Cupid’s Game


Laird Rory MacAulay stood underneath the starlit sky with his sword embedded in the ground, and his face turned toward the heavens. His giant blade had been given to him by his father, who had inherited it from his grandfather, who had dragged it out of the corpse of an English man. Alexander MacAulay, Laird Rory’s grandfather, swore to Rory and his brothers as a child that the sword which he named ‘harbinger’ had saved him from over a hundred deaths. This very night, harbinger was wet with the blood of more men than Rory could count, its edge had been dulled from hacking into flesh, and its scabbard had since lost its use. The highlanders had been at war with the English for over one hundred years, and even though the wars were bloody, they were not abnormal to Rory. What made him loathe himself at this moment was that the blood that he would soon spend a lot of time cleaning off his sword, was the blood of his own countrymen and that the next time he would sharpen the blade, it would be to run it through highlanders like himself, who wore plaids like him, who played the bagpipes like his father. Rory was no brute. Truly, he had been blessed by the gods in the art of war, and taking lives on the battlefield came naturally to him, but he was also blessed with wit, and he knew that the cause of his people’s problem was England. They were the ones playing the highlanders against one another, and it was they who stood to gain the most from the senseless carnage that was going on among the clans. As the angels wept, and rain fell over Laird Rory MacAulay and the scattered remnants of the army he had led to do battle at Braeriach mountain, he swore to himself that he would unite the clans once and for all.
“Laird Rory, there are some enemy survivors who wish tae surrender, what should we do?” Alec, one of his lieutenants, said.
“I say we kill the Abercromby bastards.” A voice from the crowd said.
“Aye, he’s right, why should we let them see tomorrow’s sun?” Adair, a lieutenant who had just lost his son in the war, asked.
“I didnae ask ye,” Alec growled at Adair.
“Aye, an’ I was nae talking tae ye, so ye best be on yer way,” Adair replied.
“Or what?” Alec questioned, moving closer to the smaller Adair who stood his ground.
The men began to gather around, forming a ring around the two men who squared up to each other. Laird, Rory sighed. This was the exact reason the clans were at war, this self-destructive bravado. Still, he did not have the energy to separate them, much as he wished to. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Rory wondered where they got the energy to fight after such a grueling war.
“Stop it, the lot of ye,” Niven yelled as he emerged from the west with his own company of soldiers. There was a brief pause. Niven’s detached force had been instrumental in breaking the enemy line. Niven was also the Laird’s nephew, and although they deeply respected the young lad, these men were highlanders, and no one could, by virtue of his birth, simply give unquestionable orders to warriors like them.
“Or what?” The voice that initially proposed the killing of the ‘Abercromby bastards’ yelled.
“Archibald, I ken that was ye, come on out an’ ask that question to my face, ye ugly bastard.” Niven challenged. The rest of the men roared with laughter as the men immediately shifted their focus to Niven and the man he had called out.
Archibald was huge! Most highlanders were big men, but even among them, Archibald was a giant. An ugly scar serrated down his not too handsome face, and two of his front teeth had been excused permanently from their position during a war against English soldiers when he was hit in the face by a battering ram. Archibald was also a profoundly annoying troublemaker who found great pleasure in inciting crowds by staying among them and yelling out things that would cause others to react, after which he would then retreat from the limelight. The mammoth of a man stepped forward and cast his most dangerous glare on Niven. Rory’s heart pounded within his chest. Whenever highlanders had a problem… the men, that is, it was custom that they settled things like men instead of bickering. That was why, no matter how much trouble Archibald caused, even though it was difficult for him to truly hide, most people would rather not call him out. The last man who attempted to fight him was mauled to death by Archibald’s bare hands. Yet, Niven had called him out.
“So, ye fight four battles, an’ ye think ye can handle me?” The giant asked.
“Five battles, but who’s counting?”
“Ye might not see the sixth.”
“Ye might lose some more teeth, stop talking, ye ugly bastard,” Niven yelled, and the men roared with laughter.
