Justin heard a loud grunt above the ruckus in the field and immediately looked around to locate his friend. Gareth, his two brothers, and three cousins also turned at the sound, and all saw Gareth’s father slump to the ground under the club of one of the poachers. The thief did not need to turn his horse and run as quickly as he did, however. The seven youths did not give chase, but stood wide-eyed, some with mouths agape, staring down at the huge man. The intruders that they had been engaged with took the opportunity to run as well. Kegan’s barking voice startled the young men from their stupor. “They’re cutting out those calves! Move you ignorant clods!” All but Gareth jumped to run in the direction of the herd. He looked blankly at Kegan, shook his head as if to clear it and turned back to the man on the ground. Slowly he knelt and gently turned him over, searching his face, and fearing what he might find. The older man coughed, and Gareth’s breath, which he’d been unconsciously holding, left him in a rush. At the same time a few tears of relief spilled from his eyes. “What are you doing, Gareth? They are making off with a dozen calves and four horses while you play nurse. It would take more than that to break his hard head, and yet you let them escape while you sit here.” Gareth looked up as if Kegan was speaking a foreign language that he could not comprehend. He was still recovering from the fear that he’d lost his father, and adjusting to the relief that he had not. “By the king and all of Signum! You are as thick as he!” Kegan jerked his horse’s head around, kicked him savagely, and rode off toward the disappearing thieves, cursing loudly as he went.
Gareth looked back down at the simple, weather-worn face of his father, then began examining the swelling lump on the side of his head. The older man groaned and began to sit up. “Lie still, dad, I’ll get some cool water.”
“No, I can rise. Just steady me a bit. There.” Gareth helped him to the near edge of the pasture where the stream ran clear and swift, and bathed his head until the wound was numb from the icy water, and the swelling began to diminish. Then he wrapped a piece of his shirt over the cut and they started back toward the cattle shelter. By the time they reached it all the men were there. Kegan’s irate voice could be heard above all.
“Don’t try and calm me! I’ve every right to be angry! Whose calves were stolen after all? Mine!”
“They weren’t yours yet,” a voice countered. “You hadn’t paid for them.”
“Are you saying I don’t pay my debts? Let anyone here say if I haven’t always been good for the agreed price,” Kegan challenged.
“I’m just saying, the trade hadn’t been made, so Jiri is more at a loss than you, and it was Keary’s horses that were taken.”
As Gareth and his father came into view everyone turned toward them and no one spoke for a few seconds. Gareth saw his brothers and cousins standing near Justin in a tiny knot in front of a small group of men. Opposite them stood Kegan, and behind him, the two owners of the stolen livestock plus a few others known for trouble and short, ill tempers.
Gareth’s father spoke, “Kegan, you know, as a clan, we absorb these types of losses as a whole. You will be compensated for any ill you’ve suffered today, as will Jiri and Keary there.”
“But if you and yours had been on watch as you should have, there would be no losses.”
“We were on watch, Kegan. What are you saying?” asked Gareth.
“Not even properly armed,” Kegan said.
“How many of us comes heavily armed for a midday watch?” asked Gareth.
“And when the bandits appeared,” continued Kegan, “did you fight or even give chase? No, you fall or stand about like children.”
“Kegan that’s crazy. My dad was struck down while trying to defend our herds, and my brothers and cousins did give chase, but we were on foot at the time while they were mounted.”
“Why am I even speaking to this mountain of cowardice and spawn of a coward?” Kegan demanded of no one, and spun around and left the field in the direction of his home. Those who had stood behind Kegan looked expectantly at Gareth and his father for a few long seconds. The tension that filled the air seemed completely out of place in the pastoral peace of the field. The sound of a few nearby animals’ teeth tearing up the lush green grass, and the vivid blue sky pressing down on the men could have called them back from the unfortunate event, but they didn’t sense those things.
Finally one of them broke the silence. “Do you have any word to send to Kegan?”
“About what?” Gareth’s father was genuinely surprised.
“Do you intend to answer his challenge to your family?”
Gareth’s father’s face became troubled as he realized the import of the man’s words. “Kegan was angered at the loss of his purchase. I do not believe he meant what he said to be a call out. Over this? It would be foolishness. No. I have no answer to send him.” Several of the men standing behind Justin and the watch nodded in silent agreement with this reasoning. Justin looked with desperate hope at Gareth. Given Kegan’s age, it would be Gareth who would answer the call, and it would not be considered a disrespect for Gareth to offer this to his father. But he saw that Gareth had nothing to add. He just stood solemnly taking it all in. Justin’s face grew dark and agitated. His mind raced with indignations he could not voice, lest he bring further shame on his friend’s family. He quickly threw down the staff he’d grabbed as a makeshift weapon when he and the others had come to help, and ran from the field.
In another place and at another time, another of the same name waited.