Crathie was a small village, right in the middle of Highlands. Having been born in Sydney and raised in London, Belle greedily admired the surroundings. She visited an impressive number of places either for work or as a tourist, but mostly big cities. Quiet villages in the middle of nature still held a charm of novelty for her.
The nature, however, would have to wait. An annual festival in Crathie was a loud, chaotic affair, yet still intriguing and full of small surprises. Some of the stalls were actually related to the archeological discovery on an island on a lake near the village. Most of them, however, consisted of traditional games, food and things recreated from every historical period possible. Belle was quickly lost as to what was supposed to be from which one and just browsed among everything, like all tourists did, hoping to sort it out later.
At the moment, her attention was caught by a stall with colorful clothes at the outskirts of the festival. There was a man sitting at the spinning wheel, lost in his job, observed by a group of people, seemingly not noticing the pictures being taken. The people fled, however, when an older lady in medieval clothes approached the stall. Belle didn’t hear the exact words, but her posture was clearly indicating that she was angry.
Naturally, it made Belle quicken her steps as her innate curiosity flared up.
‘Your aunts would turn in their graves!’ an older lady exclaimed storming off just as Belle came closer. The man returned to his work, subdued. Belle pretended to admire the historical clothes for a moment.
‘What was that about?’ she asked carefully when she caught the man’s careful glance.
‘N-nothing, nothing,’ he shook his head, looking for a moment like he was holding back tears. ‘My fault. Can I help you?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m Belle French. I’m a reporter.’
Something like panic flashed in the man’s eyes, before he produced a somewhat strained smile.
’I’m Robert Gold. What can I do for you?′
‘I’m working on a story for my paper about the festival. I’m taking notes on what is to see here, then I’ll sift through it to write the piece. I also hoped to ask someone in more detail about local legends associated with this place and the island. But everybody seems to be very busy with all these tourists and talk only about what they have in their stalls. You have beautiful things here, by the way,’ she smiled.
‘Thank you...’ He returned the smile, more authentic this time, albeit shy.
‘So, you are a spinner?’
Gold blushed a little.
‘Aye. Do... do you want to see what the whole process looks like?’
He walked her through every step, from preparing the wool, to dyeing the fabrics in natural dyes: plants and minerals. Mercifully, urine was only mentioned.
Gold was talking more and more animatedly, so much that Belle didn’t even notice at first that he used a wooden staff to move around. She almost asked what had happened but bit her tongue at the last moment. Curiosity wasn’t always the best way to be polite.
And the spinner was charming, telling Belle all about his trade, much much more passionately than anyone else. After some time she realized that they had an audience and that more and more tourists were gathering, watching him preparing the dye from elderberry and alum.
‘It would dye a fabric blue, like this,’ he pointed to a woolen coat hanging on the stall’s wall.
‘Do you want to try it?’ Gold asked shyly.
‘Sure!’ Belle took the cloak with delight, draping it over her arms.
‘You look like a princess,’ Gold whispered, making her smile even wider, then jumped at the sudden flash of a photo being taken. It seemed that he only in that moment noticed the crowd. Belle caught his helpless look and flushed cheeks.
‘Tell me more about the other dyes,’ she asked quickly, not taking the cloak off. If he was spooked by the audience, the direct questions could help.
He stammered at first, but then relaxed, explaining to her how to mix the ingredients, ammonia and sundews, which he called lus-na-feàrnaich, into a bright yellow dye. Belle noticed that he didn’t look at other tourists, though. Well, perhaps he wasn’t used to making a show of his skills and knowledge. Probably just sat and spun, before she came along with her endless questions.
Then Belle lost all sense of time, listening to Gold and thinking of new questions to ask. After a while she felt like an expert, in theory at least, of spinning and tailoring.
‘Could I try?’ she asked. She had a great time here and she was in no hurry to leave the spinner. Surely, nothing else at the festival could be this interesting.
Gold blinked, but nodded.
‘Sit here,’ he pointed her to a wooden stool by the spinning wheel and tried to explain what she should do without actually getting too close to her. It was endearing, if also a bit awkward.
Her first thread was uneven and altogether ugly, but he beamed at her as if she just spun gold out of wool.
‘I want to try it, too!’ a kid from the audience cried. Gold flashed her a totally panicked look. Clearly, he didn’t want anyone else near his tools, or maybe just near himself.
‘I’ll help him?’ she whispered to Gold. ‘I’ll be here.’
