In the industry and toil of August, Ewen had almost forgotten that Keith would soon be coming. It was not harvest-time yet, and the cattle were at the summer grazing, but there was plenty else to do—he had a scheme this year to convince his tenants to adopt the potato, and had been providing them with seed potatoes. He was sure that they would soon adopt it on their own when they discovered the benefits—indeed, some had taken to it enthusiastically, having heard from neighbouring clansmen who had already tried it of the high yield, and of the ease of planting it in stony soil where plowing was difficult.
But some were skeptical, as indeed was only reasonable until a new practise had proved its worth: one should not trust one's life to something which might fail, instead of old proven methods. To that, Ewen replied that it was not meant to replace corn, only to supplement it, and was not one more crop a means to spread the risk? And it would reduce their reliance on the Lowlands, if they could grow potatoes where corn would not grow.
At any rate, they had been eating the first of the new crop this summer. Ewen's cook Fenella was unfortunately one of those difficult to convince: she had complained that she was sure she did not know what to cook from these new-fangled mushy tubers. Ewen had left it to Aunt Marget to handle this.
But in odd moments of his busy days, or in the evenings just as he was going to bed, he felt the flare of that secret, hidden joy: Keith was coming.
Ewen was not difficult to read for Margaret Cameron, who saw her nephew breaking out in smiles for no apparent reason, for she had seen the arrival of that envelope with Captain Windham's handwriting a week ago. But she said nothing of it. She had, in the first year, hoped that his feelings for Windham were only a passing fancy, but five years had passed, and she was resigned to the permanence of the relationship, though still worried by it.
Having spent the morning taking stock and planning for necessary purchases in Inverness, Ewen had felt that he might perhaps reward himself a little, and was currently drifting on Loch na h-Iolaire in their small rowboat. He idly watched the bit of wood bobbing on the water, that might at any moment be pulled beneath it by a trout taking his bait. To be sure he would be very glad of trout for supper, and if Keith should happen to come today, it would be a treat for him, but even should he catch no trout at all, he was content.
The day was overcast, and the morning had been rainy, but the clouds had lifted and the landscape had now such a charming freshness to it, and he pondered whether he had seen the loch this precise shade of blue before, that was tempered by the grey of the reflecting clouds—
The piece of wood disappeared, and Ewen's hands, acting despite the distraction of his mind, pulled in the line until the silvery spotted fish flopped into the boat, and killed it with a quick flash of his sgian. There, that was one. Ewen looked at the still-twitching fat trout happily as he baited his hook anew.
His thoughts this time wandered rather farther afield, with the very natural distraction of a young man expecting a lover whom he has not seen in nearly half a year.
An hour later, Ewen could not help regarding the third trout he pulled up as a good omen: surely Keith would arrive today, now that dinner was provided for him. He rowed to the shore, presenting his catch to Fenella, and with a hopeful view, told her to prepare for company.
And whether it be because of the trout, or Ewen's longing, or Keith's own impatience to reach Ardroy, an hour before supper Ewen did fact see the familiar sight of Lively making her way along the trail past Loch na h-Iolaire from the north, with a travel-weary Keith on her back.
Ewen went light-footed to meet him, and Keith dismounted. No embraces were possible, for they were in full sight of the house and several of the tenants' dwellings, but Ewen could say, in a low voice, 'Welcome home, mo chridhe.'
'Thank you, m'eudail.' It had been entirely too long since Ewen had seen Keith's smile.
Aside from his smile, he looked travel-worn and rather in need of a new uniform coat, for it had seen most of the Highlands by now, and his boots and stockings were mud-stained. There was a dark shadow of stubble on his cheeks. Some time ago, he had got tired of always wearing a wig in the Highlands, for his own short hair dried faster, and at all events, not all officers wore one in the field.
'I look disreputable, I know,' said Keith, at Ewen's prolonged gaze at him.
'I would not say that,' protested Ewen, who rather liked the way Keith's hair was now curling round his ears. He lowered his voice. 'Perhaps 'tis as well that I cannot kiss you as I would like, for your stubble would certainly leave marks on me.'
'I shall shave before supper, and make myself presentable,' promised Keith, looking amused. 'I hope I have not missed it?'
'No, and we shall have fresh trout. I pulled them up not an hour ago.'
'Excellent—I am ravenous.'
Keith did indeed make himself presentable, coming down the stairs clean-shaven and be-wigged, and in a clean coat and breeches. Ewen thought he made the effort as much for Aunt Marget as for himself, for he always took care to be respectful towards her.
