“The rings? Yes. Is that fish?”
“Not yet. It’s the hatching; midges and gnats hatch from their cases and burst through the surface to the air—the trout will see them and come to feed.”
Without warning, a silver streak shot into the air and fell back with a splash. Willie gasped.
“That’s a fish,” Jamie said, unnecessarily. He quickly threaded his line through the carved guides, tied a fly to his line, and stepped forward. “Watch now.”
He drew back his arm and rocked his wrist, back and forth, feeding more line with each circle of his forearm, until with a snap of the wrist, he sent the line sailing out in a great lazy loop, the fly floating down like a circling gnat. He felt the boy’s eyes on him, and was glad the cast had been good.
He let the fly float for a moment, watching—it was hard to see, in the sparkling brightness—then began slowly to pull the line in. Quick as thought, the fly went under. The ring of its disappearance had not even begun to spread before he had jerked the line hard and felt the answering savage tug in reply.
“You’ve got one! You’ve got one!” He could hear Willie, dancing on the bank behind him with excitement, but had no attention to spare for anything save the fish.
He had no reel; only the twig that held his spare line. He pulled the tip of the rod far back, let it fall forward and gathered in the loose line with a snatch of the hand. Once more, line in, and then a desperate rush that took out all the line gained, and more.
He could see nothing amid the flashing sparks of light, but the tug and pull through his arms was as good as sight; a quiver as live as the trout itself, as though he held the thing in his hands, squirming and wriggling, fighting…
Free. The line went limp, and he stood for a moment, the vibrations of struggle dying away along the muscles of his arms, breathing in the air he had forgotten to take in the heat of battle.
“He got away! Oh, bad luck, sir!” Willie scampered down the bank, pole in hand, face open in sympathy.
“Good luck for the fish.” Still exhilarated from the fight, Jamie grinned and wiped a wet hand over his face. “Will ye try, lad?” Too late, he remembered that he must call the boy “lord,” but Willie was too eager to have noticed the omission.
Face fixed in a scowl of determination, Willie drew back his arm, squinted at the water, and snapped his wrist with a mighty jerk. The rod sailed from his fingers and flew gracefully into the pond.
The boy gaped after it, then turned an expression of utter dismay on Jamie, who made no effort at all to keep back his laughter. The young lord looked thoroughly taken aback, and not very pleased, but after a moment, one corner of his wide mouth curved up in wry acknowledgment. He gestured at the rod, floating some ten feet from the bank.
“Will it not frighten all the fish, if I go in after it?”
“It will. Take mine; I’ll fetch that one back later.”
Willie licked his lips and set his jaw in concentration, taking a firm grip on the new rod, testing it with little whips and jerks. Turning to the pool, he rocked his arm back and forth, then snapped his wrist hard. He froze, the tip of the rod extended in a perfect line with his arm. The loose line wrapped itself around the rod and draped over Willie’s head.
“A verra pretty cast, my lord,” Jamie said, rubbing a knuckle hard over his mouth. “But I think we must put on a new fly first, aye?”
“Oh.” Slowly, Willie relaxed his rigid posture, and looked sheepishly at Jamie. “I didn’t think of that.”
Slightly chastened by these misadventures, the Earl allowed Jamie to fasten a fresh fly in place, and then to take him by the wrist to demonstrate the proper way of casting.
Standing behind the boy, he took Willie’s right wrist in his own, marveling both at the slenderness of the arm and at the knobby wristbones that gave promise of both size and strength to come. The boy’s skin was cool with perspiration, and the feel of his arm much like the tingle of the trout on the line, live and muscular, vivid to his touch. Then Willie twisted free, and he felt a moment’s confusion, and a peculiar sense of loss at the breaking of their brief contact.
“That’s not right,” Willie was saying, turning to look up at him. “You cast with the left hand. I saw you.”
“Aye, but I’m cack-handed, my lord. Most men would cast with the right.”
“Cack-handed?” Willie’s mouth curved up again.
“I find my left hand more convenient to most purposes than is the right, my lord.”
“That’s what I thought it meant. I’m the same.” Willie looked at once rather pleased and mildly shamefaced at this statement. “My—my mother said it wasn’t proper, and that I must learn to use the other, as a gentleman ought. But Papa said no, and made them let me write with my left hand. He said it didn’t matter so much if I should look awkward with a quill; when it came to fighting with a sword, I should be at an advantage.”
“Your father is a wise man.” His heart twisted, with something between jealousy and gratitude—but gratitude was far the uppermost.
“Papa was a soldier.” Willie drew himself up a little, straightening his shoulders with unconscious pride. “He fought in Scotland, in the Ris—oh.” He coughed, and his face went a dull red as he caught sight of Jamie’s kilt and realized that he was quite possibly talking to a defeated warrior of that particular fight. He fiddled with the rod, not knowing where to look.
“Aye, I know. That’s where I met him, first.” Jamie was careful to keep any hint of amusement from his voice. He was tempted to tell the boy the circumstances of that first meeting, but that would be poor repayment to John for his priceless gift, these precious few days with his son.
