The Devil’s Assembly – chapter 1

Unedited and raw, this is from my current WIP

Chapter One

Monday 23rd May 1746

“Aye, well it looks as though we’ll no’ be getting our heads laid down in a cosy bed the night after all.” The speaker, Hamish McLeod, a heavily bearded man of middle age dressed in the garb of a Highlander, turned to face the young woman who lay alongside him among the heather of a hillside twenty miles south-east of Fort William. “If I’m any judge,” he added quietly, “the man on that fine white horse is the Devil himself.”

Her dark narrowed eyes dangerously as she stared with utter hatred towards the redcoated officer at the head of thirty infantrymen as they fanned out to surround the lonely croft she and the party of fugitives had been heading for. Had they not been forced to take a detour due to a collapsed bridge over a narrow gorge they would already have been resting in the whitewashed cottage standing alone on the open moorland below. “So that is Captain Alisdair Mackenzie then?” she said, the loathing plain in her educated voice. She may be dressed in the simple garb of a Highland woman but her accent and bearing marked her out as lady of quality.

“Aye, that’s him, m’lady Murray,” her companion replied as he gestured for the half dozen heavily armed men to sink deeper into the cover of the heather. “Give thanks to our Lady Mary and all the saints that we were late getting here. If we had made better time, we’d be down there caught like rabbits in a snare.”

“Is it just simple chance that has brought that creature here?” she pondered aloud. She knew there was a price on her head. £30 for whoever delivered her, Lady Margaret Murray into the clutches of the hated British. She doubted if many of her former friends and acquaintances would recognise her if they passed her in the street these days. Long gone were the days when she been at the very centre of Jacobite high society. The balls held in the Royal palace of Holyrood House at the foot of the Mile in Edinburgh when the cause had been in all its glory were but a distant memory now. She had been at the very heart of things in those glorious days when it seemed that the restoration of Britain’s true monarch was only days away. The dreams of Restoration had withered and died on the long retreat to Scotland from Derby. Only 150 miles had stood between an undefeated army of loyal Highland warriors and London but all were gone now. Gone too were the beautiful gowns and dancing slippers she had worn at Royal balls and social gatherings. Now it was rough, homespun dresses and stout leather brogues she wore. Her long hair of the deepest black, once artfully crafted into the latest fashion with flowers and ribbons entwined, was now filthy, lank and held back from her thin face by a simple ribbon of cloth cut from a dead man’s shirt. She was tired, dirty, hungry and slowly falling ill with a chest infection exacerbated by too many nights sleeping under the stars or in byres. Such had her life become since that fateful day on Drumossie Moor where the hopes of the Jacobite cause had finally fallen before the cannon, muskets and bayonets of the British Army. She had escaped the field of battle only to be forced to take to the hills as the victorious redcoats spread out across the Highlands on the hunt for all those they considered worthy of special attention. Her role as wife to Prince Charles Edward Stewart’s private secretary, and her self-appointed role to act as recruiting sergeant for the cause, had marked her as an enemy of King George. Now her husband was a prisoner, rumoured to be busily betraying his former comrades to save his own skin. She had heard these rumours but could not accept them as fact. So many lies had already been spoken by the British that she would not trust them if they said the sky was blue and the grass was green.

The man by her side shrugged. “There’s a chance it is simple coincidence, aye, but more likely, they knew where to come looking for you, m’lady.”

“Who knew where we would be?” she hissed bitterly. “Surely it was only those here?”

“Secrets are like water in a broken bucket,” Hamish grumbled in reply. “Always pouring out when you don’t want them to. Since we left Kingussie and took to the hills, we’ve passed a dozen other groups of men trying to get home from the war. We’ve all told each other which houses are safe to visit and where we can find shelter. Anyone of them could have let slip that we would likely end up here.”

“Yes, but how could this creature Mackenzie know that it was today we were due to arrive?”

“M’lady, probably because the man is the devil incarnate…” His words died away as he pointed down towards the scene outside the croft several hundred yards below them. The redcoated infantry had forced the family who lived there out into the early evening sunshine and roughly lined them up against the wall. Captain Mackenize could be seen on his white horse as he slowly rode back and forth before the family, clearly addressing the two men, four women and half dozen children who did their best to stare defiantly back at his words and questions.

“What is he doing?” Margaret Murray asked as a feeling of sick apprehension poisoned her stomach.

“You’ve heard the stories about him, have you not?” her companion replied grimly. “He is likely demanding they tell him where you are.”

“But how can they answer that question? They don’t know that I am part of this party. He is terrorising those poor people for no good reason. Surely he cannot presume to punish them for being unable to answer a question when it is impossible to do so?”

“There is a reason why we Gaels call that man the Devil in Red.”

“Surely he cannot mean to commit an outrage against those poor people? They have done nothing wrong.”

