One by one, his men came awake, as well—some with a snort of surprise, others with mumbled “Huhs?” and still others with muttered curses.
And still she sang on, some English ballad about some man whose truest love had spurned him.
“Softly the west wind blows; gaily the warm sun goes; The earth her bosom showeth, and with all sweetness floweth. I see it with mine eyes, I hear it with mine ears, But in my heart of sighs, yet am I full of tears. Alone with thought I sit, and blench, remembering it; Sometimes I lift my head, I neither see nor hear...”
And so she continued, her song blaring, her melody true, but grating in its untimeliness and its volume. Iain waited impatiently, teeth clenched until he thought they might shatter. He stared into the darkness, while his men continued to grumble complaints, refusing to allow himself to be baited. He knew what she was trying to do, and God’s teeth, it was working! But he’d be damned if he’d let her know it!
She’d grow tired soon enough and quit, he assured himself, and was rewarded when at the end of the verse, she suddenly quieted.
Sighing with vexed relief, Iain closed his eyes, only to snap them open when she began the verse over again.
This time louder.
Muttering silent curses, he said nothing, keeping reign upon his temper. Neither did his men speak but to themselves, until she began the verse yet a third time.
“Ach, now, Iain!” Angus complained loudly. “Canna ye make her leave the lays until the morrow!”
His complaint was reinforced by a number of groans and muttered curses as the lass sang louder still. Iain closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, praying to God to give him strength.
“Bluidy willful English!” muttered Lagan.
He’d taken the words right out of Iain’s mouth.
When Malcom lifted his little head and peered at her through the shadows, he decided enough was enough. Before his son could voice his own complaint, Iain inhaled a bellow—and strangled on his words as an enormous bug flew down his throat, silencing him.
Choking and coughing, Iain dragged his son from atop him and turned to slap a hand over the wench’s mouth, trying to save her from herself. Christ, he could have sworn she smiled at his attempt to hush her. Preoccupied with strangling as he was, his muzzle stopped her all of two seconds and then she began the verse yet another time, though this time the words were muffled through his fingers.
“Bluidy hell, doesna she know another song, at least?” Dougal asked.
Iain might have asked the very same thing, were he not struggling for his next breath. Damn the vexsome wench! Still choking, he sat, dragging her with him as he leaned to hawk the bug from his mouth. Nothing came, and he was mightily afraid he’d swallowed the creature. Damn!
She sang louder, and Iain peered at her from the corner of his eyes, considering thrusting the whole of his arm down her throat. “Stubborn,” he rasped, and choked again, giving in to another coughing fit. “Stubborn, fashious wench,” he finished when he could.
“Da... will ye leave her to sing,” Malcom whispered.
Shocked by the request, Iain stared down at his son through the shadows, thinking that surely the bug had addled his brains, or he must have imagined the soft plea. Malcom had never favored coddling. Ever. He’d been a wee man from the first day he could walk and talk.
“I dinna want her to stop,” his son said somewhat desperately.
Though nothing else had managed to accomplish the feat, Malcom’s uncertain request hushed the lass abruptly.
The glade turned silent, his men mute.
“’Tis a verra pretty song,” Malcom said. “Will ye sing me another, Page?”
Shocked by his son’s entreaty, Iain felt her swallow and he dropped his hand to allow her to reply, his heart twisting at the innocent request. The glade seemed to become quieter still as everyone awaited her reply.
For a long instant, she didn’t answer, and Iain held his breath as his son added, a little aggrievedly, “My mammy never sung to me. She went to be wi’ God when I was born. Will ye sing to me, please?”
Iain’s heart twisted and his eyes burned with tears he’d never shed for a wife who had never loved him. “Malcom,” he began, anticipating her refusal.
“Iain, ye heartless cur!” Angus’s gruff voice interjected. “Let the lass—” The old man’s voice broke with emotion, and Iain knew that his eyes stung, as did his own. “Let the lass sing to the wee laddie, will ye?” he finished, his voice sounding more tender than the old coot would surely have liked.
“Aye,” added Dougal. “Let her sing to the wee lad! Malcom never had him someone to sing him a lullai bye.”
Iain swallowed his grief for his son and felt a leaden weight in his heart. “’Tis a fickle lot, ye are,” he groused.
“Can she, da?” Malcom begged. “Can she sing to me?”
“Will she?” Iain amended, frowning. Bloody hell, but he couldn’t make the lass sing if she didn’t wish to—no more than he could have made her stop when she would not.
“Aye,” she answered abruptly, surprising him. Iain’s gaze tried to reach her through the shadows, but she was staring down at his son. “I’ll sing,” she said softly, and there were murmurs of approval from his men.
