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The danger of the journey ahead was equal to the perils we had left behind, this I knew. My knowledge of the Highlands was practically nonexistent. I might as well have been embarking on an escapade to the jungles of Africa, or captaining my own pirate ship to the newly discovered Americas.
Yet I was glad to be free of stuffy, seedy Edinburgh. I had never been past its borders and I was sure we had entered another world entirely, one that was as free as it was possible to be. As we hitched rides farther and farther up into the rolling peaks of the high country, it seemed impossible that such a place could harbor threats of any kind, so peaceful and serene its landscape appeared. We could hide ourselves in these picturesque hills and protected valleys, I was sure. No more murderous ganglords to contend with. No cardsharks or knife fights. No bawdy dens full of loose women and predatory men. Just wide-open countryside, glistening expanses of sparkling, sun-shimmered water and an endless azure sky.
Of course, there were dangers. I was a young woman traveling alone, after all, aside from my small nephew, who fancied himself a mighty warrior but was in fact a nine-year-old waif with a toy wooden sword that he clutched even now, in his sleep, as we rode along on the back of a hay wagon. Its driver was unaware of our quiet presence-we had become surprisingly adept at keeping ourselves hidden, with all the practice we'd had over days past. As soon as the wagon slowed, we'd jump and take our chances with the next mode of transport.
I wasn't sure of our exact destination. The Highlands had seemed a good place to hide from our pursuers. Indeed it was a perfect choice. Was there a more expansive place on earth? I doubted as much, though I'd only read books on the subject of travel. I had spent my entire life cooped up in two city residences only streets apart. And, while the social divide of my homes' geography might as well have seen oceans between them, this was a detail that hardly mattered now. My past was well and truly behind me.
At least for now.
We'd been on the road for five days, climbing ever higher into the undulating green mountains. We'd seen very few people. Farmers, mostly. A lone fisherman. Shepherds and goatherds, who seemed as mild and docile as the flocks they tended.
Aye, this world was new to me, but I wasn't that naive. Men were men, after all, and I knew of their tendencies far too well. Everyone had heard of the Highlands clans and their armies, their fearsome warriors and their bloody battles. Watching the glowing orb of the yellow sun hover ever lower over the horizon, I wondered now if those stories were merely folklore. I'd seen no sign of war or aggression in these lovely heather-peppered hills. Only honest endeavor and peaceful coexistence.
It might have been a sixth sense or the slide of a silver-edged cloud over the low-hanging sun, but some instinctive flutter warned me that safety was only a temporary illusion. Despite this, I felt wary but not afraid. Even sword-wielding warriors were preferable to the threats we'd left behind. At least skilled soldiers loyal to their cause and their kin might have some sense of honor and integrity, not like the lawless, malevolent beast who would be scouring Edinburgh at this very moment to find our trail.
I only wished we could travel faster. I would go to the very ends of the earth to hide and protect Hamish. As I looked around at the countryside, it occurred to me that we might have actually reached a place where that might be possible.
The wagon driver slowed his horses to a walk. I peered around the back of the wagon to see we were approaching a large tavern. We'd reached some oasis of community within this vast green desert of solitude.
I shook my nephew. "Hamish," I whispered. "Wake up."
Hamish was instantly alert, his dark eyes bright, his sword held in his small fist. He understood the danger, even if he didn't grasp the severity of our current predicament. It helped that his lifelong dream was to travel to the Highlands, a desire that seemed almost innate. He'd yearned for an adventure for as long as I could recall.
And now, despite the gravity of our situation, I almost smiled at his sparked excitement. He loved the open majesty of this place, so different from the enclosed, squalid streets of the city. "You've taken ridiculously well to this life on the run," I told him quietly.
He perched at the edge of the wagon's deck, his sandy brown hair tousled and flecked with hay. He looked back at me, a smile on his beatific face. "So have you, Ami," he whispered, pronouncing the address with all the flair of its French meaning: friend. He was the only person who used this shortened form of my full name, Amelia. Once, a short lifetime ago, I had attended one of the most exclusive schools in Edinburgh. Hamish had never had such a privilege. So I'd taken it upon myself to teach him everything I knew. It was one of the few things I had to be proud of: my nephew, at the age of nine, could read, write, do sums and speak basic French better than many of the fully grown men who frequented my family's establishment. I was slightly less proud of Hamish's uncanny knack not only for counting cards but also for dealing them. I'm only taking after you, Ami, he'd said to me. You're the best dealer in Edinburgh. Whether or not it was an accurate accusation was no longer relevant. I'd only done what I needed to do to survive, as I would again, in whatever way this new life required.