Archibald did not take the joke lightly, though, and he immediately lunged at Niven, who moved back, just out of arms reach. The big man was quick, and before Niven could go on the attack, he had landed a punch on his chest, which sent the young Laird flying a few centimeters. Niven coughed violently. Highlander fights were not like English ones. There was none of that fanciful swordplay or ‘dancing’ as they liked to call it. All that mattered in a fight was who won, not how stylishly he fought. Archibald lunged, Niven evaded once more, and Archibald made for his throat, but the smaller man would not fall for the same trick twice. In one fluid movement, he drew his two daggers from the sheathes around his waist and made short work of Archibald’s fingers. The giant fell to his knees in agony, and before he could recover, Niven had introduced his knees to Archibald’s nose. The battle was over in an instant. Lord Rory MacAulay had not seen anyone fight like that in a very long time. He was an experienced warrior, and as the men trooped to tend to Archibald and some to ask after Niven’s chest, only he and a few other men who had been fighting long enough saw that Archibald did not really hit Niven; it was a ploy by his nephew to test the bigger man’s reflexes and reach. If anything, Niven had been grazed after baiting Archibald to attack. The son of his deceased brother had successfully ended a potentially very violent situation with a violent spectacle. For as Laird Rory saw it, a fight between his two lieutenants would have ruined discipline within his ranks, but what Niven had done restored order and would even inspire fear, the type of fear that bought respect.
The battle-weary men returned home as another MacAulay army led by Rory’s older nephew Niven’s brother, Fingal replaced them and began the occupation of what was once Abercromby territory. The Laird had been killed, and his cousin, who was more friendly, had been put in his stead as a chief under the administration of Laird Rory MacAulay. With the Abercromby’s out of the way, there were only two major powers left in the highlands, the Maclean’s and the MacAulay’s, but for Laird Rory MacAulay, there could only be one.
As the triumphant warriors entered the village of Balintore, a scout atop their fortified gate shouted to the men below, who operated the levers of the fort. “The lads are back from battle!” He yelled. The announcement was followed by jubilation as the heavy wooden gate creaked open to allow the men to enter. Laird Rory MacAulay led the armed party and was flanked by two of his trusted commanders. Niven followed closely behind as they headed for their respective houses. Young women watched from the sides of the main path into the village as the victorious troops emerged. This had been the sixth major battle in the year, besides regular skirmishes, and some ladies noted how more soldiers crowded around Niven. A large number of the women desired Niven. Not only was he handsome, but he was also the son of a brave warrior who had died defending their clan, and the nephew of Laird Rory MacAulay, the great leader of their clan who had unified all the northern highlanders under a rule based on a combination of diplomacy, inter-clan marriages, and force where necessary. Niven was, therefore, the heart desire of a lot of them, not necessarily out of respect for who he was, but for the security that would come with being married to him. That was about to change, though.
Niven arrived at the Ayrshire tower, the great manor where the clan’s leaders had lived for half a century. The manor was more of a stronghold within the fortified village. Its own gate stood at an impeccable twenty feet tall. The walls that surrounded the Ayrshire tower were about four feet thick, with a moat around it like a girdle. There was a draw bridge over the moat which could only be put together from an outpost outside the castle and from the castle itself. Basically, if Balintore was under attack, and the draw bridge was withdrawn, no one could set it up, and besieging the castle by passing through the moat filled with man-eating psycho fish was a suicidal idea. As the draw bridge extended over the dangerous waters, Niven wondered for what had to be the hundredth time in his life what would happen if he accidentally fell over. He shuddered at the thought. Laird Rory MacAulay waved to the archers who stood on one of the tower’s numerous battlements, and they waved back; the man was a hero to them.
