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Hope Forgotten III - Guardian

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Michaelmas Eve, 1599
Dalkeith, five miles south of Edinburgh, Scotland

Cassandra looked across the dinner table as Connor drank his whisky. His eyes were closed, and he breathed in slightly through his nose, holding the liquor in his mouth for a moment before swallowing, then remaining very still as the taste and the flavor permeated his body. She waited until he had started breathing normally before she asked, "When are you leaving Scotland?"

Connor's eyes opened in surprise. "How did you know?"

She smiled and shrugged. Cassandra knew he liked the Highland whisky more than the Lowland variety; she brought him several bottles whenever she visited him, but he usually didn't drink it quite this way. And there were a hundred other little things: the hesitations in his words, the intensity of his love-making all this last week, the way he stared out at the distant hills from the window in their room at the inn, the look on his face when they had listened to a harpist in the common room last night. He was a man saying good-bye, a man who knew the tide was ebbing far beyond his reach. "Experience?" she said lightly.

A small joke between them. He snorted in amusement, then set down his cup. "It's time for me to go."

"Yes." She knew he was ready to move on. But he was still very quiet, very thoughtful. He had not spoken of leaving, perhaps he would not mention this either. But she knew he wanted to talk. "Have you told your lady friend?"

This time his eyes widened in shock. "How...?"

She merely looked at him. Five and a half years ago she had known immediately from his increased confidence that he had found a friend. A woman friend. He had been more secure, more comfortable, living in Edinburgh. Then, when she had visited him in the spring of 1596, it had been even more apparent to her that Connor and the woman had become lovers. Cassandra knew he hadn't been celibate for six months; he was much more relaxed. It was obviously more than visiting brothels, for he was contented, too. Cassandra was pleased Connor had a companion; she knew he was not happy when he was alone.

And his lady friend must indeed be a lady. His manners showed polish, and his English had improved. She had been very surprised one day to hear him speak French. He rode a fine horse now, and his clothing was of good quality. She knew his friend had not bought those things for him; Connor was not a man to be owned. He was doing very well for himself in several different ways.

"Experience," he said wryly and managed a smile. "Aye, Anne knows I'm leaving." He glanced up. "That's her name."

Cassandra nodded, needing no further details.

Connor continued, "We're going to London together. Anne asked me to help her with her business dealings there. She is considering buying shares in the new East India Company."

"London?" Cassandra pretended her surprise at the continuing alliance was surprise at the destination. Perhaps he was more serious about his friend than she had thought. Each time she had visited she had asked him if he wanted her to return; she did not want to interfere in his life. Each time he had said yes. So she had traveled from Donan Woods to the Lowlands twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. They had met in small villages outside of Edinburgh, different villages for the different visits. It was not wise to fall into a pattern when Roland might be watching.

Connor had never asked why they met in different villages; he had even seemed pleased by it. Cassandra knew he did not want Anne to find out about her. Immortals led two lives; it was not unusual for them to have two lovers as well. Anne was his mortal lover, cherished, cared for, perhaps even loved. Cassandra had been many things to Connor: teacher, mentor, sparring partner, lover, confidante. She was the only other Immortal he knew, the only one he could talk to about the secret part of his life. She could tell he wanted to talk to her now.

"How do I tell her?" He took a drink of his whisky and set it down with a thump. "About what I am?" He looked over at her. "What do you usually say?"

Cassandra never stayed anywhere long enough to have to worry about it. "It is hard to explain," she temporized. She thought about it for a moment, remembering things Ramirez had mentioned. "You do not have to tell her everything. You can tell her only that you were born this way, and you do not know why. You do not have to tell of the Game, or the Prize." Or beheadings. Or Immortal feuds. Or students and teachers. Or lovers. Or killing to survive. Or the agonizing and addicting thrill of the Quickenings. Or the centuries of blood. Or the loneliness. Immortality was a darkness in their lives. It did not stand scrutiny in the light of day. Cassandra folded her napkin neatly. "Why do you want to tell her?"

He shrugged and stared into his cup. "I'm not sure I do. But..." He shrugged again, then added, "Someday, I might."

"How long have you known her?" she asked.

"We met six years ago."

Cassandra gave a small shrug. "You have another five years at least, maybe ten, before she starts to wonder."

He nodded slowly, and Cassandra said softly, "Ah," not bothering to hide her surprise this time. He was considering staying with her for at least that long, perhaps longer. Apparently the alliance was more serious than she had realized. "Then you will have to tell her. Someday."

"Someday." Connor stared out the window again where the darkness was thickening.

Someday, Cassandra thought bitterly. "So," she said cheerfully, "you are off to London. It is a very large city."

"Aye, I've heard." He sounded somewhat dubious. "Anne was raised there."

