The Spear and Crown
By: Hannah Payne
Ch. 1: The Presentation of the Clans
The call of a horn cut through the morning mist, causing a shiver of exhilaration to run down my spine. The adrenaline coursing through me was almost too much as I bounced slightly in the saddle, breath puffing out of me like smoke in the chilling air.
Mum's tone caused me to immediately stop as I turned to face her, waiting for the lecture.
"I know you're excited but give poor Angus a break."
Looking down, I saw Angus was fidgeting and his breathing was growing a bit quick. With a small apologetic smile I patted the side of his neck and positioned myself more comfortably, pulling my thick woolen cloak about my shoulders to ward off the coming chill.
"Ah, leave the girl be, Elinor. She's just excited," my Da teased with a wink. "As are we all."
Mum merely shook her head with a chuckle. While I know it was just eating her inside, she remained silent on my posture, my giggling like a child, and my constant asking how much farther it would be.
Childish though it was, I had a reason for this abundance of energy. Today was the day all the clans of the Highlands were competing in the Highland Games. There was no bride, no money or livestock to be won in these games. No, there was something even better. The Golden Spear.
This spear once belonged to the ancient king of old, before the kingdom was torn apart by his four sons. Since then, every century, the clans would put aside their fighting and come together for a series of games, all hoping to bring the Spear to their clan. Many believe that when the Spear goes into a clan's hands, they are changed for the better. Last century, the clan DunBroch received the honor of this weapon and, in the end; they became the ruling clan of the Highlands.
That was why I was so eager to get there. For the first time, I would be allowed to compete in the games and uphold the honor of the clan. We were still the ruling clan, all the lords decided that but no clan had ever been able to win the Spear for two centuries in a row. I was determined to be the first.
Besides, this was the first time I'd be able to show my skills as a fellow warrior and Lord DunBroch's oldest child. It had been nearly six months since the Bear Incident and we were all eager to finally have some action. That's the funny thing about great adventures…or disasters; after they happen, all the excitement is gone and the daily life almost seems boring. Spring and summer had come and gone and, with the chilled air of harvest, came new duties; lessons and the gathering of provisions for the frost. It was enough to remain occupied but, with the lack of battles, this harvest would have been pure torture if not for these games.
The triplets were carrying on in the cart that was pulling the weapon, covered in its embroidered shroud. They were eager to get to their usual mischief and I was just grateful I didn't have to be the one looking after them; although, I did pity Maudie. The poor woman has been run ragged by those three wee devils and she has to watch them again. Hopefully her fella from the Dingwall clan will find her and help with the situation.
As our horses continued to cut through the icy wind and mist, the sounds of men, lots of men, and camp-life could be heard in the distance.
"Da, that's …!"
"Aye, girl. Aye."
With a knowing smirk and triumphant call, King Fergus shot his horse forward, hooves thundering over gold pastures as the sun was starting to rise over the surrounding mountains. The rays flashed through the moist air, causing colors of fire and air to dance about him among the reds, browns, and golds of the trees, making him appear more than a man.
Without being able to stop myself, I kicked Angus into following, letting out a whoop that would reach the Heavens. I wanted to run in that fire. It was like the sun itself was opening a path for us to the clans. As the morning mist was disappearing with the light, the decline leading to the playing field caught my eye. Da never hesitated in his stride, kicking his mount to ride harder, wind rushing down his back and through his bear hide cloak. The blaring light of the sun broke through with a vengeance right when we crested the top of the hill, causing a roar to erupt from the clearing.
Never in all my life had I seen such a huge gathering of warriors in the Highlands. They were all there, the respective banners of their clans flying in the breeze. Colors of tartans, some allies, some enemies of each other, all grouped and gathered in one location, cheering for their king in united pride.
This was something I hadn't truly witnessed till now. Unable to stop myself, I wiped a stray tear that forced its way from my eye. Da seemed to sense my growing emotion and gave me his warmest smile, clasping my shoulder in one of his meaty hands.
"Moves ya deeply, don't it, lass?"
I couldn't stop the tinge of pink that flushed my cheeks. More than anything, I wanted him to think I could handle this.
"It does me too."
Looking up at him in surprise, I then noticed the slight glint of a tear in Da's eye. This meant the world to him too. With a knowing wink, he pulled his horse up, giving a war cry of victory. This received an answering call a thousand times its size and immediately he galloped to the crowd. Kicking Angus into following, I shot after him like an arrow, more determined than ever. For my Da's pride, for our clan, I would win these games.
The king's entrance was met with great exaltation. This was the first Highland Games they'd had after becoming a united kingdom again. All the centuries of feuding and brother fighting brother over one thing or another was over, or so they were hoping. The king's presence was a symbol that they were now united and that these games wouldn't end in bloodshed or feuds among the clans.
