The Shepherd

Celedon

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Chapter One

The smell of freshly baked sweetened oatcakes made Connor’s eyes flutter open from deep sleep as he yawned audibly with his pink mouth stretching wide. His hands pulled the woolen blanket higher about his neck so he could stay warm. He lay still, silently listening to the rustling of his aunt’s skirts as she busied herself around the fireplace, already at her daily chores despite the sun not having risen as of yet.

The sounds comforted him and made him feel secure; the snores and grunts from Angus, the muffled sighs of contentment as the newest addition to the family nuzzled around his aunt’s abundant breast engorged with milk, the groans of Dugal who lay beside him in the big bed. His tiny, thin legs kicked at the blankets and at the dog that lay across them near the foot of the bed.

“Stop it!” Dugal’s muffled, grumpy voice sifted through the air, causing his mother to turn her attention to them from her place by the fire.

“Time for th’ two of ye t’ be getting’ out t’ take th’ sheep upwards into th’ pastures.” In a brisk two steps, she was at their side. Gently she lay her hand on them and began to shake them completely awake. “Gi’ up! Ye cannae lay in bed till th’ sun is high in th’ sky now!” Again, she shook them as she adjusted the baby at her breast with one hand and arm. “Time’s wastin’, get up!” She stepped back and gently smiled at the two boys before her, so different yet so close as if they really were brothers instead of cousins. <

With a great shrug, the blanket came sliding off the bed along with the sheepdog who scrambled towards the door so it could be let outside. Iona watched the boys for a moment more before going back to her cooking. But the sounds of a flurry of fists making contact with each other was followed by the wail of the younger of the two boys. Connor had once more gotten the worst end of her son’s temper. It had become a common occurrence.

“That will be th’ end of this nonsense, th’ two of ye!” Angus’ voice roared from his corner of the house. “Get up, an’ do as ye are bidden by thy mother. Ye both ha’ chores to do.” The tall man shuffled over to glower at the two boys who looked most contrite now that they knew they were in trouble.

Connor tried his best to look like he was sorry, but it was hard to do through his sniffling and muted sobs. He wiped his bloodied nose on a sleeve, then his eyes as he slipped out of the warm bed, as did his bedmate. With a quickness that belied his young years-- he was almost six now, he slipped into both woolen shirt and his kilt. The coldness outside still seeped inside the house despite the fire and he edged his way towards it so that at least for the moment, he would be warm again.

Iona knelt down to look into his nose and eyes to make sure that nothing was permanently injured. She gently tilted his head in all directions to get a good look then nodded. “Ye may ha’ a wee blackened eye frae this round, Connor MacLeod, but one day, ye will be able t’ win th’ fight. All ye need is time, laddie.”

“How much time? Will it be long?” Connor answered her in all seriousness, his face sober in expression.

Iona smiled, as she wiped at his face despite his pulling away and protesting at her fussing over him. “Nae, lad, ‘twill nae be long if ye keep growin’ as ye are.” The mewling of one of her other children made her remember her duties and she stood up to go back to them.

He sniffed his nose again then licked his lips. “I’m hungry! A cake, please?”

With a quick giggle, Iona turned back and reached out to tickle the boy, making him giggle in return and nodded. “Aye, my wee Hielan’ laddie, a cake fo’ ye, it ‘tis!” She stood and passed off the baby in her arms to his father, who accepted his new son readily. One still-warm oatcake was placed on a wooden plate along with a honeycomb, (céir-bheach.) “Go sit, thy broth I will bring thee.”

A look passed between husband and wife then simultaneously they looked at their oldest child. He had a temper, that much was sure, but he was also a very loving and protective boy who loved to play with his friends, was constantly hungry, as well as enjoyed being the center of attention in the family and in the clan. He was one who was often a challenging child; he seemed to be unafraid of anything and was more than willing to take risks his parents thought were unnecessary more times than not. And, he was a child that laughed in the face of punishment, even when he knew he was in the wrong.

Both his parents knew that he had to be punished for hitting his cousin this morning, but then again, Connor also needed to be punished. Fair was fair in the household; all knew that. If they were to survive the harsh life one lived in the Highlands then they all had to work together otherwise they would die. They were all clan and family; each life was dependent upon the other; it was the traditional way of life and had been like this for generations. And they expected it to continue to be like that forever; the old ways were held in highest honor among Highlanders, no matter what clan they were.

A slight shrug of the shoulders by Iona was all that Angus needed in order to understand that it was up to him to do the punishing, as was it always was. He pointed to the two boys then pointed to the door. “Outside, now.” He waited, pulling himself up to his full height and frowned at them when they were slow to respond. “Move! Ye have chores tae do!”

With their father’s roar telling them to move, both jumped up from the table, nearly falling over each other in the race to the door. Both then stumbled out into the chilly morning and waited for what they knew would be coming next--a walloping like only their father could give. Dugal hissed to Connor through chattering teeth, “’Tis all your doin’. I hate ye!”

“Nae, ‘tis thy own fault!. Ye are tae blame!” Connor hotly retorted then turned and ran away. “If ye hadna tried tae take th’ entire bed, we wouldna be waitin’ now for your da’,” he said from a safe distance, well out of reach of his cousin’s fists. His eyes searched the ground for small pebbles and rocks he could stock up on for ammunition for the sling that he carried. They were helpful should any predator try to take down a ewe, or Angus’ prize ram. They were also helpful when it came down to defending himself from his cousin’s temper. His aim kept continuing to improve, as did the distance Dugal kept from him when Connor had it out and was willing to use it.

Dugal’s face grew dark at his cousin’s words while his hands balled up into fists. It wasn’t enough that he had to go to the pastures and tend the sheep herd! He also had to tend his smaller cousin too—the one who vexed him almost constantly, who followed him and his friends around like a shadow, the one who had come to stay in what had been his home to rule after Aunt Caolin had married and moved away. Connor made life difficult for him—all he wanted was to be left alone, without having to play nursemaid! “If ye hadna—“ he began to say but stopped when he heard and saw the door open and his father come out.

