God Save the Highlander – Fiona Faris

Lady Seonaid of the Urquhart lands was her father’s daughter. A curiously obvious phrase but poignant, nonetheless. Where her mother had been a lady of quiet substance and ethereal gentility, Seonaid seemed impervious to the inheritance of such softer traits. Instead, the servants, caregivers, and general friends of the Urquhart lairdship would say over and again how she was ‘her father’s daughter.’ Her head was too full of rational sense for a woman, they would say. And her heart was that of a broody mare when her nose was tweaked out of joint. Her sense of clarity and stubborn determination were tempered only by her upbringing as a fine lady. Her tutorship ensured that her spirit grew into an aloof dignity, over shrewish passion. And yet, before her father—he who she resembled so much in the idiosyncrasies of her expressions—the delicacy of her lessons evaporated from her features, and the warm streak of rebellion was allowed to shine through. “Please reconsider, Faither,” she pleaded as Laird Fraser stormed the corridors of his castle. His pace was insistent—efficient for a man of his waning years. Yet, the laird of Urquhart had ne’er ceased his proficiency for the sake of a pausing breath. To keep up with him, Seonaid was forced to speed up her steps, taking her skirts in hand. “Ye have spoken thusly fer a month, daughter,” the Laird said, barely looking up from the fastening of his cloak that he was attaching into place beneath his chin. His jaw still held the firm line of his own commitments, even as he aged into his sixth decade.

“Whilst I applaud yer tenacity, what makes ye believe that I would change my mind when it is arranged that he is tae arrive even this night?” “The very fact that he is!” Seonaid attempted to argue. Her breath came a little short with the speed of her steps, and she felt her wayward locks falling about her face and shoulders. She could hear how her maid Lila would huff over the time it would take the reset the curls into place. “The advent of his arrival has made yer daughter desperate, Faither…,” she taunted, attempting to dart around him as he walked and lend pleading eyes to her testimony. He had never been able to refuse such an expression when she was young. “I have hopes that yer compassion wouldnae see yer daughter’s fears left without satisfaction?” Finally, her father drew to a halt. He stood in the stone archway that led from the western wing of their estate down into the courtyard beyond. Despite the lateness of the year, the sun was still bright and cast a warmth across half of his face. The shadows of his nose and hat distorted his expressions, but Seonaid did not need God’s light to witness her father as the man that he truly was beneath the disfigurement. She had been memorising the rise of his brow and the lines of his mouth since she was but an idolising child.

Fraser reached out to take a portion of Seonaid’s hair in his palm. His thumb came down to rub against the softness of her locks. It was a gesture of affection repeated throughout her childhood and brought a loving nostalgia to her heart. She smiled, her chest rising in the optimism of victory. Her father loved her so. He would not condemn her to become the wife of Laird Eoin MacBain. Such a fate was too cruel for one loved such as she. But her hopes were dashed as a sigh drifted from her father, his gaze already looking out into the stony square for the steed his squire was preparing. And she knew, at that moment, that she had lost her final chance of altering his mind. His thoughts were already miles away, upon his duties.

“Seonaid, ye are most cherished. And I urge ye tae consider that I dinnae make this agreement with Laird Eoin lightly. The lad is of fine means—richer than ourselves even, and his lands are fertile with lush profit and potential. He is one of the youngest lairds tae hold such a seat and, from my understanding, is a braw lad.” His hand moved from Seonaid’s hair to her chin and tipped her features to look up at him. Her dark lashes lifted, the shadows they cast upon her cheeks shifting in the sunshine. Her father’s gaze was strong, intelligent, and so compassionate that the rage in Seonaid’s heart could not help but be quelled. “Dinnae ye trust, my sweet Lassie, that I ha’ but chosen the very finest of mates for my only child? This feast will mark the beginnings of yer life as a wife, and the end of yer time as my daughter. I ask that ye grant me this final respect… before ye are nae longer mine tae offer it.” The elegant line of Seonaid’s neck was forced to rise and fall as she swallowed down her sense of injustice.

Her father had asked little of her, in all her life, and now he simply wished for her to make a profitable match. Her father had no knowledge that his choice was the single man she held the most distaste for above all others. “Och, Faither,” she submitted, her lips lifting into a shaky smile that she fought to hold true. She took a long and steadying breath. “I trust ye. I shall endeavour tae welcome Laird Eoin.” If not into her life, then at least into her faither’s household. She had but one hope for her future as a maiden, and that was Laird Eoin himself. A rake and a debaucher, Eoin’s conquests were the subject of many rumours floating on the winds of the highlands. Such whispers came like a heated breeze from the MacBain lands to the north and ensnared the imaginations of innocent girls and voracious women alike.

Eoin MacBain was a tempest of violence and scandal, with an insatiable appetite for the chastity of young maids and the blood of his enemies. He was the last person in all the world that Seonaid would ever wish to pledge to ‘honour and obey.’ But, surely, a wife at his hearth and dining table was the last thing that such a wild devil of a man would wish for? Seonaid held on to the naive ambition that perhaps Laird Eoin’s heels were as deep into the ground as her own over their future union. Mayhap, she would have only to look at his face that eve and see the same regret and resentment over their unity. If there was an extraneous force that was leading him towards the doom of matrimony, then, perhaps, she could aid him in changing his circumstances for the better, supporting him in securing his future as a wanton bachelor, and her own as a free agent once more. No philanderer wished for a wife, calling him home from the beds of his lovers. Seonaid’s last hope was that she would be able to convince Laird Eoin of this. To free them both from an intertwined life that would see them both miserable. Harbouring this secret, last desire for liberty deep within her heart, Seonaid permitted her father a kiss to her cheek and then saw him off upon his journey. Her wave from the doorway was slight, and her gaze was loving, as he rode his steed from their grounds.