As Fergus thundered through the crowd, Merida by his side the whole time, the crowd made way for them through the grounds. Not too long after them, the cart holding the prize arrived with Elinor. Merida shot her another apologetic smile for abandoning her but the Queen took it in stride as she made her way to the platform beside her husband, her immensely long hair draped over the back of her thick cloak.
As she stood beside her king and husband, the crowd noticed immediately her slightly protruding belly. Immediately another cheer went up through the clearing and Merida couldn't help but laugh at the slightly shocked expression on her dear Mum's face. Catching on quickly, Fergus wrapped his large arm about his wife's shoulders, teasing her lightly at her expense. The current child in her belly was the final result to the whole Bear Incident. After realizing he'd almost killed his beloved wife, Fergus never let her out of his sight for a while. That left a lot of free time.
At his wife's final pleading look, Fergus raised his hand, silencing the raucous crowd.
"Today…..we are here to….to play the games and…. Uh…."
"Today, we have come to participate in the Highland Games for the first time as a united kingdom."
In that moment, Fergus could have bent his queen and kissed her there. He hated giving speeches and playing the diplomat. His queen, however, did it almost effortlessly. The crowd always listened with baited breath to her every word. She had that effect on people.
As the Queen's speech continued holding the warriors' attention, Merida scanned the crowd, looking for faces she did or didn't recognize. Immediately she focused the three main lords of the Highlands. They were just below her father in position and had come to Castle DunBroch just six months past to try and have her marry one of their sons through another set of games. Ironic how this would be the next time she would see them again.
Lord Macintosh stood proud and lofty, head held high before his warriors. The blue paint on his face and arm was still as bright as ever, though hardly visible under the thick woolen cloak wrapped about him, along with their signature red tartans. The man was full of talk and bluster but, while it grew annoying at times, it made for an excellent story. And, why not? They were a clan of Scalds, battle bards that inspired and raised the courage of warriors in combat. Their swordsmen and riders were also second to none. Their fertile rolling hills were excellent breeding and training grounds for the Clydesdales necessary for their warriors. Just to the side of him stood his son, head just as high and eyes just as lofty. It would be almost comical if it wasn't for the fact they honestly believed they really were that high. Still, the lord was an amusing one to watch. His son,…. Merida was yet to be sure.
In another section, stood Lord MacGuffin. The man was built like an ox, thick and heavy. His mustache pulled separate over his course blonde beard, same as his hair, and his eyes were deeply set and lidded. He looked like a stone statue, unmoving and emotionless. However, Merida knew better. Lord MacGuffin may have looked like a bear in his thick woolen shirt and hide armor….but he was more a teddy bear than anything, much like her own Da. Closer to the middle of the group, Merida was able to spy Young MacGuffin. Just as big as his own father, the young lad looked more a man than anything. Well,….if it wasn't for his rounded face. Cocking an eyebrow, Merida wondered why he was standing more among his own warriors than right beside his father. The poor lad was shy, she knew, but surely he wasn't that bad.
Shrugging it off, Merida then spotted the banner of clan Dingwall. Ah, the great Dingwalls. Theirs was a stubborn clan indeed; and, none of them more stubborn than Lord Dingwall. He was shorter than all the other lords in the Highlands but he had a fiery temper that caused some of the greatest warriors to shudder…..or bust a gut laughing. It depended on what the argument was about. But, the Dingwalls had a lot to live up to. They lived in the marshy island areas around the Eastern coasts. Due to a great many losses recently from Roman invaders, the other clans were constantly giving them a hard time. Wee Dingwall stood alongside his father. His wheat-blonde hair barely gave him anymore height but he stood there, staring up at Mum with the rest, looking like he was in a far-away place. There were times Merida wondered where the boy's thoughts went but, considering the last time she saw him he was kissing "romantically" up her arm as he was leaving, she thought it better she didn't know after all.
The other clans gathered were of lesser prominence, either under the authority of the three main lords or independent to themselves. They had all sworn allegiance to the king but stated they wished to remain within their own authority, not wanting to be held accountable by a past enemy or so. All of their clans were present, tartans of every pattern and banners from far and wide. In these games, there were no titles, no privileges. They were all clans, aiming for the same prize.
Elinor finished her speech with a flourish and presented the relic to a hooded group, the Druids that would guard the spear until the match was over. All were silent at the exchange, as if too scared to breathe and break the spell. With the careful reverence of a holy artifact, the Druids carried the shrouded spear to the tent pitched to the side and closed the flaps behind them. Immediately, King Fergus raised himself as high as he could, a new wave of courage sweeping over him as his voice boomed across the clearing.