Angus took one look at both boys and saw that they hadn’t settled their differences at all like he had hoped they would. He hated to wallop them with a switch or stick but they had to learn that there was no fighting allowed in the house or otherwise. He had no other choice and his wife expected no less of him. With a deep sigh, he walked over to a small tree and broke of a small branch as round as two of his fingers, then methodically removed all of the smaller twigs from it.

Turning around, he looked at each lad in turn and watched them go pale and gulp hard when he directed his attention towards them. He assembled his face into a semblance of sternness and tightened his mouth until it was only a thin line that slashed across his face between moustache and beard. He glanced at his son and motioned for him to come forward to take his licks from the stick.

Dugal hesitated for a fraction of a moment, knowing that he would get the worst of the walloping because he had started the fighting. He was resentful of the fact that his cousin nearly always seemed to get off lighter than he ever did even though Connor might be to blame for whatever they were getting walloped for. Maybe it was true what his friends said to him regarding his cousin—maybe he was a spawn of Satan! He often quietly listened to them say it most of the time before he’d knock them down for daring to say it to his face. He couldn’t stand for anyone to taunt or make fun of his younger cousin—that was his duty to do and only he was allowed to do it.

He looked at his father with tears in his eyes and muttered a soft, “Da, I’m sorry!” One hand wiped at his eyes as he turned and lifted up his kilt to reveal his bare buttocks. He closed his eyes and waited for the first blow to fall as he silently prayed for the walloping to be over quickly.

Angus raised the branch then hesitated when he saw the younger boy watching him somberly from where he sat on the ground, knees drawn up to his chin. “You know th’ rules, Dugal. Nae fightin’. A guid Hielan’ mon knows when to fight and why he’s fightin’, “ he intoned loudly so that Connor could hear what he was saying too. “Tha’ tis th’ rules—ye wouldna fight nor beat on thy sisters, would ye?” Fraction by fraction, the branch began to lower.

When Dugal shook his head “no”, Angus continued. “Why did ye hit thy cousin?”

Dugal saw an opening that could prevent get a walloping and decided to take advantage of it. “He started it! He was on my side o’ th’ bed!”

“I was no’!” Connor interjected loudly then quieted when a brawny hand went up in the air, motioning him to stay still. He shot an indignant look at his older cousin then turned his intense blue eyes on his uncle. “I was layin’ there, payin’ him no heed but th’ dog growed heavy on my feet!”

Angus shot his eyes and attention towards the younger lad. “Did I no’ motion for ye tae be quiet? Did I ask ye for thy side of wha’ happened? Nae, I dinna! Now, be still wi’ ye, an’ go feed th’ chickens.” He paused then added, “An’ gather th’ eggs for thy aunt.” He squinted at the boy then shook the branch at him in an unsaid threat. He shooed him off then sighed again to himself. The older Connor got, the more Angus was reminded of what his brother, Collum, had had to say about him on the day of his birth: that he didn’t look like any MacLeod anyone had ever remembered or had known.

He looked at his son, the fruit of both his loins and the woman he married. He, at least, looked like a MacLeod; he had Collum’s dark hair and eyes along with the broadness of shoulder and hip that bespoke of a good man that would be well worth standing beside in the line of battle when and if the time came. Strong and sturdy; that was his son and the rest of his children also were built so. But Connor had always looked more frail and weaker when seen with the other children. Connor seemed to be one that was not meant for everything that one thought of when you thought of a MacLeod.

He shoved his son away from him after turning him around and hitting him once with the branch. “Scream as if I ha’ hit ye an’ sent ye to th’ Divil himself,” he ordered his son then said in a low voice, “Then gae tae thy chores, an’ tae th’ pastures.”

Dugal stood for a moment, stunned, before yelping as the branch connected. He whirled about and stared at his father then let out a whoop that was guaranteed to satisfy his mother that he had been properly punished. He then raced towards his father who scooped him up into a tight bear hug. “Sorry, Da. I love thee,” he whispered into Angus’ hair before turning and scampering off to do his daily chores.

Angus watched him go then turned to look off over the loch and shook his head. In that instant, he began to feel far older than what he really was. After all, he had banished his brother, then sent away his sister to be married and in the process, had agreed to separate mother and son forever as a part of the bridal dowry. It made him feel so alone and--lost. He carried the burden and the guilt with him every day of his actions in regards to what he had done to his family. And there was no turning back to how it had been before Connor had arrived in their midst—and before that horrifying night at Fort William, seven, almost eight years before.

The door creaked open; he turned to see his family tumble outside to help with the chores. Iona silently came up beside him, drawing her woolen shawl tight against her to keep out the cold. She stood silently as the sun broke through the thick mists that covered the loch; both adults remained silent as they watched the sun come up. Finally, Iona’s hand slipped around Angus’ thick, callused one and gave it a squeeze as she laid her head on his shoulder. “What shall we do, husband, wi’ them? This cannae go on.”

“Aye, ‘tis true, wife,” Angus’ voice rumbled through the dawn’s golden rays. “Dugal must accept his cousin. He’s family, after all and clan.” “It’s no’ easy for him tae accept him.” Iona softly said as her eyes skipped from one child to another to ensure that they were doing what they should be doing. “But he does loves him, all th’ same.”

Angus made an almost inaudible sound deep in his chest and throat then nodded. “Aye, th’ lad loves him, an’ Connor loves him in return as if he were his own brother.” He paused then pulled at his beard as he thought out loud some of his secret fears for the two boys. “But, I’m afraid tha’ some day, he might turn on wee Connor.”

Shocked, Iona pulled herself away and stared at her husband. “Why would ye say such a thing?” she exclaimed.

“‘Tis somethin’ I feel could happen—I’ve seen it happen before in other men.” Angus reached an arm around her waist and pulled her towards him.

“But Dugal is just a wee lad, as is Connor! They’ll outgrow this!” she protested.

“’Tis not ‘them’ I am talkin’ about, wife. ‘Tis Dugal, I speak of. As for outgrowing this—“ He cleared his throat, turned as he hawked up a gob of phlegm and spat. “Dugal is soon to be a mon, an’ he may stay like this for th’ rest of his life!”

