They watched the Vulgarian airship turning slowly around above the figures milling about in the smoke below where the ground was churned by explosions.
‘They’re moving in for the kill,’ breathed Rusty in horror.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Victoriana, pointing up at the sky behind them, where three huge airships emblazoned with Union Jacks had suddenly appeared.
‘Dey’re off,’ shouted Irving triumphantly, and indeed the Vulgarian airship had continued turning in a huge cloud of steam and smoke and sparks and was now disappearing rapidly in the direction of the open sea.
They watched gleefully as the aerial fleet chugged imperiously closer: closer and closer they came, until Victoriana could make out a figure in a gold bedecked uniform hanging out of a porthole clutching a megaphone.
‘I say, you down there,’ called the figure, ‘is this Wales?’
‘No,’ Rusty shouted back, ‘this is Scotland – you’re not far from Oban.’
‘Blast!’ exclaimed the figure, disappearing form view and slamming the porthole.
There followed a series of frantic flashes from the signal lamps on the three vessels, and one after the other they turned ponderously and headed slowly off in a southerly direction.
‘Dese Brits,’ said Fingers with a snigger, ‘how’d da Pilgrim Fadders ever find America?’
‘Dey was prob’ly lookin’ fer China,’ cackled Irving, which repartee reduced them both to guffaws.
‘When you’ve quite finished,’ said Rusty, scowling as fiercely as he could, ‘the Glasgow Empire is due south from here.’
‘Sure it ain’t doo east, kid?’ asked Fingers, producing a further round of loud guffaws from the pair.
‘Now, really,’ started Victoriana, drawing herself up in her best Nanny Prewitt manner, ‘isn’t it time …?’
Before she could ask what it might be time for, the rumble of many boots pounding the ground mingled with shouts and cries reached their ears; along the road in front of them appeared a large and rowdy crowd, whose leaders bore a large banner while others were waving placards that read ‘Keep Scotland British’ and ‘Down with McHerring’ as they marched.
‘Those are English voices,’ exclaimed Rusty in surprise.
Sure enough, with every few steps a big burly man at the front would shout out, ‘WHAT DO WE WANT?’ to which the rabble responded, ‘KEEP SCOTLAND BRITISH!’ followed by the question ‘HOW CAN WE DO IT?’ and the answering ‘KIPPER MACHERRING!’
The writing on the large banner could now be deciphered as ‘The London Society for the Preservation of the United Kingdom’, with ‘East Finchley Chapter’ in smaller more elaborate script.
Spotting the group on the ridge above them, the burly man shouted up, ‘Oi! Is this the way to Dunstuffnaggy Castle?’
‘Yes,’ Rusty shouted back, ‘but McHerring’s not…’
His voice was lost in a burst of roaring as the crowd surged onwards towards Taynuilt.
‘Oh, well,’ shrugged Rusty.
‘Guess da English reely care ’bout deir Yoonited Kingdom,’ observed Fingers.
Barely had the tail end of the mob disappeared around the bend below the watchers when another crowd of people came tramping along on the far side of the ridge, following the track which ran in a parallel course to the road in front and below them. This crowd carried placards that read ‘SET SCOTLAND FREE’ and ‘McHERRING FOR KING’, while the banner read ‘The London Society for the Promotion of a Sovereign Scotland, West Finchley Chapter’, and the chanting was loud and vigorous in its support of McHerring.
‘Oh dear,’ said Victoriana, ‘I think they’re heading towards the castle as well. There’s going to be an awful clash when they meet.’
‘Look,’ said Rusty excitedly, ‘the soldiers are on the move. Doesn’t look as though they’ve got McHerring, though.’
The soldiers had all gathered together into a troop, formed fours and marched smartly off in the direction of the castle: they were clearly not escorting any prisoners.
‘Waal,’ drawled Irving, ‘guess dey’ve been called in ta keep da peace. Wonder where dat McHerrin’s got to?’
‘I imagine he has vanished into the network of caves; they’ll have a tough job finding him,’ opined St George.
‘But we have to do something to stop him carrying out his plan,’ said Victoriana anxiously.
They contemplated each other gloomily, wondering how on earth they could stop the megalomaniac who had evaded the soldiers with such apparent ease.
‘I have a plan,’ said St George suddenly. ‘It’s a bit risky, but it might work.’
‘Spill da beans, ole chum,’ said Fingers.
‘Well, you see that cairn just beyond where we came up’ – the others nodded as he pointed down the slope – ‘that one is hiding the entrance to another shaft which leads down towards the loch. Well, two tunnels actually; the second joins the tunnel network, but the first was abandoned when McHerring made a slight mistake with the navigation.’ St George grinned briefly. ‘He very nearly bored his way into the loch. He left the Miner there as backing it out would have pulled the rockface away and started a deluge. All we have to do is restart the machine …’
‘… and the loch will empty into the tunnels…’ continued Rusty,
‘… completely thwarting his evil plans!’ finished Victoriana, clapping her hands in delight.
They made their way rapidly down the hill and entered the cairn.
‘Stay here on guard!’ said St George, ‘I can handle this.’
He was gone for nearly twenty minutes before remerging from the tunnel covered in earth and coal dust, beaming widely. Far away they could hear the chuntering of a steam engine.
‘Now, back up da hill, an’ quickly,’ said Irving, and they rushed back up to the top of the ridge where they stood eagerly looking for signs that their plan had succeeded.
‘Nothing’s happened,’ said Victoriana in disappointment after what seemed an age.
‘Look!’ shouted Rusty, pointing out across the loch where the water seemed to be frothing and bubbling, and a jet of steam shot up.
‘Dere’s water in da cairn,’ said Fingers, jumping up in excitement. At the mouth of the cairn there was a sparkling of water as it flowed up out of the ground.
A vast rumble could be heard, and the waters of the loch started swirling around creating the unmistakable form of a whirlpool. Round and round the water went, deeper and deeper grew the whirlpool.
‘By Jove,’ said St George, ‘I think we’ve done it.’
‘Youse dunnit, ya mean,’ corrected Fingers, eyeing the growing vortex apprehensively.
‘Oh dear,’ said Victoriana sadly, ‘what about all the poor water creatures?’
‘What about the Telectroscope?’ asked Rusty. ‘If we’ve drowned the tunnels, have we lost that as well?’