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- Highland Ballad - 20/38 -

At all costs she must not let this shark catch scent of her son's blood.

And in fact the identity of the second prisoner was not known to him, though his insight and shrewd guesses had brought him dangerously close to the truth. Beside the number 406, the reported friend and fellow fugitive of James Talbert, were written these words: No name given, possible memory loss from head wound, called by fellow prisoners `Jamie' . This was the small victory that Michael had won during the first brutal year of his captivity: he would not give up his true name. His identity, and therefore his life, remained hidden.

But through the uncanny memory for persons and places which every tyrant must possess, the Lord Purceville recalled a sturdy youth, several years older than his son, who had once accompanied the Scotts on a visit to Margaret MacCain, during the time of her employment at his estate---the fierce disdain he had shown as he stepped from the carriage, and spied its hated Master. Where was this fiery-eyed youth now, who must surely have been of fighting age and temperament at the time of the revolt? Had he been taken prisoner, and escaped along with James Talbert, or merely been killed in the war? In any event the mention of his name was bound to cause an emotional reaction in the mother, which might lead him in turn to the girl. Like a skilled fortune-teller he would draw her out, read the story in her face, and follow where it led. Between pauses:

"What was this prisoner's name, you ask? Why, his last name appears to be Scott. Could that be your son? Has he been here of late, to visit you? Is it he you are trying to protect? Is he in hiding along with Mary? Yes, of course. That's it. They grew up together, did they not? Were they very close, your strong, golden-haired son and fair, emerald-eyed niece? They say that cousin is a dangerous relationship; surely there was an attraction. Could they have been more than friends. . .even, lovers?" At this Stephen's head jerked towards her, as if he had been scalded.

The woman could bear it no longer; she felt herself ready to explode. But just as fear and rage rose irrepressibly inside her, she instinctively channeled the outburst to lead him away from her son.

"Have you no shame, sir! My son is dead and buried these three years, as a short walk to the gravesite of our clan will plainly show. He was a brother and father both to my niece, and as fine a man as you could ask. You will not speak against his honor in my house! He was willing to die to stand up to the likes of you, and so am I. Kill me, if you have the courage. By God, I'll listen to no more of this!"

"Careful, Mrs. Scott. You say your son lies yonder in the grave, but that too could be a hoax. I have unearthed two bodies already. I will not hesitate---"

This was too much for her. For the first time in her life, hatred flared into animal violence.

"You will do no such thing! Check the funeral record at the vestry, then take yourself to the Devil!" Seizing her husband's stout walking stick from its place in the corner she flew at him, screaming. "You get out of my house! Get out, you Godless bastard!"

And though she was but a woman---though her blows were blocked and the stick taken from her---the suddenness of her fury served its purpose. The man believed her son was dead, and saw plainly there was nothing more to be got out of her.

Yet in his answering rage he might still have done her serious injury, if his son had not intervened. Henry Purceville pushed her back against the stone hearth wall, and cocked his great fist for a blow which might well have killed her. Stephen caught his father's arm and pulled him away from her, slowly but firmly.

"You don't want to do this," he said.

"No one speaks to me like that. I'll kill her!"

"And give Earl Arthur the weapon he needs to call an Inquest? Destroy yourself for a moment's passion?"

"She has defied me! I will have my daughter brought before me."

"Then leave her to me, if that is all you want. I know more of this family than you do. Promise me now, in front of her, give me your word, that you will do nothing to harm the girl, or put her on trial for conspiracy." His father only struggled more fiercely, outraged that anyone should force on him such a condition.

But he found himself breathing too hard: his chest ached, and the exertions of the day had begun to take their toll on him. He was tired. He felt old.

Still, had the request not come from his son, and had he not already been willing..... With a last sweep of his arm he broke free, and relaxed his great limbs. Then looked his son full in the face.

"I will do it for you , to show that I am not what you think. If you bring the girl to me, tonight, I will drop all charges. And I never meant to harm her.....

"You accused me of many things last night. You are very naive. Since your mother's death, it is true that I have not been kind. Kindness gains a man nothing, nor does the illusion of love, as you will find. Yes, I sent the MacCain woman away, as the scheming slut she was. But I have no intention of hanging my own daughter. Perhaps you will not believe it, but as much as anything..... I just want to see her." He threw up his hands in disgust. "I promise, damn you all! Bring her to me, tonight, and the charges will be dropped."

Stephen stepped away, and to the center of the room, feeling awkward and stiff. This was the closest thing to a confidence that his father had shown him in many years.

"Thank you, Father. That should be agreeable..... You might as well start back. If I may speak to Mrs. Scott alone, I think I can convince her that it is the only way."

"See that you do!" he growled, turning on the woman once more. "If you can't, bring her instead. I'm not over-fond of hostages, but they usually bring the desired result. Good day , Mrs. Scott." Without further speech he filed past and out the door, remounted his fierce gray, and rode off.

Stephen was silent for several minutes, as if confused in his loyalties. Then turned again to face the woman. He spoke stiffly.

"Mrs. Scott. I must apologize to you for my conduct at our last meeting. You have no reason to believe it, I'm sure. But I am not the same man now, that I was. Your niece, my sister, has forced me to look at myself in a new light. I don't much like what I see. I make no excuses, except to say that I am my father's son, and was raised without..... Nevermind. I am sorry, too, that you had to endure his wrath for so long. There was no other way. Had I spoken before I did, it would simply have made matters worse."

The woman could only stare at him in disbelief.

"And now all you ask," she replied, "in exchange for my own freedom, is that I turn an innocent young woman over to the man who burned her mother at the stake, and threatened to violate my son's grave. To say nothing of what you yourself have done. Why should my answer to you be any different than the one I made your father?"

His face flushed with anger, which he then suppressed. "First, because I am trying to protect her. And you, though you don't believe it. Second, because he didn't kill her mother, or even strike her, as he told his men. She was dead when we arrived..... You don't believe me. Here. She left this note for Mary."

He handed her a single sheet, on which was written the woman's dying message to her daughter. The hand was weak and failing, but undoubtedly that of her sister. Anne Scott read it quickly, then looked searchingly into the young man's face.

"The third reason, and I do not say it as my father would..... I know she's here, Mrs. Scott. The soiled cloak on the peg, is hers. She was wearing it yesterday when..... When I found out what kind of man I had become. I can't forgive myself for that. I can only try to make amends, by seeing to it that she is never again brought to such a pass.

"But I'm afraid the first step toward that end, must be the visit to my father. You must believe me, he will do nothing to harm her, so long as I remain as her protector. He is angry now, and afraid that she may pose some new threat, when his skies are already darkened for a storm. But when he learns her true nature, as I have, he will realize his mistake. And if I have anything to say about it, he will make restitution as well, for the years he left her destitute.

"Mrs. Scott. I don't ask you to forgive the wrongs that were committed in the past, only that you trust me to know the realities of the present. If he is defied, my father will only become more ruthless. He will scour the countryside; he will never stop. You must let me take her to him. There is no other way."

The woman moved wearily to her chair, and sat down. Violence she had been prepared to withstand, and treachery. But a seemingly genuine offer of help, from the one man with any influence over their most deadly enemy. . .confused her utterly.

Where did her responsibility lie now? For though she tried to suppress it, another thought had occurred to her. If Lord Purceville dropped the charges against her niece, and sent to Edinburgh (or merely buried) the body of Mary's assailant as prisoner number 406, would that not end the search for her son, and make him, in time, a free man? Try as she might, she could not help but wonder at this chance, and weigh it against the possible danger to her niece.

"Will you do something for me?" she asked him. "Will you return to me in an hour's time? My niece, as you guessed, is close by. But I must have time to think, and speak to her at length, before I can come to any decision."

"You understand that I cannot go far? And that if either of you try to escape, I merely become an extension of my father---just as hard, just as ruthless."

"Yes," she replied. "I ask nothing more."

Highland Ballad - 20/38

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