In the Wolf's Rags
"Ma always told us it was dangerous to play with fire," Angus murmured soberly as he cracked together the two pieces of flint, "wonder what she'd say if she knew we'd just killed a man."
"An enemy, brother. And in any other circumstance she'd likely tell us our souls were bound for hell," Conn returned with cross cognizance.
"But in this one?" Angus asked as he tried to draw sparks with the flint.
"She'd say the right soul ended up there."
One of the garrons whickered nearby, and Conn cocked his head sideways. His eyes were narrowed, and he listened intently for the crack of a stick, or the sound of a footstep on dried fir needles. The woods in the Highlands became a black nebulous by nightfall on moonless nights, too dark for shadows, and thus too dark even for the best of the clan's watchmen to rely on his sight. A clever man's best venture was often to rely on the intuition of his animal.
At present, there was no sound but the feuding flint. But when the sparks ignited the dried peat moss and summoned the flames, Conn knew the firelight would treacherously evidence their darkened figures to the eyes of any lurking enemy clansmen. Their deed would be found out.
"Be quick about it," he told Angus as he crouched before the dead body. He felt for the handle of the Lochaber axe he had thrust into the man's skull hours before, and wrenched the weapon loose. The blood was fresh, and dripped onto his fingers from the edge of the curved blade. He let it slowly water the wooden cross that sat at his feet. A metallic smell lifted into the mist surrounding them, and it flooded him with a sense of dirty justice. This is their doing, he told himself decidedly. Had they not thrown the first blow, their man would still be alive.
"Bloody bastard tried to use that axe on me before you reclaimed it and lodged it between his eyes," Angus said as his flint began to spark. "As if lobsterbacks and their lowland clansmen have any notion of how to use a Lochaber weapon."
"That was the point of the Disarming Act, brother," Conn returned. "They didn't know how to stop us with their own weapons, so they tried to take away ours."
"Except they didn't stop us. They only provoked us." There was rebellion on Angus' timbre. "When the sheep is attacked by the wolf he has two choices. He can either bleed, or he can call on his shepherds to dress him in the wolf's rags."
Conn had only been a boy when the new Hanoverian king had given enemy clans a warrant to lay siege on his family's territories for not bending the knee. As he escaped with baby Angus into the unlikely embrace of the wild, icy hills, he had heard the screams of his mother as the enemy had raped her. Once, he had glanced back and seen the bloodshed covering the snow like a blanket of incarnadine. If the enemy clans had stopped after that day, perhaps his dreams would only be occupied by distant haunting memories. But they had not stopped after that day.
Conn slid the Highland weapon into a hilt that had long been empty along the tartan sash beneath his cloak, and vengefully picked up the cross marked with his enemy's blood. He knew he should not have righted the wrong of killing with more killing. But his soul had been bleeding for too long without its retribution. His eyes shone golden like a wolf's as Angus' flint sparks ignited the peat moss into flames. The horses whickered nervously as the fire cast he and Angus' shadows on the surrounding trees, making them look bigger than they really were, like formidable phantoms. For a moment Conn wondered if the wronged spirits of his dead relatives dwelled within them. Then he lowered the bloodied cross into the fire, and watched as it began to hiss and char, punishing and avenging all at once.
"Take this and ride north, brother," he told Angus with purpose. "Ride hard and fast, and do not stop. From town to town in our clan's territories, cry Crann Tara, until we have summoned all of the followers. They will protect you."
"And what of you?" Angus asked him as he took the fiery cross in hand. The fire from the cross danced and raged alongside Angus' red hair and ruddy complexion, and he seemed to be engulfed in a single-minded crimson halo of vengeance. There would never be a halo about Conn. His hair was black as sin, and his heart raw as a pink festering wound. He was a double-minded man, and he did his best work in the chaos of the dark.
"I will ride in the darkness around you, and kill any who try to stop you," Conn answered, decided. It had always been his responsibility to protect Angus, and now would be no different. Either course was dangerous, but he was the less noble fighter, and he would be put to better use in guerilla combat than he would in carrying the light of their freedom cause.
