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15. Witch Hunt
 An uneasy peace brooded over the whole of Perth the next day. Not only the citizens but also their Gaelic conquerors tended to feel slightly abused, and they spent the morning glooming at one another. By noon the high Celtic spirits had risen again in the conquerors, and a spirit of mischief took over. They released prisoners from stocks and jails (most of them guilty of such crimes as failing to attend kirk), and some of the Irish MacDonalds began preaching back at the dour, hell-spouting Calvinist preachers.
But this palled too, and presently a group of young and adventurous Highlanders decided just to go out and have a wee look round the neighboring countryside. Archie and Ranald came hunting Alex and Ian, who were delighted. Lachlan firmly attached himself to the party, with strict
 orders from Maeve not to be letting Mac ’ic Ian do anything to start his cut bleeding afresh.
At this point Kelpie announced that she would just go too. Ranald looked at her dubiously, but Archie laughed. “And why ever not?” he demanded. “The women do full share of work, what with cooking and nursing, and should have a bit of fun when they can. Will you come too, Maeve?”
Maeve hesitated, glared at Kelpie, and declined. And the party, some dozen or fifteen altogether, set off.
“Is Kelpie your true name?” demanded Archie as they started west across the sweep of moor. He grinned at her engagingly. “It wouldn’t be every day a body could have a kelpie as mascot. Tell me,” he asked, “have I seen you turn a soft eye upon Ian? Could you not be giving him a wee love potion?”
Kelpie smiled enigmatically and declined to answer. But she turned the idea over in her mind.
It was a lovely day, this second of September. The birches were beginning to yellow and the bracken to turn rusty underneath. Rowan trees flaunted clumps of brilliant red-orange berries in the sun; and only now and again did a cloud shadow glide silently over the rosy-heathered swelling ground, patching it with somber purple. Kelpie tied her plaidie around her waist, for she would not be needing it until the chill of evening.
They walked on, with the long, tireless Highland stride,
 chattering and laughing with the upsurge of spirits that was a normal reaction from the fear and triumph of yesterday.
“And did you get your dozen men, Alex?” inquired the fair-haired Ranald. “I saw you once cutting down an armored musketeer twice your size, and glad I was to be fighting with and not against you.”
Alex’s red brows slanted upward. “Dhé!” he said. “I was so frighted I just held out my sword, and it seems the enemy was obliging enough to run into it. ’Twas Ian was the braw fighter, and none better in Scotland. It was he saved me more than once.”
“Only so that you could be saving me, Alex avic,” retorted Ian, “and Lachlan saving the both of us,” he added. “Besides, it was I was so scared I could only think to run away.”
“And since you were headed for Perth, already, the only thing to do was just cut your way through the face of the enemy,” finished Archie with bland seriousness.
Ian nodded gravely. “That was the way of it. I was too frightened to think of turning around.”
And so they went on, with the same old bantering Kelpie had heard so often at Glenfern, and each of them claiming to have been more frightened than any of the rest. Kelpie listened with an odd feeling of contentment. This brotherhood, this easy straight-faced teasing which was an unspoken love between friends, was a warm and
 joyous thing to hear—for all that it was dangerous to have it. There was wistfulness in her heart as she walked silently among the cheerful group, and a shadow on her face.
Presently they came to a river and a small gray town on the near side. “I doubt they’ll love us there,” predicted a tall lad in Duncan kilt, “but perhaps their good Lowland sense of business will make them willing to sell us a pint or two of ale—or even good uisghebaugh, if there is such a thing outside of the Highlands.”
It was a popular suggestion, and the long Highland strides became even longer, so that Kelpie—though she denied it—had to stretch her own to keep up. As they drew near the cluster of stone houses with the somber square kirk in the center, she frowned a little. A dour, gloomy place it was! Not that it looked different, really, from other towns, but there was a bad feel to it. None of the others seemed to notice, but Kelpie’s bones were wary.
There seemed to be very few people about. Perhaps most of them had seen the Highlanders coming and gone inside. The few folk they did meet cast looks of hate at the kilted barbarians—which the barbarians, secure in the safety of numbers and reputation, found rather amusing.
An innkeeper sourly sold them ale, with black looks thrown in for good measure. “Och, wouldn’t he like to poison it, just!” said Alex in Gaelic as Kelpie refused the ale Ian offered her. It might not actually be poisoned, but
 it could have an evil spell on it, all the same. She said so.
“If your spells haven’t worked, I doubt anyone’s could!” Alex taunted her. “For you’ve tried hard enough, haven’t you?”
Kelpie glowered from under her thick lashes. Had he seen her, then, all that while at Blair Atholl? Or was it just his evil way of always knowing what she was thinking? She had begun to feel a trifle more friendly since learning that he had saved Ian yesterday instead of cutting him down. But once again Alex was taking the offensive.
Alex had known what she was about at Blair Atholl, and it had amused him, in a way—once he was sure her spells were impotent. But just now, for some reason, all her hatred for him was rankling, and he was in the mood to goad her a bit for her irritating ways—although he was not at all sure why she got under his skin so easily. So he deliberately treated her to his most satirical grin. “And didn’t your hex work at all, poor lass?” he inquired sympathetically.
Kelpie started to hiss at him, but Ian was looking at her oddly. He would not take it kindly that she had tried to hex his foster brother, even though it was himself she was trying to protect. And she wanted to keep Ian’s good will.
Her lip drooped. “Always and always you will be thinking evil of me, Alex MacDonald!” she lamented. “You will be trying to make everyone hate me, and never giving me
 the chance at all to be better, no matter how I might try.”
The other lads were listening to all this with great interest, and they now regarded Alex with severity, and Kelpie with sympathy. But it was Ian’s sympathy she wanted—and got.
“’Tis true enough, Alex,” he said accusingly. “You’ve ever thought the worst of the poor lass, and her only sin is in being what she was taught to be. How could she ever change with you condemning her in advance?”
A rare blaze of rage swept over Alex. “Dhiaoul! ’Tis a fool you are, Ian!” And suddenly he was quarreling—it was incredible—with his foster brother, dearer than kin, and over a young rogue of a gypsy lass not worth a hair on Ian’s head! And yet the quarrel went on and on.
Kelpie had never seen them angry at each other before, and she was frightened. It was the town had done it! The town was filled with hate and malice and had put a spell on them all! And she, who should be pleased at seeing Ian turn from Alex, found that she couldn’t enjoy it. She couldn’t even bear to listen. She slipped out of the tavern with their angry words drifting after her.
The streets were no longer empty. A crowd was streaming out of the four-square meeting house and along toward the town square, and it was the sort of crowd she knew all too well. Their faces held a savage and bloodthirsty fanaticism, and this was not a mob looking for a victim, but one which had found one. It was someone, no doubt,
 who had committed the sin of breaking the Sabbath, or dancing, or perhaps chancing to glance at a neighbor’s cow before it fell ill. Och, it was a witch trial they had been having! No knowing was it a real witch or not, nor would it matter; for to be accused was to be condemned.
“Burn them!” the crowd growled a............
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