After the feast of St. Andrew and throughout Advent, Mary awaited her lying-in with a mixture of dread and hope. She had never carried a child so near to term before; the first two pregnancies had ended almost before she knew they had begun. For five years now she had wanted a child. She was happy in her marriage; glad for her friends and kinswomen when they bore children, but she felt a deep lonely ache to hold her own baby.
Many women went into childbed and never arose, so Mary was careful to do all that the midwife asked of her: she ate as well as she could, trod carefully on days when the ground was covered with snow or ice, and stayed away from the forest. "The white-haired crone that lives there will enchant you if she lays eyes on you, Mary," the midwife had warned.
"Tis only an old beggar woman, Mary," her husband had growled, "but do as you see fit."
As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, Mary thought of another woman of the same name who had born a child in late December. If the Blessed Mother can bring forth a child away from home and with no kinswomen or midwife to help her, then surely I can be brave when my time comes, Mary thought. Perhaps my baby will be born on Our Lord's Nativity! And my arms will be empty no more.
She awoke one snowy morning a few days before Christmas with a low, aching pull in her belly. She sent her husband for her sister and Iseabail, the midwife. All through the day Mary labored, the women speaking words of encouragement to her, bringing her warm drinks, rubbing her back and feet when she took short rests on the straw lying-in mattress in the corner of her room. When the stormy day drew to a close, Mary still struggled and walked and waited.
"Will this night never be over?" Mary asked, her voice plaintive and strained.
Iseabail replied, "It seems your baby wishes to be born on the longest night of the year, but it may still be many hours. I'll send your sister home and call her when it's time."
After many long hours of travail, the birth came so quickly that there was no time to send for Mary's sister. Over the rising tide of screams, Iseabail called Mary's husband.
"Ian MacLeod, run and fetch the priest! This goes badly." His eyes grew wide for a moment as he ran for the door, and he realized why a priest might be needed. Ian returned a few minutes later, alone. The snowflakes on his eyelashes melted and mingled with his tears as he beheld the awful scene before him: Mary exhausted and weeping on the straw bed, the midwife cradling his tiny stillborn son.
"The priest has been called away from the village," Ian spoke in a leaden voice.
"Then," Iseabail spoke gently, "I will baptize your son." She placed the baby in Mary's arms. "See to your wife, Ian, while I get some water."
Iseabail came back into the room to find Mary holding her baby and Ian holding them both, rocking back and forth.
"Name this child," bade the midwife.
Ian replied, "We were to name him for my father, Seumas."
"Seumas MacLeod, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," Iseabail intoned, and signed the baby's forehead with water. So short a time he had been with them. He was welcomed into the circle of his family even as he left it, his swaddling bands become a shroud. Mary stroked the baby's downy fair hair, kissed his tiny eyelids closed now forever, and baptized him again with her tears.
After a while, Iseabail took the baby from his grieving mother and laid him in the cradle. "It's time, Ian, for us to get Mary back to her own bed." They helped her there and drew the blanket over her. Ian caressed her shoulder lightly.
When he spoke, his throat was tight with unshed tears. "We are still young, Mary. God may yet grant us a child." And he hurried from the room.
Iseabail left Mary for a few minutes to serve Ian some whisky and returned with a steaming cup of sage tea. Through her loneliness, Mary heard Iseabail tell her, "Drink this so that your milk doesn't come in. You're to have no cheese nor milk for a week." Mary took a sip of the pungent tea and turned her face away.
"The night's far gone," Iseabail said, "so sleep now. There's time enough in the morning to bind your breasts, and you must promise me to drink all the tea that I bring you tomorrow. I'll sleep here in the chair in case you need me." Mary descended into a fitful sleep, the howling wind of the snowstorm outside moving into her nightmares and becoming like the cries of a baby. Mary dreamt of her arms, her breasts, her very heart lonely and empty again.
Near dawn, the cries that haunted her dreams seemed to grow louder, and Mary awoke with a start as the door of the little room banged open. Ian stood there with the old white-haired woman who lived in the forest.
"I found this infant boy, and I am too old to care for him myself," the woman said as she opened her ragged cloak and revealed a crying baby. Her voice was younger and stronger than Mary expected.
Iseabail rose in fear. "She's the witch, Ian MacLeod! Send her away from here. That's no boy child but a changeling, a child of the fairy world. See it in his eyes, a shade of blue so dark that they're nearly violet!"
"What I see," the white-haired stranger said calmly, "is a baby who needs a mother and a mother who needs a baby. And a father who needs an heir to lead his clan after him. No one need ever know that he is not yours."
"I know!" cried the midwife, "and I'll tell."
The low and quiet voice of the stranger seemed to fill the room as she held Ian's gaze with her clear, green eyes. Her face was smooth and unlined, a sharp contrast to the cloud of white hair that surrounded it. "No one will know about the baby if you send Iseabail away, Ian. She is a good healer; I promise you she'll find another village to care for."
Ian looked at his wife's pleading, hopeful eyes and turned to the midwife. "Leave Glenfinnan," he told her as he hurried her out of the house, "by tomorrow night. Take your things and be gone, else I'll . . . "
Mary never heard the rest of Ian's threat to Iseabail. The white-haired woman approached her and placed the crying infant in her arms and as soon as Mary touched him, he quieted. Mary bit her trembling lip and looked from the still, small form in the cradle to the sweet baby who lay so warm and heavy against her. Surely she had enough love in her heart for both boys! As Ian came back into the room, Mary was cooing softly to the baby, tracing the whorl in his dark hair, kissing his fingernails so like tiny, perfect seashells. The babe turned his rosebud-pink mouth to her, and she lowered her gown and drew him to her breast.
"There's a strong lad with a lusty appetite!" exclaimed Ian.
The woman turned back to Ian and Mary as she reached the door of the house. "What will you name this dark-haired son of a clan chieftain?" she asked.
"His name is Duncan," Mary smiled through her tears.
The woman left the little house and drew the hood of her cloak over her hair, now returned to its rich brown color. She was certain that she had given the baby to the right parents. Smiling into the pearly gray dawn, she walked through the snow back to her home in Donan Wood.