Keith and Ewen were high on the northern slopes of Meall a’ Choire Ghlais, almost under the shadowed rocks of Coire an Eich, and were sitting regarding the landscape to the north: Meall Ard Achaidh, which marked the limit of Ardroy, and beyond it the deep sapphire glint of Loch Garry. The two of them were happy enough, though the stag which they had been stalking had eluded them, bounding down into the valley which lay almost at their feet. It was so quiet that Keith could hear the sound of the river in that valley, and the gentle cropping of grass as his horse, and Ewen’s garron, grazed in the cup of the corrie.
The stalking of the deer had been but an excuse, and a welcome one; it had been a few months since last they had been able to meet, and privacy had been their primary concern for the first few days of their time together. Keith had brought a musket, and Ewen knives for the gralloching, should they be lucky in their hunt, and both had food and water in their saddlebags. Now they sat on a lichen-covered boulder, munching on their bannocks and very glad to be together again.
“Your horse seems very much at home here in the hills, for all that he’s a fine beast. With a fine name too!” remarked Ewen.
“Yes, I’m fond of him. He’s descended from Lord Godolphin’s Barb. Sure-footed and strong; that’s what’s needed in these mountains, is it not, Scipio Africanus?” Keith knew the affection was plain in his voice, but had at last progressed beyond the point where he would conceal any such emotion, whether towards man or animal.
Scipio raised his head and regarded his master, still munching; with grass sticking out of his mouth he did not look much like the scion of a line of kings’ horses, but there was an intelligent gleam in his dark eye nonetheless. He blew through his nostrils, and lowered his head again. Ewen’s garron merely continued stolidly grazing, close enough to Scipio that they could whisk the flies away from each other if need be.
“But he’s not speedy, I think,” mused Ewen, continuing to regard the dark-bay horse, overlaid with a golden sheen, with critical admiration.
“No, he’s not fast. One cannot have everything, after all. I had a fast horse when I first came to the Highlands, and – no, she was not suited.”
“The horse you had to shoot when the heron flew up?” Ewen asked the question gently.
“Yes. Comet, she was called. It wasn’t an especially good name for her – she was fast, certainly, so fast my stepfather thought of racing her. But predictable she was not. It turned out that I was the only one who could manage her, and that’s how I came to have her, and to be the one riding for help after Spean Bridge.”
“I’m sorry,” murmured Ewen. “That was a bad day for you from start to finish.” He grasped Keith’s hand, but did not look at him, continuing to gaze north over Lochaber.
“Except in one respect, of course.” Keith returned the clasp of his hand, and they sat in silence for a while.
But after five minutes or so had passed, Ewen began to acquire a lurking twinkle in his deep-set blue eyes, as Keith discovered on glancing at him when he shifted his place on their boulder.
“So, let me see if I have this right. Your father’s name was Philip, am I correct?”
“Yes,” said Keith, now looking at him suspiciously.
“Hm. And he was a soldier, a commander, and so are you. A conqueror, one might almost say.”
“I cannot help but feel that there is something else you are trying to say,” remarked Keith. “Out with it!”
“And you rode a horse that no-one else could manage,” said Ewen, trying and failing to suppress a smile.
“Oh, no. No, I’ve changed my mind. Don’t say it. Don’t you dare.” Keith was hard put to it not to roll his eyes.
“Then I won’t. I will merely remind you that Alexander was only ever defeated by the thighs of Hephaestion.”
Keith gave him a challenging look. “Prove it.”
Ewen lunged for him; the remains of the bannocks dropped to the close-cropped grass; the horses raised their heads briefly at the burst of laughter that rang from behind the boulder, before turning their attention to the unexpected largesse. The laughter subsided into murmurs for a while and then rose again to stifled cries of joy; and the modern Alexander was, for all the fight he put up, soundly defeated.