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The Lady of the Loch

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It was only two months ago, in the March of 1748, that Keith Windham had been posted on secondment to Fort Augustus.  Ewen, emerging from a kind of fog after the successive shocks of his final parting from Alison two years before, the terrible defeat and his own exile, the decline in Lochiel’s health and his insistence on Ewen’s return to a homeland in which all was changed, nevertheless immediately found that he was glad of the redcoat’s presence so close by. 

This was disconcerting, but nonetheless Keith’s face, his rare smiles, his mordant remarks, haunted Ewen’s thoughts to a degree that perhaps they should not have done.  There had been a time or two when he was at the Sorbonne, young and heedless as all students are, when he had ended up in a laughing embrace, or closer, with one of his fellow-students, and in his recent exile he had spent months in Paris, that most sophisticated of cities (though embraces there had been none) so he was not entirely unaware of the reason for his interest in Keith; but despite everything he continued to baulk a little at redcoat officer.

The spring was working its magic, though.  The lambs in the sheep-folds, the song of the skylarks, the white foam of blossom on the rowan-trees, all were urging him to one thing.  Accordingly, and with a sense that it was now or never, he sent a message to Keith inviting him to a fishing expedition, just the two of them, on Loch Ness, with a view to landing on the small island near its southern end and viewing the antiquarian remains upon it, and maybe camping there for a night or two. 

The reply, borne back to him by young Angus, who had taken the first message, was in the affirmative; Keith had a day entirely free of duties the next week, and would hope to see Ewen the afternoon before that, if convenient to him.  It was more than convenient: Ewen rode up the Great Glen on the day appointed, leading another horse laden with essentials for the expedition.  He was whistling under his breath as he turned into the stable-yard of the small inn where he usually left his horse while on business in the township, and had tent and blankets taken down to the stone jetty where he had arranged for a boat. 

Keith joined him there while he was still loading the gear into the boat.  The owner, an old acquaintance of Ewen’s from happier days before the Rising, had more than once taken Lochiel and his relatives out on the loch for a day’s excursion, and now grunted something civil at the redcoat – obviously known to him though he was not in his uniform.  Keith, sans wig, though with a new tricorne to shade his eyes, looked remarkably trim in dark green. Ewen, from his place in the boat, smiled happily up at this picture, hoping his own peat-brown did not look too dull by comparison, and not realising how the spring sunlight caught his hair and made it glow with auburn tints, nor yet how it accentuated the blue of his eyes.  He only knew that Keith smiled back at him as he handed down a basket of provisions before descending the steps into the boat.

When all was ready, Ewen pushed off, swung out the oars, and settled to a steady stroke.

“You’ve had a long ride already today.  I should be rowing,” remarked Keith.  However, he made no move to take over the oars, apparently content to sit in the stern of the boat, steering and watching Ewen at his work.

“I’ll take us out of the bay.  I’ve done this before; I know the marks,” said Ewen.  “You may help me when we’re out on the loch.”

The air was mild and fresh about them; the noise of the town died away, to be replaced by the lapping of the water against the prow; a skein of geese, hundreds strong, flew northwards far above, honking as they went.  Ewen was happy.

Once they were clear of the bay, Keith took the second pair of oars and removed his coat, since the afternoon sun was warm.  Ewen tried not to let his thoughts linger on the play of muscles in Keith’s shoulders as they rowed.  Half an hour passed in contented silence; they rowed well together, which Ewen did not find entirely surprising.  He was almost sorry when they passed a certain pine tree leaning out over the shore, which he remembered from his previous expeditions on the loch, and knew they were drawing near to their destination.

“We’re almost there,” he informed his companion, and Keith rested his oars and turned his head to smile at Ewen. 

“I almost thought you were taking us all the way down the loch.”

Ewen smiled back affectionately.  “Windham - you said loch!  I never thought I would see the day.”

“Egad, so I did! I suppose I may sometimes make a slip.  I’ve spent too long in the Highlands, it’s plain.” 