Angus looked hesitant at first, but saw the firmness in Conn's eyes and nodded. He bent down and drew something out of his boot. "They didn't take all of our weapons," he said as he handed Conn a Highland dirk. It had a 20-inch steel blade, and its wooden hilt was carved with deep Celtic interlace patterns. "I hid mine."
Conn's lips quirked briefly, and then he nodded in gratitude as he accepted the weapon and slid it up his sleeve. "Now, go."
The fiery cross was mirrored in his eyes as he watched his younger brother approach his garron, mount swiftly, and speed off into the night. When he looked away, the dead body of the enemy stared up at him with a rotting mockery. He kicked a tin pail of creek water onto the peat moss that was still burning dimly enough for him to see the corpse. Peaty smoke flavored the air just as it flavored scotch whiskey. Conn could almost taste it on his tongue, and he felt lean and hungry. The sudden darkness swallowed the man's form and disguised Conn as he walked to his black mare. "Whoa, aingeal," he told her as he reached her, and she snorted in recognition. He ran his hand down her neck until he reached the woolen pads on her back, and he pulled himself up. Then he listened.
For a time, there was nothing but the retreating gallop of his brother's garron. Then, he heard the voices. There were two of them, maybe three, accompanied by the howls of hounds. Conn squeezed his garron with his legs, and she was off like a runaway spirit, her blackness indistinguishable from the blackness that surrounded them. Her intuitive sixth sense came to surface as she dodged the branches and trunks of the illusory fir trees, hooves never pounding untrue. When they came to the clearing, Conn saw the men and the dogs and their lanterns, and he crouched forward even further over the garron's withers, urging her on, giving her the wings she lacked. For a moment he imagined she was the great pagan queen Rhiannon in her horse form, working magic through him as she galloped, helping him lure his enemies to their deaths.
The men were three in number, and were spread far, so as to make the killing more difficult. The hounds themselves were like sheep, moving in a pack against Angus, or whomever their masters told them to move against. It was a good thing then, Conn thought, that his mare was black as the moonless sky. He closed on the first man, letting the hilt of the 20-inch dirk slide down his sleeve into his palm.
It was fleeting. Conn was visible under the enemy clansman's lantern light for the briefest of moments, and then he was gone again. The lantern fell amongst the thistles, and just before the dew extinguished the remaining light, there was a vision of a fallen man choking on his blood. The second clansmen shouted to the first in confusion, sensing imminent but clandestine danger. Conn's mare trailed his, and then veered off to the right as the man looked over his left shoulder towards his dying comrade. This kill was easiest. Conn charged on the right, and as his mare galloped past the clansman's distracted garron, his dirk sliced the man in his throat. His lantern fell, and he shouted no more.
Conn rode on, and grinned when he saw the third clansman throw down his lantern. The man knew what was after him then, and Conn fed off of his fear. Conn dropped the reins he used to guide his mare, and reached for the Lochaber axe fastened to his tartan sash. Dirk in one hand and axe in the other, he guided the mare onwards with his legs, trusting in her to follow his lead. If the sun had been shining on the midnight pair, it may have looked like dirty savage was astride a hell bent vermin. Filthy looking visages, however, are often underneath not what they seem on the surface.
From the oncoming left, Conn aimed the Lochaber axe for the clansman's skull and let the weapon fly. One of the hounds yelped, and Conn knew that he had missed. He changed his course, circling around the back of the man. His mare's breathing was labored, and he knew Rhiannon had possessed her long enough. She was losing her magic and growing weary. He urged her with his free hand, and she surged forward with the last of what she had.
Abruptly, a piercing pain went through his right shoulder, and he twisted in the woolen pad, inadvertently making the mare slow and change her course in confusion. He glanced down at the arrow that had gone through his flesh and nearly choked on the pain. Someone had been tailing him. Someone skilled and quiet, and they would keep tailing him until he was dead if he didn't go on. "Go, ma aingeal," he beseeched the mare hoarsely, "go." She surged again, her breathing labored, and he gritted his teeth, crouching low over her withers so as to become a smaller target.
