The Kelpie’s Eyes: Chapter 1: The Waterfall
Fear urged her on.
Carrying the book wrapped in a torn shawl she ran, dodging startled ladies in wide crinoline dresses arm-linked to frowning menfolk in black top hats and pencil-thin trousers. Leaving behind the bright cheer of Sauchiehall Street, she continued along stinking, dark, narrow lanes that would lead her to the Cathedral Close. When her lungs began to protest, Mairi slowed, still holding the hidden book. Although she had stolen it, she was no thief, for she was certain that this particular book had been meant for her. The world pressed between its covers, and in those pictures and words that she could not read, was her world.
But it wasn’t the book the child-catchers wanted; it was her soul. She had always believed there was a world beyond the Great Whiteness, that emptiness which contained neither goodness nor badness, but she was also terrified of the Whiteness for she feared anything might happen there. Now her fear of the child-catchers even surpassed that of the Great Whiteness.
Ever since escaping from the orphanage in search of another world, she had been hounded like a hunted animal. Now, having been tricked by a boy she had thought of as a friend, she had to get to the Cathedral Close. Not because she would be safe there. She had heard that men in black cloaks lurked in the Cathedral shadows emerging to stand up on high, closer to God, and spit fear at those seated in crowded pews. When the church was empty, they would slink silently along the aisles, sniffing out any child who tried to crouch low in an empty pew or cower behind a pillar. And if they found her, Mairi-without-a-surname, they would either hang her for thieving or send her to the poorhouse. Which of these fates was worse she couldn’t decide, for either way her soul would be damned.
No, not the Cathedral. She was heading for the hill beyond it where people were buried. Here, she had been told, was a place where children could truly hide – a place called the Necropolis where she might find a secret nook in a broken tomb, open her book and try to reach the magical world of those pictures – a world beyond the blank whiteness of the very first page. Oh, if only she could read the words – those mysterious words…
After creeping past the great Cathedral, in awe of its stony silence, she started to scale the grassy slope of the Necropolis away from the path, unseen. When halfway up, she heard a sound, faraway at first, but rapidly getting louder and closer, even when she stood still. A trickle that grew to a roar then, beyond a massive monument watched over by a praying angel, she saw it: a huge cascading waterfall.
Mairi had never before seen a waterfall. Apart from rain and the dirty puddles this left behind, the only water she knew was in the slowly drifting Clyde, the city wells and taps and those places where working women washed clothes – dangerous places, for the child-catchers knew all children would, sooner or later, be overcome with thirst. This was so different. Open-mouthed, Mairi stared at the magical, glistening curtain of water, a cascade of droplets that sparkled like the jewels she had once seen in a shop window, and almost alive. So, it came as no great surprise when a shape showed in the water. Initially she could not make out what this was – a part of the water fighting to break free, maybe? No, it was truly alive – a creature rearing up and stronger than the mighty waterfall itself. A horse? Yes, a strange, luminous, silvery horse and – oh, so magnificent!
Clutching the book to her chest, Mairi ran to the waterfall and the magical horse who promised to bear her to the land of those pictures…
“Hurry up, Caitlin!” someone shouted. “Your mum and I are getting cold standing here in the rain.”
Caitlin? Who’s she? Mairi thought as she stood squinting at the swirl of froth at the foot of the waterfall, her eyes half-closed against the driving rain. My mum’s dead. Who was she, anyway? And my name’s Mairi, not Caitlin. Why am I here? To be free again, at long last?
Caitlin had not wanted to go that day. “We must do something together as a family for a change,” her dad had insisted. “It’s such a lovely day!” But when they arrived at the Grey Mare’s Tail in the Scottish borderland, the sky changed to gravestone grey. Dad became upset because the weather had turned nasty and she could not understand why they hadn’t let her stay behind, curled up on the sofa, on her fifteenth birthday of all days, with her latest book which, from page one, had been a real page turner.
It was about a girl, her own age, in Glasgow, back in the time of Queen Victoria. An orphan girl who ran away from the cruelty of an orphanage to make her own way in a harsh world. Oh boy, what could be harsher than forcing a high school bookworm to traipse the hills on the worst day of the century just to see a miserable old waterfall? As for the girl in the book, Caitlin was dying to know more about her – and the mystery of who her parents really were. Mairi seemed so special.
