Monday, June 6, 2011     17:19

QUEST FOR A BABE

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Luch is invisible - well, nearly.  So why is her tiny presence so vital to the families of the tough, warlike chiefs of two  Clans - the Macleans of Mull and the great Clan Campbell?

Even the smallest of people can have a huge effect.

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Leaving their ghillies to bring back the game and their bows, the young men swung away across the heather, their race-track the long sweep of rocky moorland up over the shoulder of Sgurr Dearg and down towards Duart Point, where the castle towered over the cliff like a broody eagle on its eyrie. Tall and whippy, Hector ran lightly, leaping the rocks and heather clumps, but the strength and bull power of Lachlan, thundering wide-chested and heavy-muscled behind him, reminded him he never had the race all to himself.
     "Aye at it, eh? Dhia, will they never settle down?" Ewan  Beg shook his head as the men laughed, and looked round at Farquhar. "Let the dogs run with them, man?" he suggested. "They've scarce had time to stretch their legs."
     Farqhuar nodded and released the great hounds' leashes. The long, narrow muzzles lifted as they leaped after their masters. "Which will win, think you?"
     Ewan chuckled, his massive belly quivering. "Are you wanting a wager yourself? I'm your man for that. For a blow? My left hand against your right?"
     Farquhar sneered, tossing his fair hair. "A blow? I've a testoon to wager. Can you match it - or is your dallta less generous than mine?"
     A ghillie to wager silver? The men were impressed. Ewan frowned. Farquhar was aye boasting about his dallta's wealth since the foreign wars. He didn't have even a groat to wager, but when it was put like that, for the sake of Hector's reputation he couldn't refuse.
     Neck and neck, as usual, the young men raced to turn the shoulder of the mountain and charged down the slope. The shaggy hounds loped along before them, enjoying the speed, flying ahead of the men with their ten-foot strides.
     Near the bottom of the long slope the hounds swung apart for a moment. Hector glanced over and saw her quite by chance. A girl, lying face down, a brown bundle clasped under her green plaid. He shouted, and skidded to a halt.
     For a second, Lachlan seemed to intend to go right on, but then he stopped too. "What is it?" he called back. "Do you yield the first cut, then?"
     "Ach, never mind that now!"
     Lachlan Cattanach's mouth stiffened, but then he too saw the girl as Hector knelt by her. "Who is she?" He came back slowly, puffing only slightly.
     "I don't know the sett of her plaid. She's hurt - see!" With one finger Hector lifted the edge of the scrap of cloth bound round her left arm. "An arrow wound. A nasty gash. She's near dead of cold and loss of blood." He sat back on his heels. "We'll need to get her home to David Beaton."
     "But if she's not one of our folk? Or maybe not even a Maclean at all? One of the Allansons? A Campbell? What will father say?"
     Hector glanced up at him in annoyance. "She's a lassie and she's hurt! And who's to say who she is? If there's reivers about, and she gives word of it, grandfather'll welcome her even if she's a Mackinnon." He lifted the girl in his arms as gently as he could. Then he stood quite still. "Lachlan!" he said.
     "Aye?" Lachlan was surprised at the strangeness of the tone.
     "Look at the hounds."
     Lachlan looked round. The great dogs were gambolling down by the water's edge, chasing seagulls to pass the time. "What's wrong with them?"
     "Did you ever know them ignore a stranger before? Remember they killed the first man ashore from the shipwreck last year? But they ran right by her."
     Lachlan shrugged. "They ran too fast to notice her. What does it matter?"
     "Aye. I suppose so." Hector didn't sound too sure.
     Farquhar and a couple of the ghillies had run up to find out what was wrong. One of them offered to take the lass, but Hector Luath shook his head and got a good grip of her in his arms. "Bring her bundle there, will you, Farquhar?" he said, and started off down the hill.
     He turned back as Lachlan, in his turn, called him in a strained voice.
   Farquhar was holding the bundle at arm's length. The folds of damp wool had fallen open, and its contents were flopping over his hands; a baby. Heavy and white and dead.