"And, now, the presenting of the warriors!"
The responding roar was deafening, causing the very platform to shake with the bellows of the warriors. The stomping of feet and the banging of shields and breast-plates added to the commotion, giving Merida the impression of a stampede. However, it only caused the smile on her face to grow, the exhilaration from before rising to nearly bursting within her again. Giving her mother a quick wink, she scooted off the back side of the platform and disappeared from sight.
The clan immediately gave a yell of "MacIntosh!" as Lord MacIntosh stepped forward, gesturing for his son to follow.
"Fellow clans of the Highlands, I present my Heir who defended our land from the Norman invaders and, with his own sword, stabbed and singlehandedly vanquished a thousand foes."
This brought about another round of yelling and, as Young MacIntosh stuck a pose, every girl within viewing distance screaming with absolute adoration. The look on his face showed he was reveling in it.
It took Fergus a slight moment to collect his thoughts. Hadn't he heard this speech before? Oh, well.
This clan answered in kind as Lord MacGuffin made his way.
"Clans, I present my eldest son."
Gesturing quickly towards the crowd, Young MacGuffin made his way through the crowd to stand along-side his father.
"He led an attack against the Viking long ships and, when the fools tried to attack us on land, with his bare hands, vanquished three thousand foes."
Young MacGuffin didn't try to pose or even attempt to break a log this time. His size alone showed he could possibly rip a man in two. Upon closer look, Fergus could see the lad had grown an inch or two, finally topping his father. Along with that, the skim of fuzz that had started to grow on his face before had now developed to hair. The lad had a good starting beard on him. The lord's tone spoke of his genuine pride in the boy. It made Fergus wonder if they were really having that much trouble with the Vikings. He'd have to look into that later.
With the clan's call, Lord Dingwall walked up to his customary stool, placing him on equal height with the other lords and cleared his throat.
"Clans gathered, I present my only son. He led an attacking fleet against a legion of Romans and while enemies were running for their lives, he called upon the aid of a fierce and mighty dragon to set their trail ablaze. And, when the beast dared to turn on us, he struck down the might monster, with his own great arm."
At seeming to notice that his son wasn't standing beside him, as he should have been, Lord Dingwall managed to look back and, seeing his son still in somewhat of a daze, started to gesture for him to come up. At his son's hesitation, his lordship was starting to get frantic; looking very much like a chicken trying to take off into flight. It was asking far too much for the other clans to not just start laughing and with great gusto. It was getting so bad, Fergus was starting to have far too much fun of it, considering he was laughing right along with the others. This boy did all that? Please. And, people said the MacIntosh clan were great story-tellers. Anyway, this was getting old.
That seemed to snap Wee Dingwall out of his haze and he quickly rushed to his flushed and very irritated father's side, laughter still ringing throughout the clearing. If nothing else but to try and save the poor lord's face, Fergus continued with the presentation.
And, so it went. Down the line, the other clans presented their greatest warriors; almost all of them the oldest sons or close relatives of the Lords. Fergus and Elinor were actually pretty impressed. Despite all the showmanship and some bold-faced lying, things were going perfectly well. They'd gone through all thirteen competing clans and not a one had started a fight. Fergus figured it was due to the competition coming up, or the frost starting to gather on all present. The clans would just tromp their opponents in the contests. That suited Fergus just fine. As the last clan gave its final shout of victory, Fergus took a deep breath. Now was the moment of truth.
"And, now! For all of you to be witness of, for the first time, clan Dunbroch presents our competitor. My eldest born, and proven warrior of the Dunbroch clan, Merida!"
It was at that moment that Merida made her entrance. Walking down the line of fellow competitors, all staring with a mixture of shock or confusion, she held her head high, daring anyone to say a word against it as she took her place at the other end of the line.
"In winning the competition for her own hand, she inspired the new tradition of allowing our youth to choose their destiny and couple for themselves. And, she broke the curse placed upon our own dear queen by defeating and killing the demon-bear, Mor'du."
Suddenly, all attention fell upon the MacTavish clan, the lord appearing ready for battle. King Fergus immediately turned on his pegged leg.
Not wasting an instant, Lord MacTavish pulled himself up to his full height, sharp eyes glinting like a hawks before its prey.
"The way I heard it, the lass didn't kill Mor'du. In fact, no-one killed Mor'du. He died by accident. Besides, wasn't the girl herself the one who put the curse on the Queen, her own mother?"
Before the king had a chance to say anything, Elinor was right in front of the platform, rigid and spitting like a cat.
"Regardless of how it happened, Lord MacTavish, Merida single-handedly defended me from getting killed by three clans and brought about the means which killed the demon-bear. It is thanks to her that I am alive and back the way I am. And, as being the oldest born and one of our clans best warriors, she has more than earned her right here."
