The Legendary ‘Lost’ Scene From ‘Famous For Retreating’

Posted in Writings on June 9, 2014 by Martin Odoni

During the writing of Famous For Retreating, we had to learn the editor’s art of ruthlessness, by cutting material out of the script. One entire scene written by Ricky Temple, set immediately after the sequence in which Merlin teaches Aedric the ‘THUNDARA’ spell, ended up being removed altogether. It was quite a neat, entertaining scene (albeit it clearly needed a substantial redraft), but the feeling was that it was slowing the story down without really conveying any information that the THUNDARA scene itself hadn’t already told us i.e. that Aedric had started to feel that his time was being wasted while he tried to learn magic. (Just to make clear, Ricky also wrote the THUNDARA scene, parts of the scene in the Hall Of Folly, and parts of the Bartram/Salvania storyline in Stiletta’s story, so his work still most certainly got into the final release of the play.)

Now the text of the removed scene has been missing for years, but the happy news is that Ricky has recently uncovered it hidden away on his PC again, and has agreed to make it available for everyone to read. So here we go. (Apologies for the spelling/punctuation errors – Ricky’s spelling has improved enormously since the time it was written. We’ve fixed some of the errors, but some have gotten through.)

“(Lord Fear Voice over)

LF: So It went on, day in day out. The old fool trying to teach my the ways of Pure Magic. The only people I associated with were that half-wit jester Motley and his dippy girl friend Mellisandre.

Scene: A room in the dungeon.

Motley: How about this one? What do you get if you cross a pain in the neck and a Wall?

Melly: Hmmmm don’t know?

Aedric: Oh do shut up the pair of you. You told us this one yesterday Motley.

Motley: Oh really! Well then what’s the answer then smarty-pants?

Aedric: What do you get if you cross a Pain in the neck with a Wall? Answer, a Wall Monster. You need to get some better material or even better some NEW material.

Motley: Well Pardon me, for trying to lighten the mood a bit.

Melly: Oh now you two come on there’s no need to get into a fight.

Motley: Well old Addy, here, needs to lighten up and get a sense of humour.

Aedric: I have a sense of humour. Just I find nothing humorous about an unemployed and un-funny Jester.

Motley: I am not! I am The World’s Premier Comic entertainer (Does his little dance routine) and I am employed by the dungeon Master Sir Treguard as the dungeons resident Jester after my predecessor got lost in the lower levels.

Melly: Oh now come on you 2 we’re all friends here after all.

Motley: Huh tell that to old sourpuss.

Aedric: What did you call me?

Melly: Now stop it the pair of you, just stop it right now. Lets be friends and play a game, How about…. Hide and Seek, that’s a good game to play.

Motley: Are you sure Mellisandre, I mean you’re not very good at the hiding part. The seeker always smells you out, Smelly Melly.

Melly: Oooooow Motley. The Wall Monsters aren’t the only things in the dungeon that can be pains in the neck.

Voice: We Wall Monsters are NOT pains in the neck.

Motley: Oh Heck

Melly: oh dear.

(The three turn round to see a Face appears in the wall.)

Granitas: I am Granitas Of Legend. And I do not take Kindly to being called a Pain in the neck. Be gone from my Chamber or I feed on YOU.

Motley: Look mates, I’m sorry but I’m not standing round here to be a wall’s dinner I’m off BYE. (Runs Off)

Melly: Motley you cowardly Jester. Wait for me. (Runs Off)

Aedric: Now Look here you over grown pebble I am Aedric, Merlin’s protégée, and If you make one move towards me I’ll…I’ll… MERLINNNNNNNN. (Runs Off)

LF: That was basically my whole existence. What passed as lessons in magic by that old fool and being driven to the point of insanity by those two half wits.”

This scene has since been made into an audio vignette that can be downloaded from here.

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Protected: The Colour Of Amber – Part 4

Posted in Writings on May 27, 2014 by Martin Odoni

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The Colour Of Amber – Part 3

Posted in Writings on May 27, 2014 by Martin Odoni

Chapt. 1

Jan-Jan watched the moonlight dance across the gently lapping surface of the distant ocean and sought in vain once more for a means in which her attention could be occupied.

She had exhausted the possibilities that lay within the cart hours ago. The others had insisted on packing light, taking only what they had infiltrated the palace with. Wren had even taken the unusual step of leaving behind his satchel, which deprived Jan-Jan of the opportunity to examine the unique chemicals and equipment it carried. Not that it would have maintained her interest for long. She had already memorised the words that had been carefully written upon every vial, knew the shape of every suspicious looking implement of the assassin’s trade (alongside some that had been acquired through considerably more dubious channels). But she always took great satisfaction in working out the pattern of touches on the handle required to open the bag safely, a habit that simultaneously impressed and infuriated Wren to no end.

Aside from some basic provisions that the Grey Sisters had prepared for them, the only other item in the cart was Jan-Jan’s own spyglass, which she had been holding tightly in her calloused hands ever since they had departed. If the worst came to pass and their maps proved to be useless, they would need the reference point of another spyglass to provide them with the means of escaping Marblehead. It was stressed to Jan-Jan that she was effectively holding their survival in her hands, a duty that, despite her attention span occasionally rivaling that of an attention deficient mayfly, she had no intention of shirking.

Despite this, inactivity did not come easily to the feral youth. She wished she could leave the confines of the cart and explore her surroundings, maybe examine the odd scuttling creatures that seemed so commonplace around this region. There was a galleon that bobbed gently in the waters beside the outer walls of the palace, on the other side of the canopy where she and the cart were concealed. An almost manic urge to stow away on board coursed through her, to hide beneath the lower decks and set sail with the galleon to destinations uknown –

No. She had to focus. She was needed here. The spyglass in her hand, that was all that mattered. She had been Given A Task, by those who trusted in her, and she was not going to fail in it.

She couldn’t help but worry, though. As a concept, pessimism was not one that Jan-Jan typically entertained, due more to a casual disregard for forward thinking rather than any real sense of optimism on her part. But she had heard more than enough stories from Midnight to know of the dangers that lay within the walls of Marblehead, both to the dungeoneers that had once been guided through it and the agents of the Powers That Be who had been sent within following the events that had led to the Civil War’s current incarnation. Enough for her to know there was the very real possibility that she would never see her family again.

Glancing out to sea once again, briefly calculating the trajectory of a passing gull’s flight, she assured herself they were fine. In fact, she was more than happy to wager that by now the worst of what lie within Marblehead was behind them.

*     *     *

“Heads down, ladies and gents, lest you be parted from them!” Wren yelled as he threw himself to the ground.

Leytan immediately ducked, dodging the oncoming saw blade. He felt a sudden shift of air as the deadly shard raced past his head, several inches shy of scalping him. “Keep your eyes open and feet nimble,” he said as a second deadly blade spun towards them from out of the gloom, “and we’ll get through this.”

“Left, LEFT!” roared Wren. The three of them flung themselves against the leftmost wall as quickly as they could, while a searing circular blade rolled past with an ominous whirring.

GYAAAAGH!” cursed Lady Mercury, suddenly clutching what looked like the back of her neck.

“Isabel! Are you hurt?”

Lady Mercury drew her hand away. “Damn thing just lopped off a lock of my hair!”

“Be thankful it wasn’t your head!” Leytan said, slightly incredulous at such an uncharacteristic outburst from her. But glancing at Lady Mercury, he couldn’t help but notice that she wasn’t being completely honest about her injury. A smattering of red droplets on her shoulder had already began to stain her dress.

LOOK OUT, YOU TWO!” came the next shout from Wren.

Lady Mercury and Leytan looked up to see yet another blade bearing down on them. “We need to get the hell out of here!” Leytan said as he again dodged the deadly blade, pushing Isabel in front of him, making sure she was definitely out of harm’s way this time. Wren found himself crouched where he had landed before, paralysed as another hurled past above him. He registered stains on the blade’s circumference and immediately tried not to think about their origin in great detail.

“Five blades,” panted Lady Mercury as one more spun by, this time harmlessly on the opposite side at waist height. “I remember now. It always stops after five blades. We’re safe. We just need to wait for the-”

Just then there was a juddering from whatever mechanism it was that operated the corridor. But instead of grinding to a halt, the conveyor now began to accelerate.

“Why?” gibbered Wren, clearly struggling to keep his faculties under control. “WHY did you have to say that?!”

