Isle of Colonsay, October 1373
“You’ll be getting a curse for sure.”
The wind, blowing strongly over the golden sands of the Tràigh Bàn this morning, sent clouds overhead scudding across the sky, like lambs frolicking on a pasture of blue. The noise of the wind and the waves might have obscured the speaker’s words and lost them in the breeze, for the young boy either did not hear, or chose to ignore the warning. He continued walking across the sand to the black cliffs on the north side of the bay.
“Niall, did you not hear me? You should not be digging up there.” The older boy ran and easily caught up with the younger one, then grabbed him by the arm. “Father will be angry. We were to be looking for that cow.”
“You are an old woman, Dòmhnall!” Niall cried as he wriggled his way out of Dòmhnall’s grasp. “Aren’t you wanting to know what is in the cairn there?”
The younger boy gestured up past the cliffs towards the two hills that overlooked the bay. He then looked obstinately at the older boy a moment, squinting, for the sun was bright that day and the wind brisk where it blew along the beach.
“After we are finding the treasure we can buy your father many cows. And that red one will be going back to the dun on her own—she is a smart one.” Turning his back on Dòmhnall, he took a path that climbed upwards towards one of the hills.
After a bit of climbing, he stopped and turned around to catch his breath and glare at the older boy who followed behind him. “You will be coming back and taking the treasure for yourself, that is what you will be doing, Dòmhnall.”
“No, no, I would never be doing that, not for the life of me. You are a fool, Niall, even to be thinking of digging into that cairn! You’ve heard the stories. Wasn’t it young Teàrlach himself who was stolen away by the sithichean for merely lying down to rest upon a faerie hill?”
“I am no fool! It’s you who are the fool!”
The dark-haired boy shook his head. “Not I. Whatever is there belongs to the good people, the sithichean. I am telling you, Niall, you should not be disturbing those things. You should listen to me, for I am older than you.”
The younger boy looked at him, then smiled and said slowly, “You’re afraid.”
“Aye,” retorted Dòmhnall, “and so should you be! The faerie are not to be trifled with.”
“My grandfather is the Lord of the Isles. I am not afraid of anything!”
With that he turned away and kept climbing, followed reluctantly by his companion. Finally the boy reached his objective, a jumbled pile of rocks and turf, settled himself by the edge, pulled a small spade from his bag, and began digging away at the mound. After a time he held up something, his freckled face flushed with triumph.
“A faerie arrow! Look, Dòmhnall.”
The older boy turned to look, and examined the flint arrowhead that lay in his foster brother’s palm without touching it, then crossed himself.
“You should not be touching that.”
Niall shook his blond head stubbornly.
“Dòmhnall, it’s worse than an old woman you are. Don’t you remember himself telling us all last night about the faerie gold to be found in these mounds, how it is just waiting, just lying on the ground it is.”
“That is just a story.”
“No, it’s wrong you are. There is faerie gold, for I was finding a piece of it myself. And I will be finding more of it. It must be here.”
“There is no faerie gold, and if there were, it would be bringing bad luck with it.”
The younger boy ignored him.
“Well, if you are such an amadan, I myself will not be. I will be going back now.”
The younger boy continued his excavation while his foster-brother turned and waited a moment.
“Are you not coming with me?”
The younger boy did not answer, but kept digging.
“I’m away then,” Dòmhnall declared, but with a hint of hesitation in his voice. He waited, staring at Niall, whose blond head bent intently over his excavation. Finally, hearing no reply, Dòmhnall walked away, leaving the younger boy still delving into the jumbled pile of rocks.
The wind blew strong that day, I remember, whirling the yellow leaves, which were just beginning to fall, and setting them to dancing for some few brief moments before they touched the ground. Although I was supposed to be mending a fishing net that afternoon as I sat outside my fine new house on the Rinns, it was little enough that I was getting done on it. I let the net fall in my lap and stared at the white clouds that rushed by overhead, as if in their rapidly changing shapes I would find the answer to the disease that plagued me that day.
Truth to tell, there should have been nothing to discountenance me. I was settling in on my new lands, given me at the beginning of the summer. I had solved the murder of my father for the Lord of the Isles, thereby serving His Lordship, and helping him out of a nasty spot of potential trouble with the Holy Father in Rome, besides.
The holding on Islay was neat and well-run, a far cry from my other house in Scalasaig, and as an old couple who lived there as caretakers still stayed on, I had not yet had a chance to run it into the ground. I found myself enjoying the novelty of an ordered house and a well-filled larder. The holding lay in close proximity to the lands of Fearchar Beaton, the physician, and his daughter Mariota, and that served only to increase its attractiveness in my view.
