Duncan laid a soothing hand above the velvet soft nose of the shaggy, sturdy Highland mare that had carried him for almost five seasons now, and who knew to quiet at his touch, and not to stray from where she was left. His father was crouched, whispering final instructions to a small group of his clan, rising carefully and nodding across the small clearing to his son, who had already passed along his plan to the rest of the men of Glenfinnan. Men. Duncan smiled, as they crept silently towards the village, knowing his amusement was hidden in the pre-dawn darkness. Boys and elders, mostly. Only a few in their full prime, like himself, his father and a few distant cousins.
The Campbells had stolen three of their cattle, thinking they would not realize the loss until the animals had been slaughtered and the evidence gone, or even if they did, there would be nothing the MacLeods could do. But they had underestimated Iain MacLeod once again. The Campbells' village lay below, the huts dark, the villagers sleeping. The stolen cattle were to be taken back, plus three more for good measure. The Campbells would learn they could not take from the MacLeods with impunity.
For generations the two clans had fought bitterly over territory, politics, religion, cattle, sheep, and any other notion that could possibly serve as fuel to feed the long-standing rivalry between them. They had hoped to resolve the feud four years back with the betrothal of the Campbell clan chief's beautiful daughter, Debra, to Duncan's cousin Robert, but that mismatch had ended in double tragedy that had only widened the gulf between them.
Duncan shook off the depressing memories, shifting the weight of the claymore strapped at his side. If all went well, he wouldn't have to use it. These territorial battles might be necessary, or at least traditional, but the clans wasted too much energy fighting each other when they should be worrying about the thrice-damned Sassenachs and their attempts to impose English rule on Scottish soil.
"Ye think they know we're coming?" Niall Harris whispered at his elbow, bringing his thoughts back to the task at hand.
"Hush!" Duncan shushed his cousin, then laid a reassuring hand on the lad's shoulder. He was just a boy, barely 14 seasons, on his first foray away from the village. The lad was naturally nervous, but eager for battle. Even though Duncan knew that in all likelihood there would only be a few moments of fairly harmless but thrilling near-terror, he could feel the excitement stir his own blood. Whatever happened, it would make for many fanciful fireside stories in the nights to come, and maybe even a few heroic songs.
He had been on many such forays with his father in the last decade or more. Iain always included his only son, the designated heir to the leadership of their village, in the councils with the elders and in the planning of such raids. Duncan had even led a few in the last few years, as some of Iain's old wounds were beginning to make him stiff and uncomfortable during these treks in the cold of a Highland night. Duncan would have handled this confrontation quite differently, probably sending a representative to the head of the Campbell clan to make a demand before resorting to theft, which he was sure would likely just result in the Campbells feeling the need to return the gesture. But he had bowed to his father's leadership, and his demand that the insult be answered with insult, that honor be satisfied.
"Stay close to me, Niall," he hissed when the boy darted out too far ahead of the group.
The boy slowed and Duncan caught up to him, frowning at him in disapproval, but had to turn his head to hide a smile. The boy was positively bursting with excitement.
They crept around behind the largest stone-mud-and-thatch hut to a small holding pen. They were to retrieve the three MacLeod cattle while Iain's group was over the rise, cutting out three of the Campbell's herd, leading them all back to the ponies they had left behind an outcropping of uplifted stone a quarter-league to the west.
Duncan had four men with him, including Niall, the youngest. But the lad was the one who had noticed the missing animals and had therefore won his right to be here. Duncan waved one man to a sentinel position along the path of their retreat, crept up to unlatch the gate to the small pen, then waved in Niall and the other two men. Each one slipped a loop around an animal's neck and gently tugged, leading the animals away one by one.
Duncan tensed at the sound of a low moo coming from the small herd over the rise and held up a hand for the men to stop where they were. The sound did not seem to disturb the village, though, and after a few tense moments, he signaled for them to move again. There was sometimes a lookout on a herd, but he had confidence that his father would have found him and tied him up or knocked him out. They had no desire or intent for anyone to be injured, they just wanted to prove a point to prevent further insults to their clan.
Niall was the last one out of the pen, and Duncan knelt to keep a low profile, carefully closing the gate so the rest of the cattle wouldn't wander off. He scanned the area behind them, waiting for them to get further up the path towards the horses before relinquishing the rear guard position.
Then a small yelp snapped his head around. A cow lowed, its deep voice breaking in a sound of panic, and Duncan was on his feet, running towards the noise.
