The brush rustled and his hand tightened in the basket of his sword as his head swung to the side, eyes staring into the darkness. His other hand reached out, meaning to wake Duroch. But as he stared, a small ground squirrel poked out beneath the foliage. He sighed and relaxed, using his hand to wipe beneath his nose from the back of his hand to his wrist. Then he wiped his hand on his plaid with a light sniffle. One more hard look around into the darkness found nothing out of the ordinary. Sighing, he sat back with relief. Though it was hardly over.
Fatigued and unable to sleep, he pushed his shoulders back against the trunk of the tree. The day's ride had been long, the chase and fight difficult, the hunt unfulfilling, and the watch tiring. Just another hour or so would do it for him, though. Then he'd wake Rabbie or Johnny for second shift. Shivering, he pulled his plaid up and over his head like a hood so now just his face and hands were bare to the young winter cold. They were fortunate that the snows were late in arriving this year and their trek was cold, not snow. He'd also been thankful to get a few bites of food that evening, though it had been only two nibbles of rabbit meat and a handful of berries that they'd found before deer had.
Pulling a thick handkerchief from under his plaid, he cupped it over his nose and mouth quite securely and completely. "Umphhh! Mumphshhh!" There was a snort across the clearing and a body, a dark plaid blur, turned over and continued to snore softly. He lowered the handkerchief with a snuffle and tucked it away. This wasn't the time to catch the sniffles, but he could do nothing about it until they reached the next safe house. Most of them knew he was ailing, but that wasn't to stop his duties; they depended upon him to be his best, and his best he must be without choice. Besides, it was always the youngest who took the first watch at night.
"Echumph! Um'chh!" He sneezed again, this time into the crook of his arm, the plaid wool rough on his reddened, tickling nose. He froze in place there, waiting for the tickles to die down before making a move. Just what he needed was to wake everyone with a sneeze. When the feelings died down in his nose he pulled out the handkerchief. It was damp and dirty but more usable than anything else on his person presently; after so many days on the move he was badly in need of a bath himself... they all were.
He gave his nose a rub and then blew gently, timidly, trying to stay quiet. That appeased the tickles and though his nose was stuffy he didn't still feel as if he needed to sneeze at all. At least, not this moment. He sniffled and turned his attention back to the clearing and the forest and the watchman job in front of him. There was rustling in the trees but he saw owls, not men. There were chirps and squeaks but he spotted birds and animals, not men. There were whirs and roars but he felt the wind, not men.
Standing with a stretch, he strode around the encampment, both to inspect and to keep himself awake, alert, and warmer. They could not risk lighting a fire this night, so they'd eaten the small catch raw like animals. There were twelve of them in all to share it, with twelve horses and a loyal sheepdog of Alec's. They slept in pairs and triples to keep warm, bundled in their plaid on the cold dirt ground. The woods surrounded them completely on every side... all full of dangers. He circled them, soft footsteps in the dirt, carefully avoiding crunching leaves or sticks with his boots. The cold winds circled up beneath his kilt, shrinking him, freezing him. But he cared nothing for his state, only his party's safety.
He sat back down, suppressing a groan as his weary bones and muscles relaxed back against the ground and tree. It wasn't long before he pulled the handkerchief out again with a sigh to himself, raising it to his nose and mouth as the concerns of the camp vanished for a split second for each sneeze. "etchmmm! uchumph!" Tossing him forward with each.
"God bless ye," came a weary voice as Duroch's head raised and his upper body was propped up by his elbows. "How ye getting on, Tavish me lad?"
He sniffed into the handkerchief, muffling through it. "All right. Bit o' the sneezes and this cold wind isna helping much, aye?"
"Och, aye, Old Willie says he can feel it in his hands that there will be snows vera soon." He sat up, moving beside him and putting both an arm and plaid around him. "This isna the time tae get ill."
Tavish nodded. "I didna catch cold on purpose."
A laugh. "I ken. O' course you didna. But ye're doin' a bonny job wi' the watch anaway."
"Thank ye. You may gae back tae sleep, Duroch." He rubbed his nose with his wrist and tucked the handkerchief back away securely.
Shaking his head, "Nae, I think I'll stay up a wee now wi' you... if ye dinna mind?" He wrapped the plaid that was around him more tightly, tucking it under their legs to keep it in place against the cold winds.
"Of course I wouldna be mindin'" He sniffled. "Nor am I mindin' yer plaid. Thank ye."
