Prologue- Aislinn

            I will never forget that day, as long as I live.  It was a beautiful spring morning, warm and bright, and as I walked away from the keep that day, I remember being so very happy that winter had finally passed, despite the whispers in the breakfast hall that morning.

            My brother, Michael, was Laird of Clan Campbell, and had only been such for a year, after our Father had passed last winter of consumption.  He was ten years my elder, and according to talk, twenty-two was young to be Laird.  Nonetheless, he took his position seriously, was a fierce warrior and a fair man, and the Campbells loved him.

            I didn't walk towards the village, the cottages and such that were down the path from the keep, but instead, I walked into the hills.  I had thought to seek out my friend Bridget, but had thought better of it; I knew that her mother had just given birth to her fifth child.  I didn't relish being cooped up in their cottage all day, helping Bridget do her chores.  I would be a dutiful friend and go tomorrow.

            As I passed the training field, my Uncle Niall called out to me.

            "Aislinn, stay away from the borders, do you hear me?" he bellowed.

            "Of course, Uncle," I replied.  "I always try to stay clear of the borders."

            "I mean it, girl, if you go near Buchanan lands, I will whip you until your hide falls off!" he threatened, staring at me with his bright blue eyes.  His dark hair was long and wild, as usual, and if he wasn't my Uncle Niall, he would have intimidated me.

            "I know not to go near Buchanan lands," I retorted, rolling my eyes.  Did he actually think I was planning on walking ten miles?  Had he gone completely daft?

            "Mind that ye don't girl," he growled in response, and I smiled sweetly at him and kept moving.

            His warning, however, stuck in my mind in a strange way.  What was all the fuss about the Buchanans, at any rate?  That's what everyone was whispering about this morning, and I tried my best to hear what was going on, but Michael had sent me packing with a glare and a gesture.  Damn it all, it was trying being twelve; I didn't get to hear a thing.

            The Buchanans had been a rival clan for a while now, since before I was born.  Niall had told me once that they used to be allies, but the old man, Laird Buchanan had gone mad and turned against everyone, including the Campbells, who had always stood by them.  Little consequence that was to me, however, except for worrying about my brothers and my Uncle when they rode to defend our borders and go on raids.

            I was aware, however, solely by hanging out my window after I was banished from the hall, of my other brother, Ian, riding out with twelve men this morning, heading straight for Buchanan lands.  This and the strange warning from Niall had made me a bit suspicious.

            I didn't let it spoil my walk, however.  I had plans to wade in the stream and have a wonderful day, despite the strangeness, until I had to go back to the keep for luncheon and my afternoon lessons.  Reaching the stream, I took off my shoes and tucked my skirts into my waistband.  Wading in, the cold water assaulted me, and the icy temperature caused me to gasp and shiver.  I could only endure it for a few more moments, finally I had to get out and be content to sit on the bank and enjoy the spring air.

            I tried to force my body to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings, but despite my valiant efforts, however, the Buchanan issue stuck in my mind like a burr.  After turning it over several times, I was seized by worry for Ian and the other men.  Why in blazes were they riding towards Buchanan lands like the devil was after them?  Surely, I didn't understand that.  When they go on raids, they ride out with purpose, yes, but not like bats out of the belfry.  The longer I sat there, the more confused I became.  Finally, I lay down and settled myself to a nap.

            I woke up to the sound of thundering hooves.  Hopping up, I put on my shoes and shielded my eyes against the sun, peering in the direction of the horses.  Relief flooded through me when I saw Ian's party return, and more relief followed when I counted to thirteen; they were all riding, and they were all unharmed.  Gabriel, by far my favorite of the men, slowed his horse and scooped me up in front of him, his arm like a vice around my waist.  I wanted to know what was going on, but we were riding too fast to ask, so I endured the ride, admittedly enjoying his arm around my waist.  Gabriel was a beautiful brown haired man with a strong body and warm brown eyes, and I fancied him.

            Many times I had asked Una, my maid, if she thought that he might fancy me as well.  Every time I said this, she became cross and told me again and again that Gabe was too old for me and I shouldn't allow myself the fancy.  She said my brother would arrange me a marriage when the time came, but a girl of twelve was too young to attach feelings to an older man.

