A HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS WAGER
December 21, 1711
"There'll be snow before another hour has past," Maighread MacLennan said, her tone light and matter-of-fact, her aged blue eyes scanning the faded rusty-green hills on the horizon.
Meggie looked at the blue sky and the sun gleaming on the frost that spiked the heather and dry grasses. It was a perfect day to travel, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. She looked fondly at her grandmother, and rode closer to tuck the old woman's arisaid more securely about her shoulders to keep out the sharp wind. "Och, we'll be safe indoors before the first snowflake arrives, Seanmhair."
But Ewan MacLennan, the clansman who carried Maighread behind him on his garron, glanced at the old woman over his shoulder with a smile. "Your seanmhair has a canny way of telling when the weather is going to change, and she's always right. Ye'll note the wind has picked up."
Meggie was too excited about reaching home to let anything discourage her. In just two days she'd be at Glen Iolair, with her kin. She threw her hood back and let the wind ruffle her hair as she grinned at her grandmother's faithful servant. "Nonsense. We never would have set out today if it looked like bad weather."
Maighread tilted her head and regarded her granddaughter. "The weather changes fast in the Highlands. Everything does, except the land itself. I couldn't begin to count the times I've looked at these peaks, seen them covered with spring flowers and summer green, and heather and then—Well, ye'll soon see the snow for yourself, òrdugh-ogha, dearest granddaughter—and it will start within the hour, as I've said."
"Then we'll simply have to cover as many miles as we can before it comes," Meggie replied. "We'll be safe at Raine Castle in a few hours. Sir Hector is expecting us—there'll be mulled wine, roast venison, and plenty of good company."
"I hope he won't worry when we don't arrive," Maighread said.
Meggie resisted a sigh. "Of course we'll get there, Seanmhair, and tomorrow we'll go on to Glen Iolair, just as we planned." Her smile blossomed at the thought of her home. She'd been at her grandmother's home at Seannbrae for nearly three months, helping while her grandmother's broken leg healed, but Seanmhair was almost better, and it was Yuletide, and Meggie could hardly wait to be home with her father and her sisters. Even if they were delayed an extra night by unexpected weather, she'd still be there to help her sisters gather greens and decorate the hall with fir and mistletoe. They'd go out to watch the men cut down the Yule log, and ride it home again. The log would be carved with the face of the Cailleach Nollaigh, the winter hag, and on Christmas Eve, they'd roll it into the fire in the hall to vanquish winter's rule and bring the clan good fortune for the coming year. There'd be dancing and feasting, games and gifts, and the pleasure of being with the ones she loved most—and that included her beloved Seanmhair.
She glanced at the blue sky again—had it faded a wee bit since she last looked? Surely not—but a cold gust of wind tugged at a lock of her blond hair, and chilled her cheeks. She snatched the curl back and tucked it behind her ear. She drew her arisaid closer, and rode forward to tease the clansmen in their escort about the lasses they hoped to steal kisses from under the mistletoe.
But an hour later, Meggie pushed back the hood of her plaid and looked up at the sour yellow sky. Heavy pewter clouds were now charging over the mountains, and the playful wind had turned sharp and cruel.
"I told ye," her grandmother said blithely. "We'll have a foot or more on the ground before dark."
Ewan MacLennan nodded soberly in agreement.
Meggie looked around. They were miles from anywhere, and while she and her clansmen might survive a stormy night outdoors, Seanmhair was over eighty, and as frail as a snowflake herself. She looked at Ewan. "We'd best unpack the furs." Her chest tightened with worry as she looked at her grandmother. "Don't worry, Seanmhair. We'll be fine. Perhaps it won't be as bad as you think."
"Or it will be worse," Maighread said. "Or the snow may simply bring something unexpected, and whether that's good or bad is yet to be seen. Nay, I'm not worried at all."
The three strong MacLeods and the six MacLennans who rode with them closed in around the women, waiting for orders. "We'll head north, take shelter at Gleanngalla Castle," Ewan said, pointing the way. "It's but an hour away."
Meggie's throat closed. "Gleanngalla? Nay—surely there's somewhere else, someplace—" Anywhere but Gleanngalla.
Ewan shook his head. "Raine is still ten miles away." He let his eyes slide pointedly to Seanmhair. "It's a long way in a storm."
Meggie pursed her lips, and nodded reluctantly. Her grandmother's safety came first, and her own pride a distant second. Still, despite the cold she felt her cheeks burn. She scanned the track that led to Gleanngalla. Perhaps Magnus MacVane and his pretty wife wouldn't be at home, or perhaps Meggie herself would fall into a deep loch or roll down the side of a mountain before they reached his keep.
She wrapped warm furs close around Seanmhair's frail body with shaking hands, and Ewan grinned at her. "Don't fret, lass. She knows to hold tight to me, and I'm big enough to block the wind. She'll be right as rain."
"Or snow," Maighread MacLennan said. She smiled at Meggie. "I've always through it nicer to have snow for the Yule."
"Aye, but it could have waited a few days more to arrive," Meggie said, and glanced at the sky again. The first thick flakes of snow rushed at them like an invading army, carried by the wind, pasting themselves to the manes and eyelashes of the garrons, snatching maliciously at tightly wrapped plaids.
As the clansmen turned toward Gleanngalla, Meggie stood still for a moment and let the icy flakes sting her cheeks and watched them go. She couldn't bring herself to kick the garron, urge it on toward Gleanngalla. She'd rather go anywhere else, a freezing cave, a drafty sheiling, or even a hole in the snow... But her clansmen glanced over their shoulders and stopped to wait for her to catch up, and Seanmhair needed shelter, and Meggie MacLeod had no choice but to ride on.
© Lecia Cornwall
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