He staggered nearly blind through the trees and glens, gasping for breath, stunned. His hands had gone numb beneath the rawhide strips that bound him to the stock. Begrimed, footsore, thirsty, the young man called by the name Connor MacLeod halted and leaned against a tree. His ribcage ached. His hair, once so carefully braided and tied with Clan tartan, was dirty and hung bedraggled before his eyes. It stank of blood and when he stood for very long, the flies came and settled like a horde.
Images of swearing and jeering men loomed across his vision. His body flinched subconsciously from blows that had long since fallen. They were kinsmen. His friends, his comrades. Clansmen. Girls he had flirted with, courted with, contemplated bringing to a marriage bed someday, danced before his eyes. Women who had suckled him when his mother was afield for the day or simply tended the hurts of a small boy growing up, were now faces twisted with fear and hatred in his memory. Fear because they claimed he had died — hatred because now he lived while their own sons were stiff and cold in the heavy sod of the Highlands.
The clan drove him out with fists and rocks and branches and curses. He staggered between the lines of brutality — desperate, terrified, heartbroken, swinging from familiar face to familiar face and finding them all abruptly alien. The mob seized anything at hand to bludgeon him. The children wielded limbs torn from the trees and they left welts and lacerations on his face. Older boys hurled rocks, boys who Connor himself had taught the art of choosing the perfect stone! The women used logs from the nearest fire, some still afire, goaded into savagery by their terror. Connor barely kept his feet beneath the onslaught of punishment. Even the dearest cousin of his heart, near enough to be his blood brother, even Dhugal MacLeod exacted a bloody tribute from him. Connor trusted Dhugal above all others and spoke his name with desperate pleading, his eyes begging his dearest clansman not to raise a hand against him. This last blow settled like death in his heart. The windows of his soul shut, barring trust of any man. Every man. Only Angus’ interference had halted a more agonizing end to the torturous journey out of Glenfinnan.
“They were goin’ ta’ burn me,” the young man whispered. “Burn me alive.” He turned in place, as if flinching from a blow, and the heavy oxen yoke caught the nearest tree trunk with a ‘thokk’ and halted him. Kate, the lass he had set his affection upon for the last year, had even suggested the burning. That fact in itself filled him with shock and horror.
Worst of all, his mother and father were away tending to a sick cousin. The fight against the Frasers had come up suddenly, and Connor was slated to join the ranks of the men in battle this year. He was a MacLeod; he would not shirk from the fight whether or not his father was there to battle alongside him. Now his parents would return to hear confusing and wild tales of their son — that he had been possessed of demons and banished from the clan.
His father would set his face like stone and swear in Gaelic. His mother would curl around her fur shawls and mourn by the loch, as was her habit when depressed. Cursed with barrenness that had only been lifted by a foundling babe brought in by others too poor to keep him, now his parents would be childless again. Connor, dazed with hunger and exhaustion, wondered if the pain of never having a child was better or worse than losing a child.
He was tired. The yoke, forty pounds of heavy timber, chafed his skin raw and bore his shoulders down. He stared at the world around him, realizing how much life it held, and yet, because of the instrument he was strapped in, would give him no sustenance.
He had to lie prone to drink from the spring. His breacan and sark were muddy and torn, and his footgear loose. He chewed grass in desperate hunger, like a common beast, and slept fitfully and awkwardly in the beam of wood. He traveled for miles up the mountainside to get away from his home in fear that they would ride after him, to burn him as they had wanted to initially. But no riders came, and he was alone and too frightened to leave. He simply walked the mountain, crucified on foot.
It took a full week of struggle to free himself from the stocks. He rammed it into tree after tree, rocky outcropping after rocky outcropping, trying to escape. The bark and stones were streaked with blood and still, the tough leather bindings would not give way. He moaned and fainted and wept with the pain, striving hour after hour. Once, ramming the beam at a full run against a cliff face trying to shatter it, he died and revived without ever understanding why he felt so terrible. Unable to see his arms, he could not even see the blue fire of immortal healing across the rent skin and broken bones. This slow ordeal made him wonder if a burning death would have been easier. At mid-day, when the left-hand binding gave way and he was finally free, Connor sat forlornly and stared down at the village below that had once been home.
He was eighteen years old.
“I know where he’ll go,” Lachlann MacLeod said softly to his wife.
“The clan is watchin’ to see if you’ll ‘help the demon,’” she returned to the man wrapped around her side in the bed. “They’d not know a demon if it came and licked from their own pots!”
“Shhh, Caoilin, hush your words. Connor’s a canny one. He’ll see me from afar and know if I’m followed.”
“Ye will be. They’ve watched every day to see if we do spells or sorcery!”
“Shhh, there, there, mum. Dry your eyes. Their boys are lying cold ‘neath the rocks, and that’s partly why they grieve you so.”
Connor’s mother lay quietly a moment, but her voice was tragic when she spoke. “He’s just a boy. He’s hungry and afield on the moors.” She turned her head. “He’s clanless!”
“No, he’s not,” corrected the father quietly. “Unless I say he’s cast out and not my son, he will always be a MacLeod!” They both became still, aware of how their voices could carry to listening ears. “Connor has always been a slight boy, but you know well that the smallest of the litter is always the sharpest — they have to be in order to survive. He’s bright and quick and we both know it. He’s shown us before….”
Lachlann knew of the teasing. Although he had been firm with putting down pranks amongst the youngsters, by the time Connor was five years old, he had to withdraw the protection and hope his boy could thread his own path through the common hazing of childhood.
Little Connor MacLeod did not appear to be much different from the other rowdy youngsters. He wore the same garb and colors, played the same games, knew the same language. He was a happy boy, prone to merriment and quick with his hands. He could outrun boys a year older in a foot race and already took his turn at the watch. He adored his parents and the huge extended family that was a part of clan life. Everyone looked after him, knowing he was the only child of Caoilin and Lachlann MacLeod.
But he was also slight of build and gentle spirited, easily brought to tears in the tumble of wrestling and name-calling. The weight of the play wooden swords was too much for him to manage. The adults wondered aloud how he had survived those terrible coughs through the winters year after year. It did not go unnoticed by the other children that he was weaned late and did not thrive on the tough rude meals common to the clan. He gained weight slowly and always looked thin no matter how his parents dressed him.
By the age of six, beneath the childhood teasing, some of the light had dwindled from the lad’s blue eyes and his face was more often solemn than merry. He watched from the sidelines when the other boys waged their practice wars with sticks and play shields. Lachlann observed his son with a heavy heart, wondering what he was thinking, and wondered even more when Connor watched the men brawl late into the evenings in half-drunk practice as well.
The lad was no sluggard, however. He hauled wood daily to their dwelling, climbing the pile to stack it as high as his father’s head every day. After that he carried water, and sometimes he would carry wood and water for the two widows who lived near them. He would labor long into the evening and then would move carefully by the firelight in their little home because he was sore. Caoilin would chastise him for taxing his build too much. His father smiled and nodded, proud that the clan murmured about how “that wee Connor can do the work of two boys these days.”
At the harvest festival when Connor was nearly eight, in full view of the MacLeods and their kin who had come to the gathering to celebrate, he challenged Fergus’ ten-year-old son, Roderick, to a brawl. Connor was the right age for a contest of wills — but almost half the weight of the boy he was determined to wrestle. His mother was stunned. So were the rest of the villagers of Glenfinnan and the murmurs rose accordingly.
“Hist,” sternly corrected Angus, the clan leader. He weighed his own apprehension and fondness for the smaller youth against his duty to treat all of the sept equally. “Let the boy try. He’s a Highlander and it’s his right to pit his strength against the other youngsters.” He did not add that the Fergus boy deserved a good trouncing for his onerous ways, nor did he voice his misgivings that Connor would not fare well in the attempt.
The other adults saw only the scrapping of boys, who someday would fight for real in the clan wars, but Angus saw the quiet alert face of Connor — still a slender ungainly boy who was all arms and legs — and knew this match meant something. Roderick had been the chief instigator of many of the pranks that befallen the son of Lachlann MacLeod. Something was to be decided today and an issue settled.
The younger boy had chosen well, both with time and opponent. It was directly after the noon feast and Roderick had eaten until he was full while Connor had eaten sparsely. Overconfident by the sheer difference in age and size, they were five minutes into the contest when the larger boy realized that he already had some lumps, but had yet to lay a hand on the swiftly moving smaller MacLeod.
Lachlann smiled in comprehension when he finally recognized the handholds and throws that his son set up and executed … all of them were from watching the experienced men in the evenings. Connor must have practiced and practiced out on his watch alone and with Dhugal. Furthermore, all the months of hauling wood and water had reduced the fat of childhood to stringy muscles and strong bones. The smaller boy scrapped with a desperate cornered fury, as if he felt nothing of the blows that bloodied him.
A well-placed fist in the face of the larger Roderick, drawing a fount of crimson and a howl of anguish, halted the skirmish. Two men interceded and hauled the young bodies apart. The green was full of shouted cheers for a match worth watching just to see such an insignificant youth take on more than his share and come out the winner.
“Aye, Lachlann, that pup of yours is fight enough!” laughed Angus, clapping a hand on his kinsman’s back. “Nuthin’ for size, but all teeth!”
“Cost me a jug of whisky for that boy’s nose, I s’pect,” Lachlann grumbled, but his eyes danced with pride and humor.
“I’ll spring for the whisky, ya lout. ‘Twas worth it just to see Connor get his due place!” Angus watched the serious and respectful eyes of the MacLeod youngsters as they appraised the tired and bleeding younger boy. Already the shifting in the ranks had begun. “I’ll wager the heckling will quit now.”
And so it did.
Lachlann was followed the next day out of Glenfinnan and none too stealthily. He climbed through the heather and gorse, cursing softly beneath his breath at his shadowy companions with every step. As he suspected, he never caught one glimpse of his son along the way or on the bald scab of the mountain where he halted. He glared down the four hundred yards that separated him from the mistrusting clansmen, and they sheepishly sidled foot to foot beneath his scrutiny.
Lachlann MacLeod, brother by blood to Angus, sank the point of his heavy claymore into the dirt and grasses and left it there. The clan leader had thrust an older cast-off sword through Connor’s belt just as he had been banished, but the one Lachlann set into the earth was a solid sword. His own sword: sharpened, balanced — a weapon for defense or war. He looked and looked, but saw no sign of his forsaken boy on the way back down. When he glanced back at the abandoned weapon, the crosspiece caught the fading sun and it glowed red as if he had stabbed the heart of the mountain. It felt like his soul instead.
“Is it there?” rumbled the rough voice of Angus behind him the next morning.
“Ye old goat! Sneaking up on me?” protested Lachlann, who was up watching the sun creep over the hills at dawn.
“Is the sword still there?” returned the clan leader. He waited patiently for his younger brother’s keener vision and the slowly rising sun. It was a satisfied sigh that gave him his answer. “He’s found it, then.”
“Yes. The sword is gone.”
“He’s armed himself with a solid claymore.”
“My Connor’s not a danger to us,” sharply replied the younger man. His eyes misted and he blinked them rapidly. It was only the bright sunlight that made them tear, he was certain.
“No. He’s not,” quietly said Angus. “He means no harm and I know it. Why else did I refuse to cast him off from clan?”
Lachlann swung on his eldest brother, angry and defiant, as no other clansman would ever dare to be with a clan leader. “You still banished him. My only boy! How could you?”
Angus sighed. “They would have burned him. I saw him die, brother, and then we all saw him walk. It was all the power I had against such a work of witchery to keep them from putting him to the fire.” He eyed the tragic face near him. “I knew you’d not deny him, and then you would be cast away too. I could not bear to lose you from my hearth. Banishment was the wisest course.”
Angus sighed again. Who else could use such tone with him and still be standing except his younger brother? He waited, wrapped in heavy fur and inner wisdom, for his kin to come to understanding.
“He has no clan now,” said Lachlann forlornly.
“He has his father’s sword now and, with it, his blessing,” dutifully reminded the older man. “Connor is bright and will find his way.”
“Alone and with nothing? No home, no strength, nothing but a sword?” Lachlann muttered beneath his breath. “He’s nothing to trade or sell.”
“It will have to be enough. There’s no place for him here in the clan, brother. It will take great care just to keep you and Caoilin from harm as it is.”
