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22. The Last Word
 For a moment even the daybreak seemed to pause over the Highlands. The thin sky of morning lighted a wan world of muted gray and white and purple with an eerie, ghostlike tone. There was no sound outside the ruined shelter with its circle of sickly firelight, and for just an instant there was no sound even there.
Alex’s face seemed carved in an odd expression of exultation and anguish combined, and his eyes fixed upon her as if they would never leave. But Kelpie did not see this, for her own eyes were fixed defiantly upon Argyll, waiting.
She had not long to wait. “The witch!” he whispered, and his eyes blazed in pale fury. “And in her Ladyship’s stolen clothes!” he added with new outrage.
Alex laughed, and his laughter was delighted, exasperated—and somehow sad. He moved to stand beside
 Kelpie. “Och,” he said, “and isn’t it just the way you will be overdoing things? I would have had you remain unprincipled and live. I would have called you liar and saved you yet. But you must appear in Lady Argyll’s stolen clothes and seal your doom—and knowing it!” His eyes were stricken, exultant, tender; but Kelpie only looked at him dazedly. All of it was beyond her understanding, except that she had doomed herself irrevocably by her own madness, and the thing inside said it must be so.
Argyll was breathing hard, taut with hatred; his menace was overwhelming. “Shoot the man now,” he said between his teeth, “but bind the witch and take her aboard the galley. I will try her and burn her when this business with Montrose is over.”
And then all Lochaber seemed to explode at once. Shots echoed from Ben Nevis just as Alex went quite berserk. His face was as she had seen it in the witch-hunting town, jutted with sharp angles of rage. He hurled himself against Argyll, the full force of his hard shoulder driving into the Campbell’s midsection; and down they went. The others rushed forward with yells, and from the castle came more yells and a new volley of shots.
Hamish was pulling his chief from under Alex and shouting, “The battle has started!” Someone kicked Alex brutally in the head, and Kelpie flung herself at the culprit, using both teeth and nails, and was herself flung to the
 ground, while still another voice shouted, “Get you to the galley, Mac Cailein Mor!”
Kelpie, dazed from her fall, saw Argyll, staggering and winded, clutching his shoulder and croaking contradictions. “Shoot them! Take the witch on board! I’ll burn them both! Shoot them at once!” Alex struggled up and tried to shield Kelpie with his own body as someone raised a gun. She heard a wild shriek of pipes from the direction of Ben Nevis, more shots and more yells. And then came a blaze of pain, and nothing at all.
She lay for a while without opening her eyes, trying to decide whether she was really alive. It seemed quite unlikely. But on the other hand, except for a sore pain in her head and a hot, smoldering one in her body, this did not seem like Hell. For one thing, she seemed to be in a soft bed with sheets, and surely Hell would never provide such things. She decided to open her eyes and find out.
Opening her eyes did not help much, but only added to her confusion. For was not this one of the bedrooms at Glenfern, which she had helped often enough to clean? And whatever could she be doing here at all? Clearly she could not be here—but how was it that a stout and smiling Marsali seemed to be feeding her beef broth? Och, it was too much effort to worry about it! She swallowed the broth, closed her eyes, and slept again. The next time she awoke, it was to morning light, and she felt much stronger.
There was a small movement to the left of the bed, and Kelpie slowly focused her eyes toward it. A flower face lighted and moved closer. “Och, my Kelpie!” whispered Wee Mairi, radiant. “You’ve come away back to me!”
Hot tears stung Kelpie’s eyes. She closed them and moved her left hand gropingly and felt a small warm one creep into it. Och, the wee love! The tears slid down her cheeks.
There was more movement presently, and then Ronald’s voice asking with deep interest, “Is she awake yet?”
“Of course she is, or how else could she be weeping?” demanded his twin scornfully. “Kelpie, is it hurting you are? Can you open your eyes, Kelpie? Fiona, will you run to tell Mother she is awake?”
Kelpie opened her eyes mistily and saw the rosy, concerned faces over her. Fiona, crossing herself as usual, appeared beyond them and then disappeared again. Donald vanished too, while Kelpie—still gripping Wee Mairi’s hand—closed her eyes again and tried to sort out the confusion of her thoughts. Presently there was a slight denting of the bed near her elbow.
“I’ve brought Dubh,” announced Donald cheerfully. “We decided before that you were not a witch, but now Alex says you are, but a nice one; and I was thinking, if Dubh is still liking you, perhaps Alex is right.”
