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- Highland Ballad - 4/38 -

solid ground.

But for all this, she could not help feeling drawn to the ancient chest from which her mother had taken the hemlock. She told herself to forget it, but could not.

That her mother practiced in the black arts was apparent; and a vague feeling that perhaps through witchcraft she might reach the troubled spirit of her beloved, drove her in the end to hard courage, overriding all other considerations.

She went to the window and peered out, then moved to the door. Stepping beyond it furtively, like a young rabbit outside the den, she looked about her. The sun hung motionless almost exactly at the noon, and the chill of night had passed. There was no sign of her mother, nor any other creature save a solitary hawk, which soared watchful high above.

She went inside again and rolled back the corner of the carpet, as in quick glances she had seen her mother do. The chest lay beneath. The thick belt was easily undone, and there was no other lock or latch. It occurred to her briefly that this was what the old woman wanted, and at the same time that she would be furious, and fly into a terrible rage. But this did not matter. Nothing mattered except that Michael had come to her, and touched her, and called out to her in living dream. She lifted the wide lid, and set it back against the wall.

Somewhere outside a raven spoke, and a sudden blast of wind shook the door. She started, and whirled about, but did not waver in her resolve.

Inside the trunk were many grim and grotesque articles which appalled her, and which she would not touch. But to the extreme left, pushed together with their bindings upward, were four large manuscript books, bound in leather. Her eyes, and seeking spirit, were drawn to these.

They were alike untitled and unadorned, yet to one she was unmistakably drawn. Her hand moved toward it almost without conscious thought: the smallest, burnished black. It was thinner than the others as well. And so, growing wary of the witch's return, she lifted it quickly and moved to the bed. There she slid it beneath her mattress, then returned to the chest, which she closed and bound as before. She had only just rolled back the carpet when she heard, muffled but distinct, the cry of the hawk high above. And she knew, somehow she knew, that her mother was coming back up the path.

She undressed again quickly, down to the slip, and was careful to set the dress back on the chair as it had lain before. Climbing back into the bed she was acutely aware of two sensations: the lump at the small of her back made by the book, and the pounding of her heart.

The door-latch was lifted, the hinges creaked, and her mother stepped into the room. She looked exhausted and grim, and seemed to take no notice as her daughter sat up in the bed and addressed her.

"I'm feeling much better," she said, trying to sound bright and happy. She could not quite pull it off, but thankfully, the old woman's mind was elsewhere.

"It is done," she mumbled in reply, as much to herself as to the girl. Laying her things absently on the table, she pulled loose the comb which bound the iron-grey locks behind her head, and shook them free about her shoulders. At this simple act Mary drew a startled breath, and it was all she could do to suppress a gasp of fright. For here, truly, was the classic apparition of a witch: the ragged, wind-blown dress and shawl, the long, wild hair and intent, burning eyes. This, the woman noticed.

"Not much to look at, am I?" At first she glared as she said this, then turned away, remembering to whom she spoke. "There was a time, Mary, and perhaps not so long ago as you might imagine, when men said I was still quite fair. But time. . .and poison. . .have done their work." She grew silent, and bitter, once more. But something inside the girl urged her now to draw the woman out, not leave her alone in this darkness.

She got down from the bed and stepped timidly towards her. Placing one hand on her shoulder, with the other she lifted a stray lock of her mother's hair and tucked it gently behind her ear. The witch pulled forward and away, but Mary persisted. She came close again, and this time put her arms around her full, and kissed her lightly on the temple.

"Mother," she said, the word arresting the other's anger. "Won't you tell me how it was for you, all these years, and what you're feeling now?"

"What does it matter, girl? The wine is drawn and must be drunk." But ominous as these words sounded, her daughter brushed them aside. Because now, her eyes clouding with tears, she understood what was taking place in her own heart: an orphan's awkward and tremulous love for her true parent.

"But it does matter," she insisted, "to you. And to me."

Their eyes met. For a moment Mary thought the woman would weep, and embrace her, and all would be well. But the aged eyes knew no more tears. She turned away.

