Forever Young

The Holy Ground Highlander Forum Midweek Challenge

Archivist’s Note: The stories and vignettes offered here from various Rysher Forumlanders have not been edited or changed other than having a spell-check performed and being reformatted for this website.

Contents

The Challenge by Leah CWPack
Foundling by Lovie MacFru
Code of Honor by Ysanne
Baby of Mine by Titania
Brothers by Daire
A Twist of Fate by vixen69
Forever Young by Wain
Solstice Child by Ghost Cat

MID-WEEK CHALLENGE: FOREVER, YOUNG

Posted By: Leah CWPack <bizarro7@aol.com>
(IP: 208.24.179.207)
Date:
Tuesday, 9 January 2001, at 9:37 a.m.

Your challenge this week, should you choose to participate:

Write a song or scene involving one of our familiar HL characters....as a baby. No older than one year, but no other restrictions. It can be a flashback as part of a larger vignette.

Good luck!

MWC: Foundling

Posted By: Lovie MacFru <bethking@swbell.net>
(IP: adsl-64-216-143-156.dsl.kscymo.swbell.net)
Date:
Thursday, 11 January 2001, at 10:49 a.m.

 “Will it never stop?” The tall, awkward man muttered to himself as he pushed the heavy wooden cart along the narrow cobblestone path. The rain ignored his plea and continued its assault on the sodden straw rooftops of the cottages and huts that made up the small isolated village.

The man looked about for some refuge from the downpour. The empty cart wobbled dangerously as it slipped on the wet stones. He spied the open side of a small lean-to beside the tavern and forced the cart ahead into the empty space. Although the rain made its way into the lean-to, it was still a haven from the relentless pelting he was getting in the street. He pulled the misshapen rags from his head and twisted them sharply, letting the water drip onto the muddy floor of the storage shed. Here he could wait out the worst of the storm. It wasn’t much, but it was shelter.

He turned the cart on its side and sat down. His busy mind balked at the delay caused by the storm, and sitting still was not his way. He stood again, searching the dark corners of the lean-to for something to keep his hands busy. He moved restlessly up and down the small space, water dripping from the homespun wool of his worn breeks. In the dim light he found only a stack of kindling, haphazardly stacked against the firm wall of the tavern, and broken pottery no longer useful for anything. He reached for a small piece of wood, thinking it might be of a size that could be whittled into a spoon, something they never seemed to have enough of in the wee hovel that he and his woman shared.

He settled to his work, shaving curls of wood from the stick with his rough bone knife, shaping it carefully with a shallow bowl at one end. As the rain lessened he became aware of other sounds around him in the small shed. The water dripping from the makeshift roof onto the woodpile, the distant cry of sheep left to fend for themselves in the small meadow beyond the village, and the soft mewling of some small animal much closer to where he sat. After a moment his curiosity got the best of him and he rose, once again, to search the cramped space for the source of that miserable sobbing sound.

“Probably a cat,” he thought as he carefully lifted first one branch and then another. His search ended with the discovery of a small bundle of dirty rags that moved ever so slightly when he pushed at it with the long end of his stick. As he reached to prod the bundle with his finger, a tiny hand and arm slipped from the wretched wrappings.

The man sat back on his heels, nearly landing in the mud. “ A child! A foundling, left here by the fairies, in the dark, to cast its spell on the good folk of the village. No,” he thought, “Tis only a tale told to frighten children.” He moved a bit closer and touched the rags with a shaking finger.

“And that, my sweet girl, is how you came to us,” Moira tried to settle the little girl more firmly in her lap. “Your Da found you, just where the angels left you for us.”

Amanda wriggled away from her mother and onto the hard packed floor of the hut. Her dark straight hair, cut short to keep it from tangling, lifted gaily as she happily launched herself toward the open doorway. Her bright brown eyes, so different from the mild blue of her mother’s, reflected the tall bunch of wildflowers left by the door to dry in the sun. She’d had enough of the story for today.

Moira sighed, “No nap today, I would guess,” she murmured as she moved to scoop the little girl from the doorway before she escaped. “Plenty of time for that later, I suppose. Now there’s work to be done.”

MWC: Code of Honor

Posted By: Ysanne
(IP: dhcp065-024-105-229.columbus.rr.com)
Date:
Thursday, 11 January 2001, at 1:56 a.m.

Code of Honor

Two little boys sat in the sun-warmed dirt, playing with a hand-carved toy while their mothers chatted. The women’s hands were as busy as their conversation, their deft fingers sewing full-sleeved shirts for their husbands to wear under their plaids. They, too, were enjoying the warm day, having brought their sewing out into the sunshine, where they sat on a worn blanket thrown over the grass.

Mary MacLeod kept one eye on the babies as she worked and talked, always keenly aware of her son. Some said she was far too protective, but her friends knew that she had good reason to watch over her only surviving child. She could not bear the thought of losing this lad to illness or accident, when it was a miracle that she bore him live and healthy and handsome after the other poor, weak babes. Now she turned more of her attention toward the boys, hearing a note of distress in her son’s voice.

Her lips thinned into a straight line when she saw that Robert had once again snatched Duncan’s horse from him. Duncan reached for the toy, but Robert shouted and hit his cousin on the head with it. Mary saw her boy flinch, then draw back with a hurt, puzzled look on his round face. His lower lip plumped up and began to quiver, but he didn’t cry. He reached again for the horse, and Robert began to shriek in protest. Robert’s mother interrupted her gossip to shake her head at the noise and smile.

“That Robert,” she said proudly, “he knows how to keep his own! Look at him fending off your Duncan, and Robert being the smaller of the two even if he is older.”

“It does happen to be Duncan’s horse,” Mary said, keeping her eyes on the boys.

Duncan had given up trying to retrieve his toy and sat sucking his thumb dejectedly, watching Robert pound the horse on the ground with both hands. When he looked around and caught sight of his mother he grinned at her delightedly around his thumb. Mary smiled back, and chuckled when Duncan immediately scrambled to his feet and began toddling toward them, still grinning.

“He smiles like an angel,” she said fondly, not noticing the jealous look on her friend’s face at the words of praise.

Duncan ran to his mother as fast as his short, fat legs would go, his sweet laughter drawing his cousin’s attention. The wiry, light-haired toddler threw down Duncan’s horse and got to his own feet, giving chase. Oblivious, Duncan stumbled and sprawled in the grass. His thin little face sweaty and determined, Robert caught up and reached down to yank a fistful of Duncan’s thick, wavy hair. Mary clenched her fists in her skirts as Duncan looked up at his cousin, his lips forming an “O” of wounded surprise. He whimpered, crestfallen, then was gathered into Mary’s arms.

“They get clumsy like that when they’re overgrown,” Robert’s mother blandly observed. “He’ll soon be walking well, I’m sure. Though at his age Robert was already running.”

With an effort, Mary kept her tongue and nodded. She pressed her lips to Duncan’s head and rubbed the sore spot, feeling the sturdy, warm body snuggle into her embrace to be comforted. In a few moments, his spirits refreshed, Duncan sat up and eyed Robert. He approached the smaller, older boy cautiously, squatting down to look him in the face. Both mothers watched, each with their own interpretation of past events, each with an interest in what might come next.

To the surprise of both, Duncan calmly shoved his cousin down and then sat on him, his expression showing his satisfaction when the squalling Robert struggled in vain to overturn him. Mary hid her smile from Robert’s outraged mother and -– after a time -- ordered her boy to get up and let Robert be. Duncan obeyed, toddling off without a backward glance. After a quick brushing from his mum Robert trailed after his cousin. The two sat down close together in the dirt, Robert watching Duncan play with the horse, his pale face sullen with envy. Duncan looked up from his play and seemed to study the other boy’s face, then offered up the wooden figure, which a startled Robert quickly claimed. In another few minutes Robert had edged closer to Duncan and was leaning up against his stout little frame, the two of them exchanging nonsense words and digging up little mounds of earth as the horse lay forgotten.

