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13. The Hexing of Alex
 The immediate effect of Montrose’s arrival was that of a most powerful magic charm. It could not have been more telling had he come with a full army at his back instead of just one man, his cousin Patrick. The King’s standard was raised then and there on the hillside and saluted with a flourish of trumpets, and cheers, and triumphantly skirling bagpipes. And some of the clans who had been hovering about waiting to attack the Irish Highlander Antrim now came to join the King’s Lieutenant, Montrose—including Stewart of Atholl.
Kelpie decided to stay for a while. Things looked interesting. She was safer here than wandering alone. Besides, she liked Ian’s company, even if it meant putting up with Alex. She even thought that she just might persuade Ian to guard himself against his precious foster brother, though she had not much hope of this, Ian being so stubbornly
 trustful. Besides, since she had “seen” the thing in the loch, it would surely happen, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
For a while, staying with the army meant simply staying right there where it was. Nothing much seemed to be happening. Clans—or, more often, bits of them—drifted in. Kelpie roamed where she liked, usually with the lads and their watchful ghillie, Lachlan, exchanging insults with Alex and hostile silence with Lachlan and his wife Maeve, who had no use for her whatever and made no secret of it.
She also spent some of her time gazing speculatively at the tall, gaunt woman whom she had noticed the first day she arrived. The woman would stare for hours into space, a black, brooding look on her face, her hands twisting together as if she were wringing someone’s neck—or perhaps casting a new kind of spell. A bulky Gordon plaidie covered her broad shoulders, and, though she was not old, there was the beginning of gray at her dark temples, and there were strong, grim lines along her mouth. Her eyes were deep-set and a little alarming, and Kelpie wondered whether she might be a witch. She looked it. Perhaps she had been tortured by witch-hunters and had somehow escaped? Kelpie considered approaching her about learning the Evil Eye, but the woman’s fierceness made her hesitate. She might get a curse put on herself for her boldness, and she could do fine without that.
The coppery hills began to turn purple with the blooming of the heather. It rained. No more was heard of Argyll, but there were rumors that the enemy commander, Lord Elcho, was in Perth with an army of seven thousand and looking with considerable interest toward Blair Atholl. “And we with only two thousand men,” commented Alex cheerfully.
“Ou, aye,” agreed Ian with a grin. “But just think of our fine store of weapons!” Lachlan looked sour, and Kelpie raised a derisive eyebrow.
“Artillery?” mused Alex. “None.”
“Cavalry—three old horses, one of them lame,” chanted Ian.
“Guns—some old-fashioned matchlocks, and all the ammunition we could be needing to shoot a third of them for one round each.”
“And then,” finished Ian in triumph, “just in case we’re needing them, there’s a few swords, claymores, and battleaxes—not to mention the sgian dhu” he added, reaching down to tap the wee dirk where it nestled in his stocking, just on the outside of his right knee.
“And”—Alex chuckled with ironic optimism—“Montrose has been saying that the enemy has plenty of weapons, and those of us without can just help ourselves once the fighting has started.”
Kelpie looked at them. There was, she felt, a definite limit to the things a body should be joking about. She said
 so. And Lachlan, who felt personally responsible for the safety of Ian and Alex, for once agreed with her.
And now came Maeve, whose loyalty was all toward Mac ’ic Ian, heir to Glenfern (for Master Alex, although a foster son, was not actually a Cameron at all). Her orange hair gleamed even in the cloud-filtered sun, and she addressed herself to Ian.
“Food will be ready,” she said and crossed herself as she looked at Kelpie. As they all started toward the rowan tree they called home, she added, half under her breath, “Herself eats enough, whatever, but will never be doing any cooking.”
“You were not liking my cooking,” observed Kelpie complacently. It was no accident that the one meal she had produced, at Alex’ insistence, had been perfectly awful.
“Dhé, no!” Ian agreed, laughing. “You said she was trying to poison us, Maeve. You’d not be wanting to try that again, would you?”
“’Tis gey queer,” retorted Maeve, “for a gypsy not to be able to cook over an open fire.”
Ian looked at Kelpie, his keen mind as usual fighting with his desire to believe the best of people. Alex began to laugh. “Och!” he exclaimed ruefully. “And I the one who was never going to be fooled by her again!”
Kelpie saw an opening. “Gypsy taste will be different from yours,” she announced blandly. “When I was first stolen, it was a dreadful time I had getting used to gypsy
 food! It was nearly starving I was, for a while.” Her blue ringed eyes widened with the picture of a poor wee bairn pining away with hunger.
Lachlan snorted.
“Ou, the pity of it!” said Alex mournfully, his angular face looking almost tender. “And you used to royal food, and all. I’ve wondered, just, whether ’tis yourself was the princess stolen from our King and Queen all those long years ago when they visited the Highlands.”
For a minute Kelpie was fooled. Her eyes were a smoky blue blaze as visions of royal grandeur hurtled through her mind. Of course! Why not?
“For shame, Alex,” said Ian reproachfully. “She’s nearly believing it.”
Kelpie jerked out of her dream and hissed venomously at Alex, who chuckled impenitently and wondered how she would try to get even this time.
The next day Kelpie went down to the burn, where she had noticed that the soil had a sticky, claylike quality. There she sat for some time, screened by broom and high bracken, and slowly shaped a small clay figure—not that it looked much like Alex, she being no artist. In fact, she admitted, a body could barely tell that it was supposed to be human at all. But perhaps the intent was the main thing. If only she could get hold of a bit of his hair or a fingernail—but Kelpie had had enough of hair-stealing for a while, particularly red hair. Anyway, Alex was much
 too canny. She had never yet managed to steal anything from him without being caught. No, she would just have to be trying her hex without it.
There were brambles conveniently near. Kelpie picked a long thorn, regarded her clay figure thoughtfully, and then plunged the thorn deep into the area where the stomach might be expected to be.
Then she wrapped up the hex figure, went back to the rowan tree, and began to watch Alex hopefully.
Two days passed, but if he had any pains in his stomach, he concealed them very well. Kelpie added a second thorn to the figure, this time in the head, and again waited. By rights, his brains ought to start melting away, but she must not be doing it right, for Alex’s brains remained as uncomfortably keen as ever. He didn’t even get a headache.
Kelpie began looking wistfully at the tall, gaunt woman again. If she was a witch, she could undoubtedly help. And yet—Kelpie noticed that the men of the army did not treat her at all as a witch. Far from shun............
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