The sun was descending behind the western mountains, but darkness was still some hours away, when Ewen closed the front door softly behind him and took a long breath of the evening air. It was calm here in the shelter of the house, neither cool nor warm; looking out from the porch he could see the sunlight which lingered upon the high rocks of Meall Dubh long after it had left the glen of Ardroy in the shade.
Ewen stepped down carefully onto the earth littered with brown pine needles, and turned his way towards the loch. There had been so much to do and to think of in the last few days: trips back and forth to Achnacarry; patrols along the Great Glen; arrangements for the greater journey which the Camerons were to make in a couple of days’ time; that business with the redcoats captured after the Keppoch MacDonalds’ ambush at High Bridge... and, of course, his own quite unwonted role as captor to a parole prisoner, the fitting of which in between all the other pressing demands on his time had rather baffled Ewen, and in which he had so shamefully failed earlier today. Amongst all this he felt that he needed the solace of Loch na h-Iolaire; he went there instinctively, as he had done for comfort ever since he was a child.
And so he sat down, on a flat rock at a spot where the shore formed a miniature cove between two low banks of sand, his hands clasped round one knee. Now he watched the grey-blue evening light upon the placid water; now he closed his eyes and listened to its gentle whispering ripples; and, forgetting his glad but anxious thoughts of Lochiel, the Prince and the coming rising, he was content.
But then another sound intruded itself upon this peace: the sound of footsteps upon the dry leaves that covered the ground in the birch-copse behind him. He was not alone.
He turned, and rose to his feet at the unmistakeable sight of a bright red coat moving towards him through the trees. The cares of these days, it seemed, were not escaped so easily.
‘Captain Windham,’ he said. ‘My apologies for disturbing your walk; I had not known you were there.’
‘’Tis I who should apologise for disturbing you, Mr Cameron,’ said his prisoner, who had now reached the limit of the trees and stood at the top of the tiny beach. He did indeed appear slightly discomposed.
‘Not at all,’ said Ewen. ‘Of course you are welcome to walk where you please... so near the house,’ he added, inwardly cursing himself for having so blundered into a reference to the events of earlier that day. It had been quite enough listening to Aunt Marget’s unfortunate remarks about the taibhsear at the supper table; far better that they did not talk about it any more.
Windham inclined his head—was there a little smile upon his face?—and took a step forward onto the sand, glancing away from Ewen into the distance over the loch and opening his mouth as if considering his next words before he spoke.
But a moment later his expression changed again, and whatever remark he had been going to make was forgotten. ‘What is that?’ he said, and pointed high up over the water.
Ewen looked towards the direction he indicated. Over the northern end of the glen, crossing the pale evening sky above the pass into Glengarry, there was a bird flying—a large bird, even at this distance. It flew with purpose: two or three beats of its powerful wings and a movement of its long, broad tail brought it over the lower slopes of Meall a’ Choire Ghlais, whence it wheeled round and began to fly towards where Ewen and his prisoner stood. The green brae with its patches of purple heather, all softened and muted by the diffuse evening light, heightened by the contrast the deep brown colour of the bird’s plumage.
‘It is an eagle,’ said Ewen, an unconscious smile on his face. He watched the bird as it swooped low over the slope climbing away above it.
He glanced back at Windham, who was still watching the eagle too, apparently with some interest. As they both looked, it came in to land upon a crag jutting out from the hillside, shaking its great wings out as it folded them over its back. Here, apparently, it intended to stay, surveying the glen and its inhabitants with its sharp eyes—brilliant amber or deep gold, they would be, though it was too far away to see them from here. Certainly the bird must be able to see himself and Keith, and he wondered for a moment what it thought of them.
‘They have a nest up there,’ he explained, turning back to Windham, who was squinting towards the mountainside; it was difficult to keep the bird in sight now that it was staying still.
‘What a remarkable neighbour!’ said Windham. ‘Do you often see them?’
‘Yes, pretty often,’ said Ewen, a little unsure what to make of this show of friendly interest from the redcoat, whom—for all his polite manner—he suspected of harbouring no particularly warm feelings towards the Highland landscape or any of its inhabitants. But perhaps he really was interested; and perhaps, moreover, this good humour was an attempt to mend the conflict of the day—in which case Ewen certainly owed it to his prisoner to make his own effort at courtesy. So he continued, ‘I regard them as tokens of good luck. For the loch is named after them, you see: “Loch na h-Iolaire” is “the Eagle's Lake”. I suppose they must have been here for many hundreds of years.’
‘Indeed! What a fitting name it is, then.’
Ewen tried to pick out the eagle upon the mountain slope once again; and then, forgetting his social doubts in a sudden rush of affection for the loch, and the birds, and the dear home which he was soon to leave for such an uncertain future... though he hoped to see it again, in a happier state, when Prince Charles and his cause had achieved their victory... he looked again at all the sunset view across the loch, a soft smile upon his face.
And when, feeling at last that he ought not to linger too long here, for he must return to the house and the business which awaited him there, he went to start back up the little beach, he found that Keith Windham was no longer looking at the loch or at the eagle, but at Ewen himself—with a peculiar look on his face. It was a frown that seemed half a smile, and it brought a new but not at all unpleasant appearance to his normally somewhat sharp features.
Ewen hardly had time to read this strange expression, however, for it was at once obliterated by a look of confusion; Windham had not meant it to be seen. ‘I—I shall return to the house now,’ he said, stepping back towards the birches.
‘I’m going too,’ said Ewen, ‘—that is, if you will permit me to escort you, Captain Windham?’ And he ventured to smile.
Keith had regained his composure; and it was with much more his usual expression—but yet something more than that, for there was a gleam of almost mischievous light in his eyes which made of that harsh face something quite handsome—that he replied, ‘Of course, Mr Cameron. I thank you.’
And, walking side by side, they returned to the house.