Chants of, “Welcome back, Laird MacAulay,” filled the men’s ears as they walked towards the great hall. Most of the warriors had gone on to their homes to meet their wives. Later in the evening, or the next day, Laird MacAulay was obligated to host a feast in celebration of the war, then allot lands and rewards to brave warriors. MacAulay had also come up with an ingenious way of keeping the original families in charge of some of their ancestral lands, but devolving a sizeable enough portion to his own military commanders, the strategy was effective in keeping the people of an occupied or conquered territory less hostile to his men, rewarding brave warriors and limiting the power of former lords now styled ‘chiefs’ by MacAulay.
“Uncle, I would like to retire for the evening,” Niven said after dishing out a few instructions on where to put some of the things they had brought back from the battle, and what to do with some of the slaves. Rory watched in amazement at how much his nephew had grown in so little time. He could not figure out when Niven had become a man, and deep within his heart, he was proud of him.
“Get me a dram first, boy, an’ pour it for me.” Laird MacAulay said as his nephew bowed and headed out to get him the finest wine. Laird MacAulay began to consider a lot of things. He was getting slower, and as was the law of the jungle, only the fittest survived. Soon, he would no longer be fit enough, and if war did not take him away like it did Niven’s father, it might be one of his nephews who would challenge him for the right to sit on that chair. It would be nothing personal; it was just the way the world worked at the time.
“Here it is, uncle,” Niven said and handed over a horn filled with wine to Laird MacAulay.
“Say, boy, what are yer thoughts on leading the clan, has it ever crossed yer mind?” Laird MacAulay asked.
“Never, I dinnae think such thoughts my Laird,” Niven said with an expression of panic written on his face. Rory was a kind man, but Niven had seen his uncle’s most cruel sides. He had watched the man run one of his closest friends through for plotting against him, and questions like this suggested he suspicion.
“Calm yer nerves, lad. It was nae trick question. I mean upon my death, have ye ever considered leading the clan?” The question was followed by a period of silence, and Laird MacAulay could literally see the wheels spinning in his nephew’s mind.
“Nae, Fingal is my older brother. Besides uncle, I believe the gods might yet smile upon ye and give ye a son. But if they do not, it is only natural that Fingal should rule after yer death. He was born before me, he has fought in more wars than me…”
“Aye, aye, yer right, lad. Go on then, get some rest, allow this old man have some time to himself.” Laird MacAulay said as Niven bowed and disappeared from his presence.
After his nephew had excused himself, Rory took a swig of the ale in the cup that Niven had brought then began a violent cough; he calmed himself after a bit then drank some more. His health was getting worse, he knew, but his goal had not been achieved. Also, his conversation with Niven had confirmed for him that although the lad had great potential, Niven did not possess the necessary ambition to be the kind of successor that he wanted. Fingal, on the other hand, might be able to cut it. Fingal was also good at fighting, and he excelled in leading men, although Fingal was given in to more excesses than was good for a ruler, but to Rory, it did not matter. Time would tell which of the boys would succeed him, and he would give them chances, for as he saw it, the time a man was born did not matter. All that mattered was what he held in his heart and what his hands could achieve.
Rory allowed his mind to drift towards the general meeting at the hall the next day, it would be a monotonous ceremony of new boys who had come of age coming to swear their loyalty to their Laird, then hearing complaints and delivering judgments. He would have to develop a means of decentralizing judgments later. For now, all he had to focus on was who to allot what piece of land to, for as old as Laird Rory MacAulay was, he knew very well, how treacherous men could be.
Niven arrived at his room and shut the door behind him. His mind was pregnant with the thoughts his uncle had released into his mind, and he weighed them very carefully. Although he did not want to think that way, he would never betray his brother, he convinced himself, but if something happened to Fingal, what kind of leader would he be, he wondered and kept thinking until sleep claimed him

“Our enemies are nae the Macleans or the Kincaids. We have no issues with the Abercromby clan, either. Our enemies are the English people who will not allow us to lead our simple way of life without interfering. They want us to be a satellite state, a kennel where they can draw soldiers from whenever they want to fight Frankia over who fucked the queen…” He paused, and the men roared with laughter at the statement, then he continued.
