May Day Eve, 1606
The spring day was warm and pleasant; the trees were fully leafed. Cassandra sat on the bench built into the wall of her cottage, a wrinkled and stained piece of parchment in her hand. She had collected the letter on a trip to Inverness only a few weeks before. She smoothed the page on her knee and read again the carefully written words.
St. Crispin's Day
Anno Domine 1605
I set sail tomorrow for Africa on a good ship. I have signed on as purser, though the navigator says he will teach me his trade. The master of the ship has sailed around the Horn four times. The Portagees have a great trade in the area, and the voyage should be profitable.
Simon, the cabin-boy, told me yesterday that there was a man at the docks asking about me. I did not see him, as I was at the warehouse when the man came by the ship, but I thought I had noticed someone the day before. Simon said the man wanted to know about "The Highlander." That is how the crew call me; the only other Scot on the vessel is from Edinburgh, and he is the Lowlander.
Simon is a good lad, and not inclined to talk to a stranger asking questions, but the other sailors seemed ready enough to talk, he said. The man wanted to know where I was from, how long I had been with the ship, how old I was, even the month of my birth. The lad said he was tall, with gray hair. I hesitate to write of this to you, but it seems odd, and I do not know if it is an old matter, perhaps the one you mentioned.
I should be in Lisbon again in three years.
There was no signature. No mention of his friend Anne, either. Cassandra suspected that Anne was dead; Connor would never have left on a voyage of three years if she were still alive. He had probably never had to tell her he was Immortal.
Cassandra folded the paper again and thought of Connor's careful phrasing: the slight underscoring of the word "noticed," the reference to "an old matter." Connor had suspected that he was being trailed by an Immortal.
She ran her thumb over the words written on the back of the page: "Setting sail." So Connor had made it safely out to sea; the Immortal had not confronted him. She knew why, and she knew who. Roland.
Roland had followed Connor for a time, but he was hunting her. Hunting her, and the Highland child.
It had been six months since Connor had written the letter, more than enough time for Roland to travel to the Highlands. And he was near, she knew it. She could feel it. She had lived in these woods for almost a century, and she was attuned to the life within them. The feelings came most often in dreams, but sometimes they came while she stared at the fire. She would wake from dreams of terror and fear, of fleeing for safety into the dark burrows of the earth. In the fall when the red deer rutted, she felt the overwhelming need to join together, to create new life. She dreamed, too, with the wolf Tulan, a dream of stalking silently, then a sudden rush and the taste of warm blood in her mouth.
Now there was a stranger in the woods, a man, and the quivering web of life was pulled and twisted out of shape. She knew Roland was near. She was relatively safe, hidden in the forest and close to Holy Ground, but Duncan was not. He was only thirteen and still mortal. She could not let Roland find him now.
She stood and gave a low clear whistle. Tulan came bounding to her side, his smooth lope covering the ground easily. He had come back to visit her, and she had asked him to stay. He nuzzled into her hand, and she caressed the thick white fur of his head. The amber eyes glowed and his ears pricked forward when she spoke to him. "We're going hunting again."
They made their way soundlessly through the forest, both well accustomed to the woods. It was near dark when they reached the upper pasture near the village of Glenfinnan. Cassandra paused at the edge of the woods. A small flock of sheep was grazing on the hillside, upwind of them.
Tulan quivered with eagerness; she laid her hand on his shoulder in restraint. "Stay," she whispered. She took out a long pipe from her pouch and fitted a dart the length of her hand inside it. She crept closer to the sheepfold and focused on the sheep-dog. A quick puff of air, and the dart struck the dog below the eye. The drug on the dart acted swiftly, and the dog stumbled and fell. Another target, a sheep this time, and then two more.
She whistled to Tulan, and he loped over, a white shadow in the dark of the trees. "Eat," she commanded, and Tulan went to the felled sheep. The other sheep scattered at his approach, bleating in panic. She stayed well back while he dispatched the sheep; she did not want to leave footprints nearby. The darts were slender sticks, and they would most likely be ignored. Tulan started in on the tender belly, but she whistled. He stopped, and she motioned to the other two sheep. He quickly ripped out their throats and then went back to his meal.
When he was finished she called to him, and they returned to the cottage. It was full dark now, but they knew the way. It was the eighth sheep they had killed in a fortnight. The others had been single killings, but she knew a triple slaying would rouse the villagers to come looking for the sheep-killer. She knew an eager young lad would come, too.
