Ailsa Rose did not remember exactly when it had happened -- the slow awakening of her body, her mind, which before had been slumbering. Perhaps soon after she had turned sixteen, nearly a year ago, though she was not certain of that. She only knew that one day she had ceased to follow her mother through the glen and begun to seek out her own hills and hollows -- private places where she let the cool darkness enfold her, where she sat among the curled fronds of bracken and played her flute in celebration of streams and mountains and in wonder at the strange new feelings that had begun to grow inside her. Only one person knew of these secret places and shared them with her. Ian Fraser, her childhood friend.
Today she had finished her chores long since, then left the croft, basket in hand, to gather the lichens, bog myrtle, birch bark, and whinberry her mother used in her dyes. She had set the full creel nearby. Ailsa was free now to do as she wished.
With her knees pressed into the damp bank of the one wide stretch of calm in the boisterous river Affric, she leaned forward to stare at her face in the water. Her freshly washed chestnut hair, touched with glimmers of red, hung limp and tangled across her cheeks and forehead. She pushed the tangles aside, pleased by the image of her face, though she knew her mother Mairi, with her red Highland hair and violet eyes, was much prettier. Ailsa did not mind. Her own softly rounded cheeks and straight nose were pleasant enough. She stared at the reflection of her eyes, surprised, as always, by the striated combination of blue and violet that turned to gray with the movement of the sunlight.
She was proud of her eyes and her aristocratic nose, because she knew they had come from her father, the Englishman Charles Kittridge. She had never met him, but Mairi had shown her a miniature he had painted of himself when he was young. The first time Ailsa had seen her face reflected in a pail of clear water, she had recognized the marks of her father, who had left the Highlands before she was born. She was glad of these reminders that he had once been here, for they were all she had to cling to of the man she knew only as a shadow, remembered through her mother's eyes. The familiar ache of loss began within her, but she refused to let it disturb her peace today.
Warmed by an unexpected rush of sunlight, Ailsa thought how pleasant it would be to join her image in the water. Glancing around to make certain she was alone, she tossed her plaid on the ground and untied the strings of her gown. She discarded her chemise and drawers as well; she wanted to feel the water everywhere. The wind dipped through the treetops, rattled the leaves as she stood naked on the bank. Ailsa nodded as if the breeze had spoken a word of approval.
She stepped in, shivering. It was late in April, and the pond had not yet lost its winter chill, but she did not mind. The cold invigorated her as she moved toward the far end, where a waterfall cascaded over tumbled rocks from the stream bed above. Ailsa stretched out her arms and floated on the surface, closed her eyes as the water lapped around her, caressing her bare skin.
She ducked beneath the waterfall so the liquid brightness rushed over her face and down her shoulders. She paused, head tilted, as a lark began to sing, then another and another. Their song seemed to spring from the rushing water, to meld with it in a harmony so beautiful that she stood still to listen. Then the wind returned, undulating through the dimness, making the leaves shiver in a rhythm of wavering shadow and sunlight. Birds, wind, and water seemed to have been created for the wonder of this moment, this burst of harmony so perfect it could never be equaled by man.
But Ailsa had to try. She moved with agility toward the bank, shuddered at the cold as she stepped onto the bracken and picked up her plaid to wrap around herself. She had no time for more. In an instant the song would be gone. She searched the wide pockets of her gown, found her flute, and began to play, to echo the ripple of water on stones, the rustle of leaves, and the lovely song of the larks overhead. It came naturally to her, this making of everyday sounds into music.
She could not remember a time when she had not loved the music of nature and wanted to re-create it. Ian had recognized her desire and carved her this flute of rosewood long ago. She took it with her everywhere. Not a day went by when she didn't stop, the flute to her lips, to make up a little song.
She closed her eyes, but the image of the copse did not leave her; instead it grew brighter. She was not aware that her body trembled in the insufficient plaid, nor that her skin was thoroughly chilled from the cold. These things did not matter. Then she heard a rich, deep voice.
"A lark sang, aye so clear and true
That the wind picked up its lovely song,
And touched the water, woven through
With streams of sunlight, frail yet strong."
Ailsa looked up in delight as Ian parted the leaves of the hawthorn tree where he'd been sitting. Without a word, she began the tune again so she would not forget it. Then she and Ian repeated the words together, their voices caught on the back of the wind.
Ian tumbled to the ground, rolled once, then jumped to his feet. Ailsa smiled at the dark hair that framed his face and curled down his neck to his shoulders. Her eyes met his, startlingly green in his tanned, dusky face.
