My Heart's In The Highlands
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
Chorus.-My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Farewell to the mountains, high-cover'd with snow,
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.
My heart's in the Highlands, ...”
~ Robert Burns
Adjusting to her routine, "her' saddle, a clean pad, and a four-reined bridle reside on the outside stall wall of "her" mare. Saddling goes quickly under the eye of the much-beleaguered groom.
By the time Despina is drawn into the uplands through trackless woods with no trail, the mare charges onward unhesitatingly, the requisite helicopter hovering above and the two guardsmen trailing.
Eventually, the mare falls into a walk.
This scenery is not so different from the upper reaches of the Rockies I've ridden through. Mountain vistas always have attracted me.
Suddenly, she becomes aware of Ragnar's horse moving up. She pauses, allowing him to overtake her. He reins in silently beside her. His bondsman hangs back a bit.
Despina acknowledges him with a nod. The helicopter swoops low, then gives up and moves off as dense trees loom clear to the end of the tree line on an upward slope high above.
Must be either nearly out of gas or on deadline for the footage. I wonder what strange twist they'll give this little ride in the forest. Something sinister? A runaway? An elopement? After all, they published a shot of the progress of our 'torrid love affair' as Brian called it.
Facing upward, Despina sets off again, Ragnar at her side, the bondsman slightly behind.
As Ragnar slowly moves up until he is riding beside her, Despina addresses him. "This isn't the way to the stables, is it?"
"No." Facing resolutely forward, he focuses on the path, which steepens abruptly, making his progress dicey.
Riding in the center of the path, Despina does not need to pay attention to where her mount puts her feet. "Do you know where we're headed?"
"Yes." Ragnar's tense terseness is grating.
Despina frowns in frustration. "Don't do that!"
Risking a glance at Despina, Ragnar furrows his brow. "What?"
Despina meets his gaze. "Go all monosyllabic on me! Cu used to do that, or just give me these poignant looks I could never decipher."
As the path briefly enters a meadow, Ragnar feels more able to split his concentration between his mount's path and Despina. "Cu? Your husband?"
With the introduction of a touchy subject, Despina tenses. "Yes."
A teasing smile crosses Ragnar's craggy face. "Are you really an Indian princess?"
The bondsman draws closer, the better to overhear her story, she assumes.
The two horses move through the slightly uphill area side by side as Despina gradually relaxes into her narration. "No. I'm not an Indian anything. I married an Indian, fell in love with his two children by his first wife, also a White woman, by the way, and was about to consummate the marriage when we got swept up in the events that lead to him being shot off the top of a cliff. No body was ever found. I went back to White civilization the next day, as I'd signed a contract to teach that year."
Ragnar listens attentively, but does not comment, as Despina continues.
"The Broken Lance sheriff brought me his two children, which the tribal council had decided were mine. Adriana HappyDog, the Indian referred to in that newspaper exposé, came for them that fall around Thanksgiving time, and now I am crucified by the media for not fighting the tribe for them, for teaching in my maiden name instead of changing it officially.
"Truthfully, I couldn't face the inevitable barrage of people demanding explanations without crying. One teacher on staff was there in Arizona with me and knew the whole story. But he evidently didn't say a thing to anyone, at least not to anyone who had the courage to ask me about it... not to my face, anyway."
Despina draws in a cool breath, gazing up at the tree line, listening to the chatter of unknown types of birds. She registers a squirrel’s universally scolding tones as they pass through a stand of oaks.
That makes the second type of tree I am sure I recognize. I thought I saw a Norway pine, duh, buh. And maybe a spruce. I wonder if they have Blue spruce here, too?
Once she has settled her agitated spirit, she delves back into her hard topic with a deep sigh. "I just signed the kids up for school as their foster mother, which was and is true. Now I am just NOT the custodial parent. I don't KNOW for a fact that the tribal council gave them to me, but I trust Mickey, the Broken Lance sheriff, who is White, but was Cu's childhood friend, his BEST friend, in my opinion. He turned into my friend, too, last summer, once he believed that I was truly unresponsive to his advances.
Ragnar raises a skeptical eyebrow, but says nothing.
"I only have Adriana's WORD for the revocation of their gift.” Rolling her eyes upward, Despina continues. “I did NOT check it out." Despina stops, turns her horse to face Ragnar, and meets his eyes. "I knew the children were finding fitting into the White world hard, and I also knew the tribe's feeling about Whites in general and losing Indians to the White world."
As Despina's voice rolls over him, Ragnar slowly dismounts, moving to her right side, putting a reassuring hand over hers.
Despina pauses, then stiffens her shoulders. "These two were two of the best of the 10 and under set -- the age I taught there."
