Aberdeen, Spring 1647
Ten-year-old Aidan glared from his twin brother to their playmate, Marjorie. The two of them were ganging up on him. Again. “Not the fire,” he said.
“Aye, the fire.” Cormac linked arms with Marjorie, glaring defiantly. “Marjorie wants to.”
“But we always play the Ogilvy fire.”
“I’ll have your head,” his twin shouted, ignoring him. “I will claim my revenge!”
Aidan narrowed his eyes. Lately, when Marjorie was around, Cormac dove heart and soul into their playacting. And somehow Aidan always ended up cast as the bad guy. “Why do I have to be Campbell again?”
Marjorie stepped forward to peer at his face. “Because your nose is bigger than Cormac’s.”
Aidan wanted to punch that nose. “But we’re twins.”
Cormac shrugged. “It’s not my fault we don’t look alike.”
“I always play the cursed Campbell.”
Cormac paid no attention. Instead, he spun and grabbed Marjorie’s hand. “Revenge shall be mine, I say! Fear not, Lady Ogilvy, I’ll save you from the blaze!”
Aidan threw his wooden sword to the ground. The two of them were annoying him more than usual, and he refused to play along. “Why do you always get to save Marjorie?”
Marjorie picked up his sword, thrusting it back to him hilt first. “That’s just how we play it, Aidan.”
Marjorie and Cormac looked at each other, all treaclyeyed. It made Aidan want to sick up.
She sauntered to the window, swaying her h*ps as though she were a real woman. Cormac followed right behind, like a starved pup. She stared out, while Cormac just stared at her shoulders. “You boys should climb the chimney,” she said, “like the sweeps.”
Aidan scowled at her. Fancy girls like Marj always thought they’d the right to boss menfolk around. And at ten, he and Cormac were definitely almost men. “You mean up in the chimney? I’m not climbing your uncle’s stinking chimney.”
His brother swung around, aiming his sword at Aidan’s chest. “You’ll not speak so to the lady.”
Cormac was so much more fun when Marjorie wasn’t around. Aidan wanted to stick out his tongue, but knew it wasn’t something an almost-man would do.
“Those boys do it,” she said, pointing out the window.
Aidan shook his head. “You climb the chimney.”
“I’ll do no such thing.” She pulled her shoulders back, making like she was the Queen of England. “I shall wait here for my rescue.”
“Aidan.” Cormac gave him a pleading look. “Mum will be back soon. And soon we’ll be gone from Aberdeen, and then it’s back to home. Don’t be so contrary.”
Wretched. His brother was in love, and it was wretched.
He strode to the window. A cartload of chimney boys were filing into the neighboring town house. They were a ragtag bunch, younger than he, covered in soot and tar. It occurred to him how to get Marjie back. “She’s afraid. I should’ve known a lass would be afraid.”
“Och, she’s not afraid, Aidan. As I recall, she climbed higher than you last time.”
Aidan crossed his arms. Of course Cormac would leap to her aid. “That was a tree, not up into some stinkin’ chimney.”
“And I could’ve gone higher if I’d wanted.”
Sure she could have. He crossed his arms, looking skeptical.
“It’s just that I tore my dress last time.” She and Cormac flashed looks at each other.
Aidan thought he might gag. Rich girls like her always got whatever they wanted, no matter the price. “Your family has enough money to buy you twenty new dresses. Your mum is with our mum right now, buying you even more.”
“Leave it,” Cormac said. “Her family has money, but not so much that she can go about mussing her gowns.”
Aidan stared at his brother. Gowns? He’d never heard him talk like that before. It was like Cormac had been taken by a spell.
“All right, then. We shall all climb the stinking chimney.” Marjorie tilted her chin up, like they were her unruly servants. Girls like her always thought they were better than everyone. “I dare you. Whoever climbs fastest wins. Unless it’s you boys who are afraid.”
His fool of a brother bristled. “I’m not afraid.” Cormac went to peer up into the chimney. “I fear nothing.”
Aidan sneered. Marjie might be able to make Cormac do her bidding, but he’d have no part. “You climb it, then, if you’re so keen to.”
His brother climbed onto the grate and stood up. His head and shoulders disappeared from view.
“Cormac!” Marjorie gasped like a maiden in a fairy tale. “You’re truly going to climb it?”
One would think Cormac had agreed to slay a dragon. The whole business was foolish. “I’m not climbing it,” Aidan said to nobody in particular.
“Hurry now. We’ve not much time before the sweeps come to Uncle’s house.” Marjorie raced to the hearth. “What’s it like in there?”
