Authors: Kat Black
Seamus protested. “Alex, what can he know? He's but a lad.”
The mighty Templar's eyes assessed me then. “Aye. An' were it no' for this balach, we would have ridden to our deaths this very day.”
The thought troubled me, almost as much as his calling me a lad. The vision, never far from my thoughts, loomed in my mind.
“Have any o' ye a better idea?” the Templar asked.
Seamus turned away. The others shook their heads no.
“Ye're sure o' this, little ma â¦ Tormod?” He was not outwardly skeptical, but I could tell if there were another way he would consider it instead and this gave me pause.
Could I do it?
“Aye. 'Tis the path o' the drovers. I have walked it many a time.”
At his signal they gathered around and he told the plan. I watched the reactions on their faces. Most were
receptive. Seamus was openly against it, but he was overruled by the Templar.
“Brother Callum, I must rely on ye to ride back and assure the Abbot the message was delivered successfully.”
The Templar's eyes flickered over me, assessing. My stomach grew tight. “The rest o' us will go on as planned, with a bit o' a deviation that I pray will turn out right.” He took the reins of his mount, and with a look around to make sure the others were ready, said, “Come, Tormod. Lead us.”
e had to retrace a bit of the way I had come to them, but within the candle mark we had picked up the trail I remembered. It was a thin and winding track that wove up the slope and through the scrub. My da, the boys, and I had helped clear it over the past two autumns, helping our neighbors take their herd this way after losing several head to raiders in the pass.
I was awake, but the feeling of moving in a dream was strong. My eyes were gritty from lack of sleep, and my legs felt as if they didn't belong to me. The men spoke among themselves. The soft buzz of their conversation
hummed in my ears. The Templar said little. He seemed content to walk with me, though his eyes never settled overlong on any one thing. His vigilance was constant. Had I to watch our trail ahead, the hills beside, and our back as well, I could not have managed it all. I had trouble enough making sure the track I sought in the moonlight was the correct one.
“Tell me, Tormod. How did the Abbot seem? Did he say any more to ye than what ye mentioned already?”
His voice took me by surprise. I glanced sharply up at him, scarcely believing not only that he would speak to me, but also that he would ask an opinion. “No. The soldiers were there with him when I arrived. The Abbot told them ye were not there and said if they didn't believe him, they could search the place. But â¦”
He looked at me expectantly. “Aye?” he asked.
“I knew they would not.”
“He seemed powerful, my Lord Knight, as if it would somehow be a trespass they would regret.” I knew I was not making a whole lot of sense.
“Powerful?” he asked.
“Aye.” I said. “Not a' first, for the Abbot seemed small, ye know, but when he spoke, it was with such authority, I knew they, and I, would do anything he asked. Something strong seemed to come from the man.
I knew that if he commanded, I would obey. It's like with my da, but more so â though if ye should ever meet him, I'd ask ye not to mention that.”
A small smile played about his mouth. I waited for him to speak more, but he went back to his silent ways.
We had walked a mark of the candle. My legs were beyond weary, and I felt as if I slept as I moved. And yet the night was barely begun. The others didn't seem bothered by the travel. Ahead was the highest peak we would have to cross. It was tough on the horses, and the men were busy both calming and coaxing them upward. I was trying to work up the courage to speak to the Templar without him speaking to me first.
I was leading the way and very nearly to the top of the heights when his arm reached out and snagged my plaid. “Stop here,” he said softly. He motioned all of us to silence. To the one, each man dropped to a crouch as he, already low, scrambled silently to the cliff's edge and peered down into the blackness.
“What is it?” I whispered, appearing at his elbow uninvited.
His glare stopped my heart and stilled my tongue, and he yanked me from my crouch down flat onto my stomach.
Peering down, I didn't see them at first, but one chose that moment to dart from a clump of scrub. Men were scattered along the hillside behind clusters of
rock, lying among patches of gorse. Their attention was focused on the path below.
“Do we attack?” I whispered tightly.
“No. Not unless we have no other choice. We do not shed blood lightly, Tormod,” he whispered. Slowly he backed away from the ridge and signaled that I should do the same.
