Culloden Moor, Scotland
April 16, 1746
ailin MacGreggor clung to the gray mare’s mane as cannon roared and the trembling animal reared and pawed the sky with her muddy front hooves. “Mother of God,” Cailin cried. She was lost in the murky depths of hell, while all around her shot flew and steel clashed against steel.
Bagpipes shrilled above the cadence of drums. Wild clan war cries mingled with the shrieks of dying men and the crack of musket fire. Clouds of smoke swirled around her, adding to the confusion of mist and falling rain. The stench of black powder and blood filled her nose; she could taste death in the air. But Cailin’s eyes shed no tears—she was shocked past the point of weeping. Not even the realization of her beloved cousin’s death could pierce the terror that gripped her.
Cailin wasn’t sure how long ago she’d come across Father Tomas kneeling beside a wounded Highlander. The priest had railed at her and had bidden her flee. But flee where? The fog made her uncertain of direction, and she lost sense of time. She thought it must be somewhere near noon, but without the sun or a timepiece, it was impossible to tell.
Alasdair was dead. The words echoed in her head, but it was hard to believe. Alasdair’s homely freckled face bending down as he seized her by the waist and lifted her high over his head. Alasdair setting her on the back of a fat Shetland pony. Alasdair gripping her hand silently as dirt fell onto the grave of her dead husband.
Alasdair was too full of life to die here on this damp, foggy moor. But Father Tomas had told her that it was so ... that Alasdair had been killed in the first minutes of the fighting, and that he’d been given the last rites and his sightless eyes had been closed.
Her mare came down hard on her front legs and lowered her head, blowing red-tinged foam from her nostrils. “Steady, Lady! Steady!” Cailin soothed, tightening her hands on the reins. She wanted to dismount and try to lead Lady, but she was afraid that if she got off the horse, she’d lose control of her altogether.
An angry swarm of bees whined over Cailin’s head, and the hair rose on the back of her neck. Instinctively, she flung herself forward onto Lady’s neck and dug her heels into the gray mare’s side. The gallant little horse plunged forward, sinking to her knees in the churned bog.
A man in a red coat staggered into Cailin’s line of vision, his mud-smeared face contorted with fear. “Help me!” he cried. But before she could react, a huge kilted warrior struck the British soldier a mighty blow with his claymore, nearly cleaving his head from his body.
Blood splashed across Cailin’s gray cloak, and she stifled a scream. The Scot turned slowly and stared at her with glazed eyes. For a second, she believed that he might turn the ghastly weapon on her, and a queer fluttering in the pit of her belly made her light-headed. “For God and Charlie,” she whispered.
“Peggie?” the giant Highlander rasped. He swayed on his big feet and shifted the claymore restlessly. He was nearly naked; his hairy bare chest and MacDonnel plaid were streaked with blood. “Peggie?”
“Nay, laddie,” she murmured. “I’m nay your Peg.” The battle sickness was on him; she could see madness flickering behind his pale blue eyes. “Just Cailin MacGreggor looking for my menfolk,” she said softly. Fear made her normally rich voice quaver. “Have ye seen Duncan MacKinnon or Johnnie MacLeod this day?”
He didn’t seem to hear her question. Instead, he shook his head like one demented and mumbled woodenly, “Nay the moor. Nay the moor. Lord Murray said it. He warned Culloden Moor be no fit place for Highlanders to stand and fight. The hilly ground across the Nairn—that’s for us, he said. But Charlie wouldna listen. Not him, God rot his greedy bowels.”
Cannons thundered, nearly drowning the man’s anguished words. “Have ye seen my kin?” Cailin begged. “Johnnie MacLeod?”
“No. No.” He shook his massive head. His yellow hair hung halfway to his waist; it was matted with blood. His broad smashed nose was black with smears of gunpowder. His eyes narrowed dangerously. “You’re nay my Peggie?”
“Nay. I’m Johnnie MacLeod’s lass,” she stammered.
“Get ye gone, woman!” he bellowed. Swinging the claymore, he slammed the flat blade against her horse’s rump. The mare squealed and leaped ahead, nearly unseating Cailin, but she hung on with every ounce of strength and finally righted herself in the saddle.