He relaxed marginally and nodded. The kid bolted towards them immediately and Belle took the whole conversation upon herself, only asking Gold when her newly gained expertise wasn’t enough.
Then another voice asked for a try, and another, mixed with various questions. Moreover, the crowd was getting bigger, people gravitating toward the gathering, hoping to see something interesting. She noticed with relief that Gold was holding his ground, looking more at ease with questions and even getting carried away with the answers, managing to mention many details she hadn’t heard yet.
She didn’t even notice when the evening came. But finally the tourists began to disperse, either for their cars that carried them away or for dinner at the main stall with traditional food before retreating to their rooms at a bed and breakfast.
‘It was something,’ Belle sighed, smiling widely. ‘I admit that I didn’t expect it to be this fascinating, and believe me, I see fascinating things everywhere.’
Gold smiled in his usual shy way.
‘I need to thank you too, Miss French. I wouldn’t manage it without you. I... I never had so many people interested in my stall before.’
Belle nodded happily, not mentioning that he probably didn’t really do much to interest them. And the stall was shunned to the back of the festival anyway.
‘Do you want to grab something to eat?’ Belle asked. They were friends at this point and she wasn’t about to walk away from a man with all this knowledge. She suspected he could tell her much more and not only about spinning and clothing.
‘I... I have to take care of the things here... But after that...’
‘I’ll help you of course, it will be much quicker.’
Gold smiled and nodded. Belle immediately set to work.
After packing everything to his battered old Cadillac, Belle beckoned Gold to follow her to the stall with food and tables. She smiled at him, slowing down a bit, so he could keep up. Instead of the wooden staff, he was now using a cane with a golden head. He also changed from the medieval, linen costume into contemporary slacks, shirt and jacket, black and dark green. It made him look stronger, but as he approached their destination, the spooked look returned to his eyes.
‘I...’ he stammered. ‘Are you...’
‘Yes?’ Belle smiled, aiming for reassuring expression. ‘What is it?’
‘No, nothing. It’s okay, let’s go.’
He seemed to be walking to his own execution, or at least to get the most awful paper review in his life. Belle didn’t understand why, but every part of her mind was intrigued. Intrigued and concerned. She didn’t want to see Gold in trouble.
They approached the stall and Belle recognized the elderly woman who scolded him earlier in the day. That part became clear then, but Belle wondered what was the reason for the scolding itself.
‘What do you want?’ the woman asked Gold.
‘We’d like something to eat...’ he said in a resigned tone. ‘Well, at least Miss French would. I wouldn’t expect you to sell anything to me.’
‘Damn well, Gold,’ the woman scoffed. Belle looked at that with wide eyes. What on earth was going on? Had Gold stolen the woman’s savings from under her bed or maybe run off with her daughter?
After a moment the woman turned to her, staring curiously and rather disapprovingly.
‘What would you like to eat, Miss French?’ she asked, much more politely, yet still staring, while Gold took two steps back, eyes cast down. Belle wasn’t about to let it happen. She smiled at the woman.
‘I’d like some black pudding, but make it double, I haven’t had anything to eat since morning. And oh, I have to try that smoked herring, it looks so good. And haggis, I can’t go back home without trying it. Some, ah, tatties to go with it. Then the dessert, I’d love to try shortbread of course, and two of these scones. Oh, and two pints of 80 shilling, I’m unbelievably thirsty.’
The woman listened to it with a frown of disapproval, not for a moment fooled by what Belle was trying to do. But Belle was the client and the food was served. Belle proudly carried the overflowing tray to a plastic table in the corner. It wasn’t the best spot, but every other place was already taken.
Gold was looking at her with wide eyes.
‘Miss French, I... I’m so sorry.’
‘What?’ Belle blinked. She sat down and motioned for him to sit too. He obeyed rather absentmindedly, still looking at her with spooked, apologetic eyes.
‘I should have realized earlier that I’m keeping you far too long. You were hungry. I’m so sorry.’
Belle finally linked this statement to her own story about not having eaten since morning.
‘No, no!’ she hurried with explanation. ‘No need to be sorry. I wasn’t hungry, I had lunch. I just... said it to that woman so it would seem more rational to buy food for two. Though I don’t think she fell for it.’
Now Gold was frowning, uncomprehending.
‘I guess if someone here hasn’t eaten since morning, it was you.’
Gold’s stomach chose exactly this moment to rumble loudly in agreement. Gold himself blushed bright red.
