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2. The Waif
 It was one of those days that couldn’t decide between winter and spring. A cold, gusty wind whistled thinly through dark pine and barren birch and chased fat clouds over the sky one by one, causing flurries of hard rain to alternate with pale and hesitant sunshine.
They had traveled the thirty miles of Loch Ness, stopping at the village near Urquhart Castle, and again at Kilcummin, where they had nearly been caught picking the purse of one of the MacDonald chieftains. And now they were moving south beside the silver ripples of Loch Lochy.
Kelpie was far ahead of Mina and Bogle, moving along high on the hillside with a prancing motion caused partly by high spirits and partly by the masses of tough-stemmed heather that covered the slope. She was still sore from her
 latest beating, and also hungry. Her life consisted largely of pain and hunger and cold, and was peopled by enemies to be feared and hated or fools to be tricked, but Kelpie had discovered all that long ago and was quite used to the fact and found life very enjoyable anyway. Certainly it was never dull, and she had a zest for adventure.
And in spite of everything, the world was beautiful. Kelpie could forgive it a lot for that. In any case, her day was coming! She had deliberately described the details in last night’s crystal quite wrongly, and Mina hadn’t known.
Or had she?
This appalling thought caused Kelpie to miss her usually sure footing and to step right in the middle of a gorse bush. Neither the travel-hardened toughness of the bare brown foot nor the deceptive beauty of the silvery leaves saved her from a good pricking, and Kelpie swore with an ardent fluency that would have pleased Bogle greatly. Still hopping and cursing, she saw the movement and color of the three horsemen down the loch much later than she should have. They were coming along toward her in the path below and doubtless had well-filled purses which might well be lightened. She was halfway down the steep slope when suddenly the sun shone brightly from behind the latest cloud, and Kelpie recognized the scene from the crystal: young Glenfern and his red-haired companion and the giant blond ghillie riding behind.
But there was no time to wonder about it. Timing her
 movements carefully, Kelpie threw herself headlong down the last steep bank and sprawled full length in the path, almost under the horses’ feet.
“Dhé!” exclaimed Ian Cameron as he and Alex reined the horses so sharply that they reared for a moment on their hind legs. All he could see on the ground was a pitifully small and tattered figure, clearly in great danger of being trampled to death.
Alex MacDonald, from his better position behind, saw something a little more. As Ian’s horse stepped alarmingly close to Kelpie, one “thin and helpless” arm moved, neatly and efficiently, the precise six inches required for safety. Alex’s red eyebrows arched, and an appreciative grin danced on his face. He relaxed and prepared to enjoy the comedy that was sure to follow.
The crisis was over in a moment. “Is it all right you are?” demanded Ian of the wee figure, and the wee figure nodded biting its lip in a fine imitation of silent courage as it raised itself painfully to an elbow. For Kelpie had discovered that this sort of act was much more touching than loud wails and tears. She decided to have a hurt back, this being hard to disprove, as well as more impressive than other hurts. So she winced to indicate great pain and looked up with a brave and pathetic smile.
The lads looked back at her. A scrawny waif it was, tattered and unbelievably dirty. The tangled dark hair, apparently never touched by water or comb, fell over the
 thin face in a way that reminded Ian of shaggy Highland cattle—except that these eyes were unlike those of any cattle that ever lived. They were long and black-fringed, set at a slant in the narrow face, and strangely ringed. Around each black pupil was a wide circle of smoky blue, then a narrow one of lightish gray, and a third of deep and vivid blue. Astonishing eyes, almost alarming! Where had he seen them before?
While Ian stared in wonder and pity, Alex made a few further observations of his own. He noted the high cheekbones and the pointed chin and the wicked slant of black brows and the short upper lip—giving rather the effect, thought Alex, of a wicked elfin creature, or perhaps a witch. Amused but wary, he sat back and let his foster brother make up his mind. Ian wouldn’t have been noticing, of course, that the wee briosag threw herself into the path on purpose. Ian had the way of always believing the best of everyone.
Ian was aware of the cynical smile behind him. A nasty suspicious mind Alex had! It was a pity. What else could he be expecting of a poor wild waif like this? What sort of life must she have had? Then Ian remembered where he had seen her before: with that wicked old witch Mina. Och, the poor creature!
“’Tis hurt you are,” he said worriedly, to Kelpie’s relief. She had feared for a moment that she’d been too subtle altogether.
“Och, only a little,” she whispered, putting on a braw show of dreadful pain heroically borne.
“Now, do not be overdoing it,” drawled Alex.
Kelpie shot him a look which, had she been a properly qualified witch, would surely have caused him to break out with every loathsome disease known to mankind. Unfortunately the only effect of her venomous glare was that Alex’s smile broadened to an insulting chuckle. Och, what a beast he was, then, with the bony, freckled, jeering face of him, and the two jaunty tufts of red hair jutting upward just where horns ought to sprout! She was about to tell him so, and in great detail, but just in time she remembered her role and Ian, who was still showing his pity and dismay.
What a misfortune, he thought, that this should happen now, just when he and Alex were nearly home again after those long months away in Oxford, where he had been savagely homesick. They were about to get home early, and with very important news, and now this had to happen, not five miles from Glenfern.
“What shall we be doing with you at all?” he said. “We cannot just be leaving her here!” he added fiercely, turning on Lachlan, the blond ghillie, who, looking larger than usual on his short shaggy pony, had muttered something from behind.
“Give her a copper,” Alex said, laughing, “and see how quickly she’ll mend!”
