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By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
Scotland, August 1750
The white half-moon floating above the shadowy bulk of Cam Odhar was the sort Lowlanders call an aval moon. Highlanders, on the other hand, called it MacDrumin's moon, because it gave that canny gentleman sufficient light for his purpose without shedding too much for safety on activities that might draw the interest of prying English authorities. As the hour approached midnight, the little moon disappeared from time to time behind scudding fat clouds, reappearing moments later to cast a silvery glow over the mischief afoot in the Great Glen.
The wind putting the clouds to flight, though it brought a crisp chill to the air, hinting at colder nights to come, failed to sweep low enough to banish the thick mist rising from Loch Ness, but every once in a while an errant gust cleared an opening and allowed moonlight to sparkle briefly on shining ripples of black water before the mist closed in again.
In one such moment the moonlight caught movement on the eastern shore of the loch, when ten shadowy figures emerged from the thick growth of pine trees edging the steep lower slope of Cam Odhar near the shoreline. Although clouds soon obscured the moon again, splashes and murmuring voices could be heard, followed by thuds of wood on wood and against metal, hastily muffled. Then all was still except for the gentle lapping of water against the shore and the hush of breezes soughing through the treetops. For a moment even breezes and water were still, as if to aid those who listened for betraying sounds from a lurking enemy.
Maggie MacDrumin, standing stiffly erect, every nerve aquiver in her small, delicately curved body, scanned the distant shore for movement and strained her ears for the slightest sound of human presence there. As she pulled her wool mantle tighter to ward off the chill, she even felt her nose twitch as if it might somehow smell out danger, though in truth, she detected no more than the tangy aroma of pine needles, the dampness of the rising mist, and the musky odor of nearby horses.
Her tension was reflected in the postures of her companions, particularly the thin young woman beside her. Kate's pale plaited hair—lighter and finer in texture than Maggie's thick honey-gold tresses—looked silver in the moonlight, and her eyes, huge in her pixie face from lack of proper food, grew wider and even more wary when she caught Maggie's gaze upon her.
"I dinna like standing aboot in the open like this," Kate muttered tersely, her lapse into Highland accents revealing uncharacteristic nervousness, since she generally took care to pattern her speech after Maggie's. "Seems fidging unnatural, and I tell you true, Mag, this business of the laird's be like tae land us all in Inverness Tolbooth afore the nicht be o'er."
"Do you good to learn the consequences of mad folly, you daft wench," the chief of the MacDrumins muttered as he loomed out of the shadows behind them. A man of middle height in his late forties, Andrew MacDrumin of MacDrumin, ninth laird of that ilk, was nonetheless powerfully built, and though presently he wore his powdered periwig and a voluminous mantle, even in the shadowy moonlight he projected an air of unmistakable audacity.
When Kate grimaced, he grinned at her, showing the gap where an eye tooth had been knocked out four years before at the bloodbath known as Culloden. That lost tooth being his only injury, he had managed to escape the field and lead the tattered remnants of his clan, by way of the devious mountain paths he knew so well, to the relative safety of Glen Drumin, and to do so with such speed as to thwart all attempts by the authorities later to prove his direct involvement in the uprising. Though suspicion was rife among the English, no Highlander would admit without equivocation that the MacDrumin personally had taken part. Now, looking at Kate, he demanded gruffly, "Do you think I know naught of folly myself, lass?"
"Nay, my lord," Kate retorted. "I believe ye ken more of such business than most men do."
"'Tis true, I do," he agreed, his eyes twinkling in the moonlight, "so you'd best believe me, Kate MacCain, when I say you're a sight safer in the business you be part of this night than in the madness you've been stirring up these past several months and more, for I speak naught but the simple truth."
Kate lifted her chin but did not voice her defiance aloud; and Maggie hid a smile, knowing that had it been anyone else who dared to reprove her, Kate's volatile temper would have exploded like a keg of gunpowder. Few persons, male or female, young or old, cared to stir MacDrumin's fury, however. Even the devilish Campbells and cursed English gave him wide berth once his anger had been aroused.
Maggie focused her gaze again on the distant shore but saw only the massive moonlit walls of Castle Urquhart rising out of the mist. The ghostly landscape around them seemed uninhabited.
"Don't squint, lass," MacDrumin muttered, "or you'll wrinkle your bonny face. They'll be there right enough, so now then, the pair of you, into the boat you go."
"But I was going to row over with Dugald," Kate protested.
"Well, you're not," MacDrumin said, "for your cousin Dugald can no more make you mind than he can fly. I want the pair of you skittersome, unruly females safe under my own eye, and that's all I'll say about it. Steady that boat with your oars, lads," he added, his voice carrying easily through the night. Then, holding a hand out to help Kate, he said, "Mind the kegs now, lassies; and, you men yonder in the other two boats, mind you stay close to us, and we'll protect our cargo as if 'twere rubies and gold."