She heard the voices the next day. Young voices, with more than a hint of tension and fear. Keeping Tulan by her side, she crept closer, watching from the trees. She felt it then, the faint presence of a pre-Immortal. Duncan was there. The boy with him was probably his cousin Robert.
She looked into Tulan's eyes and whispered, "Fetch." Tulan rose silently from his hunting crouch. Moving like fog, he approached the two boys, intent on his prey.
The boys were engrossed in their trap and did not see him at first. Robert ran, but Duncan picked up a stick. This would not do at all, thought Cassandra. Moving quickly, she fitted a dart into her blow gun and shot him in the neck. His knees buckled just as Tulan leapt upon him.
"Good," she said gently, patting Tulan's head as he stood next to the prone figure. His tongue lolled out happily and he nuzzled into her hand.
Cassandra stared down at Duncan. He would sleep for another hour, and it would take her almost half that to get him back to the cottage. She squatted beside him and maneuvered him onto her shoulders. His head rolled loosely and arms and legs flopped about in an annoying manner. She staggered slightly as she stood up. At least it wouldn't kill her to carry him home. Not permanently anyway. She considered letting him wake up here and then walking with him back to the cottage, but Roland was near. She needed to get Duncan closer to Holy Ground.
It took her more than half an hour, but she made it. Tulan trotted by her side. When they reached the cottage she said, "Guard." He disappeared to circle the cottage and keep watch.
Cassandra went into the cottage and dumped Duncan on her bed, then poured herself a cup of water. As she sipped it, she stood at the foot of the bed and examined the lad.
He had grown tall, and he was certainly sturdy. She could attest to that, she thought, flexing her arms and shoulders. The long-legged gracefulness of a boy was slowly changing into the solid strength of a young man. He would be broad across the shoulders, and his legs were strongly muscled. His dark hair had lost its fine straight silkiness and now curled into small whorls at the base of his neck. He had no need to shave yet, but the slightly parted lips hinted of the strong passion of the man to come. His lashes were incredibly long and thick, lying against the slightly dusky skin.
He stirred and rolled over, and Cassandra realized he would be waking soon. Her gown was torn and muddy at the hem, certainly not appropriate for a witch. She quickly took it off and hid it in a chest, then dressed in her blue robe. Carrying her comb and her veil, she went to the spring.
She passed between the two ancient oak trees and through the moss and ferns, then bowed to the guardians of the spring and made her way to the far side of the pool. Wisps of steam rose from the warm water and floated above the surface. Her hair was tangled, and she spent several minutes combing it, then braided it away from her face. She hung her robe on a branch and entered the water. It swirled about her legs as she walked down the carved stone steps. Deeper still, past her thighs and her waist as she bent down and washed away the stickiness from her arms and shoulders. She luxuriated in the soft caresses of the water for a few more moments, closing her eyes and singing an ancient song of praise.
The faint hum of a pre-Immortal reached her as the lad approached. She did not hurry, but finished bathing and emerged slowly from the water. She knew he was watching; she could feel his eyes on her. The robe felt warm and slightly rough on her damp skin; her hair was silken where it touched her neck and shoulders and the smooth curve of her breasts. Slowly, gracefully, she moved to his side of the pool.
She knew she dared make no mistakes now, no mistakes such as she had made at the Lammas fair. She breathed deeply to erase the feeling of panic that attacked her. Beginnings are such delicate times, she reminded herself. She pulled her veil over her head and wondered what to say. She was grateful when he spoke first.
"Are you an angel?" His brow furrowed in confusion. "Am I in heaven?"
Cassandra suppressed a smile. No one had thought her an angel for a very long time indeed. She was glad he did not remember her from the time nearly seven years past. She pitched her voice low. "No, not for a long time yet. My name is Cassandra."
"The wolf, why did it not kill me?"
"Perhaps because I didn't want it to?" That was no more than the truth after all.
Duncan's eyes widened as the thought struck him. "Are you the witch of Donan Woods?"
Now she did smile. "Some - say that." He looked a bit nervous at that answer, and she reassured him. "Don't be afraid, Duncan MacLeod."
He looked at her suspiciously. "How did you know my name?"
Cassandra pretended to be puzzled in return. "Who else was born on the Winter Solstice?" That was not really an answer, but he didn't seem to notice.