Keith praised the trout, and at Ewen's prompting, also the potatoes, to Fenella, who had tried frying them in butter this time. Ewen thought it delicious, but then, butter could make anything better.
The conversation was lively, for they had to catch Keith up on events at Ardroy, and the interest from Keith's side was quite sincere, for he always participated in planning during the winter, but was not present in the summer when their plans were carried out.
'And the potatoes, I take it, have been a success?' asked Keith.
'Yes, for the most part, but all the tenants are not convinced yet.' Ewen extended his leg towards Keith under the table, capturing his foot, since other touches were forbidden him. Keith reacted with only the tiniest quirk of his mouth, and then let his own foot slide up along Ewen's calf.
'You are come from Caithness, Ewen tells me,' said Aunt Marget. 'What is it like?'
'Flat—you would hardly believe it is counted among the Highlands,' replied Keith. 'But I do not prefer it, for I have never seen such expanses of useless boggy ground.' He made a small grimace.
Ewen knew that Caithness was the last portion of the Highlands to be covered on the survey in which Keith was employed. He had wondered for some time what the British Army, that jealous mistress, would demand of Keith after it was over, and, in some apprehension over the answer, which might perhaps take Keith far overseas for years, he had not asked him.
Seeing Keith sit there so comfortably, their feet now nestled against each other under the table, Ewen sighed at the impossibility of his own yearning. If he but could, Ewen would have him there every day, but he thought it was not only the practical obstacles in their way which prevented this. Ewen himself was a profoundly domestic creature, for aside from occasional visits to friends and family, he would really be happy to spend his whole life at Ardroy, which indeed he thought a world enough for anyone. He had his hills and braes, his beloved loch, his foster-family and his tenants, and as for ambition, he was content to manage and improve the agricultural yield of the land.
And if he could but have Keith, to wake up at his side every morning such as any married couple did, he would have asked no more of life. Save, of course, for King James on the throne and Lochiel alive again and back in Achnacarry.
But Keith, he thought, was of a more restless and ambitious nature. He had come to care for Ardroy, perhaps mostly for Ewen's sake, but would he be content to live there? Ewen thought not.
Keith was here now, though, and he would make the most of that. When the house had fallen asleep, Ewen slipped out of bed and padded on silent feet to Keith's bed-chamber, having thoughtfully oiled the hinges of both doors earlier in the week so that they would not squeak. And Keith was waiting for him, naked in the bed.
The next day dawned with blustery showers of rain, but Ewen, with a lifetime's experience of the weather patterns round Ardroy, squinted up at the sky and predicted that the clouds would lift and the sun emerge later in the day. He suggested to Keith that they ascend Beinn Tigh, for Ewen had not done so since before the Rising.
Keith raised an eyebrow. 'You think I have not had enough of traipsing across the countryside?'
'I am sorry—to be sure, you should have a day of rest!' said Ewen, contrite.
'No, I was only jesting. We will climb Beinn Tigh, if you wish it, but only when I am satisfied that the rain will stop.' For Keith knew well that Ewen had suggested it so that they could have some time alone.
Ewen's prediction indeed came true, and they set off on foot through a weather still changeable, but where the sun shone through the clouds more often than not, and a distant sunlit shower of rain gave them a far-off rainbow, the weather they called sian grèine in the Highlands. They rounded the formidable flank of Meall a' Choire Ghlais and followed the Allt Bealach Easain, swollen by the recent rain, up its steep-sided little glen.
By that time the sky was entirely clear, save for a frowning line of clouds far to the west, which Ewen trusted would stay there, and they addressed themselves to the steep slope of Beinn Tigh. Soon they both had to stop to take off a layer of clothes, for it grew hot in the sun.
Ewen wished he could have worn a kilt, instead of breeches, and indeed he not infrequently did so, as did a number of his tenants. As time passed, the magistrates had become quite lax in enforcing the laws against Highland dress, in part perhaps because the law did not specify who was to pay for the upkeep of the man condemned to the specified six months of jail. But he never did so with Keith, for he did not wish to expose him to any accusations of not doing his duty, should they meet with anyone.
'Come here,' said Keith playfully, standing a little higher on the slope.
'Yes?' Ewen climbed up to him, and Keith took his face in both hands and kissed him.
'How does it feel, to turn your face up for a kiss?' For Keith, higher on the slope, now had the advantage of height.
Ewen laughed. 'A little strange—I've never done it before, I believe, at least while standing! But I'll take your kisses any way I can get them.'