Iona shook her head in disagreement. “Ye be daft! He will outgrow this—most lads do. They learn to accept changes, and accept what is offered them. He will no’ be like this forever!”

Angus looked deeply into his wife’s eyes before reaching up to tilt her head downward to plant a gentle kiss upon her forehead. One finger traced the fine lines in his wife’s face as he remarked to no one in particular, “Maybe he will….an’ maybe no’.”

Chapter Two

The sheep led the way to the high pastures that lay within the Five Sisters that nurtured and sheltered Bliadhna Phrionnsa (Glenfinnan) and Loch Shiel. The sheep dogs nipped and guided them on their way with Dugal and Connor on either side of the herd, shouting and whistling instructions. The way was rock-strewn; Connor took great delight with jumping from one boulder jutting up from the earth to the next. Dugal joined in the fun in between running after some of the sheep that had decided to take a different route than the rest of the small herd and bring them back.

After two hours, they arrived at the meadow that sat nestled in a sheltered area of one of the Sisters. The dogs ran about as they brought in the strays and stragglers from the herd then when all had been rounded up, lay down in the morning sun for a well-deserved rest. Both boys took up spots on opposite sides of the meadow and began their lazy watch over the herd.

The meadow was almost a brilliant hue of green this spring with a vast spread of white, lavender and pink heather blooming over most of it. The sun was warm, the sky blue and you could see to the horizon without anything to block the view. Connor shifted about on his rock then stood up to get a better look at how things looked from this elevation.

He hadn’t been a shepherd for very long; only in the past year had he been deemed old enough to go with Dugal when he went with the herd to the high pasture. He was very proud that his uncle had allowed him to go with his older cousin but at the same time, he was very aware that his company was not necessarily wanted by Dugal. Because of this, he tended to needle the older boy in ways that he knew would get a reaction out of him, good or bad. He looked up and admired his cousin; he wanted to be like him, as he grew older.

But most of all, he wanted to belong.

He knew of the whispers and saw the looks from some of the adults and children when he went outside to play. Often, they were unaware that he had seen the looks and had heard the whispers, but he had. It made him hurt inside and he often wondered what he had done to make them dislike him so. One by one, he tried to think of all the reasons they might have to act the way they acted when he was about. Vaguely, he remembered crying in the center of the village and the taunts as well as the mockery that he had endured as a younger child. But it was more like a dream than any true memory.

In his dreams, he ran after a woman whose face was hidden by both shadows and a shawl that was drawn across it. He could almost hear her voice plaintively crying, “Blossom—“ all the time he ran following behind her. But he never caught up with her to see what she looked like or who she was. The dreams swiftly faded upon waking, leaving him confused and with a profound temporary sense of loss. Who was the woman and why was he chasing her? He didn’t know and was too afraid to ask anyone about his dreams and what they might mean.

He had vowed to find his mother, “some day”. “Some day” he was going to climb the mountain that guarded the entrance of the only town and world he had ever known. Perhaps, “some day” would be soon, for he was getting older and more able to climb the mountains that surrounded his home. And then he would find his mother, wherever she might be. She would take care of him, she would love him, and she would make everything better than what it was now. Maybe today was that “some day”!

He stretched up on tiptoe to see down to the village then outwards to the outside world he had never known. He cocked his head sideways as he thought about what he was looking at. It was such a long way to go from where he was standing to where the sun would set, it seemed to him as he tried to judge the distance but it was more than what he could figure. It did look like a magical place to him. He could still see the clouds hanging over the mountaintops, as well as in some of the lower parts of the valley below them. It looked as if steam was rising over the loch, valley and mountains. It was, in a word, beautiful. The most beautifullest place on this world, he thought to himself as his eyes swept over the horizon.

A shrill whistle caught him unaware, making him tumble to the ground. He lay there a moment as he regained his breath then made his way back upon the rock. Glaring at his cousin as he dusted himself off he asked, “What do ye want?”

“I hope ye enjoyed th’ view, “ Dugal snidely remarked. “Too bad tha’ you didn’t enjoy the view of th’ caoraich (sheep) . If ye had, ye would have seen tha’ a couple ha’ strayed away frae thy side of th’ glen.”

Connor’s eyes grew wide at the words; he began to frantically search the crags and nooks for them. He did not want to be the one on the receiving end of a branch like what Dugal had been earlier. He had felt guilty when he had heard Dugal’s yelp of pain after being hit and had waited to see if he would be called to be walloped next. But he had never been called and that made him feel guiltier, if that were even possible.

After some time, he managed to locate one of the missing animals, caught in between the crevices of two ancient boulders. He squeezed his thin body through the small opening and began to pull at the animal with all his might but it was wedged tightly. Connor stumbled backwards after a final attempt to free the animal and fell hard to the ground. He rolled his eyes and began to say the words he had heard Angus had said on many occasions such as this, but paused and glanced skywards.

The local priest, when he was around, had told him how those particular words weren’t necessarily nice to use and that his uncle had been wrong in using them. In fact, the words might even be considered a sin in some cases he was told and the last thing Connor wanted was to have God Himself angry at him. Too many others were already angry with him even though he might not always know the “whys” of the anger. So he tightened his mouth shut against the words that had threatened to spew out of it.

He began to think hard. He didn’t necessarily want to call Dugal to help him, but it was the only way he could see to get the sheep out of the predicament it was in. Standing up, he made his way back through the narrow opening to the glen once more then whistled shrilly at his cousin. “Dugal! Come help me! The ewe is stuck!” He made his way out into the open and waved at the other boy.

Dugal waved back and made his way over to where his cousin stood. “Which way?” he asked as he approached. When Connor turned and led the way, he followed silently, mindful of his footing, as the rocks were still slick from the morning fog. As he walked, his opened the sash of his kilt to its full width and used the excess cloth to cover his head and shoulders. Better to have the thing out of the way than in his way.

Onwards they walked then both squeezed into the narrow opening to get to the ewe once more. Once inside the opening, they found that there was little room for movement with both of them in the space between the boulders. Dugal grabbed one side of the ewe’s pelt then motioned for his cousin to grab the other side.

