Quest of the Highlander – Cynthia Wright

“Oh, Lennox. How splendid!” At the sound of Violette’s soft, French-accented voice, Lennox MacLeod straightened, his bluetipped paintbrush stilled in mid-air. He glanced back at his sister-in-law then followed her gaze to the mural he was painting in the tower house entry. After a moment’s reflection, he gave a tentative nod. “It’s nearly finished,” he said. “Do ye approve?” “Approve? It is utterly magical.” Lifting her skirts, Violette descended the tier of shallow stone steps until she was beside him. Together they studied the mural of a birlinn sailing on the wavetossed Minch, bound for Duntulm Castle, the clifftop stronghold that had once been their family home. “It reminds me of the day two years ago, when Ciaran and I sailed back to the Isle of Skye after our unexpected marriage in Edinburgh.” She turned her delicate face up to him, smiling wistfully. “You were waiting for us outside Duntulm Castle’s sea gate, looking just like an ancient Viking warrior.” “It seems much longer, so much has happened.” He raked a hand through his tawny-gold hair and sighed. “I know Ciaran requested this mural, but I can’t help wondering if it will serve as a painful reminder of the night the MacDonalds attacked and stole the castle away from us.” “I think he has come to understand that pain is part of life, especially for you Highlanders.

” She paused to rest a hand on the curve of her belly, as if reminding herself of the babe who would join their family in the summer. “Loss can give way to new beginnings, if we allow it.” Lennox sent her a sidelong glance. “It is difficult to imagine my brother indulging in such tender emotions.” “Perhaps, but Ciaran has learned to soften his heart, at least with me.” Violette gently touched his arm. “And what of you, Lennox? Your grandfather is chief of Clan MacLeod, yet you do not seem very concerned about fitting into the mold of a Highland warrior.” “Because I enjoy artistic pursuits more than dreams of battle?” He shrugged. “’Tis who I am. When Grandfather begins to lecture me, I simply nod and go on about my life.

It helps to wander, away from the Isle of Skye.” “But do you think you’ll ever find true happiness here, among your clan?” “I cannot say.” Lennox had learned, long ago, to deflect such penetrating questions with a lighthearted smile. “I sometimes suspect the faeries must have left me at Dunvegan’s sea gate, in a basket, when I was newly born.” Just then, the heavy door to the tower house swung open, and Ciaran MacLeod appeared, bringing with him a damp gust of wind. The two brothers had always been opposites, not only in physical appearance but also in their natures. Since they were young, Ciaran had been dark and cynical, while Lennox had been born with the coloring and heart of a lion. “Put your paints and brushes away, brother,” Ciaran said. “Have ye forgotten that we must go to help our sister today?” “Oh, aye. I did forget Fiona will journey to Stirling on the morrow.

” “But first, you both must pause for a bowl of mutton stew,” Violette said. “It is nearly ready. Can you not smell it?” “And who prepared this stew?” Ciaran sniffed the air suspiciously. “You—or Old David?” It was, Lennox knew, a familiar jest in their family. Old David had long been employed as a MacLeod cook, but when Violette first came to Skye, they realized his food paled in comparison to the French-flavored dishes she prepared. Violette laughed and went into her husband’s arms. “What if I tell you that I dispensed advice as he cooked?” Leaving them to their banter, Lennox packed up his supplies and went outside to clean his brushes. It would be good to get away for a few hours, he told himself. To sail with Ciaran to the island’s Waternish peninsula and spend some time with their sister and her tiny bairn, Lucien. Tomorrow, mother and child would leave Skye, traveling several days to reach Stirling Castle.