"O' course," with a nod and a knowing smile. Duroch was second son of the clan chieftain, a title which was nearly worthless these days with the English influence and Highland rebellion. He was a strong and firm man, with a voice that could command ten thousand men to make any move. His mind flew with fast thought, an asset only strengthened by his physical strength and work with a sword. No man in the village could match him, and no soldier had ever come close. He was noble, honorable, and more of a figurehead for their group than they could have hoped for. And yet, it seemed the man had his soft spot as well.
Though comforted, he still kept his grip on his claymore. He was not about to let his guard down a moment. Duroch was alert with sword at his hand as well, and something told Tavish that perhaps his cold was not the only reason the older Scot was staying up. "Can ye smell them, too?"
A cough as it took him by surprise, then, "Aye, laddie. The English do bring a stench wi' them. An Irish lad by the name of Seamus who was visitin' the village once taught me o' that. The woods are tense tonight." He tightened his arm around Tavish in a short squeeze. "But dinna fash, laddie. We'll be all right this night, English or nae."
They remained quiet to listen and survey. Tavish had only had suspicions before, but now he felt certain that any time now there would be an attack. Back in the days before the war, parties were always safe when the sun set. There was no honor in attacking at night. Late evening and early morning were the best, but never at night. But the English, they had no concept of honor. They would attack whenever they felt like it. And so guards at night had much more important duties that ever before. And Tavish was determined not to let his guard down. At least, not for more than a few seconds. "Humphh! Umshhuh! Umphh!" he sneezed strongly into the withdrawn handkerchief. He paused a moment, hoping the tickles in his nose would be quieted by that. But they persisted, and he did his best to bury them in the thick folds of the cloth hanky. "Emphhh! Um'phshh!"
Men about the clearing stirred, a few lifting their heads and pulling plaid from around their heads just to give him stern looks. Some mumbled "Hush, we're nae at home" or a more popular "Daft laddie" accented with various curse words or the less popular "God bless ye" on instinct- their wives had taught them well.
Tavish felt terrible, hissing an embarrassed apology from behind the handkerchief. He sensed something unsettling, as several members of the camp sat up to yawn and glare at him. But as they looked to his side, they hesitated rather than lying back down. Something big, something subtle, was underfoot. Tavish could feel it in him, around him. Listening to the usual sounds of the forest, he gripped the hilt of his sword even tighter. Duroch dropped his arm back to his side in a fake stretch as he whispered. "Ready... wait fer it... now!"
They stood, followed in a split second by almost every member of their camp, the others snapping to their feet just after. Not a moment to lose as a group of English soldiers stormed in with their weapons drawn and ready. There was no mistaking it: no attempt at talk was made in the least. Tavish, tired and nose tickling, rubbed his wrist beneath his nose as he slammed his sword against one of the English's. Under. Thrust. Parry. Lunge. Thrust. Parry. Swing. Block. Block. Sneeze. Sneeze. Block. Stab. The English soldier grabbed his side with a yelp, backing away just as another came at Tavish. He fought this one as well, keeping watch on the other one he'd wounded, as the man tried to get a hit in once and a while when they came close to him. Advance. Lunge. Thrust. Parry. Riposte. A slash on his arm. Block. Parry. Sneeze. Sneeze. Sneeze. A stab in Tavish's chest side. He reeled back, pressing his hand against the painful spot on the side of his chest. The thick wool plaid scratched and stung the open cut. But he could feel that he'd pushed the man away fast enough for the sword to only stick him, not drive through. And it didn't feel as if anything inside had been punctured. He sneezed again, unable to help himself, staggering forward with a cut to the English man's arm.
"Ye all right, laddie?" he heard the familiar voice of Duroch call out somewhere behind him.
"Aye!" he choked out, not feeling all right at all. Suddenly, both Duroch and Rabbie appeared in front of him, taking down the two soldiers Tavish had wounded. Tavish sniffed strongly to clear his sinuses, then suddenly felt himself being rammed into. It was another English soldier, looking half dead and determined to get one more of the Scot group before he collapsed. Tavish was slammed up against a tree, with a knife at his throat. He fought back, kicking, managing to pull his knife from his belt and stab it into the already bleeding Englishman just as the knife began to scratch his skin. He stabbed again as the man spit up blood, this time getting in and up more exactly just as he needed to. The man went down in a pool of uselessness. Tavish lifted his sleeve to his neck to test... only a spot of blood; he'd stopped the man just in time. But his left arm had been crunched against the tree and was in such stabbing, overwhelming pain now that he couldn't hold his sword. He took it in his right hand instead and still pressed as much of that hand against his chest wound as possible. He found a tree to lean against, eyes wide open, scanning the darkness more for foe than friend.
