Excerpt from The Raven's Wish
Scotland, the Highlands
"Aaarrghh! Missed him, the son of a snake!" Splashing through the water, scrambling over slick rocks, the girl gained steadier footing. Staring intently into the stream, she swore again, and the airy Gaelic oath sounded like a prayer.
Ignoring the raucous chorus of male laughter that floated out from the bank, she shifted her fingers along the stout stick gripped in her hand. A silvery flash teased past her bare legs, and she struck downwards, cursed loudly. Cold water surged over her knees, saturating the hem of the plaid wrapped about her slim hips and slung over her shoulder.
"That fish won't wait for you! Strike faster, cousin!"
"Elspeth! Use your Sight, girl! Find yourself another fish, just as you find the cattle when we go raiding!" More laughter sounded.
Scowling, Elspeth glanced toward the bank. Four young men, her cousins, stood on the slope, two or three guffawing heartily as they watched her efforts. Sunlight brightened the deep blues and greens in their plaids, echoing the colors of the grassy moors and distant hills beyond. A quick, cool breeze lifted and dispersed their laughter.
"Hush," Elspeth called. "Loud as the pests of hell, the lot of you, and scaring the trout too. How can the Frasers boast of their own way of fishing, striking fish with rods, if the Frasers themselves cannot do it proper?"
"Ah! Fraser men can do it proper! Look here, girl!" Ewan, the red-headed cousin standing on the bank, gestured toward the slithery pile of fish that already lay on the turf. He and the others grinned.
Her own laughter bubbled out. "Men? Gillean gòracha."
"Foolish boys, is it?" Magnus said, his blond hair bright in the sun. "Foolish girl, you should be home preparing our supper, and not out here playing with the lads!"
"My cakes would be burned, and I would make a mess of your fine fish," she called back. At this, Ewan, along with her cousins Kenneth and Callum after him, bent forward playfully, clutching at imaginary bellyaches.
"A fine wife she will make for Ruari MacDonald," Ewan said to the others.
"Do not dare say that name," Elspeth snapped. "Huh, Fraser men, is it, and acting like babes," she grumbled. "Now be silent, all of you."
Balancing her club between her hands, she bent forward to scan the shallows. "Ah, there you are, back again, old fish. Flora MacKimmie wants you for her cooking pot, and won't take no for her answer...."
At supper the night before, Flora, the housekeeper at Castle Glenran, had stood to her full height of six feet and fisted her hands on her wide hips, declaring hotly that she was like to die of beef everyday and had to have some fish. Fresh trout it should be, not salted or smoked like the fish the Frasers exported out of Inverness, Flora had added imperiously.
Magnus, the eldest of the Fraser cousins still living in the stronghold of Castle Glenran, had marshaled an early expedition to catch Flora's trout. Fishing was always enjoyed by the cousins—though they did not eat a good deal of fish, which was not considered a hearty enough food for warriors.
Slipping through the water, the elusive fish wended its way closer to Elspeth's legs as she stood still and steady. Like a bloom slowly unfurling, she spread and then lowered her arms as the trout slid through the dappled shallows. Then, instinctively and quickly, she reached into the water and lifted the fat, gasping trout with both hands.
"There, lads!" she called, tossing the fish toward the bank. "Cut your teeth on that!"
Ewan caught the fish easily and flipped it onto the pile. He and the others turned toward her, and bowed low .
Elspeth laughed, seeing them: four Highlanders in wrapped and brooched plaids, bare-chested and bare-legged, long hair in shades of brown, gold and red. Wild, wind-tossed, and wet from a morning's fishing, they bowed as politely as if they were in Queen Mary's court at Edinburgh.
Smiling, wading through the water, Elspeth pushed back the curling strands of coppery hair that slipped from a thick plait. Her cousin Kenneth stepped down into the stream and came toward her, his legs strong, bare shoulders tan, and his long dark hair was partly braided. He grinned at her.
"Well done!" He patted her back vigorously. "That big fish was old and stubborn, and you got him, good as any lad at the task."
"Of course," she said.
"Och, though you grew up a bit wild, you are a fine woman all the same, and a good wife you will be to Ruari MacDonald"—he held up a hand as if to ward off a blow—"if you would but consider it."
"Brave man, to mention that! I gave the MacShimi my refusal, and you know it. But our chief is as stubborn as the rest of you. None of you will listen to me."
"We understand why you refuse, and the MacShimi does too. But as clan chief, he knows the good that could come of such a match."
"Surely no good for me, wed to a MacDonald." That clan were mortal enemies to her kin and clan, and she would not wed one of them—especially Ruari—or live among them.
He looked down as they walked through the stream swirling about their ankles. "Elspeth, there's talk of fire and sword from the crown unless we stop feuding with Clan MacDonald. The queen's council is threatening to send a lawyer here. He would likely demand an end to the feud, with grim consequences if we do not listen. Perhaps we should make our own effort to end it without interference from the crown."
"We could no more cease feuding with the MacDonalds than we could cease breathing," Elspeth said. "Let that dry old lawyer come and spout his rules at us. Some of their Lowland laws mean little here in the Highlands. They have no true power over us. Do they?" she added quietly.
Kenneth shrugged. "We would not be raiding on the MacDonalds near here if you were living among them, eating at their table." His brown eyes glinted as he smiled.
Usually his smile could charm Elspeth any time, but she shook her head. "There has been too much talk of this lately," she said. "Marry that MacDonald, you say, and save the clan from fire and sword. But I will not wed Ruari. The day is cursed that the offer was ever made!"