He heard the mystery rider approaching from behind, and quickly guided right, cursing through the pain. He gripped the dirk with his left hand and aimed for the third clansman's back ahead of him. The throw was as clean as it was quick, and the man was slouched forward on his garron's neck as Conn approached to reclaim his dirk. The oncoming garron's pounding hooves sounded like primal drumming behind him. He knew his mare would not last much longer, and eventually, the much fresher animal behind him would outrun them. Suddenly an idea struck him, and he pulled his mare to a complete halt and swung from the woolen pads into the glen grass. The pain in his shoulder throbbed, but the bloodlust rushing through his veins was stronger. He gripped his bloody dirk, and braced himself for the oncoming charge.
The rider came on a ghost horse, white even through the blackness, and its rider was slight but fierce. An arrow was poised on a drawn bow, and Conn threw himself to the ground just as it whizzed past his face. He was up as quickly as he had fallen, this time running towards the snowy visage like a madman. Spurred by nimble legs and battle rage, he used one arm to unseat his foe and the other to deflect the third arrow that was aimed at his neck. Both he and the rider fell. The bow cracked in two beneath them, and arrows sprayed the ground around them like rain feuding the earth. Conn yelled in pain as he rolled onto his injured shoulder, but when he saw the arrow in the rider's hand poised above him, the noise turned to a growl. He grabbed the arm as it was descending, rolled, and pinned the enemy's arms on the ground above the head. He slid the dirk back up his sleeve, and poised above the enemy with an arrow instead. The enemy hid under a hooded cloak, and Conn almost felt guilty as he prepared to strike, for the enemy was much weaker than he, likely little more than a boy. But his guilt was fleeting, and he quickly remembered his vengeance. "How would you like a taste of your own medicine, son of a whore?"
"Are you so sure?" The words were rebellious but the softness of their timbre made him stop in his motions, gut filling with dread. He threw the arrow down, and tore back the hood on the enemy's cloak. A woman with hair as silver blonde as her runaway horse stared up at him, fear in her eyes and hate on her face. She laughed mockingly. "Could be you speak to the whore herself."
"This is no game, woman. Who sent you, and how many more of you are there?" His voice was murderous.
She spit in his face. His jaw muscles danced furiously, but he did nothing. He could have chosen any of the half dozen arrows lying around them to strike her mouth with, but he did not. She was brave, which he could have admired, if she weren't also stupid. She was loyal, which he had utmost admiration for, but she was loyal to his enemy. Most importantly, she was a woman, and he would never harm a woman. He cursed her, wondering fleetingly if she counted as half a woman since she used weapons like a man. Keeping her pinned with one of his arms, he used the other to rip off two strips of fabric from his cloak. He bound her wrists and her ankles, rose, and walked away from her to where his black mare stood waiting.
"Follow me," he told her with less savagery once he was mounted, "and neither I nor the gods will be so kind."
"It's to you the gods will not be so kind before long son of a whore" she responded icily, "those arrows were poisoned."
Dread filled him, but he did not let it surface to his face. He suddenly became acutely aware of how his right arm was going numb. "Then I would advise you to take one of them and put it through your heart, because if I die, you will die one way or another." Then he wheeled off into the darkness, leaving her tied up with her poisoned arrows. Her snowy mount had stormed off somewhere unseen. He could hear the hounds howling off in the distance, but they were dispersed and they had lost their commanders and their purpose, no longer a threat to anyone.
After a time, the battle fever had cooled within him, and tiredness flooded his senses. He began to feel dizzy, and knew the poison was snaking its way into his system. It would not be long now until he reached the town, but he could not seem to balance himself on his mare at any pace faster than a walk. Angus would have reached the town by now, and their clansmen would have seen the Clann Tara. His brother would be safe amongst the shepherds, and they would skin the wolves. He shook his head to ward off the doubled vision, but it did no good. He thought distractedly that he had killed more men today than he had ever thought to kill in a lifetime. Sometimes the tree of liberty must be watered by bloodshed, he said to himself as he slowly drifted into nothingness.