It didn’t feel right. The little hairs on Elerde’s neck felt like they were straining to stand up straight as if to provide extra protection from a blow. Lagu said quietly, “Lord Elerde, this trail is haunted. It is too quiet. Even the breeze has stopped. I can’t even hear the river”
Elerde raised his arm to halt the column. “Lagu, take three men and see what is around that bend. See if you can find a place to scout the top of the bluff ahead. We will wait here until you send for us. We’ve got your back, just watch your flanks. I’ll send Toby up the cliff from here so don’t shoot him. See if you can catch up the advanced guard to tell them to hold in place and then send for us. Go.”
Lagu called three archers to him and they set off single file along the path that lay ahead. These men had the sharpest eyes and instinctively looked in all directions at once with their heads always swiveling.
Toby over heard and slipped off his horse without being told. Agile and quiet as a cat the half sized man scrambled up the cliff to the left working his way up a series of intersecting rock slides between the boulders that formed the cliff side which got steeper ahead and pressed the trail against the edge that fell off too steeply to the right down to the rushing water a hundred feet below. The trail narrowed so anything wider than a horse litter could not have negotiated the curve in the trail around which Lagu’s party on their horses disappeared to the left.
A little boy ran up to Elerde and asked, “The princess wants to know why we stopped. What should I tell her?”
“Tell her we are checking the trail ahead to make sure her carriage can pass, your grace.”
“It has always passed before, but I will tell her the new guards are uncertain of the trail.” And he ran back to the covered litter that was slung between two horses so one walked in front of the covered litter and one walked behind. He climbed back into it and closed the half door.
Elerde sighed. “The new guards are uncertain” was rather insolent and might have drawn a reprimand from Elerde, but this was a seven year old prince of Scotland. So he could say what ever he wanted as long as his father paid the price for Elerde’s mercenary guard. The king had entrusted his children to Elerde and his twenty men so he could keep his own guards at what had become the battlefront. Elerde was part of the guard accompanying the king on his progress between his estates in the Trossachs. They had arrived at the next estate in the circuit to find it besieged by lowlanders from the east. The king had sent his children back to his keep three days ride from the battle. This was not to Elerde’s liking. He had lost most his men on his ride farther and farther north, farther and farther from his impossible love. But try as he might, he could not get himself killed, just his men. That was beginning to hurt as much as remaining alive. Why they stayed with him he did not know. He had told them to go home. They said where he was, is their home. They sensed his death wish but gave their own lives rather than let him be killed. He supposed it was because he no longer kept any of the spoils for himself. He gave it all to them in equal shares, double to his lieutenants, of which only Lagu remained.
Elerde dismounted and signaled his men to do the same and they scattered off the trail into the trees to take up watch positions as they always did at halts. He slipped off his bowl shaped light helmet and poured some water into it from the water bag hanging from the pack frame of his supply horse. He watered his own two horses and watched as the drivers watered the carriage horses. Two of his men came by gathering water bags and headed down into the steep ravine to refill them.
Elerde looked into the carriage where the two royal children were sitting facing each other in the chairs that were suspended from the litter poles. The prince was carefully pinching the string intersections for the next step in the game of cat’s cradle they were playing. “Your highnesses should step out and let your horses rest. We will be here for a while.”
The startled prince slipped the string in a tangle off of his sister’s fingers and screamed, “You made me miss!” and in a heart beat his tone changed to hopeful. “Can we climb down and see the river?”
“I suppose it will be OK if I and your nanny come with you.” The nanny approached having left her horse tied to a tree just behind the litter. “Bring your water bags and we will all go and fetch some water for the rest of the trip.” The four slid down the hill to the river which was hardly more than half a dozen paces across but rather fast moving for as deep as it appeared. It didn’t gurgle as most mountain streams because of its depth and nearly level course here. Elerde hurried them back up the hill as quickly as they got the bags filled. As they arrived back at the trail so did Lagu. He slid from the saddle and took Elerde aside up the trail from the royal children.
“Sir there is nothing amiss that we can see. This whole wood is deathly quiet. Not even buzzing insects. We could not see the top of the hill but we could see most of the slope above this bluff and it is all clear. We saw Toby at the military crest signal a thumbs up to us so it must be clear. I left the men to watch from a little rise about a half mile ahead which is where we caught the advanced guard. They’ve seen nothing. But we all have that spooky feeling. Let’s ride out of here as fast as we can. It levels off and opens out where I left the advanced guard.”
