Authors: Lois Greiman
The Fraser Bride
He who would take a Fraser bride,
these few rules he must abide.
Peaceable yet powerful he must be,
cunning but kind to me and thee.
The last rule, but not of less import,
he’ll be the loving and beloved sort.
If a Fraser bride he longs to take,
he’ll remember these rules for his life’s sake.
For the swain who forgets the things I’ve said,
will find himself amongst the dead.
—Meara of the Fold
In the year of our Lord, 1534
“We are nearly there. There is no need to fret, Pearl,” Anora whispered, and nudged the mare deeper into the woods.
In the late night gloaming, mist billowed up in dancing waves of ghostly silver. No sound broke the silence, naught but the soft hiss of dew slipping from bending bracken. High overhead, tattered clouds skittered past a bloated blood red moon, and from an unaccountable distance, an owl called, boding ill. But Anora of the Frasers had no time for age old superstitions. No time for fear.
“Only a moment ago I saw a tower just past the highest hill. We shall find help there; I am certain of it. Surely once the lord learns of the Munro’s intentions, he shall champion our cause and—”
A scratch of noise sounded from behind. Anora jerked about in her high backed saddle, but nothing alarming met her gaze though she searched the gloom for some seconds.
“Truly, Pearl,” she said, turning back, “you are such a nervous ninny sometimes. I told you, there is no one following us.”
Beneath her, Pearl flicked an ivory ear at her mistress’ trembling tone.
A rustle of noise sounded again, closer this time. Anora spun about, heart thumping in the tight confines of her chest. “Who comes?” she demanded, but her only answer was the whisper of alder leaves overhead.
Hard edged seconds ticked by before Anora turned forward and nudged Pearl again. “As I said, we are alone,” she whispered, and shifted her eyes sideways, searching the darkened woods. “All alone. And therefore …” Off to the right, a chipmunk scolded and scampered up the skeletal remains of an ancient oak. Anora’s stomach flipped and righted. “Safe,” she finished, but just at that instant, a horse whickered.
Pearl stopped of her own accord, head turned, ears pricked forward, and every muscle taut.
“Who goes there?” Anora called.
For a moment nothing moved, and then, like a frightful dream, a charger stepped from the shadows. As dark as sin he was, and upon his back sat an armored warrior. Black chain mail covered the rider’s chest and a dark helmet hid his face.
In the muffled silence, Anora could hear her own breath, harsh in the stillness.
“Who are you?”
The shadowy warrior said nothing. Instead, he reached down and with slow deliberation drew a sword from his scabbard. Muted moonlight caressed the curved edge of the blade, gleaming from point to hilt, and for a moment Anora remained frozen, mesmerized by the dancing light. Then the charger bent his great neck and pranced toward her with cadenced steps. The warrior raised his sword and with that movement the glimmering reflection on the blade turned from gold to blood red.
Jarred from her torpor, Anora rasped a prayer and clapped her heels against the mare’s ivory barrel. Sensing peril, Pearl leapt into a gallop. Trees rushed past like ghostly sentries. They snatched at Anora, snagging her hair as she bent over her mount’s straining neck. Was the warrior still there? Did he follow?
Curling her fingers into the mare’s mane, she twisted about to peer into the darkness behind.
Nothing. They were safe, but …
No! There he was again, bounding around a copse of trees. Silver steam billowed from his charger’s nostrils like smoke from a dragon’s maw. Moonlight gleamed with wicked zeal along his unsheathed blade.
Terror ripped up Anora’s spine. She twisted forward again, but just as she did, hands reached for her.
She screamed and jerked away. Pearl plunged at the pull of the reins, whipping her mistress sideways. The clawing hands retreated into nothing more than reaching branches, but Pearl’s sharp movement had unbalanced her rider. Digging in with her knees, Anora grappled for control, and the panicked mare pivoted around another tree and leapt at the last instant to avoid a log.
For a moment Anora was suspended in nothingness. There was naught beneath her but air, and then she landed, crooked in the saddle but still astride. The reins had been yanked from her grasp, but her fingers tangled again in the mane and she held on for dearest life.
Where they headed she did not know, but they were racing downhill at a frenetic pace with branches whipping past her face and rocks tripping them at every turn.
A prayer burned through her soul, but there was no time to finish the frantic plea, for they were twisting again. Her knee struck a tree. She gasped in pain but held on, leaning back now against the speed of their descent, hoping only for continued survival as the world whipped past in a haze of fear and darkness.
Wind roared in her ears, rushing up from … no, not wind; water. They were nearly at the end of their descent. Once in the river, she would gain control, head upstream, lose her pursuer, and …
But in that instant of hope, Anora saw the log looming before her. Ordinarily it would have been no great feat to leap the thing, but the woods were dark, the mare panicked, and her take off late. Still, she soared valiantly. Anora’s breath stopped, and for a moment it seemed as if time stood still. A dozen errant memories flitted through her mind like wind chased clouds: Evermyst’s dizzying heights, Isobel’s gentle laughter, Meara’s gruff voice—and then suddenly the world jolted back into motion.
Pearl’s cannons struck wood, and then they were falling. The earth spun toward them like a falling top. Anora heard her own rasp of fear, felt her head strike the earth, and then, like an odd, distorted dream, blackness settled over her.
