The Laird stood naked before the mirror and considered his form. No paunch. Nae bad, particularly as old as he was feeling today.
The sun rose, gold and pink among the morning clouds, over the steep granite to the southeast of Glen Ciorram. Slowly, a benevolent patch of warmth crept through the castle gatehouse and over the bare ground of the bailey at Tigh a’ Mhadaidh Bhàin. Pleasant weather had arrived, the Summer King victorious over the Beira, the Winter Hag. The heady smell of thawed earth and new growth made Ciaran smile as he drew deep breaths of crisp air. He and his father proceeded with their warm-up before the morning workout.
Beltane had come and gone the week before, festive and hopeful in its celebration of new life, and now yellow and white May flowers were bursting out all over the Scottish Highlands. Even happier than the fine weather, news from the Continent of late was of a fresh chance to rid Scotland of the English blight of Redcoat soldiers. The son of exiled King James sought French support for an uprising, and there was every reason to believe he would get it. Ciaran’s heart soared at the thought, as he stretched muscles that were yet winter-stiff, and he could fairly feel the blood in his veins.
Ready now for the formal exercise, they each bowed, then settled into the horse stance, feet at shoulder width, knees slightly bent, body relaxed. They began, slow and easy, in perfect synchronization.
“Do you think Prince Charles will come, then?” Ciaran couldn’t help the smile on his face and the excitement in his voice, though his father was ever subdued on the subject of the Stuarts.
“Aye, he’ll come.” His voice was the low, rough rumble of age. “You can bet your bottom dollar on that.” Having been born in America, Da had a way of speaking that was a bit odd, whether in Gaelic or English. Sometimes it drew criticism from clansmen, but Ciaran paid it no mind. He’d always figured the strangeness was part of what made Da a great man. Often he repeated his father’s alien figures of speech, though he’d never had the slightest notion why one should be invited to wager German money, or how a cow or even a “moley” might become holy. Whatever a “moley” was.
However odd his colonialisms might sound in Gaelic, though, Da did have a way of being dead right about things political. If he said Prince Teàrlach was coming, it was a certainty one could even bet one’s last farthing on it, and so Ciaran was absolutely certain the Prince was coming. The day was joyous and his heart lifted in spite of Da’s misgivings.
Ciaran’s father groaned, and his eyes narrowed as his left leg took extra weight in a low stance. He muttered to himself in English, “Don’t be a candyass, Matheson.” In addition to his Colonial accent, his diction was much the worse for several missing teeth. Though Dylan Dubh retained more teeth than most men at the rare, advanced age of sixty-two, he was missing nearly half and spoke with a bit of sibilance. In addition, he had an odd habit of sucking on the single remaining tooth on the left side, a canine that seemed long and narrow in its isolation.
Ciaran looked over as he followed his father’s lead in the form. It was tai chi today, as it had been for months. A “yin” form that would not be too much strain on the Laird’s aging body. Every day of Ciaran’s life, his father had risen early of a morning to train his body for fighting, and over the years there had been few concessions to his age. He no longer kicked above his waist, and it had been more than a decade since he’d made a leap of any kind. But he’d seemed fit and strong until only a year or two ago and had always seemed extraordinarily young for his age. Many still called him Dylan Dubh-Black Dylan-though his hair had not been black in more than a decade, and his prowess with a sword was still fabled though he hadn’t touched one in years.
The two men moved together with harmony possible only after years of practice. Step, block, hold the ball, push, step back, push. It was relaxing, but not particularly challenging, and so Ciaran would perform the more strenuous training of his day later on. For now, he enjoyed his father’s company.
Recent years had brought the Laird sensitivity to cold, so beneath his kilt and his sark he wore the odd garment of costly cotton he called “longjohns.” Many years before, he’d taught his wife to make them, declaring they were “a sight warmer and more comfortable than those damned, itchy trews.” God knew why, but the Laird had insisted the longjohns be dyed red that was now faded to salmon-pink. Ciaran heard tell they had a trap door in the seat, held up by buttons, but he’d never actually seen it.
