A Wrong to Set Right by Darcy Armstrong
Ewan gritted his teeth as he shifted in the bed, feeling one side of his body aflame with dull pain. It seemed to come from everywhere at once.
“Steady,” Laird Robert McPhee said from the armchair. “How do ye feel?”
“Fine, my laird,” Ewan said, working to keep his face smooth. It wouldn’t do for the laird to see him in such discomfort.
“Ye’re a terrible liar, captain,” Robert said. “If ye’re so fine, do me a favour, and reach over to touch yer toes.”
Ewan stretched down and growled at the sudden burst of pain. But he pushed through it, reaching further, until the tips of his fingers brushed his toes. His nostrils flared. “Perhaps a touch sore,” he muttered.
“Ye’re verra lucky, ye ken?” Robert said. “Walden went back to where ye fell this morning, under the light of day. If ye’d slipped twenty feet further along the path, ye’d have tumbled onto flat ground rather than trees.”
Ewan nodded. Yes, it was lucky to land in the dense canopy as he had, but it felt like he’d hit every branch on the way down. It had been enough to knock him unconscious, at any rate. He thought back to his furious chase with a flush of embarrassment. It likely should have been Walden first. The man was an experienced hunter and knew the area.
Instead, Ewan had charged from the front, as he ever did, heedless of the precarious drop. Kicking his horse faster, overcome with the thrill of the chase.
“Perhaps I could have shown a little more care,” he admitted ruefully.
Robert gave him a sympathetic smile. “Thankfully for all of us, the only thing injured is yer pride.”
Ewan nodded and then grimaced as another sharp stab of pain tore through his side. “Aye, only my pride.”
“Why dinnae ye stay in the castle again tonight?” Robert asked. “I can have the physician on hand.”
He shook his head. “I thank ye, laird, but I’d prefer to sleep in my own bed. I’ve taken too much of yer time as it is.”
“Nonsense,” Robert said. “But I’ll respect yer wish. Just do me one thing, will ye?”
“Take it easy tomorrow. Nay work. And that’s the laird’s orders.”
Ewan nodded slowly. “Aye, laird. If it’s an order.”
Two soldiers appeared and stood at each side to help Ewan stand, but he waved them away and pulled himself to his feet. It was slow and laborious, but he would be damned if he’d show that kind of weakness in front of his laird and his men. They left the room slowly and out of the castle. His legs felt at once both loose and knotted; hot and cold, numb and afire with pain. He knew the laird was right; he was more than lucky to escape with only a mild concussion and a battered body.
The sky was darkening into late afternoon as the soldiers helped him to his doorstep. He thanked them and entered the house, using his hands for support, lighting the fire and collapsing into the chair. He sat with his eyes closed for a long time, thinking back to his final moments as he pitched over the cliff-side. He’d felt nothing remotely like it before; that curious way that time seemed to slow to a stop, suspending him in midair with only his thoughts and his regret. He shifted in the chair uncomfortably. Why did he feel that? He’d seen thirty-three summers; a respectable age for a soldier in anyone’s estimation, especially in the shadow of war. Wasn’t it a life well lived?
And yet the memory of the nameless man’s face floated once again to the top of his consciousness. Why that face, and not the face of other people in his life? Why not his mother, or father, or even his laird?
Why the face of a man he didn’t even know, fifteen years dead?
Ewan opened his eyes and looked up to the candle that sat above the hearth, and the signet ring at its side. The ruby flashed in the light.
And it was at that moment, he realised it was perhaps time to do more than light a candle.
The thought startled him. In all these years, he’d bowed his head before the candle, night after night, offering his apologies to the nameless soldier. Why was it that until that moment, he’d never considered doing something more?
But now that he had thought about it, the idea made such perfect sense. Deep in his heart, in a way he couldn’t describe, he knew it was the right thing to do.
After all, the man had been so young. He would surely have left behind a family; a mother and father, perhaps brothers and sisters, all of whom were forced to mourn a memory and nothing else, with no body to bury, no rites to observe. The nameless man’s mother had lost a son, and didn’t know how, or even under what circumstances. He’d simply been erased from the annals of history, as if he’d never been.
