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Chapter 1 - A Meeting in the Twilight


IT was in the misty twilight of a winter afternoon that Ian and Sovra came upon the beginning of the adventure.

They were walking along the road by the shore of Loch Fionn, and if they had kept to the road, as Ian pointed out later, they would never have heard the odd remark that first aroused their suspicions. They were not expecting anything unusual to happen that afternoon. They were going out to tea with their new friend Alastair Gunn, but there was nothing odd about that. Since he had come to live in the big house called Kindrachill, which lay hidden in the trees beyond the head of Loch Fionn, they had been over to see him as often as they could, and had helped him arrange his furniture and books and pictures. Alastair was grown-up, of course, and very busy with the estate he had inherited from his uncle, but he was always glad to see Ian and Sovra and never minded when they dropped things or lost things or put things in the wrong places. They were rather good at dropping things and losing things and putting them in the wrong places, as a matter of fact, so it was a good thing he didn’t mind.

“It’s an awful long way round by the road,” said Sovra as they trudged towards the head of the loch. “I wish Mummy would let us use the boat.”

“It is a bit rough, you know,” said Ian. The wind was blowing in from the open sea, and steep little waves were jostling each other to the shore, where they hissed and spat like cats.

“Och, it’s not that,” Sovra returned. “It’s because we’ve got our tidy clothes on. I don’t think she’d mind us getting drowned as long as we did it in our oldest clothes.”

“It’s not much further, anyway.” Ian looked up at the tall arches of the viaduct that carried the railway across the head of Loch Fionn. The road passed under one of the arches and made a wide curve up into the glen to the bridge across the burn, then back round the foothills of the mountain beyond.

“Let’s cut across under the viaduct,” he went on. “That saves a bit.”

“It’ll be wet,” said Sovra doubtfully.

“Everywhere’s wet.”

Everywhere was wet. There had been a misty drizzle of rain all day, drifting down from the clouds that hid the mountains, and the air was so heavy and damp that you couldn’t see anything properly, not even the queerest thing, until you ran right into it — as they did.

They left the road just beyond the viaduct, and scrambled down over rough ground to the edge of the burn, hoping to find a way across. There were usually one or two rocks in the middle of the water that served as stepping-stones, but these were all covered now, and the burn was deep and fierce.

“My sorrow,” said Ian. “It’s much too deep. We’ll have to go up to the bridge after all.”

“I might have known,” said his sister. “Your short cuts always take hours longer than the proper way.”

“There’s been snow on the mountains, and now it’s melting because of the mild weather,” said Ian, trying to sound learned, to make up for being so bad at short cuts.

They went up the bank of the burn, through wet tufts of grass and dead heather that scratched their ankles. When they reached the bridge, they realized that they would have to cross the water somehow if they wanted to reach the road, for on this side of the bridge there was a new fence of barbed wire. They looked at each other doubtfully for a moment. The noise of the water was too loud for speech, but Ian pointed at the bridge and nodded encouragingly, and Sovra saw that there was a ledge just wide enough to put your feet on, about six feet below the parapet.

Ian climbed onto the ledge, stretched up and caught hold of the top of the bridge, and began to work along sideways across the burn, with Sovra following him. The water roared below him, and then suddenly he was beyond it and the noise was deadened by the steep bank. As he pulled himself up onto the wall, he heard a man’s voice saying

“There now, who’ll know that that’s the menace of the glen?”

“Monarch,” said Ian loudly, and jumped down onto the road, Sovra close behind him.

The two men standing on the bridge both said “Owch!” and started violently. The little man must have risen a good two inches off the ground. other was tall and very fat and wore a long coat with a fur collar. They both had black trilby hats perched sideways on their heads, and from under these their eyes stared at the two children who had suddenly popped up from nowhere.

“Monarch of the glen,” said Ian, before they had collected their wits enough for speaking. “If you’re talking about stags, that is.”

The fat man took a deep breath and started to smile. It was not a nice smile, but you could see that he meant it to be.

“Merely reciting poetry,” he said. “Monarch it is, of course. May I ask where you’ve come from?”

“Back there,” said Ian, waving vaguely at the loch.

Sovra was looking hard at the two men, and at a small blue van that stood at the side of the road just beyond the bridge, facing the way that she and Ian were going. As she reached the top of the bridge she had seen something being bundled into the back of the van, and she felt curious about it.

“Have you broken down?” she asked, and went over to the van. Another man leaned out from the driver’s seat and scowled at her. He was a thick-looking unpleasant sort of man.

“No,” said the fat man sharply.

The little man, who was rather like a rat, moved from one foot to the other and cleared his throat unhappily. He was holding a small saw, the kind you prune fruit trees with, and seemed to be trying to hide it.

“We haven’t broken down at all, we’re just lost,” he said hurriedly.

“That is to say,” the fat man went on, “we want to get to a place called Melvick. Do you know which direction we should take?”

Ian and Sovra stared at him.

“That’s where you’ve come from,” said Sovra. She pointed back the way she and Ian had come. “It’s along there, where the loch starts being sea.”

“Told you so,” said the driver gruffly, and started to turn the van in the opening of a cart-track that joined the road beside the bridge.

“Come on, then, let’s get on with it,” said the little man. “We’ll miss that train, I tell you, we’ll miss it.”

“Ah, shut your face,” said the fat man. He turned to Ian and Sovra with another smile.

“Poor old Jimmy,” he said. “Can’t abide this country. Gets him on the jump all the time.”

“Why on earth do you come here in the winter, anyway?” Sovra asked. She was wondering how they had managed to go through Melvick without knowing what it was. It was quite a big village, the biggest one for miles, in fact.

“We’re surveyors,” he replied. “You’ve heard of this electricity scheme they’re starting up here? We’re connected with that. Taking a look at the ground, you know.”

The van drew up behind him, facing the other way, and as it stopped Ian noticed something lying at the side of the road beyond it.

“What’s that?” he exclaimed, and then said at once.

“Antlers! A stag’s antlers! However did they get here?”

There was a moment of silence, and the little man gazed imploringly at his companion.

“That’s right, my boy,” said the fat man cheerfully. “We found them up on that hill there.”

He waved a hand towards Ben Shian, the mountain rising above them into the cloud.

“Well, all that land belongs to Alastair Gunn,” said Ian. “Does he know you’ve been there?”

“I’ve no doubt that Mr. Alastair Gunn has been notified by the Board,” said the fat man.

He moved over to the van, and packed himself piece by piece into the front seat beside the driver. The little man jerked open the door at the back and dived in, slamming the door shut so quickly that Sovra had no chance to look for the mysterious package she had seen.

Ian picked up the antlers, and the fat man leaned out to watch him.

“You can present those to Mr. Alastair Gunn, if you like,” he said. “With my condiments.”

The van moved off and disappeared along the road to Melvick, leaving Ian and Sovra alone on the bridge with the antlers, in the dim rainy dusk that made everything seem twice as mysterious as usual.

“Condiments!” said Sovra scornfully. “I suppose he means compliments.”

To order your copy of We Daren't Go A'Hunting see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.