There they would join Fiona’s husband, Christophe, a master mason who was now overseeing the great building project undertaken by King James V. Lennox paused outside on the grassy slope overlooking Loch Dunvegan. Through a veil of misty clouds, he could see the imposing shape of the clan MacLeod stronghold, Dunvegan Castle. It was the home of Alasdair Crotach, his grandfather and the clan chief, and most of his relatives. In his heart, Lennox asked the questions he had just evaded with Violette. Why was it that, even as a lad, he had never quite felt part of this powerful clan? And now, as the mural was nearly finished, Lennox felt the familiar urge to roam. An urge to go far away from the Isle of Skye…in search of a part of himself that always felt just out of reach. * * * Lennox and Ciaran walked side by side over the brow of a hill overlooking the Cottage of Dreams, the home Christophe de St. Briac had built for their sister, Fiona. They paused for a moment, the wind catching the edges of their belted plaids as they surveyed the scene below.

Smoke curled from the chimney, baby lambs frolicked near their mothers, and just then, little Lucien came through the doorway, closely followed by Fiona. Lennox had been haunted for hours by a strange sense of unease. It tugged inside his chest, like an itch he could not scratch, but the sight of Fiona and Lucien brought a smile to his face. He took a slow, deep breath. “Our sister grows more bonny by the day,” he remarked. “Even with her husband far away at Stirling Castle.” “Aye, Fi is a strong lass.” As Ciaran spoke, she began to wave, beaming, and Lucien gave a squeal of excitement. “No doubt she has a long list of chores for us.” Soon enough, they were inside the light-filled cottage, and Fiona was giving them directions.

As Lennox worked, he looked around at the cozy environment Fi and Christophe had created for their home. Other cottages on the Isle of Skye were dim and dreary, with tiny windows, walls of turf blocks, and a hole cut in the thatched roof to let out cooking smoke. Most people lived like that, except for the fortunate few who resided in a castle or tower house. But Christophe, an architect, had created a different vision. Under a vaulted ceiling, the whitewashed walls of this cottage were lined with jewel-like paintings and sturdy shelves filled with books. Fiona loved books better than anything except her family, and thanks to her aristocratic French husband, she now had more than she could count. Lennox knew she had already begun reading aloud to baby Lucien, who was not yet two years of age. As Ciaran dragged a big carved chest across the stone floor, he pretended to complain, “Fi, do ye mean to take every single possession in this cottage?” She stood, hands on hips, her glossy black hair coiled softly at the base of her neck. “It could be a year before this project is finished at Stirling, Christophe says. Maybe longer! Something keeps happening to cause a delay.

” “No doubt your husband will remedy that,” said Lennox. “I’m surprised he wasn’t called in long ago to take over as master mason at Stirling Castle.” “The king has been asking for him through intermediaries, I think, but we were both reluctant to make such a commitment. In the end, it was our old friend Bayard who begged Christophe to join him at Stirling. We were both unable to resist his coaxing.” “I will always have a special place in my heart for Bayard,” Ciaran said with an ironic smile. “He has been a true friend to me.” “So true. We all love Bayard. He’s like a great bear.

” Fi turned then, pointing to a shelf on the wall near the bed. “Lennox, I nearly forgot that book, the one bound in garnet leather. It’s one of my very favorites. Can you reach it?” Lennox nodded. He stepped around Lucien, who sat on the floor with Raoul, the big family hound. Just as Lennox reached up for the leather-bound volume, Raoul unexpectedly let out a bark, and Lennox’s hand bumped a silvery casket, knocking it from the shelf. One glance told him that the ornamental box was on course to strike Lucien. Without another thought, Lennox flung himself forward and managed to deflect the silver missile in mid-air, saving his nephew from harm. As he fell hard against the stone floor, he heard a metallic crash. Little Lucien stared, wide-eyed, a bite of bannock in his pudgy hand.

Raoul clambered up onto his long legs and began to howl. Fiona rushed over to where Lennox lay sprawled, the decorative case cracked open beside him. “Are you all right?” she exclaimed. “Oh, aye.” He laughed ruefully and rolled onto one shoulder, looking for the broken casket. As he focused on the case and noticed the lid’s distinctive enamel inlay, a chill crept over Lennox. “I can see you remember,” Fiona said softly, looking first at Lennox, then at Ciaran. “Aye,” said Ciaran. “Ma called for this on her deathbed. Inside was that ancient Viking brooch she wanted ye to have.