‘You... You didn’t have to...’
Belle sighed but didn’t stop smiling at him.
‘Look, I’m sorry if I hurt you by doing this. But I couldn’t do nothing while that woman insulted you and refused to sell you food just because. Whatever her reasons might be.’
‘Because it’s not right. Mr. Gold, are you angry with me?’
‘No, no...’ He shook his head and Belle exhaled with relief. It wouldn’t be the first time her impulsiveness caused trouble. Gold smiled weakly. ‘I’m just surprised. I didn’t realize what you were doing. Of course I’ll pay you back, and you just eat whatever you want...’
Belle smiled too and cut in.
‘I ordered blindly, couldn’t ask you what you’d want. You can choose. Just let’s do it quickly before it all gets cold.’
‘Or we can share as it is. There is a double serving of black pudding, for example. Half for you, half for me, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Gold smiled, this time warmly, relieved that a compromise was reached. He had a sweet smile, Belle thought, proud that she finally made him smile like this.
They started to eat, but Belle wasn’t really able to do anything in silence. Soon enough Gold was explaining to her how and from what ingredients her meal was made.
‘I bet you are a wonderful cook yourself, Mr. Gold.’
He shook his head.
‘Not really. But having a wee son means you have to know how to prepare things and what to avoid. Scottish kitchen really isn’t the healthiest one.’
‘You have a son?’ Belle asked, all questions about cooking fleeing from her mind. But of course, man of Gold’s age, and that Belle estimated as a bit over forty, would have a family.
‘Yes, his name is Bae,’ Gold’s smile was the most beautiful she’d seen so far. ‘He’s eight. He’s with his ma now...’ Gold sighed. Belle sighed too, surprised at her disappointment. She liked Gold, but to be so immediately disappointed over him having a wife... But Gold’s next words cut this short. ‘I have custody, but she’s taking him once in a while. He’ll be back in a few days.’
Belle hoped her own smile didn’t reflect a wholly improper glee at the news.
‘I’m going to stay in Crathie for some time. Gather more material for the paper. I hope I’ll be able to met Bae myself. You seem very proud of him.’
Gold’s face lit up.
‘Oh, yes. That’s good.’
‘And maybe you could help me with the paper? You surely have vast knowledge of this place and its traditions. If you remember, I’d love to learn more about local legends.’
‘I think I can help you with that,’ he agreed shyly.
Belle promptly ensured to schedule a meeting tomorrow. He walked her to the bed and breakfast, and Belle happily took her time staring after him as he made his way back to the car.
Belle knew very well she could be vain sometimes. And she was also aware that they were going for a walk. Without hesitation though, she unpacked the sole pair of stilettos, her beloved yet sturdy blue wonders, and put them on. She braved worse terrain in them than just grass.
When she was leaving the bed and breakfast, she needed to pass the entrance to the local pub that were in the same building on the first floor. As it turned out, Ruby, the nice girl who checked her in yesterday, was a granddaughter of the woman that treated Gold so rude. The woman, Mrs. Lucas, known better as Granny, was the owner of both the bed and breakfast and the pub.
Now she saw Granny behind the counter in the pub, engrossed in conversation with some other woman, and Belle left quickly, not trying her luck. It was a good thing that she was meeting Gold outside, at a small square in the middle of the village. Belle spotted a single, wooden bench there and sat down, waiting. She was a bit early, so she dug out a notebook from her purse and reread multiple questions she had regarding local legends and traditions. Half the night she was writing down what she had learned yesterday and today she barely could contain yawning. The walk was a brilliant idea, she could clear her head then.
‘Miss French,’ she heard a familiar, soft voice and raised her head with a smile. Robert Gold was standing there, smiling shyly. Dressed in a shirt and jacket, he seemed a bit overdressed for the small village, but it fit well with her own dress and heels.
‘Mr. Gold, how nice to see you.’ She stood up. ‘Shall we go?’
He led her down the main road through the village and out, at a slow, leisurely pace, while she bombarded him with questions, first about legends known throughout the whole Scotland or at least Highlands: nuckelavee, bauchan, cat sith, even Loch Ness monster. He proved to be knowledgeable and entertaining, just as she suspected, and Belle practically tripped over herself trying to ask him every question that popped into her head. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to be tired of it at all; on the contrary, he explained everything with a smile and even, for some reason, gratitude. Perhaps he didn’t have many occasions to talk about any of this, people here must have known these things already.
