No doubt they rose up early to observe The rite of May.
Davina McKie dropped to her knees on the grassy hillock, letting her shawl slip past her shoulders despite the sharp chill in the air. The silent glen stood draped in a pearl gray mist, the rugged peaks of Mulldonach mere shadows edged in copper, hinting at dawn.
A smile stole across her face. Her brothers were nowhere to be seen. Davina swept her fingers over the cool, wet grass, then lightly patted her cheeks and brow, touching her nose for good measure. If the May dew banished her freckles, as the auld wives promised, she would gladly wash her face out of doors every morning of the month. Never mind that the ruddy spots matched her bright mane of hair; ferntickles were better suited to a child’s complexion. After seventeen years, Davina was quite ready to be done with them.
She sat up and rearranged her drooping crown of daisies, meant to safeguard her from brownies, bogles, and other uncanny creatures that roamed the land on Beltane, then started to her feet when a familiar voice rose from the fog.
“On May Day, in a fairy ring!” Her brother Will. There was no mistaking his baritone. His twin, Sandy—only their mother called him Alexander—would not be far behind.
Ah well. Davina spun round to greet them.
Two shaggy heads, black as midnight, emerged from the mist. A year younger than she, the twins were in every way identical, from their dark brown eyes to their broad chests and muscular backs. “Like stags,” their mother had once said, gently teasing them not to be seen on the moors during hunting season.
As the lads drew near, they finished the May Day rhyme. “We’ve seen them round Saint Anthon’s spring.”
Davina recognized the poet.
“Robert Ferguson,” Will answered for her as if he’d read the name in her eyes. He tugged at her unbound hair, which spilled down her back, the scarlet ends brushing her waist. “Sandy, I told you we’d spot a fairy on the braes this morning. See how her ears come to a point?”
The McKie brothers never tired of comparing her to the wee folk since the crown of her head did not reach their shoulders, and her hands and feet were no bigger than a young girl’s. She snatched her hair from Will’s grasp, only to find his twin plucking at her skirts. Sandy’s eyes gleamed with mischief as he appraised her. “A light green gown, fair skin, and a wreath of flowers. She only lacks wings.”
Will winked at her. “You’ve not looked hard enough, Brother.”
She fluttered her eyelet shawl behind her, making them both laugh.
“I see by her wet cheek our fairy has been bathing in the dew.”
Sandy gently tweaked her nose. “Perhaps she thinks she’s not bonny enough.”
Davina knew he was teasing but turned on her heel nonetheless and flounced down the hill toward home, taking care not to lose her footing on the slippery grass and ruin her stageworthy exit. When her brothers called after her, she pretended not to hear them.
“Och!” Will shouted her name, the sharpness of his voice muted by the moist air. “Sandy meant no offense. You know how daft he is when it comes to the lasses.”
She heard a soft groan as fist connected with flesh, then Sandy’s voice, slightly winded. “He speaks the truth, Davina. You’ve no need of the May dew when you’re already the fairest maid in Galloway.”
An exaggerated claim. South West Scotland boasted dozens of young women far prettier than she. Still, she’d made her brothers grovel long enough. Davina slowed her steps, letting the lads catch up.
“There now.” Will wrapped her right hand round the crook of his elbow, and Sandy the same on her left. “Let us cease any talk of your beauty. As it is, no gentleman in Monnigaff parish is worthy of you.”
She could not clap her hands—her usual means of expressing amusement—so Davina simply shook her head at Will’s foolishness as they continued downhill together. Perhaps that night when she took to the heath by the light of a gibbous moon, she’d evade her brothers altogether. The ritual required absolute silence—something she managed easily and the twins did not manage at all.
“We’ve a secret,” Will confessed as the threesome reached level ground. “That’s why we came looking for you.” He led them away from the rushing waters of Buchan Burn and headed west toward the McKie mansion. “Father intends to make an announcement after breakfast. As usual, he’s told us nothing.”
“Aye.” Sandy grimaced. “’Twill be a revelation to us all.”
Davina searched each face in turn. Was it glad tidings or ill? She touched her lips, then her heart, knowing they would grasp her meaning: Can you not tell me more? I will keep your secret.