Maggie heard laughter in his voice and saw several of the others smiling. She sighed. This was no time for humor.
Moments later, aside from an occasional night bird's call, the only sounds were the oars plunging into the water followed by dripping splashes when they emerged again. The occupants of the three long, narrow boats were quiet now, and so eerie did they all look to Maggie that it was as if they were but black shadows skimming through the silent mist. Rowers and passengers alike kept at least one eye cast toward Castle Urquhart, for they all knew that no permanent obstacle barred their path across the mysterious, unfathomed black depths of the loch so long as they held a straight course toward the shadowed ruin.
"I hope the monster sleeps deep tonight," Kate murmured with an audible shudder in her voice.
Maggie chuckled softly. Despite the many tales she had heard, she put small faith in the mythical monster that supposedly lurked below in the deep, narrow chasm containing the loch. "The only monsters afoot tonight," she said, "are English excisemen, whispering plots with their Campbell and MacKenzie toadies."
"I'll have no profanities spoken in this boat," MacDrumin said sternly.
"I didn't! I said only—"
"You spoke of the blasted English," he snapped. "'Tis as bad as a damn any day. Och, but I spit on them, and on their wicked, evil laws. Bad enough that without cause they did take a man's land that's been in his family for centuries and gave it without so much as a by-your-leave to one of their own, and have tried to undermine a proper chief's authority amongst his own people, but then to demand rents he canna raise, nor his people either—" He paused, drawing breath in between his teeth. "Och, but 'tis not the time to talk of such foulness. Indeed, if things come to pass as they ought, there'll soon be no need for talk at all." Kate said softly, "Aye, for when his highness—"
"Och, lassie, whisst! Even a whisper carries far over water, and 'tis only a mile now. You mustna speak so plain."
Maggie, seeing uncharacteristic dismay in Kate's face, said, "Words will not carry so far, Kate, only sounds." Then, turning to her father, she said quietly, "We MacDrumins must soon make our loyalty known in London, sir. The more men who support him there, the more likely his mission will succeed this time."
"Agreed, lass, but if you're thinking that I ought to go myself, you'd best think again. For me even to stir southward whilst they watch me so close would be as good as a grand announcement of things to come. To go to London would be witless. Mayhap, if I had a son, he could go, or if I could spare your cousin Colin ... but nay." He sighed. "Even Colin would draw undesirable attention."
Maggie bit her lip, annoyed as she always was when her father bemoaned his lack of a son. Not that he had ever really held her gender against her. He had even obeyed the law enacted nearly a century before—and by a Stewart king, at that—that required him to send his eldest daughter (if he had no son) to be educated in the English manner. As a result, she had lived the greater parts of six years in Edinburgh, spending only her long vacations in the Highlands, and had expected to remain one more year to make her entry into society as the daughter of a mighty Highland chief. The Uprising of Forty-five had ended that plan, for after the early Jacobite victory at Prestonpans, MacDrumin had deemed it prudent for her to return to the Highlands to be out of harm's way. Edinburgh having remained staunchly Hanoverian despite the presence in the city of the true Stewart heir, the Jacobite victory had only made matters more unstable for the Highlanders who happened still to be living there.
Maggie had not regretted her return, for Glen Drumin was her home and she loved it there. By comparison, Edinburgh had always seemed an unfriendly place filled with people who preferred peace to principle, people only too willing to bend a knee to the distant Hanoverian king and to forget the loyalty they owed to the Stewarts. Highlanders were not so fickle. The western shore was near now, and there was no more murmuring, only the steady dip and drip of oars and the occasional muffled thump of wood in the wrapped oarlocks. The first boat crunched onto the shore, followed directly by the other two, and men leapt out to drag them out of reach of the gently lapping water, for they were well aware that Ness, like other lochs, ebbed and flowed with the distant sea tides.
With the boats safely beached, the men moved swiftly to deal with the kegs; however, no sooner was the first one upended on the shore than a host of armed men erupted from nearby shrubbery and a deep voice thundered, "Hold where you are, MacDrumin! 'Tis Fergus Campbell, bailie, here with official excise-men holding commissions from the Lord High Constable in Edinburgh. Tell your men to throw down their weapons at once, you scoundrel."
Instead, MacDrumin shouted, "At them, lads! 'Tis a trick, by God, for it can be naught else! Out of the way, lassies, whilst we teach these thieving ruffians the folly of trying to steal goods from the MacDrumin!"
His men obeyed instantly, bellowing the fierce MacDrumin war cry as they leapt to engage the enemy with fists and clubs. Reacting just as quickly, Maggie grabbed Kate and pulled her well away from the fracas, scarcely daring to take her eyes off MacDrumin while she did so, for fear he would be killed.
Kate wailed, "They'll be murdered, the lot of them! What was himself thinking, Mag?" Bending swiftly, she snatched up the hem of her skirt, but Maggie, instantly divining her intent, grabbed her arm again and jerked her upright.