Merida could only stare in shock. Her own mother was defending her into competing. She hadn't liked the idea from the start but, seeing how important it was to Merida, Elinor had held her tongue and allowed it. Now, she was defending that right.
"Besides, we saw it ourselves!"
Like a wave on the sea, all attention shifted towards the line of competitors, focusing on who-else but young MacGuffin, his face flushed slightly to the sudden focus on him. Clearing his throat and shifting his stance slightly, he puffed himself up to his full height, giving the appearance of confidence, even though he was shaking inside.
"We….were there,….my clan and I….. We saw the fight. She's more than earned her place."
Glancing down the row, Merida couldn't help but stare in open shock, as did everyone else who had heard young MacGuffin speak before. She could understand him. Every now and then there was a word she didn't quite catch but, from what she could tell, the guy had really been brushing up on the more common Highland dialects and, to top it all off, he was defending her.
Swallowing low in my throat, it took everything I had not to shift from foot to foot. Honestly, I didn't even know what got into me. Ok, that was a bold-faced lie. I know perfectly what got into me. But still, to have everyone staring at me like this. My common sense was telling me to keep my mouth shut, like always. But, it seemed I couldn't do that when it came to this.
Wanting desperately to see if I had disappointed my Da somehow, I had to force my eyes to remain focused on the MacTavish lord. He had dared to challenge Merida's right to be among us and, as far as I could tell, she'd more than earned it. Besides, everything had been going well till the old goat had to say something.
Six months ago, I had been one of the three possible suitors for Merida and even though nothing came of it, a strong impulse to defend her right seemed to come naturally to me. Whether it was gusto or just stupidity, who knew? But, it was done and now there was nothing but to stand by it.
Lord MacTavish raised his eyebrow, cold eyes piercing into my very soul. A part of me wanted to shudder but I refused to give him the satisfaction, even if we could all feel the wind biting through our thick cloaks.
"Were you now?"
The question was flat, border-lining the emotionless.
"Well, lad. By all means, tell us how it happened. In your own words."
Now, that was a low blow. He knew full well, outside of the MacGuffin clan, hardly anyone understood a word I said. My accented dialect was too thick to be understood easily. This was a trap he'd set and, like an oaf, I walked right into it. The soft gasp at the end of the line showed Merida had grasped the connection as well, and that sound filled me with shame. Trying desperately to run through the words and phrases I had practiced, my mind was almost spinning.
"The lad doesn't have to tell a thing! I was there."
That voice filled me with both relief and embarrassment at myself. But, I supposed my Da saving me was better than continuing to look the fool.
"So was I!"
MacTavish looked to the competing lords MacIntosh and Dingwall, a knowing sneer on his face.
"Well, of course, you three would support this. The lass is supposed to link herself with one of you. But, the rest of us don't have that kind of….leverage."
That was enough.
"Stop! It's got…..nothin' to do wit dat. She's mor dan….. earnt her place! And, aabody just gotta know dat... If'n she don't play, I don't!"
A stir suddenly ran through the ground. I knew I'd done it now. Da would never forgive me for this. But, it wasn't fair. We were here to compete for an honest chance to change things for the better. And, here was MacTavish trying to imply things that weren't true.
"No! You can't do that!"
Immediately recognizing the voice, my head snapped to Merida who had stepped out of the line, staring at me with wide and almost frightened eyes.
"You can't do it, MacGuffin! You want to give him the satisfaction of throwing you out of the contest?"
"Merida, that's enough!"
At her mother's word, Merida mouth snapped shut almost on reflex but I could tell there was a horror in those eyes, as if she was genuinely scared I would really drop out. I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride at that reaction.
"If she doesn't compete, then I quit too. So, what now?"
This time, it came from the MacIntosh side of the clearing, gasps of shock rang everywhere as lord MacIntosh's oldest son flicked his hair over his shoulder in defiance.
Came the yell from the Dingwall clan. This was causing a greater stir than I expected. For one clan to drop out was one thing but, for three clans to do so, would possibly put the whole games in jeopardy. There would be no way to determine if the other clans had a fair win or not. There was a chance this plan would work.
Whispers and ruckus were coming from all directions. MacTavish was a stubborn, cold goat but he wasn't stupid enough to turn several of the clans against him, wasn't he? Meeting his gaze dead on, I dared him to say a word against this. It was obvious the whole occurrence had taken him off-guard. However, he merely swallowed and relaxed his posture.
"Your majesty, if it's such an issue, then I say let the girl compete however…..there is, one slight issue."
"Oh, what now, MacTavish? And, I warn you. You're on thin ice!"
Anyone could see his Highness was terrifyingly close to going off on the lord. He'd pushed his limits to the brink. What could he possibly have now that would save him?
"The matter of the rules of the game."
Immediately, Queen Elinor stepped closer to the edge of the platform.
"There is no rule stating for or against her competing."
"Oh, of course not, Your Majesty. I was meaning the rule of fair play."
"What do you mean, lord MacTavish?"
"Well, we wouldn't want there to be any cause of accusing the DunBroch clan of cheating, now would we?"
The man had to have been mad!
King Fergus' voice boomed like thunder, hot breath puffing out of his mouth like a dragons. All members of both clans prepared for a struggle.
"Come here and say that to me face!"
"It is in the rules, your Majesty. DunBroch was the last to have won the spear. And, you wish to allow a competing warrior. Therefore, I say, by the ancient laws and traditions that these games have ALWAYS been held upon,…..the only way the girl can compete, is if she relinquishes the spear to the next up running warrior, should she win."
The shriek was undeniable. I couldn't help but cringe at the sound, although, I had to admit, Merida's yell bore a striking resemblance to her father's. Before I could stop myself, my gaze turned to Merida. She stood there ready to pounce, a look of absolute outrage on her face. Her fierce temper was known as much as those fiery curls that cascaded uncontrollably down her back. Her posture was rigid and she looked like she desperately wanted a sword in her hand. For a split-second, I wished her one.
"How dare you! You want me to give up my clans honor just so I can't win? You over-grown piss pot! I ought to-"
"We accept the terms, lord MacTavish."
In that moment, all of Merida's fire drained out of her, like she'd been doused with cold water. Looking up at her mother on the platform, she looked like the woman had kicked her in the gut. A part of me wanted to tell her it was alright but, truth be told, I wasn't understanding much myself. But, the Queen had always been a wise and competent woman. Surely, she had a plan.
Not missing this opportunity, Lord MacTavish gave a dramatic and impressive bow.
"My deepest thanks, Your Highness. Just a precaution, I assure you. So that the clan DunBroch can never be accused of trickery."
"No-doubt, there would be those who wouldn't hesitate to do so."
The chill in the queen's tone was unavoidable and a shudder ran down my spine at the icy sharpness in her gaze. I was grateful in that moment to not be the target of her wrath.
Shifting my gaze to Merida, I could tell she was still in shock, trying to grasp what had happened. It was either the fight had run out of her or she was too stunned to react at the moment. I'd bet my best spear it was the latter.
I didn't hear King Fergus announce the contests would start tomorrow or for us all to go to our respective camps and prepare for the day. I didn't hear the cheers or feel the constant jabs to my ribs and arms in good-natured ribbing for the competition. I didn't even feel my Da put his hand on my shoulder, either in comfort or to get my attention I couldn't tell.
All I saw was Merida turning on her heel and walking back to her clan's tents, looking very much like a warrior who'd just gotten the beating of their life. I found myself preferring to see her fiery temper over this. This wasn't the Merida I had seen earlier. I prayed quickly to whatever gods could hear me that the strong-willed girl I'd seen stand up to her own Da with a sword alone would come back…..and soon.
It was far too much, the scenario constantly playing itself over and over in her head. Surely, she must have misunderstood. It didn't end that way; it couldn't have. Her mother wouldn't do that to her. She wasn't happy with her competing, at first, but she wouldn't sabotage her like that. This was a mistake. It was all just a big mistake. Her mother would come into the tent and tell her everything had been taken care of and that she would still be up for participating in the games and that she would win the spear for the DunBroch clan and their honor would be doubly-proven…..right?
The soft whisper of cloth sliding on cloth snapped Merida out of her trance and she turned to see Elinor standing within the tent's entrance, back straight and face a calm mask. In that moment, Merida knew nothing had changed.
"How….how could you do this to me?"
The question was choked and so full of emotion, it took everything Elinor had not to run and embrace her daughter in comfort. However, duty kept her feet cemented to the floor of the tent. Merida had to understand the circumstances of her participation. It was the only way this could be salvaged and be capable of becoming a success.
"I did nothing that wasn't needed."
"How can you say that?"
"Merida! A lady doesn't shout."
"Well, I wasn't supposed to be a lady. I was supposed to compete in the games!"
"You are still competing."
"On his terms? It's not fair!"
"At least you have terms."
"But, I can't win."
"You couldn't anyway."
Merida's legs buckled under her, causing her to land luckily into a chair. It was almost hard to breathe, like she'd been kicked in the stomach.
Taking a deep breath, Elinor tried to focus her thoughts and words. This was the moment she'd been dreading the most.
"As the eldest born, you were allowed to compete. But, not win."
"Why? Because I'm not a son? Or, is this another of my "Princess' Duties"?"