Connor complied and in unison, both pulled at the bleating ewe who complained loudly with each yank on her. At first, she gave no indication that she even was moving but ever so slowly, the animal began to come clear of its prison. Finally, with a final tug, the ewe came out the rest of the way and ran off back towards the herd.

Both boys watched the animal go then Dugal stiffened and looked about. He whispered, “Do ye smell tha’?

Connor sniffed at the air then looked strangely at the other boy. “Smell what? I do no’ smell anything! And why are you whispering?” he replied loudly, but was rewarded with a hand clamped about his mouth.

“Be quiet!” Dugal sniffed at the air again and nodded. “Something is burning—there be a fire near here.”

“A fire?” the younger boy said after removing his cousin’s hand from his mouth. He sniffed at the air again and nodded. “Aye, I smell it. Wha’ will we do?”

The older boy grabbed the younger one’s hand and told him, “Follow me, we must gae home an’ tell Da an’ th’ clan. ‘Tis dangerous here; someone's aboot an' I dinnae think it is for a guid reason.”

Within a few moments, they began to herd the sheep together for the trip home. The dogs once again began to nip and nudge the herd in the direction of home and raced among the flock to make sure that all the animals understood that they were going home.

Connor watched a few moments then began walking back with the animals just as he had a few hours before but in a reverse direction. Suddenly he stopped as he remembered that he had left his crook resting upon the boulder he had been standing on when looking at the outside world beyond his village. “I will return—I left something behind!” he hollered at his cousin, who waved in acknowledgement.

Running as fast as his long, thin legs would carry him, he ran until his lungs and throat burned fire and spots appeared before his eyes all the way back to the glen. He collapsed once he got there, lying on the ground with his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath from the run. He gulped in several deep breaths, filling his lungs completely with air before releasing it, as Angus and others had shown him. The spots eventually went away as did the burning sensation he had in throat and lungs.

He rolled over and made his way back to the rock, grabbed his crook, and made his way up on top of the rock a final time to look to the horizon and then below to the village. Whispering softly, he said, “Some day…”

The sound of men’s voices to one side of him startled him; he quickly jumped down and hid. From where he was hiding, he saw a small band of men searching about the glen, scouring it with both eyes and weapons. He couldn’t catch what they were saying except for a few words every once in a while. One word though, stood out from the conversations the strange men were having because it was a word Connor was very familiar with: MacLeod.

Parting the tall grass that hid him from view, he continued to watch then hid again as one of the men came too close to where he was hiding. One hand fumbled inside of his sash for the pebbles he had picked up earlier while the other grabbed his sling from his waistband. He glanced down as he loaded pebble to shoot then, when ready, stood and began swinging the sling around and around his head before letting the pebble fly.

The pebble hit one man squarely in the back of his head; he dropped to the ground instantly. The rest of the men rushed over to his aid, then roared as one when they saw Connor race away back towards Dugal and the safety of his home. They pursued him but soon lost him in the maze of rocks and heather that stood between them and their intended victim as well as the small village they knew lay below them somewhere.

Connor waited with his heart pounding in his throat until he thought it was safe to come out from his hiding spot in the niche of a tall boulder. Thankfully, the clan colors and his small size were more than adequate camouflage that concealed his presence from all that sought him. One hour passed then two…and finally he popped his head up to see if it was safe. He thought about the men he had seen and the one he had knocked down. He had recognized the tartan that they had worn; it was one he knew by heart by now: Fraser.

Chapter Three

“Fire?” Angus asked as he banked down the flames in the forge while speaking to his eldest child. “On th’ mountain, ye say?” He took the few steps to the window and peered out towards the Sisters then shook his head. “Connor was to be wi’ ye an’ he is no’. Ye were supposed tae be watchin’ th’ lad, it’s expected of ye an’ ye ken it.” He began to wipe at the grime that covered his hands, his face settling into grimness. He shook his head as he told his son, “I be disappointed in ye, lad. Connor be too young tae be left behin’ like ye did up on th’ mountain.”

Dugal hung his head to hide his burning cheeks. He felt as if he had been hit in a far worse manner than what he had actually been earlier this day. He father made him feel so ashamed and guilty for his actions and so small. It didn’t matter that he had come home with the herd intact and safe. It didn’t seem to matter that he himself had brought important news. All that mattered was his cousin. His blood boiled at the thought of his cousin who had ruined what had been for him a good day for the most part. Some day, when I get older, I’ll remember this and you will pay, Connor MacLeod, he secretly vowed to himself. May that some day be soon!

Angus busied himself with grabbing his tarn and claymore then strapping them on. He glanced up for a moment, only to see his wife staring at him silently from the doorway. Flashing a reassuring smile at her, nodding as he did so, he then motioned to his son to follow him as he strode past her.

Iona reached up to touch her husband as he brushed by her whispering, “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine,” on the way past. She held her arms tightly against herself as she heard the door close behind her. She sighed then hung her head before closing her eyes at the sound. It was spring again and with spring came the raids from the other clans. It meant too that there was much work to be done before the stark winter came once more.

For each and every raid and counter-raid, it would mean that the men would be gone during the time of planting and reaping. The heavy chore of plowing the meager fields would be left to the women as well as all their other chores they had to do in the course of the day. To her, there simply wasn’t enough time to accomplish everything that needed to be done if they were to survive the rest of the year. It was discouraging, knowing and seeing what had to be done yet being unable to do it for lack of time and energy. Even now, despite all the children that kept coming, the work and Angus’ ardor in their bed at night never seemed to have an end to it.

She was tired and still ill from the chillblains that had racked her throughout the winter; nursing the new baby continued to weaken her even more. She had never complained to anyone about it nor told her husband how very ill she was. But she knew intuitively that if some relief didn’t come before the autumn’s harvest, she would not be here upon the earth to see the next spring because the good Lord would have called her to Him. A crash accompanied a wail and a shriek, made her wearily look behind her into the house. Help me, she silently prayed. Please, send help to me.

