In their innocence and trusting
they will teach us to be free
Winter Solstice, 1592
Donan Woods, the Highlands of Scotland
Cassandra woke, cold air on her back. Connor tucked the blanket in around her. "Go back to sleep," he whispered, and started pulling on his leggings. Sela sat beside him, her ears alert.
"Where are you going?" she murmured sleepily. She lifted her head slightly and looked toward the window. "It's still dark!"
"Aye, I know," he answered. "I go to greet the sun, and I'd like to get to the stones before it does." She noticed his sword in his hand, and he followed her gaze. "I'm taking your sword with me, too," he said. Her head jerked up at that, and he smiled without mirth. "You'll have to trust me." He patted the curve of her rump. "Go back to sleep; stay here. The spring is Holy Ground; you can take refuge there if you must."
Cassandra did not like this at all, but there was nothing she could do about it without destroying what she had so carefully built with him the night before. She took a deep breath and pulled the covers up. Connor smiled again, this time with feeling, then leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. She closed her eyes and fell back asleep before he and Sela left the cottage.
"Lady!" a voice called insistently. Cassandra opened her eyes the merest slit, seeing only dim gray light through the bed-curtains. The voice called again, "Lady, be you there?" More urgently now, "Lady, please come!"
That voice again. Perhaps it wasn't part of her dream. She roused herself and looked out the window as she pulled on her robe. The sky was leaden gray, but she could see the patch of brightness that marked the sun. It was almost to its zenith, though the sun would not be high in the sky on this day, the winter solstice. How had it gotten to be so late?
"Lady!" the voice pleaded.
Cassandra finished tying her robe and opened the door, then shivered as a blast of icy air made its way through the thin cloth.
Aileen MacLeod stood on her doorstep, looking cold and miserable even with her warm cloak and fur-lined shoes, for the wind was piercing. The young village woman's curly brown hair was almost completely hidden under her hood, and her light-blue eyes looked gray in the dim light.
Cassandra had not seen her since the summer, when Aileen had come asking for potions to help keep her teeth during her pregnancy. Her babe must be three or four months old by now. Why was she here on such a day as this?
"Lady, please come!" Aileen's words came quick and breathless, as always. "Mary, my husband's brother's wife, it's her time! She was brought to childbed last night, but the babe won't come."
So it was concern for another that had prompted Aileen to make the long walk in the cold. A true friend and sister, indeed. "It is her first child," Cassandra answered soothingly. "'Tis not unusual to take so long."
"Nae, there's summat wrong here. I've helped birth babes before. It's not right!" she insisted.
Cassandra wanted to help, but she knew the village midwife Ould Margaret would not welcome any interference, most especially not from the witch of Donan Woods. She was about to tell Aileen to go back home, when she remembered with a start that it was the winter solstice. She could not ignore anything unusual on this day; it might be the time of the prophecy. She had to go, even without her sword. She had waited centuries for the child to arrive; she could not take the chance of missing him. She would simply have to deal with Ould Margaret as best she could. "Will you come in and wait for me to gather my things, Aileen?" Cassandra opened the door wider.
"Nae, I canna'." Aileen backed away, unwilling as ever to enter the witch's abode. There were many fearsome stories about the witch of Donan Woods. She said quickly, "I must get back. My babe Robert is waiting for me; he needs to eat. Will you come?"
"Aye, I'll come. Go along now; I'll see you in the village." Aileen hurried down the path, and Cassandra closed the door. She took off her robe and shivered again at the touch of cold air on bare skin. She dressed quickly in front of the fire, first her shift, then two underskirts and an old faded skirt. Her cold fingers fumbled with the laces of her corset, and she put on her sleeved bodice hurriedly, grateful for the added warmth. Wool stockings next, two pairs. Her thick gray wool gown for added warmth, then her working apron to protect her clothes. She wanted to look like a village woman, so she tied a kertch about her head, carefully tucking in her hair, and then wrapped a much-patched plaid about her shoulders
She put two more logs on the fire, then chewed hungrily on a piece of dried meat as she selected what she would need to help Mary. A mixture of dried crushed rosemary and yarrow and comfrey for a poultice, and pennyroyal to stimulate the womb. A tea of dried nettles would be good for increasing milk and fortifying the blood, after the baby came. The herbs were joined in the basket by some clean cloths, her sharp knife, a needle and nettle-fiber thread, a jar of salve made from the oil of sheep's wool and comfrey, a small bottle with a piece of myrrh steeped in whisky for relief of pain. She could also use the Voice to help Mary with pain.
