The voice rang out in challenge from somewhere at Toby Strangerson's back. He did not look around. A defensive reflex made his right leg twitch, but he overruled it and brought his foot down firmly on the dirt. Without breaking stride, he continued his hurried walk along the road.
"I'm talking to you, bastard!"
It sounded like Vik Tanner. Women gossiping at their doors turned to see who was shouting, men stooped in their gardens straightened. Two youths up ahead were already looking this way, already grinning, standing with their feet apart and arms folded. So there was a rumble planned and they were in on it.
Having no choice, Toby kept on walking, wondering how many of them there would be. Didn't matter-- there would be enough to do whatever they wanted to do. Then he recalled the warning Granny Nan had given him at dawn and his scalp prickled. This trouble had been prophesied.
"Oh, bastard? Can't you hear me, bastard?"
No question, that was Fat Vik Tanner yelling. The pair up ahead at the potter's house were Neal Bywood and Willie Bain, which meant Bryce Burnside and Rae Butcher would be involved as well, and perhaps two or three more he could call to mind with no effort. There were few young men left in the glen now.
The early morning wind was cruel, yet he was sweating. Granny Nan had kept nattering at him and getting in his way while he was doing the morning chores. So he'd had to run all the way to the castle, then right away Steward Bryce had sent him off back to Tyndrum. Again he had run most of the way, because he was expected to run when he was on the laird's business. Between the running and the weight of his plaid, he was sweating.
So what could a man do about it--explain? I'm sweating because I've been running so please don't think I'm afraid of being maimed.
"Bastard? Are you deaf, bastard?"
The wind didn't mask the hateful taunts. The normal sounds of the village seemed to, die away as people stopped work to listen--the click of the women's looms, metallic clinking from the smithy, the crack of a mason's hammer. Geese honked. A dog barked in the distance, shrill children chanted lessons in the schoolhouse, and a deep rumble of millstones told of flour being ground. Farther away yet, soldiers drilled outside the castle to a steady drumbeat.
"Bastard, I'm talking to you, bastard."
The voice was closer. Toby could hear stones rattle as his tormentors closed in behind him. They would time their approach to catch up with him as he reached Neal and Willie, closing the noose.
The street was part mud, part rock, part weeds--an uneven trail winding through the village. Vegetable patches were enclosed by low stone walls, and everything else was road or rock or pasture, where dogs sniffed, poultry foraged, tethered cows grazed. Tyndrum was less than a score of cottages straggled along the banks of the river: walls of rough fieldstone, roofs of sod, window slits closed by shutters. No one could tell where the village ended, for the cottages just spread out farther apart along the glen and up the hills until they blended into the scenery. There was nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run.
"Traitor! If you won't answer to bastard, bastard, will you answer to traitor?"
Vik was only a few paces back now, yelling so all Strath Fillan could hear. Toby was not afraid of Fat Vik. He was afraid of Vik plus four or five others. Granny Nan's warning echoed round and round in his head. She often acted strange these days, but this morning she had been stranger than ever.
She had come to him while he was milking Bossie. "Do not get into a fight!" She had repeated it over and over. "Evil comes to the glen. Terrible things will happen if you get into a fight today." Even as he'd fed the chickens and fetched water and chopped wood and done all the other usual morning chores, she'd been hobbling along behind him, waving her cane and talking about evil coming to the glen and how he must stay out of fights. Whatever she thought the hob had said, it had upset her greatly. She'd still been on about it when he ran off to report for work at the castle.
He hadn't paid much heed, for the idea of a fight today had seemed absurd. Next week at the Glen Games, yes. Then he would have to defend his title, if any man wanted to contest it. He had been thinking of an honest match, of course, man to man, which was not what Vik had in mind.
"Traitor, traitor! I'm talking to you, traitor. Sassenach bastard! Turn around, bastard!"
Snappy Fan Glenlochy stood at her door, yattering to big, blowzy Olga Potter. They had turned to stare disapprovingly at the drama, and he was going to pass right by them.
Without slowing his stride, Toby doffed his bonnet to the women. "Fine morning to you, ladies!"
