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- Highland Ballad - 3/38 -


grapeshot and thundering shells.

The young girl gasped in terror, and shouted for them to fight back, or run away. The general waved his arms more violently than before. But still the Prince gave no order, and only looked about him as if puzzled, unable to fathom what was happening to his men.

And at length the English charged, mowing down the decimated Scottish lines like so much rye after a hailstorm. While the Prince slipped away with his escort.

But all of this, gruesome and sinister as it was. . .this was not what froze her heart. In a smaller scene that somehow stood out sharp and clear, two red-coated foot soldiers were dragging by the arms a tall Scot with a bloodied shock of golden hair. He was dazed and plainly wounded, but still they pulled at him fiercely, as if to throw him to the ground and run him through. They carried him out of sight, into a copse of death-black trees.

"Michael!" she cried frantically, trying to follow. But her legs would not move, and she sank slowly into quicksand, her skirts billowing.....

Then the dream shifted and she was back at the grave, lying in the rough grass. Again she felt the gentle touch on her hair and startled cheek, again the reassuring voice:

"My Mary." And then. . .was it real or imagined? "I'll come back for you." From the bottom of a well. "I've come back for you." Farther, and fainter, then suddenly sharp and near. "My Mary. Mary....."

"Mary!"

"Mary, wake up. You've put yourself in a frenzy." And her guardian steadily, though not without emotion, replaced the thrown and disheveled blankets. "You've got to keep yourself---"

"I. . .I saw him again," she stammered. "He called to me. He said he'd come back for me." She tried to rise. "I've got to go to him, I've got to find him!"

"No." For the first time her mother (the claim was true) spoke forbiddingly, taking her by the shoulders and forcing her back down. "He's dead and in the grave, and that's where he's going to stay. And unless you want to join him there---"

"But I do!" cried the girl. "I do. Why doesn't anyone understand?" And she turned away and fell to weeping. Her mother was silent.

Perhaps an hour later the girl was asleep again, or appeared to be. Troubled, her mother rose and went to an ancient chest that lay hidden beneath a musty stretch of carpet, in a niche carved out of the cold ground beneath. Kneeling over it, she unfastened the broad belt that secured the lid, which she lifted and leaned carefully back against the wall. Then with a quick glance at her daughter, she reached inside and lifted out from among its shadowy contents a withered branch of hemlock.

Moving to the fire, which glowed and hissed sullenly at her approach, she thrust its head into the flames, holding the root in a stubborn fist. Quietly and solemnly, she chanted some words in a language that her daughter could not understand, and at length the dead leaves and smoking stalk caught solid fire. Standing once more, she drew a slow circle with it in the center of the room, then went to the door. As soon as she opened it a cold wind pushed past and blew out the trembling torch, but this seemed no more than she expected.

Stepping outside and closing the door behind her, the witch took a few paces forward, turned again to face the hut. She waved the branch in strange patterns, moving from side to side and repeating the same chant, so that the smoke which still seethed from it drew wisping traces about the door, the window, the whole of the house. Then turned again, and cast it to the ground before her. She opened her eyes wide, oblivious to the stinging smoke, and whispered harshly.

"You leave us be!"

She went inside. Four

As if a troubled thought that had slowly worked its way through her second sleep, with the first light of dawn Mary sat bolt upright in the bed, and said aloud.

"He's not my brother."

The old woman, who had apparently not slept at all, turned to her from her place by the fire, now lowered to glowering coals for cooking. She thought to reply harshly, then checked herself. Like a skilled surgeon or a patient general (or a bitter woman gnawed by hate), she knew that the matter of her daughter's lost love must be handled with extreme care.

"Not your brother. Your cousin."

"Then---" The realization scalded her. "We could have married! There was no sin, no shame in what I felt for him."

Again, though it ran counter to all her designs for the girl, the old woman knew this was not the time to speak against the hopeless romance that she still carried like a torch in the Night. And also (the darkness had not yet swallowed her completely), she felt that her daughter deserved this much.

"There was no sin. Naivety perhaps."

With this her daughter broke into wretched tears, and it was some time before the woman could calm her enough to speak. She moved to sit beside her on the bed; and so helpless and forlorn did Mary then appear, that for a moment her mother forgot all else and slowly brought to her breast the face that had suckled there so long ago.

"What is it child?" she said gently, stroking the soft hair that had once been her own. "What is it hurting you so?"

"All this time..... I thought it was because..... After he was killed, I went to my confessor. I told him everything, and he said---"

There was no need for her to finish. Too well did the other understand the vindictive nature of men.

"He said that Michael was taken because you had committed incest: that it was God's punishment for a grievous sin, and that it's your fault he died." The pitiful nod and freshened weeping told her she was right. "Nay, lass. It was not the hand of God that killed him, and many other good men besides. It is not the Creator who so brutalizes lives and emotions. It is men. "

And with this all her maternal softness faded, as her eyes stared hard and dry into some galling distance of thought and memory. Her arms fell away from her daughter's shoulders, and she unconsciously ground her teeth.

Mary, who had seen none of this, raised her head and wiped the tears from her eyes, feeling something like a pang of conscience. "I'm sorry. . . Mother." She could not help blushing at the word. "I've been selfish, thinking only of my own sorrow. Won't you tell me something of yourself? It must have been hard for you, surely."

The woman's gaze returned.

"Ah, life is hard, girl. Someday I'll speak of the roads that brought me here, but not now." She rose as if to say no more, then turned to the girl, so young, with the only words of comfort she could find. But at that they were not gentle, were not the words of hope.

"You must learn from the trees, Mary. A lightning bolt, a cruel axe, cleaves a trunk nearly to the root, and the oak writhes in agony. But it does not die. It continues. And though the hard and knotted scars of healing are not pleasant to look upon, they are stronger, many times stronger, than the virgin wood. You must learn from the trees," she repeated. "It is among their boughs and earthward tracings that the true gods are found."

"You're not a Christian, then?" This simple non-belief seemed to her incomprehensible.

"Nay, Mary, I'm not. The gentle Jesus may comfort the meek, but he is of little use when it comes to vengeance." The woman stopped, knowing she had said more than she intended. But perhaps this much of the truth was for the best. She would have to know soon enough, anyway. "There are other powers, closer to hand, that give the strong a reason to go on living."

The younger woman studied her in silence, and all the awe and fear of her that she had felt since childhood returned. She remembered the chant, the flaming branch. And now the callous determination..... Toward what end? She recalled the words that had seemed so innocent the day before:

Just open the door for me; I'll walk through it. But what door was she to open? What vengeance?

But first there was one more question, which rose in sudden fullness before her.

"My God. Margaret. Who was my father?"

"The Lord Purceville, though it was not willingly I took him to my bed."

There was no need to say more. Her mother went back to the hearth, and after a cheerless meal, told her to remain in bed until the fever broke. Then went out on some errand of her own.

Five

Mary remained in the bed as she was told until, between her natural vigor and childlike curiosity, she began to feel better, and then, quite restless. Putting more wood on the fire and dressing warmly (she was not incautious), she began to look around her for something to do, or perhaps, something to read. It was impossible yet to think through all that had happened in just these twenty-four hours, or to know what she must do in answer. She felt like a shipwrecked swimmer, far from shore on a dark night: that the water around her was much too deep, that she must rest, and wait for some beacon to lead her again to


Highland Ballad - 3/38

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