Isobel McNish scratched her ankle as she sat by the burn. She watched her two young brothers playing in the cold water, splashing themselves and shouting at each other. They frolicked a few yards downstream, well aware of what Izzy would do if they splashed her. She hiked her skirt higher to find the insect which was annoying her, then grabbing it between finger and thumb, she squeezed it hard before throwing it away. A bit of spit on her finger was ointment, and a hard rub completed the task, as her mind turned back to young Thomas and his brother Alex.
She had a soft spot for Thomas, he was the quieter one and not anywhere near as boisterous.
Alex, on the other hand provided excitement. Life was certainly not dull when he was around. She thought briefly of the time when he had chased her through the old fort at Springfield last month. When he caught her he had dragged her down to the ground and tickled her as they lay on the soft carpet of heath. Their breath had clouded in the icy air as they rolled together. It was the sound of the cow bells as the beasts trotted back towards the byre that had brought her back to reality. She had shoved him off and raced back down the hill towards the village and her tasks.
Then her thoughts returned to Thomas. This was the sort of boy she was after. The sort her mother would approve of. Although only fourteen, Izzy was already old enough in her ways to be sorting the grain from the chaff when it came to future prospects. Wise beyond her years, she was already looking at the local lads with that female eye... the 'will he be a good husband, father and provider?' look.
Here was no primping city lass, all airs and graces. No, she was a simple country girl, who knew her life stretched ahead of her in the same way as her mother's had before her. She would probably live and die on these same broad acres, unless married off to some distant cousin or country lad from another district, met at the annual 'gathering'.
Her father would have all the say as to who she would marry, albeit guided deftly by his wife. He would be swayed by friendship with the suitor's father, what goods would pass on to him as a dowry, and whether the lad's family had enough land or other worth to take care of Izzy 'in the manner to which she was accustomed', however simple that might be.
A cool breeze ruffled her shoulder length hair and made her shiver as the sun ducked behind clouds for a moment. Then it swept its warmth over her again and she thought once more of Thomas.
Thomas in his brown jacket, walking beside her and carrying the firewood she had collected.
Thomas sitting next to her on the low tree branch, discussing the merits of wasps and bees.
Thomas running ahead of her up the hill to the well, and laughing at her slowness as he turned towards her and plumped down on the stone rim.
Thomas as he swept the stone free of dirt so she could sit next to him, her budding chest heaving with the strain of the climb.
She turned to see little Billy McNish trotting over to her, his nose running faster than his feet.
"Ithy, Ithy! I got a methage for ye," he panted as she grabbed him and swiped the hem of her skirt under his nose.
"Aye, and what would that be, now?"
"Thomas! He thayth he'll meet ye at the old oak after supper tonight. That'th what he tol' me to tell ye."
"Well, ye're a bonny lad to have run so far an' so fast. Thank ye, and ye'd better take leg now afore ye mum finds out ye've gone." She watched him as he half ran, half bounded down the hill again, and a tiny smile crinkled her mouth.
Alex knew about Thomas's evening meeting. There isn't much goes on in a small village that the others don't find out about, one way or another. It had been easy. Little Billy had run up to him and told him that he'd given the message to Izzy, before running off to play with the other wee ones. If truth be known, little Billy probably thought that Alex was Thomas anyway. Nevertheless Alex smiled to himself as he picked up his green jacket from the pile of stone he had been squaring, and told his father he was off to get a drink. James was so thoroughly occupied with setting a new block in place and making sure it was level, that he only grunted.
Across the track and down a bit was the small bakehouse set onto the end of Donald's cottage. Here, Thomas was mixing the coarse grey barley flour with water to form a rough dough. The sticky paste covered his hands and fore-arms as he picked up the saggy lump, turned it and plopped it down again. Then with fisted knuckles he kneaded the stiffening mixture to merge it thoroughly. Donald stood to one side, watching critically.
"Punch it, now. Go on, get into it. It's no like it'll punch ye back, now, is it?"
Alex grinned as he passed the window and heard this advice. It sounded as if Thomas would be occupied for some time yet.
Thomas was slowly learning how to make bread, for James had decreed that his son was to learn the baker's trade. This was part of James's plan for the family. One son a stone-mason like himself, one son a baker, to provide food if needed, and young James in a few years, would become apprenticed to either the tailoring trade or the farming life, whichever James thought was most important at that time. If any more sons came along, James thought maybe one would become a Dominie at the Dumfries school, and maybe one in the Kirk. That would make the McCubbin name rate highly around the area.
