ONCE UPON A HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS
Craigleith Castle, nineteen days before Christmas
"Come on, Fiona—it's the season for magic," Lady Elizabeth Curry said to her Scottish cousin, pressing a small bundle of dried herbs into Fiona MacGillivray's hand as they knelt by the fire in the library of Craigleith Castle. Elizabeth held up her own herbs. "See? Like this—wrap a lock of your hair around the bundle, say the words and toss it into the heart of the fire!"
Fiona stared at the crumbling gray leaves in her palm and wrinkled her nose at the pungent scent. "Are you sure this will work? I'm not English. Besides, magic can work in ways you don't expect. Auld Annie says—"
"Auld Annie!" Elizabeth scoffed. "What could she know of true love? She must be a hundred years old if she's a day."
Fiona glanced at the door, but it remained shut. "Annie has the sight," she whispered. "And she knows more magic than anyone. Why, I once saw her heal a ewe with just—"
Elizabeth sniffed. "This is about true love, not sheep. Come on. What can it hurt to know?" She drew a pair of sewing scissors out of her pocket and raised her eyebrows.
Fiona regarded her cousin's eager face, golden in the firelight. The rest of the room was filled with the thickening shadows of a winter afternoon. Night fell early in December, and Annie had predicted winter would come sooner than usual this year. "Shouldn't we be outside in the woods, dancing around a bonfire or something?" Fiona asked, holding very still as Elizabeth carefully snipped one of her curls.
"It's freezing outside!" Elizabeth protested. "Why can't it be in an earl's library?"
"Did the spell say so? Annie says a spell must be done properly, or it can go wrong," Fiona said. Elizabeth's brow crumpled for a moment, then cleared.
"What could possibly go wrong? It's not as if it's black magic. The spell says you must gather the herbs of midsummer, dry them, tie them with a lock of your hair, and burn them on the feast day of St. Nicholas. That's today. As long as the words come from your heart, then your wish is sure to come true."
Fiona closed her hand tight, and the scent of lavender rose to rival the peat smoke from the fire. There was nothing threatening about a wee bit of lavender. Still, she hesitated. "You go first," she said.
Elizabeth tossed her bundle into the fire. "Show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide," she said fervently. The flames pounced on her offering, flared with a hungry whoosh, and devoured the tidbit.
The girls leaned in, looking for a sign in the flames. "D'you see anything?" Fiona whispered.
Elizabeth screwed up her face and squinted. "Nothing that could be mistaken for anyone's true love. Throw yours."
Fiona wrapped her hair around the bundle. She took a breath and flung it into the heart of the fire. "Show me my true love, and bring him to me—" She hesitated. "Does it have to be by Christmas? Why can't it be by spring, or even next summer, perhaps?"
Elizabeth sighed in exasperation as the fire finished its second treat. "It's burned up now, so you'll have to wait for spring."
There was a sudden roar from the wind outside, and the windows rattled. The gust slipped under the door, and swept up the flue, making the room suddenly cold. The chimney gasped and sucked hard on the fire, making the flame hiss and leap, drawing it upward, and breaking off sharp red sparks that clung to the soot for a moment and twinkled before being carried away on the icy breath of the wind. The fire sighed and sank back, subdued, and the flames fluttered nervously.
The girls looked at each other, their eyes wide. "What was that?" Elizabeth said. "What did it mean?"
Outside, the wind howled again, high and wild. Fiona pulled her shawl around her shoulders and rose to light the candles, driving the shadows back into the corners, where they hid behind the settee and the chairs. Elizabeth went to the window. "My, but the weather changes suddenly here in the Highlands. It wasn't snowing a minute ago, was it?"
Fiona looked. The snow had started suddenly, and frenzied white flakes were rushing across the brown landscape, driving toward the castle to dash themselves against the windows and stones with icy fury, clattering like the claws of an angry creature that desperately wanted in. Fiona's gut clenched. There hadn't been a single cloud in the sky an hour ago. She glanced at the fire again, but it burned sedately in the hearth, oblivious to the sudden storm raging outside. She swallowed. The herbs, and the spell ... surely it was impossible.
Elizabeth stared out the window, hypnotized by the thickening flakes. "The snow—it's Christmas magic! Look, the garden is almost covered already!"
Fiona went to sit beside her cousin. The first snowfall was always beautiful, and magical—as if folk had forgotten what snow looked like over the seasons. Surely that's all it was.
She stared, mesmerized as the snowflakes danced intricate patterns in the air.
Show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide.
Outside the ancient walls of Craigleith, the sparks joined the snowflakes in a frenzied waltz around the castle's pointed tower in the thickening twilight, once, twice, and again.
Then they flew away across the moor, chasing the wind.