The younger clansman flinched at this last and slowly began to realize the larger picture. Something had gone terribly awry in the heart of the clan and Connor, for some reason, was the center of it. The superstitious and frightened Highlanders might well call for the entire family to be driven out and from there, the wake would spread until it touched on the next closest family — their own sept leader, Angus. In the bloody land wars that they currently lived in, such a rending of the village of Glenfinnan could well mean the end of their foothold here in the rich valley near Loch Shiel. If the clan were routed, much more would be lost than one man’s son.
Angus watched the thoughts turning through the face of his brother sadly, seeing the sorrow and comprehension of the path ahead. Connor MacLeod had to be banished. Better that one should suffer than risk uprooting the entire group.
“Give him his own honor if he can find it,” Angus quietly said. “I give you permission.”
Lachlann stared at his brother and clan leader. Permission? To make of Connor another branch of MacLeods? “Red,” he said abruptly. “The same MacLeod colors, but with one scarlet thread to honor my son who was driven out.”
“For the blood he shed on the way,” sadly spoke Angus, who missed the boy who was supposed to be his own son’s second and counsel when he became Clan leader. As Lachlann was to Angus, so Connor was to have been for Dhugal. Now everything was in ruins.
“Nay, brother, for mine and Caoilin’s.” Lachlann said sorrowfully. “We’ve a cut in our hearts that shan’t ever be healed … the scarlet is for us.” And he turned with this last and made his way back to his home and to his grieving wife, to comfort her as best he could and set her hands to work on a new bolt of tartan. When it was finished, they wrapped it tightly in skins to keep it clean and left it on the mountain. It took weeks before it vanished, and they wondered if it was their lost boy who had found it and if he understood what it meant.
He saw her first outside Glencoe, just a glimpse of a pleasant face and blonde hair peeking beneath a dark hood of fur to keep the drizzle off. A husband or father led the horse that she rode upon, and Connor hid off the trail to let them pass, furtively watching. That hair, curling from beneath the covering like gold … he had a fondness for blonde locks and he stared until they passed from view at the cleft of mountain. He didn’t follow and thought no more about it. They were just travelers going home and he was searching for a new one.
The bedraggled Scot had walked all the way to the village hoping to find some means of work. It took only an hour for him to overhear the rumors about a devil’s spawn out of the village of Glenfinnan and that none must go there or let their children out at night. Hiding behind the rude alehouse to listen, Connor was filled with fear and grief. There would be no helping hands for him here. His tartan was muddied and the colors indiscriminate, but he stole away just the way he had come and then ran and ran five miles back into the misted wilderness. But flee as he would, he could not outrun the demon that branded him an outcast from his own world. It was dark when he finally curled up against a pile of rocks and shivered through another night.
Daylight found him walking, unkempt, along the moors. The hollow and pinched feeling in his gut had become a permanent fixture in his perceptions and it mixed with the despair. His heart was shrouded in misery and even the heavy weight of his father’s sword did little to assuage his grief. A castaway in an inhospitable land, Connor held little misgivings of what his future held. Starving, isolated, branded a demon, it was only a matter of time before a group of clansmen found him and ran him down. He could only hope his end would be swift and by a blade, not by tortures and a slow roasting by fire.
Two days later, a group spotted him from the crest of the next hill and identified him by the drab blue garb and his tattered appearance. Connor took to the rocky face of the mountain and climbed straight up in a surge of desperate terror. His scramble loosened rocks and boulders and they bounced down, gaining momentum and speed, rolling three hundred yards to the bottom.
Word spread that the demon could stand on the cliffs and command the stones to fall on the men.
The next attempt for him was at dusk and by a clan garbed in hues of red. Started straight out of a fitful dozing, Connor fled away with a cry of terror across the open meadow. Their horses were weary after the hunt of the day, but had no trouble gaining on the Scot. They weren’t prepared for the moment he slid to a halt and raced back the way he had come, passing straight through them with his arms upraised to protect his head. It took 40 yards to stop the horses and turn and by that time, Connor had vanished into the clump of trees in the middle of the open glen.
He crawled headfirst into a dense knot of thorns and wedged himself down into the burrow of a chuck. The shadows and muck that clung to his hair hid him where he lay quietly bleeding for a few moments. A knot of red deer, lean and lithe, streaked out of the cover and further spooked the riders and their mounts. The men searched the ground, circling the covey to be sure there was no escape and hacked at it with swords, but did not find him.
Word spread that the demon could take on the likeness of the wild creatures and move through the world.
Connor followed a group of travelers for two days, raiding the scraps that they left behind after they had supped. They seemed a jovial band and after much scrutiny, he approached them to see if he could trade wood gathering or other labor for some meat and bread.
They seemed unafraid of him, but a bit wary of his unkempt appearance. It wasn’t until he had been tempted into the heart of the little party of men and women that they sprang at him. And they would have caught him except for the fact that all six men lunged for him at once and Connor, spurred by desperation, leapt through the towering fire to escape. He never felt a thing through the combination of his fear and the dampness of his footgear. The men who grabbed for him, however, collided in a mass and fell down in the coals. They hopped and howled and cursed the fire that singed their feet and torched their garments.
Word spread that the demon could touch and pass through the embers and flames unharmed while those that followed him wore the blisters for a week.
The young Scot found an isolated dwelling tucked away in a valley. Starving and desperate, Connor stole into a sheep pen at night and took a lamb. He cut its throat before it could bleat in alarm and consumed it raw as soon as he reached the trees.
Wolves were not plentiful, but it was spring and mating season. The pack that was afoot caught the scent of the kill and came out of the darkness to investigate. Connor dropped his prize and fled out into the open where he could see and, hopelessly outnumbered, sprinted for the dwelling, changing his mind at the last instant and fleeing past it. The clansman who came out his open door saw the fleet shape streak past followed by the wolves that detoured to wreck havoc on the terrified sheep in their enclosure.
Word spread that the demon commanded the predators of the forests to do his killing for him. The bones in the forest and his footprints around them reinforced rumors about his pagan rites of sacrifice.
Heather MacLeod was 22 years old that spring. She remembered it because of the new dress her father bought her … and for something else that turned her world awry. Not a major event at first, but it soon became the most important one of her life.
She found a man hiding in the forest near their humble dwelling. It was purely by chance that she spotted him, for the sun was in her eyes where she sat at the crest of the hill watching the sheep feed below. It was a wonder that she saw him at all where he was ringed with tree shadows.
He carried a claymore and his garb was torn and muddy. Dirt smudged his arms and his hair was disheveled above an unsmiling countenance … altogether an unsavory looking character. There was something in his gaze, the intensity with which he viewed the long sweeping plain of meadow grass leading to their dwelling and her father’s forge, that made her uneasy. For just an instant, she saw the unguarded look in his face … one of sadness and bewilderment that swiftly changed to wariness when he caught sight of her. He made no move, nor did he call out any greeting. He merely looked at her a moment before retreating back into the forest.
He is young and lost, Heather thought. The stamp of a boy was on his face.
Quick as thought, she ran and told her father. She was a MacDonald … they kept no potential threats from the head of the household. Especially word of a man who watched from a distance and did not come straight away to the forge to do business.
“Stay clear of him, daughter, and no wandering in the woods. ‘Tis no place for a woman anyway,” her father dutifully reminded her. The words ringing in Glencoe of the demon that had been driven out of Glenfinnan welled up in his mind. He kept his sword near for the day while he worked at the anvil, but no sign of any stranger did he see.
Several days passed with no sighting of the bedraggled young man and Heather forgot her fears. There was a cow to milk and chickens to feed. The shaggy steers “lowed” their rumbling demand to graze freely. The ewes were birthing and that took all of her attention. In four days there were twelve lambs scampering about underfoot, tails wriggling like flags. The dog endured being stepped on and butted as she had every year in the spring.
Men from all around made their way back and forth to seek the expertise of the gobhain or blacksmith. They grumbled at the trades he negotiated, but also knew they were fairly treated. Heather helped all she could: hauling water and wood and chunks of iron to the forge. It was hard work, but something she had grown used to. There were no boys born to her father and the labor required was limitless. When she took a break, she climbed up the mountain to where the flowers grew, her skirts swirling around her, and envied their glorious colors. The wind whipped her hair across her face and made it difficult to eat the bread she had brought. She watched the clouds scurrying across the sky and, when she turned her head, the stranger was there.
Watching her, half hidden in some brush.
No, she mentally corrected after her start of alarm, he’s watching the bread. From 20 paces away, she could see his starving regard as she took the next bite. Och, he’s hungry. And on the heels of that thought sounded her father’s words from her childhood: “Be ye kind in another’s troubles and take courage in your own.”
She left the loaf on the stone and went down the mountainside at a walk, betraying none of her apprehension and clenching the dirk in her skirt tightly in one hand. No footsteps raced up to her and nothing was shouted. When she looked back at thirty feet, the bread was gone and so was her bedraggled watcher.
“Ye dinnae even know the man,” said her father when she told him what had happened on the mount. “Aye, you’re a feisty lass, but you’d be a poor match even ‘gainst a boy!” He paced in the firelight, hands fretting. “’Tis trouble enou’ we’ve seen in life, Heather. We mustn’t add to it.”
“He’s just a youngster, papa. His youth is on his face!”
“We’ve no place for a lost clansman here!” her father scolded. “Yer just like yer momma, you take in the strays.”
Heather halted her protest for a moment, staring at the floor. “He’s hungry.”
The old man sighed. Hungry. They had known hunger in their lives … and worse.
“He’s like a little boy, lost, out there alone.”
“Did ye stop to think why he is out alone?” her father said sternly. “He’s been cast away from his clan. Takes a strong betrayal to be cast from a clan.” He looked into the face of his only daughter. “Ye argue with me just like your momma, God rest her, but I’ll hear no more of this. You stay off the mountain.”
“But it’s spring,” she protested immediately, “the flowers are all abloom and—.”
“No,” he interrupted. “I’ll not risk you for all the beauty on the hill. You stay close to home.”
Heather was his only child, born late in life after hope for a babe had long since died in her parents. Her mother had never quite recovered from the difficult birth and spent the next four years in the house. She could cook and clean well enough and adored her daughter … but winter brought coughs that persisted well into the next season and on the fifth year of Heather’s life, her mother never greeted the spring.
Heather had her same face and eyes, the same stubborn will and temperament, but she also knew her duty to the leader of her household. She obeyed her father and stayed away from the glorious bounty of spring blossoms.
That didn’t stop her from lobbing a loaf of bread as far as she could heave it every day from the hillock near the house. She made heavy coarse bread, and it sailed a long way before it bounced amongst the tussocks of grass and rocks near the woods. She ran for the tower, as she had for the last week, to lean out of the window and watch the forsaken clansman scurry from hiding and take the bread. The dim clank of her father at the forge wafted to her from her perch high above.
“Ahh, like feeding every other critter around here,” she laughed. She watched the man in his dim green and blue colors retreat once again into the uncivil terrain, stuffing bread into his mouth.
It was two more days before her father caught sight of Heather throwing bread down the hill. Just a pause for a drink from the water barrel was enough time for the blacksmith to skirt the house and discover what was happening. When his daughter raced around the back way to enter, he waited and then watched her look out of the window. When he turned his head, there was the bedraggled clansman she had told him about, looking ever so much like a nervous wildcat as he filched the thrown loaf and took to cover again.
“Ahh, Heather,” the smith murmured half-heartedly. “You’ve a soft spot for every lonesome creature just like your momma, God rest her. If she were alive, she’d be speaking sharply about me leaving this hungry boy out here, too.”
He sighed heavily in thought. The forge had been passed down through three generations of his family. Fertile and lush, with a watercourse nearby … if it were not for the necessity of a good smithy, he was sure that he would have been raided and pushed off his land by the Frasers or Campbells. His was a necessary occupation and the full weight of the MacDonalds was behind his lonely outpost. Rival clans could come freely to make trades with him in return for shod horses, iron knives, plows, and repaired swords — as long as they caused him no trouble. Creating problems at the Glen Coe forge meant a visit to that clansman’s village by representatives of the MacDonald clan. Not a pleasant encounter if the fierce clan leader thought his blacksmith was being used poorly.