Something happened when Caitlin stopped to look at the beige-streaked fall that thundered down from the craggy cliff above. It was as if she had stepped into a different world: a world of water and rocks where hidden voices called out from whispering gullies, where fear lurked in every cranny and where she was no longer Caitlin but Mairi.
I have no mother or father, she thought as that man continued to shout out to someone called Caitlin. I’m an orphan!
She leaned forward to get a better view of the water tumbling into the liquorice-black pool below, raising a fine white spray, and that’s when she saw it: a shape that wavered in the spray like filigree lace held aloft by unseen fingers – the shape of a galloping horse. And when the horse turned its head and fixed her with hollowed black eye sockets, she knew this was her horse and she must become its eyes.
“Caitlin, get away from the edge!” The voice from up above sounded almost hysterical as she smiled comfortably to herself.
I’m not Caitlin, so I don’t have to obey. Anyway, that horse needs me. And he’s going to take me to freedom – to a magical place where I’ll be a princess and no longer a homeless waif.
She sank down onto all fours, gripped the wet grass fringing the rocky edge and peered at the glistening creature. He looked truly awesome as he kicked and leapt in the water – even more powerful than the waterfall, and he was beckoning her to join him and become his eyes. She would ride away on him beyond the roar of the cascade to the land where she belonged and would one day become queen – not that scowling, imperious Queen Victoria, but a kind and beautiful queen.
“Dad’s coming, Caitlin! Stay back!”
Caitlin peered over her shoulder and saw her father clamber down the slope towards her, half-running, half-sliding – and frantic. She clung to the grass, but it slid slowly through her fingers. As this happened, it seemed as if she had just snapped out of someone else’s dream – that of a girl called Mairi, the girl in her book; a dream in which the father she loved so much had nothing to do with her.
“Dad, Dad!” she yelled, slipping downwards.
She faced the waterfall again and saw the hovering horse.
Let the water bring you to me, he was saying without words. I sent the rain to help you. The grass must obey the water of the rain and I am Lord of all water. Come, Mairi, come!
Yes, I am Mairi. I know I am. Princess Mairi.
Someone screamed. Was it her or that other girl called…?
What is her name?
The bank and the grass were no longer there. Suspended in space, time seemed to stand still. Then the rain bore her down, smoothly and gently, towards the silvery steed until…
She looked back.
“Dad!” the girl screamed at the familiar face peering down at her. “I’m Cait—!”
Caitlin hurtled headfirst towards the foaming maelstrom at the foot of the waterfall, a falcon without wings. Her legs tried to pull her back up to her father but could only kick and stamp in the chill air; she saw his arm reach down, pawing at the void that separated them whilst the rain beat her downwards, away from him. All this in a split second. Terrified, she twirled herself round till…
There he is – my horse, so close…
Soundless words drifted up to Mairi from the horse’s gaping mouth, pulling her towards those hollow eyes.
Kelpie-e-e-e-e – come, my Princess, come to your Kelpie-e-e-e-e… Mair-i-i-i-i, they seemed to say.
Yes, I must come. I’m Mairi. Princess Mairi! Not that other girl!
Mairi tried to remember where she had heard that word. ‘Kelpie’. Had it been in a dream? A dream in which the girl from another world would sometimes join her. A world beyond the Great Whiteness that enclosed the dark, smoke-filled city.
The landing was soft, like cottonwool. She clung to the liquid neck of the horse as he leapt into the spray and on through the waterfall, but the water no longer felt wet. It had become cool silk that stroked her limbs and face as they sped deeper and deeper into the whirling white and all she wanted was to get to that magical place where she was a princess and where everyone would love her. No longer would she be an orphan.
Passing through the waterfall, and onwards into a deep gap in the rock, the Kelpie gathered speed. Mairi should have felt frightened, for there was no light inside the mountain and no sound other than the rush of cold air, but the Kelpie had called her, and she had come, come to claim her land, leaving behind the Great Whiteness beyond the words of the book and the misery of her life in Glasgow. She would become Queen and she wanted the whole world to know.
“Princess Mairi is coming, my people!” she cried out.