His destination was not far, and he would return in time for the festivities of that night. Glancing up at the sky, Seonaid recognised the edge of chill in the sun’s rays as the winter rapidly drew close, and she felt a shiver run over her skin. The sun approached its zenith above, and she shook off the rising tightness of apprehension, low in her belly. She had just under six hours until the party from Clan MacBain was to attend them. Less than half a day to form her persuasions and choose the words that would most assuredly send her future husband returning back to his lands. Without her, and her broken heart, being dragged behind. “Are ye sure about this?” There was no title in Jamie’s words, no address of formality. The break with propriety was ignored by all present. “As sure as one can ever be in such things.” Eoin hedged as he glanced across at his friend.

The two of them sat on their mounts, at the head of their own entourage of a half dozen men, atop a rise of long grass and thistle-strewn bracken. A mile or so above the little township that was their destination, the wind rolled and blew. Despite sitting next to one another, the two men were forced to raise their voices as the air caught at their clothes and rushed in their ears. Eoin felt the tips of his own burn pink with the chill, and his eyes narrowed against the cold. “And ye are confident of yer… choice?” Jamie pressed, choosing his words with care. Whilst their conversation was quickly snatched to the bluster that tugged at the manes of their steeds and set Eoin’s kilt flapping against the side of his leg, Jamie was cautious not to appear reproachful before Eoin’s men. Whilst he possessed the unique position of naked friendship with the laird, unhindered by the formalities of privilege, Jamie had always been heedful of Eoin’s reputation. “Ye ken the girl?” Eoin asked, one dark brow rising in interest. His lips curled at one side, an amused implication on his features. It was rare for Jamie to take an interest in any female besides his dog, Freya.

Residing back at the MacBain estate, the bitch was a beautiful animal, wearing her mongrel colouring with as much pride as Jamie wore his. “Only by reputation,” Jamie admitted. His gaze winced against the wind, but Eoin knew him well enough to see the shine of mirth in his narrowed eyes. “I wish only tae be assured that ye’re prepared for such a skirmish, brither. A riled woman is worse than any northern barbarian.” Raised by a female of stern repute and sturdy disposition, Jamie’s warnings rang with the truth of experience. Growing up on the grounds of the MacBain family estate, Jamie’s parentage had been in the form of a single, caring aunt—a woman that had served as a maid to Eoin’s family. The boys had grown up together, more brothers than simple companions, and found solace in one another’s heritage. Where Jamie’s past was as murky as the dark locks of his hair, Eoin’s had been privileged to the point of brittle disconnect; ever the heir and never the son. Neither could ever decide which suffrage was worse: the lack of true parents or the emotional absence of those physically present.

Instead of their childhood traumas weighing heavy and dark upon their spirits, the friendship that the boys had formed over the years had been consolation enough to lift both of their hearts. A mother’s love was replaced with learning to bake at Aunt Ellen’s little hearth. A father’s pride was switched for fictional games of battle and hunting across the grounds. Eoin had held Jamie as a brother-in-arms, as stick swords became metal lancers and broom handles became steeds. After so long, formalities and titles only served the purpose of ringing hollow, a tool of false mockery, which was why Eoin felt no offence over the man beside him, nor irritation over his taunting of what awaited him down the road. Little more than a stony path, carved from the wayward flora by the passage of frequent travel, the lane that led them down into the shallow valley below was bound for Eoin’s future. The lands of Urquhart, nestled in the dale between the Beinn Nurrem and Cairn Toum, boasted a small but perfect province. Along the rising slopes of its protective, sister hills were speckles of white. Far off livestock, rams, and goats glinted in the dying sunlight, like threadbare heather over the vale. At its core, the township grew in the natural crevice and grooves of its motherland, lanes and homes breeching woodland and heath where the inclines stretched into flatland.

When the slopes rose, fighting back against the thriving humans, the town retreated, drawn to its centre and hugging the edges of the hillside. At its southern boundary, the dark expanse of Loch Gairn stretched towards the horizon, bleeding into the wavy shapes of far-off knolls. On its bank rested a castle. Small in size, it was dwarfed to a state of tiny by the titans of nature that cradled it on all sides —a small but homely realm. Here lay Laird Fraser. A paternal benefactor to his people and lands. A man of fine repute and generous nature that cared for nothing as he did his only child. Seonaid. Eoin’s gelding shifted beneath his weight, disturbed perhaps by the very thought of the woman he was due to marry. The animal, it would seem, shared in Jamie’s apprehension, but Eoin felt only amusement.

Such unnecessary concerns over a single female. Whilst it had been years since he had last seen the Laird Fraser’s daughter, her name conjured hazy images of dark hair and flashing eyes. She had been young when they last met, still yet to form into the woman she must now be. But her features had been bold, her chin set at a stubborn and courageous angle. His memory had retained the briefest of impressions of spirit and highland might. Back then, maturity and the ensuing dignity had yet to restrain her childish abandon. Eoin found himself mildly curious as to how the last eight years might have seen little Seonaid blossom. “God has yet tae make a woman I cannae handle,” Eoin reassured his friend. His declaration was one of arrogance. He shook his head, a rueful smile upon his face as he kicked his horse back into motion.

“Laird Fraser’s daughter willnae be different.”

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