It’s not yet dark enough out to be truly black, and above them the trees loom tall against a deep grey-blue. The fire crackles. A man lays propped up on his side, one sturdy shoulder braced against the forest floor. The fingers of his other hand, half-covered by the dirty hems of his sleeves, curl with the stiffness of an old wound against the long end of a twig as he pokes carefully at their little fire.
“And ye insist ye won’t be going to bed without a tale, then.”
“Aye,” she says, in her most stubborn, bull-headed voice, crossing thrice-bundled arms over each other as best as she can through the lumpy layers of clothing. “You promised yesterday that when we’d found a spot hidden in big trees then we’d start a fire and have a story.”
“Did I now.”
“Mama says only cowards break promises.”
This, of course, pulls a laugh from his chest, bubbling in its surprise, and he slips a hand easily ‘round the back of her little head in an affectionate, gentle cuff. She is tall for her age but still so small that his palm covers almost all of her hair as he tousels it, and he watches her nose, so like his own, wrinkle just like her mother’s does in distaste. Still, she is giggling too. He thinks, fleeting and aching, that she breaks his heart at times -- with the trust she bestows him so regularly, with the ease with which she takes on each new unpredictable day.
He wonders if she ever had time to get used to sleeping in a bed.
“Ye have me there, ye wee rascal. Come over, then -- mind the flame -- cannae have ye be tellin’ yer mam I’m a coward.”
Already halfway in his arms, she looks up with the immediate regret of a child. “I don’t think you’re a coward, Da!”
“Dinna fash, a leannan, I ken ye don’t. Though I am of the belief that ye’ve inherited yer bravery from yer ma.”
She hmphs, disgruntled by his deflection of her attempts to protect his honour, and he pokes her twice in the small point under her ribs that always makes her squirm; she does so with a vehemence.
“Da-a,” as is a reprimand and giggle at once -- she is canny enough to catch him at his own game, and disallow the teasing avoidance of her coveted bedtime story.
“Aye, alright. Where were we.”
“Hm.” Shifting, he tucks her between the lapels of his coat, frayed by travel at the edges but none the lesser warm for it. His own back faces the open cold of the forest’s false quietude, and the rosy spots of her nose and cheeks face the warmth of the fire. It catches in the red of her hair, and he watches it, bright under his chin, as she makes herself comfortable. Then he yelps. “Ach -- Bree!”
“Yer hands’re like ice -- what’s my puir neck ever done tae ye, t’assault it so --”
Another giggle, with that guileless mischief he’s come to adore so dearly in the lash-framed corners of her wee eyes. “Story please,” she says, a picture of innocence between bouts of laughter, cold fingers resolutely stuck in the open collar of his shirt.
“We made a deal, a nighean.”
“I was goin’ to tell you.”
“Before or after they shrivelled up an’ fell off from cold -- ack! Wee beastie -- dinnae go off in yer giggles, now --”
She only burrows in further; in an instinct he’s sure to be older than time itself, his arms tighten their hold around her, drawing her close enough that he can hear the butterfly beat of her small heart even through the layers of fabric. A sliver of tension releases through his next exhale.
“Alright, alright -- ye wanted a tale, an’ then bed. All settled, then?”
“Nighean mhath. Let’s see.” He takes a moment to watch the hypnotic snap and flicker of the flames, immutable in front of them. They haven’t risked a fire in near three days, and the familiar crackle brings both sharp relief and the thin, reedy flicker of anxiety. Finally, he starts.
“Many many years ago, in the aulden times, there lived a young woman who was of the faeries. She was a bonny thing -- the most bonny lass ye may have e’er laid eyes on, wi’ hair like black earth and eyes like the gems of auld an’ a laugh that made the forests sing. She lived with her kin in a land beyond the sky, as the faeries did back then, and she was well and happy.
