talks about you all the time!”
“The twins, Noah and Isaac Bree.” The boys with the rifles looked up and nodded. Liam pointed around the room to each of his soldiers. “Brady McGinn, Adam Sheen, and Paul Purcell. Matthew Flannery, Luke Fox, Piers Guffey, Robert Ginnery, and finally, over there in the corner where you can’t see him, but you probably can’t see him anyway, short as a leprechaun that David Savin.”
David blushed and nodded cordially.
“All from West Cork. Only Adam there, he comes from Limerick.”
“Pleased to meet all of you.” Ailis laid her spoon on the table. She stood, unfastened the hook-and-eye to the lining of her vest, dug out the dispatch, and handed the papers to Liam. The room grew silent again as he opened the parchment and read.
“Bandon,” Liam announced.
“When?” Danny came to his side and took the paper.
“Next week. There’s a convoy of five hundred troops passing through Greenfields, thirteen-hundred sharp, a week from Friday. Three Lorries, two tinder cars, and foot soldiers. We’ll be meeting up with a Flying Column. Looks like Tom Barry’s.”
“Auxiliary?” Danny whispered.
“Black and Tans and some officers. I’d leave tonight but there are more recruits coming.”
Liam shook his head. “The dispatch doesn’t say, it just mentions several recruits will be coming from Cork and Dublin. We’re to look for them here in Kilbritteny this week.” He brushed back his hair with his hands and shot Ailis a nervous look.
If the British were coming to Kilbritteny with a warrant for him and Danny, how would Liam be able to wait for recruits? She glanced at her father. Empty cartridges were strewn on the table as he and Paddy loaded them. Her father peered up at her.
“You boys should stay the night,” Mrs. Kilpatrick said. “We can find room for the others. There’s Mr. Reilly’s barn, and he has spare bedrooms as well.”
Liam avoided Ailis’ eyes. “No, I’m afraid we can’t stay here, ma’am.” He nodded to the others, who fell silent. “I’m sorry, Ailis, but . . .” Liam leaned close for a kiss, but Ailis blushed and glanced at her father, who was watching. Her father opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by an unexpected rapping at the door.
Liam started. The Volunteers froze, wide-eyed. “Had someone followed you Ailis?” he whispered.
“Quick!” Ailis’ mother waved at the soldiers. “Out back to the root cellar.”
The boys scattered into the kitchen, grabbing their weapons, coats, and hats. Liam led them outside. Cold air seeped into the house as the men filed into the cellar. Mrs. Kilpatrick gathered the extra dishes from the basin and hid them in the pantry. Ailis scanned the living space for any articles they may have left behind. Paddy had already scooped up the rifle and shells and sealed them in the floorboard cache.
Ailis’ father, his shoulders broad, his expression brave, waited until whomever was outside knocked again. He stepped slowly and deliberately. Ailis’ heart beat against her chest as his strong hand took hold of the latch and released it, opening the door.
The voice from outside seemed gentle enough. “Greetings,” a man said.
Mr. Kilpatrick stood silent, his back to Ailis. She couldn’t see the intruder. Damp air rushed into the room, playing havoc with the warmth from the fire and spreading the flames in a wild dance.
“Sir, my name is Garret Callaghan.” The man had an Irish accent, but Ailis didn’t recognize the name.
“Callaghan? I don’t know you.”
“No, you don’t know me, sir, but I was friends with Liam Clarke years ago in Dublin. I was with Liam when his father was executed. We’ve been through a lot together. I’ve just come back from duty in Cork, and now I’m taking billets in Kilbritteny. I was told Liam is still with the Third Brigade, and since he knows your family I thought you might know which home he’s staying in. I’m to meet up with his troops.”
Ailis’ father scratched his head and looked over his shoulder, giving Ailis an inquisitive glance. She said nothing. She had never heard the name before but he could be one of the recruits the Volunteers were supposed to meet.
“I’m sorry, young man. I’m not sure I know who you’re referring to.”
“You’re Mr. Kilpatrick, right?” The man laughed.
Ailis leaned over to see past her father’s strong build. The man’s appearance was not unlike the other Volunteers. His plaid coat was wet from the rain. He wore a scarf around his neck and a newsboy hat which dripped water over his cheeks.
