Fighting for a Highland Rose (Preview)
Argyll, Scottish Highlands. February 1747.
Emily Nasmith lifted her head at the sound of her father’s voice.
“Well,” he said, with forced cheer, “here we are and not a moment too soon!”
Their small party stopped as they crested the last hill and gazed down upon the town. They were three in number: Emily, her father and Mortimer, her father’s adjutant. Behind them a little troop of sixteen red-coated soldiers drew up smartly in file, two abreast; the polished brown wood of their muskets shining dully under the gloomy sky. A little covered donkey cart brought up the rear, driven by a tired-looking manservant.
Emily sighed, closed her eyes for a moment and then gathered strength to show well for her father. She pushed her heavy hood back from her thick red curls and tried to add cheer to her voice.
“It has certainly been a long journey Father. And is this our destination?”
“Yes, dear, your new home! Come and look with me before we go down.”
It was a most squalid-looking little place; a small, white and grey town of thatched stone cottages clinging to the head of the loch and framed by the looming hills. She sighed.
“You see the castle?” Her father pointed into the near distance. She hadn’t. Now she looked again and there it was, a forbidding-looking mass of grey stone squatting on a low hill just above the town. It looked as cold and uninviting as the town itself. The red, white, and blue of the Union Jack flew bravely from the highest turret.
Not far up the hillside to the right of the road, the man who had been watching them sighed. It was the first sound he had made for some minutes and he gave a tiny shake of his head. He was dressed from head to toe in muted forest browns and greens, and his handsome, clean-shaven face was darkened with dried mud to blend in with his surroundings. His hair was brown, tied up tight to the back of his head with a leather thong and his eyes shone like two points of darkly polished obsidian in the deep shadow of the woods.
He was leaning forward against a mossy outcrop of rock and across this he laid a long musket of the same kind carried by the British soldiers. The firearm was primed and loaded and the man’s finger sat next to the trigger, but not upon it. He watched down the sights as the little party of redcoats formed up behind their leader. This would be the new captain of the Inveraray garrison. He gazed at the captain along the sights of the gun. What a coup it would be to see the new captain off before he had even reached his posting.
But that was not his intention. On the road below, the woman beside the captain was staring down at the town. The watcher looked at her with interest. She was too young to be a wife; a daughter perhaps? And that hair, as red as an Irishwoman! He smiled. It was time to go.
Lifting the musket from the rock to sling it onto his shoulder, there was a deafening bang as it went off, discharging its load of lead and acrid smoke high into the air. The watcher cursed and fell backward under the force of the accidental shot. On the road below he heard the Captain shout an order.
“Get behind the soldiers, Emily! Mortimer, stay with her!”
Emily went from a calm contemplation of the ugly town to a heart-pounding fear of attack. Who had shot at them? Mortimer and her father were flanking her as the soldiers turned and fell into a well-drilled line, five abreast with their sergeant at the corner. They had finished priming their muskets and raised them to their shoulders by the time Emily and Mortimer had sheltered behind their ranks. Mortimer held tightly to her reins.
The muskets clattered as the soldiers aimed up the hill in the direction of the shot. Emily had seen soldiers drill and had heard the sound of muskets firing but had never found herself in a position of genuine danger before. She did not care for the experience.
“Hold fire!” Captain Nasmith called to his men. “Mortimer, the glass, quickly now!”
Taking a leather case from his saddlebag, the adjutant handed his captain a gleaming telescope. The captain took it, clapping it to his eye and scanning the hilltop.
“Nothing,” he muttered into the stillness. “’wair there! There, up by that big oak!”
Emily watched the woodland. At first, she could see nothing and then as the soldiers took aim, she saw him; a brown and green-clad figure, flitting like a deer from tree to tree, his powerful legs carrying him up the hill as if his life depended on it. Which she supposed, it did.
The crack from the first rank of muskets firing was followed by a whizz of bullets as they landed harmlessly among the trees. The first rank of soldiers knelt to clear the way for the second.
The second row fired, the smoke from their barrels hung in the still air.
As the third rank discharged their rain of death into the trees, Emily saw the figure pause. It stood to its full height and turned, staring down upon the little party on the road. The soldiers were priming their muskets, but it was not a quick process. Emily could see him clearly, a tall, well-made man, clad in brown and green with his musket slung over one shoulder. Even at this distance she could make out his dark eyes as they roamed her party. For a moment it seemed as if their eyes met and a shiver ran through her body. As she watched, he raised both hands in a wide gesture, almost like a welcome. As the front rank of soldiers finished their reloading, he turned and vanished into a thicket.