“Childish troubles are soon mended,” Mary said with a satisfied smile, and her companion had to agree.

Ysanne

MWC "Baby of Mine"

Posted By: Titania <rthogan@gte.net>
(IP: lokar.dynacom.net)
Date:
Thursday, 11 January 2001, at 12:43 a.m.

Disclaimer: I figured the year and Richie's age based on two things: one)"The Darkness" aired in 1993 and two)that Richie was supposed to be 19 when he became Immortal. If you have a more accurate date for my story please let me know. Thanks.

BABY OF MINE

Seacouver, 1975

Emily Ryan fidgeted nervously in the hard wooden chair. She had been waiting outside the social worker’s office for what seemed like hours. She couldn’t quite believe she was actually there! After all this time, all the waiting, all the trips to different doctors, all the hoping and praying, she was finally there to bring home a baby. A baby! It seemed so incredible to her that she would finally be able to do more in this world than work in a crummy office and wait for Jack to come home on leave.

“Ryan, Emily Ryan.”

The sound of her own name jolted Emily back into her surroundings. “Here. I’m here.” She stammered out of nervousness.

A severe looking woman in her mid-forties approached Emily. “Good day. My name is Mrs. Cancado. Please follow me.” It was a command not a request.

Emily rose and followed the woman into her office. The woman closed the door behind them. “Mrs. Ryan I want you to known that our facility is not in the habit of letting military families adopt. We find that the constant travel associated with that lifestyle is not good for the adopted child. Travel tends to compound the feelings of stress and displacement these children already possess. ” Emily opened her mouth to protest, but was cut off as the woman continued. “However, since your husband is based here in Seacouver and you will be staying here then we have decided to allow you to adopt with one provision.”

“May I ask what that one provision will be?” Emily nervously asked.

“Certainly. We will allow you to adopt only after you have been a foster parent to the child for one year.”

“One year? After one year I could adopt the baby? No more interviews? No more home inspections?” As Mrs. Cancado nodded yes to all of Emily’s questions, the smile on Emily’s face grew until she was beaming with happiness. “Then Mrs. Cancado, show me my baby.”

* * *

There were four children available for adoption that day. The staff always took bets to see which one would be chosen first. The staff had all bet good money that Emily would pick the newborn girl in the group. They all lost.

As soon as Emily saw the curly red hair and twinkling blue eyes of the 11-month old boy the staff had named Richie she was in love. She was in love with his perfect alabaster skin and his big blue eyes that sparkled with life. Mostly she was in love with his smile. His smile could have lit up the greater Seacouver area. Mesmerized she walked over to him as he sat on a staff members lap.

She whispered “Richie” and the little boy smiled up at her and raised his arms. “Up.” He said. Emily scooped him up and twirled him around. He giggled with delight. “Him. He’s the one I want. Him” Emily finished in a whisper as a tear slid down her cheek and she held Richie tight.

* * *

Emily opened the door to their apartment. Richie giggled with delight at the bright posters on the walls. He toddled around his new surroundings and pointed and laughed at all the things there were to see. He grabbed Emily’s hand and led her around the apartment. He pushed open a half-closed door and found a crib and rocking chair inside.

“Yep, this is all your room, kiddo. And I’m yours now, too. For as long as you want me.” Emily hugged him again. Then she sat in the rocking chair and Richie climbed on her lap. She held him and they rocked together as she started to sing a lullaby. The only one she could remember. "Baby mine, don't you cry. Baby mine, dry your eyes. Rest your head close to my heart.
Never to part, baby of mine...."

FIN

MWC: Brothers

Posted By: Daire
(IP: 1Cust234.tnt1.cle1.da.uu.net)
Date:
Wednesday, 10 January 2001, at 7:14 p.m.

Ok, here's my (first) lame contribution to a MWC:

Brothers

The boy snuck up behind his foster brother, sword in hand. Stealthily, so Mikos would not hear him. This last time had been the last straw; no more toy stealing. He didn't have very many to begin with, and his younger sibling insisted that his were for babies. Mikos was always grabbing others' possessions without asking, always prompting the owner to come after him.

He didn't particularly like to share, but he would with those he liked. There was something about Mikos that he did not like. Beyond the obvious that he was the gleam in his parents' eyes, something got on his nerves. Perhaps somehow Mikos, though still young, understood that he was of a higher station in life. An inherent arrogance.

The fact that they were foster brothers was evident. While Mikos was fair and neat, his brother was dark and unruly. He was always painting parts of his face, and balked when faced with a hair cut. Mikos was the perfect child, except for toy thefts.

But his parents, who weren't even his real parents, were insistent that he be trained and educated with a cousin's children. No amount of disagreement and whining had changed their minds. When he turned seven, his father traveled with his son to his wife's cousin's home for fostering. That had been three years ago, and he'd only seen his parents once every summer
since.

Younger brothers were such a pain. They either imitated everything you did and annoyed you, or they annoyed you any other way. Always wanting attention and to be part of the larger boys' group. Mikos couldn't even say his name right, and ended up making a moniker that others taunted him with....which also happened to sort of describe his slightly aquiline nose. He hated being called "Crow Nose", and would knock down anyone who called him the nickname. His position wouldn't allow him to strike Mikos, he was not a family member by blood and would be sent home to his parents' if he proved a troublemaker. And he had been instructed countless time that it was not honorable to prey on those weaker than himself.

Not that he cared; he would prey on whomever he wanted when he was a man. No one could tell him what to do then. And no one would take what was his either. For now, he followed the rules. Mostly. One day he would make a name for himself and people would think twice before crossing him.

He had had enough. He would teach Mikos a lesson now that he'd never forget.

Mikos, absorbed in his play, did not hear his brother approaching.

The older boy, absorbed in keeping his approach quiet, did not hear his foster father come from inside the home and approach. Startled, he promptly dropped the wooden sword as he heard the bellow.

"Kronos, put down that sword!"

MWC -- A Twist of Fate

Posted By: vixen69 <mcvixen_69@hotmail.com>
(IP: spider-tj012.proxy.aol.com)
Date:
Tuesday, 9 January 2001, at 10:47 p.m.

Disclaimer: I "disclaimer" a lot, don't I? Here goes--no disrespect intended to any actual historical persons. This story is suggested by certain events, tortured into the context of Immortality. I dunno why my head works this way--it just does.

A Twist of Fate

Perhaps there would be some who would wonder why she, pregnant, would go to London to have her child alone. And yet, it was a thing few would wonder on long and none would voice their wonder aloud, knowing her will. Given time enough, they would forget her strange whim—especially if they looked at the child. He was gorgeous, and his eyes seemed something taken from heaven, flashes of Promethean flame. They would think nothing so strange then, she thought, as she looked down fondly on the child who wasn’t hers.

It was the strangest twist of fate that when Catherine found herself most alone, she should find this gift. It was her hope to leave Aberdeen, the better to hide her loss, to mourn it in private. She had lost the child before it had even wrought those happy changes on her form, and yet the changes it had wrought upon her senses were most keenly felt. Unkindest of all, with the loss of the child, she knew she would lose even further the affections of the man who even now was probably carousing away her fortune in France—or wherever in the world he would be when not in her arms. Better she not be discovered, unchanging, needing to admit to her unhappiness—better she be able to tell them of her loss in her own time, and on her own terms.

And now, it would seem she need not tell anyone at all—a child was expected, and so, she produces one, and that would be the end of that. Why would anyone suppose this child born of anyone but herself? Unless it were that he were too perfect—a perfectly lovely child.

