Highland Fire

By: Elizabeth Thornton


“Are you deaf? Obey the trumpet!” He was roaring at the top of his lungs as he tried to turn his men. “Retreat! Retreat! Else the French will have us in a vise.”

As men reluctantly gave way and wheeled their mounts, they saw them—a horde of French lancers swinging down in a circle to cut off their retreat. Their powerful black horses were rested and straining at their bits. The huge grays were spent. The battle was unequal and men knew it. Ever afterward, the survivors of the coming confrontation would swear that for a second, a fraction of a second, a deathly, palpitating silence held men motionless before both sides gave the order to charge.

The shock of that charge was felt by appalled spectators as they watched from a ridge. The French lancers were deadly, and the Greys could hardly hold up their sabers to ward off their attacks. Then the red tunics of the Greys were swallowed up as the green-coated lancers ringed them in for the kill.

Unhorsed, his bearskin cap blown off his head by a burst of grapeshot, Rand fought like a madman. When his saber broke and he had emptied his pistol, he knew his time had come. As a lancer bore down upon him, he let out a blood-curdling roar, then yelled the ancient Randal battle cry.

That cry was answered by David Randal. Racing hell-for-leather up the corpse-strewn slope toward the French batteries, from low in the saddle, he took aim and fired. A lancer was blown off his horse’s back and fell grotesquely into the churned-up mud.

Half-crouched over his mount, David reached down and grasped Rand’s right arm. “Up!”

Rand needed no second bidding. He vaulted into the saddle behind his cousin. What the hell! he was thinking. We’re all done for.

He was mistaken. A wave of Uxbridge’s light dragoons attacked the French from the rear. As the way opened back to the British lines, men and horses found their second wind and sprang forward. Those who returned were welcomed with frenzied zeal.

Not a half-hour had passed since the start of the engagement. Less than half of the Greys had returned. The battle was a long way from over and already the field was littered with thousands of corpses. Rand’s expression was grim. He was thinking of comrades whose faces were not among those riders who were dismounting around him.

“David!”

David Randal slipped from the saddle and fell on his knees in a heap. Rand jumped down and went to assist him. When he turned him over, he could see the spreading stain on the scarlet, mud-spattered tunic, see the rose-red droplets on his own white gauntlets and on the injured man’s white breeches. For a moment, horror held him speechless.

“When did this happen?” He was signaling to orderlies to come and help him.

David’s eyelashes were fluttering. “I took a bullet,” he got out hoarsely, “when I turned back for you.”

“Why did you do it?” Rand’s throat was working. He could see that there was no hope, yet his mind refused to accept it. It couldn’t end like this, not for David. He, Rand, was the real soldier. David was a poet. Rand was seasoned by years of active service. This was David’s first major engagement. If there was any justice in this world, their positions would be reversed.

Gripped by remorse, Rand cradled the dying man in his arms. When he spoke next, his voice was a little steadier. “If you were not so confoundedly indisposed, as your commanding officer, I would be raking you over the coals. Why didn’t you obey the trumpet?”

He looked up as an orderly approached. The man did not linger. With a sober look at Rand, shaking his head, he moved off to answer another call.

David’s eyes focused on Rand’s face. “I…did it for…Randal…and for Scotland.”

“I wish I had never uttered that inane battle cry,” Rand said, trying to make light of it.

The knowing half-smile in the chalk white face wrenched at Rand’s heart. He had to bend down to catch David’s next words. “The girl is…a Randal…a Randal of Glenshiel.”

“Miss Randal of Glenshiel?”

David nodded, then a second or two later, “You’ll go to her…take care of her?”

“We’ll go together, just as we planned to do.”

“Together? I wish…”

“What do you wish, David?”

For a long moment, David struggled to get the words out. “You’ll go to her?” His voice was very faint. He closed his eyes and his head sank upon Rand’s breast.

“I swear it!” Rand was never to know whether or not David heard his impassioned avowal.





Chapter Three




The English laird was coming into his own, and there was not a soul in that band of young men who lay in wait for him beneath the Feardar Bridge who would not have knocked him on the head if their leader had given the order. Twelve months had made a remarkable difference to the absent laird’s credit among his cotters and tenants. There was a time when they viewed Lord Randal’s comings and going with a tolerant eye. The laird went his way and they went theirs, much as they had done in his father’s day. All that had changed.

A new factor had been set over them, Serle, a low-lander, and his ways were not their ways. He meant to dispossess them of their homes and livelihood. Strathcairn was now a hunting lodge, so he had informed them; and the thousands of acres of the estate—Deeside’s finest woodlands and glens—were now a chase reserved for the pleasures of the English laird and his English guests.