"It has nothing to do with that."
"That's a lie!"
"Merida, for once, please just listen to what I have to say!"
The times were few and far between whenever her mother lost her temper. But, when she did, Merida knew now was the time to be quiet, whether she agreed or not. Shockingly calm and collected, Elinor walked to a tapestry hanging on the main wall of the tent. The extravagant piece of artwork was a map of the highlands, complete with the four divisions of the clans DunBroch, MacIntosh, MacGuffin, and Dingwall.
"In ancient times, the land was ruled by a noble and just king-"
"Mum, I've heard this story how many times?"
The sharp piercing of her mother's gaze silenced Merida immediately.
"This king had four sons and he divided his vast kingdom amongst them, so that there would be no struggle between them over who would rule. However, the oldest grew greedy and wanted more and more, never satisfied with what he was given. His constant need to expand himself was all consuming and ultimately led to the destruction and division of his father's great kingdom.
"Chaos and bloodshed ruled and brothers fought brothers over feud or greed. All seemed lost until the great king, ancient in his wisdom, brought forth one last order before he passed on into the next world. 'Anyone who is worthy of this spear will have his destiny changed for the better.' The clans, all wanting to prove themselves worthy of the spear, put aside their weapons and fighting to gather together and prove to all who was truly worthy of this great honor. Time after time, throughout the centuries, the clans met again and again to see who would take the spear to their clan. And, with each passing of the spear, the highlands has changed and improved itself. Thus the spear is forever amongst the blessed."
"While it's a great story, what does it have to do with me?"
Elinor turned to face her daughter, an expression of strong serenity on her face.
"Never in all the centuries has any clan won the spear twice in a row. And, for good reason. The passing of the spear to a new clan is an open expression of our unity. Before, it was simply symbolic. Now, there is a chance of it truly being real. Merida, no-one will tell you that you can't compete. You've made your place…,one way or another. But, for the sake of the unity of the clans, you can't win."
"So, I'm to just swallow this and accept that our clan's honor is to be insulted?"
"The clan's honor or your pride?"
At her daughter's silence, Elinor lovingly placed a gentle but firm hand on Merida's shoulder.
"Do you not see what lengths you have accomplished by just being here? Your presence is an outward statement of all you had wanted, and you have it. Now, you must know what to do with it."
"I don't understand."
Elinor immediately knelt before Merida's chair, causing her daughter to stare in shock at this humble act. The queen gently clasped her only daughter's hands between her own.
"You are the princess and future ruler of the Highlands. You must know what to expect from the clans. See this as a learning experience."
"Mum, please, not more of your lessons."
"No, not a lesson. A battle."
The stern look on her mother's face caused Merida to snap her mouth shut, unable to form a cohesive word.
"Not all battles are won with yelling and swinging swords. Sometimes you need to watch and listen. You are now on the battlefield. There are some who will argue your ability to compete. You are now in the greatest struggle of your life. You must prove yourself capable of keeping up with the others. But, you must also learn to control yourself and being able to watch and pay attention to what is important. You have your freedom, Merida. Now, you must decide what to do with it."
Merida was at a complete loss for words. Give up the chance to win? This was completely crazy. It was harsh and unfair…and yet it made sense. That was the irritating thing about her mother. She could tell you just about anything and yet, when she explained it, it made all the sense in the world.
Pacing at an agitated rate, Merida kept her gaze focused on the floor. The pressure was mounting and still she couldn't think of a way out of this. There had to be. There were always exceptions and loopholes. She had a talent for finding them; she'd find this one.
"So, you're saying I can't win without insulting the other clans…. What if I compete as the ruling clan?"
"That's abusing power."
"The first girl!"
"I am the future ruler of-"
"Now, you are grabbing at straws."
"You can't force this on me like-"
"Bringing up the past…..past put to rest."
"Well, what about-"
"No, Merida! There are no tricks, no loopholes, no exceptions. This is it. Because the DunBroch clan won the spear last we may compete but can't win. You must understand this. To compete will be an outward symbol of the unity this kingdom has and, if we are completely honest, you may not win. Sometimes things are just the way they are and, for the sake of peace, you can't change that. Please, Merida, you must see this for what it is. Otherwise, we will start another incident all over again."
It took all Merida had not to burst into tears….or screams of rage. She knew what her mother was saying was true. It didn't make it any easier to hear it though. If anything, the sense in it made the statements that much harder to take; like bile rising in her throat. It was too much.
Turning on her heel, the princess rushed out of the tent, her mother calling after her as she headed towards the surrounding woods. She needed time; time to be alone, time to think,….time to vent.