“If Captain Mackenzie has heard tell that they have been offering fugitives a bed for the night, then that is reason enough for him to display his brand of British justice. God knows he has done worse to others simply because he wanted to see someone die. Men hanged for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Homes burned down, cattle stolen, women raped. Mackenzie knows no bounds of moral conduct. His word is law. He is judge, jury and executioner now. And he is doing it all in the name of his king. Aye, a true British officer and gentleman!”

She shook her head in frustrated anger. “Give me your musket,” she demanded. “I’ll shoot the dog down and put an end to him once and for all.”

“He’s too far away, M’lady,” he answered gently. “All you would do is bring us to his attention and we are badly outgunned. As much as it pains me to say this, we can do nothing but pray that that creature leaves the family in peace. That is all we can do.”

Margaret, her fists clenched in frustration, seethed with barely contained fury as she forced herself to watch the drama unfolding below her. The infantry who had earlier surrounded the croft had now gathered together to watch the family. Some entered the house and were obviously ransacking it as they emerged displaying the stolen property like trophies. Captain Mackenzie made no move to stop them as bedding, furniture and food were all taken to be placed on a wagon which had accompanied them. She watched as he rode forward until he was only a few feet from the helpless souls whose fate he held in the palm of his hand. A gasp escaped from between her lips as a shot suddenly rang and one of the women pitched headlong to the turf while children wailed and fell to their knees around the body.

“He’s killed her!” she uttered in disbelief. “He just murdered a woman in cold blood in front of her very children!”

“The Devil in Red,” the warrior by her side growled. “You had best look away, Mistress Murray. Things will only get worse now.”

“Worse? How can they get worse?”

He laid a comforting hand on her arm to feel it shaking with anger, fear and horror. “He still has the rest of the family to amuse himself with,” he said darkly.

redcoat10 It was more a determination to witness the man’s depravity to further stoke her hatred of the British that made Margaret force herself to watch as a dozen infantrymen formed themselves into a line before the grieving family. Mackenzie rode his white horse with utter nonchalance to one side and raised an arm.

“Please, Mistress,” her companion urged her. “Do not look,”

She could only shake her head then stifle a scream as the arm fell and the muskets roared. In utter horror she watched the family be smashed from their feet as the heavy musket-balls stole their lives away. As tears came to her dark eyes she watched Captain Mackenzie lay a comforting hand on the neck of his horse. His concern for his mount far outweighed his concern for the lives of the women and children he had just destroyed.

“They missed a bairn,” one of the other warriors hissed. “Look at him run. Go on, boy, run!” he urged the small figure who had risen from the pile of corpses and now ran for his life. The redcoats nearby made no attempt to stop him, it was clear they were too busy laughing to do anything else allowing their officer to nudge his horse into an easy canter in pursuit of the young boy.

“Do something to help!” Margaret all but shouted, her fist beating the shoulder of the man by her side. “For the love of God, help the child!”

He chewed his lip, his brow furrowed deeply as he contemplated what he could possibly do that would be of any use. With a muttered curse he signalled for two of his men to join him while Margaret willed Mackenzie’s horse to fall and prayed for the boy to get to safety. Even as the trio of Jacobites began to rise from the heather they knew it was already too late. The redcoated officer had overtaken the child and forced him to a halt. It was clear he was speaking to the helpless figure who had fallen to his knees and wept for his slaughtered family.

“He’s going to kill that child, isn’t he?” Margaret asked in an empty voice. Her companion could only nod as he, and the others, sank back into the cover of the heather and bracken. After only a moment Mackenzie could be seen leaning down from the saddle, his arm outstretched as though to offer the hand of friendship. When the weeping child refused it his rolling shoulders, even at this distance, revealed his laughter. Seconds later his pistol barked again and the child was gone.

“Monster!” Margaret spat. “They are all monsters!” Her eyes blazed with the light of battle as she rounded on her companions. “Are you men at all?” she said furiously. “How can you let this go unpunished? Our countrymen and women are murdered before our eyes and you sit here and do nothing! If you lack the courage to fight them, someone give me a musket and I’ll do it myself. I won’t allow this crime to go unavenged.”

The men looked uncertainly towards their leader who gave a helpless shrug. Below them thick smoke had begun to billow from the croft as the soldiers set fire to everything that would burn. With a resigned shake of his head he finally said, “You’ll be the death of all us, Mistress Murray, but you are right. We have to strike back at Mackenzie. Not here though. We would be shot down before we had the chance to get him.”

“Where then?” she demanded angrily.

He ran a scarred hand through his beard as his mind worked. “I have it,” he said grimly. “They will likely head back towards Fort William now. They must stick to the track with that wagon they use to carry away their plunder. We can move over the hills to get ahead of them. We cannot beat them in open battle, but we can give them a bloody nose from ambuscade, and that is just what we shall do.”

Finally Lady Margaret Murray could allow herself to smile. It was a smile bereft of joy for it held only the promise of death for Captain Alisdair Mackenzie. “Someone fetch me a spare musket, I need it loaded for I am going to put a shot through that villain’s black heart!”