Once again in a low stance, Da refrained from tossing back the hair that dropped into his eyes. His was a bit shorter than most men hereabouts, and so he was able to perform exercises without covering his face entirely with loose hair. Ciaran preferred his own hair long, but had long ago discovered the value of tying it back as the English soldiers did. As much as he hated anything English, the physical discipline Da had taught him was all the more difficult if his hair was forever sticking to the sweat of his face. Given a choice between cutting his hair short and tying it back, he tied it.
“So we’re to join the Prince when he lands, and rise against the usurper?” Crane, step back, push…
Da frowned. He took a glance over to the side, which was his habit when thinking. Then he said, “No.”
Ciaran groaned at his father’s bullheadedness. He quit the form and stood straight. “And when King James comes to take his rightful place, where will we be then?”
Da also paused in the form, struggling some for breath, but retained his stance, weight on his right foot to the rear and hands ready to push again. Without looking over at his son, he said with strained patience, “Ciaran Dubhach, I’ve said it before, we must stay neutral.”
“We cannae. We’re either for James or for George. Neutrality would do naught but put us on the bad side of both.”
Da closed his eyes for a moment, then whispered to nobody as if in prayer, “Yes, I know he’s right.” This was also his habit. Some said it was the wee folk he addressed, but others said it truly was prayer. Ciaran held the opinion it must be God with whom the Laird had such intimate and informal conversations. Da resumed his exercise and said between heavy breaths, “We can’t follow Bonnie Prince Charlie. We’re going to sit tight until this is over, then we’re going to ride out the aftermath and hope they don’t wipe us out.”
“Father…” Ciaran’s heart was sore to see his father shrink from the cause. “Da, we’re nae cowards.”
Now the Laird gave up his stance and heaved himself up to stand straight. He looked his son in the eye, and said with a voice that was papery with age but held a noble conviction that made Ciaran ashamed of himself. “No, we are not cowards. Never cowards. I fought in two risings against the English. I did my level best to keep this clan safe from the depredations of English opportunists, Protestant bigots and red-coated murderers. I fought on behalf of what I knew even then was a lost cause.” Anger rose and his voice tensed. His Colonial accent thickened, as well. “I done paid my dues to the Jacobites, boy, and now I decline to sacrifice my sons to a King I know for a dead certainty will never again set foot on Scottish soil. We will not…”
With a groan, the Laird sank to his knees.
“Da!” Ciaran dove and caught him before he could collapse entirely to the ground. He was so thin! It was almost nothing to hold him up any more.
For a moment, Da knelt and gasped. His gnarled hand clutched Ciaran’s shoulder. “Oh, God,” he whispered in English, “Not now. Please, not yet. One more year. Please, God, one more year.”
Gradually the pain faded enough for him to stand again. He gripped his son’s arm as he struggled for air.
“Are ye well now, Da?”
Ciaran’s father shook his head and continued to lean on the arm. “Help me inside.”
Three black and white collies scattered from the hearth as Ciaran took his father into the Great Hall and eased him into the massive armchair by the hearth. It was a worn, old chair, but the wood was solid and it had been the Laird’s seat as far back as anyone could remember.
By the time Da settled in front of the fire, his color had returned. Ciaran’s sister, Sìle, hurried to see what was the matter, and the Laird managed a smile for his favorite child. There were six sons and daughters still living-eight if one included Mother Sarah’s sons from her first husband-but Sìle was Ciaran’s only full sibling, and the only one who showed the least resemblance to their mother. The Laird doted on her for that resemblance. It was well known that, after nearly thirty years, he still pined for his murdered first wife, Caitrionagh. He had hung her wedding ring on the same silver chain around his neck on which hung his crucifix, and had not been without them a day since her death.
Sìle knelt by her father’s knee to take his hands in hers. “Da, have ye had another episode?” She gazed up at him, searching his eyes for the truth he might or might not speak.
Ciaran murmured to a member of the kitchen staff to fetch the Laird a quaiche of ale, and the servant hurried to comply.
