Heroes, p.1
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       Heroes, p.1

           Leigh Barker
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Heroes
Heroes

  Copyright 2017 Leigh Barker

  ISBN: 9781311700285

  The Collection

  First Episodes of all 7 Series

  Edge-of-your-seat Saturday matinees!

  Episodes…

  Clan

  Calum Maclean is a sword-for-hire and a thorn in the side of anyone who sets himself up as Authority.

  He returns to the Highlands from the war in Flanders where he fought for the English, for a price, to find Bonnie Prince Charlie has arrived and war with the English is inevitable.

  Everyone thinks Calum will obey the Pretender. Everyone is wrong. Calum Maclean tips his hat to no man.

  Soldiers

  Regret is a soldier with fierce independence that gets him into trouble, and a sharp mind that gets him out of it.

  His skill with the Lee-Enfield rifle comes from long nights poaching in Ashdown Forest with his brother. That skill will save his life and the lives of his squad many times during the coming days and weeks of gut-wrenching tension.

  The Hellfire Legacy

  Marine Sergeant Ethan Gill is a hero — the real thing. A battle-hardened veteran of wars across the globe, with a sense of humour that would cut glass.

  He’d retired to the ‘good life’ but now he’s working with the FBI – there will be trouble!

  When terrorists start killing US generals, SecNav recalls him to duty.

  To the toughest and most perilous mission of his life.

  First Responder

  New York Fire Marshal Elmore James is one of our heroes who run into a burning building when everyone else is running out.

  A bomber has blown up a bank in Manhattan. Lots of people want to blow up banks, but few ever do….

  The Orpheus Directive

  Marine Master Sergeant Ethan Gill is a rare breed: a true hero. With skills honed in the bloodiest hellholes on the planet.

  He’d retired but SecNav has called his squad back to active duty, to go where Special Forces can’t, or won’t. To make the impossible look easy.

 

  Requiem for Eden

  With Lucid’s invasion driven back to the Dark Continent and his attempt to take over The Other Place thwarted, Eden should be the tranquil haven it was meant to be. If only…

  Checking In

  It's another mind-numbing day for the check-in staff at Global Airlines Lite, until the anarchist Rob discovers the suspect package…

  Clan

 

  Calum’s Sword

 

  General William Richmond rode with his six best royal dragoons assigned as his bodyguard and thought what a beautiful morning it was, riding among the trees and shrubs in late bloom. Which is a bit like saying there isn’t an enemy within a hundred miles.

  As they rode out into the small clearing in the woods as though they hadn’t a care in the world, the dragoons were ripped from their horses by a volley of musket fire from the cover of the trees barely twenty feet away. The ambushers couldn’t miss. And they didn’t.

  By the time General Richmond regained control of his horse rearing from the deafening musket fire and the screams of dying men, a dozen highlanders were already running across the clearing, dropping their used muskets and drawing their broadswords.

  He patted his horse’s neck gently and stepped down out of the saddle as the attackers formed a half-circle in front of him. For a moment he touched the hilt of his cavalry sabre, but let it be. Sir William’s rank of general was no rich man’s gift to some sycophant; he was a shrewd warrior, but he didn’t need his military skill to know that if he was supposed to be dead, he’d be dead. There was more to this.

  His ambushers were clearly agitated, as if their complete success had come as a surprise, and they edged closer but withdrew again while they waited for something to happen.

  One of the dragoons began to sit, stared at the blood spreading across his buff-coloured waistcoat, and groaned as he fought for breath. The nearest highlander stepped closer and swung his claymore in a wide arc that dropped the dragoon’s head in his lap. General Richmond took an involuntary step back.

  James Campbell stepped forward out of the pack. A big, powerful man with masses of wild, orange hair hanging onto his shoulders and sticking out of the top of his tunic. He pointed his broadsword at the general and grinned, relishing the Englishman’s first sign of fear. “Well, lads, which piece of him shall we hack off first?”

  Sir William’s assessment that if they’d wanted him dead, he’d be dead, took a dent. It was beginning to look as if his survival had been down to pure luck, and he thought about drawing his sabre and just wading into them, but hurrying things along did seem a little… impetuous. The devil with it. His hand closed on his sword hilt.

  Two highlanders strolled out of the trees and into the clearing as if completely unaware of what was going on there. The two couldn’t have been less alike. Calum Maclean was slightly built, in his mid-twenties, and some would say good looking—the ‘some’ being just about any woman who saw him. He had wild, blond hair, striking blue eyes and an easy smile, and a light and easy way of moving that would have warned anyone who knew anything about fighters to beware.

  John Mackintosh was a blacksmith, and it showed. Everyone called him Big John, for all the right reasons. A big block of a man with arms as thick as the branches on the trees around the quiet clearing, and a belly that told of a love of food and ale. John had a quick wit and a left hook that could fell a bull at full charge.

  “You should have just told your woman that you were going to the inn,” Calum said, without seeming to notice the armed men staring at them in amazement. “You’re the man of the house, right?”

  John nodded, though not very convincingly.

  “Then next time, tell her to mind her tongue and care for the bairns.” Calum stopped and turned to face his friend. “You have to stand up to woman, or…” He raised his hands as if in surrender, then looked around as if seeing the dozen highlanders for the first time. His brow creased in a deep frown, and he turned back to John. “They’re trying to look like Clan Chattan, are they not?”

  “Aye,” said John, “wearing boxwood in their bonnets, they are that.”

  “Aye, their bonnets are Mackintosh,” said Calum, “but their kilt is Campbell.” He pointed at the nearest man.

  The man grunted and started to walk towards the newcomers, but the man-mountain James Campbell held out his broadsword and stopped him. “Leave them be,” he said with a sneer. “Deal with the general here first; then we’ll chop up these two. First the one with the big mouth and the wee sword.”

  He pointed at Calum, who glanced down at the hilt of the French small sword in his scabbard, which, unlike the double-handed claymore held by the ambushers, was barely three feet long, had a razor-sharp blade, and a beautifully engraved mahogany hilt with a silver guard. Any one of the broadswords would have snapped it like a twig. Given the chance.

  Calum and John continued to stroll casually across the clearing, but John picked up his friend’s tiny gesture, yawned, and wandered off to the right, as if to skirt the group and be on his way. Most of the ambushers ignored him and turned their attention to James Campbell, waiting for his order to hack the Englishman to pieces.

  “The way I see it, John,” said Calum casually, “there are only a few of them, and they’re Campbells, so it hardly seems fair and sporting.” He drew his sword slowly. “I was hoping for a little exercise this morning to warm the ol’ bones.”

  “There’ll be no workout today, Calum,” said John, also drawing his sword, a beautiful claymore crafted by his own hand and balanced perfectly for his height and strength. “Not with just yon bunch of Campbells.”

  Calum yawned loudly and waved the Campbells on. “You boys carry on with
what you’re doing.” He pointed at the general. “But be careful. That’s an English officer and more than a match for cowardly ambushing crotch lice like you.”

  Three of them seemed to take offence at the remark, turned, and charged straight at him, their swords raised in both hands above their heads. It wasn’t going to take long to silence this loud-mouth Maclean.

  Calum watched them coming almost indifferently, his sword drawn but its tip resting on his boot. One of them was a little quicker than the others and arrived first. His sword was already arcing around to the right and down as Calum stepped to the side and put the tip of his fine sword into the attacker’s heart with barely a flick of his wrist. The weight of the man’s broadsword turned him and dropped him on his back with his eyes open and staring sightlessly at the pale sky.

  The other two were too committed or too stupid to read what had just happened and charged in. Calum let the nearest attacker’s sword almost touch him as it flashed down to cleave him to his chin, before twisting just a little to the side. The broad blade flashed past his face with barely an inch to spare, the momentum carrying the blade into the soft ground. He was too close for Calum to use the sword effectively, but the nine-inch dirk that seemed to have appeared in his left hand did the trick just fine as it sank hilt-deep under his ribcage.