Now both in shirtsleeves, they continued up the grassy slope. Ewen's leg was now, after several years, fully healed, and he only felt it as a twinge at the end of a long day's work. He took deep breaths of the cool mountain air, taking joy from the physical exertion and the way his body gladly did the bidding of his mind, for he knew now that it was not something he could take for granted.
Keith was climbing beside him with a spring in his step. His occasional grumblings about barbarous and unnecessary mountains were only for show, as if he were not ready to let go of these trappings of the English disposition—in fact, he was very fit after his years traversing the Highlands, and perfectly comfortable with heights.
They gained the summit, and the view near took Ewen's breath away. They could see out away to the sea in the west, a deep dark blue, with the narrow sea lochs clasping hands with the outstretched fingers of the steep jutting land. To the east, across the straight trough of Glen More that lay as if a giant had sliced a butter knife through the Highlands, was the grey mass of the Monadhliath, with a hint of the snow-capped Cairngorms beyond. But Ardroy and Loch na h-Iolaire was out of sight, behind the shoulder of Meall a' Choire Ghlais.
Ewen turned to Keith, his heart full to the brim at the breathtaking beauty of it. Keith's expression was rather of the satisfaction of a job well done, as a man looks at a field after plowing it, or at a flock of sheep after the shearing.
'What is that loch over there?' asked Ewen, pointing at a loch to the west, between them and the coast.
Keith squinted at it. 'That is Loch Quoich.'
This was correct.
Keith looked at him suspiciously. 'Are you testing me?'
Ewen only grinned at him. 'And the peak just west of it?'
Keith's eyebrows came together in thought. 'Sgùrr a' Mhaoraich, I believe.'
Ewen laughed for joy—he had not in fact known the name of that peak himself, for he had never been to the western side of Loch Quoich. 'I believe you know the Highlands better than I do, now.'
'I may have seen all of the Highlands, from Kintyre to Caithness, but I cannot hope to compete with the depth of your local knowledge,' replied Keith, with an answering smile.
'I remember when you came here first. You were, I believe, disgusted.'
'Oh, certainly.' Keith looked at him sideways. 'And you wonder what my feelings are now?'
'I do,' confessed Ewen. It was a wish dear to his heart, that Keith should come to love Ewen's home as he himself did.
'Well, I am certainly not disgusted,' Keith said, then added wryly, 'except when I am wet through—I find it difficult to be charitable, then.'
He paused in thought for a while, looking out over the landscape. 'I cannot possibly love this place as you do, for that comes from a deeper attachment: this is your family home, and you have lived here all your life. And yet, a piece of my heart certainly belongs here now, for I think I could not love you without having some fondness for this land that you love, as well. And I have learned to see its beauty, over the years.'
'I am very glad to hear you say that,' said Ewen quietly. They stood so a while, in silence. A buzzard passed below them, soaring on the rising air.
Beinn Tigh was very nearly a round cone, save for where a ridge extended towards the north-east. Keith was now walking round the summit, carefully surveying the slope on every side.
'I believe we will be quite alone for a while.'
'Oh?' Ewen raised his eyebrows.
'You mean you had nothing in mind for this climb but showing me the view?'
'This view is not enough for you?' replied Ewen, playing innocent.
'Very well,' said Keith, a playful challenge in his voice, 'if you will not do your marital duties by me, I suppose I will have to satisfy myself.'
Keith went over to a bed of springy crowberry, spreading his coat upon it. He shed his breeches, stockings and boots, pulled his shirt over his head, and lay down on his side. From a pocket, he brought out a jar of saddle-oil, dipping his fingers in it, and with one knee pulled up, he reached behind himself.
Ewen looked at his compact, muscular body, that showed all the strength he had gained over five years of climbing in the Highlands (not that he had been weak before) and at Keith's oiled finger slowly pressing inside himself, and he found himself quite distracted from the view of the landscape around him, and watching avidly.
'Still shirking your duties?' Keith asked, further along in his thorough preparations.
'Since you are putting on such a show for me, surely my duty at this point is to admire it,' Ewen pointed out. 'And admire it I do—ah, Keith, I have wanted you so.'
'Come and take me, then.' Keith's smile was teasing.
And Ewen made short work of his clothes, lay down behind Keith, used some extra oil on himself, and took Keith up on his invitation.
'Ah, but I have missed this,' Keith groaned, as Ewen slowly but firmly pressed inside him, with Keith bracing himself to take it.