            But, as far as my child-like fancy was concerned, I loved him and would like very much to marry him one day.  I thought that he fancied me as well; he asked me to dance after dinner sometimes, and he winked at me when he caught me watching him.  I felt pretty when he did things such as that.

            The ride to the courtyard was short, much to my dismay.  Gabriel dismounted and helped me to do so, his hands encircling my waist to steady me.  I had a thought to hug him and give him a kiss on the cheek, but the look in his eyes stopped me.  He looked murderously angry, and worried.  Ian had the same look on his face as he went over to Hamish's horse, and I sucked in a deep breath as a person was passed into Ian's arms.  It was a boy, beaten and bloody and no doubt unconscious.

            "Gabriel, what's going on?" I asked, my voice breathless with surprise.

            "Go on up to the keep, little one," he replied, smiling through his dismay.  "You shouldn't be out here."

            "But…" I stammered, and suddenly, Niall was there.

            "Go now, Aislinn, and don't make me tell you again," he instructed, and I knew that I should obey, but I was totally unable to, unfortunately.

            "Niall, who is that boy?" I delved further, and he grabbed my arm and turned me to face him.

            "It's none of your concern, Aislinn, now go to your room!" he bellowed, and I swallowed hard and scampered off as he released me and I did his bidding.

            When I reached my room, Una was running around like a maniac, gathering her healing supplies.  She was the keep's healer, as well as my nursemaid, and she was the only mother I had ever known, since my own had died giving birth to me.

            "Una, what has happened?" I asked, as she paused for a moment to look at me.

            "I can't tell you that, child," she replied, her eyes kind.

            "Please, Una, he looked like he was dead," I pleaded.  "Can you please give me a hint?"

            She looked at me for a long moment, and I knew I had her when she sighed.

            "Alright, but not a word," she whispered.  I nodded, encouraging her.  "He's the Laird Buchanan's son," she continued, her voice barely audible.  "There was some bad business at their keep, and the men went and rescued the boy.  Now, I must go tend to him."

            "May I please help you tend him?" I asked, my voice a whisper as well.

            "No," she said, turning to leave.  "The Laird would have my hide."

            "No he wouldn't," I argued.  "He knows that you are teaching me healing, Una.  I can help you… really I can," I begged.

            She flattened her lips into a hard line.  "I suppose," she said carefully.  "But you must do as I say, even if that means you leaving the chamber."

            "I promise," I answered, the excitement building.

            "Help me carry my supplies, then," she said, handing me a basket where she kept her herbs.  I followed, my heart beating madly.

            The chamber was dark, and Una sent Fiona for more water.  "Make it hot water, girl," Una said, and Fiona scampered away, her eyes wide, nodding her head in agreement.  We approached the bed, and what I saw made me feel like fainting for the first time in my young life.

            He looked more like a bruise than a boy.  His face was covered in dry, caked blood, matting his hair that once had been golden into a sticky mess.  His left eye was swollen shut, and my heart tightened as I saw his hands.  They were clenched into fists, just as damaged and bruised as the rest of him.  He looked like he was indeed dead, but I saw the slow rise and fall of his chest as I looked closer.

            "Don't just stand there, Aislinn," Una hissed.  "If you intend to help, then take a cloth and clean his face very gently.  I need to see if his jaw is broken.  I'm going to check him for other injuries."

            I did as she asked, holding my breath as I soaked the cloth in water, squeezed it out and applied it to his face carefully.  It took me forever, but I managed finally to clear his face of most of the blood as Una wrapped his ribs.  Occasionally, I stopped what I was doing at her request, to help her pull the strips of cloth tight.

            "His ribs are broken," she muttered, and I knew she was speaking more to herself than she was to me.  She examined his face giving me a curt nod as she did so, her way of approving of my task.  "His face seems intact, but his leg is hurt badly."

            "Is it broken?" I whispered, brushing my fingers across his jaw.  He had been fair-looking before this injustice was done to him, of that I could tell.