The house was built of massive stones, and the tower enabled him to see for miles around, spotting any arriving bands of Scots long before their horses pulled up. He kept his sturdy, round targe and sword next to the door, along with several glaives. It would have been a cold and drafty home, but he cut lots of wood and Heather had woven great wall hangings to trap the chill and damp against the stone. He loosed one rock at the lowest level to let the cool air at the floor be pushed out by the warmer air that was added continuously by the fire.
The men came from miles around to court Heather, but their interest was seldom for her — it was for the land and fortress keep that whomever married her would inherit. They only wanted the honor that automatically transferred to whomever had the forge and was the gobha, the smith. It angered him that his daughter was simply an object to acquire in order to raise a man’s status. Arrogant clansmen attempted to foist their sons on him as apprentices, solely in the hopes of winning the land when he finally passed away. The boys were sullen and Angus could tell at a glance that they would shirk from hard labor.
Most of the Scots who came to court Heather assumed she would marry the first man who looked her way. Heather rejected them all, and he did not fault her for that, even though she was long past the age of her womanhood and duly should have been to wife. Now she was feeding a forsaken clansman out of the mercy in her heart, and he could not fault her for that, either
“I’ll try and catch your loose goat tomorrow, Heather,” he quietly informed his fair headed daughter that evening. The firelight made her face ghostly where she sat working stitches through cloth.
“Auld Pike’s not loose, m’lord,” she said, looking up at him. “I penned him up tight just tonight.”
“Not that one, lassie. The one in the plaid that you’ve been tossing bread to for likely mor’n a week.”
Heather sat still, hands quiet in her lap. “He’s just a boy lost."
“Carry’n’ a claymore as long as my arm? Aye, just a wee lad,” he snorted.
“He’s not even come nearer th’ house. Not even waved to me when I wave,” she protested and then added very quietly, “And he’s hungry. I couldna’ just ignore that. You’ve taught me yourself to have mercy on the unlucky in times of trouble.”
The old blacksmith sighed and nodded. “Aye, and we’ve seen troubled times. Don’t fear, Heather. If he meant us harm, it would have happened by now.”
Catching him was the trick. The wary young man did not come out for the bread the next day with the blacksmith standing nearby. Shouting for him was a useless endeavor with the brisk wind whipping past the forge. Heather pleaded for him to give up and come inside at dusk, so there would be just enough light to see for the hungry clansman to find the bread.
“I had to pen the goats all day over that loaf just a’settin’ there!” she scolded, pouring hot stew for her shivering father. “Let me try to talk him out tomorrow.”
“You? I’ll not risk you for a strange laddie who hadn’t enou’ sense to come when it’s obvious I’m waitin’ on him!” scolded her father.
“Aye, a big brawny mon like yourself. Like to scare the devil away.” She handed him a chunk of bread. “And somethin’ must've happened to him along the way for him to be so feared of us.”
He sighed. Heather had her dander up. Her tone reminded him so much of his deceased wife that he smiled. Aye, she was her mother’s daughter, clear to the bones. And what she said was true. Men from the neighboring areas had brought word of their pursuits of the demon of Glenfinnan. They claimed he was a plague and he worked sorcery. Pah, he thought mentally. He’s likely just a boy driven half wild by threats to his life from everyone he meets. And he carries a full claymore, so the clan let him go armed. If he was truly a kelpie, they would nary let him take a sword.
“He didn’t harm me when I was near the woods that day, nor on the mountain. Let me see if I can coax him out. Surely he can see I’m not a threat to him, bein’ a lass and all.”
“Don’t be goin’ further than a bow shot, Heather.”
Heather MacDonald walked to the edge of the meadow at midmorning and sat where the carpet of grass kissed the shadow-smattered forest floor, well within Angus’ bow range. It was dark and gloomy in the depths and the flicker of sunlight through the boughs above played tricks on her eyes. Tales of the wood being filled with tiny lives and creeping feet came back to chill her spine. You must not go to the wood at night, she had oft been told. A cold nose on her arm startled a cry out of her. “Och, Bessie! Scare the moss off the trees, willya?” and she patted the hound until the dog’s lips curled up like a smile and it settled at her feet.
One hour passed. Then another. Heather fell asleep with her heavy shawl wrapped around her shoulders and the dog stretched by her side. When she awoke, hours later, the bread was still there. She sighed and returned home, finding her father staring out the top window of the tower with the great bow in his hand.
Father and daughter worked for three more days to coax the elusive clansman out, but it was a careless step on Heather’s part that finally drew him from hiding.
She was near the waterfall, where it tumbled riotously across boulders covered with spray and moss. Her skirt and footgear were damp, but she was determined to get to the basket she had dropped. It had slipped out of her hand as she picked flowers near the edge of the river. Slipping over stones and begriming her hands as she felt her way down, she reached her target and then started feeling her way back up. Stretching to reach a new handhold, the rock she stood on gave way and she went down with a yelp of surprise.
“Ohhh, I’ll be getting a scold for this one!” she said crossly. Her ankle was swelling and stabs of pain shot up her leg. The face of her dog peeked down from above. “Bess? Bess!” she called at the hound. The friendly face disappeared.
An hour passed. Heather was soaked by water spray and chilled thoroughly. She grimly struggled a score of yards along the river edge fueled by stubborn pride, but her discomfort finally made her stop. Her calls for help were drowned in the tumbling water and her ankle was an angry shade of blue. When dusk fell, her father would come looking. She sighed, vexed, thinking of how cold she would be by then. A rattle of stone against stone bade her look up — and there was the outcast clansman, watching her.
For a moment, they merely looked at one another. Then the fiery blood that had pulled Heather’s mother from her clan to wed the lonely gobhain of the MacDonalds asserted itself.
“Don’t just stare like a goat! Come down and help me!” she called, irritated, her voice scolding like a parent at a child.
The bedraggled Scot lingered a moment more, indecisively, then scrambled down the moss clothed stones with the quickness of something wild. He was grimy and disheveled and stank of sweat and moldy timber, but there was solidity in his arms and strength in his back when he drew her up. He was tall, she realized, as he helped her clamber along the rocks to the thick grass. By the time they both reached the level, Heather’s dress was smeared even more with mud and river slime, and she was quite certain she looked just as unkempt as this young man helping her hobble up the hill.
He stopped two stones throws from the tower, warily looking at the building. The ring of iron on iron at the forge was silent.
“We’ve been trying to coax you out,” she said. He had every appearance of bolting back the way he had come. “No harm will come tae you here. We’ve no quarrel with you.”
“You don’t know what I am.” His voice was high and soft, curling around the words awkwardly, as if speech was something unfamiliar.
“You’re hungry and homeless. You’ve been here for weeks eating my bread and you’ve seen we’ve been hospitable.” She eyed him, wondering if the consistent Scottish sense of honor and pride was still living in this downtrodden specimen. “The least you can do is chop some wood for us to make even.”
He looked at her and she saw the mistrust and wildness in the depths of his gray eyes. Behind it was a quiet sorrow, like a pool of grief untapped. She remembered after her mother had died, she had gazed in a puddle after the rain and her eyes had looked the same way. Her father’s still did sometimes.
“You two are the pair,” sounded the deep voice down the slope. The blacksmith, barrel-chested and covered with sweat and soot, had spotted them. With the tongs in one hand and the cudgel in the other, he was a fierce sight.
Heather felt the man with her draw back, turning into himself even more, shifting his weight on his feet to flee — and she wrapped her tiny hands around the arm that supported her and clung tight. “I’ll fall if you bolt, and I shan’t be fallin’ down this hill again, Highlander!” she sternly warned. She gestured with a toss of her head at the man advancing on them. “He’s built like an ox, but has a tender heart. And he’ll not like to admit it, but he could use a hand with the work around here.” She paused an instant before adding: “And you’ve et a lot of bread lately.”
“Ho, laddie,” called the smith, “stand fast.” He made his way down the incline, weighted down by the heavy leather apron to protect him from the forge. The fact that the tattered clansman carried a two handed claymore did not daunt him in the least. The burly smith was also the hammer man when it was slaughtering day in the MacDonald clan, and he could drop a bullock with one blow. Besides, it was obvious from the young man’s anxiety that he would sooner flee than fight. “Let me help you to th’ house, Heather,” the gobha said, and aside to the begrimed clansman, he added: “And you stay right there. I’ve a bit of meat and bread for you.”
The blacksmith found the bedraggled young man exactly where he had left him when he returned. “Angus MacDonald of the Clan MacDonald,” he calmly announced, watching the half-starved youth chew. “We’ve been trying to coax you in for nigh a week, boy. What’s your name?”
The clansman hesitated and then said softly “Connor.”
“Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod,” boomed Angus. “I’ve heard th’ stories th’ drunkards tell in the village.” He eyed the startled MacLeod up and down. “A warlock doesn’t eat like a ravenous wolf or help foolish girls who fall off the ridge picking flowers.” He grinned. “I bet you piss just like the next man, aye?”
A wry smile was Connor’s answer and Angus caught a glimpse of the spirit behind the mask of wariness and suffering. It disappeared almost as swiftly as it came and Connor looked away. The older man sighed and beckoned the young clansman up the hill. It would take some time to coax out the true Scot that had been harassed into this state under the grueling punishment of clanlessness. Connor looked as if he needed twenty pounds of weight put on him and some better clothes.
But first, Angus had to get him clean.
Connor slept in the rude barn near the house, with a dozen curious sheep, two horses and six shaggy cows. There was one bitch that sniffed him over before deciding that he was welcome in the pile of dried grasses reserved for feed in the winter snow. She breathed dog breath in his face all night … and he was grateful for the company and warmth.
He was mystified at being here. Heather, limping and silent, had put bowl after bowl of mutton stew in front of him that evening. Connor kept his eyes averted from her most of the time, but was aware of every move she made in the room. He sat across from Angus, almost close enough to be singed by the fire, and ate everything handed to him while the burly man talked idly. Angus found one of his extra sarks and his daughter took up all the seams so it didn’t slop right off Connor’s narrow shoulders. When he said he would sleep in the barn, they did not quarrel — as if they comprehended his lingering mistrust of their hospitality.
The morning was bleak and gray when the rooster crowed and he had straw in his hair. The dog sat on his feet while he finger-combed it out and the mare nosed him hard enough to nearly knock him over. One ornery goose nibbled and tugged at the frayed hem of his tartan and he shooed her away. The old smith was making the iron ring at the forge when Connor appeared. Heather intercepted him part of the way there with a steaming bowl of porridge and Connor ate it on his feet, watching the gobhain work the four elements of air, fire, water and iron.
“I’ve plenty to do around here, MacLeod,” announced Angus without preamble. “You’re welcome to earn your keep and, as long as you’re working, you can stay.”
“I can stay?” It was music to his ears. “I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“So you say now. We’ll see what you say when I tell you what all needs done,” boomed Angus with a laugh, reminding the younger man ever so much of long lost clansmen.
And thus Connor MacLeod became a hired man, toiling at a variety of tasks and paid with food and drink, shelter and companionship. A week streamed by full of hard labor and the wariness of his benefactors slacked off. He rarely spoke to Heather or met her gaze except in glances, but he visibly relaxed around Angus.
The older man noticed, but said nothing. It was good to see the fear and distrust dying down in the boy although he seldom smiled or laughed. Connor reminded him of Bessie, their half-wild dog, which Heather had tamed out of savagery when they had discovered that a passing clansman using the hound in dogfights. Angus had demanded the animal as payment for a knife blade he had fashioned for the sullen Scot. It took almost a year to civilize the hound.
MacLeod worked hard. Chopping and stacking firewood, mending the stone fence, repairing the holes in the roof, clearing away rocks and trees for more grain to be planted. He built a sturdier shed for the chickens and hauled water in heavy wooden buckets two by two to the forge. He marveled that Heather was usually the one to carry the water, for the buckets were larger than average and his arms ached by the time he reached the top of the hill with them. It took enormous quantities of wood and water to keep the gobhain’s work going smoothly.
Three days of levering boulders in the river produced a slow quiet eddy that did not frighten the sheep too much to drink from, thus ending the daily task of hauling the water to them, too.
“Aye, the woollies. Good for eatin’ and warm clothes to wear, but afraid of anything that moves,” grumbled Angus when he marched down to see Connor’s progress at the river. “Come out, MacLeod,” he called. “You’re blue to th’ knees!”