I had seen little of Mariota that summer or during the early autumn. She had often been at Finlaggan, or Dunstaffnage, with her father, while I had been careful to keep myself out of the sphere of His Lordship’s court. The MacDonald had said he would call upon me for other matters as he saw fit, and I thought it best not to be altogether too easy to find. I did not doubt he would find me quickly enough when he needed me.
Somerled dozed at my feet, his legs twitching in his sleep, as though he chased rabbits. About the only game that lazy hound did chase, I thought to myself. I idly watched two gulls fighting over a bit of fish thrown on the midden, but it was soon enough that the warm sun shining down worked on me too, and my own eyelids closed.
I could not have slept long, but I dreamed.
A dark gray mist settling over a strange rocky landscape, and through the fog a voice crying, but I could not catch the words. A child’s voice it seemed to me that it was, but, before I could be sure of it, the voice was swallowed by the mist, and the fog pierced by flame, and I saw a funeral procession, walking on a rocky strand, lit by torches with the sounds of the dirge and the women keening loud in my ears.
I woke with a start. Little enough time had passed: a moment or two, no more, for the same gulls still fought in the midden and Somerled still slept at my feet. The sun looked not much further advanced than it had been, and the same clouds, their shapes but little changed, danced in the sky. I shuddered and at that moment a cloud moved over the sun and the world grew dark for an instant.
A dream was all it had been, I told myself, not a true seeing. It was my mother who had had the Sight, not myself.
But I laid the net down, and went inside where Alsoon, who kept house for me with her husband, had left some ale and bannocks on the table. I waved the flies away that buzzed around the pitcher. I took the cloth off the jug, and poured myself a beaker of ale, which I drank straight away. I poured some more ale, and then wolfed down a bannock, but the oats tasted dry on my tongue.
* * * * *
Some two days after that the messengers came. Late afternoon it was, with the sun just setting in a blaze of rose and vermilion, when I saw Rhoderick walking up the path that led to my steading. A Colonsay man, one of my uncle’s men. And Rhoderick had not journeyed alone. The crew of the birlinn Rhoderick had brought over to Islay, some twelve men, followed him.
“Alsoon,” I called. “We have visitors.”
Alsoon and her husband came eagerly enough, for visitors were not all that common, and so we all three were waiting, along with Somerled, when Rhoderick and the others reached the cottage.
“Dia dhuit,” I greeted him politely enough, although my heart was sinking.
“And to you,” returned Rhoderick. “You are looking well, Muirteach.” He paused, and looked around the cottage. “This is a fine place, and no mistake.”
I agreed, and introduced Alsoon and her husband.
“And what is the news, Rhoderick?” I asked, after he and his crew had seated themselves on the benches outside my house and finished the ale Alsoon had brought them. I did not think these men carried good news with them. “What is bringing you Colonsay men so far from Dun Evin this evening?”
Rhoderick looked at the ground, his red hair not hiding a bit of bald spot on the top of his head. “It is bad news that we are bringing, Muirteach, and no mistake.”
The oarsmen suddenly fell silent. The sunset seemed to cast a reddish glow over the whitewashed wall of my cottage while I waited for him to continue.
“It is young Niall. The boy your uncle is fostering for that Ranald MacDonald from Benbecula, the one who holds Borve Castle on that tiny island. His Lordship’s own son, off that Amie MacRuari. Niall will be Ranald’s third son, fostered at your uncle’s. So he is grandson to His Lordship himself. The boy’s gone missing.”
I thought of young Niall, the grandson of the Lord of the Isles. A late son of his father, he had only eight years and a wild adventurous streak in him. Bad enough to have a young lad go missing, but for the boy to be the grandson of the MacDonald made an additional, unwelcome tangle in the skein. The Lord of the Isles was our overlord, chief of the Clan MacDonald, and ruler of a confederation of clans that stretched across the Hebrides and into the mainland. A powerful man, and a canny one, as I had learned that previous summer after my father’s death.
“He’s probably just camping out in an old dun. He’ll be back soon enough, when his hunger drives him home,” I said, not believing the words as I spoke them.
“God grant you the right of it,” Rhoderick replied, “but your aunt is aye worried over it all, and your uncle too, although he says less. And he himself was asking me to sail over and fetch you, for he was saying there is none like you to be finding something lost. Or someone, as it would be.”
“When was the boy last seen?” I asked.
“Two days ago it was. He went with his foster-brother Dòmhnall up to near the Tràigh Bàn, to look for that red cow that had wandered away from near Beinn Beag, but then he and Dòmhnall were quarreling over something and Dòmhnall left him there. And he never came home.”
“Could he have taken a boat out?”
Rhoderick shook his head. “There are no boats missing. And the boys were walking to the Tràigh Bàn.”