“He was a verra gallant soldier, indeed,” Jamie agreed, straight-faced. “And right about the hands, as well. Have ye begun your schooling with the sword, then?”
“Just a little.” Willie was forgetting his embarrassment in enthusiasm for the new topic. “I’ve had a little whinger since I was eight, and learnt feint and parry. Papa says I shall have a proper sword when we reach Virginia, now I am tall enough for the reach of tierce and longé.”
“Ah. Well, then, if ye’ve been handling a sword in your left hand, I think ye’ll have nay great trouble in mastering a rod that way. Here, let us try again, or we’ll have no supper.”
On the third try, the fly settled sweetly, to float for no more than a second before a small but hungry trout roared to the surface and engulfed it. Willie let out a shriek of excitement, and yanked the rod so hard that the astounded trout flew through the air and past his head, to land with a splat on the bank beyond.
“I did it! I did it! I caught a fish!” Willie waved his rod and ran around in little circles whooping, forgetting the dignity of both age and title.
“Indeed ye did.” Jamie picked up the trout, which measured perhaps six inches from nose to tail, and clapped the capering Earl on the back in congratulations. “Well done, lad! It looks as though they’re biting well the e’en; let’s have another cast or two, aye?”
The trout were indeed biting well. By the time the sun had sunk below the rim of the distant black mountains, and the silver water faded to dull pewter, they had each a respectable string of fish. They were also both wet to the eyebrows, exhausted, half blind from the glare, and thoroughly happy.
“I have never tasted anything half so delicious,” Willie said dreamily. “Never.” He was nak*d, wrapped in a blanket, his shirt, breeches and stockings draped on a tree limb to dry. He lay back with a contented sigh, and belched slightly.
Jamie rearranged his damp plaid on a bush and laid another chunk of wood on the fire. The weather was fine, God be thanked, but it was chilly with the sun down, the night wind rising, and a wet sark on his back. He stood close to the edge of the fire and let the heated air rise up under his shirt. The warmth of it ran up his thighs and touched his chest and belly, comforting as Claire’s hands on the chilly flesh between his legs.
He stood quietly for a time, watching the boy without seeming to look at him. Putting vanity aside and judging fairly, he thought William a handsome child. Thinner than he should be; every rib showed—but with a wiry muscularity of limb and well formed in all his parts.
The boy had turned his head, gazing into the fire, and he could look more openly. Sap in the pinewood cracked and popped, flooding Willie’s face for a moment with golden light.
Jamie stood quite still, feeling his heart beat, watching. It was one of those strange moments that came to him rarely, but never left. A moment that stamped itself on heart and brain, instantly recallable in every detail, for all of his life.
There was no telling what made these moments different from any other, though he knew them when they came. He had seen sights more gruesome and more beautiful by far, and been left with no more than a fleeting muddle of their memory. But these—the still moments, as he called them to himself—they came with no warning, to print a random image of the most common things inside his brain, indelible. They were like the photographs that Claire had brought him, save that the moments carried with them more than vision.
He had one of his father, smeared and muddy, sitting on the wall of a cow byre, a cold Scottish wind lifting his dark hair. He could call that one up and smell the dry hay and the scent of manure, feel his own fingers chilled by the wind, and his heart warmed by the light in his father’s eyes.
He had such glimpses of Claire, of his sister, of Ian…small moments clipped out of time and perfectly preserved by some odd alchemy of memory, fixed in his mind like an insect in amber. And now he had another.
For so long as he lived, he could recall this moment. He could feel the cold wind on his face, and the crackling feel of the hair on his thighs, half singed by the fire. He could smell the rich odor of trout fried in cornmeal, and feel the tiny prick of a swallowed bone, hair-thin in his throat.
He could hear the dark quiet of the forest behind, and the soft rush of the stream nearby. And forever now he would remember the firelight golden on the sweet bold face of his son.
“Deo gratias,” he murmured, and realized that he had spoken aloud only when the boy turned toward him, startled.
“Nothing.” To cover the moment, he turned away and took down his half-dry plaid from the bush. Even soaking wet, Highland wool would keep in a man’s heat, and shelter him from cold.
“Ye should sleep, my lord,” he said, sitting down and arranging the damp folds of plaid around himself. “It will be a long day tomorrow.”
“I’m not sleepy.” As though to prove it, Willie sat up and scrubbed his hands vigorously through his hair, making the thick russet mass stand out like a mane round his head.
Jamie felt a stab of alarm; he recognized the gesture only too well as one of his. In fact, he had been just about to do precisely the same thing, and it was with an effort that he kept his hands still.
He swallowed the heart that had risen into his throat, and reached for his sporran. No. Surely the lad would never think—a boy of that age paid little heed to anything his elders said or did, let alone thought to look at them closely. Still, it had been the hell of a risk for all of them to take; the look on Claire’s face had been enough to tell him just how striking the resemblance was.