Highlander’s Road to Valor – Ann Marie Scott

Come away with me now. I beg ye, Slaine!” Anna Thamhais pulled at her wee brother’s arm, urging him to leave his toys and follow her. The young boy was already large for his age and yanked his hand out of his elder sister’s with ease. “Nay, Anna! I want to stay here with me wooden soldiers!” Slaine was too youthful to recognize the ominous sounds coming from the fields. But his sister could, and the fear showed in her face as she made to grab her brother’s hand once more. “Do ye hear those sounds, Slainey?” Anna said in a harsh voice as she dragged him toward the little cottage where they lived with their mother and father. “That’s the sound of bandits come from the sea to steal from us! If ye stay playin’ with yer toys, they will find ye and…” Little Slaine cocked his head to one side and listened hard as he allowed his sister to pull him along. He had only lived for five summers, and it took him a while to discern all the noises from one another. Beneath the panicked bleating of sheep and goats and the crazed whinnying of horses, another more sinister sound could be heard. He had heard the sound the male lambs made in autumn when it was time to thin the herd before winter feeding, and the noises were exactly like that, only mixed in with the screams were discernible words. “Help me!” “Save us!” “Run for yer life!” The words jumbled together and blended into a cacophony of terror. A feeling of horror, the first time he had experienced the emotion, made Slaine’s stomach contract into such a strong spasm, the young boy thought he would lose the porridge he had eaten for breakfast that morning. “Anna, Mither and Faither are in the fields. We must go and help them!” They had reached the cottage door; Anna shoved her brother in through it ahead of her. “I’ll go get them anon, Slainey.

First, ye must do as I say.” She got down on her knees in front of him and forced the frightened boy to look her in the face. “Ye must promise me, and swear an oath ye will obey, that ye will stay put where I’m stowing ye and nae come out ‘til the men have gone, or someone comes for ye. D’ye swear?” Slaine nodded and held up his small hand in the Highland sign of taking an oath. “I promise, Anna,” he said. “Good, I believe ye,” she said, and took him by the hand again to lead him down to the cellar. She pulled an ale barrel to one side and felt with her fingers on the flagstones underneath. It seemed to him his sister found what she was feeling for because she leaned back on her haunches and lifted up one of the flagstones with a grunt. It revealed a small hole. “Squeeze down there, Slainey.

Another summer and ye’d be too big, but ye will fit with just a bit of a pinch.” Slaine looked down at the gaping black hole without much enthusiasm, then he remembered the sound of villagers being slaughtered, sat down on the floor, and placed his feet in the gap. He could feel nothing underneath his toes and hesitated to hoist the rest of his body inside the tight entrance. His sister took the choice away from him and pushed on his head so his bottom slid off the edge. Slaine had two choices: to hang on to the rim of the hole and dangle there or to drop down. He dropped. His feet hit the bottom of the hole with a sudden thump. It jolted him, not because the drop was deep, but because it was so dark inside, there was no way he could gauge the jump. He rolled for a few yards and then stopped. When he looked up, he could see the faintest outline of Anna’s head against the dim lighting in the cellar.

“Remember yer promise, Slainey,” she said to him through the gloom. He heard a dull thud and the sound of the flagstone being dragged back into place. Slaine was all alone in the pitch-black hole. He curled up in a ball for what seemed like hours, remembering all the stories his mother had told him about specters and ghoulies. When the heavy silence was not disturbed by any ghostly clanking chains or gibbering boggarts, Slaine uncurled his body and thought to check what had made the thumping noise before his sister had closed the hatch. Using his fingers, he detected a sack tied with twine. It took him a while to work out how to loosen the strings, but when he finally got it open, the sack revealed a host of treasures to the touch. His fingers picked up the shape of a flint—something his parents had never allowed him to have access to before—a bundle of beeswax candles, and a lamp. Slaine had watched his parents strike the flint countless times and could do the same action with his eyes shut, which turned out to be a lucky thing. Soon, he had one of the candles burning and could turn the sack’s contents out onto the floor.

