Date Published: 12-01-2021
A genre-bending breakout novel from a bold, fresh voice in contemporary
fiction, think Highlander.
Debilitated in Afghanistan, Angus MacDonald struggles to find peace and
escape his nightmares. He visits Culloden Battlefield, Scotland, the
pitiless field where his ancestors were butchered and the MacDonald clan
lost its power. Ancient voices traumatize him and reveal a shocking
connection to his relatives who died there in 1746, where he now stands. The
voices compel him to fight again, but this time against an unworldly
To protect humankind from slavery Angus must face the past, but more
troubling, his future while unraveling the mystery of his heritage. He
strives to discover millennia-old truths from Olympus, Greece, and the
violent history that produced them. The truth of who bred him to die saving
humanity. The most crucial battle of Angus’s story begins on the same
infamous field of his clan’s decimation, but worse, when he returns to
Washington, D.C., war follows.
Rob James’ WHEN GODS CLASH includes a fascinating take on Greek mythology
through vivid world-building. This novel is a searing, unique makeover of
Angus kicked at the sodden soil of Culloden Battlefield, navigating the tangles of heather and lush grasses. I can visualize them. The moor’s thistles scraping their bare legs beneath MacDonald plaids, furling as they charged. Afghanistan had been sand-seasoned rations and heatstroke in shades of tan and khaki. This green field delighted his senses under a leaden sky so moody it threatened to ruin the adventure. His father had told tales of the Highlanders’ heroic charge, but he saw recklessness. Tartans, snagged by briars, covering his ancestors’ bloodied chests as they lay dying.
Head raised and facing west, Angus closed his eyes and sucked a lungful of air dragged from the Highlands by the gusting wind. The MacDonald Clan had made their desperate fight for freedom here. They died upon this peaceful moor, which back then was hell’s gate. The thought of their heroism tempered his mood, forcing a frown.
They say battlefields hold souls; mine feels at home here. I wasn’t expecting that.
His father had called last evening and said he craved to join him, rather than working in Washington, D.C. Instead, it was Angus’s godfather, Tony, trudging along next to him, and Bruce—Tony’s best student, carrying the metal detector.
“Not quite as romantic as Dad told it,” Angus said. “I can’t believe those crazy Scots fought through all this crap.”
“Bloody stupid if you ask me,” Tony said. “Too far, and easy targets for the withering British cannon and musket fire. Come on, let’s get to it.”
“Bloody?” He chuckled. “What’s that, Brit talk? You’ve been working in the U.K. too long, me old chum,” Angus said, spruiking an English accent and ribbing his father’s closest friend. “I expect you’ll wanna retire for tea and scones soon? Time to come home to the States and remember how to speak proper English.”
A gust tore through their conversation as Tony snarled. Angus grinned. Touchdown! He harnessed the craving to score more points.
Bruce leaned in, smirking. “Get this! When he’s lecturing, he even wears a tweed jacket with elbow pads. For real, man—elbow pads! Went out with Noah’s Ark, didn’t they? Might find a few buried here…”
They laughed as Tony mumbled, face tight.
“If the detector beeps, how are we supposed to dig with these tiny trowels?” Angus asked.
“We don’t dig; we scratch, scrape away the surface and take our time.” The retort was swift, and Tony’s voice a touch firmer than usual. “Historic Environment Scotland wouldn’t thank me for bringing you here with spades. Or with bloody shovels, to stay on the British theme.”
Bruce set off, a spring in his step, sweeping with the detector and listening for signs. Tony fiddled with his GPS tracker and scribbled notes, while Angus’s military mind overlaid the maps he had studied onto the landscape before him.
Confident he stood near the position his clan fought, Angus faced the enemy line. The British waited over there, making them difficult to flank with the rock-strewn bordering fences. They would have ruled with their cannons and muskets, and Clan MacDonald attacked through here, right into the killing zone.
Wind slithered under his collar when he looked down. What if underfoot lie the bones of his great ancestors? Goosebumps, unrelated to the cold prickled his neck. This battlefield instilled shudders, brewing a foreboding sense.
Ping-Ping-Ping! Bruce spun to the others, smiling.
“Guys, I’ve found something!” Bruce steadied the detector over an innocuous patch of dirt, scanning left to right.
Tony pointed to the ground. “Why are you waiting?”
After a quarter-hour of scraping, a musket ball emerged from the soil.
“It’s English, larger than those used in Scottish muskets,” Tony said, turning it over in his palms, and brushing it clean.
Angus squinted, wandering four hundred yards to where Clan MacDonald assembled that miserable day, his eyes watering from the gusting wind over the bleak moor. Its wail carried the tone of mournful, distant pipes as it blustered along the ancient Highland paths. Rugged tracks wound where desperate Scottish clansmen had fled in terror, British troops pursuing, butchering them.
