Master of the Highlands
Lily smiled gently. Robert was the inquisitive scholar once again. “Yes, we won the war,” she told him. “What else …”she thought aloud. “You obviously know about stuff like planes and cars. ” He nodded impatiently.
“This thing called the Internet was created. It ’s … how should I describe it?” She rubbed her forehead. “It’s a world of pure information where you can search the text of millions of books and learn anything about most everything. ”
“A true wonder!” Robert’s eyes were bright. “Do you mean to say, a man could lose himself for days in a world of thought?”
“Yea, a lot of weirdos do just that, actually, ” Lily laughed. She paused, and then added, “You know, I don’t much miss it. ”
She put her chin in her hand. “Let ’s see, what else? What ’s a really good one?” She brightened suddenly. “Men walked on the moon.”
“On the moon? Truly?”
“The moon.” A beatific look softened his features. “Now that’s a bonny, bonny thing. ”
A subtle but noticeable shift had occurred in the Cameron household, and Lily wasn ’t sure if it was more a source of pride or aggravation. The staff was treating her less like a peer and more like a member of Ewen ’s inner circle, albeit an odd one. Everyone but Kat kept her at arm ’s length. Her performance with pencil and paper the night of the dinner party was the talk of the place, and although it garnered her respect, it made Lily stand out as that much more of a peculiarity in castle life.
She’d appeared out of nowhere and had held out hope that she could disappear back through the labyrinth with few being the wiser. But with Ewen’s public show of gift giving and her sketch being passed surreptitiously among the staff, Lily was the favorite topic of hushed conversations. The laird treated her even more stoically than before, and Donald took to nodding gravely at her whenever they saw each other in passing. She had been so startled by his attention at first—after all, a nod was downright ebullient for Ewen ’s uncle—she’d stopped in her tracks to try and think if there wasn ’t something she did or was supposed to be doing for him to acknowledge her so.
The only person immune to this new course of events was young Master John himself. He still tried her patience at every turn and didn ’t seem to care about Lily ’s new standing. If anything, he was developing the new and irritating habit of disappearing at every opportunity. Combing the entire keep all the while calling John’s name brought Lily even more unwanted attention than she was already getting. She would find the rascal in the most banal of spots—sitting idly in front of the kitchen hearth, distributing apples to horses in the stable, pretending to pore over books in the library—always with an aggravatingly innocent look on his face. It was a burgeoning power struggle and she was quickly getting in over her head. Lily had to nip the new behavior in the bud and was not about to get Ewen involved.
“Feeling alright, lass?” Lily looked up to see Kat ’s concerned face hovering over her. She realized that she had been sitting in a daze, pushing her eggs and sausage around and around her plate while everyone else had left the table long ago to get on with their mornings.
“John is gone again. ”
“Ah. I ken the problem now. ” Heaving a knowing sigh, Kat pulled out a chair and plopped down next to Lily.
“The lad is too clever for you. ” The maid pressed on, despite Lily’s skeptical glare. “Too clever for how you are now, at least. Look at yourself moaning over your good food.
“Mind me, lass. ” Kat’s voice took on a conspiratorial tone.
“His father were the same way as a lad. After breaking his fast of a morning, off like a spooked horse young Ewen was, and no sign of him for hours. He went through governess after governess; none could tame the likes of our laird when he was a mite. He missed so many lessons under one teacher, his uncle Donald was forced to take a switch to him.”
“I can’t beat John to make him stay for his lessons. ” Lily was aghast at the thought.
“Aye, but you can make it more lively for the lad. Perhaps ”—
Lily interrupted, on the defensive, “Please, I do my best and ”—
Kat touched her gently on the arm. “I was saying, perhaps if you made it more lively for the lad by doing a bit less sums and a wee more of that picture making that you do. When the laird was young, it took him a while till he found his passions. He ’s more the scholarly type, our Ewen. ’Twasn’t till Donald and his grandda—God rest him—put him to reading different manner of books that the lad settled down. He had no use for Latin on a page, but put it in a book, why, there he could decipher for himself stories and history and such, and he became a different child entirely. Now, as I see it, our John has the same problem. A lad ’s got energy, aye? And this one hasn ’t any way to tire himself of it. ”
“But do you think he ’d be interested? I mean, all I know how to do is draw and paint. ”
“Och, lass, what do I need do to make you see? It ’s not just the pictures you make, but the way you see the world around you. It’s like this. I ’ve seen John building simple things with rocks and sticks and the like when he thought nobody was looking. Of course, he just knocks them back down again. But you can show him how to really make something to be proud of. ”
A look of sad introspection crossed Kat ’s face. “Since John’s mam died, ’twas like Ewen was done with everything to do with her. ” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Sometimes including the boy, I fear. ”
Kat looked at Lily as if weighing her response then continued, “The son and heir was born, so he was done. Mairi had been no wife to Ewen, and he likes to push it out of his head. But I fear seeing his son sometimes puts him in mind of her. Any child would feel the distance from his da like that. ’Twould be good for the both of them if John found something that he could be proud of. ”
Lily stared thoughtfully at her plate for a moment then startled the maid with an abrupt hug. “Kat, you are positively a genius!”
