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A Stitch in Time, Part 1 (fic; Saiyuki)

Title: A Stitch in Time
Author: opalmatrix
Rating: PG-13 or T (very mild m/m, aftermath/retelling of violence, gore, cursing)
Warnings: painful, primitive treatment of serious injuries (not too explicit, though); AU, with some age shifting
Pairing(s): very early 585 - perhaps
Spoilers: the general outline of Hakkai and Gojyo's backstories, and Sanzo's origins
Notes: Written under the nostalgic influence of Sally Watson's YA historical romances and the Scottish portions of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, and probably originally inspired by cicer's Taboo and emungere's Bless the Beasts and Children, in both of which a very young Gojyo ends up in a better place ... which got me wondering about what influences a developing child's personality, and when. Beta (multiple rounds of beta ... ) and some very good suggestions by smillaraaq .
Summary: Young Hugh Chase thinks that both his vengeful mission to Scotland and his life are about to come to a bloody end, but in fact, the story is just beginning.

Hugh staggered and collided with another tree. That made three of them he'd hit this hour alone. He leaned against it, resting. If he sat down, he'd never get up again.

He was not certain why he was so sure of the passage of time. He was even less certain why he was bothering to follow the rocky little track through the rough hill country above Perth. Surely he was far enough off that he could just lay down and die peacefully. Blood was now only seeping rather than dripping through the rough bandage that had been his extra shirt, but he had no illusions about the seriousness of the wound it covered.

And it wasn't as though he had any reason for living, now.

He pushed himself away from the rough bark and lurched a few steps farther. The track was going downhill, now, and for a moment, he could see the little glen below him in the summer twilight. There was a small building there - a chapel, it looked to be, rather than a house - with light gleaming warmly from a window. The hills above it were soft and dark green, the evening air was sweet and rain-washed, and he could see Venus glimmering in the west as the clouds started to break apart. The half-full moon was just rising. For a moment, he swayed on his feet, entranced by the beauty of the scene, and then he stumbled and fell headlong downhill.

Well, this is the end of me, I suppose. How foolish. I'm sorry, Kate.

His eyes opened again, to his surprise. Someone was standing over him. Hugh smiled as he recognized the exact aspect of the man's cheekbones, the complex yet familiar mark on the brow, the outrageously long eyelashes, the cropped dark hair, and the long, flexible mouth. Hugh's lips and tongue struggled to speak his friend's name, but no sound came out. Recognition and dismay filled the other's face, but as he knelt beside Hugh, that face was suddenly a stranger's. This was no man, but a gangly lad a couple of years younger than Hugh, dressed in homespun linen and coarse tartan woolen. His hair was a long tangle down his back, elflocks of it falling into his face and half-hiding the ugly roughness of a burn scar high on one cheek. And as Hugh stared at this stranger, he realized that there was only consternation on the boy's face.

"Who are you?" asked Hugh, but there was no strength to his voice, and he was not sure the other had heard him at all. The boy reached out to cradle Hugh in his arms. He'll never be able to lift me, Hugh thought, but those wiry arms tightened, and the world swayed and moved past Hugh's dazed eyes. For a moment, he saw the glen and the chapel, and the light of the moon seemed to lay a path from the boy's firmly planted bare feet to the lighted doorway below. Then the pain came clawing up again from Hugh's belly, and darkness claimed him once more.

Next time his eyes opened, it was to candle- and firelight washing over a smoke-grimed plaster ceiling held by dark wooden beams. There was a smell of soap, spirits of wine, and beeswax, and a fire was crackling nearby. He was lying on something hard, and he was naked under a coarse linen sheet. It seemed unlikely that he was still alive, and yet this seemed awfully domestic for Hell.

Someone chuckled softly. "I can't claim it's Heaven, laddie, but it's certainly not Hell." Hugh started and then groaned: he hadn't realized that he'd spoken aloud. A firm hand grasped one wrist, feeling for his pulse. Hugh turned his head and saw a tall man with a smooth, ageless face, dressed as a priest or perhaps even a monk - except for his hair, which was long and fair and tied behind his neck. The narrow, handsome eyes closed for a moment as the fellow counted Hugh's heartbeats, and when they opened again, the man's face had become serious.