_______________________________________________

The man sat silently on the hilltop, looking down upon the small village. He had ridden a long way just so he could look at the village and the area where he had once called home before his banishment. The wind stirred his dark, shoulder-length hair and the tartan that he wore. One hand blindly adjusted the kilt-pin that held it in place, then smoothed his hair as he looked off over the length and breath of the loch that glistened like a jewel of the midday sun.

He craned his head upwards, taking note of the birds who flew overhead and the smell of the air as well as the direction of the wind. One hand reached out as if to grab the wind and keep it for his own while his craggy face softened into a smile. Aye, rain be soon coming to this place; rain and wind, just as he remembered it happening here when he was a lad.

Nudging his horse forward with his knees, he moved the mount a few steps closer to the village then stopped. The smile faded into a frown as he remembered the words spoken to him that had sent him from here forever, six years past.

"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 haf told him then. The words had wounded both his pride and him deeply then and they still sharply stung despite the years that had passed.

The first two years of his banishment, he had stayed away from this area he had once called home and denied that he had any dealings with the MacLeods at all to those who asked. Now though, he found himself often longing to be with his clan again, but knew he could not ever be a part of it again.

Over the years, in the solitude that his life as a fisherman often took, he had had lots of time to think things that had happened previously in his life through. He had come to realize over time that perhaps he had been wrong to say what he had about his sister’s bairn. He wasn’t necessarily sorry he had said what he had said, because he still thought the words true in regards to the shame upon the family that the birth had brought with it. He wasn’t the type of man to reveal the secret, private things that made up his life outside of the sea and the way of life it bestowed upon one when one lived with it. He was, for the most part, a loner and a man who knew and accepted the loneliness that came with his chosen way of life.

A flash of multi-colored hues of blue intertwined with greens, yellows and black swaddled about a tiny, thin body broke from the trees across from him, running as if it were a frightened hare. It caused his horse to rear back and shy from it but he remained in control, tightly reining it in until it settled down again. “By th’ God an’ all th’ Saints above!” he cried out, surprised at the sight of the boy.

The boy ran much as a hare would, in a zig-zagging pattern, dodging trees and leaping over the rough patches of earth in his path. His blonde hair streamed out behind him, the small braids whipping about wildly in the wind. In one hand, he carried the shepherd’s crook that Angus had carved just for him; in the other, he held his gathered kilt and was running bare-assed to the world.

Collum sharply kneed his horse in its ribcage; the horse leapt forward after the lad. Bending down on one side of the horse, Collum scooped the lad off his feet by grabbing him by the scruff of the neck on his clothing. He then threw the boy over the back of the horse and reined in the horse to a slow walk.

The boy kicked, screamed, scratched and bit at him, throwing punches that were easily blocked at the strange man who had grabbed him. When he saw that he was having no effect on the dark-haired man, his deep eyes opened wide and his mouth opened wider only to let out one of the highest and loudest shrieks that the fisherman had heard in many a year.

Collum picked the lad up and roughly shook him until he stopped making the infernal racket that echoed off the forest trees. His head ached from the sound of it; his temper was less than good because of it. He stared at the blue-eyed child before him, who defiantly stared back at him with a gaze that was unsettling in its intensity. “Wha’ be your name, lad?”

The young boy replied quite proudly yet with a touch of fear, “Connor MacLeod o’ th’ Clan MacLeod,” before paused then looked down towards his feet, his cheeks flaming crimson as he did.

Collum’s eyes followed the boy’s and saw the stream of urine running down the lad’s legs. Leaning in until he was nose-to-nose with the boy, he rumbled in a threatening tone of voice, “Piss, laddie? Piss?” He shook him a final time then roughly dropped him onto the ground where he peered closer at the frightened lad. He realized how truly shocked he was at this unexpected encounter. He had noted the lad’s name when it was said; it brought to the surface all of the deeply felt emotions he had purposely hidden far inside of him all these years that dealt with the pain of his banishment and the loneliness it had caused him over the years.

Was he--? Could it be that the boy he had just held in a tight fist was his one of his own family?

A rustle of tree branches and the snap of limbs made him whip his head about in the sound’s direction.

“I thought I told ye, tha’ I ne’er cared tae see ye ever again, Collum,“ Angus stern voice seemed to tear through the forest like an arrow with its perfect aim directed at Collum’s heart and pride. “Gae home, ye ha’ nae place here.”

Connor ran over to where his uncle was and yanked at his kilt, not quite understanding why the two men were so angry with one another. His eyes pled with his uncle to pay attention to him; when he didn’t, he blurted out, “Angus, there be Frasers about here!”

At those words, Angus forgot all about the other man. He dismounted and knelt by the young boy as he wrapped his meaty hands about the lad’s small shoulders. “Be ye sure, lad? Be ye sure they be Frasers?” When Connor nodded a vigorous “yes”, he glanced at his eldest son who had ridden behind him up the mountainside in search of Connor. Curtly nodding at Dugal, he told him, “Tha’ will explain th’ fire ye smelled yonder.”

Collum frowned at the scene. Something was going on that he didn’t understand but wanted to. He thought for a moment then asked his brother, “Th’ clan— ‘tis rising, is it?” He waited for an answer but received none but that didn’t stop his questions. “For or against us?” He looked at his dark-haired nephew who solemnly stared at him from horseback. “Ye shouldna stare so at thy own kin. Ye dinnae remember me, do ye?”

Angus listened to Collum’s words and considered them carefully. He had banished him in a fit of temper and had felt guilty ever since for doing so. Perhaps, this would be a good chance of making amends; perhaps his only chance ever, for one never knew when the Lord would call one to His side. He turned to Dugal and then looked back towards the village. “Take Connor home, an’ tell thy mother I will come later. Ha’ th’ lad fed an’ cleaned. Understand?”

Dugal nodded then when his father wasn’t looking rolled his eyes at the thought of this unwelcome task he had been given. Pulling Connor back against him, he whispered in his ear, “Phewwwwww! Only babies wet thy kilts so ye must be a baby! “

“I am not!” countered Connor loudly which brought Angus’ attention back to the two of them again.

“Get on wi’ th’ both of ye!” Angus sternly said as he looked from one to another of the boys. “An if I hear a word, frae either of ye, agin th’ other, then we will make another meeting outside like we did this morn! An’ this time, I willna be so lenient!”

