Synopsis: (Scotland, mid-18th century) Beginning in the years leading up to the second Jacobite uprising of 1745, this is a family saga of the clan McGregor and the clan Cameron. (Better summery soon to come.)
In Gallant Flame
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
Than you can understand.
-The Stolen Child (William Butler Yeats)
The sky was falling, crashing down to the earth in a torrent of ice water and the pitching roar of thunder. Lightning erupted, cracking like a blazing whiplash across the black sky. A single figure tumbled across the rapidly flooding moor bound for the slopes of Beann Cuannacht and the safety of the trees. The echo of hoof beats drummed in his ears behind him above the shriek of wind and lashing rain. The sound sent a chill down his spine, they were gaining him…
Somewhere in the blackness a hound bayed, long and loud, echoed by another and another, their chorus rising above the storm. A dozen shapes on horseback dashed across the plain after the sound, sending up a spray of earth and mud in their wake, driving their prey on. Ten yards…nine…eight, eight yards from the trees; he seemed to be trapped in a nightmare, running, legs plowing the soggy ground beneath him and yet for all his efforts he never seemed to gain. The hoof beats were growing louder now, pounding in his brain like a battle drum.
"We got 'im now lads!" One was shouting; he could make out the words clearly even above the storm, "dinnae let 'im reach the trees!"
Four yards…three…Allan could smell the sweet pine mingled with the must of wet mossy bark and sodden undergrowth...two…they were almost upon him now, almost, but just another few steps and he would be safe—crack! A sound, as of thunder only louder, closer, split the night in twain. Almost instantaneously pain exploded through his left shoulder, shattering tissue and bone. He screamed, the impact throwing his body forward into the dirt, he struggled to rise again, red hot pain searing through his body—crack! His body jolted again, violently—crack! In the back, in the leg...he screamed again and again, clawing at the earth with his hands, writhing in agony, blood rose in his throat, he choked and sputtered, it dribbled out his mouth down his shirt—crack! The sickeningly warm fluid formed a puddle around him. Red, everywhere red, before his eyes, on his clothes, on him; he tore at his shirt, at his own flesh—crack! Blackness –crack! Nothing.
Neil Campbell shifted in his saddle and resettled with a grunt, running a hand over his bewhiskered chin, avoiding with some effort the piercing eyes of the English Captain before him. At nearly six feet, weighing in at over two hundred pounds with the build of an ox, Neil was not easily intimidated-- and he wasn't, by God he wasn't! He would have towered over this Captain Davies head and shoulders had they not been mounted; there was nothing particularly intimidating about his long elegant limbs and smoothly aristocratic features either, unless you were a scullery maid or some such. Yet there was something chilling in those steely gray eyes that made even The Dearg-Mathan or "Red-Bear" of Argyll a bit uneasy.
They made an odd pair, there in the blackness, waiting out the storm beneath a copse of silvery Birches. The brawny Scot, face all but hidden behind his unruly copper mane and bushy beard save a pair of bright sanguine brown eyes, and the genteel Englishman, dark hair smoothed back and tied with a leather thong, faultless red uniform salient even in the midnight murk… it was all too cliché a sight by now, but then they liked it that way. If the English could believe that the Scots were dirty, puerile Neanderthals and if in turn the Scots could believe the English were naught but cocky, emasculate boy-buggers, they could view each other as minor annoyances and nothing more.
There was a low rumble of thunder in the east followed almost instantaneously by a crack of lightning that lit up the sky for a fleeting moment. Bridles jingled as the horses tossed their heads, snorting and stamping the damp earth skittishly; they were war horses both, accustomed to the sounds of gun and canon fire and the screams of men but that their masters should remain so silent in the face of such bedlam was disconcerting. Neil rested a hand reassuringly on his pony's dun neck, whispering something briefly in Gaelic to him; the Captain's eye shifted for the first time at this, a brief knit of the brows at the ancient tongue before he looked away, checking the time of his pocket watch.
"They'll be here," Neil said, eyeing the trinket, "never ye worry."
Sure enough, even as the Captain slid it coolly back into his breast pocket, beneath the shriek of wind and driving rain, resounded the thunder of hooves. A moment later they appeared over the crest of the nearest rise, six shadows on horseback. As they pulled up into the shelter of trees The Captain's face soured some, six muddied, ruddy faces, all of them by brow and jaw marked Campbell…
His voice was soft, almost inaudible above the storm and deceptively cordial as he addressed them, yet it cut through the men like icy daggers, "where, might I ask, are the fugitives?"
