Highland Defender – Kathryn Le Veque

It sounded like a fight. But, then again, everything in this seedy section of Edinburgh sounded like a fight. Men fought, women fought, dogs fought. Sometimes even old people fought. There was a couple in a corner lodging at the end of the alley who regularly took to each other with clubs and shovels. The problem was that they were so ridiculously old, and the weapons so heavy, that they could never really lift them. They ended up lugging them around and shouting at each other. Then they would drag their weapons inside and share the cheap ale that made them so belligerent in the first place. And then it would start all over again. But this wasn’t the quarrelsome old couple. This was different. A scream filled the air, but it was more a cry of rage. He’d been sleeping in a nook in this old alley for a few hours, ever since he stumbled his way out of the Sticky Wick. He wasn’t exactly drunk, but he’d had plenty to drink of that cheap ale with chaff in it. Depression and sorrow had brought him to the nook to sleep, too unmotivated to make it back to the loft he rented from a greedy livery owner.

He simply didn’t care anymore. But the sounds of a fight had his attention. Sitting up, he put a hand to his throbbing head, listening to sounds of a struggle and once again hearing that angry scream. The sounds were coming from a smaller alleyway that branched off from the one he was languishing in. One more scream and he was on the move. Instinct took over. It was early morning so people were beginning to go about their daily business. The alleyway was slick with mud from both the rain the night before and the piss tossed out of the homes. He almost slipped as he made his way toward the sound of the struggle, taking a turn and gripping the corner of the house he was next to so he wouldn’t slide in the muck. Then he saw it.

A woman was being assailed by at least three men. She had something in her arms, something they were grabbing at and she was unwilling to relinquish. She was fighting them off as much as she was able, but it was one woman against three grubby old men. They weren’t really touching her as much as they were simply grabbing at whatever she was carrying, but when one man got behind her and tripped her, the fight escalated. Most people in this part of Edinburgh wouldn’t get involved in something like this. They were people who lived in poverty and filth and without the wherewithal to involve themselves in someone else’s troubles. But he was different—he knew he couldn’t just stand there as a woman was assaulted. It wasn’t in his nature, though there were times when he questioned his nature. He wasn’t even sure what it was any longer. But what it wasn’t was passive when someone needed assistance.

Bane Morgan had never been passive in his life. Reckless, yes. But not passive. Wiping a hand over his face to clear his vision, he charged headlong into the fracas. The woman was on the ground now as the men grabbed at her. She was kicking and scratching, unwilling to let go of whatever she was holding in her arms. Bane came up behind one of the men grabbing at her, driving a punch into the back of his head that sent him crashing into the stone wall. The woman was in a panic. She was scrambling to get away and, in the process, dropped what she was carrying. Sausages, carefully wrapped, rolled out onto the dirty alley.

That brought more people, those who had been observing the fight with disinterest until the food started to fly. Now they came running. The brawl became a melee. Unfortunately, Bane was right in the middle of it. He found himself surrounded by people grabbing at the sausages rolling in the dirt, fighting over them, punching and kicking one another for the privilege of rescuing a dirty meat roll. Hands, feet, and pieces of meat were flying as the hungry and desperate fought for their very existence. It wasn’t a matter of greed. It was a matter of survival. The fight was lost already, only the woman on the ground didn’t realize it yet. She still thought there was some hope of regaining what she’d lost.

She was struggling to her feet, slapping hands and shoving people, trying desperately to regain her lost meat. But when Bane managed to confiscate a couple of sausages, she thought he was stealing them and grabbed the nearest weapon, which happened to be a dented copper piss pot near a doorway. Swinging it with all her might, she brained him with it. Piss went flying in all directions. “Bleeding Christ, woman,” he gasped as he crashed into the wall behind him. “What in the bloody hell was that for?” She was still wielding the pot like a club. “Give me back my sausages!” “I was going tae,” he said, shaking off the bells in his ears. “Give a man a chance before ye’re beating his brains in.” “Give a man a chance?” she repeated, aghast. “A chance tae do what? Rob me blind? Look around ye.

Everything I had is lost because of ye and yer thieving friends!” “I am many things, but a thief isna one of them.” “I saw ye help those men who were attacking me!” He shook his head again, wiping the piss from his eyes. “What ye saw was me coming tae yer aid. I heard the screaming and came tae help.” He opened his hand and let the two sausages in his grip fall to the ground. “But ye can fend for yerself now, wench. Best of luck tae ye.” He was woozy from the hit, staggering off as the woman stood there, piss pot still in hand, watching him go. As she stood there, confused and upset, the two sausages he’d dropped were picked up by children, who ran off with them. And then there were none.

Almost as swiftly as it started, the fight was over, the crowd was gone, and she had nothing left. With only the empty burlap the sausages had been wrapped in, the expression on her face was one of despair. Hanging her head in defeat, she turned to walk away, heading in another direction, when she heard a crash behind her. The man she’d struck with the piss pot had tripped and fallen against a rain barrel. As the woman watched, he tried to hold on to right himself but he ended up pulling the barrel down. Water gushed all over him. Clearly, her hit to the head had done some damage. The woman watched him struggle and her despair turned to guilt. Considering the fact that he hadn’t run off with the sausages when he very well could have, perhaps he’d been telling the truth. Perhaps she’d been too hasty in her judgment and now he was suffering the consequences.

