Macalisters hope, p.1

MacAlister's Hope, page 1

 part  #1.50 of  Kilmartin Glen Series


MacAlister's Hope

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MacAlister's Hope

  MacAlister's Hope

  a Kilmartin Glen novella

  by Laurin Wittig

  MacAlister's Hope, a Kilmartin Glen Novella by Laurin Wittig

  Published by Laurin Wittig

  COPYRIGHT © Laurin Wittig 2014

  ISBN 9780989237918

  ISBN 0989237915

  1st Edition, April 2014 in The Winter Stone anthology

  2nd Edition, October 2014

  Produced with Typesetter

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced or transmitted in any manner whatsoever, electronically, in print, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Laurin Wittig, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  This one is for all of my wonderful readers who love Wee Fia as much as I do.


  Title Page
















  About the Author

  Books By Laurin Wittig

  The Legend of The Winter Stone

  Once upon a time, in a place time forgot, the last Pict King was betrayed by one he loved. Mourning his ignoble death, the Mother of Winter wept with grief, her icy tears shattering as they fell to earth. One did not. This pale stone she gave to the Guardians of the Old Ways, so that by its light all truths might be known.

  This is the tale of the Winter Stone…

  Chapter One

  The Highlands, 1321

  Fia MacLachlan swore under her breath, then tried to remember what it was like to be ten and three. “Mairi, love,” she said to her foster sister, as Fia ground herbs together in her mortar, “you cannot learn herb lore by picking petals off of every dried flower I have in this stillroom.”

  Mairi looked at her with dreamy eyes. “What?”

  Fia smiled at the girl who was already taller than her, though ’twas not hard to top Fia’s petite height. Sweet Mairi, who she’d known since the day she was born, was swiftly becoming a woman. It made Fia feel old, though she was only ten and nine.

  “Sweetling, you need to pay attention to this preparation.” She held the stone mortar up, illuminating it with the light from a lantern that hung down overhead so Mairi could see how powdery the dried herbs had become. “I ken you have the Lamont healing gift, but there are times herbs and prayers can serve just as well.” At least that’s what Mairi’s mum, Elena, had told Fia again and again. Fia wasn’t so sure, but she had promised to train Mairi and she would not break that promise.

  “But herb lore is so tedious, and we have you for it anyway. I do not understand why I will ever need it.” She grinned at Fia then and changed the subject. “Did you see Angus smiling at me last night at the evening meal?”

  “Aye,” but only because Mairi had been staring at the lad across the entire length of the great hall for the brief time it took him to wolf down his dinner, then bolt from the hall with a pack of other boys. “Your da noticed, too.”

  “That must be why Angus hurried away before I was done eating. You ken they used to call Da the Devil, aye? I think he uses that reputation to scare the lads away from me.”

  “I remember.” Fia pushed the wayward strands of her pale yellow hair out of her eyes and continued to grind the herbs to an even finer powder. “I used to find him fearsome, too, until your mum showed me what a soft heart he has.”

  Mairi giggled. “Aye, he does, especially for his ‘wee lasses’.”

  Fia smiled, remembering how proud Mairi’s da was each time another daughter had been brought into the world. He’d held each of his three daughters in the crook of his arm within an hour of her birth, cooing and grinning at each of them while admiring their perfect little fingers and strong grips. The man was besotted with his wife and his children. Fia was, too, and enjoyed taking up her role as something between a big sister and an aunt with the girls. And now ’twas only another month or so before they all would learn if the next bairn would be another daughter, or perhaps, this time, a son.

  “Do you think Da approves of Angus?” Mairi said, pulling Fia back from her wandering memories.

  Fia could see hope in Mairi’s eyes. She set the mortar down on her worktable and turned to face the girl. “’Tis a bit early to be thinking of such things, is it not? Have you even spoken to the lad?”

  “Aye…” she looked down at her feet. “Well, not in a few years.”

  Fia reached out and tipped Mairi’s chin up with her finger so the lass had to look at her. “Perhaps that is a good place to start? Talk to him. Find out if you even like the man he is becoming. After you decide for yourself, then will be the time to find out what your da and your mum think of him.”

  “You sound just like Mum.” Mairi sighed and returned to plucking petals, watching as each one fluttered to the hard dirt floor. At this rate Fia would have no calendula for her tinctures and salves until late next spring when it bloomed again.

  “I shall take that as a fine complement. Your mum is the wisest woman I know. Now, fetch me some fresh water, will you sweetling? When you bring it I shall show you how to make a proper brew, then we shall take it to your mum.”

  Mairi took the bucket Fia held out for her and slowly turned to leave the stillroom.

  “Do not forget your task!” Fia called after the girl as she slowly walked away, humming quietly.

  Fia shook her head and could not help but smile at Mairi’s infatuation. She was a lucky girl, loved by her mum and her da. Safe, even now that the Lamont gift had come to her, for her parents would never let harm near any of their daughters. She was carefree and, so far at least, had never suffered loss, not even the loss of Angus’s potential affections. Fia could easily be envious of Mairi, but she couldn’t help but be happy that the same foster parents who had taken Fia in when she was only five, were raising such a happy brood of daughters.