A small body slammed into him, almost knocking him down, and Niall's frightened, white face was staring up into his. The boy still had hold of the animal's lead, but he was headed in exactly the wrong direction.
"Niall!" Duncan hissed. "Ye're going the wrong way!" He tried to turn the lad, but Niall squirmed out of his grasp.
"He...he's there!" the boy shouted in a voice that made Duncan wince and try to clap a hand over his mouth, but it was already too late.
"Raiders!" a voice bellowed. "Raiders!" the alarm came again.
"I almost ran right into him...he was pissing behind the hut, and..."
"Go!" Duncan gave up all pretence at stealth and shoved the boy back towards their horses. "Run!"
"But..." the boy was struggling now with an excited animal that weighed ten times more than he.
"Damn it, lad, let the animal go and run!" Duncan pulled the claymore from its scabbard as men stumbled out of their homes, frantically wrapping plaids ‘round their waists and shoulders and peering out into the darkness.
Perhaps it was the ringing sound of the metal as it pulled free of its scabbard, perhaps it was the knowledge that he stood between the entire roused village and the men of his clan, but even as his heart sped in fear, it felt like his vision became sharper, his hearing more precise, his footing more certain as he balanced easily on the balls of his feet, just as his father had taught him. It seemed he was born to do this very thing and something deep inside recognized it. He had never desired anyone's death or wished anyone harm, so this warm, energizing humming sensation that tingled under his skin was a mystery and a wonder, and he felt a private grin broaden his face as he turned toward his foes.
Then there were three figures before him and more closing in and he moved, slashing right, then left, then ducking and whirling, feeling the wind of their blades as they flashed so close they tore his shirt. More movement out of the corner of his eyes and more shouts, possibly from his own throat, and his clansmen had closed in behind him, drawing a few of his attackers off, but more were pouring out of their huts now, and he knew they were outnumbered, even if they had the advantage of surprise and being fully armed.
A burning flash along his forearm told him he had been wounded, but he could take no time to assess the damage. He fell back, along with the rest of his men, now only wishing to escape without further damage to anyone.
"Hold Fast!" his father's shout could now be heard and then Iain MacLeod was there, the huge MacLeod claymore swinging like a scythe in the Chieftain's massive arms. Duncan automatically moved to his side, meeting the gathering numbers of aroused Campbells with the metal of his blade as he urged his father to fall back. They would soon be outnumbered and surrounded if they didn't flee, and quickly.
At last the situation became obvious, and all the MacLeods danced backwards, with the Chieftain and his son covering their rear, backpedaling and managing to put a few yards between themselves and the angry villagers. Duncan heard the shout of his name, and felt his mare's reins shoved into his hand. He paused for a heartbeat, looking around, still breathless and excited, his heart pounding with a kind of fierce pleasure.
They had secured five cattle, in all, and his father had reached his mount. For a second their eyes met and Duncan saw his father's face shine with triumph and pride, and he could not contain his own exultation. With a whoop of victory, Duncan leapt on the pony's back, steering with his knees as he swung a wide clear swath with his blade, backing the Campbells to a safe distance. Then he pulled his mare back and raised his fist. "Mac-Leod! Mac-Leod! Mac-Leod!" The men joined his chant as he urged the mare around, pushing the cattle they had taken into a slow trot towards the horizon, then a run as they scrambled to the top of the rise, where they turned to face the villagers below, prepared to relish their victory.
But their cheers quickly died to silence.
Stretched out at the feet of Angus Campbell, Debra Campbell's father, was Niall Harris, blood turning the colors of the boy's plaid into a black stain in the pre-dawn light.
"No!" Duncan gasped, and moved his mare back towards the village, but his father grabbed his arm and stopped him.
"There's naught you can do for the lad, now," Iain counseled, but then the Chief urged his own horse forward a few steps. "Damn you, Angus Campbell!" he bellowed, "there was no need for anyone to die! He was just a lad!"
"And you think Campbells might not die in the cold, hard, long night of winter when we have nae enough food because you bloody MacLeods stole it?" Campbell shouted back.
"You're the thief!" Iain snapped back. "We were just retrieving our own, and you well know it."
"I know nae such thing, and damn you for a bloody liar, Iain MacLeod!"
"No man calls me liar and lives!" Iain hissed, moving forward until it was Duncan who laid a hand on his arm.
