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Once Upon a Highland Autumn

ONCE UPON A HIGHLAND AUTUMN

PROLOGUE


Glen Dorian, 1817

"Is that a true story?"

Duncan MacIntosh let his gaze bore into the child from across the fire.

"It's as true as any tale ever was, lad. T'isnt a story—it's the history of your own clan. Do you doubt my word?"

"But how can a dragon eat a whole village?" the boy asked, not half as frightened of the aged clansman's scowl as Duncan would have liked. So he raised his hands over his head, spreading his plaid above himself like wings. He leaned away from the fire, letting the shadows transform him until his eyes gleamed, and the crags and valleys of his wrinkled skin deepened in the firelight. "He is a dragon!" the boy cried out in terror, and clutched his mother's skirt.

The seannachaidh of Clan MacIntosh sat down, coming back into the light, his face benign now. He set a gnarled hand on the boy's shoulder. "Och, don't be afraid, lad. Tis all for fun, that tale. It's a seannachaidh's job to keep the tales of the clan, and tell them—even the almost-true ones about dragons. Shall I tell you a truly true one?"

The boy stuck his lip out mutinously. "Are there dragons in it?"

"No. There's a pretty lass called Mairi MacIntosh, her brave laird, and a soldier in this tale, but no dragons—well, unless you count the fearsome Duke of Cumberland."

"Who's he?" the boy asked.

"He was the wicked son of a king. He came to vanquish the MacIntosh clan, and all the rest of the Highlanders."

The boy's eyes widened. "Is there blood and swords and killing in this tale?"

Duncan's brow crumpled. "Too much of that, I fear. Are you afraid?"

The lad shook his head. "Is there kissing?"

The old man's brow smoothed as he laughed. "Aye, some—though not nearly enough."

"How does the story end?"

"I don't know. It hasn't got an ending yet."

"Haven't you made one up?" the child demanded.

Duncan pursed his lips. "As I said, this is a true tale, not a made-up one. True tales are long in the unfolding, lad. You can't just conjure the ending out of the air. Something happens to begin the story—a dreadful thing sometimes—and then we must wait for the outcome. D'you understand that lad?"

"I think so."

"Good lad. Then you must listen closely, and learn this story, so one day you can tell it. There have been a great many MacIntoshes in this glen before you and I, and I intend to see to it that you know all about every one of them before I leave this earth. Someday it will be you sitting here by the fire, lad, telling the tales to your sons or your grandsons, and they will do the same in their turn."

The boy glanced over his shoulder at the loch of Glen Dorian, named for the otters that had always lived there. The water shimmered in the moonlight, black and deep. "Will I find the ending of this story?" the boy asked, stepping away from his mother to set his hand on Duncan's knee.

"I hope you will. But for now you should know how it started." The old seannachaidh took the boy onto his lap, kissed the top of his dark head and looked out at the rest of his audience, a half-dozen MacIntosh clansmen, women, and children who sat around the blazing fire on this summer evening, listening to stories under the stars, just as other Macintoshes had done before them.

Duncan stared into the fire as if he could see faces and events written there, and the others leaned nearer too, as he began to speak.

"This is the story of love, and hatred, and war—and of kindness, too. It all began many years ago, during the forty-five, when the clans rose to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart, and in the choosing of sides, many things happened—terrible, sorrowful things that still hover over this glen—including a powerful curse."

"Mairi's curse," someone murmured fearfully, and a murmur rose with the smoke of the fire.

"Aye," Duncan said. "Mairi's curse. Listen now. I will tell you all I know, but that curse remains upon our glen, waiting for the day when someone will come at last and break it, and bring love and happiness back to Glen Dorian."

"And kissing?" the boy asked.

"And kissing, too," Duncan said, and began to tell the tale.

© Lecia Cornwall


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