Haunted By A Highland Curse – Emilia Campbell

Give it back!” The cry was one of feeling but not authority. It was a begging, a pleading that expelled from the face of a little boy, his features streaked with tears and his cheeks red with emotion. His eyes were glazed, his hair mussed from the rough-and-tumble of boyhood games. He was dressed finely but did not hold himself in a way that commanded obedience. The child was sniveling, brushing the back of his hand beneath his nose, the cold of the winter months biting at his fingers. He was the son of a wealthy, traveling merchant. And, while his family could claim to hold more gold than any of the boys that surrounded him, he was worth nothing to them, for they judged worth by blood, and they were the future generations of nobility in the Highlands. The collective of a half dozen boys, all born to fathers that claimed a connection to the Brodie line of lineage, were crowded around the outsider. They passed between them a little dagger, finely crafted with jewels and golden thread work over its hilt. The sheath for the little blade hung at their victim’s hip, empty and hollow. “Please give it back. It was a gift.” “Please give it back, my lords,” one of the other boys taunted him. He was the son of the second cousin of the laird and proud of his history. Each time his family attended a formal function, his hair was pulled back from his face so that the long locks could not obscure his hazel eyes—a token from the Brodie bloodline.

They flashed green in the cold winter sunlight, lit with the glow of power. There was little true malice in the boys. While their victim feared them, and their actions were cruel, an adult might see their crimes for what they were—a misplaced desire to prove themselves worthy of their childhood teachings, to make proud the fathers that had assured them of their future lives of dominance and responsibility. When young, being powerful meant that others had to feel small. They jeered and taunted the merchant’s son, seeing only their triumph in someone else’s defeat. “Give it back to him.” The voice didn’t come from the gaggle of lordlings, nor the victim of their pranks. Instead, a third component drew in towards where the children were clustered on the edge of the open forestry. The boys turned to glance at the young boy approaching their territory. Like animals, their hackles rose, and their defenses grew strong.

The owner of the stolen dagger could only watch with wide eyes. The young master Brodie was tall for his age. Only seven years old and still able to look the older boys in the eye, the laird’s son possessed the foretellings of future strength. His limbs were long, his back was straight, and he held hands and feet enough to grow into. A little languid in his gait, rolling in his slim shoulders, Niall Brodie approached the group with a determination that would not bend to youthful nerves. “Return the dagger,” he ordered again. A single, sweeping glance was all it had taken for him to identify the stolen possession and its true owner. Several of the boys took tentative steps backward, distancing themselves from the antics of the ringleaders. Their parents, the lords and ladies of the province, were celebrating the winter solstice just a half-mile across the heath. To them, the risk of antagonizing the laird’s son for the sake of a simple jest was a fool’s errand.

Others were less fearful. Lord MacEowan’s son stepped forward with the stride that held the confidence of approaching adulthood. Since his tenth summer, the boy had declared himself the authority amongst his peers. And such a rule was not to be challenged by anyone, especially Niall. “I shan’t be ordered by the likes of you, my lord.” MacEowan turned to face off against Niall, the small golden knife in his hands. Niall did not fear the older boys. He never had. Be it courage or foolhardiness, his instincts had seen him blind to all risk, all differences in size or strength. A riotous temper, native to the lands of the Scots, served to address the deficit and place him upon equal footing with any that fought him.

It was that heat and sense of honor that had Niall wading through the long grass, stepping over rocks and a fallen log, slippery with frosted moss. He moved slow and sure until he stood in the open space of fallen leaves and stinging bramble. The enclave was quiet, protected by overhanging branches, and possessed the private intimacy of a secret hideout—a hidden space in which boys could be men. “The dagger is not yours, MacEowan,” Niall accused. His black and white sense of justice kept his tone hard and his age kept his words simple. “You should return it. Whether I order you to or not.” The uncomplicated lesson in kindness only served to rile the older boy. His jaw clenched, his eyes sparked, and he practically threw the little knife at its owner’s feet. The merchant’s boy bent to scramble and take up the knife but only held it between his hands.

He, perhaps, feared returning it to its sheath, lest it be snatched once more by the nimble fingers of his pursuers. Niall could have told the boy that he needed not to fear. MacEowan’s interest in the trinket had dispersed with his own arrival. He was a new victim over whom to laud. The downfall of the laird’s son held the opportunity for a more triumphant victory than that of a simple merchant’s boy. MacEowan was a hunter, having permitted the quick hare his escape in favor of an antlered buck. “I’ll not take lessons in morality from some bastard brat!” the older boy shot at Niall. His nose wrinkled as if the rumors of Niall’s birth expelled a physical stench. Niall’s brow drew low in anger, and his hands curled into fists. He had heard such tales over and over again, ever since he had been old enough to understand their meaning.

Any achievement he made, any growth he attained, it was likened back to his early birth. How he could only walk so soon because his advent had been sooner than natural, how his speech was not early but in line with a birth that, despite being a month early, must surely have been full term? Over the years, Niall had developed a distrust and distaste for the women of the upper echelons of society. The men knew not to disgrace his father with such words, not to sully the Brodie name with allegations. But the wives and daughters of such men possessed so little to do with their days that they murmured in the dark and whispered over sweetbreads and jam. Niall’s bloodline was impossible to miss. He had been crafted in the image of his father and his grandfather before him. He had beautiful hazel eyes and dark hair. His figure was long and lean, ready to blossom into broad muscle. His nose was that of his uncle’s; his smile, his grandmother’s. There was no argument as to his parentage, only that his conception had happened prior to formal marriage vows—that he was, in fact, illegitimate.