” Lennox looked from the shattered silver box to his sister’s face. “It’s ruined. Can ye ever forgive me?” “’Twas only a mishap,” Fiona assured him. “There is nothing to forgive, for you saved Lucien from harm.” Bits of the enamel from the lid were strewn on the floor. As Lennox bent to pick them up, he noticed that the bottom of the casket had broken apart, revealing what appeared to be a hidden compartment, its contents sealed away inside until this moment. Gradually, he focused on a miniature of a man, framed in gold. It was painted on porcelain, the likeness standing out against a background of cerulean blue. Next to the miniature, Lennox realized, was a lock of hair secured with a bit of black riband. No one spoke.

Time seemed to stop as a strange, airless fog descended on them. Lennox couldn’t explain what he was feeling, but the back of his neck prickled and he realized he had stopped breathing. He looked at Ciaran. The utterly stricken expression on his older brother’s face caused his heart to clench. Suddenly, Fiona spoke. “I’ll just clean this up before Lucien swallows something he shouldn’t.” “Right,” Ciaran put in. “I’ll help.” Lennox was all too aware of the tension in the air. “Wait.

” He reached for the miniature, brushing Ciaran’s hand aside as he snatched it up. “’Tis nothing,” cautioned his brother. “If it is indeed nothing, ye won’t mind me having a look.” With that, he rose lightly to his feet and went to a window, where the light was better. He felt his family watching him, but he ignored them. Slowly, Lennox opened his sun-darkened hand and stared at the miniature. “Jesu.” The word came out in a gust of breath. He blinked. “It’s me!” * * * Although Lennox felt he was looking at his own reflection, the man staring back at him was no Highlander.

He was clad in a fine black doublet sewn with rubies. The stranger’s fair hair was neatly tamed, unlike his own wild locks, and crowned by a plumed cap of soft velvet. After scanning these details, Lennox drew a deep breath and looked more closely. He noticed that the man’s hair waved beside his right ear, in just the way Lennox’s did. The man was turned slightly, yet his striking, sea-green eyes gazed out from the miniature in a way that felt calm and faintly amused, even affectionate. There was something about him that felt hauntingly familiar. Lennox raised a hand to his chest, as if to banish the raw emotions that tangled inside him. “I don’t understand,” he said at length, his voice choked. Walking toward Fiona and Ciaran, he thrust the miniature toward them. “We three plainly know this is not me, but who the devil is it?” “I couldn’t say,” protested Fi.

“I’ve never seen it before! It appears to have been hidden inside a secret compartment.” “Hidden, perhaps, but not by a Viking, unless doublets came into fashion much sooner than I thought.” Lennox recoiled from the direction his thoughts were taking, but couldn’t stop himself from saying, “This silver casket belonged to Ma.” Fiona picked up the lock of hair and held it next to his. The strands varied in hue from tawny to pale gold. “I’d swear this was cut from your head. I’ve never met another MacLeod with hair quite like this.” Turning to Ciaran, Lennox saw his brother’s face go pale. “Ye know who this is! I can see it in your face.” “I do not!” “By God, do not deceive me.

Since we were bairns, I could always see it when a secret passed over your face.” Fiona stepped between them. “Ciaran, is this true? Do you know who this man is?” “Nay.” In a low tone of dread, he added, “But… I can guess.” “Ye must tell me, then.” Lennox’s heart was pounding as he grasped the front of his brother’s shirt and stared hard into his eyes. “I deserve to know!” “Aye.” Ciaran swallowed. “Ye should know the truth. But there is so much pain that comes with it.