“I’m fine. I just over-did it, I think.” He touched his fingertips to some of the curls framing her face, then laid a crooked, trembling finger aside a purple swelling of her lower lip. Anger brightened his eyes, and he looked over at Ciaran. His son read the glance easily. Do something about Aodán , it said.
Ciaran had known a confrontation with his brother-in-law was coming, and that as his father’s firstborn son it was his job to protect his younger sister. He gave a barely perceptible nod.
But suddenly the Laird paled to a greenish color and his eyelids drooped with extreme pain. He leaned forward in his chair, gasping and whispering in English again, “Oh, God…oh, God…” Sweat popped out on his forehead and he struggled for breath again.
The kitchen maid came with the ale, but the Laird waved it away. “Whiskey. Bring whiskey. Fill the cup.”
A full quaiche of whiskey was brought, and Dylan Dubh took a long draught from it. When he could breathe again, he took another. His lips pressed together and his eyes glazed, he sat hunched over and breathed as deeply as he could. It was several minutes before he turned to Ciaran and spoke again though he didn’t seem to see his son.
“Take me to my bed. And send for Robbie.”
Ciaran’s stomach flopped over. He wanted to shake his head and refuse, denying his father’s condition, but he obeyed and bent to pick up Da from the Laird’s chair and carry him to the top of the West Tower. In a voice almost too weak to hear, his father begged to not be bled. Ciaran nodded and promised, knowing well Da’s morbid fear of physicians. Halfway up the stairs, his father fell unconscious, head dropped back and his mouth opened.
Servants hurried to ready the Laird’s bed. Ciaran laid him in it, then stood back. The chambermaid relieved Da of his outer clothing, then tucked him in under the heavy linen sheet and bearskin coverlet.
A gillie came to the door. “Och,” he said, wide-eyed at the sight of the collapsed Laird. The roses of his young cheeks diminished, and his mouth worked though there were no words. His eyes glistened.
Ciaran turned to him, irritated at the gawking. “Summon Lady Matheson.”
The boy obeyed immediately, at a run.
More servants came for a glimpse, then hurried on their way. It seemed everyone understood the thing Ciaran wished to deny: that, barring a miracle, this would be the Laird’s deathbed. Ciaran took a seat at a table where his father kept quills and paper, and began a letter to his youngest brother, fifteen-year-old Robert Dilean, who was at University in Glasgow.
Presently, Mother Sarah came, her skirts in her fists and her face pale with terror. A smear of dark earth on her chin betrayed she’d been in the garden with her herbs and flowers, and against it her skin had the pallor of death. At sight of her unconscious husband half-buried in the bed, she murmured a plea to Mary and hurried to his side. The chambermaid brought a short stool from the hearth for her to sit by the bed.
Sarah took Da’s hand and patted it, urging him to awaken. His eyelids fluttered, then opened. An immense sigh escaped her and a trembling smile lit her tear-filled eyes. Even through his pain he conjured a smile for her, and lifted her hand to his lips to kiss it. “Robbie,” he said. “Summon Robbie.”
“Aye, Da,” Ciaran assured him. “He’ll be here.”
Mother Sarah whispered, “Ye must hang on, my love. Stay with us for his sake.” She cut a glance at Ciaran. At top speed, for a messenger to return with Robbie from Glasgow would take more than a week.
Fort William was by far the most repulsive, ungodly place Leah Hadley had ever seen. But even so she hated to leave it, for she knew where she was going must be far worse. Her carriage rocked and jolted abominably along the road that led even farther into the wilderness, surrounded by mountains that rose all about—steep, desolate, forbidding and unforgiving. Brown, for pity’s sake! She longed for the lush, rolling countryside of England. Even more, she longed for the polite society of her English friends. This place was more remote from civilization than she’d thought was even possible within the kingdom. Far from belonging to Britain, it was plain to her Scotland was the Devil’s own garden, made entirely of stone and peopled by strange creatures with no more sense than to walk around barefoot everywhere.