Duncan looked her up and down, then hastily returned his gaze to her face. "They say that you're old, older than the clan. They say that you're evil, that you cast spells."
Cassandra knew he was looking for reassurance. "Well, I might cast spells." He thought she was a witch after all, and what was a witch without spells? She moved closer, standing in front of him. "But, do I look evil to you, Duncan?" She knew she did not look old.
He looked at his feet and murmured something which she could not hear.
"What was that?" she asked. Duncan looked straight at her. His eyes were brown, the rich dark brown of fertile earth. Ramirez's eyes had been that color, she remembered.
"You look beautiful," he repeated softly.
Cassandra froze for an instant. She knew well enough that she was beautiful. Many throughout the centuries had looked at her face and seen beauty. And they had tried to possess that beauty, to own it or to use it, to own her or to use her. She had used it herself, to influence another or to get something she wanted. But Duncan saw her beauty and wanted nothing; he simply saw. He was so innocent. Cassandra swallowed in a suddenly dry throat and reached out to touch his cheek with the back of her hand. The skin was soft, smooth. He was so young. Her hand dropped, and she pulled her robe more closely about her.
"What is this place?" he asked. "How did I come here?"
"This is my home," she answered. "I found you in the forest and brought you here." She looked at him questioningly. "You do not often come to these woods."
"There was a wolf," he began and then glanced around him, startled. "I must go! Robert is still in the woods!"
"No!" she commanded. He stopped and stared at her. She could not permit him to leave while Roland was still about. She used the Voice to persuade him. "Robert is fine. You will stay here with me." He blinked, and she added conversationally, "Would you like to go swimming? The water's warm." He could use a bath.
"Warm?" he said in astonishment.
"Yes, the water's from a hot spring. It doesn't freeze even in winter."
He needed no more encouragement. As he moved toward the water, she called to him, "I'll prepare some food." He gave her a short nod over his shoulder and made his way quickly to the far side of the pool.
Cassandra smiled to herself as she went back to the cottage. Tulan would keep watch over the boy. It would be an interesting evening. She dressed with care, selecting a fine white shift and an embroidered bodice with lace on the sleeves and her brocaded skirt. While Duncan might be young enough to enjoy an opportunity to go swimming, he was also old enough to notice other things.
She was about to go call to him when she sensed his approach. His fingers and toes must be shriveled with water by now. She went out of the cottage to meet him in the yard. He had rubbed his hair dry; it stuck up straight all around. Cassandra controlled her impulse to reach out and smooth it. "Are you hungry?" she asked, knowing the answer to that. Boys his age were always hungry.
"Aye," he said eagerly, but he hung back when she started for the cottage.
Cassandra stopped and turned to him. "No harm will come to you, Duncan," she said soothingly. "You may enter the cottage." She could see the doubt on his face. Enter, aye, he was thinking, but what about leaving? She wondered how much the story of the child-devouring witch had grown since Connor's day. She didn't fancy standing outside talking to him all night. "I promise I won't eat you, Duncan," she said, smiling. Duncan flushed a little at that, and she reminded him, "You've been inside the cottage before."
He nodded and followed her inside, then sat down at the table and looked at the bowl in front of him. "What is it?" he asked suspiciously.
"Chicken stew with barley and wild onions."
Duncan leaned over and sniffed, then he poked at the food in the bowl with his spoon. "What's this then?"
Cassandra looked at the offending object which quivered on his spoon, and scooped one from her own bowl. "That is a mushroom." She popped it into her mouth and chewed happily a few times, then swallowed. "They're quite good."
Duncan was appalled. "Mushrooms?" He dropped his own spoon in his bowl and leaned back in his chair.
Cassandra eyed him narrowly and took another bite. "These aren't poison, Duncan." He gave her a stubborn look, and she sighed mentally. Just like Connor. She knew all too well how stubborn these Scots could be, and he was obviously hungry. She was not about to cook him something else. "Eat," she commanded, putting just the right tone of authority in her voice. It was not the full Voice, but it worked. Many mothers would wish for such a command.
Duncan automatically reached for his spoon and shoveled in a mouthful. He chewed and swallowed, then shoveled in some more. She watched him eat, amused by his appetite. When he finished his third bowl, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and leaned back and sighed. "That was good!" he said in some surprise.