“No…” Lady Mercury said, the single note of panic in her voice starting to sound more like a full concerto. ‘Why is it going faster? It NEVER goes…”

As if in response to her question, the buzzing sounds began to reach new volumes. Resisting the urge to clasp his palms to his ears, Leytan watched in horror as not one but two of the deadly buzzsaws spun towards them simneltaneously, this time rising up on either side of the floor.

As though their minds were in harmony, the trio dived for the centre of the platform and grabbed each other close in a tight circle. Leytan managed to pull his leg in a split second before the blade spun past.

“We need… to leave. RIGHT NOW!” Wren panted in response to this new development. Leytan desperately scanned the horizon. There had to be a door somewhere along this corridor. There just had to…

“There!” Lady Mercury yelled as he saw the pair of rectangular outlines loom out of the darkness.

“Quickly, it may be our one chance to get out of this deathtrap!” Wren yelled and made for the doors.

“Come on, Isabel, move it!” Leytan hissed, grabbing Lady Mercury’s hand and dragging her towards safety. Leytan didn’t register Wren entering the door, but he couldn’t see him ahead of them so he must have already escaped.

With one last joint effort the two dived for the door. They felt the rush of wind as they fell through the blackness and then –

OUFFF!”

They both landed in a tangled winded heap in another dimly light corridor. They made no effort to move, simply allowing themselves to recover from their exhaustion.

“One day, I really hope to have a sit down with that psychopathic Opposition leader,” panted Lady Mercury finally. “Preferably holding some kind of sharp object.”

Leytan laughed breathlessly and looked round making sure their was no immediate danger. He could see none, but something still seemed wrong. Very wrong.

But he quickly pushed this aside for the moment something else was more pressing. He reached down and lifted Lady Mercury’s head up towards his and pushed aside the long hair that covered her neck.

“Hmmm… hardly the time or place my love,” Lady Mercury said provocatively as Leytan tenderly moved a hand around the back of her neck and upper shoulders.

Suddenly Lady Mercury gave a sharp intake of breath. “Just lopped of more of your hair did it, Isabel?’ Leytan asked drily, bringing his hand back in front of him. It had a faint coating of blood on the fingers.

“Stand up and turn around,’ he commanded, getting to his feet. Lady Mercury looked up at him with a half mock frown, half smug smile on her face she slowly rose and turned her back towards Leytan.

Leytan lifted her hair up. There, just above the neck line of her dress at the top of her shoulder blades, was a gash where the blade had caught her. “Nothing too serious Leytan, I’ve had worse before,” Lady Mercury said reassuringly. Much worse, she mused to herself.

Leytan let her hair fall back down to cover the gash and turned her to face him. “Isabel, you… I thought… you… ” Leytan couldn’t finish articulating his terrible thought. Instead he embraced Lady Mercury and kissed his lover, Lady Mercury responding in kind with equal passion.

Leytan broke the kiss and looked at her. “Next time, don’t lie to me. I thought you were concealin something far more serious.”

Lady Mercury gave Leytan a sly smile. “You weren’t supposed to see…’

“Well, I did,” Leytan retorted and broke away from the embrace. ‘Anyway, we best get moving again.’ He set off walking down the corridor.

Lady Mercury let him get two or three steps ahead and then said, “Leytan…?” Leytan turned and looked at her emquiringly.
“The care you show me… it means a great deal to me. Thank you,” she finished softly.

Leytan smiled. It was very rare for Lady Mercury to allow her tender side to shine through, but it still sent a warm glow coursing through him when she did.

Suddenly, his smile faded as the realisation of what it was that had been wrong struck him like a mace to the chest.

“Wren…? Where’s Wren?!”

Lady Mercury swung her head round and looked. Their eyes met, sharing the same expression of horror.

Wren was nowhere to seen.

*     *     *

The decor of this place can really get you down after a while, thought Wren idly as he leaned against the corridor wall, trying to catch his breath. It’s unsurprising that no one here is pleased to see us.

Although he was still rattled by his ordeal in the Corridor of Blades, truth be told the claustraphobic stone passageways were starting to knaw away at his temperament as well. The seemingly endless maze of bleak corridors almost seemed to radiate an aura of futility and despair, as though all feelings of a positive nature were being slowly drained from him. The fact that the only sounds to be heard were his own labored breathing did not help matters either. It was true that as an assassin, Wren knew more than anyone about the importance of subtlety and discretion when it came to infiltration, but in this environment such tactics seemed strangely futile.

Maybe it was the unshakable suspicion that their presence had not only been anticipated, but that even now they were being observed. Scrutinised from afar by unseen eyes…

He forced himself to dismiss this train of thought from his mind as mere paranoia. Maybe this wretched castle was starting to get to him more than he thought. Something in the back of his mind was trying to get his attention, that was certain. Something he was hearing, possibly?

His stamina regained, Wren finally took stock of his surroundings and immediately realised that he had come out at a fork in the corridor. Both led off at ninety degree angles, to his left and right. There were no indications as to which direction should be followed. They both continued along their respective paths, vanishing into the distant flickering darkness.

Unable to choose, he left it to the usual method of decision making he relied on in such circumstances. Withdrawing a faded silver coin from his tunic, he flicked it into the air and caught it expertly on the back of his hand, where it spun elegantly for several brief seconds before finally coming to rest. He examined its results, the bemused expression of King John staring up at him.

“Well, I see no reason to argue. Unless you two remember any more pearls of wisdom from those…” began Wren, but stopped abruptly as realisation slowly dawned. It wasn’t what he was hearing, it was what he wasn’t hearing. The sound of his own breathing.

His breathing alone.

Wren spun around, eyes suddenly darting wildly past the exit he had staggered through. The malaise that had been clouding his mind had broken in the space of a second. Had the others simply been lead off in a different direction? Had they even made it to the exits? Or were they even now dying of terrible injuries too horrible to contemplate?

He could feel himself panicking. His breathing was becoming shallower, as though someone had taken hold of his lungs and was squeezing the air from them. Realisation hit him in an instant. He was in the depths of possibly the most bleakest, dangerous place in the entire realm. And now, he was alone.

“Lose something, did we?”

Wren twisted to his right, a throwing knife suddenly appearing in his hand where half a second before there was none. He trained his eyes down the corridor attempting to locate the source of the mocking sneer. It had seemed so close, as if it had been spoken by someone standing directly next to him. But the corridor remained dark and silent, with only the gently flickering torches offering any signs of movement.

Wren gripped the dagger tightly. He knew he heard someone. The voice sounded rasping and coarse, like stone being scraped over metal. He forced himself to hold his position, the knife ready to leave his hand with one swift movement.

“Most careless of you. But then again, you never had much luck with looking after your own, did you?”

The voice now came from behind, and this time Wren did not stay his hand. The knife flew down the corridor, precisely at the height of the neck for the average man. He shut his eyes and prayed for the sound of it piercing its target, but instead was rewarded only with the clattering of the blade striking the ground some distance away.

He forced himself to stay calm, but the blood pumping rapidly through his temples betrayed his true fear. The voice was not only dripping with contempt and mockery, but it sounded familiar. Horrifically familiar.

The blow came without warning. There were no footsteps, not even any sounds of movement. But a second later, the full weight of a huge blunt object came crashing down upon Wren’s shoulder blades, buckling his legs and causing him to collapse to the floor. The club was raised again, and this time Wren felt it coming. He leapt forward, rolling to narrowly avoid the second blow as the club was dashed against the flagstones, and came up facing his attacker, his twin daggers clenched in both hands.

Time seemed to stand still. He tried to convince himself that what he was seeing was a nightmare, some sick fantasy his mind was playing on him. But he knew he was lying to himself. The man standing before him was as real as the searing pain between his shoulders. And Wren watched with undisguised horror as he broke into the same mocking grin that he still saw every time he closed his eyes at night.

“Welcome home, my boy,” cackled Skarkill.

Chapt. 2

Leytan struggled to formulate an adequately expressive and eloquent response to this new and unwelcome development.

“Damn everything,” he finally settled upon. Hardly Chaucerian in its rapier-like sharpness, but it conveyed his frustration nicely.

He looked at Lady Mercury and then back down the empty passageway. “Only one thing for it. Isabel, you go on ahead and try and find the duplicator. I’ll try and find Wren.”

Leytan started to walk off down the corridor but Lady Mercury grabbed his shoulder. “Are you mad? And what happens if you get lost as well? It would make more sense for us to stick together.”

Leytan turned around. Gently taking Lady Mercury’s hand off of his shoulder, he kissed it delicately.