She took the flat rock from the hearth and used the charcoal stick to write, "Went to village, Cassandra." She made the letters large and neat, for she knew Connor still found reading difficult, then placed the rock on the table. He would be back soon, and he would wonder where she was.
Her boots and her hooded cloak, her basket, another handful of meat and two apples in her pouch, and she was on her way. She walked briskly through the forest, munching on the apples and the meat, grateful for the protection of the trees. Finally she reached the village of Glenfinnan, placed partway up the hill from Loch Shiel. As she walked through the stubble of the barley fields near the village, the wind shrieked and moaned. It would be dark in a few hours, and snow was beginning to fall.
The path brought her to the edge of the village, and she paused next to one of the windowless stone cots. There were eight of the dwellings, placed in a rough semi-circle around a tall stone pillar. Sheep huddled together in a corner of the sheepfold near the pillar, but otherwise the village seemed deserted, its inhabitants gathered close inside around their fires.
A flicker of movement caught her eye, and she turned to see the stocky figure of Ould Margaret, the village midwife, coming from the cot near the sheepfold. Her hood was pulled up over her head against the wind, and she moved slowly. The midwife emptied a pail of bloodied water onto the new-fallen snow, and steam rose gently. She leaned against the wall of the cot for a moment, then went back in.
As Cassandra started toward the cot, the unmistakable feeling of another Immortal swept over her. She whirled, reaching for her sword, cursing the lack of it, trying to peer through the falling snow.
It was Connor. She breathed a sigh of relief and went to meet him. They took shelter from the wind behind the back wall of a cot. He looked cold, even with his cloak pulled tight around him and his furs over his shoulders. He was bare-headed, and the wind had blown his hair across his face. He tossed his head to get the strands out of his eyes and nodded to her. Snowflakes lay white against the darkness of his hair.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
He glanced down and opened his cloak, revealing a well-wrapped bundle in the crook of his arm. "Some village girl must have given birth in your shed. I found the babe in the straw when I came back."
Cassandra set her basket down and took the baby from Connor.
Relief was evident on his face as he handed her the baby. "It squalled half the way here, and bothered the horse."
Cassandra rocked the baby gently, held it close. She recognized the cloth as the one Aileen had wrapped the bread in, all those months ago; Connor had been using the cloth to wipe down his horse. She wondered briefly about the unfortunate woman who had given birth in secrecy and shame, then left her child behind. Well, it had happened before, and it would happen again. The baby's eyes were tightly shut now, and dark hair stuck up straight. It was so small. Then she looked at it more closely, and realized what it was. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Boy," he answered.
She took a deep breath of the frosty air as a wave of mingled exultation and relief swept over her. The child had arrived. Voices long silent echoed in her mind: "There will be a child, born with the sun. Born in the northland, the highland, alone." The time of the prophecy had come. Finally, she could do more than just wait.
She wondered anew at the mother, wondered where this child came from, where all Immortals came from. Were Immortals just freaks, like the white-skinned pink-eyed children she had seen now and again throughout the centuries? Did the mother sense something alien, something unnatural about an Immortal child, and so abandon it at birth? She did not know. She would never know, but it did not matter now. The child had arrived.
She looked down at the babe and spoke directly to it, "A highland child, a foundling, born on the winter solstice." The eyes opened, showing dark in the dim gray light, and the child blinked solemnly.
She looked at Connor curiously. "You do not know, do you?"
"This child will be Immortal." His shocked gaze met hers, and he peered more closely at the babe. "You do not feel it?" she asked.
He shook his head, then paused, an intent expression on his face. "Perhaps there is something."
She nodded, pleased. "It is hard to sense, especially on a very young one. It becomes easier as they age."
The door to Mary's cot swung open. They watched from the shadow of the wall as Ould Margaret left the cot, carrying a wrapped bundle all too similar to the one in Cassandra's arms, and walked slowly to a smaller cot close by. Cassandra drew in a sharp breath.
"What is it?" Connor asked.