Her father rode behind the carriage with his dragoons, oblivious to her as always. With this relocation of troops, Captain Roger Hadley had too much else on his mind to be concerned with her welfare, not that her comfort was ever topmost in his consideration. She could hear him ordering his men to and fro, paying not the least attention to her suffering. The abandonment choked her with grief. She leaned her head against the frame of the carriage window and gazed dully at the evil landscape.
Oh, how she wished her mother were here! Mother had always managed to put a good light on things and jollied her out of any bad mood. Mother had been the strength of their small family. Oh, to God that she had lived!
But now, jouncing along this forsaken Scottish road leading to nowhere, attended by nobody but the disagreeable—and barefoot— Scottish maid hired in Glasgow, Leah missed her father as well as her mother. She was as good as orphaned, it seemed. Worse, she was an invisible orphan, for she was surrounded by Father’s raw, untrained, uncouth soldiers who scratched their private parts, picked their noses, and stank sharply of last week’s camp followers. None of the dozens of uneducated and otherwise unemployable red-coated men would dare talk to their Captain’s unmarried only daughter. Not even her father’s lieutenants, who might have been interesting were they not so cowardly in the face of their Captain’s ire. Regardless of what Ciorram might be like, she was certain to be bored to tears there and lonely unto death.
She rode in silence, trapped in the musty and filthy carriage, struggling to hold down the nausea that rose as a result of the jouncing on this rough and primitive road. Her eyes closed against it.
A rush of hoof beats from the rear caught her attention. There was a shout of alarm and warning from the Lieutenant riding behind, and she poked her head out the window to see. A rider, low in his saddle and urging his horse onward, rushed past in a dark blur. She looked after to find a boy in his teens, pursued by a soldier not yet up to speed. For a moment it seemed as if the boy might outdistance his pursuer, but he was quickly overtaken, his reins seized, and brought to a halt just ahead of the carriage.
It rumbled onward, and as it drew near Leah took a good look at the boy. He was attempting to explain himself, more than annoyed at having been stopped. He spoke quickly, with an edge of desperation to his voice he tried to disguise with a still, proud posture. He surely knew he was in trouble. Jacobite sentiment here in the North being what it was, hardly anyone went anywhere without permission from the Army. Anyone hurrying toward or away from a soldier was certainly suspect and subject to questioning. The boy should have known better than to race past a column of dragoons like that, as if his mission were so important as to supercede the need of His Majesty’s representatives to control traffic. This boy stood a good chance of arrest if he couldn’t give good cause for being in such a suspicious hurry.
As the carriage passed, Leah heard him say in a thick Highland brogue, “I may be too late.” Tears stood in his eyes, but it was plain he was struggling to not let them fall to his cheeks. Dark brown hair slipped into his face and he shook it away. Even as her heart went to him for his plight-for it was apparent the poor boy was in some straits-it struck her he looked the soldier directly in the face as he spoke. His eyes were the deep brown of a doe’s and his cheeks glowed pink with health and exertion, not the splotchy red of shame or anger.
His effrontery was astonishing. After all, his dress was that of the wild Highlander. The boy’s rank couldn’t possibly have warranted such composure in the face of arrest. He wore the skirt-like garment they called a “kilt,” and the checkered material was further draped around his plain woolen coat. Somewhat like a Roman toga, she thought. His head was bare and his long, windblown hair fell about his face in thick, wavy locks. Bare knees over stockings of more checkered wool further demonstrated his lack of breeding and taste, though it was hardly at question.
The soldier continued to detain him as Leah’s carriage moved onward and she sat back once more in her seat.
Several minutes later, however, the rider approached again, alone this time, hurrying along on his way. A tiny smile on her face, Leah watched the boy race past and on up the road, then sat back again and returned to dwelling on her own desperate plight.