Ewen sobered.  “I hope you don’t really mean that.  I have enjoyed knowing that you’re at Fort Augustus - so close to Ardroy.”  He nodded back at the little town clustered at the end of the loch, perhaps three miles away, beyond which lay his home.

The boat was still drifting slowly towards their destination, though neither of them was rowing now.  “I had thought,” said Keith slowly, “that perhaps your memories of the time you spent there in captivity would give you a distaste for the place.”

Ewen turned his head aside for a moment, thinking back to those anguished weeks immured first in the airy room at the top of the fort, and then in a dark cell in its depths; but this action brought the mountains of the Great Glen further into his vision, with their tumbling woods and bright burns; here and there he could glimpse deer foraging on the higher slopes, and higher still an eagle traced lazy circles between the clouds.  “It was a fortune of war,” he said lightly, “and I was lucky enough to have a good friend to help me through it all.”

“I should have visited you more often,” began Keith, with some bitterness, but Ewen replied.  “The prophecy, remember?  And very likely, if you’d pushed for more from your superiors, they would have prevented any more meetings at all.  No, things fell out as they were meant to - and - let us not go over that again, it is too fine a day for that!”

They had gone over it all when first they met again earlier this year, after the débâcle on the beach at Morar when Lachlan had tried his damnedest to murder Keith, and succeeded only in dealing him a terrible wound, which had haunted Ewen for the first part of his time in France, not knowing whether he was alive or dead - although he had obeyed Keith’s furious instruction to run to the boat and leave him.  But after some months, Ewen had learned through Aunt Margaret that Keith was alive and well, and they had met again earlier this spring at the same inn where Ewen had left his horses, sitting at an open window and watching as a heron walked the shallows before flying up onto a tree on the bank, preening itself and falling into sleep.

Surely this had signified the end of the prophecy, for a month later, Ewen, visiting Fort Augustus on a spurious errand, had asked at the fort’s gate for Major Windham, should he be off duty, and Keith had joined him simply to walk and converse under the birches on the loch’s shore for half an hour.  Ewen had smiled in his heart throughout that walk, and he smiled now, with hope in his eyes that Keith would do as he asked, and Keith seemed to catch his earnest wish, for he nodded and changed the subject.  “This island of yours, then.  Perhaps we should continue to row, if we wish to reach it before sundown?”

“Yes.  Yes indeed.”  Ewen glanced over his shoulder at Eilean Muireach, crowned with trees, a couple of hundred yards away, and its companion islet further away yet.  The trees were cherries, or some such; their white blossoms shone pristine in the westering sun.  Ewen reflected that he could not have chosen a better day of the year for their visit, and bent to his oars again.

At that moment, there was a low rumble behind him, which he felt in his bones as much as heard.  Looking up, he caught Keith’s startled expression – and twisted round to observe a single ripple travelling fast across the mirror of the loch’s surface.  They watched in bemusement as it broke in a tiny curling wave against the nearer bank, and sped far across the water towards the other side before losing itself in the vastness of Ness.

“Guns, I have no doubt - or some such,” said Keith, and for once Ewen was glad of his friend’s dauntless practicality.  No doubt there were indeed guns being exercised further up the loch – or some such.  Whatever they had lobbed into the water, it must have been massive to create the ripple.  If he had been alone in the boat, with evening coming on, he might have thought of other explanations, but with a soldier of Keith’s experience sitting on a thwart two feet away telling him it was guns – well, who was he to differ?

Nevertheless, they turned again to look at Fort Augustus.  But there was no sign of activity there, no replying guns, no flags breaking out, no distant trumpet-calls.  All was calm.  Ewen shrugged, and bent to his oars again.  The island was just a few hundred yards ahead, after all.

“The beach is on the southern side,” he said.  “Do you steer us now; I can row on my own.”