"That babe is dead," Cassandra said. "No midwife would take a babe away from its mother, or walk so slow with a living babe." Cassandra looked again at the child in her arms. Perhaps this was meant to be. "Connor, why don't you go back to the cottage, and take my basket with you?" She wouldn't need to help Mary with the birth now. "I will take care of this babe."
"Shouldn't I wait for you?" he asked.
Cassandra thought swiftly. "No." It was best to do this alone. "This may take some time," she explained.
He hesitated, then flung back his cloak and pulled out her sword. "You should have this, in case there is another Immortal about."
Cassandra looked at the gleaming length of her sword, and her fingers ached to feel the solid hilt in her hand. Then the baby squirmed, and she looked down at him, seeing again the tiny features, feeling the soft weight of him in her arms. "No," she said to Connor, stepping back. "I don't want it."
He stared at her as she held the child close against her, then nodded. "I'll wait then," he said, "over by the trees."
"You don't need to, Connor," she said, somewhat uncomfortable with his solicitude. He was looking at her steadily, but there was something different in his gaze. His posture was different, too, for he was not in his usual defensive stance.
His voice was firm, his gray eyes direct. "I want to."
She had seen that look before, and suddenly she remembered where. He had had that same protective air, that same softening of his face, when he had looked at his wife Heather. Cassandra realized suddenly that he was standing guard in case another Immortal threatened. He wouldn't need to protect her, so he must be protecting the child, she thought, with a sudden leap of hope. This would work very well. Her expression softened in return, and she said quietly, "Thank you, Connor." He nodded briefly, and Cassandra turned and went to the cot.
She did not knock, but opened the door quietly and went in. The scent of fresh blood lay sharp above the pervasive smells of smoke and wet wool. Mary was lying on a pallet on the ground near the fire with her eyes closed, and her husband Ian knelt next to her, holding her hand. Cassandra shut the door and pulled her hood about her face and stepped forward, taking care to move stiffly and hunch her shoulders.
Absorbed in his grief, Ian did not look up until Cassandra knelt down on the other side of Mary. "What is it?" he asked. His long hair and uncombed beard gave him a wild look, and his light-colored eyes peered at her in the dim light of the fire. "Are you far from home? I do not know you; where do you live?" The village chieftain, protecting his own, suspicious of outsiders.
"Over the hill," Cassandra said, making her voice sound old and cracked. She gestured vaguely. She used the Voice, the precise way of speaking she had been taught long ago, the Voice that could persuade, or command. She used the Voice to reassure him, to convince him that she was no threat. "Far away. 'Twas a long walk today in the cold."
He nodded, then looked back to his wife.
Cassandra knew he saw her as an old peasant woman; few looked beyond the clothes and the Voice to see the real person beneath. She turned her attention to the woman. "Mary?"
Mary opened her eyes slowly, her face pale and drawn. Her brown hair was streaked dark with sweat, and her pale-blue eyes were red-rimmed and tired. It had been a long labor, and at the end of the pain there was no joy.
Cassandra looked at her compassionately; she knew what it was to lose a child. "I see you've lost your little one." Mary blinked and tears appeared at the corners of her eyes. Cassandra continued. "I grieve with you, Mary. I've buried many in my time." More than she could count. "'Tis said that the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." Cassandra shifted the baby in her arms so that Mary could see its face. "I found this newborn babe today, abandoned by its mother. He's a fine lad."
Mary merely looked at her, and Cassandra used the Voice to compel Mary. "Here is your son. Take him."
Mary looked at her oddly for a second, a dazed expression on her face. Cassandra hated the way people looked when they were being influenced by the Voice; it made her feel unclean, as though she had stripped them and seen them naked and exposed. But she had no choice; the child must have a home, and she knew she could not be a mother to him.
Cassandra handed her the babe, quelling the sudden impulse to keep him close by her. Mary reached out slowly for the child, and Cassandra once again used the Voice to ensure her agreement. "He is your son." She was pleased to see Mary take the boy and cuddle him close.
"My son," Mary said, her voice soft with exhaustion and wonder as she carefully traced the faint eyebrows and caressed the baby's cheek. She raised eyes now alight with love to her husband. "Ian, look! Our son!"
Ian stared down at the soft features, the dark hair and the pursed mouth, then looked over at Cassandra. "This is not ..."
Cassandra shifted her voice again, using the Voice to lay a compulsion on him. "This is your child, Ian MacLeod. Let no one tell you different." She waited, watching, until she saw him reach out a tentative hand. The baby's fist closed tightly around his finger. "This is your son," she repeated firmly. "Your son for life." His first life at least.
When Cassandra saw Ian smile, first at his son, and then at his wife, she nodded in satisfaction. He had accepted the babe as his son, and would tolerate no argument about it.
"Our son," Ian said proudly, "our firstborn." He had no eyes for Cassandra now.
"He is dark, is he not?" Mary said, touching the soft black hair.
"Aye," Ian agreed. "He is strong, too," Ian said, trying to pull his finger back. "A dark warrior he will be, my lady. Shall we name him so?" Mary smiled and nodded at her husband, then kissed the top of the baby's head. Ian's voice was strong, though roughened with fatigue. "He is Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod." His voice caught a little. "Duncan, our son, our firstborn."
The baby wailed, and Ian and Mary laughed gently. Soon the baby was quiet, comforted at Mary's breast. All was well, then. The child had been accepted. Cassandra closed her eyes in thanksgiving, then stood to leave.
She was almost to the door when it started to open. Cassandra quickly hid in a curtained sleeping alcove and peered cautiously around the edge of the curtain.
There was a blast of cold air as Margaret came in, her step slow and heavy. As she approached Mary and Ian, she froze and stared at the babe nursing at Mary's breast. "What is this?" she said to Ian. "Whence came this child?"
"A woman from one of the crofts brought him to us."
Margaret looked around the cot, and Cassandra hastily ducked completely behind the curtain. "What woman?" Margaret demanded. "Where is she now?"
Cassandra could hear the surprise in Ian's voice as he said, "She must have left." His voice became unconcerned. "It matters not where she is. The child is my son," Ian replied firmly.
There was a pause, then a rustle of cloth, and Cassandra peered around the curtain again. Margaret had knelt beside Mary in the place Cassandra had just vacated. The midwife peered closely at the babe, then drew back swiftly and crossed herself. "'Tis no human babe!" she said. "'Tis a changeling, left by the forest demons!"
Mary looked up, outraged, and tightened her hold on the baby. She turned to her husband and said fiercely, "Ian, this is our son!"
The look on Mary's face reminded Cassandra of a she-wolf protecting her cubs. No one would willingly cross a female with young.
Ian nodded at his wife, the same fierceness on his face. "Our son," he agreed and gently touched the baby's head. He stood, and there was no gentleness about him now. His voice was cold. "What say you, woman?"
Margaret stood as well, facing him over the bodies of his wife and the baby. "'Tis a changeling!" Margaret repeated angrily, her hands on her ample hips.
Ian motioned her away from Mary, and the two of them moved to stand in front of the door, close by Cassandra.
Margaret glanced once more at Mary, who had retreated back into her preoccupation with the child, then insisted, "You must not keep it! Cast it out for the dogs; leave it on the hillside, but get it gone!"
Ian shook his head and spoke quietly, anxious not to alarm his wife and son. "You'll not say such things! He is my son!"
"It is not your son!" Margaret hissed. "And it never will be!"
Ian's face went pale, and he said in a low harsh tone, "Be gone with you, woman! I'll not have such a one as you in my home."
"You must not keep it!" Margaret repeated. The words tumbled over each other in her haste to speak. "You may call that, that ... thing your son, but it's no', and it never will be. It's a demon!"
"Be gone with you, I said!" Ian snarled at her. "And be gone from this place and this clan as well! He is my son, and I'll have no one tell me different."
Cassandra winced as she heard her own words repeated thus. She had not meant for this to happen.
Margaret stepped back, shaking her head in alarm. "You canna' mean that."
"Aye, I mean it! I'll see you no more in this village. You are banished!"
"Banished?" Margaret whispered, her hand going to the cross at her neck. "Banished?"
"Banished," Ian repeated harshly. "Get you gone by tomorrow."
Margaret's face went cold and hard. "If you banish me thus, Ian MacLeod, I tell you now that the day will come when you will banish that ... that changeling." She spat on the floor in the direction of the child. "And it will break your heart to do it, just as you are breaking my heart now."
Ian's face and voice were just as hard. "Get you gone, woman. I do not wish to see you again." He turned from her and went back to Mary.