  The last attacker stopped in his tracks and stared at the still-twitching body of his friend. It had happened so fast it didn’t seem possible. For him, a sword fight involved the clanging impact of heavy broadswords, grunting and sweating until one man weakened or made a mistake that ended the encounter with a massive wound or loss of a limb. But this little man had killed them both with barely any effort. He stepped back. Then took two more.

  “Now you see what you’ve done, laddie,” said John with a slow shake of his head. “You’ve frightened the wee man.”

  Calum gave an exaggerated shrug. “Aye, but that’s an easy thing to do to a Campbell.”

  The rest of the ambushers rushed them, screaming and raising their broadswords. Clearly upset about something.

  James Campbell grabbed two of them and pulled them back. “Watch the English… gentleman. Until we dispose of these two.” He pointed at Calum. “Then we can do what we are paid for and get home to our women.”

  He strode over two where John was facing down three Campbells. “He’s mine,” he grunted and pointed at Calum. “Go and help them with the little one.” He turned back to John. “Well, Mackintosh,” he said and sheathed his broadsword, “you look like a man who thinks he can use his fists.” He smiled. “I have never met a Mackintosh I could no’ break in two without breathing heavily.”

  John sheathed his sword. “You have now, Campbell.”

  One of the problems with men who ambush people is their quality. One problem among many. The two men left to guard the general heard a noise and turned from watching the action to find him holding his sabre with the painful end pointing their way. A half step forward and a thrust and there was now only one left, and he died as he raised his sword above his head in a suicidal stroke against a man with the single-handed sabre designed to use either the razor edge or the point. And it was the point that Sir William chose, just because it was… well, pointing in the man’s stomach. But just for good measure, he pulled it out with a sideways cut, opening up the man like a side of beef.

  The Campbell looked down, but died before his mind registered the horror of his intestines spilling out over his kilt.

  Sir William stepped over the dead man and strode to where Calum was facing seven Campbells, but still smiling. To hell with chivalry. He rammed his sabre into the kidney of the nearest man, raised his foot, and pushed his body off the blade.

  For a whole second, the rest of them were stunned by the sudden appearance of the Englishman. In that second, Calum put his sword through one man’s sternum, flicked it out, and opened the throat of the man next to him, while the general brought his sabre up and over in a lightning-fast short arc that took off a man’s arm below the elbow and had him screaming and spraying blood.

  One of the last three remaining attackers fancied himself as a swordsman, and had proved it several times against drunks and farmers. He held his broadsword out in front of his waist, the tip moving in small circles to distract Calum.

  The general took a step towards the other attackers, but they suddenly turned and fled. Proving them to be the brightest of the bunch.

  “I’m going to stick you like a pig, Maclean,” the swordsman said, still waving his blade around. “Then I’m going to cook your heart and—”

  Calum’s wrist snapped out, and the tip of his sword flickered in the morning sunlight. Without a backward glance, he turned and strolled over to where John and James Campbell were facing off.

  Sir William frowned and almost called out a warning, but then saw the blood flowing from beneath the swordsman’s kilt like a spilled jug of red wine. If that was not enough, the look of absolute horror on the man’s face did the trick. The general chuckled.

  “I’ve never seen that move before,” he said as he watched the man’s broadsword sink to the ground. “Takes balls, though.” He laughed loudly.

  He left the man to bleed out and walked over to where Calum was waiting for James Campbell to break John in half. “The Campbell’s a big man,” he said quietly.

  “Aye, he is that,” said Calum, crouching and wiping his sword on a dead man’s kilt.

  “Are you going to help him?”

  Calum stood up and sheathed his sword. “Who?”

  Sir William pointed at John.

  “Oh,” said Calum, “I thought you meant Campbell.” He saw the general frown. “He’s the one who needs help.”

  Sir William looked at the two men standing three feet apart and glanced quickly at Calum. James Campbell was at least three inches taller than John and had a longer reach by at least that much. He decided to stay out of it until John was down, then kill the ambusher.

  James Campbell threw a looping right hand that had felled many a good man in the past, and there was no reason to expect anything different now. Except his fist crashed into John’s open hand and stopped.

  John smiled at him. And crushed the fist as if it was a dried twig. The man screamed like a girl and fell to his knees. John grinned at his friend and then raised his boot and pushed the fallen man away.

  “Always the same with the big uns,” he said, turning and still smiling. “They think strength is all—”

  Calum casually pointed, and John turned in time to catch a left to the cheek. It staggered him, but he stayed on his feet. Just.

  “You talk too much, John. You know that?” Calum said.

  James lowered his head and charged forward, intending to—to do something stupid. It didn’t happen. John simply stepped out of the way and let him charge right on by. He raised his hands questioningly, but Calum just shrugged.

  James Campbell circled slowly, starting to learn that this Mackintosh wasn’t going to break in half as easily as he’d expected. His right hand was recovering a little from the crushing, and he threw it as a feint so that he could deliver monster left hook to the jaw.

  John should have blocked the feint, leaned back, ducked, or at least done something defensive. Instead, he kicked the man in the kneecap. Not sporting, but massively effective. Campbell staggered forward as his leg gave up trying to support him, and fell onto his hands and knees, then rolled onto his back and hugged his leg.

  Sir Williams sighed heavily and shook his head, then turned to Calum and put out his white-gloved hand. “I owe you my life, sir.” He nodded once. “I am in your debt.”

  Calum looked at the glove, glanced at John and winked, then shook the general’s hand. “I’ll not stand by and watch a man murdered in cold blood.”

  “Even an Englishman?”

  Calum shrugged. “I have no argument with the English.”

  Sir William nodded. “Will you tell me the name of the man who saved my life?”

&n
bsp; “Aye,” said Calum, throwing another look at John, who was shaking his head urgently. “I am Calum Maclean of the Clan Chattan.” He paused for a moment. “And I tell you who I am because these men—” He pointed at the bodies littering the clearing “—pretend to be Chattan but are Campbells.”

  The general’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “I believe the Clan Chattan fights for the Pretender.”

  Calum watched him for a long moment. “Aye, the clan fights for the… Pretender.” He met the general’s steady look. “I fight for no man.”

  “Unless he has gold coin,” said John with a grin.

  “Aye, that’s true enough,” said Calum. “And we call Charles Stuart the Bonnie Prince.”

  Sir Williams smiled. “Yes, I’m sure you do.”

  James Campbell groaned, and John remembered he was there and bent and lifted him to his feet with one hand. “What do you want to do with this one?” he asked Calum. “Shall I stick him?”

  Calum stepped up close and looked the man in the eyes. “Maybe.” He let him think about it for a moment. “Unless he tells us who sent him to take this Englishman.”

  Campbell glared at him, but it wasn’t convincing. “I am nay afraid of a Maclean.” He shifted his glare to John, but couldn’t hold it. “Nor a Mackintosh.”

  And that was a lie.

  “Do you want this man, General?” Calum asked.

  Sir William shook his head and strode away.

  “Then kill him, John.” Calum walked away with the general.

  Campbell struggled, but he was caught like a rabbit in John’s powerful grip. John drew his dirk and examined the point to ensure it was good and sharp.

  “Wait! Wait!” Campbell shouted.

  Calum and Sir William exchanged a look, smiled and turned, and waited.

  “If I tell you, will you let me go?”

  As if Calum would say no, even if it was so. Not much of a bargaining opener. He thought about it for a moment. “You’re nothing to me. You can go.”

  He nodded at John, who released his grip and let the man stagger and catch his balance. Fear and a boot to the knee can severely interfere with a man’s equilibrium.

  “Do you know who this man is?” Campbell said, pointing at the general. “This is Sir William Richmond.”

  Which meant pretty much nothing to Calum, and it showed.

  “He is one of the richest men in England,” Campbell continued. “And we—”

  A musket fired from the cover of the trees, the lead ball narrowly missing the general, who brushed his arm and tutted. “They do seem determined to ruin my best tunic.”

  “I think that this Campbell would be sorry for that, General,” said Calum. “If he wasn’t dead.”

  The general looked back from scouring the shadows to the body crumpled on the ground. “Someone will be sorry for being such a poor shot.”

  “I think you will find the shooter hit what he was aiming at,” said Calum.

