Phantom of the Highlands – Kenna Kendrick

Here they come,” Col muttered to himself. He scaled down the tree and dropped into the middle of the soft dirt road. His cousin Finlay — Fin to most — stepped out of the thick bushes that lined the road that cut through the dense forest. Fin was armed with his bow, the short sword strapped to his back, and a pair of matching dirks that hung on his belt. Col looked him up and down, a grin quirking one corner of his mouth upward. “Think ye’re needin’ all those blades then?” Fin shrugged. “I just like tae have options.” Col chuckled. “Dinnae be stupid, ye bleedin’ dobber. If this goes off the way I planned, we arenae gonna be fightin’.” “Yeah, well, what ye plan isnae always what actually happens,” he added with a laugh. “I thought it best to be prepared, eh?” A wry grin pulled one corner of Col’s mouth upward, and he shook his head. “Get your arse into the bushes already.” Fin chuckled as he stepped back, getting himself into position. Col picked up his quiver of arrows and slung it over his back as the sound of horses whickering and the creaking of carts filled the forest around him.

He stood in the road, waiting for the carts to come around the bend. The trees pressed close on either side. The sunlight filtering through the thick canopy overhead left much of the forest in gloom and shadow. Col felt his stomach tighten, and beads of sweat trickled down his chest. He saw a pair of riders come around the bend first. They wore the standard of the House of Hamilton — a yellow griffin bracketed by three white stars on a blue field. It was a standard that Col was well acquainted with, since he and Fin, a couple of rabble-rousers from the Scottish Highlands, had spent the previous year making life miserable for James Hamilton, the Duke of York. The taller of the two men at the front held his hand up, signaling to the cart drivers behind them to halt. He turned to Col, his expression one of pure irritation. “You there,” called one of the fore guards in his clipped English accent.

“Clear the road. Make way immediately in the name of the Duke.” “Seems to me ye’re on a good Scottish road, lad.” Col grinned as he taunted the guard. “Clear the way, or you’ll be dealt with,” the man replied, sounding bored. Two more riders came up from the rear, their armor gleaming dully in the murky light. An older man with long graying hair and deep lines etched into his face stared hard at Col, his jaw clenching. He turned to the man who’d spoken to Col. “What goes on here?” His voice was authoritative; he was obviously in charge. “Why have you stopped the caravan?” “This — man — refuses to remove himself from the road, sir.

” The older man turned to Col, his eyes filled with disdain. “What is the meaning of this?” “As I was tellin’ yer friend here, this is a good Scottish road,” Col explained. “And to travel it, ye must pay a toll.” The older soldier laughed as if it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. The humor, however, did not reach his eyes as he glared at Col. “I will give you exactly three seconds to remove yourself from our path–” “I will give ye two seconds afore my men out there in the woods fill ye full of arrows,” Col interrupted. “How’d that be, eh?” A moment of tense silence filled the woods as the English soldiers glanced nervously around at the dense, dark forest that surrounded them. Col saw the uncertainty in their faces, not sure if he was telling the truth or not. “Shall we start countin’ then, laddie?” Col asked. The old soldier stared him down, the younger ones growing even more nervous.

“Tell ye what… I’ll start,” Col pressed, not wanting to give them more time to think. “One –” “Kill him,” the old soldier yelled. The words had barely cleared his mouth when an arrow came sailing out of the forest and hit the man square in the neck with a wet, meaty thump. The shaft of the arrow was buried deep in the man’s neck, the sharp head of it protruding from the other side. Blood ran from the man’s mouth, and his eyes stretched wide as a wet gurgling sound bubbled up from his throat. “Well feck me,” Col muttered to himself. “It wasnae supposed to happen like that.” All was still and silent around them for a long moment, as if the entire world was holding its breath. Col exchanged wide-eyed stares with the English soldiers, none of them believing what had just happened. But then the old soldier slumped in his saddle and fell to the side, hitting the ground with a dull thud that broke their paralysis.

The two soldiers who’d been at the head of the line spurred their horses and came charging straight at Col, their swords drawn and raised. Behind them, Col noted four more soldiers coming up the line with their blades bared. Another arrow streaked out of the bushes, narrowly missing the two soldiers riding toward Col, but it made them slow for a heartbeat. It was just long enough for him to pull an arrow from his quiver, nock, and release it in one fluid motion. Col’s bolt punched through the first soldier’s breastplate, knocking him backward off his horse. He drew another arrow, nocking it as he spun, and released. It hit the soldier in the arm, and he let out a grunt of pain as he wheeled his horse around, another arrow from the forest just missing him. As the four other soldiers reined to a stop beside their fallen commander, Col aimed with another arrow. “Stop, stop!” Col called. “Stop yer bleedin’ shootin’.

