Tale of a Highland Lass
“There,” Sinaedh nodded, tying off the neat stitches. “That should do her, Da.”
“Aye, lass,” the grizzled man before her nodded, placing his hands on his knees and rising from the place where he squatted near the injured ewe. “Indeed, ye’ve magic in yer hands, ta heal an’ soothe like ye do.”
“Oh Da,” Sinaedh smiled, rising and wiping the blood from her hands before hugging him. “’Tis no more than God’s willed me ta do. Tha’ an’ wha’ Father Finian’s taught me.”
Gregor Bell nodded, wrapping his arms around his daughter. While he stood just over six feet tall, the top of her head only came up to his chin. “Aye, lass, an’ well I ken. E’en a wee thing like ye has a place.”
He smiled fondly, then released her as she wailed, “Da!”
“Nae lass,” he shook his head, taking her chin and looking down on her. “’Tis no size tha’ matters, ye ken tha’. ‘Tis size of yer heart, an’ tha’ yer no lackin’ in.” With a grin, he tweaked her nose. “But if we’re late ta this dinner, yer ma will hae both our hides, so we’d best get.”
“Race ye, Da!” And with that, she was off, bright red hair streaming behind her as she ran out of the small lean-to barn where the injured sheep rested, leaving him to close gates behind them both. Even with that lead, Gregor was gaining on her, his long legs eating up the distance to the low thatched house where a stream of smoke carried savory scents. “Winner!” she cried triumphantly, touching the stone of the well, then dropping the bucket down it to pull water up to wash with.
“Aye, lass,” Gregor ruffled her hair fondly. “Yer a winner, tis nae denyin’ tha’.”
The table was quiet after Grace had been said, with each of them enjoying the stew and fresh-baked bread at the table. Sinaedh knew that her mother was looking at her when she thought she wouldn’t be noticed. Finally, she stopped, and smiled. “It’s no like ye’ll hae anything different, Mum. Rich will be here ta help Da wi’ the flock, and ye’ve nae need of my fumblin’ fingers ta help wi’ sewin’. An’ as fer butter an’ the like, well we’ve always sheared an’ butchered wi’ th’ others.”
“Aye, I ken tha’,” the elder woman answered, a smile on the face under the bun of cinnamon hair.
“Well then wha’ is’t, Mum?” Sinaedh asked. “Sure’n ye dinnae wish me ta say no ta Father Finian an’ th’ Church?”
“Och no, lassie,” her mother shook her head. “But ye’ll be sae far away. I’ll miss ye.”
Sinaedh looked down. The distance she’d be traveling was the only thing that had reduced the euphoria she’d felt when Father Finian had come to dinner no more than two weeks ago, announcing he’d procured a position for her at the Church’s school for novice acolytes just outside Swanton. Usually neither shy nor reserved, Sinaedh had at times found herself wondering if she could succeed at this school. Father Finian had told her about the great dormatories, the classrooms, the dining halls, the kitchens, and especially of the collections of books and maps in the library there. This new adventure would be great change for an only child. But she knew, as she searched her heart, it was one she couldn’t pass up. “I’ll miss ye tae, Mum,” she answered as she looked back at the elder woman. “But I’ll no be away forever. When I can, I’ll come back, ta help here, an’ ta tell ye what I’ve learned.”
“’Course ye will,” Gregor nodded, smiling as he reached out and took his wife’s hand. “An’ we’ll be wantin’ ta know how our little lass is doing.”
Sinaedh grinned, for this was familiar ground. “I’m no so short as all tha, Da.”
“Aye, small enough ta be hidden in th’ pasture, wi’ th’ lambin’ ewes,” he grinned, white teeth showing through his bristling beard. “Or ta’ be hidden under a cabbage leaf, wi’ th’ Hibernian changelings.”
“May they roast in Hell,” her mother added, crossing herself. “Nae, dinna tease the child, Gregor. She’s a growed woman, now, leaving on her life’s journey.”
Sinaedh nodded. “Yet not so growed that I’ll no come back fer yer stew, Mum.”
“Nor must ye e’er forget ta do that, lass,” Gregor added, nodding. “’Tis one of many things tha’ caused me ta woo yer mum. Her cookin’s the finest in th’ land. An’ yers, as well, since ye learned from her.”
“Aye Da, that’s so. I’ll always be back when I can, fer meals wi’ ye an’ Mum.”
“You’ll always be welcome, lass. An’ we’ll miss ye, but we ken wha’ a benefit this can do ye. We’re proud o’ ye, lassie.”
“Aye, Sinaedh, never prouder,” Gregor nodded. “Now eat, an’ we’ll hae one final round o’ the pastures before bed. Tomorrow will come early.” And with that settled, the three resumed their meal.
“An’ here, lass, cheese, travelbread, and a haggis,” her mother said, passing across a cloth bag. “A flask of tea, as well. Now,” she continued, hands on her hips, looking Sinaedh up and down as she packed the sack on the top of her backpack and tied it securely closed. “Let me see how ye look.”
Shouldering the pack, Sinaedh smiled, knowing better than to protest. It was her mother’s maxim that one should always look one’s best, whether going to services or digging potatoes. She submitted to the scrutiny, from the woolen cap which confined all but the rebellious few strands of bright red hair, down to the mace hanging at her side, and finally to the comfortably worn leather boots, then hugged her mother close. “I’ll be all right, Mum. An’ I will send ta ye, lettin’ ye know how I am.”
“I know ye will, lass,” her mother answered. She placed a gentle kiss on the girl’s cheek. “Now let’s outside, and me an’ yer Da will watch ye off.”
As soon as she stepped outside, Sinaedh was enfolded in a bear hug, her father’s brawny arms around her, holding her close. “Ye do us proud, lass,” he murmured, then released her.