Cassandra reached for her cup of wine and sipped it, simply enjoying the sight of him this last time. She would miss him. His sark was of fine linen, ruffled at the wrists, with the lacing slightly open at the throat. His hair was neatly combed, its two narrow braids falling past his collarbone. His brooch was finely worked in copper, and he wore the MacLeod plaid now, no more plain gray. She knew he would never be accepted in London if he persisted in wearing his plaid. How best to say this?

Cassandra smiled a little. "Do you know," she began conversationally, "the second time I saw Ramirez, he was swearing because he could not arrange a toga to his satisfaction?"

He blinked. "A toga?"

"Yes, a toga. We were in Rome. He looked quite dashing in a toga. Although doublet and hose suited him as well." She took another sip and looked at him carefully. "I think you would look fine dressed that way, too."

Connor shrugged.

Cassandra saw the stubborn set to his mouth. "You will always be a Highlander, Connor, on the inside. What you look like on the outside does not matter so much. You will see many changes in your life, live in many places," she reminded him. She could tell that he was beginning to see her point. It was yet another part of his immortality he needed to become accustomed to.

She leaned forward earnestly. "We are different. In order to survive we need to hide, to blend in, to adapt. It does not change who we are." She knew that was not true. Hiding changed you. Pretending changed you. After centuries of pretending, it was hard to know what was real and what was not.

Connor nodded slowly and smoothed a pleat in his plaid.

"You look fine in your plaid," Cassandra said. She stood and walked over to him, then reached out a hand to gently lift up one of his braids. The tuft of hair at the end was like a fine brush. She drew it across the back of her hand, then used it to trace a line on his cheek. "And you will look fine in English dress, too, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod." She saw how his eyes darkened at his name. "Very fine." She started twining the braid around her finger, pulling them closer together. "And even finer out of it," she whispered, just before she kissed him.

The next morning Connor woke first. He stretched his legs, careful not to wake Cassandra. He couldn't remember having seen her asleep before; they either woke together or he woke to see her watching him. Her long hair was strewn over the bedclothes and twined about his arm. He untangled his arm and rolled on his side, leaning his head on his hand and studying her. She looked peaceful and relaxed, her cheek pillowed on one hand, her lips slightly parted.

She looked very beautiful asleep. She always looked beautiful. She was exotic, intoxicating, very different from Anne. He cared about Anne a great deal; she made him feel cherished and needed. She was sweet and kind. But Anne was also demure and reserved, especially in bed.

Cassandra was none of those things. She had taught him things about his body that he had never suspected. She had taught him about hers as well. She had sung to him last night, as she always did on their last night together on these visits. She would not sing on the first night; she said she needed the time to learn about the man he was now, the man he had become since she had last seen him. He had changed over the years, and so had the song.

He wondered what else would change. He hadn't finished his first century; he hadn't even taken his first head. Not very many Immortals wandered the Highlands. He hadn't met any Immortals in Edinburgh either. Possibly there would be other Immortals in London. Probably. It was an exciting and frightening prospect. What would a Quickening be like? Perhaps he would ask her that later.

Or perhaps not. She was intimidating. She was at least two thousand years old, probably older. What was it like to live so long? He knew some of her life had been hard, but she had had such a long life. He wondered how old she was, how many men she had been with, how many heads she had taken. He knew he would never ask.

But there were many things he had asked. She knew so much; they had talked about the world and history and different places, different people. She was intriguing. She stirred in her sleep, then quieted. A lock of her hair fell over her face, and Connor lifted it gently, feeling the silk of it between his fingers. He would miss their conversations and their sparring matches, miss their week-long visits. He would miss her. But they were both Immortal; they had time. They would have other days together. And they still had today.

He laid the lock of her hair on her shoulder and roused her from her sleep.

The serving girl at the inn carried in their morning meal of porridge and beer and set it on the table with a thump. She added a block of peat to the fire and left without saying a word. Cassandra rose from the bed and dressed quickly. The small fire did little to dispel the morning chill. She moved her stool closer to the fire and started to eat hungrily.

Connor was still folding the pleats in his plaid. "You've a good appetite this morning."

Cassandra raised one eyebrow. "It was a busy night." She watched him as he wrapped the plaid around his waist and then put on his belt. Cassandra stopped eating for moment to watch him arrange the pleats, enjoying the sight of him. It was one of the few places she had lived where it took the man nearly as long to get dressed as the woman. She gave him an appreciative smile. "And a busy morning. You must be hungry, too."

"Aye," Connor said with a grin as he reached around behind his back to twist the rest of the plaid. "I am that." He pinned the corner of the breacan at his shoulder, then picked up his bowl and joined her in front of the fire.

"When do you leave for London?" she asked.

Connor stirred his porridge. "A month, maybe two. We sail on the ship Courage."

"A good trip to you," Cassandra said, smiling, though he did not seem at all enthusiastic about the idea.

He spooned up some porridge and looked at it, then set his spoon back down. "Do Immortals get seasick?" he asked abruptly.

Cassandra suppressed her smile. "Yes. But it won't kill you."