  Sir William looked at the trees and nodded slowly. “I believe you are correct. He would have told us why someone is keen to see me dead.”

  “If they’d wanted you dead, General,” said Calum, “you’d be dead.” He pointed at the bodies of the guards. “It’s not likely they missed you by accident.”

  Sir William nodded. “Yes, I thought that too. Then it was for a ransom.”

  Calum shrugged. “Perhaps.” He doubted that. There was more to this than greed. “We’ll never know now.”

  Sir William started to turn, then stopped. “I am free to go, am I not?”

  Calum pointed his sword at the bodies. “I think the Campbells will be back and with more of their clan, don’t you?”

  Sir William walked quickly to his horse and swung up into the saddle.

  “Just one small point, General,” said Calum.

  Sir William stopped and looked back over his shoulder.

  “The Campbells are on your side, are they not?” He followed John out of the clearing, chuckling.

 

 

  It was late afternoon and August, but the candles were lit, and there was a roaring fire in the hearth at the end of the long hall. Colonel York was heartily sick of this damp, cold country and spent many miserable hours thinking of home in London.

  Dragoon Colonel Richard York was barely in his twenties, had smooth-faced schoolboy features, hard hazel eyes, and the permanent sneering look of superiority bred into him at the finest schools money could buy. He could trace his family right to the throne of King George, not that it did him any good. A mere colonel is all that he’d been given by his grandfather. A colonel. His cousin was already a major-general. And he was at court, or in France, or anywhere other than this god-forsaken place. But that would change. That would surely change. And soon.

  He put down the glass of poor wine and waved his orderly to answer the knock on the door. Good news. Just what he needed to raise his spirits. He waited for the orderly to pull open one of the big, rough, wooden doors and knew at once that good news was not coming.

  Two bedraggled Campbells slunk into the dark room and walked slowly to the table where Colonel York sat, now reading a document in which he had no interest whatsoever.

  The two Campbells waited in front of the table, their heads down and their eyes darting left and right, as if they expected someone to suddenly jump out of the shadows.

  York put down the document and smiled. “Ah, gentlemen.” The smile switched off. “It’s Duncan and…”

  “Donald, my lord,” said one of the men.

  “Ah, yes. Duncan and Donald.”

  “No, my lord,” said the man. “I am Donald. This is Robert.”

  “Right,” said York, looking them over slowly. “I take it from your demeanour that our little… venture was less than wholly successful?”

  A bead of sweat ran down Donald’s forehead and into the corner of his eye. He let it be. “No, my lord,” he said quietly. “We were ambushed.” He licked his lips nervously. “By a giant, my lord.”

  York nodded slowly, picked up the glass of wine, and looked into it. “That is very unfortunate.” He put the wine down untouched. “I paid you a great deal of money for this rather simple task, did I not?”

  The two men nodded but continued to look at the floor.

  “But you were…” York frowned as he recalled the term Donald had used. “What was it? Ah, yes. Ambushed.” He nodded. “By a giant, I believe.”

  “Aye, my lord,” said Donald very quietly. “And there was another big man.”

  Colonel York watched the man through slit eyes and nodded slowly, clearly understanding and sympathising with the poor unfortunates. He stood up, walked round the table, and stood in front of the dejected men. He put his hand on Robert’s shoulder and squeezed gently.

  All was well.

  “And these… giants defeated you and the other… nine, no, ten men? That is correct?”

  “Yes, my lord,” said Robert without looking up. “With the help of the duke.”

  “Ah,” said York, releasing his grip. “Then that I can understand.”

  The two men looked up and almost began to relax.

  Colonel York slid the dirk from Robert’s belt and pushed it into his ribs without taking his eyes off his face. It was effortless. And meant as much as swatting a fly.

  Robert sank to his knees without a sound and stared up at the man who had killed him.

  “So, Duncan,” said York without even a glance at the dying man at his feet, “the duke remains at large?”

  “I am Donald, my lord.” Which was stupid, and he quickly realized it. “Yes, yes, my lord, the duke rode away.”

  York put the bloody dirk on the table and stepped over Robert’s body, now sprawled in front of his table. He sat and picked up his wine. “This giant…”

  Donald looked up sharply. “Yes, my lord?”

  “Did you know him?”

  Now right there was a problem. Was the Englishman asking this because he suspected they w
ere somehow in league with the Jacobite scum. Or was it a genuine enquiry. The question bounced around in his mind, along with the image of Robert’s dying look. “No, my lord,” he said before he could think it through. “But he had a sword!”

  There was a glimmer of hope. A tiny way out.

  The colonel put down his glass. “I see. The giant had a sword.”

  “No, my lord.” Donald’s mind was still tumbling in desperate search for something to say that would save his life. It didn’t look promising.

  Colonel York raised his eyebrows and waited.

  “Well, yes, my lord.” He was going to die. “The giant did have a sword. A very big sword!” That was worth a try. “But the little… giant had a sword like…” He pointed at Colonel York’s sabre lying on a smaller table. “Like that one, my lord, but not curved.”

  York looked at the sabre and frowned. “You mean it was not a broadsword?”

  “Yes, my lord. Not a claymore or like a sabre.” Hope was blooming slowly. “It had a fine blade. It had a silver crossguard. It had—”

  York raised his hand to silence the man. “It had a silver crossguard. And a silver pommel?”

  “Yes, my lord. It did. Silver. And dark wood. And perhaps no taller than a man’s waist.” His brain clicked into focus. “A finer one of those we saw when we fought with you in Flanders.”

  York nodded. “Will you do something for me, Duncan?”

  “Anything, my lord,” said Donald enthusiastically.

  “I want you to find the man who owns this sword. Can you do that for me?”

  “Yes, my lord, I can do that.”

  “Thank you, Donald,” said York, finally using the man’s name. “And when you find him—”

  “I’ll kill him!” Donald was going to live, and his head buzzed with relief.

  York flicked the bloody dirk and spun it absently. “No, Duncan, I do not want you to kill him. I want you to find out all there is to know about him.”

  Donald was clearly confused.

  “I want you to find out where he lives. Who are his friends. Where his family lives. What is his favourite flower. And if he bathes.” He smiled a smile that would curdle milk. “Then I want you to report this to me. And only me. Do you understand?”

  Donald nodded and started to back away, ready for his exit.

  “And Duncan,” said York, tossing the dirk onto Robert’s body. “Bring me more men. And better than this gutter-trash you used last time.”

  “Aye, my lord, I’ll do that.”

  “Thank you, Duncan.”

  “Donald,” said Donald under his breath. But at least he had breath under which to say it.

 

 

  Calum and Big John stopped at the end of the long drive leading to Moy Hall, the country house that was the home of Angus Mackintosh, the head of Clan Mackintosh, to whom Clan Maclean had sworn allegiance.

  “D’ya think she’ll remember you?” John asked with a grin. “It’s been three years since you’ve been off gallivanting around Europe, selling your sword.”

  Calum stopped and looked from his friend to the imposing stone building on the shores of Loch Moy. There was no doubt Lady Anne would remember him; the real question was, would she still care. It had, as John so helpfully pointed out, been three years.

  What the hell, she was just a woman. He strode on. A little slower.

  They crossed the wide gravel path and headed for the steps leading up to the imposing double doors. At the last moment, John stopped.

  “What?” said Calum, stopping.

  “Should we perhaps go around back, just… well… just.”

  Calum started up the steps. “We are not servants nor hawkers. We go in through the front.”

  “That’s just what I was thinking,” said John, following.

  As they reached the top of the steps, the wide wooden doors swung open, and an old man, who should have been dead years before, blocked their entrance.

  “Who shall I say is calling,” he said slowly.

  Calum smiled and stepped forward. “’Tis me, Frasier, Calum Mclean.”

  The old man looked him up and down slowly, with an expression that said he didn’t care much for what he saw. “I’ll see if Lady Anne will see you.” He closed the door.

  John chuckled and took a moment to study the fine workmanship on the edge of the door.

  Calum looked at the closed door, turned on his heel, and walked back down the steps, but stopped at the bottom when the doors creaked open again and Lady Anne stepped out.

