The small girls were pushing at the thighs of Aithinne’s brothers, and they in turn were driving the once more blindfolded lady, this time in their direction. Suddenly, Hugh seemed to trip on his feet and fall hard into the back of Aithinne, who in turn toppled into Damian and Fletcher. They caught her before any harm was done. Everyone howled and clapped with glee at the madcap amusement. Damian righted his wife to where she was sitting upon his lap.
She pushed the tied cloth up to smile at Fletcher. “Well, well...the machinations of Lady Fate decrees––with a wee push from a brother mine––that you are to be the King of Holly. Very fitting, I must say.”
“Nay, look elsewhere, my lady,” Fletcher laughed uneasy. What sort of tricks were the trins playing now? He glanced to Damian to assess his reaction to this turn.
A toe-headed little girl danced to Aithinne and handed her a crown made of holly and red berries and branches fashioned to appear like antlers. “You have no choice. The battle between the Oak King and the King of Holly is an ancient one, going back to the dawn of time. The Oak Lord battles to keep the night at bay––”
Fletcher was growing annoyed. “Aye, I know the lore. The Oak Lord banishes the coming night to make sure the sun returns at Springtide. All children have heard these ancient tales.” He be damned if he’d go through with this farce, ancient customs could go to the devil. ‘Twas bad enough he was forced to stand aside and watch Geljon with the man she would soon wed, but to be compelled to play out that loss before all in this mock contest was too much to expect of him. “Find someone else to mime your mummery.”
Aithinne gave him a patient smile. “To you they are tales. To my people they are tradition. If we do not banish the night this eve, the long night of the Winter Solstice, then we shall face a dark winter season that will be long and harsh. Please?”
Lewis held out the staff to him. “I always thought it odd, that the Holly Lord was the one to be banished. His leaves never die; they are forevermore green, showing that life that hope never dies. The Oak fights long, holding onto their leaves, but come time they wither and die. Also, holly is a plant so treasured this time of year. But the Auld Ones never asked me what I thought of this battle. Come, Fletcher, you be one of the best at the quarterstaff. Do the Holly King justice. Damian mimed him last year, and his heart was not in it. We had a bad winter because of it. Our people would appreciate a hero to help drive the gloom and cold away.”
Fletcher wanted to push the staff aside, but everyone in the room began chanting words of encouragement. All eyes were upon him, and for more reason that some bit of ancient lore. David Leslie and he were to fight, even if a mock battle. His eyes sought out Geljon once more. She was looking at him, like she always did, though concern flickered in the grey depths.
Leslie was already standing, an arrogant grin on his face. “Come, Sasunnach, dunna disappoint all here.” He spread his grip on the staff and held it out at chest level. “Unless . . .you be affeared to fight a braw Scot?”
Fletcher wanted to wipe that condescending smile off the man’s face. He snatched the quarterstaff from Lewis’ grip. Rolling the long pole in his hands, he followed Aithinne to the center of the Great Hall.
Everyone gathered around the edges of the great room, children sitting on the floor, whilst their elders pulled the long benches into a better position, or stood at the back, hoping for a better view of the coming display. Excitement gleamed upon their faces.
Aithinne began, “The Auld Ones witnessed a great rivalry since the light first kissed the earth. The battle of two great kings. One dark and one light. Twice a year they would come to do battle for the lands. They would fight heroically. The Holly King, the dark one would rule the Wintertide and set the sun to dimming. As the nights grew longer, so did his strength, his control of this world. The Oak King held reign over summer and was blessed with the power of the waxing light. Their biggest battle would come at Yule, and a mighty struggle it was. The Oak King’s powers are at their weakest, whilst the Holly King’s strength and wield were at pinnacle. If the Oak King fails to banish the Holly King, then he would rule the country in a swirl of snow storms, preventing Springtide’s return. Through his valiant effort the Oak King must find the power to drive the Holly King away, so he may woo the Maid of Spring.”
As Fletcher stood on one side of Aithinne, staring unblinkingly at David Leslie on the other, he felt a queer itch between his shoulder blades. He was to play the Holly King––the dark lord. And perfectly cast, Leslie was the fair lord. And naturally, his thoughts returned to the maid he would win––Geljon. An ancient tradition, yet it felt as if it was being played out for real in this game of mime. Was this design by man or the whims of ancient gods?
By the Saints, the mead’s influence was hitting him harder, causing his vision to swim. Everything was too hot, and he was having a hard time drawing breath. There were too many people, and all staring at the two men in their circle. Aithinne was talking, going on about the meaning of the rite. Her words fell upon his ears like a waterfall.
He could only see Geljon. She had moved to the center of one bench, and sat clutching her hands together. Between them was a small sprig of holly. Did that hold significance?
“What ho, Sasunnach? Say that we seem to fit these kings of the land who must wage battle?” Leslie rocked the long pole back and forth between his hands.
Aithinne gave a nervous laugh. “’Tis only a mock battle, my lords. We know the outcome. The Oak Lord must win to bring the sun back to the lands.”
Leslie flashed a grin of innocence. “Naturally, my lady. ‘Tis evident to all the Scottish oak must prevail over the English holly.”
Fletcher took a breath, striving to regain control. Lewis move past him, going to take a seat next to Geljon. He blocked the lad’s path. “Knave, did you put something in the mead?” Catching him by the arm, he spoke lowly so only the two of them could hear.”
“Me? Nay. ‘Twas Lewis who took you the drink. I am Deward. ‘Tis the Picts’ heather mead. ’Tis spake it makes a warrior stronger, invincible. The properties are fabled. ’Tis only given to those who are special.”