Ragnar reaches forward, holding her mare's reins a few inches below the bit as Despina dismounts on the left. "I can appreciate the fact that the future of that whole tribe depends on holding onto the bright, talented youth they produced."
Despina lowers her eyes, simultaneously canting her head downward. "It IS NOT EASY."
Idly, she notes that the bondsman has drawn closer, the better to overhear her story, she assumes. She tips her head as a new bird song trills. With a heavy sigh, she continues. "You asked if I were married. Now you know the whole story. So, am I still married?" Despina raises her had, meeting his eyes frankly.
Ragnar wets his lips. "That's a hard call." He resists the urge to pull her into his arms. "I can see why you don't talk to the press about it, however. It would make sensational copy, but not lead to a very good life." He shifts his weight forward, closer to Despina, collecting her hand in his empty one. "You would become public property, world-wide. I know from personal experience just how uncomfortable that can be."
Shying away, Despina stretches first one leg, then the other. "There's something in the story of my life last summer to offend every radical group I can think of, from the racial purists to the religious fanatics." She leans froward, touching her toes then does a partial backbend. "Even my own RELATIVES don't all know the whole story. I'm a coward, I guess." Leaning sideways she allows her arm to dangle, nearly touching the ground, then swings to the other side. "I dislike criticism, especially when I feel it will be severe and unjust. In matters of the heart, should one not follow one's heart?" She finishes off with a swing from the waist as far around to the right, then the left, shaking her arms from the shoulder. "That's a very Biblical idea."
A companionable laugh wells up from Ragnar. Giving himself a shake, he moves to her side, assisting her with the offer of his knee to climb on as she mounts. "We're heading to a mountain cave where a holy man lives."
Despina picks up all four reins of the double bridle at once, never breaking eye contact with Ragnar. "NO! Not another cave!"
While she rants on, Ragnar mounts, heading up.
"Not another holy person! Two summers in a row? How history repeats itself!" They enter the stand of pines she had noticed on the far side of the meadow when they first rode in. "Last year's adventures really got off to a flying start when I drove PP's jeep over the top of a mountain!"
She stares at the enormous peak ahead. Well, nothing quite this grand. Maybe it was more of a hill, but steep-sided, she thinks.
"We nearly slid off the side of it, and wound up going into a cave and meeting a medicine woman ... who had been DEAD for three or four years!"
Tore gives an audible gasp.
"This holy man is ALIVE, right?" Despina finishes sarcastically, in what she assumes will be taken as a joke, bringing forth another laugh from Ragnar.
Instead, she is surprised to catch the bondsman exchanging a telling look with Ragnar. She does not comment on it, however, but becomes a bit uneasy. Now, what brought that look on?
"Oh, I think you'll find him lively enough." Ragnar shares another telling look with Tore.
The sun is getting low in the sky when a trail appears and winds around the side of the mountain, narrowing to a one-horse-at-a-time width, and passes a large open cavern.
Pushing into the lead, Ragnar's bondsman rides right into the cave without even having to bend his head. He dismounts, then turns to hold her mare's head while Despina dismounts, stiffening up again.
Been a while since I took quite this long, steep a jaunt.
By the time the gear has been stripped from the mounts, a tall, sepulchrally thin man has come from the depths of the cave. He wears a long, flowing robe that Despina associates with Merlin, the Magician, in Arthurian England. His hair is long, gray, and reaches past his waist, but does not make him seem effeminate.
Ah, the holy man, I imagine.
The priest and the bondsman begin speaking in what Despina assumes to be Norwegian, but when she turns to Ragnar, she finds him watching her intently. "Do you know what they are saying?"
Despina shifts her shoulders quickly back and forth. "Not a clue."
Ragnar smiles as he quietly explains what he sees as a simple truth. "This is Norse, the language you spoke to Tore."
Despina purses her lips. "I can't tell the difference between that and the Norwegian I heard on the streets of Oslo."
Ragnar frowns, then speaks patiently, but with a bit more volume. "The modern day Norwegians don't understand this language very well any more. The two are related, but it would be as if you could speak Old English."
Despina's eyes widen. "Like Beowulf? I have to read it as though it were written in a foreign language."
Ragnar's body relaxes. "Exactly. Yet I heard you use it."
Shaking her head negatively, then shrugging, Despina looks away from his eyes. "What are they saying?"
The conversation stops; both the priest and Tore are watching them, listening to their conversation. Ragnar and Despina look from one to the other.
When the priest addresses him, Ragnar says, "Use English. She says she doesn't speak any of the Norwegian languages."