A flagon of drink and some bannocks met his hungry eyes. He looked around the small hole and up at the ceiling, which was actually the cellar’s flagstone floor. The young boy knew he was not the first person down here; there was a small chest in one corner and a few pouches next to where he had landed when his sister pushed him down here. He was about to take a nibble of a bannock and go see what was in the chest and pouches when he heard the sound of footsteps above him. Quick as a flash, he blew out the candle and hastily swallowed his mouthful of bannock. Rough guffaws of harsh laughter and a noise like a stoneware jug being smashed echoed above him. Then the footsteps grew fainter and disappeared. He was torn between relighting his candle to carry on with his meal or presume the men would come back at some point. After dithering for a while, Slaine simply sat in the dark and waited patiently for his parents or sister to come and fetch him. “D 1 THE MYTH OF CU CHULAINN innae dismiss what I say outright, Daughter! I have seen it with me own eyes.

” Angus Carmichael was renowned for his stories about brave knights and mythic battles. This morning, around the farmhouse dining table, it was no exception. When prompted by the two youngest members of the family, he had launched into a tale about a conflict between two warring clans that made his eldest child raise her eyebrows. “I hardly deem it possible, Faither,” she said. “How can a man’s body change shape, just like that?” “When ye have seen how men prepare their minds for a deadly encounter with an enemy, Blair, then ye’ll better understand,” Angus said in earnest. “Cu Chulainn used the power of Mother Earth to ready himself before a fight. Some bards called it the warrior’s warp and others described it as ‘the torque,’ but this terrifying battle frenzy is called riastrad by our people, and it’s a talent, ye could say, some of us have nae forgotten how to wield.” The youngest Carmichael child piped up, “D’ye mean to say ye saw men do this…this riastrad thing with yer own eyes, Faither?” Angus patted his young son’s head. “Aye, wee Adie, I did. ‘Twas truly awe-inspiring.

They bit their swords with bare teeth and their muscles grew to the size of a stallion’s hind legs! Why, I even saw black blood burst out of the top of their heads like a hot cauldron!” “I’ve heard ye tell King Arthur did the same thing at the Battle of Camlann,” Blair Carmichael said. No matter how far-fetched some of her father’s stories sometimes seemed to be, she never grew tired of hearing about them, even at the age of eight and ten. “But King Arthur might be more of a fairy tale than a true person, Faither.” “These legends get passed down to us for a reason, Blair,” her father said as he ladled another spoon of porridge into his mouth and hastily swallowed before carrying on with their discussion. “And every Highlander kens well, ye dinnae have to be a king or knight to channel the fury of a warrior’s rage into the body. Our fates are set, so we may as well go out in splendor.” Even though some of her father’s tales were occasionally beyond belief, Blair still loved to hear him tell them. The middle-aged man’s face would light up with a fire whenever he recounted fables about heroes of the past. And if everything he said was not exactly part of the historical record, Blair always found what he had to say thrilling. She could remember through her childhood many a cold winter’s night made special with her father’s voice and imagination spinning the most glorious pictures in her mind.

She did not begrudge her little brother and sister their turn to hear about the monsters, villains, and lionhearted warriors that had entertained her so much when she was small. Angus pushed his empty porridge bowl away and his chair back from the table. “Well, I’m off. Those cattle are nae goin’ to walk themselves to the market in Flichity.” Blair stood up from the table as well, carrying her father’s bowl to the scullery. Her mother came into the kitchen from the bedchamber upstairs, where she had been prettifying herself in front of the looking glass. “I need some red ribbons from the drapers while ye’re up in Flichity, Husband,” she said when she saw Angus readying himself to depart. “I want to fashion some rosettes for me new slippers.” Angus rolled his eyes to the heavens. “Losh, save me, woman! Where are ye going to find the occasion to wear such impractical shoes as those mules? Never mind ones adorned with bleedin’ rosettes!” Mistress Ainslee Carmichael huffed.

“I may be a farmer’s wife, Angus, but I see no reason for me to look scaly when the chaplain or laird visits our house.” Angus muttered as he went out to the stables, “Och, we wouldnae want that now, would we?” and then in a louder voice, he shouted out to his eldest daughter, “Blair! Come out here an’ close the field gate for me when I’ve chivied out the cattle.” Blair went out and saw her faither mounting the mare. He began to ride down the rutted lane leading to where the cattle were penned, ready for market. “Are ye nae takin’ the stallion, Faither? His pace is longer and quicker.” Angus glanced back over his shoulder at his daughter as she followed him toward the pen. “Nay, Blair, I’ll take the mare. She has a colt to wean and ‘twill make it easier if I separate them by doin’ this.” Blair trotted on ahead and opened the pen where the fattened bullocks were grazing. Using her staff, she urged the animals out of the enclosure, waited for her father to gather them in front of his pathway.

