Night made darker by dense clouds drew attention to the fireballs. They rolled down Allardice Street, illuminating men dressed in black who levered iron rods to push barrels of blazing tar toward the harbor. Lit only by flickering fires, the players’ faces took on hollow shadows akin to the grim reaper.

Ghostly and cadaverous.

Atop the hill on the edge of Dunnottar Parish, Lady Magdalen Keith watched the spectacle below. She shuddered while her teeth chattered. During any Hogmanay celebration, Highland players were meant to look like Death, representing the old year’s passing to give rise to the new. Maddie never cared to think about morbid endings. She preferred to look to the future.

Though she clutched her hands together inside a sealskin muff, the icy cold of winter made her shiver all the more. Over the fur-lined collar of her cloak, she glanced at her father. “What do you wish for in the year of our Lord 1708?”

Dressed in dashing finery, the earl smiled, his eyes glistening from the light of the brazier burning beside them. “Perhaps ’tis time to bring the true king back from exile and boot his half sister off the throne?”

Maddie laughed. She could have predicted such a response. A consummate Jacobite, William Keith, Earl Marischal of Scotland, wasn’t one to hide his true allegiance from his illegitimate daughter, though he did represent Aberdeenshire in the new British Parliament.

Regardless of his predictability, Maddie harbored her own reasons to agree with him. “I wish the queen would remove the vile dragoons patrolling the north. Two more women arrived at the hospital this morn—set upon by those beasts.” Rape and pillage weren’t new to the northeastern village of Stonehaven, but the miscreants had changed through the ages. Red-coated dragoons infesting the Highlands believed they had the right to take anything they pleased, including local women. Since before she was born, the entire island of Britain had been embroiled in war and unrest. And the present state of affairs had spurred Maddie to open a hospital as soon as she reached her majority two years past.

The Highland Commander