The constant clicks and strikes of metal hitting wood led the three young men to her. It was obvious to all three that she was completely gone to the world, venting her frustration and energy out on a helpless, yet very thick, pine. Its trunk was covered in its wounds from her blade and Merida's grunts and pants of fatigue were becoming more prevalent. However, none of the three were willing to interrupt her at this point. Looking amongst themselves, the unspoken challenge to stop her was shared between them. It wasn't until her blade found itself buried almost half-way up, due to a particularly strong thrust, into the trunk that Merida even managed to notice her small yet quiet audience.
"And, I suppose….you're in agreement to this too, eh?"
The young men remained silent as the princess tried to pull her blade from the tree. Seeing it pointless, she finally slumped against the trunk, arms crossed in an irritated-like pout. They decided that meant it was more safe, at least.
"We didn't know…. Not till our Das told us."
Merida looked up between fiery ringlets that had come loose from her tie, cocking an eyebrow at Wee Dingwall. She had tried to contain her wild mane at the back of her neck but the struggle was too much.
"Didn't you now?"
The sharp stab in her tone caused the three future lords to almost step back. Her venting they could deal with. This icy coating was new. Noticing the obvious unease of the lads, Merida took a deep calming breath. She hated to make people nervous around her. Besides, yelling at them wouldn't help anything. They weren't to blame.
"Sorry. This just…. Ugh! This stinks."
Realizing the brunt was over, the three of young men came over to Merida, Wee Dingwall sitting himself beside her, MacIntosh on the other side and MacGuffin leaning against the tree behind her.
"Hey, don't worry about it so much. I mean, it's almost a miracle you're even here."
Snapping her gaze up, Merida glared at young MacIntosh. If that was supposed to be a joke, it wasn't funny.
"Way to go, MacIntosh. Look, Merida, I know this seems like it's unfair but the DunBroch clan had the spear last time. It's time for one of the others to earn it."
"And, that's supposed to make me feel better?"
"What do you want?"
That got Merida thinking as she sat there in shock. Wee Dingwall had a point. What did she want? She was there to participate and she didn't want special treatment. Taking a deep breath, she leaned back against the trunk, all the fight mostly out of her.
"I still wish I could wipe that smile off MacTavish's face."
The look of pouting disappointment on Merida's face almost had MacGuffin laugh at loud. However, the presence of the other two kept him quiet. MacIntosh took the opportunity to flex, showing off his well defined physique as best he could beneath his woolen shirt.
"I can take care of that easily."
Merida merely rolled her eyes, clearly unimpressed.
"Aye, I'm sure."
"Just…see it as a test."
"You sound like Mum, Dingwall."
Flushing slightly, the smaller lad just gave that goofy grin of his.
"Well, anyway, I bet I made a just great first impression on the others. Not only did I get mad, I almost caused three others to quit."
As if suddenly realizing the third presence about her, Merida jerked her gaze towards MacGuffin and jumped to her feet, causing him to flush slightly in surprise. In that moment, he was grateful for his starting beard.
"What were you thinking, threatening to quit like that? Are you out of your mind?"
While it took the lad a moment to gather his thoughts, the other two were looking at him rather strangely. It wasn't like MacGuffin to put himself in the center of attention. He hated having all eyes on him. However, that didn't mean the other two didn't enjoy putting him in that same situation. Sharing a wicked smirk between them, MacIntosh gave a quick toss to his head.
"Yeah, why did you threaten that? I didn't think you had it in you. Or, the capability to say it."
It took everything MacGuffin had not to just deck the idiot. MacIntosh knew his greatest struggle was his speech….and hating being the center of attention. He made a mental note to give pay-back later. Clearing his throat, the huge young lord ran through the studied sentences and phrases he had practiced, trying to form something Merida would understand.
Merida only blinked in shock as MacIntosh snorted in amused humor.
"Right? And, is that what you told your Da when he was chewing you out for trying to quit."
Glaring at the smaller suitor, MacGuffin clenched his hands at his side.
"We talked….. He agrees with me."
Clearing her throat, Merida came over to MacGuffin, trying to ease the growing tension. She looked up at him, fists resting comfortably on her hips as she just shook her head.
"Still, don't do that again. I wouldn't want to ruin your chance at competing. Never again. You got it?"
He didn't even have to think. Without even realizing it, MacGuffin found himself nodding in agreement. Despite Merida's claims of being nothing like the queen, she could be just as persuasive. But, he would keep that little bit of information to himself.
Both MacIntosh and Wee Dingwall stood, the taller boy stretching as he rolled his shoulders.
"Well, I'm bored. How about we find something to do?"
"I thought we were supposed to go to our respective camps for the day and prepare."
"Then, what are you doing here, Dingwall?"
"The same thing you're doing here, MacIntosh!"