  “Going somewhere, are you, Calum?” she asked with a suppressed smile.

  “Aye,” said Calum, half-turning. “I’m away to somewhere I’m welcome.”

  “That’ll be a long walk, then.”

  John laughed loudly and put his hands on his hips, while Calum trudged slowly back up the steps and stood before the stunning tomboy with wild blonde hair.

  Lady Anne took his hand in both of hers and squeezed. “Calum, it’s wonderful to see you again.”

  “And it’s good to see you, my lady.”

  Anne released his hands and stepped back. “My lady?”

  “Aye,” said Calum without taking his eyes off hers. “Isn’t that what you’re called these days? Now that you’re married to the clan chief.”

  Anne turned on her heel and strode into the house.

  John stepped down two steps. “I think she’s gone for a musket.”

  Calum shrugged and followed her into the house, ignoring the steely look from the ancient butler.

  Lady Anne was in the wood-panelled living room, warming herself by a roaring fire. Just the thing for a September evening in Inverness. She crossed to the sideboard and picked up an elegant glass decanter without looking at Calum. “Would your friend care for a dram?”

  Calum was about to speak, but John got in first. “Aye, m’lady, I would that.” He strode quickly across the room and took the glass of whisky before anything endangered the offer. Which was highly likely.

  Anne put down the decanter and glared at Calum. “You can get your own.”

  Calum smiled, crossed the room, and poured himself a large drink. He took a swallow and topped it up, nodded and lifted the glass, then put it down. “Is that any way to speak to your humble servant, come straight here at your bidding.”

  John almost choked on his drink but managed to keep it in his mouth, or he would never be able to return to his village.

  Anne watched Calum through narrowed eyes. “You are neither humble, nor my servant.” She continued to watch him. “Unfortunately, or you would be seeking other employment.”

  Calum chuckled, picked up his whisky, and relaxed. “I hear you raised the clan for the Bonnie Prince.”

  She nodded, and her eyes betrayed a smile.

  “I wish I’d been there,” said Calum, leaning back against the sideboard. “A wee lass riding the glens, bullying, bribing and sweet-talking the men to take up arms.”

  “Aye,” said Anne, and the smile revealed itself fully. “But it was mostly bullying, I have to say.”

  He thought about it for a moment, smiling too. “But you won’t lead the clan into battle against the English.”

  “No,” she said and sighed. “But don’t you think I don’t want to!”

  He nodded once. “I have no doubt about that. So why not?”

  Her blue eyes flashed remembered anger. “Women don’t lead the clan on the field of battle. You know that.” She took a long breath. “And for good measure, my family, friends, and even the servants said it was not the thing to do.”

  Calum nodded. “Aye, they would, or I think you would have ridden into battle anyway.” He shook his head at the thought. “They were right, of course.”

  “You too!” The remembered anger returned for real.

  “Battle is no place for a woman.” He raised his hands to ward off the tirade that was surely coming his way. “You are just a wee lass—” He looked away quickly before he turned to
stone. “And you’re married to the Mackintosh, who, I might remind you, stands with the English.”

  “No, you don’t need to remind me!”

  Calum stood up and gave her a moment. “And what would you have done if you’d led the clan and there was Angus standing on the line?”

  She squinted and set her jaw. “My duty.”

  He continued to watch her for several seconds. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. “Aye, Anne, I believe you would.” He stepped closer. “But you did the right thing. It is better that you stay and look after your people.”

  She returned his long look. “Perhaps, but it would have been a glorious thing to do.”

  He laughed gently at the thought. “It would that.” He turned to John, who was lost in his own world and staring into an empty glass. “John, go see to the horses.”

  John looked up, completely confused. “But we don’t have horses—”

  Calum glared at him, and he turned, stepped up to the sideboard, and filled his glass before going out to check on the horses they didn’t have.

  Calum waited for the door to close, put his hands gently around her waist, and a moment later kissed her. She looped her arms around his neck and kissed him back, hard. Then pulled away.

  “Calum, we can’t. We mustn’t.”

  He stepped back and nodded. “Aye, you’re right. Angus.” He licked his lips with the tip of his tongue. “And he’s a fine man.”

  “Yes,” she said, a little breathlessly. Anger and passion rose in her until it threatened to send her swooning like a little girl. She pulled herself together quickly before she made a fool of herself. She looked into his pale blue eyes, then looked away. “And you made it clear that settling down was not in your future.” She took a long slow breath and relaxed a little. “So what did you want me to do? Wait around for you until I was an old maid?”

  Calum looked up from her tartan breeches to her wild hair. An old maid she would never be. He changed the subject quickly. “And what of Angus?”

  She looked at him, her face a mix of suspicion and question.

  “He’s with the English against the prince,” he continued, with a shrug to underscore the statement.

  She stepped forward and raised her hand to slap his face. He made no move to stop her, but she lowered it slowly. “It is not how it appears to be.”

  He raised his eyebrows. “I believe you, but how it appears is very bad.”

  She glared at him, then softened and nodded. “Aye, but Angus accepted Lord Loudoun’s commission into the Black Watch long before the prince returned.” She looked up at the portrait of her husband over the fireplace. A strong young man with a firm chin and soft eyes. “He’s no royalist.” She turned back at Calum. “And he’s no Jacobite either.”

  “M’be not. But he is the Mackintosh clan chief. And his place his here.” He pointed at her. “With you. And with his clan.”

  “True,” said Anne, her face reddening, “he is the clan chief. And what he does now, he does for the clan.”

  Calum sniffed pointedly. “And how does fighting with the English against the rightful king of Scotland help the clan?”

  A voice in his head told him to back off. He didn’t listen. But he never did.

  “He is not with the English!” She stepped forward, and Calum stepped back, coming to rest against the sideboard. “Yes, he is with the Black Watch, but he was with them before this all started.” She leaned towards him until their faces were almost close enough for their lips to touch. “What would you have him do? Desert?” She leaned back, the moment passed. “Where is the honour in that?”

  She stepped to his side and poured herself a whisky. A large one. “Angus believes that the rebellion is a hopeless cause and one for which we will all pay a terrible price.” She took a long drink of the amber spirit she held in trembling fingers. “He stays with his regiment because he believes that the Mackintosh clan will suffer cruelly when the rebellion is crushed, and he will be in a position to prevent it.”

  “And he is so sure the rebellion will fail?” Calum was thinking about the kiss and three years come and gone.

  Anne poured another whisky and handed it to him, then crossed to the fire and sat down in one of the stuffed chairs. Calum sipped his drink and followed her, leaning his hand on the shelf below the dark portrait of Angus Mackintosh. He glanced up at the picture, smiled a quick smile, and looked back at Lady Anne. He was pleased for her. Angus was a good man.

  “But now the prince has an army that will reclaim Scotland for its king and its people.” He tilted his head in a gesture that could have been admiration or question.

  “Aye, Calum,” she said, looking up at him, the firelight flickering in her blue eyes. “He has an army, but the English King George has a nation of soldiers long used to war.” She watched him for a moment. “But what about you, Calum? Do you believe Charles Stuart will be king of Scotland?”

  He didn’t answer.

  “I see,” she said, closing her eyes for a moment. “But you do see Angus is in an impossible position.”

  He nodded.

  She stood up and took his hand. “If he deserts his regiment, Clan Mackintosh will suffer. If he does not, then he may face his own clan on the field of battle.”

  “There is no doubt that he will face his clan if he stays,” said Calum softly. He smiled a knowing smile that she remembered so well. “So this is why you sent for me?”

  “Yes, Calum. I want you to bring Angus back home.” Her lips were dry from excitement and apprehension. So much rested on this man’s next words.

  He nodded once. “We will need horses.” He glanced at the door. “Real ones.”

  She put her arms around his neck and kissed him, switching from his lips to his cheek at the last moment.

  He waited for her to step back and walked slowly to the door and stopped. “You love him dearly, don’t you?”

  “More than he knows.”

  He was pleased that she had found such love. But the ache in his chest reminded him of what might have been.