“Isabel, I’ll be fine, I’ll find Wren and catch right up with you. Besides you and I both have a spy glass and Jan-Jan’s tuned them so they should operate under the Opposition’s detector device. I’ll use it to track you down if I do get lost.’He smiled gently ‘Now go on. Signal us when you find the duplicator.”

Lady Mercury looked hard at Leytan. ‘Damn it all the way to hell and back again, Leytan. See what I meant about danger becoming a daily event?’ Leytan didn’t respond, he just softly stroked Lady Mercury’s cheek and set off down the long winding passageway. Lady Mercury watched him vanish into the distant ether.

Greystagg… If your obsession with strengthening the Grey Sisterhood costs the life of either or both of them… I swear I’ll make you suffer for it.

*     *     *

“No,” breathed Wren. “This isn’t right. You shouldn’t be here.”

“That all you got to say after all these years? Crushed I am, really.”

“Shut up, shut UP!” Wren shouted, struggling to recover from the paralyzing shock that had overcome him. “This is all an illusion. Nothing more. Do you hear me?” He announced, addressing this last outburst at something he perceived to be beyond the ceiling. “I know what you’re trying to do. It won’t WORK!”

“You callin’ me a figment of yer imagination?” the goblin master snorted, clearly unimpressed. “Maybe I should give you another whack, that might knock a bit o’ sense into you, like. Hehe, luvly…”

Wren forced himself not to fall for his obvious taunts. He focused instead on the figure that stood before him, clearly enjoying the mental distress that his presence was causing him. It had been many years, but there was no mistaking that battered copper eyepatch, that fading brown tunic punctuated with fragments of worn chainmail. And that sneering, mocking grin…

DON’T MOVE!” roared Wren as Skarkill took a firmer grip on his cudgel. “Stay exactly where I can see you, Goblin Master! You know I can cut you down in the space of a second if I so wish.”

“Oh can you now?” he hooted. “Someone clearly thinks highly of himself! Always the same, you were. Never could stamp out that impetuous streak of yours. God alone knows how you ever got into that poncy guild…”

“And what about you? The last I saw of Mount Fear, that red dragon of yours had leveled it. That must have set your master ranting for months.”

“Aye, that it did. Busted me other leg an’ all, it did. Course, that spelt the end of me, didn’t it? No use for a Goblin Master who couldn’t walk. But it’s amazing what a little magic can do these days, especially in the hands of a very talented sister…”

He whacked the club against his thigh sharply, resulting in a curious sound not unlike a piano string being struck underwater.

“Forgive me for not being overly impressed, but if I recall it wasn’t your legs that made you such a dismal failure of a henchman,” smirked Wren.

Skarkill growled. “Still the same lippy little runt. I thought I’d  beaten all of that out of  yer. Seems like someone needs a reminder, like…” he threatened, adjusting the grip on his weapon.

“I’m warning you! One step and you’ll be dead before you hit the ground!” shouted Wren. The smirk was gone, replaced with a trembling in his hand as he tensed and untensed the grip on his weapon.

“One thing I never worked out. How did you escape Mount Fear? That luvly little binding clasp of mine should have kept you inside the lower levels-”

Skarkill promptly stopped as his gaze turned towards Wren’s torn glove. In the flickering torchlight, the dull grey of its metallic contents could be clearly seen.

“So that’s how you did it,” Skarkill crowed. “Imagine that, a child of thirteen, doing that to himself. Why, that would be enough to send him completely mad-…”

ENOUGH!” bellowed Wren, both his patience and his anger finally reaching their limits. He flung his dagger at the precise moment that Skarkill leapt forward, swinging his club. Wren dodged it easily, but failed to see the goblin master’s fist until it connected sharply with his jaw.

Wren staggered, his senses briefly hit for six. Although nimble and light on his feet, he was still a frail young man who had little of Leytan’s high pain threshold that made him a natural hand-to-hand fighter. Before he could mount any kind of a defense, Skarkill had thrusted him painfully into the corridor wall, his fingers gripping his neck tightly.

“Word to the wise, my boy. Never throw away a weapon unless you know you can’t miss. One, your target will get very annoyed, and two-”

He slowly bought Wren’s dagger up to his view, the one he had cast away earlier.

“… he’ll have yer weapon.”

As Skarkill spoke, he spun the blade between his fingers absent mindedly, seemingly lost in thought.

“Funny, ain’t it. Yer can hide behind all the fancy airs and your flashy tricks you want, but at the end of the day you’re nothin’ but what you always were. A damaged child who doesn’t know his place. And once again, it falls to me to remind yer…”

Wren choked desperately, unable to see any way out of this. His brain sent desperate signals to his limbs, pleading with them for any sign of activity at all, but all he could muster was a weak attempt to lesson the pressure around his throat. Within seconds, he knew he would fade from consciousness. And that would be the end…

Suddenly, he felt the goblin master’s grip lesson, and he collapsed to the floor in a tangled heap.

“But no. No, his Fearship has got far more planned for yous. Just remember this, my boy, no matter how many times you try to escape what you are – or where you began – yer never will.”

Wren gazed up at him, struggling to form some manner of witty retort. But his usual deadpan sharpness had failed him utterly. Sliding to his feet, he took off down the corridor, refusing to look back.

“That’s it! RUN! Get back to the rest of yer sorry little circus of freaks! I know what’s coming to you, my boy, oh yes I do… something luvly, so it is…”

Wren scrambled along the corridor, desperate to get away from the crowing figure. For a full two minutes he ran without pause, not even turning back to see if he was being pursued. Finally he staggered to a standstill, his lungs on fire and his heart pounding deafening drumbeats between his ears. Leaning against the stones, he struggled to hold back tears.

Never again… I will never again be made to feel so helpless…

An unseen hand clasped his shoulder. He spun to face this new adversary, an uncontrollable rage overtaking him.

“Wren… it’s me.”

He found himself staring into the relieved face of Leytan. All the panic, all of the pent up aggression he had been building for the last twenty terrible minutes, vanished in an instant as he set eyes upon his friend once more.

“Squire… thank everything. We need to go back, he’s-” he began, before the stress his lungs had endured took its toll and he collapsed over in a frenzy of coughing.

“He’s what, Wren?” Leytan asked, leaning down to support him. “Gods man, you look like you’ve seen a-”

“Don’t,” he rasped. “Don’t say it. Just… don’t.”

They stood in silence, interrupted only by the slowly diminishing ferocity of Wren’s attack. Finally he forced himself to stand upright – shaken, but fit enough to stand on his own two feet once more.

“So, what happened when we-” he began, but was interrupted by a faint buzzing noise that emitted from Leytan’s robes. He quickly pulled out the spy glass he had tucked inside and tapped it slightly to bring the picture into focus.

“It’s Isabel. She’s found the Duplicator. Come on. Sooner we get that damn thing the sooner we can vacate his Lordship’s charming hospitality.”

Leytan turned and headed off down the dark passageway using the spyglass like a homing beckon to track down Lady Mercury. “So, what was all that about down there? Someone from the Opposition?”

“You could say that. More like an unwelcome memory from long ago. One I had no desire to revisit.”

“Oh really? What did he have to say for himself?”

Wren took a look down the dark passageway, then at his friend.

“Nothing of consequence.”

The two mercenaries continued on their way, vanishing into the gloom once more. From somewhere in the darkness of the passageway there came a low bloodthirsty laugh which seemed almost to emanate from the walls themselves, punctuated by a sneering voice which spoke just one word.

Luvly…

END OF PART 3

Click here to read Part 4

Protected: The Colour Of Amber – Part 2

Posted in Writings on May 27, 2014 by Martin Odoni

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Protected: The Colour Of Amber – Part 1

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Balance – Part 4

Posted in Writings on May 27, 2014 by Martin Odoni

Chapt. 1

 

Wren had been worried from the outset about sending Jan-Jan ahead to scout the camp. It was not that he thought she lacked sufficient stealth or subtlety. On the contrary, her feline training and upbringing had taught her more than enough about the art of infiltration.

 

No, her litheness and talent for avoiding being seen were beyond dispute. The aspects Wren doubted were her general awareness and powers of concentration. Jan-Jan was capable of not being seen, but she was not very good at combining this faculty with the art of seeing. Her problem when she was on surveillance duty was that she would get so focused on avoiding the eyes of the ones she was spying on that she was quite capable of forgetting to carry out the actual surveillance bit of the task.

