Jeames knelt, some three years later, in a clump of ferns, half-hidden, and watched the stag walk cautiously down to the spring. He had found sign of it not too long before, fresh tracks and scuff marks against the trunks of the trees where it had been shedding its velvet from its antlers, and had decided to wait and see whether it would come back down for an evening drink.
It was a beautiful animal, though it was limping. It looked as if it had fallen at some point, broken a leg and it had not healed properly. Jeames’s expert hunter’s eye had picked it out for a sika deer as soon as he had seen it. It’s gorgeous dappled, spotted summer coat was a dead giveaway, as was its heart-shaped white rump.
Ye’ll nae survive the winter, lad, nae with a leg like that. It’s fine at the moment when food is plentiful, but as soon as ye have tae start travellin’ fer yer grass and shoots…Ye’ll starve in nay time.
Ever so slowly, Jeames pulled the bowstring to his ear, taking his time so as not to let the bow creak and give him away. He let his breathing settle into a slow, natural rhythm, in through his nose and out through his mouth, and managed to get his heartbeat slowed to a nice comfortable thud that echoed through his chest.
The sika stag limped down to the waterhole, wending its way through the last couple of small Scots pine trees, until it emerged into the clear space just in front of the pool. It bowed its head to drink, perfectly at ease.
Jeames released the bowstring and, with a soft whirring, the shaft sped from the bow.
Jeames trudged through the knee-high heather heading for the same hill from which he had gazed down at Margery Brùn’s little camp by the mere three years before. The day that the final hurdle to his complete happiness had been cleared from his path. The memory of Margery’s disbelieving laughter when he had told her that he wished to break their engagement still brought a wide smile to his face.
He had the carcass of the young stag over one brawny shoulder, his bow and quiver over the other. The dusk was falling like a spell over the landscape, a twilight world of purple and pink and orange hues. He breathed in deeply, reveled in the scent of good, clean air on which just the faintest smell of wood smoke could be discerned from where his family’s camp was situated.
Who would have thought that, waking tae find Beatrice peerin’ out from between the trees in the forests by MacKenzie Castle, that our roads would lead us here?
He smiled to himself again. It seemed to him that it was at moments like this that he seemed to walk between two worlds. He had been hunting, providing for his family, and now he walked back to them, back to his responsibilities as a Laird’s son and a father in his own right.
As he climbed the hill, a couple of heads appeared above the brow of the hill.
“Husband!” came the clear, English voice floating down the hillside to land like honey in his ear. “What have you brought us?”
The first head was that of his beautiful wife, Beatrice. She had lopped her hair shorter than it had been when first they had met. It stuck up now in a pixie fashion that reminded him of the stories that Jeames had heard as a boy; the tales of the glaistig, the benevolent fairies that sometimes helped around farmsteads.
Beatrice gave him one of her impish grins, her eyes sparkling in the dying light of another lovely Highland summer day. Still, Jeames found himself marveling at the sight of her. She walked with the same feline grace that she had when he had first seen her, even though she now carried a small child on her hip.
The baby, Helen, was gumming happily at her own fist, staring about her in that eternally interested way that babies did, and that Jeames envied.
The other head was darker haired and belonged to that of his son, Hamish. The little boy had just passed his second year, and already he promised to be just as much as a handful as Jeames had been as a wee lad.
“Faither!” he cried, his small legs struggling to beat a path through the long, lush meadow grass and wood sedge towards Jeames.
Still, the word rings so odd in me ears. Unbelievable, like. Never did I think that I’d be so lucky.
He had a few moments to drink in the sight of his little family before Hamish plowed into his shins and wrapped his arms around Jeames’s knees.
“Thank goodness ye are here,” Jeames said. “I daenae think that I could have carried this load another step without yer help. Here take this, and help ye Da, will ye?”
Jeames swung his bow from his shoulder and passed it to the little lad, noticing how proud his son looked to be able to help his father in his hunting.
“How have ye been?” he asked, as the two of them walked back up to where Beatrice stood waiting for them. “Have ye been lookin’ after yer mither as I asked?”
“Aye, Faither,” Hamish said solemnly.
“Good lad,” Jeames replied, patting the raven-haired head and smiling up at his gorgeous wife.
“You’ve been gone long enough,” Beatrice said, with a crooked smile and a wink. “I thought you might have ridden back to the village and visited the butchers.”