Through epitaphs chiseled in stone, it swirled, angry, imbued with sadness, and desolate. So many clans. Their spirits were captured and blown to places unknown, scattered from bodies caught up in the endless, merciless bloody battle. The tears stung.
The sky was darker as Angus returned an hour later.
“What’s the news, Bruce? Found any rusted swords or stuff?”
“Nah, damn it. Three more musket balls and a buckle pin.”
With a scratch of his chin, Tony looked around, then down to his notes.
“I’m confident the MacDonald charge ended within this circle. Come see,” Tony said, tracing his finger over a notebook sketch.
An uncertain grin broke as Angus joined the walk. The site of his clan’s destruction was only a few yards away, and his father’s stories of valor were now less idealized.
This was no place of glory. Tartans, bagpipes, and colorful Highlanders filling a tale of heroes and the immortal charge. No! Death lurked here—and its memory still reeks.
Three steps in, his left foot snagged.
Angus pitched forward, arms flailing. He fought to step, to regain his footing, but the damned boot held fast. Were they bogged? Nope, the mud was no higher than the soles. A weird blue mist snaked around his ankles as shackles chaining him to the slush. Sweat beads scurried down his furrowed brow, stinging as they ran into the corner of an eye. He winced, rubbing with a finger while listening out for the others. Their voices were distant, distorted, faded into the blue mist and smoke.
Queasiness overcame, and his eyes closed as the world set off spinning as stars darted, sparkling across his eyelids. He swayed to the barrage of pounding cannons, and a single breath drew in the caustic scent of gunpowder and fear. The ground shuddered as groups of Highlanders massed around him, screams ripped from warriors in a fury, like nothing he had heard.
Here, on these red-soaked fields, they fought the battle close up, often hand to hand. Each warrior glared into the irises of he who may kill him, unlike in Afghanistan where bullets fired from a distance. Angus’s mind flashed back to the horror that almost killed him. Over there in the dust pit, the constant stress of waiting for the inevitable attack drained the strongest. Crazy Dave, relentless, singing to drown out the noise, and Johnson spitting while Angus stared through the Humvee windows. Eyes wide, scanning for signs of disturbed soil by the roadside—for a color change that betrayed the upturned earth where an IED may lie waiting for blood.
A voice roared across the moor, drawing his thoughts back.
“Forward, Stuart! Take it to the bastards!” the commander in the red tartan of Clan Macdonald yelled, pointing with his broadsword.
“My Lord, they are too many, use it! We must use it now!” A young man, familiar somehow, pointed to a silver box hanging from a chain around the commander’s neck.
“No, Stuart!” The Lord tucked it beneath his tunic. “It’s the devil’s tool, and I won’t release his evil.”
“Enough!” the Lord yelled, panting as he charged forward. “Will you lead, or must I find another to crush these English dogs? Forward, I say!”
Familiar faint cries snapped him back to the present, an array of black dots dominating his swimming vision. He cast around for something real to brace against. An object to feel, to set him in the now. A thistle at his feet—he hoped it was from his Culloden, not the one he had just been a part of. If it pricked, would he wake up, much like pinching himself after a bad dream?
Shivers tingled his spine. “Toooony,” he managed, leaning toward a familiar-shaped outline, rubbing his head to massage the warring clans from his brain.
More calls from Tony and Bruce pierced the din of combat. A moan, cloudiness. He tottered.
“Tony!” He reached out as his lanky, six-feet-three-inch frame tumbled, the side of his head thumping down on the frigid, matted grass. A gray beetle scurried across his sleeve above the Marine Corps insignia tattoo pride gifted him to wear. He flicked a finger along his sleeve, above the scar underneath. It tingled, even though it was a battle prize earned nine months prior.
Disorientated, he lay shivering, engulfed by a conflict from centuries past raging in his mind. A sharp pain assaulted his cheek as if a fresh strike. He gawked up at Tony’s creased brow.
“Easy with the slaps!”
“What happened, Angus?” Tony said, frowning. “It was awful seeing you twitch.”
He scanned around, refocusing on the present as Tony eased him into a sitting position.
“I just need a minute. Don’t—don’t worry.”
He wafted an arm, signaling Tony for distance. Too much fuss when disoriented wouldn’t help.
“Stay there, and take your time,” Tony said.
The scenes delivered to Angus as he sat on the grass didn’t change, no matter how he struggled to discard them as dreams—nightmares even. They were vivid, and he was there amongst the sounds, the smells, and the sights. The iron in blood running through these heathered fields assailed his nostrils, so potent he fought to contain vomit. And the screams and cries still filled his ears. He sought to play it down, placing a palm flat over each ear, then scratching his scalp as if to free demons from his hair.