“OK, saddle up. Let’s get on home.” Then quietly to Lagu, “Thanks, I still have that feeling. Don’t say anything so the nanny or kids can hear, but tell the men to hurry along. We must stay with the carriage but tell the drivers to get those nags moving.” Lagu moved away to carry out his orders and Elerde mounted and rode up to the bend where he could still see the procession but could look up the face of the bluff and a little ways further along the road. The eerie silence away from the group was unnerving. He waved to start everyone moving and the procession approached. Their hoof beats as they caught up to him were reassuring and he turned to head up the trail when Toby flew over head followed by what sounded like screaming devils straight from hell. He looked up to see the banshees as the first screaming arrow thwacked into his horse which crumpled under him. He threw himself against the cliff face and scrambled back to the litter. It was only two horse lengths away but it might have been a hundred miles as he was too late. The lead horse had dropped like his did but the trail horse had bolted and pulled the litter over the edge of the trail so both horses, drivers, and litter were rolling and bouncing down the hillside toward the silent river below. One of the screaming children flew out of the spinning carriage and landed in the water as a screaming banshee bit Elerde’s left shoulder blade and followed the reverse path of the old wound inflicted by Lawrence. The momentum of the arrow threw Elerde face down on the path and he too slid over the edge but came to rest against a boulder only a few paces down hill as he lost consciousness.
It was dark, cold, and silent as a tomb. Elerde recognized
the excruciating pain in his shoulder and the throbbing in his head which
rested against the boulder that had taken his consciousness away. His left arm
was numb. He gingerly felt his head with his right hand but there was no slime
of blood or stiff matted hair from dried blood. There was a large goose egg on
top. He had not broken his head open even though it felt like he had.
He started to roll off his left side onto his right to swing
his feet down hill to sit up. This shot a sharp pain down his whole left side
as if the arrow had jabbed from above his shoulder and passed down the length
of his body. He persisted in moving to sit with his feet down hill even though
a wave of nausea swept over him so he leaned forward, drew his knees up and
caught his right knee with his right arm waiting to heave. It didn’t happen. He
sat up a little and touched just under his collar bone where it hurt the most expecting
to find the protruding arrow. It wasn’t there. Maybe it had been broken off by
the fall. His shoulder was bare. He realized he was cold because he was half
naked. Someone had removed his padded armor. In order to do so they would have
had to remove the arrow. They had left him for dead but he had not bled to
death. It was just his damned luck to survive a death blow. Maybe he would get
luckier and freeze to death tonight, but it was high summer and he could still
feel the heat coming up from the rocks surrounding him.
The nausea passed and the thirst set in. So in spite of the
pain he carefully felt his way down hill to the silent river and drank from his
hand while sitting knees up on a flat rock. It hurt too much to lean over or
lay down to drink his fill. It was probably better to drink more slowly as he
was forced to do. He drank his fill which took a while. The cold water numbed
his hand. He started to put it under his left armpit to warm it up but that set
off such an avalanche of pain that he sat on it instead. But the boulder by the
water was cold. So he moved back up hill to where the rocks were warm and lay
down to sleep or pass out from the pain. Either way, it was suddenly high noon
of a bright cloudy highland day and he was tremendously thirsty again.
He went down and drank his fill and carefully used handfuls
of water to wash the dried blood, grit, and leaf mold from his chest and back around
his wound. It had closed leaving only a very painful “X” he could have hidden
with the tip of his thumb. The “X” was a shiny plum red that looked like it was
filled with sealing wax. He prayed it would erupt in puss in a day or two and
go putrid and kill him. He figured he was due a painful lingering death as
penance for losing all his men. Clearly none survived or they would be here
guarding him and burying the bodies that filled the air with the putrid smell
of day old death.
He stood and looked around. All the horses and his men’s bodies
had been dumped over the edge of the road. Most had lodged more than halfway
down to the river and were now bloated and stinking. There was nothing he could
do here and the smell was making him sick, so he filled a water skin he had
found and rinsed as much blood as he could out of a saddle blanket that he took
from the back of the dead lead carriage horse. Every pack-animal and man had
been stripped but here and there were damaged or bloody items that the bandits
had left or that had fallen off and were not found by them. The blanket
had been soaked in blood so it had been left sticking to the back of the dead
horse. It was woolen and would keep him warm even while wet as it dried. He rinsed it out in the stream and threw it and the water bag strap over his shoulders and climbed to the trail.
