Lammas Night at the edge of the world
The sky was still blue this August evening, the gray sides of the towering mountain peaks of western Scotland were still lit by the sun, but the long day was at last ending. To the east the light was fading in the deep glens and forests, the wind sighing through the branches, lifting drops of water from the tumbling streams onto nearby ferns, where they would linger through the short summer night. The sun moved ever downward in the west, changing the sea from blue to molten silver, and the cobalt of the offshore islands to a muted gray. Waves hurried to claim the shingle, lacy white foam flying from their crests to join with the descending evening.
The young girl who hurried up the headland saw none of it; she saw only the old woman ahead of her moving steadily away, and she increased her speed anxiously. Seals lifted their heads from the water and shorebirds dipped down to get a closer look at the two figures below. But the young girl did not look.
She wanted to see the future.
She was a beautiful child, with long bones and glossy dark hair that waved around her oval face and framed her blue eyes and even features. But it was her determination that one saw, the glint of steel showing in those lovely eyes, usually hidden under a layer of courtesy and training, but now, unwatched except by the creatures of sea and air, her jaw was set and her gaze unfaltering.
She thought of herself as Scottish, but in truth her blood was mixed. She'd been formed by fiery Picts, ancient Caledonians, and ferocious Norsemen on her father's side, triumphant Normans and passionate Celts on her mother's. She knew of their intermingled histories, had heard the stories of the old days and the battles for dominance, of foes who had come from the south and from the sea, of courageous people who had held the Romans at bay and fought off the Vikings. But all that was in the past, and she gave it little thought. It was what was to come that interested her now, and only the old woman could help her to see it.
She'd seen much already this evening, had watched as the rituals of Lammas Night, the first of the harvest festivals, were carried out, the storing of the seed corn and the ceremonial lighting of the bonfire that illuminated the sky. She'd watched the clanspeople her father led devour the Lammas feast and had tasted the Mass Loaf, made from the first flour ground after the harvest. And after the meal, when many of the others were worse for drink, or lost in the wonderful music, she'd watched her father clasp the hand of his latest mistress and slide from the hall. And watched her mother's eyes darken as she saw them go.
She'd seen her younger brother Rignor let an innocent servant take the blame for the cup he'd spilled and no one chide him for it, though both her parents had seen the incident. But why should she expect otherwise when she'd seen the same kind of thing repeated all of his life? She'd seen Dagmar, from the next village, only a few years older, but much wiser in the ways of the flesh, rearrange her skirts and flash a smile to the man she'd just entertained in the gardens.
She'd watched the priest bless the harvest and pray over the seeds that would be stored during the long winter. And, standing at the priest's side, enthralled, she'd watched while the old woman read palms and predicted the future, her tone solemn and accent foreign. The priest had frowned, but he'd listened as intently as the others. The old woman had predicted a good harvest for this year, and a new child for the girl's parents -- hardly surprising considering her mother's swollen middle. But she'd told the girl nothing.
The girl already knew much of what lay ahead for her. She was the oldest child of the laird of Somerstrath and she knew her duty. She'd been betrothed to Lachlan Ross since early childhood and knew that eventually she would leave Somerstrath and live her life as his wife. But she wanted to know more than that, so she followed the old woman up this headland that faced the west.
There the woman paused, at the edge of the world, looking across the water, holding the golden star she wore around her neck between her long bony fingers. She turned when the child joined her. "You've come for a reading?"
The girl thrust her hand forward. "Please, if ye would, madam."
The woman's expression softened. She'd half hoped she could leave without the girl's noticing, but was not surprised that the girl had followed her. Now there was no hope for it but to warn her. Margaret MacDonald's life would not be peaceful. She, like her country, would be gravely tested in the years ahead. Scotland, the woman was sure, would survive, despite the forces that would threaten it and the challenges young King Alexander III would face. Margaret MacDonald would come of age in the midst of it all. The old woman sighed. How to tell an innocent what lay ahead? The old woman took the girl's hand, studying her palm for so long that the child shifted her weight impatiently.
"You are well named," the old woman said, looking up at last.
Margaret smiled, not sure what that meant, and the woman laughed gently.
"Look," she said, holding Margaret's palm between them. "This is your heart line and this your life line." She looked into the girl's eyes. "You will face dragons."
Margaret's smile was strained now. Dragons, she thought. Father had been right; there was no magic here, just an old woman hired for entertainment.
"You don't believe me," the woman said, leaning back and giving the girl an appraising look. "Do you know who St. Margaret was?"
"Oh, aye," Margaret said. "She was the queen of Scotland, King Malcolm's wife. I'm named after her. She wasn't a saint then, but..." She stopped as the woman shook her head.
"Not her, child. The first St. Margaret. Do you know her story?"
"Ah. Well, you should. St. Margaret was a beautiful young girl, not unlike you. She lived in Antioch, a long way from Scotland."
"Is that where ye're from, Antioch?"
The woman's gaze grew distant for the fleetest of moments. "No, child, but closer to Antioch than to here. Someday perhaps you'll hear my story, but not today. I will tell you of my life when next we meet. For, Margaret, I do think we shall meet again." She smiled, her gaze now sharp and tone brisk. "As St. Margaret grew older all admired her beauty, and she caught the eye of a Roman prefect, who wanted to marry her. When she refused, he threw her into a dungeon and left her to die. But she did not die."
"The devil came to her, offering her freedom for her soul."
"But she dinna take it," Margaret said.
"No, of course not. The devil was so incensed that he turned himself into a dragon and ate her alive."
"Then how did she not die?"
The woman's smile widened. "She did what every self-respecting saint does, Margaret of Somerstrath. She held up the cross of Christ, and the dragon spit her out and died himself."
Margaret slumped, disappointed. She was quite sure no Roman prefect would seek her hand in marriage, that no dragon would threaten her.
"Look," said the woman, tracing a finger down the girl's lifeline. "See this break? You'll be torn from your home, and you'll face dragons. If you choose the right partner, you'll slay them together. And together find the love of legends."
"And if I dinna choose the right partner? What then?"
Margaret fought against the sudden chill that claimed her and forced herself to look into the woman's eyes. "I dinna believe any of that."
The woman laughed, the sound chilling Margaret even more.
"We do not choose what God sends us, child, any more than we choose our own names. Margaret you are, and Margaret you will be, and your life will be formed by that. You will face dragons. You need to prepare yourself for it." She started away, her progress surprisingly rapid for one so aged.
Margaret watched for a moment, torn between disappointment and curiosity, then ran after her. "But how will I ken the right partner? How will I ken it's him?"
The old woman stopped. "You will know him. He will be unlike any other man you've known. He will be golden. He will bring life after death."
"But how will I ken?"
"Listen. There is a voice within each of us. Listen to it."
"What will happen to me?"
"Before you leave this earth, Margaret MacDonald, you will see the birth of a people formed from many peoples, made of steel and fire and magic and mist, a people who will travel the world and change it forever."
"I can tell ye nothing more. Go home, child. The darkness is coming."
Copyright © 2006 by Kathleen Givens