“I don’t think I made a mistake.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “This dispatch is for me to join with the Third Brigade on their next ambush.” He peeked inside, but Mr. Kilpatrick stepped in his view. “My orders come from Pedlar’s Cross. I’m to meet up with the battalion this week and carry on with them.”
Mrs. Kilpatrick entered the room, wiped her hands on her apron and approached the two. “Randall, where are your manners? The boy needs a fire to warm himself and a hot bowl of soup. Invite him inside.” She nodded to Ailis.
Her father looked a bit perplexed, but Ailis understood. She rose from the table as the stranger entered. Excusing herself was appropriate under the circumstances. She took up her bowl, giving the young man a glance over. He’d been traveling, most certainly. His coat was woolen and ragged, his hair as red as a leprechaun’s and he had nearly as many freckles as Paddy. He and her brother could have been cousins. He nodded a handsome greeting.
“You must be Ailis. Liam told me about the pretty lass he fell in love with in Kilbritteny. I can see why he left Dublin.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks. She laid her bowl into the sink and made a quick exit, sliding through the kitchen and out the back door. She pulled open the hatch to the cellar. The room was dark as pitch, but she heard the men breathing and felt the heat of bodies in the swampy dugout.
“Who was at the door?” Liam took her hand and guided her down the stairwell.
“Someone who said they know you. Garret Callaghan I heard him say.”
“What does he want?” Danny asked, a touch of anger in his voice.
“He says he’s orders to parade with you. Da was going to turn him away but Mam insisted he come in and get out of the rain. You’re well-hidden if he’s a spy.”
“He’s no spy,” Liam concluded after only a moment of thought. “I knew him in Dublin. He never took a side. I’m surprised he’s joined the IRA, as he was never passionate about much. He must be one of our recruits.”
“What should we do?” Ailis asked.
“Did he say where his dispatch came from?”
“Tell your father to send him to the inn. I’ll chance upon him there.”
“I’ll see what he says.” Ailis started up the stairs. Liam trailed behind her and when they stepped outside, he took her hand. She followed him into the shadows behind the house.
Already the clouds were beginning to part, and a lone star shone above. Ailis turned and leaned against the stone wall of the cottage as Liam drew near. Being away from him had been a torture that had lasted too long. If ever his breath was sweet, the time was now. He held her head in his hands and touched her lips with his.
“I missed you so,” she whispered.
He kissed her cheek, her nose, her ear. “There aren’t any words to explain how lonely I’ve been not seeing you.” He tucked a curl behind her ear as he looked at her. His dark eyes spoke more than yearning, more than desire. Something bothered him. “I want you to stop riding dispatch, Ailis.”
The request surprised her. “Why? Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you. You’re a strong and courageous woman, as capable as any. I don’t think higher of anyone than I do of you.”
“A woman was killed at that ambush in Upton. She wasn’t much older than you. She could have been you.” He sighed and looked away, as though to collect his thoughts or his memories. “She was Cumann na mBan.”
Ailis held back her protest. Liam had argued against Ailis joining the woman’s war effort. This woman’s death gave merit to his position. Yet that’s what war was about. Sacrifice. She bit her lip for this was not the time to bicker.
“War is not a woman’s burden. I would die of remorse if your blood was spilled. I want you to be safe. Stay home and keep the fires ablaze and the soup hot. We have need of those things just as much as we need nurses and dispatchers.”
“No. I can’t sit back and let you and your friends risk your lives without taking up arms and being by your side. Or at least doing the same work. My mother can make soup. My father can stoke the fire.”
He pushed her hair back. His touch felt coarse as he brushed his calloused fingers over her cheek, shaking his head in silent protest. “Don’t break my heart.”
“All these years our people have tried and failed. It’s time. We’re going to win this time. We must. There’s no other answer. Not if we’re ever going to be free. You have our homeland in your blood. Well, so do I.”
“It’s getting dangerous for all of us. Not just the Volunteers. Your family, your brother,” he said. “They’re coming at us in numbers we can’t match. Men are being captured, assassinated, hunted like dear with a bounty on their heads. Now there’s a bounty on my head. Don’t be one of us. Don’t.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Even harboring me and my men is an offense punishable by death.”
“I’m willing to take that risk.”
Their lips met again. Sure, she was afraid. Terrified. The only safe place was here in his arms, sealed against his body. She squeezed him tight.
