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3. Glenfern
 Kelpie perched gingerly on a fine brocaded chair near the door of the drawing room and gazed curiously at the scene before her. For house and glen had, on their arrival, erupted into a perfect frenzy of excitement, questions, tears, laughter, shouting, teasing, and hugging.
Dhé! And was this the way most families were behaving toward one another? Kelpie found it baffling and achingly strange, and vaguely annoying; and on the whole she was glad enough to have been forgotten for the moment while she recovered her usual cool head.
Talk rose and surged in a mixture of Gaelic and English. Cameron of Glenfern paced back and forth, the rusty-red and green of his kilt swinging about strong knees. Lady Glenfern, smiling and anxious at once, sat in a carved oak chair, her harebell-blue skirts billowing about her feet. Two small kilted lads pranced with excitement, a bittie
 lass clamored to be away up in Ian’s arms, and a bonnie lass in green, perhaps near Kelpie’s age, clung affectionately to both Ian and Alex at once.
Through the open window Kelpie could see Lachlan standing in a ring of laughing and chattering clansmen, and it began to dawn on her that this was no ordinary homecoming. The lads had been away to school in a far-off place in England and had returned quite unexpectedly with important news.
“We knew that King Charles had fled London and set up his court at Oxford,” said Glenfern. “And you wrote that Montrose was there, awaiting permission to come and raise an army in Scotland for the King. Now you say he’s coming?”
“Aye so,” said Alex cynically, “but a bit late, now that Argyll has got all the Lowlands and some of the Highlands well under the thumb of the cursed Covenant! Were you knowing that the Covenant army has crossed the border into England and will be fighting along with the Parliament army against the King?”
“Dhé!” exclaimed Glenfern in dismay. “Is it too late, then? Why was the King waiting so long?”
Alex shrugged. “Och, King Charles has a grand talent for not seeing what he doesn’t like, and for doing the wrong thing altogether or the right thing too late.”
Ian, whose loyalty was a simple and wholehearted thing, frowned at his foster brother. “He’s our king and
 a Stewart,” he reminded him and then turned to his father. “At any rate, we were thinking we’d best come home while we still could—and perhaps join Montrose when he arrives.”
None of this meant a great deal to Kelpie, so she began looking around with greedy wonder at the drawing room. Och, the glowing fine old silver on the sideboard, the great portraits on the tapestry-hung walls, the grand, massive carved furniture worn smooth as silk by time and polish, and the damask draperies at real glass windows! It wasn’t fair that some people should have so much! They should be sharing it, they should, and it was up to Kelpie, she felt, to see to the sharing.
A small silver snuff box was lying on a table near her; an instant later, it wasn’t. Kelpie’s long slanted eyes flickered with satisfaction, but before she could so much as thrust her loot under her rags, a redheaded figure bent over her and a sinewy long hand grasped her wrist gently but with great strength.
“Really, Ian,” observed Alex lazily, “you must be paying more attention to your guest.”
“Ssssss!” said Kelpie, again wishing she could cast the Evil Eye on him. But instead the eyes of the entire family were now on her.
“My sorrow!” said Ian ruefully. “I was forgetting!”
“A shame to all of us, and she injured!” declared his mother, standing up. “’Tis only for the night, you were
 saying, Ian? Well, so, we will see to the shoulder—but not in the house, I think,” she added, looking at Kelpie’s filthy clothes.
“No,” agreed her husband. “Come away out to the wee room in the stable, which will do nicely, I think.”
And Kelpie, who had expected to be beaten and turned out for her theft, stared. They were daft, all of them! But presently she forgot their daftness because of the surprisingly painful business of having her shoulder tended. She gritted her teeth and cursed vigorously, and after it was over she was glad enough to lie down on the small cot in the stable-room and be left alone to sleep.
Kelpie awoke with an oppressive sense of being trapped. Blindly hostile walls and ceiling surrounded her, shutting out sky and wind. In sudden panic she would have leaped up and fled to the safety of outside, but the first movement brought the sharp, forgotten pain of her shoulder. She gasped slightly, blinked, and noticed a pair of dark eyes regarding her from a flower face. It was the wee bit of a lassie she had seen in the big house, who stood watching Kelpie with grave sympathy. She was a tiny thing, her body slight as it rose from the primrose bulk of her long skirts, but Kelpie was disconcerted. The gaze seemed to understand too much.
“Poor lady!” said the mite, shaking her honey-brown head sorrowfully. “Is it a sore bad hurt, then?”
Kelpie said nothing.
