Tale of the Deceived Highlander (Preview)
The glen was filled with the clashing of iron against iron and iron against wood, as well as war cries and bloodcurdling screams. Christopher Ross, of Clan Ross, could hardly move, as his feet kept getting stuck in the mud. He was aware that his father, Chief Wilyam Ross III, had ordered guards to keep an eye on him, but he needed to hold his own. His sword was nearly too heavy to lift over his head, but he was able to deflect blows aimed at it.
He looked around for a moment, catching his breath, and almost vomited at the sight. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. The bodies were stacked on top of one another, and some of them were unrecognizable. This was his father’s fight, and he was the next in line to be laird. Christopher had no choice but to join the rest of the soldiers on the field; he had a duty to fulfill. He was only a few years into his training with real iron when he began to grow hair above his lip and below his waist. In his mind, he had no business taking part in a man’s fight, but he was a man now. At least in his father’s eyes.
He would rather be pestering his cousins or shooting his bow at Hawkhead Castle. He’d never admit it, but he preferred the lazy days around the keep. He could get up whenever he wanted and no one would mind as long as he washed up and attended dinner on time. He was only twelve. He had no desire to kill or witness the killing of a man, let alone be surrounded by such carnage. He’d spent the last few years training hard to make his father proud, not realizing how soon he’d be fighting.
A hard shove snapped Christopher out of his trance as he was pushed down into the mud. He took a deep breath before feeling a foot on the back of his head, forcing his face into the bloody dirt below. He flailed around and tried desperately to get out from under it but he was too small. When he heard a deep voice rumble, panic began to set in, “Aye ye ugly heathen! Tak’ yer foot off ma bairn!”
Christopher felt the force of the foot being ripped away as his father threw the large warrior off him. He lifted his face away from the ground to breathe, but he couldn’t see because of the mud on his face. He could hear his father arguing with his attacker and quickly cleared his eyes to see what was happening. Almost as soon as he opened his eyes, the heathen warrior thrust his sword into his father’s chest. Despite the fact that he was bellowing in his head, Christopher couldn’t even make a sound — he was stunned.
He barely had time to process what had happened before he was hoisted off the ground and into another set of arms. “Get this wee lad tae the wagon. Isnae the place for him.”
Christopher could hear his cousin blathering as he escorted him to the back of the line, where it would be safer. He was still trying to piece together what he had just witnessed in order to understand what his cousin was saying to him. He was thrown to the ground, away from any real fighting, and left to his own devices, his sword laying nearby.
The scene had been far more gruesome than he had anticipated. He knew there would be blood and death, but he had always heard battle stories that seemed to glorify it. He had not anticipated the reality that had unfolded in front of him. Clan Ross appeared to be triumphing over the Norse raiders who refused to renounce their religious practices. His father wished to aid in the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland, particularly in the areas where Scandinavians had settled. Some were content to relinquish their Norse-Pagan Gods, while others fought to the death to maintain their beliefs. One of those fights was this one.
Christopher sat on the ground, his knees against his chest. He could still hear the battle, but he silently thanked his Lord that he couldn’t see it. He had hoped that by being brave, he could make his father proud. Instead of attempting to kill the man who stabbed him in the chest, he had to be carried away like a child — and he was ashamed of it. In those final moments, he had let him down. The realization he was no longer alive was sinking in, and he did everything he could not to cry, even though he desperately wanted to. He refused to allow anyone to see him as weaker than he already was as a result of being taken out of action.
Christopher’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard the cheers of his clan. He looked around and saw many beaten and battered men cheering and clasping arms, while others were chasing down the last of the heathens, taking no prisoners. Sir Caelan Munro, his general and father’s closest friend, approached from the crowd with a dark smile on his face. This made Christopher shudder. Sir Caelan already appeared sinister to him, with a scar running from his forehead, over his left eye, and down his weathered left cheek to his jaw. His hair was white and gray with black streaks, and it was tied back at the nape of his neck. His eyes were so dark that they appeared black. He was one of the most massive men Christopher had ever seen. He had the stature of an ox and towered over most grown men. Some even referred to him as a giant made of fire and brimstone. On the battlefield, he was fierce, feared even. Sir Caelan appeared to have crawled from the pits of Hell, with his evil smile and blood-splattered face.
“Come, lad. I have a gift for ye,” The general yanked him to his feet and dragged him to the center of the forming crowd. One of Clan Ross stood in the center of the crowd, holding a pagan warrior in front of him. The general emerged from the crowd and faced Christopher, motioning toward the captive behind him. “I present to ye, the leader of these disgusting heathens!”