One day, the good faerie woke to find herself in a place most unfamiliar, and she learned soon that she had fallen down through the clouds to the land of men. But she was brave an’ canny as naught, an’ so she got herself up and set out through the forest, determined to find her way. Soon she found herself lost, in a place she didnae ken, and it was here she met a lad. The lad came up over the hill to the faerie, an’ he said t’her, mistress, I dinnae --”
“No, Da, you’ve got to do it with th’voices.”
“The voices, ‘s always more good when y’do everyone’s voices.”
“Och, my mistake. I shall strive to do voices then, as the lady commands.”
“Alright, keep goin’.”
“Right. Now, he -- ye dinnae think th’lad might sound jest like me?”
She contemplates this a moment, the softness of her cheek resting against the rough wool of his coat lapel.
“Well, alright then,” she decides. “But everyone else, y’must do voices.”
“Aye, aye, alright. Where was I. So, the lad -- he came upon her o’er the hill, an’ he said t’her, mistress, I dinnae ken where ye’re from or where ye go, but if I may be of service, then let me do so, as it pleases ye. The faerie wasnae certain, as she’d never met a man before, and though she didnae show it her wame was filled wi’ fear. But she saw the lad’s face, and kent in her heart that he was good an’ kind an’ knew of honour, an’ so she accepted his friendship wi’ grace, and they were on their way.
Together, they crossed through the forest and arrived at a moor, for the lad kent those parts well. An’ together, they travelled over the heather and came upon a river, and there they stopped to rest. Now, though the lad was good an’ kind an’ knew of honour, he was only a puir farmer, an’ didnae have but a wee copper penny to his name, smaller than yer own last toe. But he had fallen in love wi’ the faerie lass, and so, by the green o’ the moor behind them, the lad took the faerie’s hands in his own, an’ he told her that he loved her, an’ that he’d offer her the riches of the land if he could but all he could give her then was that which he held in his heart.
The faerie lass knew in her soul that she loved him back, but she was of the fae folk, an’ she missed her kin somethin’ fierce. So she told the lad, I cannae marry ye --”
A loud, irreverent giggle bursts from the place between his arms.
“Have I said somethin’ amusin’, seillean-mòr?” He is sure he knows the reason why, and attempts to make his voice as unimpressed as possible, all the same.
“You sound funny as a lass, Da.”
“Ach, now. Who said she wouldnae be content ‘til I did the voices.”
“I know, I know, keep goin’. The faerie lass’s gotta tell him she loves him back.”
“Ye cannae know that’s what she’ll do,” he mutters, but picks up where he left off. “I cannae marry ye, she told the lad, wi’ great sadness in her heart, for ye dinnae ken who I am. I am of the faeries, an’ to them I must return, for they are my folk an’ kin and I dinnae belong in the world of men.
The lad heard her well and he heard her true, an’ though he wished for naught but to fall to his knees and weep, he told her that he kent a boat at the top of a faerie hill, that might take her home, over the sea to sky. But the faerie learned then that the lad’s love for her was true, an’ she couldnae have bared to be parted from him, an’ so she didnae board the boat. She came back down the hill, and took him up in her arms, an’ told him she loved him an’ would marry him, an’ they wept together in joy.
And they were happy, and in love, as they returned to the moor by the river an’ lived for a time in peace. But the faerie lass came to the lad one night, and told her beloved that she kent they wouldnae be safe for long. For she was one of the Auld Ones, and had the Sight, and had seen great misery and war would be comin’ to the fair meadows where the lad did dwell.
Now, in the land of men there were good men and bad, and one’ve these bad men was a king, his soul blackened wi’ his wicked ways. He’d learned, ye see, of the faerie lass, who had fallen down from the sky to the moor, an’ he kent of the lad who loved her, an’ he wished for naught but to do them harm. The wicked king set off after ‘em in pursuit, and captured the lad, an’ took him far from moor and fen and his lovely faerie wife. But the faerie lass was, as ye know, bonny and canty and clever and good, an’ men from all across the land knew by now to admire her bravery. She set off on horseback, an’ rode an’ rode an’ rode, and rescued her beloved from the Devil afore any harm could be done.