I held his arm, taking in the details of our surroundings. It was dusk now and the dimming daylight would give us an advantage. A thick copse stood behind the tavern: a place to take cover until we could fully assess the clientele of the inn. Wagons of many descriptions were parked along the road, and upward of twelve horses had been tied to a hitching rail. They were slow, sturdy farm horses. None were coated with sweat as though they'd been ridden at pace all the way from Edinburgh. I felt confident that there was nothing to fear here, that our pursuers were a long way from tracing our trail to this unlikely hideout.
"Now," I whispered.
The slow pace of the wagon made the disem-barkment easy enough. Our only belongings were Hamish's sword and a small bag I carried, which contained two woolen blankets, a single spare, fine dress of my sister's, a wineskin full of water and a few coins I'd managed to take from the cashbox as we'd made our escape. I had also brought the small red book that was my most sentimental possession; in it, I had recorded dreams, scribbled poems and wishes, and drawn pictures of trees and stars and fanciful yearnings. An impractical possession, aye, but symbolically precious to me nonetheless and light enough to carry. Holding on to Hamish's hand, I led him past the entrance of the tavern and into the woods. We needed to check our appearances and get our story straight.
Tonight, it seemed, we might need to put all our skills of deceit and persuasion to good use. We were both, it had to be said, somewhat gifted in the ways of trickery, since we'd had a regular need to fabricate tales to various people and on a daily basis, like debt collectors, upset wives or the law, to name a few. These were skills we had honed over many years: an unfortunate necessity of our lifestyle, but one I was now glad we had some practice with.
"I'm hungry," Hamish said. "I want some meat and potatoes with gravy, some stew with bread fresh from the oven and melted butter and some-"
"Aye," I said. "But first, what's it to be? This tavern is sure to be full of local farmers and traders. They'll likely know each other, and they'll know that we're not from around here. We'll need a convincing story. I could get work here possibly, as a cleaner or a cook. We need money."
"A cook? You don't know how to cook, Ami. They'll probably want you to perform other services. Why don't we just offer up a card game and win some money?" Regrettably, my nephew was far too worldly for his own good.
"We're not playing cards anymore," I said. "We're starting a new life. An honest one. One that doesn't involve cheating, stealing, smuggling or gambling."
"But gambling is so much easier than working. And besides, it's the only thing we know how to do."
This riled me. But it would hardly do to get upset with him. It was my responsibility to be not only his guardian but also his role model. I would have to show him that honesty was more effective than the life we were used to. I hoped I could. I wasn't sure whether my new philosophy was even true, nor did I have any idea how to employ it. "It seems easier, Hamish. But it isn't. Look how it's turned out for all of us. Hiding, separated, on the run. Gambling is like stealing, when you use the kinds of tricks we do. Stealing makes people angry. You know it as well as I do. 'Tis up to us to find a better way for ourselves."
My nephew looked up at me, unconvinced.
"Or at least try to," I said, a suggestion that was met with at least a degree of acquiescence. His eyebrows furrowed in the middle as he mulled this over. And I continued to formulate our plan. "I propose that we are well-bred travelers from Edinburgh who have fallen on hard times, whose carriage was-"
"Taken over by bandits!"
I considered this. It wasn't a completely unreasonable suggestion. How else might we have parted ways with our transport? Were there bandits in these parts?
"Mr. Fawkes told me he once got robbed by bandits as he traveled the Highlands, years ago," Hamish said.
The very mention of my nemesis was enough to see my blood run cold. My voice sounded frayed when I quickly changed the subject. I hated the sound of that vulnerability, that fear. "Or maybe a wheel broke off and we had to make way on foot."
"But why wouldn't we have an escort or a driver with us, in that case?" Hamish said.
