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The Guardian by Margaret Mallory (1)


ISLE OF SKYE

Scotland

1500

Teàrlag MacDonald, the oldest living member of her clan and a seer of some repute, let her good eye travel slowly from boy to boy. Visitors to her tiny cottage at the edge of the sea were rare.

“What brings ye lads to come see me on this blustery night?”

“We want to know our future, Teàrlag,” young Connor said. “Can ye tell us what ye see for us?”

The boy who spoke was the chieftain’s second son, a strapping lad of twelve with the pitch-black hair of his mother’s side.

“Are ye sure ye want to hear?” she asked. “Most often I foretell death, did ye not know?”

The four lads exchanged glances, but none took a step toward the door. They were braver than most. Still, she wondered what led them to be crowding her cottage and dripping rain on her floor this particular night.

“Ye feared I might die before I foretold somethin’ about ye, is that it?”

She fixed her good eye on the youngest, a lad of ten with black hair like his cousin Connor’s and eyes as blue as the summer sky. The lad blushed, confirming her suspicion.

“Well, I don’t expect to die as soon as ye think, Ian MacDonald.”

Ian raised his eyebrows. “So ye know me, Teàrlag?”

“ ’Course I know ye. The three of ye,” she said, pointing her finger at Ian and his cousins Alex and Connor, “are my blood relations.”

Learning they were related to a woman with one eye and a hunched back did not appear to please them. She chuckled to herself as she turned to toss a handful of herbs on the fire. As it crackled and spit, she leaned forward to breathe in the tangy fumes. She could not call upon the sight at will, but sometimes the herbs made the vision clearer.

As soon as the boys entered her cottage, smelling of dogs, damp wool, and the sea, she had seen the orangey glow about them that signaled a vision was coming. It was unusual for her to see the glow around more than one person at a time. She suspected it was because the lads were close as thieves, but it was not for her to question her gift.

“Ye first,” she said, curling her finger at Ian.

The lad’s eyes grew big, but when one of the other boys gave him a shove, he came around the table to stand beside her.

Quick as a wink, she slipped a small, smooth stone into his gaping mouth. The stone did not help her see, but it added to the mystery and would keep him quiet.

“Don’t swallow the stone, laddie,” she said, “or it’ll kill ye.”

Ian turned wide eyes on his cousin Connor, who gave him a reassuring nod. She rested her hand on Ian’s head and closed her eyes. The vision, already forming from the moment he passed through her door, came quickly.

“Ye shall wed twice,” she said. “Once in anger and once in love.”

“Two wives!” Alex, the one with the fair hair of his Viking ancestors, hooted with laughter. “That will keep ye busy.”

Ian spit out the stone into his hand. “I didn’t want to know that, Teàrlag. Can ye not tell me something interesting… like how many battles I’ll fight in… or if I’ll die at sea?”

“I can’t command the sight, lad. If it chooses to speak of love and women, then so be it.” She looked to the others. “What of the rest of ye?”

The other three made faces as if she had given them one of her bitter-tasting remedies.

She cackled and slapped the table. “No so brave now, are ye, lads?”

“It is no fair for ye to hear about my two wives,” Ian said to the others, “unless I hear about yours.”

Alex gave the other two lads a lopsided grin and exchanged places with Ian.

“I don’t need the sight to know ye were born to give trouble to the lasses.” She shook her head. The boys would all be handsome men, but this one had the devil in his eye. “Shame, but there is nothin’ to be done about it.”

Alex grinned. “Sounds verra good to me.”

“Ach.” She popped a second stone from the dish on the table into Alex’s mouth and put her hand on his head. ’Twas good luck she had gathered pretty stones from the shore that morning.

“Tsk, tsk, this is no good at all. One day, ye’ll come across a woman so beautiful as to hurt your eyes, sittin’ on a rock in the sea.” She opened her eyes and thumped Alex on the chest. “Watch out for her, for she might be a selkie taking on her human form to lure ye to your death.”

“I’d rather have a selkie than two wives,” Ian grumbled from across the table.

For a MacDonald of Sleat to put away one wife to take another was common as grass. It seemed the way of it for them to break the hearts of the women who loved them.