The terrified horse’s lunge carried them over the fallen Englishman’s body and into the ever-thickening mist. Cailin heard the thud as Lady’s hind hoof struck something soft. She clenched her eyes shut and clung to her mount as she tried to reason why she had ever left the safety of Inverness to be caught in the thick of a battle between the Hanoverian army and that of Prince Charlie.
There had been no fog or rain at dawn when she’d ridden out of the town in a desperate attempt to find her sister Jeanne’s young bridegroom. Jeanne had been in labor for two long days and nights with Duncan MacKinnon’s babe. Jeanne was only fifteen and slight of frame, scarce more than a child herself. The bairn was wedged sideways; it could not be born, and the midwife had shaken her head in despair. Jeanne had squeezed Cailin’s hands until she thought her bones would snap. And when Jeanne had begged to see Duncan’s face, Cailin could not deny her sister her last wish.
Now, even Jeanne’s suffering seemed far away. Could it be only a few hours since she’d left her dying sister’s bedside? Lady slowed to a trot, and Cailin opened her eyes and tried to ignore the gunfire and cries of agony all around her. “Ah, Lady, I’m naught but a fool,” she murmured more to herself than to the trembling animal. “Had I had sense enough to keep to the road this morning, I might have realized that a clash of armies was imminent.”
Instead, she had left the town of Inverness by a little-used country lane and followed a line of straggling trees and dirt dikes along the shore of the firth. The bleak moorland of Drummossie, the land that some called Culloden, stretched gray and barren to the east, but across the water, she could see magnificent towering mountains. After so many days in the narrow streets and shuttered house, it felt good to breathe fresh air again. Under different circumstances—if she wasn’t so worried about her sister and the rest of her family—she would have been glad for the outing.
After an hour’s ride, she had met three wild-eyed Highlanders in the blue, green and red Murray
bone-weary and half-starved. Pity for their plight caused her to give them most of the oatcakes she’d brought for her kin. While none of the Murrays could tell her where the Earl of Cromartie’s men were camped, all warned her against going farther when Cumberland’s army was abroad.
But Cailin had stubbornly continued on, determined to seek out her brother-in-law, and if possible find either her cousin Alasdair or her stepfather, Johnnie MacLeod. Both had chosen to ignore the orders of their chief and were marching for Prince Charlie under the banner of MacLeod of Raasay.
Not long after she’d left the Murrays, Cailin had thought her luck had changed for the better. A lad herding two shaggy cows to pasture had directed her to a wooded spot in a hollow near the ruins of an old crofter’s cottage. There she’d found the still-warm ashes of campfires from a large body of Highlanders. She had known that the men were her own and not English because of the signs of haphazard sleeping arrangemenfs. These soldiers had erected no tents; those who had spent the night here had wrapped themselves in all-encompassing wool plaids and slept on the damp, bare ground. And the only scraps of food that remained were the tail, hooves, and bones of a requisitioned calf.
She’d been following the trail the men had left, south toward the River Nairn, when she’d nearly been run down by two enemy messengers. Fleeing from them had taken her deeper onto the moor, and before she’d known what was happening, the first volley of shots had echoed across the plain, and she had realized that she was really in trouble.
She was nearly paralyzed with fear. Men were fighting and dying around her. Common sense told her that if she wasn’t shot, someone would drag her off her horse and steal it. Cailin had given up all hope of finding her stepfather or Duncan. All she wanted was to get away from the killing, but she didn’t know how.
Never had she ever felt so helpless—so panicked. The stench of the dying was the worst. She was no dainty English wench; she’d grown up around men and horses. She’d shot game and skinned and gutted it as well, and she’d sewn up wounds when her menfolk were injured in sport or battle. She’d tended the sick and helped to bury some, but she’d never been in a place that reeked of mindless death. Every breath she drew filled her head with the scent of sulphur and human agony. Dark Drummossie Moor was a nightmare—all the more terrifying because it was one from which she knew she’d not awaken.
“Get off that horse!” snarled a rough voice.
Cailin twisted in the saddle to see a Hanoverian soldier step into her path and aim a flintlock pistol at her head. His red coat was torn: one sleeve hung loose and empty. A great gash in the man’s face ended in an ear hanging by a rope of skin.
“Down I say, afore I blow you to hell!” he shouted.