The crowd yelled and cheered.
“He is also the one who ran yer laird through!”
The crowd surrounded him with more yells and boos of disgust and anger. Then there was silence as they waited for their general to continue. He then approached Christopher and handed him his father’s bloody sword. “With yer da’s sword, separate that pagan’s head from his body!”
The crowd yelled and cheered once more. They were all waiting for Christopher to make the move that Caelan had instructed.
Christopher took a shaky step forward after a few moments of standing there, feeling all those eyes on him and the aching sound of dead silence all around. His general’s gaze was like a pair of hot daggers. He knew what was expected of him, but he wasn’t sure if he was capable of carrying it out. He took another step and his throat was filled with hot bile. He took another step, swallowing hard, and this time he couldn’t keep it down. He puked on the ground in front of him. His meekness was mocked by the audience, who laughed and jeered. Tears began to flow from his eyes, both from the force of the vomiting and the humiliation. He hoped the onlookers would all assume the former, but he knew he wasn’t that lucky as his face flushed with embarrassment.
The crowd fell silent. Christopher looked up into the face of the angry general, who was holding up his hand — commanding silence.
“Run him through, lad! Do as yer told!”
After another moment of silence, Christopher decided he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t. He shook his head and told his general, “No.”
Sir Caelan growled before lunging at him and snatching the sword from his grasp. He snarled at the man next to him, ordering him to hold Christopher’s head up and force him to watch. The general dashed over to the captured pagan and severed his head from his body. Christopher stood there in horror as the head thudded to the ground and rolled into a mudhole. The crowd burst into cheer.
He spun around to face Christopher, pointed his father’s sword towards him, and yelled, “That is what a leader does tae his opponents!” His face was flushed with rage and wild titillation, and spit shooting from his lips with each annunciation.
Christopher swallowed his bile once more. He was aware that his actions would have consequences, but he didn’t care. He vowed, right then and there, to be a different kind of leader. Honorable and humble. Someone to be admired rather than feared.
Eight Years Later
The sun warmed Christopher’s army as they spread across the glen. The grass was a lush green with mountains meeting the sky in the distance. The dale opened up in front of them, with trees on both sides and an opposing clan on the horizon. It was midday, and the men were growing impatient. Some leaned on their swords, while others remained mounted on their horses. Some men even took a knee to rest, but they held their ground. Christopher sat on the back of his horse, his mind wandering as he waited for word from the opposing clan across the way.
Since his first battle, he had been working to fulfill his father’s dream of converting the remaining Pagan clans to Christianity. However, as time passed, Christopher began to value peace over conversion. He was carrying out his father’s wishes, as any good son would, but the more death he encountered, the more he questioned everything. Did all of those men deserve to die just because they refused to abandon their faith? Were they not, in essence, fighting for the same cause as Christopher and his followers? What would happen if he simply stopped fighting?
He realized he couldn’t just walk away. There was more at stake than his father’s wishes and his own reputation. He had to do what was right for the clans while also following the King’s wishes but often wondered if he could please both sides while also trying to save as many lives as possible. He also needed to figure out how to deal with Sir Caelan, the general. Until recently, he had allowed the general to continue to be the leader of his clan, even after he had reached the legal age to take over as laird of Hawkhead Castle. And all the while, he found it easier to train and figure out what kind of leader he wanted to be.
The horses dug into the ground and the sun beat down on Clan Ross as they impatiently waited for Christopher to give up on the rider and allow the battle to begin.
“Och! What are we waitin’ fer? Let us get on with it!” one of the clansmen close to Christopher complained. Many agreed with a chorus of “Aye!”
“Keep the heid, men! We will avoid bloodshed if possible. Word will come before long,” Christopher answered loudly for as many men to hear as possible. He knew that some of the Clan didn’t agree with his strategy of sending a letter to back down, but he was willing to go to any length to avoid more lives lost. He then heard his closest friend, Fargus, clear his throat from the horse next to him before speaking. “Dae ye honestly think this chieftain will back down? The general has made it ‘is mission tae strike fear in those who refuse tae convert.”
“Dinnae remind me of that man’s need fer blood. It is as though he is cursed with it an’ instead of fighting it, he bathes in it.” Christopher made a face of disgust while speaking to his friend. “I dinnae ken that I still support getting others tae follow this way. There has been too much death, Fargus. There has tae be a better way.”
Under the general’s command, the clan had taken many pagan lives in the name of the Christian Lord over the years, but much of it had been excessive and unnecessary. That fueled Christopher’s determination to take over as laird and reclaim his army when the time came. He wanted bloodshed to be the last option, not the only one.
