Promise of a Highland Rose – Ann Marie Scott

Clyde Munro was not the kind of boy to surrender easily. Even at a tender age, he was as strong as many older boys, and could wield a wooden sword well enough to beat most of them into submission. He was sturdily built and strong for his age, and he already regarded himself as the laird of Rosnablane Castle, even at the tender age of seven. His father, of course, was the real laird, but he was a weak character and did not do much in the way of managing his land and taking care of his tenants. That was done by his very capable estate manager, Jimmy McMahon, and Clyde loved to go out on the occasional ride with the older man, making the acquaintance of all the common people who would soon come to love him. Clyde preferred the company of the dirty, cheeky village boys, and the sons of servants, with whom he could wrestle, roll in the mud, and play skittles, to the spoiled sons of lairds. Everyone could see that he was going to be a man’s man, as tough and unyielding as an armor plate, and just as protective. If Clyde had one weakness, it was his mother, whom he adored. She was his guardian, his playmate, and the center of his life. He loved her completely. One day, when he was only five years old, he asked her to marry him when he grew up. She laughed, then took him onto her lap and tenderly explained why sons could not marry their mothers. “But when you are a grown man,” she explained, “you will meet a beautiful lady and marry her. Then she will be your wife, and you will have children of your own. And I promise that you will love them as much as I love you.

” “And will they call me Da?” he asked innocently, his green eyes alight with wonder. “Indeed they will,” his mother replied, kissing his forehead and smiling. Now that he was seven years old, Clyde could see that Lady May Munro, the person who was the foundation of his world and his reason for living, was slipping away from him. He did not entirely understand what death meant, but he knew that he would not see his mother again for a long time, and it would be in a place called heaven, where all the good people went when they died. Now he was sitting by her bedside, watching a dreadful fever consume her. Her flushed face was shining with sweat, and she was moaning with pain and mumbling incoherently. Clyde was puzzled; this was not the Mammy he knew. The healer tipped some evilsmelling brew into her mouth, but she spluttered and spat it out, so Clyde went around the bed and took the cup from the woman’s hands, then put it to May’s lips. “Drink it, Mammy,” he said in his firmest, sternest voice. “It will make you better.

” May looked at Clyde and managed a tiny smile, then the healer propped up her head while Clyde tipped the medicine into his mother’s mouth in tiny drops so that she could swallow it more easily. It took a while, but eventually, the cup was drained, and May laid her head back on the pillow again. She took Clyde’s hand in her own, and he noticed how damp and hot it was compared to his. His mother’s eyes were filled with tears, and he wondered if he had done something to upset her. “Don’t cry, Mammy,” he said softly. “I am sorry for breaking the vase that Da gave you. I will not be so clumsy again.” “Oh, my little darling,” May said sadly. “You have done nothing to upset me. I can always get another vase, but I cannot ever get a more loving and caring son as you.

I am crying because I will be leaving you soon. Not because I want to, but because God is calling me to come to him.” “To heaven?” Clyde asked. “Yes, my love,” she whispered, kissing his hand. “I will see you there, but not for a very long time. First, you must grow up and become a big, strong man. Then you must take a wife and have children. You must watch them grow up and have children of their own. Then you can come and see me.” “But Mammy, that will be a very long time,” he protested.

“I know, Clyde,” she said sadly, “but I can do nothing about that. In time you will understand. I promise.” Then her eyes fluttered closed, and she was asleep. Clyde sat by her bed for a long time, watching her, but she did not wake up again. Two days later, he was at her bedside again with his father, Donald Munro, as May drew her last breath and left them forever. “Has she gone to heaven now, Da?” Clyde asked. “Aye, Son,” Donald said hoarsely. “She is at peace with God and the angels. She is healthy and well again and looking down on us with perfect love.

” He was trying to smile through his tears, but they were raining down his face unchecked, and he could not stop them. Clyde put his arms around his father’s waist and burst into tears, and in another moment, so did Donald. Clyde sat silently through the funeral Mass, too sad to even murmur his prayers or wipe away the tears that were running unchecked down his cheeks. He could not bear the thought of his beloved mother lying in a wooden box, unable to move. As well as his sadness, Clyde was filled with anger. How could she leave him, her only child, alone like this? He still had his father, of course, but he did not have her tenderness, and he had never told Clyde he loved him. Mammy had no right to leave him alone like this. Who would love him now? Now, as he watched the coffin being lowered into the grave, he had to be held back from jumping in with it, because he simply could not bear the thought of his mother trapped under the earth in the silent darkness. That was when his heart shattered. C 1 ora Henderson was trembling with fear as she awaited the arrival of the troops returning from the battlefield.

