Highlander’s Rage – Alisa Adams

As the party of soldiers moved across the border and into the northern lands of Ruthven, Lachlan Dunne could not help but bring his horse to a curious stop upon a high mound. Steering the white gelding across to the other side of the path, the captain allowed his men to journey on past him. Their boots trudged out of sync as they passed over the rocky terrain and picked the surest path across the hill. Lachlan said nothing of it. He knew that some men, foolish in their sense of ego and pride, liked to insist that all soldiers marched to the beat of a drum—left, right, left, right—without ever breaking stride or mismatching to the beat of their neighbor. Lachlan was, most times, just such a commander. Order and regiment were the means to a successful fighting force. But never had he insisted on procedure over safety. He would not see his men forced to march in time, by the threat of a sword, when the road was as rocky as this. He’d not lose a man to a broken leg and be a soldier down in battle just to see their strength promoted through heavy footfalls. Knowing their commander’s determination to see them ordered but careful, each row of infantry abandoned their beating drum to negotiate the roughly hewn lane and then found the beat once more for every few steps of open plain or level path. They needn’t have made the extra effort. Lachlan was too focused on the land beyond to pay attention to the footsteps of men he already trusted with his life. The northern lands of Ruthven were like the staircase of God. The earth rolled and flowed from the soles of his feet to the far-off horizon.

Beneath the rising sun, it was as if the land had once been water; a shifting, breathing ocean that could never be tamed—until it had been frozen into place and coated in grass and rocky rubble. Miles of mounds and dales, dips and valleys stretched out before them. The deepest of the indents housed small bodies of water and the largest of precipices were cracked and broken in angry stalactites of charcoal rock. In the distance, he could see several areas of forestry. None broached even close to the slithering path they were due to follow down to Scone. Instead, the road, diminishing into a single line of grey just ten miles south, was but a line of greyish-beige. The earth was worn thin and pale by the passage of feet and wheels. On either side of their intended direction lay flora of green and brown. The early morning light tinted everything with a hue of orange, staining the earth copper and the grass ochre. Yet, in a few hours, the ripe and fertile green would breach forth.

It was several months into spring, and the life of the land would not be held at bay for more than a few hours each morning. As the last of his entourage passed him by, Lachlan drew his eyes away from their route and up towards the sky. Open and clear, leeched of blue and left to a haze of rose-gold, Lachlan breathed in the fresh scent of the lands of the Scots. Of his home. It would be a clear day. One that would see them make good headway towards Scone and their final place of delivery. Having already journeyed for several hundred miles with a large chest of gold, Lachlan would be glad to be rid of the cargo and on his way back to his militia. Even with the breadth and strength of his shoulders, the weight of responsibility upon them had him grow weary. And for the last few miles, he had had the suspicion that he was being watched; that the precious package he carried was in the eyeline of a brigand or highway robber. Not that they had any reason to fear such a thing.

Kicking the gelding—a pretty, white-coated creature by the name of Merlin—forward, Lachlan joined the rear of his men as only the thirteenth man in the convoy. Despite the chest they protected holding a large tax collection for nearly the whole of the Mackenzie lands, Lachlan’s reputation had attained him the executive control over how it was transported. He had opted for fewer men. While a dozen soldiers would be enough to see off the simplest of threats, any more would bring suspicion and interest. An all-out attack against an entire militia would have been improbable, but a subterfuge in the night not impossible. Better that the convoy was kept smaller and less attracting of attention. As his steed picked his way carefully down the natural layers and steps of the road, Lachlan gave the creature his head and trusted in the four, sturdy legs beneath him. They had seen him to war and back multiple times, and he was yet to mistrust them. A man of detail, anal stoicism, and a rigid sense of right and wrong, Lachlan was a man bent on high standards and a hard level of control on his world. Everything around him was monitored, assessed, and held in the grip of iron.