The boys had known their chosen paths for a few years now, and soon it would be time to take what they had already learned, heading off to whoever James had contacted to train them further. This would be on their fifteenth birthday, which was approaching fast.
Time enough for that later. Right now he had an urge to find that Isobel McNish. Alex dropped his green jacket on the three legged stool outside the door of his family's cottage as he strode by. Grabbing Thomas's brown one from a hook on the wall, he turned up the hill, his face alight with expectation.
His feet traced his way along the narrow pathway which twisted and turned its way through the low scrubby trees. Ahead was the old oak, and his quarry.
As he approached it, he slowed down, copying Thomas's easy gait. He saw the hem of a skirt at one side and realised that she was sitting with her back to the tree. Stealthily, he crept closer, his breath rasping loudly in his throat. Surely she must hear it? It sounded louder than any other noise to him, drowning out the bleating of sheep, the voices calling out at the village, and the chink of mash hammer on stone. Leaning against the trunk, he reached his hand around the tree and wiggled his fingers in front of her face. Her eyes opened wide in surprise and she screamed, momentarily imagining a huge spider dangling in front of her.
"Ha, ha, scared ye, din't I? Ye scairt of a wee webster are ye?"
"No. 'Course not! Ye just startled me, is all. Me hearts all poundin' in me bosom, ye nasty scunner. I've half a mind to slap yer face, I have."
"Ye'd have ter catch me first," Alex replied, momentarily forgetting that he was pretending to be Thomas. The, recovering, he added, "but ye can run faster 'n me, so I might as well stay here. Slap me if ye must, cause even that'd be nice comin' from you."
"What? A slap'd be nice? What sort of foolishness are ye speakin', Thomas?"
He shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his feet as they traced lines in the dirt. He had used this technique on the village girls with a high degree of success.
"Well, ye ken I likes ye? I likes ye a lot. An' even a slap would show that ye know that I'm around."
"Know that ye're around? Ye daftie, I wouldna' be here if I didn't like ye... at least a wee bit. Lord, some times you menfolk are so thick..."
Emboldened, Alex put his arm around her waist and pulled her in tight. This was going to be easy...
"Thomas," she gasped. "Not so tight, I canna get me breath!"
"Then I'll give ye some o' mine," he replied, as his lips came down on hers.
Thomas whistled silently to himself as he hurried up the path. Isobel might be under the old oak to meet me, he thought. That'd show she cares, wouldn't it?
He rounded an outcrop of rock and saw the tree up ahead. There was the corner of her skirt spread out on the ground.
But it didn't look right. In the dapples shadows, it looked like there was another body next to hers. He ran forwards, only to see his brother and Isobel in a tight embrace, her skirts all awry.
"What are ye doin'? Get away from her, Alex! Git off! Isobel McNish, what have ye done?"
She scrambled to her feet, face flaming in shame as she realised how she had been duped. Bending down, she slapped Alex so hard that his head snapped around. He blinked, held his hand to his cheek, swore and backtracked around the tree and out of sight, leaving Thomas standing there, arms akimbo, staring at Isobel.
She in turn, hung her head, not able to look him in the eye.
"I thought he was you," she mumbled in confusion. "He was wearin' yer jacket."
"Aye, well, that's as may be. But surely ye of all people could tell the difference?"
"Och, Thomas, he spoke like you, and moved slow like you. But he did grab at me..... I thought that was a wee bit strange."
"A sod, he is! Aye, and maybe we need a secret password or such, so ye'll know right enough that it's me. Somethin' that only we two know."
"Aye, that's a bonny idea. What should it be?"
"It's got to be somethin' that Alex would niver think of... I know, I just made a sweet crusty loaf down in the bake-house. That can be our password... crusty loaf. He'll niver think o' that, not in a hundred years."
" 'Crusty Loaf' it is then," she replied, and taking his hand in hers, led him back down the path to the village below.
Behind a bush, Alex nodded his head slowly as he rubbed the red mark on his cheek.
The celebrations had been in full swing for over an hour. All the villagers were clustered outside the McCubbin cottage, men with drinks in their hands, the women passing out the simple fare to whoever got close enough. Children of all ages ran or crawled through the adult legs. Mothers boxed ears and suckled infants as they chatted.
James wiped his mouth and put down his cup. Hitching at his pants, he faced his relatives and friends, and in a stentorian voice bade them to hold their whisht and listen.
Alex stood on his father's right hand, while Thomas took his place on the left. Both lads had been scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, their hair in damp spikes above them.
