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The Eagle And The Wren

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It was late December, the time between Christmas and New Year. The cold snows had blown in from the north east and bitter winds meant there wasn’t much chance of the family at Helwater getting out to pay many of the visitations to which they were accustomed at this time of year. Unsurprisingly the shortness of the daylight and days on end of terrible weather had meant William had been even more energetic and temperamental than usual. Unable to get out for much in the way of exercise he had been cooped up driving his Aunt and Grandmother and his poor Nanny quite mad.

 

When the weather finally broke on a cold, crisp and clear morning with bright blue skies and fresh alpine air in the sky Jamie was not at all surprised to see a footman sent down from the house with orders to saddle the little Earl of Ellesmere’s pony.

 

Ever since the events of the last few months with Lord John, the family had been somewhat more accomodating of Jamie’s desire for time with William. As well as the customary riding lesson Jamie would sometimes take the young lad on short hacks around the fields closest to the house. The sturdy pony William rode was well able to cope with it, and it pleased Jamie greatly that William seemed to be at that stage where he wanted to do everything Jamie himself was doing. Knowing their time together would be short made every memory all the more precious.

 

In the clear sky, Jamie looked up and heard a distinctive keening cry. Far up above, Jamie spied the tiny dot of a golden eagle that would be imperceptible to anyone who hadn’t known such birds all their lives. Jamie looked up for a while and then brought his eyes down and found himself watching a wren bob in the hedgerow. It brought to mind an old gaelic tale about the eagle and the wren and that brought a smile to Jamie’s face. Maybe he would tell the tale to William on their ride today.

 

Even the sight of William’s stubborn little face and sturdy crossed arms was not enough to spoil Jamie’s mood. He greeted the lad and assured the nanny they would be just fine and watched her head to the kitchen for a welcome cup of tea. Jamie ignored William’s surly temper and before the lad could complain Jamie scooped him up and placed him securely on top of his pony. Although not yet old enough to start his formal schooling, William was sturdy and strong and his stout little legs straddled the wide girth of his favourite riding pony.

 

‘Glè mhath!’ Jamie fitted William’s foot into the stirrup and patted the lad’s calf. To no avail - William wouldn’t even hold the reins.

 

‘Not riding.’

 

‘Fine. I’ll lead you around like a wee bairn, then.’

 

William sulked. Jamie ignored him. The lad was only out of sorts from being cooped up for too long. Jamie was quite sure a morning in the fresh air would sort his head out soon enough and discarded the notion of trying to get through a formal riding lesson. Instead Jamie took the lead rein and set off.

 

They got about three paces before William kicked off. 

 

‘Nooooo!’

 

Jamie stopped and looked enquiringly at the young Lord Ellesmere.

 

‘Mac ride too!’ 

 

‘Mac is too big and too tall to ride yer pretty wee pony and well ye know it, lad. And I cannae take the other horses out without permission.’

 

This seemed to be all the lad had. So Jamie set off again. William was uncharacteristically quiet and when Jamie turned to check on him William was toying with the withers.

 

‘Mac, carry me.’

 

Jamie smiled. Oh well that was a whole other kettle of fish. ‘I tell ye what, My Lord. Ye’re getting a bit big for being carried but if ye can be good and sit there for a short hack round the fields and back I’ll carry you the last stretch home, do we have a deal?’

 

William looked suspicious. ‘How short?’

 

Jamie laughed. There was a bit of his mother’s Mackenzie blood in the lad after all.

 

William’s mood seemed to improve away from the confines of the house and the family. The fresh air and quiet lifted his spirits and by the time they were twenty minutes into the ride William was grasping the reins and insisting he could manage himself. Jamie’s heart soared at the way the lad looked to him for approval as he set his heels down properly and pointed his thumbs forwards. They went through the lower fields and up towards the hills that over looked Helswater. William’s hardy pony fared well with the drifts of snow until they stopped at a shoulder where the water pooled. Jamie lifted William down to rest his legs, to let the pony get some water and let William have a break from riding. Jamie watched the lad run around playing imaginary games in the ruins of a drystane wall in need of repair and examined the colours of the moss on the stone and thought of Claire and his other child.