Finally, the rider reappeared, handing Christopher small ripped pieces of paper.
“He said little, Christopher. He read what was written, ripped it intae pieces, an’ told me that was ‘is answer,” the rider explained.
“Thank ye. Get back in line,” Christopher instructed.
The fight was about to start. After taking a deep breath, he gave the order to attack. He was at the front of the line this time, swinging his sword as if it were an art form. The day he saw his father die was the day he resolved to be the greatest warrior Scotland had ever seen. He had spent hours practicing every day to perfect his craft — ensuring his body was the ideal vessel for a perfect warrior. Some described him as a marvel on the battlefield; h He was always calm and calculated about his next move — always aware of the enemy’s location and where he was needed.
Clan Ross yelled their battle cry and charged the glen at their chieftain’s signal. The opposing clan followed suit, meeting in the middle. Christopher took as many off their horses as he could before being thrown off his own. He only had a split second to catch his breath before a sword came slashing; he was able to deflect his attacker and easily handle the enemies surrounding him. He saw the general’s head tower over the shambles of men, wearing that evil grin that made Christopher’s skin crawl.
Christopher was impressed by the other clan’s abilities, but he knew they were no match for his army. The bodies began to fall quickly, revealing their exhaustion. He was fighting two opponents at once, attempting to knock them out — hoping he woulldn’t have to kill any of them. He took a look around and realized they were beginning to take over the other clan. His men were fighting with all their might, which filled him with pride and encouraged him to attack even more boldly.
The clan fought valiantly. Christopher was getting tired and wondering how long they could go when he heard the other side call for a retreat. He took a deep breath, relieved that it was coming to an end, until he heard the general order the men not to let them escape. A usual tactic of the horrible man: kill all those who flee, instead of just capturing them. They were only laying down their weapons in order to put an end to the bloodshed; wanting no more of any of it. And it enraged him how their men blindly followed Sir Caelan’s orders. He knew it would take some time for them to follow him, but he needed the general to do the same.
Christopher was saddened by the sight as he walked through the glen in search of his wounded. The glen was a beautiful stretch of open land that had been tainted by their conflict. Men from both sides lay on grass that had turned rusty from blood. While he was relieved that the majority of the dead belonged to the other clan, his heart was broken by the number of lives lost in vain. The injured men were moaning and pleading for help, some pleading with their mothers or God to have mercy and end their agony. He saw his clansmen thrust their swords into wounded men; redeeming them from a slow, painful death. A cruel act of mercy.
He discovered one of his own attempting to stop the bleeding in his thigh caused by a deep sword cut, and immediately knelt to assist. They wrapped cloth from the man’s shirt around the wound and used Christopher’s belt to make a tourniquet. As he helped his clansman to his feet, he noticed a crowd forming. He approached to see what was causing all the commotion, sensing what was going on before he arrived. The crowd parted for him; the general was in the center. And a scene from his past had returned to haunt him. He wanted to turn the clan against him and prove him to be a weak leader.
The general presented the captured chieftain of the opposing clan, just as he had done years before. Christopher stood tall and emotionless, his arms crossed in front of him.
The general yelled, “I present to ye, the leader o’ the filthy pagans! Separate his head from his body!”
The crowd cheered loudly as Sir Caelan looked expectantly at Christopher. When he made no move to unsheathe his sword, the crowd fell silent.
The general ground his teeth and seethed, “Do as yer told, lad!”
Christopher was as still as a statue, never taking his gaze away from Sir Caelan. The general charged towards him, yanked his father’s sword from its sheath, and began stomping toward the captured chieftain. Christopher stepped up and grabbed his arm to stop him before he could get halfway.
The men stood face to face, noses almost touching. He could feel the general’s hot, disgusting breath on his face, but he refused to be the first to back down. Sir Caelan tried to yank his arm away, but Christopher tightened his grip. “This isnae the way. He will remain our prisoner, an’ he will be shown mercy. Dinnae forget these are my men now. I mak’ the orders.”
Christopher could sense a shift in the energy of his clan. They were at a loss for what to do. They’d never seen anyone stand up to Sir Caelan Munro. They were looking at each other, lost, unsure how to react. Some were taken aback, while others stood by, expecting a brawl between the leaders. Christopher could hear the whispers as they spread around the five-man-deep circle of witnesses. Christopher ran his hand down the general’s arm, grabbing the hilt of his father’s sword without looking up. He was displaying his dominance for all to see. He half expected the general to try to kill him, but he also knew it would be a bad idea. Finally, the general growled before brushing hard against Christopher’s shoulder as he pushed his way through the crowd and stalked away.