 

 

  Calum and John sat on a fallen log at the side of the road and watched the redcoats struggling with the horses trying to pull the cannon through the churned-up mud. It looked like more rain was due, which was going to make the roads all but impassable. Calum smiled.

  Colonel Richard York rode ahead of his dragoons as they tried to push through the confusion on the roads. His mood had not improved since his briefing from the Campbells on their failed mission, but he knew it wouldn’t improve until he got out of this damp wasteland with its skirt-wearing barbarians. Please God that the campaign would not see winter. He looked around at the damp hillside. And saw Calum. He swung his horse and rode through the artillerymen wresting with the wagons and the cannon, his powerful horse shouldering them aside.

  “You there.”

  Calum looked up slowly.

  “What is the meaning of this? What are you doing there?”

  Calum watched another rider weaving his way carefully through the men and horses clogging the road. Angus Mackintosh came alongside Colonel York and looked down at the men on the log. He closed his eyes in dismay.

  “You!” shouted York. “I asked what you are doing here!”

  It was true, he had asked.

  Calum looked back at him slowly. “Scouting.”

  York began to splutter and turned to Angus. “Captain, I want this man flogged!” He glared at Calum. “And then I want him hanged. Do you hear me?”

  Angus looked down at Calum, who grinned back up at him. “Aye, sir. Flogged and hanged.”

  York pulled at his horse’s reins angrily and pointed at John. “And hang his surly friend too!”

  Calum stood up quickly, his hand moving to the hilt of his sword.

  York was about to demand that he be killed immediately, when he saw Calum’s French sword partly drawn from its slim scabbard. He stopped and looked the man over slowly. It was possible
. York was a bully and a schemer, but he knew a fighting man when he saw one, and he was looking at one right there. A very good one, or he missed his guess.

  “It’s my birthday,” he said, his eyes squinting slyly. “So I will let you live.”

  Calum shrugged but relaxed a fraction. He would have drawn his sword had they come for John. And he would have taken them on, the whole English army, right there. His clansmen would have stood over his grave and said how brave he was. And how dead.

  “They are scouts.” It wasn’t a question. “Then get them to their scouting duties at once, Captain.”

  Angus nodded without taking his eyes off Calum. “Yes, sir. At once.”

  York wrenched his horse’s head around again and stopped. “And Captain…”

  “Sir?”

  “Have them flogged first.” He rode away through the men on the road.

  Angus squinted at Calum. “With pleasure, sir.” He dismounted.

  Calum smiled at him and put out his hand.

  “What the devil are you doing here, Calum?”

  “You look pretty in your nice new kilt,” said Calum, pointing at the Black Watch tartan.

  Angus sighed heavily. “You forget, I am to have you flogged.”

  “Aye, pity about the hanging, though.” Calum looked up at the sky. “Nice day for a hanging. Not too much wind.”

  Angus closed his eyes for a moment, then put his foot on the log and leaned forward as Calum sat back down. “Why are you here?”

  Calum shrugged. “Anne asked me to come and bring you home.”

  “What!” said Angus, his foot slipping off the log. “Have you lost your mind? You canna just ride up to the English army and say, can we have our chief back?”

  Calum smiled again. “Lady Anne sent us, Angus.”

  Angus started to protest, but then just nodded. He looked back at the road teaming with redcoats. “Well, you canna stay here. There’s a battle coming.”

  “Aye,” said Calum, standing up. “And there’ll be a good number of Mackintosh on the wrong end of yon cannon.”

  Angus glanced back over his shoulder. “Aye,” he said quietly, “which is why I have to make sure they take a short cut across that field.” He pointed to a waterlogged field a little way along the road, turned, and swung up onto his black horse. “We’ll talk more on this later. Now get yourselves out of the way. Can you do that?”

  Calum pointed at the two horses hitched to the end of the fallen tree. “We have horses.”

  Angus sighed. “Where the devil did you steal those?”

  John stood up stiffly and brushed off his kilt. “Dinnae steal them.” He stepped up to one of the mounts and patted its rump. “They’re yours.” He led his horse away.

  Angus looked quickly back at Calum. “Not the thoroughbreds?”

  Calum gave him a big smile, unhitched the chestnut thoroughbred, and followed his friend up the long hill and away from all that noise.

 

 

  Calum and John were once again sitting, but this time on boulders at the top of the long hill overlooking the battlefield where the highlander army stretched across the moor in two long columns about two hundred yards apart. In front of the highlanders, a little over half a mile ahead, the royalists were also in two columns, but these were straight and a colourful mix of bright red from the redcoated English and a clash of different tartans worn by the clans who had chosen to stand with the English against their countrymen, for money and land, or for some misplaced sense of loyalty to a king who despised them.

  John nudged Calum’s arm and pointed down the hill to where the English cannon were complexly bogged down in the muddy field.

  Calum sniffed. “Angus never was much of a guide.”

  John laughed. “I’d say he guided them pretty much where he wanted them to be.”

  “Aye, they do seem a wee bit muddy.”

  Both men laughed and turned back to watch the moor and the prelude to the battle that was building like a violent storm.

  The royal dragoons suddenly charged forward, galloping their big cavalry horses across the moor, the mud and water spraying up around them, until the commander wheeled left and they swung back towards their army, this time riding a little more slowly. It was an unsubtle manoeuvre, but it had worked before. The lines of highlanders rippled a little in expectation and excitement, but their officers, running along in front of them, stopped any hot-headed pursuit of the retreating English.

  John walked to the hilltop overlooking the highlanders and watched them advance slowly, while Calum strolled over and watched the royalists waiting patiently to slaughter their countrymen.

 

 

  As the highlanders started to advance slowly, their lines seemed to waver as the slower men walked faster to catch up, then slowed down again. After a hundred yards, the lines were as straight as they were going to get, and the royalists braced for the charge, but without any apparent command, the leading highland divisions suddenly broke right and ran straight towards the hill from which Calum and John were watching the fun.

  A shout went up from the royalists, and a troop of dragoons broke out at full gallop, determined to deny the highlanders the advantage of the high ground.

  Calum took one look at the dragoons galloping for the hill and turned quickly to get John. They almost collided as John ran up behind him.

  “We need to get out of here,” said Calum. “The cavalry is coming up this way.”

  John pointed back over his shoulder. “And the clans are coming up that way.”

  They ran back across the top of the hill, away from the race, because whoever won would assume the two men were enemy lookouts and hack them down. They reached the cover of a broken dry stone wall as the two armies cheered their runners with a roar like a distant sea.

  The dragoons thundered up the side of the hill, their horses at a dead run with the riders leaning forward over their mounts’ necks. While on the other side of the hill the Macdonalds outpaced the other clans, pounding up the steep hill with barely a change of speed, their kilts flying and their hands full of broadsword and musket.

  The dragoons should have won; a horse will outpace a man every time, except somebody should have told the Macdonalds, because they crested the hill at the same moment as the mounted cavalry.

  Both armies let out a cheer as they saw their men get to the high ground first.

  The Macdonalds dived, jumped, or just flopped behind a scrub-grass ridge and fired a withering volley at the dragoons as they fought to control their horses. Gasping for breath they might have been, but the Macdonalds were still in better shape than the cavalry, who were out in the open on winded horses that were screaming and shying away from the musket fire and billowing black-powder smoke.

  Men and horses fell together under the uneven volley of lead balls, adding to the confusion and shock. One by one at first, then in a jostling mass, the dragoons broke and raced back down the hill just as the rest of the clans reached the top and opened fire and without a pause pursued them back down the hill.

  It was the signal for the highland army to charge.

  The royalists responded and advanced steadily, led by two regiments of dragoons advancing at full gallop towards the clans, who they fully expected to break and run, but the clans continued to sweep forward. The cavalry thundered on, the water and mud spraying out once again. Fifty yards. Twenty.

  The highlanders kept coming, calm and steady, until their commanders raised their swords to signal them to stop, raise their muskets, and fire a massive volley. The effect was devastating. The men and horses leading the charge stumbled and crashed to the muddy ground under the withering fire.

  General Cobham had trained his dragoons well, and they rode over the dead and wounded, regained the charge, and slammed into the first ranks of highlanders at full gallop, sending bodies flying and pounding bloody flesh under metal-shod hooves.