He regarded her somberly, then turned, sloshing away from her to look for other trout.
Elspeth waded through the shallows, her temper calming as she watched the rippling flow. She had staunchly refused the marriage offer made by the MacDonald chief to the chief of the Frasers a few weeks earlier regarding her. As her cousins had expressed their willingness toward the match, she wondered how much influence her refusal truly held.
She and her cousins had grown and played and learned together since they had been babes. Elspeth and these four in particular, along with several other cousins, had fostered together at Castle Glenran under the guardianship of Lachlann Fraser. One of the few survivors of a notorious battle that had taken so many Fraser men, Lachlann had been a generous, educated laird, admired and beloved by his fosterlings. After his death last year, his son Callum, who stood now on the stream bank with the others, had become the laird of Glenran Castle.
Elspeth had more than eighty cousins, all lads. But these few Glenran cousins, along with her cousin Hugh, the Fraser chief, she loved as deeply as if they were her brothers. She frowned sourly, thinking of her own half-brother, Robert Gordon, who had never shown much interest in her beyond whatever might benefit him. Surely he would approve her marriage to a MacDonald.
Glancing at her cousins, she felt a swell of pride in those four strong, handsome Highland warriors. The Glenran Frasers were part of the legend that had flourished in their childhood. The astonishing number of boys born in the months following the men lost in the battle of Blar-na-Léine had become the core of that legend, a testament to the future of a devastated clan.
Elspeth had been the only girl born that year. Lachlann Fraser had once said that Elspeth had been born as a special gift to Clan Fraser, with her gift of seeing what others could not see. She felt proud to be part of the hope and faith of her clan, proud to be part of the legend.
But now the lads were men, with the responsibilities of men. As the closest kinsmen to the Fraser chief, and as his personal bodyguard, they had to consider the needs of the clan as a whole. Elspeth knew she should follow that lead—but she could not do so if it meant marriage to Ruari MacDonald.
She sighed. But she was a woman, and so her male cousins could decide her fate. Though Highland women had better freedoms than Sasunnach women to the south, her kinsmen could still force her to marry against her will. They could even allow Ruari to abduct her to get the matter done quickly. But she did not want to marry, and leave her cousins and her home.
Sluicing through the water, she gazed at its sparkling surface. "I will never marry Ruari MacDonald," she muttered to herself. "Not so long as the streams run in the Highlands."
The water swirled about her ankles. A shiver rushed through her that had nothing to do with the chill of the stream. This shiver was different: she recognized the inner shudder that often preceded a vision.
She stood still. Subtle but compelling, the gathering power within her deepened her breath. A haze, tinted golden, gave her eyesight an unnatural clarity.
As if some unseen hand turned her head, she looked over her shoulder. Her gaze traveled upward, past the cousins who watched from the bank, and beyond, up the long slope that rose beside the stream. She looked at the top of the hill, crowned with a stand of pale birch trees. Seeing her wide, odd expression, her cousins looked there also.
Silent and swift, two ravens glided above the birches. Elspeth drew in her breath: ravens were a sign of death and misfortune. Then a movement among the trees caught her attention.
Along the high ridge, a man rode a dark horse, passing between the birches at an easy canter. Sunlight dappled his black cloak and glinted off his dark hair. As if he knew Elspeth watched, he turned his head.
Even from a distance she felt his gaze on her, keen and intelligent and focused. His eyes were the clear blue of the sky, and his face had a stern beauty. A dark angel, she thought. He lifted a hand to her in salute.
She blinked, and looked again. The man was gone. Branches waved in the empty space where he had been. But the fine, shivery bumps along her arms, and the peculiar golden haze, told her that he had never been there at all: a vision only.
Heart pounding, she steadied herself against the light-headedness that came with visions. She saw her cousins glance from her to the hilltop, and back again, silent and somber. Only a moment, a few breaths of time, had passed.
Ever since Elspeth had been a child, she had been a taibhsear, a seer. Her cousins seldom asked what a vision had shown her, but waited for her to speak of it, as they did now.
Brushing back her hair, she moved slowly through the cool shallows. Some visions were of little consequence, like flashes of light from tiny blinking stars, fleeting mysteries. Perhaps, she thought, the stranger on the hill had been only the time-drifted shadow of a real man, one who would ride along that hill in the future.
Or perhaps he had been one of the daoine sìth, the people of peace, the fairy people who lived in the hills and caves. Such beings, it was said, could take the shape of the most beautiful of humans, and could be seen only by a taibhsear. But ravens, messengers of death, had preceded the man. And he had worn black, riding a black horse.
Yet she had no sense of a death being foretold by his appearance. What, then, could the vision mean? Shivering, she rubbed at her arms.
Strangely, she had felt a tug at her heart when she saw him, and an odd yearning to go with him. She had felt no fear or dread during the perplexing vision. She moved toward the bank, glanced down.
The water, she thought; sometimes it was so, with water. Gazing at the glistening surface of a stream or a lake could be the same as looking into a bowl of rainwater used for divining. Spontaneous visions could happen unexpectedly. She blinked to dispel any lingering haze from the moment of otherworldly seeing.
Her cousins were talking now among themselves, and one or two glanced toward her with covert concern. Squaring her shoulders, lifting her head, she stepped up on the bank.
Though the vision had left her knees and hands trembling, Elspeth went forward now as if she had nothing more on her mind than a few trout.