HOW A LASS WED A HIGHLANDER
Culmore Castle, Scotland
Alexander Munro winced as the door to his chamber creaked open. And there, he thought, was yet one more thing that needed to be repaired. The hinges needed adjusting, oiling, and the door had to be planed.
"Alex?" he knew without looking up that it was his aunt Flora, and that this time she'd brought reinforcements—Auld Bryn, the seanchaidh, he guessed, and Airril, Bryn's grandson. He kept his eyes on the list on the table before him, scanned the details of all the cattle, crops, and property lost in the latest raid. Seven homeless families were now crowded into the castle's hall for shelter, their cotts burned by the marauders. Alex had no idea how he was going to feed them when winter came. He had six months before winter returned, and then...
"Ye have five weeks," his aunt said.
Alex didn't bother turning. His fist clenched on the pencil, and he kept his eyes on the parchment, pretended to concentrate. He felt the eyes of the little delegation on his back.
"We've come for the ring. It must be taken to the spring in the wood and blessed by the fairies," Flora said.
The fairies. For three hundred years the Munros of Culmore had given credit to the fairies for all that was good in their lives. Alex's jaw tightened. The fairies had done nothing to stop the Sutherland raiders who'd ridden down upon innocent people in the dark of night, burnt their cotts, stolen their cattle and trampled their crops. If something good happened at Culmore, the Munros credited fairy magic, but if something went wrong, it was the laird's fault—his fault.
And according to fairy magic, and Auld Bryn, all he had to do to fix it was to follow the seanchas, the traditional lore that guided the Munros, and find himself a bride by Midsummer's Eve. Once he'd placed the ancient, fairy-gifted Munro wedding ring on her finger, all would be well, and the clan's luck restored.
"I don't wish to talk about it," he said, half turning to glare at them. "Ye can close the door behind ye on your way out."
Auld Bryn took a shuffling step forward, leaning on his grandson's arm. The old man was nearly blind now, but he knew the seanchas better than anyone. He'd been the clan's seanchaidh for sixty years, through the lairdships of Alex's father and grandfather. He'd told and re-told the seanchas at every ceilidh, wedding, and funeral. Now Bryn shook his bony finger at a cloak hanging from a peg in the corner. "Ye know the rules, Laird. Ye only have until midsummer to find a bride." Airril gently shifted his grandfather's finger so it was pointing at Alex.
Alex turned fully and leaned on the table, his arms folded over his chest. "Aye, I know the tale. It's naught more than that. I have no time for fancies and legends—or a bride."
Aunt Flora sighed and nodded to Airril. The lad came forward with all the grace of an overgrown, bumbling deerhound, carrying a rolled tapestry. He unfurled it on the table, knocking Alex's lists and tallies aside to do it. Alex caught the uncapped pot of ink before it spilled.
Auld Bryn and Flora came forward as the ancient seanchas was revealed. The embroidered figures of Alex's ancestors, every laird back to Duncan Munro was carefully picked out in fine detail. With each generation a skilled needlewoman added the next part of the story. He saw that Flora had begun to sketch in his own likeness, and beside him there was space for his bride's portrait.
Auld Bryn gently stroked the seanchas with his harper's hands, his fingers calloused, his nails long, hard, and yellow. "It is set down right here, the history of Duncan Munro himself, our first laird. When Duncan wed the daughter of the fairy queen, the queen gave the Munros of Culmore a blessing, a wedding ring set with an ancient jewel of such power—"
"I know the story," Alex said.
Auld Bryn ignored him. "When a man becomes Laird of the Munros of Culmore, he has until midsummer to find a bride, place that ring upon her finger and plight his troth. Your father's been dead for four months. He accepted the seanchas, lived by it, as did his father, and his father before him, and—"
Flora set her hand on the old man's arm. "The thing is, Alex, midsummer is just five short weeks away. Ye have just that long to find a lass—the right lass— and fall in love."
Alex's mouth twisted. Love... His father had married his mother for love. He loved her so much that when she died, the light had gone out of Hugh Munro's life, and he had ceased to lead his clan. Where was his love for his people, for his son? When Hugh had finally followed his beloved wife to the grave he left behind an impoverished, endangered clan. The last word on his lips had been his wife's name.
