William Fraser had never known a mothers touch in all his young years until he found one under the withering white flowering of an elder tree.
It had happened deep in the forest where the trees grew wild and their branches twined thick, creaking as they swayed from the brisk autumn wind. Their leaves rained down in a golden, sweeping haze, pushing the lad down unfamiliar paths hoping he would notice with just a turn of chin, a maiden fair to care for and she him.
But Willie was deeply distracted searching for frogs, speckled back and green, hoping to find a friend before the forest would cloak in frost and he, stuck in his cabin with only the cracklings of the hearth and his father's chatter for company.
He peered into the dark crevices of craggy rocks only to find hissing beetles, bent on hands and knees to the wet rot of decaying logs, coming eye to eye with a brood of mice huddled in grey furry warmth that glared at him with scorn at the rude invasion.
Nothing that croaked or hopped.
Willie puffed a disappointed sigh to a wasted morning where all he had to show for his efforts was a runny nose that he rubbed along the arm of his too-big wool coat, breeks muddied at the knees that would earn him a tongue lashing from his father with pockets of uneaten worms writhing for escape in the folds. Not to mention a mucky stench clinging to him that left Willie fearing a bath most of all.
He scrapped a hole in the damp soil with the heel of his shoon, crushing the ring of fungi tops and releasing their pungent tang as he emptied his pockets of the wee limbless creatures that had coiled around one another in a slimy pink cluster.
Trudging back home through the slippery mud that left a squelching gasp with every step, Willie caught a sight that had him sinking to the sludge. Tucked away amongst thistle weeds and ferns under a crooked elder tree was a woman curled upon herself like a doe lost in sleep. He felt his heart lodge thick in his throat as his father's voice echoed in his head.
"A beauty beheld in the wilderness is to never be disturbed nor trusted, mo mhac, for there is only treachery lurking where their souls aught to be."
It was one of the many warnings from his father's tales told by the hearth where the spritely fires would alight his grizzle-haired face in a molten sheen as Willie sat at his knee in wide eyed captivation with his wooden snake, Sawney , clasped tightly in his hands.
The stories he'd tell were of witches, faeries, and other vile creatures that dwelled in trees tall enough to blight out the sun so as to snatch a wanderer who'd lost their way, or hide in the rings of standing stones, shaped like jagged teeth as howling wails escaped its maw, waiting for boys such as he.
But there were no towering rocks for the wee folk to hide, nor yet was the sun on it's descent to swallow him in night. No, today he would be like his father. Just as braw, just as brave, if maybe not nearly as tall for the lass in need.
Squaring his shoulders (blood pounding in his ears), Willie picked up a long weathered stick to wield in his hands on the off chance she was one of the wicked folk and approached her like he would for his much loved hoppers - quietly, with hands and legs ready to sprint into action if things went awry.
But as he got closer he saw the woman for what she truly was.
She was clad in a ragged brown cloak, thrown open at the waist, where a sullied pale dress could be seen that gathered at her knees. The once fine embroidery depicting spring had succumbed to her travels, unraveling budding flowers with their strange blue leaves (of which Willie had never before seen) and long green vines stitched like the rippling waves of sea. There were rips in the sheer fabric exposing her protruding ribs where faint streaks of blood marked her skin white as snowdrops and white as Willie's face from the startling sight of red. He tore his eyes up to see her tangled craze of curls dark as his own that framed her face gaunt from hunger with lips tinted a deathly kiss of blue.
Her being was such a lifeless thing that Willie thought her dead.
Though to be sure, he gritted his teeth (with a stuttering breath that whistled through his nose) and poked her bared calf with his stick. She woke with a blood curdling groan, swatting her hand towards Willie, who promptly dropped his stick to frantically scamper away at having awakened the dead - if only he hadn't tripped over a tree root jutting up from the ground, falling with a graceless thunk.
" Ifrinn !" Willie yelped, sure he was on his way to meet his creator.