“Well, I had better be coming with you then.” I looked at the sky, where the sun was just disappearing. A shaft of light streamed out through a break in the now purple clouds, turning all I saw to molten gold.
“Were they sending word to Finlaggan about it all?” I asked.
Rhoderick shook his head. “Your uncle has sent a man to Benbecula, to tell the boy’s parents. But I am thinking he is hoping the lad will turn up before he is having to tell his grandfather.”
“Well, we had best be on our way and looking for him, then,” I said, with more confidence than I was feeling. “It is late to be sailing tonight, though.”
“And the crew is tired,” put in Rhoderick.
“Tomorrow morning? Will that suit? Come in and rest.”
I turned to Alsoon, who had already sent her husband to gather some extra bracken for beds. “Alsoon, prepare for these visitors. It will not be fancy, but I can promise you men full stomachs tonight and a dry place for sleeping. We leave at first light tomorrow.”
* * * * *
The next day dawned fair and bright, and we set off early in the small birlinn Rhoderick had brought from Colonsay. I had not intended to bring my dog, but the hound whined so as we boarded that at the last minute I brought him with us. The crossing went swiftly, and it was soon enough that we beached the boat on the small cove at Scalasaig. I left the harbor and started the climb up the hill to Dun Evin, my uncle’s home, with Somerled by my side, as I had so many times before.
Gillespic, my uncle, was chief of the Clan MacPhee. Dun Evin was his home, a fine fort overlooking the town of Scalasaig on the Isle of Colonsay which was all the territory we MacPhees had to our names. A fine enough island it was, for all that it was not overlarge. Advocates at the Court might argue that we held the land through the grant of King Robert Steward to the Lord of the Isles, and from him to my uncle, the chief of our small clan. But whatever they might say, we who lived on Colonsay knew that the MacPhees had held the island back to the time when Celt and the Norse vied for control of this land. The king in Edinburgh could think what he wished about it all.
I turned at the entrance to the dun, taking the moment to rest my bad leg. As a young child I had caught the fever, and after that my right leg had grown weak and crooked, causing me to limp. After the steep climb up the hill to the fort, the muscles of my leg pained me.
I gazed down on the little port of Scalasaig, the harbor, and the sound. Farther away across the water, the Paps of Jura rose out of the bulk of that island, and a bit further to the southeast lay Islay. It was a fine day for October, the sun shone brightly on the water and Colonsay looked green and gentle to my eyes. Too gentle for such sad happenings as lost young boys. I squared my shoulders, turned back, and greeted the guards at the entrance to the dun. They smiled to see me and Somerled, then let me pass, and I entered my uncle’s fortress.
Somerled immediately started barking at my uncle’s hounds, who bayed back, starting a ruckus. There was a frenzy of howling and the courtyard became a maelstrom of dogs, jumping and sniffing at each other.
Uncle Gillespic stood in the forecourt, looking solemn, covered with mud and dirt. He had been speaking with some of his luchd-tighe, but broke the conversation off at the noise of the dogs. “Stop that,” he yelled, but the dogs ignored him. Perhaps they did not hear him for all the noise they were making. My uncle’s hazel eyes brightened a bit when he saw me, lightening the tension in his face.
“And here is Muirteach. And you were bringing your dog as well. We shall see what you are thinking of it all.”
I embraced my uncle, who gripped my shoulders hard a moment before he let go. It had been some months since I had seen him, and I realized how I had missed him. Somerled nosed around my uncle and me, adding to the general confusion.
“You are looking fine, Muirteach. You’ve put on some weight. Sure, it must be that Islay is agreeing with you these days. You are not missing your house in Scalasaig?”
“Well, I am not missing the leaky roof,” I hedged. “But what has happened?”
Gillespic’s eyes darkened. “Niall and Dòmhnall went off to the Beinn Beag, to bring some of the cattle back from pasture, and that red cow had wandered off. That one is always wanting to go up to the shielings whenever she is getting the chance. But then Niall had some fey idea about looking for faerie gold up there. He was saying he had found some on the rocks nearby.”
That did not sound so dire to me, like many a boys’ expedition. I said so, although most boys were quick enough to return to the dun when they got hungry. And Niall had been missing for three days now.
“Och, yes. But then Dòmhnall was thinking it might not be such a fine thing to be doing, he was feared the sithichean would be angered and come and take them away over it all. I am telling you, Muirteach, I will be sending that boy to the priory. I do not think he will be making a chief, not that one.”
“Aye.” I agreed, thinking of my young cousin, dark-haired like myself, and studious. “Dòmhnall will be liking it there, I am thinking. He does not seem to be much of a boy for adventure. He will make a fine priest. A better one than I did.” I had spent time at the nearby priory as a youth, but had left there while in my teens. I had no wish to be a monk, but it might suit Dòmhnall well.