But Ewan knew, and he remembered.
And now, in a time of peace between McPhee and McCaskill, could that knowledge give at least some small measure of peace to whatever family remained? To know the man fought and died as a soldier, with his men, fulfilling his duties as ordered by the laird? Not to mention the signet ring itself; the ruby alone was worth a considerable sum, and deserved to be with its owner, not gathering dust on his hearth.
It didn’t seem like much, but perhaps, after all that had happened and the long years between, it was the least he could do.
* * *
The next morning,Ewan and Robert walked slowly past the sheep pens. The grass was wet with dew and sparkled under the rising sun. Around them, farmers emerged from their houses and into the fields to start the new day. Birds chirped from the forest and a low veil of fog clung to the ground as it stretched away to the far end of the estate.
“I’d like to travel north,” Ewan said. “To Dun Lagaidh.”
“Has something happened?” the laird asked.
“Aye. Well, nay.” Ewan paused and frowned. “But, aye.”
Robert’s eyebrow raised. “Is everything alright?”
“I have something I need to take care of. Auld business. Perhaps something I should have done a long time ago. It’s been playing on my mind these past few days, and I need to take care of it.”
Ewan knew Robert would see into the truth of the matter, and how his accident was a blunt reminder of how precarious the illusion of life was. And if any man had unfinished business, perhaps it was best to finish it sooner rather than later, before it was too late.
“Yer body is up to it?” Robert asked. “Ye did a fair job of hiding it, but I know ye could hardly move yesterday.”
“It’s much better today,” Ewan said truthfully, thankful for a body in the peak of its physical fortitude. He’d slept long and deeply, and woken to a few aches, but nothing debilitating. “Close to normal.”
Robert nodded. “And ye’re sure of this course of action?” he asked. “After all, sometimes the past is best left alone.”
“Aye, I’m sure,” Ewan answered. “This is something I have to do.”
“How long do ye need?”
He squinted up at the sky. If he was a wagering man, he’d have said there was an even chance the man was forgotten, and he’d have no luck in his mission. After all, the nameless soldier could have been an orphan, drafted into service. Or perhaps he had a family, but they’d long since passed. It was fifteen years ago, after all, and war took more casualties than just soldiers. In such a case, he’d be back to Castle McPhee far sooner than he preferred.
But if he found someone?
“A few weeks should be enough,” he said. “And I think it’s a fitting time for Parlan to step up as acting captain in my absence. He’s more than capable.”
“Nay doubt. Ye’ve done a fine job with him.”
Ewan shrugged. “It’s no' hard to forge a weapon out of good steel.”
“Dinnae sell yerself short, Ewan,” Robert replied. “I’ll promote him to acting captain while ye’re away, and if he’s even half the man ye are, then Castle McPhee will be in good hands.”
Ewan flushed with pride as they walked towards the barracks. Ahead, he could see his lieutenant with the men, preparing for a day of archery practice. The soldiers listened to Parlan’s words with respect, and Ewan knew the time was right. He needed to do it now, or he’d find a reason to stay with his men.
“My thanks, laird,” he said. “For everything.”
“Ye sound like ye’re no' coming back, captain,” Robert said with a frown.
“Dun Lagaidh is too large for my taste,” he said with a smile. “Give me the forests of the Green Glen over that grey landscape.”
“And dinnae ye forget it. When do ye plan on leaving?”
“There’s nay point waiting,” Ewan said. “I’ll brief Parlan, prepare my things, then head off this morning. I can be at Dun Lagaidh castle before noon, and seek out the steward.”
The two of them came to a stop by the barracks, and Robert reached up and clasped Ewan’s shoulder, giving it a warm squeeze. “Good luck, my captain,” he said solemnly. “Ride safe, finish yer business, then come home to us.”
Ewan nodded his thanks, feeling his throat tighten. The laird gave one final squeeze, then turned and walked back towards Castle McPhee. Ewan watched him for a long moment, asking himself how he came to deserve such an understanding ruler; a man who sometimes seemed more a friend than a laird.
He shook his head with a smile at his own good fortune, then turned to Parlan and his men.