Light danced into the dark eyes. “Wee Mairi will kiss it and make it well.” Quite undeterred by thoughts of cleanliness, the child leaned over the cot and dropped a soft kiss on the bandages covering Kelpie’s shoulder, and then another on her cheek. “Now it will stop hurting, just, and you can be happy,” she announced. Crooking a small finger in the old gesture of calling down a blessing from heaven, she turned and trotted out, leaving a shaken Kelpie behind her.
Nothing like this had ever happened to her before! Children had always clung to their mothers, frightened of the witch’s lass. No one at all had ever kissed her and Kelpie, to her dismay, found that her eyes had filled with tears. Och, this would never do at all! She must be hard and strong, or else how would she ever survive in the world she knew? She closed her treacherous eyes and concentrated on subduing the weakness.
The weakness was just about subdued when she became aware of more company in the room. This time it was a pair of seven or eight-year-old lads with penetrating blue eyes set in identical tanned faces which were alight with passionate curiosity.
Kelpie, still shaken and very much on the defensive from her encounter with Wee Mairi, glared at them with frank hostility. They went on staring at her with unwavering interest. Dhé! They were nearly as disconcerting as
 Wee Mairi—and there were two of them. Kelpie decided to take the offensive.
“Ssssss!” she hissed, baring her teeth and beetling her thick eyebrows menacingly. The bright eyes rounded slightly, but with increased curiosity rather than alarm.
“Were you crying?” asked one boy candidly.
“Are you a witch?” demanded the other.
Kelpie considered. It wasn’t in the least safe to be thought a witch. It could lead to all sorts of uncomfortable and fatal things. On the other hand, she had never known real safety in any case, and it would be pleasant to impress, or even frighten, these complacent lads.
“I am so,” she said with an intimidating scowl. “I can put curses on ye, or the Evil Eye whatever.”
They were unintimidated. “Show us!” suggested one hopefully.
“Alex was saying you cannot,” challenged the other.
“Och, just you wait!” said Kelpie darkly. “I will be fixing that Alex as ever was!”
“What will you do to him?” persisted the skeptic with morbid curiosity.
“What is your name?” asked his twin.
“Kelpie!” said she in triumph, and at last she had impressed them. For every Highland child knew that a Kelpie was a kind of fairy person, a water witch who wails at night by lochs and rivers for a victim, or cries for admittance at shuttered windows.
“I don’t believe it,” said the skeptical twin, but he said it halfheartedly.
“Ronald! Donald!” The green-frocked lass who was Kelpie’s age stood in the doorway, with a big-boned young woman behind her carrying a tray. “Och, naughty lads! Ye shouldn’t be bothering in here, and well ye know it!”
“She’s a witch, and a kelpie too,” reported one of them, unabashed.
“At least she says so, but we haven’t seen her put a spell yet,” added the other. “When will you be showing us one?”
The young woman nearly dropped her tray as she hastily tried to make the sign of the cross. Her young mistress looked faintly alarmed but stood her ground. “Be away, now,” she told the twins. “I’ll take that, Fiona.” She took the tray from the quaking Fiona and set it on a stool beside Kelpie’s cot.
“We thought you’d be waking up hungry,” she said and then looked at Kelpie apologetically, as if ashamed of her own good fortune and pretty clothes. “My name is Eithne,” she added, pronouncing it “Ay-na,” with the Highland lilt in her voice. “And the twins must not be saying such things—about your being a witch, I mean. Are you?” she asked, overcome by curiosity.
Kelpie already had hand and mouth full of cold venison
 pie and new-baked bannocks and had no intention of risking the rest of the food. She shook her head firmly and put on her most innocent and helpless expression.
“Och, no!” she mumbled truthfully around her bannock. “Not I!”
At this moment a gaunt black cat sidled through the open door, spat at Fiona, and with a joyful yowl leaped right on top of Kelpie. This was unfortunate, since black cats were known to have a fondness for witches.
Fiona backed up to the door, crossing herself furiously, and Eithne looked awed. “Dhé!” she whispered. “Dubh has never done that before for anyone!”
Kelpie looked at Dubh with a mixture of pleasure and irritation. She liked cats, but this one had timed his appearance poorly.
Dubh looked back at her, great topaz eyes glowing into hers steadily and inscrutably, and his purring filled the room.
“He is wanting some food,” suggested Kelpie lamely. But Dubh didn’t show the slightest interest in her meal. Instead, he arranged himself comfortably on top of her legs.
“Animals are always liking me,” Kelpie went on with better success. Eithne’s face brightened and cleared. Of course! And if animals liked a person, it was a sure sign that the person was to be trusted. Eithne, like her brother,
 wanted to think the best of everyone, especially of those whom life seemed to have treated unfairly. Besides, Kelpie interested her.
Presently she was seated on the edge of the cot, listening to the lurid tale of Kelpie’s life and even being shown some of the scars and bruises on the thin shoulders and back. Eithne was hot and shaking with shocked indignation. It was perfectly dreadful, appalling!