Ian winked and gazed at her body, ill-concealed by her long, red plaid. It clung to her damply, flung carelessly over one shoulder so the other was bare and one breast only just covered by the wet wool. Crouched as she was on the marshy bank, her legs were bare from the knee down, as were her graceful arms. Her wet hair fell down her back to her waist. Even disordered as it was, he thought it beautiful when, as now, the scattered sunlight touched the clinging drops that glittered among the tangles.
Shivering, Ailsa noticed he was staring at her body as he had not done before, much as she had been looking at his of late -- with more than just childish curiosity.
"Come," he murmured, scrutinizing the leaves overhead with pretended interest, "put your flute aside for a bit. There's somethin' I want to show ye." His hands shook when he shifted the black, yellow, and red Fraser plaid on his shoulder; suddenly he could not contain his impatience.
Ailsa's heart began to beat in expectation. Daily, Ian wandered the hills and valleys of Glen Affric, chasing his father's sheep and cattle, sometimes just exploring the deeply carved caves and mountains all around. As he went, he kept his eyes open for anything new or mysterious; his discoveries were varied and wonderful.
When she started to rise eagerly, Ian stopped her with a wave of his hand.
"Don't ye think ye'll get a bit cold, dressed that way?"
Ailsa blushed, clutching her damp plaid to her chest. She picked up her gown and underthings and motioned him away, uneasy, all at once, with her exposed limbs and clinging wool garment. "Be gone with ye, Ian Fraser, while I make myself decent."
Swiftly, he faded into the trees. When she was dressed once more in her linsey-woolsey gown, she moved downstream, past the broad pond, to leap barefoot over the burn, trailing her wet plaid behind her.
"Ye didn't have to dress up for me, lass," Ian said, grinning when he caught sight of her. His collie, Torran, named in the Gaelic for the sound of his growl, which was like the low rumble of distant thunder, pranced at his side, eager to be gone.
"'Twasn't for ye," she responded playfully. "I did it for the spirits of the hills so they would welcome us." She picked up a twig, and as they walked she ran it through her hair until the last of the tangles were gone.
The wind whistled above them, urging them on. They hurried their steps until they were running through the bracken. The dog raced in front of them, barked at groups of sheep and cattle they passed now and then, and stopped to look back reproachfully when his master fell too far behind.
They paused when the magnificent hills and crags rose before them. Ian motioned to the dog. "Home, Torran," he said firmly. With a last regretful wag of his tail, the animal turned away. Taking Ailsa's hand, Ian guided her up the granite incline, much scarred from ancient water and ice. When the incline became steeper, he began to climb, hand over hand, while Ailsa followed, placing her feet carefully in the spots where he'd stepped in his loose leather sandals.
"We've no' yet been to this side," she said.
"But 'twas waitin' for us all the time," Ian said mysteriously. "Just waitin' for today."
"Tell me what ye found!" she demanded.
"Ye'll see soon enough." He hoisted himself over a fallen boulder, then reached back to help her after him.
Ailsa stopped to stare in wonder at a narrow dell she had never seen before. It was circled on all sides by jagged rocks as well as carefully placed standing stones that made the wind echo in eerie imitation of a lost human voice. This must have been a Druid temple once, though now it contained only three cairns -- graves covered with tiny stones piled one upon the other -- nearly hidden in the shadow of the rocks. The cairns were huge, as if they had been built upon year after year in careful reverence for the dead. The wind was caught here, circling madly among the ring of stones, screaming at its own impotence.
She knew instinctively that some tragedy had occurred in this place, felt an inexplicable need to drop her own stones onto the cairns, to show her respect for those who had been long dead. Then the wind howled, circled once above the dell, and disappeared into the wide, cloud-woven sky. With a sigh of relief, Ailsa turned to find Ian beside her.
"'Tis just the beginnin'," he said. "Come."
He grasped her hand more tightly as they traversed the ledge, then, abruptly, he ducked beneath an overhang of rock and drew her down into a cavern. At first it was dark -- too dark to see the rough walls, but slowly Ian and Ailsa moved toward a distant light and she saw that the top of the cave had crashed in.
Ian glanced up, eyes narrowed against the sunlight. "It can't have been over long this way," he whispered, "or what I found would have been destroyed by the light and air.
He pointed to a carved chest against the farthest wall of the cavern, nearly concealed by an overhang of rock. "What is't?" she gasped, startled by the overloud sound of her voice.