"Not here, Father," he whispered grimly, recognizing they were now seriously outnumbered, and their only advantage was distance, their mounts, and clan traditions. "Not now. There will be another day," he added. He addresed the crowd of villagers in a shout that carried across the valley. "Will you let us take the boy home to his mother?"
Angus turned and consulted with a few men of the village, then turned and nodded, stepping back from the body. His florid face was flush with anger, but Duncan suspected it was also colored with shame at the death of a mere boy at their hands.
Duncan sheathed his sword and slowly rode forward, waiting until the crowd stepped back a few more paces. He dismounted, picked up Niall's body and laid it as gently as he could over the mare's withers as she nervously danced at the smell of blood.
The crowd's hostility was palpable from this distance, their murmurs low and angry, and finally he heard a voice call out, "Thief!" Then another, deeper voice growled, "Kinslayer!" Another shouted, "Defiler!" and he looked over, prepared to defend himself, but Angus Campbell had put his hand out to prevent an attack.
"Nay!" Campbell snarled. "I've given my parole. Let the cur take his pup back to the den. Unlike my Debra, at least the boy can be buried on holy ground."
"You know that was no' what I wanted, Angus Campbell," Duncan snarled. "It was you who wouldna' let us marry, insisting on a union she did not want. I loved her!"
"Oh, aye. Loved her enough to let her fall to her death when she thought she couldn't have you!" Angus strode forward and the two men stood eye to eye, hands on their blades.
"That's nay true!" Duncan snapped, "and you know it. It was your --"
"Enough, Duncan," his father's deep voice interrupted. "Angus Campbell would nay acknowledge the truth if it kicked him in the head. Bring the boy's body and be done with this."
Duncan and Angus stared at each other for several more heartbeats before Campbell reluctantly stepped back a pace.
"Aye," he finally growled. "Let the kinslayer go. We'll have our day with the lot of them."
Despite himself, Duncan felt a flush creep over his shoulders and face. His cousin Robert's death at his hands, and Debra's fall during their argument over whether they should marry despite the tragedy, would forever haunt him, especially since the church had never acknoweldged that her death was an accident instead of a suicide. He remounted, then rejoined the others, feeling the hateful stares drill into his back as they wheeled their horses and headed home.
He and his father shared an uncomfortable look until Iain MacLeod turned away, his steel gaze fixed on the horizon. If Iain had not insisted that Robert's challenge be answered with steel, his cousin might still be alive, and Debra, as well. But Duncan knew his father would never express regret for his fateful demand, and as long as Duncan had known him, Iain MacLeod had rarely openly admitted error.
It was near dusk the next day when Iain and Duncan rode into Glenfinnen alone, having left the rest of the men driving the cattle home at a much slower pace. As they passed the outer edge of the cluster of stone and mudbrick huts, the women looked out their doors and slowly gathered behind the two riders. Their muffled sounds of grief broke into a heartrending wail as Duncan dismounted, pulling Niall's body into his arms and carrying him to the door of his mother's home. Eibhlin Harris stood in the doorway, a shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. Their eyes met and in the space of a few heartbeats Duncan watched old age settle on her shoulders and in her face. Her husband had died two winters before of a fever, her daughters were all married and gone, and now she was alone.
There would be a funeral as soon as a priest could be brought from the nearest kirk, and then the men of the village would meet. Vengeance would be taken. Honor would be satisfied.
"You're hurt!" his mother announced as Duncan slammed into their croft, his father close behind.
"T'is not your fault, Duncan!" his father assured him, following him into the main room, as though that pronouncement would be enough to make an end of it. They had been arguing the subject all the way back from Niall's family's croft. It was a familiar discussion. Duncan had always been painfully aware of his own failings, despite his father's teaching that to publicly acknowledge failure was to show weakness.
"Niall was my responsibility," Duncan snarled, unbuckling the baldrick that held his claymore and yanking it off. "He should‘na have died! He was right there behind me! Why didn't I see he was in danger?"
"The lad disobeyed his orders, tried to fight when he hadna' the strength or training," Iain insisted. "If there's blame to be found, tis with the damned Campbells," he added with a snarl. "To kill a lad like that," he snapped, with a shake of his head. "No MacLeod would ever do that."
Mairi MacLeod reached for Duncan's arm, trying to clean it with a wet cloth, but he didn't want her attentions and pulled away, still pacing in agitation, the villagers' hateful words still ringing in his ears.