Both boys looked at the elder man before nodding in unison. “Aye, we understand.” Dugal clicked his tongue at the horse and turned away back towards home.

The elder men watched them go silently; when finally they were out of sight, Angus turned back to his brother to study his face carefully. He noted the empty eye socket and the vicious scar that ran across it from forehead to chin, silver colored on the tanned face. He raised a hand to indicate the scar before asking, “Wha’ happened?”

Defensively, Collum raised his fingers to the scar then traced the length of it as he shook his head. “I have no’ first-footed in years. I be no longer fit for it.” He shrugged in self-depreciation. “I fought a fish who wound up nearly havin’ me for its’ dinner.”

Angus frowned. “A fish?”

Collum nodded. “Aye. I was drunk an’ knew better than tae gae out for th’ nets. But th’ task had tae be done.” He looked at Angus with his remaining eye for a moment then fell silent.

Angus waited then, when it became obvious no more was going to be said on the subject, he let it drop. A long silence fell between them with the only sounds were those of the wind and the animals of the woods.

Collum shifted uncomfortably on the horse then turned it about. “I ken I be not wanted here, Angus, so I’ll gae.” He kicked his mount in the ribs and began to fade back into the woods in the same direction he had come.

For a moment, Angus gnawed at his lips and moustache as he watched the retreating figure getting further away with each passing minute. He kept uneasily glancing up the mountain then at his brother as he rode away like a defeated man who had lost all hope. The guilt he held regarding Collum chewed at his insides; a decision had to be made and quickly. If indeed there were a small band of Frasers about as the youngest of the lads had reported, he would not be able to take them alone. Looking at the mountainside a final time, he took a deep breath cupping his hands about his mouth and shouted, “Collum! Wait!”

The rider pulled his mount up sharply, half-turning as he did to look back in the direction of the words he had heard. He expected nothing from his older brother—he did not dare to even do so or to hope that the rift could be healed between them. He already knew the pain the rift had caused and was reluctant to harbor any additional pain by hoping or having expectations that could easily be shattered. He shifted the horse around so it faced the man who came striding towards him. “Wha’ do ye want?” He brusquely asked the other man.

Angus stopped a good distance away from his brother then frowned. What he had to say was difficult for him; it was something that he didn’t often say to anyone. He made a false start on saying the words but his voice failed him so he made a second attempt. “Collum, I need…” his words faded away.

“You be a right prideful man, brother. Speak up for I ha’ a long journey tae gae home ahead of me. Or no speak up an’ let thy lack of words bedivil ye for th’ rest of thy life.” Collum glanced at the darkening sky; the rain would be coming soon.

Angus cleared his throat and steeled his resolve to speak the words to his brother that needed to be said. With a deep breath, he said, “I need your help.”

Collum’s remaining eye lit up at the words as one side of his mouth cocked up into an awkward smile. In a voice booming with laughter, he answered, “Well, why didna ye say so?”

Chapter Four

Both lads rode back home in silence most of the way with Dugal leaning as far away from his younger cousin as possible yet still be able to manage to guide the horse so he wouldn’t have to smell him. All the way back, he kept indicating how much Connor’s stench made him an undesirable traveling companion by making all kinds of disgusting noises and holding his nose closed with one hand.

Connor said nothing but his eyes reflected both his humiliation and a building anger at his cousin’s actions. One hand balled up into a fist; that fist went inside his kilt’s sash. He waited and said nothing as he stared straight ahead, thinking of what his aunt had told him earlier in the day.

“…but one day, ye will be able t’ win th’ fight.”

The horse rounded the final bend of their short journey, pausing as they reached the last hill’s crest before descending back into the village. Connor’s face grew set with determination; his eyes slid backwards towards Dugal as he turned to look at the other boy over his shoulder. His head only slightly nodded as he judged the distance between them both before turning his head back to look at the village below.

“Why are thee lookin’ at me tha’ way?” Dugal said suspiciously, sitting straighter on the horse as he tried to figure out what Connor was up to.

“Och,‘tis nothing, Dugal,” came the quiet reply.

“Ye be th’ daft one this day, cousin. First, ye git us both fair intae trouble wi’ Da, then ye go off tae git wha’ ye should ha’ kept wi’ ye all along! And Da’ an’ Mama, git worried over ye so we come lookin’ for ye. And wha’ do we find? You an’ some stranger palavering –only you pissed thy kilt rather than palaver with him.” Dugal began to laugh hard at the memory; he never saw the small fist come flying at him, knocking him completely off the horse.

It was Connor’s turn to laugh and laugh he did. His voice was still high-pitched which made his normally infectious laughter even more so, especially since he would wind up getting hiccups from laughing so hard. The hiccups brought on more gales of laughter and more hiccuping until finally, Connor himself fell off the horse.

At the sight of Connor on the ground, Dugal broke down and joined him in the laughter despite the still aching eye where he had been hit. He punched at his cousin; the punch was returned and then they both started to wrestle each other in earnest until both had to stop to catch their breath.

Propping himself up on his elbows, Dugal glanced down towards their home. He still giggled every now and then but it soon stopped as he got back to his feet and held a hand out to his cousin so as to pull him upright. “We best be getting’ on home now, Connor. Ye remember wha’ Da said about wha’ will happen if we dinnae do wha’ he told us.”

Connor grabbed the other lad’s hand and was pulled upright as he nodded at the memory. “Aye, I do.” He stretched out his lanky body; arms overhead then bent down to touch the ground before finally straightening back up. “Race ye home?”

A bright smile was flashed at him at the words, as Dugal nodded. “Ready…Go!”

Both took off downhill with hair and clothing streaming out behind them as both lads let out whoops and yelps of pure enjoyment as they raced home.

_______________________________

Iona rolled the wool between her fingers until it went from a thick, fat slub of wool into a thin string that she pulled and stretched until it became a thread to be wound on a spool for her spinning wheel. “Like this,” she said as she demonstrated the technique to her twin daughters. She watched as both tried their hands at it, nodding approvingly as they managed to get it to thin out into a thread. “Very good! You’re doing very well; I’m very proud of you.”