Yet, to suspect and distrust those same choices and arrangements at every turn would drive a man mad. Lachlan was forced to offer up his trust somewhere, even if only in the faith he placed in his horse. “Captain!” The call came from Harris, Lachlan’s third-in-command and second on this journey. Lachlan’s adopted brother Tomas was his true lieutenant-in-action and was holding Lachlan’s place with the rest of the Mackenzie forces back up north. Looking towards the only other mounted soldier in the group, he spied Harris’s expression amongst a bushel of wild hair and a dark, scraggly beard. There was little panic—just the solid and dependable focus of a man ready to play his duty. “Report, Harris,” Lachlan barked. His voice was as deep as a bear’s and just as grizzly as if he had just been woken from hibernation. It was a testament to Harris’s ears that he could distinguish the words at all amongst the gravel. “Cap’n, I think we should alter our course towards the east,” Harris advised, stretching out an arm towards a small loch that glowed white in the morning sun.

“It would be good to refill our water skins.” “Did we not see them filled two days ago, Harris?” Lachlan asked, his brow lowering. He would not see the delivery of their gold delayed longer than necessary. It was no light duty to see the yearly expenses paid to the king. “Aye, Cap’n.” Harris tugged at his forelock in a gesture of salute. “But by my recollection of last year hence, there be little supply of water further on between here and Scone. This may be our last opportunity, and the days be growing warmer.” Too towering in stature to ever feel belittled and too powerful in his own hands to ever feel a threat to his ego, Lachlan saw no shame in deferring to his subordinates. It was those that saw their pride over their pragmatism that doomed their men to hardship.

Lachlan felt no need to defend his own masculinity and instead only held firmer on the reins when Merlin attempted to step awkwardly beneath him. “As you say then, Harris,” he agreed. “Order the men to turn east at the next fork in the road, and we’ll find our way to the loch. Keep track of our position and see that we don’t run off course.” “Aye, Cap’n!” Lachlan was content to remain at the back of his pack of men as Harris rode carefully to the front of their small column and gave the appropriate orders. Instead, he used his position of height, as the others descended, to assess the land along their new route. The road itself was innocuous enough, but the loch had been formed in the crevice between two large and rocky formations. The craggy edges of the obstructions looked tiny from their current position, but up close, they would be walls and beds of stone tall enough to hide a full-grown man. Such a place would be weak to defend against a riot or ambush. It would require the careful deployment of soldiers once they reached it, else their flanks would be left bare for opportunists.

Not that anyone knew who they were or what they carried. Lachlan just wasn’t the sort to take chances. He didn’t hope for good results; he engineered them. In fact, he operated on no emotion at all—hope or otherwise. His duty was too important to risk, and his responsibilities were his life. Ever since he had been old enough to walk and talk, Lachlan had known his role in the world—to be the leader and protector of men, and to his brother, first and foremost. And when Finlay had been joined by Tomas, and they had become a band of three, his duties had only increased. Now he commanded a unit of over eight hundred men. He was a friend to none of them and a big brother to all because that was the most effective way of ruling over others and seeing them safe—skill over emotion, strength over sentiment. Lachlan had worked hard to ensure that his heart never became entwined with his duty.

Aoide could not seem to calm her breathing. It blared out of her in little gusts that stirred the dust and rocks before her lips. A few of the little pieces darted away and skipped over the rocky surface of her shelter. “Shh!” The hiss was harsh and vile in her ear. Tinged with hatred and irritation, the speaker had spared no honesty in the sound. Aoide was not liked much, and if she messed up this mission, she would be left without any form of safe harbor. While she had known her place was less than dirt for the last half a year, the disgust in only that one sound still cut her deep. Always so easy to offend, Daughter… The words rang in her head. They were her mother’s, but they did not sound like her. It had been so many years that she had forgotten the tone and timbre of the woman’s voice.

Only the words remained, hollow and empty of emotion but all the more poignant for their careful choice. You have a warm and vibrant heart, Aoide, her mother used to say. But it will also be your undoing. Our world is rough. And you must shield your heart from the world around you. Else it will be made to bleed. The advice had turned out to be truer than sweet Fanny Hopley had ever intended. And yet, Aoide had still been unable to heed it. The idea of sheltering her softer side away was a seductive one in all things, but as impossible as if she were being told to sprout wings and fly. Aoide tried to calm her breath, attempting to cool her lungs and set her heart back to its normal rhythm.