 

Jamie pointed out the eagle overhead and told William the old folk tale of the competition between the birds to see who could fly the highest. The story went that the eagle flew higher and higher until all the other birds were out of sight. But the canny wee wren had hidden itself on the mighty eagle’s back and when the eagle had soared out of sight of the other birds the wren launched itself off the eagle’s back and won the race.

‘...And that is how the tiny wee wren became the King of the Birds.’ Jamie tailed off.

Over head the eagle circled, still looking for its lunch. With daylight fading it was time to turn back, looping round along the hill and coming back by some of the lower pastures where the sheep from the hills had been brought down to weather the winter and lamb more safely. The sheep were different down here in England. The native sheep of Scotland were small, slender, tiny little things by comparison. These sheep were huge and round and ate everything in sight and with only a few weeks until lambing they were so fat that more than once a ewe had rolled over to scratch an itch and gotten stuck on its back. Jamie had stared in astonishment the first time he had seen a farm hand here have to cowp a ewe. The thought of having animals that couldn’t look after themselves made a native Highlander shudder. Of course, being a highlander Jamie was more familiar with cattle although his sister Jenny had sometimes had a few fancy pet sheep over the years for their soft wool.

 

As they rounded the corner, in that bizarre way that sometimes happened an event brought to mind moments before was presented right in front of them with a suspicious degree of perspicuity. Right there in the middle of a patch of snow was a fat old ewe with four black legs in the air and a helpless look as the cry of eagle seemed suddenly much closer. A rasping call drew Jamie’s attention to a tree nearby where a raven watched carefully and only a few feet from the sheep a collection of hungry jackdaws inched closer towards the sheep’s alarmed eyes.

 

Shaking his head, Jamie stopped William’s pony.

 

‘What’s wrong?’

 

‘Nothing’s wrong, I’m just going to turn the sheep.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Cause its stuck...and its about ten minutes from getting eaten by our friend up there,’ Jamie pointed towards the sky. Jamie took a deep breath and looked at his son. He knew that twinkle in William’s eye. ‘Ye can help if ye promise to keep a distance.’

 

‘I will!’

 

Jamie took his son’s promise with a pinch of salt but William obediently lifted his arms and Jamie scooped William up and lowered him down. He enjoyed the feeling of William running along at his heels as Jamie’s own long legs ate up the snow-covered ground. His work boots weren’t the best fit but they were at least appropriate for being out in these conditions. Jamie checked to see that William was safe and keeping out of the way and then went to grab the sheep’s legs and tugged. ‘See its easy really. They’re quite tame. Ye just have to have enough strength to get them over onto their side a bit. Mind they don’t kick though. And then they just...’ Jamie waved out at the field.

 

The mild-mannered sheep paused for a moment, tucked its feet underneath it and then trotted off, scattering the jackdaws. 

 

When Jamie looked up, the eagle was gone. ‘They just need a bit o’ help sometimes.’ Jamie looked from his son to his son’s faithful little dumpling pony. ‘A bit like getting you onto a horse, My Lord.’

 

Unperturbed by Jamie’s dry-humoured probing, William insisted it was now time to be carried. Jamie made him walk as far as the end of the lane before agreeing to carry him the rest of the way back.

 

William’s face lit up at Jamie’s agreement and Jamie swung the lad up onto his shoulders, grumbling loudly for William’s benefit about how big William was getting now.

 

By the time they got back to the house the light was fading fast. William’s mount was in need of a hot mash and a warm blanket and William wasn’t much different but the lad was willing and so Jamie patiently let him help put a blanket on his horse and fill the hay and water before leading his son back to the big house. William’s short legs pitter-pattering on the flagstones of the path from the stable to the kitchen where William was returned once more to his indoor life and an astonished Nanny. Gone was the surly, difficult, temperamental child. This one was quiet and almost contented and full of tales of eagles and fat sheep. William insisted on a hug from Mac before he went in and Jamie told him to be good for his Nanny and grandmother.

 

The kitchen staff stared at Jamie, agog. Jamie knew most of the staff were slightly wary of him, but his manner with William was earning him good will both downstairs and up. Jamie only smiled at them and politely enquired about a hot drink and a snack before returning to the stables with joy in his heart. 

 

 

Ten years later...