Teàrlag closed her eyes again—and laughed so hard it made her cough. Ach, this was a surprise, for certain.

“Alex, I see ye courtin’ an ugly, pockmarked lass,” she said, wiping her eyes on her shawl. “I fear she is quite stout as well. And I don’t mean pleasing plump, mind ye.”

The other boys doubled over laughing until they were red-faced.

“I think ye are having fun with me,” Alex said, looking sideways at her. “Since I’ve no intention of marrying, I am sure that if I do, the lass would have to be verra, verra pretty.”

“I see what I see.” She gave Alex a push and motioned to Duncan. He was a big, red-haired lad whose mother had served as Connor’s nursemaid.

“This one has the blood of both the MacKinnon Sea Witch and the Celtic warrior queen, Scáthach, so mind ye keep him on your side,” she said, wagging her finger at the other three. To Duncan, she said, “That’s where ye get your fierceness—and your temper.”

Duncan stood still, his expression serious, as she put a stone in his mouth and rested her hand on his head.

Almost at once, a powerful feeling of loss and longing stole over her and weighed down her spirit. She lifted her hand, being too old to bear it for long.

“Are ye sure ye want to hear, laddie?” she asked softly.

Duncan gave her a level look and nodded.

“I fear you’ve sad days before ye,” she said, squeezing his shoulder. “But I will tell ye this. Sometimes, a man can change his future.”

Duncan spit out the stone and gave her a polite “Thank ye.”

The chieftain’s son was last.

“What I want to know is the future of our clan,” Connor said around the stone in his mouth. “Will we be safe and prosper in the years to come?”

His father had come to ask her the same question not long ago. All she had been able to tell him was that one day he would have to send this son away to keep him safe.

When she put her hand on Connor’s head, she heard the moans of the dying and saw men of her clan lying in a field soaked in Scottish blood. Then she saw the four lads as strong, young men, on a ship, crossing the sea. She grew weary as the visions continued, one after the other.

“Teàrlag, are ye well?” Connor asked.

When she opened her eyes, Alex handed her a cup of her own whiskey, saying, “A wee nip will do ye good.”

She narrowed her good eye at him as she drained the cup, wondering how he’d found it.

“I see many perils ahead for all of ye,” she said. “Ye must keep each other close, if ye are to have any hope of survivin’.”

The lads appeared unimpressed. As Highlanders, they knew without foretelling that their future held danger. And as lads, they found the notion more exciting than worrisome.

They were young, and a wise woman did not tell all she knew. After considering what might be of use for them to know, she said to Connor, “Ye want to know what ye must do to help the clan?”

“Aye, Teàrlag, I do.”

“Then I will tell ye,” she said, “the clan’s future will rest on ye choosin’ the right wife.”

“Me? But it’s my brother who will be chieftain.”

She shrugged. He would learn soon enough of the sorrows to come.

“Can ye tell me what woman I must choose, then?” Connor asked, worry furrowing his brow.

“Ach, the lass will choose ye,” she said, and pinched his cheek. “Ye just must be wise enough to know it.”

She looked to the cottage door just before the sound of the knock. Alex, who was closest, opened it and laughed when he saw the little girl with wild, unkempt red hair standing there.

“ ’Tis only Ian’s wee friend Sìleas,” he said, as he pulled her inside and shut the door against the cold.

The girl’s large green eyes took in the room, then settled on Ian.

“What are ye doing wandering alone outside in the dark?” Ian asked her.

“I came to find ye, Ian,” the girl said.

“How many times must I tell ye to be careful?” Ian tightened his mantle and turned to the others. “I’d best take her back to her da.”

The old woman thought the lass’s da should be skinned alive for letting the wee bairn wander about as he did. But he was not the sort of man who had much use for a daughter.

“Were ye no afraid the faeries would snatch ye?” she asked.

Sìleas shook her head. Ach, the poor child knew that the faeries steal only the children who are most precious to their parents.

“Come on, then,” Ian said, taking the wee girl’s hand. “I’ll tell ye a story about a selkie as we walk.”

Sìleas looked up at the lad, and her eyes shone as if God himself had sent the strongest and bravest warrior in all the Highlands to be her protector.