Connor's eyes narrowed. "From the tales I've heard, you wish it would."

Cassandra did smile now. It was harder than she had thought it would be to see him go. She was not worried about his survival; she had seen him and Duncan together in her visions, but she knew it would be several decades at least before he came back to Scotland. She must stay in the Highlands until Duncan was grown, but she wanted to see Connor again. "Perhaps we might see each other again, when you come back to teach the lad," she said, reminding him of his promise to be Duncan's teacher.

"Oh, aye, Duncan," said Connor. "How old is he now? Four?"

"He would not thank you for saying that. He's near seven."

"Seven?" he asked, taken aback. "He'll not be ready for teaching for quite some time, in any case."

"It won't be more than twenty-five years or so," Cassandra said casually.

"Twenty-five years?" Connor asked. He looked at her intently. "How can you know when he will die?"

Cassandra's gaze slid from him to the fire.

"Ah," said Connor, nodding. "One of your visions?" He reached for his beer and gave a small laugh. "For a moment I thought you meant to kill him yourself."

That was precisely what she had meant, but she would not tell Connor that. Thirty would be a good age to die. Much better than forty or sixty. Duncan would need every advantage when the time came to fight Roland.

"Have you seen the lad?" Connor asked.

Cassandra was glad to change the subject. "Yes," she said brightly. "Near two months past, at the Lammas Fair." Cassandra tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. "I went to the village to trade for a few items and saw him then."

"Did you wear your habit, Sister Polycarp?"

Cassandra favored him with an ill glance. "Yes. I went as a nun."

Mid-morning, Lammas Fair, 1599
Glenfinnan, Scotland

The sunshine was hot on her back. Underneath the heavy gray wool of her habit, Cassandra could feel three individual drops of sweat rolling down between her shoulder blades, and more sweat in each armpit. The back of her neck was damp too, but she could not wipe it dry because of the veil which hung down her back. Her hair was plastered to her head underneath the large white wimple. She had forgotten how all-encompassing a nun's habit was designed to be.

Cassandra walked quickly, but not as quickly as she would have liked. Her hands were sedately folded within her sleeves, so she could not swing her arms as she walked. The basket handle in the crook of her elbow jabbed her in the ribs. The long full skirts swirled about her and tended to bind up between her legs. Several small pebbles had worked their way inside her sandals. Her rosary swung back and forth, and its heavy cross hit her precisely in the kneecap with every other step.

If she had been alone she would have tucked the rosary up over her rope belt and taken off the wimple and veil, but there were others on the road now, all traveling to the village for the Lammas fair. She must look a proper nun.

She muttered a phrase under her breath which was not to be found in any prayerbook. Why did it have to be hot today? The rest of the year she shivered in mist and fog and rain, and today it was bright and sunny and hot. A rare blue sky shone high and clear, with nary a cloud to be seen. She had never thought she would wish to see more clouds in the Highlands. The sunshine glittered on the water of the loch, which lay cool and inviting below. Cassandra turned her back on it and started up the steep hill to the village.

"Good day to you, Sister," called a stout woman, coming alongside her. The woman was red-faced with the climb and the unaccustomed heat, but she was barefoot, and her head was covered with only her kertch. Her plaid fell from the belt at her waist, instead of being over her shoulders as usual.

Cassandra inclined her head slowly, lest she set the wide wimple to swaying. "Good day," she murmured.

"Be you down from the priory, Sister? Come for the fair?"

Cassandra nodded again, turning her head slightly so that she could see the woman better, but being careful to keep her eyes downcast, as was fitting.

"Aye, 'tis a grand day for a fair!" the woman exclaimed happily. "Such a fine sunny day. Though I'm glad not to be taking a turn at the ovens, mind. Baked my bread last night, I did." She patted her large cloth-covered basket contentedly. "We've had good weather, and a good harvest this year, thanks be to the Blessed Virgin."

Cassandra turned towards her to comment, then stepped back quickly as a red-headed figure dashed between them.

"Here now!" The woman moved even more quickly than Cassandra had. She reached out a long arm and snagged the back of the runner's sark. "What be you thinking?" She turned the miscreant around. "So it's you, wee Debra!" She gave her a shake. "Are you daft, running so? Is it a fire you're off to?"

The girl was perhaps six, but already she held the promise of great beauty, with the blazing vitality and leggy grace of a young colt. Bright blue eyes above a sprinkling of freckles looked up innocently. "Oh, no, Goodwife Jeane. 'Tis a race, and I'm winning."

"A race, is it?" The woman gave her another shake. "You near knocked my basket from my arm, and you almost trod on the holy sister!"

"My pardon, Goodwife, Sister," she said contritely and ducked her head quickly. Her eyes widened as she looked past them. Apparently the other runners were gaining. Her whole body quivered, and her feet danced with impatience.

