The Raven's Wish (The Border Rogues Series, Book 1) by Susan King - Read Online
The Raven's Wish (The Border Rogues Series, Book 1)
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Summary

Elspeth Fraser, a beautiful Highland seer, has a sudden vision of a handsome stranger's death.

Then he rides into her life.

Duncan Macrae is the Queen's lawyer, sent north to end the feud between Elspeth's wild Highland cousins and a neighboring clan.

Determined to save his life, Elspeth resists her strong attraction to the queen's handsome and mysterious lawyer, and tries to send him away

Duncan ignores the vibrant Highland lass and the stormy passion she invokes. The Queen's mission must be completed.

But then, a dangerous enemy threatens all Duncan and Elspeth hold dear. They must face their shared destiny—for if the prediction holds true, they will lose all... including the powerful love that could save them both.

REVIEWS:
"Powerful, magical... a delight!" ~Romantic Times Book Club

THE BORDER ROGUES, in series order
The Raven's Wish
The Raven's Moon
The Heather Moon

THE CELTIC NIGHTS, in series order
The Stone Maiden
The Swan Maiden
The Sword Maiden
Laird of the Wind

OTHER TITLES by Susan King
The Black Thorne's Rose
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ISBN: 9781614170594
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The Raven's Wish (The Border Rogues Series, Book 1) - Susan King

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The Raven's Wish

The Border Rogues Series

Book One

by

Susan King

National Bestselling Author

Author's Cut Edition

Published by: ePublishing Works!

www.epublishingworks.com

ISBN: 978-1-61417-059-4

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Copyright © 2014 by Susan King. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

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Dedication

For my mother, Anne—

for Fraser ancestry, and for laughter and memories

Prologue

Bridles brack and wight horse lap,

And blades flain in the skies,

And wan and drousie was the blood

Gaed lapperin down the lays.

~Katharine Jaffray

Scotland, the Highlands, 1552

That was the day of our greatest betrayal, the old seanchaidh said. Among the fifteen small faces upturned toward his, some of the children nodded solemnly. Their bright and dark heads gleamed in the low light of the peat fire.

All our fine, brave Fraser men, he told the children, rode together, that day of betrayal, to meet the MacDonalds. In faith they rode, with a full host of Grants and Macraes at their backs. The Fraser chief—the MacShimi, he was called, traditional for our chiefs— he paused to nod to a boy with dark hair. The child nodded solemnly in return, already showing the dignity of a clan chief.

"The MacShimi, our own Hugh's father, supported the claim of a friend, a MacDonald, to the chieftainship of that clan. This MacDonald had fostered in the MacShimi's own house and was wed to his niece. But the MacDonalds refused to have him as their chief for having fostered with Frasers, and called him a gallda, a stranger, and sent them away.

"So the Frasers rode off in peace, having said their say. There were near four hundred of them, strong warriors with broad blades and sharp dirks, with swift arrows for their bows. They did not insist that the MacDonalds accept the Gallda as their rightful chief. They left in full trust."

A little boy grew restless at his feet, and the seanchaidh waited, smiling kindly, until the lad settled again.

"On this summer day, the Frasers rode home through the glen of Loch Lochy. And there, beside the shore of that long loch, they were ambushed by over five hundred MacDonalds. The summer afternoon grew so hot that, as they fought, the warriors threw off their heavy wool plaids and cast them down on the grassy banks of the loch. They fought on, Fraser and MacDonald alike, wearing only their long linen shirts.

The sun blazed like the fires of hell, a heat such as comes only rarely to the Highlands. And though the Frasers were far outnumbered by the MacDonalds, they did not run, but stayed and fought. Half-clad, they were, and exhausted, struggling hand-to-hand along the boggy shore. By late afternoon, the muddy banks were scattered with hundreds of discarded plaids, and hundreds of bodies, discarded by their souls. The old man drew a breath and looked at his audience.

"The brave MacShimi was killed, and his eldest son, the young Master, with him. The MacDonald Gallda died, too, fighting beside our chief, loyal to his foster-father. And though they lost most of their own, the Frasers gave as much death with their claymores and dirks as they got. As much, and more."

The children waited breathlessly for the end, though they had heard the story many times. One or two fidgeted, but the rest sat transfixed, lulled by the hot crackle of the peat fire, and by the spell the seanchaidh wove with his nuanced voice.

