Captain Keith Windham, wet, windblown and in a particularly foul mood, pulled his hat further down in an effort to keep the rain - no, the sleet - out of his eyes. The path was steep and rapidly becoming a rivulet, and the regiments climbing ahead of him had muddied it for yards on either side and turned it into a species of precipitous bog. Not that he could see very far in any direction. The light was failing, this late January afternoon, and the storm-clouds coming up out of the west reduced visibility still further. But General Hawley had scouts out, and it was their information that had brought the army to this steep escarpment overlooking the town; well, lessons had been learned since High Bridge. It would have been better had they reported earlier and in more detail. Still: in sequence, The Pretender's son has marched from Stirling; he's on Falkirk Muir; he's deploying at the ravine had brought them in haste from Linlithgow, to Callendar House on the edge of Falkirk, and out in the gloom and the wind to climb up to the moor.
Any satisfaction at being on the trail of the Jacobites was rapidly dissolving in the face of yet more wind and rain. True, one decisive defeat and they'd relieve Stirling Castle, and maybe even have done with this rebellion for good and for all. Thus Keith reminded himself, as he glanced back at his company, toiling unhappily behind him, and encouraged them with a well-chosen word or two.
Now they crested the slope of the escarpment, and their position was clear before them; on the lip of a small ravine, close to its debouchement as it dropped away to the valley floor behind them. Almost all the other regiments were in position, the lines stretching away into the gloom half a mile to the south. The Royals would hold the right wing; a few companies of volunteers followed them, but they could be discounted. The ravine secured them as far as possible from the fearsome Highland charge that was their most terrifying tactic.
Another gust of sleet. They'd need that security; in this weather the muskets might well hang fire, and cold fingers did not allow fast reloading in any case.
'Lieutenant Smythson, take your men to the right.' They filed off; they'd be most secure there. 'Sergeant Cooper!'
'Form ranks! Prime and load!'
They all knew what to do, but the familiar orders would serve to steady them. And they needed to be steady, in the angry wind that pounced on them from the Jacobite position, snatching at hats and wigs. The gunpowder would be damp or blown away. God, what a day to fight a battle.
His brother officers were taking up their positions, and he did likewise. Ten paces in front of his men, on the very lip of the ravine. Rocks and heather fell away before him in a slope steep as a roof. Stream at the bottom. The opposite slope rose beyond, and there, where it flattened out, were the Jacobites, forming into ragged companies, some with muskets, some with swords. A wild-looking lot -
- and some wore a tartan that he knew. The Cameron.
No matter. He'd warned Ardroy often enough.
The pause before the battle. The men were in position, muskets raised. Scarlet ranks stretching away on either hand. Evenly matched, by the looks of it. A howl of bagpipes from the opposing side rose to a crescendo. When would Hawley respond?
'FIRE!' The order echoed down the line. He bellowed it himself, and the muskets roared. That was the last moment that the battle went according to plan.
Through the whipping wind came Hawley's voice - cursing from the tone, though the words were not clear. He exchanged a look with Weatherall, the next officer up the line, who shook his head; he passed this non-information on to Smythson. Behind him, the men re-loaded - too slow! too slow! Who could blame them in this cold - Away to the left, cavalry on the move. The dragoons of Chomondley's regiment. Madness, in these conditions! Though a charge might serve as a distraction until his men were ready... Peering ahead in the sharp teeth of the wind, he saw the Jacobites, rising muskets at the ready, and when they fired in a constellation of flashes the charge broke before it reached their position. Those dragoons who were still mounted were torn down as they reached the enemy line. Keith could have told Hawley that in advance. Good God, the man was an idiot!
Now the dragoons fell back and were scrambling for safety in the floor of the ravine. It was a damned rout.
'FIRE!' Another volley from his side. Their last. There'd be no time to re-load. Across the ravine the Jacobites rose out of the heather, and here it came, the lethal Highland charge -
'Fix bayonets!' he shouted, and loosed his first pistol shot. Missed. Drew his sword. But the Jacobites were crossing his front, chasing the dragoons down the ravine, their triumphant yells rising above the noise of the storm. And a mob charged up the slope towards the Royals - what were they thinking, to attack uphill, even though the wind was at their backs? Lord George Murray must be as incompetent as Hawley - and his sergeant brought his men forward at a run and they were shoulder to shoulder and it was hack and parry and yell at the racing figures in the dusk and the sleet. He threw quick half-glances when he could at his men. Standing firm so far. For a wonder. Discipline was one thing but this was like fighting the storm itself. And they fought in its teeth for a frantic few minutes -
He was off the lip of the ravine when the surge of Jacobites tailed off. And now here came their officers by the looks of it, yelling orders and imprecations in Gaelic: but the meaning was clear enough - 'Get back here! Hold position!'