“I promise, Da.” She kissed both her parents again, then turned to the path leading down the hill away from the home, knowing that if she looked back, parting would be harder. Gregor and Margie stood arm in arm, watching their only child walk into the world without them, perhaps the hardest thing they’d ever done.
For Sinaedh, the trek down from the hills was an adventure, but not one which frightened her. The sun shone brightly on the greens around her, the sky of blue was unmarred by clouds, and birds and small animals chittered in the brush. Occasionally, she touched the mace holstered at her side in reassurance, remembering how Father Finian had instructed her in the use of the blunt weapon, and then given her this very mace to replace the knotted stick she’d carried since she was old enough to mind the herds. The weapon wasn’t elegant, but was sturdy, and Father Finian had said a blessing over it. She hoped she wouldn’t have to use it, but if that happened, she couldn’t think of a weapon she’d rather have to hand.
Several hours of walking brought her to the main road, where she sat in the warm sunlight of noon and nibbled on a biscuit and dried salmon from her pack. She smiled at the sweet sound of a songbird, and scattered crumbs so that the animal could land and have a meal in return. Shouldering the pack, she once again took to the road, now wider and better traveled, but because of the remote location, rutted with potholes in locations where the soil was soft.
The gurgle of water warned her that she was approaching a crossing. The road dipped down into a small valley, and Sinaedh saw that the crossing was a ford, rather than a bridge. Truthfully she hadn’t expected better, and it was reassuring to see a sign posted there by the brook. “Snowdonia Fortress”, the placard read, with a drawing of a mountain capped by snow to aid those travelers who weren’t literate. She sat on a rock at the side of the road, pulling her boots off and rolling up trousers. It wouldn’t do to walk further in soggy boots.
A toe dipped into the water confirmed that it was chill, nearly as cold as ice. With a grimace, holding her boots and socks up, Sinaedh stepped into the stream, trying to cross as quickly as possible, but wary of loose rocks or deep pools. The crossing made uneventfully, except for bright red skin from the cold water, her teeth were chattering as she sat again on the other side to dry her feet and pull the boots on again.
"I say, a bit cold, is it?"
Sinaedh whirled, rising to her feet, one boot still half-on and lying now on its side. "Nay now, Lady, I didn't mean to startle you." The man standing before her was tall and lean, fine blond hair whisping around his face. Long limbs were clad in fine robes of shimmering red that Sinaedh suspected were silk.
She felt herself blushing. "Pardon, sir, but ye affrighted me. I didna expect ta see anyone out here on th' road."
"Oh, I quite understand. In fact, I've seen no one at all since I left the wayhouse, except yourself." He smiled and held out his hand. "Pardon me again. Roderick de Bracy, at your service."
Sinaedh took a step forward, thankful the boot simply decided to fall off her foot rather than trip her. "Sinaedh, daughter o' Gregor Bell. Tis a pleasure ta make yer acquaintance, sir."
"Please, do not let me keep you from lacing your boot up again." Grinning, the man gestured at the footwear lying aside. "Never let it be said of me that I kept a lady shoeless except by her own choice."
Blushing again, Sinaedh settled back to the rock and gripped the boot, pulling it on. The man perched on another rock closeby, watching her with a pleasant smile. "How'd ye come ta be travelin' this way, if ye dinna mind me askin'?"
"Well, to be perfectly honest, I do believe I'm lost. You see, I was to travel to Swanton, there to do a task for my mentor. I rested last night at the way house, then set off this morning. I know that I had to climb into the hills to find Swanton, but...," he peered at her as she laced the boot up and settled her foot back to the ground. "I don't suppose you might aid me?"
Sinaedh flashed him a smile. "If yer headin' ta Swanton, I'd travel with ye, if ye like. Tis where I'm headed as well." She rose, glancing back across the brook, and up into the heathered hills. "An' no, tis no this way. Tis ta th' south o' the way station."
"Excellent!" he affirmed as he rose as well. "What a bit of luck, coming across such a lovely guide. I do thank you, Lady Sinaedh."
"Tis my pleasure ta aid ye," she grinned, then pointed down the road. "Shall we?"
"Aye." With a pleasant smile, the man stepped down the path, walking beside her.
Sinaedh glanced up at Roderick from time to time, gently gnawing on her lip. He didn't seem to be the sort of person one might find walking out away from civilization. Curiosity finally overwhelmed her, and she broached the silence between them. "Ye said yer doin' a task fer yer master?"
"Indeed. Chanthord of Humberton." He glanced down at Sinaedh, maintaining a pleasant smile. "He's a mage, quite accomplished. I'm his apprentice."
Sinaedh felt the blood drain from her face as she barely resisted the urge to make a warding sign common to the Borders folk against evil. "Mage?" she asked weakly, steps slowing until she'd stopped.
"Aye...," he looked at her curiously. "Why do you...," frowning, he shook his head. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, I...," Sinaedh swallowed, then looked up at him. "D'ye practice the dark arts, then?"
Blond eyebrows rose, and he shook his head. "I assure you, Lady Sinaedh, that what my master does, and what I learn, are far from dark. We use the powers of nature, harness them and entreat them to work in our behalf."
She was blushing again, and looked down, away from the eager sincerity of his eyes, ashamed of her doubt. "Pardon, I'd no meant ta question, but... tis said th' elves use magery, an pull monsters from th' dark t' fight against those who'd serve God an' th' King."
"Both my master and I serve the King honestly and true." She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up into startlingly blue eyes. "That's the truth. We just have a way of looking into nature that lets us borrow from one place to use in another. Now," he continued. "No need to apologize for questions. That's how we learn. Shall I tell you something of our art?"
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