"I don't know yet," Ian admitted. "I wanted to open it with ye."
Touched that he had waited, Ailsa knelt beside the chest to lay her hands on the seasoned wood.
"We'll need light. I brought a torch." Ian ducked around a bend in the wall, then reappeared with a pine torch in his hand. He held it high so they could see, carved on the lid. "Chisholm, 1746."
"I'll wager the people who left this here were part of the '45," he murmured. He referred to the rebellion over a hundred years earlier when the Scottish clans had followed bonny Prince Charlie into battle. The Jacobite rebels had tried to take the throne of England from the Hanoverians and restore it to King James, Prince Charlie's father, the last of the royal Stewarts.
Ian held the torch steady and lifted one side of the lid while Ailsa lifted the other. They bent together to touch the bolt of Chisholm tartan that covered the contents. The plaid with stripes of white, blue, and green on a greenish-yellow background was easily recognizable. As small children they had memorized the Highland tartans along with their morning and evening prayers.
Ailsa lifted the plaid to admire the fine wool. It was whole and unharmed by either moths or dampness. The Chisholms had chosen their hiding place well. Beneath the plaid lay a miniature of the prince himself, the paint rubbed thin by the imprint of many reverent fingers. Beside it was a claymore, the heavy Highland sword banned by the English after the rebellion had failed. Ian touched the weapon respectfully, noticing the chips along the sides, the traces of dried blood. This blade had seen much service before it was hidden away.
Ailsa touched the cold metal and her anger at the English rose anew. It was not the last time they had come here to drive the Scottish inhabitants from their homes. Her mother had lost her family in the final Highland Clearances when greedy landlords had enlisted the aid of the English in removing the tenants from the hills to make way for more profitable sheep. Mairi had hidden herself and managed to stay with a few others, in the area.
The image of her father came to Ailsa unbidden. He, too, was English -- a stranger, a foreigner. But she had never thought of him that way. Somehow she had kept him separate in her mind from the history of his countrymen. It was necessary to her that he remain unstained by the sins of others.
When Ian removed the sword, Ailsa saw a fragile lace and satin wedding gown. Gently, she moved it aside to reveal an ancient hand harp. "A clarsach!" she cried in wonder. She had heard of the beautiful sounds such an instrument could make, but never had she seen one. She drew in her breath as Ian held it out to her. The wood was damaged on one side, it had cracked from age and usage no doubt. Still she was enchanted with the carved instrument that had been the only possession of the ancient Gaelic bards who had written and recorded the history of the Highlands in their songs.
As she ran her hand over the nine strings, they broke with a discordant twang. They had been too long hidden away, too long unused, too old to stand the pressure. Ailsa's eyes filled with tears. She believed, as had her Celtic ancestors that the sin of all sins was to destroy beauty.
"Never mind," Ian said comfortingly, laying his hand on hers. The warmth of his touch diminished her sadness and she looked away from the harp. Next to the place where it had lain in the chest was an old diary. She had just opened the cover when Ian cried out, "Look!"
He held in his palm a circular brooch, carved silver with the Chisholm crest -- the fern -- worked into the intricate design. Around the graceful leaves were several emeralds.
Even in the poor light, they glittered. Ailsa sighed and reached out to touch it. "'Tis the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," she whispered. "How could they leave it behind?"
"Some things are too precious to take to a strange land. Maybe they felt they left part of themselves here with these treasures."
At last, while Ian leaned over her shoulder, she began to flip through the diary. The name on the flyleaf was Janet Chisholm and the pages told a common story in those years of turmoil, 1745 and 1746. This woman's husband had been at the prince's side at the Battle of Culloden Moor and had been injured by an English bayonet that had cost him the use of his arm. When he returned at last, it was to tell Janet that the British army, under the command of William, Duke of Cumberland, was not far behind. Already, by his brutal actions against the vanquished Highlanders, Cumberland had earned himself the nickname the Butcher. The Chisholms had hidden in the cave and listened as the English marched through the town and over the countryside, burning, killing, raping, destroying. The footsteps had grown louder until they crossed the very rock above and echoed down the rough stone walls. But the English had not found the family.
Then, when the use of the Gaelic, the wearing of the tartan and kilt had been proscribed, and their weapons taken from them, the family had realized they had to leave the Highlands where they were no longer free. So they had hidden this chest and fled. Ailsa read the final entry aloud.