To keep things moving and make it appear as if nothing had happened, Christopher directed the nearest soldier to bind the chieftain prisoner and prepare to transport him back to Hawkhead Castle. As they passed the pagan, the man stopped before Christopher. He was a stocky man with dark brown hair. He had a round face covered in a thick beard. He appeared to be ten years or more older. As the chieftain approached, he quickly readied himself, not knowing what the prisoner had in mind, and his clan followed suit by drawing their swords. To his surprise, however, the prisoner spoke quietly to him.
“Had I kent what kind o’ leader ye were, I would have made a different choice. We could have saved many lives today.” The chieftain bowed his head and allowed the soldier to lead him to the wagon to be carried away. Christopher stood there, perplexed by his confession.
One thing he knew though: he had to change the way the clan ran its affairs.
As Christopher approached his horse, he felt a large hand clasp his shoulder. He immediately recognized it as belonging to his best friend, Fargus MacLeod. Fargus was built similarly to him, albeit slightly thicker and shorter. He had curly reddish-orange hair and eyes that were a medley of greens. Fargus was loud and rambunctious where he was calm and serious. He knew how to make his friend laugh and enjoy life when it was needed, qualities to be admired for sure.
“Ye better be careful. Caelan will do all he can tae keep this army. He feels it is owed tae him.”
“Och. He will have tae fall in line. I’m his laird and he will soon see what kind o’ leader I am. I’m not a wee lad anymore an’ I’ll be fighting fer ma clan.”
“He may force ye tae fight tae the death.”
“Then let it be so.”
Fargus shook his head as they approached the horses. It was a long trip back to Hawkhead Castle, and they needed to stay alert. They never knew when rogue fighters from a pagan clan would appear in the brush. Due to rumors of Clan Ross’s ferocity, opposing clans rarely attacked, but there were a few who dared to do so now and then. Christopher hoped for a dull ride home. He was tired of fighting and just wanted to get back to his bed. He wanted to start planning how he was going to change his army, knowing that the general would fight him every step of the way.
Brigid MacDougall braided her long, wavy red hair to keep it out of her face. Her sword was stuck in the ground next to her, and her tongue was protruding as she struggled to finish the braid. Aengus MacDougall, her slightly older brother, was leaning against a tree, picking the leaves off a limb he had pulled from the nearest branch.
“We haven’t all day, lass. The announcements are coming soon.”
“Och! I’m about done. There.” She finished braiding her hair and pulled her sword out of the ground to show her brother she was ready.
“Get on with it, will ye. I’m ready tae kick yer arse!” Brigid smiled sweetly and batted her eyes, knowing it would annoy her brother.
They had been practicing with their swords for many years. Their father despised the fact that she wanted to learn but acknowledged that it was necessary. And, in all honesty, he knew he’d never be able to keep her from learning. When she was set on something, it was difficult to persuade her otherwise.
As they made a slow circle, she took a moment to assess Aengus. He was a foot taller than she was, and his hair, like their father’s, was brown and tied back in a short ponytail with waves like hers. She thought it was amusing how the ladies liked to twirl their fingers through it. Anything to pique his interest. He was quite attractive, with honey brown eyes, while she had bright green eyes, and they both had a healthy amount of freckles dotting their cheeks and nose.
She kept an eye on his feet and his hands around his sword, looking for any tells she’d picked up over the years. They’d both become great fighters, and he was now irritated that his younger sister could outsmart him with the sword. No man wants to be defeated by a woman. He lunged forward, and she twirled out of the way, then launched an instant counter-attack to catch him off guard. They exchanged blows, deflecting each other’s hits with ease. They had split up and resumed their slow circle when they heard fast approaching hooves. When Aengus looked up to see who was approaching, Brigid took advantage of the opportunity to attack, slicing the arm of his shirt. She could see some blood seeping through, but she knew he wasn’t hurt badly.
“Never lose focus, Aengus. It’s the difference between life an’ death,” she sang as she walked to the rider.
“Yer father is asking for ye two tae come back tae the castle. He is about tae mak’ the announcement of the new chieftain.”
“Thank you. We are on our way up.”
Brigid and Aengus gathered their things and made their way to the castle. They had been equally anticipating and dreading this day. By birth, Aengus was to be the next laird and chieftain. However, years ago their father had taken in their cousin, James MacLeod, whose parents killed in a road raid during one of their trips into the village. From the moment James moved in with them, their father cherished him.