They sat side by side at his table. John tore apart the eleventh sheet of paper that day, frustrated over his attempts to sketch the still life that Lily had set up on the windowsill using a flower, some fruit, and a book. Lily scowled at all the wasted paper littering the floor and hoped that it wasn’t too rare a commodity in seventeenth-century Scotland. For all she knew, she was wasting away the family fortune in art supplies alone.
She watched the boy in frustration from across the child-sized desk. His usually ruddy, boy-thin cheeks were smeared with charcoal, the dark streaks matching the black hair that rose up off of his head like the unruly mane of some wild animal. Lily thought she probably didn ’t look much better. Her own hair was a ratty mess from mindlessly twirling strand after strand in attempts to channel her aggravation.
She was getting as exasperated as John and decided to take a completely different tack altogether.
“Alright. Let ’s forget this. ”
The look of gratitude that beamed from the boy’s face sparked new reserves of patience in Lily. The poor kid was trying hard; she couldn ’t let herself forget how difficult drawing could be when tried for the first time.
“Let’s take a turn in the garden. I think I ’m going to have you make a collage and you can gather items for it as we walk. ”
John looked confused. “Collage?”
“Don’t worry. ” Lily scruffed the boy’s hair, and for once he didn ’t shrink at her touch. “I ’ll explain as we go. ”
Once they got outside, John bounded ahead, giving Lily the chance to think. She had discovered she quite enjoyed wandering through the overgrown garden. It was small and rarely used, shunned by the occupants of the keep in favor of a grand formal garden elsewhere on the castle grounds. Lily, though, much preferred the seclusion of this side yard.
She had stumbled upon it purely by accident. Having missed lunch one day in favor of preparing John ’s lessons, she begged a snack from the cook and went out a side doo r to eat in the cool, late afternoon air rather than bear the stuffy confines of the kitchen. She had been overjoyed to discover the rusted gate almost completely concealed beneath a dense thatch of myrtle. As it was only accessible from the servant’s wing of the house, Lily deduced that she discovered what was once the cook’s garden, and by the wild, untamed look of it, it was now long abandoned.
And now her own private haven. Not to mention the source of what she considered many of her finest sketches.
Lily especially loved the humble stone path that wound through the garden’s dense plants and ragged flowers; she cherished the times she could escape from the goings -on of the keep to meander along it, so without purpose as it was. She paused in front of a particularly ragged plant that she loved as much for its happy yellow flowers as she did for its name. She had been so proud to recognize the species and pointed it out to John one morning as ragwort; he gleefully corrected her, saying its true name was stinking nanny and that the cook used it to treat burns and ulcers.
Lily had been unable to suppress her quite unladylike bark of laughter at that one. Now the old weed always cheered her no matter how dark her mood.
The smile still faint on her face, she began to ponder the boy wandering ahead of her, spindly and restless as a colt, swatting at leaves and kicking unseen rocks. Lily thought for a moment at how insecure John might really be. If it was true that his father couldn ’t spare much time for him, who else was there? Donald and Robert weren’t likely to offer much solace, even despite Robert ’s admission of sympathy for him. No, Lily reflected, the life of a child was certainly dramatically different in the seventeenth century when compared to Lily’s generation, weaned as it was on Dr. Spock and child psychology.
Kat had said there were many similarities between father and son. Lily wondered at what unplumbed depths were to be found in Ewen. She could see with her own eyes that, unlike his son, the man had not a shred of insecurity in him. But she did believe that his seemingly impermeable exterior had to be masking some hidden pain. On the surface, he seemed to be just donning the stern formality of his role as laird. Lily, though, sensed something deeper flashing in his eyes, and she was beginning to suspect that what she saw was the ache of loneliness.