Excerpt from Lainn's Destiny, Alma Chronicles II
Toby Fesler Heathcotte
2009 release from mardelbooks.com
Near London—April 13, 1746
“Soldiers, Mother, hurry.” Nine-year-old Lainn MacPhearson careened around the bend in the dirt road. Tricorn hat gripped tightly in one hand, he sprinted past lilac bushes and crocus-filled window boxes lining the open door of the country cottage. Lainn panted in the doorway. “Mother! Mother!”
Alison Whitfield rose from a wooden desk and dropped her quill. Ink splattered on a ledger. She stared at her son, alarm on her pretty face. “Are you sure they’re coming for us? Maybe they’re just on maneuvers.”
“No, I heard one soldier ask how far it was to where that Jacobite bitch lived.” Lainn’s face and neck felt hot, and his hands shook. “There’s a whole squad of redcoats. We have to move fast. I recognized one of the chaps who moved us in here.”
“Thomas’s men?” Mother paled. “Isn’t he with them?”
“We’re done up.” Her gaze darted toward the door as she snatched a money pouch from the desk drawer. “Did they see you?”
“I don’t think so, but…” Ashamed to say the words, Lainn mumbled, “They called me ‘your bastard changeling.’”
“Never mind such stupidity.” Mother lifted her magenta skirt and attached the pouch to her waist with the string of her petticoat.
“They aren’t far behind.” Lainn scrambled beneath his bed, pulled out a wooden box, and tucked it under his arm. He’d not escape without his precious hoard.
“The nights are cold. We’ll need these.” Mother flopped one thin, wool rug over another and rolled them together, leaving the plank floor bare. “Let’s run for the woods.” She hoisted the roll to her shoulder and glanced out the front door. Turning back, she pointed toward the other room. “That way.”
Lainn and his mother clambered out the back window and ran toward a stand of fruit trees.
“Crawl in here.” Mother pointed a trembling figure toward a blackberry thicket. New leaves sprouted over years of spent canes and reached toward the sun, creating a brittle green and brown cavern.
Lainn grimaced and plunged into the prickly shelter, shielding his face. The homespun coat and pants protected his limbs, but pain stabbed his cheek.
Mother rolled into the underbrush, disheveled black hair creeping out of a mobcap. Her sacque dress and white stomacher did little to protect her tall, thin frame. She sat up and peered through the canopy of tangled vines, her face scratched and bleeding.
It seemed like a game of whoop and hide, but King George’s soldiers could arrest Mother just because she’d been born in Scotland. The distant voices of the soldiers brought tears to Lainn’s eyes. He wiped them away and whispered, “Are they coming toward the woods?”
“I can’t see anything.” Mother’s voice caught.
On leaving a fortnight before, his stepfather had admonished, “Take care of your mother.” Lainn had no idea how to keep her safe. He didn’t want to disappoint the only father he’d ever known, yet he felt relieved when Mother pulled him close.
She murmured, “Are you hurt, Sweetness?”
“No, I’m all right.” Lainn tried to sound confident. A few scratches couldn’t slow a strong man down.
A soldier shouted, “This way.”
Lainn and his mother crouched, hardly breathing, and clung to each other while the soldiers crashed toward them.
“They can’t be far,” a gruff voice shouted. “Keep lookin’, you bloody bastards.”
“We’ll flush ‘em out for ye, Sir.” Another jabbed a musket butt through bushes so close the vines around Lainn bounced. “Ain’t no fuckin’ Jacobites can get away from us!”
Every hair on Lainn’s skin seemed ready to betray him with a quiver. He feared the redcoats would hear his heart beating. Mother clutched his shoulders so tightly her fingernails pierced him. Lainn’s mouth went dry.
“What’s that up there?” one soldier called
“Goddamit, they’re getting’ away,” a soldier bellowed. Several ran past, headed deeper into the growth of sycamores and elms.
The sounds of footsteps and voices died away. A bird chirped. A squirrel rustled through the brush. Mother’s hand eased, and Lainn moved his arm ever so slightly. Instantly her claw-like grip reasserted itself. He dared not stir.
Mother blinked slowly, closed her eyes, and dropped her head, feigning sleep. Lainn knew she meant they must wait until dark. He ached all over. A spider crawled across leg. The sun had still shone high in the western sky when they entered the copse. How could he sit still till nightfall?