            "No," she answered curtly.  "But it's been sliced up pretty badly."

            I cautioned a glance and then wished I hadn't.  Someone had sliced his leg to pieces, it seemed.  The skin was puckered badly, the wound ugly and dark red.

            "I hope it doesn't fester," she said.  "I can't stitch it; it's had too much time in the air."

            "What are you going to do?" I asked.

            "The best I can," she answered.

            A few hours later, Una let me help her wash his hair.  She had done wonders with his leg, and as she wrapped clean cloths around it, it looked so much better than it had before.  Una was a wonderful healer.

            She did most of the work, but I helped her rinse and dry, and was surprised when she handed me a hairbrush.

            "Brush his hair, Aislinn," she instructed.  "Be careful of his injuries, though.  His scalp has abrasions."

            "Why did we wash his hair, Una?" I asked, my voice still a whisper.  "Shouldn't we have worried more about his injuries?"

            "His wounds will fester if he lies here in filth," she said.  "I've told you that often enough."

            I nodded as I brushed his hair.  It was long, like all the men in the Highlands wore it, and I couldn't help but notice that it felt like silk between my fingers.

            "His hair is almost as light as yours," Una remarked as I worked.  "He's a fine looking boy, under all the bruises."

            "Why did the men bring him here?" I asked, and Una sighed.  I could tell she was tiring of my questions.

            "It's our Christian duty to help him, if we can," she answered.

            "Couldn't his clan help him?" I asked then.

            "Apparently not," came her reply, and I fell silent, hoping that I would know what happened soon enough.

            When I was finished, Una dismissed me.

            "You did well, child," she said.  "Go now, and get yourself something to eat.  When you're done, bring up some cold water for him."

            I ate in the kitchen, surprised at how very hungry I was.  The cook clucked her disapproval as I ate the meat tarts and potatoes quickly.  Helen hated it when I ate too fast.  When I finished, I filled a pitcher with fresh cool water and grabbed a mug and made my way upstairs.  The men had not made it back to the keep yet, and I wondered what was keeping them.  When I entered the chamber, Una seemed to be finished working on him, for now, at least.

            "Aislinn, I need you to sit with him for a few minutes," Una said, as I sat the water down on the table before the fire.  "The fire is waning and I need to tend it."

            I knew she would have to go for more wood, so I agreed.

            "If he wakes, give him a little water, slowly.  That's very important, child.  And for the love of God, don't ask him any questions.  You don't want to upset him."

            "Yes, Una," I promised, as she left the room quickly.

            I pulled a chair next to the bed and sat down, watching him carefully.  He was starting to stir, just a little, and I wondered if he was going to wake up.  I didn't wonder anymore when his eyes fluttered open and his hand gripped my wrist with surprising strength.

            "Who are you?" he croaked, blinking like he wasn't sure if I was real or not.  His eyes were green.

            "Aislinn," I replied.  "Would you like some water?"

            He nodded, fighting to sit up.  I poured water in the mug and held it up to his mouth.  "You must drink it slowly," I instructed.

            He did as I asked, but he was so thirsty, he drained the mug.  I gave him a little more and he finished that as well, his breath coming in short pants.

            "Where am I?" he asked, and I wondered how much I should tell him.  I guessed that telling him where he was would do little harm, but then I changed my mind when I saw the fear in his eyes.  I went for reassurance instead of truth.

            "You're safe," I assured him as I helped him lay back down.  "What's your name?"

            "Alistair," he replied, as his eyes closed.  He was asleep in seconds.

            "Welcome, Alistair Buchanan," I whispered, and went back to sit in the chair.

            He woke again once Una had come and gone, and the fire was now burning merrily.  He seemed much more lucid this time.

            "Aislinn," he said my name and I smiled reassuringly.

            "Yes, Alistair," I answered.

            "Will you tell me where I am now?" he asked.

            "As long as you realize that you're safe," I replied.

            "I know," he answered.

            "You're in the keep Campbell," I replied, as his eyes widened.  "My brother Ian and his men fetched you this morning and brought you here."

            "Why?" he whispered.