Cassandra gave a small nod and smiled, pleased. Heartfelt praise indeed. She stood and took the bowls away to wash them. She watched surreptitiously as Duncan wandered about the room, touching objects, looking carefully at the things in the cottage. She wondered suddenly how Connor was doing, so far away from home, so far from the place of his birth. Perhaps he was looking at some one else's house with the same wonder and curiosity. It would be good to see him again when he came back to Scotland to teach the lad. Very good. She had not expected to miss Connor so much; she had not fully realized how much she cared about him until he had left. It would be almost another twenty years before she saw him again; it was getting harder and harder to wait.
But right now Duncan was here, and she should pay attention to him. She finished drying the bowls and walked over to Duncan. He was examining the chess pieces, picking up the white knight. A good omen, that. "That's a game," she said. "It's called chess."
Duncan looked up at her, dubious. "How do you play?"
"Shall I teach you?" At his nod, she motioned for him to sit down, and she sat down opposite him, taking the black. "It's like a battle," she explained. "This is my army," she motioned to the black pieces, "and that is yours."
Duncan looked at the white pieces arrayed before him. "Are they in formation," he asked, "before the battle?"
"Yes," she agreed, pleased at his observation. She explained the pieces to him, the names and the moves. He caught on quickly, and they played three games. She won each time, but she had to work at it during the last game. "You are good at chess," she said as they arranged the pieces. "I have been playing for a long time, and you do very well." She sat back and looked at him carefully. "Very well indeed."
Duncan smiled at that, a look that brought sunshine to his face and made her catch her breath. He was so young. She wondered what he would look like when the time came to challenge Roland, what he would be. The sunshine would be gone from him then, or at least dimmed by the dark clouds of killing. He would have to be a killer to survive, and her visions told her that he would survive to challenge the Voice of Death. He must survive.
Duncan looked at her curiously. "Why are you looking at me that way?"
Cassandra blinked and smiled. "I was just wondering what your life is like." That wasn't a lie, she did wonder. "Can you tell me about your village?"
So he told her then, about his cousin Robert and the scrapes they got into, about his mother's very tasty barley bannocks, about his father teaching him to ride a horse and throw a spear, about his excitement of hunting by himself and bringing home rabbits for the stew pot. He told of a hundred and one details of his life in the village, and she listened eagerly to every one. She was glad she had not taken him from his home. She must have been mad to think of it.
When he finally seemed to run out of words, she asked, "And what do you want your life to be like, when you are older?"
He talked then of being a clan chieftain and being a great warrior. He could not sit still, but was up and about the room, flinging his arms as he acted out leading his warriors into battle, of raiding for cattle. He sat down again as he spoke hesitantly of being married, as every clan chieftain must be, of having many strong sons and beautiful daughters. He mentioned the girl Debra, who was fostered with his Aunt Aileen and Uncle Malcolm, who did not seem quite so silly as the other girls of the village. He spoke of traveling soon, perhaps to the town of Oban, or maybe even to the Lowlands.
Cassandra listened quietly and nodded and smiled, though she knew many of his dreams would never come true. Let him dream now; Immortality would claim him soon enough. When he paused for breath, she observed lightly, "You have many things you wish to do, Duncan."
"Aye," he said, again with his bright smile. "I'll bring honor to my clan."
He had no idea what would happen to him, of the life he would lead. Cassandra had seen some of his life; she knew he would never marry Debra, never lead his clan. Certainly he would never have children. None of those dreams would come true. But he might have other dreams, to give him hope through the years. She reached out and took his hands between her own.
His smile faded, his seriousness matching her own. "You will live a long time, Duncan," she promised him. She hoped it would be long enough. "You will be a great warrior; you will have time enough to gain much honor." She thought of telling him more, but she knew the danger of such future knowledge. She stopped and released his hands, then asked casually, "Are you hungry?"
Duncan grinned then and nodded. Of course he was hungry. She was glad she had made extra bread from the grain she had bought in the village last month.
As Duncan sat in front of the fire and ate his bread smeared with honey, she told him stories, tales from far-off lands. She told him of Ali Baba and of the Genie in the bottle, stories she had first heard in Baghdad over eight centuries ago, in the slave harem of Caliph Harun al-Raschid. She told him many other strange and marvelous tales.
She told stories until his head nodded and his eyes closed, and he fell asleep in his chair. He would likely be stiff in the morning, sleeping like that, but she wasn't about to move him. She had carried him enough for today.