A paroxysm of coughing doubled her over. When it was over, her body trembled; she had to grab the table to keep from falling to the floor. She slowly sat down and looked about the small house and closed her eyes. “I can’t go on like this—I just can’t!” she murmured to herself.

“Mama, be ye all right?” one of the twins asked her while the other chimed in, “Be ye ill, Mama?”

Iona smiled and weakly nodded at the two of them. “Aye, lassies, Mama be fine, dinnae worry. Take thy combs an’ do some carding o’ th’ wool for me, all right?” The baby began to wail again and she wearily got up to go to feed it again. She glanced at her daughters who both sat studiously near the fire carding the small handfuls of wool into a finer quality of fiber so that it was easier to work with. “I love th’ both o’ thee, very much.” She smiled at them and they in turn, smiled back at her words. “Gae, take it outside, where there be mo’ light. Thee needs sunshine too, not darkness all th’ time.”

In unison, they answered, “Aye, Mama!” and went outside as she had told them.

The baby continued to wail; she went and picked it up, coughing all the while. Maybe now there would be some peace and quiet, she thought as the baby began to nurse hungrily at her breast. Maybe— The door burst open just as she had sat down with her son by the fire.

“Mama!” ”Aunt!” The two voices cried out at the same time. “Da told me tae tell ye tha’ he will be here later—he be gone wi’ a strange mon?”

Connor interrupted. “I saw Frasers, Aunt! Many, many of them on the mountain! I hit one wi’ my sling an’ a rock!”

Connor’s words shot a bolt of ice through his aunt’s heart and she fearfully turned her head in the direction of the mountain the glen was where they pastured their sheep. “How many, Connor?” She raised one finger. “This many?”

Connor cocked his head to one side as he studied the finger. “How many is that?”

“One.”

“Nae, tis more than tha’, Aunt. Many more!” The young boy started to point in different directions. “There wa’ one there, an’ there-“ he pointed towards the door, “’an there, and way over yonder…an—“

Dugal had been watching his mother silently as she listened to the young child prattle on. “Hist-be quiet!”

Iona turned to look at her oldest, noticing his black eye that matched Connor’s own from the morning. She frowned. “Ha’ ye be fighting again?”

“Nae!” both boys chorused together once they looked at one another a full minute before answering.

“Dugal—“ Iona began to cough again and waved at the water bucket and the dipper in it. “Water-“ she gasped in between coughs. She drank it down as soon as it was passed to her and it seemed to quell the coughing fit at least for now. “Why didnae ye tell me about th’ Frasers bein’ about, earlier?”

"I didnae know, an’ Da took me wi’ him, Mama. We met a mon, tha’ Da seemed tae know up on th’ Sister an’ they were going on after we left them.”

“A mon?”

“Aye—wi’ one eye, an’ a scar across his face. He was a wee bit scary looking tae me, but Da wasna frightened by him—he seemed angry for some reason at th’ stranger. I dinnae ken why though.”

Iona swiftly crossed herself. “Gae git thy sisters, for we must all pray for thy father’s safety.”

Dugal went to the door and called his sisters in. Together, all knelt on the dirt floor and began to loudly pray for the safety of Angus and that he came back home alive. Iona led the prayers but she wondered about the identity of the stranger her husband had met on the Sister. Who could it be, she wondered. What exactly did he want and why was he here now?

She could only guess.

Chapter Five

One by one, the men straggled back into the small encampment they had used to share their breakfast earlier before being alerted that some MacLeods were about. It didn’t matter if they were wee bairns, or no’. All they were concerned about was scouting out the area so they would know where best to stage an attack from and what advantages it held for anyone using it in offensive maneuvers against someone. There had been some debate whether or not a fire would be wise to have but hunger had its say so one had been built. Thankfully, when it had been abandoned in the attempt to chase after the wee shepherd who had watched over his flock, it hadn’t gotten out of hand but had all but died down in the time they were gone.

Iain Fraser grimaced as a ragged strip of cloth was wound about his split head. It ached still; in fact it was far worse than even the worse hangover he had ever had. One hand covered his eyes that were now blackened from the blow to his head while the rough bandage only half covered the quarter-moon shaped cut in the center of his forehead. His sight was still blurred; he had double vision now and he was in a foul mood. If he ever caught the wee bastard who had slung that rock, he’d slit his gullet then string his intestines about the place just for decoration! he vowed silently. Damn th’ MacLeods anyway!

One of those who had accompanied the small band of clan Fraser men glanced upwards as fat raindrops began to pelt the ground. He looked about as all covered their heads with their sashes against the rain but he himself remained with head uncovered and certainly unbowed before the storm. “Best tae dampen down th’ fire or better yet, put it out.” He pointed to the small blue-gray curl of smoke that rose from it as the rain hit the red-hot coals. “We can be found if there be any mo’ MacLeods about.”

“Aye, ‘tis true,” remarked another of the men as he drew his arms tighter about himself to ward off the chilling rain. “Seamus, if thee ha’ seen wha’ ye has come tae see, let us be off tae our homes an’ warm fires.” He began to put the fire out, glancing about as he did so to see if they were being watched.

The one called Seamus nodded. He was no more than 20 years of age, dark of hair and eyes and was now the chieftain of the Frasers. Angus MacLeod had killed his father a few years before; he had reason to hate him and reason to want vengeance against any MacLeod his clan encountered. Seamus had become chieftain before he even had a chance to completely learn what he needed to learn in order to run the clan as his father had run it. And he knew that he was only chieftain not by hereditary right, but by force of will and influence from his uncles and others outside of the clan, whose interests in Clan Fraser were more murky and not so well known.

Those men who came from the clan Murdoch for example, whose influence and power in the court of the King, seemed to reach into the clan he led by both marriage and by more devious ways. They were both a blessing and a curse at the same time; his was a love-hate relationship. He needed them as allies in order to keep his status as chieftain, especially when there were many others who were more qualified to be the leader of the clan. At the same time, he wished to get rid of them because he didn’t trust them and was convinced that their souls were black, darkened by Satan himself as a part of a secret pact written in blood between the Murdochs and himself.