"I'll kill the murdering bastards!" Duncan announced, whirling to face his father. Duncan was now taller than the older man, and although Iain MacLeod was a bear of a figure, his son was as broad of shoulder, his arms lean but powerful from wielding a sword from the moment he was old enough to close his hand around a hilt. "You must let me lead the battle, Father," he demanded.
"The insult was to me, Duncan," Iain said, laying a reassuring hand on Duncan's shoulder and squeezing slightly. He sighed and closed his eyes, running his fingers through his heavy reddish beard, just beginning to be streaked with gray. "And to the Clan. Now let your mother see to that arm, or you won't be fit for battle, leader or no."
Duncan reluctantly sat at the table, letting his mother undo his sleeve and peel it away from the long, shallow cut in his forearm. She washed it with warm water, then dabbed her usual unguent on it, smiling at little as her big, brawny son winced at the sting.
"Maybe that will teach you to be more careful," she admonished as she wrapped his forearm in clean cloths. "You are fortunate to have a mother with such healing skills, young man. Look, it has already stopped bleeding, and probably won't even leave a scar if you are careful and keep my potion on it." She was trying to draw his attention away from Niall's death, Duncan knew, and smiled wanly at her efforts.
Mairi MacLeod smiled back at her son, pushing a lock of his long, dark hair away from his face. Duncan caught her hand, and held it for a moment. "I'm lucky, indeed, Mother. I've hardly a scar to show for all the scrapes I've been in," he said, then grimaced a little. "Maybe too lucky, since other men display their old wounds like battle prizes."
"Ah, they are just jealous of all the lasses who hang around our door, waiting for you to finally decide on one to take to wife," his mother declared, standing to take away the bowl of water and bloody cloths. "Of course, if you dinna choose soon, who knows what kind of scandal we'll see," she added with a raised eyebrow. "You've been lucky so far, Duncan, but your bride should nay be selected by the first wallydraigle who misses her courses and claims you for the father. That would be a richt fankle. "
"Mother," Duncan warned. It had been a conversation they had had many times.
"In this, your mother and I agree," Iain MacLeod said as he took off his own cloak and baldrick, hanging them on a hook by the door. "It's past time for you to take a wife, Duncan. Grieving for Debra Campbell is all well and good, but you have a duty to the clan, a duty to me and your mother, so make your choice and be done w'it," Iain instructed.
"The Campbells won't let me be done with it, Father," Duncan sighed.
"Angus Campbell is a fool, but you've always worried overmuch about such things, Duncan," Iain insisted. "Robert died from his own foolish pride."
"Twas not just Robert's pride that caused that death, but yours," Mairi inserted harshly, and Duncan closed his eyes against the tense silence that suddenly fell in the room. It was an old battle between his parents, a wound that had never healed. They had raised Robert as a fosterling when his father had died and his mother had fallen into a despair from which she had never recovered. Iain's insistence on Duncan fighting Robert over insults shouted in hurt and anger had always galled her.
"Let it be, woman," Iain finally said softly. "What's done tis done and canna' be undone. What is important now is for Duncan to put it in the past and find a woman suitable for marriage, and soon."
"Tis not that simple," Duncan said, relieved that the moment had passed without an ugly argument between his strongwilled parents. "And we have this business with the Campbells to deal with. Niall's death cannot go unanswered."
Iain had watched closely as his wife tended his son's arm, and he now rested a hand on Duncan's shoulder. "Aye. But this time, I think it will be more than just the men from our village. Killing a boy over a cow," he shook his head. "I'll send word to the rest of the sept. Mayhap it is time we took care of those damned Campbells once and for all."
A week later
Duncan woke hours before dawn, slipping quietly out of bed and breaking the thin ice on the water bucket before splashing his face. He wrapped his plaid around his waist and shoulders, pulled on his boots and leg wrappings, belted the fabric and threw on a cloak before he stepped outside, moving away from the small, isolated hut to relieve himself. He finished his business, walked to the top of a small rise and stood for a few minutes, just listening. The birds weren't even awake yet, and the wind made a lonely moaning noise as it moved over the rocks and hills of the rough landscape.
Footsteps sounded behind him, warm arms slipped around his waist, and he leaned back a little into the embrace. "The bed gets cold quickly when you leave," a soft voice murmured into his shoulder. He turned, folding her inside his cloak. "I must be off," he said, then kissed the dark auburn hair tumbling over her crown. "The men are gathering at the kirk and I must stop at my parents' before we ride."