"Is this the woman you want?" His voice croaks a bit, dry as if it has been exposed to desert sands.
Despina pops her eyes fully open in alarm.
"Yes. But there is a question about her availability. She married last summer, but THINKS her husband is dead. There's no body, however."
Want? Like I go into the grocery store and see a piece of meat I want? This doesn't sound good!
Tore is watching her intently. She meets his eyes and decides he knows she is uneasy. "Wants?" she asks him.
He speaks, but she does not understand him.
Ragnar turns to watch her reaction. "He doesn't speak English."
Exasperated, Despina crosses her arms. "We communicated just fine before."
Hiding his smile behind a pile of equipment he has in his hand, he looks at Tore reassuringly. "Yes, but you spoke to him in Norse."
Confusion shows plainly on Despina's face. "How can I have spoken to him in a language I not only don't know, but didn't even know still exists?
Nobody can answer that. After the silence has grown uncomfortably long, the priest asks Despina, "Why did you come here?"
"Actually, I didn't know I was coming here. We began riding, then I thought to return the mare to the stable, as I was getting a bit sore. I gave the mare her head, assuming she would head home, as one of mine would have. I think it is a horsey form of nostomania, perhaps, sort of like what motivated Odysseus of ancient Greek legend. But, instead, she came here, wherever 'here' is, which looks like a place where Odysseus might have wandered into on one of his adventures. I don't know where 'here' is, really. What's this place called?"
After three tries, Despina gives up trying to pronounce it. "Right. The cave."
Adding a piece of equipment to the pile Ragnar has been creating, the priest looks her way speculatively. "Ragnar tells me you have met the Queen mother."
Despina raises her hands in an outward gesture, her mouth falling open before she speaks. "She's his MOTHER? She doesn't look old enough!"
Tore snorts, then glances up, quickly looking around.
Ragnar emits a sharp laugh. "You should tell her that! I think that would please her immensely."
The priest smiles at them. "So, you did not come to be joined with this man?"
"Uh, how can I do that when I'm already married? Even if you people practice polygamy, which I don't believe you do, I do not."
"Do you still FEEL married?"
"I don't know." Despina drops her eyes self-consciously. "When he was hurt before, I could still 'feel' him. Ever since he went over the cliff, I haven't been able to. But I'm not sure that is what death would feel like."
Despina glances at Ragnar. It's happening again. I had no idea he was thinking of marriage. He's keeping his face stony. I can't tell how he's taking my answer at all. He doesn't look upset, surprised, pleased, displeased... nothing.
"I will return with something for supper." The priest withdraws into the darkness, leaving Despina confused and scared.
Tore begins to build a fire near the cave entrance. Despina watches, wondering how the wood got up so high. I don't remember passing the timberline, but we sure are above it now. I'm not dressed for camping out at this altitude.
Ragnar is watching her intently. "Nothing, ah, untoward, will happen to you tonight," he says in a reassuring tone.
"Untoward?" Despina represses an eye roll. "I was not afraid of being raped. What denomination is the priest? He doesn't seem Lutheran to me."
"He's not.” Ragnar turns a full circle, examining everything in the cavern they are currently in, looking at nothing specific, but not missing anything, either. “He's Norse, a Viking priest."
Despina is embarrassed when her stomach lets out an audible rumble. "What will the horses eat tonight?" She, too, looks around, but does not see where they have gone.
An indulgent look passes over Ragnar’s face. "There's a stable area off to the left back there. They went into the stalls. There's both hay and water."
"May I go see?" I should be reassured enough by what he has so diligently explained, Despina thinks as she raises her eyes hopefully to Ragnar's.
The glow of the setting sun, which has been hitting one side of the outer cave wall, is fading. The light in the entrance appears pink.
Taking her arm in a chivalrous fashion reminiscent of the night they attended the concert, he guides her into the inky shadows.
She hears the chomping of the horses before they come into sight. Two torches smoke in holders high on the mortared stone wall above the mangers. Five straight stalls are available, but only three hold horses. Wooden water buckets sit in the corners of the deep manger that runs the length of all five stalls. Everything looks very old and handcrafted.
The horses are bedded in what appears to be rushes like what would be found growing in water at the bottom of the mountain, not high altitude plants. The hay looks like timothy, but I'm not an expert, Despina thinks.
Turning her body in a complete 360, Despina takes in her surroundings with obvious relish. "This is very well-made. How does the feed and bedding get up here?" This almost feels as if we have entered an alternate time line, or some other science-fiction-y device, Despina thinks with a shudder.
Ragnar smiles gently, showing the hint of dimples. "The cave has a lower level with access to a lovely hidden valley."