“If we survive, you will be my bride,” he whispered in her ear. “I swear, and that is my oath, Ailis. Save yourself for our future.”
“And you save yourself as well.”
He laughed quietly and studied her. “That’s the plan. To survive and see that the Poor Old Woman, our homeland, survives as well.”
“Then we shall fight and triumph together, all three of us.”
They were interrupted by the door opening and the lantern shining on the back porch. Paddy peeked over the rail and whispered, “Ailis. Come quick.”
“Why? Is the stranger there?”
“No. He’s gone. There are headlamps up the road. A whole line of them.”
Ailis and Liam exchanged one quick look.
“You need to go,” she said.
Liam opened the hatch to the cellar and signaled for the Volunteers. Danny led the men outside, each carrying their weapons, ready for battle, their belongings packed on their backs.
“Stay in the shadows and be as quiet as you can. If we get separated, we’ll rendezvous at the glen where Sith and Puck Creek meet.”
Liam followed his men up the hill. There was no time to bid him farewell, so Ailis ran into the house, to the front window where she could see out. Paddy soon stood next to her. Father walked outside into the night.
“What happened to that man. To Garret?” Ailis asked her mother.
“When we heard the lorries, your da sent him away while he had time to escape. You didn’t come back with Liam, so we didn’t know what else to do.”
“He’s still out there,” Paddy said, pointing to the road where a lone figure on a bike waited at the crossroads.
“Fool of a fellow.” Mrs. Kilpatrick grumbled.
“He’ll get shot. Why doesn’t he run?” Paddy asked.
“Most likely he’s no idea where to go,” Ailis commented.
The rumble of engines drowned her voice. The lorries turned up Mr. Reilly’s road, and with so many headlamps shining on his barn, Ailis could see the structure as though the noonday sun was beating on it. Despite the vehicles having stopped, the sound of motors terrorized the silent countryside. She was too far away to see what was happening until flames engulfed the barn, spitting out of the stone windows and igniting the roof.
She ran out to her father, but when the lorries backed up and turned down the McNeils’ road, he touched her shoulder and faced her. “Get your brother and get into the hills. Go!”
Perhaps the Black and Tans had followed her, or maybe they had discovered the IRA headquarters at the bank in Dublin where Mr. Reilly held secret meetings. Her mother tossed her a haversack and grabbed her protesting brother by the arm.
“Get, now!” She rushed them to the pantry, but not without Paddy snatching his father’s rifle and ammunition pouch.
“Put that down!” Her mother reached for the gun.
“I’m bringing it with me. They will kill you if they find it here.”
“Let him take it,” Mr. Kilpatrick said as he pulled supplies from their cupboards and put them into a bag. He tossed another ammunition pouch at Paddy, who caught it with one hand. Ailis’ mother strapped a pack on Paddy’s back just before he raced out the door.
“Ailis, take Paddy to your Uncle Rudi’s farm. Travel through the glen. Don’t stop and don’t look back, no matter what happens here. Do not return. Do you understand?”
“Come with us,” Ailis urged.
“We can’t. Neither your father nor I have the stamina to climb those hills. We’d be the death of you. I’m trusting you to keep your brother safe.” Mam slipped a rosary into her hand and crossed herself. “Don’t fear for us. We’ll hide in the root cellar until the soldiers leave.”
“If they burn the house?”
“The house is stone, the thatching green.”
Ailis turned to her father.
“Go with your brother. Hurry! Get word to your Uncle Rudi. He needs to know how close the British are.”
“Yes, sir.” Ailis followed her parents out back, and when they climbed into the cellar, she fixed the thatching over the entry.
“Come on, Ailis.” Paddy loaded the rifle as he waited. His bright blue eyes glowed from the light in the window. “Let’s go.”
Ailis grabbed her still-wet coat and hurried out the back. The engines roared now, and headlamps glowed brighter as the lorries traveled up their driveway.
Paddy had already climbed through the berry bushes behind the house. She caught up to him, and they flew into the brush like two wild deer being chased by a boar. Up the hill through the ferns and alders. Over rocks and bramble until the craggy mounds turned to forested mountains and the night sky silenced the turmoil behind them.