Cassandra did not sleep, although she was tired. She sat and watched over him for a time, her warrior, her champion, her savior. "How long?" she said to the air. "O Goddess, how long?" Surely she deserved some kind of answer, some reply after all these years.
She did not look at the fire, for she dreaded the vision of death she might see there. She walked barefoot to the pool, the earth cool and damp under her feet. The waters were touched by the moonlight and shone silver and dark under the shadows of the trees. She unbraided her hair and took off her clothes, then knelt naked by the side of the water, her hair falling loose about her. She needed to see something, some glimpse of the future, some hope for the long years to come.
"Please, Goddess," she whispered. "O Mother, please." All that she saw all the night long was her own dim reflection in the darkness of the pool, wavering, changing, blurred beyond recognition, shadowed and then silvered as the moon rose and set, until the waters stilled with the coming of the dawn, and she saw herself clearly once again.
Later that morning in the cottage, Cassandra smiled and came over to Duncan as he yawned and stretched in the chair. "You were dreaming."
Duncan was not finished yawning. "Mmmm."
She had seen nothing in the pool. Perhaps Duncan had seen something. She had to know. "Of what?"
Duncan shrugged. "Nothing."
Cassandra did not believe that for a minute. "I see." She looked at him more closely, remembering what they had spoken of the night before. "Did you perchance dream that you were grown?" She needed to know what would happen. She had to know.
He sat up straight in his chair. "I was a man, the leader of my clan."
She swallowed her disappointment. She knew that would never happen. His dream had not been a vision. But she could still use it. "Were you alone?"
Duncan hesitated, then looked down.
Cassandra said softly, "You were with me." She walked over to his chair. "And what - were we doing?" Duncan had nothing to say to that, but Cassandra knew the answer well enough. He was young, but not that young. She knew he had been watching her in the pool yesterday. If he had been a few years older, she would have taken him to bed last night. It would certainly have been more productive than what she had done, she thought bitterly.
The Goddess had deserted her; she must fend for herself as best she could. Perhaps this was all for the best; a sense of mystery and a desire for more would last through the centuries. She leaned over and kissed him softly, gently, on the lips. A promise there, for the man he would become, a pledge to the future and another meeting between them. A hope to carry through the long years ahead.
Cassandra could feel his surprise in the tenseness of his body, but his lips were warm and soft under her own, and he did not pull away. He was not so young after all.
Just then, the rooster crowed in the yard, and Duncan jerked away, startled. "Morning!" Cassandra knelt beside him, not at all displeased. The kiss was enough. He would remember her when she needed him. "I must go," Duncan said, looking about in agitation.
She said quickly, "Not yet." He must be warned. "There is someone in your village who wants to harm you."
Duncan nodded, a worried look on his face. "That'll be my father. He'll skin me alive."
Cassandra controlled herself and did not smile at that. This was much more serious. "Duncan, listen to me. This one is an enemy, and he means to kill you. You cannot face him yet, but someday you will, and when that time comes, you must kill him." She did not wish to frighten him now, but he needed to know enough so that when she came to him later, he would remember and would do as she needed.
Duncan stared at her, impressed again by her seriousness, her foretelling of the future. His future. "Then you really are a witch."
Cassandra smiled a little, but not happily. Witches, Immortals, ancient prophecies, visions of the future, battles to the death and beheadings, quickenings... The boy had no idea of what his life was to be. Perhaps he would remember her words when Immortality came to him. "Do they not tell a tale in your village, of a man in your grandfather's time, who died and yet came back to life?"
Duncan nodded. All the children knew that tale. "Of course, Connor MacLeod. But that's just a clan legend. It's just a story."
Cassandra knew better. "Some stories are true."
"I do not understand."
"Not yet. But you will." He would understand all too well.
She could hear voices then, coming closer, the voices she had been listening for since she had seen the villagers in the forest earlier that morning. Roland was gone from this place; she felt his presence no more. It was safe for Duncan to go home. She would tell Tulan that he need guard the cottage no longer. Cassandra held her hands near her cheeks to impress the lad with her powers of clairvoyance, another trick of the witch. "It's time. Your people come for you."
She said urgently, "Go! Straight out from the hut and they will find you." He stood quickly, but she stopped him before he left. "Duncan, when the wolf came at you, you truly were not afraid?"
He smiled a little and stood tall and straight. "No."
A very brave lad, indeed. "And why not?"
"Because good must always triumph over evil. Did you not know that?"