Ahead, the rock turned from black to grey. A thin sliver of light showed, growing wider and wider, until the Kelpie shot from the cliff face out over a verdant forest and on to a vast, bright plain carpeted with yellow and blue flowers. She wanted him to stop so she could pick the flowers to make a crown for her hair, for surely a princess in this magnificent land would need to wear a crown, but the Kelpie sped on and on and she had no idea how to stop the creature. A jagged strip of blue mountains rimmed the horizon, all the time getting closer till the girl was able to make out a vast turreted palace perched on top of the summit of the highest peak.
“My Palace!” she called out excitedly, and she noticed for the first time her new clothes: not those tattered garments they made her wear on the other side of that waterfall, but a long, silken, purple dress as might be worn by a princess.
To her dismay, they were heading not for the Palace but a gaping cave entrance nearly as dark as the hollowed-out eyes of the Kelpie. They were now going so fast she had difficulty making out anything in the bright blue and yellow blur of the landscape, but she caught sight of something large and white flying high above in the cloudless blue sky. A huge bird?
As they sped on towards the cave, Mairi closed her eyes. Once inside, the beast slowed to a trot before coming to a standstill. Then… bump! She was sitting in a wet patch on the stony floor of the cave. She opened her eyes. No Kelpie!
“Ouch!” she cried, standing up and rubbing her bottom. “Where have you gone, Kelpie?”
“Gone to seek out the silver Hummingbird, of course!” a gruff voice informed her.
Mairi swivelled. In the darkness she saw the whites of two large eyes staring up at her. She edged forwards until able to make out the hunched figure of a squat little gnome dressed in green. He had a pointy hat and a pointy grey beard and was holding, with both hands, a huge claymore sword, taller than him. The tip of the sword balanced on the ground just feet from where the girl stood and was far pointier than his hat and beard.
“Who are you?” ventured Mairi.
“The Keeper of the Eyes,” replied the gnome. “But most folk call me Craddick.”
“Keeper of the Eyes? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Och, but you should! You must! It’s why you’re here!”
Mairi recalled only the nightmare in which she was a poor orphan girl who had run away from cruel grown-ups before ending up astride the Kelpie and with a strangely overwhelming desire to become the eyes of the beast. That was surely because he needed her help to regain this land where she was the Princess and would soon become Queen. She still held that book, the one with those pictures that she had always believed spelled out her destiny.
“But where’s my Kelpie?” asked Mairi. “I’ve got to get to the Palace. My Palace! He should’ve taken me there.”
“Oh, you’ll get there all right,” replied Craddick. “As his eyes. When he’s found the silver Hummingbird.”
Everything about Craddick was ugly. Still rubbing her bottom, Mairi gawped at his wrinkled face, his droopy, leathery ears and disproportionately large bulbous nose. His feet and hands were also bigger than they should have been – twice the size of hers although he barely came up to her shoulder. In fact, the more she looked at him the more she reckoned there wasn’t a single nice thing to say about Craddick the gnome.
“I don’t know anything about Hummingbirds,” said Mairi tersely. Not strictly true, for she half-remembered being told once that Hummingbirds are the only birds that fly like insects, although who did the telling and why she had no idea.
“You soon will,” Craddick informed her. “When you see it – and before you dinnae see it, if you get my meaning!”
“Why are you holding that sword?” asked the girl.
“Do I have to tell you everything a thousand times, lass?” answered the gnome. “Because I’m the Keeper of the Eyes!”
Mairi began to feel uneasy. Why should a hideous little gnome be the keeper of her eyes? Slowly, an answer began to form in her head. The Kelpie had not brought her here to get the Palace back for her. He really did mean to steal her eyes. And the Hummingbird he had gone to find was something to do with this. She had to escape – had to get to the Palace on the mountain before he did. She doubted the gnome had the strength to lift the claymore off the ground and his legs were a lot shorter than hers.
“Bet you can’t lift that sword,” she challenged, for it looked far too heavy for him. Craddick grinned. He had only two teeth, both crooked, one at the top and the other at the bottom, which made Mairi hate him even more. He turned and nodded at something round and orange up against the wall of the cave. It looked like a pumpkin.
“I’ll show you!” he leered. “Care to get me that pumpkin, miss?”
“No!” replied Mairi. “I’m a Princess. Princesses don’t go around fetching pumpkins for gnomes!”
“Well, it’s either that or your neck – whichever you prefer.”