The southern shores of the little island, which was maybe a furlong across at its widest, slipped past, the trees upon it white with blossom; falling petals fluttered down to the darkening waters of the loch, now glassy-smooth again.  Then Keith said, “Here’s the beach,” and Ewen twisted his head to see it, backwatered with one oar and took them in to the rough jetty, a matter of a few squared stones, to one side of it.  Between them, they moored the boat, and unloaded their gear.

They set up the tent in a small glade bordered with a few courses of stone that would shelter it from stray breezes; no doubt the courtyard of the small castle that had once stood here.  The tent was a simple affair, that Ewen used sometimes when he and the MacMartins went trapping the deer at Ardroy.  This task done, Keith moved their gear into it, while Ewen, his hands stinging slightly from the oars, set about building and lighting a small fire.  They heated a ragout that he had brought from the inn, and this they consumed in contented silence, sitting on the low walls of the ruins, and watching the evening sunlight as it gilded Eilean Muireach’s companion islet, Eilean nan Con, a couple of hundred yards to the south-east.  Mayflies danced like sparks of light over the water, and a few swallows darted amongst them, until the setting sun, away past Fort Augustus, disappeared among a guard of clouds, and the long Highland twilight set in.

“Fishing, then,” said Keith, after he had taken their plates down to the water to give them a wash.  “What may we hope to catch tomorrow?”

“Well, there’s trout, and eels, though those are hardly worth the trouble.  But there are pike too, bigger than the ones in Loch na h-Iolaire, and I’ve heard tales of sturgeon.”

“Sturgeon!  That’s exotic,” said Keith.  “How did they come to be in this loch?”

“The river Ness floods from time to time: Archie thinks that they come in then, as youngsters.”

“But how will we take a full-grown sturgeon back to shore, if we manage to catch one?  They’re large, or so I’ve heard.”  It was not a serious question; Keith was simply enjoying playing with the prospect.

“Six feet or more.  But I fancy the difficulty will be in the catching, not the bringing-home,” replied Ewen, smiling affectionately at Keith, whose face was now part-illuminated by the reds and golds of the fire so that he looked a little other-worldly.  Indeed, out here on the loch, with blackbirds bidding each other goodnight in the blossoming trees overhead, it was hard to feel that they were quite in the mundane world.  But all this talk of fishing was decidedly unromantic, and Ewen resolved not to speak his mind until the following day.  An exploration of the castle ruins would no doubt bring much better opportunities.

After another half-hour of desultory conversation about fishing expeditions past, and comparison of their biggest catches, they got up, banked the fire, and made their way by lantern-light to the shelter of the tent, where Ewen was careful to give Keith privacy as they prepared for their rest.

The wind got up in the night, rather more than could be called a breeze, and Ewen, waking out of a deep sleep, listened for a while to the movement of canvas slanting up above his head.  If he moved his head, he could see the comforting red spark of the fire, that had eaten its way somewhat out of its covering turfs.  Keith seemed oblivious to the noises of the night, though; Ewen admitted to himself that Keith was far more used to sleeping in a tent than he was, and had no doubt endured many worse nights than this.  He dozed off again.

He was suddenly awakened by the sound of a cry, of pain it seemed.  His heart hammered, his eyes flew open, and he gasped out, “Keith?  Are you well?” – It was the first time that he had used Keith’s Christian name.  Then he realised that the cry had not been close at hand. Ewen’s heart slowed. 

Keith propped himself up on one elbow with a muffled grunt.  “Mm. I’m all right.  I heard it too.  It’s outside.  What is it?  Some kind of bird?”

Yes, Keith was safe.  Through clinging veils of sleep Ewen listened to the world beyond the canvas walls.  “No bird that I know,” he mumbled.  “But it was close.”  He shed his blankets and knelt up to peer out into the night.  The fire was still glowing red, but beyond it was a wilderness of dark, and soft flying drizzle, lit by patchy moonlight and by its reflection off the loch’s surface. 

Keith was at his side, looking out of the tent-flap.  “Best get up and see if anyone’s in trouble.”  He turned back into the tent, and donned his outer clothes; Ewen did likewise, and they stumbled out and onto the head of the beach.