They turned their backs and resumed their talk. His fast-moving feet took him past them and on toward Neal and Willie like a leaf in a stream.
"Fine mornings don't have bastards in them!" Vik crowed. "They don't have traitors in them. You're a Sassenach-loving traitor!"
It was a lie, but Toby Strangerson would dearly welcome a glimpse of an English uniform right now. He was within sight of the miller's house. He could see the cart outside, already loaded. That was where he was headed. He wasn't going to make it.
Neal and Willie unfolded their arms and sauntered across to block his path. Half the population of Tyndrum must be watching.
Terrible things will happen if you get into a fight today.
Fighting--not boxing. He was bareknuckle champion of the glen, but boxing was not what was planned. Terrible things sounded more like gouged eyes than just broken bones. He'd thought Granny Nan was having one of her strange turns when she'd started in about fighting this morning. He'd thought the hob didn't speak to her when she was strange, but perhaps this time she'd been normal until she learned whatever it had told her. Pity the hob hadn't explained how a man could avoid a fight when others insisted on it.
The pretense was over. There was no use trying a smile and a cheery greeting to Neal and Willie--not with the expressions they wore or the way they stood across his path. Toby marched straight at them and then made a quick feint to the right. They jumped to block him and he spun around in a swirl of plaid to confront Vik Tanner. As expected, he had Bryce and Rae with him, but he'd also brought Neal's brother, Colin. That was a sickening shock.
If it was just to be fists, Toby would take on any two of them and probably enjoy himself. All together they could certainly beat him, although he would do some damage. But it would not be only fists. There would be holding, and no time out when a man went down. There would be feet. There might even be blades, although the Sassenachs hanged any Highlander they caught wearing as much as a dirk.
Trash! Fat Vik was very nearly as tall as he was. His arms were thick and furry, but the meat on them was flab, not muscle. He looked dangerous on the outside and had nothing inside. Bryce and Rae were born followers, and still just gangly kids. Today they were two of six and could afford their excited, nervy smiles.
But Crazy Colin ... Colin was older; twenty or more. Colin was wrong in the head, the one who killed sheep at full moon. Even as a child, he'd been odd. He had gone off to the war two years ago, and when he came back from Parline Field with the other survivors, he'd had even fewer wits than before. Now he was leering at Toby, eyes and mouth twitching eerily. He had both hands behind his back. If Vik had given Crazy Colin a knife, then there was murder in the air.
Six of them in a circle, the traitor in the center.
Toby concentrated on Fat Vik, the big one, the leader. His father had more money than most, which was obvious from the fancy pin in Vik's bonnet to the shoes on his feet. Even his plaid was bright, the green and black dyes of the tartan not yet faded, and his belt buckle was metal, not horn or bone--very grand was Vik the tanner's son. He wore a very confident sneer as he stood within his private army.
Evil is coming. Terrible things will happen if you get into a fight today.
Toby Strangerson was not the only man who worked for the English, but he was the only one without family to back him. Everyone knew he had been fathered by a squad of Sassenach soldiers, so roughing him up or killing him would be a gesture of defiance, a message to the Sassenachs and all their other hirelings. Nobody would remember who'd done it. Didn't see. Just a bunch of bairns. ... Would've stopped them if we'd realized...
He put his fists on his belt so they wouldn't shake; he swallowed the odious fear taste in his throat. Sweat raced down his ribs under his wool plaid.
"Was that you screaming, Vik?"
Vik's mouth twisted. "Oh, you can hear, can you, bastard?"
"You talk too much. I'm busy right now. You going to challenge at the games?" Toby had won his last seven fights. He could take Fat Vik in one short round.
"You won't be in the games. No traitors--"
"No? Then meet me at the ford tonight. Three rounds? Or no limit? I don't care."
Vik glanced briefly at his cronies. "And a gang of your Sassenach friends there to help you? Oh, no! We'll settle this right here and now, traitor."
The circle was closing, moving in very slowly, enjoying the suspense.
"Traitor, traitor!" Crazy Colin was already jittery, his face twisting in an idiotic leer. Demons! Had they given Curd-brain a knife?
"Traitor, is it?" Toby hardly minded being called a bastard--he'd worn that badge all his life--but he did mind being called a traitor. "Remember when you joined up, Colin, three years ago? When the laird called on the men of Fillan to back King Fergan? Remember that day, Colin? I was there, Colin, up at the castle. I tried to enlist with Laird Dalmally, too."
The laird had laughed. Toby had been one of many fuzz-laced boys trying to join up that day, but he'd also been the tallest man there, even then. The laird had called him the longest fishing pole in the glen. But he had tried! He'd been refused. He might have died on Parline Field. He might have come back maimed, or crazed like Colin, but he was not a traitor. He wouldn't work for the English now if anyone else could give him a job. Every one of these six would jump at a chance to take his place on the Sassenachs' payroll.
Crazy Colin leered. "Death to traitors!" There was nothing in his head to argue with.
Toby turned his attention back to Vik. "I don't recall seeing you at the castle that day, Fatso."
"I was there!"
"You must have been kneeling, then."
That won a chuckle from Rae and Bryce. Pale with fury, Vik stepped nearer and the others closed in also, tightening the belt one more notch. Conscious of the two behind him, Toby waited for the kick in the kidneys or the first flash of blades.
"So you're on your feet now. Why're you making so much racket?"
"You stay away from my sister, traitor!"
Stay away from my sister... Stay away from my daughter... Toby knew those words well enough, too. No family in the glen would let Big Bastard Strangerson near its unmarried girls. But in this case, the charge was absurd. Meg Tanner was only a child, with a bad habit of wandering around near the castle. Toby had seen her safely home the previous evening. That would be excuse enough for Vik.
"Meg? You're the one who messes with kids, Vik, not me." Toby raised his voice to shout down whatever was coming next. "You should look after her better. Keep her away from the soldiers."
"I'm going to keep you away from her!" Vik howled.
That should have been the cue for the action to begin, but it didn't. Obviously Vik did-not trust his followers to back him unless Toby hit first.
Only Granny Nan's prophecy held Toby back. His heart thundered, his fists were clenched and shaking. Terrible things will happen .. . "You're a coward, Tanner. Tell you what: You meet me tonight at the ford, and I'll fight you with one hand tied behind my back." He could not hope to win, but the whole village would turn out to watch, so there would be fair play.
The others exchanged surprised glances, tempted by the chance of seeing a three-fisted fight.
"He's lying!" Vik shouted. "He's the bastard son of a Sassenach! He's a traitor and a bastard."
"Hit me, then!" Toby stuck out his chin. "What's the matter? You scared, Campbell?"
Vik Tanner was really Vik Campbell, and that was the root of Toby's trouble--they were all Campbells, every one of them except Willie Bain. Just about everyone in the glen was a Campbell, which was why they all had other names as well.
Vik grew desperate. "Colin! Do him, Colin!"
Crazy Colin giggled and produced a cleaver as long as Toby's forearm.
Rae shouted, "Wait! Hold it!" He grabbed the madman's wrist. Bryce rallied to his aid.
Toby became aware of jingling and clumping and a squeaking of axles behind him. The miller's cart was bearing down on the group, with Iain himself cracking the whip. The mob scattered out of the way--Colin gibbering and frothing and fighting against the others' efforts to control him.
"Oh, Miller, sir!" Toby said, forcing his throat not to shout. "I've got a message from the steward!"
"Whoa, there! Whoa, I say!" The fat man hauled briefly on the reins, slowing the rig. "Up here with you, lad! What's the old scoundrel wanting now?"
Neal made a grab for Toby, but Toby slipped by him and jumped for the cart. The miller's whip cracked in the air behind him, making his pursuers dodge back. He snatched hold of the boards and swung a leg up; was almost thrown off as Iain lashed the horse and the ramshackle outfit lunged forward, rocking and rattling over the uneven road, creaking mightily under its load of meal sacks. The gang yelled taunts as the miller bore their victim away to safety, and a moment later the horse was splashing across the ford.