"And hear another speech about how it is time for you to choose a bride?" she chided.
Duncan sighed and wrapped an arm around her waist as they walked towards his horse penned in the small enclosure next to the hut. Jean's husband had died three winters past, leaving her with two sons and a daughter to raise. Duncan had stopped by from time to time to help, as was his duty as the village chieftain's son, and a flirtation and mutual loneliness had led to mutual comfort.
"You know I would marry you, Jean MacClure," he assured her. He stopped and took her by the shoulders. "It would make me happy to care for you and your children, and have children of our own."
She reached up and tugged gently at a braid of his hair she had plaited only the night before in the pleasant aftermath of their lovemaking. "Nay, Duncan. I am too old for ye, and I bring no alliance to the clan, no dowry but this poor croft which is hardly enough to support a woman and three bairns. You're a dear boy and you make my heart glad and my body sing, but your da would'na hear of you marrying the likes of me, and I've always known that."
He wanted to argue with her, but his feelings on the whole issue were clouded with so many different, conflicting thoughts: a sense of rebellion at not being able to do as he pleased with his life, and a genuine affection for this strong, giving woman; but also a powerful sense of duty to his father and his clan; and a secret realization that, while he felt great affection for Jean, there was none of the fire of devotion that had sparked such intense feeling for his beloved Debra.
"Hush, Duncan." She pushed him gently away. "Get on with ye before half the village wakes and knows where you've been this night."
He saddled and mounted as Jean watched, hugging her own cloak around her in the pre-dawn darkness. She opened the gate and he road out, but stopped and looked down at her. Her eyes gleamed suspiciously in the dark, and he leaned down, cupped her chin and kissed her, not knowing what to say, not knowing when he might see her again.
"Be safe, Duncan," she whispered.
He rode to the edge of Glenfinnan and dismounted, walking his horse the last 100 yards, and tying her with the rest of the horses before slipping through the shadows to his father's house. It was his own house, too, even though he spent many a night away from it these days. He was a grown man now, and frequently visited other crofts, helping out whenever an extra hand was needed, serving as messenger and emissary to other clans and septs.
There was no light visible yet in the window, and rather than wake his parents, he waited outside, surveying the collection of thatch-roofed huts, animal pens and stone houses, the windows just now showing the dim light of renewed flames in their fireplaces. He could hear the pigs snuffling in the pen all the way on the other side of the village, the horses restlessly stomping their hooves in the small pen nearby. Perhaps they could sense what today was going to bring, he thought, pulling his pelt-fringed cloak a little more tightly around his shoulders.
By mid-morning, the sun would be warm. By afternoon, the battle would be joined. There was a kind of ritual to such things, he mused. Everyone knew it was coming. Everyone knew what was expected. Scotsmen weren't renowned for the sophistication of their battle strategy, and the Campbells were waiting for them at Glen Garven.
And this was no benign cattle raid. This was a battle, blade to blade, with no quarter given nor expected. Somehow, Duncan had no real fear for himself, but he worried for his father, who had slowed a little in the last couple of years. He worried for the younger men of his village, whose training he supervised. Had he taught them well? Had he disciplined them enough? Certainly he had failed with Niall, and that was the reason for all this madness. As deeply as his anger ran at those who needlessly murdered a child, he was just as angry at himself for that failure.
And after the battle, he had promised his parents he would chose a bride, that within the month he would be prepared to announce the banns, and marry. Oh, there was many a comely lass he would be happy to bed. He smiled, thinking about Jean. There were quite a number he had bedded, somewhat to his shame and his priest's admonishments about the sin of lust. But the sins of the flesh seemed to be an irresistible temptation. Duncan sighed, shaking his head at his many failings and frustrations, wondering if he would ever be worthy of clan leadership.
He would be happy to settle down with one lass, someone to love and care for, to raise many sons and daughters. And he was almost resigned to the fact that his choice for a bride would be more political than romantic. Such a match was hardly unusual among the clans. Indeed, it had been his and Debra's defiance of that tradition that had led to her death.
A big shadow stepped out of the house, and his father nodded to him, unsurprised to find him standing watch. For several long moments, father and son stood together, watching the village rouse itself, the men emerging fully armored. They would be joined today by at least a hundred others from other septs, but all of the MacLeod clan, all eager for battle, anxious for glory. It was their way. Duncan felt his father's arm fold gently over his shoulders in a familiar, comforting gesture.