“Unreal. MacDonald Highlanders charged right through here.” Angus’s usual drawl vanished as his voice quickened. “I watched them, poor bastards!”
“We’re on Culloden Battlefield, so that’s reasonable, but let’s leave it here,” Tony said.
“Pig’s ass. No piddling dream or dizziness compares with the stench of death in Afghanistan. I’m a U.S. Marine lieutenant for Christ’s sake. In my prime at twenty-six.”
“You were in your prime,” Tony said, grasping Angus’s elbow, “but not since the events of Kandahar and your injuries. Come on, let’s go! We’ll return in the morning if things are fine.”
Tony tugged at Angus’s sleeve as the wind stiffened and a wispy rain floated, further sinking his spirits. What have I just seen, been a part of?
He relented and slunk along after Bruce, who hurried toward the parking lot.
“Young Lord.” A voice came from behind.
Angus twisted, pointing. Nothing. Only Tony, who prodded his back to keep walking.
“What did you call me?”
“It wasn’t me.” Irritation etched Tony’s face. “Come on, please.”
Bruce neared the van. He called over his shoulder, signaling them to hurry, pointing upward. Angus waved him off, dismissing the probable drenching.
“Young Lord!” The voice came, again. This time more urgent. He spun, fists clenched, glaring at the spot where the moor had earlier trapped his boots, where he’d…
“Angus? You okay, pal?” Tony asked, and grabbed his arm.
“Young Lord MacDonald, here!” The Voice.
His eyes darted, then he whirled to face Tony, and shook his head when he saw him gazing back, unquestioning.
“You can’t hear that?” His brow furrowed.
Tony shook his head, knitted his brows, and eyed Angus with a concerned expression.
“It’s just the wind. Come on, let’s drink hot coffee.”
He reached out a hand to Angus, who withdrew. The field of Culloden was silent. He sneered, believing a practical joke in play. Still, he beat at his ears as if clapping the noises from his eardrums. Tony stared.
“What did you hear? It’s the damn wind.”
“No! Not the wind. A voice! A voice.” Angus scanned the flat field. “It called me, ‘young Lord MacDonald.’”
“I don’t care if it calls you the Lord Almighty; we’re not staying here. When you tumbled, you frightened the hell out of us. Enough already! It’ll be dark soon, rains coming, and we must get off this moor.”
He tried to hustle Angus forward, but his godson didn’t budge.
“Something’s happening out here, Tony. You might not believe me, but it is. Look, I’ll stay.”
“What do you mean by happening? You’re not making any sense, kiddo.”
“Yes. How can I explain it?” Angus drew in a deep breath. “After I fell, it was so distinct. My clan, Tony, a third wearing MacDonald of Keppoch tartans and brandishing damn huge broadswords. They charged into the English muskets, back where we stood earlier. A young guy, Stuart, led them. An older man called his name. And I was there.”
“British muskets, Angus.” Tony, the historian corrected before Tony the godfather added, “Sorry, a force of habit.”
Angus sneered at his godfather’s off-hand remark.
“Well, to the Scots, they’re English bastards.” A slight smirk breached Tony’s serious facade.
On cue, a flash of lightning lit the blackening moor. Thunder bellowed, but Angus didn’t care. His disorientation had burned off, leaving behind the ash of smoldering questions.
“What does it mean, Tony? Why these images, these voices? Lord MacDonald, I assume it was him, screamed orders to the clan and his son, Stuart. I saw them through the smoke of the guns, heard the words above the cannon fire! Why?”
“I… well… let’s just go, okay? We’ll discuss it later.” Tony stressed at him like he was a skittish horse, likely to bolt. “We can find a good Scottish pub, with a roaring fire, dry out your…”
But he didn’t get far.
“And now, voices!” Angus’s mind was running away with him. His brow furrowed, and on and on he talked. “Look, if I get disorientated, just roll with it unless I froth from the mouth or pull some other crap.”
Tony raised a finger, but Angus scowled. He was not for stopping. Not yet.
“Goddamnit! We came here for history! So, let’s take it! We can’t just pretend it’s all normal, cos’ it’s not, Tony, and this is our chance to… Let’s search that spot where my boots got stuck, where I toppled.”
The two stood facing off, as if ready for battle themselves. Meanwhile, young Bruce strode the backdrop, swinging the detector near the van, oblivious, as if nothing occurred.
“Angus!” Tony’s voice came loud and clear. “Now listen. We’re on this moor and far from help if you collapse again. Don’t forget I’m your godfather and have at least an element of duty of care toward you.”
Shoulders slumped, and Angus gazed at him. He loved this guy and had since he was a kid and old enough to trust.