Seconds passed like minutes, and finally Duroch's concentrated face came through the darkness at him. "What's amiss, laddie?"
Tavish was wincing in pain. He hadn't been wounded this badly in years, so far as he could remember. "huhshoo! Hehshooo!" he sneezed, directing them into his shoulder, pressing his nose there to rub the tickle, then instantly regretting the move as his whole left side, shoulder, arm, chest, waist sang with a sharp, steady, strong pain. He winced, leaning to the left as if moving would help like a foot that had fallen asleep.
"Are you all right laddie?" Duroch asked again as he neared, nearly upon him.
Managing a nod, "Aye," he whispered. Then all at once he felt faint and dizzy and the pain overpowered his tired legs. With the straight of the tree at his back, he slid down until his rump hit the ground with a strong thud that did not hurt even a fraction as his left side was. He winced again, a pained expression falling on his face for much longer. He was obviously very much not all right.
"Drop yer sword, laddie, the fight's o'er fer tonight."
Tavish felt the shadow of the man fall over him, then the big hands soft and kind against his body. Ashamed at the weakness he was showing, he kept his eyes closed. How angry of an expression must the elder man have? Several fingers of his hand stretched out to drop the sword, the others stiff in place against the blood-soaked plaid. But he felt that hand being eased away. His plaid was unclasped by gentle fingers and slid down as his shirt was pulled up a bit. Tavish held his breath and opened his eyes to look at the wound. It was not half as bad as he'd thought from the pain, but blood was everywhere, including Duroch's hand now.
Tavish pulled out his handkerchief and after giving his nose a rub, he put it up against the wound. Duroch attempted to rip lengthy pieces of his own shirt off for bandages, but it had been crafted well to be durable and strong, everything the chieftain's second son's shirt should be. "Tavish, laddie, dinna fash 'bout that, we'll get it fixed as soon as... I can rip... arh!" Frustrated, he stopped tugging on the threads and switched to plan two. "Do ye still have a knife on ye? I lost mine in an Englishman's back between the ribs. Nae luck on my part, that's fer sure."
Tavish nodded, tilting his head down. "Lost mine, too. Use my dirk."
Duroch looked relieved and poked two fingers into Tavish's boot, easing the small knife out of book and sock. "Aye, a bonnie blade, laddie. Ye da's?" Tavish nodded. It had indeed been his father's. And now it was being used to stop his own bleeding. Duroch cut the pieces easily in seconds and held them at the ready. Then he adjusted the younger man, easing both of Tavish's legs straight on the ground instead of bent, as they'd been when he'd slid onto the ground. He pulled Tavish's left arm over a little so that he could get a better grip on the side wound. Tavish, despite his shame to show injury, yelled out at this, tears flowing down his face as immense, intense pain shot through him, concentrated in the shoulder.
"Hush, laddie," Duroch said, not meaning to quiet him, only to calm him. "'Tis just out of its joint, ye ken? We'll need tae pop it back... Johnny! Come 'ere lad!" he called out as he wiped the tears from Tavish's cheeks. When Johnny had knelt on the other side of Tavish, he held Tavish secure in place, like a strong hug he could not move beneath. Duroch held a flask to Tavish's lips. "Give it a hearty sip. Ye'll need it, I reckon." Then, bracing him as if he were preparing to have all his limbs ripped out, Duroch instructed him to relax. Then, shoved the arm until it slid back into its socket with an actual little pop.
Amazingly, the pain backed down immensely. He sighed, "Feels perfect."
"Aye," Duroch noted, nodding thank you to Johnny, who went to tend to another matter. "I amna a Beaton, but I do know it will hurt like a bastard in a few minutes for a few days. Dinna dare tae use it tonight or tomorra or the next few days while it heals. I'll strap it to ye just in case." He felt around the shoulder very gently just to be sure of its condition. "A good lesson to ya, laddie. If this e'er happens again when ye're fightin' so much as ye canna even bare tae hold yer sword, find a good side o' rock or a thick tree and give a run into it. Most times ye can pop it back in yerself if ye need."