“C-cold,” stuttered the slender Scot. “I’d like to sit on that forge fire.”
“Hah!” Angus clapped him on the shoulder. “And light up like a torch in that tattered plaid? Next time I’m to Glencoe, I’ll fetch some more cloth for ye.”
Connor looked down at his bare legs and feet. He had trimmed the ragged edges so he wasn’t so bedraggled looking, and now the garment was too short. “I have some more tartan.”
“You do? From where?” inquired Angus, surprised at the revelation.
“My father left it on the mountain for me.”
The blacksmith became very quiet and still for a moment. This young Scot was cast out of his clan, but his father brought him some tartan and gave him his own sword? The pieces didn’t fit. “Fetch it to the house and Heather will cut you a new plaid.”
It took Connor half of a day to find where he had hidden the wrapped wool in the woods. When he brought it in, Angus MacDonald stared at the riot of colors for a long time in silence and then looked at him as if seeing something other than the wiry youth he had loaded with tasks to do for a week.
“Did ye plan to not tell me this?” quietly asked the old gobha.
“That I had more colors? No. I was planning to fetch them when I needed a new length cut.” Connor eyed the older man curiously.
He doesn’t understand. He probably didn’t even look closely, thought Angus. He’s too young and likely never saw this happen before in the clan. He doesn’t even know what he is and here I’ve trotted him around like a slave all the while.
“Aye, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod,” he said, leaning over the swath of cloth spread out on the table. He traced the slender scarlet through the hues of blues and greens and yellow — the sole difference in the cloth from what the young man currently wore. Then Angus told Connor what it meant. And he told Connor what he was.
They made an unspoken partnership that evening: a solid stump of a MacDonald, who had a house like a fortress and the full might of his clan to back him, with a slender MacLeod, who had no home or clan at all.
Connor set himself to catch up on all the tasks that a clansman usually performed when he wasn’t running a forge all day long. Angus, sought for miles in every direction for his finesse with iron, had not been able to keep up with the repairs of his little farm as well as all the smith work. Heather had filled in the gaps since her mother died, but some tasks were too onerous for a girl.
Connor found that out as he labored high up the tower, dangling by a rope, to daub a concoction of mud, moss, and sand into the cracks between the stones. He fell when the rope broke and sent him plummeting twenty feet. Angus was working at the anvil and did not notice a thing over the din of metal being hammered. Heather, watching the young clansman surreptitiously, cried out and ran down the inside stairway, certain to find him dead outside. Instead, she found Connor staggering and bloody in the grass and led him to the steps to sit.
“I’m all right, I’m all right,” Connor kept muttering. He pushed her hands off of his shoulders and chest where she was feeling him over for broken bones. No woman had touched him since the last time he had held Kate … and the lass living here with hair like the sun was a heart-break ready to happen. No matter what Angus said, he knew he was a man without clan strength, without land, without anything but a heavy claymore and old memories. It was one thing to stay here because he could labor for his food and shelter. It was another thing to love the gobhain’s daughter. “Let be. I’m all right,” and he heaved himself unsteadily to his feet and went in search of a stronger rope.
That night, Connor tossed and turned in the rude haymow until the dog whined and moved away from him to sleep. He stared at the faint outline of the MacDonald house remembering the touch of Heather’s hands and her eyes so full of worry.
“I must be strong,” he softly said aloud. The mare leaned her head over the pole and blew air in his face until he patted the soft nose. “’Tis well enou’ to have a roof and meat for my belly. I canno’ hope to have her. I mustno’ love her. ‘Tis enou’ that Angus lets me stay and work.” He sighed at his own words and watched the tower against the sea of stars for a long time.
In the morning, he overslept, curled in the burrow of golden grass in his sark. Heather came to the barn to let the animals out to graze when he failed to appear and when he opened his eyes, she was smiling down on him. In an instant, all of his bones melted before those eyes as blue as robin’s eggs
“You look like a pup stirred around in the hay, Connor. Just like Bess does when she’s to have her litter,” Heather laughed. “I think she’ll throw you out when she has them, too!”
“Bessie is having puppies?” He couldn’t look away from Heather’s comely face and was certain that his state of confusion must be evident.
“Aye, the scamp must've taken to the woods and cavorted with the wolves. She’ll do that if we don’t catch her and tie her up in the house for a week.” Heather eyed the Scot critically. “Did ye not notice she’s getting fat as a sausage these days?”
This time Connor chuckled. “I thought she was always that size.”
“Och, no. Up now, Angus plans on a hunt today.”
Angus and Connor hunted on horseback. The smith carried a great bow and a quiver of arrows across his thighs. The air was chilly, and the younger Scot was grateful for the heavy green cape the smith loaned him. Through the level meadows surrounded by sheer peaks, they rode in silence, watching the golden eagles turn in the sky above. The dog, heavy with her puppies, trotted along with them for a while and then whined and returned home. Angus laughed and shook his shaggy head. At mid-day they drank from the loch and chewed on cheese and bread that Heather had sent along.
Through the hours, Angus told Connor about his deceased wife, Ma’iri, and how, even though she was from a clan notorious for raids against the MacDonalds, they had found love in the midst of turbulent times. He sketched, with a quiet wonder, the birth of Heather and the effort it had taken to raise her alone instead of giving her to another family in the clan to be fostered. It was obvious how fond he was of his daughter. He spoke of the forge handed down through the generations of his family, each smith teaching an apprentice-son the trade in turn. It went unsaid that Angus had no son to pass his knowledge of the anvil to.
Angus brought down two red roebucks with his bow and they gutted them before putting the meat across the horse’s withers for the ride home. He stopped near an open glade and picked a handful of saxifrag and Lady’s Mantle. “For Heather, who loves the colors,” he explained without apology. “Her mother was the same. We’re bringing home more work for her to do, and the blooms will make her smile.”
When Connor rose the next day, Angus sent him in the house. “You’ve caught up all the hard work. See what tasks Heather needs done since she’s cooking and cleaning for two of us now. And mind you do them well, or she’ll take the stir spoon to your head!” he laughed in his booming voice.
“What d’ye want, Connor MacLeod?” Heather said as he entered. She wiped a stray curl from her brow and eyed him from the washtub. “I just fed th’ lot of you and it’s not time for me to be cooking again already!”
Connor smiled at that. Heather complained about feeding the two men with a note of pride for both their voracious appetites and her cooking. She tucked a “m’Lord” in the chiding now and then, but she was otherwise exactly the image of the tough Highland women who were bred and born to the land.
“Angus sent me to help you.”
“You? Help me?” She eyed him up and down, and he shifted beneath that burning scrutiny.
She put him to work inside the house, and Connor gave no argument over the menial tasks of shaking out bedding, repairing the nicks in the wooden table and clearing the fire pit. He could stay as long as he worked … it should not matter what work it was. It was warm inside and full of inviting odors. He kept his eyes off the bare-armed girl scrubbing linens. When the gobhain came in at midday, hungry and stretching his cramping shoulders, he found Connor with all the chairs upside down strengthening the joints.
From then on, Connor divided his time between two taskmasters, but found himself most often in the company of Heather. He plowed the rich soil, turning it up in great dark lines behind the horse, and then sowed the seed by tossing it in wide arcs just as she showed him. He wrestled the stubborn he-goat to the ground to refasten the leather collar that had come free. Heather laughed at the spectacle of the quick MacLeod facing off with the cranky animal that was intent on butting him in the process. Connor was grimy and triumphant once he let the beast back up. He had to flee back over the fence to escape the goat’s rush after him.
The sheep needed constant observation when they were loose and grazing. The lambs would race, tails wringing frantically with excitement, up and down the same small hillock in play. Connor was the one to use the knife on the trusting animals when they needed fresh meat. He found Heather sad-eyed, but still a participant in the butchering. He marveled at this young woman who filled whatever role was needed in the harsh life out alone with her father. With the lack of a whole town around them, Heather had grown up with every task and did not shrink back. Conversation became easier and laughter more frequent between them. They settled into an easy friendship, quick with jokes and often pulling pranks.
There were eggs to gather and a cow to milk every morning. Connor chuckled at the cat begging for a squirt until Heather shot him in the face with one well-aimed teat. She laughed and ran for her father for protection. Angus looked up at the commotion from the two young people and hid his smile beneath the boom of his voice, ordering them back to work. Connor helped with the calves being birthed and watched Heather’s delight in the first steps of the wobbly newborns. He slaughtered some of the geese and Heather sat, knees brushing his, and helped pluck the carcasses. They stuffed the soft down in sewn bags, gradually gathering enough to make a warm quilt. She tossed a handful at him on a lark and he tossed some back … then they had to pick them all up again.
One day, while Connor worked outside with Angus, Heather piled the grasses high in the stall of the barn and threw a thick quilt over the top of the mound, pegging it down at each corner. When Connor went to bed that night, his rude shelter had been transformed into a fragrant bed of many colors. The rails were hung with blankets to keep the air still and the damp at bay. It was homey and comfortable and he was grateful.
Heather was full of spirit and headstrong like her mother. Her stubbornness clashed with her father’s over where to extend the rock wall for the horses and Angus was highly amused at the verbal fencing. When Heather found that she was merely being provoked, Connor roared at the spectacle. Angus MacDonald had long ago earned the respect of his daughter, but she whacked him with the wooden spoon for his contrariness anyway.
“If your mum was here, lass, she’d smack me likewise!” he laughed in his booming voice.
When they went outside, the gobhain dutifully listening to her ideas, Connor sat on the steps and reminded himself that he must not love her. This was her home and place. He was only here because of their hospitality. He could be her friend, but nothing more … despite the longing sitting deep in his bones to hold her, to touch her.
The hound, Bessie, did not mind Connor in her nest of hay when she whelped. He patted and coaxed her and brought her water to drink. In short order there were six scraps of fur wriggling at her side, every one of them a motley shade of gray. The Scot patted her some more and remembered the thrill of puppies in Glenfinnan as a boy. She licked his face as if to say “thanks for being here” and they both slept.
“Ahh, damn bitch,” Angus cursed softly in the morning. Connor looked at him questioningly. “Those half-breed pups are no good. As soon as they’re older, they’ll be killing the sheep just like the wolves.”
“Aye. Take Bess to the house and I’ll take care of the lot of them. Better to do it now than when they get older.”
“No,” abruptly announced Connor, feeling a bit foolish. Heather had walked up beside her father and had picked one puppy up, holding it fondly in her hands. “Can’t I teach them not to take the sheep?”
Angus studied him. “Are you daft, Connor?”
“Oh, let’s try,” announced Heather, looking sidelong at her father. “We’ve never tried before because there wasn’t time to waste. But with Connor here, we’ve all had more time.”
Angus was skeptical and said as much. But he also saw the way his daughter looked at Connor MacLeod and the way the young clansman gazed back for an instant before turning his eyes away. “Daft youngsters,” he muttered to the puppies and the hopeful people with him. “You can try, but if two lambs go missing then you’ll have to cut their throats — the whole lot of them. Understand?”
“Two lambs?” asked Connor when the older Scot left the barn.
“Angus always allows one mistake, but not two.” And then Heather smiled like the sunshine and pulled the mare out of her stall by the forelock and into the new dawn. Connor stood, lost in that parting view of her face, until he heard the anvil ring.
By tacit agreement, Connor hid himself when travelers sought the blacksmith's skill. He lingered hours in the forest and stared down at the land from the top of the mountain, waiting until the trading was done and he could show himself. Bessie and her pack of unruly pups went with him and they would wile the hours away in play — usually with Connor, who would whistle-call and then race through the forest with the whole pack at his heels trying to catch him. They would nip and cavort, growling savagely at his ankles the whole way. The half-blood pups were unusually silent every other moment and they never barked like their mother.
Talk of the demon of Glenfinnan had been buried amidst the usual talk of witches and sorcery, bogels and warlocks by the superstitious Celts. At six months, Angus calmly told Connor to stay when the travelers came to barter for their smith work. The gobhain gruffly commented that the MacLeod youth was working off a debt and Heather giggled at the thought.
“As much as he eats,” she said, “he’ll be in debt to us all his life!” She found it a pleasant thought indeed. Connor was engaging company in their life at the forge and she had grown fond of his smiling eyes and characteristic laugh.