The six men exchanged uneasy looks and Neil glared. "Weel…" one started patting the limp plaid wrapped bundle slung before him over the saddle, "we caught this un' o'er the moors, Sir, but the other… he just seemed t'er disappear ye ken?"
Captain Davies' eyes narrowed, "Do you mean to tell me that that," he gestured to the burden with a scowl, "is McGregor?"
"Aye," the man replied stiffly.
"The same McGregor whose warrant of arrest was posted not six hours ago?"
Chafed by this Englishman's apparent idiocy, the man growled, "Aye, the very same."
A vein stood out in the Captain's right temple, "Correct me, Sir, if I am wrong but were you not explicitly instructed in plain English that this prisoner was to be brought in alive?!"
The man shifted uneasily, "Er…weel, aye but ye see—."
Edward moved his horse forward, till he was but inches from the man's face, his voice did not grow louder in anger, but softer, though the man cringed when he spoke as if he had been struck, "and were you not aware that General Wade himself commanded that the criminal live to see his trial?"
The two held each other's gaze for a long moment, glaring knives until the Scotsman spoke, "Hang yer damn General Wade! If he was so bloody concerned about it, why dinnae he come fae the bastards himself?!" He shoved the body bag to the ground, where it landed with a sickening thud, "there's yer fugitive Captain, just as ye requested; now we want our pay!"
There was a faint click as Captain Davies drew his pistol and cocked the hammer, followed by a deafening "crack!" as the powder ignited and the lead ball left the barrel, it collided almost instantaneously with the man's outstretched hand, shattering tendon and bone as it punctured through, lodging itself firmly in the damp earth beneath them. The man screamed and his horse shied, almost knocking the disorientated rider from its back until one of his fellow's took the reigns and resettled it.
Captain Davies recovered from the recoil, drew the pistol's twin from its holster and held it steadily at Neil's head, "let this be a lesson to you, when your superior gives an order, you are expected to obey."
Having recovered from their initial shock the three otherwise unoccupied men reached automatically for their own pistols, or in lieu of a loaded one, their dirk, but Neil waved a checking hand, "Stay yer weapons lads." He stared levelly at the Captain for a moment, ignoring the whimpering of the man beside him, "All righ' Davies, ye've had yer share o' flesh, now our reward," he held out a hand, "pass it over."
The Captain drew from his saddlebag a leather pouch and made to pass it to him, stopping just as Neil was about to seize it. "No," the Captain said thoughtfully, more to himself than the collection of highlanders around him. He opened the pouch, shaking a few coins into his hand and passing them to Neil. "You'll get the rest, Campbell, when I have the other McGregor alive…not a moment before." The men grumbled, some reaching again for their weapons, but, though he glowered for a moment, Neil nodded, "Aye, aye ye'll get 'im."
The Captain returned his pistols to their sheaths. "Now if one of your men would kindly assist me in lifting him," he nodded to the body still on the ground, "onto my mount, we may adjourn our transactions."
Dun Fionn de Cameron stood on a high escarpment that jutted out from the craggy green of Beinn Rosad some thirty feet above the dark waters of Loch Eil. A virtually impregnable fortress of timber and granite first built in the late eleventh century over the ruins of a long abandoned Viking hill fort. It had since been renovated numerous times so that sections could be clearly identified by the era in which they had been added onto the structure; from the original westernmost foundations with its aged gray stone, the more abstruse additions made in the age of the protector when the castle had experienced a certain amount of fame; to the northeastern gate and formal entrance, added only some twenty years prior under the highly fashionable, meticulous eye of the current Lady Fionn, her husband having, as he said, no care what she did with the old place anyhow.
Hooves clattered over the wide cobble path, flying in and out of moonlight beneath the arching boughs of youthful sessile oaks and wych elms that lined the road, still quailing wildly against the unseasonably strong winds, shaking the now ebbing rain from their spring leaves. The horse and rider whisked beneath the outer gate, hoof beats echoing hollowly in the fortified gatehouse as they plunged forward through the inner gate into the primly manicured courtyard. He cheated the circling path, tearing up clods of wet sod as he hastened toward the estate itself. Dougal "Cameron" McGregor dismounted mid stride, bare feet stinging as they met cool slick stone and charged up the wide sweeping marble steps toward the grand double doors, never mind the side entrance, it would take too long.