Jeane saw this and relented. "Well, run then, lass! Don't let those two lads catch you!" A sudden blazing smile, and Debra was off up the hill, her long legs flashing. Jeane chuckled and shook her head as she turned to watch two other figures racing across the field. "She'll beat them too, I shouldn't wonder." She clucked her tongue. "The three of them get into more trouble, and it's usually her that gets them into it."

Cassandra watched the other two figures intently, one dark-headed, the other light. They chased after the girl, but could not gain on her.

"She leads them a merry chase, right enough," said Jeane as they continued walking. "It's a different kind of chase she'll be leading in another few years. Though, of course, she's already promised."

"Promised to wed?" asked Cassandra in some surprise. Arranged marriages at such a young age were uncommon.

"Aye, 'twill be a double wedding to tie the clans together. The girls will be fostered out with the families, you ken. Debra Campbell will be fostered here, in another few years, and little Mary MacLeod is to be fostered with the Campbells. Debra and her mother be just visiting for the time now. Debra is to wed little Mary's brother Robert, him that was chasing her, and Mary will wed Debra's brother Aidan. It won't be for some years, of course, as Debra is only six, and young Mary barely five. I don't know as they've even told them yet."

"And who was the other lad chasing her?" Cassandra asked, careful to hide any unusual interest.

"To be sure, that's Robert's cousin, Duncan MacLeod. He's the son of the village chief."

So it was indeed the Highland foundling. She had not been certain; he had been too far away for her to sense his faint pre-Immortal hum. Cassandra felt a surge of fierce elation. He was old enough now to begin the training. Finally, after centuries of waiting, she could begin.

Jeane chuckled again. "Quite the pair the two lads were, and now with her about these last few weeks, they're even worse. Climbing trees, falling into burns, snatching oatcakes. But brave they are, and sweet with it."

"You know quite a bit about the village then," observed Cassandra.

"Aye, and I should, Sister, seeing as how I was born a Campbell and married a MacLeod, same as young Debra will. I married a Robert MacLeod too, but my Robbie was second cousin to Malcolm, him that's young Robert's father. But my Robbie's mother now, she was a MacDonald."

Cassandra listened patiently while the woman recounted the various branches of the MacDonald, the MacLeod, and the Campbell family trees, all the while thinking of young Duncan, son of the village chieftain. He would come with her today; she would see to that.

As Goodwife Jeane waved farewell, Cassandra contented herself with a dignified inclination of her head. Nuns did not wave or call out. She walked over to the large beech tree and sank gratefully onto a rough bench. The shade felt wonderful, and she murmured the small prayer of thanksgiving which the Mother Superior had recommended for such times.

The tree, she realized, was the same one she had stood next to on that cold and windy night nearly seven years ago. There was no cold wind now, of course, and the village was certainly not deserted. The sheepfold was full of bleating, running sheep, made nervous by the strange dogs and the noise of many people. Small booths of lashed wood had been set up here and there between the stone cots, and the colored banners tied to the poles hung limply in the hot still air. A group of men stood about the base of the tall stone pillar, arguing fiercely and enjoying it immensely.

Children and dogs ran everywhere, frightening the chickens. Unseen cattle bellowed. Women walked from booth to booth, examining the wares and haggling over the prices. The smell of hot food, sour ale, various types of manure, and rancid wool rose in a great steamy cloud. After years of solitude in the cool green forest, Cassandra felt overwhelmed. She closed her eyes and hoped she wouldn't faint.

"Sister?" A hand tugged at her sleeve, and she opened her eyes abruptly as her hand went automatically to the hilt of her sword, hidden thoroughly if inconveniently in the many folds of her habit.

It was the young girl Debra. "Goodwife Jeane asked me to bring this to you." She held out a mug filled with a foamy brew.

Cassandra reached for it eagerly and took a long comforting swallow. "My thanks, young Debra. I was indeed thirsty." Debra smiled and bobbed her head. Cassandra took another swallow and looked up to find Debra staring at her with frank interest.

"Is there something you wish of me?" Cassandra asked her.

Debra blushed a little, the red of her cheeks matching her hair, then asked in a rush, "What is it like, to be a nun?"

Cassandra thought back to her days as a nun. "It is much like life in the village. We work, spinning and weaving, preparing food. In the priory, we sing and pray every day. Though, of course, there are no men or children there."

Debra nodded, but the answer did not seem to satisfy her. She dug the toe of her foot into the dust and tilted her head to one side. "Do you have to be good, all the time?"

Cassandra suppressed a smile. "Is not everyone supposed to be good, all the time?"

Debra rolled her eyes and nodded, then said candidly, "I don't think I'd make a very good nun."

Cassandra did smile then, and reached out a hand and tilted the girl's chin up. Debra's hair curled wildly and freely, her eyes were direct and unafraid, the sensitive mouth gave promise of a future sensuality, and the chin and jaw line showed a definite stubbornness. "No," agreed Cassandra, "you would not." She smiled gently at her and dropped her hand. "Are your friends near by?"

