Friday, September 28, 2012

What Did You Do Last Night?

Glencoe, Scotland, February 13, 1692

You are all going to die. 
See how the snow swirls and rises in high drifts, the wind hard pressed to conceal your glen and its cottage dwellings? It quickly piles the snow and beats against walls as the storm intensifies outside your tiny havens, to serve well those who will need it within the hour…

Dallan MacDonald awoke with a start.  He lay wrapped in his plaid, his young brother Alasdair beside him in front of the hearth. He wiped the slight sheen of sweat from his brow as he always did after one of his dreams. The garbled, chilling voice from some unseen source in the dream now fading.  They were becoming more frequent of late.  Odd and strange dreams that made no sense at all.  But this one seemed more like a premonition.  And why shouldn't it?
 He took a deep breath, settled himself and began to muse over his unexpected arrival and his grandfather’s greeting when first they spied each other. The MacIain’s eyes had been warm for the briefest of moments then suddenly consumed by cold warning, the auld Fox’s first words anything but friendly. Of course Dallan had learned to expect nothing else from the chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds. MacIain could be a hard man when he wanted and usually became just that when in Dallan’s company. In fact, Dallan couldn’t remember him being any other way.
 Alasdair moaned softly in his sleep. Dallan turned to his brother and smiled. The boy had not left his side since the big Scot came trudging through the snow two days ago. He gazed thoughtfully at him with a slight pinch of envy. Alasdair’s face was peaceful, content. Soaking up the weak glow of the dying fire as if ‘twas all he was meant to do. The boy held not a care. No. Not a one.
 Unlike the rest of his clansmen.
 Confused at the number of Lowlanders and Campbells residing in the glen when he first arrived, Dallan made his way directly to his elder uncle’s house to find what was amiss. His uncle John had given him the information he wanted to know but it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.  Indeed, the Campbells had come into the glen almost two weeks ago with papers signed by the king himself. Papers which demanded quarters be given in Glencoe for two companies of his majesty’s foot soldiers.
 Dallan didn’t trust the Campbells, nor did his grandfather. Fearing disarmament, MacIain ordered his people to hide their arms in the peat stacks or on the brae beneath the stones. If the soldiers were going to take their weapons, let them take the old rusty ones.
 Alasdair moaned again. Dallan thought of the harsh night and gently pulled the boy into his plaid with him to fend off any chill. The small form immediately snuggled close. Dallan again smiled and let go a lengthy sigh. How he wished he could stay this time. Wee Alasdair had just reached the age of six and would soon be old enough for fostering. Dallan wanted to take him under wing but wasn’t sure how he’d manage it. It would mean taking the boy to France and he doubted the auld Fox would let him. Perhaps their mother could be persuaded, and then she could work on the MacIain.  Dallan knew he needed something in his life besides weapons and constant training. Alasdair would be perfect.
 After twenty years of living Dallan still felt as if he’d done nothing with his life. Something was definitely missing, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. Perhaps he just needed to feel like he belonged. If only the MacIain would accept him, treat him with some respect instead of cold, silent disdain.
 A shout from outside drew the Scot out of his musings and brought his attention to a small window.  The three Campbell soldiers sheltered in his mother’s house were reportedly pulling out in the morning. Could it be they were preparing to depart? Perhaps the reason the three had not returned to the house after meeting with their captain was due to the preparation. But that wouldn’t have taken them all night. What could they be doing all this time?
 His earlier dream flooded his mind and the hairs on the back of Dallan’s neck rose with the thought. He detached himself from Alasdair and went to the window, dirk drawn. He’d had this warning too often to ignore it; something was wrong. Bad enough a sense of dread hovered over the glen yesterday to put everyone on edge. But later the Campbell’s own piper was the one to keep Dallan up most of the night.  He’d heard the piper play, knew it to be more than a pleasant passing of the time. There had been something in the music. A message. Flee.
