Fighting for a Highland Rose – Extended Epilogue
Glenoran, Inverness-shire, July 1768
“Aye,” said James Macpherson, leaning back in his seat with an air of satisfaction, “the laddie certainly does tak’ efter ye, son.”
“In looks, maybe,” replied Murdo, “but if he has inherited my body, he has his mother’s brains in his head, and I thank God for that!”
James laughed heartily, coughed before clapping his son on the shoulder.
“You’re no’ wrong there, Murdo!” he said.
The two men were sitting at their ease in the shade of a spreading apple tree. It was high summer and the sun was blazing down with a heat rare in the northern glens of the MacPhersons. Behind them, the looming stone bulk of Glenoran castle soaked up the warmth. The sky was blue and flecked with fluffy white clouds, little birds sang and darted back and forth from the branches of the tree under which they sat, hunting to feed their fast-growing young. All around them, the sheltered apple orchard, the pride of the gardeners of Glenoran buzzed with a life of insects and birds.
A little way away from where Murdo and James sat, a tall, strongly built youth was diligently working his way through a pile of logs with a long, two-handed axe. That winter a big apple tree had been hit by lightning, and Colum MacPherson, Murdo’s son and heir, had spent three weeks working with one of the gardeners to saw it into round disks and stack it to dry out a little for splitting in the summer. Now, as his father and grandfather watched, Colum took great pleasure in the satisfying task of heaving the heavy roundels into place and splitting them up into smaller logs. The sweet-smelling wood was a rare commodity, and it would not be used for just any fire in the castle. Instead, Colum had conceived the idea of setting up a smokery for the curing of meat and the smoking of cheeses, and was hoping to use the applewood for this project. The powerful muscles in his back rippled as he swung the axe, and beads of sweat made his tanned skin glisten. His shirt, discarded in the hot weather, hung from a branch of a nearby tree.
James spoke to Murdo again, more quietly, though Colum was already out of earshot.
“How go the arrangements for his betrothal?” Murdo sighed heavily.
“It’s no’ as easy as we thought it would be. Iain Grant is a canny man, and he willnae tak’ a decision like that lightly. He prevaricates and procrastinates; indeed, he seems tae hae become a fretful auld man since the days when we fought side-by-side tae regain my wife frae the English.”
“Aye, weel, twenty years will dae that tae a man,” said James, shifting in his seat. James was unsure exactly of his own age. At least sixty-five, he thought. He had been twenty when Murdo was born, and now Murdo was forty-two. But the records of James’ own birth had been lost, and he himself had lost count over the years. In the large scheme of things, he supposed it did not really matter. He groaned. Murdo was nodding agreement.
“Ye are right, faither,and it’s nae bad thing, no’ really. Iain Grant is chief o’ his clan, and he is right tae ca’ canny when it comes tae the marriage o’ his daughters. This land is changing, and the Laird Carlisle o’ Balmore is a complication baith for the Grants and the MacPhersons. Iain Grant is rightly cautious o’ making a marriage which might mak’ Laird Carlisle feel threatened.”
James made a disgusted noise in his throat.
“Laird Carlisle,” he scoffed. “A fine name tae clap ontae an Edinburgh gentry, up here tae naethin’ but mak’ money frae sheep and roust the local bodies aff o’ the land they hae lived on for generations beyond count! ‘Laird’ indeed. Man, when I was yer age, Murdo, it took mair than a pouch o’ King’s gold an’ a daft title tae mak’ a laird! We had tae earn it, and it was a bloody and fearful business for a’ that! I’d like tae tak’ yon ‘laird’ out tae the moors and gie him a go – I’d run him through wi’ one hand tied behind my back, I tell ye!”
“I dinnae doubt that ye would!” he said. “But for a’ that I am mighty glad o’ the peace. The long truce has brought peace and prosperity tae our people, and has allowed my son tae grow up wi’out the threat o’ war hangin’ constantly ower his heid. That’s worth a bit o’ annoyance frae the gentry.”
James shrugged in reluctant agreement, but he did not look convinced.
“It may be so,” he said. “I dinnae deny that I’m glad tae hae watched the twins grow up in peace. But though the truce we built protects our people here, the stories I’m hearing frae elsewhere in the land are horrifying. Poor folk burned out o’ their cottages and deported, or forced tae emigrate owerseas, and a’ in the name o’ whit; sheep? Just because it hasnae reached this far doesnae mean it cannae.”
“Look at you two, sitting grumbling in the shade like a couple of old men!” said a merry voice behind them. “Have you nothing better to do than to watch other men work?”
James looked round with a sardonic eye, “whit dae ye mean like and auld man? I am an auld man!” But Murdo stood up from his chair and turned with a smile to take his wife in his arms.
Emily MacPherson had aged well over the last twenty years. Despite her time in the highlands, her accent remained distinctly English. The blazing flame of her red hair had cooled as silver begun to make its way through it, but she still kept it long, and was pleased to wear it out as often as she could. Her figure had filled out, of course, and she had given birth to five children, though tragically only her first two, the twins, had made it to adulthood.
She was a worker, always setting to some task or other around the castle and the grounds, or riding out to assist the people in the hamlets and villages which paid tithe and acknowledged the MacPhersons of Glenoran as their lords. Her arms were strong and herback straight, for all of her forty years, she greeted her husband with the same delight and pleasure as she had always done. The freckles stood out against her tanned face, and her eyes sparkled as he took her in his arms and kissed her.
Glancing up from his task, Colum MacPherson saw his mother and father embracing and smiled. They were like a pair of young lovers courting. When he had been younger, he and his sister had found their parents’ physical affection for each other embarrassing, but these days he was proud of it. He knew enough of their story to know that they deserved every ounce of happiness they could, and he wondered, without much hope, if he would ever find a love to match theirs?