"All right, Mary, I'll tell you, though I've little doubt you will stop me halfway. But just now I'm exhausted. If you really want to help me, put on the kettle for tea, and bring me a rye cake. The weather is turning," she went on, rubbing her arthritic shoulder. "We'll have no visitors tonight, at least. There'll be hours of time for talk."

"Promise me, then. Tonight you'll open your heart?" Her mother gave a queer sort of laugh.

"What little is left of it. Yes, yes, child, I promise. Now bring me the tea and give me a moment's peace." Mary did as she asked. Six

That same afternoon a single rider approached the steward's cottage, in which now only Michael's mother remained. Hearing hoofbeats, she went quickly to the window and pulled back the heavy curtains. Though this woman had little left to lose, she was concerned almost in spite of herself for the safety of her niece. And in her darkened frame of mind, she could not help but fear the worst.

A British officer, seated on a majestic bay stallion, slowed his horse to a loose trot and drew rein just beyond the porch. This in itself did not seem such a threat. It could mean anything: some kind of summons, a requisition for cavalry horses and supplies (which they did not have), or simply a saddle-weary officer wanting a drink to soothe his parched throat.

But when she opened the door at his ringing, impatient knock, she took a step back in astonishment, and it was only with difficulty that she preserved a veneer of resignation and indifference.

She saw before her Mary's face. It was broader, and infinitely masculine---framed in strong and curling black hair, the green eyes fierce beneath scowling brows. But it was the same green, the hair the same shimmering black. Identical too was the fair, unmarked complexion, the smooth and finely chiseled nose and chin. Something in the shape was dissimilar, yet still.....

She could not at first read the riddle, until with an arrogance that could never have come from her niece, he threw back the door and advanced upon her, driving her back into the passage.

"So, my good widow Scott. You recognize the son of your esteemed overlord, and perhaps were expecting him as well?"

"No, truly sir. I don't know what you mean." It was not necessary to feign surprise. She could not imagine what the son of the Lord Purceville could want of her.

"I don't have time for games!" he shouted, pushing past her and searching the adjacent rooms before returning to stand before her. "And what of that hag sister of yours. . .and your daughter?" At these words he perceived genuine alarm in the face of the other.

And alarmed she truly was. For since the day of that terrible battle, which had occurred but a few days' ride from the cottage, the two women had done everything possible to hide their adolescent charge, whose beauty and innocence made her a natural target for marauding troops.

"I have no daughter, sir, you are mistaken. No one lives here but myself and my aged sister-in-law. If you would be so kind---" The back of his hand crashed across her face, starting a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. He raised the hand again threateningly, then for some reason, smiled.

"You're not too old, you know. I might have a bit of sport on you myself." But remembering his purpose, he grew cold and severe again. "Pray do not think me an idiot. We too have spies, loyal folk among the hills. I spoke to one such gentleman scarcely an hour ago..... But that would be telling. You have a daughter, Mrs. Scott: Mary by name, a charming creature by all accounts. If you wish her to remain so, you had best tell me what I want to know."

"Please, sir, I beg you. Just tell me what it is you want. I'll give you anything I have, but please, spare the girl. She's a poor, helpless creature, alone but for the two of us. We've done nothing wrong, I swear it."

"Well," he replied more calmly. "At least you have a bit of sense."

But if she had meant to turn aside his interest in the girl by calling her helpless, and alone in the world, her understanding of men (at least that kind of man) had failed her badly. He began to pace eagerly, his hands behind his back, speaking with the aggressive assurance of one accustomed to having his own way. And for all her fear and agitation, she could not help but notice that he was also terribly handsome.

"This is what I want from you, for now. A small group of war prisoners (in truth it was closer to a hundred) have escaped from the hold at Edinburgh, the last, effectively speaking, of your would-be prince's Highland rabble. Our information is that they have since split up into smaller bands, each heading for their respective homeland. There, no doubt, they will attempt to stir sympathy for your deluded cause.

"Fools!" he continued, as if possessed of the truths of the Universe. "Scotland's day is done. Henceforth her destiny shall be irrevocably tied to that of England. We are trying to be magnanimous, and make

Highland Ballad - 4/38

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