Niamh was glad of the wellies she’d dragged on before embarking on this trek, camera in hand, but had skimped on the socks, and the icy chill seeped easily through the single woollen pair she wore, freezing her toes. She wondered if this was a bad idea, a woman alone in the wilderness. She tugged the red thermal beanie hat down over her ears and zipped her padded jacket up to the neck. An uneasy vibe surfaced in her gut, but she swallowed and pushed on through the snow-covered ground. The rough track wound around the bottom of the hillside, with an idyllic view of the loch to the east. The blue sky barely held a wisp of cloud and the snow sparkled beneath the sunlight.
She was on a quest, having recently spotted a herd of red deer in the area. A magnificent stag. If she could get a few photographs of him, she’d be happy. She ploughed on, her breath a silver vapour curling like a ribbon in the crisp air. A cluster of fir trees dressed in a sprinkling of snow cloaked the hillside. The perfect winter wonderland. How she’d missed all of this, suddenly realising she never wished to leave it behind.
She stopped crunching through the snow and listened. Niamh left the track and ventured into the forest, searching for deer tracks. A shrill whistle pierced the air, followed by a dog’s bark. A deep woof from up ahead, and a chocolate Labrador trotted through the pine trees, and there, close behind, sauntered Alex, dressed in black jeans, green wellies, a black padded jacket, and a black woollen beanie. Niamh froze for a second, hoping he hadn’t seen her, quickly realising how futile that was seeing as he was now heading towards her. Great! It was, of course, his forest up ahead, so it was perfectly reasonable that he should walk through it. It seemed as if some invisible force insisted on throwing the two of them together, sometimes. The mysteries of the great universe, she mused.
‘Hey, Niamh. Out for a stroll?’ He cast that lop-sided grin of his, a dimple springing into his left cheek.
Heart racing, she smiled, held up the DSLR camera. ‘I’m hoping to spot the deer. I want some pictures.’ He was most forgiving, considering her recent rudeness, giving him the brush off.
He nodded. ‘Ah, you’ll not be finding them down here during the day. They’re all up on the tops.’ He signalled with his hand further along the lane, where dense forests lay on either side, with sprawling steep banks. ‘But if you like, I can take you to the hide after dark and you might get lucky.’
‘Yes, did I not say before? We have one on the estate, on the other side of this forest here. Felix said he spotted the stag the other day, so we know they’re about.’
Niamh had no wish to be a bother. Besides, she felt a little awkward around him now. She tugged the navy woollen scarf further up over her chin.
The dog started trotting away, and Alex called him to heel, and he double-backed, tongue lolling, tail wagging double-quick. ‘I’ll let you get on. Bye.’ Niamh walked on past him, leaving him open-mouthed.
‘Watch the track up ahead by the forest entrance. There’s a wee drop on one side, which is hard to see because of the snow. You wouldn’t want to slide down the embankment,’ he called after her.
Niamh put her hand up to gesture she’d heard but pressed on. She didn’t need guidance or his help. She was perfectly fine on her own. Indeed, she was. This was her life, and she’d resigned herself to being single. It was easier that way. So why then did she seem so empty inside? She dismissed the question as she trudged up the slight incline from the lane that led into the forest. She wondered if she ought to bother at all, given that it was Alex’s land, but the idea of bagging herself a great shot of that stag spurred her onward. As she glanced to her left, she saw the drop he’d mentioned. She strode deeper in through tall pines and listened. No bird song, nothing at all. Not even the snap of a twig, only the muffled trudge of her footsteps crunching through the snow. She glanced behind her, saw her tracks, a wave of relief.
Niamh pushed on a little further. She looked ahead to the slight incline of an embankment that rose with the trees, peaking at a ridge. Perhaps if she made it to that point, she’d have a good view of the area. There might be something over that ridge. As she cut through the trees, her legs plunged deeper into the snow with each step.