 

Lady Mercury had overruled his objections, and Wren’s suspicion was that it had just been to re-establish her own authority over his. She had, after all, only chosen to accompany him in the face of her own profound wishes to leave for home instead, and having seen her authority tarnished by being made to change her mind in front of her subordinates, her subsequent behaviour had been increasingly stubborn and contrary. Since Jan-Jan had bounded off up the hill with enviable ease, Lady Mercury had sat on a large rock in immoveable silence.

 

Wren did not altogether blame Lady Mercury for being like this. She must have been deeply aggravated since the mission began at her instructions being by-passed in general, and at Wren’s inconsistent stance in particular.

 

This was a sore issue for Wren. Leytan had said to him before setting off to spy on the McGrew camp that Wren’s motivations were a mystery, and Wren was surprised to discover that this remark had rather affected him. He soon came to realise that the reasons why were two-fold. For one, he was himself unsure of his own motivations. For another, he began to wonder whether those around him were questioning his loyalty, something that had truly not occurred to him before. Was he now trying to over-compensate? He could not say, but he had to admit to himself privately that it would explain why he had suddenly chosen, for very little reason, to go tearing off after Leytan, having been largely against further involvement in this clan feud up to that point.

 

It was almost dusk by now, and Lady Mercury was hugging herself against the evening chill.

 

“Want to borrow my cloak?” Wren offered as a polite peace gesture.

 

“Want to borrow a footprint to decorate your forehead with?” suggested Lady Mercury.

 

Wren shrugged and took the hint.

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

Sure enough, it was not difficult for Jan-Jan to get up the hill at all. The power in her legs and her boundless tank of energy meant that defying gravity was a small matter to her. It would be an exaggeration to say that she could fly, but not a gross one.

 

She had arrived on a fairly level stretch of ground nearly half-way up the hillside when she paused to take stock. The ground beneath her feet was grassy, but had some very noticeable sharp stones hidden just below the surface, which had her hopping painfully from foot to foot briefly until she managed to adjust.

 

She was only a few dozen yards from the camp now, which was on a potruding shelf a little further up the hill. Even now she could already see that the camp was far more developed than she had expected.

 

She prepared to make another sharp bound up the hill when a large hand clamped onto her shoulder, effectively pinning her to the spot. A large dirk blade was held in another hand, directly in her face.

 

“What is this?” snarled the bulky Highlander who had seized Jan-Jan. “Another intruder? Is this a very, very conservative invasion or something?”

 

Jan-Jan looked up at the Highlander and could not resist swallowing. He had arms that were even larger and more muscle-bound than his impressively-bulky legs. His teeth were very full and prominent, giving the – hopefully-unfair – impression that his favourite hobby was orally extracting the throats of small people from their necks. In short, he was the ideal sort of fighter for deterrent guard duty.

 

Jan-Jan smiled up at him innocently. “Would walking tree-trunk believe… Jan-Jan lost?”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

“You do realise, said Leytan, “that sixty years takes things some way beyond a grudge? It constitutes a bad habit.” Leytan knew that he was pushing his luck a little by speaking so flippantly, but he felt that winning this argument would be worth the risk. He was not entirely sure why this should be of course, the whole feud really had very little to do with him. But he knew that for whatever reason he would feel uneasy for a long time to come unless the truth of what was happening here was revealed.

 

Kinlay Mac Grou looked peeved at Leytan’s words, but did not react aggressively. “It’s no like we want the war to carry on,” he answered.

 

“Don’t you?” Leytan looked skeptical. “So if one of the Campbells were to walk into this camp right now, insist that they were not responsible for Tyler Mac Grou’s death, but still offer you peace, you would take it?”

 

This time, Kinlay did not answer at all. He just stared at Leytan, stony-faced. The others gathered around all looked uneasy at the lack of a response, as though there was an answer that they had all assumed to be self-evident that was not the case at all.

 

“If the answer is yes,” continued Leytan in a tone that was gently encouraging, rather than reproachful, “then you would be correct, and for more reasons than just general principle.” Leytan’s eyes slowly passed over most of those around him. “I have reason to suspect that this whole conflict, from a very early stage, has been manipulated in some way.”

 

A quiet but very perceptible consternation ran through those present.

 

“You earlier cited four separate examples of attempts between the two clans to reach a truce,” Leytan continued, counting them out on the fingers of his hand. “In the first instance, the Chief of the Campbells was ambushed by unknown assailants on the way to meeting the McGrew Chief, and the injuries he suffered in the skirmish forced him to retreat to home. The McGrew Chief was so incensed that the appointment was missed that he took it as a personal snub.” Leytan paused, as if looking for confirmation, then continued. “In the second instance, years later, the two clans did manage to meet up as arranged, in a church in Perth. But the conference was broken up early by a mysterious fire that broke out and burned the church to the ground. Each clan accused the other of setting a trap and starting the fire.” Again a pause, and one or two of the gathered Scots nodded a little sheepishly. “In the third instance, the McGrew Chief was late for the appointed meeting by several hours due to a bridge on his route having caved in the previous day. By the time he did arrive, the Campbells had grown supsicious and left.” Leytan took a deep breath. “And then, two years ago, the Campbell Chief was murdered just a few days before he was to journey to the latest attempt at an armistice.” Leytan paused again, as if to say, ‘There you go’, and looked at the bemused faces almost impudently. “What are the common themes in each instance?”

 

There were more awkward looks, like schoolchildren too shy to offer answers to a new teacher, as this discussion had carried the thoughts of the McGrews in a direction they had not previously been conditioned to consider.

 

“My belief,” continued Leytan, speculatively answering his own question, “is that the biggest common theme is misfortune. You might scoff at that, that there are too many ‘misfortunes’ for there to be mere coincidence. I would agree with you there.”

 

Leytan glanced at Lorna, whose single nod conveyed that she alone amongst the McGrews had been debating this matter – with others and with herself. Furthermore, he could tell that she had drawn similar conclusions to his.

 

“You see,” Leytan resumed, “these misfortunes keep happening at exactly the times when the two clans are nearing an accord. But also, when the accord goes wrong, in each case there is no real indication that either clan is guilty of the destruction.” Before any of the McGrews could raise any bigoted objections, he added, “While such sabotage is plausible, there is no evidence.”

 

Lorna, perhaps the only one present who was not hypnotised by Leytan’s shrewd rationality and seamless oratory, spoke up at this point. “Ye see?” she demanded of her fellows. “It’s as I were saying for months. Someone else is playing us!”

 

“Now who’s talking without evidence?” spat Kinlay, still finding enough stubborness to offer up an objection of some kind, no matter how irrational it might be. “Prove to me this is all a set-up!”

 

“Easily,” stated Leytan with a coolness that summed up his nature. “Two weeks ago, the Campbells agreed a deal to obtain the newest super-weapon in Europe; longbows. I delivered them myself.” He gestured to the rooves of the camp, littered as they were with arrows. “In the last two weeks, you have obtained a form of defence that neutralises the longbow without giving you the slightest attacking advantage. The ultimate attack is obtained by one clan, the ultimate defence obtained by the other, cancelling each other out. And they happen simultaneously.” Leytan shrugged. “Coincidence, Kinlay Mac Grou?”

 

“Maybe,” ventured Kinlay without much conviction.

 

“Is it not amazing,” said Leytan, “the ridiculous lengths men will go to to cling onto old hatreds? I will offer you a wager now, Kinlay, so confident am I of my calculations, that the current peace talks will fail because of another mysterious act of sabotage.”

 

Kinlay was spared the bother of having to think up a well-rationalised answer to this by a commotion from behind where Leytan was standing. All eyes turned to see Douglas Bannon, the largest and loudest of the McGrew clan. He was dragging, with no noticeable effort, a small girl, who was kicking, squealing and struggling, completely without success, to break the giant man’s vice-like grip.

 

“Friend o’ yours?” growled Kinlay to Leytan, the excitement in his voice showing how relieved he was to shift the subject away from the putative innocence of the Campbells.

 

“Well,” muttered Leytan, giving Jan-Jan a disapproving look, “I should probably say I’ve never met her before in my life, as she hardly deserves my support.” His tone softened a little though. “But it would be a lie. Jan-Jan, why are you here?”

 

Jan-Jan continued to squirm briefly while Douglas looked to Kinlay enquiringly. Kinlay sighed and sharply gave the instruction to let the girl go. Douglas opened his hand and Jan-Jan landed awkwardly on her rear end on the rocky ground. She bounded to her feet in an instant, aimed an energetic and utterly futile series of punches to Douglas’ thigh, and then sprang to a position in cover behind Leytan’s leg, peering out from behind it only once she had dug up enough courage.

