The Birch Tree

Celedon

Email me!

Chapter One

Fort William, Scotland

Market Day

In the Year of Our Lord, 1517

"Ye look bonny today, Caolin, " said a tall, blonde man as he leaned to look at the young woman who rode by his side. He nodded approvingly. "The lads will be lining up for your han' for sure, if they know wha' a guid woman is." He grinned at his traveling companion and winked conspiratorially at her.

She in turn, blushed deeply and looked downwards so as to hide her feelings from the man who teased her so incessantly. He was her brother, older than she was and, she thought to herself, not always the wiser of the two of them. The thought made her smile secretly to herself.

She stole a glance at her traveling companion only to find her eyes met by his; her ears heard a great guffaw escape from him upon her realization that he had caught her in the act. Slowly, she shook her head and joined in with his laughter at her own expense. Giving him a slight shove, she replied good naturedly, "Ge' off we' thee, Angus! 'Tis market day. Surely ye ha' better things to do but tease your sister, do ye no'?"

With twinkling eyes, he looked around him as they passed some of the stalls where the villagers were selling their wares to any and all who passed their way. He spied the hearth of the blacksmith at the far end of the market, noticing all the men who had gathered about to share in the uisquebeath* and the latest news that had arrived from far and wide. He nodded to her and to himself as he replied, "Aye, I do." He glanced at her once more. "Meet me later once you are ready to go home, do ye understand?"

She nodded, glad to be able to meet with her friends that she had been unable to see since the winter began late last year and to get the supplies she would need for supper as well as the right colored cloth that she could not weave herself. Most of the herbs and natural ingredients she used to make her dyes were still under the snows that remained in patches here and there on the moors and in the glens. The cloth being offered for sale at some of the stalls was of a color she would have been hard pressed to reproduce even in the best of circumstances.

Spotting a large gathering of women, she smiled broadly and waved wildly at them after taking her leave of Angus. "Moira, Mari! Over here!" She skipped a step and rushed over to them where they welcomed her excitedly. Their voices raised as each vied to out talk the others in the attempt to catch up on the happenings back home where they had each come from. They spoke of marriages, of engagements, of births and of deaths, of sorrows and of happiness as any woman was wont to do after a long enforced isolation from close friends their own age.

Angus meanwhile, plowed his way through the crowd, pausing to watch the two men who stood in a makeshift ring pummel themselves into a bloody pulp before heading on over and joining the men by the forge. His practiced eyes roamed over the tools of a blacksmith's trade: an anvil, the tongs needed to hold on as well as pluck hot steel from the white hot fire, the bellows operated by foot, the many hammers used on various items for various reasons.

He also noted the rods of iron that seemed to surround any good forge and any good blacksmith. He nodded and grunted his approval of the forge and the equipment. He himself was Glenfinnan's only blacksmith and knew a competent smithy when he saw one; this broad muscled man who stood in front of him was indeed very competent. After all, he had taught Angus what he knew when Angus was a lad and for that trade he had learned, Angus always had thought highly of him.

The men raised their cups in a rousing salute as he paused to look at each of their faces, mentally counting how many there were as well as noting who was missing this year from this first market day here at Fort William. He frowned; one of the men he had counted on as one of his closest of friends wasn't among those who sat and gossiped while ogling the women as they did their shopping. "Where's Hamish?" he finally asked.

The men grew quiet instantly. The smithy stopped hammering on the iron he had before him, turned about to grab the uisequebeath bottle and filled Angus' cup to the brim. With a meaty hand he pushed Angus down to sit, then filled his own cup. Swallowing the smoky liquor in one gulp, he coughed and gasped for a moment from it before drawing a muscled arm across his mouth. He sat beside his friend and clapped him on the shoulder. "Hamish is dead. He was caught by the Frasers stealing one of their cattle this winter."

Angus stared at his friend for a moment before his face turned scarlet and his eyes blazed hotly. "Dead? Hamish died by the Fraser's hands?" He threw down the drink he held then tossed away the cup. "How long do we stand for this? How many lives will it take on our side before something is done to stop the bloodshed, I ask you?" His eyes raked over the other men who sat nodding their heads in agreement with him.

Many of the men did indeed agree with his sentiments. Many were more than ready to go and raid the Fraser lands right then and there but they knew that until the weather truly broke and spring arrived, it would be hopeless to even try. Neither side wanted to risk a war where men could freeze to death from a sudden storm. One by one, voices were raised and thoughts flew about the forge as a raid was slowly planned step by step upon the bloody Frasers whose clan had had bad blood with the MacLeods for centuries.

Darkness fell and still the Scots gathered together in song and dance, unwilling to part one another's company for one never knew when they might see another again or when the spring thaw would come so that traveling would be easier to do between crofts.

A large bonfire blazed in the center of the market casting eerie shadows upon the buildings of the dancers as they twirled, skipped, and maneuvered through an intricate pattern of dance steps nearly too fast to be seen by the eye. Pipers droned in clashing tunes as they readied for the competition between themselves for bragging rights as to who was the best piper in the area on one side of the market.

On the other side of the town square, one found it draped in deep, black twilight with only occasional flashes of the red orange hue from the bonfire to light it up so that one could tell what was there if you were so inclined to know. It was to this area that Caolin MacLeod headed as they had placed their cart near the entrance and she wanted to place her things from the large dinner they had with others of their clan as well as the other clans who had also come to the market today in it.

Making her way over to the cart, her mind a-whirl with the day's events, she never heard or saw the man who grabbed her from behind, covering her mouth to stifle her screams of terror. The darkness of the area where she was was too encompassing and she was too frightened to even try to look at her attacker.

He roughly threw her to the ground and then threw himself upon her, ripping her bodice apart with a smooth motion from his dirk before he bending his mouth down to whisper in her ear, "Scream and you die, understand?" He tightened his hand over her mouth.

She whimpered and began to sob in great gasping bursts since it was difficult at best to even breathe. He smelled of peat, of uisequebeath, of the road and of the land itself and it made her nauseous. Her hand slipped to her waist where she eased out a dirk then wildly lashed out at the man who by this time had buried himself in her breasts.

The man's head snapped up as he felt the arm move. He caught her wrist in mid air and smashed it to the ground several times until she dropped the weapon. His eyes flashed in hatred and fury; one fist smashed into her face while the other pulled up her skirts and a knee forced her legs apart.

She moved to try and stop him but he was too strong and too muscled to prevent him from doing what he wanted to her. In a litany of "No, please God, have mercy, no!" she begged and pleaded with him but broke down as she felt the stinging fullness of him rip into her tearing tissue and mangling her in the process.

He grunted as he sawed himself in and out of her. Pausing for a moment, he spit a gob of saliva into his hand then rubbed it upon the shaft of his hardened penis so as to make it at least a little easier for him rather than feeling like he was being rubbed raw from the woman's dryness. He plunged back into her and smiled as he heard the accompanying screams from her. He no longer was worried that someone would hear; the pipers were now screaming their music to the stars and there was nothing that could have been heard over them, he was certain. Finally, he gasped and wheezed as he felt his seed spill into her, then rolled off and lay still for a moment.

Caolin meanwhile had distanced herself from the act during the rape; it seemed as if it were happening to someone else rather than her as she somehow had been able to witness it as if she were floating above the both of them as it occurred. She rolled over and retched up her dinner but was roughly pulled back onto her back. A cold point of what she knew was a dirk pricked at her throat, and then a hand smashed into her face once more causing her to see stars and become dizzy from the impact. All the while she had been raped, she'd cried and pleaded for it to stop and for him to go away.

She told him she would never tell anyone what had happened upon the Lord's Holy Word and upon her honor as a Highlander. But all she heard in reply was the revelry in what seemed to be the far distance and nothing more from the man.

And now it and he apparently had.

Cautiously, she glanced about as a hand dried her tears while the other tried to pull together the remnants of her dress and bodice. She saw no one in the darkness anywhere near her and silently she said a prayer to the Lord for her salvation from him.

Pulling herself gingerly, she cried out at the still searing pain that was located low in her abdomen. She paused, biting her lip and pushed herself upward to stand. With a determined yet wobbly gait, she made her way back towards the people and to her brother.

Glenfinnan, three months later.

Caolin looked at the full moon and then at her slightly swelling abdomen where occasionally it felt as if butterflies flew about inside of it. She had shed no monthly blood for three full moons; by speaking to the old women in the clan discretely she had figured out that she must be with child.

What would she say to Angus? How could she say anything to him? He had been in full fury when he saw her once she had located him in the aftermath of the attack. He had gathered men to go and track and hunt the man down but the Lord had sent snow that night, blanketing the earth in a deep whiteness while covering up the clues as to where the man had disappeared.

She looked out towards the distance and thought that perhaps it would be better if she left Angus's home. After all, his wife Iona was with child herself; he had enough to worry about with her pregnancy. She didn't want to bring any more shame to his house any more than what she had already brought back with her from Fort William three months ago.

She walked back from the loch and entered the house once more. Tomorrow, she would tell him that she no longer would live there and would be getting a place of her own with his permission and with his help. She was going to need it especially when this child came.

Six months later on the far outskirts of Glenfinnan

She screamed in agony again as she forced herself to push downwards while her arms reached between her legs and pulled outwards on the emerging body that she was expelling from her own at long last. A little more of the child had emerged and once the contraction was over she fell back panting heavily on the bed.

But within seconds, her body was again wracked in a contraction and again she pulled with all her might and concentration a final time. She was rewarded with the sense that the fullness that had been situated in her belly for months was finally gone at long last. The bed shook a wee bit as the baby's body fell with a soft plop onto the bed and it was soon followed by the ejection of the placenta with the remainder of the umbilical cord.

She closed her eyes in momentary relief as she tried to catch her breath then began to stuff wads of old cloth and rags between her legs to staunch the bleeding from the birth. She sat up awkwardly and picked up the child who lay still and gray skinned in her arms.

It was a boy.

The cord had wrapped itself around the child neck tightly several times; she rapidly tried to unravel it and began to suck out the bloody phlegm from the child's mouth and nose. She spat it to one side of the bed into a small pan she had arranged there for this very purpose. With a swift nick to the umbilical cord she severed the link between mother and child too without flinching at the slight nip of pain that accompaninued the act.

Still the child made no sound or gave no sign of life. She pinched it and tickled its feet in an effort to rouse it to life but it was to no avail. She looked at the child dispassionately in her arms, feeling no sorrow and feeling absolutely nothing at all for it or for herself. She lowered the child to the bed, bowed her head in prayer for the child's soul and then lowered herself back to the bed again and quickly fell into a deep slumber.

Hours later, she awoke with a start and an aching fullness in her breasts that begged to be relieved. She pulled herself upright again and looked again at her child's body still lying as she had put it before. Still she felt nothing; not a single tear fell from her eyes for the child's death. The child had been conceived in sin and violence from her point of view and it was the will of the Lord to have called the child home to Heaven for the misdeeds of the child's father.

She grimaced in pain that still tore at her from between her legs occasionally and swung her legs about and stood up. She paused and then made her way over to where fresh lambswool lay along with a soft leather belt to hold it in place. In a few minutes, she had the makeshift belt on that held the lambswool in place between her legs to soak up the blood which flowed from her.

Once that was accomplished, she placed her boots on and tossed on her heavy woolen cloak since she knew that there lay a fresh layer of snow outside. It was the first day of the month of the birch tree, she thought to herself as she made her way back to the body and picked it up then went outside to find a place to bury it. A time when the immortality of the soul was to be thought on and considered blessed by the Old Ones.

"A time to live, a time to die," she quoted from the Scriptures as she made her way towards the woods that lay near her cottage that Angus had built for her despite his threats to not help her at all and to banish her from his household. He had been all bluff because he loved his sister so but he still didn't understand the need for her to be alone. She preferred it that way until it was necessary to tell him everything.

Ahead, she spotted a small snow free patch of ground that was under a tree and it was to there that she headed. Using her dirk, she began to dig in the frozen ground, throwing the rocks to one side as she found them. In about a half hour she had managed to dig a hole deep enough to drop the body in decently which she did then covered it up. She lowered her head in silent prayer and crossed herself before turning to return home.

Caolin decided to take another way home so that she had time to think of what she should do next. The child had been delivered but was now dead and buried. What now would she do with herself? No man would want her in marriage; she no longer had her virginity and had been violated too by someone.

Speckled crimson drops upon the crystalline white of the snow drew her eyes and she glanced further up the trail towards home and gasped. Larger and larger patches of crimson were visible, all leading in a direct line for her house.

Intrigued, she followed the trail, gulping down nausea as she realized that what she was seeing was blood--someone had been bleeding and rather profusely too it seemed. A tiny wail jerked her head upwards and made the ache in her breasts jab sharply at her in response to the noise.

A baby? Out here, in the snow? Alone?

Again the wailing came, but this time weaker, making her frantically swing her head from side to side in an effort to pinpoint the direction the crying came from. Her bodice slowly began to become wet as two circles appeared about where her nipples were as her milk began to drip in anticipation at the sound of the child. She paid it no heed.

On the ground up ahead was a woolen blanket that showed faint movement under it and she hurried to it, falling to her knees before pulling back the corner of the cloth. She gasped when she saw the child before her--a male child with the umbilical cord still attached and a caul falling across his eyes. She knew that the caul was considered a sign according to the Old Myths, of a child born with special abilities, either the Sight or something else not easily explained by most.

She crossed herself as she eyed the boy child and was rewarded with a fountain of golden urine arcing upwards and down upon the snow tinting it a pale yellow where it fell. At the sight, she laughed and scooped the child and blanket into her arms where he began to root around in search of food at her breast. In response, her milk began to ooze even more staining her bodice further.

She tenderly wiped the vernix from the child' eyes with the corner of her shawl and watched as the child blinked at the sudden light. Caolin glanced about--where was the child's mother? Why had this beautiful child been abandoned right after birth, as she knew he had been just by looking at him? She whispered to the child, "The Lord giveth and taketh away."

The child solemnly looked at her for a moment and then went back to nuzzling at her breast again but this time he was rewarded by her opening her bodice and leading his mouth to her nipple to suckle and get the nourishment he needed. A sharp pain stabbed through her as his hungry mouth latched firmly on her and he began nursing in earnest.

In those few moments, Caolin came to a decision about what was to happen next. She gently stroked the light brown hair that wildly pointed in all directions on the baby's head and then softly crooned to him as she stood and began walking back towards home again. "You are my child now, dear one. And ye shall be named Connor. Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. No man or woman shall ever tell you different."

Smiling again, she glanced at the sun that played hide and go seek among the branches of the trees and said, "Born in the month of the Birch according to the Old Ones." She paused then continued, "But now, we shall say this is the first day of the New Year, in January; in the year of Our Lord, 1518." She raised the child up and gave him a tender kiss on his forehead. "Amen."

*Author's note: uisequebeath is Gaelic for whiskey, normally Scotch whiskey.