"Oh." Despina nods her head. "Why is there a stable clear up here? This trail must be impassable a great part of the year."
A leathery voice grows louder as the priest reenters from the blackness beyond. "This complex used to house quite a community."
Whirling around, Despina faces the blackness. "Like a monastery?"
Ragnar's soft chuckle charms her. "Not exactly. Vikings weren't particularly religious."
"Oh." Squaring her shoulders, Despina forces herself to face the harder questions she must address. "Last summer, I kept finding myself in wedding ceremonies I didn't recognize. Afterward, the people around me would tell me I'd gone through the different ritualized steps leading up to and ending in one, but when I was living through it, I had no idea that was what was happening."
Despina stiffens her spine. "Now I feel as if the same thing is going on again. When did you decide we were going to wed?"
Moving closer, Ragnar lays a hand on her arm. "When you climbed on Ibn and leaped him over the pasture fence."
Despina jerks her arm away. "What! We didn't even KNOW each other then!"
Her discomfort is lessened whe the priest, now carrying an ancient pot, exits the same way he came in.
At least I don't have to worry about the reaction of an audience to this!
Ragnar settles his backside against a convenient rocky outcropping. "The entire palace was abuzz with the news when the arrangements were made for a mounted guard contingent. Of course the Queen had you checked out before granting the request."
He pats the protrusion next to him invitingly, but Despina, still stiff, does not move. "Checked out? How?"
Ragnar moves his hand to his lap with a knowing smile. "The USA maintains friendly relations with Norway. Your embassy was contacted. A report was sent over."
Despina braces her hands on her hips, leaning forward. "And was my marriage in it?"
Ragnar's voice gentles as he projects acceptance in the face of her hostility. "I don't know. I didn't read it."
"Right." Despina flips her hand away from her body to indicate her irritation. "Stable Managers wouldn't read reports the Queen ordered."
A startled laugh bubbles up from deep in Ragnar's chest, reverberating through the cave.
"I'm supposed to be on my way to Sweden now," Despina explains, her forehead wrinkled in worry.
"That I do know about." Ragnar leans his steepled hands against his chin thoughtfully, exuding outward calm. "The Queen had your luggage moved from the hotel to the palace so you would not be charged when you were not using it, and Svein gave her your ticket. To stay in a country, a tourist has to have a ticket home."
Despina feels a flare of anger. "What? How do you know all that?"
"The priest told me."
Despina rocks backward, he body vibrating. "How did she know I wouldn't be going on with my tour? I didn't even know it myself."
Supremely calm, Ragnar's patient voice continues. "Remember that helicopter that swooped down close when I caught up with you? I'll bet everyone in Norway with a TV now knows where WE are spending the night."
"Great!" Her voice is dripping sarcasm. "If that cute little story they were running on our 'romance' circulates worldwide, I could get fired for 'moral turpitude'!"
Not quite pouting, Ragnar's voice takes on a hurt quality. "I didn't think you'd be so upset about it. I thought you WANTED to be here."
"I do," she whispers softly. "You're the first man I've felt comfortable with since..." Tears well up in Despina's eyes.
Standing, Ragnar wraps her in his arms, lightly kissing the top of her head. Turning, he guides her through the darkness in a companionable silence, back toward the front of the cave.
Despina's NOSE rebels as they draw near. Tore has caught and is skinning SOMETHING very bloody. A large caldron of liquid hangs on an iron tripod over the fire, which is making quite a nice bed of coals. The blood is dripping down into the pot.
Despina can't help it; she starts to gag. "What's cooking?" she croaks around the bile building in her throat.
"Blood soup." Ragnar strokes his hand down her arm.
Turning slightly toward him, Despina represses a shudder. "We're supposed to EAT it?"
Ragnar's eyebrows shoot up, but his voice is not mocking. "Well, we are rather distant from a five star dining experience."
Turning away, Despina tries to conceal her weakness. "Oh, I don't think I CAN."
Speaking softly in Norse, Ragnar directs Tore to move outside to clean the carcass. When he returns, his bloody hands are full of chunks of raw meat. The priest comes up with various vegetables ensconced in the same container he had carried out, adding them to the pot. His knife is swift and sure.
Tore goes to a bucket of water on the far side of the cave against the wall and dunks his arms clear to the elbow, then scrubs them vigorously.
Despina breathes a sigh of relief. Gradually the cave clears of the smell, and she relaxes a bit.
Ragnar guides her over to the pile of gear the three of them have created in a sheltered area that will benefit from the cooking fire's heat and light, seating her on one of the saddles propped on a pile of loose hay. "Are you going to be okay?" inquires Ragnar solicitously.