Very few things in this world were perfect, she mused, brushing her hand against the fuzzy head of the sleeping child. Perhaps the dreams of a sleeping babe were perfect—sleep was a world apart from the world in which she lived. Her man, once thought to be perfect, was not. His life adrift, he refused to let her be his anchor—and now she herself felt pulled and tossed about in his wake. For all he took from her, he gave so little—even the child he gave was taken—

The child stirred—so plump and healthy! Even when she first picked him up from the basket in which he’d lain, he struggled against her touch, as if she held him too firmly. He would surely be an independent lad. Indeed, he’d seemed so robust she thought it a glamour at first—how could there be such spirit in an abandoned child? Anxiously, she’d watched the face of that doctor who looked him over at her insistence, wondering what he saw that she did not (surely there was something in that face—she knew the look of a man who was not telling all he knew!). He pronounced the boy fine—better than fine, but still she was not sure. At her further insistence, he became more rude and even ordered her out! The very nerve! Surely she’d never find a use for that man again—Adams, Atkins, whatever his name was.

She felt the warmth from the baby’s body in her fingertips as she once again surveyed him. Strong—even though so small, fragile and helpless now. Soon enough he would be a man. Soon enough he would leave her. Oh, but not for now. Right now, her foundling needed her—but something wasn’t right. She needed a child—she found this tiny, pretty creature. Was it not too perfect?

Her hand ran down the boy’s leg, and the child woke and squalled. The sound stirred her, paralyzing her. What was it a mother heard in her own child’s cries? Was there not a secret there—a language between the two? And yet the sound of this child’s wail only made her heart pound. It was terrible, and incomprehensible, and all she could hear was pain. If it were the pain of his loneliness and abandonment, perhaps that much she could understand, for in his tiny wizened baby's face he already seemed an old man, even as she herself felt old inside.

And yet he cried out just as her hand had touched his leg—his little foot. Why would he cry out then? Unless, perhaps there were some defect there—something the doctor had not detected? (Or was there something there the doctor had?) She gripped the small extremity in her hand, firmly, even as the child’s weak kicks attempted to loosen her grasp—and then she did hear a wail of pain. Her fingers probed, even as her face went white and a thousand mad musings occurred to her, and then she drew her hand away. She stared, unsure of what she’d done, or what she’d seen, and then it was made clear.

It was misshapen, that was all—misfortunate, she told herself. Perhaps it was slight enough that it could have been overlooked. Yes, that was why the doctor never noticed. The deformity only waited for her hand to uncover it—and whose hand was better? Was she not his mother after all?

The child wailed louder still, and then she thought to comfort the child, lifting him to her chest. How terrible it was that nothing was ever perfect! But oh, how he would need her vigilance and strength, now! She held the squirming child fast, and placed her lips against his silky curls, whispering to him. Singing. Of course she would seek out the best care for him—the very best.

It was, after all, such a lucky twist of fate that they had found each other, was it not?

MWC (Finally!)

Posted By: Wain <wamba@fast.net>
(IP: maxtnt02-118.abepa.fast.net)
Date:
Friday, 12 January 2001, at 6:13 a.m.

In June of 1688, after fifteen years of marriage, Mary of Modena gave her husband, James II, King of England and Ireland, what he most wanted in the world:  a male heir.  In Kilkenny Town, Ireland, Orla would never lay eyes on her sovereign rulers but she imagined that she, too, felt as the queen did.  Because Orla, thirty years old and childless, presented her husband with a child.  But while Mary’s son came in the conventional way, Orla’s child did not. 

The quiet, resigned life that Orla and Brian MacGouran had settled into was interrupted on a stormy summer night.   There was more rain than anyone could remember, and the wind shrieked like a banshee.  Orla could scarcely believe her ears when she heard someone banging at the door of their tiny house.

“Orla!” It was her best friend Mollie, the tailor’s widow, calling from the door,  “Go down to the church.  They’ve found a baby girl and are looking for someone to take her in.”  Orla rushed through town, heart in her throat, shawl pulled tight around her against the torrents of  rain, sodden skirts slapping against her legs.  Intent on reaching the baby, she took no notice of the buildings, the swollen river, and the few people she passed in the storm, and found herself standing all of a sudden in front of the priest, arms outstretched.

“Take her, Orla,” Father told her, “I can think of no one who would be a better mother than you, nor one who could love this child more.”  With that, he placed into her arms a fine-boned, beautiful newborn baby girl--her daughter.

Orla and Brian baptized the baby Kathleen and asked Mollie to be her godmother.  Finding the name too long for such a tiny girl, they called her Kate.  She became the center of her mother’s life, always in her arms or at her skirts, cooed and fussed over, a quiet and curious baby with large, dark eyes  

Kate’s earliest memories were of playing on the floor of Mollie’s tailor shop, arranging and rearranging brightly colored scraps of fabric.   It was there that she learned from her mother and Mollie how to make her first uneven and halting stitches.  It was the happiest place she knew, a place of refuge as her parents’ life began to change, her father growing withdrawn and sullen as the smithy failed, her mother taking in more and more extra work from Mollie, and surprised to find herself pregnant for the first time at the age of thirty seven.

“But I’m too old to have a baby!” Orla protested.  “I have grey hair . . . I’m old enough to be a grandmother!”  Kate looked up from the sampler she was working, surprised.  For the first time, she saw the lines around her mother’s eyes and the few glints of silver in her coppery hair.  Kate had never thought of her as old before.

“Don’t worry, Orla,” Mollie reassured her.  “Kate will be a fine helper for you after the baby comes, won’t you, dear?” 

Seven-year-old Kate nodded her head, brown eyes wide.  When her little brother Aidan was born, Kate fell in love with him as much as her parents did, and she carried him around the house and cared for him as if he were her own baby.   She sang to him the songs that Orla had sung to her and smiled when her parents called her “Aidan’s little mother.”  The fierceness of her love almost frightened her, and she rarely put the boy down unless he was asleep or her mother asked her to help with the sewing that needed to be done for the tailor shop.

When Kate thought about her childhood, she remembered Kilkenny clearly--the castle the overlooked the River Nore, the busy arcaded main streets in the English part of town, her family’s tiny home, and Mollie’s tailor shop.  She remembered Mollie and her mother bent over embroidery together, Orla’s red hair next to Mollie’s grey, their faces bright with laughter.  She remembered the story of how she had been born on a night whipped with rain and wind.  She remembered the first time Lady Alice came to the tailor shop, how she had complimented Orla on Kate’s skill with a needle and good eye for color and design.   But no many how many times she cast her mind back to her early years, Kate couldn’t make a clear image of her father’s face after he stopped working and changed into a man by turns filled with rage and deadly quiet.

The five years after Aidan’s birth brought two more much-loved little brothers, Padraig and Sean, more work for Kate and Orla, and a hard, brittle tension in the house as Brian began to disappear into himself.   As the boys prattled away at supper each night, Orla would try to draw her husband into the conversation, but he would eat in angry and resolute silence.  As the silence and pain that surrounded her father grew, Kate once--only once--directed a questioning look to her mother.   To ask out loud what was wrong with her da would have seemed traitorous.

“Faith, dear Kate,” her mother replied to Kate’s look.   “You and I need to have faith that things will get better.”

Kate had grown into an awkward, skinny thirteen year old, all elbows and knees and long legs, with shining brown hair, a quick wit, and keen eyes.  She helped her mother in the house,  always had one of her adored little brothers on her hip or trailing her around.  She sewed more for Mollie, who even allowed her to help out in the front of the store from time to time.

Kate was showing Lady Alice some colored ribbons when Aidan burst through the door of the shop, breathless and frightened, to tell her that Orla and baby Sean were sick with fever.   Lady Alice nodded her leave for Kate to go and, after exchanging worried looks with Mollie, promised to send her own physician to the MacGouran house.

