The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Culloden Moor, Scotland, 1746
A northeast wind blowing rain and sleet welcomed the early morning watchers on the hill, their cloaked figures cowering together in vain for protection from the cold, penetrating wetness that seeped through to the skin. Some distance away, and farther down the slope of the moor, a lone figure crouched low in the heather. Sabrina Verrick hugged her cape more tightly around her as she stared in horrified fascination at the scene before her. The battlefield was the only patch of color across the wide expanse of gray moor. Colorful blue, yellow, and green standards waved above the scarlet-coated battalions of the English king's army, its Union flag boldly flying in Scottish skies.
Sabrina raised her head and felt the icy rain fall on her face. In the distance she could hear the monotonous beating of the drums. Drums beating in time for marching English feet, bringing them closer to the bright tartan plaid of the clans. Below her Sabrina could see her clan with her grandfather stalwartly leading them. His bonnet, trimmed with eagles' feathers, was cocked jauntily over his weathered brow, the blues and reds of his tartan jacket and kilt now darkened by the rain; but on his left shoulder the silver and cairngorm brooch that pinned his plaid still gleamed richly. He'd drawn his broadsword and was swinging its double-edged blade threateningly before him. He stood tall and magnificent before his men as they awaited the signal to attack. A burnt wooden cross, tied together by a piece of bloodstained linen, leaned crookedly in the ground-silent now that the call to arms had been answered.
The haunting notes of the bagpipes echoed through the air as the fierce Highlanders surged forward to meet the enemy, their heavy broadswords singing as they sliced through the air in defiance of the shining bayonets of the English. But few reached the English ranks before they were cut down by the roaring cannon ripping through the clans, dismembering and leaving only parts of bodies where once bold men had stood.
Sabrina screamed in terror as she saw half her clan wiped out by a single volley of cannon. Those who managed to escape the barrage of cannon fire were left to be cut down by the continuous, evenly timed musket fire that never stopped coming in waves of death and destruction. Sabrina felt the bile rise in her throat as she stared down at the massacre. Red was the only color that penetrated her numbed mind. Scarlet coats, bloodied swords and red-stained heather jumped before her eyes as English and Scot lay dying alike. It was impossible to separate the two enemies now. They were one surging mass of violence.
Sabrina narrowed her eyes, straining them as she searched for her grandfather among the men below her, praying that she wouldn't see him crumpled to the ground with the countless others. Where was he? Where was her clan? She stayed low, sinking down into the heather as she sought desperately for a sight of their tartan. She turned suddenly at screams behind her and watched in disbelief as English soldiers, gradually making their way up the slope, bayoneted the small group of watchers on the hill. They began to scatter in panic, running for their lives as the soldiers bore down upon them, ruthlessly cutting down everything in their path. Sabrina remained still, afraid to move at all lest she meet the same fate. As she silently stared at the battlefield she caught a flickering movement as a small band of men made their retreat through the mangled bodies of their comrades and the enemy, escaping the field of their devastating defeat. Three carried her grandfather, and what was left of the clan limped along behind, their broadswords still raised to ward off any attack from the rear.
They were not the only ones fleeing the moor. The battle had been lost. The clans were now trying to gather together what remained of their members and escape to safety in the hidden glens and lochs, losing themselves forever up in the craggy hills and unapproachable valleys that cut in deep chasms through the barren countryside.
Sabrina carefully fled her hiding place and followed. She ran as though the devil were at her heels, running until her breath came painfully and her legs felt leaden. She followed them up into a narrow opening that twisted and climbed until the slaughter across the moor was hidden from view, and made her way through the passage, her mind a blank until she saw a small sod-and-stone cottage, little more than a hut, some distance ahead.
"Let me pass," she told the guard blocking the door, his bloodied broadsword held defiantly before her, barring her way.
"Nay, lass, I couldna' dae that," he answered slowly, his blue eyes still dazed from shock. His face was darkened by streaks of blood from a deep wound beside his ear that was now clotted with dried blood the color of his hair.
"I'm the laird's granddaughter. I must be with him!"
Sabrina cried, pushing past the beaten sentinel who gave easily and moved wearily aside.
Sabrina stopped abruptly as she entered the one-room hut.
A peat fire was burning weakly in the middle of the room while an old woman squatted nearby, a worn shawl wrapped about her thin shoulders as she steadily stirred a rusted iron pot that hung over the fire. A sickening sweet odor of stewed mutton floated to Sabrina as she moved into the room.
It was quiet, deathly quiet, as if all the men had died. They watched silently as Sabrina walked to the far end of the room and knelt down beside her grandfather. She choked back the sob that rose from her throat as she stared at his broken body. He was breathing heavily, an odd rasping sound that shook his chest in deep, painful shudders.
"Oh, Grandfather, what have they done to you?" Sabrina sobbed as she wiped the blood trickling from the corner of his lips with the edge of her cape.
"Grape. Tha' did it." A voice spoke sharply beside Sabrina. Sabrina looked up into the blazing eyes of the man bending over the other side of her grandfather. His eyes were the only spot of color in his pale face. They glowed fanatically as they stared into hers, hatred pouring out of his soul.
"It wae like a thousand knives bein' thrown at us. They couldna' just shoot us doon, nay, they had tae cripple us with tha'," he said bitterly, indicating the rusty iron, nails and leaden balls that littered the ground, shreds of tartan still clinging to some.
"Ripping us apart, aul tae pieces, nae knowin' wha' hit us." He looked down at Sabrina's grandfather, a frown between his eyes. "They even got the auld laird," he mumbled as if he couldn't believe it yet. He looked at his own bloodied hands, rubbing his fingers convulsively. "But they did nae get me pipes. I'll play for ye ever' nicht," he promised the laird.
"They'll nae stop Ewan MacElden."
Sabrina was staring in alarm at the half-crazed man when she felt her hand grasped by shaking fingers and looked down to see her grandfather's eyes opening. She closed her hands about his cold fingers, trying to warm them as she looked into his face. It was devoid of expression and feeling, and she knew she gazed into a death mask. His eyes seemed to be pleading with her and she bent lower as his lips parted.
"Shouldna' come doon from the hills. Waur fools tae fight in the open. Slaughtered like sheep," he whispered, his usually perfect English now thickened with an accent.
"Please, Grandfather, don't speak," Sabrina pleaded, "we'll get you back to the castle."
Sabrina looked to the others who stood silently about her.
There were only five or six of them, and she wondered frantically why they just stood there.