Repeated cruelties made them no easier to swallow. Niall knew the tales, knew that they stemmed from jealousy over his mother’s common origins. At seven years of age, the details of the gossip were blurred, but Niall honored his parents to the extent of blind faith regardless. He had never known his mother, but he knew enough to understand when to be insulted on her behalf, as did the other boys that drew closer to MacEowan. Their gazes were unsure, their expressions distrusting. They watched Niall with looks of anxious assessment. Despite his young age, Niall’s temper had become famed amongst the nobility. “I’ll thank you…” Niall grated, the words drawn from between clenched teeth. He tried to breathe through his nose, as his father had taught him, to seize control on his sense and reason. But all he drew down into his chest was the damp smell of rotted leaves and mulch, the icy bitterness of snow.

He swallowed hard before attempting again. “I’ll thank you to show my father respect.” With his mother in the kingdom of the Almighty, she would not hear nor need such honor. Niall would pray for her dignity on Sunday. But his father was still here, despite his ill health, and Niall would not see him diminished. “I’m not looking at your father,” the boy sneered. Either he hadn’t noticed the blotches of white that bloomed over Niall’s knuckles, or he did not fear them. “I’m looking at you. And I’ll say now that my father will ne’er follow you as laird. And neither will I.

We’ll not bow to the likes of a whore’s bastard boy.” Niall’s vision tunneled. His rage took hold of his muscles and burned through his bones. The next thing he knew, he had tackled MacEowan to the icy dew. Younger than the other, his weight was slight, but his force was strong. He launched himself across the open space, wrapped his arms around the boy’s waist, and sent him to the cold ground. The leaves cushioned their fall, but Niall felt the hard earth beneath rise against his hands and heard the whoosh of air leaving MacEowan’s lungs. He didn’t wait for the boy to become less dazed. He pinned him beneath his legs, yanked his own arms free, and hauled back to throw a fist at the lordling’s nose. By now, the others had gotten involved.

From some, shouts rang out and baited the two boys to fight, while others reached their hands forward to grab at Niall. Their fingers bit into his upper arms, pulling him back. His rage made him slippery, and he twisted in their grasp, launching a kick at MacEowan’s gut. Chaos quickly reigned upon the small clearing. Some of the boys ran for cover, or to alert the adults nearby. Others dived into the fight, limbs flailing and war cries on their tongues. Niall fought as an independent. There were none that took his side over the son of powerful Lord MacEowan. He was a single entity against an army of four, but his odds did not see him falter. It was as his father had always said: he was either courageous or foolhardy.

While none of the boys were either experienced nor strong enough to land blows of great power, they made up for it in spunk. Their youthful energy and childlike passions saw their aggression rise high and their need to hurt and maim bubble to the surface—like small hounds not yet trained to leave their hunted quarry for their master. By the time an adult—a young servant from the laird’s estate—had been summoned to break up the fight, Niall was crouched in the center of a storm. His frame was bent low over MacEowan, whom he had sent onto his back once more. The other boys were a shell of conflict bearing down around him. Niall was holding off the assaults from above as he batted away MacEowan’s attempts to rise. As if possessed by some ancient god of war, Niall timed his actions like a dance. Never offering a weakness, never leaving an enemy unchecked. He swallowed blows that would see an older boy wince, and he paid no heed to the blood that broke over his chin. His desire to avenge the honor of his parents, to declare himself a valid being, overrode any pain or fear.

In a sort of victory, the fight was broken up by the appearance of their audience when the other boys stepped back and away. It was only when his assailants were distracted that Niall looked up to spy the man in question. The servant was Henry, a lad who worked as a scribe to his father. Despite his wiry frame that manhood forgot, he was a reminder of the laird’s presence and power—even if his blond hair and nervous disposition were hardly that of a man that possessed authority within himself. Henry’s eyes were wide with a dazed sort of look, surprise and heartbreak on his features. Niall could not think why, when it was hardly rare for him to be caught in a fight. He rose to his feet again, releasing MacEowan’s tunic with a dismissive shove. He felt shame burn in his belly. Despite all his efforts and all of his father’s teachings, it was with frequent event that Niall returned home with a bruised eye or a split lip. When he was younger, he had lost teeth in the scuffles.

Yet, even in the face of his own shameful remorse, Niall had never seemed able to calm that blinding rage that took hold when his wounds were exposed. Niall felt the sting of a broken lip and glanced down at the crimson that streaked across his hand. His knuckles were raw and pink, one sporting a deep slice that stung. When he spat, it left a smear of scarlet, vivid against the bright hue of white, frosted leaves and the snowy earth beneath. His breath came in puffs of white. “My lord…” Henry’s tone was threadbare and quiet. But then, he had never been a sturdy individual. “You are not to report this to my father, Henry,” Niall insisted. He shrugged back into his tunic, where it had been pulled low and out of shape over his shoulder. He looked to the other boys who narrowed their eyes back at him.

He could have seen them all punished for defying rank, but he considered that to go against the codes of chivalry. This was his own fight, not his father’s. “No, my lord. The laird, he…” Niall’s stare found that of the servant’s, as Henry’s eyes filled with the glaze of emotion. It seemed as if the truth was only settling upon the man’s shoulders now that he was having to relate it to Niall. “Your father, Lord Gilroy…my lord, he is dead.” It would take several days for Niall to realize the extent that this event would have upon his life. How it now made him laird and confirmed his lineage beyond argument. And how it relegated him to being entirely alone in the world. It would be weeks before he knew what that really felt like, and years before he could come to terms with his position of power.

In that moment, no such realization could dawn for the seven-year-old laird. All Niall could think about was the way that his blood seeped and stained the snow.

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