A good point. "Maybe he stayed behind to fix the carriage, and promised to come for us as soon as-"
"Why can we lie but not play cards?" my nephew asked.
I paused. This was a difficult question and one that I wanted to answer with careful consideration. "We're only making up these stories to keep ourselves out of harm's way. As soon as we've secured a safe situation for ourselves, then we won't have need to lie anymore."
He appeared drawn to the novelty of this approach. "Let's try not to lie, then, as much as we can-except the part about the bandits," he said. "We'll say our father was a doctor-yours was, after all-and our parents have died, and we were forced to flee to escape our creditors."
My heart thudded in a grief-stricken beat. This lie was upsettingly close to the truth. It was then that I felt the first twinge of brittleness since we'd left Edinburgh. Making a concerted effort to be as fearless and resilient as I needed to be, I hadn't allowed myself to think about any of it, or any of them, for my nephew's sake. Hamish's words were shards of truth in the smashed pane of our history, with too many broken pieces to ever mend. It was true that my parents had died, years ago. The thought of Hamish's own parents and their precarious situation almost brought me to tears. But I held them back, concentrating instead on the task at hand. My father had been a doctor, aye. And we had fled to escape, although "creditors" was a generous allowance to what our pursuers actually were. "That makes us sound like criminals."
Hamish thought about this, and then his small face lit up with his idea. "Let's say we were en route to visit relatives, but were attacked by bandits who took all our money, and so we're now in need of work to pay for our return to Edinburgh-or to our relatives, if we can find them."
"They'll ask who our relatives are."
"Mysterious relatives," Hamish said. "We don't know their names. But we know we have Highlands relations, and since we're orphans, we were curious. Since we have no other family left, we came to search them out."
Not bad. Not bad at all. This would give us a reason to ask about the local people, the Highlands clans and the work opportunities. "I'm not sure if I should be happy about or rather alarmed by your ability to spin lies with such ease, nephew."
He grinned. "I learned everything I know from you, Ami."
I ignored that, and began picking the hay out of his hair. I only wished I could have taught him even more. When my education had come to a very abrupt and final end at the age of eleven, I'd vowed to read every book in Edinburgh, or at least those I could get my hands on. Since that very day, when I wasn't working, I was studying, teaching myself the ways and means of every damn subject I could get my hands on. My sister, Cecelia, had once said I was probably the most qualified astronomer, botanist, linguist, zoologist and everything else, if only anyone had bothered to test me. You just never knew when an opportunity might present itself, or a random morsel of knowledge might be your saving grace. My tenacious study habits were of little consequence now. Survival was, and always had been, the order of the day.
With our plan decided, we turned to our appearances. After removing all the straw from Hamish's hair, I used some water to smooth it into place. There was little that could be done about the state of my nephew's clothing, which was dirty but not yet showing signs of too much wear and tear. In our haste, Hamish hadn't thought to bring a change of clothes and I had not had the chance to retrieve anything for him. I'd only just managed to grab a spare dress for myself, from my sister's cupboard. Her clothes were finer than mine, since her husband refused to allow his wife and son to appear outwardly as though his business was in financial distress, which it most certainly had been. In hindsight, it seemed a strange detail for him to be so particular about, with all the other worries he'd had to contend with. But now I was glad of his pride. My brother-in-law's insistence that appearances be kept up meant that I now had a dark blue gown to wear that was not only clean but also of the finest quality, enough to support the story we were about to spin. It mattered little that the dress was in fact a size too small. My sister wasn't quite as curvy as I was. I ordered Hamish to turn his back and, after a brief struggle, managed-just-to pour myself into the garment. It was of a lower cut than I was used to and, with the sizing issue, was in fact quite revealing. I was glad I had my light blue shawl, which I wrapped around my shoulders and secured in the front with a silver kilt pin that had once belonged to my father.
"That will have to do," I said, attempting to tame my hair into place. My braid was still coiled, but some of the shorter strands at the front had come loose
"No one will expect you to be perfectly groomed," Hamish commented, turning to watch me. "We've been attacked by bandits, remember, and forced to walk for miles after our driver was killed and our carriage stolen."
"Killed? Now we've witnessed a murder and been robbed?"
"If he was still alive they'd look for him."