” He paused, sighed deeply, and continued, “Ma quarreled with Da when I was a bairn, and she took me away for a season or more. Later, when I was older, Ma revealed that ye were conceived during that time. Da has always loved ye as a son, but—” Lennox’s heartbeat filled his chest and echoed in his ears. Sweat broke out on his brow as he struggled to translate what seemed to be a foreign language. “Are ye saying that I am no MacLeod after all?” Pointing to the miniature, Ciaran said raggedly, “I suspect this man is your true father.” Fiona had come up behind Lennox, wrapping her arms around his chest. “This changes nothing,” she said, and began to weep. “How can ye say that?” Outrage boiled up in him. Turning, he held her at arm’s length. “It changes everything! I am not truly one of you.

I don’t belong here. No wonder I have always felt it, deep inside. Perhaps I have always known the truth but couldn’t face it.” “You are still our brother!” cried Fiona. “And the bonds between us run deep. We have shared our lives, Lennox MacLeod! Nothing can change that.” “I cannot speak of that now. Ye must see how my life has been turned on end by this news.” Lennox pointed again at the face that so closely resembled his. “Who is this?” “Truly, I know not,” insisted Ciaran.

“And Da swears he does not know.” “Why did ye not tell me?” The notion that the two of them had been sharing this secret, holding it from him, discussing it behind his back, filled Lennox with an indescribable rage and frustration. “Would ye have let me go to my grave believing this lie about my own life?” Ciaran began to pace, and Fi led Lucien away to the table, where she gave him a small dish of porridge. Lennox knew he should not have carried on in front of his little nephew, but a storm was raging inside him. “I could not bring ye such pain,” Ciaran replied at last. “I agonized over it with Violette. I feared one day the truth would come out, but I dreaded that time.” “So even Violette knew.” Lennox clenched his jaw and demanded, “Who else?” “Ma, obviously.” Ciaran winced slightly.

“And Grandfather.” “Ach.” Lennox felt sick. “That explains it.” No one asked what he meant, for they must have known full well the subtle ways Grandfather had held Lennox at arm’s length. He’d told himself he didn’t care about winning the favor of the powerful clan chief, since he had no interest in becoming a true Highland warrior. If Grandfather had ordered him to take a position of power within the clan, Lennox would have refused, so he told himself it was all just as well that he was overlooked. Excluded. Not that Grandfather or Da were cold to him, but they’d always seemed rather relieved each time he announced he was going away. At least I now understand why I never felt comfortable in this world, Lennox thought.

And yet his eyes stung, and his heart ached. When Ciaran pressed a cup of whisky into his hands, he drank, welcoming the sudden burn, the spreading glow, the easing of his torment. After a long minute of silence, Lennox said, “Ye have kept the truth from me since we were lads. How can I now believe that ye do not know who my father is?” Together, they stared at the miniature. “I want to swear on our bond as brothers, but no doubt that would cause ye to scoff,” Ciaran replied ruefully. “I can only tell ye what I know.” Fiona spoke up quietly from her seat at the table with Lucien. “I want to hear this as well. If there has been a secret, all our lives, I knew nothing of it!” Ciaran pressed a hand to his eyes. “When Ma took me away with her, I was so young, I can scarcely remember it—except that I was frightened.

I remember being inside a great castle with Isbeil, our nurse, but little else.” He threw up his hands. “Ye may believe me or not, but I speak the truth.” Lennox turned to look at Fiona. “Isbeil never spoke to you of this while she was alive? Ye were closer to her than any of us.” “Nay!” she exclaimed, meeting his gaze. “And you well know Isbeil would have died before betraying any secret our mother kept.” “Then I must go to Dunvegan and demand the truth from Da. He doubtless knows more than he has revealed.” Ciaran seemed to swallow a protest.

“All right, then. I will come as well.” “And so will we.” Fi stood up, holding little Lucien, and put out her chin defiantly. “Do not refuse me. I am still your sister!” Although Lennox wished he could use his pain to build a protective wall around himself, he was glad for Ciaran and Fiona’s support. They were, after all, the only family he had ever known.

.

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