  Once again, the highlanders stood when they were expec
ted to run. The men, scattered and bloodied by the charge, stabbed at the horses’ bellies with their dirks, slashed the riders’ legs, and dragged them from their mounts to hack them to death in the mud.

  The cavalry was going to die, or it was going to run. They ran, galloping back towards their lines as fast as they had come, with the highlanders in screaming pursuit right on their heels.

  The highland officers tried to stop the mad charge but were knocked down by the mass of men whose blood was well and truly up. They instinctively formed up on the run, with the biggest men first, shoulder to shoulder in a wedge of screaming men and flying tartan.

  The redcoats tried to brace themselves, but the wedge hit them at full run, throwing them aside and streaming into the ranks. The clansmen were among them, broadswords swinging and hacking flesh, dirks ripping left and right, and muskets spewing death all around.

  Nobody would stay and face such a charge if they had a choice. The redcoats broke and ran, followed a moment later by the whole royalist army, as the rest of the highlanders arrived in a whirl of slashing swords.

  Calum jumped down from the stone wall and dusted off his kilt. “That was a bonnie wee fight.”

  “Aye,” said John, jumping down, “it’s enough to give a man a thirst.”

  “Aye,” echoed Calum, “it’s all that running and screaming.”

  “It is that.”

  “Let’s go get Angus, and we’ll be away from all this fuss and bother,” said Calum, setting off for the stand of trees where they’d secured their borrowed horses.

  “And how do you intend to find him in all this?” asked John, pointing out at the battlefield with its dead men and mutilated horses and the wounded trying to drag themselves away, while the jubilant highlanders streamed back off the moor.

  Calum nodded towards the retreating redcoats. “They’re away to Tranent.” He smiled back at his friend. “And there’s bound to be an inn there.”

  “Aye,” said John grinning, “there is that. A bonny inn, if I recall.” He slapped Calum on the shoulder and reached for his horse’s reins to set off after the retreating army.

  Calum caught his arm and pulled him up. “Maybe we should rest a while. Just until all those men who’d kill us have gone off for a dram and a bite of supper.”

  John looked back and pulled a face. Disappointed at the delay in the visit to the inn, but not stupid. He nodded. “A rest would be a welcome thing after all that excitement.”

  They sat back against the thick tree, pulled their plaids around them, and closed their eyes. It had been a big day.

 

 

  Colonel York elbowed his way through the mass of redcoats and highlanders as they grabbed whatever they could before heading off for Edinburgh as fast as they could. A soldier in a dirty and bloody redcoat slammed into him, growled, and looked up. York hit him in the teeth with the hilt of the dagger he’d been carrying unsheathed. It was just luck that it hadn’t been the blade. The soldier grunted and fell into the gutter, where he would wake later, robbed and naked. But alive, though very ungrateful.

  York continued up the narrow street, pushing aside smaller men who wouldn’t walk around him, and stepping into doorways to let bigger ones pass. He looked up at the buildings every few yards until he was sure he was where he wanted to be, and then stepped into an alley and the darker shadows against the wall, from where he could see the first-floor windows of the building across the street and the shadowy figures silhouetted against the dirty glass by a flickering candle.

 

 

  It wasn’t a candle that lit the dirty room but an oil lamp with glass now almost completely blackened by smoke. Donald Campbell, the last survivor of the foiled attempt to grab Sir William Richmond, paced nervously back and forth in front of the dirty window and listened to the English captain sitting on the edge of a rough wooden table.

  “If you have no proof of this,” said the captain, “then we have only your word. And that against an English earl and a colonel in His Majesty’s dragoons does not carry much weight.”

  “I have a paper, sir,” said Campbell.

  “A paper?” Captain Lamb stood up and put out his hand. “What kind of paper? Let me see.” He took the crumpled piece of paper from Campbell, leaned over the lamp, and read it. “A pass?”

  “Yes, sir. A pass for me and others to be out of camp on the day of the ambush.”

  Captain Lamb shook his head. “It is not enough.” He handed back the note. “You will have to find something better than this.”

  “Sir?” said Campbell. “Do you want me to tell the colonel we will try for the duke again, so you can wait to catch him red-handed?”

  Captain Lamb shook his head. “No, he will not believe that. One incident with marauding robbers is thin… another will reek like a week-old fish.” He paced slowly for a while as he thought it through. “But he is not done yet, not by a long march. Watch him, and when he makes his next move, come to me.”

  “Aye, sir,” said Campbell, looking worried. “But if he suspects anything, it will be very bad for me.”

  “Then,” said Lamb with a hard look, “make sure he does not suspect anything.”

  Campbell strode to the door, muttering. “M’be so, but I’ll not be the only one to fall.”

  Lamb turned his back and looked out of the window at the mob streaming past, sighed heavily, and returned to the table to extinguish the light.

 

 

  As Campbell stepped out onto the teeming narrow street, Colonel York emerged from the alley, strode after him, and put his hand on the startled man’s shoulder.

  “Sir! What? How?” Campbell wasn’t handling the surprise too well.

  York smiled reassuringly. “Ah, Donald. What the blazes are you doing here?”

  Donald tried to step away, but York’s grip tightened on his shoulder.

  “Here, sir?” said Donald and licked his dry lips.

  “Yes, Donald,” said York with a smile. “Here.”

  “You… err…” Donald looked around quickly in case help was at hand. “You asked me to… err… report to you when the err… job was… err… done.”

  “Ah!” said York, also looking around and seeing Lamb exit the building and head up the street. He recognised him immediately for what he was, an agent for the crown. He smiled. “You did very well to find me here, amid all this…” He waved a hand to illustrate ‘this’.

  “Aye, my lord,” Campbell said, trying to smile and failing. “It’s skill, my lord. What you pay me for.”

  “Well, it’s very impressive. This skill.” York was still smiling, but it wasn’t pleasant. “And is it?”

  Campbell blinked slowly and tried to clear his head. “Is it what, my lord?”

  York released the man’s shoulder. “The job, Donald. Is the job done?”

  “Aye, sir. Done, and more.”

  “More, Donald?” York raised his hand. “Never mind. We shall speak of this later. There may well be a bonus for you.” The smile again. “A surprise, as it were.”

  Unconsciously, Donald stared directly up at the now-darkened window. “Thank you, my lord.”

  York followed his look and nodded. “So away with you. We will complete our business in Edinburgh.” He waved his hands to move him on when he showed no sign of leaving. “Away now, before we’re seen.”

  Donald stared at him for several moments, confusion on his face as he tried to see through the impassive smile. When a redcoat patrol approached, he turned and walked quickly up the street.

  York’s smile vanished as he turned to the patrol. “That man!” he called, pointing at Donald. “He has robbed and killed an officer!”

  The soldiers unslung their muskets and spread out across the street, now suddenly emptying of soldiers and women helpers.

  Donald looked back, cried out and started to run. He got three paces before the musket balls shattered his back.

  York walked away in the direction La
mb had taken, drew his dagger, and held it close to his leg, for quick and unseen use.

 

 

  Calum and John were probably close enough to hear the volley that filled the next street with black smoke, but the noise from the mob grabbing everything that wasn’t nailed down drowned it out.

  John grabbed a passing redcoat and hung on to him when he squirmed.

  “What?” said the redcoat, still pulling but getting nowhere.

  “We’re separated from our mates,” said Calum, leaning closer to the captured man and shouting into his ear.

  “So what do you want me to do about it?”

  “It’s the Black Watch,” Calum continued. “Have you seen them?”

  The man glared at him, then realised he wasn’t going anywhere until he answered, as escape from the iron grip wasn’t going to happen any time soon. “I saw some bog-dwellers… highlanders down that way.” He pointed over his shoulder. “Drinking themselves stupid at the inn.”

  John released the man, and he lurched away, shouting something unheard but easily guessed.

  “Did the wee man say there was an inn?” said John.

  “He did that.” Calum set off.