Chapter 2

Angus glanced at the gray clouds overhead that portended to bring more snow. He shook his head at the thought while drawing his furskin cloak tighter around him and moved on towards the far side of his village of Glenfinnan. Glancing over at his dark-haired companion, he smiled at the thought of seeing his sister again.

The thought of celebrating Hogmany as in the old days, made him smile broadly-it had already been a harsh winter so far. The treat of allowing his brother-for that is who the dark-haired man with him was--to be the first footer in her household as tradition held it, was a great thing to his mind. He could participate in all the drinking and carousing only once the exchange of presents--oat cakes and uisequebeath, were given and received by the members of the house.

Normally, the ones who did the honor of bringing luck and fortune to everyone's doorstep had to be dark-haired and tall as well as strong. Should any man who was light in their coloring step first over one's doorstep, ill fortune and bad tidings were to befall the unhappy family for the next year so tradition said.

Angus was fair in coloring, that much was true, but he always allowed Collum to enter first, bringing good fortune to the family and to take what was offered to him as a reward for the bringing of the luck. Once the exchange was made as well as the blessings given and received, he stepped in and joined the party that had begun even prior to their arrival.

And so they had gone from household to household throughout the sleepy town of Glenfinnan since the early day, bringing the old blessings upon everyone and the luck too. He hiccuped then belched; the parties that they had already attended had already made him see with double vision from all the uisequebeath he had drank. He nodded faintly to himself, in silent acknowledgment that he was probably more than a little drunk.

Collum picked his legs up high to step over the deep drifts of snow and paused as he waited for his red-faced brother to catch up to him. He too, was a bit light headed from the drinking but he had had enough to eat from all that was offered him, to offset any true drunkenness he may otherwise have felt. "Come on wi' thee, Angus!" he said with more than a bit of impatience. "Th' sun is well nigh high in th' sky if ye can even see it in your condition!"

Angus stood up straighter. "An' wha' do ye mean by tha', brother?" He glanced around to get his bearings and shifted the deer's carcass he carried across his shoulders to ease the ache in them for having carried it so far and for so long. They were bringing it for their dinner at their sister's house for her to prepare.

Collum didn't live in Glenfinnan, but closer to the Isle of Skye on the shores of the ocean, a fisherman by trade but a Highlander first and foremost. He was a proud man; tall, strong, stubborn to an extreme and allowed everyone in earshot to know his opinions about everything. He had decided to come visiting at Samheim and had stayed due to an early winter setting in making travel nearly impossible through the mountains back to his home on the coast. His eyes shifted from his brother to the small blue gray curl of smoke from a chimney up ahead of them; he never replied to Angus' question but instead pointed to the small thatched cottage where the smoke came from. "Tha' be our sister's house?"

Angus heaved the carcass over his head to the ground, slowly rotating his shoulders and neck to ease the stiffness out of them and hopefully the ache too. He reached down and scooped up a handful of snow and slapped it on his face in an attempt to recover from the alcohol's effects and to be more alert for his sister's sake. Opening his eyes, he lowered his head and nodded. "Aye,'tis." He jutted his chin in the direction of the house and grabbed hold of Collum's plaid that covered his chest before it draped down his back under his cloak. "Ye need to know something before we go to see her." His knuckles turned white from the tightness of his hold upon the material. "She is wi' child."

Collum's face went from bloodless white to deep scarlet in only a few seconds. He knocked Angus' hand down and shoved him away. "Wi' child? Who? Who did this?" When Angus didn't answer quick enough, he repeated louder this time in a voice that reverberated among the many birch trees that sheltered them and the cottage ahead. "Who?"

In a deadly voice that held all the pent up rage and frustration he had felt over the last several months as he had watched his sister's belly swell with the child she carried, he answered, "I dinnae ken. She dinnae ken-it happened at the Fair in Fort William." He grabbed his claymore from its scabbard that was strapped at his side and shook it in the cold air. "If I ever find out who though, he had better pray tha' I'm in a generous mood tha' day because I plan on sendin' the mon to hell an' beyond if I can!" He grew silent then stabbed the claymore into the ground and leaned back against the trunk of one of the trees about them, head lowered.

Collum ran his hands through his dark hair and started to pace. "She was taken against her will?" He paused and peered intently at his brother. "Where were ye when this happened? In your cups?" He didn't wait for an answer but continued speaking in a tightly controlled voice. "She has brought shame to our house! Bearing th' bairn-"

"Who is blameless in this matter, Collum. As she is-she was no' doin' anythin' tha' th' others were not doin'. Upon the cross of Our Father, 'tis th' truth of th' matter. As for myself, it does no' matter where I was--I was no' there." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I did no' stop it or save her frae it or frae him, whoever it may be!" He raised his eyes to meet his brother's. "I did no' save her like I should have if I had known tha' it happened when it did." He sighed deeply and pushed himself up off the tree. "'Tis getting' late, and this deer is no gettin' any lighter to carry. Best we go on to see her now."

Collum stopped mid pace and slammed his claymore's hilt with the heel of his hand. "An' th' bairn? How soon?"

Angus hefted the carcass up so it settled comfortably around his neck once more and turned to face his brother. "Ask the midwife or one of the elders! I dinnae know-'tis women who ken about such things, not men and 'tis not for me to know." He shrugged and began walking closer to the house followed by his brother, who silently said nothing.

Collum tried to prepare himself for the meeting with his sister and do it in a manner that would befit a first footer, bringing the luck and good fortune to her for the coming year. But try as he might, the only thing that came to his mind was how the family had had shame brought upon them by her and that wounded his pride deeply. He couldn't see how he could look her in the eyes ever again without thinking of this day and of what he had learned regarding her. He glanced at the sky overhead and then back towards the Five Sisters which surrounded Glenfinnan and Loch Shiel then looked at the other direction and looked over at the Three Sisters, which protected the tiny village on the other side of the loch.

As they approached, they each carried their thoughts and kept them locked away inside themselves so no man or woman could read them should they care to do so, unless they were a Seer, born with the gift of Sight. A indistinct wail seemed to scuttle through the air and drift down through it before reaching their ears; they looked at one another then back at the cottage they were now almost upon.

Again, the tiny wail was heard and again they paused to look at one another then marched to the front door where Collum pounded on it. "Blessings upon this house and all within its walls," he bellowed with forced cheerfulness.

No one answered but the unmistakable crying of a baby was heard again from the other side of the door.

Angus shook his head, then jerked it at the door. "Seems we ha' our answer about th' bairn." He looked around for the leather straps he knew were somewhere near so he could hang the deer up to cure before they butchered it. Upon finding it, he went off to take care of matters leaving Collum alone at the door.

Under his breath, Collum said half to himself and half to the surroundings about him, "Aye, seems like we do." His face became grim and he knocked again with again no answer. Wiping his nose upon his sleeve, he lifted the wooden bar that held the door shut and pulled it back to let it swing outward and reveal the inside of the tiny home.

He was torn as to what to do-something had to be done with the child yet as a first footer, tradition stated he could only enter a home if invited and only if invited on this day of the year. He poked his head inside the doorway and looked about, noting the small loom sitting in a corner near the fire as well as the spinning wheel also near the fire.

In one side of the home was a pen where the animals were kept. The geese honked their angry greetings to him when they saw him, chickens squawked and flapped their wings as they tried to fly about before resettling into their nests, and the low bellowing of an ox for plowing greeted him also when he was seen. On the other side of the cottage lay a small cradle near a low bed, and in the bed, lay a body of a woman who was unmoving despite the cries of the child beside her.

"Caolin?" Collum said, but when it didn't rouse her, he said it louder. "Caolin MacLeod?"

Angus came up from behind him before tapping him on the sleeve. "She's no responding?" When shook his head no, he called out, "Caolin- wake up!"

One arm stretched outside of the woolen blankets that lay across the still form on the bed which didn't remain still for long as she bolted upwards at the sound of the baby's cries. She drew a heavy shawl across her shoulders and then glanced about, still blinking away the sleep that had taken her to the other side where the Old Ones dwell in the dark nights. When she saw her visitors staring at the door she slipped out of the bed quickly and scooped up the child in one gliding movement and turned to face them. "Angus, Collum! Welcome to my house, brothers of mine, " she said in ritual hospitality. "Will you partake of my food and drink and will ye stay for a wee while?"

She slipped out a finger and tested it in the baby's mouth to see if he would suckle on it; he took hungrily into his mouth and began to suck on it for all he was worth. She glanced down at the baby, then anxiously up at her brothers. "Come in, 'tis cold outside!"

Collum was the first to speak between the two men. "I suppose that ye will need someone to take care of ye now tha' the bairn has come." He stepped inside, closed the door and offered the oat cake to her and the blessing once more.

In return, she offered him the whisky which he silently thanked her for because he was desperately needing it--especially while watching her begin to nurse the child in front of the two of them as she was now doing.

Her eyes flitted from one to the other-Collum had always frightened her to some degree and had a fearful temper whereas Angus was normally the one she could reason with most of the time. What mattered now was what they would decide about the child she held to her breast.

They would decide whether he would live or die by taking out to be exposed on a hilltop somewhere letting the elements kill him-or the wolves or letting her keep him. They had that right as the men in her family; she only had the hope she carried in her breast that all would be well. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer that they spared him and spare her the grief she knew she would feel if she were to lose him before moving over to a small chair by the fire.

Angus came closer to her, bent down and kissed her gently on her forehead. "Blessings, Sister." He squatted to peer at the small bundle she held tightly to her breast and pulled back the blankets to reveal the child's sex. He nodded and looked in her eyes. "A son. And he will be called?"

She cleared her throat and looked at him then at her other brother. "He shall be called Connor." She raised a hand to her throat and smiled softly. "If that is all right wi' th' two of ye?"

Collum shook his head before coming over to see the new member of his extended family and his clan. He noted the thinness and the leanness of the child's body, the long fingers and toes and the deep set eyes. The child looked nothing like a MacLeod and he said so to her. "He's not one of us. He should be taken and left to die. We will be rid of the shame you have borne the family if we do this."

He reached for the child; she turned away from him while her eyes pleaded with Angus' own in an unspoken wish for him to intervene and let her keep the babe with her, no matter what may befall her and him in the future years. "No, please, Collum, don't take him away! What shame I have I will bear forever-" she pounded a fist into her chest then pointed at the babe who now slept in her arms, his hunger now satisfied. "He is my shame, 'tis true. But-but-" She glanced at Angus and held her hand out in supplication to the both of them. "-he is my blossom too. He is a MacLeod as I am! My blood is his; I will never deny him or be ashamed of him, do you understand? Never!" She closed her eyes silently saying a prayer for telling the lie she just had told to her brother; he nor anyone would ever know the truth of the matter--she would make sure of it.

Angus got up and grabbed Collum by the arm and guided him outside so they could talk privately. They never heard the sobbing that came from their sister once the door was closed behind them.

"He shall live, I say." Angus faced his brother, hands on hips, a determination set on his stubborn face to make sure that what his sister wanted would be so.

Collum meanwhile shook his head violently. "No, there is too much shame in his living. The family will be spoken about in all the clans as to how we allowed a whore to bear a child and let it live!" He went spinning before hitting the ground as Angus' fist connected to Collum's jaw. He sat up, gingerly rotated his jaw about, then spat out a tooth. In a flash, he was on his feet and had landed a blow to Angus' midsection; soon they were both heaving from the fight with both of them having their dirks drawn as they circled one another warily.

"If you let him live, I'll ha' no part of him-he'll no be a part of my family or my clan. Who will take care of them, Angus?"

"I will-you need no' worry about her. She'll be my responsibility-the same as he will be."

"Who will take them in? Who will want our sister now?" He slammed his dirk back home in his belt then tried one final time to make his brother see what he did about the situation. "I will tell you who! No one. No one at all. There will be no dowry money given to us for her, no true heirs from her because she will die unmarried and a burden to the rest of us for the rest of her life. Can't ye see Angus? Her shame is ours! We must take it upon ourselves to rid us of the cause for the shame-the visible cause in the form of the child!" He took a deep breath and then said, "He's no' a MacLeod!"

Angus stared as if he didn't know his own brother at him then shook his head. "Go home, Collum. Ye are no longer welcome in my house. Go home. She is my responsibility."

Collum started to protest but was cut short.

"I am the head of the family now-remember tha', Collum since da died a few winters ago. You will obey me as the head of our family. As of right now, I'm banishing you from this village and from my home. I ne'er care to see ye again." Angus pointed towards the mountains. "Ye know th' way."

Collum stared at him for a moment, then drew himself up to his full height and angrily walked off towards Angus' home where his horse was stalled, grabbed the bridle, placed it on, then leapt on and rode away, his cloak floating behind him in the winter air cursing loudly all the while so that all could hear him.

Angus watched him go then rubbed his face wearily. He didn't want Collum to really go because he knew how treacherous the mountains in the wintertime were if one were to travel. He also silently wished that he hadn't been pushed to the point where Collum had been banished but if it saved the child's life, so be it. One life so important to the one life whose happiness he held in his hands as the family patriarch.

He pushed the door in and went to stand by the fire to warm up. It was low and slowly burning out; he placed more peat on it as well as some wood which instantly caused the flames to blaze highly again. Looking long and hard at the fire, he wished for a moment that he had the Sight so he would know in advance what this day's events might bring in the future.

"Angus?" Caolin said as she watched him at the fireplace. She had dried her eyes. She also had steeled her heart for whatever answer he might say, regarding the child she now called her own. She glanced at the small cradle where the child-her son, she reminded herself, lay sleeping. Angus-please. Wha' answer about my son?"

Angus turned to look at her then glanced at the cradle. With a few short strides he looked in it and placed his finger in the sleeping child's own long ones that curled about it as if they were meant to be doing that all along. He was silent as he watched the rising and falling of the child's chest as he breathed silently then grinned as the child swiftly smiled for an instant before the smile disappeared.

Turning his head towards his sister who anxiously twisted on her shawl while awaiting her answer from him, he replied, "He lives, Caolin. Connor shall live."

Chapter 3

Caolin smiled brightly at Angus upon hearing his decision, her eyes glittering with tears that threatened to fall at any moment. "Thankee, dear brother. I'll no forget it!" She started toward him in her joy then paused as she read his face then stopped altogether her path towards him.

Angus shifted uneasily about as any display of a woman's emotions had always made him feel uncomfortable since he didn't quite know what to do about it when it occurred. Even his own wife, although he loved her dearly had made him feel like he never could stop the torrent of the emotions that seemed to afflict women in general more than men.

And he had, in his time, grown used to it. But he never was prepared for it when it occurred even though he himself was a deeply passionate man, loyal, a good right arm in times of war, a fair leader of men who was looked up to by the entire clan for guidance when needed. Since the MacLeod title was in dispute at the moment between two of those who stood to inherit the seat, it had fallen to each village to appoint one man to be the final say on things. Until the day that the Lord of Skye took hold and control of the clan again, that is. The man the village of Glenfinnan had chosen to be its leader had been Angus himself, much to his surprise at the time.