Orla was in bed and delirious when Kate arrived with Aidan.  Brian sat by the bedside, grim, trying to settle baby Sean.  He deposited the crying child in Kate’s arms and began to mop Orla’s brow and speak comforting words to her.  The doctor arrived, spent what seemed like too much time behind Orla and Brian’s closed bedroom door, and then came out to examine the baby. 

“He’s not so sick as his mother,” the doctor pronounced.  “Let him drink what he will, and call me if he gets worse.”  He cast a serious look in the direction of Orla’s room and left the house, shaking his head slightly.

“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild . . . “ Kate began to pray, but she was too frightened to know what to say.  She had heard that if you prayed a hundred Our Fathers and Hail Marys that God would work a miracle.  Or was it a thousand?  All night long she fetched cool water and warm blankets for Da to use for her mum, praying under her breath as she went, rocking the baby in her arms, humming her prayers as songs--surely God  wouldn’t mind--to calm the fretful baby.  She slept fitfully, the baby’s hot, dry head heavy against her shoulder, praying as she woke, praying in her dreams.

The baby stirred just after dawn, and Kate awoke to find his fever gone.  She rushed to the bedroom door, opened it quietly so as not to wake Mama as she told her da the good news.  But she stopped in the doorway, frozen by the sight of her father, his face turned to stone, and Mollie, her eyes rimmed with red. 

“But I prayed so hard . . . “ Kate’s voice trailed off.  She cried the whole day and through the wake and the funeral, too.  Brian, who had seemed so angry with Orla when she was alive, was lost without her.  Kate worked to keep the boys clean and fed, and she kissed and hugged them and told them that Mum was with the angels.

On  a cold day in early spring, Brian told Kate and Mollie that he was going to see his sister, Niamh, in Dublin.  Weeks passed, and he didn’t return.  Mollie wrote to Brian’s sister, and she wrote back that he had never arrived. 

A few days later, Aunt Niamh arrived by stagecoach.  Kate stammered when she was introduced and felt uncharacteristically shy, staring at this woman who shared her da’s and brothers’  blue eyes and fair hair.  Aunt Niamh looked over Kate and the three boys, set herself to making supper and, after it was over, sent Kate to put the boys to bed so that she could talk to Mollie alone.

Kate tucked Aidan and Padraig into their bed, helped them say their prayers, and kissed their warm, sweet faces goodnight.  After she put baby Sean into his cradle and rocked him to sleep, she crept to the top of the stairs to listen to what Aunt Niamh was saying to Mollie:  “ . . . so you can see why I can’t take the girl.  She seems like a clever one, but my husband says he won’t take her since she isn’t our kin.”

Mollie spluttered, her voice a strained whisper, “Surely you wouldn’t separate her from the boys now that she’s lost her mother and father!”

Aunt Niamh was indignant:  “Do you think it’s easy to feed three more mouths?  It’s our duty to raise Brian’s sons, but we can’t have the girl.  When Brian and Orla found her, they had no children, so I can understand why they’d take a foundling, but we cannot.  You take her!”

“I would gladly take Kate and treat her as my own child,” Mollie told her, “but I am over seventy now and do not know how much longer I could care for.”

Seated at the top of the staircase and hidden in the shadows, Kate felt her legs turn to water and her stomach twist in her belly.   Orla not her mother?  She wrapped her slender arms around her knees and rocked back and forth.  “Dear God,” she thought, “please don’t take my baby brothers away from me, too!”

But the next afternoon, Aunt Niamh packed the boys and their belongings and headed for Dublin.  Mollie came for Kate and took her to her home over the tailor shop.  Despite the old woman’s care and attention, Kate felt that she had never been lonelier in her life. 

At bedtime, Mollie hugged her and told her, “you cannot stay with me for long, dear Kate, but we’ll find a home for you.  Have faith, little one, that we will work this out.” 

Mollie blew out the candle and stroked Kate’s tear-stained cheek.  Kate curled into a ball under the blankets and obediently started to pray, “Our Father . . . “ then stopped.  No words came to her.  She had prayed for her mother, had prayed to stay with her brothers.  Faith had done nothing for her; she had no need of it.  The losses of the last few months swept over her and pierced her heart like a knife, and she cried until she had no more tears.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lady Alice Barclay was from an old Anglo-Norman family that had lived in Kilkenny since the Middle Ages.   She was a sturdy woman with sharp eyes and brown hair that was beginning to fade into grey.  Now that she was in her fifties, she was old enough to do as she pleased, the conventions of her small-town society be hanged.  She supposed that had her husband been living, she might have wanted to conform a bit more for his sake.  But now that he was gone, no one dared question Lady Alice when she set her mind to something.  And what she set her mind to was nurturing the artistic spark she saw in Kate MacGouran.  She gave Mollie money, visited the shop, and invited Kate for frequent visits to her home at Kilcannon House.  By the time Mollie died, seventeen-year-old Kate knew very well where her next home would be, and the sadness of Mollie’s passing was not accompanied by the specter of homelessness. 

Lady Alice instructed her servants to move Kate’s things into the room that had been reserved for a tutor or governess if, she thought,her foolish son and pinch-faced daughter-in-law ever gave her grandchildren!  Robert Barclay started to comment on his mother’s charity case and was silenced with a withering look.  She instructed Robert that while Kate was not family, neither was she a servant; he was to consider the girl to be Lady Alice’s protégé.

In the first years after Orla’s death, Lady Alice thought of Kate as a flower bud touched by a cruel late frost.  Under the warm ministrations of her mentor, Kate began, ever so slowly, to bloom.  First she poured her affection out on Lady Alice’s lap dogs, carrying them and fondling them like babies.  Later she began to talk to Lady Alice a bit instead of staring at her in awe.  And when the older woman wisely asked for help choosing between two pieces of cloth for a new dress, even though she knew very well which fabric favored her, Kate opened her heart.  As Kate grew, Lady Alice realized that they had much in common--both observant and bright, both with a taste for clothing, both eminently practical--and a friendship sprung up between them that crossed the boundaries of station, age, and background. 

Kate was truly gifted at making clothing.  Her sure eye could copy any dress she saw, and her talent at combining colors and textures was without compare in County Kilkenny.  She made dresses for herself in the new style with the low, rounded neckline that suited her young and beautiful body well.  Kate adapted the same neckline for Lady Alice, adapting it so that it remained in fashion while keeping the older woman’s rather more generous bosom from looking unseemly.  Lady Alice marveled that Kate had even managed to make the severe boning of the bodice blessedly comfortable.  Lady Alice mused that this was as close as she would ever come to being a patron of the arts.  She reveled in her role as mentor and dreaded the day that some man would marry Kate and make her lead the same dull life that Orla had.

For her part, Kate was in no hurry to marry.  She would remember the loss of her baby brothers and knew that she would have much love to give to children of her own someday, but refused to consider marrying until she had saved enough money to keep her future family safe and whole and together.  She considered ruefully that she was becoming accustomed to the luxuries of Lady Alice’s class even though she could never hope to marry into it.  She put all thoughts of marriage aside and dedicated her thoughts to sewing.

There were compensations to staying with Lady Alice--the lady’s friendship, books to read, knowledge of the arts and politics and, most impressive of all for a poor girl, a chance to visit other places.  

“I believe that it is past time for us to have some new dresses, Kate.”  Lady Alice announced one day.

Kate lazily scratched the lap dog’s belly as she answered, “we can start tomorrow if you wish.”

Lady Alice’s eyes sparkled mischievously when she asked, “Have you ever been to Dublin?  That’s where ladies are wearing the latest fashions from London, and there is fabric in the shops that we won’t see in Kilkenny for some time, if at all.  Would you like to go with me?”