"Take care today, Duncan," Iain finally broke the silence. "The future of the clan rides with you."
Duncan looked at his father in surprise. Iain MacLeod was a man who showed his affection and caring easily and often, but always with a cuff on the shoulder, a slap on the back, a touch, even a rough hug. But never with words.
"I want only to make you proud," Duncan replied, meeting his father's eyes.
"Ah, lad, you've already done that," Iain smiled, and Duncan's heart squeezed tight in his chest. Iain ruffled his hair, then slapped him on the back, urging him into the house. "Your mother has some porridge ready, then we must join the others at the kirk to ask God's blessing. The Good Lord willing, we will see the last of the Campbells by sunset."
Duncan followed his father into the house, secretly wondering whether slaying the entire Campbell clan was part of God's plan, or would resolve anything in the long run, then shook off his doubts. This was their way, the way it had always been, and he would follow his father, wherever that might lead.
The church service seemed overly long, although perhaps it only seemed so because Duncan was restless, anxious for action. But his father was a stickler for such things, waiting until the last prayer had been said, the final blessing given. Each of them took communion, and Duncan had to admit that the familiar Latin words were a comfort. Even though Iain had insisted that Duncan learn the meaning of the Latin, and as a lad he had sat for many boring hours with the priests listening to the translations of the liturgy, Duncan had given little thought to religion, had simply accepted it, along with the mysteries of the Solstice festivals, the legends of the Sidhe, and the thousands of other rituals and magics, small and large, that were part and parcel of everyday life. That the world contained saints, spirits and demons was a given, even though he had never knowingly encountered one.
It all seemed to make sense -- that protecting your clan and family, that fighting with courage for a cause that was just, that obeying the laws and traditions of your sept, that giving proper worship to God and his Son, Jesus Christ, all would lead to a place in heaven. Certainly the rituals to display and confirm all those virtues were a necessary prelude to a battle.
By the time the service was over, the sun was well into the sky, and the men moved to their horses, mounting in silence. At last Iain MacLeod rode to the front of the group of almost 200 men, standing in his stirrups.
"Ye know what we fight for today, lads!" he shouted. "The Campbells have stolen our animals, insulted our women, besmirched our honor, encroached on our territory and now they have slain a child! They will learn today that the Clan MacLeod will not stand by in the face of such evil and insult. Are you with me!?"
"AYE!" the men shouted, and Duncan raised his fist and his voice with the other men in a united chorus, his heart beating fast and proud as he watched the sun glint off the wolf pelt covering his father's broad, strong shoulders.
By the time they reached Glen Garvan, the nearest broad, flat meadow that bordered the unofficial boundary between the land claimed by the MacLeods and that inhabited by the Campbells, the horses were well lathered. Scouts sent out earlier that morning reported that the Campbell clan was camped on the far side, that they had been gathering for days, and there might be as many as 300 there, but that many in the camp were women and boys not fit for battle.
Iain snorted in disdain. "Only the Campbells would bring their women along to battle," he snarled. "Too helpless to do their own cooking no doubt."
Duncan smiled. His father's version of camp-cooked porridge was famously inedible. He edged his horse to his father's side, eying the ranks of men now forming on the opposite slope of the moor, decked out in their dark blue Campbell tartans. "If we send some men to circle around," Duncan suggested, "Then attack with the rest of us from the front, we could catch them off guard, and be prepared for any tricks they might want to play."
"And reduce our numbers in the initial attack?" Iain scoffed. "Nay. They will send their best fighters out in the first rank, and we must be at full strength. One on one, we can beat them and send them back to their villages licking their wounds. It will be many winters before the Campbells dare bother the MacLeods again, and there will be opportunity to take back some land they have stolen from us over the years."
"But Father," Duncan urged, "if we commit all the men in the initial attack, we will have none to deal with any tricks they might have planned. You, at least, should stay here with the other leaders so that..."
"And have Angus Campbell call me coward?" Iain snapped, his eyes narrowing in a look Duncan knew too well brooked no disagreement. "Nay, Duncan. I will lead the attack. Let the boys and old men stay here, if you like, just in case the damned Campbells try some treachery."
Duncan wheeled his horse around, unsatisfied with the plan, but deferring to his father's greater wisdom and authority. He chose twenty men to stay behind, over their protests, instructing them to await a signal to join the fray or to act if they observed any traps their opponent might have laid.