He cleared his throat then nodded abruptly. "I'd better go. 'Tis time to ge' on home; should Iona bear th' bairn while I be away frae her, I'll no hear th? end of it." He smiled softly at his sister, then hiccuped again. He shifted his feet to turn to leave but stopped when his name was uttered softly by his sister.

"Angus?" Her eyes drifted over to the birch wood cradle he had made her; his followed hers and then both locked onto the other's eyes.

"Aye?"

"About th' bairn--do ye approve of of his name? I will need to hav' him baptized once th' snow clears."

Her brother mulled it over, turning the name this way and that in his mind, while silently mouthing it. His eyebrows shot up for a moment, then he paced over to the cradle again to watch the child who slept there again. He squatted near the cradle, and stroked the wild thatch of soft down that covered the child's head with his callaused fingers. He looked back at her then bent close to whisper in the child's ear the name he would carry with him until the day he died. "Listen to me carefully, little one. From this day on, ye shall be called Connor MacLeod and will forever be a part of the clan MacLeod. Be strong, listen well to your family, be loyal to those deserving of it, and follow where the Lord leads you." He glanced over to his sister again then turned back to the sleeping form to continue to whisper to him. "Hold fast to your heart and to your beliefs in life, Connor MacLeod. They will serve you well. Welcome to th' world." He stiffly got back up to his feet and bent down to plant a gentle kiss upon the baby's forehead.

Caolin had watched with tears streaming down her face as she took in the scene in front of her. A big hulk of a Highlander man, bent down near a tiny cradle where he whispered so softly she couldn't catch one word of what he was telling her son then bending down to plant a kiss of acceptance upon his brow. She knew that all would be as well as possible for her Connor now--Angus had taken him into the family.

He straightened and headed directly for the door, tossing out the information about the deer over his shoulder at her. "I'll be back in a wee while to butcher it for ye an' salt it down for keepin'."

She nodded at the news. "Aye."

He left and marched a few paces on back towards his house before stopping to turn back to look in the direction of the little cottage he had just left. He shook his head at the thought of the child mentally noting to himself that if the child lived though his first year of life then it would be a miracle indeed since he was so small and thin. "Nothing at all like my eldest boy, Dugal," he said to the trees surrounding him then turned back and made his way home.

Once Angus had left, Caolin slowly fell to the floor and began to weep uncontrollably over the day's events and stayed crumpled in a heap on the dirt floor for several hours until, finally spent, she had cried herself out. She sniffed and wiped her now red nose on the back of a sleeve then crawled over to the cradle and peered at the little stranger who had come into her life as her real son had left it.

Softly crooning so as to not to wake him, she sang an old lullaby that had been sung from before the beginning of time in the Highlands in the original tongue that the Church had hated and was trying to eradicate it because it was something it didn't understand. And, because they didn't understand it, they called it pagan and went out of their way eliminate all traces of it, in whatever form it took.

And because she wouldn't give it up so easily or so readily as some did, she had at times, clashed with the clan priest when he was in the village on his rounds.

Once the lullaby died away into the stillness of the cottage, she pulled back the blankets piece by piece so she could get a better look at him. Her hands caressed his pale skin as she soothed him in his dreams; his sucking on his bottom lip while sleeping made her smile and endeared him even more to her. "Shah, Connor, my wee one. Shhhh..." she whispered.

What was it about this child that made her want to protect him so, she asked herself silently. She glanced at the tiny slit of a window towards the birch woods where she had found him and where she had buried her own son without hardly more than a thought. "Where is your mama, bairn? Why leave you out to die?" she asked him quietly but knew that there never would be an answer to her questions as to where he came from. Musing, she wrapped him back up after kissing each of his toes, marveling in the sheer perfection of all of him as she shook her head. "Why?" she asked the silence once more. "Who be thy mother? And where be thy father?"

She watched him for a while yet then yawned then got up to light the candles that lit the home at night. In the corner, the ox lowed at her as she passed; she reached over to scratch at its head. "Hush, you'll wake the baby!" She continued on her way and took the long stick she used for lighting and lit in the fireplace then one by one, lit each of the candles so that the home was softly glowing in a golden hue.

The geese and chickens both clucked and honked at her too as she came back by; she released them so they could head out the door for some fresh air and some dinner from the seeds she had collected for them earlier in the year. She went to open the door further watching as the fowls nearly ran over themselves in their haste to go outside despite the chill of the day. She then went over and led the ox out the door and into the pen where she spread hay for its meal into its crude trough.

Once that was accomplished, she went in and began making her meal for the new year and while that was simmering merrily in the pot over the fire, she cleaned out the corner stall where the animals were kept. Ever so often, she would have to stop to clutch at her abdomen where the pains that cramped at her, reminding her that she had had a child on this day and that she shouldn't try to do too much at least for now. She nodded at that and smiled; a frown replaced the smile though in short order as she started to think what having Connor would mean to her and would mean to the others in the village.

It wasn't a pleasant thought. Already she had seen the women in the village greet her as if nothing had happened but she had seen them speaking behind their hands when they thought she wasn't looking about her and her very obvious pregnancy that had come of the attack at the fair. It was, in part, a reason for her desiring to live apart from the village; she knew it would be considered sacriliege for her to do so, but Angus had a growing family to think of. Having a sister who was to have a child would only cause a strain on the resources of his family were she to continue to live there.

"Tiny minds," she muttered to herself as she eased down into a chair by the fire. She stared into the depths of it as her mind wandered over what had happened and what could happen to him in the future. She shuddered and drew her shawl closer about her although she was warm enough. "And now we are as one."

Standing up to ease the cramping in her abdomen, she went back to look at the child in the cradle. "Such a bonny wee laddie ye are!" she cried out to Connor. Carolin crossed herself and said a prayer over him then one for herself in the hopes that God would forgive her for her sin as well as for the lie she had told her family about Connor's orgin. "May God forgive me! But I'll never recant who and what he is to anyone! Not even to all the saints and Jesus Christu himself!" She sighed deeply, knowing that her blasphemy had probably condemned her to eternal damnation in purgatory but in a way it didn't seem to matter when she looked at him. All that mattered was giving him a home and a life so that he could grow into a man to be proud of as someone she could call her son.

Angus returned to his home which was in the midst of a great party to welcome in the new year and month. A sturdy, dark-haired boy came running up to him with arms outstretched, anxiously waiting to be scooped up into Angus' own strong ones.

"Da! Da! Up!" the child commanded and up into the air he flew as his father hefted him up above his head with ease. The child giggled until he was shaking as his father flew him about in mid air, all the while sidestepping both his guests and the dogs which lay about on the floor hoping for scraps to fall off the table.

"Dugal, laddie!" Angus bellowed in glee as he laughed along with his son. "Higher?"

"Aye, Da! Higher and faster!" Dugal ordered and continued to giggle as his father swung him around the room until it made both father and son dizzy.

Finally, Angus collapsed into a chair with Dugal on one knee. His eyes glowed with pride as he looked upon his son. No man could have ever wanted more in a boy than what he had in Dugal, that much was certain if one were to ask him.

One of his many guests who was half inebriated, sloshed a tankard of uisquebeath into his hand and wished him good fortune in the new year before staggering off. Angus drank deeply from it, then tousled Dugal's hair and sent him off to play. His eyes caught his wife's where she stood across the room and he smiled broadly at her. "Beautiful," he whispered to himself as he watched her move about despite her pregnant form clumsily moving about the room, making sure there was plenty of everything for everyone. He was indeed a happy man. He stood up and raised his tankard. "A toast to all of ye!"

All in the room, turned their eyes to him then raised their own drinks in unison. As one they cried, "Slainte`!"

Then Angus caught his wife's eye again and noticed the flash of pain as she gripped her belly with one hand while clutching a small table with the other. He frowned for only a moment before returning his attention to his guests. "A toast too for the newest member of the clan MacLeod--my sister's son, Connor MacLeod, born on this day! One more for our household, one more arm to fight alongside with, and by God, he will be a Highlander to be proud of and one that many tales will be told of, I am sure!" He took a deep drink then wiped his moustache and beard upon his sleeve to silence

The stunned silence of the room hadn't been missed by Angus. Nor were the looks that passed between the women and men at the news. He bent down and whispered to his cousin to go and send for the midwife for his wife was in need. He eyed her again and nodded at her then turned to stare down each man in the room until someone finally stood up and offered their congratulations to the new family and clan member while his cousin scampered off.

At this pronouncement, one by one the men all stood and offered up their best wishes and good fortune and he raised up his cup again and drank deeply as he watched his wife retreat into their room to await the birth of their child.

Every man now came up to him and clapped him on the back in true gestures of friendship and comraderie upon the news then one by one, they gathered their things and exited towards their homes.

One man stayed behind though, silently watching as Angus scooped up his eldest son again in his arms and followed the throng to his door to say his fare-thee-wells to them all. He said nothing as Angus stood looking off into the distance at the mountains that surrounded Glenfinnan, but he carefully noted the concern the blacksmith had written on his face.

Angus hefted up his son higher on his hip before reaching up to lay Dugal's head upon his broad shoulder. "Sleep, wee one." His eyes roamed over the mountain pass; he wondered where Collum was and if he was traveling well without any difficulty towards his home.

"Trouble, Angus?"

The sound of the unexpected voice whirled him about and brought him up short as he took in Father Iain, the priest who normally stayed at Glenfinnan but who had left to tend to someone in a neighboring croft that lay beyond the village. "Father!" He gulped and then turned back to shut the door. He gathered his wits and then turned back to the priest. "No, no trouble. Collum, my brother, has left us for home."

The young priest nodded sagely. "Ah, I see." He moved sway from the door where he had effectively blocked Angus from getting past him so that Angus would have to answer his questions. "Is it true that your sister has delivered her child this day?"

A stifled moan came from the curtained off area that served as a bedroom for both Angus and Iona. Angus' eyes shifted to it and his concern for his wife was easily read on his face. He walked over and placed Dugal onto his small bed and ordered him to sleep. Dugal immediately closed his eyes in compliance, much to his father's relief.

Angus nodded as he headed back outside to his forge to grab an iron dagger so to ward off any of the fey and to cut his wife's pain during her labor to birth their child. Much to his chagrin, he found that he was followed by the priest and he didn't care for it one bit. He was a good, God-fearing man but, like his sister, he also honored some of the Old Ways. One could never be too sure of just what or who was/were governing men and by what name they went by. It was far better to honor both the old and the new than to insult one of them and bring down misfortune on them all.

"Mankind was made to suffer, Angus. And women bear the sins of us all by bringing our children into this world. And because they bear the sins of the world, they suffer when a child is born so as to remind us of our sins." Father Iain poured himself a drink and downed it. He looked back at Angus and then at the iron dagger in his hands. "You don't need that, Angus. She's in God's hands as is the child."

Irritated and angered by the priest's words, Angus pushed past him and went back inside, pointedly slamming the door behind him and in the priest's face. He checked on his son who actually slept then went over to pull back the curtain and sat gently on the bed near his wife.

"Be thee well, dearest?" His rough hand stroked the hairs that flew across her forehead, then he bent down to gently kiss her. "Do thee ha' much pain?"

"Aye, I am well, Angus, but th' child ha' other things in mind, I think. As for pain? No more tha' wha' would be normal--far less tha' wi' Dugal, I think." She smiled at her husband but it turned into a grimace as another contraction hit her. One hand reached out and clutched at her husband's and held tight until it passed.

Angus smoothed away the beads of sweat on her face with a small cloth that lay near the bed. "I sent for the healer-the midwife," he corrected himself. "She should be here shortly, I hope." He pulled out the dagger so that she could see it and kissed the blade. "To cut the pain," he explained simply before sliding it under the bed.

"Aye, love." She smiled in gratitude and silently thanked her parents for arranging her marriage to such a kind man and one who thought well of her enough to show that amount of concern for her.

Angus got up and excused himself. There was still the priest to deal with. "I will be back as soon as I can."

He shut the curtain again and went back outside only to find no one there. He walked around the side of his home and looked off in the direction of his sister's. "God help her, should tha' damn priest be goin' there. God help her!"

Chapter Four

There was still so much left to do this day, but Caolin was far too exhausted to even care about doing it; she was also in pain for all the effort she had put into this day: giving birth, burying her dead. Her retrieval of a abandoned child in the woods afterward the burial; once that had happened she then had had to deal with her brothers on top of all the other emotional highs and lows she had been feeling all day long. It had put too much of a strain on her; both her mind and body let her know it too.

The last thing she had wanted was to have even one last visitor even though the man who squated on the floor was the priest. She could hardly keep her mind on what he was talking about and yawned throughout his droning on and on about her sins. But finally he said something that instantly drew her full attention back to what he was saying. "What did you just say?"

The priest had knelt down closer to the cradle so as to be able to see the babe better; he glanced back up at her and repeated himself. "I said tha' th' holy sisters in Fort William would take him in for you so that you can be rid of your shame. It would be for the best; Angus wouldno' ha' tae worry about wha' tae do wi' ye?it will be hard tae find a husband tae marry you tae now, especially since ye ha' been?" He left the thought remain unspoken and his voice trailed off into silence.

Caolin began to shake in anger from his words; she pointed to the door. "Ge' out! This be my child, and he will be wi' me until the wee one is grown, do ye understand? How dare ye even suggest such a thing to me, in my home?" Her face was a veritable mask of furious indignation; when he didn't move, she stamped her foot to emphasize that she meant every word she had just spoken.

The young priest abruptly stood, clasping his hands in front of him while fingering his rosary nervously at the same time. He hadn't expected this type of response to his suggestion from the woman. In fact, he had expected to be able to walk out out of the house with the child in his arms so that he himself could take the child to the sisters. "Caolin," he began then stopped and drew himself to his full height. "As your priest, I hav' th' best in mind for ye an' for th' bairn. Ye hav' always been a prideful woman, Caolin MacLeod, and your pride is a sin in God's eyes. He will strike you down one day for it!"

Caolin interrupted. "If He should strike me down for it, then I will pay for it but I will no' ha' a mon tell me tha' my babe is no' worth keeping. Ye ha' no right to tell me tha'!" She paused for a moment then her eyes narrowed. "An' maybe while he's smiting me, he'll smite ye too for th' breakin' of thy vows." She held up a hand when the priest began to sputter in protest at her statement. "We all know, ye ha' been seen so dinnae try to deny it."

Flushed red from his own anger and his want for vengence for the stinging but truthful words she spoke, he raised his arm to point at her. "If I could--if I only had a reason woman, I would ha' ye excommunicated."

The child woke and began to cry at all the commotion; Caolin automatically picked him up to comfort him, crooning to him softly in the old language without thinking of her guest and what his reaction might be when he heard it.

Father Iain, upon listening to her utter the words, threw his hands up in the air then pointed from her to the baby. "Th' child is of th' fey. He is a demon--a changling who has bewitched you! See, already he has begun to turn you from Our Lord!"

Caolin snapped her head back in his direction. "He is no' fey an' no demon either-he is special--born wi'--" She suddenly stopped speaking for fear that the truth regarding her baby would come spilling out of her. She shook her head and pointed again at the door. "My faith in the Lord is no' changed, Father. I would like ye to leave now; I'm tired."

The priest walked to the door, opened it then turned back to the woman. "Be thee at Mass on Sunday an' bring th' babe. We will ha' him baptized then; perhaps we can save his soul yet and keep th' devil from his evil work upon th' earth by lessening his forces by one." He glanced at the child who still wailed in his mother's arms and thought silently to himself that the child would bring no one any good fortune from this day on. There was just something about him that made Father Iain uneasy and afraid but he couldn't really say what it was about the child that made him feel this way. In a commanding tone, he repeated his words, "Be thee there!" then left.

"I will!" Caolin said to the door as it slammed behind the priest when he left. "Aye, I will!"

Chapter Five

Spring came and with it came the rains that turned the white snow on the ground into a muddy green and the skies were often cloaked in the dark clouds which brought it. It also brought lambing time as well as the nearing of Market Day again in Fort William.

Glenfinnan was bustling with activity after a long winter; men were mending fences and farming their lands during the day and at night over a tall fire, meeting to see what could be done to avenge their clansman's death last year.

Women meanwhile, did the planting of the gardens, the spinning of the wool into thread for new clothes and for bartering at the fair. They also tended the livestock, prepared their husband's meals and handled all the child care plus much more. They were often up before the sun rose and were in bed as it went down unless the family had guests staying with them. Then the women would stay up to tend to them until sent away by the men.

Angus was now the proud father of three. His wife had given birth to twin girls shortly after Connor's birth. Although he had been disappointed that they hadn't been sons at first, he had been thankful that his wife hadn't caught the childbirth fever and died. And in a few days time, the new members of his family had him wrapped around their tiny pink fingers. He was totally in love with them; one dare not say anything untowards about them to his face or face his wrath.

Caolin also kept busy but had no plans to go to Fort William. The thought of the place made her shiver and nightmares had crept into her sleep each time the town was mentioned. Many times, especially recently, she had woke up with fists at her mouth stifling the silent screams that she uttered while scenes of her rape replayed in front of her eyes. Slowly, she stockpiled the wares she would give to her brother for sale at market so that needed goods could be bought for her and her son.

Connor had, meanwhile, grown into a happy child who laughed easily and was attentive to everything about him. He had learned to roll over and was attempting to learn to strengthen all muscles of his body. He kicked and swung arms and legs a-kilter but yet he seemed to not gain the body weight other babies of his age had been able to achieve. It was something that worried his mother for she was afraid that this child of her heart was weak and would not be able to keep up with others as he grew older as well as be accepted by the other boys because of a lack of strength.

Still, that was in the future and far too ahead in time to plan for. There were other things that were more pressing that needed to be accomplished and it was not for her to decide her son's fatte. That was in God's hands, not hers.

She glanced over to where the cradle lay in the sunlight and smiled at the tiny arms and feet that waved and fluttered about in the sunshine while she attended to the feeding of the geese and other small animals she had acquired from Angus and others. One hand pushed back the stray hair that had escaped the kerchief she wore about her head from her face. She straightened when she heard a familiar voice singing a jaunty tune coming down the path towards the house and recognized the voice as belonging to her brother.

"Wha' ho, sister!" Angus hailed her as he came out of the woods, raising his hand in greeting. "How are ye and my nephew today?"

"Angus!" she answered delighted to be able to take a break from her work. "Wha' are ye doing here? Surely ye hav' work to be done?" She moved to greet him with a quick kiss on his cheek. "How is th' family?"

Angus answered the kiss with one of his own, then looked at her a little sternly. "Perhaps if ye came around more often ye could answer tha' for yourself, " he admonished her. "'Tis no good for ye to stay here alone an' no get out more."

Caolin began to protest but he raised a hand. "Nor 'tis it guid for th' lad." He watched her face darken then she glanced back over to the cradle. His eyes folowed hers and in a quick few strides, he had scooped up the baby high into the air, much to Connor's delight. Angus whirled him about causing Connor to break out into peals of laughter until it stopped and Angus drew him back down into his embrace so he could look at him closely.

Connor's face turned red and the laughter turned into tears at which Angus just smiled. He softly bounced him about until he quieted and then gave him to his mother. "Caolin, I ha' come tae talk about Market Day tha' is comin' up."

Caolin's eyes flew open at the statement. Her nightmares flew in front of her face as she stared at her brother then she abruptly turned and walked away from him. "No, Angus. I'll nae go an' will no' talk about it."

"Ye cannae stay here locked away forever, Caolin!" Angus exploded. "Ye ha' a life--live it!" He strode over and grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around to face him. "Ye must face th' world at some time!"

"But not at th' Market, Angus," she replied softly. "I cannae do it. Too many know wha' happened last year. An' too many will understand th' shame I ha' brought ye an' th' clan." She raised Connor up so that her brother could take a good look at him. "Do ye see? This is wha' th' shame is. An' I have brought it to ye."

One finger cupped Caolin's chin and lifted it upwards. "Look at me, sister, " Angus began. "Wha' happened last year cannae be changed. Nor can it stop wha' others say or think. But hear me well!" He stroked the soft down on Connor's head. "If any think tha' th' lad is a shame to me, th' family or to th' clan, then they will ha' tae deal wi' me."

Caolin's eyes filled with tears at the words and slowly they began to trickle down her face. She bent to kiss the small child in her arms then looked back at her brother. "I cannae go."

Angus stared at her in consternation for a moment, then pulled her into an embrace. "You will go, Caolin, like it or no." His voice softened. "I know it will be hard, sister, but ye must go sometime, like it or no. Dinnae live in fear because it will only hurt ye an' th' lad eventually." He drew her back so that they could look one another in the eye. "I'm tellin' ye, ye are going. I'm telling ye as head of th' family; ye will obey me on this. Do ye understand?" He waited then gruffly added, "And I'm telling ye because I love ye."

Caolin took a deep breath and wiped away the tears as she listened to what her brother had just ordered her to do. She began to shake her head "no" but then sighed deeply in resignation, knowing that she no longer had a say in the matter. "Aye, Angus, I understand. But I dinnae like it!"

"I dinnae say ye would ha' to, did I?" Angus replied as a slow grin spread across his face. "Market Day is a week from today. Get thy wares together an' I will come for thee an' th' lad when th' time comes. An' dinnae worry, sister. Iona an' the bairns will be wi' me to keep ye company. She's been trying to talk me into a new dress for her!" His eyes twinkled merrily as he cocked his head to one side. "I may just get her one too but dinnae tell her that!"

Caolin couldn't help but smile at her brother at the remark but silently she still was screaming at the thought of having to face the crowds of clansmen and people who would be there at the market. It would be almost too much to bear, she was almost sure of it. A small cry drew her attention back to the small bundle she held in her arms and she began to fuss with the child's wrappings.

Angus held her at arms length for a moment more then let her go as she began to fuss around with the child. He watched for a moment then turned to go. "Remember, a week. Be ready!" he reminded her sternly.

She glanced up at her brother and waved him off. "Aye, Angus. A week it is. Gi' on back tae thy work an' let me be!"

At that curt dismissal, Angus shook his head and left, whistling merrily the same tune he had sung to announce his arrival.

Caolin watched him go then took Connor back inside, her chores for the moment forgotten.

That night, the nightmares came back more real and to Caolin, more terrifying than ever before.

____________________________________

Market Day came and, as promised, Angus came and gathered his sister and her child to take in the wagon along with his ever growing family to Fort William. The day proved to be sunny for once and with luck, it might not rain as it so often did at least once during the time of the market itself.

Both Angus and his family were in high spirits with Angus breaking out in song every once in a while to pass the time. Iona, his wife, winced when he did start to sing for he sang off key and would look at Caolin with a pained expression which made both burst into laughter.

"Wha' are ye laughing at, wife?" Angus demanded as he looked from one woman to another. "Sister, why do ye laugh so?" He waited for an answer but was only answered with a shrug from both women.

"'Tis nothing, husband!" Iona chimed in before breaking back into gales of more laughter. "'Tis only th' day and th' thought of tha' new dress ye will gi' me!"

Angus looked at her closely. "An' who said I was going tae do tha'?"

"Perhaps one of th' silkie did, " she replied casually.

Angus looked at her and grinned. "Silkie, eh? Perhaps, we will ha' a talk about them later!" He grabbed Dugal around the waist and hauled him into his lap. "Here, lad, take th' reins. We'll show ye how tae handle a true female!" He clucked his tongue and the horse hastened its pace.

They continued on all laughing as if there wasn't a care in the world.

______________________________________

Soon enough they arrived and found a place to place their wagon. Caolin grew quiet as she looked around at the mobs of people about her; she felt as if she were suffocating. She carefully stepped away from the cart as it was unloaded, mindful of the puddles that were spread across the ground here and there. Obviously, it had rained recently here and she glanced up at the blue sky for signs that it would again but there was nary a cloud in the sky.

Once the cart was unloaded and the small stall was set up with wares from both Caolin's and Angus' households, Caolin set off in search of her friends in the hopes that she could show off Connor. She passed by the many stalls that were also set up and occasionally stopped to look at what was offered; off to one side of the square the boxers were once more again pummeling each other in hopes of winning a dram or two by being the one to remain standing after being beaten to a near pulp by others.

Iona had taken charge of the stall meanwhile and had shooed off Angus to find his friends. Immediately, she had customers to deal with and to haggle with on prices for the many needed items that she had expertly displayed in front of her. All the while she kept careful watch on her son and on her daughters who cooed and played with the brightly colored ribbons that she had tied above them and which waved in the soft breeze. She watched too as Caolin moved about the market and was reminded of a scared rabbit that had been unexpectedly been found out in the open in the woods. It was not going to be easy on her, Iona knew, being here but she had promised Angus that she would keep an eye on her just in case she should need help with dealing with the memories of the last year and what had happened here.

Caolin eventually came back to the stall looking strained and weary already. She felt as if all eyes were following her as she moved about and it made her uneasy. Connor lay sleeping in her arms and she glanced about, looking for a place to lay him.

"I'll watch him for ye, dear," Iona gently said as she laid a hand upon her arm. She pointed to a dry patch of ground. "Let me lay down a blanket for him, then ye can be off wi' ye to wha'ever ye want tae do." She set about doing just that and soon Connor was safely asleep on the ground, nestled in the blanket.

Caolin gratefully smiled at the kindness and bustled about making sure all was well with him before she stroked his hair that stuck wildly up in all directions a final time then set off.

Huddled around one of the many taps full of ale and the always present uisequebeath, a small gathering of Frasers watched as she passed by them with leering eyes. One of them stood and swaggered towards her throwing a amused look back over his shoulder at his companions. He steeped directly into her path, making her stop to look at him. "Well, if it is no th' MacLeod whore!" he said and lifted he cup in salute. "Tell me, is it true tha' you spread your legs for anyone?"

Caolin took a sharp intake of air at the bold and brash statement. Her eyes blazed for a moment then darted about the market for signs of Angus but he was not to be seen. She began to tremble and fear began like icy fingers to move through her. She tried to push her way past him but was stopped once more. "Please, let me pass."

One of the other Frasers called out from behind the man in front of her, "If it is true, I ha' th' right piece for ye!" grabbing at himself and shaking it at her. The rest of the Frasers broke out in loud guffaws with much back slapping among them at the remark.

Caolin's face turned scarlet at the remark. Again she tried to move around the Fraser in front of her but again she was stopped. She looked from the man to his companions and back again before her temper flamed up. "Some men ye are! Tell me, do Fraser men do nothing more than drink and accost women? I hear tha' is God's truth!"

A swift movement by the Fraser man caught her wrist in a bone crunching grasp. A small cry escaped her lips at the pressure he applied at which he smiled and leaned down to look at her in the face for he was a tall man and she was small and petite in comparison to him. "Spirited, too! Ye must be guid--I'm willing to bet tha' it would be worth my money to bed ye!"

She slapped him and then broke free of his grasp, running and screaming for all she was worth back towards the stall. The men followed her, spreading out so they could surround her and cut her off. "Ah, I just love a guid hunt!" one cried to another as they drew closer to her; the other man laughed loudly and nodded in agreement.

Iona heard Caolin's screams and stepped away from the stall to see what was happening. When she saw her sister-in-law being persued by the men, she hurriedly asked the women in the next stall to watch the children to which they agreed. She ran and grabbed Angus and pointed. "Do ye no hear tha'?" she demanded. "Caolin--" she gulped a few deep lungfuls of air, "is in trouble!"

Angus pushed her aside after tossing down his cup and motioning to his friends and clansmen. He watched for a moment then took action, running to her aid, while the others ran around to gather and stop the other Fraser men.

A large stone dropped the man closest to Caolin and he fell stumbling to the ground. Caolin stopped running only momentarily to see him drop and to look where her aid was coming from. When she saw that it was Angus, she ran to him, repeatedly screaming his name in relief. "Angus! Oh, Angus!"

He caught her in his arms and held her, feeling her fluttering heart upon his chest and her heaving gasps as she tried to catch her breath. He took a look at her and then motioned her towards the stall. "Go to th' bairns, take care of them. These men will no bother ye no more, I promise ye."

She nodded and took off towards the safety of the stall where Iona stood waiting for her protectively.

A large crowd had gathered about as the last of the Frasers were rounded up. Angus waited as the man on the ground got back to his feet before taking a meaty fist and knocking him back off them again. "Leave my sister alone," he said with a deadly intensity. "If I see ye laying a hand on her again, ye will ne'er wake to see th' morn again, by God's truth!"

The man rubbed at his jaw and looked at his attacker. "A man can't hav' a wee bit of fun, now an' again?" he asked. For a reply he found a foot planted in his ribs making him howl in pain.

"This is th' last warning ye will get frae me. No Fraser shall get anything frae a MacLeod except a blade if you try anything like this again!" Angus retorted. Then in almost an afterthought he added, "Or, perhaps, a war..."

At this, all hell broke loose as the other Fraser men who had been caught and were being held by the MacLeod clansmen broke free and drew their blades. The entire market became one mass brawl with small rivers of blood flowing in the dust and gathering in the stagnant puddles as clansmen fought with clansmen against blood enemies who had no other feud except for the fact that they had fought each other through the centuries and were traditionally, enemies. Others fought just for the sake of fighting, for the sheer enjoyment of it and fought anyone who dared to challenge them.

