Highland Gladiator – Kathryn Le Veque

He heard the chant. Terror filled him. Then came the stones: small stones, larger stones, and stones of every size raining down on him in the vale that had been calm and peaceful until the deluge of rocks began. He’d made a mistake by cutting through this little valley, green like the emeralds his grandfather used to describe, knowing full well what waited for him there. Everyone in his village knew, and that was why they avoided this particular glen. But not him. Now, he was going to pay the price for that arrogance. A rock hit him squarely on the head, right above the eyebrow. Already, he felt the trickle of blood. “Halt!” Someone was shouting at him, but now there was blood in his eye. Ooch, it stung! He was still trying to run, like an idiot, but soon there were bodies all around him. He wasn’t going anywhere. Someone shoved him onto that emerald-green grass. “Where are ye going, gòrach?” A man-boy voice spoke, thumping on him as he tried to wipe the blood from his eye. Gòrach, they called him.

It meant stupid in the Gaelic. Indeed, he was very stupid. “Home,” he said bravely. “I just want tae go home. Leave me be.” The gang around him began to make crying noises, like a baby, and he determined that he was surrounded by children for the most part. Oh, he knew who they were. This glen he was traveling through was called the Gleann Gadainn, or the Vale of Morning, but it also had another name— Gleann Deamhain. The Vale of Demons. On this sunny day, the demons had found him.

A gang of children and youths who had claimed this vale as their particular hunting ground. Young or old, man or woman, it didn’t matter to them. A victim was a victim. As he sat on the green earth, blinking up at the children surrounding him, a young lass with bright-red hair plopped down beside him. “What’s yer name, gòrach?” she asked. He’d just managed to clear the blood from his eye. “Lor.” Her gaze drifted over him, studying him. “Where do ye come from, Lor?” He gestured to the east. “Careston.

” The lass continued to study him. She was a pretty thing even though she had a dirty face and matted red ringlets. At perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, she still had that spindly but tough body that girls in the Highlands had. Figures honed by hard work and the scarcity of food. It was survival of the fittest. “What do ye have for the taking?” she asked. She was straight to the point. That’s what these demons wanted—food or anything of value. They’d been known to take animals, too, or whatever caught their fancy. Rumor had it they were part of Clan Ruthven, or even Clan Keith, a lowly clan that was the enemy of Clan Lindsay.

This vale was part of Lindsay lands, but that didn’t matter to the demons. They had claimed it. He shook his head to her question. “Nothing,” he said. “Only a few wild bird eggs.” “Wild bird eggs?” she said excitedly. “Let me see.” Reluctantly, he pulled forth a cloth from inside his long leine, or tunic, that now had speckles of his blood around the neckline. He tried to be careful about opening up the folded cloth, but the lass threw it back in her excitement to see the tiny, speckled eggs. In fact, the entire group of children leaned over him curiously, nearly crowding him out, and he looked up nervously into the pale, dirty faces.

Ten or more of them. Enough to beat his arse and steal his little eggs, at the very least. “Look at the eggs!” the red-haired lass exclaimed. “What are ye tae do with them?” Lor folded up the cloth again quickly, tucking it back into his leine to keep the eggs warm. “Give them tae my grandfather,” he said. “He has a birdhouse where he keeps them.” “Tame birds?” “Aye.” It was a rather foreign concept, considering the only birds these children knew were the ones they stoned and ate. The red-haired lass was looking at him very curiously. “Do they stay tae the birdhouse?” she wanted to know.

“Aye.” “Are they friendly?” “If ye feed them well.” That was enough for her. “I want tame birds,” she said. “Give me yer eggs.” Lor frowned. “Nay. Ye can find yer own.” It was the lass’s turn to frown. She balled a fist and put it right in his face.

“I’ll fight ye for them.” “I dunna know how tae fight.” She blinked, as if startled by the answer. “Ye dunna know?” she repeated. “But…but everyone knows.” “Not I.” “Then I’ll take them!” With that, she grabbed at his leine as she tried to get to the eggs, but Lor rolled away from her, trying to escape. He rolled into the legs of the children that were standing around him and that was as far as he could go. “Dunna do that,” he said, a flash of something intimidating in his eyes. “These eggs are for my granda.

I will bring ye some eggs of yer own the next time I go looking.” Something in the way he said it conveyed sincerity, the softly uttered vow of an honorable young man. More than that, there was something powerful about him as he stood up to her. “Promise ye’ll bring me more, or ye’ll not leave the vale,” she said. Lor looked around at the rough-looking children. They probably would keep him here, too, tied to a tree. When he didn’t return home, his grandfather would find his rotting corpse, an ignoble ending to the short life of Lor Careston. With that thought, his answer was the obvious one. “I promise,” he said reluctantly. “Can I go now?” The red-haired lass was studying him again.

It seemed that all she did was stare at him when she wasn’t making demands. She had eyes the color of a cat’s-eye stone, a shade of brown that was both warm and mysterious. But there was a great deal of curiosity there. “Ye say ye canna fight?” she asked. “Why not?” He shook his head. “I’m a smithy, like my grandfather. Not a warrior.” The lass had a hint of humor in her eyes. “Ye’re big enough tae fight,” she said. “Ye must learn.

” “Why?” “What if the Sassenachs attack yer village? What then?” His brow furrowed as he thought on that. “Then I would take my grandfather tae the hills and we would hide,” he said. “I wouldna fight them. ’Twould be foolish.” “Why?” “Because they have swords and I dunna. They would kill me.” The lass marched over to him, through the smashed foliage, and poked at his arms. They were muscular arms, even at his young age. He was not a boy any longer, but not quite a man. He was big and handsome.