Cassandra watched from behind the curtain as Margaret stumbled out the door, then looked at Ian kneeling by his wife and his son. There was a tender expression on his face, and he leaned over and kissed the babe gently on the forehead, then kissed Mary as well. Cassandra quietly left the hut, flinching as the bitter wind struck her anew.
She had gone only a few steps when she saw Margaret, who was leaning against the stone wall of the cot.
Margaret saw her as well, and straightened up with a gasp. "'Twas you!" she spat. "'Twas you gave him the babe! I knew it."
She came closer, and Cassandra could see the deep lines on her face and her pale-blue, almost colorless, eyes. Her lashes and eyebrows were scanty, almost invisible in the dim light, and tufts of hair like gray sheep's wool framed her face.
Margaret spoke quickly, the words coming out soft and sibilant through her few yellowed teeth. "I told him it was a forest demon, not a real human child, but he wouldna' listen. He wouldna' listen to anything I said." She gasped again as the realization struck her, and she made the sign against the evil eye. "You spelled him, you did! You made him do it!"
"Goodwife-," Cassandra began, but Margaret pressed her hands against her ears.
"Don't speak to me! I'll no' listen!" She glared at Cassandra. "You may ha'e spelled him and made him take the babe now, but he'll not keep it! I laid a curse on him, and a curse on that changeling as well."
She stepped closer to Cassandra and shook her fist into her face. "I curse you, too!" Spittle from the woman's mouth struck Cassandra's face. "May all your friends desert you! May your enemies come back again and again to haunt you! May you be alone all your days!
"Alone all your days," Margaret repeated more quietly, "as I will be." She started to cry as the realization hit her, and she stumbled backwards, slipping in the snow. "I'll never see my children again, or my grandchildren." She fell to her knees, oblivious to the snow soaking through her skirts. "Where will I go?" she wailed, her voice mingling with the wailing of the air. "Where will I go? What's to become of me?" She crumpled forward and rocked back and forth, burrowing into the snow.
Cassandra backed away, cold inside and out. She had not meant it to happen this way. Yet she could not change what had been said between Margaret and Ian MacLeod. She could do nothing to jeopardize the child. She had no choice. Cassandra watched in horror and pity as Margaret crawled through the snow, swinging her head back and forth like a blind mole, then fell against the door of a small cot and disappeared within.
The wind blew more strongly, and the snow stung Cassandra's cheeks with an icy caress. Cassandra knew all too well the power of words, but there was nothing she could do about Margaret's curse on the child. It might happen; it might not. Now, at least, the child was safe. As for the rest of Margaret's words, there was nothing she could do about that either. She was already cursed.
Cassandra turned to go, then saw Aileen slip out the door of a nearby cot and hurry over to her. Cassandra went to meet her.
"You came!" Aileen exclaimed. "How does Mary? Is the babe well? I had to leave before the child was born. Robert started crying, and Ould Margaret said she could handle the birth well enough, she's done so many of them. Is it a lad or a lass?"
"All is well with the mother and child," Cassandra answered. "They named the lad Duncan."
"A son!" Aileen exclaimed and smiled. "Now my boy Robert and Duncan will be friends. Mary and I are foster sisters; a better friend you could not ask for. And, of course, their fathers are brothers," she continued. "The lads will be friends. Friends for life."
Cassandra tried to smile through stiff lips. "Aye," she answered tonelessly, "for life." She shivered violently. "I must go."
"Aye, of course, you've been out in the cold so long." Aileen curtsied. "I thank you, Lady!"
Cassandra did not answer, but turned quickly and left the village. There was nothing here for her now.
The wind was bitter, and sleet had started to fall. Connor and Cassandra did not speak as they battled their way home, walking beside the horse as it slipped on the icy ground. When they finally reached the clearing, Connor took the horse to the shed, and Cassandra made her way to the cottage. The wind came in with her and carried stinging pellets of ice, then blew the door shut. Cassandra shivered, and snow and ice fell from her cloak.
She built up the fire quickly and unfastened her cloak clumsily with numb fingers, then started the water to boil. When Connor came in some time later, she unfastened his cloak for him, then hung it on its peg. They huddled next to the fire and gratefully sipped from the steaming mugs of tea they held in their frozen hands.
"You have a new clansman," she announced, when she felt she could trust herself to speak without her teeth chattering.
He grunted and took a large swallow of his tea. "They accepted him, then?"
"Yes." She took another sip, holding its warmth in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. Connor set down his tea and picked up his bag, examining one of the straps. Cassandra realized with a sudden pang that he was preparing to leave the next day. But now the child had finally arrived, and she must think of him. And Ould Margaret. "Ould Margaret did not care for the idea of it."
Connor glanced up. "Is she likely to cause trouble, do you think?"
"Not here." Cassandra kept her voice even and her face calm. "She's been banished."
He dropped the strap and stared at her. "Banished? Over the babe?" He shook his head. "That was poorly done."
Even with the warmth of the fire and hot tea, Cassandra felt an icy chill run down her back. She shivered and moved closer to the fire, then took another sip of tea, hoping to feel warm again soon. "She's a good midwife and healer. There's many a village would be happy to have her," Cassandra protested, feeling more and more uneasy. But it had not been her fault; she'd had no choice.
"Not if she's from another clan, and that clan wants her no more. No other clan will take a chance on her. Especially as she's a healer." Connor's jaw tightened. "They will think she's either a witch or a poisoner. No clan would banish a good healer and midwife without cause." He shook his head and made a small clicking sound. "She'll have to leave the Highlands." He jerked at the strap on the bag, and it broke free of the buckle. "Damn!"
She looked at the fire for a moment in despair. She remembered the pronouncements of banishment from Rome in the days of the Senate: "To be without food or water, fire or shelter, or aid from any man." She knew what it was to be banished, just as Connor did, but there was nothing she could do for Margaret, nothing Margaret would let her do. Or perhaps...? "Perhaps you could help," she suggested.
"Yes." Cassandra stared into her cup of tea. "She'll want nothing to do with me, I can tell you that." She looked at Connor earnestly. "But if you were to offer to travel with her, help her get settled, so that she'll not spend the winter alone...?"
"Aye," he agreed, after a moment. "I can do that." As he re-threaded the leather strap on the bag, he asked, "What did they name the lad?"
"Duncan MacLeod, of the Clan MacLeod."
He nodded slowly to himself, repeating the name and the title. "Donnchadh MacLeoid na clannad MacLeoid."
Cassandra listened to the sounds and not the words, hearing the rippling Gaelic of the name, the sound flowing easily, like clear cold water over pebbles in a stream.
Connor nodded again. "It has a good sound."
She drew a breath. "He'll need a teacher." She met his gaze evenly, and they stared at each other. The firelight flickered on one side of their faces.
He asked, "You will teach the lad, will you not, when it is time?"
Cassandra looked into the fire, hearing the crackle of the flames, seeing the tall pillars of stone crack and fall in the intense heat, remembering the obscene joy on Roland's face as she struggled beneath him. She thought of the surprise and hate etched on her student Celia's face as her head bounced across the floor, and the pain in Connor's eyes. She did not think she would ever be a teacher of Immortals again. "I doubt he'll be willing to accept a woman as a teacher," she said casually. "He'll not respond to me."
Connor grinned at her suggestively. "I responded to you well enough."
She could not help but grin back. "Indeed, you did. But I wouldn't be teaching him that." Well, perhaps not. Not at first, anyway. "And you did not think much of me as a teacher in the beginning," she reminded him.
Connor rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "True. But that stopped about the third time I found myself on my backside in the dirt."
Cassandra's grin turned into a smile at that, then she became serious again. "Would you have accepted me as your teacher if you hadn't already known about Immortals? If I had found you first, would you have accepted me as you accepted Ramirez?"
The corner of his mouth quirked up slightly. Cassandra knew he'd had a hard enough time accepting Ramirez, that Spanish-Egyptian dandy with a cape of peacock feathers and a ridiculous feather in his hat.
"He'll need a man for his first teacher, Connor," Cassandra said. "It's better so."
"Aye, I can see that," he agreed, and went back to looking at his bag.
Cassandra suppressed her irritation; surely it was obvious what she needed him to do. "I think you should teach him."
"Me?" He looked up in surprise, then shook his head. "No."
"I think you will be a good teacher for him."
He studied her. "Why?"
She eyed him carefully, liking what she saw. "You are strong, Connor. Not just in body, but in mind. You know what it is to be alone, and you know what it is to care. You are tough enough and careful enough to survive," she said, "and I think you will be able to teach him what he needs to know."