How simple it must be to be so young. "Perhaps I just needed to hear it from you." She picked up his sword from the table and held it out with both hands, flat against her palms, an age-old gesture from a woman to her warrior. "Your weapon!" She noted the way he received it, proudly, deservedly. He stood like a man. She had treated him as a man, both with the kiss and now with the sword, and he was responding to it. He would make her a fine champion when the time came. He was almost to the door when she said, "You need worry no more about the wolf."
He stared at her in wonderment. "You're the wolf!"
Again, she did not smile. Superstitions worked well for her, but it was time for him to go. She used the Voice to command. "Walk a ways, Duncan, past the stone pillar and down the path until you come to another pillar. You will not remember the walk." She did not want the villagers coming close to her cottage.
His eyes lost their focus for a moment, and he nodded. Then he smiled at her again, a bright sunny smile.
She walked to the doorway and watched him go, running to his father, his family, his clan. She went back into her cottage alone.
Cassandra walked slowly through the forest, relishing the fresh green scent of growth. She wondered if she might see Duncan. She had not seen him for almost five years; she had been walking far afield from her cottage that spring when she had come upon him kissing a woman with red-gold hair. Debra, probably. When he had been younger, she had seen him more frequently. He had continued to search for her after that night in her cottage. He had found her several times, but she had spoken to him and told him to forget. After a few years, he came but rarely into the woods. He would be past thirty years of age now; she would kill him this summer, no matter what Connor thought. An arrow would do nicely; he would never know who had killed him.
It had been a hard winter, and spring had been late in coming, but at last the breeze was warmer and the flowers were opened to the sun. Dappled sunlight lit the forest floor, for the trees were not yet in leaf. Over a hundred years she had lived in these woods, and still she was amazed at their peacefulness. Enjoying the solitude, she was surprised to see a woman sitting on a fallen log.
"Goodwife?" asked Cassandra. The woman did not move or turn her head at her call. Cassandra came closer and laid her hand lightly on the woman's hunched shoulder. "Goodwife, are you well?"
The woman shrugged off her hand and turned her face away, but Cassandra walked to the other side and sat down next to her on the log. In spite of the warm sunshine that filtered through the bare branches, the woman huddled into her cloak as though for warmth, and her hood was drawn close around her face. Cassandra caught a glimpse of white hair and the outline of a withered cheek. Deep lines ran from nose to mouth, barren furrows of age and pain.
"Aileen?" she said uncertainly. Surely this could not be the young woman who had come to her cottage wishing to keep her teeth. But it could be, and it was.
Aileen drew a shaky breath. "Aye, Lady." Her voice was flat and toneless.
"Have you been walking long?"
"Long?" She sounded puzzled.
Cassandra tried again. "Where are you coming from?"
"From the village." She gestured vaguely to the south. Not Glenfinnan, then; it lay at the northern end of the loch.
"And where are you going?"
Aileen shook her head, and gave a small whimper of a laugh. "I do not ken." She shook her head again. "I have nowhere to go."
Cassandra felt a remembered thrill of apprehension. Ould Margaret had spoken thus. "What do you mean?" Aileen bowed her head mutely. "Aileen. What has happened?" Silence.
To age was one thing, but something else had happened to Aileen. Cassandra used the Voice and commanded, "Answer me. Where have you been living?"
Aileen stiffened slightly but responded, "At the village where my daughter Mary lived."
"And what happened? Why did you leave?" Cassandra probed farther. "Did Mary move?"
Aileen's fist went to her mouth and pressed there a moment. "Aye, you could say that." She nodded her head back and forth and then looked up at the sky, blinking a bit. "She's moved on indeed, to a better place. Or so they say." She spread her hands in front of her and turned them palms up.
"She were with child, my Mary. And I was her midwife."
Her hands clenched, and Cassandra could see the nails digging into the palms.
"And now they're dead, her and the babe. It was her first." Her fists unclenched slowly, one finger at a time, and her hands sought out each other, holding tight to pain. "And her last."
Cassandra said nothing, waiting.
Aileen's voice went on, still calm, still flat. "She were my last, you ken. My last babe alive. Wee Margerie, she was a sickly babe, and young Malcolm, he died of the flux when he were ten."
Cassandra felt a pang for the chubby child she had last seen tugging at Aileen's skirts, asking to be picked up and carried.