When she saw all the bullocks were ambling along the lane, she closed the gate and stood with her feet on its lowest rung. “Faither, if the fair is in Flichity, will ye have spare pennies to buy the younger children something? Wee Maggie has been hankerin’ for a poppet and Adie could do with another tin soldier. He lost his last one when he was playing with it ’round the edge of the well.” Angus had to raise his voice to reply; the horse had already walked many yards down the lane, and the bullocks were bellowing. “I dinnae ken if I’ll have time for fair visiting, Daughter! Look after yer mither and the young ‘uns for me. Farewell!” “Farewell, Faither!” Blair shouted, and then walked to the henhouse to feed the chickens. She knew the task would fall to her this morning because she had seen her mother was wearing her favorite pair of mules. Blair wore sabots when she was outside in summer and boots in winter. She had a nice pair of lace-up boots with little high heels for riding out to visit neighbors, but she would never sully them with farmyard muck; they were too precious. With the hens fed and watered and the warm eggs collected from the straw, Blair made her way back to the kitchen, carefully carrying the basket of eggs with her.

“Mither! Adie, Maggie! Would ye care for some fresh eggs for dinner?” She heard her mother’s voice come out of the parlor, “Blair, dearie, I’m in here with the children. I thought to teach them some lessons before allowing them outside.” As much as it was sometimes frustrating when Blair’s mother considered herself more of a lady and less of a farmer’s wife, there was one thing for which Blair was grateful: Mistress Carmichael had taken great pains to teach her children how to read and write. She had even taught Blair how to calculate simple sums and a few words of French. “Because ye never ken, me dearest daughter, there might come a day when ye choose to leave the farm and seek yer own way in the world, and when that time comes, ye’ll be thankful yer mither saw fit to give ye a proper education.” Blair had sighed and pouted while frowning over a particularly difficult sentence or fraction. “Why would anyone care if I can do these things, Mither? I prefer listenin’ to Faither’s stories. They are better than the ones in books.” Her mother had smiled. “From where do ye think he gets his stories in the first place?” And they had gone back to studying together.

Now, Blair’s heart went out watching her two siblings struggling to understand their lessons. “I’ll carry on with the chores outside, Mither, and tell Ruth to start cleaning upstairs.” Her mother nodded abstractly, too busy following Adie’s reading out loud to really pay attention. Blair was used to running the household every day anyway and had a good understanding with the scullery maid, Ruth. They divided the chores between them when Mistress Carmichael was too busy doing other things. Her mother had said it was time Blair learned how to take on the household drudgery in preparation for when she had her own home to keep in order. Blair had her doubts about this reasoning, as she knew her mother preferred to spend the day embroidering and sewing instead. Blair buckled down to her tasks, aware that the rest of her day would be exactly like every single one before it, and most probably just like the ones to come in the future. The pigs were fed slop from the kitchen; the sheep were herded out to the top field, giving the bottom field time to regrow its grass; the stables were mucked out, and the two plow horses and her father’s beloved brown stallion given fresh straw and water and then let out to run in the paddock. The colt was untethered and allowed to trot around the farmyard looking for its mother.

The young stablehand her father had apprenticed five winters ago helped her do the menial labor, leaving Blair to guide the animals and watch over their passage around the farm. It was a day, just like any other. That was until the sun set behind the Cairngorm mountains, and the family had still not heard the sound of hooves coming back up the lane. Farmer Angus Carmichael was nowhere to be seen. “Should I ride to the village, Mither, and see if he’s stopped by the alehouse?” Even as she said the words, Blair knew she was speaking empty platitudes. Her father would never visit an alehouse when he had the best ale on tap waiting for him back at home. Blair’s mother shook her head. “Nay…let’s give it some time, Blair. It may be raining out by Flichity or one of the mountain streams could have flooded the roads.” “I want me new poppet!” Maggie complained from her stool next to the supper table.

“I shall call her Queen Medb and make her rule over all o’ Connacht across the seas.” “Ye realize Cu Chulainn turned Queen Medb and her army into minced meat at the cattle raid o’ Cooley, dinnae ye?” Blair teased her little sister as she picked her up off the stool and carried her upstairs to the bedchamber they shared together. “Nae fair, Blair!” Adie shouted from the kitchen as he ran to keep up with them. “If ye’re going to tell one o’ Faither’s stories, please let me listen.” As the Carmichael children went upstairs to ready themselves for bed, their mother stayed in the kitchen, twisting her teacup around and around on the saucer, straining her ears for the sound of her husband’s return.

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