Alasdair swayed on his feet, fatigue prompting his sword arm to tremble, his legs to cramp, and his breath to heave from his chest in harsh gasps. He stood for a mere second or two, eyeing the chaos around him. Utter chaos. The moor riddled with bodies and body parts, overcome with the sounds of cannons, rifle fire, the screams of the wounded, the shouts of soldiers, and the wild neighing of horses.
The bodies carpeting the grasses of the meadow were mostly clothed in dull-colored checked cloth cloaks tucked into belts or fastened at the chest with brooches, some wearing plaids and homespun tunics and caps or headwraps of various colors and cloth. Others kept their heads bare, long hair braided or hanging loose; their loose-fitting woolen shirts or tunics and their padded or quilted jackets with deerskin coverings often worn into battle stained with blood.
Alasdair himself wore his hair long and loose, with braids at the sides to keep his vision clear in the heat of battle. His woolen tunic draped to his knees, a wide belt holding it close and rendering it less likely to be grabbed by an enemy soldier. Beneath his tunic, due to the still cool and changing weather, he wore woolen leggings. Over his calves, he sported an older, shorter pair of leggings, strapped in with strips of leather. Thick leather shoes somewhat protected his feet from sharp stones but were no match for the muddy spots and wet grass of this forsaken field on this rain-soaked morning.
He’d slipped in the mud much more than once, cursing that he would rather die from a thrust of a sword facing his enemy than a fall in the mud followed by swift decapitation by a laughing English soldier.
Alasdair saw only a few uniforms of the enemy lying amongst the dead and dying Scots who had joined in the rebellion. He breathed heavily, stumbling across the flat and boggy ground, cursing the commanders, many of whom had never fought for their lives as he and his companions, vastly outnumbered and on a poorly chosen battleground at that. This place was completely unsuitable for an attack, and only minutes after the two armies had clashed, seconds actually, Alasdair knew that all was lost.
Gazing wildly around the Drumossie Moor, he realized he couldna advance, could only defend himself against the onslaught of the English. He and the men around him, many of them shouting unintelligible words, battle cries or prayers, all mixed together, as both sides clashed. Though the enemy soldiers were better equipped, better trained, and better led.
“To the right!” he shouted, seeing an opening, a gap in the lines, perhaps a way to outflank the foe and reach the dubious shelter of a stand of trees to the southeast of the field.
His heart pounded so hard he was surprised it didn’t burst from his chest, his breath escaping now in sharp gasps, every sense highly attuned and wary. The sights and sounds, the smells of the battlefield surrounding him, wafting upward into his nostrils, forcing him to constantly reassess. The stench of unwashed bodies and fear, the metallic smell of blood, the groans of the wounded, the sight of gory wounds numbing him as he focused on one thing and one thing only.
A short distance ahead, he saw a fellow soldier named Magnus surrounded by three enemy soldiers, trapping him, cutting off escape. With a roar of fury, Alasdair rushed to his aid, arm swinging, managing to slash one of the Englishmen in the side. The soldier gaped in surprise and then collapsed, offering a slight opening for Magnus to escape but it was too little, too late, and in the next moment, Magnus was down on his knees despite Alasdair’s bellow of denial, and then Magnus lay on his stomach, a bayonet thrust through his back, pinning him to the ground.
Alasdair shouted unintelligible words, his fury prompting no more than garbled sounds from his throat as he fought his way through the masses, slashing and stabbing, knocked to the ground by hand-to-hand fighting—short swords, dirks, and axes now the weapons of choice. He continued to push his way through the battling mass of humanity, focused only on reaching the edge of the field, to gain more solid ground—ground that didn’t sink and shift beneath his feet.
Damn the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie! While the leader of the Jacobites since last summer had quickly grown in popularity with his efforts to drive the English from their beloved Scotland, it was obvious to Alasdair that the Highlanders' charge was doomed to failure, primarily because the landscape had been so poorly chosen. Before the clash of armies, the trampling of thousands of men, the knee-high grasses along the moors had wavered in the gentle, early morning breeze.
Alasdair slipped on the muddy soil and flattened himself to the ground, the rich scent of the soil spreading to his senses, making him wish more than ever to be back home on his farm, preparing for the planting season. He had joined the Jacobite supporters last summer and had, like them, dreamed of the restoration of the Stuart monarchy to the English throne. They had gathered here to fight the Duke of Cumberland and his troops, but even before they had begun, they had been doomed.
In the distance, the windswept moors were surrounded by low, rolling hills, a poor place indeed to make a last stand—no high ground, no fortifications, no hiding places. And so, it was not from lack of heart that the rebels were falling by the dozen, but a lack of experienced and common-sense leadership. Like many others, he secretly damned Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, for his lack of foresight, his lack of military experience, his complete lack of leadership in the past months.