He barely made it back to the front of their ranks in time to dismount and hand his mare's reins off to the lads they had brought along to watch the horses. Highlanders fought on foot, hand to hand, blade to blade. He checked to be sure his dirk was close at hand at his waist, and slid his claymore out of its scabbard. His blood was beginning to pound loudly in his ears and he shed his cloak, his skin flushing warm even in the chilly breeze.
He could hear the quick, nervous breaths of the men around and behind him, could feel their mounting excitement and readiness, all of them tending to lean forward, ready to move, ready to join the battle. At last his father raised his claymore high over his head, watching as across the field Angus Campbell did the same. A long, breathless silence descended and the breeze seemed to die, leaving the air still and thin, almost unbreathable.
"Cirean Ceann Cinnidh!!" Iain MacLeod roared at the top of his lungs, as his powerful legs pushed him forward through the low-lying gorsh that scraped at their calves as the line dashed forward, spreading out slightly. A wild roar filled the air as all the men took up the cry of "Ciraen Ceann Cinnidh!" until it evolved into a scream of unintelligible noise as legs pumped forward, each man watching the line of men advancing towards them, unconsciously choosing someone, some running figure, some embodiment of the "enemy" to kill first.
The noise as the two battle lines met was deafening, and the shouts became grunts and growls and screams of pain overlaid with clangs of metal meeting metal, of flesh being torn, of bone being splintered. For long moments each man knew only the man whose blade met his, and the battle quickly became anarchy, a morass of individual fights. Duncan slashed and stabbed, finding his dirk in his left hand without having consciously reached for it. A gray-haired warrior went down before him, blood washing warmly over his forearm as Duncan stabbed deep to get underneath the man's leather baldrick.
Then there was another, and another. His arms moved, his legs held him and his world narrowed to the small space immediately around him until he heard a familiar cry and dared look up to see his father shouting, raising his claymore high again as it appeared the Campbell's line was being pushed back. Iain's face was smeared with blood, but exultant and wild with a fierce joy.
But the cry was premature as Duncan felt the rumbling vibrations of men on horseback and saw a new contingent of warriors bearing down on them from each flank, long, pointed spears drawn back to their shoulders, ready to throw. With a shout he stabbed into the enemy nearest him, sending him to his knees then turned, yelling at the top of his lungs and waving his arm to signal the men they had held in reserve.
His throat closed before the shout had finished and his blades dropped from suddenly numb fingers. He opened his mouth to try again, but no sound escaped. He looked down, oddly surprised to see a spear stuck deep into his belly. His legs refused to hold him and he slammed painfully to his knees, choking for air that refused to come.
He heard his father scream his name, barely audible over the sudden roar in his ears, but he didn't...couldn't answer. He had to get it out. It was his only thought. It didn't belong there. His hands closed around the spear shaft. He yanked and the agony hit and rolled over him, flattening him to the ground. He was almost glad he couldn't breathe, otherwise he would have screamed with the pain. Then there were arms around him, pulling him up, carrying him. He kept trying to get enough air to speak, but it hurt too much to breathe and warm liquid was choking his throat.
"Retreat!" he heard men yelling around him. Somehow he was moving away from the battle, towards their line of horses.
"No!" he whispered, but the sound was so small he wasn't sure anyone could hear him. "We must beat them back, the extra men..."
"Hush, Duncan!" a voice said. It was Jamie Bethune, a man almost his father's age from a different sept. The huge man was carrying him off the field like a babe in his arms. "Save your strength, lad."
Jamie pulled him onto a horse and Duncan was deeply shamed as he cried out at the hellish pain that lanced through his middle, filling every corner of his mind and stealing his strength. Then they were riding, with every jolt of every step a different agony. He started shivering from the cold, but that movement only added more layers of pain.
He had to have passed out, but the jarring sensation of more movement stirred him to consciousness as someone laid him on soft pelts and he opened his eyes, looking up into the thatched roof of a small stone hut. An unfamiliar voice drew his attention and he was uncertain whether the old woman crouched against the wall, fumbling with her rosary and mumbling prayers was praying for him, or for herself as these bloody warriors invaded her tiny, shabby home. For a moment Duncan felt sorry for her, would have reassured her if he had any breath to speak, but another wave of dizzy weakness and overwhelming pain made his eyes squeeze shut, as he tried desperately not to shame himself or his father.
Duncan could still hear the distant sounds of battle. They couldn't have taken him very far. He had been clutching the hot agony in his belly, but his hands were forcefully peeled away.