Iona began throwing things together with the help of Caolin back into the wagon for she knew that the time would come and they would have to either escape or return to Glenfinnan with the injured; she hitched the horse up so all would be ready when the time came. She prayed that Angus wouldn't be one of those but she knew that it was always a posibility. Once the children were gathered and set up in the wagon, she and Caolin stood in the back and watched the fighting, waiting to see who would live and who would die today in the skirmish.

It soon became apparent that no one was either the winner or the loser of the fight, which seemed to drag on forever. The few English soldiers that were about were called out and soon they too were involved in the fray but they found that they were fighting for their lives because of who they were. After awhile, the fighting began to die down of its own accord and the injured began to be gathered off the ground and taken to the healers for what medical attention they needed.

Angus limped over to the wagon looking worse for wear and got on looking neither at his wife, the children or to his sister. All he could manage was to cluck his tongue at the mare and get out of there as quickly as possible back to Glenfinnan.

For a long time they rode in silence as each contemplated what had happened that day. Finally, Angus' weary voice broke the silence. "When we get home, wife, be prepared to see me off."

Iona silently looked at him and then gripped his blood stained arm at which he winced. "To where, husband?"

"To war."

Chapter Six

The rest of the journey was full of silence except for the occasional cries of the children. Even little Dugal was quiet and watchful of his father, somehow sensing that something wasn't quite right but he was too young to know just what it could be.

Caolin was dropped off at her door with a curt goodbye; she watched as the wagon rocked and swayed down her path back towards the village before turning to go inside. Left all alone except for her child, she looked around at the safety of her home and leaned heavily on the door clasping at her son tightly while she gulped a few deep breaths of air.

Home. Where at least she was safe--or so she hoped. She opened her eyes once more then began to bustle about so that Connor could once again lie in his own bed. As she began to unwrap him, she noticed how hot he felt and how listless he seemed. She shook her head; perhaps she was imagining it.

She changed out his wadding about him to catch what it would when he urinated or defecated then wrapped him back up tightly against the cold. With a gentle kiss, she placed him back in the cradle; he made no indication that he even knew she was there even though his eyes were open. A frown creased her brow and she peered closely at him yet again but the house was dark and there was little light to be had.

Before long though, she had lit the fire with bundles of peat and of cow droppings and slowly added small twigs and branches to it. With one long twig, she set about lighting the candles which lit the interior of the house as well as the two small lanterns set up near both the spinning wheel and her bed. She placed her hands on her hips and looked around in satisfaction before sinking down upon the bed.

She thought about what had happened at the market and what might come of it. All of her fears had come true to some extent as to what might happen if she had gone with Angus. The taunting of the Frasers about her and about what others thought of her kept replaying in her mind and over and over her eyes would widen in horror as she her every word again that had been said to her. Flinching, her shoulders began to shake as great sobs finally broke from her and she fell back onto her bed, crying as if there would be no tommorow. And, for her as well as the rest of the clan, perhaps there wouldn't be.

Not if Angus had his way, that is. And he was a very determined man when he set his mind to it as were most Highlanders. Determined--and stubborn, more than willing to die for a cause if there was something to be gotten out of it.

After a good long while, a lone cry followed by a rattling cough caught her hear and she sat back up, then raced to the cradle. It was apparent that Connor was truly ill; his face was now flushed with cheeks scarlet red from fever.

Quickly she dried her eyes, all thoughts of what happened banished as she scooped him up into her arms. She quickly unwrapped him and gasped for his body was also covered in the scarlet blotches and his skin felt as if it burned when she touched him. "Connor! Oh, Mother of God!" She raced over to where her bed lay, placed him on it and ran for the door catching up a bucket on the way out of it.

Running over to the rain barrel, she dipped the bucket in it till it filled to the brim then ran back inside. She sat near her son and once more felt his fevered body and listened to the racking cough that tore at his small, thin body. "Don't die, son!" she prayed. "You have to live--you have to!"

She tore off a piece of her dress and dipped it in the cool water then began to bathe him, running the cloth over him repeatedly as she continued to wet the cloth then lay it over him. Absently she began to hum an ancient tune to try and calm him but he continued to scream but he found it harder and harder to catch his breath as the time went on and was soon gasping for air while his arms and legs flailed about in near convulsive movements.

Caolin didn't think she had ever been so frightened in her life when she saw what was happening to him. She felt so helpless and she knew that she must go and find the healer but she was afraid of being turned away. Lifting him in her arms, she held him tightly, patting him and blowing her cool breath upon him but it was to no avail. He still struggled for breath and still coughed and fevered.

Taking a deep breath, she decided that the risk of rejection was far less a thing to be frightened of than perhaps losing him. He was all she had and if she were to lose him, she would most surely go mad. So she wrapped him back up after banking the fires and blowing out the candles and set off for the healer's hut deep into the woods.

______________________________________________

Runners had been sent out to all the neighboring crofts once those of the clan had returned from the fighting at Fort William to call all of the clan together. The news of the fighting and of the decision to make war on the Frasers soon was racing through all the glens and inlets that made up the lands that the MacLeods had claimed as theirs through the centuries.

Slowly, the clansmen trickled in from all parts of the land: farmers, merchants, shepherds, landed men, fishermen, rich and poor. They gathered to Glenfinnan and, in the smoke-filled meeting house, the men talked into the long hours of the night of past wrongs done them by others and especially by the Frasers. There was much wrangling and much speech making--all men were equal under Angus' direction and ever watchful eyes. He made sure that all opinions were heard on an equal basis and no man felt as if their voice was not being heard in the matter.

Some of the clansmen decided that a strike against the Frasers wouldn't accomplish anything and it would only interfere with the work they needed to do around their farms and thier trades. Those men were heard and dismissed from particpation. But still they stayed to listen to the others and ultimately were persuaded to join in with the others.

It was decided that a small strike would be best at getting the attention of the Frasers--perhaps they could go and take the best herds of their cattle and return home with them as a prize but that idea was soon dropped when they were reminded of Hamish MacLeod's death at the hands of the Frasers the year before for attempting to take some of their cattle as his own but was caught in the act. Instead, someone suggested that they kidnap the chieftain or one of his family and hold them hostage for gold. This idea was met with favor and it was decided that it was to be done. All that needed to be done was to decide when they would attack and who would go as a part of the group.

Two days later, with a plan in hand, a small band of clansmen set off to the northwest in the early morning mists while the heavy and rapid beating of the war drums sounded accompanied to the skirl of the war pipes. All of the clan had turned out to see their men off and they cheered as they passed by. Before long though, they had disappeared into the deep woods which surrounded the village and had began the long trek by both horse and by foot.

Now, all the village and the crofts within the MacLeod land could do was wait and see what would happen while praying for their men's safe return and good health.

It was just a matter of time.

______________________________________________________

A small hut lay to one side of Glenfinnan deep within the woods. Some say it was haunted and others would tell tales of the witch of Donan Woods who lived there supposedly, waiting for a long ago prophecy to be fulfilled. With deft leaps and fear guiding her way, Caolin clutched her child to her as she made her way through the brambles and nettles. She was unmindful of the branches that tore at her and whipped her unmercifully as she ran to the healer's home. Her only thought was to see that her child be seen by the woman who lived there and his life spared by whatever means.

Up ahead she saw the hut and she paused, gasping for air from the run. She pulled the blanket away from her son so that she could look at him; he lay as still as death in her arms but he was still breathing, thank the Lord! Rapidly she rewrapped him; taking a deep breath she approached the hut and raised a hand to knock at the door.

The door swung inwards and a small woman stood facing her in the doorway, catching Caolin by surprise. She looked at her then at the child in her arms. "Come in, I've been expecting you."

Confused and dazed by the unexpected events and by the words she had just heard, she entered the hut gingerly. Slowly looking around, she stared at the green eyed woman who stood before her. "Ye are no' th' healer," she said with more than a trace of suspicion in her voice. "Where be she?"

The other woman smiled gently and replied, "No, I'm not who you expected, am I? The healer took ill; I have come to take her place her until she is well enough to return to her duties here." She held out her arms for the child. "Let me see him."

Caolin was torn between having her son healed of the fever by someone she knew nothing about or leaving to find someone who might know of a cure. To her mind, both were risks although she knew in her heart that there wasn't anyone else about she knew who could heal her son within the surrounding area. She looked steadliy at the new healer, trying to judge the woman's character then began to unwrap Connor. She held him out to the woman who gently crooned to the sick child as she nestled him to her while making a quick examination of him by firelight.

"How long has he been like this?" the woman asked as she knelt down to gaze into the fire then back at her visitor.

"A wee bit--perhaps a day. Will he live?" Caolin anxiously asked while wringing her hands in her apron as she watched the examination.

The healer wrapped up the child and placed him onto a bed. She smoothed down his hair and turned to the child's mother. "You look tired, Caolin MacLeod." She guided her to a small stool near the fire then turned to get a cup of tea for her. "Drink this, it will soothe you and help to calm you."

Doing as she was told, Caolin sipped at it cautiously then nodded. "'Tis guid!" She settled to a more comfortable position on the stool and watched as the healer dipped a cloth into a bucket of rainwater. "For th' fever?" she asked.

"Yes. For the fever--it is too high. We must bring it down." She sat on the edge of the bed and began to bathe Connor in long, slow strokes. As she worked, she asked, "When was this child born?"

Caolin nearly choked on her tea at the question then regained her composure. "On Hogamany when there was snow all about."

The healer's green eyes closed for a moment then she turned away from her visitor. He is not the one I wait for, she thought to herself. Her hand ran over the baby's body; it would be longer yet for her to find the one that the prophecy had foretold about. She peered at him closely and felt the undeniable wavering hum of dormant immortality that only she could feel emanating though her from the child.

Turning back to the child's mother, she asked, "Can you bring me fresh water? This isn't as cool as I need." She picked up the bucket and held it out. "You can find the rain barrel by the lean-to."

Caolin nodded, set down her tea and took the bucket outside to get more water.

As soon as she left, the healer scooped the child into her arms and whispered in his ear as he protested and coughed roughly. "Listen, wee one. One day you will be a strong warrior for the good of mankind. But you are not the one I am waiting for." She gently placed a kiss in blessing upon the child's fevered brow. "This is not your time to die; you must be strong and live!"

As she rocked the baby, she crooned a song in an ancient tongue that hadn't been heard for centuries to the child. It was a song of healing, it was a song of hope, it was a song of magic yet to come. She closed her eyes in an attempt to see what this child's future would bring but only bits and pieces flashed before her, none of which had lasted long enough to be interpreted by her. Upon opening her eyes, she shook her head to clear it of what she had seen. "Sleep, child. Soon you will be well again." Sighing, she looked towards the door.

Caolin lugged the bucket back inside and came to sit on the other side of the bed across from the healer. She looked at her son in the woman's arms; he seemed to be sleeping peacefully and his breathing seemed to have become easier. Amazed at the sight, Caolin looked from the child to the woman who held her. "He will live?"

Nodding then laughing softly so as to not wake the child, the healer said, "Yes. He will live. He is a fighter, this one. And, maybe a fighter for all his life." She watched for a reaction to her words. It then struck her that perhaps she had just hit upon the interpretation of the fragments she had seen of the child's future.

Caolin crossed herself. "The Lord is merciful!" Her eyes glistened with tears of happiness as she looked at back at the healer. With great gratitude she said, "Thank you!" with all her heart in her words. "But it was so soon! I nigh but left fo' only a wee bit o' time--and already!" She shook her head at the appearance of her son.

Already the scarlet blotches were fading before her eyes so it seemed and his breathing had evened out. Surely this was magic--or perhaps a miracle of God?

She didn't really care which it was--her son was going to live. That was all that mattered. He was going to live!

_______________________________________________

A secondary group of clansmen followed the first in another foray against the Frasers after a few days; it was thier duty to harrass the clan Fraser in any manner they saw fit so as to divert any attention away from what the intentions of the first group was to be.

They soon set about burning small, isolated crofts in the Fraser lands and taking the livestock as booty for their efforts. Eventually, the livestock would be split among the men and their families once they returned home. But for now they had secreted them away in a small cave they had found and had built a small corral in just for that purpose.

After each raid, they became bolder; the Frasers soon knew exactly who it was that was destroying thier lands and stealing from them. Soon they became the hunted amid the glens and the rocky moors that were a part of the Fraser lands as the Frasers set out to make war upon them and to get what was theirs back.

And so the war between the Frasers and the MacLeods began in earnest.....

________________________________________

One man, dirty and bedraggled from the morning rain, walked between two others. His hands were bound with leather straps behind him; about his throat was a long,leather rope which one of the men who walked beside him held. It was obvious that at some point there had been a struggle and the man who was bound had been on the losing side of it with a bruised and bloody face and raw knuckles.

The clouds that had brought the rain had now lowered to the ground to become a dense fog and it was through this they walked. It was hard to see where to place one's feet for the ground was littered in broken rocks, slick from the wetness of the day; it made the going treacherous at best.

There was much cursing going on between all the men who wore the tartan of the Clan MacLeod; every once in a while their prisoner took the brunt of thier impatience to get home by being punched or hit in frustration.

The prisoner had had enough of that kind of treatment and had enough of an idea as to the he was being taken back to the MacLeod lands. But he wasn't about to go quietly--he was the laird of the clan Fraser, after all! He had too much pride in that position as well as the knowledge and realization that he would never live it down because he had been taken in his bed in the middle of the night by a mere few who had overcome all his men he had surrounded himself with.

He glanced to the right and left; he knew this land like the back of his hand and that was his advantage. When the rope grew loose as the man who held it came closer to him, he made a run away from his captors in an effort to gain his freedom by taking them by surprise.

And surprise them he did by his actions but a swift heave backwards tightened the rope again. When it tightened, it caused him to loose his footing on the wet ground; he fell heavily and lay still.

Angus and the rest of the men rushed forward all at once to see what had happened to the laird of clan Fraser. Angus dropped heavily to his knees moving his claymore out of the way and felt around the ground for the laird. "Still ha' him?" he asked of the man who had been the one who had held the laird.

"Aye, I do," came the reply.

Angus' calloused fingers followed the leather leash until he found the end of it and the body still attached. Placing a hand on the laird's chest, he felt for any breathing but felt nothing. He glanced solemnly at his clansmen and shook his head. He then placed his head on the laird's chest and listened for a heartbeat while he felt about with one hand to see if he could find where the laird had been injured.

No heartbeat.

A oozing about the head made Angus bring his hand up in front of his face to look at it and then he turned it about so that all could see the deep red stain that trickled down his palm. It was quite obvious that it was blood--God knows they had each seen enough of it in thier combined lifetimes.

Pulling the laird upright into a sitting position, Angus propped him up against a small boulder that jutted up out of the ground near them. The laird's head lolled to one side and Angus looked at him for a long time, wiping his nose occasionally on his sleeve from the wet. Finally, he broke the silence that had come over all of them except for the uneasy glances that had passed between all of them.