The wicked king tried to pursue, howling all the way --” he drops his voice to a comical wail, and is rewarded with a squirm and giggle for his efforts -- “but the faerie and her lad brought his wicked castle down around him with a great bang! And he couldnae harm them no more.
But War had come to the land.
The lad knew that the wars of men were no place for his beloved, an’ so on the eve of battle he took her hand an’ brought her back to the faerie hill wi’ its boat of magic, an’ he said to her --”
The story stops. He can hear the waver in his own voice, its sudden catch, and he takes a moment to breathe in the clear forest air, sharp with the chill of nighttime. The smoke and dampened bracken lays grounding on his tongue. Carefully, he brings one of his daughter’s small hands up to his mouth and presses his lips against it, in a gentle motion he knows will not disturb her in its familiarity. Her fingers are already warmer than before, buried as they were against the hot skin of his neck; in this, he thinks, she’s like her mother too, and the corner of his mouth flicks upward at memories of many an icy toe pressed against his leg in the haven of their marriage bed. An exhale, deliberate.
The tremble in his hand -- forged by a memory of fear so bone deep he has never been able to truly shake it -- does not leave entirely as he continues, but his voice is firm.
“Ye must go now, said the lad, away from all of this tae where ye belong, over the sea to sky. For he loved her, an’ would see her safe. The lad and faerie lass didnae ken that they’d been blessed wi’ child, and the faerie lass was braver than he, so at his words she drew the blade that had bound them in marriage, and said to her beloved, I willnae leave ye, not now nor ever, for I love ye and will stand with ye even in death. And the lad kent in his heart that her words were true, and gathered her up in his arms, and cried for joy.”
“Da?” This time, he pauses and cranes his neck to look down at the ruddy crown of her head. She’s turned to look up at him, rosy-cheeked and brown-eyed.
“I don’t understand. If there’s a war then they’ll both be hurt. They’re s’posed to be happy.”
“Ach, dinna fash, a leannan. They get away.”
“Oh aye. They gather their things an’ ride far away, together.”
“With their bairn.”
“Aye, wi’ the bairn God blessed ‘em with.”
“Oh,” says Bree, wriggling so that she’s able to look up at him properly. There’s a smudge on her nose, likely from the muck they’d tried skirting around earlier than afternoon, almost silly in its errant dirtiness. A stark reminder of how young she is, and how she might have found herself dirtied like that in mischief, and not difficulty. “Well, tha’s alright then.” She’s quiet for a moment, mulling it over.
She’s heard the story before, he’s sure -- has asked for it, even. He wonders what it is about this particular retelling that has her so contemplative, and, reflexive, he rolls them over such that his back is pressed against the pitiful bedroll and the bracken, and Bree is a gentle, comfortable weight resting atop his chest. She props her chin against one hand, and looks at him for a long moment, firelight flickering across their matching features. Even with the childish softness that rounds her cheeks, he can recognize his mother’s cheekbones, and the sharpness of her little nose.
Jamie’s chest aches again, broken and mended at once.
“Dè th 'ann, m’annsachd.”
“Are Mama and Willie goin’ t’be alright? ‘Til we find ‘em, I mean.”
“Aye.” Carefully, shoulders stiffening against the forest floor. “Ye arenae worried about ‘em, are ye?”
“Well,” she says, in her practical child’s voice. “Not about Mama. She’s braver’n the faerie lass, I think.”
“Oh, aye.” He wonders again, at the gifts he’s been given. “That she is.”
“But Willie’s just a bairn,” Bree finishes, in a conspiratorial whisper, as though her swaddled, infant brother is sitting there beside them and might take offence to her disbelief in his abilities. Consideration for other people’s feelings, he knows, has been a lesson well and fine drilled into her beautiful little head. Despite himself, his mouth stretches into a smile.
“Ach, yer Mam willnae let anythin’ happen tae him. Ye ken that, do ye not?”