They had tried it the other way round, as well, for perhaps Ewen had felt that he had something to prove: that he trusted Keith to do it, and would not let himself be influenced by the symbolism of the act in the popular mind—in crude terms, that having been fucked over by the redcoats, he would let one of them do so literally. It had been an exercise in vulnerability and trust for Ewen, and the pleasure that he had in fact felt in the act had almost been secondary to that. But Keith was so greedy to be on the receiving end when they had the chance for this act, which was not very often, that Ewen, having well learned how to please him, was glad to oblige him.
Ewen was fully seated inside him now, and he molded his body to Keith's, his hips snugged close against him.
'I am quite ready,' Keith reminded him, with a backward nudge of his hips.
'I know it,' Ewen said, smiling into Keith's neck. 'Be patient.'
Keith snorted, and yes, Ewen knew full well that Keith was not patient, but he also knew that if he drew it out, he could bring him to heights of pleasure that he would not otherwise reach. And Ewen was nothing if not dedicated to Keith's pleasure.
He let his hands roam over Keith's body, briefly alighting on the hard length of him, that leapt eagerly into his hands, and played with him for a little. Then further up, and Ewen leaned over Keith to take his earlobe, which they had discovered was very sensitive, into his mouth to suck on it. Keith let out a shuddering breath, and Ewen gently applied his teeth. He moved his hips a little, and felt Keith clenching round him.
In truth he loved this sense of anticipation, of Keith tense and wanting in his arms, his breathing quick and shallow. Keith turned his head for a kiss, and Ewen felt all that tension and hunger in the way that Keith's mouth sought his.
He gripped Keith's hip and finally gave him that movement they were both craving, and at the first firm thrust, Keith cried out in pleasure, with none of the restraint they both had to show in the darkness of his room at Ardroy. What a joy it was to be free of that, to be naked under the sun, and to make Keith sound like that!
Ewen felt himself a little too close to coming, but no, he could not do that yet. He slowed down, at which Keith voiced disjointed but fervent protest.
'Soon,' Ewen told him, and with his hand on Keith's chest felt the rapid beating of his heart.
Having regained his control, Ewen began to move again.
'Yes,' Keith groaned, and murmuring further demands, he took Ewen's hand to guide it down to where he wanted it. Ewen gripped him firmly at the base.
'Now, Keith,' said Ewen, his voice rough with the effort to ignore his own mounting pleasure. 'Come off for me; I want you to.'
Driving hard into Keith, he felt him lose control. Only then did Ewen begin stroking him, and was rewarded by that state in which Keith seemed too far gone even to cry out, his eyes closed and his mouth open, breathing in short, broken gasps. With fierce satisfaction, Ewen kept moving, giving him what he needed to draw it out still further.
But with Keith convulsing round him so, and seeing him lost in such pleasure, Ewen's control could hold out no longer. He had been very near the edge already, and with a few more thrusts he was over it, and could take his own pleasure at last.
Afterwards, they both lay spent, breath still coming short, the sun and wind having dried the sweat of their exertion, except where their bodies lay against each other. Ewen lay with his nose in Keith's hair, the sunshine coming red and warm through his closed eyelids, feeling himself growing soft, still inside Keith. He loved the intimacy of that lingering connection. Ewen brought his hand down to gently cup Keith, where he was also now soft and vulnerable.
Keith uttered a long drawn-out sigh of satisfaction, and murmured half-incoherent praise of him.
'You shall make me insufferable, if you praise me so,' said Ewen into the back of Keith's neck.
'You may be as insufferable as you please, when you can make me feel like that,' said Keith drowsily.
The sun disappeared. The sudden coolness of the breeze made the hair on Keith's skin stand up, and Ewen stroked his hand over it. Keith made a little noise of dissatisfaction, and Ewen, glancing up at the sky, said, 'It's only a very small cloud, and will soon be gone.'
Indeed, it was, and Ewen sighed as the sun's benediction was upon them again, its warmth and his satiated state combining to make him rather drowsy. He had slipped out of Keith by now, but there was a surfeit of intimacy to make up for it: the whole length of Keith's back and legs fitting against Ewen's front, the smell of Keith's sun-warm skin and hair as his nose lay against it, the slow rise and fall of Keith's chest in breathing. Ewen gathered him closer in his arms.
Keith was already relaxing into slumber, and Ewen followed him.
Some while later, the cry of the buzzard intruded on his sleep, and he stirred. Oh, the luxury of waking up with Keith sleep-warm and drowsy in his arms! They could only do that rarely: on hunting expeditions in the hills, or when they managed to meet in Inverness.