But then the woman of the forest unfurled herself from a pallet of ferns and leaves, parting her dirt-speckled hair that revealed eyes of bewitching amber that glimmered in the rich evening light dappling through the boughs above. They landed on his face, transfixed to hers taut with shock - then darted warily to their surroundings. When nothing stirred from the bushes, the looming shadows of the trees, she found her breath and spoke with a voice gentle and warm as summer rain.
"Did I frighten you, little one?"
Willie nodded, mouth agape. The sound of her flushing his cheeks. "D - Di' I scare ye?"
She brushed a hand along her calf, as she nodded back too. "Terribly. I thought you were a daring fox mistaking me for its supper."
The word supper raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck as he was reminded once more of his father's words. He dug his fingers deep into the soil grasping for a stone.
"Are ye of the auld folk that steals away boys like me tae feed tae yer weans?" Each word tumbled from the quiver of his mouth that both pained and amused the woman to hear.
"Oh, dear boy, is that what you think of me?" She gave him a smile to reassure him that she was nothing of the sort. "You will live another day and many more until you're very old and grey for I have no interest beyond the elderberries to fill my belly." She then laid her palms open at her lap, fingers numb and stiff. "I promise, you have nothing to fear from me."
Showing more trust to a stranger than a boy really ought to, Willie let the burning breath he'd been holding pour out of him in a white cloud of relief. But a new worry took hold as he reached forward, grazing a stubby finger against her berry stained ones, icy to the touch.
"Ye canna eat the berries off the tree, they'll twist yer innards somethin' awful and the black ones do ye worst of all," Willie said with a frown, regretting sharing his last chunk of bread with the wood mice.
Then a kindness so obvious to a child came to mind.
"Come home wi' me!" He said with bright-eyed sincerity, propping high up on his knees. "We have bread and meat and soup that isna cold and a hearth sure tae roast ye - no' that it would," Willie added hurriedly." And -"
"I don't think your family would want you bringing home a stranger, especially one who has no means to pay such generosity back. Don't worry for me, I'll make do here as I am," she firmly insisted.
But Willie saw how her breath whispered from her lips chapped with cold, and how she shivered in her coat, threadbare and useless to ward against the wind growing sharper, seeping to the bone. And what would shield her from the cruel things that hunted by moonlight? He knew not a thing, he saw those scratches at her sides.
No, despite what she said, whatever she may be, Willie wouldn't leave her be.
Stubbornly shaking his head, Willie replied, "I ken my, Da, and he would skin me tae my toes fer leavin' ye here in the cold in no' but tatters, hurtin' and alone. But I promise if ye come wi' me no harm will touch ye as long as I'm near."
A flicker of tenderness shined in her eyes, before shutting them tight, bowing her head, feeling faint. She pressed a trembling palm to her brow as her sight began to haze and prickle with white. She needed to send this fool-hearted boy away before the desperate sleep she so sought would take her. Quietly. Finally at peace.
The lad had simply come too late.
So she hardened her voice with all the grit she could muster, hoped it gleamed vile in her eyes like the creatures he thought she was. "You don't even know my name, nor I yours, boy. You owe me nothing. I need nothing. Now go home before the sun falls behind the mountains and you into the fangs of the beastly wicked."
He flinched hard alright, but clenched his jaw just as quick, undeterred, and kicked himself to his feet with a throaty grunt.
"My name is William James Fraser, your servant," he said, sounding far older than his young years. He waited for a response and after several heartbeats it was given with a heavy sigh.
"Claire," she answered simply with an exasperated look. "But this doesn't mean - "
Came a worrying bellow, startling the two. They turned to see a man off in the distance crashing through the overgrown bracken, flushed red as his hair, frantically searching, searching. . .
Claire's hands balled into fists on instinct, her face marked with distress.
"Tis a'right," Willie said softly, trying to calm her. "It's only my Da. He willna hurt ye. He likes the lasses - I think."
Still, Claire forced herself to her feet, leaning against the trunk of the tree for stability as Willie reassured again that she had nothing to fear before rushing off to his father.
"Da! Da! Da!" Willie shouted, barreling into his father, all knooby elbows and knees.