And Kelpie, rising to great tragic heights, played up to the most sympathetic audience she had ever had. The long ringed eyes fixed on Eithne’s brown ones were soft and luminous and oh, so innocent.
But the “innocent” eyes reminded Alex of Dubh’s, as he entered the room and got a good view of both pairs. He hadn’t been easy in his mind about Eithne’s being in here so long. Ringed eyes like that weren’t canny. The lass might well be a witch, at that, though likely too young to be very dangerous. All the same, his foster sister must be protected.
“Come away from her and out of here!” he ordered Eithne brusquely.
He should have known better. She whirled on him, round chin jutting out indignantly. “And will you be judging her unfairly, like all the villagers and all?” Eithne demanded. “Don’t deny it, Alex MacDonald! You’re thinking hard, suspicious things about her this very minute!”
Alex’s sunburned face looked disconcerted at this sudden
 attack, but only for an instant. “Oh, aye,” he agreed cheerfully. “I am that. And why wouldn’t I be, with the many reasons she’s given me already? Has she put a spell on you, m’eudail? Best be away to the house and see if Catriona can break it.”
Eithne stamped her foot, but it wasn’t easy to find a retort. “You—you talk like a Covenanter!” she finally flung at him scathingly and flounced out in a swirl of petticoats, Fiona behind her.
Alex scratched his red head, more confounded by her passion than by her rather shaky logic. He grinned wryly at Kelpie, who looked back at him in triumph.
“Poor innocent waif!” he jeered, putting one foot up on the edge of the cot, where Dubh spat at it. He rested an elbow on his kilted knee and stared at Kelpie with interest. She stared back through slitted eyes.
“Before you’re up and away again,” he said, casually, “I’ve a wee word to be saying to you, and it is this. Unlike Ian and Eithne, I’ve a nasty suspicious mind, I have.” He wagged his head sadly. “And I’ve a picture in my head of you away off tomorrow bearing every movable thing in the glen hid in your rags, and we sitting here without so much as a stick of furniture left to us.”
“Indeed, and I would never be doing such a thing!” cried Kelpie indignantly. “How could I be carrying it all?”
Alex laughed outright. Kelpie scowled. She had been
 cursed and beaten often enough, but she had never before been laughed at, and she didn’t like it.
Alex stopped laughing and grinned at her. “Well, so, and I’ve a soft heart in me, so I’ll be doing nothing about such matters as pocket-picking or a certain snuff box, nor will anyone else, I think. But”—and he leaned forward a little—“should anything else just happen to be missing when you leave, then you’ll be finding the hand of every Cameron and MacDonald, all through the Great Glen and Lochaber from Loch Leven to Loch Ness, turned against you.”
Kelpie showed sharp white teeth in a defiant laugh. “Are you thinking I’ve never heard threats before?”
“Aye, I’m sure you have, and most unpleasant ones,” retorted Alex. “But have you ever had one like this carried out, and two entire clans arrayed against you, and every ghillie on the watch?”
Kelpie narrowed her eyes. He had her, just! And to have the Great Glen and Lochaber closed against them would be a sore handicap indeed.
“Sssss!” said Kelpie with deep sincerity.
Alex grinned again. “I’m not done,” he said briskly. “It seems that my foster sister has given you her friendship. You’re not deserving it, of course, but for Eithne that’s good enough reason for giving it. Now, I am fond of Eithne, and if you should be taking advantage of her or hurting her in any way, I shall see to it that you are punished—even
 if I must denounce you as a witch. Do you understand?”
It was a fearful threat, and Kelpie, used to bluster and invective, was unnerved by his very calm.
“Nathrach!” She spat “Remember, witches can curse! Shall I be putting the Evil Eye on you?” And she widened her slanted eyes until the dark and light rings were smoldering circles.
Alex laughed again, infuriatingly. “And if you haven’t already put the Evil Eye on me at least three times today, it must be that you have not got it at all. For you’ve wanted to, haven’t you? No, I’ll wager you cannot do it.”
“Mina can,” muttered Kelpie sulkily.
“Now that I’ll believe,” he agreed readily. “But even the Evil Eye wouldn’t save the two of you from being burned as witches, would it?”
Och, and he was so sure of himself! Kelpie saw suddenly that great cunning and apparent submission were her best weapons. “And if I am keeping the bargain?” she hinted, looking at his pocket.
“We’ve no bargain.” Alex corrected her mildly. “I’m no such fool. It’s just that I’ve been telling you in a friendly way what will happen if you should be stealing anything or hurting Eithne, that’s all.” And he sauntered out, his kilt swinging jauntily about his brown knees.

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