“Well, we are nae their plaything. The highlands will not remain a British appendage. Many of ye have fought against them, some of ye have fought for them. Ye know as well as I do that one highlander is better than three English men in battle. How then have they oppressed our people for this long? How?” Laird Rory asked, looking into the eyes of the men who filled the great hall, some of them former Lairds themselves, some of them were warriors, some simple sheep farmers. No one spoke. So, he grabbed a cup of wine and took a purse filled with coin, then faced the section of the crowd where the most stubborn Lairds had been ushered to.
“I will tell ye how, ye dumb bastards, they have used these! Scraps of metal an’ fermented grape juice to turn us against ourselves, but no more!” He said and poured the wine on the floor, then opened the purse and flung the coins to the crowd below who stood still. No one moved a muscle; they understood Rory’s point.
“With the last battle, the Highlands is no longer divided into bits and pieces of clans for the English bastards to manipulate. There are now just two major powers in this region. We have the Macleans, an’ then, there is us, the mighty MacAulay clan!” The guards in the room beat their shields with their swords at the mention of the clan, and even the former Lairds felt a sense of power when they realized that they were now counted as members of the MacAulay clan.
“Now, all I require is that ye lot swear allegiance to me as their Laird. Lands will be distributed properly, an’ I will order that my nephew Fingal should withdraw his troops from your lands.” Laird MacAulay promised and faced the Lairds.
The former Lairds murmured among themselves; everyone had seen what happened to the MacDonald Laird, who had been replaced by his cousin. Also, Laird MacAulay had defeated all their clans in one single battle.
“We already allied together once to fight him an’ lost, all he’s saying is that we should ally with him and fight English.” Duncan, one of the Lairds, said.
“Aye, fight the English after his men killed my son and after we have fought the Macleans,” William said.
“It was war, ye knew what ye were getting into when ye attacked his men in the fields.” Aila, another Laird, said.
“Watch yer tongue,” William said in anger.
The rest of the crowd below watched with bated breath, waiting for them to reach consensus.
“Very well, if ye all willnae decide.” Laird Rory began.
“Wait, we have decided.”
“We will swear the oath,” Duncan said. It was he who began the alliance that first attacked a group of MacAulay soldiers that crossed into his territory, believing them to be spies, yet, he was a rational man.
“Aye, I will swear it.” Another said, and one by one, each man stood up. Laird Rory waved his hand, and servants handed each man a cup of wine, all they had to do was drink, and the pact had been made in the presence of the gods. Everyone drank, except William, who looked MacAulay in the eye, then slapped the cup to the ground. The whole crowd stood; they were surprised at the display of foolishness from Laird William, who everyone believed to be more rational than his action. Rory immediately became furious.
“As ye have spilled the dram, so will yer blood spill.”
“I have nae reg –“
The words had not finished forming in William’s mouth when a guard slit his throat instantly. Niven watched as the blood mixed with the wine, flowing towards the edge of the platform where they stood. The people below gasped and murmured, then moved back as the crimson mixture poured to the ground. Laird Macaulay breathed deeply then waved his hand. A group of guards came in and carried off William’s body before he faced the crowd. Who stood, hushed at the gaze of their leader.
“This highlander, on highlander brutality, must end. Aye, it is true, I just had another highlander killed, but it is also true that his death will end decades of bloody conflict between our clans. Sometimes, violence is the only way to prevent greater violence.” Rory said, then turned to look at Niven, who nodded.
“For example, many of ye have heard that my nephew Niven bested Archibald in single combat, although he did nae kill him,” Rory announced.
Gasps, and once again, murmuring filled the room; it was precisely what Laird MacAulay had hoped to achieve. Men who were at the scene confirmed its truth to the people who doubted as the few women in the hall could not believe their ears.
“Aye, it is not a lie. The runt chopped off the fingers on me left hand.” Archibald said and roared with laughter. Everyone in the room was surprised, as men who had seen it happened tried to explain what had happened. Niven moved back subconsciously, trying to step away from the limelight. But Laird MacAulay held his hand.