"Well, lads," he said as he looked at all of them, one by one. "It has begun!"

Chapter Seven

The healer glanced over at the child's mother, knowing that she would be full of questions, but uncertain of how to answer her without giving herself away. Still, the questions were there in her eyes--one could easily read it.

She stood and went to stir the small crock of stew and looked back over her shoulder at her guest. "Will ye sup with me? It will strenghten you."

Caolin began to reply then thought better of it. Instead, her eyes drifted about as she took in the drying herbs and grasses that hung from the rafters, the rich and varied tapestries that hung from the walls and everything else which surrounded her. Her mind was swirling with unanswered questions; fear kept her from asking any of the healer. She restlessly got up to pace the floor and in a moment's time, found herself staring at her son sleeping peacfully as if nothing had ever been wrong with him.

Was it a miracle the healer had performed or had it been magic? she found herself asking silently as she thought about what she had witnessed. How had this woman known that they were coming? "I've been expeecting you," she had said. Did she have the Sight? Caolin crossed herself at the thought and made a sign against evil that she hoped the healer didn't see.

"Will you dine with me? I rarely get visitors here and one can get so lonely at times," the healer said as she repeated her invitation. Her eyes glanced in the same direction as Caolin's; the rapid motion of Caolin's hand wasn't missed by her in the least.

Caolin slowly turned to face the woman who shared the same room with her and, despite her misgivings, nodded her assent. The stew smelled delicious and her stomach grumbled in protest for she hadn't eaten all day. "Aye, I will." She made her way to the sturdy table in that was placed to one side of the room and sat.

A wooden bowl was placed in front of her, heaped with a mound of the stew. She breathed deeply the aroma of it, closing her eyes in pleasure. She looked expectantly at her hostess, who sat a beaker of cool water before her and then proceeded to get her own dinner.

Sitting across from her guest, she began to eat but paused as she realized that her guest hadn't picked up her spoon yet to eat but sat staring at her. Coolly she looked into Caolin's eyes and stated, "You have questions about me."

Startled that it was so obvious, color flew into Caolin's face; she turned her face away until she could compose herself. Once she managed to achieve that, she looked back at the other woman and nodded yes.

The healer waited expectantly. "Ask but I will tell you that I may not know the answers you seek."

One of Caolin's hands reached up to clutch at a small silver crucifix that hung about her neck as if to garner strength from it. She then asked in a half whisper, "Are ye th' witch?"

"Some have called me that," the healer answered in all honesty. "But I have been called many things in my lifetime." She watched as she saw her guest cross herself at the answer; it pained her to see it. "You have nothing to fear from me." She picked up her spoon and continued to eat then glanced at the other woman's bowl. "Eat, it's getting cold."

Caolin stared at her; the revelation of the healer's identity both frightened her and yet caused much wonder. She picked up her spoon and shoveled the food in her mouth, nodding in appreciation in the taste of the stew. "'Tis guid." She lowered her eyes so that she didn't have to look at the other woman then asked. "How did ye know we were comin'?"

"Call it a feeling. Surely you sometimes know something before it happens, do you not?" The healer shrugged and stirred at her stew, always watching and observing Caolin's reactions.

Reluctantly, Caolin nodded. "Aye, at times I do."

"Then you know why I knew that you were coming," the healer carefully replied and left it at that. She took another bite and waited for the next question.

Caolin's eyes drifted back to where her child lay and the healer's eyes followed hers. Softly she whispered, "Ye are sure he will live?"

The healer's voice took on a different timbre as she spoke in an almost unearthly way while her eyes seemed to look out through the distances of time and space. "He will live a very long life, Caolin. That is, providing he makes it through his childhood." She paused and blinked for a moment then looked directly at Caolin. "I cannot promise it to be a happy one but his will be one of his own making and of his own choices."

Caolin's eyes teared up at that and she shoved her bowl away then bowed her head. "I must go."

Cassandra stood up and leaned across the table towards Caolin. "Leave the child with me. He will still need me to watch over him a few days more." When Caolin looked at her sharply, she laid a comforting hand upon her arm. "He is safe here. No harm shall come to him, I will promise you that."

"Nae, I canna." Caolin stood to go and began to pull her shawl closer about her then paused to look at her hostess again. "Wha' be thy name?"

Standing also and drawing herself up to her full height, the healer answered, "Cassandra."

"'Tis nae a name frae around here!"

Cassandra nodded. "You're right, it's not." She looked back at Caolin and tried again. "Leave him with me."

Caolin was torn with her desire to get out of the house as quickly as possible and as far away as she could and her desire to do what was best for her child. Biting her lower lip, she heitated as she thought about it. She had never been away from him since his birth; the thought tore at her that perhaps the witch might cast a spell on him so that a changling would be found upon her return instead of her own child.

A thought occurred to her. "He will need to be fed."

"Yes."

"Then how--" she started to say but stopped as a hand flew up in the air.

"You are welcome here to come and go as you please, Caolin MacLeod, while he is with me in my care. You may come and give him the nourishment he will need as he needs it. Will that ease your fears?"

One hand traced a path to Caolin's mouth and stayed there as she thought some more, trying to come up with other reasons why her son shouldn't be left in this woman's care. She could think of none. Nodding finally as if in defeat, she turned to go over and give him a kiss goodbye after scooping him up into her arms.

Carefully placing the child down on the bed again, she turned and grabbed her cloak, threw it on then made her way to the door where the witch waited for her. "He will be..." she asked the witch.

"Do not fear for him; I will protect him for you while you are away." Cassandra opened the door and gently shoved Caolin out. "Go home and rest. Then, when the time comes for him to eat, come again."

Caolin nodded and left but her feet trod a leaden path back towards her home while guilt weighted heavy on her mind for leaving her child with a total stranger, one who had acknowledged herself as being the Witch of Donan Woods. Again, she crossed herself and looked about to get her bearings then went back to an empty home.

________________________________________________________

Cassandra shut the door with a soft thud and leaned up against it, closing her eyes as she did so. She stayed that way for a few moments, collecting herself and gathering energy. The Sight had always taken its small toll on her once she had used it to see what she could about the future.

A small rustling noise caught her attention and she opened her green eyes to look at the child who had awakened and was kicking and struggling against his wrappings. Walking over to the bed, she lifted his small body into her arms, unwrapping him as he lay in them then looked closely at him, a small, gentle smile playing about her lips.

She nodded and began to croon at him as he began to wail at the top of his little lungs. This one shall bear watching as he grows, she found herself thinking. Even if he is not the one the Prophecy foretold about.

Chapter Eight

Manchuria

In the Court of the Emperor

His eyes flew open as he swiveled to an upright position in the low bed where he lay. Long, waist length locks the color of night waved wildly at the sudden movement; it contrasted with the paleness of his skin in both the moonlight and lantern lights which glowed all about the room.

Another dream.

His breath came in short bursts; it quickly calmed. He blinked then stood up so that his towering frame seemed to dominate all things about him. His voice echoed down the corridors as he called out for his manservant. "Lao!"

When his servant came in and prostrated himself at his feet, he replied, "Yes, O Gracious Master?" He didn't dare look at his master; to do so would mean instant death.

The man who had called his servant watched him dispassionately as if inspecting an animal. He remained silent. Then, in three swift gliding steps, slid his hand about the reassuring hilt of his sword which was always close at hand and hefted it up skywards, its weight familiar.

The sing as the blade flew downwards in the air and its stopping short of Lao's neck was audible and caused Lao to visibly tremble in fear. He stayed where he was, ready to accept death if that was what his master wanted to do with him. "Have you need of me, O my Master?"

The blade came closer to Lao's neck and bit into the flesh, enough to draw blood which trickled down the blade in a thin trail. "Find me the Sorcerer," the deep bass voice of the man standing ordered. When Lao hesitated and wasn't quick enough to obey, he found a foot in his ribcage and a slice across his neck that now bled freely. "Now! the man roared at him, making Lao jump to his feet with eyes downcast and then he bowed before scurrying away to do as ordered.

Several lanterns gleamed in the room creating a pattern of light and dark shadows across the man's muscular build as he stood there, waiting for the sorcerer to come. He raised his sword to the light, noting the pure beauty of it and the simple yet deadly design for the ten thousandths time then ran his hand smoothly along the blade as a lover might caress his mate.

He looked out over the neatly manicured garden that he could see from his window. He was troubled. For several nights in a row, he'd had dreams of his own death. Try as he might, he couldn't place where he was in the dream or by whose hand it was that swung the killing blow.

It made him uneasy.

He was a man unafraid of anything; he had outlived more lives than most and had learned in his long lifetime that not all was what it seemed. He had left a trail of blood and violence wherever he went through the centuries; it had started with violence, after all. It had become his creed. He throughly enjoyed seeing the mortals cringe as he walked by or becoming still as he stared at them as if they were his next meal. Fear is what he lived off of; fear in others of him is what he took pleasure in both in creating as well as in the execution of it upon someone before killing them.

He was strong and he knew it--perhaps one of the strongest of his kind, if not the strongest. He had no qualms, no scruples, no fear and his services were for sale to the highest bidder.

And yet the re-occurring dream disturbed him.....deeply.

It disturbed him enough to make him want an interpretation of it to see if it could be foretold as to why he dreamt of it and why one strange and misbegotten name lingered in his memory after the rest of the dream faded.

His tongue and mouth tried to form the words whose form and substance had no meaning for him as the name's language was foreign to him. His eyes glittered like dark onyx in the lanterns multiple lights as he repeated the name over and over with different pronunciations and inflections until he hit upon one that sounded correct. He then smiled wide but there was nothing in his smile but ice. He repeated the name out loud again to the walls.

"Con-nor Mac-Le-od."

______________________________________________________

In the mountains of Niri

In the Empire of the Clouds

Steel sliced through the air and was met with steel. Both blades sang from the impact then screeched as they were drug along their lengths until they reached the ends of their respective blades.

Low laughter, followed by another one joining it filled the air and a hand clapped the back of a small, Asian featured man; the man's eyes missed nothing. "It will do, my old friend. It will do." The man whose spoke turned his attention towards his friend. His iron-gray hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail but wisps of it flew around his tanned face, framing it in a near halo. His smile was warm and genuine, full of pleasure in life yet with a knowledge that there was still more to be accomplished in it too. Many would say he was handsome but those who had met their deaths by him had known he was deadly when a sword was placed into his hand, fair to his opponents and a master of swordplay.

The smaller of the two men took both of the swords and put them away to one side of the cave they stood in. "Sit." He indicated a place by the fire; both sat and gazed into it silently.

Finally, the older looking of the two broke the silence. "Tomorrow then, I leave."

"Yes. Where will you go, do you think?"

The older man shrugged. "Someplace warm--" he grinned and then looked at his friend, "--unlike here!" He laughed then turned serious. "Spain, I think. It has been a very long time since I was there."

"And the Kurgan?" the other man inquired, his eyebrows raised but his face calm.

The older man's face darkened. "If he comes for me, I'll be ready. There'll be no more untimely interuptions the next time, Nakano. No more."

The man called Nakano nodded solemnly as he cut an apple in half and offered a half to the other man next to him. "I see..." He calmly chewed on the fruit for a moment then commented, "But the next time could be the last time for one of you, Tak Ne."

Tak Ne nodded. "Then let us pray that it is him rather than me!"

Chapter Nine

Three days came and went. Caolin faithfully traveled back and forth between the Witch's house and her own to feed her son and tend to his needs. Each time she saw him, she was surprised at how much stronger he seemed from just a few hours previously. Despite her original misgivings about leaving him with the Witch of Donan Woods, she had come to learn a new respect for her and for the knowledge she held. She was no longer afraid of who she was much to Cassandra's relief, but Cassandra knew in her heart that it was not her destiny to teach this child. Her time of teaching had yet to become a reality despite the centuries of waiting for the Prophecy to become fulfilled. This child would have to manage without her help to learn about what lay ahead for him on his own.

On the evening of the third day, Cassandra cradled Connor in her arms a final time then returned him back into his mother's waiting arms. She gently stroked the wild hair which seemed to have a mind of its own, then smiled at his mother. "Time for you to take him home. He's a good baby although a bit stubborn at times." Her smiled widened as she spoke the last words then she sighed softly.

Caolin nodded in agreement and then said in a heartfelt voice, "Thank ye. If there is anything I can do for ye..."

Cassandra took her by her shoulders and spoke in a voice that seemed to travel to her soul and the very center of her mind. "Listen to me very carefully, Caolin MacLeod. When you leave here today, you will remember nothing of the time you have come here and nothing of the cure or the illness of your son." She paused to gauge the effect of her words on the other woman.

Caolin seemed transfixed by what she was hearing; her eyes seemed tostare at her, unseeing, but she was coherent enough to nod. "I dinnae know ye."

Cassandra nodded. "That's right. And you've never been here and don't know where to look to find it. And you won't try to look ever. Do you understand?"

Caolin nodded then blinked a few times before looking about. Connor started to cry in her arms and she began to fuss with him. She looked about a final time then turned about to head back home with her son, never pausing once to look back at where she had just left.

If she had looked, she would have seen nothing but the woods. There was no sign that there had been a house there at all--just a boulder that jutted upright from the earth with three crescent moons carved on it from a very ancient and older era.

_______________________________________________

The rest of the year seemed to follow the seasons and the practices of farming. Occasionally, the Frasers would make forays into the MacLeod lands burning some of the more isolated crofts and stealing the livestock to take back home as booty.

In return, the MacLeods would retaliate in the same manner but sometimes blood was shed on both sides. Some were killed in the raids leaving thier families to mourn them and the victors to mock them. It all depended on if you asked a Fraser or a MacLeod how things were going at any given time.

Before everyone knew it, harvest time had come and the rush was on to being in what meager crops there were that had been raised during the year. They had to ensure that all was prepared and stored before the first snows hit. Most of the first storms always hit with a surprising ferocity and most unexpectedly although one could say with almost certainty that they would come before Samheim. As to just exactly when, no one could say.

Every day, the men of Glenfinnan would glance at the sky to see if any sign could be gleaned as to if the snows would come soon. Angus particularly was anxious as to if there would be snow because he had plans to raid the frasers a final time before the snows isolated the Highlands again.

But it was not to be; the snows came earlier than usual blanketing the glens and moors and with it came a lone man riding over the mountains straight to the house of Angus MacLeod and his family and asked of him his hospitality which was not refused.

_____________________________________________

During the rest of the year, Connor grew as all children do. He soon was rolling about chasing a small ball of yarn he had stolen out of his mother's bin where she kept her thing that were waiting to be further worked with or perhaps dyed. Or, for that matter, just kept hidden, with the hopes that the young boy who ruled the house with his cries of tears and delight, would keep out of what was inside.

