The Highland Games
Barring the festive nature blanketing the gaming grounds, one would say it has all the trappings of preparation for war on a national level. As such, every able-bodied man, woman, and child over the age of seven seems present, ready to draw weapon and blood for the honor of clan and kin. And not a one looks to be unencumbered by anything less than two lengths of sharpened steel. Thankfully, there are numerous booths of finely crafted wares to shop, songs and dances to join, copious amounts of food to enjoy, as well as, plenty of liquid libations for quenching the thirst. There are also enough contests and high-spirited women to satisfy the competitive nature of all and the wanton libido of the liquefied. Yet, if matters were ever to get too far out of hand, there is always the sobering reminder of what is considered proper; it hangs from a noose at the ground’s far end.
With the mustering clans comes the roll call by Lord Locke himself. Its conclusion marks the official opening of the games. But before the fun can begin in earnest, his lordship is obliged to conduct one bit of serious business – the formal sentencing and punishment of a convicted murderer and rapist. The young man, having already been found guilty by Glenfeld’s elders and the most circumstantial of evidence, is brought before the public gibbet. There, despite final pleas from family supporters for leniency, the unfortunate soul is hanged. His body set to dancing for the crowd’s approval. Thereafter, under constant guard by Locke forces, the condemned is left to feed carrion birds for the full measure of the games. No doubt, the message is received loud and clear by all in attendance. In the subsequent days there are no like offenders.
As many hours have passed in these opening ceremonies, this first day is nearly spent. But what remains is not wasted. The late afternoon and evening gives way to much revelry and excess. Time is spent becoming reacquainted with distant friends and relatives, while final preparations for the following day’s activities are made in earnest. Simon, Lord Locke’s nephew, along with his youthful companions Vaush, Stratum, Amber, and the foreign child Bran, take the opportunity to investigate the various nighttime offerings of the grounds.
The children’s first encounter of the evening is with a very drunk and celebratory Timothy O’Sullivan. As is his custom, O’Sullivan has pitched his foreign banner and lone tent along side the McPherson encampment. A roaring fire, a sloshing tankard of ale, and a half empty cask of McSweeny’s finest are O’Sullivan’s only companions as he sits and offers up a rousing tale to the stars and moon. His narrative concerns the ousting of the Tusk from the highlands by the legendary figure, Briarfrost. Though clearly drunk and speaking in the northern dialects, he has a firm command of the story and soon gains a youthful audience to its conclusion.
With his tale finished and a sincere applause by those gathered, O’Sullivan quickly moves into a new story of unknown origin and language. The group takes this as their cue to move on and seek out food and drink. In time they find both, as well as a small group of boys playing a game of hide-and-seek near the forest’s edge.
To most, this child’s game would seem of little importance. Yet, the fact is that this is the first time most of the newcomers have ever participated in its like. Amber being the lone exception. During the course of the night’s fun, Chester more than once proves his worth in seeking out other players and protecting Simon from being tagged by pursuers. A half-hearted charge of cheating is raised when Chester takes out one of the players with a blindside tackle, but it isn’t received very seriously and play continues in good humor. If there is any tipping of the scales, it is that Vaush can’t help but put his considerable skills of stealth to good use. Never once does he fail to reach the old tree stump used for home base safely and without contest. Somehow, and unexpectedly so, Stratum meets with like success. Where others are successful, Amber and Bran are often left competing for their individual safety in each round. In the end, the game proves to be a bonding experience that cements the five youths for the remainder of their time in Glenfeld. It also sparks a flame of competitiveness between Simon and Bran. Eventually, the quintet retires to their respective homes for a night of rest.
The following morning is greeted with the meaty smells of cooking fires, the woeful sounds of more than one hangover, and the promise of the first day’s true competition. It involves several events whereby the throwing of heavy objects for distance and height takes precedence. Most are for men only, but there are separate events designed just for women and children below the age of fifteen years. The exception to this gender bias is the longbow competition.
While males and females compete separately, Ruby McPherson chooses to take her stand amongst the more brawny of the species. Some grumbling about this breach of etiquette is heard, though none willingly challenge Ruby directly. And so, she competes to an unsurprising win. Her victory adds another arrow of gold to her growing collection.