The cry came again.  “It’s from the islet,” said Ewen, and called loudly, “Do you need help?” 

No answer.  “We should go and see,” said Keith.  He went back to the tent, and re-emerged with a rolled blanket and a fishing-bag containing several objects  - undoubtedly for the aid of whoever had cried out - and paused to re-light the lantern at the fire; Ewen had already gone out along the rough little jetty and was getting the oars out.  Keith put his burdens into the boat, and followed them down.  Ewen peered over his shoulder into the dark, and started a hasty stroke; Keith fell in with him a moment later. 

Ewen, the next time he glanced ahead, saw the low bulk of Eilean nan Con looming closer.  “Slowly, now,” he said.  Matters would not be helped if they ran themselves aground.

The squeak of oars in the rowlocks ceased; they drifted for a few moments, listening intently, while the water lapped round them and the soft rain continued to fall.  Again that desperate wail sounded, followed by a splash and a deeper, more resonant cry.  Ewen and Keith glanced at each other, and bent to their oars once again.

Within a couple of minutes, they were close in against the rocks of the islet’s shore.  Keith passed Ewen the lantern, and he held it high while Keith sculled them along gently.  “Here,” said Ewen, and between them they got the boat into a little gap between two rocks, suitable for scrambling ashore; a moment later they were both on the islet, and the boat was moored to a low-growing willow.

Ewen was fully awake now, and stared round him.  In the lantern’s light the islet appeared as a jumble of rocks and bushes, with a small tree here and there.  They would have to go carefully.  “That way, I think,” he said, and pointed towards the other side of the islet.  Keith grunted assent, and together they picked their way across the jagged rocks.

“There,” said Ewen, grasping Keith’s elbow and pointing almost to the other side of the islet, at the very edge of the lantern-light.  His eye, so used to picking out the shapes of deer on the hills, had perceived a low humped bundle, rounder than the rocks they were clambering across, but of much the same colour in the dark and the flying drizzle. 

“It’s an animal of some sort, not a person,” said Keith.  “One of your sturgeon, perhaps?”  

It moved a little.  Now they could see that it had flattened limbs, not fins.  The two men quickened their pace.

They reached the creature’s side, and stared.  It was the size of a big dog, with paddle-like limbs, a long neck, a small head, and eyes that regarded them fearfully.  “Is it a seal?” Keith asked, doubtfully.  “Do you have seals, inland?”

“Sometimes - but it isn’t a seal.”  Ewen gaped at it for a moment more – but then its mouth opened, showing finely-pointed teeth, and it cried out again. 

Keith surveyed it from a respectful distance.   “Here, whatever you are – it’s all right.  We’ll help you.”  He held out his hand, and the creature lifted its nose towards it, and then lowered its head, apparently in acquiescence.

They were on the opposite side of the islet from where they had landed, with the open loch just twenty yards away.  Even so, the sound of a sudden splash and rush of waters close by took them by surprise.  Startled, they looked up; at the edge of the lantern-light something was rising out of the water, higher, higher.

“God help us!” exclaimed Ewen.  A long neck, three yards high, a small head atop it, and jaws which opened and emitted a squealing roar.  They froze for a moment in terror.

Then Keith looked from the creature to the smaller beast quivering between them, and said, “Damned if that isn’t a mother come to look for her child.  I’ve seen enough bereft mothers in my time.  Help me, Ewen.”   Hastily, he unrolled the blanket which he had been carrying over his shoulder, and arranged it next to the baby.  A large baby, this; bigger even than Luath, Ewen’s deerhound, and heavy, no doubt.

After one last horrified glance at the – mother, he supposed he must call it, for now he could see the signs of agitation in its movements – Ewen put his arms round  the baby, which shuddered under his touch, and tried to surge away.  “Be quiet, little one,” he whispered to it, “We’re trying to help.”  Keith was murmuring something, his head close to the animal’s, and it quietened at the sound of their soothing voices.  Its skin was rain-soaked, chilly, and there was very little to get a grip on, but between them they managed to pull the blanket under it.  Then they clambered to their feet, and looked back at the mother.  Her head was weaving to and fro in distress, but she came no closer.