"Now that the air is clearing, I'm sure I'll be fine." Despina suddenly notices how the others have stopped in mid-job, staring at her intently. She stops speaking, staring back. "What's the matter? What did I say?"
Ragnar, hands on his hips, stares at her. "Not what; how. You're doing it again. You're speaking Norse!"
Despina's head snaps back vehemently. "No, I'm speaking English."
Tore answers her. "I don't speak English."
She understands him perfectly. Despina pops up, highly agitated. "I don't understand! I'm speaking English!"
Holding his arms out, fingers spread-eagled toward her, Ragnar commands, "Sit back down, Despina!"
She plops, glaring at Ragnar.
He drops his arms. "Now, say something."
Satisfied, he smiles. "See? That came out in Norse."
"I don't understand.” Despina slumps, shaking her head wearily. “It's leaving MY HEAD in English. How can I be speaking Norse?"
The priest draws close to her. "Has anything like this ever happened to you before?"
Still seated, Despina hesitates before she answers. "Not where I spoke in languages I didn't know..."
The priest peers directly at her. "But things you didn't expect to be able to do?"
"Yes." Suddenly fascinated with her hands, Despina twines them back and forth in her lap as she talks. "Séance-like stuff, mental connections, sharing of consciousness with total strangers, having access to their innermost thoughts. They were willing to share..."
Inordinately pleased, the priest turns partly toward Ragnar, nearly crowing. "I thought so! These powers are rare, but not unknown in the modern world." He looks back at Despina. "Were you living in Viking times, you would be a great holy woman."
Despina licks her lips nervously before revealing more. "When I was with the ancient people of the Stone Circle tribe, their medicine woman guided me. I was in repeated mental contact with her son -- my husband. Some of it was quite unbelievable, the way I was raised to believe... Things I KNOW were really happening, but could not explain rationally."
"Yes. I believe that." The priest looks calmly into Despina's eyes. "You will be fine here. You will adapt very well. Ragnar, you have chosen well."
Moving to a kettle Despina had not noticed before, he pours a hot drink into a cup from a pile of four that sit beside a pile of plates on a flat rock nearby.
Ah, the table, her numb brain supplies.
"Here," says the priest, handing her the steaming cup. "This is an herbal tea. You have nothing that tastes quite like it, but I think you will find the flavor pleasant."
Despina sips it tentatively. Power of suggestion? "This is delightful. Did I speak in English, or Norwegian? I hate not knowing what I am doing!"
They all grin.
"Well, more so than normal..." A relieved laugh spills out, joined by three deeper laughs.
The priest deftly removes a stone to reveal some bread or biscuit-like creation that has been "baking" by the side of the fire. Breaking pieces onto the plates, he passes each one to Tore, who ladles the simmering mixture onto it.
Ragnar takes two plates, bringing one for her, and settles beside her. Pulling out a pouch, he produces silverware that could have been used for table service at the Queen's own table.
Despina is struck by the incongruity of the rough wooden platters and the finely crafted silver. The smell of the stew, now enticingly cooked, makes her stomach growl.
Ragnar digs in enthusiastically, watching her surreptitiously.
Hesitantly, Despina breaks off a piece of the pseudo biscuit and sops the inner part with some of the gravy. Sniffing it first, she tentatively touches her tongue to the concoction.
"Savory. I think I am becoming a believer that one should taste exotic food BEFORE one is prejudiced against it by being privy to the intimacies of how it looks and smells while being prepared. I know our packing places stink to high heaven, and if we had that smell in our nostrils, then were served our favorite cut of steak, cooked to perfection, smothered in our favorite sauce, we would be just as unlikely to immediately eat it with pleasure. But knowing it intellectually and being able to quell my queasy stomach are two entirely different things."
Mixing in some of the vegetables, she tries a chunk of meat with the dough. Soon enough, she is eating with relish. "My compliments to the chefs and hunters," she says as she mops her plate clean with the last bit of the "bread" and pops it into her mouth.
"Mead?" asks the priest, holding out an elaborately carved wooden stein with an ornate silver handle and silver drinking-rim.
"That's a beautiful mug. Is mead honey flavored wine? I don't use alcohol. Maybe I'd be better off with water if we have access to some that's fresh." No way will I consider anything from that bucket Tore used to clean up! "Is there a 'powder room'?"
Ragnar looks at her in shock. "Powder? Like for a gun?"
Despina can feel her face turn bright pink.
"What is this?" asks Tore.
"Ah, follow me." The priest speaks briefly in an intelligible language to Ragnar, whose eyes light with understanding.
Last updated 11/30/14 Added quotation; matched with the revised desktop copy; 11/19/04.