What is not certain is the success of Ruby’s daughter. Amber is competing in the same event for those of the younger persuasion. At just seven summers, this is Amber’s first attendance of the games. And though the daughter of one of the most famed shooters in all of the highlands, she is still half the age of some of the more established competitors.
Like the adults, it isn’t long before the superior shooters rise to the top. Amber being the youngest among several. With each successive round, targets are moved further back. Weaker competitors become spectators. At fifty yards there are only a handful of archers remaining. After five arrows apiece are sent down range, two older boys and Amber each score an equal number of rings. Now, rather than moving the targets further back, the test for accuracy is increased by reducing the size of the mark. Their aim is for an object no larger than a country hare. The outcome of three shots each will decide who claims the prize.
The first shooter, a boy of twelve summers from clan Darby, steps forth and sends his shaft whispering over the top of his mark. It is an effort that would kill any man at this distance. Yet, a collective groan is heard upon the grounds as no points are awarded. Amber, with steady nerves for one so young and inexperienced at the pressures of competition, takes her first shot. Her aim, true and sound, scores two points with a dead center bull’s eye. A cheer resounds from the gathered crowd. The second boy, the oldest of the three remaining shooters and hailing from clan McAlester, claims one point with an arrow to the outer ring. An opposing cheer, though not as victorious, is offered up from the opposite side of the field.
A second flight of arrows maintains the point standings as each shooter scores an outer ring for a point apiece. Each is still in the hunt. Victory and clan bragging rights now hinge on the final effort.
The Darby boy, succumbing to nerves, repeats his earlier performance, just missing the target and falling to a guaranteed third place. Amber, bolstered by her previous efforts, sends her third and final shaft down field. It fails to find the center circle for certain victory, but it is still good enough for a point on the outer ring. At minimum, it offers a tie for first place should the McAlester boy target the bull’s eye. She cannot deny the feelings of pride and impending success.
With the last draw of the bowstring, clan McAlester sends his feathered shaft through the still air, the audience waiting in suspenseful silence for the outcome. Only when his effort strikes the outer ring is there a release of equal parts joy and anguish – calls of celebration from those in support of McPherson and cries of defeat from the McAlesters.
And so, to the victor goes the spoils, as Amber is awarded a finely crafted leather case, lined in rabbit fur, and capable of holding a dozen quality arrows. The leather is expertly inlaid; depicting scenes of the hunt and showcasing stylized carvings at either end. For Amber, it is a trophy more than worthy of her success. While her mother, Ruby, stands taller than any man in the crowd. On this day, golden arrows pale in comparison to what her daughter has achieved.
But gold arrows and leather casings are not the only winnings to be collected. At the gambling tables, someone has foolishly accepted a wager of fifteen gold! Worse yet, it is at 5 to 1 odds of Amber winning the longbow competition. But why not accept the bet? It is a wager made by Brannigan the Mage. The same man, whom without fail, has never once collected upon his winnings. This is largely due to the fact that Brannigan is usually far too drunk to recognize that he’s even made the bet, much more that he’s won something. Fifteen gold from Brannigan? It’s a sure thing! Guaranteed money in the pocket. But then, this is the first time Brannigan has brought his son to the games.
At some point in the afternoon, Stratum, along with Simon, Bran, and Vaush, track down Brannigan in the hopes of obtaining silver to spend amongst the shops. True to form for such occasions, the mage is already waist deep in his cups. So much so, that he is unable to work loose the knots from his purse strings. Eventually he is forced to invite one of the children to cut it free from his belt. Unfortunately, drunken spell casters often forget the magic of protection they place upon such objects. For his efforts at trying to cut loose the strings, Simon receives a rather nasty shock and an electrical burn to the edge of his knife’s blade. But the purse is free.
Quickly dumping out the contents of Brannigan’s purse, the children soon discover a wooden chit among the many different denominations of coins. Questioning its origins, they determine that there may be some worth in its finding. It is a wager receipt. Scooping up a few coins for spending, as well as the chit, the children bid Brannigan a fond farewell. Leaving the mage to continue his copious consumption, they head for the gambling tables.
Taking the newly found chit to the gambling tables is easy enough. Finding out what it’s for is a little more difficult. Fortunately, there are large chalkboards with a grid posting several symbols and numbers. Stratum, eventually matching the symbols from the chit to one of the boards, is able to decipher the code. And from what he sees, his father has just won a veritable fortune! Seventy-five gold pieces to be exact! A king’s ransom if ever there was one!