“You should learn the iron, MacLeod,” Angus announced in his booming voice one fall day. The snow would arrive soon and the clansmen were all close to home getting ready for the heavy winter. Until the spring thaw, the work at the forge would be slow.
“Me?” Connor returned, startled. “I’m pretty light to be a smithy.”
“You.” Angus sank the glowing iron in the water and listened to the steam hiss. “It doesn’t take great strength to work the metal, laddie. It’s a sight easier to be brawny, but not necessary. My grandpap was a stick of a man and forged just as well.” He inspected a plow edge he was working on and shoved it back into the coals. “The strength is in the speed of the hammer’s swing, not the muscle behind it. You’ve a fast enou’ arm — I’ve seen you chop wood.”
“You’ll teach me?”
“Aye, I’ll teach you.” Angus had seen men come and go with their pride and egos. MacLeod demanded little and worked hard. He was thankful for everything he had … a fit apprentice. And in the back of his mind he remembered the expression on his daughter’s face as she watched the young clansman. This unassuming soft-spoken lad had won her heart, though Angus was certain the young Highlander did not know it yet. And it settled well in his soul that Heather had chosen Connor first and not been forced into marrying whomever Angus was eventually made to teach, lest his forge simply fall to the marauding Campbells or Frasers as he grew older.
“Like an apprentice?” Connor softly asked.
“Aye, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.” Angus picked up the nearest piece of iron and swore the oath over the top of it, vowing to teach all he knew of his craft and skill. Every clansman knew an oath sworn on cold iron was inviolable and Connor put his hand on the metal to seal the arrangement, then looked at him, waiting.
Eager to begin, are ye? mused the gobhain. “You start with fire…” and Angus began his weeks of lectures the same way his father had taught him and his father’s father before him. He was certain his forbears would approve.
Thus Connor MacLeod entered his apprenticeship. He learned the history of the anvil that had been here for a hundred years, the hammers that had cracked to pieces through the constant beating upon it. He practiced with the wood and fire until he could make a bed of glowing coals a yard long with no cool spots in it to spoil the forging. He mastered the art of covering it with a plank of iron and leaving just enough air to keep the embers alive for two whole days. The tongs and files and cudgel became familiar tools in his hands. His eyes learned the perfect yellow-orange color of fired metal in order to work it into the shape he desired. He grew used to the sparks and steam, the pop and bite of hot metal when it hit his skin. Where normal men drew back from the intense heat, MacLeod grew accustomed to the fiery temperature and stood close enough in concentration that Heather dutifully made him a leather apron like Angus’ to keep his clothing from scorching. In the dead of winter, surrounded by snowfall, Connor practiced his new craft stripped to the waist, sweat running down the valley of his spine whenever he stood upright to inspect the glowing iron.
And Heather was in love. She felt it sure and truly, a constant burble of excitement deep inside when she looked out the window at the slender Scot who pounded the iron so fiercely. She memorized his face, the way his lips drew thin and straight when he was dissatisfied with the work. The flash of his teeth when he laughed, the way his eyes squinted and sparkled when pausing to swat away one of the half-wolf pups that occasionally worried his ankles. She wanted to put her hands in his thick hair and braid the tartan strips in herself. She wanted many things to which she had no right.
“He’s a good man,” said Angus near her elbow, startling her. Heather looked at the familiar face of her father, hopeful. “’Tis well to have set your heart on him, daughter. He’s young, but solid. Grateful for everything he has instead of besotted with foolish pride like most clansmen.” He looked into her face and smiled at her expression. “Aye, ‘tis good to finally see you giddy at some boy who’s worth something. He’s a quick arm and will do well as a gobha.” He added afterwards, very quietly, “And he’s a tender spot for the weak and the young. He’ll be a fine husband.”
Heather stood a long time at the window, trembling, after her father left.
Angus MacDonald had only one anvil and two men working with the hammers, charcoal and iron. By the time he was through the first three months of teaching the younger Scot, he realized that they had learned to move around each other in the labor and yet never collided or interfered with the other's project. Connor worked from one side of the anvil and Angus the other — each man tending the coals and refilling the trough of water by habit. At one point, with a particularly difficult mending of a broken plow face, both men worked in unison, landing hammer blows one after the other on the glowing iron until it was put to rights again. Heather declared that she was losing her hearing from the din. Connor grinned and Angus ordered her, laughing, to fetch them some ale before they died of thirst beside the fire.
“Aye, she’s a fine lass,” said Angus with a sigh after the draught.
“She is,” Connor admitted, eyes gazing at the house where she had vanished.
“You should court her, MacLeod.”
Connor looked at him, stunned and hopeful, nearly breathless. “You think so?”
“Aye, laddie, I think you already know how you feel.” Angus clapped him hard on the shoulder. “Have you been too feared to ask me permission?”
“I have nothing to give her. Not even the clan’s strength,” he returned bitterly.
“Just the opposite of my Ma'iri,” reminded the gobhain. “She brought only her heart to my home. ‘Twas enoug’ … more than enoug’. Heather doesn’t want ‘things’; she wants to be prized for herself, not what she’ll bring with her.”
The young clansman looked at him, startled, suddenly comprehending. “I never intended to take your forge, Angus. I meant to learn and then set up another somewhere else.”
“Aye, laddie, I know it never crossed your mind. That’s why you’re my apprentice and not all these cocksure boys that came and eyed my house and daughter like they were tossing dice for her. She’s a strong woman with her own mind.” He took another draft of his ale and chuckled. “She threatened to take my tongs and cudgel to a few of ‘em. S’pect she thought they needed reminding of what head to be thinking with.”
Connor laughed his familiar musical chuckle, feeling a sudden loosening in his heart. All the months of quietly watching from a distance and denying what he felt for the bright haired girl dwindled away. Court her he would, and with Angus’ permission on top of it.
Connor started with what he knew Heather adored. When Angus went the next week to Glencoe for supplies, Connor stayed behind — much to Heather’s disappointment. Angus eyed him conspiratorially and said nothing. When they returned, it was after dark and Connor had venison roasting in the house.
The next morning Connor lingered in the barn and presently heard a shriek of delight from Heather. The house was ringed with flowers — all carefully dug up and brought down the mountain the day before. He had planted them while they were away at Glencoe. Purple and pink and white blooms greeted her entrance to the day.
“What have ye done?!” she exclaimed, breathless after running to the barn. “They’re beautiful!”
“Hurt my back and scratched up my hands,” he dutifully replied, even though his hands and back felt fine this morning. A curious thing after the effort he had gone to yesterday.
“Och, you poor boy,” she twitted at him. “Come to the house, your porridge is ready.”
“Not a boy,” he returned, catching her hand as she turned away. “I work hard and am apprenticed to your father. I’m old enough to court, old enough to wed.”
She gazed at him a long time and he watched the play of light in her face hopefully. When she finally smiled, his heart turned over and he wondered briefly if he would ever grow tired of that intense feeling. Certainly, he would never tire of the light in her eyes.
“You spoke with my father?” she remarked simply.
“Aye, I did.”
“And he said I’d just run away with the likes of you?” she chided, falling back on their familiar teasing.
“More likely that I’d be running from you and that cooking spoon when I erred,” he grinned back, but his eyes betrayed his seriousness beneath the words.
“Don’t run too fast,” she said quietly, picking up the apprehension in his face. “I might not be able to catch you.”
“You already have,” and he leaned to kiss her, very gently, on the corner of the mouth.
“Connor,” she whispered, fingers sidling up the front of his sark towards his neck.
“CONNOR!” bellowed Angus from outside. His voice was stern and vexed. When the two young Scots came out of the barn, they realized why. There was a lamb torn to pieces in the pen … and the wolfish pups lolled about smeared with blood. Angus and Heather both looked at Connor. “That’s one,” said the gobhain, solemnly. “At two, the hounds have to be killed.”
“Aye, Angus. I remember.”
Connor carefully considered how to break the hounds of this new discovery. They had grown up beside him, played with him, knew him as friend. But of obedience, he had taught them little. They were doomed if he failed them now.
Connor cut up the carcass of the lamb and took several lengths of leather thongs down from the shed. Calling and catching the nearest pup, he forced a bone wrapped in fleece as far back in the jaws as he could and tied it there, horizontally, continuing with each of the litter mates in turn. They struggled and swiped with their paws, but could not remove it. For most of the day, they whined and gagged and lay morosely with the wool caught fast behind their teeth. At dusk, he let them go and they drank water thirstily and eyed him.
The next day, he performed the same arduous task of fastening a length of bone wrapped in fleece in their jaws and the hounds howled and snapped at him in the process. Heather was sober, watching, until all six of the dogs were once more gagged with sheep bones and wool. They were a piteous sight and she said as much.
“It’s their lives. By the time I’m done, they’ll have no love for biting at the sheep,” Connor returned. At nightfall, he untied the gory objects and the dogs sidled about his feet to be petted and stared at him. He had become both their determined master and kind benefactor in two days. He petted and talked to them and spent the night with all six flopped around him in the barn. At daybreak, he placed a newborn lamb in the midst of the wolves, and they eyed its wobbling body with mistrust and sidled away one by one until it was quite alone. The lean gray hounds never killed another sheep.
There was little time for talking in the steady work of the forge and farm, but at every chance, Connor took Heather by the hand and walked. He had known intense solitude during the initial months of being banished from the MacLeods. Heather had known loneliness and isolation with only her father to keep her company.
They spoke freely, her voice musical and light and his slower and more thoughtful. Sometimes they sat at the incline of the hill and watched the ptarmigan and grouse search for nesting ground. Other times they walked along the river and laughed at the curlews. The slender birds bobbed their heads like a woman curtsying.
The wolf pups were full-grown beasts now, sharp-eyed and fanged, each fully five feet long. They spooked up a fox and gave it a merry chase until Connor whistled the hounds back to him. They raced soundlessly, gliding through the cotton grass, and snapped at the air teasingly near his bare legs. Heather hated the mock ferocity they exhibited, but also knew the six animals had spent their whole lives with Connor and slept by his side at night. When he showed no inclination to join their rough play or lead them on a game of chase, the six darted away in a pack like true wolves.
He kissed her there amidst the carpet of violets and wild hyacinth, tasted the berries she had eaten, and hungered for all the secrets within her. But Angus was watching and the laws of the church and clan governed him. He did nothing more than kiss her, waiting for the day when he was blessed to come to her bed. It would not come soon enough and his skin burned where her fingers touched him.
When the clans gathered that spring to celebrate the new crops, Connor went with Angus into the heart of the MacDonald’s. His tartan blended in the bright mix of other plaids and no one asked anything about a demon, even when told his name. The tension that weighed across his back, like that oxen yoke from long ago, faded away.
The wise gobhain of Glen Coe would not be consorting with devils anyway — it was just a tale told by some drunken MacLeods, whom everyone knew were a rough lot of Highlanders and prone to thievery just like the vagabonds on the seas, the clan leader had declared. Connor wasn’t sure he wanted to be declared a pirate of sorts, but Angus thought it tremendously funny.
Heather was full of spirits and eager to show the other women the young man in her life. They responded with surprise and then welcoming warmth. Heather MacDonald was past the age to marry, but there was no lack in her physical beauty. They had often wondered what would become of her if no suitor claimed her and what would happen to the forge they relied upon. They eyed the MacLeod youth skeptically, but found no fault in his easy smile or the light in his eyes when he glanced across the throng of boisterous people and caught Heather’s eyes.
“He’s a fine sight in that blue,” commented a clanswoman, bouncing a child on one hip. “But not a very brawny lad.”
“Connor swings the hammer just as well as my father,” pertly returned Heather. Her eyes flashed at the perceived insult.
“Aye, I guess we’ll see. They’re working up the coals now.”
Angus and Connor had wrestled the heavy anvil off the wagon and onto a wide stump. The slender MacLeod cut shavings with his axe and the burly smith hauled water. In short order, the makeshift forge was ready and the wood had burned down to a bed of glowing charcoal. It was the fastest the MacDonald clansmen had ever seen an anvil and fire set up. By the time Angus and Connor had the hammers ringing, a throng had gathered to watch the two of them work off of the same anvil. The combination of fire and water and iron was a central event.