She knew within herself that it had ended badly, and something deep in her heart told her that her father, Laird Malcolm Henderson, was not coming back alive. The English had been their enemy since time immemorial, but recently they had increased their forays onto Henderson land. The tenant farmers had been harassed, robbed, and some even murdered. It had to stop. Now, however, Cora had other things to worry about. The soldiers were trooping in, some unharmed, some limping, and some walking with the aid of their fellows. Then, after all of them had safely entered the castle precincts, a cart rumbled in, pulled very slowly by two tired horses, carrying a grim cargo. This was the wagon that bore the bodies of the slain, and Cora knew without looking that her father was one of them. As she moved forward to meet the captain of the Guard, Samuel McGillvary, she took a long look at his grim face. “Did he suffer?” she asked bluntly.

McGillvary looked surprised. “No, milady,” he replied. “He was killed as soon as we got ontae the field o’ battle. His horse reared up, an’ he fell off an’ hit his head hard on the ground. As he lay there, an English soldier stabbed him through the heart, but it was quick. I am that sorry, milady.” “Thank you, Samuel,” she replied quietly. “Where is his body?” The captain drew Cora over to the cart, and had two of the other guards lift her father’s body down and place it on the floor. She knelt down beside him and put her hand on his forehead. It was still warm, and he looked more peaceful than she had ever seen him in his life before.

He still wore his hardened leather jerkin, but it had not been enough to turn away the blade of a heavy broadsword. She kissed his forehead, then his lips, and looked up at Samuel. “Take him to his chamber,” she ordered. “I will send the village ladies to lay him and all the others out for burial.” Cora felt nothing as she watched the men obey her orders, and she spent a long time tending to the wounded, ordering food to be prepared, and writing messages to allies in the area. She carried out her duties almost unconsciously, as if her mind was somewhere else and her body was moving of its own volition. After a while, Hester, her maid, came to bring her a glass of ale, looking concerned at Cora’s white face and dry eyes. She had seen that look many times; her mistress was in shock, a state wherein she could keep on doing what had to be done without feeling anything. However, as soon as she stopped to rest, it would all come flooding out, and God help poor Cora then. “Milady,” she said anxiously, “come an’ eat.

Ye must keep yer strength up.” “I cannot eat at the moment, Hester,” Cora replied irritably. “I am not hungry, and I have too much to do.” “I will get ye somethin’ tae nibble,” Hester said determinedly as she walked away. She came back a few moments later with a plate of oatcakes, a wedge of cheese, and a cup of ale, then set it down at Cora’s elbow. Seeing that she was trembling, Hester brought a blanket to drape around her shoulders, then left her. Cora, still writing, hardly noticed. When she had finished penning the last missive, Cora sat back and sighed, then took stock of all the activity around her. It was like a scene from an artist’s vision of hell. There was blood all over the floor, and she could smell vomit and hear the screams of the wounded, some of whom she had bandaged herself.

Absently, she remembered Hester’s orders to eat, and stuffed the oatcakes and cheese into her mouth without tasting anything. “Time tae rest, milady,” Hester said firmly, pinning her mistress with her bright blue-eyed stare as she tried to lead her away. “Not yet, Hester,” Cora replied, then strode away from her maid to meet the stern-faced clan elders who had come to visit her. Cora knew that she looked dreadful; her kirtle was smeared with blood and dirt, the hem of her skirt was torn, and her hair was a leafstrewn tangle. “Forgive my appearance, gentlemen,” she sighed. “I have been helping the men.” “Milady,” John Henderson, a man she had known from childhood and almost regarded as an uncle, came forward to greet her, stretching out his hands to grasp hers. “Your appearance does you honor at a time like this, since we can see that you have been tending to the wounded. I am so sorry for your loss, milady. Your father was such a good man.

” His deep voice was sincere as he looked at her; Malcolm had been like a brother to him. “Thank you, M’Laird,” she said wearily, only just realizing how tired she was. A headache was beginning to hammer her forehead, but she greeted her other guests, Lairds McKenzie and an elder of the Adamson clan, Glen Adamson, with painful courtesy. She led them into the biggest of their three parlors, where they sat down with a glass of whiskey each; then, she addressed them in a tired voice. “I have ordered dinner for everyone,” she informed them. “I hope you will stay and enjoy my hospitality overnight. Do you have news for me?” The men exchanged glances. “Yes, we do, milady,” John Henderson replied, his brown eyes soft with sympathy as he gazed at her. “The English have joined with a few rebels of the lowest sort and are wreaking havoc everywhere. They seem to be doing it for sport more than anything else, since very little livestock has been harmed, but they are burning houses and raping women.