 

*          *          *

 

Two hours later as the sun slowly sank behind the towering mountains to the west, the small party of Jacobites burrowed down among the rocks and broom atop a small hill fringing the narrow track that Mackenzie and his men must travel. Already they could be heard singing a crude song as they celebrated the day’s events. It was clear that whisky and ale had been among their stolen booty and this heartless killer of women and children was now allowing his minions to make merry. Lady Margaret listened to them sing and wondered whether they were trying drown their consciences in liquor. She doubted it. More likely their hearts were as equally tarnished and without any human pity as the man who commanded them. As the British came into sight she could finally see the face of the man she already loathed with every fibre of her body. He was not what she expected. Mackenzie was no more than thirty years of age, well formed with an athletic build and broad shoulders. This monster had a very human face, darkly handsome with wideset eyes and a mouth lifted into a pleasant smile as he encouraged his men to sing. It was only the knowledge of what lay beneath that seemingly human exterior that steeled her nerves to act as assassin.

The road ran less than seventy feet below where they lay and drawing the butt of the musket firmly into her shoulder, she sighted down the long barrel at the smiling face.

“Mind, aim low, for the gun will kick,” the bearded figure instructed her. “We’ll only have time to fire once so make sure it counts.” She gave a tight nod but did as he said. Moving the barrel down to aim at his stomach as he drew nearer with every second. “And wait until I fire first,” he added. “We need them where they are most vulnerable to our shot.”

With clammy hands and her heartrate thundering painfully in her chest she felt sick to her stomach with anticipation. Her whole body seemed to shake as she swallowed again and again in an attempt to soothe her scattered nerves. Almost distantly she was aware of her companion telling all to make ready while the enemy were now almost directly below them.

“FIRE!” he bellowed. His gun roared out as his shot sent one redcoated soldier tumbling to the track. The other Highlanders fired as one and several other infantrymen cried out as the heavy balls tore through their bodies. Lady Margaret’s finger had frozen for an instant as she flinched at the explosion of noise and smoke. Below her she saw Captain Mackenzie’s eyes stare up at her in complete shock. For an endless second their faces were locked upon one another before she regained control of her body. “Die!” she spat, and jerked the trigger.

The recoil of the gun was sufficient to send her tumbling backwards from where she knelt and forced her to drop the gun in pain and surprise. Ignoring the throbbing from her abused shoulder she threw her eyes back towards the track to see Mackenzie lying trapped below the body of his horse. He screamed out orders to return fire even as he tried to extricate himself from beneath the corpse of his mount.

“I killed his horse,” Lady Margaret exclaimed in horror. “It was meant to be him I killed, not his poor horse.”

“Never mind his bloody horse,” the bearded Highlander shouted as he grabbed her arm and pulled her away. “We need to get out of here before they get organised enough to come up here and have their revenge.”

Numbly she allowed herself to be half-led, half-dragged through a narrow spur in the rocks behind them and then in a reckless race through the pine trees beyond. All the while every ear was turned for any sound of pursuit. Although none could be heard, it was several miles later before the exhausted party could finally rest as night began to fall in earnest, in a small cave deep in the depths of a sheltered glen far from the scene of the ambush.

“We’ll be safe enough here, Lady Murray,” Hamish said as he gathered twigs to build a small fire. “The redcoats won’t come wandering after us in the dark. We can rest only a few hours though. No doubt they’ll be hot on our trail come the morning. I want to make sure that we put a dozen miles between us and them before then.”

Lady Margaret nodded as exhaustion crushed down upon her. Her chest felt like it was tearing itself apart as a hacking cough tore through her. Gasping for air she accepted the waterskin Hamish offered her. The cold water eased the cough for the moment as she said, “I should have killed him.”

“Ach, it wasn’t his time, that’s all. Never fear though, Mistress. His time will come. In any case we did send at least six of his men back to Hell from whence they came.” Hamish offered her a kind smile. “You did well today. You have the heart of a warrior even if you are a Lowlander, but I think that it might be time for you to think about returning to your own land now.”

“Never!” she responded hotly. “This is my land.”

He nodded. “Aye that it is, lass, but you weren’t made for this life. God knows we find it hard enough at times, far less a fine lady such as yourself. No, you have played your role in this war. We are defeated. The Prince is in the heather and will soon fly off back to France. I think we must look to find means to get you aboard ship as well. Scotland is getting too risky for you. Mackenzie and his kind will not rest until they see you on the gallows. In any case, you need a warm bed and a doctor. All these nights sleeping rough have taken their toll on you.” He knelt closer to add in a whisper, “and this life is doing nothing for the bairn growing in your belly either. If you won’t seek escape for your own sake, do it for your child.”

“You knew?” she asked in surprise.

“Aye, I might be just an auld man, Mistress Murray,” he smiled, “but even auld men have eyes in their head. Now rest. We have an early start and we need to get you safe to France.”

She gave him the merest hint of a smile. “I won’t be leaving Scotland until I see that man dead!” she vowed. The look in her dark eyes was confirmation of her determination. “Whatever it takes, Hamish, I’ll make sure he draws his last breath before I seek exile.”

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