“Can’t you understand that I must learn what it means? Why it’s happening…”
“It’s happening because you had a collapse, a funny turn, your brain was… Oh, I’m not a psychologist or a doctor.”
“For Christ’s sake!”
“Right. Well, whatever, Angus. You passed out and we don’t need that again. Get going!”
Tony shoved Angus, hoping to move him toward the van. He stood firm.
“Stuart pleaded with his father to use the power within a silver box. The Lord refused, saying the gift from the devil was evil, and they’d crush the English with their mettle. No way my brain could create such bullshit. It’s so explicit—I was there. And everything, their language was so right. Why would I imagine a silver box?”
Why isn’t Tony listening?
“Hmm. Okay, well, you’ll relax back in the hotel.”
Once again, Tony jerked at Angus’s jacket. This time he moved toward their van.
“And then there’s Stuart; he struggled as well! Right there, near where I bogged,” he said, turning to point. “You tell me how I’d know this stuff, how I’d picture the battle and the words, the emotions? And the silver box?”
A loud sigh emanated from Tony. His face scrunched.
“You’re repeating yourself, and we’re not sticking around to get soaked or to watch you have another fit. Now get your ass in the van.”
He raised his chin to Tony, eyeing him with stubborn resolve, but his feet slithered when Tony shoved again, then he relented, shuffling toward the vehicle and cursing a stream of expletives under his breath. The rain poured as they reached the lot, huge droplets spattering on the paintwork, torrential. The only one still looking tidy, Bruce, had stopped waving the detector near the parking lot’s edge and rushed to the van. He sat in the rear, earbuds in, fiddling with his iPhone.
Pebbles crackled beneath the van’s tires. They drove from the parking lot, windshield wipers screeching, flashing side to side as the essence of the storm broke with a vengeance. Angus scowled at Tony, and then Tony scowled at the road. Bruce still fidgeted with his phone, taking little breaths, looking like he wanted to speak, but didn’t. It remained quiet for three long miles.
Outside, inky blackness, except for the giant cracks of lightning that burst forth to illuminate the van’s cabin, sudden flashes cast a glow on irritated faces.
“Spit it out, will ya!” Angus said, snapping, as Bruce stifled another thought. He regretted it straight away. “Sorry, buddy. My emotions are screwed.”
Bruce held out his phone. An image on the screen bathed the cabin in light.
“Yeah, I’ve seen that portrait,” Angus said, squinting at the sudden brightness. Bruce swiped.
“Hmm, seen that, too. Swipe again.”
After swiping, Bruce stretched his fingers, enlarging the new image, then glared.
“What?!” Angus said, his emotions running riot.
He handed over his phone. The hairs on Angus’s neck stood. A group of men, standing proud, dressed fine as nobles in clan plaids: McIntosh, Cameron, Fraser. One, a younger man in a MacDonald tartan, familiar. Angus’s eyes and his met across the centuries.
“Where’d you find this?” Angus asked.
“The professor said you’re related to Lord MacDonald, who died in that horror, so I searched all the neighboring clan records. That group image was in Cameron’s history. There are no Lords’ names, but comparisons were easy to find online.”
Clever. Angus hadn’t thought of that. He had restricted searches to his clan. A stretch of the screen further enlarged the image of the young man wearing the MacDonald of Keppoch tartan. Auburn hair and square jaw. A fine hero’s cleft. Bright blue eyes. He was tall, wide-shouldered, and looked like he could kill bare-handed.
“Shit! It’s me,” Angus said, peering at Bruce.
“Yeah, a spitting image and they painted it long before the battle. He looks just older than you.”
The old Lord MacDonald Angus had met on the moor had aged. His once handsome face lined and hardened by ordering men—friends—away to their deaths, but this image?
I know how that looks. It stares at me from the mirror every morning.
“What?” Tony asked, peeking over his shoulder from the driver’s seat.
“The face there. It’s the old Lord, but also Stuart from my battle vision, and then, me.”
“I’ll check it out back at the hotel.”
“Check all you want, Mr. Logical Professor. There’s no doubt like you have with my stories from the moor. I tell ya! The old Lord when he was younger, his son, Stuart, and me, we look the same!”
About the Author
Rob James is a student of history and geopolitics and writing novels with
historical themes is his passion. Dramatic events and tales from history
help to create thrills and suspense. They also color flawed but compelling
Since childhood, stories of Rob Roy MacGregor, and the ancient Greek heroes
heightened Rob’s passion for reading. He knows them and the history of their
times intimately, lighting the richly layered backstory of his novels.
When referencing ancient characters, tradition can become repetitive so Rob
takes care to provide unique takes on the often-repeated tales. As his plots
are set in the present day, intertwining the old with the new demands
respect for the old, while giving them a modern punch; a lift to provide
relevance and resonate with readers.