Thunder boomed against the cloud-enshrouded mountains and bright flashes of lightning accompanied it. All scattered to avoid both before Seamus called out to them to head home but to go home individually, for safety’s sake, as well as to lessen the chance of detection by the MacLeods. He needed all the seasoned warriors he could muster; it was also shearing time and if they were to have enough food to get by in the winter, then they had to shear and bring to market what pelts they could now. If they didn’t, starvation might be waiting on the other side of one’s door come winter.

The Frasers straggled out all in different directions, each hailing one another as they left each other’s company. The last two men left behind, Seamus and Iain, quietly watched them go then glanced at one another. “Can ye walk, uncle?” Seamus asked the older man whose visible injury made him wince at the sight of it. The fierce glare from told him the answer and a growl came from his uncle’s lips when he tried to help him stand.

“Aye, I can walk-I be no’ in my grave yet, so keep thy hands off me and leave be!” The older man slapped the younger man’s hands away. “I be no’ crippled by a wee shot by a bairn!” he crabbed through gritted teeth as he forced himself upright. “I’ve had worse, lad. “The bastard laddie had a lucky shot-we didnae expect tae see anyone up here.” He weaved about unsteadily on his feet, covering his eyes momentarily as a wave of dizziness passed through him. When he felt the younger man’s hands on him again, he grabbed the young man’s cloak and pulled him close so that what he said, was understood and understood clearly. “Dinnae touch me again, lad. If thee do, I will slit ye from chin tae groin, kin or nae kin. Understood?”

Seamus grinned and nodded as he dropped his hands. “Thy head must hurt like th’ divil’s anvil an’ himself poundin’ away upon it, uncle!” He glanced about then pointed in the direction of their home. “Ready tae go home?”

Gruffly, Iain answered, “Aye,” then both set out together in the direction that they had come from originally.

________________________________________________

“How many do thee see?” Collum hissed through the gorse and bracken at Angus who was hidden behind some rocks a short distance away.

“I count six unless more are hidden. How many do ye see?” Angus asked as he peered over at his brother then instantly wished he hadn’t asked the question as he looked at Collum’s one eye looking at him from across the way. He glanced away and sniffed at the air, no longer able to look at his brother’s face and the one eye that dominated it.

Collum’s attention was drawn to the small clearing below them; he squinted his eye as he counted those who had come uninvited to his homeland for whatever reason they had. One hand unconsciously reached up to finger the empty socket before tracing the scar that ran the length of his face as he counted under his breath.

He was all too aware of his brother’s reaction to the sight of him, now that he was at least talking to him for the moment. He knew that he presented a frightening appearance to others; he felt ashamed to show his face but yet he did because he was not one to hide anything or tolerate the hiding of anything for that matter, be it words, deeds, emotions or appearances. He still held the fire in his tongue and in his soul if he saw something that needed his opinion on it, no matter if it was welcomed or not by those who saw fit to have to hear it.

He cleared his throat and held up a hand that showed five fingers to Angus. Then after a moment’s hesitation, he held up one more on his other hand. “Tha’ be all, I see,” he whispered loudly, but not so loud so that it could be heard by those below. He glanced over at Angus, tilting his head to get a better view of his brother and saw him nod as Angus notched an arrow into his bow.

As the small group broke off into separate directions heading in the direction of the Fraser lands, both men watched from above. Then as one, they began to trail them on foot through the thin pathways that laced the forest floor that they were intimately familiar with. Angus caught one unawares out in the far end of the glen with an arrow through the man’s leg. He didn’t want to kill him; it would only make matters worse between the clans; some peace in the spring and summer months would be nice for a change. All he wanted was information as to why the man and his comrades were on MacLeod land. If he got it, then he would let him go. If he didn’t get it, he would take him back to the village and ransom him back to his chieftain. He prayed that the man would tell him what he wanted to know.

The man did, in between cursing loudly and bitterly at him. Angus listened to him without batting an eye to the tirade then released his tight grip on his arrow that had pierced the man’s leg. “Gae home tae your family an’ wife, if ye ha’ one.” He stood up and watched as the man struggled to his feet then headed back in the direction of his home. He shook his head, sighing deeply as he did so. “No’ going tae make it, lad. No’ going tae make it.”

War, dark crimson blood which had started out as a trickle now turned into a flood as an accompanying gurgling sound was made as the dirk’s edge severed arteries and esophagus. A hardened hand held the man’s head in place while also pressing his body closer to his assailant’s so that the victim’s movements were restricted. “Tell th’ divil, tha’ Collum MacLeod returned ye frae where ye came frae, “ Collum’s ragged, hoarsely whispered in his victim’s ear. He knew that they would be the last words the Fraser would ever hear and it gave him a sense of satisfaction as he said it.

When the struggling ceased, he dropped the man to the ground and walked away, idly wiping at the blood on his clothes and which streaked down both a cheek as well as his neck. He could have cared less about his appearance at that moment because he knew that there were still others that had to be tracked and perhaps killed. He thought that justice was being served considering all that Angus had told him of the past few years’ events.

He turned over in his mind just what he had been told to him by his brother. Caolin had been married off to a MacGregor, while her shameful bastard had gone to live with Angus, who was raising the lad as one of his own. Then there was the all out brawl at Fort William; the accidental killing of the Fraser chieftain that had turned into a blood feud between the two clans; the many births in Angus’ own family and so much more. He still strongly disapproved of Angus having taken in the bastard, the shame of the family. Now though, after meeting the lad, he felt that he had been proven right about him being a shame and a liability to the family.

He regretted not being allowed a say in who married his sister nor having a chance in meeting the prospective groom. There were plenty of regrets that had filled the past few years but in his heart was the largest regret of all—that Caolin’s bastard hadn’t been left out to the elements on the day he had been born. Nothing would ever change his mind about that point, no matter what the bairn was like now or what he might be like in the future. One way or another, amends to what Collum considered just and fair in the matter had to be made. It didn’t matter how it was achieved, just as long as it was done in some manner so that the shame was wiped off the reputation of the Clan forever.

Especially if it meant that the wee bastard would die.

Chapter Six