So now Alasdair lay in the mud and watched as the soldiers commanded by Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, fell Scot after Scot, rifles popping, clouds of smoke rising, swords slashing, everywhere the screams of his fellow Highland and lowland Scots. And where were the French who had promised to support and supply the Jacobite army now? Leading up to the battle, the Jacobites had also been supported by several Irish units loyal to France, and small units of mercenaries from Germany and Austria.
But not enough. Not enough men. Not enough food. Not enough weapons.
Alasdair rose to rejoin the fight—intense, brutal, and bloody. Furious and disillusioned, he ran headlong into a trio of Englishmen of the Manchester Regiment, not caring at this particular moment whether he lived or died. His blood boiled with rage and bloodlust—and a knowledge that he had failed. They had all failed.
The Jacobites were facing a massacre, but he wouldn’t go down easy. He might die today, but better to die with his dignity than to run, his tail tucked between his legs like a beaten down dog. With another blood-curdling cry, he charged at the enemy, swinging his sword, slashing down at the man closest to him. A forearm dropped to the ground, its owner staring at his bleeding stump, then looking at Alasdair in wide-eyed horror, seconds before his head followed his arm to the soil.
He knew the battle would be lost before they even engaged, vastly outnumbered by the Sassenachs—a term he and many other Highlanders preferred, rather than calling them Englishmen. A mere thousand or so nearly starving and weakened Highlanders attempting to attack many thousands of the enemy. They swarmed over the landscape in the distance, like ants crawling from their anthill, outnumbering the Scots, it seemed to Alasdair, at least ten to one.
The Bonnie Prince had ignored warnings of obstacles, including the unsuitable, marshy ground upon which they now fought. It had been just after noon when Alasdair and his compatriots charged into battle, many of their ranks immediately decimated by a barrage of artillery, while their own did wee damage to the huge numbers of Sassenach. Sticking with tradition, the Highlanders charged at a run, directly into the lines of the enemy, their charge countered by English cannon fire, roiling canister shots, and then all resorting to bayonets and swords and, when necessary, fisticuffs and rocks.
The bloody ground slowed the advance of the Jacobites. Under withering fire, their right flank collapsed, prompting huge numbers of Scots to run, to find a better place to make a stand, but no place was to be found. Then the left flank also began to falter, and a somewhat ordered retreat had soon transformed into an overall rout.
The cannons fired, sending balls of death and destruction into the ranks of the Scots, who were more used to clannish skirmishes in hand-to-hand fighting than the organized battle formations and tactics of a mighty army. Unexpectedly, the English soldiers didn’t attack head-on with their bayonets, but rather at the exposed sides of the Scotsman to their right. It took Alasdair only seconds to notice this odd yet effective tactic, but the shouts of warning to his companions went unheeded. Now these Highlanders fought the way they had for generations, and it cost him, cost them, dearly.
Alasdair lost all track of place and time. The Scottish rebels’ offensive quickly turned into a desperate fight for survival, surrounded by soldiers, all of them with one primary objective: to live. To survive. Seconds passed like minutes, and the minutes turned into hours although he knew that couldn’t be. He slashed and stabbed and blocked, trying to look everywhere at once; the movement behind his right shoulder, the feint of a soldier to his left. He spun around, slashing his short sword sideways at waist level. He felt the sting of a blade slicing the back of his left shoulder, bit back the cry of pain, and continued to fight for his life, the screams of the men surrounding him sounding distant, as if through a tunnel.
Eyes wide, mouth open, he didn’t even hear his own roar, nor the shouts of those fighting around him, eyes wild with fear and bloodlust, but no sound save the ringing in his ears made its way to his brain. His heart pounded, fast and erratic. His brain acknowledged the heaviness in his sword arm, straining now. How long could he keep this up? Not much longer. Exhaustion tugged at his body, not just physically, but mentally as well.
With a forward thrust, the end of his sword impaled an English soldier in front of him; a soldier too young, his dreams of glory evaporating as quickly as the blood was streaming from his belly. For a moment, Alasdair felt an instant of panic when he couldn’t pull the sword from the man’s stomach, the blade caught on his spine. With a grunt, he yanked, hard, spun around, his sword dripping with blood, but too late to block the overhand blow of yet another English soldier, mouth open in a silent scream as he slashed his sword downward, prepared to cleave Alasdair’s head in two.
At the last moment, instinct took over, and Alasdair turned his shoulder toward his attacker, his shield raised in his left arm, a blocking sideways thrust from his left. He felt the sting of the blade, felt the hot trail it left as it glanced down the right side of his face. Another momentary panic, a terror deeper than he’d ever felt before raced through him. A death blow? Would he now meet his maker? Would this dreary marshy ground, this moor, be his final resting place?
Pain exploded in his head. He felt hot blood dripping into his eye, running down his cheek. He couldn’t see, couldn’t blink the blood away. He shook his head, trying to clear his vision to no avail. He teetered sideways, head down, hunching his shoulders, preparing for the blow that would separate his head from his body, but it never came. Instead he felt the hot, stabbing pain of another sword thrust into his left thigh.