What would the great heroes of Scotland do in this predicament? Men like William Wallace, Conn of the Hundred Battles, or even Lainn’s Celtic namesake, the legendary Cu’chulainn? They would sit like stone. And so would Lainn. He rubbed the small box, comforted by its contents—the emerald his foster mother had given him before her death, a beautiful peacock feather, a book of tales of Scottish heroes, and a worn poppet he’d played with as a bairn.
Soldiers shouted and laughed. A swooshing sound he couldn’t identify caught Lainn’s attention. He whispered, “What’s that?”
“Our home is burning.” Mother sounded sad.
Over and over in his mind, Lainn sang an old war ballad:
From the lands to the north to the western Isles to the lands across the sea.
The warrior king stands proud and strong, a fearful sight he be.
In foreign lands with ancient tongue he won his battle fame.
The widows cry and strong men cower, whene’re cried out his name.
As twilight settled over the woods, Alison hugged her sleeping son. His round face, framed in shadowed blond hair, nestled against her breast. He’d been so courageous. Without his alertness, they’d have been captured.
With Thomas away at war, whom could she trust to help her escape? She dared not subject his family to jeopardy. All of her acquaintances in London, bookkeeping clients and merchants, appeared to be Whigs and loyal to the Crown. She must help herself. Lainn’s safety meant everything.
At long last the hateful odor of the burning cottage died away, and a breeze carried the fresh scent of cherry blossoms
Chilled and stiff, Alison squeezed her son and whispered, “Let’s go now.” The brambles seemed to have grown denser during their vigil.
“Do we have to?” Listlessly, Lainn rubbed his eyes and crawled out.
“Be alert, son.”
With a sigh, he held the vines up for her. Lights blazed from the windows of a nearby cottage. He grumbled, “Maybe we can sleep there for the night.”
“We dare not go near the neighbors. They’re probably Whigs!”
Lainn nodded and picked up his box. Alison clutched the rolled rugs, and they trudged through the trees paralleling the road, staying in the shadows. Sycamores and elms gave way to a barrow, an ancient burial ground whose grass-covered dome dissolved in the darkness. A tiny brook trickled along the barrow’s edge. Alison laid the rugs on the grass, knelt, and scooped water into her mouth.
“What are we going to do, Mother?” Vulnerability filled his intense eyes—mottled green and brown, like the moss agate stone of Scotland. Alison must prove worthy of his trust.
“Find a safe place to live.” She wiped her mouth. The water tasted like dead fish. “Don’t drink it. This water’s no good.” Dampening her hem, she washed the blood from their faces and arms.
Lainn squared his shoulders and spat on the ground in a precious imitation of manliness. “By now Scotland’s probably full of English. France might be all right, but we can’t speak French. I say we go to the colonies, like we were planning before you married Thomas.”
“That’s such a long way, Darling, and we don’t know anyone there.” A full moon had risen, a good omen, Alison hoped. “Besides, I don’t want to leave Thomas.”
“We have to.” Lainn’s voice cracked. He blinked away tears.
“I can’t.” Life without her husband would be misery. Maybe she and Lainn could hide for a while by changing their names. How long would the five hundred pounds in her pouch last as hush money? Lainn would remain in constant danger. The King’s soldiers could be brutal.
“When Thomas finds out I’ve been targeted for arrest, he’ll send help.”
“It’ll be too late.”
“I know.” Alison pressed her brow, forestalling sobs. They must leave without a word to anyone. The idea horrified her, but she couldn’t think about that now. To do so might sap her resolve. “Come on. We’ve got a long hike ahead of us.”
Picking up the rugs, Alison turned toward the hazy light of London in the distance. Occasional daub and wattle huts fronted the tree-lined way. Lainn walked beside her, quiet for a long time.
Although repulsed by the thought of food, Alison wondered about Lainn. “Are you hungry?”
Lainn nodded and said with assurance, “Don’t worry, Mother. Thomas will follow us.”
Alison knew her son had second sight. Perhaps an intuition of danger had caused him to play beside the road when the redcoats came for her. “Hmm, so are you divining without a fire these days?”
“Maybe so,” Lainn chuckled. “Thomas will worry about us, I think.”
“Yes, Sweetness, but we’ll find a way to let him know.”
The glow of light from the city ahead made the road more visible. Whinnies, voices, and the rumble of wagon wheels created a distant din. Alison fancied she could smell rottenness floating toward them in the air. Filled with dread of London at night, she watched her dress boots strike the dirt and trudged forward, shoulders aching.
“Let’s stop for a moment.” Alison set down the rugs, raised her skirt, and took a few guineas from the moneybag. After she stuffed them in her bodice, she retied the pouch and patted it. “If anything happens to me, be sure you get this.”