Oh, how she longed to return to civilization! These Highlanders were the worst sort of rabble. The ones she’d encountered between Glasgow and Fort William were a surly crowd, dirty and ragged. Like the boy, most had an awful habit of behaving above their station, and they all were known for quick, evil tempers coupled with a propensity for settling disagreements at knifepoint. Her father frequently declared them all to be liars and thieves, and she was surprised the dragoon had let that one go. Racing away like that, the boy surely must have stolen something. The horse, perhaps. Surely no Highlander would own a horse so fine as that one. Not legitimately, in any case. He must have stolen it.
She would have to ask her father about the incident when she saw him next. That dragoon would need to explain why he’d let the boy go. Perhaps Father would be pleased she’d taken note, and then finally take notice of her.
During the next days, Ciaran came and went often from his father’s bedchamber. There were times the Laird was entirely lucid. The pain, which he’d held at bay for many years, overtook him and receded like the tide. Copious amounts of whiskey and willow bark tea seemed to dull it, and during those times when it abated he was able to speak to those who attended him. Mother Sarah never left his side except to eat and tend to her own necessities. She slept sitting, her head on the mattress beside her husband. The twins, Kirstie and Mary, hovered over their father almost as relentlessly, and Sìle came often with her small daughters. The women fed him soup and mulled wine, and if he vomited it they cleaned him up and fed him again. Each day, all day, they kept a lookout for Robbie.
Ciaran’s other half-brother, Calum, who was older than the teenage twins by nearly eight years but younger than Sìle by three, came and went fretfully. On the surface, he appeared unconcerned about his father’s condition, joking and shrugging it off as if it were nothing, but Ciaran knew it was his way and nothing more. Calum had always had a smiling, jocular demeanor, and their father’s illness did nothing to alter the façade.
If anything, Calum became more filled with nervous energy. He often paced in the alcove outside Da’s bedchamber, then hurried away to visit in the village for a time, usually to take comfort with Deirdre MacGregor, the daughter of the merchant Seumas Glas. Tiring of that, he would return to look in on Da for a moment. But just for a moment. Agitated and irritated by long faces and solemn spirits, he would again flee to the village, or to the peat bog, or someplace else.
Nearly a week after the collapse, Da rallied and was able to sit up in bed. Hope for recovery fluttered in the hearts of his family. At the news, folks came from the glen to pay respects, and the Laird received his kinsmen in small groups so as not to tire him.
Donnchadh Matheson the blacksmith, Keith Rómach Campbell who had fought with Da in the ’19, Ailis Hewitt who was mother to Aodán Hewitt and sister to Donnchadh, and Seumas Glas MacGregor with his two sons Alasdair and Seumas Og, were among the first to come and the longest to stay. The well-wishers seemed relieved to see Dylan Dubh, and there was warmth in their voices that belied the fear in their eyes. It was plain everyone in the village knew this would be their last chance to see the Laird alive.
Some MacKenzie cousins arrived, shocked to find the Laird of Ciorram so ill. They’d come to trade with Seumas Glas and stayed to visit. The elderly Alasdair Og had brought his sons: William who was Ciaran’s age, and Alasdair Crùbach who was a year younger and nicknamed for his club foot. It was good to see these MacKenzies, first cousins of his mother’s who had once lived in Killilan only a day’s ride away, for since their return to the MacKenzie lands to the east he’d visited with them not more than twice in ten years.
The opportunity to catch up on family news and low gossip was welcome relief from the morbid waiting. They drank ale together by the hearth in the Great Hall, yellow firelight flickering over them, warming and drawing them in a familial embrace as the night wore on. Ciaran could barely remember his mother, and he loved his cousins as a part of her he would otherwise never have known.
Two days later the Laird declined again. He began inquiring again after Robbie, disappointed each time he was told the boy was on his way but had not yet arrived.
More days passed, and still the Laird clung to life. The entire glen waited quietly, breathlessly, for news. A dark expectation settled on them, and especially on the Tigh. Ciaran tried to shake off the tension, having been taught by his father that tension, either physical or mental, left one vulnerable. But soon even he began to feel the irritation, like a hair shirt, always there and ever distracting, making inroads on his mind. He began to wish it were all over, and was appalled at himself for it.