"Our last day among the hills we love, and, we pray, our last grief, though 'twill haunt us for the rest of our lives. We'll no' be forgettin' the Highlands, nor the voices of the past that speak to us here. We'll no' forget the burns, the tumblin' water over stones, the heather and the swirlin' mist. To forget these things would be to lose all hope, all beauty, all that we hold dear. We want to come back someday, but cannot know what will happen in the darkness ahead. If we don't return, and someone finds this place and shelters here, I wish them joy of my possessions. I take what joy I have with me across the wide sea. Let Niethe, God of Waters, keep us safe. Mayhap in a new land, the horror will no' follow anymore."
"I wonder if they made it to Canada or America," Ailsa said. "But 'tis clear that after so long they'll no' be back for this. What shall we do?"
"Mayhap we were meant to find these things, to bring them into the light," Ian suggested.
Ailsa could not be certain of that, but one thing she did know: Ian had not found this cave by accident. He had been drawn here by some instinct beyond his knowledge, the same instinct that had bidden him return with her beside him. "Aye, these have been too long hidden away. We should take them from here and treasure them for the sake of those who left them behind." Her voice echoed upward, faded into the dark crevices of the cave. There was no other sound, no sigh of wind to deny her.
"So it shall be," Ian murmured solemnly.
"I think ye should have the tartan and the claymore."
He nodded. "I'll hang them above the door." He said it fiercely as if, by displaying these things, he would defy the law that had been repealed long since. For the absent Chisholms he would do it; he would remember their plight each time he stepped beneath the doorframe. He would leave the claymore for another time. It was heavy and he could not easily get it down the steep hill. "Ye must have the harp," he said.
Ailsa shook her head. It hurt her to look at the instrument that had once made lovely music, but would do so no more.
"Then I'll take it," he said, "but ye have the brooch. And look, these ribbons might have been made for your hair." He held up several purple satin ribbons that fell like rippled midnight through his fingers.
"The ribbons, aye," she said, smiling with pleasure as she put them into her pocket. "But no' the brooch." She touched the circle of carved silver set with stones. "'Tis too valuable. I couldn't do it."
"Well then, if no' for yourself, take it for your mother. She doesn't have many pretty things."
Ailsa reread Janet Chisholm's words and reluctantly nodded her head. Then she closed the book. "I'll leave this here," she said, "where it belongs." But as she turned to lay the diary in the chest, she hesitated. "I think I'll keep it after all," she whispered in a voice so low that Ian could barely hear her. "Because," she said slowly, enunciating each word as if she were uncertain of what the next might be, "I feel a strange kinship with this woman who lived and died a hundred years ago. As if we share a loss somehow."
Ian was disturbed as Ailsa seemed to retreat from him. "I don't know what ye mean."
"Neither do I. I just know I was meant to take it."
At last she became aware of the burst of colored light that filtered through the hole in the roof of the cave. The sun was setting outside. She turned to look at her friend, shook her head as if awakened from a dream, then slid the brooch and diary into her pocket. Ian draped the Chisholm plaid over his shoulder and, carrying the harp in his other hand, helped Ailsa to her feet. In silence, they moved toward the wash of reddish light that was softened and, oddly, warmed, by the mist that crept through the hole in the stone. "I don't like it when I can't reach ye," Ian said softly.
"Ye can always reach me, Ian. Ye know that." Ailsa glanced up at the red-streaked sky. The mauve and violet light swirled around them, shimmering over their upturned faces. "We must go," she added.
"Aye," he agreed half-heartedly. "But ye'll no' be goin' home in that wet plaid." He removed the garment and draped it over his arm. Then he wrapped her gently in the piece of Chisholm tartan.
She smiled in gratitude, clasped his hand, and drew him out of the cave. Carefully, one foot at a time, she climbed down the rocky hillside they had ascended an hour earlier.
When her feet met the springy earth, she paused to let the mist surround her; it was an old friend that touched the familiar landscape with mystery, making it new, unknown, exciting.
She heard Ian drop to the ground beside her.
"Home," Ailsa said with a smile as Ian shifted -- the harp in the crook of his arm.
"Ye go first," he told her. "And ye choose the poem."
She thought for a moment. "LOVE was a pilgrim dressed in gray."
Ian responded with the second line. "LOVE was a Minstrel blithe and gay."
As soon as he'd finished, Ailsa was off. She moved lithely, staring at the ground to make out familiar rocks and hillocks so she did not stumble. The fog parted to reveal the copse ahead, then shifted to cover the group of trees with a thin veil of white. Aware of the growing chill, she clutched her plaid tightly as she made her way at last to the group of tall birches. Here she stopped, her back against a smooth trunk, to whistle a single, lingering note.