 

“That is not,” commented Leytan, “on the whole, answering my question.”

 

“Jan-Jan looking for Ley-Ley of course!” cried the girl, apparently a little hurt that Leytan needed to ask.

 

“Was I really away so long?” asked Leytan. “Where are the others?”

 

“Others?” exclaimed Kinlay. “There are more of you?”

 

Leytan looked over at him. “Yes,” he replied, “four in our party in total. But then if it’s a competition to have the most people in a place they shouldn’t be…” He gestured to the huts and the clansmen all around, “… by my reckoning, you are winning.”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

Donnchad Cam Beul marched out of Scone Palace and mounted his horse, ignoring the genuine and heartfelt protests of the McGrew clansmen. In all, he had been in Scone rather less than eight hours, and had refused even to stay and rest for the night. Instead he would travel home at once, so righteous was his indignation.

 

Donnchad’s stubbornness was maddening, especially to the stubborn.

 

“There can be no question of peace,” cried one of the McGrew ambassadors, “if ye walk away again, do ye hear?”

 

“I imagine half of Scotland hears,” Donnchad roared back, digging his heels into his mount’s sides and riding away.

 

Chapt. 2

 

The look of accusation on Leytan’s face was either an exceptional bit of acting or entirely genuine. This was what made Lady Mercury and Wren nervous far more than the unease of being captured. From the moment that Jan-Jan had revealed that they were waiting at the foot of the hill, Kinlay had despatched a dozen men to round them up. Judging that discretion was called for, Lady Mercury had given the order to offer no resistance, even though her powers meant she would have given the McGrews a good run for their money.

 

By the time they had been brought before Kinlay Mac Grou however, the decision had started to look like an ill-judged one. Their wrists were tied behind their backs, and Kinlay spent a long while grailing at them for their intrusion, while most of the other McGrews spat at them and insulted them.

 

While all this was going on, Leytan just glowered at them both, his expression very sour. Wren had noted with interest that Leytan’s hands were not bound, and that he was not being guarded either, which suggested that he had succeeded in making peaceful contact. More importantly perhaps, the unexpected arrival of Wren and Lady Mercury, and their attempt to infiltrate the camp, might have jeopardised whatever headway Leytan had made.

 

It was nightfall by the time Kinlay’s extended rant had finally burned itself out. Wren was astonished at how much anger there was in the man, as though he had been trying to fight off some persistent enemy before they had arrived, and so his adrenaline was up.

 

Kinlay gave instructions for the intruders to be held under armed guard overnight while he slept; he would decide what to do with them in the morning.

 

“What happens to me?” asked Leytan.

 

“I already said,” snarled Kinlay. “A polite intruder is still an intruder.” He glanced up at one of his men. “Tie him up with the others.” Then he headed for one of the low huts and retired for the night.

 

A few minutes later, Lady Mercury, Leytan, Wren and Jan-Jan were all sat glumly on the ground, tied to a small tree growing diagonally out of the hillside. All weapons had been confiscated, including Lady Mercury’s amulet, meaning she was deprived of all but the most humble of her magic powers. Two mean-eyed guards were standing watch over them, and it was starting to rain. This was going to be a long night.

 

“Kinlay seems like a nice chap,” commented Wren, entirely ironically.

 

“Shut up,” suggested Leytan.

 

“Why are you so angry?” asked Lady Mercury, confused. “We thought you might have been in trouble. We came after you. You did want us to come with you in the first place. I thought you would have been pleased…”

 

“Pleased?” Leytan almost hooted, “I seem to remember you suggesting I should not involve you in it. So I formed a plan that allowed me to come here on my own. You ruined it.” He paused and added with a bitterness worthy of King Lear, “I almost have to ask whether there are trust issues at play, Lady Mercury.”

 

There was a time earlier in the mission when Lady Mercury would have reacted very badly to such an accusation, but after all that had happened, the mistake she had made, and hearing the dangerous tone in Leytan’s voice, she knew she had to handle this carefully. She could not afford the luxury of an ego now.

 

“There are no trust issues, Leytan,” she answered with measured care. “You were gone a long time. We were concerned for your safety. Our desire was purely to help you.”

 

“And thank goodness you did,” sneered Leytan. “There I was in terrible danger of bringing these barbarians round to my point of view. Then you come along and save me from that terrible fate, delivering me instead to the divine state of being tied overnight to a tree on a hillside, with a monsoon in the offing. Imagine the mess I’d have been in now if you hadn’t turned up.”

 

Lady Mercury could not ignore the bite of her lover’s sarcasm. She realised an angry, undiginified reaction was probably what he was playing for, that reducing her to indignity was his greatest method of bringing her down from her haughty superiority. But having knowledge of what he wanted and resisting it were two very different things. “If you must know,” she spat back, “I was all ready to go home and leave you to it. I was out-voted by the other two…”

 

“Democracy, Lady Mercury?” noted Leytan. “How very Greek of you.”

 

Lady Mercury was about to rise to the bait again, but this time she thought better of it. Perhaps she realised that whatever response she offered would just get another from Leytan, which would infuriate her into answering back again in her turn, and on and on indefinitely. Or perhaps she just realised that she was feeling too tired.

 

She decided to change the subject instead. “What did you find out anyway?”

 

“O-V-M-N-2-V-R,” answered Leytan flatly.

 

Wren, who had only been half-paying attention to this point, looked up sharply at this. “What?”

 

“That’s what I learned.” Leytan’s voice sounded exhausted. “That, and those huts are how the McGrews survived the longbow attack.”

 

“Jan-Jan wanna know how they build them!”

 

“O-V-M-N-2-V-R,” repeated Leytan. “And before you ask, no I have no idea what it means. It’s just something that girl Lorna mentioned had something to do with it.”

 

“Well surely if we figure out what it means…” began Wren.

 

“Yes, surely,” agreed Leytan, sounding bored. “That is what I have been trying to calculate. Not easy when you interrupt me over and over.”

 

“A problem shared,” said Jan-Jan helpfully.

 

“Is a problem still,” finished Leytan in a very silencing tone.

 

There was a down-beat pause, as if Leytan’s cynicism had drained all the belief and enthusiasm from his companions. That was probably his intention, Lady Mercury realised, the only way he had while his hands were tied of punishing them for undoing his good work.

 

She remembered once when she was still a new priestess in the Grail Order, she had inadvertantly ruined the work of a scholarly friar, who had been working for weeks on the translation of an ancient Latin text into the most exquisite glyphic English. His translation was done flawlessly by hand, letter after painstaking letter, transferred with immense precision from quill to paper, and written in so shapely a way that it was as much a visual work of art as it was a philosophical scripture. He was on the last page of his manuscript when the young Constance walked in to peer over his shoulder. She stumbled, jogged his arm, and a long streak of ink was scrawled across the parchment. Fortunately only one page was affected, but even that meant that two days’ work was spoiled.

 

The friar went red with fury, but he did not rebuke or punish the young priestess. He just gave her a look and inflicted a far more effective penalty than a cuffed ear; total silence. Total silence for over three days indeed, refusing to acknowledge or thank her when she brought him refreshments or extra ink.

 

Constance had found the negativity of his bearing far more intimidating and painful than any actual punishment could have been. And it was the same now with Leytan. His negativity toward the others stung more than his earlier sarcasm, because at least the sarcasm was something they could respond to. His silencing tone was much like the bearing of the friar trying to translate a Latin text…

 

A Latin text, mused Lady Mercury.

 

“That’s it!” she realised all of a sudden.

 

“What is?” asked Jan-Jan.

 

“What Lorna told Leytan,” said Lady Mercury. “How did it go again?”

 

Leytan answered with an ongoing dearth of enthusiasm. “O-V-M-N-2-V-R.”

 

“What, we’re still talking about that code?” sneered Wren, only half-interested. “What about it?”

 

“That’s the thing,” explained Lady Mercury, patiently but with considerable force. She was not going to be sidetracked at this point. “Those letters are not a code.”

 

“What are they then?” snorted Wren, unconvinced. “Initials?”

 

“No, they’re words!” Lady Mercury announced, most animated.

 

Both Wren and Jan-Jan looked very confused. They exchanged glances, and each could see that no explanation would be forthcoming from the other. They then looked to Leytan, who merely stared stonily ahead.

