A fine mist had settled over the Highlands, heavy clouds resting casually atop the mountains as though it were just another day of damp Scottish weather and not a reflection of his own emotions. It had been four long days in the saddle, riding hard, day and night, though he knew he wouldn’t make it to make it to Broch Tuarach in time. A few miles out from the house he spotted a lad trailing him, though he wasn’t hard to miss. It was not like the boy to listen to instructions, regardless of the consequences, but he knew that he wasn’t to be that far away from the courtyard on his own.
Stopping, he swung out of the saddle with a groan, pretending to check the girth on his spotted brown mare to give the boy time to catch up. It was impossible not to smile at the snaps of twigs and crunch of dry leaves as the boy crept closer. After a pause, he felt the press of the lad’s sword against his side.
He turned and pulled his dirk from the sheath at the same time, assuming a defensive position.
The lad was not dressed for play, wearing a proper shirt and waistcoat, tan breeks and silk stockings all covered in various mud and grass stains. He had assumed the third parry position, a wooden sword grasped firmly in his left hand pointed out to his opponent, while the right stuck out behind his small body, palm up. No words were spoken between them before the boy made the first move, lunging forward off his back leg. He easily deflected with the flat of his dirk, trying not to laugh at the way the boy muttered his next move before he made it.
They kept on in a playful lunge and parry but the boy was becoming more aggressive, now banging two handed with his sword against the side of the man’s dirk.
Grabbing the wooden sword by the blade, he yanked it free from the boy’s grasp.
“What’s wrong wi’ ye, lad? Ye ken ye shoulda be so far from home.”
“Gabh mo leisgeul, a ghoistidh.”
The lad’s chin drew to his chest bashfully and the man sighed at the sight of the drooping copper curls, making him look every bit the six-year-old he was.
“Been practicing your English?”
“That doesna sound like English, laddie.”
He handed the boy the wooden sword back hilt-first, the corner of his mouth twitching with the hint of a grin as the lad shoved it into his belt so it was at the ready.
“Now, time to tell me why ye’re out here all alone, and dressed for kirk. Yer Mam will no be happy ye’ve made such a mess of yerself.”
The boy dragged a toe through the dirt with mud covered shoes, making a wide arch before finally looking up into the face of the man he loved as dearly as his own father. The boy’s dark blue eyes were red tinged and tears were beginning to well up as he searched for the right words in his second language.
“My brother’s deid, ken.”
Though he was using everything he had to hold them back, his small body shivering with emotions, the tears finally pushed their way over the edge of his eyelids and down his cheeks. The man dropped to his knees and pulled the boy into his arms, letting him cry into the plaid that rested against his shoulder.
“Fois shìorruidh thoir dha.”
God rest the lad, indeed. The pox was no way for a child to die, wasting away from fever in front of his parents. From what he’d heard it had taken days and the boy had held on for much longer than anyone had expected, making them think he might pull through, before taking a turn for the worst and dying suddenly.
“Mo ghille… mo bhalaich,” he said against the boy’s soft red curls, his heart breaking at the sound of sobs. “Jamie, be strong. All will be well.”
Reluctantly, the boy pulled away, wiping his eyes with two small fists.
“Shall I take you home then?”
A quick nod and he was hoisting the boy onto the saddle, watching fondly as he immediately leaned forward to wrap his small arms around the mare’s neck in a friendly greeting. He swung up behind and nudged the mare into motion, letting Jamie hold the reigns as they made their way up the tree lined road toward the archway that marked the Fraser estate.
“Murtagh?” the boy asked, but continued without waiting for a response. “Dinna tell my Mam that I was greetin’, aye? I dinna want her to be sad for me, too.”
A man of few words, Murtagh merely grunted in agreement and patted the boy’s head.
“Murtagh?” the boy asked again. “Will ye tell me a story?”
“After you finish your supper, maybe,” Murtagh said. “We’d best find out how much trouble yer in first. I’ve no doubt everyone is searching the fields for ye.”
Ignoring the potential for punishment for wandering too far from home, Jamie leaned back into the safety of his Godfather’s arms, letting him take over leading the horse.
“Can it be an adventure story?”
Murtagh looked down into the face of his beloved Godson. Innocent blue eyes shone like the water in a loch, still bloodshot from tears, below a shock of curly red hair that turned a deeper mix of copper and auburn every year he grew. He was the spitting image of his mother in every way, from ginger hair to cheekbone and chin, with the exception of his father’s familiar eyes.
“If it’s an adventure story ye want, a ruaidh, an adventure story you shall have.”