Ian stood at the foot of the hillside, listening intently for Ailsa's whistle. With the shifting of the wind, it was not easy to judge the direction from which it had come. That made it more difficult to find her. But that was part of the fun.
They had played this game of tag in the mist since they were children, making an adventure and a challenge of what might otherwise have been a threat. When he heard Ailsa's signal, Ian grinned. Clever, the way she could put so many nuances of tone into a single note. At once he started after her, head bent to search for braes and clumps of bracken, until he caught up with her in the copse. She was looking the other way so he crept up to grasp her around the waist. She gasped with surprise, then laughter.
"LOVE was a maid that wouldna stay," she chanted, picking up the words of the song where they had left off.
"LOVE was a bairn that ran away," he answered.
"O LOVE COME BACK TO ME," they said together.
"Ye made no' a sound," Ailsa scolded when the verse was done. "'Tisn't fair that ye should have such quiet footsteps. My own seem to echo up and down the glen."
Ian grinned. "LOVE was the gentle seneschal."
"Did carefully provide for all," she replied without hesitation.
"Hush," he whispered suddenly. "I think I hear a mountain blackbird."
Ailsa looked up, listening for the song of the rare bird. Before she realized it, Ian was gone. He had disappeared as silently as he had come. She waited breathlessly until she heard his whistle carried on the wind. Some instinct led her sideways and back, rather than forward. It was one of Ian's favorite tricks to confuse her and make the game last longer. This time she was not fooled. She caught up to him at the edge of the moor that stretched across the hollow toward the distant mountains.
"Who came with flowers and water sweet," Ian murmured.
"LOVE wore the wreaths and bathed the feet."
"O LOVE COME BACK TO ME," they sang in unison.
"Ian Fraser," Ailsa cried, grasping his arm in chilled fingers, "we'll never get home if ye keep runnin' backward."
He smiled. "Mayhap I don't wish ye to get home."
She leaned toward him. As he reached out to touch her, she slipped away. "LOVE was fire and LOVE was ice."
Before the last word had faded, Ian added, "LOVE bidden once came ever twice."
Then Ailsa was gone.
When he caught up to her, she leaned close to whisper in his ear, "LOVE came to scorn as well as sighs."
"LOVE was the pearl without a price."
Together they chanted, "O LOVE COME BACK TO ME."
Thus they covered the landscape they could walk in their dreams, laughing as they repeated the ancient song. Sometimes they stopped to catch their breath and stared at each other through wisps of white silence that dimmed their imperfections and drew them closer somehow. In those moments, they did not speak, but only listened to the rise and fall of each other's breath, their faces so close that their lips nearly touched -- but only nearly. One or the other always turned away at the last moment.
Once, Ailsa was certain she had lost Ian; she had heard no sound from him for so long. She was nearing home and wondered if he had decided to veer off to his own croft on the way. She peered about her curiously and whistled once more. At the same instant, she heard a whistle behind her and realized she and Ian stood back to back. They laughed, for neither had known how close the other was, then turned slowly as the thick mist changed to rain.
Ian watched the tiny drops collect on Ailsa's chestnut hair, her forehead, and the bridge of her nose, like a fine soft veil. She smiled at him shyly, disconcerted by his perusal. "LOVE was the happy weddin' tide."
"LOVE was the granted, the denied," she answered.
"LOVE was the bridegroom, LOVE the bride."
"LOVE was all in the world beside."
They stood with the rain failing between them. Slowly Ian raised his left hand and Ailsa her right. They touched palms while the moisture gathered on their skin. "O LOVE COME BACK TO ME." they whispered together.
He had touched her thus many times before. As children they had clasped hands, run, and tumbled on the moors. But somehow this moment was different. Ailsa stood perfectly still, her palm pressed to Ian's. The rain swirled around, isolating them, so there was nothing but their two bodies, their hands, their eyes, feverish with a dissatisfaction neither could explain.
"I must go," she said at last.
Ian nodded, but still they stood, their fingers locked together until the mist dried on their palms and the warmth of their sweat replaced it.
"Go," Ian said finally, though he released her with reluctance. "'Tis long past time."
"Long past time." she repeated dreamily. "Aye, so 'tis." She smiled, then turned toward the shelter of her mother's croft built into the nearby hillside. With her plaid over her head, she went, looking back only once to see Ian' absorbed by the rain, consumed by it, until she could see him no more.
Copyright © 1989 by Kathryn Lynn Davis