” The soldiers all cut glances at their dead then stared hard at Col. He kept his arrow nocked but lowered the tip and stared back at them. “We’re gonna give ye this one chance to get the feck outta here,” he told them. “Dae that and ye’ll live. If not, ye’ll die.” The soldiers exchanged glances, none of them seeming to know what to do without their commander there to give them orders. “Leave the carts and get the feck outta here. Now.” Col tried to sound as authoritative as he could. They continued to hesitate, waiting for somebody to step up and assume command.

Col grimaced, knowing he needed to squeeze them even tighter to get them moving and put an end to more violence and bloodshed. “Dinnae do this. We dinnae want to kill ye,” Col said, and after a moment of silence passed between them, he called out to the forest. “Archers.” “Okay, okay, bloody well wait,” one of the soldiers nearly screamed. “We’ll go. Just — don’t fire.” “Hold,” Col called out, locking eyes with the soldier who’d spoken. “Leave the carts, and go now.” He watched with grim satisfaction as the drivers climbed down off the carts and followed the departing soldiers on foot, running down the road away from them.

Col walked along well behind them, making sure they were leaving and didn’t have reinforcements waiting on the road behind them. However, it was clear, and soon the soldiers and drivers disappeared from view. “Ye can come out now, Col chuckled. Fin stepped out of the bushes, a broad smile on his face. He slung his bow over his back and joined Col beside one of the carts. “Worked again,” he said. “The English arenae tae smart. More’s the pity,” Col replied with a grin. “Takes the bloody sport out of it.” Col turned and eyed the two dead English soldiers on the road behind them then turned back to Fin, giving him a pointed look.

“Most o’ the sport at any rate.” Fin shrugged. “I was aiming for his leg. He must have moved.” “Aye.” Col clapped his cousin on the shoulder and turned to the three carts sitting idle on the road. The horses whickered and stomped their hooves on the soft earth. “Let’s see what we got,” Col said. Fin rubbed his hands together, a broad grin on his face. “Aye.

Let’s do that.” As they rifled through the carts, tossing aside the things they had no use for, Col kept an eye on the road behind them. He was still concerned about the English. He knew that eventually, the raids would take a toll. And he knew Duke Hamilton would send more than eight easily intimidated soldiers to protect his caravans. He knew that the Duke would ultimately send his army to deal with them. Col knew it would happen and worried about what they would do. As much as the clan elders disapproved of what they were doing, even they understood the necessity of it. They would never actively support him and Fin, but they reaped the benefits all the same. Their clan chief lived many miles to the north of their village and proved to be as useless as the elders — though he demanded his share of the spoils.

It was a bone of contention that Col held onto, but the good of the clan outweighed everything else for him. Their people needed to eat. “Lots o’ food,” Fin’s voice cut into his thoughts. “Vegetables. Taters. Some salted meats. Should keep the bellies full a couple o’ weeks at least.” Col nodded. “That’s good… real good.” He turned to Fin, hopped up on the cart, and hefted a small wooden chest.

Fin looked up at him, curious but hopeful. Col opened the small chest with a flourish and grinned. He reached in and pulled out a gold coin, tossing it to his cousin, who grinned with delight. “Gold,” Fin nodded. “Couple o’ hundred coins in here if there’s one.” “That will do some good for the clan.” Col nodded. “Aye. But not as good as that food will do for them. For now, dinnae tell the elders about the gold.

I dinnae want it disappearing.” “Aye. We turn that over to the bleedin’ vipers, we’ll never see it again. Neither will the clan.” They continued to dig through the carts, loading what they planned on taking into one of the wagons for easier transport. Col knew they needed to get moving. The soldiers would likely be coming back to claim the bodies of their men and would soon be bringing help. He did not want to be around when they did. “God is good,” Fin crowed. “This may be worth more than that wee chest of gold ye got over there.

” Col turned to find his cousin holding up a bottle of a brown liquid he took to be whiskey. Fin was grinning as he pulled the cork out of the bottle and took a long swallow. He grimaced as the liquid burned its way down to his belly then nodded. “That’s good,” he rasped. “I’ll be keepin’ that to meself if ye dinnae mind.” Col laughed. “‘Tis all yers, Fin. Let’s just finish up and get outta here afore the English come back with friends.” Fin corked the bottle and looked at it longingly before stowing it in a bag and setting it on the seat of the cart they were loading before hitching the other team of horses… they could always use new mounts. When they were finished, Fin hopped up onto the seat and got the cart moving.

