Six hours off the ferry from England, Isobel sat in the cramped buggy jostling over the rough roads with her hands folded neatly as possible in her lap. This untamed land was nothing like the noisy streets of London she spent all her life walking. In London, you could hear church bells chime around every corner. Here you could only listen to the crashing of waves on white shores, the whisper of the wind as it bounded over endless green hills and twisted between trees in the dark woods. London had been her home all her life, and until then she had never felt the need to leave the city she loved. That was until she slipped into the night and boarded the nearest boat going north around the island. Coming to Scotland, the country where both her parents had been born and bred, was not something she looked forward too. Even though her mother had always looked back fondly on her childhood in Scotland telling Isobel stories about wild beasts, fairies, and seals who shed their hide to walk on land. Her stomach twisted in knots not only because of motion sickness but from her own nervous inclination.
Her eyes closed against the bright morning light as she curled into the worn leather seat. She listened for sounds familiar to her but heard nothing. To Isobel, the silence of the countryside was deafening.
A loud crack snapped her eyes open, and the buggy swayed. Isobel leaned out the window clutching her cloak a little closer to her body to see what had happened. Her driver, an older man, called Baird, jumped down from his seat. He spewed a steady stream of what she thought were Gaelic curses as he knelt down beside the wooden wheel.
“Mr. Baird?” She stared down at him blinking green eyes.
“Aye?” He paused his rambling momentarily.
“What seems to be the matter?” Isobel asked.
“The wheel's busted, lass,” he said without looking at her.
Isobel chewed the inside of her cheek. She wasn't really in a great hurry, but she did want to make it there before midday. With the buggy broken and the road as untraveled as it was Isobel doubted she would make it anywhere before dark.
“Can you fix it?”
“The wheel? I dinna ken so out here. Dinna fash lass someone will come along shortly.”
Contrary to Mr. Baird's beliefs, another buggy did not come along. The effect was quite the opposite as the only thing to pass by them were a couple of wooly Highland sheep. The sun was beginning to drop below the horizon when Isobel, stiff-legged, gathered her skirts and stepped out of the carriage for the first time since she had piled into the tight buggy at the port.
Mr. Baird sat on a jagged boulder embedded in the side of the nearest small hill. Isobel sighed, she marched across the grass and plopped down on the ground beside him.
“You're awfully young to be going about all on your own.”
Isobel scoffed. “Hardly, I'm eighteen.”
Mr. Baird chuckled. “Oh, aye. Eighteen...”
Isobel dropped back into the long grass. The soft blades tickled her cheek. She laid her hands on her now flat stomach.
“So what's brought ye here?”
Isobel looked over at him startled.
“My parents were Scottish. They thought I should see the land.”
“Were?” He raised a brow.
“Are.” She crossed her arms over her chest and then pushed herself upright. “They raised me in London though.”
Mr. Baird made what Isobel thought was a very Scottish noise then wrinkled his nose at her. “Aye, I ken that much from looking at ye.”
Isobel hesitated for a second unsure if that was a good or bad thing.
“Aye- I mean yes.” She stumbled over her words.
Her ears burned as she forced herself to her feet, dusted herself off, and turned away from the older man. Her eyes raked over the green hills, speckled with trees of all ages. Behind her, Mr. Baird was quiet as Isobel walked forward.
“Don't wander off to far, lass, there are fairies in these hills.”
“Fairies?” She looked back over her shoulder. Baird nodded.
“Aye, the Fairy Folk have been told to wander near here. Ye dinna want anything to do with them. If they take ye back to their realm, ye won't come back for a long time. Not until everyone ye know's been dead a century at least and you- ye'll be not a day older than you are standing right here before of me.”
Baird shook his head; his voice softened “Ye dinna want anything to do with those creatures lass.”
Isobel blinked once. Her mother had mentioned the fairies to her before, but they were only stories. She knew it was nothing more than a silly superstition, but she humored the old man.
“I won't go far. Simply need to stretch my legs.”
The more she walked, the wetter the land became until her once polished boots were soaked in a layer of grime so thick and sticky she'd need a knife to pry it away. She stopped walking and peered back over her shoulder. In the distance, she could see Mr. Baird where he still sat perched on the edge of the hill. As long as she could see him there, Isobel had little reason to worry. She was about to turn and go back the way she had come when a high pitched wail stopped her in her tracks.
Someone was crying. It wasn't the crying you'd expect from an adult but the desperate cry of an infant. Isobel tensed at the thought of a child. Her hands started to shake. A small round face and light green eyes like her own blinked in the farthest corners of her mind. She pushed the memory aside then turned back to look at Mr. Baird who sat on his rock oblivious to the shrieking child and her trembling hands.
The crying was coming from somewhere in the tall mossy trees before her, but she saw nothing. She looked over her shoulder at Mr. Baird again torn if she should go to him or the child. Maybe it wasn't a child at all? Her mother said there were wild animals in these woods. If it wasn't a child but a bear cub would she not be putting herself in more danger? If it was a child would Mr. Baird know what to do with it? Isobel knew little of babies. The only time she'd ever spent with a child had been cut short. As it was nine months was so little time.
The shrieking quieted. Isobel was afraid the baby would stop crying all together before she could get back to Mr. Baird making the child impossible to find. She gathered her skirts up; her cloak fluttered behind her as she ran into the woods not caring that branches caught her skin like tiny blades. The woods quickly blurred into one as she chased the cries deeper and deeper through the trees.
The crying stopped, and Isobel froze. Her breath halted in her chest. Slowly, scanning, she turned in a circle but saw nothing but trees and branches against the dark velvet sky. Isobel’s hands shook. She heard a baby crying of that she was certain. Isobel wasn’t so fragile her mind would make up such sounds to drive her to madness no matter what her father said. She touched her cheek and felt the sting as if her father’s hand had hit her again. Tears burned at the back of her eyes blurring her vision.