Fletcher opened his mouth to ask more, but suddenly, Leslie’s staff came slashing from out of nowhere, cracking against Fletcher’s with a noise so loud that everyone in the room jumped. Since his grip was loose about the long rod, the vibration nearly caused him to drop the heavy wooden quarterstaff and lose his balance. Leslie lost no time in delivering yet another blow that pushed Fletcher backward, nearly knocking Deward over as well.
“So, this is the best man with a quarterstaff? The English must like to spend their time in bed making love, rather than on the training field,” Leslie taunted. “It does seem the Oak King is stronger this Turn of the Wheel. The battle mayhap shall be a short one, eh, and we can forward look to an early spring.”
Fletcher kept backing up, but he now had a better hold on the heavy pole, so the vibrations were not traveling up his arms and rattling his muscles to the point of numbness. The fifth swing saw him blocking Leslie firmly, which brought surprise to the pale hazel eyes. Only, the man countered and then spun in a full circle, his plaide flying about him, to catch Fletcher with a swat to the seat of his pants.
When the crowd laughed, the arrogant Scotsman actually turned and took a bow. Smug and full of élan, Leslie hopped upon the end of the table and swung around on his hips to where he could sit just above Geljon. His tartan rose to where his lower thigh was fleetingly exposed. “Ah, fair Maid of Spring, shall you be the bride of the Oak King and rid this land of English holly?”
The crowd roared with more laughter, the scores of faces taking on a distorted bent in Fletcher’s eyes. He kept blinking, trying to hold onto his focus. This whole affair was quickly becoming a nightmare. He could not seem to find the concentration to attack. He watched Leslie pick up Geljon’s hand and place a kiss to the back of it. She snatched it away. Fletcher’s vision filled with red. A boiling anger reared its head as he watched the strutting peacock, stand up on the bench, and then step higher onto the table, walking its length.
“Come, Sasunnach, you are supposed to put on a show for all.” Leslie spread his arms to encompass the room and flashed a smile at a comely wench, standing off to the side. Giving a yell, he jumped over the heads of the seated children to land before Fletcher.
Only this time, Fletcher met the Scotsman’s swing with a full force of his own. Clearly, the move surprised the haughty Tanist.
“What ho?” He jested, yet the light shifted in those pale eyes, nearly the same shade as his auburn hair. “The Sasunnach tailed-dog has teeth.”
“Aye, I do and I plan on keeping them. The same might not be said about you at the end of this mock battle.” Fletcher, still lightheaded, felt his warrior’s instincts taking over. He quickly fell into the rhythm of attacks, recoil to block a counterattack, and before Leslie could reposition, attack again, harder, quicker. Overconfidence was getting the better of the man, replaced by anger as his moves, now less assured, were done in haste and in a determination to get in harder blows.
The spark of cocksureness faded as it became clearer that Fletcher was the stronger of the two men. He was also faster and more agile. He had a feeling Leslie had not come up against such a skilled fighter before. The man was strong enough. Perhaps as the Tanist, the heir to the chiefship of the clan, people gave him an easier path in life, and the young men did not press or challenge him.
“I admit you can handle the quarterstaff well–– especial for a bloody Sasunnach––but it shall be a good wedding gift for Geljon to see you defeated. I am the golden king. You are the dark one. I shall banish you and take the Spring Maid this night. A wedding is made in the Highlands when two people speak they are husband and wife. Why not turn this festive night into a wedding celebration?”
Leslie was goading him. Fletcher knew this, but it was damn hard not to shove the metal tipped pole down his arrogant throat. There simply was no stopping images of Geljon beneath this naked Scotsman, and the visions were a hell. Geljon should be taken in gentleness and love, not by this pompous swine. She deserved awe, respect, and a passion born of the fire of devotion. Fletcher knew he may be bastard born, but he was an honorable man. He had family connections, though he had never called upon that bond before. Mayhap the time was now. Leslie might offer her many material advantages, but there was one thing he could give Geljon that the Tanist could not––he loved her.
As these vague notions rose in his mind, possibilities he had not considered before, his swings with the quarterstaff grew more assured. Aye, mayhap Clan Leslie had a lot to offer the smaller sept of Seacrests. But they were a branch of Clan Ogilvie, why Geljon’s father had sent her to stay with Aithinne. Well, if the man was terrified of the English controlling the lands, why not an alliance with the mighty Dragons of Challon, already wed to Ogilvie heiresses? What better way to see the old man assured his daughter would be protected, and see his clan lands stay secure?
If you truly love the girl, then mayhap we can figure something out. Fletcher knew Geljon wanted him; it was the matter of convincing her father. Not a simple trick, but one he could master. He would do anything to win her hand. With the invincible spirt of the heather mead coursing through him, and the renewed acceptance he might be able to stop this coming marriage, he brought the staff down with such might that it shattered Leslie’s weapon and sent him sprawling backwards, and into the group of people near the fire. Everyone gasped and scrambled.
The Tanist was shocked, but that emotion quickly morphed into rage, a deep glowing resentment that saw from this day forward they would be mortal enemies. So be it. Fletcher tossed the quarterstaff down at the feet of Leslie and gave him a crooked smile.
A gasped silence lingered in the Great Hall as his words rang out. “It seems the Oak King was not strong enough to defeat the Holly King this season. Pity that.”
Fletcher turned, seeking to find Geljon. He wanted to go to her and tell her of his plans. Just as he spotted her standing with Aithinne, there were shouts behind him. He spun around in time to see Leslie had picked up the other staff and had made a wide swing toward the back of his head. A killing blow. . .
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