The two men labored through the day, pausing for sips of ale and bargaining with the men who brought work to be mended. In a few hours there was no doubt that the gobhain’s apprentice had learned quickly and was skilled — a fit inheritor of the smithy. Angus heard the comments and nodded to himself. His daughter had chosen Connor first, without anything to his name but a sword. Angus had chosen him second, and now had the blessing of the MacDonald clan to back his decision. His world had gone right despite the long years of waiting for first a wife, then a child, and now, at last, a husband for his daughter. The smith worked the metal as he never had before, and every piece gained its shape beneath his tongs and cudgel as if recognizing its true form.
When evening fell, Heather rode home on a wagon laden with bartered goods, sitting between the exhausted men. Connor sat close beside her and she drank in the mix of his scent: leather, whisky, sweat, and wood smoke. His long hair brushed the side of her face as if a whisper of something to come. The two Scots unloaded the wagon tiredly, swearing at the beloved anvil that weighed so much but had seemed so light that morning in the heart of the clan MacDonald. Heather put the perishables in the cold room dug beneath the wall of the house and ordered the tired men to rest while she finished. Both men went to bed in exhaustion.
Heather unhitched the horses and led them into the barn, trying not to stare at Connor where he was snoring softly, arms out-flung on the quilt. He hadn’t even removed his tartan, he was so weary. She covered him with an extra blanket and tucked it around his shoulders gently. Her heart pounded and all her instincts were to lie down next to him and burrow against his warmth ... but she was her father’s daughter. She would not shame him by lying with a man before she was wed.
It took all of her wits to leave Connor sleeping alone in the night.
They rode in just before daylight, five men on unshod horses with swords in their hands. It was common knowledge that only the gobhain and his daughter inhabited the forge near Glencoe. They dismounted well away and tied their mounts out of sight. The gobha was aging, but still a formidable Scot. They could take him by stealth if they could get in position before the inevitable bark of a dog.
But Bessie was an old hound and her keen senses had failed during the last few years. She gave no warning on this chilly foggy morning. The six young wolves woke and listened, but kept their quiet vigil beside the slumbering MacLeod. The man recognized as their leader raised no alarm and so they remained true to the pack mentality of their wild sire and held their place, waiting.
The cock crowed. The men intent on their raid froze and then scattered through the mist creeping across the ground. One hid beneath the stairwell and three found their way to the shed near the anvil for cover. The last man scurried about and finally just stood with his back pressed against the wall of the house, hoping the shadows covered his shape.
The girl appeared. The two men closest could see her, flapping out a blanket and then vanishing back inside. Voices next, one of them was the rumble of the old smith … and he emerged, wiping his hand over his face blearily. He glanced about and saw nothing amiss in the swath of darkness and fog, then stalked down to the bluff to void. They took him on the way back, two men with daggers coming in low from either side.
Angus heard the thud of footsteps on approach and instinctively lunged toward the forge. One knife glanced off the heavy leather apron and he brought his fist across like a hammer and smashed his attacker across the bridge of the nose. The man went down in a fount of blood, howling. The second knife found its mark in the open circle cut for his arm and Angus felt a deep stab of pain. He flung the man grappling with him back and staggered relentlessly for the anvil.
More hands seized him, but they were attempting to turn a bull of a man on a desperate course and failed through lack of determination. The smith fell at the forge, groping in the dirt for the cudgel that he always placed at the foot of the stump. When it slid with sure familiarity into his fist, he closed his hand around the wooden handle with murder in his heart and swung it with all of his might, backhanded. The sickening crunch of bone greeted him, much like the sound of dropping a steer for slaughter, and it was accompanied by a strangled cry of agony. He crawled after the floundering man and rained hammer blows one after the other on him.
“Father?” sounded Heather’s voice, alarmed, as she peered through mist trying to see what was happening.
“’DONALD!” boomed Angus, his stentorian clan call rising above the screams near him. He prayed as his vision swam in pain and adrenaline, that his daughter had obeyed without question and barred the door to his fortress home. One last swing of the cudgel silenced the bloody man with him on the ground. Angus could feel the warmth sliding down his ribs as he crawled around the anvil and sagged against it on the other side. He was bleeding badly and his head felt light. A slam of a wooden door caught his attention and Angus turned his head just as a gust of wind stirred the fog about and lifted it like a curtain before dropping it again. Connor MacLeod, disheveled, hair awry, was standing in the doorway of the barn. For just a moment, the two locked gazes and then Angus faced the next attacker that charged him, sword upraised.
From the distance, MacLeod’s whistle rang clearly and he sprinted, plaid loose across his shoulder, for the downed smith. Like a shot, six lean shapes were after him, fanning out, sweeping low to the ground. The chilling growls and snarls of the pack descended into the bowl of the courtyard and echoed eerily in the mist. The marauding Scots checked abruptly and stared at the sight of wolves racing toward them with a long limbed man in the lead, yelling furiously.
Swordless, tartan nearly off by the time he reached the anvil, Connor struck straight for the iron plate, using speed of hand to belt it off the bed of banked coals. He used the same swiftness and his acclimation to the biting heat on his skin to dash an arc of dark embers at the men. The coals turned instantly into fiery missiles in the rush of air and struck bare skin and garments.
The din was terrific. Angus’ bellow of rage, the cries of alarmed and hurt men, Connor’s shouts — all mixing with the snarl and snap of the hounds as they milled underfoot. One animal circled too close to a stranger and in a heartbeat, her back was cleaved in two by a sword. The shriek of her death cry struck the rest of the hounds abruptly silent and they circled en masse from wherever they were in the fog to find her. Five wolves came out of the fading darkness and mist after the strange Scot, and he scrambled back from his deed and ran into something soft. Connor crushed his skull with a hammer and the body fell without a sound.
Angus had clawed his way back to his feet and was leaning across the anvil for support. Two attackers were down. One man, with a broken nose, was fleeing back down the slope. “The house. Check the house,” he ordered, coughing blood at the end of his words.
“Let me help you, Angus.”
“Heather! Find Heather!”
Connor didn’t hesitate and sprinted for the house, his hounds bolting from their dead sister to follow his lead. An intruder was trying to hack through the door with an axe, and he met Connor coming up the steps with a wild swing that would have cleaved him in two if the younger man had not dodged quickly. They clinched in a struggle for the weapon on the steps, wolves circling their feet and snapping at their ankles. An axe blow felled another of the animals and he howled in agony, floundering on the rough boards, until he died.
“MAC LEO’ID!” Heather cried down in the fracas and the man summoned jerked back … just as she dropped a bucket of stones out of the upper window. They pummeled the marauding Scot nearly senseless, and Connor, in a blind fury, stove in the back of his head with a rock and kicked him out of the way.
“Heather!” he shouted, pounding on the door with both hands.
“I’m here, Connor.” And then she was in his arms, clenching him fiercely. “Where’s Father?”
“Come, he’s hurt.” They ran for the forge shed, unaware of the man hiding beside the house. The last marauder caught his horse and rode away from the MacDonald forge at a gallop, as if a demon was coming fast behind him.
The old gobhain was prostrate beside his beloved anvil, clutching a hammer in his right hand. They got him on his feet and to the doorway of the house before he fainted from blood loss. Connor helped strip him and bind up the wound that bled a steady stream of crimson from high up under his arm. Angus reawakened once he was laid down, whispering for whisky to dull the pain.
“You’ll be all right,” Heather said sternly, spooning the fiery brew into his mouth. “You’ll be just fine if you lie still and rest.” She spoke a running commentary of anxiety to Connor and the room. “He’s tough. He’ll mend. Aye, the big brawny man, he’ll heal.”
“Heather,” Connor stretched a hand to touch her. “Heather, it’s no’ good. He’s bled a lot and his color’s bad.”
“Connor MacLeod,” she snapped firmly. “My father will be just fine.”
“Listen to Connor,” softly said Angus. His eyes were soft and unfocused and he blinked as if he couldn’t see.
“Father?” And she said it brokenheartedly, like a child of long ago and in a voice that tore Connor’s heart. “Father!”
“Connor?” he said and then took a breath, as if every word required one breath to power it.
The younger man sat close, still bloody and grimy from the fray, and put his hand inside the beefy hand of the gobhain. “I’m right here, Angus.”
“Watch over my daughter,” he whispered. “I trust her to you.”
“Aye, Angus, I’ll care for her.”
“Make her yours.”
Connor flicked a glance at Heather’s ashen face and answered without hesitation. “Aye, Angus MacDonald. I’ll take her to wife gladly.”
“The forge,” he breathed, “keep it forever.”
“Aye.” And Connor had no more words for this man who had sheltered him for the last two years and entrusted all he held dear to a banished clansman. Grief clouded his eyes and lodged a weight in his heart.
“No tears,” the dying man murmured. “I’ve passed the anvil and my daughter to a sturdy man.” He focused briefly and then smiled. “It’s been my life. Forging iron into something useful.” He fell silent. The dressings around his side were soaked with blood and his color was gone.
Connor left Heather alone with her father and went outside. He dragged the bodies of the intruders to the river and dumped them into the water. They would float twenty miles downstream before coming ashore and the clansmen that found them would announce that a kelpie had gotten them.
He was too stunned to grieve over his dead hounds. He carried them up to his favorite haunt near the woods and buried them under a pile of rocks. He set the forge fire back in order and washed the blood from the steps with bucket after bucket of water.
When he finally reentered the house, Heather was resting wide-eyed on her father’s shoulder and he had a hand in the curls of her hair. Connor crept quietly around to the other side and stretched a hand to touch Angus’ face. The old gobhain was dead, his last act to comfort his daughter. Connor drew her away into his warm arms and she cried herself to silence.
They buried Angus MacDonald that evening, a stone’s throw from the forge. Heather said that he would have wanted to hear the anvil sing and Connor did not argue. He dug straight down in the rich soil until he struck the rocks at five feet and they put him in the earth. She planted flowers around the grave and it was done.
Connor hitched the team to the wagon and took her into Glencoe to the priest the next day. A quiet conference ensued and the solemn man dispensed with the bans and agreed to marry them, as it was unseemly for Connor to live at the forge alone with her. A hasty wedding took place that very day and the clan roused itself without any preparation at all for the occasion. The food was the simple everyday fare, and it was fitting that the MacDonalds came together to both celebrate the union of Connor and Heather and grieve for the gobhain who had served them so many years. The piping that day was full of joy and grief combined, and neither Connor nor Heather minded that their joining day was both.
A couple of men from another clan, one of them with a badly broken nose, had come through town telling tales the day previously. They were regarded with suspicion and departed just as quickly, which was well. By the time Connor and Heather arrived in Glencoe with the bitter news of Angus’ death, the trail of the murderers was cold. The rumor running rampant was that the devil of the MacLeods lived at the forge, and he truly did command the wolves and the stones and could handle fire without being injured. The leader of the MacDonalds thought it a bonnie good tale and Connor said nothing to deny any of it.
Heather was calm and accepting of her wedding day, too numb with grief to feel much of anything. She only began to have misgivings when given advice by the well-intentioned clanswomen who informed her all about her wedding night and what was expected of her. She considered in her mind what she knew of Connor’s gentle nature with what she was being told of what men are like and what they want.
Through everything lingered the constant sorrow of her father’s death.
By the time Connor hitched the team again to start for home, she was a bundle of nerves and chaotic feelings. She sat beneath the circle of his arm swearing to do her best and honor her new husband in whatever he demanded of her. Connor held her close and smiled often, but when they arrived home, he kissed her softly on the lips and told her to go into the house.
“Connor?” she asked, stunned and afraid. “Are ye not coming in with me?”
“Heather,” he said, ever so gently and feeling suddenly more grown up than he had ever felt in his life. “You’ve lost your father and gained a man in two days. You need time to grieve before you can be with me.”
“But … but … you’re my husband now,” she said, haltingly.
“Aye, but I’ve waited a year.” He rubbed his hands up and down her back. “I will wait awhile longer before I come to you. You need time to say goodbye to one man before you can say hello to another.”
She wept for a while in his arms, exhausted and overwhelmed, and he rested his chin atop her head until she was better — then he sent her into the house to sleep alone in the bed that rightfully he should have been sharing with her.