"Friends?" asked Debra, confused. "Oh, you mean Duncan and Robert. They no' my friends, they are my cousins." She motioned with her head to a nearby cot. "They're eating over there."

Cassandra could see a glimpse of the two boys through the shifting crowd. The lads sat in the shade of the cot with their legs outstretched, leaning their backs against the cool stone wall. Large pasties were in their hands, and they took huge bites, laughing and showing the gaps where their front teeth had been. "They'd best save one for me, the great goobs," commented Debra darkly.

"Debra," Cassandra said intently. She waited until the girl looked at her, then used the Voice of command. "You will take your cousin Duncan for a walk in the pine grove when the clan gathering starts at mid-day."

Debra nodded, the bright animation gone from her face, her eyes slack and dull.

"Go now, and join your cousins," Cassandra instructed. As Debra turned to go, Cassandra added in her normal voice, "And my thanks again, to you and Goodwife Jeane, for the drink."

Debra smiled happily and gave a small curtsy. "Good day to you!" she called.

Cassandra watched her go as she threaded her way between bustling women and dogs and chickens. She was a happy child, well-loved and cared for from birth. Not all children were so lucky.

Cassandra sat quietly and finished her drink, listening carefully to the voices around her. They were loud and boisterous, but happily so. The harvest had been good; the sheep and the kine were healthy and fat; there had been no sicknesses in the villages and crofts.

Refreshed by her drink, Cassandra rose and made her way through the crowd. The nun's habit commanded respect, and people moved aside for her. The animals, of course, showed no such courtesy, and Cassandra nearly tripped over a chicken which ran squawking in front of her.

When she reached the fuller's booth, she breathed a sigh of relief to be free from the chickens. The wool at the booth was smoothly woven and of a good thickness, almost like felt. It would do nicely for a new dress after she had dyed it. Gray, perhaps, with crimson edgings. She had already collected the dark lichen to make the crimson dye, and she had seen yellow water-flag growing in a pond on her way to the fair today. The roots of the water-flag made a good gray dye.

"Fulled it ourselves, we did, me and my sisters," said the woman in the booth. "After we spun the wool and wove it. Feel that," she said as she rubbed the wool between her fingers. "Not a drop o' water come through there."

"It is fine work," Cassandra agreed. She looked at it a moment more, then calmly stated her price.

The woman in the booth nodded and grinned widely, showing a wide gap between her front teeth. "Aye, Sister, that'll do handsomely." Cassandra counted out the money and handed it to her. "Do you need thread?" asked the fuller. "We carry that, too."

"No," replied Cassandra, "but perhaps some ribbons and lace, if you have those." At the woman's scandalized look she added blandly, "For the altar cloths." The woman nodded in relief, and pulled out a basket full of ribbons and a small selection of lace. Cassandra chose ribbons of dark blue and cream, but left the lace. She could do tatting better than that. She offered another coin.

The woman shook her head and smiled. "Nay, Sister, 'tis enough, what you have given already."

Cassandra smiled in return and murmured, "Pax vobiscum." She turned and nearly bumped into a woman who was struggling with a large basket and the imploring hands of a chubby two-year old.

"Up, up!" wailed the child.

"Not now, Malcolm!" came the sharp reply.

Cassandra moved away quickly, her eyes downcast. She knew that voice.

The woman knelt next to the little boy and took a deep breath. Her voice was calmer when she spoke. "It's very hot today, isn't it?" The boy nodded. "We'll go find your brother Robert, and have a bit to eat." She rose to her feet and took his hand. "Come along."

Cassandra stared intently at her feet as Aileen and her young son walked past her.

"Good day, Sister," came the greeting.

Cassandra bowed her head in silent reply. After a moment she looked up briefly to see Aileen and the toddler moving toward Debra and the boys. Duncan had moved away from the shade of the cot and lay full length in the grass, the sunlight glinting off his dark hair. Debra and Robert sat side by side against the wall, their faces shadowed. Wee Malcolm joined them there in the shade while Aileen went inside the house.

A woman walked over to the children and apparently said something, for Duncan jumped to his feet and Robert and Debra straightened up. The woman reached out and lovingly brushed a lock of dark hair away from Duncan's forehead. Duncan tossed his head and spoke, and Cassandra could tell even from a distance that he had said "Mother." He laughed then, and ran his fingers through his hair. Cassandra saw clearly the affection on his face.

Duncan waved to Debra and Robert, then walked with his mother over to the sheepfold where his father Ian was looking at the sheep. Other clansmen were gathering at the pillar. Ian casually reached out and put an arm about his son's shoulders. Duncan stood tall and proud beside his father, with his mother next to him on the other side.

A cloud of dust rose around two men, who were shouting and sweating as they drove four cows through the village to the field. The kine meandered past, lowing and bellowing, and scattered more chickens and dogs. Cassandra blinked her eyes to clear the dust from them, then turned to finish her shopping. Debra would bring the boy soon.