 Yet his mother, along with many of his other clansmen, had not taken heed and insisted on staying. The soldiers would be gone tomorrow and all would be well…
 Another shout. Dallan hurried back to Alasdair’s sleeping form and quickly pulled away the blankets. “Wake up, lad,” urgency in his deep velvet voice. “Alasdair, wake up!”
 The boy opened his sleepy eyes and gazed at his older brother. “Wha…what’s wrong then?”
 Dallan grabbed up his plaid, wrapped it about himself then reached for his sword and shield near the hearth. He’d brought them out of hiding in mute preparation for what he knew must surely be happening now. “Wake mother and Fergus, tell them to dress quickly.”
  Alasdair popped up to a sitting position, his eyes blinking back sleep. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
 “I dinna ken, but I’m going to find out.” Dallan hurried to the door. “Wake them and prepare to leave. Ye may ha’ to head into the hills, lad.”
 “But Dallan, that far? What are the Campbells doing?” A woman’s scream carried on the wind was answer enough.
 “Hurry lad! I’ll not see this family’s blood spilled.” He opened the door to a blast of wind, “Go!” And as Alasdair scrambled to his feet, Dallan left the cottage.
 Snow beat relentlessly against him as he stumbled out into the storm while shouts and pistol shots echoed above the wind in the distance. Sounds the wind carried ever closer to his family’s cottage. He picked up another sound among the rest, one much closer, and ducked into a sheltered area between some of the houses. Sword drawn, shield ready, his every muscle screamed for release for a few tense seconds before Dallan recognized the labored breathing of his clansman and grabbed him. “Ian! What happened?” He pulled his grandfather’s servant into the shelter with him as the more menacing noises drew closer.
 “Dallan lad!  The MacIain! Yer Grandmother!” The man pushed out terrified. “The soldiers got into the house. We let them in! I swear we didna ken what they were about!”
 Dallan shook him, his grip tight on the old man. “Campbell has set his dogs on us, then?”
 “Aye! Get yerself and yer house to the hills! Be quick!” He struggled to get away, his clothes tearing with the effort.
Dallan held him fast. “The MacIain?”
“I dinna ken! There were shots! The Lady, she screamed something terrible! We tried to get to them, but there were too many soldiers. We got out as fast we could, and they came after us!” Ian glanced fearfully about, body trembling as more shots fired. Closer. “Believe me lad; there was nothing we could do to help them! Get ye gone to the hills! Now!”
Dallan loosened his grip. Ian wrenched his arm away and ran into the storm as sounds of the soldiers’ slaughter neared, death with them.
 Within moments Dallan burst through the door of his family’s house, the snow and wind with him. His mother gasped at the sudden entrance.  She and her husband of eight years, Fergus MacDonald, stood against a far wall wrapped in whatever they could find to bear the storm outside. Alasdair huddled between them. Dallan gave his step-father a curt nod. “It is as we feared. We must flee. Now.”
 Fergus closed his eyes and lowered his head a brief moment in mute acceptance, then ushered his wife and son to the door. They allowed Dallan out first and, at his signal, followed him into the blinding snow.
 Cold bit through the plaids they wore, the wind nearly tearing the clothes from their backs. Yet the small family ignored the harsh elements that greeted them. As long as it was not Death extending his greetings this day, the light of dawn only an hour or so off, the elements were welcome. Dallan silently vowed to keep death from his family as long as he could, no matter what the cost. They were all he had.
 Screams rent the darkness around the four as they haphazardly fought their way through the storm. They’d managed to get themselves some distance from the house, and Dallan, now grateful for the storm which kept them hidden and would perhaps see them to some semblance of safety, allowed himself a brief sigh of relief. It was then his mother screamed.
 Her voice and the clash of steel were quickly carried away by the wind. Dallan hoped not in the direction of more soldiers as he felled the first of two of Campbell’s men. He recognized him as one of the soldiers who partook of Fergus’s hospitality. Irony has a strange way of working. The second soldier lunged, bayonet in hand, as Dallan tried to wrench his sword from the first. The big Scot leapt to the side, the deep snow thwarting his movement as the bayonet missed its mark yet scored all the same. Pain seared through the back of his left shoulder as the blade cut its way to the bone. Dallan clenched his teeth against a sick wave of dread, only two thoughts in his mind. He had to save his family. To do that he had to fight.