Footsteps sounded behind the priest - if that was what he was. Hugh tilted his head farther and saw that the boy who had rescued him had come into the room. The light showed that his tangled hair was actually a rich, intense fox-red, and his eyes an extraordinary cornflower blue. He was carrying a stack of folded cloths and, strangely, a coil of strong rope over his shoulder. A shaggy shepherd dog, patched white and smoky silver and deep blue-grey, followed closely on his heels. The fair-haired man spoke to him, but the words were not English. Gaelic, thought Hugh, and watched as the boy put the cloths down atop a small table. Hugh realized that he himself must be on another table, a large trestle, and wondered hazily why. The boy was staring at his face with awe and confusion, and he spoke to the man haltingly. The man patted his shoulder and then turned back to Hugh.

"I am Father Calum. Might I ask your name?"

"Hugh Chase," Hugh answered, but his eyes were on the red-haired boy. The lad jabbed a thumb at his own chest, still staring at Hugh, and said "Roslin." His voice was hoarse and uncertainly deep; it must have broken fairly recently. Father Calum turned to him, frowning, and scolded him gently in Gaelic. The lad scowled and turned away, stalking across the room to poke at the fire. Father Calum sighed.

"His name is Govan. 'Roslin' means 'Little Red,' which is what the wild lads in Dundee used to call him when he ran at their heels, desperate for any crumbs of friendship they would give him. But it was never said with love, and he's grown well out of the first part of it these two years past." He felt Hugh's forehead for a moment, and shook his head. "Master Chase, Govan thinks he once knew you, although he can't recall when, or even why he thinks so."

Hugh closed his eyes, feeling dizzy. "I ... thought I knew him as well, when I first saw him. But that's not possible. And I don't really remember his face at all ... am I dying, Father?"

"You will be, if you are left to yourself. But any halfway skillful surgeon would have a chance of setting you right. And I am such a man. It will be very painful, and you still might die - though you're a strong lad for all your slightness. But are you willing that I try to put you back together? From your first words there, I take it you meant to die."

Hugh opened his eyes slowly. "I ... did, but now ... ."

"But now -?" The older man's eyes held Hugh's, and his tone was gentle. "Perhaps it would ease your heart to speak of it? Whether or not you wish this to be a confession proper is between you and God."

Hugh licked his dry lips. "I think that I would like to tell you. Even though I know we may not be of the same church."

"Shall I send Govan out?" The boy turned away from the fire at the sound of his name. What Hugh could see of his face looked troubled.

"Can he ... understand what I say?"

"No more than a word or two."

"I think ... I'd rather have him stay, then."

Father Calum spoke to Govan, who drew up a little three-legged stool and sat at Hugh's other side, his chin almost on Hugh's shoulder. This close, he looked wild and disheveled and very, very worried. The dog, which had settled itself on a bed of sacks near the hearth, rose to follow him, but he sent it back with a word. Hugh closed his eyes again.

"I had a twin sister, and after our father died and our mother married again, we were left in the care of our uncle Rowland, who in truth cared for neither of us. Katherine was a brilliant scholar, and thought she might enter a convent so that she could continue her studies ... three months ago, Lord William Stratton came to visit our uncle. He is a distant cousin of some sort, from this region. He is ... was ... also a widower twice over, and no girl has ever been safe with him. They say he beat both his wives, and may have even killed the one - the other died in childbed. When he left suddenly for his home of Pitcullen, taking Katherine with him, my uncle refused to pursue the matter, saying he would no doubt marry 'the wench' when she proved herself in the matter of children, and this would save our uncle the cost of a dowry ... ."

"You loved your sister. You were close."

"I ... had never thought of how close until this happened."

"How did you come to be here, now, three months after?"

"My uncle would not bestir himself, but others did, and questions were asked. But because Pitcullen is north of the border, in the end none would pursue him."

"Not so, it seems: one did."

"Even so. I sold my horse, my books, what was left of Katherine's jewelry from our mother, which Kate had hidden, and bought passage on a small ship. I found the house ... ."

"Do you need some water? I don't dare give you much at the moment."

"I'll ... I'll do. Father ... I crept in like a thief. I killed every living soul I came across. I ... still cannot believe I was able to do so. I slew him, in his bed, and the girl he had with him. He had already left off ... sleeping with Kate - with reason. She was locked in a tiny chamber at the top of the house. Father, she was with child. His child. I told her to come with me anyway. She refused. She ... oh, God!"

As Hugh fell silent, he felt warm fingers grip his shoulder. He turned his head and looked. Govan was staring at him with mute sympathy, his eyes uncomprehending but soft with concern. Hugh closed his eyes, unable to imagine what this rough young creature would make of the tale he was missing. Hugh wet his lips as best he could with a tongue that felt like dust.