The fair was still busy and the day very hot when Cassandra left the village, though distant thunder promised a welcome relief from the heat. She swung her basket in irritation as she walked under the welcome shade of the tall pine trees. Her basket was heavy now, filled with the ribbon, the cloth, and two fine needles; a cake of salt; a piece of rennet to make cheese; and two loaves of fresh-baked bread, given to her freely by Jeane in honor of the day. Her neck was stiff from the wimple. Her head ached and her arm hurt; she was tired and hot.

The girl should bring Duncan to the forest soon, Cassandra thought. The clanfolk had been assembling for the gathering when she had left. She set her basket down near a fallen log and paced back and forth.

She sensed him before she saw him. Cassandra turned to see the two children walking toward her. She waited until they reached they grove, then spoke to the girl. "Leave us," she commanded, and Debra nodded blankly and started away.

"Debra!" Duncan called, confused and uncertain. Debra did not turn. "Debra! Where are you going?" He turned back to Cassandra. "Who are you?" he demanded, looking at her nun's habit.

"A friend," she reassured him, using the Voice. "I would speak with you." She sat down on the log and looked at him carefully. He would be tall, she could see that already. And quite handsome. "Do you like horses, Duncan?" she asked casually. She wanted him to talk more so that she could learn exactly how to control him with the Voice. He showed no surprise that she knew his name.

"Aye," he said. "My father said he would teach me to ride soon. On a horse, not a pony."

"Will you learn with your cousin Robert?"

He scowled. "Robert's already started. He's older than me; he's already seven. Father said I must wait until I'm seven as well." His scowl became a smile. "But even though he is older, I can beat Robert in a race."

The eternal tiresome competition between males. "Yes," Cassandra said pleasantly. "I saw the two of you running earlier today." She had enough to register him now. Once Duncan was at her cottage, she could make sure he did not leave. The prophecy had spoken of the child and the man; she would begin training the child in the Voice now, to help him in his fight against Roland when he was a man. It would be different this time; she would not make the same mistakes she had made when she taught Roland. It would be different. It should only take a year for the basic training; then Duncan could return to his family. She would finish the training when he was an Immortal. It would be hard on his parents not to know where the boy was, but better a year separation now than for Duncan to die at Roland's hand later.

"You were watching?" Duncan asked.

"Yes, I saw you and Debra and Robert running earlier this morning."

He nodded, then suddenly remembered something. "I promised Robert I would meet him at the horse paddock. He's probably waiting for me. I must go."

"No!" Cassandra's command was strong and immediate. It stopped Duncan's feet, but another scowl appeared on his face. Perhaps she did not have him registered fully after all. She regretted speaking so harshly to him and reached out a hand to smooth Duncan's hair.

Duncan pulled back quickly, knocking her hand away. "You're not my mother," he said fiercely, resenting her familiarity.

Her fingers clenched in sudden rage, and Cassandra lifted her hand to strike. He flinched back from her, his scowl of irritation becoming one of fear and anger, and she froze.

She had lifted her hand to Roland once.

Feast of Marduk, 1298 BCE
By the Rivers of Babylon

"Where have you been?" Cassandra demanded as Roland sauntered into the house near mid-day.

Roland did not answer, but sat down at the table and picked up a bunch of grapes. He leaned back against the wall and plucked a grape, then looked at her as he chewed. "Out."

"For three days? With who?"


Cassandra did not like his friends. "Where?" He did not answer. "Where were you?" she repeated.

"Why should you care? Why shouldn't I go out?"

"Roland," she began, "you're only seventeen."

"So?" He popped another grape into his mouth. When he was finished eating it he said, "Do you really want to know where we were?" He smiled at her sunnily. "We were with some girls. They weren't very happy at first, but I convinced them to be. After that, they had fun." He grinned. "And so did we."

Cassandra swallowed hard. "You didn't...," she whispered. "You didn't use the Voice on them. Not for that."

"It wasn't the full Voice. I just talked to them a little at first. They didn't mind after that."

She shook her head in horror. To use any form of the Voice so was rape, was blasphemy. "Roland, you cannot...!" She tried to explain. "It's a violation, it's..."

"It's just talk, like a lot of my friends talk to girls."

She shook her head again. It was more than talk when Roland spoke. Perhaps he didn't yet realize how much more. Cassandra hoped he would never realize. "You shouldn't-"

Roland dropped the grapes on the table and stood up. "You go out at night, too. You aren't here."

Cassandra flushed at that.

Roland asked belligerently, "Who are you to care what I do?" He walked over to her. "I've heard the stories about you in the marketplace, on the street."

Stories were always told about women who lived without a man. She did not answer, but her anger was evident in her steady stare. She was faintly surprised to have to look up at him. He had grown a great deal this last year.

Roland glared back. "Are you out at night with one man?" He made a rude gesture with his hands. "Or maybe two?"

Cassandra went white, and her hand started to come up to strike him. She froze, suddenly aware of what she was doing. She let her hand drop.