- and he was face to face with a tall figure, broadsword in hand, and though he had an opening his own sword wavered for a moment, and the point dropped just slightly. Ardroy stared at him, likewise frozen, and an instant later they were laughing at each other across the bright blades, straight into each other's eyes - but then he was gone after his rampaging clansmen, and Keith found himself looking at Ardroy's shadow, Lachlan MacMartin, whose snarl of fury was a dark mirror of Ardroy's laugh.
No hesitation here. Keith sprang towards him, sword raised for a killing stroke, but Lachlan doubled away after his master, and Keith stepped swiftly back and snatched a look at his own men. Holding position, good lads! In that moment of inattention something whistled past his head; he was ducking even as it cut the air, but stumbled and fell and the broadsword's wielder lurched past him in turn before leaping back down the ravine. Keith tottered on its brink, and dropped six feet down a peat-hag. Something smashed into his abdomen on the site of that old wound. A flood of pain. He could not even swear. A faint crackle of musket-fire down-slope, a shriek of wind. Pounding feet receding into the distance. His awareness went with them.
An unknown while later, he snarled as a hand grabbed at his shoulder. One arm went down to protect his side, even as he struggled to open his eyes. Heather scratched and dragged at his face as he turned it; smell of cold earth. Cold. He was cold. Light dazzled at his eyes, and he screwed them shut again. 'I thought it was you.'
He knew the voice and wrestled for the speaker's name. But it was his own name that came first.
'Captain Windham. Where are you hurt?' The speaker set the source of the light - a part-closed lantern, Keith realised, and where had he found that? - on a level patch of ground, then knelt swiftly beside him. 'Can you turn over? It's Ardroy.' 'I might have guessed it,' mumbled Keith. Really, was it too much to hope that he could encounter Ardroy when he wasn't already at a disadvantage?
There was a half-laugh, almost inaudible above the rising noise of the gale and the - 'Snow!' Keith added in disgust. 'What a day to fight a battle!'
'Your wits at least are as they always were, since your dislike of the Highlands is unabated.' The wind became a shriek, and Ardroy crowded close under the peat-hag, his broad shoulders under his plaid taking most of the onslaught. The lantern came closer for a moment. 'No, there's no injury to your head,' and Keith realised that his wig had gone and his own short hair was an inadequate barrier against the cold. The light moved along his body. 'No blood that I can see, though that uniform of yours will hide it.'
To prevent any closer inspection or questioning, Keith said, 'My side, here - on the site of the old wound. There is no need to look closer. It is nothing.' He paused to catch his breath. 'If you will assist me to rise, I will surrender my sword - again - or rejoin my regiment if you'll accept my parole.'
Ardroy muttered something that sounded like 'Parole be damned,' but his arm came under Keith and lifted him carefully.
A moment later Keith was slumped against Ardroy's chest, trying to grasp the shreds of his consciousness. 'Can't do it,' he mumbled.
'No matter,' said Ardroy. 'We cannot move from here now, anyway.' Close though they were, Keith could barely hear his words over the shriek of the storm. Ardroy fumbled with something high on his shoulder, and a soft, heavy warmth descended across Keith. He squinted at it. Ardroy's plaid, and its owner was tucking it around them both.
'Not necessary, sir.'
'I believe it is, Captain Windham.' Now there was a distinct note of irritated patience in Ardroy's tone.
'You have duties to attend.' Surely an officer, even of the ragtag Jacobite army, would understand this argument?
'All done. I have found my men and sent them back to Lord George. Lachlan and I were searching the field for wounded. He'll be here soon, maybe, and then we can be on our way.'
Lachlan. If he were to find them thus...
'I thank you for your assistance, Ardroy, but I will be well enough now.'
'It is January in the Highlands, sir, and you are injured. Moreover, we are in a blizzard. I have no intention of leaving you just at this present.'
'As you wish. I'm not in a position to demur.' Keith's tone was as cold as the wind itself, but a short while later, when he opened his eyes again, he found he'd turned slightly into Ardroy's warmth.
Another snow-flurry blasted its way into the ravine. He was far too glad of the warmth to protest at Ardroy's closeness, so he took the coward's way out and closed his eyes again.
Next time he raised his head, the storm was abating, apparently satisfied at having fought for the Jacobite cause. There was a cold moon showing above the head of the ravine; it illumined a landscape lightly brushed with snow. He made to sit up properly, then to stand. His bruised side made its presence felt, however, and he swore softly.