They strayed from the sand path leading up to the hills, through the grass and bushes. Immersed in the conversation, Belle hardly paid any attention to the increasing discomfort of wearing heels in such terrain. Until she lost her balance with a most undignified shriek.
‘Miss French!’ Gold caught her by the arms, saving her from the fall. For a moment she didn’t dare to move – and to be honest, she didn’t even want to; it felt too nice being held by Mr. Gold. However, at his urgent questions if she was okay, she had to do something.
‘Thank you, Mr. Gold, I’m fine.’ She really was, years of wearing heels giving her muscle memory needed to avoid most of the injuries, even when falling down. None of her joints were any worse for wear, she noted with pride.
‘Are you sure? I shouldn’t have led you here, with your shoes...’
‘No, no, it’s alright,’ she laughed. ‘I’m wearing heels almost everywhere, though for our next walk I’ll change them for flats perhaps.’
‘Do you... Can you go back in them, though?’ he asked anxiously. ‘I... I wouldn’t be able to help you much...’
He gestured helplessly at his cane, looking like he expected her to demand of him to carry her to the village on his back. Well. It wasn’t entirely unappealing, but there was no need anyway.
‘I’ll be fine, Mr. Gold. I can walk back just fine, maybe slower and actually looking where I’m stepping. I don’t want to head back yet, though. If you have time, we could just sit here, on that nice rock and talk more.’
She pointed to a rather large rock on the top of the small hill they were climbing. He nodded. When they sat down, he rubbed his knee with relief.
‘It must be unpleasant for your knee too, walking here?’ Belle asked. He blushed, and she almost bit her tongue. Curiosity and politeness, indeed.
‘It’s okay,’ he said curtly, taking his hand off his knee. ‘Well, I guess now that we’re sitting safely, we can continue our chat?’
Belle smiled and allowed him to pull her back into the fascinating conversation about legends. He was in the middle of describing Cu Sith and Belle felt herself shudder despite it being a warm, sunny, August noon.
‘Cu Sith has paws as large as a man’s hand and shaggy, mangled fur. It’s more like a large, very large wolf than a dog. It makes its home in the clefts of the rock, and from there it sets forth to roam the muirs. Cu Sith moves silently, hunting, but occasionally it lets out three, and only three, terrifying howls, and anyone who hears it, if he doesn’t reach the safety by the time the third howl sounds out, shall be overcome with terror and die. The howling could be heard from many, many miles, even at the sea...’
Just then a loud bark rang out and Belle shrieked, catching Mr. Gold’s hand. He gasped in turn, gaping at her clutching his palm, and only after a moment they looked around.
Towards them ran a large, black dog. It barked again, in a deep, deep voice.
‘Mr. Gold!’ Belle whispered.
Mr. Gold however calmed down after seeing the dog.
‘It’s okay, Miss French. It’s only Bear.’
She looked at him totally confused.
‘That’s his name,’ he explained quickly, standing up. ‘Bear!’
The large dog almost knocked him down, but at the same time let out a yelp that could be described only as excited and enthusiastic. Soon enough, Bear was wriggling with pleasure, cuddling and nuzzling, as Mr. Gold rubbed his head, back, sides and eventually belly, repeating what a good boy the dog was. Seeing the giant with all four paws and tail waggling in the air, Belle found it hard to fear the creature. Observing the petting session, she didn’t notice the second stranger until she heard the greetings.
‘Hiya, Gold!’ the red-haired girl called. She was wearing jeans, a blue jacket and worn out trainers, which made Belle a little embarrassed, seeing as the girl was two hundred percent better dressed for a walk there.
‘Hi, Merida,’ Gold smiled. ‘Miss French, this is Merida MacAllister. Merida, this is Miss French, a journalist from London. Miss French asked me to tell her about local traditions and legends.’
‘Yeah, no wonder after seeing what a star you were yesterday at the festival. You stole audience from all of us, even from my archery show.’
‘It was all thanks to Miss French,’ Gold said blushing and concentrated completely on petting Bear.
‘I swear,’ Merida said to Belle confidentially, ‘this dog is trained to be a guard dog and scare people, but with him he’s a complete teddy bear.’
Belle giggled, but Merida’s next words brought her back to earth.
‘It’s a pity Gold isn’t as good with people as he is with animals.’
‘What?... What do you mean?...’
Merida shook her head.
‘No matter. You’ll see, or maybe not...’
Belle frowned, but then Gold looked back at them. Belle suspected he heard everything, despite Merida talking quietly.