Presenting the winning chit causes quite a stir for the individuals manning the payout line. After sputtering about and mumbling incoherently to themselves, one begins to question Stratum concerning the authenticity of the token, but he can’t deny the markings as being legitimate. Then there is the sheer amount of the original wager. Fifteen gold is an unheard of sum to accept. Only when it is revealed to be Brannigan’s wager does reality sink in. The bet was made and accepted in good faith – though with the belief that it would never come to having make good on it. Now those behind the counter are faced with the truth of having to honor a debt beyond their day’s take. The idea of skipping out flitters across their combined faces, but Stratum’s implied threat of telling his father about the winnings is enough to squash any notion of not paying.
A compromise is soon reached when one of the men offers to pay by games’ end. Stratum, seeing an opportunity to gain even more from these bunglers of betting commerce, demands a compensation of five additional gold for each day they are unable to make payment. Only the idea of being blasted into oblivion or turned into a three eye toad keeps the fools from failing to accept Stratum’s proposal, or at the least, negotiating better terms. So with a promise to return at the end of each day’s competition, Stratum and the gang make for the various venders at the opposite side of the field.
Shopping, much more having money in the pocket to spend, is a new experience for the boys. All manners of crafts, leather goods, and weaponry catch the collective eye. But it is the woodworking that has the greatest appeal. After much haranguing over prices and quality of craftsmanship with one of the local artisans – which nearly drives the poor man to tears – the small troupe of boys each leave with a wooden cup and the majority of their coins still in their purses. Only Stratum has spent serious money for a quality mug to present to his father as a gift.
It is while walking the stalls that the boys witness an oddity running towards them: a lad of similar age, with long, dirty blond hair, wearing britches rather than the obligatory kilt. In his hurry, the boy crashes directly into Vaush. He is only there for the briefest of moments, before picking himself off the ground and hastily continuing on his way.
Soon afterwards, another group of boys, this time wearing tartans of the McAlester clan, is seen working their way down the street. They are searching all nearby stalls, vigorously looking for something, or someone. One finally points directly to Vaush and shouts a word of recognition. This has the effect of bringing both groups together at a major intersection within the crafter’s stalls.
Vaush is immediately accused of having stolen a coin purse from the perceived leader of this new group. The accusation is ludicrous of course. Vaush has never laid eyes upon the boy who now challenges him. Innocently lifting arms up and out, Vaush demands proof to substantiate the claim. He knows full well that none can be obtained from his person. That is when one of the newcomers points to the wooden cup hanging from Vaush’s belt. The same one he only recently received from the wood carver.
“If you’re not a thief, then what is that?” asks the boy still pointing to the cup.
Vaush holds up his newest acquisition and responds, “Exactly what it looks like you knit. It’s a cup.”
“I know that, but what’s inside?”
Turning the cup upside down, Vaush claims the contents to be “Nothing.”
Unfortunately, that is not what drops to the ground. Rather than nothing, what falls are the remains of an empty coin purse. It exhibits the incriminating signs of cut strings and the McAlester family crest… all the evidence these newcomers require to pursue the matter. What follows is equal declarations of guilt and innocence, the tale of another boy having planted the purse upon Vaush, and eventually, a formal challenge in disbelief of this story. Long before any adult can intervene, a knife is drawn. Thus, through no fault of his own, Vaush now finds himself in a true contest for blood.
His adversary is certainly no shrinking violet to such challenges. The boy understands his way around the use of a dagger. He is fast and sure-footed, good enough that his first slash leaves a cut across Vaush’s outer clothing. Only Robert’s gift of protective leather prevents the blade from directly scoring skin. Vaush decides to treat this challenge with a modicum of respect, dropping into a full defensive posture – at least long enough to pick apart his adversary’s strategy of attack and thus, develop his own.
As the two combatants circle one another, Vaush maintains his defenses. The other boy believes himself to have the upper hand with repeated thrusts and slashes going unanswered. Soon, several adults arrive upon the scene. They are swiftly informed of the seriousness of what lies before them. This is a formal challenge; it is a contest of honor that can not be halted by anything less than spilled blood. The fact that one is a mere child, a lowlander that is nearly half the age of his adversary, has no bearing on the matter. It is the Highland way.