Copper indeed! thought Kelpie. It was silver she was wanting. But she didn’t hide the gleam in her eyes quickly enough.
“I’ll show you,” said Alex. Slowly, tantalizingly, he drew a coin from his sporran and held it up. It gleamed silver, and Kelpie stared at it greedily. “See?” Alex chuckled and spun it toward her.
Quick as the flash of bright metal in the air, her brown hand shot out to catch it in flight—then dropped, and the coin fell noiselessly on the path. Kelpie sat staring first at it and then at her own shoulder with dismay that was, for a change, perfectly genuine.
“I—I am hurt!” she said with astonishment and then hastily snatched up the coin with her good left hand before they should change their minds.
“Not too hurt to be picking up the silver,” observed Alex, but the gibe lacked his earlier light tone. Ian had already dismounted and was touching rather gingerly the filthy rags covering the shoulder in question. The lass frankly stank.
This time Kelpie’s face showed an honest flicker of pain. “I think it will be sprained, or perhaps out of place,” Ian decided and looked at Alex.
Alex looked back at him. “Well, so. And where does she live, then? Where are her people? Perhaps Lachlan could be taking her home.”
Ian shrugged. “I think I’ve seen her with Old Mina and
 Black Bogle. Is that so?” he asked Kelpie, who nodded.
Alex raised his eyebrows, not in the least surprised. It was logical that she should belong to the nastiest witch in Scotland.
“Will they be coming along, then?” Ian inquired, and again Kelpie nodded, so bewildered by her unexpected hurt and the pain that was now shooting sharply through her shoulder that she couldn’t really think clearly at all.
A glum silence settled on them, broken only by furtive and disapproving mutters from Lachlan. His duty was to be protecting his young masters, and now here they were consorting with witches, and he not able to prevent them at all, at all. He crossed himself.
Ian sighed with relief when the bent figures of Mina and Bogle appeared up the loch-side. They would take care of their lass, and he and Alex could be away home.
But it wasn’t that easy. Mina, after taking in the situation at a glance, burst into lamentations and curses that caused the ruddy Lachlan to go pale. “And is it our poor lass you have harmed, wicked beasts that you are?” she wailed, while Bogle stood like a massive old tree in disconcerting silence. “Ocho, ocho, whatever shall we be doing now? May the Evil Eye fall on all your cattle, and the pox upon yourselves, uruisgean that you are!”
Ian himself recoiled, not from the curses, but from the evil that was in this horrible old woman. What a dreadful thing that a young lass should belong to such as these! It
 was wicked! And yet, what could he do? What could anyone do? Unhappily he stood and stroked his horse’s nose while Alex handled the matter.
Alex did handle it beautifully, with just the right mixture of indulgence, severity, and money. “’Twas no fault of ours that she fell, but altogether her own,” he told them. “Still, we are kind-hearted and willing to give you a bit of silver.” And when Mina would have demanded more, he fixed her with a stern hazel stare that caused her own pale, muddy eyes to waver and fall. It was all settled then, and Ian, feeling depressed, turned to mount his horse.
And then Black Bogle, perhaps feeling that they had been worsted in the bargaining, reached down and jerked Kelpie roughly to her feet by the injured arm.
The bit of brutality wrenched a choked cry of anguish from the girl. Ian whirled around, and Alex was off his horse in a flying leap and seized Bogle’s arm in a grip that had no gentleness whatever.
“Let go of her, you vile bully!” Alex snarled, red with fury, while Ian removed the sagging Kelpie from Bogle’s grasp. Lachlan, brandishing a steel dirk a foot long, loomed ominously behind....
When Kelpie was again able to take an active interest in events, she heard several voices: a cold, contemptuous one and a dangerously quiet one, Bogle’s growl and Mina’s whine, with dour grumblings in the background. More
 money changed hands, and then Mina bent over Kelpie, a cunning, complacent look on her face.
“The fine gentlemen will be taking you home with them to fix your hurt, and we will come to fetch you in the morning,” she said. “You will be properly grateful—and behave as I’d be wishing you to,” she added meaningly, and Kelpie nodded. She knew quite well what Mina meant—steal whatever she could lay hands on.
Then Ian’s concerned face was close to hers as he removed the grimy once-red sash from about her waist and gently bound the injured arm to her side. “And who’s knowing what further damage the brute will have done?” he muttered.
After that she found herself lifted to the fearful height of Alex’s horse and felt his hard young arm firmly around her. And at a slow walk they set along toward the fork in the path that led through the hills to Glenfern.
By the time they reached the top of the pass, Kelpie was feeling much better. She began to relish the adventure, and she stared with interest at the scene before her as they paused. Ian’s face was alight with joy, and Lachlan actually had tears in his eyes. A strange thing that was, she thought wonderingly, ignorant as she was of the love of the Highlander for his own hills. Kelpie knew no home but the ground she walked on.
The glen ran westward ahead of them, a long little valley cradled in hills that were just turning jewel-green
 with new bracken and showing dark with juniper and white here and there with birch trunks and unmelted snow. On the northern slope stood a weathered gray house which seemed large and grand indeed to Kelpie, and scattered along the glen were little rye-thatched shieling huts of unmortared stone, nestled into the hillside as if they had grown there. Farther down the glen was a wee loch of silver and blue, ringed with white birches and dotted with green islets.
“Loch nan Eilean—Lake of the Islands,” murmured Ian with his heart in his voice, and they rode on down the hill and along to the stables.
Alex lifted Kelpie down from the horse, looked at her oddly, and then with a grin forced open her left hand.
“You little devil!” He laughed. “You’ve picked my pocket!”

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