Nay, Alex did not believe in love. It made a man weak, hobbled him, destroyed him. He meant to prove the Munros could do very well without legends, and fairy magic, and love. What they needed was leadership, alliances, and coin. If he wed—when he was good and ready to do so—he'd choose a sturdy, practical woman with a good dowry and a strong clan alliance. She'd manage his household and breed his sons. He would respect her, treat her well, and expect the same in return. Love would not enter into it.
"Ye know what will happen if ye fail to follow the seanchas," Auld Bryn said. "Not only will the clan be doomed to ill fortune, but the laird will die before the sun sets at Samhain."
"Without you as laird we'd be prey for the Sutherlands, they'd take Culmore, and we'd be forced to live under Baird Sutherland's heartless rule," Flora said.
"The bad fortune has already begun," Auld Bryn said dramatically. "It's a warning from the fairies. They know ye, Alexander Munro, and they can see you're not honoring the agreement Duncan Munro made with their queen, and swore our clan would keep."
"It's not the fairies—it's the Sutherlands, and a cold spring, and years of neglect," Alex said sharply.
Flora looked at him with pleading in her eyes. He saw her mouth tighten, knew she was taking note of the new lines around his own mouth, the dark rings under his eyes, the frown that had become ever-present. She'd mentioned them before, and he'd seen the concern in her eyes, for him and for the clan. When was the last time he'd had a reason to smile? He couldn't remember.
"Alex, we ken how hard ye work for the clan, but the fact remains—ye need to find a bride in the next five weeks." She looked at Airril, and Airril nodded. Auld Bryn held his tongue for once. "We've decided to help ye."
Alex folded his arms over his chest and frowned harder at his aunt. "Aye? Will ye be donning armor and riding out against the Sutherlands, or swinging a hammer to help rebuild the cotts before winter?"
She smiled, but it wavered and didn't reach her eyes. "We thought—"
"We decided that it would be easier if the lasses came to you," Auld Bryn burst in. "If ye had a string of pretty lassies standing afore ye, ye'd be able to pick one, wouldn't ye?" He was facing the corner again, speaking earnestly to a stack of books.
Airril met Alex's eyes as he gently turned his grandfather once more and nodded his own agreement.
Alex sent Flora a sharp look. She had the grace to blush before she raised her chin. "We thought we might invite the eligible lasses among our friends and allies to come to Culmore, since ye don't have time to go to them." Alex felt hot blood fill his face, but before he could speak, his aunt rushed on. "Hear me out, nephew. The likeliest brides will come to stay. You'll have a chance to spend time with them, to charm them and let them charm you." She smiled as if falling in love were the easiest, most sensible thing in the world. "Then at midsummer, you'll wed the lass you love best and fulfill the seanchas."
Auld Bryn grinned at the air. "Och, I'm not so old I've forgotten, Laird—'tis a simple thing to fall in love with a pretty lass at this time of year."
Alex shut his eyes. "No."
Airril made a small sound, a cough of sorts, or a strangled grunt, and Alex looked at him.
"We've already sent the invitations, Laird," Airril said.
He gaped at Airril, at Auld Bryn, at his aunt, speechless.
"The lasses will begin arriving tomorrow," Flora added.
Alex stifled an oath. He turned away, paced to the window and back again. "How many lasses?"
"Four," Flora said.
"Four? Four women?" Alex repeated, horrified.
"Aye," Auld Bryn drawled, grinning. "From the Frasers, the MacKays, the Rosses and the MacCullochs. Their bonniest lasses, all with rich tochers that will bring wealth and cattle and land to Culmore."
Alex turned and paced the length of his chamber again.
"Alex, ye've got to try," Flora said. "As much as fighting and building are the duties of a good laird, so is marrying and breeding the next generation to follow ye, to keep the clan strong. The Sutherlands have taken away more than livestock and crops. They've stolen hope. Ye must see that ye need to give that back."
By marrying a Fraser lass, or a MacKay... Alex turned away. He looked out the window at the rolling hills, and the high mountain peaks behind those. In the foreground, the river flowed past Culmore Castle in the gloaming, just beyond the meadow. It was the same scene that was stitched on the seanchas, only on the ancient tapestry, there was a wedding taking place in the meadow, and a bonfire, and the sun was sinking... And around Duncan and his fairy bride, folk were celebrating, and happy.