Keith picked up the lantern and carried it midway between them and the shore, while Ewen arranged the corners of the blanket so they could carry the little beast between them.  In the process, he discovered that one of his hands was smeared in blood.  The youngster must have injured itself on the rocks and been unable to get itself back to the water, he thought absently, and stroked the other hand over the creature’s head.  It crooned at him, and there was an answering rumble from the mother.  A moment later, Keith was back, and they lifted – dear god, the thing was heavy – and staggered down to the shore.

“She can’t get up on land,” grunted Keith, as they approached the water.  “It’s too shallow.”  She was poised about twenty yards out, propped up on her front paddles, her head now stretched out towards them.  The baby called to her again.  “Be patient.  One minute more,” he admonished them.

“We’d best carry it right into the water,” said Ewen.  “I’m soaked anyway.”

“So am I – and who needs dry shoes?”

Into the dark water they went, picking their way with great care, and as the baby felt the water it seemed to gain new life.   Its limbs began to move in swimming motions. 

“Can you manage alone now?” Keith asked it.  He hardly needed to; it was trying to heave itself out of the blanket and towards its mother.  They let the blanket sink, and the baby was free; it paddled frantically, and churned towards her, squeaking joyfully the while.  The two men straightened up, groaning softly, and watched as it reached her.  She gave an admonitory snort, and smacked the baby – but gently – across its head with her snout, and then gathered it close into her side with a sweep of her neck.

Ewen could not help but laugh.  They looked at each other in satisfaction, and Ewen laughed again, flinging his arms round Keith for sheer joy - who, after a moment’s startled stillness, reciprocated, if a little awkwardly.  “You were right,” said Ewen.  “That’s a mother, for sure.”  Then he recalled himself, and pulled a little way back from Keith, who might, after all, have his own opinions about being suddenly embraced; but Keith kept one of his hands on Ewen’s shoulder, so Ewen left his arm round Keith’s waist, and they stood like that as they turned back to the creatures.

The mother raised her head again, and looked straight at them. She rumbled, low and gentle, and the baby added squeaks of its own.  “She’s saying thank-you,” said Keith.  They lifted their hands in farewell – and the creatures shuffled back out of the small circle of lamplight, back into their own world of water and wind and darkness, leaving the two men standing, oddly bereft, knee-deep in the loch and soaked to the skin; but warm where their bodies touched.

-x-

The journey back to Eilean Muireach was subdued, not least because the wind came on a little harder.  Keith said, “Ewen, you promised me a couple of days of quiet fishing.  I’m loath to point this out, but we have not started well.”

“You might say that we’ve caught a bigger fish than most,” rejoined Ewen.  Despite the water working its way down his neck, the stinging in his hands as they pulled on the oars, and the chilly air rising off the loch, he was happy.  Keith was continuing to call him Ewen, after all.  He glanced round at Eilean Muireach, now just a few lengths away.  “You can stop rowing now, and steer us in.”

Keith shipped his oars and moved thwarts, taking the tiller.  The lantern, now shuttered, was on the bottom-boards, giving out very little light; Ewen could just see his angular face as he peered ahead through the flying drizzle.  “Keep going – pull right – two more strokes – you’re there.”

The boat nosed up to the jetty; they clambered out of it, fastened the painter to a rock, and stumbled up towards their tent.

“Still standing, for a mercy,” said Keith.

They passed the fire, pausing to give it a stir before re-banking it, then stripped and got into dry shirts before wriggling back into their blankets.

Keith blew the lantern out, and a few minutes later, his voice came out of the dark.

“Ewen?”

“Mm?”

“Did all that really happen?”

“I hope so.  Or we’ve been soaked to the skin for no reason.  Go to sleep, Keith.”