 He didn’t remember falling, but found himself in the snow next to his shield, his sword no longer in his hand. He must have let go of it when he was hit, or perhaps as he fell. Either way, there was no sign of his sword anywhere. Dallan looked up and dark as it was, met the eyes of the man about to kill him, the bayonet already on its descent. Dallan briefly contemplated closing his own eyes when the soldier suddenly fell to the snow next to him.  Dead.
 “Go!” Dallan commanded as he struggled to his feet. He gave a thankful nod to Fergus as the older man pulled his dirk from the soldier’s back. He then sought and retrieved his own weapons and reached for his mother.
 Her face turned frantic as Dallan took her by the arm. “Alasdair!” She screamed and turned a circle in the snow that nearly pulled him off his feet. “Where’s Alasdair?”
 “Quiet woman!” Fergus warned. “The wind will carry yer voice!”
 Dallan scanned the area and cursed. The boy was gone.
 “He must ha’ panicked and run back to the house. I thought he was right behind me.” Fergus told him in a low voice.
 “Take her to the hills, man. Keep her safe.” Dallan grasped his mother’s hands firmly in his own. “I’ll see to him. Go with Fergus now.” He gave Fergus another quick nod then wheeled back in the direction they had come, his tall form quickly swallowed up by the storm.
 He carefully picked his way through the blinding snow to avoid as much as possible the nearest sounds of pistol shots and shouting, praying he didn’t pass the boy. Dallan knew he was not only losing time but blood. He had to find Alasdair, and fast.
 After agonized minutes of bracing himself against the blinding snow he reached the house. A dim light shone through the window. A candle; someone was inside. Dallan stilled his labored breathing and melted into the shadows at the rear wall of the house. The door to the kitchen area lay open. Alasdair must have gone though the back. Carefully, he made his way to the door, peeked inside, then silently entered. The hairs on the back of his neck immediately rose and he quickly crouched behind the thin curtain separating the tiny kitchen from the hearth room.
 “Search the house!” A man shouted in a husky voice. “No one lives!” Only three of them, a preview to the bulk of the slaughter Dallan quickly surmised. But where is Alasdair?
 He got his answer quick enough. Alasdair screamed as one of the men pulled him out from behind a chair and threw him to his superior. The captain grabbed the boy by the back of the neck and eyed him with an odd sort of numbness, as if he wasn’t sure of what he was. He then looked the boy over carefully, as one might a chicken or a cow at market, his mouth curling into a crooked smile. “Ever been buggered, lad?” he asked and grabbed at his own groin for emphasis.
 Alasdair cringed and shrank in the man’s grasp.
 “Well then,” he chortled, “there’s always a first.” With a wave of his hand he sent his two men to search the back of the house. They laughed, knowing they were to take their time, and headed for the curtained doorway.
 Dallan’s dirk plunged into the first man, the action tearing the feeble curtain. The second man, too stunned to react in time, heard only the snapping of his own neck as Dallan let him drop to the floor next to his fallen comrade. That left just the leader. A man Dallan knew immediately and just as immediately, hated.
 Robert Campbell of Glenlyon held Alasdair by the hair, a dirk poised at the boy’s throat. Never taking his eyes off the scene before him, Dallan took a pistol from the nearest dead man, trained it on the Campbell, and stepped out from behind the half torn curtain.
 “Surrender and I’ll spare him,” Campbell pushed out, his face pasty, sick-looking, and full of lust.
 Dallan’s jaw twitched with revulsion as he judged where the ball might hit. “Let the boy go first,” he countered his own voice soft and menacing.
 Alasdair let out a yelp of pain as Campbell’s grip tightened. “You fool! My men are next door and come even now! You are dead already!”