"She - she took my dagger and killed herself."

Father Calum was silent a moment. "Master Chase ... did you try to join her?"

"Nn...no. Not then. Not truly. I had fallen to my knees beside her, and then ... Lord William's eldest son Andrew found us there. He had arrived home late, and discovered the bodies of the servants. My earlier zeal for butchery failed me, and he gave me this wound before I killed him. I don't know ... why I didn't do away with myself, or why I bothered to flee."

"Did your sister speak to you, poor creature, before she met her death?"

Things wouldn't come into focus. It was hard to keep his eyes open, to think. "She said ... she said 'You go, Hugh. You still have your life. Mine is over.'"

"You were carrying out her wishes, then." Father Calum laid his hand on Hugh's other shoulder. "When you murdered those folk, their lives were over as well, and unlike you, they had no chance to unburden their souls, or do penance. But lad, no penance that I could assign you would be harsher than what I am about to do to save your life. Are you contrite? If you survive, will you strive to truly live, as you sister could not?"

There was something wrong with that, but Hugh could not remember what. It was getting so hard to think. "Father ... she killed herself. She's ... she's going to Hell, isn't she? I don't want to go to Heaven if she's ... ."

"You imagine that the Archfiend would allow you children to be together in the Inferno? Foolish lad."

Hugh felt tears brimming. He was too weak to stop them. "I have no hope, then."

Father Calum squeezed his shoulder very gently. "Her own hand guided the dagger, but who had inclined her to do so? She was as much a victim as those you killed."

Hugh blinked, trying to make the man's face come clear. "That's not ... are you truly a priest? Or even a Christian?"

The other man chuckled softly. "Well, you might have asked, this hour past, why I am out here in this old chapel, with no congregation but this poor child beside you, and those few shepherds and hunters who come to me for physick. Now you know at least one bit of it. But neither the Pope in Rome nor the Archbishop of Canterbury has yet given the order for my burning at the stake, so perhaps Our Lord still has some purpose for me here - or perhaps the Devil is shielding me, and those fine gentlemen have not yet noticed. You will have to decide for yourself. Come now - I absolve your poor sister of her final sin. Will you speak your contrition, so I may do the same for you? That is, if you can accept it from me."

Of a sudden, Hugh felt a stillness somewhere within him, as though his heart was at ease for the first time in a hundred days. "I am ... I am sincerely penitent. If I live, I will do my best to live for both of us."

"Then I absolve you. And now, I had best get to work, or all this pain of the heart and spirit will be for nought. We must bind you, I am afraid, for you must remain still while I am at this. 'T would be best if you fainted, but I cannot depend on that."

He spoke to Govan, who released Hugh's shoulder and fetched the rope and the cloths. Together, they tied Hugh firmly to the table, using the cloth to protect his flesh from the rope. Govan fetched a small pot from the fire, and Father Calum used a pair of tongs to remove from its steaming depths a number of wickedly gleaming curved needles, which he laid out carefully on the smaller table.

"Close your eyes, lad."

Hugh did as ordered, although he doubted it would matter.

He was right.

He did not know how many times he rose shrieking out of the twisted red-black darkness. Memories arose and were shredded into nothingness by the pain: their mother leaving them alone at Uncle Rowland's; his first pony; Kate reading under the apple tree behind their uncle's house; the blood-spattered plaster of the manor house at Pitcullen and the faces of those dying at his bloody hand; Kate driving the dagger home into her own flesh. Sometimes he saw Father Calum's grave face, no longer so serene, or Govan, grey under his tan, peering into his eyes, and heard the dog whining as it sensed its master's concern, and knew, for an instant, that he was seeing the truth. For those moments, he was lucid. And then he knew that if this kept on - if he could not get some proper rest - he would die.

It might have been a day or a week later - he had no way of knowing - but suddenly everything went slack and peaceful. His throat was no longer raw with screaming. He couldn't open his eyes, but that was quite alright. He lay there in the dimness, content, for some little while, but gradually the faint, dull pain in his belly began to sharpen. At the same time, he became aware of light striking through his closed eyelids. He was lying on what must be a bed, mostly very soft but a bit lumpy. The bed linens were not fresh, but they were of some astonishingly fine, smooth cloth. There was no smell of wax or oil burning, and only the faintest smell of aromatic smoke, old and distant, along with a faint tang that might be stale ale. Nearby, there was a soft rustling sound, like the page of a book being turned. He opened his eyes.