Keith stirred as well, and turned about so that they were face to face. He sighed, and settled himself contentedly against Ewen as though he would fall asleep again, but then made a disgruntled noise and sat up.
Ewen made a questioning little sound, but Keith's purpose was soon clear: he walked the perimeter of the summit again, scanning the slopes. Satisfied that they would continue to be alone, he picked his barefooted way back to Ewen among the rocks.
Ewen looked at Keith's naked form with great satisfaction as he came back to sit beside him. Perhaps he might yet persuade Keith to similarly to take off his clothes and swim in Loch na h-Iolaire with him? But he thought not: while not at all shy in front of Ewen, Keith's sense of propriety in regard to any tenants passing by would prohibit it. And in any case, Keith did not have much enthusiasm for cold water.
'You have got sunburnt, I believe,' Ewen said, running his hand down Keith's slightly reddening side where he had been exposed while sleeping.
Keith looked down. 'So I have. And so have you, as well.'
Yes, it was true—but Ewen did not mind. They sat a while in contented silence, looking out over the vista of Lochaber spread out before them.
Keith broke the silence first. 'There is something I have been meaning to tell you.'
Ewen's heart gave a great thump in his chest. Did he have orders to leave for the continent? Or—
'Don't look like that,' Keith reassured him, reaching out to stroke his hand down Ewen's back. 'It's nothing bad, I promise you.'
Ewen let out a breath, and smiled a little sheepishly. He brought his knees up and leaned his arms on them, laying his head down sideways so that he could look at Keith. 'Tell me, then.'
'The mapping survey of the Highlands is over,' began Keith. 'I have been on detached duty from the Royals, but I have been offered a return to ordinary duty. My battalion is currently stationed in Ireland.'
Ireland, thought Ewen—it could have been worse, but still! It seemed a long way to travel. He struggled not to let it show on his face, for he knew that Keith's career was important to him.
But Keith continued, 'But I have found an alternative. I have negotiated an exchange with a captain in Crauford's regiment, which garrisons the Highland forts, as you perhaps know.'
Ewen's heart began beating faster with hope—but he would let Keith finish.
'I have even profited by it, financially.' Keith gave him an ironic sideways smile. 'I lost my seniority after the court-martial, and this fellow is not at all poorly-placed, but nevertheless he is so eager to leave "this barbarous province"—his words, not mine—that he was prepared to pay for the privilege. It helps, too, that the Royals are rather more prestigious, and apt to be sent on proper campaigns where there is a chance of distinguishing oneself. Of course, payment is not supposed to change hands, but it often happens. And in this case, I think Colonel Crauford would be very happy to wink at it, even if it was brought to his attention, since he will gain an officer who has been in every nook and cranny of the Highlands, and speaks Gaelic besides.'
Ewen had listened to this speech with growing joy and astonishment. 'Where will you be stationed?'
'Fort William,' said Keith.
'Oh, Keith…' Ewen's face surely showed all his considerable emotion. 'But—you spoke of the possibility of distinguishing yourself, in the Royals. You are giving something up, I think.'
'Perhaps. But I am amply recompensed for it.' Keith smiled, and reached out his hand to clasp Ewen's.
Ewen felt his eyes growing suspiciously moist, and leaned over to give Keith a somewhat clumsy, but very heart-felt kiss. 'I am so glad. I have not asked you where you would be stationed, after the survey—perhaps because I was a little afraid of the answer, but also because I did not want to put any pressure on you.'
'Don't exaggerate my sacrifice—I think I might have a greater chance of promotion within the regiment, in Crauford's.' Keith seemed to want to make light of it.
A cloud obscured the sun again, a larger one this time, and Keith found his shirt and began to dress. Ewen did so as well. He made to re-plait his hair, rather disordered by their activities, but Keith stopped him. 'Sit down, and let me do that.'
Ewen obediently sat, and while Keith's fingers combed through his unruly hair and plaited it for him, Ewen remarked innocently, 'Perhaps I should cut it short, and wear a wig instead—I suppose it would be more fashionable.'
Keith's hands tightened. 'You will not,' he said, and Ewen laughed, for he knew well that Keith liked his hair.
'Very well, I suppose will not.'
He stood, and turned to Keith, enfolding him tightly in his arms. 'Keith, I will say it again: I am so glad that I will have you here in the Highlands. I appreciate very much what you are giving up for my sake.'
Keith's arms around him were just as tight. 'And so am I glad, to stay here.'
And so they descended from Beinn Tigh: one man who was born to the Highlands, and another who would stay there for love of him.