But Roland had seen the aborted movement. "Are you going to hit me now?" he taunted.

"No," she whispered. She would not strike him in anger. She said more firmly, "What I do is no concern of yours."

"And what I do is no concern of yours." He looked her up and down. "You are not my mother."

"I do not want to be!" Cassandra snapped at him in a flash of rage. Too late, she saw the pain in his eyes, the abandonment, the hurt. She should not have said that to Roland, an orphan. He had been raised without family for much of his early childhood, as were many Immortals. He had been enslaved and abused as a young child. She should never have said that. "Roland...," she began.

But the pain in his eyes was hidden already, buried behind cool irritation and arrogance. "Fine," he said calmly, "I'll leave then."

"Roland!" she called again, desperately.

He ignored her and walked out the door.

Mid-day, Lammas, 1599
Outside the village of Glenfinnan, Scotland

Cassandra's hand fell to her side and her mouth went dry as she looked into Duncan's young face, stubborn and angry and not a little frightened. She remembered the obscene joy and naked hatred on Roland's face, and the pain in Connor's eyes. She could see the beginnings of those feelings in Duncan now. She knew then that she would never teach an Immortal again.

She knelt in front of him, bringing her face level with his. "Forget you saw me," she commanded, using the Voice. "You have been alone in the pine grove, save for Debra. You do not know me," she continued desperately. Perhaps she could still salvage something from this. "Forget." She watched him walk away.

At least she had seen the boy, she tried to console herself, as she walked through Donan Woods. He was growing up strong and tall. He had parents and cousins, aunts and uncles, a home and a clan. She could not take him away from his home, to bring him into a world of ancient hate and sudden death, a world he would have to enter all too soon. She must trust to others to watch over him; she must watch and wait, as she had waited all these years. He would have to find some other way to defeat Roland. She could not teach Duncan the Voice. She could see now that she should never even have thought of it, but she was so tired of doing nothing. She hated doing nothing; she hated always waiting for others, always depending on others. She hated it.

When she was well into the forest and away from the village, she set down the basket and walked over to a small pine tree, perhaps twice her height. It was stunted by the lack of sunshine this deep in the forest, and only the top part of the tree carried branches. She wrapped her hands around the trunk, her fingers interlacing on the far side of the tree. She leaned her forehead against the rough bark, breathing deeply, inhaling the clean pine scent.

She gripped the tree harder, feeling the grating of the bark against the palms of her hands. She started knocking her head against the tree, slowly at first, then faster. Dry, brown needles fell about her and landed on the wide-spread wimple as she shook the tree. Her clenched fists pounded the trunk of the tree, splitting open the skin of her knuckles.

The wimple slipped down over her eyes; she ripped it and the veil off and threw them on the ground. The tree stood there, indifferent. With a cry of frustration, Cassandra drew her sword and started slashing at the trunk. The sharp blade cut deep gouges in the trunk, the pale white inner flesh of the tree laid bare in long strips.

Thunder rumbled nearer, and the first heavy drops of rain began to fall as the wind-tossed leaves showed silver and gray. Cassandra ignored the water that ran into her eyes and continued to attack the tree. This side! and that side! Her hair hung in long wet snakelike strands down her face, and her clothes clung to her. Lightning cracked nearby, and the thunder rolled long and loud as the rain poured down. Cassandra did not hear. Hacking and slicing, she methodically destroyed the tree, until finally it toppled slowly toward her.

She moved away, but not quickly enough, and the tree smashed into her shoulder, numbing her entire arm. Cassandra sat down suddenly atop a pile of ragged pine branches, amidst a shower of pine cones and needles and rain.

An indignant squirrel chattered at her from a tall oak tree, and a half-grown white wolf sat on his haunches and regarded her quizzically with amber eyes, his tongue hanging out. Cassandra flushed, suddenly aware of what she had done and what she looked like. Her nun's habit was soaked and filthy, her fingernails broken and bleeding, and her hair full of pine needles. Her sword was sticky with pine sap, and dirt and small chips of wood stuck to her where the sap had spattered.

She sighed deeply and looked at the ruin of the tree scattered about her, the destruction she had caused. She stood shakily and plunged her sword into the ground, then stood next to the white jagged stump. A sudden crack of thunder shook the forest and lightning split the sky. She laid her hands on the broken trunk of the tree and breathed a silent prayer of apology, her tears mingling with the rain.

Cassandra stripped off her nun's habit and stood naked, feeling the water slide over her skin and down her throat. She lifted both arms high over her head and stretched, then shivered at the coolness of the water. The water ran in rivulets off the tips of her breasts and followed the meandering path of her hair.

The wolf bounded over to her, and she looked down and caressed the great head. He was Sela's last pup, and Cassandra had raised him after his mother had died the winter before.

The rain continued slow and steady as the thunder and lightning moved across the loch. "Come, Tulan," she said, calling to the wolf. She put the ruined habit in her basket and picked up her sword, then they headed for home.