In the morning, there were nine men who came seeking the blacksmith’s skills. The first few eyed Connor warily, wondering at wild rumors and curious if he knew enough about the working of iron. They changed their minds when they saw the confident way he handled the hammer and managed the fire. By the time it was midday, the courtyard was busy with people and Heather was doing all the bartering just as she always did. They added three more sheep to their flock by nightfall, as well as a host of other goods.
Connor found her crying at the grave at dusk. He sat with her folded into his long arms for a while before coaxing her back to her feet and into the house. “Not yet,” he said softly, kissing her lightly on the side of her neck when the night fell. “I want only the joy, not the pain and sorrow. I’ll wait.” He slept in the barn as he always had, surrounded by farm animals that met every day the same and thought nothing of it.
With only the two of them to run the forge and the farm, the workload reverted back to its previous level. Connor labored long hours until well after dark on the busy days and Heather took over as much as she could. She found little time to sit with her grief at her father’s grave. By the time the week had gone by, there were no more tears to weep and only the lump of sorrow sitting in her heart remained. Every night she expected Connor to assert his right to his marriage bed and night after night he brushed his callused fingers down her face and sent her inside alone.
Another week went by. Heather wondered if Connor truly desired her, and the stray thought compounded her lingering sadness. But that night, when he bade her goodnight with a kiss on the brow, she turned her mouth up to his and felt the fire behind the kiss and the swift pound of his heart as he pressed against her. His breathing was ragged and harsh — and the memory of her father as he lay dying swam over her. She broke the embrace and clung to his breacan with both hands, choking with remembered grief.
“Shhh, Heather. ‘Tis all right.” His eyes were dark in the firelight. “When you’re ready, Blossom.” And he went outside into the night alone again.
Several more days passed and Heather talked long hours to herself, chiding her memories. What would her father say if he knew she was clinging to his last moments in her mind instead of the whole of his life? Every stone, every ring of the anvil, every tool reminded her of him … and yet, there around the house grew the medley of flowers Connor had planted for her. And the four gamboling half-wolf dogs listened for his whistle out of all the other sounds. The quiet pool where the sheep drank was formed by his hands and it was his hands that made the iron sing at the anvil now. The top levels of stones on the rock wall were all red with iron ore. Connor had put them there to add color to the drab gray.
All around her, winding through Angus’ labor through the years, Connor MacLeod had left his light touch. He had slowly claimed aspects of everything on the farm and Angus MacDonald had laughed his booming laugh and permitted it. MacLeod had come with nothing and now had everything … except her.
She looked out the tower window to find him. Connor stood alone amidst the blacksmith tools and fire, gazing out across the slope. His eyes were hollow caves in his face and his hands were empty. The four lean hounds crouched low and smiling at his feet. He was staring at the fresh mound of earth and rocks over Angus’ grave and it struck her with a pang that Connor suffered the loss also. For an instant, she saw the same castaway boy whom she’d met at the tumbling water and knew he was still forsaken. She was the one item left unclaimed and what he wanted more than anything else. Mere objects never meant anything without love. It was the reason she had brushed off all the clansmen who came on the pretense of courting her when it was obvious they only had eyes for the forge and land.
“This is enough time, Father,” she said quietly to a spirit she was certain agreed with her. “We’re both heartbroken and we need not be. You never intended us to be so alone and lonely on the mountain.” She went down the stairs with her skirt clutched up around her knees to keep from falling and ran outside … down the gentle slope in the fresh bright day … and fell into his arms.
“Tonight,” she whispered into his soft hair. “Come to me, tonight. I’ll fix our marriage bed.” He murmured something into the curve of her neck that she could not hear, but the fierceness of the grip that clenched around her conveyed his passion and need. He let her go slowly, trailing his fingers along the length of her arm, and his eyes were the color of the silver dawn.
The work at the forge that day was slow, and few travelers stopped by with pieces to mend. It was a very good thing as Connor was highly distracted and struck his fingers twice with the hammer. “I haven’t hit myself since I was beginning and here I’ve clouted my thumb twice in the same day?” he soliloquized. A throng of voices spoke in his head when he banked the fire pit near the anvil and walked down to the water to wash. He scrubbed all over with sand and let the coolness seep into his bones where he sat, thinking.
Connor knew the particulars of making love. He had listened as a boy to adult conversation when they didn’t know he was there … had even spied on ardent lovers in the woods a few times. The common beasts in the field mated freely in their season and dropped all their young. There was little mystery except for the actual experience and he knew that it would be unlike his own frustrated release of tension.
He remembered the MacDonalds' coarse jesting and all the directives they thought a young clansman needed on his wedding night. Aye, get it over with quickly and by and by, she’ll settle down and be used to it. Ye must show her that you’re the man and she’s to be tending to your needs first. Ye can’t do your work if the wench is neglecting your flesh. Ye must rule her body, just like the household, and your pleasure comes first. That’s the way of things, laddie. They were crude and boisterous, outlining exactly what should take place and how and when.
And yet every clansman wanted a woman strong and spirited, one able to defend his bairns and home if needed. But if they were strong and spirited, wouldn’t it break their spirit if you were harsh with them and ruled them absolutely? And why would you start with pain and then hope that they forget it? Connor thought it smarter to have obedience when necessary and companionship every other moment. But he was young, the rowdy men had reminded him, and they laughed his question to silence.
Connor put his head in his hands and let the water drip off his hair into the pool. They fell remarkably like tears, though ones from sorrow or joy, he could not decipher. He could only do what seemed right to do, he decided. Nothing less. Nothing more. He handled his own body and relieved some of his tension, craving control this night out of any other. When he rose and pulled the new sark over his head, his step was sure.
She was waiting for him, sitting on the side of the bed. His bed. Their bed. The air was sweet with the scent of violets and the fire had been raked into a great circle of coals. He barely noticed the surroundings, caught up in the vision of her light shift and the hair that curled around her neck. Her eyes drew him and he knelt and pressed his face against her breasts, listening to the race of her heart, the swift rise of her breathing. She was trembling, fingering through his hair, waiting.
“Heather,” he sighed against the linen. “Let me have you.”
“Aye, Connor, I’m yours to take.”
He lifted his face and looked at her. “Not take. Have.” He could barely get his mouth to speak the words and he felt oddly out of breath. His heart was hammering. He had just spent his body. How could he burn so again already?
She considered, looking through the features of his face as if searching for something there before answering. “You can have me, Connor. As long as you live, you’ll have me.”
The kisses were different now. Not stolen on the sly around Angus’ back or a tease before running into the house. Not rimmed with silent suffering or braced for some event unprepared for. Nay, these were open tokens of affection, given freely and holding no intent past the action. He let her lead and she explored his face with the lightest brush of her lips; tracing his jaw, the ticklish place near his ears, the long brow, the sides of his nose. He groaned helplessly and curled his fingers in the loose fabric of the short gown. His knees hurt on the floor and the air was too hot. The pressure in his groin tightened and he fought instincts for control while Heather continued her exploration of his body, moving down to the hollow of his throat where the pulse beat.
“Take this off, Connor,” she whispered, pulling at the lacing at his chest.
He pulled the sark over his head and let it drop, leaning into her embrace urgently. She kissed him and spread her hands across his bare chest, tracing muscles trained by the forge, smoothing down the flat abdomen and then swinging wide to catch and hold the narrow hips.
It was too much to endure and his control was fracturing. “Lie down,” he said abruptly and he pressed her back across the bed. The loose gown shifted and rode up. She went without protest, but he felt the tension shiver through her as he settled across her body. “Hold me! Hold me tight!” he demanded urgently. She wrapped her arms across his shoulders and he saw the fear in her face as well as the willing submission. He groaned and kissed her, clinging to her mouth … and clamped his thighs around one of hers as he climaxed. The hot sluice of semen spilled across her skin, easing the burn of his motion until it was over and he lay exhausted and overwhelmed, left by the tide of passion.
“Connor?” she said softly, confusedly. “Connor … why? I’m your wife … you’ve every right to have me.”
“I’ll not be raping you to have you.”
She looked up into his face and he saw the uncertainty disappear beneath the wonder. “There will still be hurt, my beautiful man.”
“Aye,” and he was nearly smothered in the rush of heady feelings. He thought once that his life was ended. Now here he was, surrounded by home and hearth, with a lass who loved him and was willing to surrender her purity to him.
It was a small matter to clean up the bed. Somewhere in the process, Connor unfastened the strings to her gown and slid it off. He stared at her creamy skin, the full breasts and round hips, the swell of her mound and its covering of hair. Heather stared back unashamed. He had never seen such perfection and his fingers traced this new body so different from his own. He was intrigued with the small pad of flesh just below her navel and he said as much, kissing and brushing his cheek across the bare skin, following the gentle curve.
She smiled at the clean trim lines of his body and slid her hand up his thigh to hear the breath leave him with a whoosh. She found the other ticklish spots, the hollow of his flank, the arch of his foot and giggled at his sudden laugh. He lifted his chin for the kisses at his neck and pressed excited and hard against her when she cupped his high buttocks. He was unlike anything she had ever known, rare and delightful, intense of eye, feline in responsiveness. He reminded her of some wild creature only barely tamed in her bed.
They curled up together, fingers investigating every line and juncture, every mole and freckle. When his hands finally settled on her breasts, she sighed under the touch. His lips were soft and he nuzzled her all over, kissing the underside of each one and licking the nipples until she clutched his head close to her. She shivered beneath the pulse of desire, mistrustful of the pain and yet longing for him at the same time.
It felt right when he lay his chest across hers, taking part of his weight on one elbow. He turned instinctively into the sidle of her hand down his abdomen and trembled when her fingers stroked him. He moaned and lifted his knee to her casual exploration, giving her access.
She handled him unashamed, watching his face, gauging his responses, and listening to his sigh of pleasure. He was eager to have her and said as much. She wiped away the moisture at the tip of his penis, discovered the intact foreskin and rolled it back curiously. “Ahh, Connor,” she murmured, for now he was arching into her hands, panting, whispering her name very softly, almost pleading. “Come, husband,” and she urged him over her.
There was a minimum of maneuvering. He felt the slick warmth settle around him and he pressed into the heat until he felt her tighten almost imperceptibly beneath him. Her eyes were wide, negotiating both pain and pleasure, as open emotionally as she was willing physically. He could take her maidenhead in one swift stroke and it would be done — and Connor groaned at the threshold and backed down, resting his brow against hers.
“Connor,” she murmured, stroking his hair. When the pain receded, there was only instinctive need and she twisted beneath him, pulling on his back to urge him on. He penetrated again, a bit deeper this time and Heather pushed back, trying to relax and curb her reaction to the lance of pain. But once more she cringed and again, Connor read her body correctly, and pulled back, whispering and planting kisses across her damp face.
“Steady, Blossom,” he encouraged, feeling her fingers digging into his shoulders trying to bring him back. He kissed her and nipped at her face, distracting her focus, resting his weight on her. She twined her fingers in his long hair and pulled, frustrated. He kissed her more deeply, pressing open her mouth beneath his erotically. She reacted to his ardor and abandoned herself, letting her thighs fall open and loose. The pain took her by surprise as he slid into her, pressing deep, and tore through the veil. She tightened all over with a soft cry and dug her nails into his skin.
“Give yourself to me,” he urged, absolutely still amidst the desire to move. “Give yourself to me! Ahh, my blossom, give yourself to me….” He kissed the corners of her mouth until she heard his plea and relaxed, trembling, adjusting to the intrusion. He went on murmuring to her face, overwhelmed with emotions. She shifted slightly to ease some discomfort and he groaned, instinctively thrusting deeper. It hurt her more and Connor was grieved to hear her pain. He called up all of his strength and withdrew — and it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.
He had been told that there would be some bleeding if his wife was pure. He had not been warned there would be so much of it — or that it would distress him so much to see it. He tucked a heavy blanket beneath her and she watched him, her eyes soft and warm at his anxiety. It was a confusing mix of emotions that cascaded through him. Joy that she had not lain with any man before him and sorrow that his passion had caused the smear of blood across her skin. He spoke aloud what he felt and dimly registered that she smiled and nodded as if he was a fool for his worry, stroking down his tense face with her fingers.
“Enough,” he said gently, ignoring the race of his pulse. He lay beside her, close against her hip with his body taut in unreleased tension. “Enough this night. I don’t want to hurt you anymore.” He sank his face next to hers and took a deep breath, willing himself to relax.