"Nearly nine hundred men fought that day. Yet only five Frasers, and eight or nine MacDonalds, survived. And though the blood has been absorbed back into the earth, we will always remember what happened on the banks of Loch Lochy eight years ago today. We call it Blar-na-Léine, the Field of Shirts."

"Blar-na-Léine," the children repeated. The old man nodded.

Indeed, little ones. But remember that mighty Clan Fraser is not reduced easily. Before that battle, eighty and more of the widowed Fraser women were already with child. And they all birthed fatherless sons, so our legend says.

The storyteller gazed at the children for a moment. You were each born eight years ago, into a clan filled with sorrow, but gladdened by your births, every one.

Every one, he said softly, reaching forward with a gentle hand to touch the small, bright head nearest his knee. The child's glossy locks were the color of flames and gold.

But our clan has a secret, eh? The boys smiled, and some of them nodded eagerly. One of those widows birthed a little girl, our Elspeth here, and then died in her woman's battle, and went to heaven to join her brave warrior husband.

He lifted his hand from the girl's head. Making a fist, he thumped it against his heart.

"Na dèanamaid diochuimhn, he told the little Fraser cousins. Na dèanamaid diochuimhn: let us not forget. You are the hope of the Frasers, a new generation of warriors, born from ashes and sorrow. Like the yew tree, which grows anew within the ruin of the old tree —here he plucked a green sprig from his own bonnet, which lay beside him— like the yew, which we Frasers wear as our badge, Clan Fraser is reborn out of strife and woe. And just as the yew survives and grows, so we too overcome, through pride and strength, whatever life brings us."

"Na dèanamaid diochuimhn," the children murmured.

Let us not forget. And so be it, the seanchaidh said.

Chapter 1

Betwixt the hours of twelve and one

A north wind tore the bent,

And straight she heard strange eldritch sounds

Upon that wind which went.

~Tam Lin

Scotland, the Highlands

Summer, 1563

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 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.

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 will have you!

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.

* * *

Where a steep hill rounded to a rocky peak, two men reined in their horses and gazed out at the broad view. The cool, damp snap of the summer breeze billowed out the wrapped and brooched plaid of one man, and tore at the black cloak worn by the other rider.

Below, the long surface of a loch gleamed like a steel mirror, reflecting forested hills and an azure sky. The man in plaid nodded and glanced at his companion.

Have you seen such a sight in years, Duncan Macrae? He grinned, sweeping his gloved hand in a sweeping gesture. Thick blond hair glinted beneath a dark, flat bonnet, into which were thrust a few sprigs of fresh yew. With a broad, toothy smile, the burly Highlander inhaled the fresh air as if proud and satisfied. Such a fine place, this!

Duncan Macrae looked westward past the loch. Rugged hills faded from blue to lavender, soaring into distant mists. Silent, he rested neatly gloved hands on the saddle bow. The tall black stallion shifted beneath him.

'True, Alasdair, he replied quietly. I've not seen the like for sixteen years and more. A quick breeze lifted his black cloak from wide, powerful shoulders, revealing a carefully tailored black doublet and trews tucked into high boots of ebony-dyed leather.

Is it enough to stir the Highland blood in you, then? Alasdair said. After all, you are laird of Dulsie Castle in Kintail now, and surely are eager to see the place again.

"Alasdair Fraser, bràthair, Duncan said, brother you are, for we fostered together and you are wed to my sister. Call me the laird of Dulsie if you will, though I've not been there since I was seventeen. His tone turned grim. As for my Highland blood, well... He paused to shove back a drift of dark brown hair. Perhaps blood such as mine shouldna be stirred up."

Bah, Alasdair protested. It is good that you were sent north by the queen's Council. I did not think you would ever set foot in the Highlands again.

Duncan made no reply. As he looked out at the bold, beautiful hills and loch, his heart surged almost painfully. Far in the western Highlands, well beyond those blue mountains, lay Dulsie Castle, which had passed to him on the death of his last remaining brother two months ago. He had not sent word to the rest of his family there that he had returned to the Highlands. He was not certain when—or if—he would do that. Perhaps he would ask Alasdair to carry a word of greeting to his grandmother and his sisters.