Col mounted one of their newly acquired steeds and followed along behind Fin, keeping an eye on the road behind them. They took a circuitous route back to their village, careful to mask their path to avoid giving the English a map to guide them when they came seeking retribution. As they entered the village, people flocked to them, a cacophony of cheering and voices calling to them as if they were conquering heroes, returning from battle. Col supposed in their eyes, he and Fin probably were hero-like. Especially when compared to the elders who refused to do anything to improve their situation. Fin climbed down off the cart and handed the reins to Bernard, a large burly man with no hair and a foul disposition. Bernard was in charge of doling out the things that the villagers needed, such as food and medical supplies — a position he took very seriously. He gave no real sign of it, but Col knew Bernard appreciated what he and his cousin were doing on behalf of their clan. “Made it back alive, did ye?” Bernard said. “Dinnae we always, old man?” Fin replied.

“Aye. Until you dinnae.” “With all that bleating, ye sound like an old goat, Bernard,” Fin quipped. Fin and Col both chose horses from those they’d taken from the English as the older man grumbled and climbed aboard the cart and steered it all away to where he stored the goods for the village. “Col,” a voice sounded behind him. “A word, laddie.” He let out a soft sigh and turned around to see Hugh, the oldest of the elders and leader of their council, striding toward him. He turned back to Fin and handed him the reins of his horse. “Will ye take it home for me, please? I’ll be along shortly.” Fin nodded, a sour look on his face.

He cared no more for the elders than Col did. Col watched his cousin walk away before he turned back to Hugh. He was a tall man with long gray hair, a close-cropped beard, and a body once broad and strong but now turning to flab. Col had watched him year after year, growing fatter as the people went hungry. Eventually, Col had enough of it and had started to do something about it. He had acted where Hugh had not. He had provided for his people when the elders sat idly by as crops grew rotten and fields lay fallow, the soil not fit for planting. The elders never skipped a meal though their people had missed many. Col saw to it that no member of the clan went to bed with an empty belly. “Whatsit then, Hugh?” Col snapped.

“I’m tired and wish to go home, not stand here and fight with ye.” “Always so disrespectful, laddie,” Hugh replied. “If I weren’t so used to it, I’d take bleedin’ offense.” “Take offense if ye wish. It troubles me not,” Col growled. “All that matters to me is doing what ye and the elders should be doing. And that’s providing for and protecting our people.” “Protecting them?” Hugh chuckled ruefully. “You call bringin’ the might of the English army down on us protectin’ them? And mark my words, laddie, that’s exactly what’s gonna happen.” “Ye assume tae much, old man.

” “And ye don’t think enough, boy,” Hugh yelled. The older man looked away as he took a long breath, then let it out slowly. Col glanced at the people milling about in the village square, all of them doing their best to appear as if they weren’t listening. Hugh finally raised his gaze, and Col could see the anger burning in the old man’s eyes at his defiance, his lack of respect. “Sooner or later, the Duke, with his whole army, will come searching for whoever’s filchin’ his goods,” Hugh said. “And what’ll ye do then, boy? How’ll ye protect this village against an entire fecking army?” Col opened his mouth to speak but closed it again, knowing he had no response to the question. The truth was, although he and Fin took precautions against being found and covered their tracks as well as possible, being discovered was always a possibility. And if it came to that, if Duke Hamilton marched his forces on their village, their only recourse would be to run and hide deep into the Highlands. He knew some… maybe most… in the village were willing to assume the risk and the consequences for what he and Fin brought home. Others he knew shared Hugh’s opinion on the matter.

Not that it stopped them from partaking of their bounty. Col stepped closer to Hugh, his jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed. He leaned forward until the tips of their noses were but inches apart. “Maybe if you did something to help provide for our people, we wouldnae have to do this,” Col growled through gritted teeth. “Maybe if you didnae sit on your arse, waitin’ for God Almighty himself to rain food down upon us, we wouldnae have to do this. Our people are hungry, Hugh. Our people need food.” Hugh stared hard at him for a long moment, the air between them crackling with tension and the whispered promise of violence. Col gritted his teeth and, with his eyes, dared the older man to make a move. He knew Hugh would be no match for him, and unleashing on the man he blamed for their people’s hardships might feel good.

As much as he wanted to take a swing at Hugh, Col held himself back, and the moment passed. He let out a frustrated, angry breath and turned, choosing to walk away from the situation. “Ye’re gonna be the death of us, boy,” Hugh called after him. Col thought it was a possibility, but until the English brought the hammer down on them, he would keep doing what he was doing … providing for his people.

.

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