“Archibald, good to see ye on yer feet, old friend. I see you are nae displeased?” MacAulay asked although he was not surprised.
“Aye, good to see ye too, my Laird. I am pleased, at least we know this clan still has men with balls! To Niven!” Archibald roared and raised his cup filled with ale.
“Niven! Niven! Niven!” People began to chant, as the crowd shy warrior’s hand trembled in his uncle’s own.
“Niven, ye are going to give them a speech now. Ye are my nephew, and I am getting older, this might be yer responsibility someday.”
“But, Fingal…”
“Shut up about Fingal, will ye be in yer brother’s shadow forever? Besides, he is away. Make yer uncle happy and address the crowd.” Laird MacAulay said as the chants still tore through the air. Niven sighed; he was not prepared to address this crowd. He found it easier to talk to soldiers, but in the crowd, there were women, there were boys who were around to swear allegiance to their Laird and to the clan, and of course, there were the former Lairds, yet, he could not refuse his uncle’s request, so he stepped forward and held up his hand, a great hush fell over the crowd, and everyone waited to hear what he would say. Laird MacAulay watched with great anticipation as well. He knew just how rowdy his people were and how difficult it was to get them to listen. He knew Niven had not prepared any speech, and so he knew that if Niven could command these people’s attention, then perhaps there was a leader in the boy as well. Niven drew out two of his daggers quickly and turned towards his uncle. Guards immediately rushed to the front of Laird MacAulay, and Niven smiled.
“With these two knives, I have cut down many of those who have stood against our clan. I have cut down men, I have accidentally cut down women, an’ sometimes on the battlefield, I have cut down wee lads who could only have recently sworn their oaths of allegiance, men in theory, but wee lads nonetheless.” Niven paused and studied their reaction. Some of the soldiers looked sad, they had been where he had been, some of the women looked terrified, they knew their sons might be in that position someday, Niven smiled. He did not know where the words were coming from; perhaps it was what his uncle had said to him the week before. All he knew was that he knew what to say.
“I even cut off Archibald’s fingers.” He said, and people burst into laughter as Archibald waved his fingerless hand.
“But with these two knives, I cannot cut out the suspicion, fear, and distrust that the English have sown among us. They who give sons coin, so that they can overthrow their fathers, the English who fought our fathers and grandfathers. That is why when I draw the knives like I have always done in defense of my uncle and my clan, soldiers who have fought alongside me draw their swords against me.” The soldiers sheathed their swords at his words, embarrassed at the accuracy in them.
“We must learn to trust each other, then we must fight our true enemy, the English. But until we dinnae suspect one another, no blade can give us the freedom and prosperity we deserve.” Niven said and returned to his uncle’s side. There was a hush, then there was a thunderous ovation, Niven had reached the very depths of their hearts. Laird MacAulay stepped forward; it was time to distribute the newly conquered lands.
“Gather around everyone. I would like tae raise a toast tae the brave men who lost their sons in the battle at Braearch mountain. The battle was not in vain, an’ we are now one step closer tae achieving our goal of a united nation. While we dinnae see our brothers as conquered folk, it is important that we redistribute the land tae reward those who risked their lives to achieve this unity an’ also tae ensure the continued loyalty of our new kinsmen. Duncan’s first daughter will marry Alec’s second son, an’ tae them, I gift the region from the crystal waters tae the Glen Derry. Until their first son is born, Alec will hold the land in trust for them. Duncan will keep control of the rest of his lands as chief of the MacAulay clan. His enemies will be our enemies, an’ our enemies will be his.” The crowd erupted in cheers as Duncan bowed. He had expected a much more drastic reduction. Technically, his daughter and her husband had been put in charge of the territory that was taken from him, but everyone knew that what it meant was that the land had been given to her husband. Alec was also a powerful man, and his reputation preceded him. His presence in the region would quell any thoughts of rebellion. Duncan smiled, pleased with the new Laird he had now sworn allegiance to. Rory MacAulay was a brilliant man. One by one, each of the new Lairds had half of their territory converted via marriage, and there was not one complaint.