  John watched him go for three paces, gave a start as he realised he was standing when there was an inn nearby, and half-ran after him. The inn wouldn’t close this night, but a battle, especially a losing one, gives men a powerful thirst, and there was only so much ale.

  Ten minutes later they reached the inn, with John now leading, as the drunk and angry soldiers seemed somehow less inclined to shoulder a blacksmith built like a brick outhouse. He pushed open the dirty wooden door and smiled back at Calum, who ducked under his friend’s arm and went in first, followed instantly by the thirsty smith.

  The street had been noisy and full of battered and bloody troops, but this inn was even worse. The walls were practically groaning under the crush of bodies.

  Calum stopped and waved his friend past to make a path to the bar. Something John didn’t need to be told twice. A minute later, the harassed innkeeper was leaning over the bar awash with ale and waiting to fill the needs of the good man, who had him in a grip of death by the scruff of his neck.

  Another minute and they had mugs of ale in their hands. John downed his in one long swallow and butted the innkeeper on the shoulder with the empty mug. The subtle technique worked, and he had another mug to savour more slowly. This time taking two whole swallows.

  Calum looked around the crowded barroom slowly, saw what he needed, and weaved his way through the drunken men and whores to a table with five highlanders and a growing pile of beer mugs. He put his fists on the table and leaned forward to shout above the din.

  “Where is your regiment?”

  The highlanders looked him up and down slowly. John Mackenzie, a surly and scruffy sergeant of the Black Watch scowled at him and put down his beer. “Who wants to know?” He leaned forward against the table and looked Calum over again. “A MacLean?” He squinted his bleary eyes. “Your clan sides with the Pretender.”

  “Aye,” said Calum, “some of my clan stand with him.” He took his fists off the table and stood upright. “But this MacLean is a scout for the Royal Highland Regiment.”

  The men at the table visibly relaxed, settled back, and picked up their mugs. Mackenzie didn’t.

  “I‘ve no heard of a MacLean scouting for the Black Watch.” He squinted again, for effect. It failed, just making him look stupid.

  Calum shrugged. “It’s a big army.” He met the man’s watery stare. “And do they tell a lowly sergeant everything that goes on?”

  Mackenzie sat up a little straighter, with anger flashing in his eyes, which after a moment’s effort was replaced by a caricature of cunning, his head tilted and finger pointing unsteadily. “And who is the commanding officer of this… scouting?”

  Ah!

  Calum smiled a nice, friendly smile. “I scout for Angus Mackintosh.”

  Mackenzie snorted a laugh. “Then you are a scout without a commander.”

  He started to pick up his beer, but Calum put his hand on it and stopped him. “What do you mean by that?”

  Mackenzie pushed Calum’s hand away and stood up drunkenly, knocking over his chair with a crash that instantly brought the barroom to silence. His men started to get up, reaching for their dirks, but sat back down quickly when the tip of John’s broadsword tapped gently on the table.

  “Now, boys,” John said, sliding the tip of his sword across the cluttered tabletop, “don’t you think your man can handle this wee laddie?” He lifted his sword, but nobody moved. “Or m’be I should fetch one of the serving wenches for him to fight.”

  Mackenzie growled and stepped away from the table, shaking his arms to loosen them up for the pounding he was going to give this loudmouth little man.

  John looked at his friend’s scowl and raised his eyebrows at the silent rebuke.

  Calum turned back to Mackenzie and looked him up from his toes to his face, then smiled. As expected, the move incensed Mackenzie, and he put his head down and charged, and Calum sidestepped it like a matador and shook his head. “You tell me where Captain Mackintosh is and you can get back to your drinking… without bleeding all over the floor.”

  Mackenzie charged again. Clearly not too bright.

  Calum sidestepped again, put his hand on the back of Mackenzie’s head, and swung it down and under, flipping him through a complete somersault to land sprawling across a table full of drinks, sending the table and the men around it into a beer-soaked heap.

  The other drinkers moved back, clutching their beer, and Mackenzie extricated himself and stood up growling. He came forward again, this time much more slowly, his big fists balled and ready.

  Calum smiled at him and waited for the one-two he could see the man setting up for. When it came, he ignored the left feint and leaned back out of the arc of the right cross, waited for the punch to turn Mackenzie, then snapped a chopping left hook to his exposed jaw. The cracking blow shook him, but he stayed on his feet, and he backed off.

  “Like I said,” said Calum, his hands loose at his sides and showing no signs of getting ready to fight, “you can tell me where Angus is, or…” He shrugged.

  Mackenzie went for ‘or’, jumped forward, and threw a huge looping right up and over in a move that had been devastating many times. Calum stepped forward and let the hook pass over his left shoulder, while he slammed a left to the man’s ribs and a vicious uppercut to his solar plexus with the full strength of his legs pushing up behind it. It lifted Mackenzie off his feet and draped him over Calum’s shoulder for a moment, before he dumped him bodily onto the floor to mop up the spilled beer with his hair.

  This was not how it was supposed to work. Mackenzie climbed up onto his hands and knees and shook his head. He would tear the arms and legs off the little man who’d tripped him up, and he climbed slowly to his feet, blood running from the cut on his face where Calum’s hook had done its work. Then he would rip off his head and feed it to the big man with the sword.

  Calum watched him stand and steady himself. The man was going to grab him like a bear and crush him. He stood up straight to give him something to grab, waited, and when Mackenzie lumbered up to him, ready for the crush, he ducked under his outstretched left arm and snapped a straight right to his exposed ribs.

  Mackenzie coughed and staggered forward, caught his balance and turned, ready for another go.

  “Calum,” said John, his voice loud in the silence of the barroom.

  Calum glanced at him.

  “I’m thirsty. Will ya stop playing around, and let’s get down to some serious drinking.”

  Mackenzie looked from John to Calum, growled like an injured bear, and came forward, throwing lefts and rights like a whirlwind. Any one of them would have dropped Calum. Had it landed.

  He timed them, first the right, two feet short, then the left, closer. And here it came, the right that was expected to take his head o
ff. Wait. Wait. Now. Calum raised his left heel to tilt him to the right by no more than a few inches, but it was enough. The massive straight right roared past his left ear, as he took a half-step out, turned a little and ripped a right corkscrew hook out and round. It made a cracking sound as it broke Mackenzie’s jaw and dropped him like he’d been boned, the speed and momentum spinning Calum and setting him up for the follow-up backfist that would have splattered Mackenzie’s nose. Had it been needed.

  “Can we go now?” John asked with a smile. He moved the tip of his sword across the table again without looking, just to remind everyone that it was there.

  Calum waved him silent, crossed to the table, and lifted one of the men by the front of his shirt. “Now,” he said, without even breathing heavily, “I’m going to ask you once.” He smiled as if he’d made a new friend of the man squirming in his grasp. “You tell me where Angus is, and I won’t rip your head off and pour this beer down your throat.”

  The man followed his pointing finger to the mug of beer and back to Calum’s calm face. He was going to tell him, but who wouldn’t?

  The man nodded. Swallowed. Nodded.

  “Well?” said Calum, tightening his grip.

  “The rebels took him prisoner,” the man said with a strangled voice.

  Calum dropped him back into his chair, and the shaken man straightened his shirt and tried to look tough, while easing the chair away from the table and the little man who would surely have ripped his head off. He glanced at the others, but no help was coming from them. His mouth was sawdust dry, and he glanced at the beer, but the thought of having it poured down his headless throat put him off.

  “They’ll have hung him by now,” he said in the best tough voice he could manage, and backed the chair away a little more.

  “Who took him?”

  The man frowned. “I told you. The rebels.”

  “Yes,” said Calum, “but which ones?” He saw the frown again. “Which clan?”

  “The Camerons,” said one of the other highlanders. “Camerons have the Mackintosh?” There was a sneer in his voice. “Not promising for the man.” He raised his beer. “Here’s to a dead—”

  John knocked him out with an effortless left to the side of his head, and looked at the others one by one, but they were done. He sheathed his broadsword and stepped up to Calum. “How are we going to leave?” he said quietly.