‘I think we should go back to the village,’ he said. ‘It’s rather late. I need to open the shop.’
Merida bid her goodbyes and ran off with Bear in tow. The dog was probably the only one truly unhappy about the parting.
The walk back was quiet, Belle managed to ask some questions, but Gold seemed lost in thought. When they reached the first building, he stopped.
‘Perhaps... perhaps we shouldn’t walk together... I’m not the best liked man in the village.’
He seemed resigned and Belle was having none of it. Boldly, she looped her arm around his.
‘I like you, Mr. Gold. I don’t see why I should be concerned about local opinion.’
Gold took a deep breath.
‘What if local opinion is right?’
‘I prefer to make my own opinions, Mr. Gold. That’s why I’m a good journalist. You’ve mentioned a shop. I would be delighted to see it, if you showed it to me.’
To her relief, she felt Gold relax.
‘Alright, Miss French. This way, please.’
Belle beamed at him and followed. It was shaping up to be a good friendship.
Gold’s shop was small, but Belle fell in love as soon as she saw the window, full of handmade woolen clothes and toys, as well as books. Books! The inside was no bigger than her single room at the bed and breakfast, cozy, filled with merchandise of undoubtedly Scottish theme that was a far cry from cheesy souvenirs she despised so much.
‘It’s technically a souvenir shop,’ Gold explained. ‘But locals buy many things too or ask me to order them from Inverness or even Glasgow. They don’t have much time to go there and shop themselves.’
‘You have books!’ Belle said, her mind being a bit single-tracked at the moment.
‘Yes, most of them have been here for a very long time, though. I have some classics for tourists, like Walter Scott or Robert Burns. Locals either already have them or aren’t interested. And of course tourist guides and maps. And some crime fiction and romance books. These are selling the best. And I must admit that I read them also, the crime stories I mean.’
He blushed a bit, looking adorable. Belle smiled.
‘I like both crime and romance stories. Classics too. I like everything perhaps. I might buy some from you, my own stash probably won’t be enough.’
Especially if she was going to prolong her visit, which was very, very tempting. She could write just as well from there.
‘You are very welcome to buy anything you like, Miss French.’
‘So,’ Belle couldn’t rein in her curiosity. ‘What gave you the idea of setting up this beautiful shop? These things, you made them yourself, right?’ she gestured at the array of woolen products. ‘Where did you learn it?’
‘My aunts taught me. Then I was training to be a tailor in school. But the most valuable skills I learned from my aunts. They owned this shop once upon a time, it was a tailor shop back then. But now there’s not much work for tailors, and we have many more tourists than twenty years ago.’
‘What were your parents doing? Were they farmers here?’
She could practically see Gold tense and look around as if searching for the quickest way out. He took a step back.
‘My parents weren’t from here,’ he said, straining to sound calm and normally, but Belle had been a journalist for too long and had done too many interviews to fall for this. She wasn’t doing an interview, however, and felt sincerely bad for making Gold this distressed.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’ve been told many times that I’m too curious for my own good. You don’t have to answer.’
Gold shook his head.
‘I’m sorry, too... I...’
‘It’s alright,’ she said quickly, trying to save him from making any further explanations. ‘We can talk about something else.’
Gold smiled sadly.
‘Well, if you are interested in my family, I can show you a picture of my son.’
‘I’d love that,’ Belle beamed. Gold pulled a wallet from an inner pocket of his jacket and opened it.
‘That’s him. It was taken a year ago, he was seven then. This is my favorite picture of him.’
Belle gently took the photo. A smiling boy was sitting on the grass, with a live sheep on either side, with some hay in his brown, curly hair. Belle couldn’t help her own smile, the liveliness and happiness were practically pouring out of the picture.
‘I can’t wait to meet him,’ she said.
‘His mother will drive him back here the day after tomorrow. And the day after that... maybe you’d like to eat dinner with us?...’
He was looking at her practically not breathing and Belle savored that sight for a moment.
‘I’d love to, Mr. Gold.’
‘Good!... I’m... very glad. I’m sure you’ll find Bae a kindred spirit. He’s full of energy and that ardor for learning everything about the world.’
‘It’s a date then, Mr. Gold,’ Belle said deliberately choosing the words and silently thanking every possible entity or force that might have had a hand in putting this lovely man in her path.
Because in that moment Belle was sure – she was falling in love with Mr. Gold and if that wasn’t a worthy adventure, nothing was.