Mairi opted for the pumpkin. It was extremely heavy. She thought about throwing it at Craddick and escaping as she had from the orphanage, but she could barely keep it off the ground before dumping it in front of the gnome.
“Good thinking,” he said. “If I were to cut off your head now it’d ruin your eyes and my Master would get very angry. He’s not so nice when he’s angry!”
The girl watched anxiously as Craddick easily raised the great Sword high above his head then sliced it down across the pumpkin with one clean sweep. The two halves of the large vegetable flopped apart exposing succulent orange flesh – and the flesh gave her an idea.
“My eyes are telling me they’re hungry,” she said. “It’s your job to feed them if you’re their keeper!”
“Erm... pumpkin?” he queried.
“Nothing better!” Mairi replied. “Helps me see in the dark.”
“In the dark, ay? He’ll like that. Wait…”
Craddick began to hum tunelessly to himself as he set about cutting up one of the pumpkin halves with the sword.
Mairi took her chance. She was quick. She had to be to survive in the orphanage. Bending down, she dropped her book and picked up the other half pumpkin. Although heavy, she could at least lift it to shoulder height. When Craddick turned to see what she was up to she hit him full on his squashy nose with the cut side of the pumpkin, sending him sprawling. The claymore clattered to the ground. Mairi grabbed it with two hands and raised it above the dazed gnome. She’d seen what it did to the pumpkin, but when she caught sight of the fear in Craddick’s wide eyes, she could not carry out the act. Could not kill him. She suddenly felt sorry for the gnome and no way would she harm anyone for whom she felt sorry. Not even if it happened to be gnome. Lowering the point of the weapon to the ground, she leant forwards on the hilt.
“Okay,” she agreed, “you’re the Keeper of the Eyes but I’m now Keeper of the Sword and I tell you what to do. Right?”
Craddick glanced at the Sword. He nodded meekly.
“These are my eyes seeing you, not the Kelpie’s. Got it?”
The gnome nodded again.
“No! You call me ‘Princess’!”
“And we’re going to the Palace. Straightaway! Get up!”
Craddick struggled to his feet and dusted the dirt from his green tunic.
“What about the pumpkin, Princess? Seeing in the dark? Your eyes…”
“Don’t be stupid!” scoffed Mairi. “Even orphan girls know you can’t eat raw pumpkin. Hurry! You go in front. So I can keep an eye on you. With my own eyes! And you’re going to keep them that way. It’s your job as Keeper of the Eyes.”
Chapter 2: The Plain of Souls
Mairi followed Craddick out of the cave and into the brilliant sunlight.
Dazzled at first, she had to blink a few times before she could clearly make out the stubby shape of the gnome ahead. He started to hum a pleasant tune and, without the encumbrance of the Sword, did a little skip in the air.
“That way!” the girl called out, remembering the Palace would be to their right. “Is there a path up into the mountains? One that leads to the Palace?”
“No humans go to the Palace,” replied Craddick.
“Well, I’m the Princess and it’s my Palace and I’m going there. So, take me, unless you wish to end up like that pumpkin!”
“Pah!” grunted the gnome. “I should never have agreed to this job! Follow me!”
Mairi trailed behind Craddick as they walked beside the craggy cliff face, all the time using her eyes, her precious eyes, to check behind her, above her – everywhere – for hidden dangers. Again, she saw that white thing high above them, circling. It had to be a bird, but it gave her the shudders for the white reminded her of the Great Whiteness beyond the city of Glasgow from where she had come. Would she have to go back to being a homeless orphan child in the awful world of that Queen called Victoria?
She looked down at the pretty blue and yellow flowers that dappled the plain.
“Why are there flowers instead of grass?” asked Mairi.
“They’re not flowers, miss. I mean Princess.”
“What are they, then?” she questioned, stooping to study the colourful carpet at her feet.
“They’re souls, Princess.”
Gripping the sword, Mairi knelt to take a closer look. Her heart jumped like a frog when she saw what Craddick meant. Each flower had a tiny face that gazed up into her eyes as if begging to be released. She looked away, for the pain written into those faces became unbearable once the truth had been revealed.
“Why?” she asked the gnome. “What are they doing here?”
“Call yourself our Princess and you ask questions like that?” he teased.
“I still have the Sword,” she firmly reminded him.
Craddick frowned. “Because of him,” he answered.