 

“You’re not getting this are you?” commented Lady Mercury in a tone that suggested she suffered fools gladly. “They’re Latin words.”

 

“Latin?”

 

“Oh yes,” nodded Lady Mercury. “And that tells me all I need to know.”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

There was a full-ish moon again that night, at least sporadically, but even so it was almost pitch black as Donnchad and his party rode through the heart of Lothian Forest. They stuck doggedly to the well-defined track, knowing that any deviation from it could be deadly.

 

Donnchad was still shaking with quiet fury. His eighteen year-old cousin, Alexander, rode at the back of the party, supposedly in shame, but really just so as to stay away from his chief’s anger. In truth, no one dared ride too near to Donnchad, let alone speak to him. Whenever he was in a temper, his anger would become so palpable that others could feel the heat of it whenever they were anywhere close to him.

 

Donnchad was not just furious however. He was also puzzled. Very puzzled. Why, he had allowed himself to start wondering, had this revelation about his cousin and a McGrew girl come out now? It was the most amazing – and therefore clearly deliberate – bit of timing. It led Donnchad to wonder whether he was playing into someone’s hands by walking out of the Council. That thought made him uneasy, and not just for present reasons. His thoughts were being led in a direction that they had been many times before, a direction he had found too repellent to persevere in.

 

What was making him unsure was that the revelation implicated both clans, Campbell and McGrew, in the ‘crime’, such as it was. Whoever revealed it, if they were trying to break up the Council on behalf of the McGrews, surely they would have done so in a manner that solely reflected badly on the Campbells? Not one that made both clans look… well not exactly treacherous, but a little like they could not keep their own families under control.

 

What Donnchad found repellent about this was that it led to the idea that the McGrew clan might be innocent of something, when he was desperate to believe the worst in them in all things, in all times, and in all places.

 

Furthermore, the more he thought about it, the more he found his attitude towards Alexander softening. Was what he had done really so bad? Donnchad was still feeling too proud to admit it – maybe that would pass after a night’s sleep – but on reflection, what was ever bad about falling in love? In truth, Donnchad had to concede that he was curious to find out about this girl, this McGrew who had captured the young man’s desire in the face of decades of hostility between their two families, who had broken through the stubbornness brought on by a life in the voice of tribal propaganda to take the young man’s heart. She must have been a remarkable girl, Donnchad acknowledged, as much as it pained him to admit it.

 

For his own part, Alexander was not only quiet and pensive, but downcast. He was not ashamed as such, but beyond doubt he was humiliated. He had always been a man whose inner feelings were a matter of the utmost privacy, and doubly so from the moment they had developed for an enemy. For them to have been exposed in the greatest palace in the Kingdom, with no less a figure than the King himself in attendance, was a matter of the deepest embarrassment.

 

It was as young Alexander was meditating on this that he was struck in the shoulder by the shaft. His cry of pain was abruptly curtailed by a thud and grunt as he tumbled from his horse and crashed into the muddy ground below.

 

Most of the horsemen ahead of Alexander looked round sharply on hearing his cry and pulled their horses up, but the darkness was such that they could not make out where he had fallen or why. Donnchad and several other horseman at the front of the party did not hear the commotion and so carried on through the forest obliviously, but the others all stopped.

 

Mael Coluim** Dalbeattie, maternal uncle of Donnchad, dismounted his horse and searched in the murk for Alexander. The boy’s soft moans of agony led him by ear. Alexander was lying face-down in a ditch, the shaft of an arrow lodged deep in his shoulder.

 

“Over here!” called Mael Coluim to the others, gesturing hurriedly with waves of his hand. Several more men dismounted and ran over to join him as he lifted Alexander away from the water. “The boy’s wounded. Help me get the shaft frae’ his arm!”

 

Ignoring Alexander’s strangled cries of agony, two of the men held him steady while Mael Coluim, showing little sentiment or sympathy, grasped the shaft firmly in his hand, and twisted it violently until it was prised loose from human flesh to the accompaniment of a lurid sucking, slurping sound. The boy passed out.

 

Only then did Mael Coluim allow his expression to turn concerned. He had realised at once that he had to remove the shaft quickly and without hesitation, but within he felt every bit of the boy’s agony. He was about to hurl the arrow aside furiously when one of the men stayed his hand.

 

“Wait!” thundered the man. He lifted the arrow from Mael Coluim’s grasp, and uncoiled something that was wrapped around the middle of its length. It was a narrow strip of parchment.

 

“Are there words upon it?” hissed Mael Coluim.

 

The man opened the parchment out fully, and read the words in a shaking, faltering voice. “‘The death of the boy is the price of infesting good Mac Grou blood with the stain of the Cam Beuls.'”

 

Not far off, stood by a rock in the cover of the trees, a Castillian slung his longbow over his shoulder, and melted into the darkness.

 

Chapt. 3

 

It was midnight, and the drizzle had been falling very lightly but persistently for hours. Wren was sleeping fitfully, sat upright with his back against the tree-trunk, his head tilted over almost sideways onto his shoulder. Lady Mercury was fast asleep on the ground, the exhaustion of this mission having caught up with her completely. Even the two guards had nodded off, more through sheer boredom than tiredness.

 

Leytan was awake, but silent and unmoving. Jan-Jan was wide awake and fully alert, unable to sleep for fear of Bannon returning.

 

“Why Ley-Ley angry with Jan-Jan?” the girl could no longer resist squeaking in a very hurt tone.

 

“Did I say I was angry?” murmurred Leytan.

 

“Ley-Ley no have to,” pouted Jan-Jan.

 

“Then I won’t.”

 

Jan-Jan looked at Leytan as closely as she could in the dingy light, and realised that he looked very bleak, like one who had simply suffered a painful disappointment, say a broken heart, rather than angered. It suggested that he had taken this mission to Scotland very much to heart and that the recent mistakes had affected him on a personal level, all of which seemed a little strange to Jan-Jan. She was not a literary great, nor an eloquent wit, but she knew enough about the meaning of the word ‘mercenary’ to realise that it was absolutely not a personal business. It was a profession, and one that required complete detachment, something that she had always felt Leytan was capable of in all circumstances. Now she was beginning to suspect that she might have been wrong about that.

 

So she decided to rephrase her question. “Why Ley-Ley sad?”

 

Leytan glanced her way, a grudging look of respect on his face, appreciating her perceptiveness. “War always saddens me,” he grunted, “even when it enriches me. Especially a pointless war. I really thought I was close to making progress tonight… close to making the McGrews see the feud in a new light.”

 

In fact, what was vexing Leytan was Lady Mercury. She had stated entirely out of the blue that she had worked out what was going on, and then she had gone quiet completely, refusing to be drawn on the subject. Instead she had simply rolled over and fallen asleep.

 

Leytan suspected that Lady Mercury had kept quiet just to spite him for his earlier harshness. And for sure it was working. He almost wondered whether she had been lying that it made sense to her, although he certainly had the impression that she was telling the truth.

 

Leytan had spent a while considering what Lady Mercury had said. The code that Lorna had given him was not a code at all, she had said with enthusiasm, it was Latin. Latin?  He had read out the letters in his head a few times, but it sounded like gobbledegook. O-V-M-N-2-V-R? He had tried running the letters and numbers together into a word as well, but it did not come out as Latin either, just as more gobbledegook. “Ovmuhntoovruh,” it sounded like.

 

Leytan let out a soft sigh and lay back on the ground, judging that he needed sleep far more than he needed the solution.

 

“Good night, Jan-Jan,” he murmured weakly, and let his heavy eyelids roll slowly shut.

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

By dawn, Donnchad and several of his men had re-entered Inverchaber. The initial shock of seeing him return so early was compounded when the wives of the other men in his party demanded to know where their husbands were.

 

Donnchad admitted that they had become separated during the night. He was not sure what the cause had been, but as soon as he had re-supplied he would lead a search party back to Lothian Forest.

 

This did not satisfy anyone he was trying to reassure, but Donnchad soon changed the subject by announcing the reason for his early departure from the peace council. His description of the previous day’s events in Scone was somewhat at variance with the way his companions remembered them. They had no recall for instance of the McGrews admitting that the girl with whom young Alexander had been infatuated had cynically bewitched him in order to infiltrate Inverchaber – there was remarkably little indication as yet that she had infiltrated the village at all – but they chose not to speak up about it or to correct the picture their Chief was painting. Why should they risk his ire by defending the repugnant Clan McGrew after all?