"Yeah, yeah. Go back to the faeries where you belong."
Almost without warning, MacIntosh had Wee Dingwall launched onto his back, biting hard into his ear. Yelling with irritated pain, MacIntosh ran blindly about, tugging and wrestling as best he could with the struggling leach. Blinking in slight surprise, Merida couldn't stop the laugh from escaping, leaning back against the tree and holding her sides with her arms across her middle. It was too funny for her. MacGuffin had to admit he enjoyed the sight as well. Normally, he would be eager to join but considering the insult wasn't towards him and MacIntosh was getting his reward anyway, MacGuffin was fine with that.
As the other two tussled, the larger lad looked down and, seeming to notice the embedded blade for the first time, calmly took hold of the hilt and pulled it out, checking the blade for any dents. There was one good thing about his strength. It certainly came in handy every once-in-a-while.
Finally able to wipe the tear from her eyes, Merida glanced up to share the joke with MacGuffin. However, her brow furrowed as she saw him examining her sword; the very sword she thought was stuck in the tree she was leaning against to the point where she couldn't even budge it. She knew he had great strength. But, did he seriously just…?
Shaking her head slightly, Merida just smirked at the other two struggling to gain dominance over the other.
"Come on, MacIntosh! You can do better than that!"
The challenge seemed to energize the young warrior as he started to turn, putting himself on top of Dingwall. However, the maneuver only allowed the smaller boy to push him back at an awkward angle, pinning his legs at the knees under him.
The call of a horn caused the group to stop their antics as they all faced the camp. Something was going on. Immediately, MacIntosh and Dingwall jumped to their feet, high-tailing it back to the gathering circle. MacGuffin gingerly handed Merida back her blade before he too headed back, making sure to not accidently injure her. Once she had it sheathed, Merida also raced after them. There was no way she was missing this.
It was impossible to figure out what was going on, due to the constant crowding and movement of the warriors about the camps. The four young fighters fought tooth and nail but nothing could penetrate the growing density of the gathering. Shrugging slightly, Merida yanked on the sleeve of the nearest warrior, asking what was so important.
"Were you not listening before? The druids are giving us their blessing from the gods over the games."
This caused the four to look at each-other in shock. They needed those blessings, all the participants did. Otherwise, they might miss out on possible divine favor….or, if nothing else, luck.
Looking about, MacIntosh gestured for the others to follow as he practically dived into a momentary opening, trying to form a path for the others. However, defined as his frame was, it was still too slight to push against the escalating bulk. One glance towards young MacGuffin, however, formed an idea in his head. Jerking the larger lad to the front, MacIntosh and Dingwall started to push him forward, forcing a path before them. While MacGuffin didn't appreciate the use of his body, he couldn't complain too much. It got them through.
Finally managing to make it within ear-shot, MacGuffin planted himself firmly to the ground, refusing to budge despite MacIntosh's attempts. However, once he realized how pointless it was, the young lord had no choice but to give up, having to be satisfied with the four getting almost to the front.
One of the hooded figures was on the platform, raising an earthen bowl lined with silver filigree in all four directions, symbolizing the four clans of the Highlands.
"To the Wolf!" The covered druid raised it to the South, towards the MacGuffin clan territories and the Highland mountains.
"To the Hawk!" He faced the East; the Dingwall clan's coastal territories.
"To the Horse!" Turning to the West, the bowl was offered to the MacIntosh's lands of rolling fertile hills.
"To the Bear!" The North and central territories of the DunBroch clan; the ruling clan, Merida's clan.
With a final blessing, calling on all the gods and spirits of the Highlands to bless them in their endeavors, calling on the greatest of warrior to earn the prize, a cheer rang up that echoed like thunder and shook the very ground they stood upon. This was what they were waiting for. This was what would start the process. After this, the pure ale within the bowl would be given to the four lords to drink and accept the blessing, the spear would be transported to the caves nearby where it would be stored and guarded heavily within until presented to the winner, and all the druids would disappear into the mists with it; all but one. One would be left behind to over-see the progress of the games and to make sure there was no foul-play. This was the start of it all.
All four watched as their fathers drank from the offered bowl. All four watched as the druid gave his final blessing and called for the spear to be moved. All four watched as the spear was slowly being led out in its wooden cart, along with the other druids. And, all four watched as the cart seemed to suddenly take off, three hooded and very small druids riding in the back as the horse speeded down the path.
With a voice like the roar of a bear, King Fergus bellowed across the clearing as he took after them at break-neck speed.
Despite the horror she should have felt, Merida couldn't keep the laughter from breaking between her lips at the audacity of her siblings. They were in for it now but, at least they would be given an excellent ride before their Mum got a hold of them. Oh, yes. This was definitely the start of it all.