* * * * *
Ramsay MacGowan was beginning to tire of his younger brothers’ bickering.
” ‘Tis raining,” Lachlan said glumly.
“And I suppose that, too, is me own fault?”
If Gilmour’s mood was deteriorating with the weather, Ramsay could not tell it by his jovial tone. It was one of the things that annoyed him most about his younger brother. He was always happy.
your fault,” Lachlan grumbled, and hunched his brawny shoulders irritably against the rain. He was only slightly older than Gilmour, but their personalities could hardly have been more different. Lachlan’s dour demeanor matched the weather, and suited Ramsay’s own less than jovial mood quite nicely.
“‘Twas not my idea to chase after some mythical Munros,” Gilmour argued. “As I recall, ‘twas you, brother, who was so eager to find trouble where there was none.”
“If Munros be creeping about MacGowan land, I want to know of it,” Lachlan said.
“Yet we searched for a week and a day with naught but blisters on our arses to show for our troubles. Lucky for you I have friends at Beauly Manor.”
“And had you not dallied so with—”
“Not again about the fair Agnes,” Gilmour insisted. “Truly, brother, ‘tis not me own fault that she prefers me over—”
“Prefers you!” Lachlan snarled, turning about to glare past his dripping tam. “She hardly prefers you. ‘Tis simply that she could not be rid of you. ‘Ahh, me Agnes …’ ” he crooned, re-enacting last evening’s performance, ” ‘your eyes are like the brightest star. Your—’ “
“Eyes!” Ramsay snorted, and huddled deeper inside his woolen high collared cloak. The eldest of the trio, Ram knew better than to become involved in his brothers’ foolish quarrels. But Gilmour had already turned his ungodly smile in his direction.
“What say you, Ram?”
” ‘Tis naught,” Ramsay said. Rain dropped off the ends of his narrow braids, dripping onto his shoulders with drumming regularity.
“I thought you said
“Your hearing has long been suspect,” Ramsay rumbled. Irritation trickled down his neck like the unceasing rain drops.
“Humph,” Gilmour said. “Yet I was certain you spoke. Did you not hear him speak, Lachlan?”
“Indeed I did. He said ‘eyes.’ “
Gilmour nodded. “Just as I suspected. And did he say it with a certain … disdain?”
“Aye, he did,” Lachlan agreed soberly.
“You ken why that is, do you not, brother?”
“I do. He is ruined.”
Gilmour nodded. “Aye. Ruined. And you know why.”
“I do indeed. ‘Tis because of a certain maid.”
“By the name of Lorna.”
“She broke his heart, you ken.” Lachlan sighed.
“There was a time she could do no wrong.”
” ‘Tis true.” Lachlan stared forward, gazing moodily into the oncoming rain. “I remember well when our worldly brother saw no shame in waxing eloquent on the beauty of a woman’s eyes.”
“A time when he could take pleasure in the company of a bonny lass.”
“When he would not ridicule the innocent.”
“Innocent, me arse!” Ramsay growled.
“What say you?” Gilmour asked, wide eyed. His head was bare to the driving rain, but he seemed unaffected.
“Do you impugn me Agnes’ innocence?” Lachlan asked.
“Methinks he does,” Gilmour stated. Though there was disbelief in his tone, there was a devilish sparkle in his eye. Even his damned golden haired horse looked happy.
“Shut up, the both of you,” Ramsay said, looking straight between Gryfon’s black tipped ears. They were unequal in length and pinned in perpetual vexation against his neck.
There was silence for an entire blessed heartbeat before Gilmour spoke again. “What does he know of innocence, since he has been so horridly burned by his own misjudgment of the fairer sex?”
innocent,” Lachlan said.
“Certainly she is.”
“Truly?” Ramsay said, speaking against his better judgment. “Then pray tell, where did she spend the night, Mour?”
Gilmour’s lips twitched, but he spread his fingers across his chest in a display of abject innocence and said, “However would I know, brother? ‘Twas you who was ogling her bosom.”
“Ogling—” Lachlan began, outrage already building in his voice.
“Aye,” Gilmour said, nodding emphatically so that water fell in fat droplets from his golden hair. “Though I meself cannot imagine how he could wrench his gaze from her bonny smile, her beautiful eyes, her innocent—”
“The lass,” Ramsay said, careful to keep his tone flat, his expression impassive, “is about as innocent as me claymore.”
Lachlan growled; Gilmour grinned.
“Why do you imagine she wore such a revealing gown? Might she have been too warm during these damp autumn days? Do you think, mayhap, that she did not realize her bosoms were tucked up under her chin like heaven in the flesh?” Ramsay glowered at his brothers. “Is that what you think, lads?”
“As for me, I barely noticed,” Gilmour said, lifting an innocuous hand palm up. “But ‘tis the fashion, I suppose. Nothing more.”
” ‘Tis seduction!” Ramsay stated. “Nothing less.”
“Seduction!” Lachlan hissed.
“Are you about to let him defame your Agnes like—” Gilmour began, but in that instant something snagged Ramsay’s attention. It was just a shadow amidst shadows, but with it came a prickle of unease.