“Hold, hold, he’s out of range,” her father called to the soldiers and the redcoats stood down.
Captain Nasmith scowled. “Damn rebel scoundrels, Mortimer, stay with Emily. Sergeant, form your men and let’s get down to the castle, and not a moment too soon.”
The brown-clad man moved steadily up the hill, breathing hard. He could have kicked himself for letting his musket go off but there was nothing to be done about it now. Gaining height, he glanced back to check for pursuit, but there was no sign. They would not risk it with such a small force. But damn it, now they would be on their guard.
After he had gone some distance, he heard a rustle to his left. From the bushes emerged a small bearded man about the same age and dressed in similar clothes but was slight and sinewy where the other was broad shouldered and tall. The newcomer was armed only with a long dirk – a Highland dagger – hanging from his belt.
“Murdo,” called the newcomer in a low voice, “is a’ weel?”
“Aye, Ewan,” Murdo nodded to his friend. “And wi’ you?”
“Aye, but I heard firing! Man, I was feart for yer skin! Whit happened?”
“Later, let’s put some mair ground between us and the road before we speak.”
The two brown-clad Highlanders fell into a steady trot, moving with practiced ease among the birches, oaks, and hazels cladding the hillside. After half an hour they reached the top and looked carefully around before venturing out onto the exposed hilltop. Confident all was clear, they moved quickly across the open heath to the relative shelter of a deep patch of gorse, flowering yellow under the gloomy grey sky. A long, flat plain dotted with gorse bushes and brown with last year’s bracken lay before them, and on either side the rock-strewn hills climbed up toward the clouds.
“Ye’d see the fools’ red coats a mile awa’ upon this moor,” Ewan smiled at the folly. “We’re safe for a while now, there’s nae scouts. I think they dinnae hae enough men at the castle to send out scouts. Come, we can walk a while, and tak’ a bite, and hae a wee dram. It’s a good step back tae the camp. Tell me whit happened!”
They stopped at a small stream, ate and drank a little as Murdo told Ewan his tale. Ewan laughed until he was breathless at his friend’s folly, before becoming more serious.
“Yon was a near thing, Murdo.It would hae been a bad job for us if we’d lost ye now. Ye should take mair care wi’ yon gun.”
“Aye, I ken that. I never liked the things anyway. Gie me a broadsword and a dirk any day, and I’d make the redcoats sing for it, but the muskets… Och, there’s nae honor in that kind o’ fighting.”
His friend nodded sagely.
“Let us hope that we’ve no’ brought down trouble doon upon our heads, Murdo.The toon of Inveraray hauds the key tae our success, and naething can be allowed tae jeopardize that.”
“The gold: aye. That gold is the maist important thing for us. If we dae nothing tae raise their suspicions, then that’s for the best. I hope indeed that my foolishness in letting my gun go aff like that doesnae bring mair trouble doon upon us. Come on, let’s put on some speed and get back tae the camp ‘afore nightfall.”
The castle at Inveraray was a rambling affair, poorly dressed stone and bare flagstones; a functional military outpost with no creature comforts. For all that, Emily was glad to have reached a place that she could call home for a while.
Lieutenant Roberts, in charge of the small garrison brought out his men to meet them. Captain Nasmith explained quickly what had happened on the road.
Roberts looked serious. “Yes, sir, there are rebels camped in the hills north of here. Major Clairmont sent orders from the castle at Dumbarton that he is on his way to Inveraray with the express intention of hunting them down. I do not doubt that the man firing upon you was one of them.”
By the time they reached the stone-flagged central courtyard of the castle, they were dusty, sweaty, and very tired.
“Mortimer!” Captain Nasmith called to his adjutant. “See to my daughter and to the unpacking and billeting of the soldiers. Lieutenant Roberts, escort me around the castle and show me where everything is.”
As Mortimer gave orders to the guard of soldiers, Emily noticed a young woman about her own age, hurrying toward them. She was a little taller than Emily and thinner, her gleaming dark hair pinned up under a little lace cap, carrying her skirts above her ankles as she hurried forward.
“Ah, Miss,” she addressed Emily in a pleasant Scottish lilt, “ye hae come tae us at last! Och, but whit a road ye hae travelled.”
Reaching the little group, she curtseyed.