Turning north, he headed toward the battle two days on horse
away rather than toward the keep less than a day’s ride south. Telling a mother
her children were dead was not to his liking. The queen would have him killed
of course which was to his liking, but the king would not carry on crying and
lamenting while having him slowly tortured to death. This queen was not his
Josephine so he felt no obligation to suffer her laments. He walked and
listened. The insects were back buzzing and harassing him. There were the
normal high forest sounds, birds, branches grinding against each other in the
moderate breeze that had quickly cooled and dried his blanket. The itchy wool distracted
him from the major pains in his head and shoulder, but not from the hunger
pains setting in to his stomach.
He had moved up the hill from the road but kept it in sight.
This way he could navigate by the trail but not get caught on it by whatever
traveled this way. This was absurd if he really wanted to die because surely
anyone traveling the trail, man or beast would kill him for sport or food. His
absurdity amused him for hours but he could not break the life long habits of tactical
Elerde ran out of water after walking for several hours on
the steep hillside by following little game tracks going his way through the
trees. So he turned directly down hill to cross the main trail or road on the
way down to the river which he heard nearly a hundred paces below. He never
came to the road before he came to the rushing stream. Barely too wide to leap
across, it was much too small. It could not be his river, the one he had
followed down from the highlands on the horse trail. He had lost his way and
was no longer traveling toward the bereaved king and his battle. Refilling his
water bag and his belly with water he started down stream. Surely this was a
side stream to his river. He remembered crossing a few little streams two days
As dusk thickened about him so did his senses. The throbbing
in his head and shoulder were so intense no other senses were communicating with
his head. He stumbled blindly downhill along with the stream which was tumbling
over the rocks with him until he fell and found he was too dizzy to raise. So
he lay where he was on the warm leaf mold by the water and passed out again.
An eternity or two passed in totally delirious pain and for
an age the only thing he could hear was the rushing of the blood through his
pulsing head. The sun and the stars whirled overhead dizzily pursuing each other.
He had gone to the Christian hell because he smelled smoke and brimstone
through his excruciating pain. Oddly, occasionally he saw an angel face. A strange dark angel
with short dark hair and a pretty round face with sad shining eyes. The angel slowly
washed the pain away and fed him ambrosia in between long floating dizzy naps.
Elerde came to in a soddy with a peat fire in the center with the smoke slowly rising to the ceiling poles to slide along them to leak out the top of the door. His dark angel was gently washing his wound with what felt and smelled like damp moss. The pain was bearable. His head no longer throbbed. He found his voice. “Who… what… where am I?”
“Hush now darling, there will be plenty of time for all that. Let’s eat a little oatmeal and honey while you are awake. I will explain while you eat.” She turned on her little stool and put the moss into an earthen jar by the fire and took a bowl of steaming oatmeal from beside it and spooned onto it a couple of dollops of crystallized honey from an urn on a little shelf above the foot of his bed. She stirred in the honey and asked, “Can you sit up love? I was going to wait for Da to lift you again so you could eat while half delirious, but this is so much better that you’ve become yourself again. Here take my hand so I can help.”
He took her gentle but calloused hand and eased himself up to just a twinge from his shoulder. He found his left arm bound to his side with rags and a wide leather belt. He was dressed in a long woolen tunic with an uncomfortable wad of rags between his legs. He realized it was a diaper like a baby might wear to catch the wet and offal when the weather was cold.
She caught his look down at his nether parts and said, “I’m sorry but that was the best we could do until your wits returned. If you can walk to the midden we can get rid of that.” She was speaking in a Gaelic that was smooth and soothing compared to his native Breton Gaelic. The accent was not difficult to decipher but some of the words were unknown to him but he got their meaning from the context.
“How long have I been here?”
“About two weeks your body has laid here while we tried to shovel food into it, Da and I. You’ve been looking intelligent for only a couple of minutes now in all that time. Da and Herder are out checking the cattle and getting a little milk for our breakfast. Here do you want me to feed you or can you feed yourself? How pale you are still.”
He took the offered bowl and set it on his lap and steadied it with his trapped left hand while he took a small spoon full and brought it close to his lips to see if it was cool enough to eat. After blowing on it gently for a few moments he slipped it into his mouth and recognized the ambrosia from his delirium dreams. “I owe you my life.”