Before long he began to sit, then crawl, then talk and walk. The year continued with each day bringing with it new challenges and discoveries for the child to find. It also brought his mother close to taking the Lord's name in vain several times as she would find him in things that he wasn't supposed to be in or maybe doing things he shouldn't. She would scold him for it; tears would fall from Connor's eyes and his lower lip would begin to quiver. Then she would lose all anger immediately for she couldn't bear to see him cry.

Hogamany came and with it, his birthday. Sweet oatcakes served with honey were given to him then all was as it was everyday--there were still chores to be done and a home to tend despite it being his birthday. But Connor took it in stride for he didn't know the difference anyway. And, later that night, Caolin blessed the sanctuary of her bed once she settled down for the night and thanked her Lord for bringing Connor into her life a year ago.

Chapter Ten

The next year brought the loud skirling of bagpipes and the sounds of war drums beating in ever increasing tempos as the tempers flared higher between the Frasers and MacLeods and their intentions grew more deadly towards one another. Most of the spring when it came brought empty beds and women wondering if they would ever see their men alive again as the men marched off to war in the morning mists which covered the glens and hovered over Loch Shiel.

The women continued on in the village despite the lack of men to do many of what would be thier normal chores and routines. It was the only thing they could do for life had to go on, no matter how worrisome and hard it was on them. Families still had to be fed, the old and sick still needed to be tended, the children watched to ensure thier safety and thier survival.

With Caolin, the new year brought a slight blush to her cheek each time she had visited her brother's house with Connor in tow. The color to her cheeks was from her encounters with the man who had ridden across the mountains in the winter and had stayed until the snows had melted in the passes. She was in love; she hoped that he too would love her and her son in kind.

Connor was a small handful now, the fatness of his cheeks and face giving way to a more lean look. What startled more people were his eyes because he missed nothing and because they seemed to bore into you when he looked at someone. It often made people uncomfortable to be around him; they would make a sign against evil directed at him when his mother wasn't looking.

Connor would watch how the sign was made and would sit in a corner and practice it with his hands which were still clumsy. When he tired of that game, he would go to find his cousin, Dugal, now taller and stronger than many of his friends. He would try to tag along and do what they did, but many times they would run and hide from him so that he was left alone crying in the middle of the village with no one willing to help him or find out what was wrong.

All he wanted was to be accepted and to be like his cousin but no matter what he did or tried to say, he wasn't. He didn't understand the words thrown at him--bastard being one of many that he heard. He learned to silently listen in the dark corner of the room to what the adults were saying, to thrill at the stories the bards would tell when they came through, and to keep silent about any hurt or pain he felt. Silence became his friend, his companion, his confidante.

Caolin would comfort him as best as she was able but sometimes all she could do was look at him crying in her arms while the tears welled up in her own. Some things she knew she could never speak about to him--he wouldn't understand, he was too small. And, a voice reminded her gently, that they were too terrifying for her to want to remember.

But yet, she still remembered.... how could she ever forget that night?

_____________________________________________________

In late summer, during a lull in the fighting between the clans, Angus stood laboring at the forge, the soot and grime of his chosen profession smudged across face and bare arms. With one brawny arm, he wiped away the sweat from his face caused by the heat of the flames in the forge itself, then walked over and grabbed a dipper of cool water from a nearby bucket.

The sound of someone clearing his throat made Angus spit out the water that he was holding in his mouth as he savored the coolness of the liquid and swiftly turn about to face the man who stood just inside the doorway to the forge. "By th' Holy Spirit!" he exclaimed as he looked his visitor up and down. "What are ye doin' back here? Lost?"

The other man smiled crookedly. He was tall, red-headed with a ruddy complexion to match his hair with brightly gleaming green eyes. He let lose a loud guffaw at Angus' question and shook his head, "no". "How about a wee bit o' hospitality?" he asked and winked at Angus.

Angus chuckled and nodded, as he smiled broadly. "Iona!", he bellowed back towards the house, "Uisequebeath and two cups!" He directed his attention back at his guest and motioned him to sit upon a tree stump that was over in one corner of the forge. "So, MacGregor," he said as he also sat upon a bench facing the other man, "Why are ye here? Surely no' to spend another winter wi' me?"

They were interrupted by Iona bringing out the whisky and cups. Both man and wife exchanged a silent glance at one another then she left. Angus proceeded to pour out the golden liquor into the cups then looked up expectantl waiting for an answer to his questions.

MacGregor took a long swallow of his drink then set it down loudly on a small ledge beside him. "I want to court your sister, if ye will let me." He stood and began to pace the floor, shaking his head as he did so. "Nae, I want to marry her!" He paused and stared almost as if he were challenging Angus to deny him what he wanted.

Angus pursed his lips; his mind carefully turned over the thought of marrying his sister off to the prospective groom who stood in front of him. He was a good man, Angus knew; strong, kind, able to provide well for Caolin and any family they would have in the future. Still, the very thought nagged at him if for no other reason other than there was one more person he had to think of--wee Connor.

He took a long swallow then wiped his arm across his face to dry himself. His eyes lowered then raised to meet his guest's. "'Tis a big thing to want to marry a lass."

The defensiveness seemed to drain out of the other man; he seemed to be a little more relaxed than a few moments before. He nodded in agreement. "Aye, that it is." He sighed then plead his case some more to his hopefully soon to be brother-in-law. "I have a house, not big but it keeps the wind out an' th' snow from gathering o'er ye in th' winter. And I ha' land to raise a family on==providing there is one."

He paused for a moment then knotted his brows togethet as he stroked at his beard and whiskers thoughtfully. Glancing up at the man before him, he took two long strides that placed him in front of the other man. "But..." he said after a long pause, "I want to know about th' boy she had wi' her this past winter. Who is he an' who be th' da?" He waited as he watched Angus shift uneasily in his seat.

Angus narrowed his eyes causing crinkles to run down the creases of his face as he looked off into the distance towards the hills that surrounded Glenfinnan. He was an honest man; he could not lie to this man about Connor yet he also knew that if he told the complete truth, his sister might lose what might be her only chance of happiness. His eyes drifted back to the forge then to the man in front of him.

He stood and pushed his way past the other man and went to stoke up the forge. His powerful arms compressed the bellows so that the fire within the forge burned white hot. All the while, he kept quiet but his mind was racing as he thought of the words that would be the correct thing to say about the lad. Finally, the fire was burning as hot as it had been prior to his guest's arrival then he turned to him, gesturing for him to sit as he did.

MacGregor complied and waited expectantly for an answer.

One meaty hand pushed the hair out of Angus' face while he cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Th' lad, you say?" he began, almost hesitating as he spoke the words. "Did she no' tell ye this winter of th' lad?" When the other man shook his head, he slowly followed suit, looking much like an ox that swung his head from side to side, as it cleared everything in its path. He took a deep breath then loudly exhaled it. "Th' lad is her son."

MacGregor frowned as he tried to grasp what had just been said. "Her...son," he said numbly then looked down at his hands that sat in his lap. Confusion battled upon his face as well as anger as he thought it over; confusion won out. "Then she was married before?"

Angus swallowed the bile that had come into his throat at the thought of the night he had failed her, in Fort William two years ago. Slowly and softly he replied, "No."

Again, MacGregor furrowed his brow. "If she wasna wed, an' he be her son..." he left the thought trail off unsaid. In a flash, he was up and about pacing the room angrily. "Why didnae she tell me? Who is th' lad's father?" he demanded as he pounded a fist upon a rocky ledge near him.

"I dinnae know who th' lad's father is, laddie," Angus said in a weary voice. "But I do know tha' th' lad is canny and smart. An' tha' she loves him wi' all her heart." Heaving a sigh, he went on to say, "As for why she didnae tell you, tha' is a question ye will ha' tae ask her." He eyed the other man. "Providing I let you see her."

All the fight suddenly went out of MacGregor at those words. He dropped down to sit on the first availble thing he could find and concentrated on his fists as they balled up then relaxed in his lap. "I don't want th' boy," he gruffly said. "I just want her." One hand reached up and pulled at his beard again. "At least I know that she can bear sons!" he went on in a more optomistic tone of voice.

Angus nodded. "Aye. But th' boy is still at teat. 'Twill be a year before he is weaned if I ha' any experience as a da." The sounds of children fighting in the house followed his words; both men smiled at the sound. "I wouldna change things at all, lad," he said as his gaze went to the sound of his children. "Iona, " he bellowed, "Quiet them down, woman! We are tryin' tae talk here!"

In a matter of moments all was quiet again. Angus directed his attention back at his guest. "He's a bonny lad, ye know, an' he needs a da badly." He stood and went back to the forge to pump the bellows again then turned back to the other man. "If ye don't take him, th' boy will be a foundling."

"Tha' no' my problem, is it?" MacGregor shot back. "It's yours!"

The blood boiled in Angus and he flushed red as his temper flew. "Damn your stubborn Highland pride!," he raged. "Do ye want tae wed my sister or no?"

MacGregor calmly nodded. "Aye. But no' wi' th' lad in tow. He is a full member of th' clan, is he not?"

Growling, Angus spit out, "Aye."

"Then it is your responsibility tae find th' lad a family. It is no' my responsibility tae bring him up as my own."

Angus knew that the man was right. It made him even more angry because there was no other way he could see to take care of the matter. Still, he dreaded telling his sister that the lad would stay behind should she say yes to MacGregor. He went over and poured another drink, swallowing it in one gulp then wincing as it went burning down his throat. He drew his sleeve across his mouth again to dry it then turned to see himself being watched calmly. "Ye are pretty canny, MacGregor, I wi' gi' ye tha'!" He wagged a finger at the other man. "One year from now, ye will wed my sister, God willing!" He stuck his hand out; MacGregor stood and grabbed it tightly with his own and both sealed the deal.

"One year, " Angus said nodding at the man across from him.

The other man nodded, grinning widely in triumph at his future in law. "Aye, a year!"

Chapter Eleven

The next year whirled about as preparations were made for the wedding and the dowry agreement was haggled over. Then, after many times back and forth between the two families, an agreement was finally made and the preparations for that exchange to take place too was soon in order.

In between all the plans and the normal everyday life that the people of Glenfinnan routinely went through year-round, came the occasional clashes with the Frasers who had yet to forget what had happened three years before. Connor and his small gathering of friends would join in the parade of townspeople who had congregated to see thier men off to defend thier homes and property once again. It was normally as jubilant when the men left as it was for any Holy Day; the Father came down to bless them all, then rode off besides the men to fight the enemy too.

Connor had at last grown more gangley, all legs and arms while his face began to lose the fat off it, revealing the face that lay underneath. His nose and face was soon dusted with light freckles in the spring; and his gleeful laugh was heard more often than not. He was a daring lad; cunning, intelligent and willing to take risks that he knew he shouldn't take. For the risks he took, he was often on the wrong side of a switch and would wail painfully at the whipping he had gotten at the hands of his mother.

As Angus had feared, Caolin had not taken the news well that Connor was not to come with her once she was wed. She stormed about one minute at him when he told her and in the next moment had collapsed to the floor, wailing and screaming at him for giving her away but not being firm enough to tell her suitor that her son would come with her after the ceremony.

It was many months before Caolin would even talk to him once she knew that it was inevitible. She spent all her time with her son, teaching him the things she thought he should know from his mother and constantly telling him that he was well loved. Connor would squirm when she clutched him to her breast, pushing and shoving her away until she released him so that he could run away and play. Before she knew it he was weaned from her breast; the time drew near for the wedding.

The day before the wedding, both Caolin and Connor walked down to the edge of the loch where they sat and watched the fishing boats upon it. Caolin told her son the story of the water horse who would come up from the loch and drown an unsuspecting person if one wasn't good.

Connor's eyes grew round at the tale; his mouth opened in a red "O" shape. "Is it true, mama?" he asked her. "Is it true tha' th' water horse will come for me if I am no' guid?" When she nodded with a sad smile on her face, he reached up and touched her face. "I promise, I will be guid."

Tears sprung to her eyes which caused Connor to look at her in fear and confusion. "Dinnae cry, mama! I will take care of ye!"

She grabbed at him and held onto him tightly. This time though he didn't try to get away, but squeezed her tightly back. "Oh, Blossom," she whispered in his hair, "Mama is going away in th' morn an' ye will stay here wi' Angus."

"Where are ye going? I want to come wi' ye, mama!" Connor cried, tears welling down his cheeks, wetting her shoulder. "Let me come too, I will be guid, I promise!"

Caolin began to sob loudly at his words then drew back to look at her son. "I know ye would be guid, Blossom," she managed to choke out at last. "But I need ye to stay here an' watch our home for me while I am away." She roughly wiped at her eyes and daubed at his gently. "Dinnae cry, son. Be brave, like any guid Highland lad." Caolin stared intently at her son's face, remembering him as he was at that very moment before storing the memory in her heart.

"Will ye come for me, mama?" Connor finally asked, once he had stopped crying.

"I dinnae know, Connor. I will try, " she answered as honestly as she was able to. "I dinnae know wha' will happen but always remember me. Promise me, ye will always remember me!"

Solemnly he answered, "I will, mama. I will."

The rest of the afternoon was spent playing with one another, all chores forgotten for this last day together. Connor managed to get his mother into the water by dragging on her skirt, until he slipped on some rocks under the water and momentarily went under.

Caolin started screaming his name as she thrashed around in the water for her son. The loch water was dark and thick with silt; it made it hard to see much of anything if it was under the surface.

Finally, he bobbed to the surface, crying hysterically and thrashing about. She grabbed at him; he clutched at her skirts until she was helplessly entangled in them and both fell back into the water again. But she still had hold of him and both surfaced almost as quickly as they had disappeared under the surface.

They made their way back to shore and lay there gasping for air while coughing up the brackish loch water. Once Caolin calmed her son down, she turned to him and gently smiled as she stroked his face. "My water horse, " she said to him then kissed the end of his nose. "My sweet water horse."

__________________________________________________________

Morning came and Caolin rose early so she could see Connor sleep for the last time. She sat by his bed quietly observing the rise and fall of his chest, the coloring on his cheeks, the sweet scent of him that seemed to fill the air. There would be hardly any time for goodbyes once the wedding was in progress and afterwards during the party. For her, she felt as if her heart was torn in two directions at one by two different teams of horses, each strong in thier own right.

She hated to wake him but finally she did, hurrying him along to eat and get dressed in his clothes. She had to rush around herself so that she would not be late to her brother's house before her groom came for her to take her to the small chapel in Glenfinnan.

As they walked hand in hand towards Angus' home, she tried to play guessing games with Connor to keep his active mind off what was yet to come later in the day. And yet, she silently admitted to herself, to keep her own mind off of what was to come. She was frightened of the wedding night, yet at the same time, curious of the man she was to wed on this day. She felt giddy, sad, grief-stricken, and so much more all at once that she wondered if all soon to be brides felt like this on thier wedding day.

Once they arrived, they set about at a frantic pace--Connor was sent to play while the men sat around already preparing for the party afterwards well ahead of the event by drinking and bragging amongst themselves. Before long the noise level had increased tremendously both in and out of the home and large tables were set outside for the guests and clanspeople to sit at.