“My name is Alice Murphy, miss, and ye must be Miss Emily Nasmith? We hae been waitin this past three days for ye and the chambers hae been kept warm. I’m tae be yer maidservant here at Inveraray Castle, if ye please, miss, I’ll show ye tae yer chambers.”
Emily glanced at her father who smiled absently before turning away to speak to Lieutenant Roberts. Mortimer nodded to her.
“Do make yourself comfortable Miss Nasmith.Your father and I have business to attend to. We will no doubt see you at the evening meal once everyone has rested and settled in a little.”
Alice Murphy led Emily across the courtyard and through a doorway, up a flight of stairs and along a corridor. It was dark inside the castle: the only light coming from torches flickering unevenly along the walls. The only windows on the lower floors were narrow gun-loops, wide enough to fire a musket but letting in little natural light.
“Aye, it’s a gloomy auld warren o’ a place, right enough.” The maidservant smiled, seeming to read Emily’s thoughts. “But ye’re seeing it first on a gloomy day. Tae be sure, when the sun shines the hills aroond Inveraray are the bonniest sight a body could hope tae see, and the great hall here at the castle isnae sae poor when the fire is built up. Your rooms are the finest chambers in a’ the Castle. The fire is burning, and hot water is ready for washing the road dust frae yer face and for tea if ye should wish it?”
Despite her misgivings, Emily was encouraged by her new companion’s cheerful chatter. She liked this woman immediately, and after days spent in the company of her father, his adjutant, and the taciturn, disciplined soldiers, it was a relief to be in the company of a pleasant young woman of her own age.
When Emily reached the chambers, she was not disappointed. There was a cosy bedroom, a comfortable sitting room, and an antechamber for her maid. Alice proved herself a pleasant, attentive and intelligent companion, as tired of the military men as Emily herself, and very pleased to make a female friend of her own age.
That night they dined well in the gloomy hall. The castle steward was an elderly man by the name of Campbell and was ready with many dull tales of the castle and its history. Emily did her best to look interested but slipped away as quickly as she could claiming that she was very tired and wished to rest. The two women left the hall and made their way back to Emily’s room.
They were nearly at their destination when Alice stopped abruptly.
“What is it, Alice?” Emily’s new friend looked worried. She began to walk again, more slowly.
When they entered the cosy room, Emily sat while Alice moved around the room, lighting candles and adding wood to the fire before sitting down opposite Emily, her dark eyes serious and her mouth fixed.
“Miss Emily. I ken it’s only been a wee while we’ve ken each other, and I dinnae wish tae speak oot o’ turn, and yet I feel I cannae keep silent. Miss, I hae something I must tell ye straight awa’.”
Emily leaned forward and took Alice’s hands.
“You may trust me. What is wrong?”
“Oh, Miss, I ken the secret, the secret o’ this toon. The secret for which the rebels would kill ye and yer faither for, and a’ the soldiers, aye, and me wi’ them like as not. Miss, I ken where the treasure is.”
The night was cold. By the light of the stars and the waning half-moon, Alice and Emily picked their way through the leaning gravestones of Inveraray kirkyard.
“Careful!” Alice reached a hand to Emily and together they skirted the edge of the squat church building.
“I must be mad to be out here in the middle of the night when I should be in bed!”Emily whispered through the still night air.
“Aye, and I must be mad tae be showing ye this, but I hae told naebody for there’s been naebody I could trust wi’ it. It was by sheer chance I found it. I was walking the wee short cut behind the kirkyard intae toon and I heard a cat wailing. I climbed the wall at yon gap where we came through just now and followed it here.”
They had reached the far back corner of the squat little chapel. Alice crouched down and struck a light to the stub of a candle which she had produced from a fold in her skirts.
“Look here. The cat was trapped at the bottom of yon hole. Go on, look for yersel’.”
Emily crouched beside Alice, intrigued. She took the proffered candle and thrust it through the gap, peering through. The gap was small, only a few hand-spans across, but Emily could see a square, stone lined chamber; perhaps half the height of a man. At the bottom sitting on damp stone stood a large wooden box. The lid of the box had rotted away, and one corner of the wood nibbled by rats or mice. In the candlelight she saw the unmistakable glint of gold.
Emily sat back with a gasp as Alice grinned unashamedly, taking the candle from her shaking hand and blowing it out.