Brigid enjoyed having another big brother around, but as she got older, she started to see how it was affecting Aengus. He had been cast aside while their father taught James all he could. It was obvious he was being groomed to become the next leader when it was her brother’s birthright. She loved James but wholeheartedly disagreed with her father’s actions. She knew he was sorry that the boy had lost his parents at such a young age, but sitting and watching her brother’s confidence and passion dwindle with each passing year irritated her. She prayed to the gods that her father would make the right decision.
As they got closer to the Dunollie Castle, the hubbub of the event was obvious. Families filed into the hall, mingling, and drinking, waiting for the big announcement. Brigid loved it when they held gatherings of any kind. She enjoyed seeing everyone in one place and relished the excuse to wear her better dresses. Additionally, her father was eager to see her marry, so every event also served as a chance at finding a suitor.
She had to admit, deep down, that she loved the thrill of meeting new people, and the enthralling possibility that one of them might become her husband. Her da had always said he wanted her to choose for herself. That her happiness mattered to him more than making a political statement. But she feared he was getting impatient with her as she had been dragging the process out to her advantage; enjoying the freedom of being unwed. But apart from that, she had not been interested in many of the available men in their clan. She was waiting for that one person to set her soul on fire.
She loved being able to marry whomever she wanted, but given her family’s position, she would be expected to take a husband soon. At times, the weight of being the good daughter and doing what was expected of her became too much. She recalled an argument she had with her father a few months prior.
“Ye need tae pick a husband, Brigid. Yer past the age most women wed and will be expected tae start having bairns soon. The clan is askin’ questions,” her father had expressed.
“I havnae found the one yet, Da. Ye always promised it would be ma choice. Ye promised Ma before she died.”
“Dinnae bring yer ma intae this. I want ye tae be happy, lass, I truly do. But if ye dinnae choose a husband by the year’s end, I may have tae do the choosin’.”
Brigid recalled feeling betrayed when her father walked away. He had promised her and her dying mother that he would always prioritize her happiness. She never understood the weight of being a leader when she was younger — that the weight passed onto the children. From the day her mother died when she was fourteen until the day she had that argument with her father, she clung to that promise. She wondered if he would break his promise and choose her husband for her. What if he became too impatient? What if her father’s choice for her was a monster? What if he never loved her, or she never loved him? Could she really live the rest of her life without ever experiencing true love? She wondered how much she would be expected to give up as the chieftain’s daughter.
The pressure on her to choose someone was increasing, and she added to it by declaring that if her father chose James to be his successor, she would never marry. “Ye cannae choose James, Da. Aengus is yer son an’ rightful successor. Ye will crush him if ye choose James,” she had pleaded to her father.
“I need tae pick who will be best fer our clan, Brigid. The moment he came tae us as an orphan he became a part o’ this family. He has every right tae that honor as yer brother.”
“Isnae right, Da. If ye choose James as yer successor, I willnae wed. I will remain a lonely spinster until the end of ma days.”
“Och! Enough, lass! I willnae discuss this with ye any further. Ye will honor whomever I choose and ye will honor yer duty as ma daughter an’ find yerself a husband or I will do it fer ye!”
She knew it was a childish declaration, and that if she dragged her heels any longer, she would have no say in the matter, but she wanted to express her feelings about who should be chief as dramatically as possible. When she told her father that Aengus should be his successor, she never felt heard so desperate as she was, she had resorted to manipulating her father with her emotions, only to be left in the dark about his decision. Brigid was determined to keep her word, but she was aware that her father doubted she would ever go against his wishes.
With the pressure of the evening on her, she decided to do her part and listen to the advances of the single men who would come to her. She would mentally narrow down the list of those who stood out as potential husbands. She would put on a good show, but it would all come to an end if her father named James as his successor.
Brigid found her maid, Innis, in her chamber, waiting to help her wash up and change into her new gown.
“Are ye excited fer the evening?” Innis had asked.
“I dinnae know, Innis. I am a mix of nerves an’ excitement. I really hope Da names Aengus as chieftain, but honestly I dinnae know who he will choose.”
“Oh, I’m sure he will do the right thing.”
“The problem is what is right in his mind may not be the same as what is right in mine,” Brigid sighed as she lowered herself into the bath. As Innis washed her hair, she let her thoughts and worries from the night play over and over in her mind. She sat in front of the vanity in her shift after she was clean and dry and began working through the tangles in her hair.
“Let me help ye with that, lass,” Innis said as she walked up behind Brigid and politely took the brush. “What else is eatin’ at ya?”
Brigid’s mind raced with the various reactions her brother could have if he was not named chieftain. “I’m worried about Aengus. He hides it, but he is so fragile. I fear he is losing his place in life an’ will be lost without followin’ in our father’s footsteps.”
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