There was a grunt from the other side of the tent, and then, barely discernible above the sound of the wind in the branches of the cherry-trees, the sound of steady breathing, quietening down towards slumber.  Ewen turned on one side, pulled the blanket up round  his neck, and let himself drift.  He was content.

-x-

They were wakened before dawn by a chorus of birdsong as bright and fresh as sunlight itself, and considerably more noisy.  There was a yawn from Keith, followed by a silence, and then he began to crawl out of his blankets.

“Good morning!” said Ewen.

Keith pulled back the tent-flap.  “And it is a good morning,” he observed.  “Wind’s changed in the night.”  A cool draft of air came in and fell across Ewen’s face; he sat up and fumbled his way out of the blankets.  Kneeling at Keith’s side, he surveyed the morning.  Mist lay on the loch, but overhead the sky was palest blue, foreshadowing a very fair day.  Fallen cherry petals lay in great swirls on the water, but overhead, new blossoms were already opening.  The wind had indeed changed; a soft breeze came out of the south to caress their faces.

“Maybe our clothes will dry before we return to civilization,” remarked Keith.  He crawled back into the tent, rather to Ewen’s disappointment, for he had been enjoying the warmth of the Englishman’s body so close to his own.  Today he must speak! - it was ridiculous to be so shy, after all they had endured together.  But the risk of rejection – though Keith would be as courteous as possible, he knew –

The object of his dilemma, clad in his shirt and dragging his blanket, passed him at the tent door and stood up.  He swung the blanket round him.  Ewen followed suit, securing his own blanket with a silver cloak-pin that he had worn on his jacket, and pulled his belt round his waist.  Looking at Keith, said, “I can fasten that more securely, if you wish.”

“I would be grateful.  It’s damned chilly like this.”  Keith was looking distinctly rumpled, and quite delectable; he stood quietly while Ewen tugged and twitched at the blanket, and made a knot high up on the shoulder where it would cause the blanket’s folds to fall just so.  Keith fastened his own belt round his waist, and caught the surplus fabric over his arm, like a toga, and allowed that he was warm and comfortable enough.

The light was stronger now, Ewen nudged the fire into fuller life, with thoughts of putting oatmeal on to heat, and they arranged their damp things on suitable branches. Then he heard Keith’s voice from the waterside, sharp with surprise.

“The boat’s gone!”

The last remnants of Ewen’s drowsiness vanished; he rushed down to join Keith on the little beach.  It was small enough to be sure that the boat had indeed gone, but he still looked round wildly, as if expecting it to be hidden among the trees or perched on the low, squared rocks of the jetty. 

“How could that happen?” he said, foolishly.  “Ah, it’s plain enough.  The wind changed in the night, and we didn’t secure it well enough.  We’d had a strange time of it, to be sure.”

They both gazed out over the water towards Eilean nan Con, looming ghostly through the pearlescent mist, just the tops of its few trees showing clearly against the azure sky.  There was silence for a few moments.

“We should walk round the island and check if it’s washed ashore elsewhere.”  Keith, the pragmatic soldier, for all he was barefoot and blanket-clad, was already considering possibilities. 

“Shoes,” said Ewen.  “They’re soaked, but we’ll need them.  And if we can’t find the boat, we’ll have to swim to shore.  It’s half a mile, maybe.  I can do that.”  It was not an enticing prospect, though; the water was cold, and who knew what other creatures lurked in its depths?

“So can I!” said Keith, quickly.  They looked at each other and Keith’s mouth quirked up at the corner, which caused Ewen to smile too. Keith continued, “Just because I’m English, it doesn’t mean I can’t swim your damned loch.”    

“You don’t look English,” said Ewen softly.  “You look like a dark-haired Highlander, and very much at home here.”  That blanket could almost be a small plaid, and he wore it with an air.

“I suppose I should take that as a compliment, so I thank you for it.”  Keith’s mouth tilted up a little further. 

“No compliment, just the honest truth.”