Alasdair was falling, the sounds of battle undulating in his mind, wavering as he fell facedown into the mud, stunned, still waiting…
Much to his dismay, he didn’t feel a thing. Blackness enveloped the edges of his vision, urging him to yield, to allow those waves of darkness to carry him into peaceful oblivion where neither emotion nor pain existed.
The screams, the sound of rifles, the cannon fire, the shouts, the acrid stench of gunpowder fired from cannons in the distance, all slowly faded away, the warm stream of blood dripping into the rich Scottish soil beneath him as he finally succumbed…
He was on his farm, gazing over the property, the hills in the distance, the sound of his mother humming as she gathered eggs from the chickens nearby while he poured grain from a burlap sack into the trough for the horses. The plow was ready, the seeds for planting gathered in a sack as Alasdair turned to look back at the thatched roof of the small cottage where his mother turned to him and waved.
“Alasdair, ye listen to yer father now! This is yer first planting, so ye do everything he tells ye to, understand?”
“Yes, Mamma!” six-year-old Alasdair yelled back to his mother, excited for the day, anxious to show his father that he was old enough to help out on the farm.
Beyond the cottage, his father stood, hands on his hips, surveying the foundation that he had laid for their permanent home, rocks and small boulders laboriously brought to the far end of the meadow from the river below to be chiseled and formed just so as the foundation of the house developed stone by stone, a wee bit at a time. It’d taken years to get this far, Alasdair knew, his father working hard to plant his crops, to save every wee bit he could to build his family a proper home, maybe not as grandiose as the manor houses on the estates in neighboring counties, but something bigger and better than the thatched roof hut where they now lived…
Alasdair fought against the blackness wrapping him in its velvety embrace, refusing to give up, refusing to die out here on this godforsaken moor. He wanted to go home, back to the family farm, to live a simple, peaceful life. Not too much to ask, was it? He thought he had been doing the right thing, but the English always seem to win in the end.
He tried to lift himself up, to turn over, to look up into the sky, and then he noticed the quiet. An eerie silence. How long had he been here, unconscious? Minutes? Hours? Days? Nay, it couldn’t have been long. The haze finally cleared from his brain while, his face throbbing, his leg aching, he heard the moans and the shouts from a distance.
Was the battle over? He heard no cannons, no musket fire. No sounds of fighting. Just distant shouts and moans. Nearby, he heard voices. English voices. He closed his eyes, fought the pain, and lay still, playing dead, knowing that if he didn’t, he would feel a sword impaling his heart at any moment.
“What’s the word?”
The clipped English voice sounded dismayed to Alasdair’s ears.
“First count, approximately six dozen killed.”
Six dozen? Alasdair couldn’t wrap his mind around that. Only six dozen of the enemy killed? What did that mean—
“And the belligerents?”
“Over a thousand dead, but our troops are after the stragglers, so the count will increase. We’ve smashed them into oblivion,” the voice said, deep with satisfaction.
“And the Young Pretender?”
“He’s disappeared for now, but we’ll find him. Eventually. And then he’ll be made an example to these barbarians.”
The two voices drifted off. The silence interrupted occasionally by a low cry, a scream, a Scot cursing the English soldiers wandering through the battlefield, finishing off any survivors. Blackness hovered around him again, teasing him, whispering for him to let go, to allow himself to sink into oblivion…
He was older, just before he left to join the Jacobite cause. In his midtwenties, his mother dead, his father telling him not to go, the farm doing well, he should’ve listened to his father, who told him to consider that the Jacobite campaign was nothing more than a diversion that was intended to pull English troops from Europe, drawing them out of the battle against the Austrian Succession. He tried to warn him that Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise known as the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie, was only using the opportunity to prepare his own invasion, counting on the Scots to follow him in a mass uprising following his arrival in Scotland. Poor weather, poor planning, and with barely half the men he expected, early successes such as the capture of Edinburgh Castle soon led the Bonnie Prince to think he could actually invade England and attack London.
“Alasdair,” his father had warned. “Yer on a dangerous path, a fool’s path.”
The Stuarts wouldn’t regain the throne; there was little support in England, and despite French vows of support, those promises had also fallen through. Nevertheless, the Jacobites had held off English troops at Falkirk. This past winter, they had pretty much hunkered down, many beginning to wonder about their Bonnie Prince, hearing rumors that he was upset and pouting over their previous retreat at Derby. With the arrival of spring came the Bonnie Prince’s desperate insistence on action rather than invasion.
It had culminated here, on the moors to the east of Inverness, where Alasdair now lay dying.
Alasdair lay still, fighting the pain, waiting for dusk and ensuing darkness, and then he would somehow make his way off the battlefield, tend to his wounds, and God willing, he would live to return to his farm and the simple, peaceful life that he so desired.