She fought the desire to look back, yet the pull in her heart gave her pause, and she gave in to her weakness. They had reached the glen, and nothing but dark, shadowy hawthorns and oak could be seen ahead of them. She ran until her lungs were hot and her calves were cramped and weary, until she could no longer lift her feet, falling helplessly on a rock high on a hill. When she did turn around, she had full view of the valley.
Paddy had been well ahead of her, but when she collapsed, he returned to her side and watched the horror that was unfolding below. Not only was Mr. Reilly’s barn burning, but flames consumed the McNeils’ cottage, and their own little home smoldered in smoke.
Ailis fingered the rosary her mother had given her, the amber beads smooth and warm in her hands. Prayers didn’t pass through her lips, though, as tears rolled down her cheeks. She couldn’t hold them back, and she had no real desire to. Paddy put his hand on her shoulder and stood by her.
When she wiped her eyes, and peered up at her brother—his jaw set, his red hair flying in the moonlit breeze—she could tell he had changed. More than anger burned in his eyes. Paddy would never be the same. Neither of them would forget this night. She saw the resistance in him that was crystalizing in her own heart. They were being molded into the same stone so many martyrs of Éire had been carved from. There were no more questions.
Soldiers roamed around the house, their miniature bodies illuminated by moonlight bouncing off the tin on their hats. Smoke seeped through the windows, but the house was not engulfed in flames as Mr. Reilly’s barn had been. Below, Ailis counted three Black and Tans near the back porch. She held her breath, certain she would lose herself to rage if they found her parents.
Shots echoed in the valley. Ailis gasped. Paddy ran out of the brush to see what had happened, and she followed. Two figures not far from her charged down the hill. Liam and Danny, rifles in hand. Another shot rang out, this time ricocheting off the rocks at Danny’s feet. He dodged behind a boulder.
Ailis pulled Paddy to the ground. “Get down!”
Crouched low in the shadows, Ailis held onto her brother lest he make a fool mistake and show himself. They were straight across from Danny, a stone’s throw away. He saw them and waved at them to stay low. Ailis nodded.
Liam had scrambled to the flatland beside the house, where he met with another person. The stranger? Garret?
“What’s he doing?” Paddy asked.
Ailis had no time to answer. A volley of shots rang out. Liam fell on his knees, firing at his assailants. “Go!” he ordered, his voice echoing throughout the countryside. Garret jumped up and raced for the hills, Danny covering him with a round of fire. But Garret did not head for Danny. He would have been shot dead if he had, as the three Black and Tans intercepted the trail, occupying the gap between Danny and Liam. Instead, Garret disappeared behind a stand of hawthorn trees and kept running. None of the bullets that buzzed into the dark hit him. The Brits chased after him. Danny left his cover and ran toward Ailis and Paddy, dodging quickly into the bramble alongside them.
He threw a pack at Ailis’ feet. “If anything happens to me, bury Liam’s pack.”
“Why?” Paddy asked.
“There are documents in here that could incriminate a whole lot of your friends. And family.”
Ailis pulled the pack beneath her skirt as Danny moved away from them, ready to offer Liam cover. Liam raced up the hill, but Danny didn’t see the man in the shadows behind the house. Not until a shot pinged through the night sky.
Liam fell. British soldiers stormed toward him.
Ailis choked on her scream, but before she could rise and rush down the hill to Liam’s side, Danny grabbed her, placed his hand over her mouth, and pulled her down.
“They killed him,” Paddy whispered.
Ailis shook her head frantically and bit Danny’s hand. He held her firmly to the ground, which was the best thing for her. Otherwise she’d be down by the house flailing on the Brits. She wasn’t trying to get away. There was nothing she could do. But the agony of losing Liam was more than she could bear.
“No. Wait,” Paddy clarified. “He’s getting up. He’s alive. He’s holding his chest. Looks like he’s wounded. They’re arresting him.”
Tears welled, burning her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. A slobbering mess, she was, with mud and salt caked on her lips. Danny moved his calloused hand from her mouth and wiped it on his pants.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Stop bawling!” Paddy bent low over her. “Shh. We’ll save him. We’ll free him. Sure as Ireland’s our home. We’ll meet up with the boys. We’ll save him.”
Ailis wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and looked out over the valley. Everything had fallen quiet. Liam was gone. The soldiers were gone, and judging by the open door on the cellar, her parents were gone as well.
The three gazed silently at the burning cottage. Flames flickered through the window, and smoke curled up the chimney.