Chapter One


The sun begins to set over the great city of Edinburgh. Long shadows creep down the Royal Mile from the tip of Castle Rock, and crude street lamps are quickly lit. The gloom of the numerous smoke stacks and pungent coal-vapor sting will soon render the streets even more oppressive. Trader's booths are locked and dragged away into stone closes. Peddlers bundle their goods and shuffle off to their secluded hovels and hungry families. Dirty, painted women stir to somnambulistic life, and with a cry of "Gardy Loo!" watery filth is thrown from the windows of towering tenements. Out into the streets and onto the heads of the unaware, the slow of foot, and the hard of hearing.

Smelly, brown rivers slide down the hilly street, over the stone cobbles, down the Cannongate, past the Tollbooth and its desperate prisoners, past the kirkyard and monk's refuge, and nearby waking inn. Under the bare feet of tubercular infants, and the rapidly turning wheels of a carter's empty wagon, its pony well aware of the time of day and the long trek home.

Down it slithers like a serpent in search of prey till it reaches the bottom of this grizzled road, pointing the way with spreading, rancid tendrils to Holyroodhouse, the seat of Scotland's monarchs. A sooted palace in the shadow of Arthur's Seat – an extinct volcano that rises up over the chamber of Kings as if to remind them all what truly reigned in this land.

Inside the palace a great ball is in full swing – in honor of the Stewart King James VI on his return visit to Scotland after years on the coveted throne of the English, and ruler now of both lands. Though the aged prince is nowhere to be seen, musicians gaily play, soldiers stand guard, the rich and titled gossip, eat, drink, dance at the people's expense – and plot in noble Scottish fashion, in corners both dark and light.

Two well dressed gentlemen are standing by a long table filled with food and relish, whispering rather loudly and obviously, hoping their wit will be appreciated. "I say what good is a King who stays away from his own country for so many years," intones one, haughty and grand.

The second man smiles, quickly responding, "Aye, you're right -- not that we'd rather him here." They laugh, eyes surveying the room for appreciative ears and hoping not to sound as rehearsed as a play. But it has all been heard before and more earnestly spoke at that.

A clutch of elegant women, just nearby, are also laughing. But at their own small talk. One is a beautiful creature with strawberry-blonde hair, Elspeth. Their clothes in the fashion of their imagined French allies, though they would hardly pass muster in the antechambers of Versailles, or even the rented houses of noble Parisians.

Elspeth's friend pipes up suddenly and rather rudely, "Well, and after hearing so much of your young warrior man, Elspeth, we hope he can live up to all our expectations."

Elspeth turns her eyes away and onto the crowd as she says sincerely, "I'll be more than happy when he lives up to some of mine."

"That's why we always admired you so, deary," a third woman responds. "You're optimist enough for all of us." They laugh as well. In an expected sort of way.

"Well, all that really matters is that he's come home from the wars safe and sure for our Elspeth," says the woman, meaning it. "But just where is this dashing object of all our small talk?"

Elspeth, weary and anxious with this chittering says, "I'm sure Duncan should be arriving soon. He's not usually late."

"Well," says her nearest friend. "Just as long as he's never early." They all giggle foolishly at what passes for naughty wit. What other reaction could they have now. It would be more foolish not to it seems.

Just then their attention is drawn to a commotion on the other side of the room. At the entrance to the hall, palace guards suddenly and roughly confront two men who are apparently seeking admittance. Amongst the massed dull brown and black of the soldiers tunics, a burst of bright color unfolds like a flower. Highlanders. Unwelcome alien savages to this royal lowland enclave.

The women take a very shocked look at the sunburned, muscled bare legs of these handsome, but to them, oddly dressed men. Resplendent in colorful, though ragged tartan and plaid they are striking figures in this gray world. Conspicuously over armed with claymores, broadsword, dirk, and snaphance pistols. Metal studded targe shields with rusty 6 inch long spikes hang loosely at their shoulders. They are clearly in no mood to be denied. Whatever it is they wished.

Amorous eyes focus in on men rarely seen in this town, and often to be avoided if one could help it. "Well, have you ever seen such a thing?" one woman protests, far too conspicuously.

"I'm sure some of us have," another retorts, eyeing the loose material of the kilt. "But, it must make it very easy."


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