Kate was as excited as a child with a new toy; she had never left Kilkenny before.  She fluttered back and forth on the seat of the coach, looking first out one window, then the other, as they rode past mile after mile of southeast Ireland dressed in its autumn finery.  Kate’s curiosity delighted Lady Alice, who began to see and hear everything on the route as if it were her first trip, too:  the crunch of fall leaves under the horses’ hooves, the beautiful rolling countryside, a kingfisher diving into a stream, and gothic St. Brigid’s Cathedral with its romanesque round tower standing guard over Kildare Town, where the two women stopped to spend the night.

Dublin, arrayed along the River Liffey, was filled with more people and noise than Kate had imagined possible.  Although the stench of coal smoke and the kennels--the open gutters that ran down the middle of the streets--appalled her, Kate found much to admire in the busy city.  Lady Alice hired a hackney coach, and they toured the city from one end to another.  Round-eyed, Kate listened to the cries of the women who sold brick dust for sharpening knives and of the small-coal men hawking coal and charcoal.  She remarked on shops and coffee houses as they jostled along cobbled streets.  She craned her neck to see the tower crowning the choir on Christ Church Cathedral, exclaiming to Lady Alice that she had never seen such a large church before.  She surveyed the rebuilding efforts at Dublin Castle, where all but two massive, mismatched towers had burned to the ground before she was born. 

After all of the sights in Dublin, Lady Alice wondered if Kate might not be too overwhelmed to shop for fabric, but the young woman’s eyes lit up as the hackney coach wound through the narrow, twisting streets near the street of Taylor Bar and drew up toward the millinery, tailor, and fabric shops.  The two women spent hours poring over a rainbow of rich brocades and velvets, sturdy dimities, delicate lawns, and fine silks.

Their afternoons and evenings in Dublin were spent in the company of Lady Alice’s old acquaintances and distant relations, and she proudly introduced Kate as her protégé.   Like two barn cats stalking prey, they eyed every woman’s clothing, filing away ideas that they discussed endlessly throughout their week in Dublin and on the ride home.

“The pale blue silk will bring out your eyes,” for the fourth time since leaving the inn at Kildare that morning, Kate was discussing the grand gown she was planning for Lady Alice, “and I’ll add some ruching around the neckline to soften it.   We’ll make the waistline here.”  Kate drew a slender index finger along her own dress to indicate what she was planning.  Lady Alice nodded her assent.  After the sad years of her late childhood, Kate had blossomed into a beautiful, self-assured young woman.  Kate leaned back on the seat of the coach and smiled.  She felt at peace, more so than since she was a child.  She felt she could forgive Aunt Niamh for taking her brothers.  Kate imagined that she could very nearly pardon her father for leaving them and, whether he was dead or living far away, she wished him some of the peace she felt.

A musket shot shattered her reverie.  The coach’s driver pulled up on the reins, and the horses whinnied.  Kate risked a look past the curtain of her window seat.  Two highwaymen approached the coach.  It lurched as one of them climbed up next to the driver; the two women heard a thud.  The other man, a tall blond, snatched open the door of the coach.

“Afternoon, ladies!” he began heartily.  “You’ve reached the toll house, and me and my partner are here to collect!”  Kate started to protest, but Lady Alice warned her with a slight nod of her head.  The second robber opened the other door of the coach, twisted his rapier slightly so that it shone in the dappled sunlight, and fixed them with a look far more menacing than his blade.  The blond highwayman began to search through the women’s cloaks and took their purses.  He relieved Lady Alice of her brooch and earrings and let his hand linger on Kate’s thigh.   Her revulsion turned to anger in an instant.  How dare he?  She flashed an furious look at him and he withdrew, money and jewels in hand.  It was over almost as suddenly as it had begun.  Kate and Lady Alice were thankful beyond measure when their driver recovered his senses and they could begin to make their way home to Kilkenny.

Despite the horror of the robbery, Lady Alice decided that the trip to Dublin had been the best gift she could ever have given Kate, and she resolved that they should go there yearly.  And every fall, the same two highwaymen appeared and robbed them in some wooded stretch on the road south of Kildare.  By the third year, the women took the precaution of keeping but a modest amount of money in their purses and of wearing gaudy paste jewels that looked expensive but were, in fact, worth very little.  Lady Alice’s good jewelry and the rest of their money they had sewn into the hemlines of their dresses.  The coach driver was instructed to comply with whatever the thieves wanted so that no one would be hurt. 

In 1712, before setting out on their yearly visit, Kate asked Lady Alice’s permission to visit her little brothers and Aunt Niamh while they were in Dublin.  Until then, Lady Alice had warned that a visit from their long-lost sister might confuse or frighten little Aidan, Padraig, and Sean. 

“Aidan is seventeen now, as old as I was when I went to live with you,” Kate reasoned.   “Even baby Sean is no baby.  He’ll be twelve now, a great big boy.  And I want very much to see them and know that they are well.”  Lady Alice gave her blessing; she never could deny Kate anything, and the girl . . . young woman, she corrected herself . . . asked for little, at any rate.

Kate spent an hour with her brothers on the afternoon before the return to Kilkenny.  She was saddened but not surprised that only Aidan remembered her, and then only faintly at that.   She told them stories of their parents, gave each of them a trinket, kissed them, and went back to Lady Alice without remorse.  The boys were happy and strong, and they seemed to love Aunt Niamh dearly.

Early on second day of their journey home, the two women heard the sharp report of a musket firing and grimly prepared themselves for their annual fleecing by the highwaymen.  A few minutes into the robbery, Kate felt an odd shiver in her stomach and looked up to see two men on horseback trotting toward their coach.  Lady Alice worried that violence might ensue if the two riders tried to interfere.  Kate felt relieved that she and Lady   Alice might be saved from this year’s humiliating encounter.  It wasn’t until the taller of the two men approached her that she noticed how handsome he was.  Her mouth opened in indignant surprise when he agreed that the highwaymen should have their money, then a broad smile spread across her face when she realized that the dark-haired stranger had tricked the thieves. 

Fighting broke about among the four men. Kate and Lady Alice were astonished to watch their rescuers subdue the highwaymen with quick, masterful strokes of their swords.  They laughed and joked and seemed to be enjoying themselves like two boys at play!  When it was certain that their rescuers had the upper hand, Lady Alice rapped on the coach ceiling, and the driver rode away with haste.  Kate peeked out of the coach window long enough to see her handsome rescuer on the ground.  He rolled over onto his stomach and grinned at her.  At the intensity of his stare, a flush spread over her neck and her cheeks.  She ducked quickly behind the curtain as if burned by his look, and then her small, white hand appeared and released a finely embroidered handkerchief, which drifted gently to the ground. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Duncan MacLeod was thoroughly and most assuredly sick of life at court.  He endured the intrigue and politics, more dangerous than any battlefield, because of the obligation he felt to his people and to Queen Anne.  With the queen old, her children dead, and the fate of a nation at stake, Parliament passed an act of succession that named the Protestant descendants of Sophia, the wife of the Elector of Hanover, as future monarchs of Great Britain.   Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch to sit on the throne of England, died on August 1, 1714, and was succeeded by George I. 

Released from the trying and difficult years at court, Duncan set his mind to finding a pleasanter place to go.  Almost without thinking, he settled on Ireland.  Two years ago, he had spent a happy and too-brief time there with his teacher and kinsman, Connor.  Duncan withdrew an exquisitely embroidered linen handkerchief from his pocket, raised it to his face, and inhaled.  The scent of rose water had long vanished, but his memories of the beautiful woman who had dropped the handkerchief lingered.  He wondered if he would find her still in Ireland, decided there was nothing to be lost by trying, and packed his bags.