“What is it you wish me to sing?” she asked Malcom after a moment.
“Ach, ye can sing anythin’!” his son declared excitedly, and then crawled over Iain to lie between them, as though it were a perfectly natural thing for him to do.
Iain sat speechless.
For an instant there was no movement from her side of the breacan, and then she lay down next to his son, jerking Iain’s arm out from under him and tugging him down to lie beside them. Iain thought she might have done it on purpose—her way of letting him know that while she’d given in to the son’s request, she didn’t like the father any better for it. He would have grinned over her pique, save that he was too stunned by the turn of events even to think clearly.
“D’ ye know anythin’ Scots?” Malcom asked hopefully, facing her.
“I know one,” she answered, “but not the words.”
“Oh,” Malcom answered, sounding a little disappointed. As he watched the two of them together, Iain’s heart ached for all the things Mairi had deprived him of. Six years old and his son still craved a gentle voice to lull him to sleep. He couldn’t help but wonder what else Malcom craved.
What had he missed? And had he done things right? No one had been there to tell him otherwise, and he’d just done what he could—what he knew to do. What if he’d not been a good father to Malcom all these years?
He coughed lightly, telling himself it was the bug that still scratched his throat, and not grief that strangled him.
“I-I can hum it,” the lass said, and began, a little hesitantly.
For an instant Iain was too benumbed to make out the voice, and less the melody. And then it became clearer, and the ballad penetrated the fog of his brain.
His heartbeat quickened.
From where did he know that song?
Hauntingly familiar, and yet so strange coming from the lass’s English lips, he couldn’t make it out, though he tried.
As she continued to hum, the memory tried to surface from the blackness of his mind, achingly dulcet, and yet so hazy and indistinct, he couldn’t bring it fully to light; a woman’s voice... so familiar and soothing...
Not Mairi’s voice, for he’d never heard her sing a note in her life.
Not Glenna either.
His heartbeat thundered in his ears, as the words of a forgotten verse came to him.
Hush ye, my bairnie, my bonny wee laddie... when you’re a man, ye shall follow your daddy...
He felt the jolt physically, as though his body had been stricken by an invisible bolt of lightning.
Bewildered, Iain laid his head down upon the breacan and stared into the darkness, at the almost indistinguishable silhouette of the two lying beside him, trying to remember.
Hush ye, my bairnie, my bonny wee laddie, when ye’re a man, ye shall follow your daddy...
“Lift me a coo, and a goat and a wether,” he murmured, trying desperately to recall the words. He joined her hum without realizing. “Bring them home to your minnie together...”
Christ, he couldn’t recall the rest. His chest hammered. Whose voice was it he recalled?
Nay. He shook his head, for it couldn’t be. His mother had died giving him birth. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t be remembering a woman who’d taken her last breath the very instant he’d sucked in his first. ’Twas said that she had never even heard his first wail.
Whose voice, then?
His heart beat frantically, and his palms began to sweat. “Hush ye, my bairnie, my bonny wee laddie,” he sang softly, puzzling over the memory, unaware that he sang off tune and out of place—or that his men all were listening to him croon like a half-wit and a fool.
“Lammie,” auld Angus broke in suddenly, sounding weary and unusually heavy hearted.
Iain blinked, and asked, “What did ye say?”
“My bonny wee lammie. The next verse is lammie,” Angus revealed, and then sang, “Hush ye, my bairnie, my bonny wee lammie; Plenty o’ guid things ye shall bring to your mammy...”
Auld Angus waited until the lass reached the proper place in the ballad and then joined her hum with his rich baritone. “Hush ye, my bairnie, my bonny wee lammie; Plenty o’ guid things ye shall bring to your mammy...”
Some of the other men were humming now, and Iain couldn’t stifle his grin over the lass’s plan gone awry. He was suddenly aware that Dougal had taken to his reed and was playing the tune, as well.
The haunting strains floated upon the night with his memory...
“... Hare from the meadow, and deer from the mountain, Grouse from the muir’lan, and trout from the fountain.”
In unison his men all began to hum, and in his mind, the woman’s soft voice continued...
“Hush ye, my bairnie, my bonny wee dearie,” auld Angus crooned. “Sleep, come and close eyes so heavy and weary; Closed are ye eyes, an’ rest ye are takin’; Sound be your sleepin’, and bright be your waking.”
By the time they finished the last verse, Malcom’s little body was curled so close to the lass that Iain could scarce make out who was who. His son’s soft snore revealed he’d fallen asleep. Iain lay there a long moment, enjoying the haunting beauty of the reed’s song, wondering of the woman’s voice from his memory.
“However did ye come by the tune, lass?” he asked after a moment, hoping she wasn’t asleep as yet.
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