For now, Duncan's immediate destination was closer, just southwest along Loch Ness, whose waters flowed below them. At the lower tip of the great loch lay Castle Glenran, home to Alasdair's kinsman, a laird called Callum Fraser. There Duncan understood that he would find Hugh Fraser, the MacShimi, the chief of Clan Fraser.

As one of the queen's lawyers, Duncan Macrae had been sent by the Privy Council to journey into the Highlands carrying an important document for Clan Fraser. The necessary signatures would take but a day or two to collect, and he would return to Edinburgh. He did not intend to stay long in the Highlands, he thought. If he remained here too long, he might never want to return to the safe, ordered life that he had made for himself in the Lowlands.

He had stayed away from the Highlands for all these years, convinced that it was best.

A breeze ruffled through his hair, bringing the blended scents of pine, heather, and water. The smell of water was everywhere here, from the great loch, from myriad streams and rivers, even in the very dampness of the air. He was keenly reminded of the tangy scented air at Dulsie.

And he thought of his family there. And how is my sister Mairi, auld man? he asked.

Auld man? I may be married now, and a father, but call me auld, and you will go there with me. Auld are we, at thirty-three, Alasdair muttered. I hear men in England dinna marry afore thirty years. Is it true?

I ken little of English ways. I lived with my mother's people for years, on the Scots side of the border, and never crossed over.

Hah! Never crossed by light o' day, nor crossed legally.

Duncan almost smiled. My cousins, the Kerrs, are good citizens of her majesty Queen Mary Stewart.

Alasdair laughed out loud. That Highland Macrae blood of yours, lad, found its merry niche with the Kerrs, who rank with the most fearsome border reivers who ever haunted the line between Scotland and England, or so I hear.

Well, Duncan drawled, occasionally a few cattle and sheep wandered over the border. Someone had to fetch them back again. We obliged.

With lances and swords, no less.

Just so, Duncan said. Cattle are dangerous beasts. He paused while Alasdair hooted a laugh. So you told me about Mairi and the bairns. How is my sister Kirsty?

Wee Kirsty? Alasdair smiled. She is fine, as is Mairi and the young ones. Did I say that our youngest, Dougal, is dark like the Macraes? Aye, and broad and bonny as the Frasers. Alasdair slid him a careful look. Mairi took the wee ones north to spend time with your grandmother and Kirsty at Dulsie. I'll be going there to meet them soon. Will you not come too?

I have duties in Edinburgh when I finish this task.

Alasdair sighed. They would welcome the sight of you after so long.

Duncan shook his head. I will send documents north to turn Dulsie over to my sisters. I think it is best.

You've been a Lowlander for a long while, with all those years spent on the border, and at the university at St. Andrews, and then lawyerin' and such at the courts in Edinburgh, Alasdair said. But do not fool yourself, lad. No such tame life could please that wild Macrae blood for long. He tipped a brow. It is long past time you allowed yourself to be a Highland man again.

The wild Scot in me is gone, and I do not mourn his passing. Truly, he was glad that he had tamed those wilder urges; they had nearly ruined him once.

Hah, Alasdair said. The Macraes are legendary in the Highlands for recklessness, and for strength and darin', and for tempers that would make even Frasers quake. That blood tells in a man, no matter where he goes in life. And never was a lad as bold as Duncan Macrae.

Oh, I once meant to be the boldest of the wild Macraes, but that was long ago.

Alasdair looked at him. Let it go, lad, he said softly. You were sixteen when they died. Will you carry the guilt of that day forever?

Aye, Duncan said curtly. Shutting the regret out of his thoughts, he set his jaw and fixed his gaze on the far mountains. He was a lawyer now, disciplined and scholarly, no longer the angry lad who had left these hills behind.

And as a lawyer, he had been successful enough to earn the respect of Queen Mary Stewart's Privy Council. Ironically, that same steady capability, and his understanding of the Highland temperament, had earned him a royal order to return to the Highlands and deliver a legal document to the Frasers.

He glanced at Alasdair Fraser. And some called the Macraes wild, he thought. The Frasers' feud with the MacDonalds had been fierce enough to catch the attention of the crown. Duncan had been sent to quell it.

Alasdair, he said, no more talk of wildness, I think, unless you wish to discuss the Frasers. Gathering his reins, he urged his horse forward.