One by one the tables began to fill with food but that was soon broken up with the arrival of the groom who came riding up on a great bay. Word spread that he had arrived; Iona came rushing in to tell Caolin of the news. "He's here, " she panted as she burst into the room. "Bonny looking, too!" she added and giggled. She eyed her sister who nodded silently at the news then turned to look out the small window.

Iona watched her for a moment then came up behind her and gave her a tight hug. "I'll take guid care of your son, Caolin. I promise ye this."

At this, Caolin turned and buried her face into her sister in law's shoulder, crying as if there was no hope ever again for her. The time had come at last.

Iona comforted her as best as she was able then dried her eyes as if she were a small child. She tilted Caolin's head up and nodded confidently at her. "Ye will do fine, sister. An' so will thy son."

Chapter Twelve

The wedding went without anything untowards happening, much to Caolin's relief. After the bans were read and both the rites as well as the blessing was given the chapel and even outside the chapel were heard to reverberate with a rousing, "Amen!" from the villagers who had all attended and who craned their necks to get a look at the new couple once they exited the church.

Connor had behaved himself well during the ceremony but towards the end began fretting and squirming about in Iona's arms. She hushed him; he stilled for a moment but once he saw his mother and the stranger with her came past he let out a large wail of "Mama!" Everyone who heard him smiled and then the party was on for the newlyweds.

Long wooden tables had been constructed for the guests; each seemed to bow from the weight of the food placed on each of them as well as the never ending supply of drink. Pipers played along with the rhythymic beating of the accompanying drums, tunes that seemed to pull the dancers among the people to whirl about in wild abandon. The clapping to the music kept time very well as it followed the steady, merry tunes that seemed to be pulled out of the air from nowhere so it seemed.

Connor had taken to playing under the tables now that he was free to run and play; he was hiding from everyone, and fighting with the dogs for the small scraps of food that fell to the ground from the table. He wasn't interested in eating it but instead squeezed it between his fingers to see what would happen. The oozing of the softer foods between his fingers made him giggle and laugh as only a child can do as they discover something new.

Occasionally, he would bend down and crank his head sideways as he tried to look up to see what was under the men's kilts, and then would crawl over to lift the hem of the women's dresses to see how far he could see with them too. Most of the time he found that it was far too dark to see much of anything, much to his childish disappointment. He was often kicked at during his attempts which made him scurry away on hands and knees from the offending feet.

For most of the afternoon, he stayed there until he spied his mother's brightly flushed face peeking at him. "Come here, Blosssom. Mama wants t' dance wi' thee!"

Connor looked at her for a moment solemnly then crawled out from underneath the table and found himself immediately scooped up in his mother's arms. His eyes grew wide with wonder as he took in all the people, singing, dancing, and talking boisterously among themselves.

Caolin noted his grimy hands and lifted one side of her skirt to wipe them off, unmindful that it was her best dress she was using as a towel. One by one, she cleaned his fingers then kissed each one in turn before proceeding to the next one in line. Tears sprang to her eyes as she did the job and a strange expression stole over her face despite her trying to hide it from her son.

Connor noticed the change in his mother immediately and his small face creased with worry. "Mama, ye be well?" he asked her as he laid a palm gently on her cheek.

"Aye, love, 'tis but th' day," she lied to him then inspected his hands a final time. "Guid, now 'tis time for th' dance."

The skirling of the pipes had slowed to a more quiet, almost mournful sounding tune, making Caolin choke on the lump that had formed in her throat as she slowly turned in time to the music with Connor in her arms. Her feet glided in time worn patterns that had been used since long before her time, perhaps even long before her grandmother's time or even longer.

Connor clung to his mother tightly, a smile of glee running across his face as he listened to the music while watching the world turn in great circles around and around. After a few strains of the music, he yawned then laid his small head upon his mother's shoulders, breathing in the familiar scent of her and feeling the loving warmth that seemed to surround him in a glow of security as well as safety.

One of his mother's hands stole to his head to stroke the wild curls that surrounded the fringes of his hair as he was swayed and rocked while the music played on. They paused at the tiny braids that lined both side of his face, fingering each bit of them before stopping at the bottom of each one. Caolin closed her eyes to the silent sound of her heart breaking; she had noticed the sun sinking lower in the sky. Soon enough, the time to go would be here and she would leave her son and her family behind her, perhaps forever.

On the other side of the dance area, MacGregor stood talking and taking advice from his new family member on just how to treat a wife on their wedding night. The talk was raucous, bawdy and more than anything else, very desriptive of the acts the men bragged about doing to their wives. He laughed along with the rest of the men, but his eyes kept stealing over to watch his wife with the lad who she called son. After having so much to drink, his temper was beginning to rise each time he saw her touched the child gently and his jealousy was also beginning to come to the fore of all his emotions. If he had thought about it, he would have realized that he was jealous of the child and of the way he was treated by his mother but he was not a man who thought things of that nature through. He was a man of passion as well as action and he was about to take the action he thought was merited by the mere sight of the the mother, now his wife, and her child.

"Wife!" he bellowed across the expanse of grass that seperated them. "'Tis time we be leavin' to go home!"

At the sound of her husband's voice, Caolin paused and turned; she clutched her now sleeping son to her almost as if to keep him there forever.

"Caolin!" MacGregor bellowed again than pushed and shoved his way through the crowds to his wife's side. He looked at her then roughly pulled the sleeping child away from her which made the boy wake. He slung the boy to the ground by one arm and then grabbed at his wife. Glaring at her all the while, he ignored the screams of the boy he had awakened and who clung to his mother's skirt as he waited to be lifted back into the safety of her arms.

He callously grabbed her around her arm and pulled her in tow behind him as he made his way to the wagonload of goods that were a part of Caolin's dowry and inheritance from her mother and her mother's mother. By the time they had reached it, Caolin was in tears, screaming at him to let her go and looking behind her to see her son running as fast as he could to catch up to them.

She looked back as she was roughly pushed upwards into the cart only to see her son trip and fall face first into the rock strewn earth, his face red with his crying and fear along with the non-understanding of what was happening spread all over it. His screams of "Mama, Mama!" tore at her; she tried to climb back down so she could go to him but was held in place by her husband's strong arm.

"Stay wife!" he ordered her. "Th' lad is nae more concern of yours. We will hav' our own ye can worry about so 'tis no good crying over th' lad. 'Tis done!" He clucked his tongue; the cart began to move away from the crowds of people, swaying to and fro with each step of the horse's hooves.

Connor got up, knees running blood in streams down his thin legs as well as his nose. He began running after his mother and the slowly retreating cart, all the while he screamed her name, begging and pleading with her to come back for him because she had forgotten him and had left him behind. He kept running till he no longer could run and fell exhausted into the ruts left by many carts on the rough path that led out of Glenfinnan into an unknown world that lay beyond the high hills which to him looked like vast mountains.

Both Iona and Angus had run after him and after a few steps, Angus had stopped them both from following the lad any further. The lad would have to learn early how to handle seperation from those he loved, Angus mentally told himself, despite his what his heart told him otherwise. It just would be a much earlier lesson than what he would have wanted for the lad.

Angus sighed deeply. He had been as shocked as anyone as to what had happened just now between his sister and her new husband but he had no say in it anymore. MacGregor was now kin and as kin and as the husband of his sister, Angus no longer had any say as to what happened to her. He listened to the screaming pleas of his nephew for only a moment more before jogging over to pick him up in a giant swooping motion and hugged him tightly. "Come, laddie, 'tis time to go to thy new home," he softly said as he took a final look down the road at the distant cart. He shook his head a final time, planted a reassuring kiss on the boy's cheek then turned to go home for the rest of the day.

Chapter Thirteen

For almost the next six months, Connor would go out to the small path that lead out of town and stand waiting for his mother to return until he was taken by the hand back to his new home either by Angus or by Iona. He had stopped talking in most regards, and often his face reflected the heavy sadness as well as the incomprehension that his mother would not be coming home to him each night.

Iona was worried about him and spoke often to Angus about it in the quiet of the night while all the children were asleep. She knew that in time the memory of his mother would fade and be replaced by the memories he had of the home he now shared with them. She wanted to care for him as she had promised Caolin she would but she found that she wasn't sure where to begin with him. Perhaps he needed something to keep his mind off what had happened; it was true that already he was slowly fitting in and becoming a part of the family but he needed something else too that perhaps they couldn't provide.

"Angus, do ye think tha' wee Connor should be takin' on so about Caolin? I worry about th' lad so." Her brow creased and she rolled over to look her husband in the face. "He be gettin' of an age where he can help here an' wi' th' chores elsewhere."

Angus rubbed at her bare skin that lay against him under the thick hides that covered the two of them as he thought about it. He had never said much about the lad but what his wife had voiced just now was how he felt also. The lad was soon to be four years of age, an age that was expected to start learning the responsibilities about the house and the small area of land they held as their own. He grunted in agreement, then turned his head to look towards the small beds of all the children on the other side of the room. "Aye, 'tis well time. Winter will soon be here; an' soon th' autumn lambing time will come." He lay his hand upon his wife's head to lay it against his chest as he continued, "His heart be broken, as would any bairn's should their mother go away. I dinna think he understands but I do think tha' if we gi' him something tae keep him tae bide his time an' learn tae be responsible as well as doin' th' chores tha' he can do, then he will get over it sooner."

There was a silence that lay between them for a few moments. Iona listened to the steady beating of her husband's heart then after he didn't say more, she asked, "An' wha' do ye suggest we do for him?"

"Th' lad is not strong, Iona but he is quick an' agile. I've been watchin' him--he shows promise tae be guid wi' his hands. Perhaps I can teach him some of my smithing skills....but no' now. Perhaps later, if he continues tae grow but no be strong as others such as Dugal."

"Dugal grows weary of him already," Iona said as a smile stole to her lips. "Connor follows him like a shadow everywhere he goes; Dugal will no tolerate it for long if it continues."

A rumble of a chuckle vibrated through Angus' chest. "Aye, tha' be Dugal, all right. He does no' tolerate him well now; I think he may be jealous." Angus' voice turned serious. "We'll gi' th' lad a lamb tae care for. It will teach him responsibility an' companionship outside of his cousin." He glanced down at his wife then went on, "He will be a guid shepherd by th' time he is old enough tae take th' flock out to the high grounds."

Iona nodded in agreement. "Aye, it will be well this way. It would solve Dugal's problems for th' moment wi' him also."

"Aye, tha' it would!"

With that, both broke out in stifled laughter that ended once the candle was blown out.

__________________________________________________

Connor took to the lamb as if it was something well cherished, which in fact it was. He often went out to care for it, and brought it indoors when it rained so as to keep it from getting sick as well as saving bits of his dinner to give to it once no one was looking.

Slowly but surely, he gave up waiting for his mother to return and the memory slipped away to the deep corners of his child's mind. To him, his family consisted of Angus, Iona, Dugal and the twins; if he remembered his mother he said nothing of her.

He grew by leaps and bounds over the next year, all long legs and arms with blue-green eyes that missed nothing, a mischievous smile and infectious laughter. He was also fleet of foot, and very agile for a child of his age. He normally beat his playmates when in a foot race by nearly half a stride. The light dusting of freckles spread from what had been across the bridge of his nose to cover ever so lightly the rest of his face.

Often, once his chores were done, he would meander back towards the forge where he knew Angus would be, still working the bellows and creating out of iron the tools necessary for them and others to make their lives a little more bearable. There were scythes to be sharpened, plows to be made, swords that seemed to glitter in the light like stars in the sky as the sunlight reflected on them.

Angus welcomed him and would give him pieces of scrap metal to work on; Connor would hammer at them as he tried to imitate what he saw the older man doing. The tip of his tongue would peek from the corner of his full lips as he concentrated on the work before him. The sight of the lad studiously banging away at the metal made Angus smile secretly.

One day, Connor came in and climbed up on a bench that was near the great anvil that Angus was working a large piece of metal on. He sat silent and still as he intently watched the work in progress, which was highly unusual for him.

His silence stilled the hammer that Angus held in his hand; he turned to look at the lad and waited for him to speak a question that he knew was coming--it was easily read on the boy's face that something was bothering him.

Connor looked at him for a long moment then burst out, "Are ye my da, Angus?"

The question caught the man off guard but he collected himself in a quick moment. Gathering the boy into his arms, he walked over to sit at the table near the doorway where it was much cooler than by the forge itself. He thought for a moment then answered the boy honestly, "Nae, laddie, I am no' thy da. I wish I were."

Connor's face grew puzzled as he looked at the man before him. "If ye no be my da, Angus, then who be him?"

Angus looked at him for a long moment then looked far into the distance, as if he were seeing something only he could see. Finally, he slowly shook his head, as he answered, "I dinnae know, lad. I ha' never known, but dinnae worry too much about it." He patted Connor on the knee then tugged playfully at the small braids that hung on either side of Connor's face.

Connor pulled away then scrambled out of the man's arms. He trotted over to look out the tiny window towards the large hill that blocked one side of the entrance to Glenfinnan. Pointing to it, he said, "Be he outside of here? Be he on th' other side of th' mountain or of th' Five Sisters?"

Angus said softly, "I dinnae know, Connor. I wish I did."

Connor turned his attention back to the large hill again and stayed silent for a long moment as he tried to figure out what Angus had told him. If Angus wasn't his father, he reasoned, then who-- "Angus?"

"Aye?"

"Who be my mother then?" Connor turned to look back at his uncle, face expectant of the answer that he hoped would come.

"Thy mother is my sister, lad, " Angus replied gently. "No' who ye think it is. Do ye remember her?"

Connor cocked his head to one side as he thought hard on it, then said, "Nae." he turned back to the window and peered back out, laying his head upon his arms as he stared at it. So many questions whirled about in his head; questions without answers and answers that might or might not have questions as to who he was and where he came from. The taunts that he still occasionally heard from some of the other children had never made sense to him; and now, after getting a little of the answers he needed to hear, it made a little more sense but only a little. There was still so much yet to learn and understand before he could fully grasp what it all meant.

"Will she be comin' for me then, Angus? Will I be leavin' thee?"

Heaving a deep sigh, Angus looked the boy in the face squarely. "I dinnae think she will be coming for ye, lad. She is a long way away from Glenfinnan now."

Connor acted as if he hadn't heard him. Instead he whispered to the large hill he stared at, "Someday, I'll go up you all alone and will find her somewhere. Someday, maybe I will find my da too."

Angus stood and watched him for a moment, trying to decide if more needed to be said or if he had said too much already. He glanced inside the door then back at the boy before deciding finally to just leave him alone to his thoughts and went inside the house.

Connor closed his eyes as he heard the retreating steps then whispered, "Some day...."

"The Shepherd" the second part of Connor's childhood trilogy.

Back To the Authors' Pages