“No, Connor,” and she prodded him with a forefinger. “You’ll not be stoppin’ here. I’m a bit sore, but the worst is past.” When he made as if to argue, she stopped his lips with a hand and looked at him a moment. “I’m not yours until you give me your seed and you’re not a man until you’ve sown it.” He made a strangled sound and pressed his forehead against hers, overwhelmed. “Make me yours, Connor MacLeod. Only and always yours.”
There was still some pain when he penetrated again, but her wetness and blood eased the friction. She shifted around and guided his hips a little until the angle was less punishing. When she finally pulled his head down to her face, granting permission, his eyes were dark wells that captivated her, holding her in depths so deep that she barely noted his breathing change and the movement that started within her. She relaxed beneath the bite of her torn flesh, giving herself willingly to his need and his right of ownership. The fiery pain blended and remained unchanged, neither better nor worse, and she pulled her knees up and fanned them wide, urging him on.
He gasped and moaned, drowning in sensations so intense that his climax overcame him almost before he recognized it. The pleasure pulled a tremulous cry of release out of him and, in the center of the passion, Connor felt something inside take shape and connect, as if all the meaning of his life had been rushing to this point, this place, this one woman. In an instant, he gave her all of his heart and all of his soul, everything he was or would be, without thought or care or worry for anything ahead of him. It was somehow fitting; that while Heather thought to give him something to truly call his own — herself — it was Connor who gave himself away.
They slept the sleep of exhausted lovers, curled up in the wide marriage bed christened with her blood and his seed. The rooster was an unforgiving beast in the morning.
It was three days later, when Heather’s tenderness had subsided, that Connor wooed her body so slowly and gently that he coaxed the fire of her spirit out into a conflagration. When he took her, she met his passion with her own, demanding everything his body had to give and accepting nothing less. Her ecstasy spilled sweetly across him and as she gasped his name he knew, finally, that she had given over everything within herself to him.
It was what he treasured above everything else and Connor took all she gave and placed it like a flame in his heart.
Trying to get dressed and discovering that she had hidden his plaid. The horses were stomping for their hay outside the door, but she demurely said she needed attention first or he would be without his MacLeod colors for the whole day … not a state of undress he wished to be caught in. It was a pleasant diversion to please her, but then he just wanted to sleep instead of work the rest of the day.
Threshing down the grain with the great scythe and finding her standing, watching, a basket of bread and cheese under one arm. They made love in the open stand of wheat, heedless of the prickle of the stalks … mostly.
Watching day and night for the ewes to birth. Tending their labors and finding in the pain and miracle of the newborns that it eased the pang of their own childlessness. Every colt that scampered and every calf that played answered the longing for a baby of their own in some small way. It was the best they could do and it was enough.
They fished from the bank and despite everything he ever attempted, Heather always caught the biggest fish. She never let him forget it.
He loved to watch her in the moonlight and even when the nights were chilly, they would climb to the top of the mountain and talk for hours, wrapped in the heavy quilts against the wind.
She was an excellent aim with the wooden cooking spoon and he learned to be ready for a smart rap before he even opened his mouth to bedevil her. She never disappointed him.
They were alone and had little, yet had everything that their hearts needed.
He waited quietly, without comment or fidgeting on the hard seat. The Saints looked down from their painted panes and the sad-eyed Sisters came and went and came and went again in the quiet church. Still, he waited, nearly motionless and not disturbing the reverie of the man sitting beside him.
Duncan heard him swallow and then take a very deep breath.
Connor MacLeod opened his eyes and blinked in the filtered light from the windows, momentarily bewildered. When he finally registered the immortal with him and turned his head, Duncan saw the same vulnerable face that he remembered seeing long ago, in a land far away. From another time. It would take a few moments, but eventually Duncan knew his kinsman’s face would grow hard and serious again, putting up all the shielding he needed to survive in a world full of people trying to kill him.
But for now, right now, Connor was young and soft: an open page for any man to read. A tender spirit. Duncan loved seeing him like this. Only at this moment, this event, did he ever get to see this particular face.
“Duncan,” he said, as if surprised to find him there, although he should not have been.
“Connor.” The younger Scot gazed back at him, fixing the openness of Connor’s expression in his mind. “You’ve sat a long while.”
“And you stayed the whole time?”
“Of course I did.” He eyed his friend a moment. “It’s only been an hour. Your candle burned down and one of the old nuns lit another one off of the first for you.”
“Aye, the gals are good for that. Some of them are used to seeing me here every year and they watch for me,” Connor said softly. They both fell to silence for a moment.
“I worry about you, Connor,” Duncan announced, addressing an old troubling fear.
“Why?” and Connor turned to look at him, still open, still soft. “Why do you worry for me?”
“It’s been over 400 years and you still light candles for Heather.”
“I promised.” Connor looked bewildered, as if — still lost in the wash of memories — his reasoning should be perfectly obvious.
“Aye, I know you did … but I worry how you feel. That you grieve over something so long ago, that this,” Duncan shrugged an arm at the bank of prayer candles up at the alter, “this somehow draws you back to pain and loss. That it hurts you again, afresh and anew, every year.” He faltered and then went on. “I don’t want to see you suffer year after year. I worry for you, Connor.”
“Is that what you think, Dhonnchaidh?” Connor asked in his lilting voice that slipped through the consonants as if they were unsolid things. He eyed the younger man a moment and then stretched out a hand and placed it on his shoulder in familiarity. “Let me set you straight. When I think of Heather, I don’t think of the losses and deaths so much as I remember the light and the love. I remember all her laughter and her smiles, all the foot races and all the arguments that we had to make up for afterwards. She gave me everything she was, all her love,” he leaned closer, peering deeply into the other man’s eyes. “She told me: ‘As long as you live, you’ll have me,’ and she still holds me today, wrapping her soul around mine and living forever in me. She is never used up.”
He took a deep breath. “I may miss the living touch sometimes, but Heather doesn’t exist as some grieving part of my past. There was much too much happiness to be overtaken by sadness.” He paused and then added: “She gave me 51 years of her life. But of love, she gave much more. Much, much more. Enough love,” and he choked on the word, weighting it with meaning. “Enough love to last my life — my whole immortal life.
“We always have the choice of what we remember and hold dear, Duncan. We can choose the good or the bad, the peace or the loss. I decided to choose joy.” And then he smiled, as if some memory had skipped through his mind and prodded it in passing. “She would whack me with the spoon if I chose anything else.”
Duncan reached and put his hand across the top of Connor’s and squeezed, his apprehension relieved and an old longing in him revisited. The older Highlander blinked and refocused, pulling away from memories. “You’re a lucky man, Connor,” Duncan soberly informed him.
“I am!” Connor’s voice was abruptly high, pitched like a boy’s and full of emotion. “I am a lucky, lucky man!” He stopped and swallowed, blinking away the water that had risen suddenly in his eyes. “Aye, and it will come to you too, Dhonnchaidh. One day you’ll find her and it will be true and right and you’ll know the moment you see her, the instant you hear her voice.” His grip grew tighter on his kinsman's wool coat for emphasis. “And whether you have her a month, a year, twenty years, or sixty … if you let her settle deep into your soul, she’ll always be there. And we get to choose, Duncan. We choose what memories we’ll cherish and bind our minds to.” Connor stopped and gave Duncan’s shoulder one more tight grip before letting his hand fall away.
“And you chose the joy,” Duncan added quietly.
“Aye. I don’t live in constant sorrow. You’ve worried all these years for naught,” the older man said. “And now I’ll quit lecturing you. Thanks for sitting with me.”
“You’re welcome.” Duncan smiled wryly at the man beside him and added teasingly, “I knew the memories today couldn’t have been all bad.”
“Eh?” Connor asked, puzzled. “How? Was I talking aloud?”
“Might have been that raging hard-on in your jeans that gave me a clue.”
Connor glanced down. His jeans were quite snug. He snorted in humor. “Aye, she always did that to me too.” He stretched, long arms overhead and shifted uncomfortably on the bench. “I’m hungry. Let’s go get some dinner.”
“Good idea.” Duncan rose and then couldn’t resist one last parting shot. “And Connor? Try not to walk funny — it’s embarrassing.” Connor chuckled behind him … and then rapped him on the back of the head with his knuckles.
The Saints in their painted panes remained very solemn and the sad-eyed Sisters watched the two visitors leave. One of the men laughed, a staccato burst of sound that rang through the empty church and disappeared. A prayer candle winked out, spent, when the door shut behind them.
Started April 1, finished May 3, 2001.
For Sharz, on her birthday, May 9th. You wanted, someday, to hear what ConnorMuse had to say about Heather and the story of their love. It was important, above all else, for ConnorM to tell you that he does not live in the heartbreak of her loss. He lives in the fullness and joy, in the immortal’s lifetime of love that holds him, cherishes him, and stays lit within him. And while it makes great grist for the angst mill to portray Connor MacLeod’s heartbreak over his first love … he thinks we’re quite daft to believe it to be the truth.
My writing of HL stories would not be possible without the support and effort of my faithful beta readers Sharz and lynnann. As ever, sweeping bow goes here! Janeen Grohsmeyer double checked "all things of the Highlands" for me and I am grateful she let me borrow her intellect.
I looked many different places for the names of Connor’s parents and Heather’s father. J. Grohsmeyer calls Connor’s parents Liadan and Colin MacLeod in Wild Mountain Thyme. Heather’s father is called Dhugal in J. Grohsmeyer’s The Solstice Sun and is called Angus according to the Connor MacLeod timeline compiled by Banzai88. Ultimately I left off trying to find "the right name" for these people because everyone seems to have a different one!
I consulted with Banzai88 [aka, Chris] about Heather and timeline issues. He noted in a private email to me that the official HL site has Heather at age 14 when she met Connor and that would make her 16-17 when they married. He also humorously pointed out that they had Rachel’s age completely wrong as well as some other important dates. His final answer? “Do whatever you want with Heather’s age. Even her creators couldn’t keep themselves in line!” My Heather Muse swore she was older than Connor and I declined to argue with her. One of Banzai88’s sites is at: http://affiliates.thethreshold.com/connormacleod
Blacksmith is spelled “gobha” or “gobhain” and pronounced “gowa” or “gowain”. The gobhain is well respected and considered a highly prized member of any clan. A forge and smith becomes the center attraction at any gathering of clans when he is working with the four elements of fire, water, air, and iron.
Bows and arrows as well as “glaives” — a knife tied to the end of a stick or stave, were used as weapons in the 1300-1700 in the Highlands. Highlanders still preferred face to face confrontations so they could see their enemy’s expression when they killed them.
Conchobhar is the Gaelic word for Connor and one of its meanings is “keeper of hounds.”
MacNair’s stories, sometimes with different photos and montages, are archived at: CDC main page: http://www.geocities.com/clancdc/keyhole.html (look in the Library) Daire’s Laire, at a NEW url: http://www.daire.org/ Connor’s Rotunda: http://members.tripod.com/connorsrotunda/index.html
USTADAWN created montages specifically for this story. This talented lady’s site is at: http://www.hometown.aol.com/ustadawn/highlanderfanfic.html
Photos used in the montages are from various sources, but chief credit belongs to Celedon. Her site is located at: http://members.tripod.com/~Celedon/
The song that haunted around in the back of my head for the entire month it took to write this story is from Joan Baez and is based on a poem by E.E. Cummings written in 1916. Bits and pieces of it ended up in the tale because it wouldn’t leave me alone! Here it is and I typed all the capitals and lower case exactly as the poem is written.
All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.
four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.
Fleeter be they than dappled dreams
the swift sweet deer
the red rare deer.
Four red roebuck at a white water
the cruel bugle sang before.
Horn at hip went my love riding
riding the echo down
into the silver dawn.
four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the level meadows ran before.
Softer be they than slippered sleep
the lean lithe deer
the fleet flown deer.
Four fleet does at a gold valley
the famished arrow sang before.
Bow at belt went my love riding
riding the mountain down
into the silver dawn.
four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the sheer peaks ran before.
Paler be they than daunting death
the sleek slim deer
the tall tense deer.
Four tall stags at a green mountain
the lucky hunter sang before.
All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.
four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
my heart fell dead before.
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