“Ye see? The cat climbed up ontae the box and I was able tae reach doon and catch him and bring him oot, but then I looked again and saw whit ye hae just seen. And Miss, they say the rebels in the hills tae the north o’ the toon are MacPherson men. They can only be coming here for this. ‘Afore the rebellion began a great MacPherson chief had his holding tae the west o’ here, and the minister o’ this kirk was a cousin o’ his clan. When the rebellion broke oot the minister must hae hidden his cousin’s treasure here. But the MacPherson chief died on the way tae meet wi’ the rebel army and the minister fled alone and on foot when he heard that the rebels had been finally beaten at Culloden. Perhaps he took the news o’ this treasure back north tae the MacPherson lands when he fled?”
Together they made their way back through the graveyard and walked the wooded lanes above the town back toward the castle. Alice had shown Emily a little-used doorway at the side of the castle near the kitchens where it was possible to slip in and out unseen. Emily looked in growing admiration at her adventurous new friend, touched by Alice’s trust.
“What do you think about the war, Alice?”
The young girl was silent for a long time.
“War brings nae good tae anybody Miss and that’s the truth. And the Duke o’ Inveraray, Laird Campbell, has never been anything but kind tae me and my family. But I hae a brother whae took up wi’ the rebels when the news came that the army was gathering, and he went tae fight for Scotland tae be its ain ruler once again as it was in aulden times. He is still oot there wi’ the rebels. He escaped the battle o’ Culloden and fled tae the hills wi’ the remnants o’ the clansmen whae escaped the slaughter. He sent me a message here tae tell me he had survived, and tae tell me tae have hope. ‘Tis freedom the rebels fight for – freedom frae tyranny and frae poverty, and tae be masters o’ their ain destiny. And I cannae but feel that is right.”
The next morning Alice was standing behind Emily, hairbrush in her hand and carefully combing the night-time tangles from her mistress’ flaming red curls. They gazed at their reflections in the glass.
“Yer hair is as red and as wild any Scotswoman’s. Hae ye Scots blood at a’ Miss?”
“Aye.” She laughed, trying to put on a Scottish accent and failing badly. “My mother’s father was from Edinburgh but my mother’s hair was dark, and my father’s family are English as far as I know, but I know little of the family history. My grandparents on both sides were poor, obscure people.”
“Yer mither.” Alice hesitated. “She is lang deid?”
“Just over five years ago. It was at Christmas and so stupid. She was caught in a rainstorm and took a chill but thought nothing of it and carried on as normal. Then she began to cough. The next day she took to her bed and three days later she was dead. Pneumonia, the doctors called it. There was nothing they could do.”
“My mither is deid, tae,” Alice confided, working the last of the tangles out of Emily’s red mane. “Though I ne’er kent her. She died gieing birth tae her second child twa years after I was born. The child deed too.”
Emily winced as the hair pulled at her scalp. “How did you come to work at the castle?”
“Oh, my faither is the cook. Has been a’ his days. When I was a lassie, I used tae work wi’ him in the kitchen and run messages for the soldiers or what haee ye. The Duke was aroond mair then and the castle was busier, but the Duke hasnae been seen here for ower a year, no’ since he went doon tae London efter the great rebellion. They are building a new castle for him now ower by the river, but it’ll be a lang time until that’s finished and until then this auld fortress is hame.”
Alice finished dressing Emily’s hair and stood back to admire her work. Emily regarded herself critically in the mirror. She was perhaps not classically beautiful. Her nose was a little too broad perhaps and her jaw just a little too strong and jutting. She hated the scatter of freckles across her nose and brow. But her eyes were attractive: a fascinating shade of green and rather large. Her mouth was her best feature though. It was full and sensuous. She opened her mouth a little and ran her tongue across her lips. Alice giggled.
“Oh, Miss,” she said, smiling. “Let us get ye dressed and prepared for the day.”
They were choosing a dress when a commotion outside drew their attention. This room was one of the few in the castle which boasted a window of any size and looked out onto the courtyard. It was covered with heavy wooden shutters and a heavy black curtain, but the two women pulled the curtain back and opened the shutter to see what the disturbance was. Emily’s low-cut nightgown concealed very little of her figure, and she huddled her shawl close around her as she peeped around the corner of the shutter. Alice hung back, keeping to the shadows of the room.
In the courtyard below, the bright morning sun cast a sharp line of shadow across the cobbled courtyard, lighting the wide gateway. The tall wooden doors had been flung open and cast the back of the courtyard into deep shadow.