"Looks bad," he heard Jamie murmur. "I'll gather the men." Then another shadow fell across him and he opened his eyes. He was scared to look at his own wounds, and wanted to ask if Jamie was really talking about him, but another shiver of cold wracked his body before he could get the question out.
"Duncan," Iain began, his voice cracking.
Looking into his father's anguished face, a certainty settled over Duncan, and with it a surreal calm. Jamie had been talking about him. He was dying. "Father, I..."
"No, save your strength. You fought well. You fought like a MacLeod."
He forced a few more words past the liquid bubbling in his throat. If only he had a little more strength, there were so many things he wanted to say. "I wanted to be part of the victory...."
"Aye, you will. You will be part of a great victory," his father grated out.
The roar in his ears intensified, and the notion of his own death seemed so inevitable, yet so unreal. It was too soon. "I...always thought there would be more..." but he had no more breath, no more words, no more time. The roar in his ears faded to a high whine, almost a musical note. Then there was nothing.
Breath burned. He pulled in air again, and again it burned. He coughed and spat blood out of this throat, then gasped in the first deep draught of air he had felt in what seemed like a long time. Distantly, he could hear his name shouted outside the window. "Duncan MacLeod! Duncan MacLeod!" He was being called, and thought he heard his father's voice. But...
He sat up, then felt his belly. The pain was gone. Just...gone. He looked down at his bloodied hands, looking where he had not dared look before, not wanting to see the fatal, gaping wound he knew was there. But his skin was unmarked. Not a cut. Not even a scratch. He reached for the wet cloths someone had set out to tend or clean him, washing away the blood to be certain what he saw was real, but started when he heard a scream. The old woman who had been praying was looking at him in abject horror.
In response to the terrified cry, his father slammed into the small hut, his men crowding behind him, his eyes sweeping the room before they settled on Duncan. Iain MacLeod's eyes grew large and Duncan froze under that intense stare, trying to read his father's thoughts by the expression on his face. Shock, astonishment...Duncan expected something else and was chilled to the core when he didn't see it. No joy, no relief to see him alive, no warmth, no welcome, as though all his father saw was a ghost, a spirit that had no right to be among the living.
Had he truly...died, then? He had been so certain of it. Had felt it, had known it deep in his soul. There was only one explanation. "It...it's a miracle," he whispered. He was frightened, uncertain of what had happened or why, hoping his father would have an explanation. His father always had an explanation. Always knew what to do.
Iain backed away, his eyes swiveling between the astonished boy on the rough pallet and the old woman whimpering hysterically against the wall. He shook his head slowly. "No," he growled. "Tis the work of the demon master of the world below!" As the words fell out of his mouth, his voice rising to a near scream, for the first time in his life Duncan saw sheer terror on his father's face.
"Father..." Duncan reached out, but Iain backed away.
"Nay! You're no bairn of mine. You're no my son! YOU'RE NO MY SON!" The last was a hoarse, horrified cry. The door slammed, and his father was gone.
"Father?" Duncan called softly. He tried to push himself to his feet but he only managed to fall off the pallet, spilling the bowl of pink-stained water into the dirt floor. "Father!" It was a shout this time, hoarse and painful. This was a mistake. Some dream. Some awful nightmare.
He struggled to his knees, fumbling with his ruined shirt. He used the wall to lever himself up, but the room swam and he gasped and closed his eyes, clinging to the cold, rough stone walls. There were noises outside, voices, shouts and cries of dismay. The battle. He had to rejoin his clansman. He lurched through the door and his eyes watered from the acrid smoke hanging in the air from nearby homes put to flame. He wiped his eyes with his hand and squinted, trying to focus.
The clan was mounted, moving away, leaving him behind. "Father, wait!" he stumbled forward. He could see his father's outline through the thick haze, would recognize that wolf pelt, those broad shoulders, anywhere. The Chief of the Clan MacLeod turned briefly and the horses paused. No one spoke, and all the men, his friends, his cousins, family he had known all his life, Jamie Bethune, Donald MacAndie, Neil MacGregor, dozens of others whose faces he knew better than his own, they all looked away.
"Father?" it came out as a question, a plea.
Then Iain MacLeod wheeled his horse around, and with a harsh cry to his men, thundered off at a gallop back towards Glen Garven. In only a moment, Duncan was alone, with only the distant sounds of battle breaking the silence.