Given his frame of mind, he couldn’t help but burst forth with rage the morning Sìle came to breakfast with a freshly split lip and a black eye she couldn’t quite hide by ducking her head. Ciaran looked up from his bowl of parritch, and the sight of his injured sister galvanized him. His better sense quite left him.
“I’ll kill him!” Ciaran Matheson rose from the table in the Great Hall and set out to do so, tossing his spoon down on the table with a loud, wooden clatter.
“No! Ye cannae!” Sìle followed him.
“Where is he?!”
“Ciaran!” Reaching for his sleeve, she caught the plaid draped over his shoulder instead and it slipped.
“I can, and I will! Where is he?!” A shrug of his shoulder adjusted his plaid as a gillie carrying an armful of dried peats for the hearth held open the entrance door for him to pass. Ciaran bellowed to the castle at large, “Where’s Aodán Hewitt?” Everyone in the bailey turned.
The boy’s gaze flicked toward the open door of the stable across the way. There Ciaran saw his sister’s worthless husband lounging on the chopping block where he’d moved it to lean against the door frame, chatting with one of the castle guard.
Hewitt blanched at Ciaran’s approach. He climbed to his feet as the guardsman faded into the darkness of the stable. Chin up and challenging, he replied, “Aye.” He was not much younger than Ciaran, but had an insolence about him that denied his years. Aodán was a boy in a man’s body, and not a particularly bright one.
“I told you the last time ye hit my sister it would be the last, or I was likely to see ye dead.” Ciaran shouted as he strode across the wide dirt bailey. A raven picking at a bit of refuse was startled into flight. “Did you think I was only joking?” Too many times he’d found Sìle slinking around in the shadows of the castle, trying to hide the bruises and cut lips. He was fresh out of patience and in no mood to tolerate any more injury to his family.
“She’s my wife. I cannae let her go undisciplined, particularly as spoiled as she is.” He looked around the bailey for witnesses as Ciaran bore down on him at a brisk walk. He was thinner than most, and his blue Matheson eyes were large in his long, narrow face. But thin though he was, Aodán was not weak and had the blinding speed of a whip. His dirk was kept sharp, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. “And you ken well she’s a stubborn woman. ‘Tis my right-”
Ciaran’s fist shot out to clout Aodán in the mouth the instant he was within reach. His brother-in-law went reeling, and Ciaran took a fight stance, his weight balanced and fists ready at his sides. “You forget, Hewitt, she’s my sister. Even more important, she’s the Laird’s daughter and your rights are exercised at my pleasure and his, for as long as she and her children live in this castle she is under the protection of myself and my father. Your rights be damned, and if you think he will have aught else to say about it, you’re daft and should be put down for a criminal lunatic in any case.”
Hewitt glowered and rage suffused his face. Muttering a few epithets as he recovered himself, he reached for the dirk at his belt. Ciaran took a step back, likewise pulling his sgian dubh from inside his sark. The small dirk had been a gift from his father-its blade from Toledo and its handle carved by the Laird himself from the antler of the first buck Ciaran had killed as a lad. He flexed his fingers and the dirk settled into its accustomed place in his hand.
The two men squared off, and Aodán attempted a slash at his opponent. Ciaran dodged, then returned the attack, pressing for space and crowding Aodán into the stable doorway. “Good,” said Ciaran, a cold grin on his face, “make me kill ye.”
“Ciaran! Stop it!” There were tears in Sìle’s voice now, but Ciaran ignored her. Aodán had gone too far this time, and needed to be taught a lesson. Sìle stood to the side, one hand over her mouth and the other over her injured eye.
Aodán made another attack, to force Ciaran away from the door, but Ciaran was too quick and countered so Aodán was forced farther into the musty darkness. Horses inside stamped and fidgeted at the disturbance. Dust rose and floated in the air. Aodán stumbled against a stool, but recovered himself without dropping his guard as the stool toppled. Rage seethed in Ciaran, and he was quite ready to make Aodán bleed for the assault on Sìle.