“They would have no second thoughts to killing ye,” I mumbled.
He addressed me solemnly. “Death comes to all, but I do not hasten any toward it. We are outnumbered in man, strength, and arms. My mission is o' great importance. It canno' be abandoned for foolishness.”
I nodded, chastened, and rose to a crouch, ready to make my way back down. Yet, as I stood I was suddenly hit by a wave of unsteadiness. It had been rough travel and I had risen too quickly. I felt myself lose balance and begin to fall. A shower of rock clattered along with me.
From beyond the rise, I heard them.
“Take cover!” the Templar cried.
The sound of men swarming over the hill overtook me, yet I could do nothing but tumble and slide down the rocky hillside. I hit my head and tore my hands trying to stop my descent and only slowed near the bottom. My head was pounding as I crawled behind a group of rocks. A trickle of blood ran down into my eye, and I rubbed it away trying to see what was happening.
The Templar and his men ranged on the slope above me. Brother Andrus and Douglas had moved behind trees and drawn their bows. The Templar and Seamus made a wall at the top of the hill, and for a moment there was no movement or sound but the clatter of stone and the war cry of the approaching men.
Turning back to back, the Templar and Seamus lifted their swords. Almost as one, their words rang clear.
“Non nobis, Domine.”
And it began.
The first man came over the rise not expecting a frontal attack. The Templar swung mightily, and I gasped. The blade cut deep. The man staggered and went down with a scream that curdled my blood. The next man was right behind, another and still another. The scene was mad. I could barely follow the many things that were happening. Seamus had engaged two, and as they fell another came toward him bent on death. An arrow suddenly embedded itself in the attacker's shoulder and his sword merely glanced Seamus's mail. Brother Andrus was notching and firing arrows at a rate I could barely credit. And Douglas â¦ Douglas I saw reached for an arrow only to find his quiver empty.
The blood in my veins turned to ice. I knew what was going to happen. With a sick lurch I stood, shouting to make him see and understand. “Douglas, get down!”
It was almost a dream, a horrible, revolting nightmare.
I closed my eyes to shut it away. Yet the image remained before the brightness of my mind. I saw the sharp, black arrow pierce the fragile white throat. Blood, dark and crimson, surged around the shaft. I saw him stagger back, fall, and begin the roll downhill.
Something snapped deep inside me and I opened my eyes, my mind rearing away as I scrambled on my knees from my place of safety toward Douglas. “No,” I cried. The blood from the wound on his neck trickled to the ground beneath his head.
I caused this to happen.
My fingers began to throb unexpectedly. Heat washed over me, and the tingling feel of a legion of ants ran along a path inside me. I stared at the back of my open hand, uncomprehending, and the man beneath my fingers moved. His eyes fluttered, opened, and seized upon mine. I saw wonder in them, and then they drifted closed and his body became still. I slumped back on the rough, rocky ground and darkness took me.
ormod. Can ye hear me?”
The Templar's voice was far away, and I was so very
tired and heartsore that it took much to heed his call. He was persistent, however, far more than I could ignore. I opened my eyes a sliver and moaned at the shaft of pain the light brought to my head.
“Aye, lad. Stay awake. Look into my eyes.”
I did, but it hurt like the very devil. “I'm sorry,” I said. “I am so very sorry.” I could not help the tears that leaked from the edges of my eyes, however much they mortified me. He thought their cause was the pain of my injury, but it was the dead, sightless eyes of Douglas haunting my mind.
“'Tis over, Tormod. Ye've been hurt in yer fall, but naught is broken, I think. Can ye sit?”
“The others â¦”
He ferreted my meaning and then knew my thoughts well and truly. There was a terrible sadness in his eyes. “We are safe.”
I understood the thing he didn't say. I knew that the old man had passed on, and yet still I had hoped. I turned my head, though the pain nearly broke me in two, and was sick in the dirt. A man was dead, because I had been careless. There was no getting around that.
“He was old, Tormod, an' lived a long, full life. It was the way he would have wanted to go. It was no' yer fault.”