Michaelmas, 1599
Dalkeith, Scotland

Connor served himself another bowl of porridge. "How does the lad, is he well?"

"Well, and happy," Cassandra answered cheerfully. "He grows tall. He had no front teeth when I saw him." Such details should help make Connor feel more like a father to him. "He has a good appetite, too," she commented, looking at Connor's full bowl as he sat down again. "A busy day it was, at the fair. There was a crowd of men discussing something very earnestly, and chickens and dogs running everywhere. There were peddlers, and a herd of kine went through the town."

"And how many fights were there?" Connor asked with interest.

"Only two that I saw. But I left early; it was very hot that day." Cassandra ate the final bite of porridge from her bowl. "Duncan was most anxious to learn to ride. He said that his father was to start teaching him."

"Then you spoke to him?"

"Yes. I spoke to him," Cassandra said easily. "For a short time. He was anxious to get back to his friends."

Connor nodded. "Not many lads wish to spend time conversing with a nun when there's a fair going on." He finished off his porridge and leaned back in his chair, then swallowed the last of his beer. "A good thing you saw him, is it not? And you had a fine day at the fair."

"Yes," Cassandra agreed, as she rose and set her bowl on the tray. "A fine day indeed."

Connor stood and came over to her. "I near forgot to tell you. This last summer I passed through the village where Ould Margaret settled."

"Oh?" said Cassandra, reaching to take Connor's empty bowl from him. She really did not want to know.

He handed the bowl to her and continued, "I spoke with a man who remembered her. The ould Highland witch, he called her." Connor shook his head regretfully, but without surprise. "Said she didn't last out the first winter. They found her frozen in her cot, an empty jug of whisky by her side."

The bowl dropped from Cassandra's nerveless fingers and hit the edge of the table, then broke in half when it landed on the floor. "How clumsy of me," she said lightly. "The bowl was slippery." She bent to pick up the broken pieces.

Connor took the pieces from her hands and set them on the tray, then enfolded her gently in his arms. Cassandra closed her eyes and leaned her head against his shoulder, holding tight to the solid strength of him. She had not meant for this to happen when she had forced Ian to accept Duncan as his son. She had not meant to hurt Margaret, but she had to protect the Highland child. There was nothing else she could have done, but she knew she had caused yet another slow and painful death.

Connor stroked her hair. "There was nothing more we could have done, Cassandra," he said consolingly. "The chieftain is the one who banished her, and he knew full well what that meant. Banishment is often a death sentence, especially for the old. It wasn't our fault."

Cassandra forced herself not to stiffen at his words. She pulled back a little from him and nodded. "Yes," she agreed, "it wasn't our fault." She had had no choice, she thought in despair; it wasn't really her fault. She gave his hands a final squeeze and picked up the tray. "I'll take this to the kitchen now," she said, as she walked gracefully from the room. In the hallway, she stopped and leaned her head against the wall. She had not wanted to know.

The day was fine, sunny and cool, and Connor and Cassandra rode away from the inn together. She knew he wanted to be back in Edinburgh before dark, but they had enough time. "Ride with me a ways," she asked, and Connor followed her to a thick stand of birch trees.

She dismounted and tethered her horse to a tree, and Connor did likewise. Green grass grew thick underfoot, spangled with late blooming wildflowers. The horses were content to graze. She beckoned to Connor, and together they walked between the trees to the hidden grove within. She had found the grove last week when she had stopped to rest on her way to the inn.

"A bonny spot." Connor looked about him approvingly.

The grove was nearly perfectly circular, perhaps five paces across; the ground soft with grass. There were no wildflowers here, but a dusting of fallen gold leaves shone bright against the green. The brown-speckled white trunks of the birch trees formed a living wall around the grove, and the leaves overhead were touched with sunshine.

"It is," Cassandra agreed. "It is a place of beauty." She rested her hand on the trunk of the birch tree near her and closed her eyes.

"What are you doing?" Connor asked, when he saw her so quiet.

"Listening," she said, her eyes still closed, "listening to the beat of its heart." She opened her eyes and came to stand in front of him. She knew she would not see him again for a very long time, and she knew she would miss him. More than she should. She laid her hands on his chest and smiled. "As now I am listening to yours."

Connor tucked a loose tendril of her hair behind her ear and smiled back at her.

Cassandra said softly, "I want to be with you here, Connor, with the grass beneath us and the sky above, and the touch of the air on our skin." This was a sacred place, a place holy to the Goddess, and she wanted to sanctify their love. "I want to remember you thus, in the years to come."

Connor placed one hand over her two and pressed them tight against him. With his other hand he gently traced the curve of her cheek. "Aye, Cassandra," he said softly, "and so shall I remember you."

Chapter Text

May Day Eve, 1606
Donan Woods

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
Lisbon, Portugal


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.

Your friend

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.

Easter, 1623
Donan Woods

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