Aye, we had the high ground.
But all that meant was that we had nowhere to run. The King's army surrounded us on three sides, and the fourth was a crumbling rock face. We'd been lowering women and children down that face all night, praying they could sneak off in the darkness and find safety somewhere.
Because once the redcoats at the foot of the hill had enough light to shoot by, our little army was done for.
I was surprised when Morran sent for me. My place was with my men. As I approached her tent, I worried that she would demand I leave, try to scale the cliff in the breaking light and flee with the women. Morran had a high opinion of my life, higher than my own, and was chary of throwing it away. It was not on account of my education, rare amongst our motley force as it was. In truth, I know not why she took such pains over me.
I would not flee. Though to stay was certainly to die, with the English outnumbering us seven to one, and them an army, where we had barely one rifle for ten men. Our lads were eager, and worth any ten callow impressed English docksweepings, but they had only the swords their grandfathers buried after the highlands died at Culloden. When the English came up the hill, we would be shot to pieces.
Though it weighed heavily on my spirit, I was willing to die. I had taken up the gamble of mine own free will in the first place, this dangerous rebellion against the Lords who were starving the highlands out. I had seen the piles of stick-thin corpses, driven off the lands their fathers and their father's fathers had farmed, to make room for fat sheep and fat profits. When I could stand no more I quit Edinburgh to come here and place my sword in the service of the rebellion. I had known what I was doing then, and I was willing to pay the price now.
The men I was now numbered among were as well. However, they had a markedly more favorable opinion of our current situation than I. It was as I slipped into Morran's tent that I heard the comment about our holding the high ground, and realized that the men still somehow had confidence we would win.
It was because of her. Morran who had already become The Morran. Saviour of the clans. Call her a witch, call her a holy woman, call her what you want, she had lead these selfsame rag-tag warriors to victory over the Duke's troops. Now, to a starving, hopeless people, she could do no wrong.
Would that I had such faith, I thought, finding her alone inside. She had beautiful dark eyes, though the lines on her face showed the cares that she had taken up years before I made them mine own. She nodded at me, and gestured to follow her out the other side of the tent.
The men would die for her, because she was the saviour of their people.
I would die for her, too.
"Ambrose," she said to me as she lifted the flap, "Lord Errinbold has sent a messenger. He wishes to parley."
The wind whipped my hair across my face as I followed her outside. Above us, the sky was slate gray, clouds sliding across and into each other in their eternal race. Eyes watering, I followed her down the gently sloping hilltop.
"And you told him...?"
"I told him 'yes'," she replied. "Look, he comes."
We were descending towards a small rise on the flank of the hill. From where we were we already had a fine view of Errinbold's army. In the dim light they were assembling, neat rows of riflemen shuffling into position to the calls of bugles, whose piercing notes came to us erratically through the gusting wind. We were truly surrounded - to my left and right, two thousand lobsterbacks watched each side of the hill, and before us the three thousand who had the honor of marching up to us were already checking their powder.
I was not worried about sniper fire, not with the distance and the wind as it was. Not that wind could save our men from the hail of lead this dawn was bringing.
Our sentry saluted us. A boy, no older than fifteen. The claymore on his back seemed heavier than he was, and stains where the rust had been scrubbed off patterned the blade. Morran smiled at him.
"Run back," she told him. "Tell the men to prepare. Tell Angus that I want the men in columns, ready to charge directly down this direction, at my signal."
"Yes, Morran," the lad said, and made to run back up the hill.
Below us, a figure on a white horse left the waiting ranks and began to ascend towards us.
"And James," Morran said, "be sure the men are in orderly columns, not just in groups. Our hour is upon us, and victory may hinge on each man playing his precise part. Go, quickly."
"Yes, Morran," he said. The wind caught his hair, and he fled up the hill.
"Orderly rows won't save us from English lead," I said quietly. She did not respond. Her face was tired, the way I had seen it sometimes late at night, when all others had gone to bed. I could never pity her, but how I wished she might for one hour shed her burden.
The horse approached, alone, the round figure of the English Lord upon it. Say what you would about Errinbold, he did not lack in courage. We waited. The English finished their formations, and waited as well.
Reaching us, he reined in.
He paid me no thought at all, simply staring down at Morran for a long moment.
Then he cleared his throat.
"If you surrender," he began.
"We shall not," she replied.
He nodded. "I knew as much."
"Then why did you come?"
He smiled, or near to it, his cheeks tightening in the smile of a man without humor. "I wanted to see the Scottish Witch," he said.
"Are you satisfied?" Morran asked.
He snorted. "Even were the rumors true," he said. "you and yours will not survive. You cannot stop bullets, nor can you harm my men. God shall not shield your army nor will He grant it victory. Even your rabble do not claim as much. Why then, I wonder," and for the first time he looked at me, "do they follow you?"
"I have returned their belief in themselves," she said.
"Ah," he replied. "How nice. But you're not much of a witch, then, are you?"
Morran smiled at him then, the smile I had only ever seen once before, and it made the hair rise on my neck. It must have been similar for Errinbold, for his horse began to shuffle, and his lips tightened.
"I cannot stop bullets," she said, her voice low and deep. "I cannot cast harm onto men. I cannot shield those I love, and I cannot demand victory from God." Her voice was rising, and soon even the redcoats in the field below must have been able to hear snatches of it in the unceasing wind.
"I cannot command the earth to swallow you nor fire to consume you nor lightning to strike you down," and now she was shouting, and the air itself crackled around her. "And although I pray with every breath that God will scour this land clean of the English and their unjust laws and their deathly oppression, I cannot make it so!"
Then she spoke in a whisper that I could barely hear, though it made Errinbold turn white.
"I can only call upon the powers of muscle, and steel, and the strength in men's hearts," she said.
"And I can make it rain."
And the clouds broke, a drenching torrent pouring from the heavens upon me, and Morran, and Errinbold on his white horse, and our men and their swords and the English and their powder.
And Morran signalled the charge.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra