August 1, 1914: Near Kilcoole, County Wicklow, Ireland
The girl crouched atop a bed of straw, peering out into the night. Her breathing was rapid, and she could do nothing to slow it because it kept time with her pounding heart. With each breath, the straw beneath her bare feet moved ever so slightly. The rustling noise was soft in the night but deafening inside her head. She pleaded with her heart to slow, for she was being hunted and her breathing would give her away.
Her cache lay behind her, within arm’s reach, carelessly piled in a heap among the hay. The donkey kept watch over the nineteenth-century German rifles that her pursuers wanted so badly to find. He slowly chewed his hay and nudged the butt of one of the Mausers with his nose. He snorted curiously. It was not often that he had visitors after sundown.
The salty sea breeze whipped across the meadow and carried into the open barn the distinct sound of a tree branch snapping. Her attention turned to the tree line. The straw rustled. Was it a British soldier coming for her?
The moonlight shone brightly above. It was the same moon that had guided her hours before as she met her gunrunner amid the waves of the Irish Sea. That same pale light now silhouetted a lone man as he made his way across the rolling Irish field. He looked ominous, but the light of the moon revealed that he carried no large firearm.
The girl reached for a Mauser and a cartridge. She knew little about rifles, but enough to understand that these dusty weapons—smuggled to Wicklow in the name of a free Ireland—were antiquated. She carefully loaded the rifle, as she had seen her father do years ago, and aimed the barrel out the open window. Only the muzzle protruded.
She could hear her father’s voice, and for once it was not faded or obscure in her memory. Take yer time, Nora. Choose a spot well ahead of ’em. Settle yerself. Take aim. And just wait for ’em to cross.Of course, he had been talking about the game that teemed along the Shannon. She was poised to kill a soldier in the King’s Army. Only hours before, this would have seemed absurd. But the events of the day had made her question everything she thought she believed.
She chose a spot just to the left of the hedge line, and waited for the man to come into her view. Her finger made contact with the trigger. The metal felt like ice despite the warm August night. She slowly increased the pressure but did not squeeze it.
She waited. A second felt like a minute. Two seconds, like a quarter hour. She blinked. The man did not cross the imaginary line she had drawn between the muzzle and the hedge. She peered to her right, careful not to reveal her position. Her heart suddenly stopped. He was no longer there.
She pulled the rifle inside the barn. Standing slowly, she shouldered the weapon and steadied it across the open barn window, aiming it again toward the tree line. Her grandfather’s old pendant hung heavily around her neck, its sharp edges reminding her that she was following a path he would have forbade. She took a step forward and kicked hay over the three rifles that lay on the ground. The donkey snorted again, and his breath blew the hay off one of the barrels.
She listened intently but heard nothing save the whipping sea wind, the pawing of the donkey, and her own racing heart. Still shouldering the weapon, she peered further out the window. The summer grasses blew to the left and then the right like waves on the ocean yielding to onshore winds. The moon searched for the soldier like an enormous spotlight, but in vain.
Could the soldier have chosen to search the cottage instead of the barn? Did she have time to run to the shelter of the trees beyond? She didn’t want to leave her rifles behind to fall into British hands. Many of her compatriots were also stranded and hiding throughout the Wicklow countryside, biding their time to make their way back to the Dublin safe houses. If the soldiers found her, it would put all of them at risk.
As her eyes scanned the meadow, the sound of a deep voice behind her took her breath away. “Nora,” it called in the distinct accent that marked Irishmen of the Pale. “Come child, ’tis not safe here.” She swiftly turned and saw a face she recognized—a cocky smile that revealed a missing tooth. “Will be no easy task to get us home, but I’ve got a plan.”
Only now did Nora recognize that the barrel of her Mauser was pointed directly at the man standing in front of her. Though he had dared to call her a child, she lowered it anyway. But she moved it slowly to allow him to sweat.
He tossed his head to the side, and his jet-black hair parted on his forehead, revealing dull gray eyes that hung with a fatigue uncommon for a man of just twenty-five. For the first time, he appeared to Nora to be human. Out here, he had no requirement to be braver, smarter, or more confident than every other man around him. He didn’t need to keep up an insufferable facade.
“Glad you don’t mean to shoot me,” he said.
“I almost did,” she replied.
“I know, I saw you.” The man smiled. “Are you ready for a bit of an adventure, Nora, in the name of Ireland?”
Now, it was Nora who smiled. “Always.”