Angus was roused sometime in the wicked hours of the morning by a pounding on the door; it was so loud at first that the old doorman thought he was asleep yet, dreaming of battle as he often did, or that it must have been the storm drawing up her reserves for another attack. It was his wife that woke him fully, shaking his shoulders, "ge'up, ge' up ye!" she was half whispering, half shouting, "there be some'un at the door!"
He shoved her hand away "'s just the wind ye auld caw…gae back tae sleep," and rolled over then, burying his face in his pillow…but Maddie didn't go back to sleep, for it wasn't the wind, and once Angus had set himself to this rather inconvenient fact he did finally rise and scuttle down the hall for the door; his wife hollering the whole way after him to come back and put on his trews at once, dressed as he was only in his grubby sark.
Dougal was pounding yet on the door when Angus finally reached it, voice raw from shouting, fist stiff and numb from the cold and the effort. He was soaked through and shivering despite himself. He had slumped up against the solid oaken door for support so that when the old man pulled it back Dougal stumbled forward into the room and would have collapsed had Angus not caught him as he fell.
Doug righted himself hastily, "I need to speak to Fionn."
"Ye need a doctor is what lad," Angus said, turning the man's head to inspect a deep gash on his left temple, the blood had clotted and dried, leaving an ugly red stain down the side of his face and neck, even into the collar of his shirt.
Dougal pushed his hand away impatiently, "never mind that, there's more important things…"
"There'll be time later amurnae doubt—."
Dougal had already brushed passed him and was making for the stairs, at his words though he stopped, turning sharply, "no, Angus, there's no more time."
The Laird's study was bedecked, as the rest of the Manor, in the Rococo style of France that had swept across the rest of Europe; in blatant rebellion against the Georgian style that was still the rage in fashionable English households. No less than four ornamental bergere chairs of ash, upholstered in a creamy yellow floral pattern were stationed in each corner of the room, upon the western wall, facing the loch, stood the Laird's desk, also of oak, and behind it another bergere chair, a little larger than the others and upholstered in a more golden hue to set it apart. A low couch of the same style sat against the north wall, beneath the window; with two small birch "S" scroll tables at either end. Opposite this, in all its resplendence, marquetry of elm and palest holly in whimsical leaf and shell sculpted textures stood the hearth, the glory of the carver that had come all the way from France to "see what might be done" for the old antiquated fortress keep.
It was there before the fire, in obvious defiance of the worldly refinement all around it that sat a heavy, imposing oak chair. Blocky and without upholstery it was made comfortable only by an old maroon velvet cushion that had only darkened distastefully with age; it was of the Tudor style and positively medieval, or so said the Lady of the house. It had once been the Laird's high seat in the great hall but had since fallen hard from grace and shut away high in the Laird's Tower.
It was here that sat Robert Cameron, Laird of Fionn, watching the flames leap and dance, head resting heavily on his hand, the mantle of authority resting like a beam across his wide shoulders. Sitting opposite him in one of the four chairs sat his "cousin" Dougal, turning a tankard of whisky in his hands, watching the flames reflect on the tarnished pewter without interest. The latter sighed heavily and set the vessel down on the stool table between them, then fell to studying his hands as though he'd never seen them properly before. The silence stretched between them, not awkward, but somber, despondent, silently sharing in their grief, for which there were no words.
At last the Fionn spoke, a murmur, "now cracks a noble heart, good-night sweet prince…" he, unable to finish this oft quoted elegy, raised his glass solemnly and downed the remains of its contents in one gulp.
Dougal, who had never heard of Shakespeare, let alone memorized his works, only echoed the gesture, and as the liquid scorched his throat, mused aloud that The Fionn could certainly turn a pretty phrase.
Cameron hadn't the heart to tell the poor man the truth and so he dismissed it quickly with a wave of his hand, "now, as for the widow—"
"She's family in France ye ken."
"And the boy, he'll go with her I expect."
"Suppose so," but Dougal wouldn't look him in the eye.
Cameron studied him for a long moment, the big ruddy skinned, dun-haired Scot… he was not the handsomest of the House of Glenstrae, nor the most sharp-witted; but he had a good heart, a heart that beat only for his family—his brother and his nephew…and the good heart was breaking. "What's yer mind McGregor?"