Duncan had wanted to follow her coach the day that he and Connor rescued her, but they were bound for Kildare and then Dublin and had no time to spare.  Recognizing the look on his student’s face, Connor chuckled indulgently and suggested that they inquire in Kildare to see if anyone knew who rode in the coach.  Armed with the name of the older lady and her destination, Duncan half hoped he could delay his return to England and seek her out.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Connor had stopped him.  “Maybe Lady Alice Barclay is hoping to marry that girl off to a young man of the local gentry.”

Duncan responded with a sharp bark of laughter: “I’m the son of a clan chieftain.  That’s as good as any local gentry in Kilkenny.”

“You were the son of a clan chieftain,” Connor corrected, “eighty years ago.  A Highland clan chieftain will seem like nothing more than a barbarian to your Lady Alice.   Besides, our ship sails from Dublin harbor the day after tomorrow.”

His responsibility to Queen Anne and Connor’s arguments had prevailed on Duncan at the time.  He thought he had dismissed Connor’s notions about Lady Alice and her ideas of suitable gentleman callers, but two years later, as he stood before the imposing, dark outline of Kilcannon House, he wondered for a moment if his teacher might not be right.  But this was foolish!  Lady Alice couldn’t possibly be as frightening as facing another Immortal or dying in battle and rising again.  He straightened his shoulders and knocked at the door.

A liveried servant showed Duncan to the drawing room, where he found Lady Alice.  He bowed and introduced himself, “I’m Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.  I am glad to see you are well, milady.  My companion and I long prayed for your safe return home.   Other duties have kept me from seeking you out before now, but I wished to pay my respects to you and to your . . . “ his voice raised in a slight question, ‘ . . . daughter?”

Lady Alice gestured for Duncan to sit and told him, “Mistress Kathleen is not my daughter, although I could never wish for a better one.  She is my protégé.” 

Duncan relaxed slightly.  Lady Alice was kind, and the young woman was neither married nor her kin.  They spoke pleasantly about the weather and travel until Kate entered the room.  Duncan rose and bowed over her outstretched hand.

“I had hoped to return this to you,” he said warmly as he withdrew her handkerchief from the cuff of his justaucorps.  She was as beautiful as he remembered her, with shining dark hair, bright eyes and full, expressive lips.  A blush crept over her cheeks as she thanked him.

Lady Alice always considered herself a fine judge of character and as the afternoon wore on, she found that she liked Duncan MacLeod very much.  In fact, she liked him enough to invite him to stay for dinner, allowing him to spend more time with Kate.  She left the drawing room briefly to discuss dinner arrangements with Cook.  She returned to find Duncan and Kate leaning close over Kate’s drawn thread work.  Lady Alice’s son, Robert, rushed up to her with his breathless wife in tow, yanked his mother back to the hall, and closed the door. 

“Surely you’re not considering entertaining callers for your seamstress!” he exclaimed.  Lady Alice raised her eyebrows.  All of Robert’s fears were allayed when she told him about Duncan’s time at the court of Queen Anne.  After that, Duncan and Kate had little opportunity to speak.  Robert and his wife nearly made fools of themselves fawning over their visitor. 

When time for dinner came, Robert slapped Duncan on the shoulder, his wife hooked her arm through his elbow, and they led him off to the dining room.  Lady Alice held Kate back for a moment.

“I have little experience with men, my dear,” lady Alice began, “but long experience with one, may he rest in peace.  Not all men like women who are forward.  You might wish to be a bit more reticent that you usually are, at least until you get to know Mr. MacLeod.”

Kate was confused.  She protested, “But you have never been reticent in all the years I have known you!”

“Still,” Lady Alice replied with a sigh, “it might be best, for now, to try to be a bit meek.”

Kate and Duncan flicked glances at each other throughout dinner. The food was delicious, and Duncan thought that Lady Alice must be as encouraging of the cook’s talents as she was of Kate’s.  Robert prompted Duncan to talk about court and politics.  Duncan censored his replies.  The political maneuvering since the Restoration had been designed, to a great extent, to contain Louis XIV’s imperial ambitions.  But the people of Ireland viewed the resulting wars on a national rather than international scale.  The battles fought between James II and his son-in-law, William III, had wreaked havoc in Ireland, and the ensuing penal laws against the Irish had cost the people dearly.  Duncan often thought that if monarchs could only see what war did to their people, they might engage in fewer of them.

“What was the queen like?”  Robert’s wife asked, giggling and blushing.

Duncan thought carefully before answering.  The devastating religious divisions in the country were reflected in the late queen’s own family.  Duncan could not help but feel that Queen Anne would have preferred that her half brother, James, succeed her were he not Catholic.  Duncan gave a bland and vague answer, and Robert’s wife wriggled in her chair, trying to memorize Duncan’s words so as to impress her friends.

“But that doesn’t tell us at all what she was like,” Kate challenged, not playing the meek woman Lady Alice might have hoped for.

Duncan knew that she had seen through his subterfuge.  He lowered his voice as he answered, “No, it does not.  Her majesty, the queen, was a kind woman much concerned with the divisions among her people.”  Duncan met Kate’s level gaze and continued,  “She was quiet and pious and greatly saddened by the loss of all of her children.” 

After dinner and port, Duncan prepared to return to his room in Kytleler’s Inn in town.  Kate walked him outside to wait for the stable boy to bring his horse.  She took her handkerchief and pressed it into his palm.

“I would prefer that you kept this to remember me,” Kate told him.

Duncan raised the delicate white square to his lips and kissed it before tucking it into his cuff.  The scent of roses was dizzying.  “I will keep it with me always, although there is no danger that I will forget you.  May I call upon you again, Mistress Kate?” he asked.

Kate’s heart leapt in her throat and pounded in her ears as she nodded yes.  She floated back into the house, closed the door, and leaned against it with a happy sigh.  Unnoticed at the head of the stairs, Lady Alice smiled.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As fall’s days shortened and winter came upon Kilkenny, Duncan visited Kilcannon House with  more and more regularity.  It had been a long time since he thought he could love a woman this much.  Thoughts of Kate filled his days and nights, and he began to realize that he wanted to spend his life with her. 

Lady Alice was thrilled to see Duncan and Kate’s growing fondness for one another.  With a wry smile, she told herself that any man who would brave her son’s and daughter-in-law’s tedious conversation was more than deserving of Kate’s affection. 

Kate knew for certain that she was in love.  She knew Duncan’s voice, memorized that tiny scar on his right eyelid, learned every mannerism.  So she knew without looking up when she heard his footfall at the drawing room door one early winter evening.

Duncan found Kate sitting next to a girl of perhaps three years who had soft blond ringlets around her angelic face, tears running down her cheeks, and her thumb in her mouth.  She watched intently as Kate stitched a partially detached leg on a rag doll.  Duncan smiled at the tenderness in Kate’s voice as she spoke reassuringly to the little girl.  Repairs made, Kate folded the doll’s skirt down and handed it back to the child. 

“She’ll be fine now,” Kate said, “and I think that a great big girl like you doesn’t need this anymore.”  She gently withdrew the thumb from the girl’s mouth, who threw her arms around Kate’s neck and kissed her.  Kate took a handkerchief, dried the child’s eyes, and ordered her to blow her nose.  After one last hug, the girl skipped out of the room.

Duncan hesitated.  Kate would most certainly want children, and he couldn’t give them to her.  Did he have a right to ask her to marry him?

“That was Elizabeth, Lady Alice’s granddaughter,” Kate explained.

Duncan cleared his throat.  “You seem to love children very much.“

“I do!” Kate exclaimed.  “I think I would have ten if I could.”

“And if you couldn’t have any of your own?” Duncan ventured.