  And someday, not too far in the future, Mairi would turn her attention to her gift. She would work alongside her mum—the niggling thought “if Elena survived the birth” intruded into Fia’s happy vision of the future—learning how to use that gift, and Fia would assist her as best she could, as she assisted Elena now.

  But Fia knew she would never be as good a healer as either of them.

  She shook off the melancholy thoughts. She was good at what she did and that was enough. ‘Twould do no good to wish for things that could not be.

  She returned to the herbs, adding a little more dried raspberry leaf to the mortar to help with the swelling all pregnant women seemed to suffer from, and efficiently ground it into power. She took a square of linen and laid it on the worktable, then carefully poured the ground herbs into the center of it. With the deftness of long habit, she pulled the corners of the linen up to form a small pouch, then wound a strand of thread about it to close it off, leaving a long tail to make it easier to remove it from the pot when ’twas finished steeping.

  When she was satisfied with that one, she began again, moving faster now that she wasn’t trying to teach Mairi how ’twas done. As she finished each pouch of herbs, worry tried to overcome F
ia, as it always did when Elena was pregnant. Elena’s pregnancies never failed to bring back Fia’s memory of losing her own mum in childbirth, creating a sharp loneliness and longing deep within her heart. She could not bear the thought that she might also lose her foster-mum the same way, anymore than she could bear the thought of Mairi and her sisters suffering the same loss.

  So she kept busy doing the only thing she could—preparing every brew, tincture, and salve she could think of that might ease the pregnancy and delivery of Elena’s bairn. And she would train Mairi as best she could, at least that would keep the two of them busy, keeping worry at bay at least some of the time. And if something should happen to Elena… She swallowed hard. If something should happen, then she would do whatever she could for Mairi, her da, and her sisters.

  Quickly Fia assembled another brew recipe, crushed the herbs efficiently, and was reaching for another square of linen when shouts from the bailey filtered into her quiet stillroom. Curious, and in need of something more distracting than her preparations, she wiped her herb-dusty hands on her barmcloth, then untied the apron from her waist and quickly folded it. She tossed it on the end of the worktable as she made her way out of the dark undercroft and into the cloud filtered midmorning light of the bailey.

  Kieron MacAlister rolled the Winter Stone in his hand. It was a smooth orb of milky crystal just small enough to conceal in his large palm. He fidgeted with it, as he often did in uncertain circumstances, as a crowd slowly gathered in the bailey of Kilmartin Castle. His cousin Tavish stood next to him, with a contingent of MacAlister warriors behind them.

  A large, blond-haired, Highlander stood before the group, mute and unbudging, holding them just barely within the bailey, as if he wished to push them back through the gate tunnel and out of the castle altogether. He’d sent a lad off to find the chief while he stubbornly stood guard, even though the MacAlisters’ kinship with the Lady of the castle had been established.

  He could hear his kinsmen shifting behind him and knew they chafed at this delay, as did he. They had traveled hard for a day and a half to get here from their village to the south and as soon as they collected the Lamont healer, Elena, they would travel just as hard home, for their chief sorely needed her legendary healing ability.

  Kieron continued rolling the stone, now warmed by his body heat, in his hand, his own conflict gnawing at him as much as the wait did. He knew gaining the services of the Lamont healer should be his only goal, but it wasn’t. Fia MacLachlan had once lived here. He hadn’t seen her in seven years or more but he had given thanks every day since for her brief friendship all those years ago. She was probably married with a fat bairn upon her hip by now, but still he would like to see her again, to thank her. He’d like to know that she was as content in her life as he was in his.

  He also knew ’twasn’t likely he’d even see her, much less have the opportunity to speak to her, but he could hope.

  Tavish took a half step toward the silent MacLachlan warrior. Kieron could see the tension, tight in his cousin’s shoulders. He knew the familiar sharp temper was building in Tavish by the slight cock of his head to the right. Tavish had reason to be agitated, but now was not the time to give it free rein. Kieron cleared his throat just loud enough to capture his cousin’s attention at the same time that another large man, this one with dark hair shot through with silver, approached them. Authority wrapped about the newcomer like a royal mantle. The Highlander who held them there stepped back.

  As the man drew near, Kieron recognized Symon, chief of the MacLachlans, husband to Elena, the healer they had come to fetch. The healer who had rid Symon of the madness that had plagued him so many years ago, the madness that had once caused him to be named the Devil of Kilmartin. He was older than the last time Kieron had seen him, but the years had not bowed him, nor dimmed the intellect so clear in his eyes. This was not a man who would risk his wife’s life. He would not allow his wife to travel with the MacAlisters, even though they were cousins of hers, without surety of her safety, which was why they had brought ten warriors to fetch her.