Pleased with its condition, he set back to work on the first task. "There's the matter of yer bleedin still, aye?" He reached down beneath the moved arm and began tying the strips of his shirt around Tavish's waist. Finally, they were secured and his arm was strapped against him with another few bandages. "Och, old Misses Beaton couldna ha' done a better job with these circumstances. Now...we'll be headin' from the area in a few. We'll ride right through the rest o' the night and day tomorroa, and ye'll be ridin' up wi' me after this."
Tavish shook his head. "I cad ride!"
He ruffled the man's hair. "I ken, but I'd rather not ha' ye prove that and mess yer arm up more, aye? Ye'll ride up wi' me and it isna yer decision."
His nose running something terrible, Tavish rubbed it on his cuff, sniffling and wishing he hadn't used his handkerchief to stop the blood. "Fide," he sniffed strongly. "Thed let be have adother gulp sniff o' that whiskey sniff, sniff, or I'll nae be lose enough sniff tae bounce behind ye in the saddle."
The flask was handed over and Tavish down the last in two mighty gulps.
Duroch and onlooking Angus who was packing up the horses both laughed. Duroch exclaimed, "Drink ana more o' that wi'out much dinner in yer bella and ye'll be so lose ye'll fall right off the horse!" He stood, brushing himself off and wiping blood-covered hands off before offering a hand to Tavish. "If ye're nae too dizzy?"
He shook his head and rose to his feet, sniffling still almost constantly.
"Aye, there's a good laddie. If ye're well enough tae stand, ye're well enough tae prepare the horses and cover camp, aye? The bodies are alreada bein' dealt with, there's just the mess of the bushes and dirt." Duroch seemed to be counting off jobs in his head as he left Tavish, quietly assessing the damages and calculating the actions to be done.
Evidence of camp was usually cleaned in a matter of minutes with twelve bodies working towards it. But a number of them in addition to Tavish had been injured. None dead, but a few close. In all, there were two severely wounded, three with major wounds, and another ten or eleven punctures, cuts, bruises and the like among the remaining seven. Tavish wasn't too sure which category he fell into, but he was glad he was stable enough to do his share. It was too dark to make out much at a distance, but when they'd all assembled around the horses, he could see how very tired and worn out they all were, including the sheep dog. And he doubted that they would have a chance to rest before reaching the next safe house.
"Up ye go, laddie," he heard a gruff voice mutter as two strong hands took gentle hold of him, helping him up onto the saddle but skillfully avoiding his injuries. Duroch was already on, and the saddle was a tight fit for them both. Tavish's legs dangled behind Duroch's firm one. He wasn't sure he'd have the energy to keep himself on the horse. His thighs were all right for gripping for a while, but being so far back put him behind the horses muscles and it was a difficult fit of the puzzle for that. He wasn't entirely sure how he'd manage to stay on.
Duroch's voice was as soft and comforting as it had before been. "Ye all right there, laddie? Put an arm around me if ye can and they'll strap ye on."
"So ye dinna topple off o' course," came the same gruff voice as before, and he looked down to see Red Robert with a leather strap. Instinctively, Tavish shuddered, thinking of the familiarity his rear had with such a strap. But this one was used to tie him to Duroch, carefully placed and padded with an extra shirt- from an English soldier most likely- to keep his side from damage. "Can ye breathe at all, wee one?"
Tavish nodded. "Aye, not too tight, Reddy." He didn't especially like being called a wee one at twenty and three, but he supposed he felt enough like the youngest that it was somewhat justified this night. Sniffling, rubbing his nose with his bare hand, he made sure to remember his politeness. "Thank ye much."
The man nodded his 'you're welcome' back and was gone to find his own horse.
Duroch wanted to make sure as well. "Ye say ye're all right bak there, laddie?"
Tavish coughed to clear his throat, and nodded. "Aye, I am."
"There's a good lad, then. Just relax and hang to me if ye can when awake. We'll be up in front in front of the others who'll spot if ye need catching. Ye just give a shout when ye need water or aught else, aye?"
"Aye," he replied, closing his eyes despite himself. All he really needed was a good rest, and perhaps something to take the edge off this case of sneezes of his. His nose continued to run, and his sniffling was surely getting annoying to the elder man, though he had not said a word on it. Still, he decided that if he fell asleep, it meant he wouldn't be sniffling. So as soon as they were moving on their way, Tavish took good hold of Duroch's waist with his good arm and, leaning into the man's back, he rested his head on the curve of his shoulders and promptly allowed himself to fall asleep.
* * *
A light whisper woke him. "Hey, laddie, get off my back and we'll get ye tae bed."