Retracing her steps, she reluctantly went to help him, but Bane saw her coming. He braced himself. “Are ye back tae brain me again?” he asked. “If ye are, I canna give ye much of a fight.” From his position on the muddy ground, he gazed up at her warily. She was standing a few feet away, looking at him as if debating whether or not to help him. Or kill him. It could have been either choice in her case. She’d already accused him of being a thief, so perhaps she’d come to finish what she started. “I’ve not come tae brain ye again,” she said after a moment.

“It looks as if I already knocked ye sufficiently.” “Ye did.” She cocked her head as she looked at him, studying him as he wallowed in the mud. “I was thinking that ye could have run off with the sausages, but ye dinna,” she said. “Given that everyone was grabbing for them, I hope ye can understand my reaction. I thought ye were stealing them, too.” His gaze lingered on her before he leaned back against the wall. Exhaustion was setting in and his head was killing him. “What were ye doing with those sausages, anyway?” he asked. “I’ve not seen ye around here before.

” She lifted the empty sack in a helpless gesture. “M’lady sent me tae the butcher’s shop,” she said. “This was the shortest route back home. She’s expecting them for her morning meal and I was trying tae hurry, so I cut through this part of town. That was my mistake.” “Who is yer lady?” “Lady Currie,” she said. “We live in Meadowbank, tae the east, north of Holyrood. Do ye know it?” He blinked as he processed what she’d told him. “Ye’re a fair way off from Meadowbank,” he said. “What in the world did ye come tae this side of town for? Surely there are butchers closer tae Meadowbank.

” The woman shrugged weakly. “Lady Currie likes this butcher,” she said. “Usually, she sends the menservants, but no one was available at this hour so I offered tae go.” “And ye lost yer sausages for it.” She turned in the direction she had come as if to see the butcher. “I dunna suppose he’d give me more,” she said wistfully. “It was foolish tae come this way. I dunna relish telling Lady Currie that I lost her meal.” “I canna imagine she’ll be happy about it,” Bane said, taking a second look at the woman. She was a pretty thing, with chestnut hair and eyes the color of the sea.

In fact, she was damned fine. Too fine to be a maid. “Are ye her maid?” The woman turned to him. “I am whatever she wants me tae be,” she said. “Today, it was a messenger.” That was an odd answer. “What’s yer name, lass?” “Lucia.” “Do ye want me tae go with ye and tell Lady Currie that ye were set upon by a thousand thieves and the sausages stolen?” A ripple of surprise washed over her features, shocked that he would make such an offer. But quickly, she shook her head and turned away. “Nay,” she said.

“Though I thank ye for the offer. I’ll face her on my own.” It seemed as if there was nothing more to say. Truth be told, Bane had only made the offer because he thought she was a pretty lass and he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to part ways with her yet. Not that he had any designs on her; he’d never had designs on a woman in his life. But this lass… There was something about her that caught his eyes. “Then I wish ye well,” he told her, struggling to stand up. “I hope ye have an understanding mistress.” As he reached his feet, the world began to rock unsteadily. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the heavy drink, or the knock on the head.

Or all three. These days, it was difficult to know what, exactly, ailed him because there was so much. He turned to walk away but he ended up staggering into the wall. Lucia reached out to steady him. “Are ye well?” she asked. He nodded, trying to push her away so he had some room to move and not topple over on her. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll be on my way.” Two more steps and he lost his balance and went to one knee. She was on him in a flash.

“This is my fault,” she said. “I hit ye in the head and now ye canna walk. Where is yer home? I’ll help ye there.” She sounded repentant, not at all like the defiant and frightened woman he’d tried to help moments earlier. The remorse in her voice made her sound softer, much more in line with her beauteous looks. But he thought on her question—Where is yer home? He didn’t want her to see where he lived, a shoddy loft filled with old straw and the ghost of his life that once was. He didn’t want this pretty lass to know how low he’d fallen. “I dunna need help,” he assured her, trying to get to his feet again. “Ye’d better be on yer way.” He all but yanked his arm from her grasp, laboring to move on, gripping the stone walls as he moved.

But his legs felt like jelly and he’d barely taken a few more steps when he came to a halt and simply leaned against the wall for support. But it wasn’t because he couldn’t make it any farther. He wanted to see if she was still watching him. As luck would have it, she was. “Please,” she said, coming up beside him. “Let me take ye home.” “I have no home.” She eyed him. Given that he was wearing rags and smelled of piss, it wasn’t difficult to believe. The man looked as if he’d been wallowing in the sty with the rest of the pigs.

She grabbed him by the arm. “Then ye’ll come with me,” she said firmly. “Can ye at least walk?” Bane was intrigued. So she was inviting him to go along with her, was she? That was the best invitation he’d had in months. Feeling the least bit naughty that he wasn’t refusing her invitation, he pretended he was worse than he actually was. He hadn’t had a woman’s pity or attention in quite some time. “I can walk,” he said quietly. “But…but yer help would be appreciated.” With Lucia holding his arm tightly, as if she could support a man of his size, Bane let her lead the way. Perhaps his terrible day was going to get brighter after all.

At the very least, it was going to be more interesting.

.

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