 Dallan’s green eyes grew fierce. “Only a fool and a coward would harm an innocent lad while one o’ his clansmen has a pistol pointed at him.” He took aim and prepared to fire, praying the Campbell would either throw Alasdair out of the way or think to keep himself shielded with him. Dallan sighted for the man’s face instead of his heart.
 Campbell’s eyes suddenly widened with fear.
 Good, Dallan thought. He could kill the man, take Alasdair through the back and hope the storm was still enough to conceal them in the pre-dawn light. He put the first traces of pressure on the trigger. Campbell watched in horror and looked as though he was going to scream.
 But it was Alasdair’s scream that pierced the room, bringing Dallan’s attention to his rear. Too late.
 The big Scot’s breath was crushed from his body as blood from his forgotten wound gushed anew, pushed as if everything within him could be squeezed through the jagged cut in his shoulder. The pistol in Dallan’s hand dropped to the floor, useless, as two thick black arms wrapped around him from behind and mercilessly smashed him against a huge body. He fought the giant holding him, but it was no use. The strength in those arms was like nothing he had ever encountered or would ever want to. Suddenly a deep laugh penetrated the air as an odd tingling sensation began to course through his body. The giant seemed to move but Dallan wasn’t sure, his feet no longer touched the floor, or did they? By all the Saints, what was happening?
 Alasdair screamed and watched in horror as Dallan was dragged into the shadows. “Dallan! No! Dallan!” He squirmed against the stunned Campbell leader who, too shocked to cuff the boy into silence, merely stood, his grip tight, the dirk unmoved. Dallan tried to cry out but his lungs had no air. The tingling sensation only increased with his efforts to an odd burning, as though his skin were on fire. And of all things he thought he heard some sort of music. Dallan couldn’t afford to lose consciousness. He again struggled against the arms holding him; he had to get to Alasdair! But it was no use. Helplessly he watched his brother, now cut and bleeding from Robert Campbell’s unmoved dirk; slowly disappear behind a blanket of darkness.
 Dallan MacDonald contemplated if he was dying but honestly didn’t know; all he did know was he had not saved Alasdair and the deep booming laugh behind him was getting louder. These were the only two realizations to accompany him into the blackness that took him from his brother, his home, and his very life.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Highland Scot's Version of a Multipurpose Tool

The Scottish Dirk.  Why Dallan MacDonald never leaves home without one. 

Dallan peered intently around the edge of the aisle, then looked at Lany and brought a finger to his lips before returning his attention to the sounds coming from around the corner.
 “Little Bo Peep?” The voice was mocking, dangerous. “Where is your sheep? Send it out to play with us.”
 Lany cringed at the words, and took a cautious step forward to stand next to Dallan whose eyes were narrowed to two bright green slits, his jaw tight, nostrils flared. Lany knew he no longer searched. Dallan was on the hunt, stalking his prey, and it wasn’t the Maiden.
 “Oh look, a little lost sheep with tender white meat, all for us to devour. Can’t wait to eat this young little sheep, too bad we’ve only an hour.”
   Dallan reached his right hand behind him, down the back of his loose sweatshirt, and silently pulled a dirk out from underneath.  Lany grimaced. So that’s why Dallan had worn his hair unbound today, he thought to himself—to hide the weapon better. It also explained why he’d wanted to rip the elastic off the sweatshirt last night.
 Dallan’s eyes narrowed even further. Lany tapped the Scot on the shoulder and he abruptly turned his head around, eyes intense, brow furrowed in warning.
 Lany mouthed the word ‘No’, indicating the dirk with a nod of his head. Dallan remained expressionless and turned his attention back around the corner. Now he heard nothing. Only silence. He began to move.
 Lany grabbed him. “Dallan, wait,” he whispered urgently. “This isn’t seventeenth century Scotland. You can’t just kill someone and be on your way.”
 “Quiet, man,” Dallan’s voice was low. “She’s running again.”
 They both froze and listened intently to the light footsteps fleeing down the next aisle. This section of the library was like a huge maze, the shelves and aisles all connecting in a pattern. The problem was, neither Dallan nor Lany knew it well enough to know where they were, not to mention the Maiden and the unexpected company which lurked nearby.