Tavish stirred, groggy and disoriented. It seemed like only minutes since their last break. Only now it was considerably darker out. There had been many hours of traveling, and a day had all but passed while he rode behind Duroch. His belly rumbled with hunger and hurt from imbalance. His head felt light and his body was filled with chill. But where he sat, at least it was warm. All he could think to do was go back to sleep where he was now.
"Come now, laddie." He shook his shoulders, twisting at his waist to move his back as well, shaking Tavish with him. The strap having been undone already, the young man slid off with a stretch, hand on the rump of the horse to steady both the horse and himself. His arm ached at the shoulder joint now, as he'd been told it would, and his stomach stung when he moved.
Duroch slipped his feet out of the stirrups to dismount and after loosening the girth, he slung the saddle bags over one shoulder. His other hand wrapped around Tavish's waist on the right side. "Lean into me, laddie and you'll be feelin' better soon tae sleep on firm ground."
Tavish wavered unsteadily in balance and in an oncoming urge. "Ehhchhhh! Ahhchushhh!" he swayed at the force. "ahhhshehhh! ehhTchahh!"
With a sigh as they stumbled and limped through the doorway, "God bless ye, Tavis me laddie." He put the bags down and patted Rabbie on the shoulder. "Ye're on second watch taenight. Will ye stand guard until I return?"
Rabbie nodded, locking the door behind them. "Aye, Duroch. As ye say."
Duroch pulled Tavish across the house's main room, small but it would suffice for the night. All the men who had not been put to bed already were settling down, most near the fire where light flames jumped and crackled in peat and sticks. It would be dying down fast enough but by then, the men hoped to be fast asleep. A free spot was found on the floor and Tavish was set down into it. "Down ye gae, there. Gentle now. There, that's a good laddie," he patted the lad's thigh.
Tavish rubbed his wrist against his nose as he curled up on his right side. He realized then that he'd been set onto a patch of rug. It was difficult to identify, but somewhere between dog fur and wolf, and it was softer and warmer than the dirt floor. This certainly was the bed of an important man, so he protested. "I dinna need a rug, Duroch. You take... take... it... ehhhIhhshhoo! Hushuhhh! ahhchushhhh!" As soon as he'd stopped sneezing, he made to get up.
"God bless ye, laddie." Duroch put a hand on the young man to hold him down in place. "But aye, ye need it. And damn ye, ye'll enjoy it."
Tavish sniffled and scrubbed his palm against his nose.
"Have ye a hanky laddie?"
In answer, he pointed to his wound. "Used, I'b afraid."
"All right, then." He pulled out a small cloth handkerchief of his own. "Take mine and blow yer wee nose or ye'll snore and wake the lot of them."
But first, he had a slightly more urgent use for it. "Ehhchushh! Ihheshh!" He sneezed, then cleared his nose, amazed at how good he felt afterwards. "Thanks," he croaked, sniffling only a little still. This was the first moment he had to really look around the place, and it far exceeded his expectations, compared to the last few places they'd slept. It was a tiny house, with no kitchen, but a separate bedroom for the people who lived there. It was strong, of thatch and stone, with shades over the windows and a real door or wood as they have in the cities. They must be closer to the edge of the lands than he thought. The only light in the room was the tiny fire, but it was enough for looking around. Men lay about, looking quite pleased to be sleeping in an actual home for once. Some were injured, and lay on blankets or rugs like his, and most were already asleep. Two were back in the corner having a go at each other, relieving the stress of the past few days. Several snuggled together for warmth as usual, and others lay stretched out. They were all safe now without the wind and elements; only the cold and even that was helped by the fire.
"God bless ye," Duroch returned from the sneezes with a smile. Reaching out, he ruffled Tavish's hair affectionately. "Sleep well taenight. We go on early in the morn."
He sniffled and nodded with understanding. "First watch?"
"I'm coverin' fer ya. Dinna ferget that, aye?" He smiled. "Ah, but ye've earned it. Still... a debt's a debt."
Nodding, he gave his nose another blow, then let his eyes close. Even after sleeping on and off all day, he was still exhausted. "Thank ye." It was a sad, worried sounding thank you.
And notice, Duroch did. "Och, dinna fash, laddie. We'll be all right. Now gae tae sleep or ye'll nae be feeling ana better from those wounds or that cold."
Snuggled in his plaid against the thick fur rug, and feeling safe with Duroch watching over them, he fell back to sleep.