But Eóin’s voice came from across the bailey. “Ciaran! You’ll want to lay off fighting for a time. Mother says Himself is asking after you!”
All interest in killing fled in an instant, and both Ciaran and Aodán stood down. The edge in Eóin’s voice clenched Ciaran’s heart as he turned to see the wide eyes and pale face of his older step-brother in the middle of the bailey.
Oh, no. Asking after him, not Robbie? Ciaran wasn’t ready for this. No matter what he knew in his mind, his heart refused to believe. He took a step toward Eóin, then back toward the stable door to the West Tower, then back toward Eóin again. “Och,” he said softly. “Get Calum,” he called to Eóin. “Is there word yet from Robbie?” Eóin shook his head. “Och,” Ciaran repeated, and took another uncertain step backward.
The sgian dubh went back into its scabbard. Ciaran’s eyes narrowed at Aodán as he hurried past, into the stable. Under the wooden stairs that led to the tack room above, and into the short, stone passage to the West Tower, then up the spiral steps five flights. Behind him, Sìle called to her wee daughters and they all followed.
The Laird’s chamber was at the top of the tower. His closest friend and fear-còmhnaidh , Robin Innis, stood outside the door in a vigil he’d kept for days without respite, sleeping wrapped in his plaid on a straw mattress in the alcove outside the door. Calum was with him and they were speaking in low tones out of respect for the dying Laird. Robin’s faded eyes were set deep in a weather-worn face, and the fear in them was terrible. A chill skittered through Ciaran.
“Where are Kirstie and Mary?” he asked.
Robin nodded toward the door to indicate Ciaran’s half-sisters were already inside with their father. There was movement in the stairwell, and Ciaran turned to see who else was coming. The three MacKenzies approached, wary of being in the way but at hand in case they might be needed. Ciaran addressed Robin again.
“Has there been nae news of Robbie?”
Robin shrugged, but Calum said, “He’ll be coming as quick as he can. He’ll make it here before the messenger could, sure.”
Ciaran had never been particularly close to Calum—he’d felt much closer kinship to Robbie—but now his heart softened. He understood Calum was protective of little Robbie, the baby of them all. He nodded. Even with the fine English road built for the benefit of His Majesty’s minions—which would take him only as far as the Great Glen regardless— at top speed Robbie couldn’t be expected to arrive before tomorrow.
As he passed into his father’s bedchamber, Ciaran prayed they hadn’t left it too late to send for their littlest brother.
The fire in the hearth was high, and the room close. But even with the lively wood fire on the hearth and the morning sun warming the dozens of glazed panes, the bed was well stacked with blankets. Kirstie and Mary sat on a trunk by the southern window, their eyes wide and their hands twined tightly in each other’s.
Mother Sarah sat on a high-backed chair next to the head of the bed, holding gently one of her husband’s hands, stroking and petting the gnarled and scarred knuckles as if to make certain he knew she was there. Though one tendril of hair dangled from her kerchief, she was otherwise properly dressed and held together. The strain of these past days showed in her eyes, in their redness and the black circles beneath them.
Ciaran stepped close to the bed and leaned down to take the other hand. Gently, for it was covered with splotchy purple bruises that lately seemed to appear for no reason. Someone brought a stool, and he sat. He looked into his father’s pale, still face and feared it might be too late.
Dylan Robert Matheson of Ciorram was barely alive. His chest rose and fell so slowly it took a moment to be certain of it. For several seconds at a time, it would stop, then start again. His tanned skin had turned papery gray beneath his silver hair and beard, and his already scant flesh now sagged on a bony frame. Since the night before, another bruise had blossomed at his temple. Ciaran’s heart ached for the vital, healthy father he’d known in his childhood, and knew even the frail old man would soon be gone.
Kirstie and Mary came to perch on the foot of the bed. Kirstie laid a hand on the bearskin over her father’s feet. Sìle set her small, blonde daughters, aged four and five, near the bed and shushed them. Unnecessarily, since the girls seemed to grasp the solemnity of the gathering and were silent as little rabbits. They gazed at their grandfather with wide eyes. Calum stood behind Sìle. Robin stayed near the door, his job to make himself available to the family, and the MacKenzies gathered behind him.