“But – what’s he done to them?”
“It’s what they haven’t done for him that counts! But with you it’ll be different. He’s decided you’re to give him your eyes. For my Master that means the soul as well. So, no need to end up trapped like those flowers. He’ll merge you into him with the help of the Hummingbird and that’ll be it!”
Mairi had red hair. Back in the old place, this was one reason why no one walked over her. Her blood boiled as she stood towering above Craddick. For a few seconds she feared she might burst and splatter everything nearby with little bits of her, and from the way the cowering gnome stepped backwards, she realized how frightening she could appear when her temper slid up a notch or two.
“No one gets my eyes, and no one steals my soul or my body! Understand, you miserable gnome?”
“Yes, Princess! Remember, I have the sword and I am your mistress.”
“And the Kelpie is no longer your Master! Right?”
“Wrong – I… erm… I mean right!”
“So, if all the people are turned into flowers, who now lives in the Palace?”
“Heaven forbid! Hurry!”
“We’re not that bad, you know,” protested the gnome as he continued along the steep narrow path with Mairi following close behind. “In fact, some of us are really quite good at gardening.”
The place from where Mairi came, with its dark streets and mean-faced child-catchers, had no gardens or garden gnomes. And not even other children could be trusted there. The homeless boy whom she had thought of as her friend, and who told her about a large mansion where they left food scraps at the back gate, he too turned out to be a traitor. When he took her to the mansion, a child-catcher was lying in wait with his net. If she had not kicked him in the shin and punched the boy in the stomach, he would have caught her and dragged her off to the poorhouse. The only thing she knew about the poorhouse was that children only ever came out in wooden boxes to be buried, with other waifs, in a paupers’ grave, their bodies erased forever with quicklime.
She soon grew tired, for in the back streets of Glasgow she was not used to climbing hills and the Sword weighed her down, but she forced her legs to keep going. The Palace was rightfully hers. The Kelpie had tricked her. He must have known there was something special about her eyes in this strange land of flower souls. It was why he wanted them. And with her soul as well, he would have no rivals and could perhaps reign for eternity – as Queen Mairi! But whilst she was still herself, he must surely also fear her for she was the true heir to the throne.
Mairi struggled to remember another place – one she had once known before crossing that bleak Great Whiteness into the darkness of the city where she became an orphan. Was this that place? The picture of the palace in the book was just like the Palace perched on the mountain above. Had she been the child princess of the king and queen of this land before its lush green meadows became carpeted blue and yellow with the souls of their loyal subjects? Was this why the book had always meant so much to her? Or was it all made up? Somehow, she seemed unable to trace her mind back to before the orphanage and the Great Whiteness.
Beyond the next bend, Mairi could see the Palace high up on a rocky promontory. It looked magnificent. Gleaming white, a different white from that of the clouds that sometimes hung high over Glasgow, it positively glowed. Lofty towers topped with battlements and turrets rose up from each of the four corners and from one twirled a long triangular pennant bearing the image of a leaping horse.
The distant sound of running water chilled the air and reminded Mairi how thirsty she was after the climb.
“I need a drink, Craddick. There must be a burn nearby,” she said.
“If you say so. I mean, if you’re truly our Princess you should know, shouldn’t you?”
“I do say so!” replied Mairi, tetchily. The gnome was beginning to irritate her, but she knew she was going to need him for whatever lay ahead. “And you must take me to it!”
From where they now stood there was a far better view of the plain below. In the distance were other hills: gentle, forest-green humps near to where she must have emerged on the back of the Kelpie after they had left the waterfall. Beyond, fringing the horizon, was a barrier of snow-peaked mountains. Coming from the city of Glasgow, she thought it odd that there were no houses. Perhaps, she wondered, they had been cleared from the plain to make room for all those blue and yellow flower souls. Something colourful for the Kelpie to look at when he got a pair of eyes. She shivered to think he could ever steal hers. And her soul. She held firmly on to the Sword, but what use would a sword be against a horse that could vanish like mist in a breeze?
They walked on as the noise of water got louder and louder till it smothered all other sounds: the irritable muttering of the gnome ahead, the crunch of his footsteps on the stony path – even her laboured breathing. Another waterfall, perhaps? Because of the water, she should have known what awaited her, but thirst had sucked her dry of all reason. Mairi so wanted water – water, water, water. This was all she could think about as she staggered after Craddick, dragging the huge Sword behind her.