For a moment they stood looking at each other, their situation quite forgotten, while a frisson quivered in the air between them. 

Then there was a splash from the loch.  “What now?” exclaimed Keith, exasperation very evident in his voice.

From beyond Eilean nan Con there came a low ripple.  It travelled towards them out of the mist, and broke in a lapping wavelet upon the soft sand of the beach.  A moment later, Ewen grasped Keith’s arm and pointed.  “Look!”

Their boat, unoccupied and propelled by an invisible force, appeared round the rocks of the islet’s shore.  It travelled fast towards them, more wavelets flowing round it.  Within half a minute it was into the little bay and heading for the beach where they stood.

Ewen had not loosed his hold on Keith’s arm; now he dragged him to one side.  They sprang for the low stones of the tiny jetty.  Then they turned, almost at bay, and watched in nervous anticipation.

A low, rounded shape appeared at the boat’s stern, smooth and fast-moving, and shouldered it towards the beach before disappearing again beneath the water.  The boat surged on and grounded with a soft crunch of its keel on the sand.  The two men stood transfixed at the sight. 

 “It’s our friend from last night,” whispered Keith.

“Oars in it, too,” Ewen added quietly.  “Thank-you,” he called, a little wildly.

“Yes.  Our thanks,” added Keith, recalling his manners.

There was a swirl in the water.  Then the creature’s head rose above the surface, and for the first time they saw it clearly, poised on its long neck, three yards high, with large dark eyes gazing at them.  A dozen yards further out, a smaller head bobbed above the surface, also watching with interest.  For a moment men and beasts regarded each other solemnly.  Then the long neck snaked shorewards.  Both men froze in shock; but both stood their ground.  Closer came the head; closer still, so they could see its long, sharp teeth; then, right in front of them, it stopped.  Keith moved forward slowly, put out his hand, and touched the neck.  The head tossed, but gently; the jaws opened, and it spat onto the jetty two small objects which glinted golden in the strengthening light. 

Rings.

“A gift.  Thank-you, again,” said Ewen softly.

The creature withdrew its head, blinked its dark eyes at them, and turned away in a fluid motion.  It drew in a long breath, and submerged.  The waters closed over it, rippled again, and they thought it was gone.  Then a paddle-shaped limb showed for an instant above the surface, as if in a wave of farewell, followed by another, much smaller, paddle, and a long tail-tip.  And at last, all was still again.

Ewen bent to pick up the rings.  He jumped down from the jetty, swilled them in the water, and turned back to Keith, holding them out.  Keith joined him, and took one of them to look at it more closely.  They were very similar, and were cool and heavy to the touch.  Each was set with five small silvery-grey pearls, in the pattern of a cherry flower.

“They’re gold – and these are freshwater pearls, if I’m not mistaken,” said Ewen in wonderment.  “They must have rolled into the loch from the castle ruins.”

“Beautiful.  A wonderful gift.  I can see why she thought to return the boat when she found it - but how did she know to give us rings?”

“Maybe she saw ours, last night.”  Ewen held out his hand, close to Keith’s.  There was the Prince’s gift, glittering on his own hand; there was Keith’s gold signet.  “Did you notice the size of her eyes?  If she can see through the waters of the loch, she could see our rings.”

“Ah.  And so she thought we would like more rings!  Well, she was right.  They’re beautiful.”  Keith turned his hand, and slid one of the pearl rings onto his finger.  Ewen did likewise.  Then a thought struck him. 

“Keith.  She gave us matching rings.”  The words were out before he could consider them; he could not recall them now; nor did he want to.  He simply stood, heart thumping, waiting as one on a precipice with empty air all round, for the consequences.

Keith looked from his hand to Ewen’s, then up into Ewen’s eyes, with amused acknowledgement in his own.  To Ewen, the morning light seemed to grow brighter; all was still, save for the quiet lapping of the last of the ripples on the beach. 