The ceiling above his head was a flat, slightly gleaming expanse of what seemed to be white-painted plaster, yellowed and cracked, evenly gridded with slender beams that seemed inadequate to their task. The light was steady and brighter than that of any lamp he had known. It was coming from his left. He turned his head slowly to look.

The lamp was like nothing he had ever seen - he only knew it was lamp because it was casting a bright light that made him blink. It was standing atop a meaninglessly strange box with a dark, glossy panel in its front, in turn atop a wooden chest of some sort. Someone was sitting in a chair, reading. The light picked out an angular, male form: a man somewhere near his own age, with long red hair - not the bright auburn of Govan's hair, but a crimson shade that was surely nothing natural. Yet the long lashes, the shape of the cheekbones, the chiseled nose, the wide mouth, were all familiar - this was Govan to the life, somehow magically three or four years older. His cheek was even scarred in the same spot, but instead of the angry red distorted mark of a burn, this man had two scars that looked like sword cuts. He was dressed strangely as well: his wiry arms were bare to the shoulder, so Hugh could clearly see the muscles moving under his tanned skin as his shifted slightly in the wooden chair, turning the page of the booklet he was reading. Even that was odd: the paper was thin and flexible, the pages as large as a church Bible and brilliantly colored.

Hugh had not made a sound, but the man must have felt his gaze, for he looked up. And Hugh saw that his irises were ruby red, as red as the Roman soldiers' cloaks in the stained glass windows at St. Mark's.

Hugh gasped, and the man rose to his feet, dropping his booklet on the floor, his face creasing with concern. He spoke. Hugh could not understand a word, nor could he guess what the language was, but the deep voice was gentle. He reached out to feel Hugh's forehead, carefully and a little awkwardly, as though he were not used to doing such a thing. The palm of his hand was hard - the hand of a man who'd had to work for his bread. He spoke again, and somehow, Hugh's mind seemed to stir and wake, and he began to understand the words: " ... doc said if you woke from the pain, I should give ya this medicine he left. You sit tight - I'll get it."

Don't go, Hugh wanted to say, but even though his throat didn't hurt, it was parched and dry, and he had no voice. The man turned and left the room, abandoning Hugh with nothing to do but continue to catalog his unfamiliar surroundings. The room had two windows, made of larger and seemingly thinner panes of glass than he'd ever seen. Night showed outside them, and a couple of the panes were cracked. The walls were dingy white-painted plaster, cracked here and there as well, with no pictures or tapestries, and the frame of the bed seemed to be iron. There was a pallet of some kind on the floor near the door, a thin mattress carelessly dressed with a couple of blankets and a threadbare pillow.

How strange. Did Calum arrange for my nursing elsewhere? Christ's bones, but I'm thirsty.

The man with the crimson hair returned, carrying a vessel of clear glass as tall as an ale tankard, filled with a cloudy, watery liquid. He dropped gracefully to his knees beside the bed and gingerly worked his free arm under Hugh's shoulders. The arm was strong and steady, and the man slowly and carefully raised Hugh far enough to sip the drink. It smelled strongly of anise and tasted of bitterness, so much so that he had trouble getting it down, despite his thirst.

"Ah, I know - tastes like crap, don't it? But c'mon, it'll let you get back t' sleep. Doc said you need to stay put and rest."

The voice was as soothing and comfortable as a warm woolen bedgown in the dead of winter. Hugh finished the potion, and the other lowered him carefully back to the pillows. Hugh coughed a little, which felt like hell in his belly, and licked his dry lips. "Who ... ?"

The fellow smiled. "Told you before, but I don't figure it's gonna stick until you're off the drugs. Gojyo. Sha Gojyo. I'll getcha some more water t' help take that nasty taste outta your mouth. "

The name meant nothing to Hugh. It did not sound like a name from any nation he knew. Gojyo came back with the glass drinking vessel filled with plain, cold water and helped Hugh get it down. Then he moved the bright lamp from its perch to somewhere farther away from the bed so that its naked light no longer glared so harshly on Hugh's face. "I'll get out of your hair, let you get some sleep, OK?"

"Nnnn ... don't go," Hugh managed to say. He felt his face grow hot.

Gojyo turned back, surprised. Then he smiled slowly and sweetly. "Hey, OK. I got nothin' else t' do, anyway." He dropped back into the chair and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, his long-fingered hands dangling between his knees. "You sound like talkin' hurts. I know what - my big brother used t' tell me stories when I couldn't sleep. Should I tell you one of 'em?"

Anything to keep him talking. "Yes," Hugh whispered.