Alasdair laughed as he rode alongside. Aye, wild we are, particularly my cousins. Including Elspeth, who has likely ridden on every raid in MacDonald territory. You will have a challenge discouraging this feud with that bonny lot.

Elspeth Fraser? Duncan frowned, not recognizing the name. Likely one of the Fraser widows, he thought, to be so adamant about the MacDonald feud. What, does she stir her sons into battle fever?

She'd be in the thick of it herself, weapons and all.

Duncan raised his brows in disbelief. A warrior woman? A matronly Athena? A Boudicca in your midst? He laughed. Well, if she shares your brawn and your mean looks, my friend, it is no surprise that she wields a claymore with the best of them.

Alasdair laughed outright. I'll say no more on that, man. You will see for yourself. He kneed his horse into a canter. Come ahead, lawyer, if you dare. Castle Glenran is not far!

Chapter 2

Late, late yestreen I saw the new moon

Wi' the auld moone in her arm;

And I feir, I feir, my deir master,

That we will come to harme.

~Sir Patrick Spence

Fish are no fit food for warriors, Callum complained. Sitting beside Elspeth on a boulder beside the stream, he looked disdainfully at the day's catch. Elspeth laughed softly, and Callum smiled as if pleased to amuse her, thrusting his fingers through his brown, woolly hair.

All is well with you, Elspeth? he asked.

She looked away, saying nothing of her strange vision of the man dressed in the raven's color. All is well.

Out in mid-stream, Kenneth struck suddenly at the water and leaned down to bring up a large brown trout, which he tossed to the bank. The fish landed on the pile with a slithery plop.

Flora MacKimmie may have had her fill of beef, but I have not, Callum grumbled.

Looking at the brawny muscle on her cousin's tall, broad frame, Elspeth smiled. Callum could out-eat any warrior, she thought, for he was tall and solid as an oak, and seemed to desperately need every morsel of food he got, but for fish.

Ewan came toward them and folded his lanky legs on the ground, shoving his hair, a rich russet color, out of his brown eyes. He flashed an impish smile. Flora's desire for trout sits hard with our Callum, he said, clapping him on the shoulder. Callum grunted in miserable assent.

If Flora wants fish, she shall have fish, said a calm, deep voice above them.

Ah! Magnus eats fish without complaint, Ewan said. Me and Callum, we pass.

You will eat the catch today and like it. Magnus stood tall over them.

Ewan grinned. A threat? You would not spoil a finer face than your own!

The devil is often handsome, Magnus said. Like you.

Hah, you may have handsome then, Ewan returned.

Elspeth smiled, listening, aware that Ewan's quick tongue could annoy as much as evoke laughter. But whenever he sang, his voice entranced anyone who listened.

She looked up at Magnus, who towered over her, his several golden braids hanging down like silken ropes. He was a few years older than the others, but Elspeth thought he was more like an ancient Celtic god, all golden strength and beauty. As a child, she had adored him.

But now her heart surged with sympathy for him. Pain and anger, too, flowed through Magnus like a dark, silent river. He still carried a deep hurt from the death of his wife two years earlier. Since then, he had hardened, his rare gentleness reserved only for his little daughter, who now lived with her grandmother.

Kenneth came out of the water and sat to rub his feet dry with an untucked end of his long plaid. I would rather eat fish than risk Flora's vengeance, he said. If we do not have enough fish today, we can go down to the loch. Angus Simson will give us some of his net-catch. He is always generous to his laird.

Magnus looked grim. Angus lost several cattle the other night to reivers, he said. His son came to Glenran early today, and said that Angus was sore beaten when he went outside, hearing a noise. But he did not see the raiders for the murk and the rain.

Surprising to hear of reiving so soon, Ewan said. The summer nights are too short for it, with sundown coming so late.

Elspeth frowned and toed one bare foot along the rocky ground. MacDonalds, she said softly. I know it was them.

Perhaps you do, seeing things that others cannot, Magnus said. But we must be cautious. We cannot attack the MacDonalds without good cause.

Making a marriage with Ruari will not end this feud, Elspeth said crossly.

I do not think Elspeth should marry into that clan of wolves, Callum said.

Thank you, Elspeth said.

But this feud has brought the wrath of the crown on our heads now, Magnus said. "The queen's lawyer will come and