First Chapter: The Longest Shadow by RJ Mitchell

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“WHAT’S YOUR poison, father?” asked the bartender, taking mischievous delight at the prospect of serving strong liquor to a man of the cloth at two o’clock on a Friday afternoon.

The priest placed his bible on the bar and smiled: “Whisky, my son, malt whisky and the best, a drop of your 18-year-old Lagavulin, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure,” replied the barman, turning round to the gantry to survey his extensive collection of malts, before reaching for the bottle of golden brown liquid. He placed it on top of the bar before asking the priest, an impish smile creeping across his features: “Will that be large or small, father?”

From behind the circular rims of the gold-framed glasses, black eyes burned back at the bartender in a way that seemed strangely incompatible with the otherwise benign appearance presented by the clergyman’s collar and neat black suit.

“You’d best make that a large one, my son, for I will need all the strength it gives me to be about the Lord’s work this day,” said the priest.

Taking the glass, he cradled it and enjoyed the sight of the sunshine piercing through the liquid then took a sip, savouring the peatiness, before swallowing and letting out a slight sigh of approval.

The raven-haired priest spoke, “This golden drop is produced at Lagavulin on the island of Islay. Mmm, powerful, with a peat-smoke aroma. Well-balanced and smooth, yet with a slight sweetness on the palate. Do you know, my son, what Lagavulin means in the Gaelic?”

The bartender, a fresh-faced student by the looks of him, shook his head.

The priest smiled, “Lagavulin is an anglicisation of the Gaelic ‘lag a’mhuilin’, meaning ‘hollow by the mill’. So you have learned something new today, my son, and for that may you thank the Lord.”

He picked up his bible and left the bemused barman at a loss for words, walking out of the Sword Hotel and making his way onto the footpath that would lead him to his intended destination.

As he made the ascent the wind picked up, causing the branches of the trees that lined either side of the small road to rustle with increasing vigour. Staring straight ahead he clutched his bible in his right hand and gave all his thought to the objective that lay before him and the completion of a vow that would bind him to the man he had made it to, for as long as he had breath in him.

Loud blasts from a horn snapped him from his reverie and the priest turned sharply to see a mini-bus full of teenage schoolchildren pulling up just feet behind him. He smiled serenely and, moving to the side of the roadway, beckoned them forward. As he did so, the passenger in the front seat, a middle-aged man with a cigar hanging out the side of his mouth, leaned out his window.

“Apologies, Father. Simon Duncan, Head of History at Wallace High School. I hope we didn’t give you a fright?” he said without removing the cigar from his mouth.

“No, my son. On you go and have no concerns on my account.”

“There’s still quite a climb ahead of you – and then you have 246 steps to make it all the way to the crown and the best damn view in all of Scotland,” the teacher cleared his throat as embarrassment at his curse overtook him. “Ah, please forgive me for a second time, Father. Can I give you a lift and make amends?”

“Not at all,” said the priest, his Northern Irish accent becoming clear. “I am in need of both the fresh air and the exercise, to be sure. You go on ahead and I’ll see you at the crown as you call it. They tell me Wallace’s sword is a wonder.”

The man laughed, “Indeed it is. Five foot four inches. Almost as big as a man. A windmill of death in the Wallace’s hands, Father. No doubt. But safely encased now.” The teacher smiled and nodded to the driver to press on before he turned to the priest once again, “Enjoy the climb, Father.”

“I will indeed, my son,” said the priest, waving the school party off.

After ten minutes walk up a steadily increasing gradient, he finally arrived at the foot of the towering monument to Scotland’s greatest freedom fighter. Gazing at the massive sandstone walls he turned to survey the view around him: the meandering River Forth and the slowly rising urban sprawl of the city of Stirling, which once, hundreds of years ago, had dominated the waist of Scotland from behind the stout medieval walls of its intimidating castle.

“Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done. I will complete my vow to you now at last, Declan,” he said under his breath as he turned towards his task.

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