Emily’s father stood in shadows with Mortimer, Lieutenant Roberts, and old Mr. Campbell the castle steward. They stood in silence facing the wide gateway. Hooves clattered on the cobbles as a small troop rode into the courtyard at a canter, two by two through the gate: their heavy woolen coats glowing scarlet in the bright light of the sun. They wore the ubiquitous black tricorne hat except for the leader who was bare headed.
This man pulled up his horse, holding up a fist as his followers formed a line behind him. He was a striking-looking man. In height he passed any other man in the courtyard. He was lean with a long face, a sharp nose, high cheekbones and very bright, penetrating blue eyes. His hair was black and cropped close to his skull and pointed over his brow in a pronounced widow’s peak. The high forehead rose over the dark, scowling eyebrows of a tyrant. On his hands he wore black leather gloves and sat on his great brown warhorse with the practiced ease of a man born to the saddle.
There was a long moment of silence, broken only by the shifting and blowing of the sweating horses as the newcomer looked carefully around the courtyard. He looked at the men standing in the shade awaiting him before suddenly glancing up to the window where Emily stared down at him. Their eyes locked.
She could not have felt more exposed if she had been standing naked in front of him. The ice-blue eyes hooked deep into her soul and she could not breathe. His face remained unchanged, save for the tiny upward flicker of one eyebrow. As he looked away the spell was broken. Emily fell back from the window.
“What is it Miss?” Alice was full of concern.
“It must be the new Major. I don’t know, he looked up and saw me in the window. I… I didn’t like the look of him.”
Hand in hand they approached the window again and peeped once more into the courtyard. The tall man was speaking. His voice had a nasal twang, the pitch higher than expected.
“You had my orders?”
Captain Nasmith nodded. “You are Major Henry Clairmont?”
“Yes, and I have ridden ahead to see that all is prepared for me and my men. Who is the ranking officer here?”
Emily’s father stepped forward. “I am Captain Edward Nasmith, sir.”
“Captain? Well, sir, I have fifty men of the 48th Regiment on foot marching at my back and a hand-picked squadron of dragoon cavalry waiting outside. I am your ranking officer Captain, but I am not here to take command of this castle. My men and I are here to reinforce this garrison and root out the rebels reported in the hills to the north of here. I will place half my infantry under your command. You shall keep command of the castle and the reinforced garrison. I shall keep my dragoons and the other half of the infantry for the purposes of my mission. We will be billeted here in the castle and while billeted we shall defer to your orders. Understood?”
Agreeing he turned to Mortimer and the castle steward to give them orders to see to Major Clairmont’s men and horses.
With nothing left to see, Emily and Alice moved away from the window.
“I don’t know why Alice, but I shall be very glad when that man has finished his mission and is well on his way. Did you hear what he said about the rebels in the hills?”
Alice nodded. “Aye, Mistress, I heard. And the rumour is abroad in the toon, tae. It’s nae secret that James MacPherson and his son Murdo were seen at Glen Etive not twa weeks back.”
“Murdo MacPherson,” Emily mused to herself, thinking of the dark-eyed man in the hills. “And where is Gen Etive?”
“No’ five day’s walk north o’ here by road Miss, and those outlaw rebels are known tae move fast through the wild country, such as it is between here and there.”
“But why would they come here?”
“Alice shrugged. “Mibbe they heard that there’s twa bonnie lassies at the castle whae may be hoping for strapping Highland husbands?”
She laughed lightly and Emily laughed along with her. Arm-in-arm they left the room and set off for the great hall.
As they entered Captain Nasmith rose from the table.
“Major Clairmont, allow me to present my daughter, Emily Nasmith, and her maid Alice.”
Clairmont spoke without feeling, inclining his head in Emily’s direction and ignoring Alice. The two woman sat down, some distance from the men and as Alice served them food, they could hear clearly as Clairmont spoke to the Captain.
“You bring your daughter on campaign with you Captain? That seems a little unusual.”
“My poor wife is dead Major, and it is my wish to keep an eye on my daughter for the moment. She can be headstrong although she is a good girl at heart. I thought it best to keep her by me. She is not married…”
He raised an eyebrow at the Major, his meaning so obvious that Emily flushed red.
Major Clairmont turned slowly towards her once again. It was only Alice’s firm grip on her hand under the table that kept Emily from squirming under the relentless, cold gaze. She was horrified.
“Indeed,” said the Major turning slowly back to the Captain. “And neither am I…”
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