"Lemme see ... nothin' too spooky. OK. Once there was this guy, down in Yangzhou. His name was Big Yang, and he was a boatman. He was a really nice guy, always went outta his way to help people, and gave money to the beggars and the temple whenever he had any extra at all. So one day, this old lady that he ferried across for free gave him this picture on a scroll. It was a really gorgeous picture of a beautiful girl sewing a pair of slippers - she was embroidering tigers on 'em. It was so pretty, Big Yang hung it over his bed so he could look at it every night before he went t' sleep.

"It was a magic picture - bet you guessed that, right? After a few nights, that girl came right out of that picture - for real. And they had a real nice time t'gether in his bed, Big Yang and the pretty girl from the picture. And she must've liked it, 'cause after that, she came out every night. After a couple of years, they even had a kid - a nice healthy boy ... ."

Hugh's eyelids were heavy, heavy. The hot pain in his belly faded to ashes. Gojyo's soft, deep, kind voice rambled on, taking him farther and farther away from anything that mattered, no matter that the names in the tale were wildly foreign and he'd never heard of any of the places. As his last thoughts slipped away, he felt rather than saw the other man lean over him. Hugh opened his heavy eyelids for just a second, and the other, smiling gently, pulled the blanket up snugly under his chin, dark hair and blue eyes and smooth flawless skin, save for the holy mark on the brow. A living weight settled beside him, solid and muscular and warm all along his shoulder, hip, and thigh, soothing and familiar, and Hugh smiled as a firm kiss was pressed against his temple.

He woke to daylight filtered through branches and a latticed window, and the body next to him, on the side nearest the wall, was all scrawny knobbly spine and sharp ribs under a threadbare linen shirt. He reached out, blindly, and encountered a tangled head of long hair. His eyes flew open.

Not crimson hair, but rich, foxy red. Govan. And the plastered and heavy-beamed ceiling above his head matched his memory of Father Calum's chapel home, although he was clearly in a different room. The bed beneath him was an ordinary featherbed, dressed in clean but coarse linens, and the walls had little paintings of saints. A worn tapestry covered the wall beyond Govan, showing Adam naming the animals. The windows, open to the morning air, were latticed and mullioned with small diamonds of thick glass.

Govan stirred and muttered in his sleep, stretching his bony legs and turning onto his back. Hugh shifted his own legs and was instantly aware of the fact that he could do so without agony. Cautiously, he eased one hand under the sheet and felt the bandages over his belly. They were dry, and as he probed gingerly, he came to the conclusion that the wound was closed and starting to heal properly.

How long have I been asleep?

He shook his bedmate gently by the shoulder. "Govan?"

"Mmmmffff .... ," said the boy, clenching his eyes tighter shut. Some things are the same in any language. Hugh shook him a little harder. Govan rubbed his eyes, muttered, and then said, distinctly, "Mo bhròn! " He sat up, and then froze, staring at Hugh. Hugh stared back, abruptly realizing that he had no idea how to make himself understood.

"Father Calum?"

Govan blinked at him, took a deep breath, and nodded vigorously. Then he slithered out of bed (and nearly out of his shirt) by wriggling down to the foot of it and flipping himself over the footboard. There was a small yelp: his dog must have been sleeping at the foot of the bed. Then Govan ran out of the room, his bare feet slapping the worn boards of the floor, and his shirt tails snapping behind him, so quickly did he move, with the dog racing after him. Bemused, Hugh folded his hands behind his head and looked up at the ceiling. Dark, massive beams. Cracked plaster. No shiny paint. The table beside the bed held nothing but a candlestick with a half-burnt taper in it and a small psalter.

But he thought he could still taste the bitterness of Gojyo's potion in the back of his mouth.

Father Calum came into the room then, trailed by Govan carrying a bundle of what looked to be bandage linen. The priest's eyebrows rose when he saw Hugh, and he smiled. "Well, lad, you're looking much better than you were three days past."

"I've been asleep three days?"

"Nay, you've been asleep ... Govan!"

He was looking at the corner of the room past the foot of the bed. By craning his neck, Hugh could see the corner of a pallet on the floor. Govan was doing his best to pretend he hadn't noticed that Calum was cross. The priest spoke to him sternly, pointing at the table beside the bed, then the pallet, and finally out of the room. Govan deposited the linen, grabbed something from the floor near the foot of the bed, and hurried out. What Hugh could see of his face beyond the tangle of red hair looked flushed.