She didn’t stop to think. Instead, she flung herself sideways and brought the trailing leather reins down across Lady’s rump and yanked the right one hard. The mare snorted and wheeled, lashing out with her hind feet. Cailin heard a scream, and then the soldier’s pain was lost in the confusion as she gave Lady her head and the little horse bolted away into the mist.
Cailin concentrated on keeping her seat, certain that at any second the pistol would fire and she’d feel the blow of a lead ball piercing her back. But no bullet found her, and they galloped madly on, leaping over fallen bodies and dodging armed men of both sides. The hood of her cape flew back, and her hairpins tumbled out. Soon her carefully braided hair streamed around her like a tavern strumpet’s. But now was no time to worry about the state of her appearance, not when her very life was in jeopardy.
Finally, Lady’s strength began to wane. Her breath came in great tearing gulps, and her legs trembled. “Easy, easy,” Cailin soothed. “Whoa, girl. Whoa, my sweet.” She slowed the weary animal to a walk and looked around her.
Either they had moved away from the scene of the worst fighting, or the battle was coming to a close. She could see two men struggling to her left, hand to hand, but neither took notice of her or the horse. To her right, a British soldier too young to shave was on his knees crying next to the body of a dying comrade. And just ahead, two opponents faced each other with drawn swords.
The British dragoon—a broad-shouldered officer in a cocked hat, knee-high black boots, and a red coat with silver lace—was on foot. His wounded horse lay on its side behind him, struggling to rise. The animal’s shrill cries of pain brought tears to Cailin’s eyes.
Facing the enemy dragoon was a stocky Highlander in a brown leather waistcoat and Scots bonnet, wielding a blood-streaked broadsword. His back was to Cailin and his clothing was too filthy to be identifiable, but the outline of his brawny figure seemed familiar.
The Scot attacked, weapon in his left hand, his right lifting his targe, the small round Highland shield that protected his body against the Englishman’s lighter basket-hilted sword. The enemy officer sidestepped and blocked the blow. His hat flew off, and Cailin saw that he wore his own hair, black as the devil’s cauldron, pulled into a queue at the back of his olive-skinned neck. His eyes were as black as his hair, fierce heathen eyes that might have belonged to some Turkish warlord.
Cailin’s heart rose in her throat. Faintness threatened to overpower her. She couldn’t be sure but ... Mother of God! It was! The Scot facing the British spawn of Satan was her stepfather, Johnnie MacLeod. She covered her mouth with her hand and forced back the cry that rose in her throat.
For an instant, they stood knee to knee, muscles locked, swords joined as one. Then they pushed back away from each other. This time it was the Englishman who lunged forward, moving so fast that Cailin almost missed the thrust. Steel rang as Johnnie met the stroke with his own sword. Then he flung aside his targe, drew his dirk with his right hand, and stabbed upward at the Englishman’s belly.
Time seemed to slow as Cailin stared in silent horror. From nowhere, a thin dagger appeared in the redcoat’s left hand. He twisted and sliced down across Johnnie’s sword wrist, then followed with a powerful riposte, driving the point of his steel knife deep into Johnnie’s chest.
Johnnie staggered backward, his falling weight wrenching him free from the fatal thrust. He dropped to one knee as a river of blood spouted from his breast. He turned his head as if to look one last time into Cailin’s face, and then his dear, sweet features went slack, and he slid slowly to the ground.
“Johnnie!” Cailin screamed.
Sterling’s gaze snapped from the dying Highlander to the source of the sound. Instinct told him that he’d heard a woman’s cry of anguish, but he didn’t believe it. No female would be here in the remains of the bloodiest battleground he’d ever endured.
Fog and cannon smoke obscured his line of vision; he could see no more than a dozen yards. Yet ... There. Unconsciously, he tightened his grip on his sword hilt and strained to see. Yes! There on a pale horse sat a woman with long red-gold hair. So still and motionless was she that she didn’t seem real. Her face was white, her hand frozen in midair like some haunting specter.
Sterling blinked, half-expecting this disembodied spirit to vanish. But when he looked again, she was still there, staring at him across the blood-soaked earth.
His heart began to pound; his breathing quickened. Spots appeared before his eyes as his mind struggled to rise above the confusion. “You,” he whispered. “It’s you.”
And then the rolling mist swallowed horse and rider, enveloping her with a white nothingness.