Highland Master

By: Amanda Scott

Prologue




Perth, Scotland, September 1396



Abrupt silence filled the air when the young dark-haired warrior’s opponent fell. The lad looked swiftly for the next one but saw no one nearby still standing.

Then, hearing moans and weaker cries of the wounded and dying, the warrior realized that his sense of silence was no more than that the screeching of the pipes that always accompanied combat had abruptly ceased when his own fight had.

Not only had the pipes of battle fallen silent, but so also had the noble audience that watched from tiered seats overlooking the field. They had cheered at the beginning, for he had heard them before all his senses had focused on his first opponent.

The broad, usually green meadowlike expanse of the North Inch of Perth had altered gruesomely now to a field of bodies and gore.

Man after man had he slain in that trial by combat between Camerons and Clan Chattan, two of the most powerful Highland clan federations. Each, by order of the King of Scots, had produced thirty champions to fight. The royal intent was to end decades of feuding over land and other bones of contention.

The young warrior extended his gaze to sweep the rest of the field for any remaining opponent. He saw only three men standing and one kneeling, all some distance away from where he stood near the wide, fast-moving river Tay.

St. John’s town of Perth and nearby Scone Abbey having served as royal and sacred places for centuries, Perth’s North Inch had long been a site for trial by combat. The field was fenced off from the town just southeast of it on the river, and the river provided as effective a barrier as the fences did, if not more so.

The town overlooked the Tay estuary at the first place narrow enough to bridge. If a man should fall in, the swift and powerful river would sweep him into the Firth of Tay and thence to the sea or, more likely, drown him long before then.

Therefore, the day’s combatants had tried to keep clear of the precipitous riverbank. But when other ground grew slippery with gore and cluttered with the fallen, the area near the water remained as the only option.

None of the four who were still visibly alive looked as if he cared a whit about the young warrior. The lad remained wary but was grateful to rest, knowing that if he had to fight one or all of them, the likelihood was that he would die.

The others wore clothing similar to his—saffron-colored, knee-length tunics and wide leather sword belts. Each also wore a leather targe strapped to one arm to parry sword strokes. And each one wore his long hair in a single plait, as most Highland warriors did, to keep flying strands out of his face as he fought.

Although he could not discern their clan badges from where he stood, the lad knew they were all members of Clan Chattan, the enemy.

“Fin.”

His sharp ears heard the voice, weak though it was, and he turned quickly.

Amidst the nearby bodies, he saw a slight but insistent movement and hurried toward it. Dropping to a knee beside the man who had made it and fighting back a rush of fear and icy despair, he exclaimed, “Father!”

“I’m spent,” Teàrlach MacGillony muttered, clearly exerting himself more than a man in his condition should. “But I must—”

“Don’t talk!” Fin said urgently.

“I must. Ye be all we ha’ left from this dreadful day, lad. So ’tis your sacred duty tae stay alive. How many o’ the villains be still upstanding?”

“I can see four,” Fin said. “One is kneeling—retching, I think.” With a catch in his voice, he added, “Except for me, all of our men have fallen.”

“Then them ye see be just taking a breath,” his father said. “Ye’ll ha’ to stand against them unless his grace, the King, stops the slaughter. But his brother, Albany, does sit by his side. The King is weak, but Albany is not. He is evil, is what he is. ’Twas his idea, all this, but his grace does ha’ the power to stop it.”

Fin looked again toward the tiers. Not only did the King and the Duke of Albany sit there but also members of the royal court, the clergy, and many of Perth’s townspeople. Banners waved, and vendors doubtless still sold the ale, whisky, buns, and sweets that at the beginning of the day had made the event seem like a fair.

“Albany is speaking to his grace now,” Fin said.

“Aye, nae doots telling him that there must be a true victor, so that the feuding betwixt the Camerons and Clan Chattan will stop. But hear me, lad. Our people did count on me as their war leader today, and I failed them. Ye must not.”

“You accounted for several of these dead, sir,” Fin said.

“I did, aye, but your sword sped more to their Maker than mine did. And, if ye truly be the last man o’ ours standing, ye ha’ a duty that ye must see to.”

“What is it?”

“Vengeance,” his father said, gasping. “Swear that ye’ll seek it against their war leader and… and others. Ye ken fine… after such slaughter… the right o’ vengeance be sacred. ’Tis a holy bequest that ye… as sole survivor, must accept.” Gasping more harshly for each breath, he added, “Swear it… to me.”

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