The thought immediately drew him onto thoughts of his betrothal, and his heart sank. What love could there be between two who did not know each other, and who married to cement the alliance between their clans? He felt a familiar sinking feeling in his belly, and grit his teeth against it.
There was a pitcher of water on a little table where his father and grandfather had been sitting. Colum dropped the axehead into the chopping block with a satisfying thunk and strode over toward his family, grabbing his shirt from the branch and hauling it on as he walked. The older folk smiled at him as he approached, and his grandfather called out, “Weel, laddie, that’s one way tae keep in shape!”
Colum rolled his eyes toward the woodpile and smiled at the old man, before hooking the water pitcher with two fingers and drinking deeply. When he was done, he spoke to Emily.
“Are ye weel, mither? And where is Alice today? I havnae seen her since last night at dinner?”
“Your sister rode out at first light down to Miekleburn village, on the the border with the Balmore estate. We had tidings from there in the night that many people have been taken with a mysterious sickness. There have been three deaths in the past week, and many more are sick. She has taken the sisters Beatrice and Clara Morton with her. I tried to make her take a few men too, but she wouldn’t hear of it. You know what she is like in such matters.”
They all smiled at this, but then Colum frowned again.
“I am sorry tae hear that there’s sickness in the village. God forbid that it should spread as others we hae seen!”
“Weel,” said James bitterly, “if it does, it will certainly free the Laird Carlisle o’ Balmore frae a difficult problem.”
“Eh?” said Murdo. “Whit are ye talking about?”
“Dinnae tell me ye havnae heard,” said James. “He wants the moorland around Miekleburn for his sheep, but the folk o’ the village farm the fertile land nearby their homes, and dig the land that’s further awa’ for peat tae heat their hames. The terms of the truce dinnae allow Carlisle tae clear folk aff the land on Balmore, as ye ken, and since mast o’ the land is already empty that’s no’ a problem for him. But now he’s got his eye on that bit o’ land, and ye mark my words, he will be rubbing his hands wi’ glee tae hear o’ a sickness in the village which might dae the clearing for him wi’out any difficulty, aye him and that gluttonous son o’ his.”
“I heard that the son is tae be married,” added Colum. He had sat down with his back to the apple tree, and Emily had sat down beside Murdo, her head pillowed on his arm as she listened to the conversation.
“Aye, that’s right,” said James, nodding vigorously. “Auld Laird Carlisle has set it up wi’ a wool and sheep merchant frae down near York, ower the border in the north o’ England. Bright, the merchant’s name is; an Irishman whae come ower wi’ his family ten years ago or so, and did that weel for himself that Laird Carlisle will marry his only son tae Bright’s daughter, tae cement the trading alliance.”
“Apparently they are expecting her arrival any day now,” said Emily.
James made a thoughtful sound and shook his head in disapproval.
“Imagine that,” he said consideringly, “marrying yer son aff tae secure a discount on sheep.”
“How is it any different to marrying your son off to secure an alliance between clans?” said Colum, and immediately wished he hadn’t spoken. His parents and his grandfather swelled up with indignation and began to speak at once.
“It’s no’ the same at a’…”
“Nothing like the same…”
“Now, son, ye ken it’s no’ like that…”
Colum couldn’t help but give a wry laugh. He held up both hands in placating apology.
“Sorry, sorry!” he said smilingly. “O’ course it’s no’ the same, I understand.”
The immediate way they accepted hiswords and settled back down again was almost more irritating than the self-righteousness that it was different.
“We are all to be invited to the wedding,” said Emily, as if nothing had happened.
“Oh, aye?” said Murdo without much relish. James cursed and made a disgusted sound in his throat.
“Oh, come on,” chided Emily. “I know that Lord Carlisle and his son are not exactly noble highlanders, but this is the price of peace! Honestly, you men! What happened to diplomacy and tact and keeping the peace? It will be a few days at most, and then you can come back home having done your duty and never have to look at them again.”
“Diplomacy?” James grumbled. “I’d like tae gie that so-called Laird Carlisle a firm boot in the backside for diplomacy. If he could put his fists up against me and dook it out like a man then maybe I could feel a bit better disposed toward him.”
Murdo, Emily, and Colum laughed at the old man’s cantankerousness. Colum rose, took another drink of water and stretched, feeling his cramped limbs pop satisfyingly as he did so.
“Weel,” he said, “I want tae mak’ a bit mair progress wi’ that woodpile this efternoon.”
“Dae ye fancy a hand wi’ it, son?” said Murdo. Colum knew that his father was hoping to talk further about the betrothal arrangements. He did not want to talk about that right now. He was resigned to the fact that it would happen, prepared to do his duty, but that was as far as he would go. His father’s efforts to make him glad about it would just make the whole thing harder for him.
“No, thank ye faither,” he replied politely. “But I would rather just get on wi’ it myself. It’s a good time for me tae think things ower myself, ye ken?”
“Aye,” said Murdo smiling. “I ken.”
Colum turned and wandered back over to the woodpile. There was a lot left to do, and it would take him more than just this afternoon. As he heaved the axe out of the woodblock and set about his task again, his thoughts were of the Yorkshire bride who was, even now, travelling north to Scotland to marry the son of their neighbour, Laird Carlisle of Balmore. He wondered how she was feeling about it. If he found the prospect of marrying Iain Grant’s daughter distressing – a girl at least from the same land as him and would come to live with him at his home – then how much worse must it be for this daughter of Bright the wool-merchant, coming to a new land and a new house, and all to secure commercial advantage? Colum felt sure that if she were not absolutely terrified by the prospect, then she must be a very plucky girl indeed.
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