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- Highland Ballad - 1/38 -


HIGHLAND BALLAD

For Natasha

Part One: A Lingering Flame

One

The red sun rose slowly, achingly across the high Scottish moor, touching with melancholy gold the patching hoar frost and purple heath. For this was a land of pain, and stark beauty, and restless dream. Here the spirits of the dead walked by night through grim castles of shadow and dust, their glory long past. Here the spirits of the living grieved by day for a proud and chivalrous time forever lost.

For now the English ruled the land. The battle of Culloden was three years lost and Bonnie Prince Charles, the drunken fool in whom they had placed such hope, was living in exile in France. For what then had the pride of Highland manhood shed their blood, leaving behind them the heart-broken wives, aging fathers, and uncomprehending child sisters? Was it to see the Lord Purceville establish his thieving court at the ancestral home of the MacPhersons? Was it to pay hard tribute in grain and goods which could not be spared, to an Empire already bloated and corrupt?

None felt the pangs of lost promise more deeply than young Mary Scott, aged sixteen years, with a future as uncertain as the fretting October wind. Her father had died before she could say his name, leaving their estate in the keeping of guardians until Michael came of age. Now it was completely lost, their legacy ruined. Now she lived with her mother and aging aunt in the fading cottage that had once belonged to the chief steward, all that remained of the family property. It was neither beautiful nor poetic; but it was warm, and for the time at least, safe from the hungry eyes of soldiers. The dangers to a young girl in an occupied land need hardly be detailed.

And there were other dangers as well.

On this morning, as on many others, she walked slowly down the narrow, winding path to the gravesite of her clan. Bordered by scrub oak and maple, alone in its silent dell, it was a place removed from time, hallowed, and to her, sacred. For here, among the stones of four hundred years of Stuart knights, lay the body of her beloved, her soul. Her brother. Brushing back a long lock of raven hair, she stepped furtively towards the mound of earth that was like an iron door between them.

Michael James Scott 1719 --- 1746 He died a man's death, fighting for his home.

The words on the small tombstone had always seemed to her a blasphemy, the hurried cutters finding it more important to speak of patriotism than to give the date of his birth. These trite, inadequate words were all that future generations would ever know of him. They could never see him as he had been in life---the shock of curling, golden hair, the fierce and penetrating sapphire eyes. He had been strong and stubborn like all his blood, but with a sudden tenderness that had long ago stolen her heart. Her friend, brother and father. And in the most secret depths of her heart, her lover as well.

One image of him remained indelibly carved in her memory.

He stood silhouetted against the open door of the shepherd's hut, in which they had taken shelter from a sudden, violent downpour. The play of lightnings beyond flashed his tall, muscular form into brilliant lines out of the grey. He stood defiant, legs spread, crying out to the storm that lashed him. Aye! It'll take more than that to kill a Scott! And he had laughed his fearless laugh.

"Michael don't, I'm scared," she said aloud. And he closed and barred the door, and came to her with the gentle smile which he gave to her alone.....

She fell to her knees on the cold ground, unable to stop the flow of bitter and blessed memories. She wrapped the shawl tighter, remembering, feeling as deeply and surely as if it were not a thing of the past, but happening now, this moment:

He came to her, and put his cloak about her. Then feeling her shiver in his arms, changed his mind. "No. We'll have to get you out of your wet things. I'm an ugly brute, but you'll catch your death."

He built a warming blaze in the fireplace, then took the heavy woolen blanket from the bed and brought it to her. "Come on now. No time for being shy; I'll turn away." And he carefully tended the fire as she shed her dripping garments, and wrapped herself in the blanket.

Perhaps an hour later he lay sprawled on his back, stripped to the waist on the broad, solid bed. She stood watching him, his dried riding cloak about her. Her own clothes were nearly dry, and the rain was less; yet for reasons she did not understand, her one desire was to remain with him there, as they were, forever. He stretched his arms behind him and let out a yawn, and looked at her with laughing, sleepy eyes.

"I'm all done in, my little Mary, riding and running about with you after the long day's work. Better let me have a bit of sleep, then we'll take ourselves home. Wake me in a bit, won't you?" And he rolled over on his side, leaving her flushed and agitated, not understanding the feelings that stirred inside her. The early night was hushed, her brother lay long and beautiful in the firelight, and she was thirteen years old.

After a short time that seemed like an eternity, during which she never once took her eyes from him, she heard the soft, steady breathing of his slumber. All her love and confused desire suddenly took hold of her. She loosed the cloak about her bare shoulders, and came closer. Quietly, timidly, her heart pounding, she lay down next to him, drawing the broad cloak about them both. She rested her face against his arm, while her hand mysteriously sought out the scraggly down of his chest. He stirred.

"What's all this?" he whispered dreamily. "You're not still afraid?"

"No ," she nearly shouted. "It's not that at all." And then, as if afraid the moment was lost, she drew in her arms and snuggled closer to him still. "You're not shamed for me, are you, Michael? I've done nothing wrong."

"Ah, hush girl. You love your Michael and he loves you. Where's the sin?" And his strong arm enveloped her back, as he gently kissed her forehead.....

Oh, to feel his arms around her, his skin against hers! She sobbed aloud at the thought of it, and flung herself to the ground. How gladly she would have died, then as now, to be with him forever. But still her life went on, still the feelings and images would not stop:

They lay quiet for a time, her breasts touching his, their faces so close, breath intermingling. Then all at once, with a voice hardly her own, she said the words that had sealed her fate.

"Kiss me, Michael. If you don't kiss me I swear I'll die." And though she could not see them, she felt the laughter of his eyes. But he did as she asked, slowly bringing his lips to hers. They touched, ever so gently.

Then with a sudden passion which surprised them both, he gave a deep, despairing sigh and crushed her to him, his hungry mouth devouring hers. "My Mary," he said. "My beautiful Mary."

Then just as suddenly he broke away and stood up from the bed. He began to pace back and forth, cursing himself, so afraid he had in some way wounded her. She lay still, feeling the loss of his flesh like the loss of a limb. And two months later. . .he was no more.

She found herself hopelessly, hatefully back in the present. Alone. Convulsive sobs shook her as she lay across the mound of uncaring earth. Her tears wet the rough grass beneath her, flowing like blood from a mortal wound. One word, one thought only existed in the whole of her being.

"Michael!"

A fresh burst of wind whistled through the heath and fretted the fallen leaves around her, carrying with it, or so it seemed, a faint strain of bagpipes. She turned her face to listen. Was it possible: that soul-stirring sound, so terrible in battle that the English had since outlawed it?

Was it there, or was she truly mad? She strained all her senses..... No. The sound was gone. She buried her face and wept once more, defeated.

Again a breeze stirred, this time more gentle, this time much nearer. She felt a large hand caress the crown of her head, and brush the side of her face as she turned again, bewildered. Half blind with tears she saw the wavering outline of a man, and heard a voice whisper,

"My Mary."

She knew no more.

Two

She was found there by her aunt, pale and shivering. And as consciousness and memory returned to her, a light of wild hope and fear widened the deep emerald of her eyes.

"Aunt Margaret, I saw him! He called me by name, I swear it!"

But whether because the wisdom of age had taught her the wishful fancies of the young, or for some other reason, the hale, grey-haired


Highland Ballad - 1/38

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