 

Lord John Grey smiled as he watched his son’s face. The familiar carriage ride from London to Helwater water was long and tiresome but it was always rounded off by the satisfying feeling of getting close to one’s destination. For William especially, Helwater was a place to which John knew his son would always feel a strong attachment. Somewhat bittersweet now though, without so many of the family he had known in younger years. 

 

Lord John watched William take in the familiar scenery with increasing warmth on his face. They couldn’t be more than a mile from the house when all of a sudden William’s face changed and he hit the roof of the carriage, commanding the driver to stop.

 

Abruptly the coach was halted and Lord John was very nearly launched out of his seat in a rather undignified manner. ‘William! Whatever is the matter?’

 

‘Hang on, Father. I’ll be right back.’

 

Lord John sighed in frustration and resignation as his son opened the door and launched himself out of the carriage. It was the end of the Michaelmas term and they were heading to Helwater to spend a few weeks at William’s childhood home for Christmas and New Year. The entire journey had been cold and damp and John was eager to get to Helwater and get inside.

 

‘You couldn’t perhaps wait and relieve yourself when we arrive?’ Lord John called out in vain into the half-dark.

 

But his son didn’t seem interested in stopping to relieve himself after all. Instead William launched himself over a drystone wall and into a field of sheep.

 

‘William!’

 

‘I won’t be a moment, Father!’

 

To Lord John’s astonishment, William headed straight towards one sheep which seemed to be lying flat on its back with its legs in the air. Without so much as a by-your-leave William grabbed the poor animal by the legs and hauled it over onto its side. The docile animal gently found its footing and trotted off happily to the rest of the herd, apparently unperturbed by the manhandling.

 

Lord John stared at his son in bewilderment as he returned sedately to the carriage in his expensive Saville Row clothing and slightly muddy hands which he wiped down on a kerchief.

 

‘Well, well...’ The coach driver muttered under his breath and Lord John saw him share a look with John’s own manservant sitting by the driver’s side.

 

‘What?’ Lord John asked them.

 

‘Nothing, My Lord.’

 

 ‘What on earth was that about, William?’ Lord John looked from the coach driver to his son in search of some enlightenment. 

 

The coach driver hid a wry smirk under his hat and shrugged one shoulder but said nothing.

 

‘They get stuck sometimes,’ William said, as if that explained everything and then set his jaw in a manner John knew to mean his son had no intention of explaining himself further. William nodded at the coach who obediently set the reins ready to resume.

 

‘I’ll say this,’ The driver muttered to his colleague, ‘Not often you see a man of his station prepared to get his hands dirty.’

 

Down below, William was halfway back into the carriage when he stuck his head back out. ‘Well they are my sheep, aren’t they?’

 

‘Indeed my Lord. Begging your pardon, Sir.’

 

William looked at the driver for a long moment and then let it go, only for his attitude to switch in the directions his Stepfather’s curious and interrogating eyes. He gave Lord John a sharp look of rebuke in response.

 

Lord John paid it no mind. ‘Well I suppose if being an Earl doesn’t work out we can always train you up as a shepherd.’ John ribbed his son, hoping it might help lighten his mood and open him up a little. ‘Although I do believe that’s rather the point of employing farm hands.’ No one was more acutely aware of William’s privilege and station in life than Lord John Grey. And no one was more acutely aware of how unlikely it was for the Earl of Ellesmere to personally traipse into a sheep field in his best travelling cloak and rescue a slightly muddy ewe.

 

‘Mac showed me once,’ William added softly and then made every pretence at pretending the matter closed.

 

Lord John’s mouth opened in a silent, ‘Ah!’ and noted the way his son’s hand automatically went to the rosary around his neck. A quote came into his mind, a quote he knew his old friend would know well. And probably in the original Greek. ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’

 

‘Aristotle,’ William recognised. ‘Mac knew all the Ancient Greeks.’

 

‘Indeed?’ Lord John smiled and stared at his son. Did Jamie know the influence he still held over his son, all these years down the line.

 

‘Did he ever tell you the story of the eagle and the wren, Father?’

 

Lord John couldn’t take his eyes off William. His son was growing into a man and it wouldn’t be much longer before William would have to leave him and find his own way in life. It was a balm to his heart to know that as hot headed and fickle as his son could be at times, at least some of what he and Jamie had tried to teach the boy had stuck over the years. ‘I don’t believe he did. Why don’t you tell me over Supper?’