Connor blinked a little at that; she had always been sparing with her praise before.
And, she thought but did not say, I want you to teach him because I know you, and because I would not trust this child to anyone else. Because I've trained you, and you are bound to me as I am bound to you. So, the child will also be bound to me, as I need him to be.
Cassandra added, "When you teach, you also learn. It will be a good experience for you."
Connor went very still and looked her up and down.
Cassandra flushed under his gaze, remembering some of the lessons she had taught him, and what he had taught her. It had not all been good. She blinked and continued, anxious to change the subject. "He's your clansman, Connor MacLeod, and your kin, in more ways than one."
His jaw tensed a little, and she continued, "We can never have children, Connor, but the relationship between a teacher and a student is very like that of a parent and child. He will be your son," Cassandra said, deliberately touching on the emptiness within him, ignoring the emptiness within herself. "Your son at first, and then your brother in the years to come." She knew how much he missed the companionship of his fellow clansmen, how much he hated not having a family.
He snorted slightly and looked at the fire, then nodded, accepting the responsibility. "You'll send word?"
She sighed quietly in sudden relief and drew another breath. He would do as she needed. "When it's time."
They slept together that night in the great wide bed. The hunger of the night before had become tenderness; the desperate need had become solace. They slept well, comforted by memories of friendship, and of love.
Before dawn, Connor sat up in the bed and stared out the window. The light was slightly less gray than usual; perhaps it would be a sunny day. He wrapped his arms around his knees. "I must go." He did not look at her.
"Yes," she agreed, sitting up beside him and pulling the covers along with her, for the air was chill. "You must." He turned to her, startled. He had not expected her quick agreement. She laid her hand on his arm. "Connor. I asked you the night before last why you were still here. I knew it was time for you to go." She was silent then, looking at the fire with a fixed gaze.
Connor felt the queerness of her stare. "What do you see?" he asked. "There, in the fire?"
She shook her head. "I see...nothing."
"I know you see things," he said roughly. "Some of those stories about the witch are true. Ramirez told me. He told me when he saw where I lived, in a tower, on a plain."
She raised anguished eyes to his. "Yes, I see things, but I can do nothing." She wrapped her own arms around her knees and rocked back and forth. "I can change nothing." Connor reached over and held her hand, and she clung to it tightly.
He was silent for a moment, thinking. Finally he asked, "What is it like, this seeing?"
"It is like ... it is like looking at your face in the water." Her voice was slow and quiet. "There are reflections from the sky, and you can see dimly through the water to the bottom." She blinked, thinking of it. "And the rocks on the bottom and the clouds in the sky and your face, they are all one." She shook her head and looked down, her face shielded by her hair. "But it's not clear," she explained. "The picture is never clear. The things we do, the things we have done, and the things we will do, they all make waves. The waves cross and recross, the ripples spread out forever." She started to tremble. "Some see the ripples of the past; I see only the ripples of the future."
Connor moved closer and held her tight, waiting for the shivering to stop. He had not realized it was so difficult for her. He wondered again about this woman, this woman who had killed him and made love to him, who sometimes stared with icy contempt and sometimes shook with fear, who had refused her sword to cradle a new-born babe in her arms. When she had held young Duncan close to her, he had seen her simply as a woman, and not as an Immortal. A woman who needed his help and his protection, and a child who needed him, too. And the child would need him again. It would be good to teach Duncan when the time came, to have a clansman. A clansman, and an Immortal, to stand by his side through the years. Yes, Connor thought, that would be good. He was glad that Cassandra had suggested it.
He tightened his arms about Cassandra, and tried to see her as an Immortal woman. He could not. She was an Immortal, and she was a woman, and they were separate. She had split her life in half. Would he have to do the same? Become a killer, and yet stay the person he was now? How did you keep from losing yourself in the killing? There would be century after century of blood and death; how did you hold onto yourself? He did not know.
When she was quiet, he asked, thinking of visions of the past and visions of the future, "There are others then, who see as you do?"
"Oh, yes, there are others. Some call it second-sight. You have heard of that, maybe?" She shook her hair back from her face. "Some call it a gift; some call it a curse." She smiled ruefully. "Perhaps it is both."
"Do you see me?"
She looked into his eyes. "Not in the fire, Connor. I do not see you there. I do not see your future. I see you here, now." She kissed him softly, pulling his head closer to her.