Eóin and Gregor Matheson, Mother Sarah’s sons by her first husband, entered quietly and stood near Robin.
“Da,” said Ciaran.
The Laird’s eyelids fluttered. There was an ugly, wet sound from low inside his chest, his eyelids fluttered again, and opened.
“Da, I’m here.”
The dry lips parted. “Ciaran.”
“Aye.” The thin hand squeezed his, and Ciaran was alarmed at how terribly weak it was. His father’s eyes found his, and there was a glimpse of the man inside the failing body.
The Laird seemed to gather his strength, breathing more deeply for a moment, then he said, “Son, remember all I told you.” He sighed, then summoned his breath again. “Lead as you were taught.” Ciaran’s heart clenched, and he wished there were something he could give—anything— that would keep the lairdship, and life, for his father.
Another difficult breath, and Da continued. “Mind the Sidhe.”
The Sidhe? Ciaran frowned. His father’s affinity for the wee folk was well known, but nobody had ever taken it seriously. Mind the Sidhe? What could that mean? Nevertheless, he promised. “Aye, Da.”
His father’s eyes closed again as the struggle to breathe continued, and there was a pause between sentences so long as to make Ciaran wonder whether he’d fallen unconscious. But finally the eyes opened and found Ciaran again. Da said, “Above all, son, remember where your home is,” Ciaran’s lips moved along with the rest, for he’d heard it many times before, “and remember who your people are.”
“Aye, Da.” Ciaran held his father’s hand in both of his.
The eyes drooped closed again, and silence fell in the room. The family was still, waiting for him to speak again, but a minute passed. Then two. Several minutes went by, and it was apparent the Laird had lost consciousness. Calum sagged against a bed post, hugging himself, his chin pressed against one shoulder. Mother Sarah continued to stroke her husband’s hand. The twins sniffled and wiped their eyes. Ciaran watched the erratic rising and falling of his father’s chest, the struggle punctuated by long moments of stillness. Each breath seemed a victory.
Just when he began to wonder whether Da might hang on for another day, there was a long sigh. Seconds passed, but the next breath didn’t come. The twins began to whimper. Mary laid both hands over her mouth and began rocking back and forth. Kirstie whispered over and over, begging him to take another breath, “Please, Da, please, Da, please, Da…”
But the seconds became minutes. Two minutes, then three. Da was gone.
Sharp terror filled Ciaran, and he struggled to appear calm. The twins began to weep pitiably, causing Sìle’s daughters to join them in crying. Sìle knelt by the bed and pressed her face against the coverlet to sob, her hand resting on her father’s knee. Calum hugged himself harder and hunched his shoulders tight as tears came to his eyes. Mother Sarah held the hand to her cheek and wept softly. Ciaran stood, and refused to cry. He gazed at his father’s body, holding at bay the feeling of being a little boy again, needing his Da. For a moment he remembered the childhood horror of realizing his mother was dead, and tears tried to come. He fought them back, drawing deep breaths and clenching his fists over and over.
He was the Laird now, and he was required to appear much stronger than he felt.
Then a new voice joined the grieving family, a heartbroken sobbing. Ciaran looked around, but Robin’s tears were silent and Calum’s were still contained. Besides, this unfamiliar voice was female. A young girl, perhaps, or a small woman. And, even more strange, it was coming from…
Ciaran looked up. There, sitting at the corner of the curtain rail at the foot of the bed, was a tiny faerie, about the size of Sìle’s oldest daughter. Her dress shimmered white, and her white wings drooped like petals from a dead rose. Pointed ears poked through her short, white hair and her blue eyes were rimmed with red. She hugged herself and rocked back and forth in her grief. The tip of her nose was bright red with weeping.
He’d seen this creature before, in a dream, he’d thought. It had been years since the dream had even come to mind, but now the memories came clear. He remembered this faerie.
Coming soon on Bookview Café