Jeames laughed, leaned in and kissed his daughter and wife.
Together, the four of them walked back to the little camp that they had cleared in the heather. Jeames loved these little excursions; when he got to leave his duties behind and just spend time with his growing brood.
“All right,” he said. “Who’s hungry?”
“Me, me, me!” Hamish said.
Beatrice rolled her eyes and clasped her son to her in a one-armed hug. “You are always hungry.”
Hamish gave her a look as if she was being silly. “Ma, I’ve got a lot of food tae eat if I want tae get as big as Faither,” he told her seriously.
Later, in the dark of the night, the Abernathy family sat around the fire. Baby Helen was asleep in Beatrice’s arms and Hamish was curled up by his father. A few scraps of venison sat on his platter in front of him and his eyes were half-closed with repletion.
“Faither,” he said.
“Aye,” Jeames said, leaning back on the rolled sheepskin that he was using to cushion his head and putting his arm around his son.
“Will ye tell us a story?”
“A scary one.”
Jeames laughed. “Alright, I s’pose, whilst we’re out here I may as well tell ye a tale about bogles. Just so ye ken what tae look out fer, should ye ever come across one.”
Hamish looked up at his father and then across at his mother. “What’s a bogle?” he asked.
“You’ll have to listen to your father if you want to find out,” Beatrice said, with a little smile.
“It’s nae a scary story, is it?” Hamish asked.
“Nay. Bogles delight in perplexin’ and annoyin’ mankind, rather than hurtin’ ‘em,” Jeames assured him, smiling at his wife over the top of the boy’s head.
“Well, I s’pose that’s fine then,” Hamish said, snuggling into Jeames’s side. His little hand reached up and clutched at his father’s shirt, right where the scar from William’s knife lay.
“What sort o’ creatures are they, Faither?”
“Ah, they’re mischievous sprites, lad, the sort that can cause ye nae end of annoyance if we daenae keep yer wits about ye in the Highlands. Dae ye want tae hear a tale that shows ye the sort o’ trouble-makers that they are?”
Hamish nodded and settled himself even more comfortably.
“Right,” Jeames began. “There were two men, walking along in a night about as dark as this one, by the banks of a river. All of a sudden, they heard a doleful voice cryin’ out. The voice was faint and sad and kept sayin’ ‘Lost! Lost!’ Now, ye bein’ a good lad, what would ye dae in that situation, hearing what sounded someone needin’ help?”
“Um, look fer ‘em?” Hamish said.
“Aye,” Jeames said, stroking his boy’s black hair, “that ye would. So that’s what these two lads did. They marched along the riverbank and found that the voice kept comin’ always from a little further on, further up the river. It led them on and on, this voice, up into the wild country. Still they trudged on, bein’ good men and nae wantin’ to leave someone to a bad fate in the river.”
“And what did they find?” Hamish asked.
“That’s just it. Just afore dawn, they made it tae the source of the river at the top of the hill. They were exhausted, obviously, but when they reached the source, they found that the cries just disappeared down the other side, down a different river.”
“Did they carry on?” Hamish asked.
“Nay, they could nae continue without puttin’ themselves in danger, so they gave up the chase and turned fer home. As soon, as they did, the bogle appeared!” Jeames snapped his fingers and Hamish gave a little jump. “And that devious bogle, he laughed and laughed at the two men who had tried tae dae some good but had simply fallen fer his malicious trick!”
“Are there bogles out here, Faither?” Hamish asked in a little voice.
“Could be, could be,” Jeames said, exchanging smiles with Beatrice.
“But you know of them now, Hamish,” his wife put in. “You know what to look out for now. You should always look to help people, son, but that does not mean that you shouldn’t also always exercise some caution.”
Hamish sat up and rubbed his tried eyes thoughtfully.
“Can I have one more tale?” he asked. “And then I’ll go tae sleep.”
Already negotiatin’. His grandfaither will be proud.
“Alright, lad,” Jeames said, flicking through pages of tales in his mind. “What dae ye fancy?”
“I want tae here the tale about how you and Mither met,” Hamish said.
Jeames looked across the fire at his wife. She grinned that crooked smile of hers at him, the one that could make him do anything she asked.
“Ah,” Beatrice said. “Now there is a tale worth hearing…”
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