Chapter 3: The Palace
Caitlin’s dad peered down at the brown-grey swirl below. Grabbing hold of a tough mountain plant, he leaned forward to get a better view of the cliff face in case his daughter might be clinging to a similar plant lower down. But there was only an angry pool of bubbling foam above which hovered a misty spray. He shouted to Caitlin’s mum and her sister, Rhona, on the path higher up; called out to get them to phone for help, help from anyone, but the noise of the water drowned his words. Caitlin’s mum scrambled down the slope to join him leaving their younger daughter alone, shivering and sobbing.
“Caitlin!” cried the girls’ mother. “Caitlin, where are you?”
The sound of a faraway voice cut though the roar of the cascade. Mairi stopped and held one hand behind her ear to hear it better, but it was already gone. All she now heard was the thundering waterfall. She hurried on to catch up with Craddick, rounded another bend then stopped short.
The gnome stood at the edge of the path looking up at a ribbon-like waterfall streaming down the moss-covered rock face. There, only yards away, was the Kelpie, up on his hind legs, playing with the water. He sprang from the cascade and landed on the path beside Craddick.
“I sense the Keeper of the Eyes has given the girl the Sword! Is this true?”
The gnome trembled so much that Mairi feared his hat might fall off. Ugly though he was, she felt he had become her only companion in this fairytale land and wanted no harm to come to him.
“It wasn’t his fault!” she called out. “I took the Sword. I’ll need it to reclaim my land. And he’s told me things, too. About how evil you’ve been, turning all my people into flowers.”
The Kelpie swivelled his huge head to fix Mairi with those dark and depthless sockets. For an awful moment she imagined her own blue eyes there. A boy at the orphanage had once told her she had beautiful green-blue eyes and that because of this she should really be a princess – it’s what made her begin to wonder who her true parents were.
“Yes, and now I need your eyes and your soul to see them with!” whinnied the Kelpie. “But you won’t require that Sword to reclaim your land, my pretty young Princess. Become my eyes and we’ll see how magnificent our land is together. Quick! On my back! The Hummingbird is ready for you!”
The Kelpie, dripping water, looked solid, as solid as Craddick, and she ran at him with the Sword raised up high. The creature reared and kicked the weapon from the girl’s hands.
“Ow!” she cried, clutching her injured wrist.
“Well, what are you waiting for, you miserable little gnome? I can always replace you as Keeper of the Eyes, you know!” the Kelpie roared.
Tears welled in Mairi’s eyes as she looked pleadingly at Craddick. He had stopped trembling. He walked over to where the Sword had clattered to the ground, bent down and picked it up. Mairi could almost imagine a horse-smile of smug satisfaction on the Kelpie’s face as he continued to fix her with those empty eye sockets. All seemed lost. She was doomed to serve this monstrous creature forever, as his eyes and soul, but no one could have foreseen what happened next:
Craddick glanced at Mairi. There was something about the look he gave her, as if begging forgiveness for having failed his new mistress before grabbing the Sword. His expression changed and, holding the weapon, he scampered off past his previous master. The Kelpie appeared confused, turning his sightless head from Mairi to the squat figure of the running gnome and back again several times. Without apparent purpose or warning, Craddick jumped clear of the path and disappeared over the edge at the same time as that huge white bird swooped down from on high into the ravine and re-appeared with Craddick, still clutching the Sword, held in its strong claws. In a flash of white, bird and gnome were gone.
“Tell me what you saw, eyes!” commanded the Kelpie.
Mairi, the tears cold on her cheeks, felt weakened without the Sword and, for some reason, without Craddick. She now realized it was no ordinary sword and without it she became aware of the true power of the horse-creature before her. Although he obviously had senses way beyond sight that enabled him to locate things, she must now use her eyes to inform him of what he could not see for himself. As she climbed obediently up onto the Kelpie’s back, she felt she had no right to ask why and told him that Craddick had made off with the Sword. One thing now seemed certain: she was to become the Kelpie’s eyes. The Hummingbird would see to that.