Instead, it only pounded harder and faster as the noise of men approached. Unable to resist, Aoide’s legs uncurled a little, straightening to see her brow breach the protection of the rockface. She looked up and over the ridge, her eyes finding movement below. They widened when she spotted the convoy of soldiers. “Get down!” the voice hissed. A hard grasp had Aoide pulled back down and out of sight. Her bottom hit the rocks; her feet slipped from under her, the soles of her feet scraped against the jagged stone. She knew better than to cry out at the pain and only sought to rub at her rear. Her eyes watered and stung. Swallowing, she looked over at the others.

Most of them were watching her with a mixture of expressions. Some were annoyed, others angry. Some were pitying, as if it must be purely horrid to live in her mind. They stared down at her, proud in their own lives but degrading of hers. Yet, on the surface, they looked no different. Dressed mostly as she was, in shapeless shirts and trousers, belts at their waists and strips of dirtied cloth about their heads, they blended into the dark tones of the landscape behind them. Mottled greys, browns, and blacks coated them from head to foot, and where their skin was left on show, they had blackened it with coal dust and sand. Most were dark or grey-eyed, like wraiths born of the very earth beneath their feet. Aoide was the only one that was barefooted and without a belt or mask to warm her face. Her hands were bare and starting to tinge blue at the tips.

Her toes had gone numb some hours before. And yet, such a state was normal for her. The traveling tribe had taken her in to see her hands and body made useful. But they were neither her parents nor guardians and would not see leather or fur wasted on the likes of her. They had strained to put clothes on her back and the barest of foods in her stomach. And she would be grateful. It had always seemed an odd hypocrisy to be told not to want more, at least by these people. Such men could not resist the lure of gold that belonged to others or the fine silks that were not for their hands. Rather than tend to the land or make a living from decent work and wage, they thieved and robbed and claimed beyond their rights to see themselves comfortable. Always, they were searching for something more.

But Aoide was told not to want for more, and she had no choice but to obey and follow them. Swallowing, Aoide brought herself back to her feet. Her legs were bent beneath her in a crouch, and she was forced to scuttle and find her weapon once more. She hadn’t been allowed one of the swords or bows that the others were armed with. Instead, she had been made to find her own means of defense. For the last few months, she had protected herself with a particular rock that was worth more to her than most would prize their own left foot. Naturally smoothed on one end for the ease of her palm, with a sharp and craggy point at the other, Aoide had no idea how the earth had formed such a thing. But she was thankful for it and possessed it with all the jealousy of a nobleman over his fine steed. Finding where the rock had fallen when she was pulled off her feet, Aoide snatched it into hand and clutched it to her chest. She felt it cold and sharp against her skin as she breathed in hard, and she sucked nervously on her bottom lip.

It was rough and peeling, and the tip of her tongue played against its chapped edges. “Now, Da?” one of the boys muttered from beside her. Aoide tried not to look over in that direction. Perhaps if she pretended not to hear the conversation, she could fall back in the attack on the group below and plead innocence later? She wasn’t able to count, but there were a lot of men down there, about the same as they had. And it was clear from their shields and swords that they were soldiers. She’d not gotten a better look than that, but it was enough to set terror in her heart. Just what was a rabble of thieves supposed to do against trained men? Clearly, the vagabonds about her were not worried. “Not yet. Wait ’til’ay get to the water boy, and they’ll set down that box. ’Tis the chest we want.

Let ’em put it down, and then we jump over and run for it.” Aoide swallowed. They would be running straight into an uneven fight against blades and horses and fighters. And all she had was a rock. Closing her eyes, Aoide had no idea of religion or faith, but she prayed anyway. She sent up a little thought, a whisper to the world to beg forgiveness and send her a means to avoid this nasty thing. It was a way of charting her own course for once so she would not have to charge clear towards her death.

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