            "You needed saving," I replied.  "Other than that, I don't know."

            "Are you going to ask me what happened?" he inquired. 

            I shook my head.  "No," I replied.  "I'm sure my brothers will be in to ask you that soon enough."

            "Will they make me go back?" he asked then, his eyes widened with worry.

            "Not if you're in danger," I answered.  That seemed to reassure him some.

            "How old are you?" he asked.

            "Twelve," I replied.  "You?"

            "Thirteen," he answered.  "Will you stay with me, Aislinn?"

            "If my brothers permit it," I answered.

            He nodded, but said nothing else for the moment.  We sat silently for a while, and after a minute, I offered him my hand.  He took it and held it tightly against his chest, well above his broken ribs.

            Michael, Ian and Niall came in about an hour later.  Michael smiled when he saw Alistair, and that fact alone reassured him.  He had clasped my hand even tighter when the men came in, as if he was afraid that they would hurt him.

            "You're safe, young Buchanan," Michael said quietly, as he turned to me.  "Aislinn, please leave us."

            Alistair became agitated at this.  "Please, Laird, let her stay," he said, his voice high and raspy.  "She's been taking care of me."

            Michael's blue eyes twinkled as he looked at me with mirth.  I cast my eyes downward after giving him a quick pleading look.  I loved my brother, but he could, at times, scare me to death.  He was a hard man, but he had to be, in his position.

            "Aislinn, do you wish to stay?" he asked.

            "Yes, Laird, if I might," I answered, making sure my voice was clear and strong.

            "This might be hard for you to hear," he went on.  "Can you be strong?"

            "Yes, I can," I replied, as Michael nodded.  Niall did not agree.

            "The child shouldn't hear this," Niall argued.  "She's too young."

            Michael shook his head.  "It's a hard world, Uncle," he said quietly.  "Aislinn should only be shielded from it if she has to be.  It's about time that she prepares to be a woman."

            Niall remained quiet, even though I could tell that he loathed the idea.

            "What happened last night?" Michael asked, as he sat down on the edge of the bed.  Alistair gripped my hand so tightly that I gritted my teeth in response.  He was strong.

            "My mother gave birth to my brother last night," Alistair started, letting up on my hand a bit.  He still held it firmly, though.  "The midwife said that he was born still, I mean, he wasn't living."

            Michael nodded in encouragement, and Alistair kept talking.

            "My father strangled her," he said, tears starting to flow down his cheeks.  I squeezed his hand, feeling tears rise in my eyes as well.  "That bastard killed my mother, because he thought she had killed his son."  He was sobbing now, and I furiously blinked back my own tears, for fear that Niall would insist that I leave.

            "I killed him," Alistair said through his tears.  "And his followers attacked me in response."

            "What do you mean, his followers?" Ian asked, speaking for the first time.

            Alistair managed to slow his tears a bit.  "There was a plan… among some of his men, that when I was old enough, I would take over the clan.  He was a tyrant, my father, he didn't take care of his people, and they wanted to see me in power.  My father had his loyal men, and I had to be protected from them.  They attacked me after I killed my father and Angus saved me… he hid me from them.  That's the last thing I remember."

            "They have control now?" Michael asked.

            "I suppose," Alistair said.  "Their leader is a man named Horace.  He's a black heart.  He'll hunt me down and kill me, so I can never challenge him."

            "He won't find you here," Michael encouraged him.  "You'll be safe, young Buchanan."

            "And Angus?" he asked.

            "I don't know," Michael answered.  "Perhaps your loyalist fled, in order to fight another day."  Even I knew that was rubbish.  No Highlander would ever flee.  If the black-hearts had control, that meant the other men were dead.

            Alistair nodded, still gripping my hand like a vice.  I was afraid it might be bruised when he was done with it.

            "Rest now," Ian interjected.  "We'll have some food brought up for you."

            "Thank you," he whispered.

            "Do you wish Aislinn to stay with you?" Michael asked.

            "Please," he said, as his eyes closed.  My brothers and uncle left then, casting me a glance over their shoulders.

            That's how Alistair Buchanan came to live at keep Campbell.