“Yes, Mother, but you’ll be safe. “Lainn hugged her.
“My brave lad.” Alison held him and breathed in the familiar scent of his skin, so like her own. “We’ll get through this.”
Lainn took the emerald out of his memento box and held it up. “Here, keep this in your pouch, too.”
“All right.” Touched by his trust, Alison stowed the gem, then draped a rug around his shoulders against the night chill.
As she wrapped the other around herself and hugged it to her neck, Lainn said, “We look like the American savages.”
They both laughed. First they passed low buildings then taller ones set close together. The dirt road became a soggy track as they entered the city.
A carriage raced toward them with curtains drawn. The driver sat, knees together, his eyes focused above their heads. One hand clutched his whip. Alison and Lainn leaped back and pressed against the side of a building. Mud and filth splashed their clothes.
“Are you all right?” Alison wiped her cheek.
Lainn nodded. A toothless beggar with grimy hair approached, soiled palm outstretched. Lainn’s voice carried the bright tone of youthful innocence. “I’m sorry, we’ve nothing to give you, but many blessings on you, Sir.”
“Sir, is it?” the beggar huffed and passed by.
The dressmaker’s shop lay ahead. The proprietor, who lived in the back, might still be awake. Perhaps the woman would send a message to Alison’s friends, Catherine and Squire Emmons, back home in Corton, a three-day ride away.
After they turned into the dressmaker’s alley, Alison and Lainn stopped short. The stone building, both shop and rooms to let above, stood empty, doors and windows flung wide. Before the cottage, two old women scavenged a mound of charred scraps of cloth and burned furniture. The smoldering remains of a human body lay among the debris. An acrid, syrupy smell filled the air.
Alison gasped and spun Lainn around. They hurried to a tavern at the end of the street. A wooden sign bearing a boar’s head hung outside, and a smoking oil lamp stood on a pole.
Inside, two women, young and elaborately dressed, sat at a long table before a fireplace. Faces painted and hair piled high, they flirted with three English soldiers. Alison addressed the tavern keeper, an old man in a grease-splattered cloth across buckskin trousers. “What happened to the dressmaker?”
“No good, that woman.” The tavern keeper shook a head of shaggy white hair. The soldiers began to snigger. “She’s no trouble to us now.”
“Burned alive?” Alison gulped. “But, why?”
“Overfond of the bonnie Prince, I heard,” one soldier shouted. The others guffawed, and the girls tittered. “Besides, she weren’t alive. She’d a hole in her head afore she was pitched on.”
Amid coarse laughter, the tavern keeper leaned forward conspiratorially. “She was a Jacobite, didn’t you know?”
Alison feigned indignation. “Of course not. I’d have done no business with her had I known.”
“We’ll root ‘em out all over.” A self-righteous looking soldier slapped the table. “Won’t be long till there ain’t a Jacobite left alive in England or Scotland.”
“That Old Pretender James’ll never sit on the throne of England. Uppity Catholics! Ha!” Another soldier spat on the dirt floor. “The friggin’ Scots’ll get what they deserve.” Laughing, he and his companions turned back to their current prey.
Lainn clung to Alison, and she nudged him to stand straight. She hoped her smile looked sincere as she nodded to the tavern keeper. “Thank you for the information.” Clutching her son’s shoulder, she turned him, and they walked outside quickly.
As the heavy door closed behind them, the two carried their rugs. Alison hitched her skirt high, and Lainn carried his tricorn and memento box. They dashed through the muddy street, unmindful of the human excrement, which splashed their legs. Past the ruins of the dressmaker’s shop, they darted into a street they’d never trod before.
Panting, Alison stopped and leaned against a building. The boy rushed ahead into gathering fog. “Stop, Lainn,” she shouted, but he seemed unaware that she no longer ran beside him.
A large woman, perhaps forty, with a garishly painted face, squatted in the street, skirts raised, relieving herself. As Lainn hurtled toward her, she rose to an amazing height, brightened with a toothless smile, and held out both arms. “Come to me, me lovely.”
Lainn’s momentum propelled him against the giant woman. Her wide arms clamped around him. “Let me go!” Lainn yelled, arms and legs flailing.
“Let mama teach you a trick or two,” the woman cackled and lifted the boy off the ground. She turned and waddled through the slosh.
“Come back with my son.” Horrified, Alison lunged toward the retreating harlot. “Lainn! Lainn!”
Toby Heathcotte Home