“William’s land shall be divided into three between Archibald, Adair, an’ Niven, for their valor in the last war. That is my will.”
“An’ may it be done!” The soldiers roared. Moments like these inspired soldiers to want to show exceptional bravery, and that was what Rory wanted.
“The Laird who ruled before me, Fredrick would have amassed most of the land for himself, but that was what led to his downfall. It is better to give the land to yer allies; that way, it is they who will deal with the rebellions, while ye will maintain control. Remember this.” Rory said to Niven later that night after the great hall was quiet, and those who could not go home were asleep from too much wine.
“Yes, uncle,” Niven said.
“Fingal has returned my liege.” A servant announced.
Rory smiled, he was delighted in Fingal, and he trusted no man more to garrison a town more than his older nephew. Fingal was also more poised for leadership than Niven, but after the situation with Archibald and the speech by Niven that night, Laird MacAulay had decided to keep his options open. Rory was a practical man, and only those who proved useful could enjoy his good graces.
“Fingal, nephew, how was yer journey?”
“It was great, my Laird,” Fingal replied and moved closer to his uncle, who had his arms stretched wide for an embrace. After they had hugged, Niven embraced his brother as well and thanked the gods for keeping him safe, then Fingal cleared his throat.
“I come bearing news, uncle.” He spoke.
“Good or bad?”
“It depends.”
“Go on, then, spit it out.” Rory urged and returned to his seat at the head of the table. Niven sat on the left, and Fingal moved to the right, then Fingal began speaking.
“While I was garrisoned at Glen Derry, we received visitors… messengers o’ the Maclean clan,” Fingal revealed. Laird Macaulay adjusted his position, paying rapt attention. Although he believed he ought to be able to defeat the Macleans in a war, he had just completed a long campaign, and his men were weary. It was similar to the Macleans, though. Their Laird had just quelled a large rebellion in his region, so common sense told Rory that they would not want to fight as well.
“What did they want?” Rory asked.
“They made a proposal… a marriage proposal. All the clans have been invited to send men who would fight for Deva’s hand in marriage.”
“Uncle, we must send someone, perhaps this is the gods answering two of yer prayers by giving ye a son and uniting our clans by blood in marriage instead of bloodshed on the battlefield,” Niven said.
Laird MacAulay smiled. This was an excellent opportunity, indeed. Laird Ailbert Maclean was much older than he was, and according to the rumors, he had been injured in battle and would most likely not survive the winter. Perhaps this was his way of preventing a succession war following his death as he had no sons as well. Also, Maclean women were notoriously fertile. It was an excellent opportunity indeed.
“I want to go, uncle. Let me defend the honor of our clan an’ bring ye a beautiful young bride. Ye have taken care of my brother an’ me since our parents passed away, an’ although she was your sister, ye did not have to. Allow us to pay ye back.” Fingal appealed.
“An’ how about ye Niven, would ye not like to defend the clan’s honor?” Rory asked, looking intently at his younger nephew.
“Aye uncle, I do. Yet, my brother has spoken first, and I cannae compete with him in desire, nor swordsmanship.” Niven answered.
“It is settled then.” Fingal said.
Rory laughed inwardly. The last time Fingal and Niven had fought one another was fourteen years ago when Niven was still ten. Memories of a childhood where he repeatedly lost to his brother had obviously made him underestimate himself. But Rory had seen them both fight others recently, and he knew for sure, if Niven and Fingal crossed swords, Niven would win. Rory decided immediately.
“Niven will go yonder. I have more important tasks for ye, Fingal. Go and prepare.” Laird MacAulay said and got up from the table.

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    1. Thank you Caesar. It’s Scottish romance, I hope to publish English/American soon and Nigerian themed books in the near future