Scent of a Highland Lass – Juliana Wight

Emer stirred in her cozy bed and murmured as confused dreams were pushed away by the smell of smoke in her mouth and breath. The fumes were still thin enough to make her think they came from outside the farmhouse, but by the time she sat up and rubbed her eyes awake, the suspicion the smoke was indoors became stronger. For a moment, Emer’s mind struggled to process what to do and whom to call for help. If there was a fire in the stables, she should run and open the horses’ stall doors. If it was in the barn, the first thing to do was summon the villagers to help control any flames with buckets of water from the well. No! Dinnae be daft. I must wake Mither and Faither at once – they will ken what to do. Emer froze as her panicked thoughts were interrupted by a sinister sound. She had never heard this noise before, but she instantly recognized it-the sound of roaring flames sweeping closer. It was a hellish din, part thunder, part wailing wind, and everything to strike fear in the heart. The moonlight which flooded her bedchamber window was tinged with an evil red glare. This is nae croft fire! This is an inferno! I must raise the household-there’s nae time to lose. As she thought these words, Emer jumped up and threw an old round gown over her head, lacing up the stays at lightning speed as best she could. As she did so, she noticed the early morning chill had disappeared from the spring night, replaced by a pulsing heat that radiated from outside. She broke into a sweat, already stifled by the oppressive temperature and lack of moisture in the air.

She fumbled while pulling her stockings over her knees and tying her boots, her fingers suddenly slow and clumsy. The crackling and roaring of a huge fire sounded closer by the time Emer – now fully dressed – ran to the door and out into the farmstead cottage where she lived with her parents. The corridor seemed to stretch ahead of her like a black ribbon. Undaunted, the young woman felt her way down to her parents’ bedchamber by running her fingers against the wall. When she felt the cold iron door handle ring that opened onto her parents’ room, she twisted it and ran inside. Emer’s mother and father were still fast asleep behind the thick worsted curtains surrounding their bed. “Mither! Faither! Wake up! There’s a fire in the village – maybe even next door – and it sounds as though it’s coming this way!” Emer tore open the heavy drapes and shook her mother by the shoulder hard. When her mother stirred awake and sat up, Emer ran to the window casement and flung open the shutters. The ominous red glow and thunderous crackling flooded into the room. When she turned around, her mother and father were dressing hurriedly, stuffing their nightgowns into their clothing with no thought to neatness.

“Emer, go to the stables, take Bessie, and ride to the well. If the water has gone or the villagers dinnae need yer help, ride yer poor horse into the fields and stay there ‘til we join ye.” Her mother took her by the shoulders before Emer could rush to do her bidding, “Promise me, child, ye will obey me and do this with nae questions,” her mother swallowed convulsively and gave her daughter a hug, “Promet-moi !” In her terror, Emer’s mother had reverted to the language of her home country, France. Emer nodded and gave her mother another hug, “I promise ye, Mither. See ye in the fields anon.” She left her parents’ bedchamber with one backward glance. Her father was stuffing a pouch of gold into his jerkin pocket, and her mother was throwing her few pieces of jewelry and trinkets into a sack. Emer shouted above the roar of the flames, “I will meet ye in the fields, Mither and Faither! Leave the gold-’tis too late!” The roof was creaking, and the whole house seemed to be unnaturally hot. She turned, ran down the stairs now made visible by a sickly orange glimmer, and made her way to the stables. All the horses had kicked open their stall doors and run out into the yard.

Emer would have been in danger of being knocked down by the panicking animals in the dark if the licking flames had not lit up the sky so brightly it resembled daytime. She ran to Bessie’s stall and found her palfrey whinnying and stamping the floor in fright. All in a rush, she threw the blanket and saddle over the poor beast, placed the bit and bridle over her head, and rode her out into the yard. It was not a moment too soon. The blaze had already jumped from the blacksmith’s roof onto the farmhouse. Black smoke billowed from the slate, and flames consumed the timber. Emer was torn between running back inside to fetch her parents away and obeying her mother’s promise. Satisfied her mother and father would have collected their belongings together by now, Emer rode on toward the village square water well. Finding a mad crowd of frantic villagers busy with buckets and pulleys milling around the well, Emer knew there was nothing else she could do except ride to the fields and wait. Warm air blasted her back as Bessie trotted away down the rutted track leading to the spring wheat fields.

She could not stop herself from glancing over her shoulder all the time, hoping to see the silhouette of her parents following behind. Emer had been sitting in the wheat fields for hours. The sun had risen over the Highland mountains to reveal a scene that seemed to come from a nightmare. Thick smoke wafted from the village roofs and spires, blocking out any light the sun rays could hope to give. Instead, the early morning light filtered through the toxic vapors, tinting the countryside a cold, grey hue. Occasionally, a few bedraggled villagers would make their way to the field clearing close to where Emer sat waiting, only to do the same thing; they would wrap clan plaids around their shoulders and turn to watch the smoke rising into the sky. The sound of flames had died down, and when Emer asked the survivors if this was because the fire was out, they would shake their heads sorrowfully, “ ‘Tis nae ‘cause the fire has been put out, Emer lass, ‘tis ‘cause the flames have consumed everything worth burning.” Surprisingly few villagers joined Emer and the others, and those who did were mainly women, small children, and bairns. “Where’s me mither and faither, do ye ken? Did ye see them on the road?” But all of Emer’s questions were in vain and simply echoed back at her by the other folk. A feeling of dread began to creep into Emer’s heart; could it be she had the last glimpse of her parents as they rushed around their bedchamber, trying to salvage their goods and trinkets? A young sexton, still not old enough to shave, rode up the field paths toward the cluster of womenfolk and children.