Crouching down, she looked him in the eyes. “All gàidheal should fight,” she said frankly. “’Tis in yer blood. I’ve heard my da say so. Are there no men in Careston tae teach ye?” He shrugged. “Who? Farmers?” The lass cocked her head. “What of yer laird?” Suspecting these children were of a rival clan, Lor couldn’t be sure that she wasn’t testing him so he wisely kept his loyalties to himself. “There is no one,” he reiterated. “If the Sassenachs come, then I shall take my grandfather and hide.” That wasn’t good enough for the lass.

“There are places that will teach ye tae fight,” she said. “A fight guild, mayhap.” Lor looked at her strangely. “A fight guild? What is that?” “I told ye—where they teach ye tae fight. I’ve heard my father speak of one that is the best in all the land. They’ll teach ye tae fight like a true warrior.” “What place is this?” Standing behind the lass, one of the older children spoke up. “A mystical place,” he said. “Only the bravest men go there. I may go there some day.

” “I’ve not heard of such a place.” There was some hissing going on as some of the children opened their mouths to tell him what they knew, but the older boy shushed them. This was his conversation, after all. “’Tis called the Ludus Caledonia,” he said. “Have ye not heard that name?” Lor shook his head. “Nay,” he replied. “A fight guild, ye say?” The older youth was confident as he spoke. “They teach ye tae fight against monsters,” he said. “My da says men go in, but few come out.” Lor thought it all sounded rather strange.

Strange and frightening. A place to learn to fight where they pitted men against monsters? He couldn’t tell if the children were jesting or not, playing on the gullibility of a village lad who had lived a rather peaceful life. He thought it might be a trick of some kind. But considering he wanted to leave in the worst way, he simply went along with it. “If I ever want tae learn tae fight, I’ll go there,” he said. “Ye canna find it,” the older boy said. “Mayhap in Edinburgh, they say, but no one knows for certain. Even tae speak of it in Edinburgh can bring ye death. They’ll send the monsters for ye.” It was all quite odd.

Lor wasn’t sure how they had veered onto this subject of a fight guild filled with monsters, but he wanted out. He looked at the red-haired lass, who was still looking at him intently. “Can I leave now?” he asked. “I promise I’ll bring ye bird eggs the next time.” The red-haired lass didn’t respond for a moment. It seemed that she might have been pondering the possibility of preventing him from leaving. Reaching out, she yanked him to his feet and pulled him away from the others, out of earshot. “When will ye come back?” she asked quietly. He eyed her with uncertainty, even looking to the gang of children around them before returning his focus to her. “Soon,” he said.

“When my grandfather allows me tae hunt for eggs again, I suppose.” “And ye swear that ye’ll bring me some?” “I do.” She turned her head slightly, pointing to her cheek. “A bargain is a bargain. Show me ye mean it.” From his expression, he wasn’t sure what she meant. Was he supposed to do something to her face? He was fairly certain she didn’t mean slap her. When it occurred to him what, exactly, she meant, his pale cheeks flushed, but he dutifully kissed her, a swift peck on her tender skin and nothing more. He was embarrassed, but if it was a kiss of freedom, he was willing to suffer the indignities. The kiss seemed to please her immensely.

“I accept yer vow,” she said, her eyes glimmering at him with warmth he hadn’t seen before. “I’ll wait for yer bird eggs, Lor Careston. Ye may go now.” There was something in her voice that made him take a second look. She was young, that was true, on the cusp of womanhood, but there was something about her that had his attention. Perhaps it was the pull of her eyes, the way she was looking at him. He’d never had a lass look at him that way before. Had the circumstances been any different, he might have let himself be flattered by it. But now wasn’t the time. He had to leave.

Lor quickly bolted off, sprinting away as fast as his long legs would take him. As he headed east and the majority of the demons headed west, back to the vale to await their next victim, he could hear them singing their terrible song. Fat, fat, the water rat, Thirty daggers in his back! That only made him run faster. As Lor dashed down the vale toward the village in the distance, the red-haired lass wasn’t singing the song of the water rat. She was watching her former captive’s distant figure. The older boy came up beside her. “What’s wanting, Issie?” he asked. Her gaze was still riveted to the blond lad as he faded down the hill. “Do ye suppose he’ll really come back?” The older boy could see where her attention was, and he snorted. “Nay,” he said flatly.

“He’ll stay as far away as he can. We scared him with talk of monsters and the Cal.” She cocked her head thoughtfully. “He dinna seem cowardly. He almost seemed…kind. ’Twas something in his eyes that seemed so.” The older boy grabbed her by the arm and turned her around. “If he’s from Careston, he’s Lindsay,” he said. “The man is yer enemy, Isabail. Get yer mind from him.

” Get yer mind from him. It was a pity she had to. Isabail Keith, daughter of a Keith chieftain, thought Lor Careston was rather gentle and handsome, not like the other lads in her village. They were all rough and angry. All they wanted to do was fight and hate, but she didn’t see that in Lor’s eyes. She saw gentleness there, and it made her very curious. Curious enough to know that in spite of her brother’s admonition, she wasn’t going to force the blacksmith from her mind. At least, not yet. Perhaps not ever. She was going to see Lor Careston again.

With a smile on her lips, she headed back into the vale.

.

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