Highland Fire

By: Elizabeth Thornton


Rand snorted. “If I didn’t, I had good reason. I could not keep track of all the feuds that bedevil these Highlanders. Even our own clan is divided against itself.”

“I never understood the genesis of that quarrel,” said David carefully. “The Randals of Glenshiel hate our branch of the family. Why?”

“As far as I know, it all got started during the rebellion of forty-five. They fought for Prince Charlie. We came out in support of King George. The aftermath was inevitable. They were punished by the crown and we were rewarded.”

“Is it true that the old boy—Glenshiel, is it?—would be the present chief of the clan if his father had not supported the Stuart cause?”

“Perfectly true. But that’s not all. They were dispossessed of the title and estates which were thereupon handed over to our branch of the family.”

David let out a long whistle. “Good God! No wonder Glenshiel hates the lot of us. I can almost feel sorry for him.”

“I wouldn’t waste any sympathy on that stiff-necked irascible old goat. He has done all right for himself, or he would not be a baronet today and the laird of a sizable piece of Deeside.”

“Mmm. I think I get the picture.”

“What?”

“Oh, merely that it sounds as though you and Glenshiel have had a few run-ins over the years.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” retorted Rand and laughed. Almost as an afterthought, he murmured, “And those are the neighbors you accuse me of neglecting?”

Trying to stifle a smile and failing, David said, “I wondered when you would turn the conversation back to the girl. I’m beginning to think she has become an obsession with you.”

Something flared in Rand’s eyes and was quickly gone. His smile was faintly ironic. “You always were a romantic, David. It’s the mystery that intrigues me, not the girl. Frankly, I’m becoming bored with the subject.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“May I be permitted one last question before we send the girl to oblivion?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Where, exactly, did you first meet her?”

An unholy smile spread across David’s face. “If you must know, I met her on the steps of Crathie church after Sunday services. You should have attended church more often, Rand.”

After this, there was a lull in the conversation. The din outside the tent increased. Some shots were fired, but neither man gave any evidence of alarm. It had been going on intermittently for hours—men drying their carbines and firing practice shots. At dawn, on waking, they would go through the same motions before the battle was joined.

A trooper entered and set down an elaborately inlaid, wooden lap desk. He opened it carefully and removed a silver flask and two horn drinking cups. When he had withdrawn, Rand did the honors.

“Whiskey?” David looked from Rand to the cup in his hand. “Last I remembered, brandy was your tipple.”

“Oh, this is a taste I acquired last summer when I spent my furlough in Scotland. It’s the best that can be had, so I’m told.” He put his nose to the drinking cup and sniffed. “It’s good, but not on a par with the stuff I have in my cellars in Strathcairn. I never thought to ask what brand I was drinking.”

“That,” said David gravely, “was Deeside uisge-beatha.”

“Uisge—what?”

“Homebrew and indisputably contraband.”

Rand’s brows rose. “Was it indeed? Well, there’s not much I can do about that here.” And, smiling, he gave the Gaelic toast. “Slainte mhaith!”

“Hypocrite! I’ll drink to that, whatever it means.”

David imbibed slowly, and without giving the appearance of doing so, made a study of his fair-haired companion. His cousin had a heroic look about him, the shade of some unknown Viking ancestor. To David, Rand had always seemed like a storybook character, someone larger than life. He was romanticizing, and knew it, but even knowing it, he still could not suppress the lingering hero worship that had got its start when he was a boy in short coats and Rand was a leggy adolescent. More times than he cared to remember, Rand had been held up to him by his father as a model, the paragon of every masculine virtue. Even the scrapes Rand had fallen into—his duels, his women—had only added to the glamour. If Rand had been a different kind of a boy, David would have ended up hating him. As it was, he admired his cousin enormously, and never more so than when Rand had forsworn his life of ease and pleasure-seeking to throw in his lot with Wellington. They had been a grim four years. His own stint with the Scots Greys was of shorter duration, and he never would have joined the regiment if Rand, all unknowingly, had not exerted a powerful influence. It was a pity, he was thinking, that his own influence with Rand was almost negligible.

“Now that is what I call an enigmatic smile,” said Rand.

“Was I smiling?”

“More or less. Share the joke.”

“I was thinking how abysmally ignorant we both are about Scotland.”

“What’s to know? It’s where the best hunting and fishing are to be found.”