"No weapons, Kate! You know the English law forbids any Highlander to go armed. That means womenfolk, too, you lackwit. You would endanger us all!"
Letting her skirt fall back into place just as MacDrumin knocked two heads together with a crack that could be heard above the rest of the din, then flung the pair aside to leap to the aid of another of his men, Kate said scornfully, "Endanger them? 'Tis not myself who endangers them, Mag. The laird must be crazed to take on a Campbell and his tame excisemen. Our lads canna win."
Nor did they. Although the eight MacDrumin men defended their casks with such vigor that more than one enemy head was broken, at last they stood silent, glaring defiantly at the party of excisemen and at the man who, despite being a Scotsman and a Highlander like themselves, was clearly the enemy leader.
Burly, dark-haired Fergus Campbell stood with his feet apart and his hamlike hands on his hips, smirking at them, his triumph clear. "Now, then, where be your ponies hidden, MacDrumin?"
"What ponies are those, Fergus, my lad?"
"Them that was meant tae carry these blasted whisky kegs o' yours to Inverness, you auld heathen."
A muttering stir of anger could be heard from the captured men, but MacDrumin, tilting his periwig slightly askew in order to scratch his head, said only, "You seem mighty brave with all your wee men lined up behind you, laddie mine, but if you think I'd be smuggling whisky with my daughter and her pretty friend along for the fun of it all, you are making a rare grand fool of yourself."
Campbell snarled, "Devil take you, MacDrumin, you'd smuggle whisky with your ailing mother hiding it under her skirt for you!"
"Mayhap I would, lad, but that prospect has naught to do with the present occasion, so if you ken what you mean to do next, you had best proceed with it. I know of no ponies hereabouts, and since my word is vastly more dependable than your own, you would be wise to accept it and not keep these sweet lassies idling about in the cold to no good purpose."
Campbell snorted in derision, but after a brief colloquy with his companions, he ordered the excisemen and their assistants to load several of the kegs onto their horses, leaving the rest on shore, under guard, until more horses could be fetched from the Highland capital to retrieve them.
The distance to Inverness was less than ten miles, but since they had to walk, it was after two o'clock in the morning before they reached the town. When they came to the great stone prison known as the Tolbooth, and Campbell made it clear that his intent was to house the entire lot of them inside, MacDrumin said gently, "That must be your decision, I agree, but you might bear in mind, lad, that my daughter has been raised a lady and a common jail is no place for one of her ilk. Her friend, too," he added with a twinkling look at Kate, "would be most out of place there. Won't like it much myself, come to that, especially since I've done naught to deserve such barbarous treatment."
Campbell slapped a nearby keg. "Naught, eh? We'll just see that, come morning, when these casks will be opened in the presence of the High Sheriff as the law requires. You can tell his worship then just how ill-treated you all have been."
One of the Englishmen, who had been gazing speculatively at Kate and Maggie, moved up to Campbell and whispered in his ear. The Scotsman shot a grim look at the women and nodded with visible reluctance. Then, turning back to MacDrumin, he said, "I have no authority to house your daughter and her friend elsewhere, but my companions agree that the Tolbooth is no proper place for them. I can lock you all in one cell together until morning, away from the other prisoners, but that will have to suffice."
"Aye, it will at that," MacDrumin said cordially, "and I thank you kindly, Fergus Campbell, for your rare compassion."
Campbell shot him a suspicious look, but MacDrumin met it with bland innocence. Moments later, the ten Highlanders were alone in a single dark chamber that was infrequently and dimly lit only when parting clouds revealed a scattering of stars through the small barred window high in one wall.
"Can we talk, Papa?" Maggie asked softly.
"Of a certainty, lass, but say naught that you be not full willing for enemy ears to overhear."
Beside them, Kate made a growling sound. "Whoever that is who just put his hand on my leg, take it away this instant or I'll feed what's left of it to my dogs after I have cut it off."
"No mischief, lads," MacDrumin said sharply, "and as for you, Kate MacCain, if you have the means by you to carry out that wicked threat, keep it well hid, for even I cannot protect you if the damned English suspect you've a weapon on your person."
A masculine voice interjected a hasty apology. "I didna ken it were you, lass. I'd no ha' touched ye else. I vow, 'twas nae more than a brush as I shifted m'self on this hard floor."
"Sleep, all of you," MacDrumin said. "We shall need to have our wits about us come the dawning."
Maggie was as sure as she could be that she would not sleep a wink, for the stone floor was not only cold but damp and there was no place else to sit or lie down. Her father pulled her toward him, however, and with her head against his broad chest and his mantle and her own covering her, she dozed and then slept. When she awoke, she saw by the gray dawn light that MacDrumin still dozed, his periwig tilted rakishly over one eye; but others were stirring, and one man gasped in shock when he awoke to find Kate sleeping with her head resting comfortably on his stomach.
Excerpted from Highland Fling by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1995 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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