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One hundred years ago ...
The tale always began that way, and Marcus wondered how it could always be that same number of years when he himself had been hearing the story for at least the past thirty.
One hundred years ago there lived a laird and his lady, and she was the fairest lady to ever grace the lands. Her hair was light as moonlight, her eyes were the color of the rarest heather flowers, her brows black as jet.
Lady Avalon sat quietly now in the saddle before him, only her hands had been bound again with a soft strap of cloth torn from a blanket. Whether or not her eyes were really the color of heather flowers Marcus couldn't say, because she kept them cast away from him, kept them fixed on the horizon, searching for something he could not see.
The laird loved his lady fair and she him, both of them ruling just and right over their clan. It was the days of riches for them, of long summers and gentle winters, when the mountains still sang their songs at night and the deer were plump and plentiful. Each day was a jewel in the mind of God, and the Clan Kincardine was the most blessed of all people.
Into this peace came an evil faerie, who had watched the laird's lady for such a time until he fell into envy. He wanted her for himself, her moonlight and heather and jet, and set about to win her, using magic and gold and gossamer promises.
But she would not be won. Her heart was true to her laird.
Marcus found himself focusing on every part of Avalon that touched his body, the softness of her lines pressed to him in the confines of the saddle, the heat of her stomach against the arm he had wrapped around her waist. She smelled of apples and flowers. She had tasted of spice.
He wondered briefly if she was naive enough to be in love with her oafish cousin. She had seemed to accept his hasty plan to wed her without protest, even knowing the disgrace it would bring upon her, the war that might ensue.
But she was a woman. He had no idea why women did anything.
One day our lady went off wool gathering to the glen. She was so gentle that the thorns would bend back from the branches of the brambles, allowing her to harvest their treasured wool without harm.
But the faerie came upon her, and he had lost patience with his wooing. He took her honor there in the glen and broke her true heart until she died on the spot, weeping for her love.
The laird found her in the grass and knew what had happened.
Understand how much he loved her. Understand how great was his loss, for then and there he abandoned his faith and called on the devil to avenge the wrong done his lady.
The day had favored them by turning cloudy and dark, making their movement through the woods more obscure, turning them all into mere extensions of the shadows.
Lady Avalon was trying to resist falling asleep, Marcus noted. Her head would sink lower and lower, then jerk back up, only to repeat the process.
He thought about the offer she had made back in the circle of his men. She had told him she would give him everything he desired if he let her go. But if he let her go, he would never get the one thing that it turned out he desired most. And he was not a man to take his inclinations lightly.
Her chin dropped down and stayed there. With a subtle shifting of his arm he leaned her back against him until her head rested against his shoulder. Her hair was the only brightness around them.
The devil came with smoke and sulphur to the glen, and he brought forth the wicked faerie and held him in chains of fire in front of the laird.
"What would you have me do?" the devil asked.
"Revenge!" called out the laird, holding his poor lass in his arms.
So the devil took the faerie with fiery hands and twisted and turned him, shouting shrieks and spells until it wasn't a faerie any longer, but something else, black and burnt. And the devil tossed him onto the side of the mountain where he burned deep into the rock and melted there, gone forever.
"Now," said the devil. "My payment."
And it was only then that the laird realized what he had done.
When she was asleep it was easy to forget the fire in her eyes, a fire he provoked. It was easy to think about how she might have been if they had met under different circumstances, his own version of a fairy tale. She would have been trusting but strong, clever but kind beneath all that beauty. And he would have never, ever left on any crusade for any man or god.
"I find I have too many souls right now," said the crafty devil. "Yours will only crowd my halls. I will take something else from you. I will take your children away from you, and your children's children, and their children and their children, as well. They will be banished from you and with them all your golden days, and your clan will languish without them, and your lands will be barren, and your animals will drop."
The laird cried out but what could he do? He had called on the devil and now his people would pay the price.
She wasn't that heavy against him. Marcus thought it would be no problem to ride the rest of the day with the sleeping Avalon in his arms, to ride off into eternity with her relaxed before him, the sweet softness of her hair flowing down over her hips to brush and curl against his leg.
The laird wept and begged for mercy but the devil would have none of it. Only when an eye opened in the sky did the devil stop laughing, and from the eye came a ray of sunlight, falling down only on our dead lady.
Perhaps she was up in heaven right then, entreating the Lord to have pity on her true love. For this was the Eye of God in the sky, and He had taken an interest in the laird's fate.
Now, the devil knew what this meant, that God was listening and noticing, and the devil knew what he had to say. But it filled him with spite that he had to soften his curse, and he spat the final words to the kneeling laird.
"This curse will last one hundred full years, until there comes from these children a lass with the mark of your lady, a daughter of your clan to wed the laird. Until she returns you will not prosper, not you or any of yours."
And because he was the devil, he added one more thing before being swallowed up whole by the ground:
"And she will be a warrior maiden who will know your deepest hearts and thoughts. And she will hate your very name."