It was a far cry from the frightened, miserable faces of the homeless families that filled the great hall below at this very minute. An alliance with Clan Fraser, or with Ross, or MacCulloch, would do much to strengthen Culmore.
He glanced at Flora again. She was a widow, and when her brother's wife had died, she'd come home to raise Alex and oversee the household. She believed in love, sighed over it, longed for great nieces and nephews to cuddle and cosset, since she'd been denied bairns of her own. It was hard to deny her anything she asked. Perhaps it was a sensible idea after all. But Flora frowned.
"I can see what you're thinking, nephew. Oh Alex, I want more than anything for ye to be happy—this isn't just a cold alliance for the good of this clan. The woman you choose will share your bed and board, run your household, bear your babes. She'll laugh with ye, and cry, and be the other half of your soul, your own heart."
Alex could not even imagine being hobbled by such a feeling. He saw cold hard coin, fine fat cows, and extra soldiers. Flora saw moonlight and magic, true love and tenderness. But he wasn't a tender man... His aunt was staring at him, her heart in her eyes. Alex looked away first.
"Fine. Let them come. I'll choose one and wed."
Auld Bryn let out a cackle of triumph and Airril grinned. Flora looked less certain of the reasons for his sudden agreement, but she nodded.
"We'd best take the ring now," she said.
"Aye, Laird. The Culmore Pea must be blessed during the new moon closest to midsummer, dipped into the fairy spring in the wood," Auld Bryn intoned, quoting the seanchas from memory.
"I know," Alex said through gritted teeth. He went to the massive storage chest that held the treasures and regalia of the lairds of Culmore—his father's sword, his grandfather's jeweled dirk, and the ancient, fairy-gifted Munro wedding ring, wrought of intricately woven silver and bearing the great and glittering Culmore Pea. The stone was called the pea as a kind of jest, since it was in truth more the size of a thrush's egg than a pea.
"Perhaps seeing the ring will inspire ye," Flora said as Alex lifted the lid of the chest. The hinges groaned. "The seanchas says that the ring will show if the love between the laird and his bride is true," she added. "Ye won't be able to fool the ring."
Alex refrained from rolling his eyes. "Perhaps we can save time. When each lass arrives, we'll simply wave the pea under her nose. If it turns pink, she'll become the next lady of Culmore." Flora sent him a quelling look, pushed him aside, and began to search through the chest.
Auld Bryn squinted at the air. "The pea doesn't turn pink as far as I know. I don't know precisely how the magic works. I only know that it worked for your father, and his father, and—"
"It's not here," Flora interrupted. She turned to look at Alex, her eyes wide.
Alex bent to search amongst horn cups chased with silver, belt buckles carved of whalebone, brooches, dirks and swords. He frowned. The leather pouch that held the ring, and the ring itself, were missing.
Alex frowned. "I remember watching my father put the ring in the chest after my mother died," he said. "It was there the last time I looked..." Except he hadn't looked. Not in the months since his father died, or in the years since his mother died.
Three sets of horrified eyes regarded him—well, two—since Auld Bryn was staring at a clothes press. Flora climbed into the huge chest and began to search, handing Airril the contents until the floor was covered with them and Flora, on her hands and knees, was searching the dark corners. Her face appeared over the edge. "Nothing. The Pea isn't here."
Alex crossed and lifted her out, and she clung to him for a moment, her hands curling in the fabric of his shirt. "We must find it, Alex. Ye cannot marry without it, and willing or not, ye must marry by midsummer."
Airril looked mournfully at Alex. "Dead by Samhain."
Auld Bryn's milky eyes glistened with tears. "Not for over four hundred years has such a terrible thing befallen the Munros of Culmore." He grabbed his grandson's sleeve and shook it. "We must gather the clan at once, start a search, tell them all that the Culmore Pea has gone missing. It must be found, or—"
The door burst open, and a clansman stood on the threshold with his sword in his hand, his eyes wide.
"Laird, ye'd best come. One of Aggie's lads spotted a band of Sutherlands riding over our eastern border."
© Lecia Cornwall
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