Connor's hand went to the back of her neck, buried there in her hair. Her neck was slender, as was she, and he spread out his thumb and fingers to encircle the half of it within his grasp. So delicate, so fragile. So much power. He tightened his grip fractionally, then a fraction more. She stirred and arched against him, not in protest, but as a cat might arch its back against a firm hand. There was a power in that, too, the power of surrender, the power of trust. She moved slightly, and Connor pulled his head back and looked at her.
Cassandra said softly, "I see you in my bed, in my arms." She lay back on the bed, and he followed.
That morning dawned clear and cold as it had promised; the forest glittered with ice and sunshine. Their breath hung frozen in the air, and the snow squeaked and crunched under the horse's hooves.
He said abruptly, "Your sword is under your bed."
It was good to know. She inclined her head in acknowledgment, then smiled at him briefly. She did not wish to speak of this next thing, but he needed to know. For his own protection, and for hers. And Duncan's, she realized suddenly. "Connor?"
He placed his hand on the horse's shoulder and waited.
"It would be best if ... if you did not tell anyone that I have been your teacher." She looked up at him quickly, then away again.
It was harder than she had thought to tell him. "There is - an Immortal, an enemy of mine. If he learns that you have been my student, that you even know me, then he will hunt you down." She looked at Connor now, her eyes intent upon him. "He is old, and very powerful." She stepped closer to him and laid her hand on his arm. "You must not face him." That task would fall to Duncan.
She knew that Connor had a different task ahead of him. Though she had spoken to him of seeing visions in water, most often she saw visions in fire, edged with flame and blood-red. Those were her visions of death, and she saw death all too often. She had told him earlier that morning that she had not seen his future in the fire, but she had lied. He would face the Kurgan again, and his future did not look promising. But there was nothing either of them could do about that, and he did not need to know. She would do what she could to prevent Connor's death at Roland's hand. She repeated her warning, "This immortal is dangerous."
Connor was not fond of being told what to do, but at least he knew he still had much to learn. He nodded shortly. "What is his name?"
Cassandra hesitated, then forced herself to speak his name. "Roland. He was using the name Roland Chanteur about a century ago." She took a deep breath and continued. "He is not quite so tall as you, looks to be perhaps forty years of age, has gray eyes and gray hair." She could have told him more about Roland, much more, but it was difficult enough to speak his name. "He is very deadly."
"Has he killed some of your other students?" Connor asked, looking grim.
"Yes." He had killed them all. Except Celia. Cassandra had been the one to take her head. Cassandra had not had an Immortal student since then, nearly fifteen centuries ago. She had had no one, save Ramirez briefly, and now Connor. And maybe Duncan, in the years to come. "Don't tell anyone that you know me, that you have ever heard of me. Not even Duncan, when the time comes for you to teach him." Especially not Duncan.
"Aye, well..." Connor shrugged. "It will be a secret then, between us, this time together."
Cassandra was not willing to say good-bye so completely. "Perhaps I might visit you, from time to time?" she suggested. "At least while you are still in Scotland?" She wanted at least one more chance to repair the damage she had done between them, to ensure that he would still do what she needed him to do. When she had told him in the pool that she wished things could be different between them, she had known he did not understand. She wished she did not have to use him this way, to make him help her fulfill the prophecy. But even beyond the prophecy, she wished to see him again, simply for himself. And for herself as well.
"Will it be safe to be seen with you?" he asked, somewhat jokingly.
Cassandra did not smile. "We are never safe." She shrugged a little, and tried to smile then. "But we can be careful. If ... you wish it...?"
Connor nodded as a slow smile grew on his face. "I think I would like that," he said. He cleared his throat.
Good-byes were never easy, and she had had considerably more experience than he. She took pity on him, and kissed him gently on the cheek. "Friends, Connor."
He smiled shyly and tossed the hair from his eyes, then kissed her cheek in return. "Friends," he agreed, then mounted his horse.
"Do you know where are you going now?" she asked.
A seagull circled high overhead in the blueness and gave its lonesome call, then flew away. Connor cocked his head and considered the matter. "First, I'm going to look for Ould Margaret. And then back to Edinburgh. I'll see you there, in May!" He smiled in that quiet way of his. And he was gone.
Cassandra whispered a farewell and a blessing in a language which she alone could understand.