Kelpie wrinkled her forehead as Dubh spat nastily at Donald. Alex? Alex at Glenfern? Dubh regarded her with
 slitted yellow eyes and then draped himself in a scraggy, purring fur piece across her shoulder. “Alex?” said Kelpie aloud, puzzled.
“Ou, aye, and he sore hurt, too.” Ronald nodded. “But he is better now. Kelpie, when you are well, will you tell us about your adventures? Why were you leaving Glenfern at all, Kelpie? Do you like your Grannie Witchie, or was it that you were afraid of her, as Father said? Is she truly a witch, Kelpie? Where is she the now? Are you going to stay with us? Wee Mairi says you love her. Do you, Kelpie?”
The small hand in Kelpie’s stirred. “Aye so!” piped Wee Mairi indignantly. “My Kelpie does love me!”
“Aye,” confessed Kelpie, her defenses quite down. “But,” she went on incredulously, “is Alex truly here? At Glenfern?”
“Of course,” said Donald. “He has been telling us of his adventures too, and how Montrose was sending him on a special important mission to talk to clan chiefs and see if Lochiel would join the army, and all; and that was why he was alone and caught by the Campbells. But we do not know why you were there at all.” He paused, head tilted hopefully to one side.
But Kelpie, more and more bewildered, was in no state to tell stories. “Alex?” she repeated stupidly.
“Himself.” It was his voice, with something new in the laughter of it. Suddenly the room was full of people.
 Eithne and Lady Glenfern smiled at her from the foot of the bed, and Alex himself was coming slowly across the floor. There was a bandage round his head, and he leaned heavily on Glenfern and Ian.
Och, it made no sense at all! Kelpie closed her eyes again and moved her head fretfully.
“Alex has told us what you did,” said Glenfern. “It is at such times that a person’s true character comes forth.” He smiled down at her warmly. “Let you know now, Kelpie, that you will always have a home at Glenfern, and our love; and for saving Alex we owe you a debt that we can never pay.”
Kelpie’s puzzlement deepened. Dhé! It must be that Ian had never known that it was Alex who struck him down! In the confusion, perhaps herself was the only one who had really seen it. It must be so, for no other explanation made sense. Perhaps Archie hadn’t known either, and she had merely read meanings into his words that evening in the camp. Her blue eyes flew open and met Alex’s quizzical ones. What an actor he was, then, behaving as if nothing had happened! But she could tell them what had happened, and Alex knew it, and yet here he stood quite at ease.
They stared at each other for a long, searching moment, and a look of baffled frustration came to both faces. And then Kelpie closed her eyes once again, too weak to cope
 with such a puzzle or even to decide whether or no she should tell Ian what his foster brother had done.
“Dhé, and she’ll be confused enough, poor water witch!” The old teasing note in Alex’s voice overlaid a new tenderness. “Just be settling me in a chair by the bed, and then away out, the rest of you, whilst I tell her the end of our adventure.”
Presently the room was silent again, except for Dubh’s purring. Conscious of a presence beside the bed, Kelpie opened a cautious eye again after a minute and found the hazel eyes fixed on her broodingly.
“Och so,” he murmured, shaking his head sadly. “I had thought my cousin Cecily unpredictable and you an open book, with your devious wiles, and so candidly unprincipled. And then—you put a spell on me, with the ringed witch-eyes in your head. You baffled me, you haunted me, you eluded me, leaving me forever two jumps behind and never knowing what to think at all. Aye me, I suppose I shall never understand you at all, and that is my fate and destiny.”
Kelpie slowly progressed from bewilderment to indignation. Only the last words had any meaning whatever, and that was little enough.
“I!” she fumed, causing Dubh to dig in a protesting claw. “It is you who make no sense at all, and I never knowing what to think!”
Alex grinned ruefully. “At least we are even, then. Are you wanting to know what has happened since Argyll’s men put bullets in the both of us?”
Kelpie nodded.
“Well, then, were you hearing the start of the battle, just as our own wee war was getting exciting?” asked Alex. She nodded again, content to lie still and listen. “Well,” he went on, “it was the battle that saved us, for Argyll rushed off to the safety of his galley, and his men left us for dead—and very nearly right they were. And so we lay unknowing while Montrose won a great victory over an army twice his size. It was another Tippermuir, and this time the fighting force of the Campbells is crippled for years to come. Some say as many as fifteen hundred were slain, and the rest taken prisoner or chased back to their own country, and our men on their heels all the way to Lundavra. I think it will be another generation, Kelpie, before Clan Campbell can come raiding other clans again—and a good blow for the King’s cause as well,” he added, almost as an afterthought. Loyal to the king t............
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