'How long..?' he asked. 'The moon's just risen.' He began to fumble for his watch, wondering whether it would still be working.
'Not more than a quarter of an hour, I guess. It was a fine blizzard, but it's passing now.'
'It's only to be expected that the weather fought on your side.' But his heart wasn't really in the complaint. Ardroy seemed to accept it as thanks, for Keith saw a nod, and a smile on the shadowy face. Keith added, 'We should go before the storm picks up again.'
'Yes. I would have had to leave you before long, so it's as well you're awake.' This was said in a completely matter-of-fact manner, and Keith accepted it as such. Duty, always. 'Can you walk?'
Keith made the attempt. 'I believe so.' He swayed a little, but nothing to speak of. 'The question is, where to?'
'Nowhere with me, Captain Windham, I assure you. We've a long way to go tonight. And so have you; I'd advise you to start immediately!' Now that the worst of that damned gale had subsided, he could hear distant cries, and one or two musket-shots. Nothing to signify. He'd likely be safe long before he reached their headquarters. 'I'll trouble you for my plaid, though;' and indeed Ardroy was shivering in his shirt and kilt.
Keith had forgotten that he still had the plaid draped cloak-wise about his shoulders. Hastily he swung it off, and Ardroy took it from him and wrapped it closely around himself. There was something to be said for such a barbaric garment, Keith realised when the cold immediately struck through his uniform coat.
They looked at each other in the moonlight. Keith said, 'I'm done with thanking you. Go on, you've a longer journey than I have.' And for all the brusqueness of his words, he found himself putting his hand out; Ardroy smiled and returned its clasp, and was gone, sure-footed as a stag, down into the ravine and up to the moor on the other side, while Keith picked his way more circumspectly downhill, with an abandoned musket as a prop. His breath snatched short now and then, as he jarred that bruising over his lowest ribs.
The snow was less than an inch thick, a bare crust over heather and boulders, pluming out from the higher rocks and clumps of heather in the wind. He glanced quickly to left and right as he went. In the faint luminosity of the moon, he could see no dead or wounded. This was one of the oddest engagements in his career; most of the fighting seemed to have taken place elsewhere than on the battlefield itself. He still had no idea who had won, and nor did he much care at the moment.
Down and down, the wind whistling high above his head now; out of the mouth of the ravine, which was strewn with the detritus of battle; so this was where Ardroy had found his lantern! And here was a cloak lying cast on the ground; he stooped with difficulty and put it on. Then he crossed the trampled and boggy ground that lay beyond, and here, he had a real stroke of luck; there were riderless horses, looking as lost and miserable as he felt, standing head-down in the rain that now plagued him anew. A few quiet words, a pat or two, and he managed to get into the saddle of a horse that was still harnessed to a gun-carriage, and cut the traces free.
So mounted, he turned east, the wind mercifully at his back now, quickly past Falkirk town which appeared from the noises within to be occupied by some at least of the Jacobite army, towards Linlithgow and the great house where the General had his headquarters. By the time he reached the sprawl of tents that covered its policies, he was marshalling a reasonably well-disciplined body of men, retreating not running; they all had much the same story to tell as him (apart from being comforted by the enemy, but then again no-one was likely to tell that tale.) And so to check on his own company, and to his hurried report to Hawley's staff in the library of the great house where he commended Sergeant Cooper, who had rallied the men after he'd fallen: and thence to the strangely-quiet dressing-station to have his ribs bound up.
The officers' mess, situated in the servants' hall, was close enough to the kitchens for the food to be decently warm, and its occupants did not seem much depleted since last night. He greeted Smythson, and Weatherall joined them too, and indeed their numbers seemed close on those of last night's meal. Conversation was subdued, though, as the officers mulled over this latest debacle.
And inevitably, while consuming his meal, a ragout of an unidentifiable meat, with a glass of inferior wine, his thoughts turned to Ardroy; who would be out there in the cold and the dark, still struggling over the windswept moor, perhaps, or already on the Roman road on his way back to Stirling. He'd have a long hard march in front of him, if he was to return to the siege tonight - and maybe another battle, too.
But he'd have the other members of his clan around him, and his foster-brothers would be close at his side, no doubt; so even if he hadn't been able to find a horse as Keith had done, the march would not be too perilous. Which brought him to the manner of his finding that horse. He was glad that Ardroy's route would not take him over that same patch of marshy ground that Keith had crossed.
For there, stuck fast in the bog, was the the greater part of the English artillery; almost as thoroughly buried as the Jacobite cannon in the earliest days of the rebellion. And at that thought, even Keith Windham could not help but be amused.