"He was sleeping in the bed with you, wasn't he? I've told him you were too badly hurt for that, but he kept crawling in with you every chance he got, this past week. He's to go wash and dress, now, while I take a look at you."

"I've been asleep ... a week?"

"I'd not call it sleep, the first few days. You'd faint and wake again screaming, or later on, as you grew weaker, moaning. Govan thought you were better when he was near, and you might have been, but ... after the first three days, I tried to prepare him to accept the worst, you were so weak. Then one night, you grew silent and still, and I thought you had died. But you were still breathing, so I let him stay with you and went to pray. When I came back, you were sleeping, deeply but properly, and he beside you, his face against your shoulder. I should have taken him in hand at that point, and made him sleep in his own bed, but with the both of you looking so peaceful, I'd not the heart ... at least he didn't have Rùnag - that's the dog, she's a good creature - up here as well."

As he spoke, Calum was pulling down the covers and gently cutting away the bandages. Then he stood, staring a moment. "Well, would you look at that, would you?"

His voice was reverent. Hugh squinted down past his own chest as best he could, but it was impossible to see much.

"Do you truly want to see it? 'tis much better but still not a pretty sight."

Hugh nodded. Calum stooped and started to work one arm under his shoulder. He was interrupted by Govan, who said something in a fierce voice from the doorway. Calum sighed and shook his head, then eased his hand out from behind Hugh. "He says I'm doing it badly. And that he is stronger than I am - which is true enough."

Govan, dressed in a fresh but well-worn shirt, slipped past the priest, knelt, and worked his arm carefully behind Hugh's back. The feeling was so familiar that Hugh had a moment of vertigo. He stared into Govan's bony, scarred face for a moment. "You ... ."

Blue eyes, not red. They were unusual in their own way, though: this close, he could see that there was a darker blue ring around the iris, and a ring of golden brown around the pupil. For a moment, the boy held his gaze, then his eyes dropped, and he blushed.

Hugh felt his own face grow hot. He stopped staring and let Govan prop him up a bit so he could look at his own belly. The wound was a lividly red, jagged line, with branches here and there, and all criss-crossed with dark stitching, but it was not raw or bloody. It gave him the strangest feeling, looking at it, and he had to shut his eyes. Govan eased him down again.

"There, now, I shouldn't have let you look. You've gone green."

"No ... I had to look. It's part of me."

"Well, it's truly much better. It looks like it's been healing three weeks, not one."

With Govan's help to lift and shift, Hugh was soon bandaged up again, and tucked in snugly.

"You'll not be getting up anytime soon, mind, and you'll have nought of substance to eat for another week or two: broth, milk, and the like."

It was not an appealing thought, being bed-bound for weeks, but it was certainly better than the alternative. Father Calum seemed to guess his thoughts. "I have a few books, although I'm sure a clever lad like yourself will be through with them all too soon."

Hugh cautiously raised one arm and rubbed his face. Even that gentle motion pulled at the stitches in his gut, but it wasn't too bad. He remembered Gojyo, in his dream, telling him a story. Now he'd never know how it ended. "I wish ... I wish I could talk to Govan, since he's determined to keep me company."

"Well, there's a thought - that should keep you busy enough!"

"What ... ?"

"You can teach him English, and perhaps learn some Gaelic in exchange, when he's not out with the flock. And when you can sit up a bit, you can work with him on his reading. He had a bit of teaching at church, down in Dundee, as a wee lad, but he can scarcely make his way through the Lord's Prayer, even in the Gaelic. Oh, he has it by heart, but he barely recognizes it on the page."

Govan's eyes darted back and forth between them, knowing they were speaking of him, but nothing else. Father Calum smiled and spoke to him. Govan managed to look both dismayed and pleased, which was an excellent change: his whole face lit up.

"Why does he like me so well?"

"Perhaps you remind him of his elder brother, who's gone missing these four years." Calum spoke to Govan in Gaelic, apparently asking him about the notion. Govan's bright expression slipped a bit and he shrugged and said something brief. "'No, not so,' he says."

Hugh watched as Calum reached out and tousled the boy's bright tangle of hair, then pulled him to his feet by one arm. "He's washed his face but there's no comb has touched a single hair of that head," said the priest, and apparently repeated the remark in translation. Govan squirmed and glanced at Hugh, clearly hoping for an intervention. Hugh grimaced sympathetically, but really, the boy's hair was a proper mare's nest.

"I'll send him back with something for you to drink," promised Calum, and guided his reluctant charge out of the room.

Read Part 2



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