“Bree.” His hand shifts from its place at her back to cup her face. “Coimhead an seo. As I willnae let anythin’ happen to you.”
She nods, knowing, but the tiny thread of concern that knits her brows together stays. He feels it, like a club battering the edges of his soul, superseding the tiredness of his limbs and the worry that’s been gnawing at his own mind, and he tightens his grip on her. The crushing force of the embrace is gentled by the many layers covering them; at any rate, Bree doesn’t seem to mind.
He has her, he thinks -- will see her safe, in every way he is able. He cannot conceive a world where that cannot be true.
“Look at me, a leannan.” She does. “Are ye frightened?”
She shakes her head, a bobble-like motion. “No,” she says, drawing it out as he does.
“We’ll meet them in a week from now as we’re meant to,” he says. “Ye musn’t fash over it. Aye?”
“Alright,” she says, an easy acceptance, and takes the conclusion of this topic as leave to go boneless over top of him and emit a whining, silly, drawn-out sigh. He groans, exaggerated, in response, and Bree giggles -- the expected, desired reaction -- but lets her head drop, the rest of her still wrapped in the excess of his coat, to peer at him.
“Are your aches ‘n things back, Da?”
“Hmm? No. It isnae damp tonight.”
“Not even your leg?”
“Or your hand? We haven’t got Mama’s medicine box.”
He tugs gently at a stray lock of her hair and brushes a knuckle over her cheek in the same motion, a movement so habitual that it melts into the shadows around them. “Dinna fash, m’annsachd. No aches an’ things tonight. But yer a brave lass, carin’ for yer father so.”
She smiles, sweet as the first drop of honey in a spoon, and again he feels his throat tighten and release in one go.
“Right,” he says, with a huff of business infused back into his voice. “Now, ‘tis time to sleep --” an expected groan of protest, and so he gently chucks the edge of her chin, carrying on firmly -- “as I kept my end of the bargain, an’ now so must you.”
For all her stubbornness and mischief she’s always been a well-mannered little thing, he thinks -- a gentle sweetness in her trust of them that he cannot imagine ever living without. They shift, settling, into a bedtime routine that has branched and adapted from the one that existed only those few short weeks ago. Bree stays curled against his chest, barely weighing a mite, and his arms are free to reach for his dirk or pistol if need be. “Ye had enough to eat then? Stomach all full? I ken the rabbit wasnae very big.”
“An’ ye’ve said yer prayers?”
“Good lass. An’ ye’ve relieved yerself, as ye need to?”
“I don’t have to go.”
“If ye’ll be wakin’ up yer auld man in the middle of th’night tae take a pish I willnae be well pleased --”
“You’re th’one who always wakes up --”
“Ach, I do no’ --”
“Do to. I’ve seen it an’ everythin’, an’ you can’t say no ‘cause you’ve got to put me down when you do it an’ so I know.”
The peer at each other a moment, in an unyielding impasse. Finally, Jamie says,
“If ye must go, go now.”
“Oh, so now ye went.”
“Alright, alright!” He pulls their spare blanket, folded but not rolled by his other side beside their pack, and tugs it over them as she settles properly, small breaths evening out. Cradled, so much bigger than she was as a bairn and yet so small, Jamie presses his lips against her hair, and lets himself relax by a fraction against the uncomfortable ground. The fire beside them crackles.
“We’ll hafta put it out,” comes Bree’s voice, muffled by his shirt. Already it carries the gentle thickness of sleep that comes so quickly to children.
“Dinnae mind that now. Ye leave that t’me.”
“Aye, Da.” She shifts just a bit, and then says, “‘M happy the faerie an’ her lad got away.”
A deep inhale; the forest around them swells with its false quietude. He feels the evening out of her gentle breaths, and the butterfly beat of her precious heart, and closes his own eyes, one hand cradling the back of his child’s head.
“Me too, a leannan. Sleep now. I have ye.”