Who would leave a baby in the woods? But, Isobel could hardly judge the child’s mother. She was no better having given away her own child. Even if she thought, she was giving him a better life. How was she supposed to know he’d caught cholera? Now he was buried somewhere in these hills and his cries, his cries for her, haunted her everywhere she went. The closer she came to his grave the louder his wailing would be, harsh and angrier. He was so furious with her for betraying him, even though she was barely but a child herself.
Isobel knew she’d been a fool. He told her he loved her. Why would she question him? He’d never done anything to deserve her hesitation. When he said everything would be alright, they’d figure it out; Isobel had believed him. He kept telling her they were going to get married and Isobel never doubted him. She had trusted him for days even after he had vanished from her life.
Isobel spun to go back the way she had come, but the woods all looked the same to her.
Her knees crumbled out from under her. She fell to the ground in a heap of dress, skirts, and cloak, too weak to lift her temple from the grass below her for a long time. A creak in the woods made her raise her head.
Deep down she knew she wasn’t alone. Someone or something was here with her. They watched her with a thousand eyes through the leaves and branches. Isobel felt their breaths as she pushed herself up onto her hands and knees.
“Hello?” She called, but the only response she received was a silence so deafening it chilled her right to the marrow. On all fours, Isobel scanned the woods. Her teeth chattered, but she hardly noticed. Her eyes slipped over the exposed roots of a massive oak she had somehow missed in her hysteria. Between the roots was a bundle. Isobel crawled forward, pushing herself until her fingers threaded through the thick knit.
She prayed as she gently pulled the cover away. Drawing a long shaky breath, she stared down at the small round face blued from the cold. A sob clawed its way from the pit of her stomach and spilled from her mouth. Isobel clutched the child to her chest.
“Lass, where are you?” Mr. Baird shouted. Her head snapped up. She heard him as he tore through the woods, crashing through bushes and branches. She pushed herself up onto her shaking legs.
“Help!” She screamed. “Please, please help me!”
He tumbled through the trees towards her but stopped when his eyes went to the blanket in her arms. His eyes widened. He took a step towards her and reached for the child.
“What- what have you there?” He asked, his voice tight with unease, though she was certain he knew what she was gripping so fiercely to her body.
“He’s so cold-”
“Put him back lass. ”
Isobel reared back. “I beg your pardon-”
“It’s not a bairn.” He shot towards her so suddenly she couldn’t fend him off when he grabbed, the child away from her. Isobel stumbled backward in disbelief. She knew a baby when she saw one.
“What on earth do you mean? Certainly-”
“It’s a changeling lass, ye ken? It’s a fairy.”
“A fairy? You cannot truly think this sick child is anything but just that.” She blanched. “That’s preposterous-”
“Don’t you know a fairy hill when you see one? Come on; we must go. The longer we’re here, the more we risk the bairn.” Baird shook his head. “If we leave now the fairies might switch the bairns still.”
He grasped her wrist. Isobel struggled against him. “We can’t leave a baby.”
“We have no choice.”
“Nay, ye canna do anything for the lad. Ye have to leave it to the fairies now. His ma and da, they’ll be ‘round here somewhere, hiding. Watching. I tell ye, we’ve got to leave this place.”
“I will not leave a baby out here starving in the cold. Who do you take me for?’”
“I take ye for who ye are. You're a silly lass who knows nothing of the world. The bairn is not yours. Ye canna do anything for him, ye ken? If the bairn dies and his Ma and Da find us here, they’ll call ye a witch and have ye hanged. You hear me, lass? They’ll see ye lynched.”
Isobel shook her head. “If we take him and he lives-”
“Look at the poor wee thing. He’ll not make it another hour lass. Aye, his best chance is with the fairies.” Mr. Baird said. He clutched her arm as he held the baby scooped against his side. He leaned the baby towards her so she could see him again. His little blue lips parted as the faintest breaths escaped him.
“I don't know what ye are holding onto lass, but you have to let ‘em go. The bairn’s not yours, and even if we took him there is nowhere to bring him. He’ll die in your arms. Lay him down and let him go in his sleep.”
“There must be something we can do,” She insisted.
Baird shook his head.
“Ye think I would leave a wee babe out here if there were something I could do for him?” When she didn’t move except to let her head fall in defeat, he stepped to her and held the baby out.
His voice softened. “Lay him down by the oak, lass. Lay him down and say a prayer. There’s nothing ye can do. Nothing either of us can do....”
He put the child in her arms and Isobel held him, she felt the baby's weight in her bones, as she pressed her lips to his cool head and whispered softly to him. Sluggishly, Isobel carried him back to the oak and laid him between the roots as one would between the walls of a cradle or grave. She tucked the blanket tight around him then straightened her spine.
Mr. Baird came up behind her. He laid his hand on her elbow and turned her around. He slipped from English back to Gaelic as he gently ushered her away from the oak. “Come along, mo nighean donn.”
Isobel sobbed silently. He said nothing else as they made their way out of the woods back into the field. His fingers remained loosely on her as he helped her through the knee-high grass one step at a time.
“What did you call me?” She asked as he helped her back into the carriage.
Mr. Baird arched a brow then blinked. “Mo nighean donn?”
“Oh aye, it means my brown-haired girl,” He smiled faintly. “Now sit down and rest lass. Someone will come along shortly. . .”
Katelin is a writer with a passion for historical fiction and hockey. Born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario she can often be found riding the O-Train with a Pepsi, at least one copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and a developing character in the empty seat across from her.