“But what of Niall?” I continued.
“Well, Dòmhnall left him. Which is fine enough. Niall knows the island well, for all that he is not old. He has been here for two years. But he did not come home. That was three days ago, and we have not seen him yet.”
“And you’ve searched for him?”
“Fergus and Seamus have been combing the hills and the caves as well. They’ve found nothing. And I was clambering in and out of the caves by the Tràigh Bàn all day. As you can see.” My uncle gestured to his muddy clothes.
“And what does Dòmhnall say of it all?”
“Just that he left him there, up near the Carnan Eoin, that big hill that overlooks the beach.”
“They could have squabbled. You know what boys are like. You raised me, after all. Perhaps Niall is hiding to get Dòmhnall in trouble.”
My uncle looked grave. “I am not thinking so, Muirteach, and neither are you.” I nodded. “Well, let’s away in then, and be speaking with your aunt about it all.”
Aunt Euluasaid was in the kitchen, seeing to a roasting side of venison. Although her coif was as white and neat as ever, I could see the redness in her eyes and I guessed it had not come from the smoke from the fire.
“Muirteach!” She gave me a warm embrace. As I held her I could feel her start to cry again.
“There now, Auntie,” I said awkwardly. “We will be finding him.” Surely we would find him, lost in the hills or hiding out at Dùnan nan Nighean, playing soldier.
“Aye.” She broke away and dabbed at her eyes with her apron. “I am praying you will, Muirteach, for you are a wise one. I am just praying you will not be finding him too late.”
Of a sudden the memory of my dream sprang to my mind again, the funeral procession, the torches. I shuddered involuntarily, then hoped my aunt had not noticed the movement.
If she did, she did not remark on it.
“But, Muirteach,” my aunt continued, “here you are just off the boat and you have not eaten. Is it hungry you are? Elidh,” she called to one of the women, “just be getting some of those fresh oatcakes and some of that meat for Muirteach, something just to tide you over until the meal that will be coming.”
Somerled loitered near the door, hopefully eyeing the roasting meat. “And Muirteach,” my aunt added, “get that dog out of my kitchen.”
I shooed him back out to the courtyard while Elidh brought the food, then ate hungrily while my aunt told me what little she knew.
“The young amadan was speaking of the sithichean, more and more often he spoke of them,” she said. “He was forever wanting to go over to Oronsay, and the hollow hills that are there. I was warning him against it, and Dòmhnall says he warned him too, and I am thinking that he did. For all that my Dòmhnall is not a brave one, he does not lie.” She paused and looked at me a moment, and I was glad to see a faint smile on her face. “He minds me of you, Muirteach, especially now that he is growing older. You have the same gray eyes as my son.”
“And so what was Niall doing there?” I changed the topic back to the missing boy.
“He wanted to dig them up. The faerie hills. Niall swore they were filled with gold, and he seemed to have no fear of the sithichean. And he was forever bringing things back with him, even when we sent him to watch the cattle. There near Beinn Beag. A faerie arrow he found, one time. And something else.”
“What was that, Auntie?”
“Have you finished? No? Well, just a moment and I will be getting it for you, then.”
I crammed the rest of the oatcake in my mouth and gulped the last of my ale. “It’s fine, Aunt. I’ve finished. And your oatcakes are as fine as ever they were.”
Aunt Euluasaid barely acknowledged the compliment, which told me how worried she was.
I followed her out of the kitchen and into the hall, then behind a partition at the back of the room to the chamber she shared with my uncle. A shaft of sunlight from a small window dimly illuminated the room. She took from behind the bed a small whalebone casket, richly carved with an interlacing design, opened it and removed something.
“Look, Muirteach,” she said, holding out her hand.
I saw a gold ring lying on her palm. The beam of sunlight caught it and played with it a moment, sending glimmers through the darkness. A small enough thing it was, a sheet of gold curved and shaped as a rounded disc, with a narrow opening in the center of the piece. Smaller wires of gold wrapped around it to make a ring shape.
“Dia,” I murmured. “Faerie gold.”
Euluasaid shrugged, and returned it to the casket. “Dòmhnall said Niall was bringing it back one day from the Tràigh Bàn; Niall had found it on one of the hills near Beinn Beag. And when Dòmhnall found it after Niall disappeared, he did not know what to do with it, and hid it. But then he was thinking better of it and was bringing it to me. Oh, Muirteach,” she cried, breaking down again, “the sithichean have stolen the lad! For he has taken their gold.” I felt the hairs on my neck prickle and rise and a chill spread down my back at her voice.
“I am thinking it is someone else’s gold,” I replied, with more confidence than I felt. “But we will find him. Do not worry, we will find him.”