Aidan knew a flash of curiosity. He wished he could go and feel for himself, but his pride prevented him. He balled his fists instead.
“Here goes.” Cormac jumped, clambering up into the small space.
Aidan laughed. His brother’s feet were scrabbling in the air, and it made him look like an upended crab.
“Shut your trap, Aid!” Cormac shouted, then he was quiet for a time.
Aidan stole a glance at Marjorie. She gaped at the chimney like Cormac was off fighting the heathen masses, instead of simply climbing up the godforsaken flue.
He had to look away. No girl ever looked at him like that. Treacly-eyed stares seemed reserved for his brothers alone. But never for Aidan.
He shouldered past Marjorie, and went to stare blindly up into the chimney. “You still in there?”
“Move it, stink-breath. I can’t see.” Cormac scuffed his toes along the sides, sending mortar flying into Aidan’s eyes.
He scrubbed at his face, and then laughed as an idea struck him. “When the chimney boys stop their climbing, the master sweep lights a fire to get them going again.”
Marjorie pinched him, hard. “You’ll do no such thing!”
Aidan stumbled backward. “Ow! Criminy, Marj, I was only joking.”
“It’s Marjorie, you beast.”
“That’s the way, Ree,” his brother said. Why did Cormac get to call her stupid nicknames, but Aidan never could?
“Now stop breathing my air. I think it’s getting smaller up here.” Cormac’s voice was growly, like he was trying to sound the man.
“You getting scared?” Aidan taunted.
“No, I’m not getting—oh!” There was a loud scuffling inside the chimney.
Marjorie shrieked. “That’s enough, Cormac. You win! Now just come back down.”
“I best get a good prize for this, Ree,” Cormac said, and Aidan wondered what that meant. “I’m getting the way of it now. Like a wee monkey I am.”
Cormac’s laughter stopped abruptly, and he muttered, “Och, hell.”
“Och, hell, what?” Marjorie sounded nervous.
Aidan eyed her. That’d teach her to tease and taunt boys.
“You answer me right now, Cormac MacAlpin,” she said sternly. “Och, hell, what?”
“I … I think I’m stuck.”
Aidan laughed. His twin wasn’t the conquering hero after all. “You’ve ate too many pasties from the Aberdeen baker!”
“It’s not funny,” Marjorie snapped.
“I’m stuck,” Cormac said, and Aidan knew his twin was trying to tell him something. Cormac was much loved, but it was Aidan who seemed always to pry his brother out of jams.
“Aye, I hear you.” He propped the grate onto its side like an impromptu ladder, then stepped back to study it. A thick layer of ash blanketed the fireplace. He’d get filthy, and it’d be his hide tanned for Cormac’s folly. He always pried his twin from jams, but did anyone ever appreciate it? No. “Och, Mar-jorie, could your uncle no’ sweep the bloody hearth?”
He shook his head, resigned. There was nothing for it. His brother was stuck, and of course he’d help him. Aidan climbed onto the grate, using hands and feet to scale it like a ladder. He teetered at the top for a moment, then the whole thing toppled sideways. The metal jabbed into his ribs, and it hurt bad, but he’d never show that to Cormac and Marjorie.
Instead, he got right back up, propping the grate on its side and climbing again. This time he found his balance. The chimney above was pitch-black, but with the ambient light from below, he could make out the silhouette of Cormac’s dangling feet. “You get to save Marjorie, but it seems you need me to save you.”
“Thanks, Aid,” Cormac said, his voice tight.
Aidan realized how scared his brother really was, and it softened him. Because when all was said and done, he loved Cormac more than anything. More than anyone. “Eh, don’t fash yourself over it. Though it does mean you lose the dare.”
Aidan jumped, swiping at his twin’s foot. He fell again, harder this time. The grate clipped him on his chin, and a cloud of ash exploded into his face.
“Mind the grate!” Marjorie shouted.
Girls. Aidan shot her a look. “Thanks. I hadn’t considered that.”
What did Cormac see in her anyway? His twin was smitten, and it was making him a fool. And now he was a fool stuck in a chimney. “Losh, Cor, how’d you get up that high?” He coughed, slapping at his clothes. “My breeches are a wreck. Mum will have my hide.”
Nobody spoke. Everyone was waiting for him to save the conquering hero. Sighing, he climbed the grate and jumped, and then again. His fingertips grazed Cormac’s feet each time, but he didn’t manage to get purchase.
Aidan stared up. It was impossible. Cormac was wedged up too high. He could try to climb it, but then he’d have his brother’s feet jammed in his face and likely he’d get stuck too.