"My husband Malcolm died four months past." Aileen dashed the back of her hand across her eyes. "And it's been five years since - since Robert." She drew in a breath of pain with his name. "And Debra, too. She was not my bairn, but we raised her as one of our own. Debra was a daughter to me, same as Mary."
Cassandra heard this with sadness but no surprise. She had seen the shadows on them that day at the village fair. She wondered how Duncan had fared, with both his cousin and his sweetheart dead these last five years.
Aileen rocked back and forth. "All gone, all dead. My sons, and my daughters." She crooned to herself, "Robert, Malcolm, Mary, Debra, Margerie." With the names of her children came the tears. Tears for her children, tears for herself.
When the crying was over, for a time at least, Cassandra took Aileen home with her. Cassandra did not stop at the cottage but took Aileen directly to the sacred spring. There she helped Aileen take off her outer clothing. Clad in her shift, Aileen entered the water, walking slowly and carefully with her pain.
Aileen stood passively as Cassandra bathed her and washed her hair and sang a song in foreign words. The warm water washed away the stillness of the numbing pain of the last few weeks, leaving a peaceful calm in its wake. After a long time, Cassandra helped her from the pool and led her to the cottage. Aileen hesitated at the doorway, unwilling as always to enter the witch's abode.
"You may enter," said Cassandra. "No harm will come to you." She wondered if she would have to use the Voice to reinforce the statement, but Aileen ducked her head nervously and came into the cottage. She was weaving on her feet; Cassandra put her to bed.
The next morning, Aileen had recovered enough to sit up and join Cassandra at the table. The food was meager springtime fare, but Aileen ate the bowl of plain porridge eagerly. When she had finished she pushed the bowl away with a satisfied sigh and leaned back a little in her chair.
She looked about the cottage curiously. "I've never been inside before. I often wondered what 'twas like." She managed a small smile. "It looks plain enough, though you've some pretty things here. The other women would ask me, you ken, since I've been here, and most of them hadn't. The men would never come to Donan Woods on account of you, of course. But now the women won't come either, ever since the demon made the Wood his home."
Cassandra froze. "What demon, Aileen?"
"The demon of Duncan MacLeod! Or whatever that creature really was. Once the demon had made itself known, coming back from the dead, Ian confessed as to how 'twas not Mary's child, but a foundling. 'Twas why he banished Ould Margaret. She tried to warn him it was a forest demon, but he would hear none of it. Not that night anyway." She shook her head worriedly. "Ah, but Ian believes it now though. Banished the demon he did, cast it out. And it came here. One of the lads saw it make its way to the Wood."
Cassandra drew in a breath. So Duncan was now an Immortal. At least she would not have to kill him. But Ould Margaret's curse had come true; Ian had banished his own son. If Duncan had come into the Woods, then he had probably been looking for her. "When did this happen, Aileen?"
"Why, 'twas last harvest, right after Michaelmas Day."
Cassandra cursed herself silently. She had been in Inverness last fall. Over a century of waiting, and she had not been here when she was needed. She had failed. Again. Even if Duncan had made his way to the cottage, he would have found no one to help him, no one to explain what had happened. He had wandered alone all the long hard winter, and he was wandering still.
Cassandra felt a surge of impatience; she must find Connor to tell him to come back to the Highlands. But first she must deal with Aileen. "How did he die?" Cassandra asked.
"There was fighting...," Aileen started, then stopped. Her eyes widened, and her mouth gaped open in terror as the realization came over her. Slowly she got out her chair and started backing away from Cassandra. "But 'twas you! 'Twas you brought the babe that night. 'Twas you told me that all was well with Mary and the babe."
"Aileen...," Cassandra began.
"Nay," she whispered, shaking her head, a lock of her white hair falling in front of her eyes. "You it is that brought that thing into our village, that thing that stole Debra's heart, and killed my son!"
Cassandra controlled her surprise. Duncan had killed Robert? Probably over Debra, she realized sadly, remembering Aileen's words from yesterday.
But Aileen was still talking. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand. "Killed Debra, too, I shouldn't wonder, for all its tears when it brought the body back to the village. And who knows what it did with the body after the priest refused Debra burial," she said darkly.
Cassandra did not believe that for an instant. Duncan would not have killed Debra. But a suicide? It made no sense. She would ask Aileen about it later, but, first, she had to calm her. "Aileen, please. Sit down."