“There are many children without parents.  I would gladly have them as my own.  I have had three mothers, and none of them bore me,”  Kate replied.

Robert and his wife were away, and dinner was quiet that evening.  After the meal, Lady Alice, Kate, and Duncan conversed while Kate worked at making bobbin lace.  Duncan ran his hand through the silky fur of one of the lap dogs and stared at Kate, wishing that he could trace the shining, lazy curls that brushed her neck instead.  Lady Alice yawned hugely and retired for the evening.

Duncan moved next to Kate and watched as her slender, agile fingers moved the wooden bobbins.  They clacked against each other on the pillow, and Kate moved the position of the pins as the lacy design grew by tiny increments.

“How do you do that?” Duncan asked.  “Those wooden things . . .”

“Bobbins,” she supplied.

Duncan smiled and continued, “The bobbins seem to dance when you move them.”

“I can show you, if you like,” Kate said.

She moved closer to him and placed the pillow and its lace on their laps.  Taking his strong hands in hers, she led him through a few movements.  His clumsiness made them both laugh.  Duncan found it difficult to concentrate on the threads and bobbins and pins with her so close to him.  He closed his hand over hers and gazed into her eyes.

“Kate, I cannot live without you.  Will you marry me?” he asked.

Kate smiled and replied, “I should ask Lady Alice’s blessing.  Yes, Duncan, I’ll be your wife.”  He kissed her tenderly, and then with more ardor as the bobbin lace fell to the floor unheeded.

Lady Alice gave her blessing immediately.  Why did they think that she had left the drawing room that night, if not to give them a chance to talk about their future?  The wedding was planned for the last Saturday in January in Dublin.  That would give them time to invite Kate’s brothers, her Aunt Niamh with all her family, and Duncan’s kinsman, Connor.  It was decided that Lady Alice would travel to Dublin with them.  

The wedding day dawned with a heavy, leaden sky that paled to white at the horizon.  Shortly after dawn, the sun made a ruddy, blurred circle at the horizon, and then slipped behind the grey ceiling of clouds.   Kate was so nervous and excited that she spilled ale on her blue traveling dress at breakfast.

“What shall I wear tomorrow?” she wailed.  “Everything but the wedding dress is packed!  I was going to wear this on the ship to England.” 

Lady Alice called a serving girl, and they hung the dress to dry on the back porch. 

“Tomorrow when it’s dry, I’ll send someone to the inn with the dress,” Lady Alice told her.  “I doubt you’ll need it until then,” she added with a wry and knowing smile.

Kate entered the church resplendent in her creamy silk gown.  She scarcely heard a word anyone said at the wedding; she saw and heard only Duncan.   At the wedding feast, she slowly began to realize that she was married.  The men and even some of the women made bawdy remarks about the wedding night.  Kate danced with Duncan, feeling light as a feather in his capable arms as he spun her gracefully around the floor. 

Kate worried a bit when Duncan’s kinsman, Connor, made a late appearance.  The two men went outside to talk, and Duncan met her with a tight smile when he returned.

“I’ll be back shortly,” he told her, and left the inn.  Duncan was deeply disturbed by what Connor had told him.  A small part of him wished that Kate might be immortal, but he had convinced himself that it wasn’t so.  His long legs took him along the docks of the River Liffey as he tried to sort out his feelings.  Connor confirmed the thought that Duncan had tried to push away--Kate would become immortal if she were to meet a violent death.  Duncan had still not told Kate of his own immortality, and he wasn’t certain that he could expect her to understand it; after nearly one hundred years of immortality, he wasn’t sure he understood it himself.  Even if she believed him to be immortal, she couldn’t possibly trust him to kill her and expect to rise again--no one could.  If he were to do it quickly so that she wouldn’t suffer, then he could explain it to her afterward.  He would never allow her to face immortality alone, not knowing what she was, as he had. 

He frowned into the fading light of early evening.  A sudden cloudburst caught him as he started back toward the inn.  Could he kill Kate and push her over the threshold into immortality?  He was haunted by the look on Connor’s face when he described his beloved Heather cutting off locks of her hair for him to remember her by, hair that would remain unchanged even after she had grown old.  Duncan drew from his pocket the wedding present he had bought for Kate, a gold locket inscribed with a single word, “forever.”  He stood in the driving rain, holding the golden circle in his palms, and considered it as if it held answers or courage.

Duncan returned to the wedding feast soaking wet.  Kate helped him remove his drenched coat, and they said their goodbyes to the guests.  As they mounted the steps to their room, Kate trembled with nervousness and anticipation.  Duncan felt a degree of nervousness, too.  He was certain of what he had to do to make Kate immortal, but found himself absurdly wishing for a sign that would confirm the terrible decision he had made.

Upstairs, a fire burned merrily in the room and the bed was turned down.  A row of candles lit the mantle.  Kate supposed that no bride was every completely ready for the wedding night, and the whispered comments and giggles of other women at that night’s dinner did nothing to improve her state.   One look at her husband--the word made her catch her breath--reassured her.  His steady smile and kind eyes encouraged her; she had complete faith in him. 

Kate gasped at the beautiful necklace he had bought for her.  Duncan fastened it around her neck and kissed her throat just above the spot where the gold locket rested against her skin.  He helped her unlace her bodice and knelt as he slid the silken dress to the floor.  She could feel the warmth of his hands through the fine linen of her shift as they caressed her body.  He stood again and she raised his shirt over his head.  Smiling, he kissed her and lifted her in his strong arms to carry her to their marriage bed.

His fingers traced the low scoop of her linen shift and untied the bow at the front.  She was glad for the warmth of the fire when they removed the rest of their clothing.  Duncan’s gentle hands explored her neck, traced a shivering line down her belly, stroked the inside of her thighs.  Trembling and tentative, she reached out to touch him.  He murmured a word of encouragement, and she slipped her hand around his waist and rested it on the small of his back.  Their hands and mouths roved over each other’s bodies, their skin golden and warm in the firelight.

She felt his weight on her.  Raised up on his elbows, he lost himself in her dark eyes and kissed her urgently.  Kate returned his kisses and embraces with a fervor that surprised her.  They were caught in a world of passion that Kate never knew existed.  On the borders of ecstasy, not aware of anything but the two of them, she whispered into his ear, “forever.”

Resting against Duncan, hand curled over her belly, Kate drifted off to sleep and dreamed of her new life--children, a loving husband, a home of her own.  Duncan did not sleep; he was too consumed with what he must do.  Forever, she wanted to be with him forever, and he knew the terrible price that they must pay for that eternity together.

In her dreams she was in his arms, walking and talking with him, and then she felt--waking or dreaming, she did not know--his powerful legs straddle her, heard him intone a prayer or maybe a poem.  Pleasure nearly roused her, and then pain ripped her heart in two.  She gasped and awakened to his frightened, determined face.  She reached for the hilt of the dagger that pierced her breast, her pale hands fluttering like frightened birds against his bloody ones.  Kate felt pressure, then a hot bursting in her chest.  She wondered why was he holding the blade in place instead of taking it away from her, and then she thought no more.

Duncan removed the dagger.  Sweet Jesus, there was so much blood!  He should wash it away, get clean sheets, but he had not thought of them before and was too stunned to move now.  Even knowing that Kate would rise into immortality, this was almost too much for him to bear.

Blackness was her first thought; her eyes would not open.  What a terrible nightmare she had had!  Then she felt the pain of her heart knitting itself back together again, the agony of her lungs laboring to draw breath.  She sat up, trying to wake herself from her nightmare.  The metallic tang of blood was in the air.  She looked down at herself, her linen shift covered in blood, and began to scream.  Duncan was huddled on the floor in the corner, eyes glittering with tears.  The low firelight painted his face a ghoulish red with darker red on his hands.  In her terror she heard only a few of his words, “immortal . . . live forever . . . “ as she ran from the room.