  Calum glanced at him, then at the crowd of royalists watching him with murder in their eyes. Good question. He took a casual step back in the direction of the door that suddenly seemed a long way off. The royalists began to murmur like a pack of animals suddenly awoken from their winter sleep. John rested his hand on the hilt of his sword and looked around slowly with hard eyes that promised death to anyone who moved.

  Calum also looked around. There were too many of them, that was obvious. If one of them started to move, they all would. They would kill some of them, perhaps a lot of them, but the end would be the same.

  “What is going on here?” said a voice that was clearly used to being obeyed.

  Everyone looked towards the door and Colonel York standing with his hands on his hips. Calum had never been pleased to see an Englishman. Until now.

  “You,” said York, pointing at Calum. “You’re the scout, are you not?”

  Calum nodded and took the opportunity to cross to the door. “I am.”

  York glanced at Calum’s sword and looked up quickly. “What are you doing here? I told you to get about your scouting.”

  The question threw Calum for a moment for its stupidity. “There’s nothing to scout… sir. You… we lost.”

  York fixed him with hard eyes for a moment, then looked at Mackenzie being helped to his feet by his men. “It seems you found a way to console yourself at… our loss.”

  Calum looked back. “I asked a question. He didn’t answer.”

  “And the question?”

  Calum was silent for a moment, then decided it couldn’t hurt. “I am looking for Captain Angus Mackintosh. One of your officers.”

  York watched him steadily for several seconds. “The rebels have him,” he said at last. “He was careless.”

  As if that made it acceptable.

  Calum stepped past the man, tired of his arrogance, and John followed, but being twice Calum’s size, his exit needed a bit more room.

  York looked back sharply as they started to leave. “Where do you think you are going?”

  “To get Angus,” said Calum without turning.

  “He is hanged by now,” York said with his customary sneer.

  “Then,” said Calum, closing the door, “we will fetch his body.”

 

 

  The cold rain slanted out of the night and hit Calum in the face as they trudged over yet another muddy hill. They were on foot now, Angus’ thoroughbreds lost to the mob. He stopped and squinted into the downpour, then pointed down the hill at the ruined farmhouse in the misty glen. John nodded gratefully as he saw the campfires burning all around the broken buildings. Fires meant shelter and maybe food. Food would be good.

  Calum went a little ahead and approached the biggest fire in the shelter of the ruined house. He was not in the least surprised when three men jumped up out of the shadows and pointed muskets at him. He raised his hand and waved cheerily. Good friend here. “I am Calum McLean of the Clan Chattan,” he called and stepped closer to the fire so that the guards could see him and his tartan.

  Two of them lowered their muskets, but the last man kept his pointing at the newcomer. “How do we know you’re not a royalist deserter?” he growled.

  Calum shrugged. “Well,” he said, taking another step closer to the fire, “first, I would have come in silently from that direction…” He pointed at the shadows around the house. “Then I would have slit your throats while you sheltered from the rain.” He smiled.

  The guard looked back at the house where Calum had pointed, and when he looked back, Calum’s sword was an inch from his throat.

  “And,” said Calum, still smiling, “if I was an enemy, I would open up your throat now. Would I not?”

  The guard swallowed and moved his eyes down, keeping his head very still.

  “But we’re allies,” said Calum, sheathing his sword in a single move that would have told anybody who knew such things that this was a man who could use the blade.

  The man licked his lips and nodded slowly. He wanted to say something, but his mouth was too dry, and he was just glad he was alive.

  “Can I share your fire and get out of the rain?” Calum asked.

  The man grunted something he took to be permission.

  “I was separated from the regiment when we chased the English.” He hunkered down next to the fire and warmed his hands. “When they ran away faster than they’d arrived.”

  The men chuckled and joined him next to the fire. A moment later, John strolled out of the shadows, sheathed his broadsword, and crouched down by the fire without a word.

  “And this is John Mackintosh,” Calum said, smiling.

  The men looked at each other quickly, knowing they would have been dead twice if they’d made the slightest mistake.

  Ian Cameron, a weather-beaten man in his mid-thirties, smiled broadly and nodded his appreciation. “Aye, they did run. And they kindly left us this meal.” He pointed at the meat roasting over the roaring fire. “You can eat, but the Mackintosh can find his own.”

  Calum put his hand on John’s shoulder to stop him responding. “He’s with me,” he said simply.

  Ian watched him for several seconds, thinking it through, then looked at John and nodded. “A hungry man, especially a Mackintosh, will just be a burden. He can eat too.”

  They sat on one of the scattered blocks from the fallen hut and took the hunks of meat from Ian, who saw John looking at the fresh sword cut across his cheek and shrugged.

  “It’s nothing,” he said, touching the three-inch cut with his fingertips. “And the English gen
tleman who gave it to me will nae bother any more Scots.”

  John nodded and bit into the leg of mutton, then waved it to emphasize his words. “It was a bonnie fight!”

  Ian chuckled and bit into a hunk of meat. “And where were you?”

  John pointed with the mutton leg. “On top of the hill.”

  The rest of the guards sat down on the blocks and tore off some mutton.

  “It was a grand race,” said one of the guards as he juggled the hot meat.

  “Those dragoons got the shock of their lives, thinking we would run when they charged,” said Ian.

  Calum joined in the laughter, but his eyes scanned the camp carefully. “Aye, it was a sight,” he said and yawned and stretched. “It’s been a long day. Can we share your camp?”

  Ian waved a hand. “Help yourself to this fine accommodation.”

  Calum tossed the remains of his meal onto the fire, got up stiffly, and stretched his back. John followed him to the shelter of a fallen stone wall, but kept his hunk of mutton.

  They sat down and watched the camp and the dozens of men sleeping in whatever shelter they could find from the driving rain. Across the churned and muddy farmyard, a door opened and a man stepped out into the night, turned and wedged a bar against the door to lock it shut, then sat back against it.

  Calum and John exchanged a look, pulled their plaids around them, and went to sleep.

  They slept for two hours despite the cold and rain, then Calum opened his eyes without moving and looked around slowly. The rebels were all asleep after the tension and fear of the battle. He stood up slowly, still watching for any movement, and tapped John with his foot. John’s eyes snapped open, and he stood up without a hint of stiffness.

  Calum signalled him to circle to the right while he walked softly across the yard towards the barred hut. As he approached, the guard stirred from his sleep.

  “It’s just me,” Calum whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

  The guard sighed and settled back against the door, but jumped to his feet as Calum took another step. John stepped out of the darkness and rapped him on the head with the hilt of his broadsword. The guard went back to sleep.

  John rolled the unconscious guard out of the way, and Calum moved the bar quietly, pulled open the door, and stepped inside.

  Angus was sitting, hugging a wooden beam with his hands and feet tied on the other side. Rain was dribbling in through the roof and onto his head.

  “That looks uncomfortable,” said Calum quietly.

  “Well, at least I’m out of the rain,” said Angus, moving his head from under the worst of the dribbling water.

  John stepped inside, closed the door to a crack, glanced at his chief, and turned to watch the camp through the slit.

  Calum crouched and drew his dirk to slice the ropes. Angus stood stiffly, rubbing his numb hands.

  “It will be dawn soon,” said Angus in a whisper. “Do you have a plan?”

  Calum smiled. “Had one.” He shrugged.

  “This is it?” said Angus, shaking his head. “This is your whole plan?”

  “Worked, didn’t it?” said Calum with a smile.

  Angus closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I suggest we extend your plan to cover our escape.”

  John crouched, opened the door, took the sword from the unconscious guard, and handed it to Angus with a nodded greeting. That was as much as the man would get. John was not pleased that his chief had chosen to stand with the enemy, even if the rebel cause was misguided and stupid. He pointed east and raised one finger.

  “Aye,” said Angus. “I agree. One hour at most and these hills will be alive with angry rebels looking for us.” He crossed to the door and looked outside. “And where are my thoroughbreds?”

  Calum pretended not to hear and stepped out into the darkness. “Are you coming?”

  “Where?” said Angus, following.

  “Part two of the plan,” said Calum.

  “Oh, and what might that be?”

  “Run,” said Calum and John together.

  _______________

  Soldiers

   

  Regret’s Mission

 

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