Dougal shook his head, speaking in an undertone more to himself than to Cameron, "tis a shame that's all…a real shame…'
"What's a shame?"
"Oh…" Dougal shifted a little in his chair, "the lad ye ken."
Cameron poured another dram of scotch into his friend's glass, "go on…"
"He might've been the one…it's in him, his Faither being who he was and all that…"
"Dougal, God love ye, but ye've the tongue of a caw…out with it!"
"We all thought that it'd be Rob Roy who brought the Gregor clan out of proscription! But Red's not young as he once was… he's been living comfortably in Balquhidder these five years and where are we I ask you? Hunted like dogs by that damned Wade and his black watch!"
"Aye I ken Doug, I thought the same as ye, I hoped… but what's this to do with young Alis?"
"He's of the house of Glenstrae is he no? The very blood of Griogair flows in his veins! And he was wealthier from the womb than any highlander has the right to be thanks to his Frenchie Mither! If there's a man that can do it Cameron, it'll be Alistair McGregor!"
"The son of Allan Ruadh …Mother Mary preserve him! He'll be hunted the Highland o'er, he'll not have a moment's peace!" The Cameron shook his head, "no Dougal, no, best send him back with his Mither where he'll be safe…when he's older, perhaps then…"
Dougal spat into the fire, "Och, raised in France by a nurse and an effeminate tutor! Aye!" he spat again, "a right dandy he'll be, a fop! And what use will he have for us?! What care will he give our cause?! Naught! And then where will we be? What will his father have died for?! Nothing!" Dougal took a great swig of his tankard and slammed it down on the table, sloshing its contents over the table and floor…neither of the men paid this any heed.
"Alright, Dougal, alright! Ye could no confide in a more sympathetic ear my friend!" he poured himself another dram of whisky now. To take the lad away from his mother so soon must be a mortal sin! And the fact still remained that he truly hadn't any authority to do the thing at all! He looked at Dougal, staring at him earnestly, his eyes red from tears and glazed by drink; he sighed "Alright McGregor, I'll speak to her in the morning…"
There was no funeral. A campaign to recover the dismembered body parts from the gates of Fort William was harbored by those who loved him, but this was short-lived. Anyone who wanted to pay their last respects to Allan McGregor properly would get slovenly drunk and slaughter a few cattle of those bastard-sons the Campbells who had betrayed him. This was done on dark nights for weeks after the fact, the bloody carcasses left to rot in the field or carried by night to the thresholds of those traitors and nailed to the lintel. The stain of cows' blood that desecrated their doorsteps took months to remove.
Jacquelyn-Renee, his widow, in proper French style, could never do things quietly. She and her son were moved up to the keep straightaway and her wailing could her heard all through the great house, echoing down lonely halls and corridors like a restless ghost. Alis, for his part, kept mostly to himself, shut up in his little chamber adjacent to his mother's quarters, buried beneath his bedcovers in an attempt to block out his mother's sobs. In the end, because his mother was "in no fit state", it was her maid Angevin, who had come all the way fromMarseille with her mistress after Jacquelyn's wedding, that told Alis the sad news; he would not be returning to France with his Maman.
The seven-year-old stared at the plump, kindly Frenchwoman, struck dumb with consternation and dismay. He blinked once, twice, before his pale face returned to its former austere expression. "/N'est drole Madame…" he said coolly before turning away, back toward the window from whence he had been peering languidly for the past hour or so.
"Non, non Monsieur Alexandre!," she persisted, "I do not jest! Your Maman has told me only just this morning!"
"Partir Angevin, I wish to be alone…"
"/Monsieur Alexandre, s'il te plait criore-moi!"
But he would not believe her. He removed her, forcibly, from his room and locked himself in, refusing to speak or see anyone. Only when he emerged, two days later, hunger and a full chamber pot having gotten the better of him, to discover his mother's apartments bare, abandoned, did he believe.
/1 "That is not funny Madam…"
/2 "Mister Alistair please believe me!"
If you didn't know non means no and Maman means Mama
Alistair and Alexandre are both forms of Alexander, the one Scottish the other French.
Please please review! I'd love some constructive criticism, or advice on what I could improve… ANYTHING! More will come soon!..arn't you aching to know what becomes of poor Alis?!