His face, underneath the layer of soot, was ashen and distraught. He dismounted from the horse he was riding bareback and approached the small crowd reluctantly. “I was sent here to care for ye, all the rest having gone to the chapel and hall to rescue what they could, but it was too late. The roof collapsed, and…,” Many wails of misery and shock rose from the women. The children, too young and confused to understand the enormity of what the sexton was saying, looked bewildered. Emer shot up from where she had been sitting on the ground with one of the women’s children on her lap, “Were me mither and faither amongst them, Ernest? Did ye see them go in?” Ernest shook his head, not willing to give her hope, “The farmhouse roof was one of the first to fall, Emer. If yer parents were still inside…,” Emer did not wait to hear what the sexton said next; she was already running toward Bessie. After urging the palfrey into a fast trot along the muddy road, she entered the smoldering ruins of the once-thriving and vibrant little village of Nethy. An eerie silence had replaced the roar of flames. Only the steady drip-drip of water could be heard from a roof spout; an abandoned bucket lay next to the well in the empty village square.

Emer could not stop her knees from shaking but rode past the well and onto the farmhouse. It looked more like a skeleton than the welcoming home where she had spent the last one-and-twenty years of her life. She dismounted and then stopped. Whatever was waiting for her inside, she had no desire to see. Everything was ash and ruin, and somewhere amongst it lay the bodies of her beloved mother and father. The ground seemed to rush up to greet her as Emer fell down in a dead faint. “Where will ye go, Emer?” Ernest, the sexton, asked her. It was he who had found her lying unconscious amidst the farmhouse wreckage. Emer shook her head, still in shock as she realized she only had the clothing in which she stood, and her wee palfrey horse left. Farmhands and clan folk from other parts of the Cairngorm mountains had come to help.

They brought food and offered shelter. A few men had gone to pick over the piles of rubble. One of them came up to Emer and Ernest now. “Ye’re the lass from the farmhouse, are ye nae?” When he saw Emer nod her head, he held out a small sack to her, “We found yer faither’s gold and a few of yer mither’s trinkets next to their bodies. The pouch was burned away to ash, but the sovereigns are only scorched. They must’ve protected the meager possessions with their bodies,” he paused as Emer flinched and closed her eyes as though someone had burned her, “A thousand pardons for giving ye more pain, lass. I’ve put the gold into a wee sack…, it will help ye start yer life anew-that’s what yer mither and faither would’ve wanted.” Emer took the sack and stared at it uncomprehendingly. Her life had changed so fast and so dreadfully in the last few hours, she could not even focus on basic actions. The coins clinked when she placed the bag on the ground.

“Where will ye go, Emer?” Ernest asked kindly, “or would ye like me to go ask one of our clan folk for shelter?” Those words managed to filter through to Emer’s mind. She sat up and looked around for Bessie. “I must go tell me sister Davinia about what has happened. She will offer me refuge at Laird Maclachlan’s castle.” “Will ye ride to Maclachlan Castle all on yer own?” Ernest was surprised. Emer might be a farmer’s daughter, but the Wylie family could trace their ancestry back hundreds of years and were as well-bred as any noble laird when it came to a good family name. A beautiful maiden riding through the mountains on her own would cause more than a few heads to turn in amazement. Because no one, least of all the youthful sexton, could deny Emer’s charms. In a village where most of the women were blue-eyed and fair of hair, Emer’s coloring not only set her apart but gave her an exotic distinction. Her mother had come from across the Germane Sea, accompanying her family on a trading expedition to the Cairngorms.

When they had reached Nethy, the young Marie Bourgine had taken one look at the tall, strong, red-haired Farmer Wylie and lost her heart forever. Fortunately, the attraction was mutual, and the merchant had returned to France without his dark-haired, black-eyed daughter. Emer had received a little of both her parents’ coloring. Her hair was somewhere betwixt her mother’s dark locks and her father’s russet ones, with the ability to turn dusky black in the dark and then flame red in the sun. It was only when she was indoors during the day her hair appeared an ordinary brunette hue. Emer also had her mother’s dark brown eyes, and yet somehow, they could seem clear and light when she experienced strong emotion. She was beyond feeling anything except shock and horror the day after the fire. Emer wiped her tear-stained face with a trembling hand and stood up with more resolution than she felt inside. The strength and courage of her Highland ancestors would have to sustain her until she reached Maclachlan Castle, where her sister, Davinia, was employed as a maid. “Aye, Ernest, I leave today for Maclachlan Castle.

It’s what me parents would’ve wanted.” And on those words, Emer mounted her little palfrey and rode away.


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