"Ye all ken why we're here this day. Today marks the coming of the fifteenth year for my bairns, Alexander and Thomas. It has been oft a rough ride for their Mam an' me, with them bein' twins. Oft they have got into scrapes as I have had trouble in getting' 'em out of. But they have got to this day, and from this day on are no longer bairns. They have, as you all know, been indentured into trade. Thomas is to learn the baking trade from McIntosh in Dumfries Town, while Alex is to follow in my footsteps and learn the mason's trade from Mr. Menzies in Edinburgh. Both will be away at cock-crow with my blessings. And both will return to this village in seven years time, not as apprentices but as fully trained journeymen. So on this fair Autumn afternoon, let us eat our fill from the board here and have a wee dram or two to speed them on their way!"
Cheers rose from the throats of the surrounding neighbours. Alex looked over at Thomas and grinned. "Tomorrow is a new day, Thomas," he mouthed. "Tomorrow we become men!"
Just then their Uncle Robert elbowed his way through the throng to stand by his brother's side. "I have the amulet," he muttered.
"Whisht!" James called out to the crowd. "We havena' finished here yet. Ye all mind how our family was recognised by Royalty many years ago, by the givin' of a Royal Amulet. Aye, this amulet has been handed down from father to eldest son this good many years. An' today it is my turn to pass it on. To my eldest born... Alexander."
Taking the silver disc from Robert, he held it up high so the setting sun caught it and flashed in time with its swaying. Alex let his eyes linger on it and smirked. From this day on he would be the wearer. He would hold this jewel of inheritance around his neck. The smirk broke into a full grin as he turned to face his father. James held the chain open and placed it over his son's head. The amulet nestled onto the coarse shift covering Alex's chest.
A subdued cheer went up from the assemblage as he lifted it up to claim his ownership. Thomas watched this, and clapped with the others at the sight. After a minute, Robert muttered something into James's ear. James pulled back and stared incredulously at his brother."
"But where... How...?"
"Niver mind how, it's done. Now you do the rest." And he handed James the surprise.
James looked down at his gnarled hand and stared at the amulet nestled there. To all intents and purposes, the original amulet lay there, nestling on its chain. His brow furrowed in amazement, James turned to the crowd and spoke with a quavering voice.
"My brother Robert, as ye can see, has just this minute presented me with a surprise, the likes of which I have niver seen. We all ken he is a talented blacksmith and silversmith, but what he has done this day is of special import. Look well, all of ye! He has made a twin amulet for the second born!"
Faces showed stunned disbelief, which soon turned into joy as they beheld the face of the new jewel. Thomas's mouth dropped open as looked at his father in disbelief. All his life he had known that the amulet was not to be his, yet here it was, shiny bright, swaying gently on its silver chain. His mouth closed again. Alexander stood on the other side, now facing his father's back. A scowl lined his face as his father raised the copy and placed it over Thomas's neck.
In the crowd, Izzy stood rapt, her eyes locked solidly on Thomas's face.
Alex bit into the ripe apple, the juice spraying from his mouth as he ripped a chunk from its tasty flesh. He crunched the fruit and thought of what might lie ahead.
The brothers sat on the stone edge of the well and looked out over the River Nith, each locked away in their own parallel thoughts.
Thomas sighed, and bit carefully into a fresh bannock. His mouth half full, he remarked, "Tomorrow, eh. Tomorrow it's all different. You an' me, we split up an' go our separate ways."
"Aye Thomas, it'll be exciting, ye ken. New sights, new people, new things happenin'. Och, I canna wait!" Alex chortled as he threw the core as far as he could.
Thomas sat thinking a while before saying, "But we have been as one all our lives. I will miss havin' ye to talk to. Havin' ye beside me, thinkin' twice as fast as me, talkin' for me half the time. It'll be strange not havin' ye with me."
"Och, that was childhood. Now we are men an' take our rightful place in the ranks of the workin' men. We earn real money, not the odd farthin' from Dad. We make our own decisions, live our own life! We are free. Free to do whatever takes our fancy!"
"Aye, that's as may be. But I'll still miss our home. Mam an' Dad, Wee Jamie an' Mary. It'll be so strange livin without 'em."
"An' will ye be missin' me at all?" a voice asked from behind them.
They turned to see Isabel McNish only a few steps away.
"That we will, lassie, that we will," assured Alex, his eyes running up and down her young figure. She came around and squeezed in between them, making sure that her hip touched Thomas. He moved over to give her room. She snuggled just a little closer, making it appear she was just getting comfortable so Alex wouldn't suspect. Her fingers lay just a breath away from touching Thomas's thigh. They sat there in silence, each locked into their own thoughts and fears, watching the mist slowly swirl down the river valley.
Go on to Chapter Three