 

As Donnchad continued speaking in his impassioned and colourful Gaelic, his tone became increasingly belligerent and partizan. And the response of the gathered villagers was to be worked up into a frenzy.

 

“We attack the McGrew camp… now!” roared Donnchad in conclusion, having apparently forgotten his previous announcement that he would be returning to Lothian Forest to search for his missing brethren. “We will rid our home valley of their filth forever!”

 

There were roars of approval from the other Campbells present, all raising their heads to the fledgling morning sky and swinging punches its way with their fists. There followed a rushed scramble as the men of the village headed back to their homes to retrieve their weapons.

 

Donnchad’s younger brother, Donnauld, stepped up and, in English so that fewer villagers who might be listening in could understand him, whispered quietly, “Donnchad, we havnae hurt that camp in three months of attacks on it. Why are we going to attack it again now? And what with?”

 

Donnchad turned and looked at his brother, who was startled to see what appeared to be guilt in his eyes. The young chief said nothing at all, but words were not needed to convey his turmoil.

 

“What have ye done, brother?” hissed Donnauld, almost voicelessly.

 

Donnchad still said nothing.

 

It was within just a few minutes that the men of Inverchaber were all gathered in the heart of the village once more, armed to the teeth and almost rabid in their hunger for battle.

 

Donnchad raised his arm dramatically and pointed along the valley. With a cry of blood and thunder, he began the charge, with his men following in his wake.

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

“Explain yourself, Rogo,” came the demanding voice.

 

Rogo was stood in a small, rather ornate chapel on the north edge of Edinburgh. It had been built by Aesandre as a supposed gift to the landholder, the Earl of Dunbar, but Rogo was aware that she had really had it built as a focusing point for her powers in a neighbouring territory that she had designs on. He also knew that he could use it as another long-range communication point, which was as well, because a fresh report to the Trinity would not exactly be premature.

 

Rogo decided to put on an air of confidence that he did not altogether feel – but then he never did feel confidence when addressing the Chairman. “I hope you will forgive my little ‘improvisation’, Chairman,” he said, “but I realised that for the illusion to be complete, and for the hostility to increase to the level we require, there needed to be the perception of renewed violence…”

 

“Did you indeed?” sneered the Chairman in a way that did nothing to boost Rogo’s self-assurance. “And so you tried to assassinate the boy who was at the heart of the latest argument between the two clans?”

 

“It seemed…”

 

“I care not what it seemed, Rogo,” rumbled the Chairman darkly. “The damage you have done may prove very minor, but what you did was completely unnecessary, and may even prove detrimental to our cause.”

 

Rogo’s heart sank. This could ruin any chance he had of promotion, and in the Wolfenden Trinity, anyone who had no chance of promotion had almost as little chance of seeing in the start of the next year. “Chairman,” he protested a little feebly, “I do not understand.”

 

“By removing the boy,” pointed out the Chairman, “you have removed the McGrews’ main reason for hostility. The only one who remains to incur their anger is the girl; one of their own. It will be of little interest to the Campbells what happens to her.”

 

Rogo quietly acknowledged that he had not thought of that previously, but even so, surely that was a minor detail. “But it will provoke a backlash from the Campbells,” he countered, “which will provoke another in turn from the Mc-…”

 

“Fool!” ranted the Chairman. “That would have happened anyway. Instead you have committed an attack on the Campbells that will make no sense to them.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

The patience in the Chairman’s voice had evaporated totally, as though Rogo’s need to have the problems explained to him meant that he was, ipso facto, not worth the bother of explaining them to. “You attacked the boy with a longbow!” he roared. “The McGrews do not possess longbows! The Campbells themselves use them. They will start to wonder where the McGrews could have obtained such a weapon.” The Chairman paused and then added, “The Campbells may also pause to ask how a McGrew could have reached the Lothian Forest before they did.”

 

Rogo could offer no answer to this. He could not think of one anyway, but the raging vehemence of the Chairman’s voice and the bludgeoning coherence of his logic had swiftly hammered him into muted humiliation.

 

The Chairman resumed in a less ferocious tone of voice. “As I say, it might prove a very minor mistake on your part. It is reasonable to hope that the bigotry of the two clans will blind them to the flaws in the logic. But it is a mistake nonetheless, Rogo.” There was a pause so chilling that Rogo felt his veins coating over with ice. “I can forgive little things, Rogo, but mistakes are little things that I never forget…”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

The attack had done a little damage to the McGrew camp this time. By the simple expedient of setting fire to the arrows before shooting them, the Campbells had managed to set the rooves of a few of the huts aflame. But the damage was oddly superficial, and although some of the McGrews were forced out into the open by smoke, there was little sign of the camp actually being broken. The weather was still drizzly, which made sure the flames never got out of control.

 

What the Campbells did not realise, of course, was that the rooves of the huts had been lined with thin plates of steel, to protect them against precisely such an attack.

 

Donnchad howled in wild frustration as he saw another bombardment of arrows make almost no impact. Donnauld withdrew from launching an arrow of his own and glanced over at his brother, suspicion boiling his blood.

 

“What have ye done?” murmured Donnauld, though not so anyone could hear him. “What have ye done bringing us here again? And what have ye done to make ye so scared?”

 

A little way beyond the camp on the hillside, Lady Mercury, Leytan, Wren and Jan-Jan watched the battle with growing terror. They were still tied to the tree, and were powerless to intervene or flee. Initially, Wren had suggested that the attack was the perfect opportunity to escape. The guards had run for cover, all McGrew attention focused solely on the battle.

 

Unfortunately, the bonds tying the crew to the tree were too tight, and any attempt to undo them was about as simple as trying to roll giant boulders up a hill. Worse, a number of the fire arrows had landed close to the tree, suggesting that the Campbells were not being choosy about who should live and who should die. The inevitable soon happened; several of the fire arrows landed in the tree, which abruptly caught fire.

 

Jan-Jan trembled a little as she saw the flames beginning to chew up the branches above her head, as though possessed by a ravening hunger. “Jan-Jan think we up to the ankles in it.”

 

“Con-Con think Jan-Jan right,” answered Lady Mercury, her mocking tone belied by how pale she was looking.

 

“The rain will slow the fire down,” said Leytan, trying to sound assured.

 

“We don’t want it to,” Wren responded, his tone cool and even a little distant.

 

“I knew a night out in the cold was going to drive us mad,” commented Lady Mercury, not altogether helpfully, “but I didn’t think it’d get to you first.”

 

“It fire-fire!” cried Jan-Jan. “We no just want it slow, we want it stop!”

 

Wren ignored this and got to his feet, raising his shackled wrists toward the blazing tree limbs. “This,” he commented quietly, “is going to hurt.” With a sudden, sharp movement he thrust his hands briefly into the flames and then snatched them back out again. Much as he usually appreciated warmth, he grimaced at the proximity of the licking, dancing flames, then scowled as he glanced down at his bonds. They were a little scorched, but they had not caught fire. He cursed quietly.

 

He felt no actual pain in his right hand of course; beneath its leather glove, it was made of metal. But it was still agony in his left hand as he thrust it back into the fire. He held his hands there as long as he dared before pulling them back out.

 

“This is not a pleasant method of freeing yourself,” Leytan pointed out.

 

“I await the better suggestion that you are about to honour me with,” sniffed Wren. He gritted his teeth and then thrust his hands into the flames again. This time he kept them in place for far longer. The heat was extraordinary, and the metal of his right hand began soaking it up. Gradually – but not nearly gradually enough – the metal began to glow a brighter and brighter red. His natural hand was already searing in the heat, causing whimpers of pain to leap unbidden from his lips. And the heat was spreading too, beyond the unfeeling metal of his artificial hand and into the flesh and bone of his arm. Burning pain began to surge up through his wrists, burning, burning, seething. The air rushed in and out of Wren’s lungs in quick, agonised gasps, each exhalation accompanied by a fresh whimper of anguish higher in pitch than the last. Finally he had had all he could bear and he fell back from the tree with a hollering cry of pain.

 

It had worked though. His bonds had caught fire. It meant that Wren’s agony was not over of course. With his bonds in flames and securely-tied to his wrists, the skin of his arms was mortified by the heat. He let out soft growls of pain as he dug deep for the courage he needed; courage to resist dousing the flames on the wet ground. He needed to wait as long as he could, until the bonds had been weakened enough by the flames for him to tear them apart simply by extending his arms outwards. He waited, waited, waited, every second piling on more and more torment, and dragging more and more anguished sounds from his throat.