"I'll not sit at your table, nor eat of your food," Aileen spat. "The demon was your child, wasn't it?" She nodded craftily, her faded blue eyes gleaming with a hint of madness. "Aye, you're a witch, and you killed Mary's bairn and put your own devil offspring in its place. A changeling it was!" she hissed.
"No," said Cassandra swiftly. "No, Aileen. I did not kill Mary's baby, and Duncan was not my child. I have never had a child." She shook her head sadly and looked directly into Aileen's eyes. "I can never have a child."
Cassandra did not use the Voice, but the certainty, and most importantly, the sadness beneath her words convinced Aileen. Aileen faltered, unsure, and then demanded, "Then where did it come from?"
"Here," Cassandra admitted. "The babe was in the shed. I thought some village girl had come here and left the child. It has happened before."
Aileen nodded; she knew of such things.
Cassandra continued, "When I got to the village and found that Mary's baby was dead, I thought the child had been sent by God to take its place. I meant no harm by it, truly."
Aileen looked at her, considering, remembering. Cassandra had always been kind to her. "But you are a witch," she objected. "You've not changed, not since the day I first saw you."
"That is true. I do not - age - as you do." Cassandra rose swiftly and walked about the room. "I was born this way, and I do not know how it happens. I do not know why." She stopped walking and looked at Aileen. "I am not evil because I am different, Aileen." It was more of a plea for reassurance than a statement.
Aileen's lips compressed and white ridges of flesh sprang up around her mouth. "It's not for me to judge," she said finally, "whether you be evil or no. That must be between you and God."
Cassandra looked away at that. She did not feel at all certain as to the outcome of that judgment.
Aileen continued, "But you're a woman alone, and I've seen how such are treated." A shadow passed over her face, and she sat back down slowly in the chair. "I'll not condemn you."
Cassandra sat down too and reached across the table to grasp Aileen's hands in her own. "Thank you," she said sincerely. "Sometimes...," she began, and then looked up and away. "I am so lonely," she continued in a very quiet voice. She looked back at Aileen. "It is good to think I have a friend - a sister."
Aileen hesitated, then squeezed her hands. "Aye, you do that." She added, "Sister."
Cassandra smiled gratefully and returned the pressure.
Later that day, as Aileen was spinning thread and Cassandra was winding yarn into skeins, Cassandra said, "Aileen, I must be leaving this place."
Aileen glanced up from her spinning. "Leaving? Why?"
Cassandra checked the lie that sprang so easily to her lips. Aileen was a sister now; she deserved the truth. Some of it anyway. "Duncan MacLeod."
"The demon?" Aileen shook her head vigorously. "You cannot go against it; it cannot die!"
Cassandra realized with a start that Aileen was frightened for her. She was touched by her concern; it had been a very long time since someone else had worried about her. "I will not go to the demon," said Cassandra soothingly. "But I know of someone else, someone who can tame the demon. I must go and tell him he is needed here."
Aileen nodded, accepting this, and returned her attention to the thread between her fingers.
After a time, Cassandra asked cautiously, "Would you stay here, Aileen? Become the new witch of Donan Woods?"
"Me!" The thread snapped as the spinning wheel shuddered to a halt. Aileen stared at her, mouth agape.
"Yes," said Cassandra. "It is how I became the Witch; the woman here before me asked me to stay. It is how it has always been done." Cassandra had noticed that Aileen had looked wonderingly on the many things in the cottage, and she added, "Will you stay here, sister, in the cottage?"
Aileen gazed around at the large comfortable home, the rich furnishings, the many unusual things.
Cassandra could see the thoughts going through her head. The cottage was warm, and it was dry. With her children and her husband dead, Aileen had no other home left now, save living on charity with a distant cousin. Cassandra knew she would not go to Mary and Ian, parents to the thing that had killed her son.
"Aye," she said, nodding. "I will stay here, in Donan Woods." She gave the spinning wheel a turn with her hand and started spinning the thread again.
Cassandra left ten days later, after she was sure that Aileen was well settled. She took only her clothes and some money, her small lap-harp, and her sword. She was pleased that Aileen had agreed to become the new witch of Donan Woods; perhaps the rest of her days would be happier ones.
Cassandra's time as the witch was over; it was time to live the life of an Immortal again. She must find Connor and tell him that the time had come. She had watched over the child; Connor would need to teach the man.
This story is continued in Hope Forgotten IV : EXILE
"HF4: Exile" is rated M for sexual content, so you will need to adjust the filters to find it