In the gathering crowd is Blaise and Ruby, as well as several other McPhersons, Fraisers, and McAlesters. Their proximity to one another is a tinderbox of emotions just waiting for a spark to set it ablaze. The spark soon flies from Vaush when he suddenly uncoils like a lick of fire finding a reserve of fuel, burning brightly, intensely for just the briefest instant, but long enough to set his opponent’s outer thigh afire in pain and blood. The boy drops with a scream of anguish, his leg muscle flayed open like so much meat for the roasting. Meanwhile, Vaush stands unmoved by the outcome. Their contest, if it was ever truly such, is over. But the battle has just begun.
Concerned adults rush to both boys. Where blood is stanched for one, the other is swarmed in protective concern. But the fire is lit and verbal assaults begin to flare up amongst the crowd. Soon, accusations and threats are freely exchanged. The embers are fanned as a push becomes a shove and fists begin to fly in earnest. It doesn’t take long for a full out brawl to be in effect, threatening to spread throughout the merchant stalls like a wildfire.
Smartly, Vaush, along with the rest of his associates, seek out shelter within one of the more sturdy structures. It gives them a rather secure location from which to watch the growing blaze of battle.
At the center of the conflict stands its very namesake, Blaise and Ruby. The pair is well suited for this kind of fighting. Blaise, though not the tallest or strongest, seems to wield fists of tempered steel, knocking adversaries senseless with each blow. While Ruby uses her lithe body and unique fighting style to sidestep and redirect her opponents’ efforts. This she does all in the defense of her husband’s back, believing the mountain of a man behind her is doing the same for her. It is teamwork that is unmatched by any of the others currently embroiled in this struggle for clan honor.
Though hostilities have yet to involve the drawing of true steel, it seems destined to end in somebody becoming seriously maimed or killed should the fighting not be brought under control. To this end, Lord Locke issues orders for his personal guard to break up the brawl. Their initial attempt is unsuccessful, reporting that the use of arms would be required to bring the highlanders back from their current frenzy. Not wanting to escalate matters and cause unnecessary injury, Locke calls for Brannigan. But the mage is nowhere in the immediate vicinity. Thankfully, the boys believe they know where to find him and quickly depart the scene.
As a matter of fact, Brannigan is exactly where the boys left him earlier. Only now he is nearly completely drunk! Pickled to his eyeballs in highland ale. Finding the mage was easy; however, it takes some convincing to get Brannigan to understand the seriousness of the situation. Eventually realization works its way through his alcoholic haze, stumbling upon that one corner of the brain still reserved for coherent thought. Yet, the fact that his first action is to pluck a large black beetle from a small wooden box and eat it does not give the youths much hope for his forthcoming help.
What the boys don’t expect is the beetle to instantly sober the drunkard. Their shock and surprise is only overcome by Brannigan’s rapid race across the field, where the fighting has continued to draw others into its chaos. Once there, he quickly puts an end to the fray by issuing a word of command that explodes across the entire field. STOP!
This single word and the power behind it, has the stunning appearance of freezing every soul within hearing. Where once there were crushing blows and vicious threats, raised fists now held high, refuse to drop. Angry curses lie strangled in the throat. All are compelled to follow Brannigan’s single directive. Only those too weak to stand or already in the act of falling seem possessed of movement. Within seconds the spell breaks, but the passing time is enough to extinguish the flames of battle. Locke’s forces rapidly move in to prevent any additional flare-ups and tend the injured. Those who are able, slowly walk or stumble away. They are carried on the wind like so much spent ash. Many nurse cuts and bruises. Not a few have cracked ribs, fractured jaws, and tender heads that will require nursing this night. Not so for Blaise and Ruby. The pair still stands back to back, breathing hard and steady, the burning passion of their recent struggle still aglow just below the surface. Neither can help smiling.
His duty fulfilled, Brannigan turns to salute his lord with a flourish and a request to resume what he had begun earlier in the day. There is much ale that still needs drinking. Locke, believing his men to have matters in hand, sends the mage on his way. Though as Brannigan departs, one can hear him bemoaning the loss of a good day’s drinking and a decent buzz. Not to mention, one of his precious beetles.