 The footsteps stopped just as another set, heavier, could be heard in another aisle, and yet another. They, whoever they were, had split up to either try to box the Maiden in or simply flush her out into the open.
 Dallan took a step forward and Lany again grabbed him and got his face right in the Scot’s ear, albeit on tiptoe. “No killing! If you do we’ll all be in a lot of trouble!”
 Dallan turned to face him, narrowed his eyes, flared his nostrils, then spun away.  He crept down a side aisle, stopped abruptly, and motioned Lany to do the same. He listened intently, and then looked to Lany, a wicked smile on his face.
 Lany glared back and folded his arms across his chest.
 Dallan merely winked at the Assistant Councilor as he turned to the wall of books at his left. He brought a hand to the shelf at his own eye level, paused then moved his hand to the shelf below and began to quietly shove books aside.
 Lany watched nervously as Dallan reached into the hole he’d created and started pulling books from the shelf in the next aisle over. Comprehension dawning, Lany tiptoed to the opposite end of their aisle to carefully peek around the corner. Sure enough, what must be one of the thugs stood up against the shelves. The young man had a long ponytail that swished every time he moved his head to scan the aisle. He probably waited for the Maiden to come running by.
 Lany turned and glanced back into his own aisle. Dallan looked at him, flipped his dirk in the air once and smiled broadly. Lany gulped as quietly as he could and waved his hands frantically. “No blood, no wounding, no killing!” He mouthed.
 Lany got an inspiration. “However,” he added, eyebrows arching mischievously, “you can humiliate them.”
 Dallan smiled and reached through the hole in the books. Lany gulped and carefully peered around the corner. Thug Number Two’s head was turned away from him at the moment. Lany switched his position and looked back to Dallan, who had his left arm in the hole, the dirk in his right hand poised and ready for use. The Weapons Master’s eyes  intent on his prey.
 Lany nearly gasped at the audible thud that followed, and prayed no on else heard.
 Almost afraid to look, Lany leaned back far enough to see Dallan, dirk still poised in his right hand and what looked like a long piece of hair in his left. The Scot quickly strode past and tossed the severed ponytail at him.
 Lany caught the hair, looked at it, glanced at the unconscious form in the next aisle and sighed audibly. He then threw the hair over his shoulder and trotted after Dallan. “Well, that takes care of humiliating that one.” 

From Time Masters Book One; The Call copyright 2012.

It's one thing to see the weapons you're writing about in books, perhaps even as part of a Highland games participant dressed in full Highland rigout. But to then actually get to see and handle the weapon itself is quite another matter.
 I went into a Scottish store in Portland to see if I could get my hands on a MacDonald plaid to utilize for book signings and events. The ladies of the shop were quite happy to help me out and made sure I had the correct plaid for Dallan's time period. (Seeing the illustration of Dallan didn't hurt the fun they were having in doing so either!). Whilst busy with Tartan catalogues and fabric samples, I noticed something within the glass counter beneath the folded pieces of tartan. A Scottish Dirk. The hilt alone was scary. Easily grasped by a man, not so easily as held by a woman. The shop keeper took it out for me and showed me the craftsmanship of the hilt and sheath. Though not an antique, it was still superbly crafted. I, of course, asked her to unsheath it. She pulled the blade from its cover and the steel flashed more brightly than I imagined it would. It was one of the most wicked blades I had ever seen. To then think of the scene I just shared with you, and picture Dallan reaching back and pulling something like that out from under a sweatshirt, well ... no wonder Lany freaked!
When I wrote the scene so very long ago, (I wrote Time Masters back in 1994) I was more concerned with measurments than anything else. Dallan, at 6'6", had to have a long enough and broad enough build to pull the stunt off, and after seeing the blade, I knew I had calculated correctly. But again, to see such a wicked and extrememly deadly looking thing was something else all together. My hats off to the Scots for so handling such a weapon. And to think in the next scene Dallan is picking at his finger nails with it!
I now own the dirk pictured above.  I do not however clean my finger nails with it!