Then Keith reached out and took Ewen’s hand, the rings touching for a moment, and drew him close.  “So she did.  Well, if the lady of the loch thinks we should be together, who are we to object?”

And at that, Ewen bent his head and kissed him, there under the cherry-trees, with the water lapping softly at their feet and the mist of the morning hiding them from all the world; and it was cool, and quiet, and gentle; and when the kiss was over, each buried his face in the other’s neck, and they stood for a while with their arms wrapped close round  each other.

“I’ve waited a long time for that,” murmured Keith. 

“Why did you wait?” asked Ewen, on a note of soft complaint.

“I’m a redcoat.”  Keith apparently considered this to be all the explanation necessary, or perhaps he could manage no more, for Ewen had begun to kiss along his jawline to his ear, and thence down his neck.

“Ah.  Indeed,” whispered Ewen.  “But you’re not wearing your coat now.  In fact, we’re both wearing altogether too much.”  Ewen’s hands were busy at his cloak-pin, and then his fingers found the knot at Keith’s shoulder, the blankets fell to the sand; and the two of them, after a brief period while they wrestled their shirts off, followed suit.   

-x-

The sun climbed higher, warming Ewen’s back; he raised himself on one elbow and blinked at Keith, who lay as one comatose in the crook of his arm.

“The mist’s going,” he said.  “We should move inland.  Anyone with a telescope will be able to see us soon.”

Keith roused himself with a sigh.  “I could doze here all day.”

“Not just dozing, I hope,” said Ewen, with a quiet laugh.

“No, not just dozing.  I have plans for you, Ewen Cameron.  But you’re right, we should move.”

They got up, and checked the boat again, and washed in the cool waters of the loch, then took their blankets to a little pool of sunlight in the grassy castle courtyard, and lay down together again, and all coherent speech ceased for an hour or so thereafter.  And then they slept the rest of the morning away, for it had been a wild night and a wild morning - and woke again, both of them sun-warmed and a little tanned, at noon-time.

“We should perhaps go fishing, so we have something to show for it when we return,” said Keith reluctantly.

“No need!” said Ewen robustly.  “There are plenty of fishermen who return with nothing more than tall tales.”

“That’s one tale I won’t be telling.”  Keith sat up and peered over at Eilean nan Con, now drowsing in the midday warmth, its rocks and trees sharp and clear and with not a sign of any unearthly creature to be seen.  “What were those creatures, do you think, and what was the youngster doing on land?  It’s not a natural place for it to be.”

“There are tales of strange water-creatures all over the Highlands – kelpies, and water-horses.  I’ll tell them to you, some time.  Now we know where they come from.  As for the baby - gone exploring, maybe, like young creatures the world over.  I’ve done things as foolish myself, as a child.”

“I, too.  Well, let us hope it learned its lesson last night.”

“It’s hard to believe it happened at all, but for these.”  Ewen glanced down at the gold and pearl ring on his finger.  Matching rings, he thought again, and the implications of that did not escape him.  But there would be time enough to speak of that in days to come, if the heron and the lady of the loch were right that he and Keith belonged together.

And indeed, as if he were thinking much the same thing, Keith reached across, and took that hand in his own and kissed it.   “We may, perhaps, tell those who enquire that we found the expedition interesting for other reasons.”  Ewen began to protest, but Keith continued.  “These antiquarian ruins are quite fascinating, for instance.  This was once a castle, I believe?  No doubt there are many other ruins like them, in this savage landscape.  We might go searching, and see them together.  You would be an excellent guide, I am sure.”

“I will put my mind to what may be of most interest to you.  But it’s not ruins which interest me, not at this moment.” He put his arms round Keith again, and drew him down to the blankets.  “We have today, and tonight, of this expedition of exploration left to us.  Let us make the most of it.”

Keith ran his hand up Ewen’s flank, and suddenly shifted them both to lie upon him, his full weight pinning Ewen down and causing him to grunt in appreciative surprise, before kissing him again, most thoroughly, in which Ewen was happy to comply to the full.  “Indeed.”