Will shook his head, stamping the grass a bit harder. “That’s all we know, lass. Father demanded we arrive promptly at table. He wasn’t smiling when he said it.”
Bad news, then.
Her earlier joy began to dissipate, like the morning mist giving way to the sun. The trio walked on in silence broken only by the throaty cry of a raven gliding above the surface of Loch Trool. When the thick stand of pines along the loch made continuing arm in arm impossible, Davina followed behind Will, with Sandy close on her heels, her mind turning over the possibilities.
Was a wedding in the offing? The twins were only sixteen, far too young for marriage. Davina’s steps slowed. Surely her father did not have a suitor in mind for her? Not likely, or her mother would have mentioned something. Was Ian to marry, then? Quite as braw as their handsome father, her brother would make a fine catch for any lass.
Nineteen years of age come October, he was man enough to take a wife. Ian was in every way her older brother. Responsible. Trustworthy. Intelligent. The twins used other words: Predictable. Unimaginative. Dull. Davina suspected that envy fueled such sentiments: Ian would inherit all of Glentrool. Still, it was Will and Sandy who’d come looking for her on the hills, speculating about an announcement. Might their father not have some favorable word to share with his younger sons? If so, she would mark this day as a rare and welcome occasion.
As they neared Glentrool, Davina lifted her gaze to its square central tower and the round turret nestled in the heart of its L-shaped design. Built of rough granite from the glen, the house was rugged and imposing, like the Fell of Eschoncan that stood behind it; immovable and unshakable, like the faith of the great-grandfather who had built it.
After crossing the threshold, they started down the long entrance hall, the twins’ boot heels loud against the hardwood floor. Davina paused at the mirror to smooth the muslin tucker round her neckline and pluck the flowers from her hair, now a tangled mess after her early morning ramble on the hills.
Drawing a steadying breath, she turned away from her reflection and walked into the dark-beamed dining room, where she was greeted by portraits of McKies from generations past. A single window did little to brighten the dim interior. The rest of the family was already seated, with Father at the head of the long table, Ian to his left and Mother on his right. Though Ian simply said, “Good morning,” she saw the wariness in his gaze, heard his unspoken warning. Something is amiss. A slight furrow carved her father’s brow. More cause for concern.
“I was about to send Rab off to find you.” Their mother’s tone was kind, without censure. “You see, my husband?” She touched his sleeve.
“Your sons have joined you at table, just as you requested.”
“So they have.” Jamie rested his hand on hers, a slight smile softening his features.
Most marriages among the gentry were forged in silver, with little thought for romance; not so Davina’s parents’. She thought they made a handsome couple: Leana, with her porcelain skin, silvery blond hair, and wide, blue gray eyes; and Jamie, his brown hair still thick but shot through with silver, his dark brows arched over moss green eyes that missed nothing. Her mother had quietly celebrated her fortieth year in March and her father the same a few years earlier.
“Dearest?” Leana’s voice stirred Davina from her reverie. So did the sketchbook that she slid toward her. “I found this in your room and thought you might have need of it.”
Davina opened the clothbound volume to a blank page, then fingered the attached charcoal pencil, carved to a fine point by her father’s horn-handled knife. Whenever facial expressions or hand signals would not suffice to share her thoughts with others, she scribbled them along he margins of her sketches. Just now she felt a strong urge to draw something, to keep hand and mind occupied while the others ate, for she had little appetite.
Two servants entered from the kitchen, steaming dishes in hand. Rashers of bacon and a fragrant pot of cooked oats were added to the sideboard, joining a cold platter of sliced mutton and boiled hens’ eggs. The twins stood to fill their plates, more subdued than Davina had seen them in many a morning.
She swallowed a bit of dry oatcake, then quietly sipped her tea, searching her mother’s face for some clue of what the morning might hold. Was that a slight tremor in Leana’s chin? a hint of moisture in her eyes?
All at once her father thrust aside his half-eaten plate of food and dabbed his mouth, signaling his intentions. “I have important news that cannot wait any longer.”
Davina’s breath caught. Please, Father. Let it be good news. Her brothers turned to the head of the table, their expressions grim, as Davina found her sketchbook pencil. It seemed their questions were about to be answered.