  Tavish stepped forward and greeted the chief with as much reserve and respect as Kieron could expect of him. Reserve did not come naturally to Tavish—action, especially the action of battle, was more to his liking. But over the last few years he had come to listen to Kieron’s council when a softer touch was required, at least he often did, which was something Kieron still shook his head over now and again. The two of them had planned this meeting carefully, weighing their need for Elena’s gift, her still strong connection to the Lamonts and their cousins the MacAlisters, and Symon’s protective nature, in their plan.

  Tavish started well, quietly and almost calmly explaining the illness that had taken their chief—the illness that no one seemed able to treat. Symon’s posture was hard—his feet spread and arms crossed over his broad chest—and he was already shaking his head when a door opened at the top of a stairway and a heavily pregnant woman with auburn hair caught in a loose braid stepped out. Her face and hair were familiar, though Kieron had only met Elena, Lady of Kilmartin Castle, and the fabled Lamont healer, once before.

  Elena stopped at the top of the stair and took in the gathering in the bailey, then slowly made her way down. It was only when she reached the bottom of the stair that Kieron noticed the petite blonde awaiting her there.

  His breath caught. Instantly, he knew it was Fia. She slipped her arm around Elena’s waist, as if to support her, and they walked slowly toward the gathered men.

  “Symon, who are these good people?” Elena called when she was halfway across the bailey. She stopped and took a deep breath, as if that were not something that came easily to her, and Kieron realized that they would not be taking Elena home with them to heal their chief. She was too far gone in her pregnancy and no man in his right mind, which Symon had been for years now, would allow his wife to travel in such a condition.

  “Tavish,” Kieron said, but his friend seemed frozen looking at the women approaching, as did Symon.

  Elena slowly joined them. Fia released her as Elena hooked her hand through her husband’s arm and leaned heavily against him. Her other hand rested on her belly as if to safeguard the bairn that grew within. But it was Fia, taking up a spot next to and a little behind Elena, that Kieron could not keep his eyes from.

  She was only a little taller than she had been when they first met, but she had gently softened from a slight, wisp of a girl into a lovely young woman. Her hair was still the palest of blonds, though no longer the white blond of a youth, and her eyes—how had he forgotten they were the crystalline blue of a spring sky? Her glance skated over him as she seemed to assess the gathering before her, but no recognition showed. He could still see that she was the bright, curious girl he had met, from the way she quietly observed his kinsmen, but he also found a hint of worry pinching her mouth.

  He could only hope it was but worry for Elena, for pregnancy was always a risk for any woman, and not something more. If he discovered it was anything more, anything he could fix, he could not stand by and let it continue, not when he owed his own happy position in life to Fia.

  “They come to try to take you away from here, my love,” Symon said, his voice gruff, and every muscle poised to fight.

  “And why would you wish to do that?” This she directed at Tavish with a lift of her eyebrows, but Kieron also noticed that as she rested her head against Symon’s shoulder the man relaxed, at least a little.

  “My father, your cousin, chief of the MacAlisters of Kilglashan,” Tavish said, “is very ill and none have been able to help him. He will not eat, and does not sleep. He requires your gift of healing, Lady Elena.”

  Kieron winced at the edge of anger that sharpened Tavish’s words, and he was not the only one to notice. Symon stiffened again, and even Fia stepped up beside Elena as if to protect her from Tavish.

  “Forgive him,” Kieron said, stepping forward, carefully not looking at his cousin. He knew if any of them spok
e against his wishes right now, Tavish’s fear for his father would only fuel his quick temper. But years of experience, and the plan they had put in place, told Kieron now was the time for him to act as diplomat. He and Tavish had accomplished much since they had laid the past to rest and become friends, combining their respective strengths—one a gifted warrior, the other a gifted diplomat. “His father is gravely ill,” he continued, “and we are all worried for his survival. ’Tis no death for a chief or a warrior, wasting away from pain and fever.” He looked Symon in the eye. “But we can easily see that ’tis no time for Lady Elena to be traveling.” Now he turned his attention to Elena. Fighting the urge to glance at Fia distracted him for a moment, but he persevered. “Perhaps you can provide some guidance for us? Our healer died not long ago and though we have several women in our village well versed in simples none have been able to help our chief.”

  “Fia can go with you,” Elena said.

  Fia’s breath hitched. “Nay, I am needed here, at least until after the bairn is born and you are recovered.”

  Elena took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “I shall be fine. The midwife can look after me.”

  Fia wanted to shake her head, but she nodded instead, swallowing all of her arguments for why she should stay. ’Twas her duty to do as the chief and the lady required. “I will go.”

  “Do you share the Lamont gift?” Tavish snapped, jerking Fia’s attention back to the two men who stood closest to her and spoke for their clan.

  “Nay,” Fia answered with a lift of her chin, “but I am well trained as a healer.”

  “Fia is expert with herbs, far more than I am,” Elena said. “She has a canny way of knowing which will best serve those she treats, such as I have never seen before.” Elena reached out and pulled Fia close, wrapping her arm over Fia’s shoulder in a gesture that had always made Fia feel safe, while at the same time Elena skewered first Tavish, then the other man, with that same motherly glare that made even grown men cower. “She is more than capable of tending your chief in his illness.”

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