We need to protect you, milady. You are not safe here.” “But I have my garrison,” Cora protested. “They were loyal to my father, and they will be loyal to me.” Adamson sighed. He was older than the others and carried an air of wisdom and authority about with him. “Milady, you do not understand,” he said gently. “You are a woman on her own, and much of your garrison has been killed. It was small already, but it is much smaller now. You have no father and no close male relatives who can inherit this estate.

Unless you marry, you have no legal status. The property could be besieged or overrun or even repossessed by the Crown. You need to wed, and quickly. You may last on your own for a few weeks at most, since you have allies to come to your aid, but we have our own lands to look after. I have several stout young men of good character in my clan who would consider it an honor to wed you, and I beg you to consider them.” “Thank you,” Cora murmured faintly. She was saved from saying any more by the arrival of a maid who announced that dinner was served. Cora looked at the juicy haunch of venison with accompanying vegetables, cheese, and fruit without any sense of anticipation at all. She loaded a small amount of the delicious food onto her plate and picked at it while the others ate heartily and complimented her on her excellent choice of wine. She smiled wanly and thanked them, but in truth, she would rather have been asleep, to wake up and find that this had all been a bad dream.

“Milady,” Laird McKenzie said at last as he wiped his lips, “thank you. You keep an excellent table, but that is not what we are here to discuss. You have not answered our question. May we bring the young men to meet you?” Cora sighed heavily. “M’Lairds, as you can see, I am very, very tired. It has been one of the worst days I have ever lived through, and I need to rest and begin to mourn my father. I will have guest rooms prepared for you. Then I can sleep on this problem and we can talk further in the morning.” “You are right, milady,” Laird McKenzie agreed. “I have seen your maid floating around looking anxiously at you.

Let her tend to you, and we can talk further then.” Cora took her leave after seeing to her guests’ comfort, then she climbed the stairs to her chamber to find Hester standing at the door. As soon as she saw her mistress, she could tell that the shock had worn off. She ushered Cora into her bedroom and wrapped her arms around her mistress, a liberty she only took when Cora was particularly upset. They had known each other since Cora was twelve, so there were no secrets between them. Hester was the one person to whom she could pour out all her secrets. “Shhh…there, there, milady,” she said soothingly as Cora burst into tears. Cora felt as though a huge weight had suddenly dropped on her from out of the sky. Grief, anger, hopelessness, and misery assaulted her all at once, their pressure forcing her down to the floor where she wailed, wept, and finally screamed out her pain and rage. She felt Hester stroking her hair and saying soft words of comfort, but she hardly heard them.

All she could hear was her father’s gruff voice the last time she saw him, and all she could see was his kindly face with the dark blue eyes that were so like her own. “Take care, wee one,” he had said. “Hold the fort ’til I get back!” Then he had kissed and hugged her before riding out at the head of the garrison to meet the enemy. She should have stopped him. Somehow she should have found a way to stop him from going to his death. “This is my fault, Hester,” she whispered. “I should never have let him leave.” “What are ye goin’ on about, milady?” Hester asked, her voice high with disbelief. She raised Cora to her feet, then shook her gently by the shoulders. “Now listen tae me, milady.

There is nothin’—nothin’—at a’ that ye could have done tae stop yer da fae leavin’. He wanted tae protect ye, an’ he did. His forces killed many o’ the enemy. There is no blame on ye, hen. The blame is on the English, an’ them alone. Do ye hear me?” “Yes, Hester, I do, but I cannot help feeling guilty.” Cora shook her head and buried her face in her hands. “I was in this fortified castle, and my father was out there giving his life for me.” “No’ just for ye, hen.” Hester’s voice was firm, and she frowned grimly as she took off her mistress’s clothes and helped her into her warm scented bath.

“For everybody on the estate, an’ I am willin’ tae wager that many families are alive tonight because o’ him. Now stop these foolish thoughts. I will get ye some valerian tea so ye can sleep, an’ I will lie on my cot beside ye so that ye can call me if ye need anythin’.” Cora nodded and submitted to her maid’s ministrations without a murmur of protest. She was too tired and sad to care about anything. She swallowed the valerian tea without tasting it, and allowed herself to be tucked into bed like a child. Before too long, the tea and her own exhaustion took their toll, and she drifted off into a nightmare-plagued sleep.

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