Chapter One

Love, the source of courage. Clan MacDonan

Saturday, 20 March, 1813. Morning, Kildonan

A prolonged deluge pushed the river to the verge of its banks, threatening to flood the pastoral valley, the Strath of Kildonan. Familiar rocks disappeared. The deepest pool moved in a circle. Three lads played on the slippery edge, challenging each other to toss the biggest stone.

Up on the hillside, Bella MacDonan brushed her auburn hair away from her face, made a loose braid and twisted it at the nape of her neck. She pulled her new linen cap over her hair and hummed a lively reel as she prepared her home for the spring ceilidh that evening. Storytelling, feasting, and dancing would be a welcome treat after the loneliness of a dark winter. The morning chores went well, and all three of her nearly grown children were off on their assigned tasks.

The baking project was under way, so there was no putting off the cleaning. A pile of debris by the door needed moving before her son Tommy ran in and scattered it. She swept out the dirt and paused at the door to greet Tommy, who was returning from his daily mission to find the chickens’ newest laying place. His black curly hair fell forward as he ran down the lane toward her. He was barefoot as usual, and it looked like he’d crushed a fresh egg in his shirt pocket. His sixteenth birthday was quickly approaching, yet at times he seemed twelve again.

“I found three eggs, Ma.” He handed her the basket. Bella tried to push the hair out of his eyes, but he jumped back, quicker than her reach. She smiled at his pleasure in dodging and now being taller than her. Tommy turned and ran back up the hill to continue the search.

She carried the basket inside, lined up the eggs on the table and took the basket out to the ledge by the door, hoping he would come back for it. The hairbrush in her apron pocket bumped against her leg. She grabbed the handle and cleaned out the loose strands to throw for the birds to make their new nests. For the first time she noticed several gray hairs among the reddish-brown strands. She remembered her mother combing her own long hair, saying, ‘when the hair turns gray, the children move away’.

Her own three children were close to the age of marriage, but she doubted any of them would go far from home. Robbie, the oldest, would inherit their land and build his own cottage nearby. Rose had her hopes on Les MacLennan, the lad who lived down the hill. And Tommy, well, she kept him close by her side.

A stream of sunlight called her around the corner for a look at the outside world. A creek-side path wove through banks of heather, roses, and stands of bracken fern just coming to life after the long winter. Buds were breaking on the hazelnut trees, a hopeful sign of spring.

Peat smoke curled from every thatched roof. The MacLennans were straight below the MacDonans and their community stretched along the river to the MacKays in the downstream distance.

Her eyes fixed on a group of children throwing rocks too close to the surging water. Her breath caught in her chest as her five-year-old nephew Jamie MacKay picked up a huge chunk of an ancient crumbled wall. He staggered to the brink with the heavy load and pitched his rock. She stared in horror as he lost his balance and plunged head first into the rushing current.

“Jamie!” Bella dropped her brush, picked up her long skirts and ran down the path.

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