" Taing do dhia ," Jamie breathed as he kneeled and checked his son over for injury, feeling heart throbbing relief that he was whole and safe. Then he grabbed the lad by the shoulders to meet the ire of his eyes.
"Ye wee wretch!" He growled, though not entirely unkind. "Have I no' told ye time and time again yer no' to venture into the wilderness wi'out me. Tis dangerous for you, as it is for me. Yet here ye are again, blackening my temper, tearing my sanity in two. I aught to tie ye hand and foot but I reckon ye gnaw through the rope like the wee ratten ye are."
"I'm sorry, I dinna mean to stray far." But Willie was hushed from speaking more by a gentle shake of his shoulders.
"That's always yer excuse, lad. Either yer sticking that heid of yers down foxholes or trying to snap yer neck climbing trees to gather bird feathers." Jamie had to refrain from rolling his eyes when informed they were, "No' just any feathers".
"So what daft thing was it this time?"
A smile touched Willie's lips, his face aglow. "I found a faerie woman, I'm sure of it. I promised she could come home wi' us, have supper wi' us and ye say it's a mighty sin tae break yer word, bad as lyin'."
"Aye," Jamie said quietly after a moment's troubled hesitation, eyeing him very closely. "I have told ye so." And ran a hand over his sons head, feeling for a bump. "Does this faerie of yers have a name?"
"Claire," Willie said excitedly. "I'll show ye to her."
He was then dragged to his feet towards the lone elder tree amidst the mossy sprawl of birch and pine, where the woman proclaimed to be faerie was where she'd been left - leaning against the drooping shade. Only now she was grasping a dagger, staring with eyes large and feral at the man in front of her, whose pulse convulsed at his throat.
Jamie's hand flew to the hatchet belted at his waist that could swing at animals twice his size with a graceful ease, but Willie exclaimed, "No Da!" knowing this as well.
"Claire's only scairt of ye! Please dinna hurt her!" The wee lad planted his feet to the grass and threw his arms around Jamie's hoping to weigh it down. Instead the elder reached with his other hand but with the wooden handle pointed at Claire.
"Does my son tell me true? Do ye hold that blade to protect yerself or to harm?"
Her blurring gaze jumped from Jamie to Willie, whose face had gone ghost-white, yet still he kept true to his word, and moved to stand between her and his father like a devoted knight. With her eyes beginning to sting and an unaccustomed warmth flaring small beneath her breasts, Claire lowered her hand but kept hold of the dagger that had been hidden in the folds of her ruined dress.
Parting her lips she murmured near breathless, "I - I only lost my way." Then all went deathly black and chilling as she fell to the mottled, crackling leaves.
"Ye killed her!" Willie cried as he came to Claire's side.
"How could I when I laid no' but eyes upon her?!" But Jamie too sank beside her, with guilt rippling sickly in the pit of his stomach for raising his hand to one who now looked so pitiful and small. Gently, he rested his hand against her ribs, cringing at how he could feel the starving curve of each one, and found that she did indeed still breathe.
"She's no' dead," Not yet anyway. She made a small sound, a strangled whimper, in unconscious agreement.
"Then we bring her home, right?" Willie's voice was an anxious plea, as he smoothed Claire's curls from her face.
"Seems we must as she has no other."
Jamie then glanced up to the sky where clouds of stormy grey began to billow and whirl, slowly veiling the last orange rays of sunlight. Swiftly, he took off his wool coat and wrapped Claire tight, holding her flushed to the heat of his chest, wondering how she hadn't frozen before being found.
"What about her dagger?"
The long blade laid off to the side and rather than leaving what had been aimed at his gullet, Jamie belted it aside his hatchet.
As he hoisted her up in his arms and walked down the sloping, steep paths home (with Willie uncharacteristically quiet, but with his lone urgent chant of "Hurry, Da" while casting worried glances his way) Jamie pondered who or what he embraced. This woman with eyes like no other being he'd ever known or dreamed of, yet fragile as any mortal man.
Where did ye come from, lass?