I could not meet his eyes. I would believe him in all, save that, for I knew better. I turned away only to see a
pile of dead and bloodied bodies. I fought back the bile. I had wanted a conflict, to fight as a Templar. Yet it was nothing like I had envisioned.
“Come, Seamus, help me lift him.”
Seamus came at the Templar's call, and I had the wish then that he had been the one to take the message to the Abbot. Seamus was angry and made it known.
Roughly he drew me to a sitting position. My world swayed as my head pulsed. The Templar interceded. “There are horses wandering below. Get them; we've lost two.” His mouth was an angry line, and his voice was that of the superior, strong and not to be questioned. “We must no' delay, and Tormod canno' walk the rest o' the way while injured.”
“He should go back,” Seamus brooded. “We have no need o' a guide. The road is below, and we can pass unmolested. The balach should go home.” Before he turned away, he raked a black gaze over me.
“Aye. His place is home,” said the Templar. “But as we canno' afford the time to bring him, nor send him injured and alone on his way, he stays.” His words raised my spirits a little.
Seamus spun around, his eyes wide with surprise. “Ye mean to take him with us?”
The Templar's strange assessing gaze was on me again. “At least as far as the coast. We can arrange an
escort to see him home. Go, Seamus. Do as I said.” Seamus turned away and disappeared over the hill.
As far as the coast.
I was disappointed deep inside. I had not really expected that I should become one of them, but perhaps in a corner of my mind the possibility had taken root. I stood on my own, though I teetered with dizziness. “I am well enough.”
The Templar caught me as I swayed. “Ye're strong o' heart, Tormod, but yer body is injured. 'Tis nothing o' which to be ashamed. The enemy is gone for the moment. We continue our journey through the pass an' hope there are no others hunting us. 'Tis urgent we move quickly or I'd give ye more time to recover. Can ye ride, lad?”
“Aye. I'll not hold ye up.” I tried to keep my head still as I spoke though every movement sent sparks of pain through me. At the corner of my vision, I saw the rocks the men had gathered for the cairn of Douglas. Tears filmed my eyes, and I blinked them away. It was hard to swallow. Brother Andrus put his hand on my back as he passed by.
“Ye will ride with me for now,” said the Templar. “There are four horses, two stronger than the rest. Seamus and I will take turns carrying ye so as not to tire the mounts unduly.” I hoped we would reach the coast quickly. Seamus had no use for me, and though I could
see that he would not disobey any direct command from the knight, nothing demanded that he be pleasant about dispatching his duty.
I sat and watched as the men piled the rocks over the body. I wanted to help them, but the pounding in my head made it difficult to move.
I looked at my hands. They were scratched and torn from my fall. I stretched and folded them, staring but not seeing. Then something about them struck a memory I had forgotten. I thought of the strange tingling that had gone through them. I thought of the heat and the last stirring of Douglas.
“He could help,” Seamus grumbled as he added the last rock to the pile. His voice pulled me from my thoughts and I stood. A wave of nausea tilted through me, but I shook it off and approached the grave. The Templar began to pray and the others joined in. When they got to a part I knew, I added my voice. Seamus bristled. I could feel his anger crossing the space between us.
e rode steadily, chasing the moon across the night sky. The wind had picked up as we moved through the pass,
bringing with it the salty scent of the sea. Each foot forward of our mount was a penance I paid for the death I knew I had caused. And though it was much deserved, and I should have accepted it as my due, my traitorous, wretched mind prayed for the road's quick end.
It was a wonder that I was able to stay astride. It was much to the credit of the knight who held me before him. Even when it came time to switch me over to the sergeant, the Templar arranged to merely trade horses, sensing no doubt the other's feelings on it.
To my head's aching dismay, the knight kept a soft but running dialogue between us, urging my participation. “Tell me about yer life here, Tormod.”
I shrugged, though regretted the movement as pain threatened to split my skull. “What is there to tell?” I said softly. “My life is naught but fishing an' family. Yer life is adventure with strange places an' amazing sights.” I closed my eyes, preferring the darkness to the bright that hurt. I wanted and needed sleep, but he seemed determined to keep me from it.