Like a leaping salmon, the beast shot up into the waterfall, up and up and up, as Mairi clung to his sturdy neck and pressed her knees into those muscled, fluid flanks. She felt strangely safe. Why shouldn’t she become his eyes? Surely that would be better than roaming the streets of Glasgow forever on the run from the child-catchers. Being the eyes of the Kelpie, the Lord and Master of this magical land, there would be no risk of her ending up as a slave in the poorhouse.
But her tears continued to stream as they rose up above the top of the fall from where a glistening tongue of water curled over a lip of dark rock down to the dancing pool in the ravine below.
Frantic, Caitlin’s mum dialled the police, the mountain rescue and all the friends she could think of. As they waited, Mr McLeod could not keep still. He paced up and down along the rain-sodden bank, repeatedly calling out “Caitlin” until he could bear it no longer.
“I’m going down,” he said to his wife.
“No,” she begged, “please just wait. They’ll come soon. They’ll find her. Maybe she’s hidden by a rock somewhere down there.”
But it was too late. Already her husband was part-sliding, part-clambering, down the slippery slope towards a narrow ledge way below. Mrs McLeod ran back along the edge of the cliff to a gully where a small stream zigzagged into the roaring burn, and she sploshed her way through this to join him. Neither noticed what was happening up above; neither saw the great white bird from whose claws hung what appeared to be a large garden gnome carrying something that sparkled in the rain, nor heard a scream from the waterfall, but when, later, on hearing a helicopter, they scrambled back to the path to wave to the pilot, they discovered that Rhona, too, had gone.
“You’ve got to rescue the Princess!” shouted the gnome dangling in the air a few feet away.
Rhona, her face wet with tears and rain, blinked; her hand trembled as she felt three giant white talons curled around her waist and, for a moment, she wondered whether she’d slipped and hit her head and lapsed into some sort of a nightmare. Perhaps memories from her recent past were emerging in that nightmare, like the horrid little garden gnomes in the flower beds of Mrs Kerr’s place next door, or the pterodactyls from the dinosaur project she did at primary school, but nothing else was changed as it should be in a dream. Whenever she opened her eyes she was still up in the sky and the Sword-carrying gnome was there, looking at her curiously, and way below stood her parents perched on the cliff overlooking the waterfall. She was about to ask the gnome what he meant but screamed instead. She screamed because the giant bird soared down, heading straight for the fall. Rhona prayed that by tightly closing her eyes, death might be less painful. Everything went dark. Like death, perhaps? Suddenly it became bright and she summoned the courage to open her eyes again to see what heaven was like.
Beautiful! A magnificent yellow and blue plain stretched to a horizon of jaggy mountains. On one of these nestled a fairytale palace complete with towers. Could this be heaven? She looked at the gnome. He was horribly ugly. Even worse than Mrs Kerr’s pottery ones, so it couldn’t be heaven. There again, there were no devils with pitchforks. So not hell, either. She felt confused.
“You’ll have to be the Sword-bearer now. Till we get to the Palace and find Princess Mairi. Can you swing a claymore? With both hands?” asked the gnome.
Rhona did not know anything about swords. They hadn’t done them at school. But why should she suddenly have to start swinging a claymore whilst they were flying through the air, dangled from the foot of a pterodactyl or large bird or whatever the thing with its huge scaly claws about her waist was?
“No,” she replied. What else could she say?
“I’ll teach you,” offered the gnome. “It’s quite easy. And the Sword is magical which makes it even easier. Mind you, the Princess is an expert. She’ll soon be the true Keeper of the Sword again. Like I’m the Keeper of the Eyes. That’s what did it, you know.”
“What did what?” Rhona blinked again, but the vision of the gnome refused to go away. Likewise, the long blue dress that she now wore instead of jeans and a cagoule.
“Him telling me someone else could do my job. Never, never, never! Not in a million years!”
The huge white bird flew at aircraft speed high above the plain till it reached the gleaming Palace. After circling a few times, it dropped like an arrow from heaven before slowing down and carefully depositing the girl and the gnome on the top of one of the towers. Rhona managed to catch a glimpse of its head cocked sideways, looking inquisitively at her, before the magnificent creature spread its vast wings again and sprang from the Palace.
A bird of sorts, it was unlike anything Rhona had seen before. With feathers as white as snow and a beak of gold, it was the bird’s eye that had caused the girl’s mouth to drop open in astonishment. It was gentler even than if all the kindness in the whole world was contained in that look with which it fixed her.