Kate ran through the pouring rain, shivering with cold, the blood on her shift turning pink and spreading across the linen.  The fabric whipped against her ankles as she ran, desperately looking for anywhere safe to be.   Lady Alice!  She must find Lady Alice.  Disoriented in the dark, rainy night, Kate lost her way.  It was nearly morning by the time she reached the house where Lady Alice was staying.  Kate heard screams and shouting voices that proclaimed her murder to a horrified crowd.  Lady Alice was among them, near to fainting.  Frightened, Kate hurried to the back porch, grabbed her blue traveling dress, and put it on. 

What had happened to her?  Why was she alive?  Kate’s practical side asserted itself.  She had been dead at Duncan’s hand; tears welled up in her eyes when she thought of his betrayal.  Yet now she was alive and felt no aftereffects, except for one brief screaming pain in her head, a chill in her bones, and a sickening lurch in her stomach. 

Kate needed time to think.  She found a tiny room in an inn located in a remote part of the city.  She couldn’t return to her brothers or Lady Alice or even contact the merchants on Taylor Bar for employment.   When her landlady brought her meals, she shared with Kate the gossip of that poor girl who was murdered in her wedding bed by her own husband.  Then a banshee came, the story went, and screamed and carried her body off into the night.  Her ghost spirited away her good blue dress--at this point, the landlady eyed Kate’s dress, the only one she had, before continuing with the story--and her murdering Scots husband was nearly caught but threw himself into the Liffey River and drowned, and his ghost was seen by the wharf the next day.   Kate’s landlady assured her that the story was true; it was, she beamed, a ballad now, one sung in all the taverns.

The bright future Kate envisioned had gone dark.  She had become a legend, a ghost story to frighten little children.  She made up her mind to take the money and the jewelry sewn into the hem of her dress and buy a passage on the very next ship leaving the harbor, no matter where it sailed.   She would sell it all if needs be, except for Duncan’s golden locket, which she no longer knew if she cherished or despised.  Her mind was made up; she must leave Ireland forever.    

Here it is! MWC: "Solstice Child"
Posted By: Ghost Cat <ghost_cat@hotmail.com>
Date: Tuesday, 16 January 2001, at 4:38 p.m.
In Response To: MWC response delayed due to technical difficulties (Ghost Cat)

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Solstice Child

It was the near the end of the year 1592 and a chill wind blew across the Highlands. The winter solstice: a time of change, a time of beginnings and endings, a time of omens— three things happened that day. Every Clansman knows that great omens always come in threes.

This was the day that Mary MacLeod, a proud woman and a Chieftain’s wife, became ill and once again miscarried of a child. Her fondest, most passionate desire was to give her beloved husband a son. She despaired that she may never produce a fine, strong lad to lead the Clan in his turn. In her eyes, this solstice portended a harsh winter indeed.

On this day also a babe had been found, alone and helpless, at the edge of Donan Wood. A young man had been searching for deadwood, hoping he wouldn’t have to venture further into the forest. He almost passed by the boychild altogether, for the infant made no cry of protest or fear; seeming to wait in quiet dignity, as if expecting to be found. There was a calm serenity about the babe that the clansman would never forget: a solstice child. He took the foundling to his Clan Chief, a wise man who would know what to do.

When Mary saw the bundle in the man’s arms, even from across the village, she could not mistake it for anything else. Her heart leapt with joy as the babe was brought into her care. The men went off together to discuss the miraculous event, and Mary smiled; she knew her husband well, and was certain of his decision. No MacLeod would ever cast aside a foundling child on the eve of winter. Besides, she thought to herself, rocking the child and cooing softly, here was as fine a lad as you’d ever see: a true Chieftain’s son.

At the same moment that Ian MacLeod leaned down to look into the face of his future son, a cry echoed across Loch Shiel like the shriek of the Bane Sidhe. The sound alone was enough to chill the soul, and it froze the young man in the act of departing. His voice quavered slightly; “The spirits are restless; a bad omen,” he muttered. “Perhaps we took a Change Child. Tis nae a good time to anger the Folk.” Ian scowled in response, he had no need for such superstition; the sound was an animal, or perhaps a strange trick of the wind. Mary looked up from the babe, concern in her eyes, “If the banshee wants another death today, all the more reason to protect this new life.” The look in her eyes: equal parts love and pride, protection and stubbornness was unmistakable; and, Ian knew, undeniable. “This child is of the Clan MacLeod, and he is my son.”

§ § §

The sound of an almost inhuman scream awoke the woman known simply as Cassandra. Despite the emptiness of the tiny cabin, it took her a few moments to realise the cry had been her own. Her bedding, even the heavy winter furs, was tangled and sweat-stained; her heart raced nearly as wildly as her scattered thoughts. Kantos, curse the man, still haunted her dreams. Roland Kantos: her most promising student, her biggest mistake and her greatest enemy—for now.

It wasn't the same nightmare as before. There had been something different this time, a sense of urgency. Seated cross-legged in the bedding, she focused her thoughts, gathering the fading images of the dream. A Highland child, born on the Winter Solstice, who has seen both Darkness and Light. Born on the Winter Solstice: this wasn't the first time she'd had a vision that came true. Somewhere out there was a newborn child who had a destiny.

It felt like years since she had left the small cabin, but in reality it was probably many decades. Not since the Kurgan incident. Connor had been a fine young man, with a lot of potential, but his dramatic return from the dead brought out fears and superstitions for nearly a generation. She no longer had the option of hiding in the woods. The prophecy needed to be set in motion now, though it may take centuries to fulfil. Wrapping herself in a hooded cloak, she set herself on a path even she wasn't certain where it would lead.

§ § §

When the cloaked figure stepped out of the depths of Donan Woods, no man dared to stop her. Proud warriors moved aside, boisterous children subsided into murmuring silence, and the mystery woman strode through it all like a Fey Queen. She knew exactly where she was going; though no one in all of Glennfinnan recognised her. Without a pause or a single misstep, she arrived at the door of the Chieftain's home. Years later, people would say that Mary MacLeod knew of the coming of the fey woman as much as the stranger had known of the coming of the child. There was no knock on the door, no welcoming halloo; the door simply opened, as if the two women shared an understanding.

The stranger pulled back her hood, revealing hair the colour of flames and eyes the green of spring leaves. "I'm here to see the foundling child."

Mary MacLeod's jaw was set and it was only the Clan's long tradition of hospitality that kept her voice civil. "There are no Foundlings here, My Lady. My husband and I celebrate the joy of our new son."

"I promise you, no harm will come to your child. I would give blessings to the Chieftain's son." Thus mollified, the hostess opened her door wide, welcoming the guest into her home. The infant was wrapped in the tartan of the MacLeods; the colours seemed to suit him well. The firelight brought out highlights in his dark hair and his eyes sparkled. "Such beautiful blue eyes!" the Fey woman remarked. She paused, frowning thoughtfully, as if listening to a private message. "They will not stay that colour though. He shall grow to be a dark and troubled man, and the light in his eyes will turn within." Her voice softened, words meant only for herself, "Such a small child, for a great task."

She turned to the mother, gave a small bow of respect. "He is a fine son and an honour to your Clan. Have you chosen a name for him yet?"

Mary thought of the woman's words: a dark man, a dark warrior. She did not hesitate, and her voice swelled with pride. "Duncan My Lady; Duncan MacLeod. Of the Clan MacLeod."

Cassandra smiled gently, brushing a delicate finger across the infant's smooth cheek. The head turned, mouth seeking that which only a mother could provide. She whispered softly, reverently, "Remember me. Duncan."

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