“No your life is your own. The worms are gone from your wound so you may yet win your fight to keep your life. A few weeks work haying with Da and I and you can go on your way if you want, as soon as we have enough fodder to winter over.”
There was a barking that approached the soddy and then a dog came bustling through the hide over the door, circled around the fire and behind the young woman and Elerde to sniff at his wounded shoulder whining quietly. “Yes it is he himself, Herder, he is getting well. See, his wound no longer seeps putrescence.” Herder moved over by the fire beside her and put his head on the girl’s lap and accepted a good scratching behind his ears.
The leather flap moved aside again as a wooden bucket came into the soddy attached to a little man with ten times more white beard than hair on the top of his head. “So your mostly dead friend is no longer mostly dead, Colleen. Have you learned what he is after in our hills?”
“That I have not father. I fear he will go away again before he can finish eating. So I let him eat, which you see he does quite well now.”
“He still has the look of a Norse raider about him, Colleen, so watch your back and hide the spoons. Oh, how unfortunate, you gave him one I see. He could have done with wood you know.” This streamed out of the little old man as he pulled a stool from the shadows and sat on the other side of Herder and the fire from his daughter. Into three wooden mugs whose handles he held in one hand like a bar man, he ladled fresh milk still steaming from the cow in the morning cool that had come through the flap with him.
“So manny, what may we call ye?”
“Elerde” And he filled his mouth with another spoonful of oatmeal.
“Elerde? Eh? That’s not Scots is it now. So where do ye hale from laddy?”
“Breton, my lord, Breton, in a land across the sea.” Said Elerde as he scraped the last of the oatmeal from the bowl and handed it to Colleen.
“Would you like some more Lord Elerde?”
“No, no, it was wonderful but it is enough for now. May I ask where I am and how I got here?”
“Well you are in my summer home by the high pastures above Mentieth. We tend a few cattle and cut hay for their winter fodder. I am known as Brother Graeme or behind my back as Grampa Graeme. The snows have settled prematurely on my mountain so don’t go falling into that trap if you want to keep accepting my hospitality.”
“I would not dare my lord.”
“You bet you won’t. As to how you got here, we can not say. Herder found you by the stream at the edge of the woods above our house. Maybe you can tell us how you got here, for only the little spring and goat tracks are above that place and the other side of the mountain.” He paused and sipped his milk.
“You have a saintly air about you, but I gather you are not a hermit as you are not alone up here. Are you really a brother of Christ, if I may ask?”
“Oh I became a Christian a while ago before Colleen’s mother came into my life. Since I was previously a druid’s apprentice, the other apprentices called me ‘Brother’ to tease me. But I rather liked it and it has been mine ever since. I still practice the arts so I suppose I am a strange Christian that way. But lucky for you I do or you would be dead by now”
“Thank you. I am sure of that. I thought I was dead and gone to hell when I smelled your peat fire. But I remember the face of God, which must have been you, and the face of this angel, Colleen. I will be forever in your debit.”
Graeme chuckled, “Well now I may be called brother but I’ve never been accused of being a god before. I can not argue against your assessment of Colleen, for angel she is, having cared for me and her brothers since her sainted mother fell ill and left us when Colleen was only half grown. She has all of my arts but none of my vices so saintly she is… Yes, I pray she will always care for me and some day a good husband to give us grand children, right enough. By the look you are giving her perhaps you wish to be that yourself?”
“Now Da, don’t be foisting me off on every stranger that falls into our pasture with an arrow wound. He’ll heal well enough in another week or so, help with the last haying, and be on his way.”
“Perhaps you could help me find that midden you mentioned. My legs were not wounded but they feel weak and stiff from lying about.”
Graeme jumped up and offered his hand to help Elerde stand while Colleen moved back to make room in the tiny cottage. They made the required trip. Elerde rinsed his diaper in the stream that danced out of the woods, passed the house, the farm yard, barn, midden, and on down the center of broad green meadows flecked with heather, shrubs and cattle in the circle of trees several hundred paces across. As he stood wringing the clothes to dry them he saw three men slink out of the woods at the far side of the meadows. “Brother Graeme, it appears you have company.”
The old man stood from where he was rinsing the mugs and dashed to the house, gently calling, “Colleen, come see if it be your brothers are home, and bring my sword.”
Colleen appeared at the door with a bag of arrows hanging at her right side, a bow in one hand and two scabbards with highland swords in the other. She slid across the yard giving her father the swords as she passed and stopped at the side of the barn byre by Elerde who had knelt there watching the men approach along the stream. Graeme knelt, handed a sword to Elerde and whispered, “You may want to have this in your good hand if it is not my sons.”
