Authors: Kat Black
For my brother
t was the first of May in the year of Our Lord 1307â¦.
The sun was sinking deep in the late spring sky. Its red and orange hues streaked the heavens with a strange and eerie light that made the dark of the woods shadowed and frightening. A creep of green moss covered the trunks of the trees, and old wet leaves covered the paths. It was not a night I wanted to be walking alone, but I had no choice in it.
The words pounded in my head.
I cannot believe that I took ye at yer word.
The breath of the forest whispered along my neck. The night air was changing, growing cold as the sun sank, but I was hot, inside and out.
Go get it, Tormod,
he had said.
Can ye no' see that I'm busy, ye gomerel?
My stomach twisted at the memory of my brother's tone and words.
Busy, aye! Busy making eyes at Bridie MacDonald,
My hands were fisted tight and my face was hot. No doubt the freckles on my nose and cheeks were standing out, just as they had when Torquil ordered me to go for the box of tinder. Just as they had when Bridie had laughed and said, “Will ye just look a' him. His face is as red as his hair.”
My hair was red. Not the soft auburn red of the burn as it washed over the rocks on its way to the sea, but more the ruddy orange of a freshly cut carrot.
I ran my fingers through the offending mess. Sweat from my jog had made the hairs stick out like the spikes of an urchin â a result of my mam's latest shearing. The lice had infested the household and she'd chopped the lot of us.
I was one of nine. Not the oldest or the youngest, not even the middle, I was thirteen, and seventh â the seventh son. The one who was never still, never quiet, never listening. I was different.
Someday I'll get out o' here,
I thought angrily, and not for the first time.
They'll miss me an' be sorry!
The wail of a bagpipe floated toward me from behind and I broke into a run. My breath quickened.
Da would be furious if the lighting of the Beltane fire did not go off on time. And he'd not blame my brother Torquil. It would be me that felt the strap. My backside ached at the mere thought of it.
He'd not listen if I told him that Torquil had traded duties with me. He'd not care that I had done
of Torquil's hauling and stacking of the wood for the bonfire. No. All he would see was that I had delayed the festivities by not fulfilling my duties.
I stretched my stick limbs to make greater strides as I came in sight of the hut. As it was, I'd have to run the whole way back to the village to make it to the ceremony on time.
Our hut of stone and thatch was bigger than most of the dwellings spread across the hillsides. It had started out small but grew as the family did. I ran around the back and through the door closest to the animal stalls. The cows started and stomped at my arrival. “Be still, ye big hairy beasts. 'Tis just me, Tormod.”
The hut was quiet. Our home was never truly free of people, and so the lack of sound was strange to me. The rest of the family was back in the village. Tonight was the celebration of Beltane, the beginning of true summer, a time for giving thanks. My brothers and sisters and I had joined with the families of the neighboring crofts to prepare. We had cleaned the square, even scrubbed down the enormous boulder in the middle, and cleared the old rushes from the kirk. The smell of the hay that had covered the dirt floors still filled my mouth and clung to my plaid.
The rush cart was filled with new straw and fresh flowers, and the celebration was ready to begin. It would start with the procession of the cart, led by Jordy MacFie, the village piper. Jordy had been waiting when I ran off.
The skirl of pipes sounded and my heart dropped. There was to be a feast, with storytelling and music, and a tremendous bonfire would burn straight through 'til morning. Well, that is if I ever made it back in time.
I, Tormod MacLeod, was to bring the box of tinder that would give spark to the great heap of wood I had helped stack for most of the day. Bringing the material that would start the fire was an honor, but not one I had planned on.
“Where is it?” I shouted. The box of tinder should have been on the shelf next to Mam's weaving. “Why is naught where âtis supposed to be? Too many bairns,” I grumbled. “Too many hands touching, and moving, and playing with things.”
I was fair flying through the rooms of the hut like a squall, tossing aside everything in my path. I snatched up the twins' coverlet and the small tin box I was looking for bounced on their pallet.
What a relief.
I was nearly to the door when the crunch of gravel beneath the heavy tread of a horse stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Da,” I whispered. The lump in my throat threatened to steal my breath. I edged to the window, peeled back the oilcloth shutter, and peered outside.
ome out, lad. I can see ye standing there.”
My first look at the man brought a rack of shivers through me. He wore a black hooded cloak drawn close about him. And when he lifted his arm and called me forward, I saw a flash of silver glint beneath. I hesitated, frightened. Then a strong gust of wind blew back the cloak and beneath it I saw the white of vestments, a second cloak, and an armless tunic. The edge of a bright red cross glowed in the dim light.
I had never spoken to a Knight Templar before. My cousin Angus was in training as one of the Holy Brethren, but I didn't think he counted as yet. I moved quickly to the door and bolted outside, crossing the space between us.
“Aye, Sir Knight?” I gazed up at his looming form. Though I was considered a fair size for my age, I was still small next to him. My head didn't even come to his knees as he sat the enormous black horse of war.
“Where's yer father, lad?” His voice was soft and lilting, his brogue even more pronounced than mine. My mother was of the Highlands and my father of here in the Lowlands. We were a mix of dialect in my home.
“Gone to the village with the rest,” I said.
“Everyone?” he asked. His fingers tightened on the horse's reins, making the animal balk.
“Why do ye need them? Is there something I can do?” I was eager to offer something of worth to the knight. I stared at him hard, taking in every detail of his presence. Even seated as he was, I could see that he was big. His shoulders were wide and his legs were long. His eyes were deep and dark, a brown so very brown they were nearly black. He had a thin beard that began beneath his nose and flowed long over his chin. Hidden as it was, I could not tell the color of his hair, but his beard was brown with silver shot through.
“Do ye know the way to Balantrodoch?” he asked.
I was so caught up in my inspection it took a moment for his question to sink in. “Aye. I do. 'Tis beyond the forest, just over three leagues from here.” We all knew of the preceptory. It was the grounds of the main fort of the Knights Templar in this province.
He looked into my eyes a long moment, as if reaching deep into my soul to measure my worth. “I have a duty for ye, lad, one that is o' utmost importance.”
I could barely contain my excitement.
“I need ye to deliver a message to the Abbot. Can ye read?”
The question seemed out of place in what he had been asking, but I answered nonetheless. “No, sir. We had a schoolmaster for a while, but he moved on and none has come since.” I cringed with embarrassment. It was not unusual to be without the ability to read. There were no more than a few in the village who could. Still, it bothered me to be seen by the Templar as something less than what I might be.
The knight seemed relieved at the reply. He pulled from his side bag a rolled parchment. The seal in the wax was the crest of two knights on a single horse. He handed it over and a strange tremor passed through me at the contact. “Tell no one. Go quickly.”
I was afraid then. The box of tinder cut into the palm of one hand and the parchment dented softly in my other.
They expect me a' the bonfire. Da will thrash me within an inch o' my life. Mam will worry.