Herder sat between Elerde and Colleen wagging his tail delightedly looking back and forth between them as if to ask, “What’s the matter with you two?” When the three got close enough to make out their faces Colleen turned to Elerde and smiled, “It’s my brothers.” She propped her bow against the barn and skip-ran jumping along the cattle trail by the stream like a little girl half her adult years. The tallest one, who was in the lead, threw down his spear and caught his sister’s flying hug and spun around twice and tossed her to the next, who repeated the procedure which knocked the third over so he and Colleen rolled in the pasture. After helping every one onto their feet, and gathering assorted dropped weapons and baggage, the foursome came up the trail to Elerde and Brother Graeme.
“Elerde, these are my brothers, Donnchadh, Scotaidh, and Sòlas. Aren’t they grand?” Colleen beamed at each as she named them and they each nodded as the one being named.
Elerde handed the sword back to Brother Graeme, who refused it with a shake of his head. “Ye may have need of it, son. That ye handed it back so easily is proof enough for me no ill will come of your keeping it.”
“Father, you may want to reconsider. I believe this man is the chief of the guardians of the royal children who were lost on their way home a fortnight ago. There is a price on his head.” Donnchadh reported.
His youngest brother blurted, “Was a price, until the old king died in an ambush after we found the remains of Elerde’s men and the children’s carriage. The new king, Jock said, ‘That saves us the blood price on the Breton, unless I decide it is worth a reward for making one less rival for my son’s throne.’ He didn’t like his little brother much I guess.”
“No wonder, if he was as rude as you are, Sòlas.” Donnchadh ruffled Sòlas hair which was level with Donnchadh’s shoulder. “So, are you that Elerde, chief of the royal guardians?”
“Yes, and I am yours to do as you will.” Elerde offered the sword to Donnchadh this time.
“No, no, we will welcome an extra sword at our side if the fragment of bandits that got away come here, not that a sword will do us much good as they are all archers and well nigh invisible. The king sent everyone with a steading within a days ride of the ambush site, to our homes to bring everything of value to the keep until we are rid of the Banshee raiders. I say we stay here where we are well hidden from the roads. It is your call Da, but traveling the roads just invites ambush as it plays into the raiders’ hands.”
“You are right son. They are not likely to come here. Surely they are on the roads between here and the keep. It was all we five could do to keep the herd together when we came up here in the spring. I don’t relish a Banshee attack while driving the herd. They would stampede and it would be forever to get them together again, what the bandits don’t carry away. No thank you, we will stay here as you say. I believe we should take shifts by twos at the bottom of the vale. It is unlikely they will come over the mountain or the ridges on our left and right. If they come at all it will be up the trail you took into our valley which we will watch night and day until further word comes. Have you broken your fast yet?”
“No, we ran all night zig zagging across the country to make sure we were not followed, and we waited at the base of the climb long enough to see no one followed. If Colleen has some oatcakes and a hunk of cheese perhaps you and Elerde can take the first watch so you can show him the peculiarities of our road’s defenses. We will come down after breakfast and a long nap to relieve you. Is Elerde well enough to do that? He looks a little pale.”
“I will not go quickly nor win a fight just yet, but I need the walk.”
“Well, come along then and you boys get some food and rest. We will see you at dusk. Herder, come!” Brother Graeme and Elerde set off along the trail down the stream and the others turned toward the house. Elerde shoved the sword in its scabbard between his left arm in its sling and his body. He wondered at the trust of these simple folk. Surely he would not have trusted a wounded stranger with a weapon. Perhaps it was that he had been the king’s trusted guardian and they trusted their king.
Brother Graeme rattled on and on about the weather, the number of cattle, which cows had calved, the creation of meadow oysters, the rise and fall of the water level in the spring-stream, and what was flowering now and what was past. It filtered through Elerde’s mind but little of it stuck. When they reached the far end of the meadows Brother Graeme stopped. “Now it is of utmost importance that you step exactly where I step and not a hand’s breadth off and do not disturb the leaves. If you were a highlander you would know how to walk without leaving a track on the leaves. That is what you must do. Do not leave a track and do not step off into the traps.”
This last statement got Elerde’s undivided attention. “Aye, I will be careful to do as you say.” There was a flash and Elerde’s head swam.