 

The others were all watching with growing alarm.

 

“For pity’s sake, Wren!” cried Lady Mercury, “put the flames out!”

 

Jan-Jan joined in, “Stop, Wren-Wren, stop!”

 

Wren could scarcely hear them though. The blood was thundering in his ears, while the pain in his arms was now so total that the ‘noise’ it made in his head was enough to drown out all his other senses.

 

“You’ll cripple yourself again,” muttered Leytan, gritting his own teeth hard enough that his gums were starting to ache. “Your hand will warp, your arms will melt!”

 

Finally, Wren could take no more. With a roar of anguish he yanked as hard as he could on the bonds, which split and crumbled into charred and weathered fragments. Wren rolled around on the wet ground in torment, desperately running any rainwater he could over his mortified skin, and letting out shameless little cries between gasps. He then lay there, face down, pressing his arms against the wet grass, his only thought and his only feeling being the desperation to take the searing pain away. There were tears streaming from his eyes.

 

The others all stared down at him, too shocked by what they had witnessed. Lady Mercury looked especially helpless.

 

“I can’t cast a healing charm for him,” she admitted miserably. “Not without my amulet.”

 

Several more fire arrows landed in the ground close by, and one more hit another small tree, setting it ablaze.

 

Leytan nodded to himself grimly. “Vyrrian? Vyrrian, you must wake up.”

 

Wren was not asleep in fact. He raised his head just enough to look at Leytan directly. Wren’s eyes were a startling sight to behold. The lids looked lined and shrivelled, but also heavy and dominant. The eyes themselves were bloodshot and glazed by tears.

 

“Can you free us, Vyrrian?” asked Leytan as gently as he could. He appreciated the pain Wren was in, but they had to get free, and soon. More arrows were landing nearby. “Vyrrian, the fires are spreading. We have to find cover. Now.”

 

Wren shook his head a few times, not as a gesture of denial, but in an attempt to clear his senses a little. Still gasping with pain, but simply refusing to be overwhelmed by it, he hauled himself upright. Ignoring the stinging soreness in his arms, he stepped over to one of the arrows and tugged it out of the ground. He then carried it over to the others, and used the arrowhead to start cutting the ropes.

 

Just as he was on the brink of releasing Lady Mercury’s hands, there was the sound behind him of a throat being cleared. All eyes turned to see Lorna Mac Grou standing there, holding Lady Mercury’s amulet in one hand, and a loaded crossbow in the other. The crossbow was pointed at Wren.

 

“If you escape,” commented Lorna, “it will make Kinlay very angry.”

 

Chapt. 4

 

Donnchad opted for another change of tactics as the supply of arrows began to run out once more. Instead of having his men launch the arrows skywards in the hopes of having them drop onto the heads of enemy troops, he sent a token force of men up the slope to try and draw out the McGrews, and then the archers would attempt to pick them off a few at a time with their longbows from the foot of the hill.

 

It was not working all that well again. The slope was such that it was taking an eternity for the men to get near enough to the camp to lure anyone into the open. Further, they were also so exhausted by the time they were any distance uphill that they were easy for the McGrews to target with their shortbows.

 

Donnauld, his own rage bubbling over, stood a little back from where Donnchad was mis-directing the battle. Finally he could keep his temper no further. He stepped over to his brother, clamped a heavy hand on his shoulder and forcibly spun him around. Donnauld’s eyes bore into Donnchad’s, ablaze with anger. Donnchad’s were almost crazed with despair.

 

“What d’ye think ye’re doing?” Donnauld demanded over the angry shouts of the other fighters. “Attacking a fortification up a hill s’steep as this one? Are ye mad?”

 

Donnchad did not answer. Looking slightly confused, almost as if he was not entirely aware what was happening around him, he turned and glanced up the hill again. Donnauld forced him to turn and face him again.

 

“Answer me!” snarled the younger brother. “Answer me, or by God, today were the last dawn ye’ll ever know!”

 

There was a heavy tread on the ground behind them. They both turned to see the familiar figure of Mael Coluim Dalbeattie, seated on the back of a powerful steed that was standing behind them.

 

“He doesn’e need to answer ye, Donnauld,” said Mael Coluim, the corners of his mouth pulled back into a scowl of contempt, “because I will.”

 

As the battle raged on around them, Donnchad, Donnauld and Mael Coluim all remained there, ignoring all that happened and seemingly ignored by all. And Mael Coluim told of what really happened the previous night. Of how Alexander had been shot with an arrow and fallen from his horse, and how it took over an hour for Donnchad to come back to see what had become of him. Of how shortly after that, they had been attacked by a goblin hunting party before they could leave Lothian Forest. And most of all, of how Donnchad had sacrificed the rest of his party to save himself.

 

“Donnchad ran,” snarled Mael Coluim through tears of anger. “Him and his bodyguards. They pushed his own cousin into the clutches of the goblins, so Donnchad could get away while they were gorging. They nearly killed all of us in the end.” He pointed at Donnchad accusingly. “Thought they’d killed yer old uncle too did ye? Thought no one’d ever know what a coward ye really are, eh?”

 

Donnchad looked away. He looked at the ground, he looked skywards, he looked to the hill. He looked anywhere, in fact, except at his brother or uncle.

 

“So,” hissed Donnauld, his anger and contempt both palpable, “that’s what this is about. Lead us into battle before we can ask questions, and hope we win so we never think to ask them.”

 

“And when the attack fails,” Mael Coluim chimed in, completing the logic, “try more and more ideas, no matter how stupid, to keep the battle going. Anything,” he finished, “to put off answering questions.”

 

Donnauld immediately turned away from Donnchad and walked toward the foot of the hill. He hollered at the top of his voice, “Brothers! All those in the livery of Clan Campbell! Lower yer weapons! This sham of a battle is over… we are leaving!”

 

Those in arms on both sides stopped fighting, taken by surprise by this command, and most particularly whom it had come from. When Donnchad made no move to overrule him, the Campbells put their weapons away and began retreating from the hill in a hurry, ignoring the jeers and mocking shouts from above.

 

Donnauld then turned back to his brother, his face still twisted by rage. “Don’t imagine for a minute, dear brother, that those questions won’t be asked.”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

A council of enquiry, which effectively turned into a trial in all but name, was in progress before nightfall in the village hall of Inverchaber. Donnchad Cam Beul sat at the heart of the hall, right by the fire, while a jury of his peers was seated in a ring all around him, bombarding him with questions, insinuations and scathing judgements. The Chief himself just sat there, head bowed, taking it, every word of it, and offering no defence, or rationalisations, or counter-arguments.

 

Many others of the clan were gathered in the hall as well. It was clear that most of them wanted to join in the relentless questioning too, but clan protocol demanded that they keep their counsel.

 

When came the turn of Mael Coluim to speak, he spared no details and offered no embellishments. He promised to state exactly what happened to the best of his understanding and memory, no more, no less, and he delivered. And why not? The truth was damning enough without introducing fantasy into the equation. Mael Coluim went on to explain how he and two others had survived the attack by the goblins – Mael Coluim’s own mount, a fearsome and courageous warhorse that he had ridden many times in battle, had sensed the threat and come galloping to the rescue, scattering the goblins – and that led to the biggest shock of all for Donnchad. One of the other survivors of the attack was Alexander himself. Although Donnchad was greatly relieved to learn that his cousin had not died, it was still a shock and what he would have to say was bound to add to the weight of evidence against the beleaguered Chief.

 

Alexander had to be helped into the hall by two other men, and could only speak while lying prone on the floor. Donnchad almost did not care that everything Alexander had to say was so damning. It was just a relief to his conscience to know that some of the others had escaped alive.

 

Alexander went on to talk openly about his affair with the McGrew girl with whom he had fallen very deeply in love. They had met several months earlier after one of the McGrew raids from their hill camp. She had been in the raiding party, and had stolen some food from a storage barn on the edge of the village. As she ran away, Alexander saw her and gave chase. When he was on the brink of catching her, she outwitted him by hiding under the surface of a loch, and breathing through a reed. She thought when she finally resurfaced that she had escaped him, only for him to grab her as she reached the shore. He started leading her back to the village.

 

They began talking as they walked though, and quickly found a lot to like in each other. They shared a great deal, including a deep dislike for the feud between their two families, and suspicions about why it had carried on for so long.

 

Realising he did not wish to see harm come to the girl, Alexander let her escape. Grateful and more, she came back to the village two nights later, under cover of darkness, just to see him.

 

“From there,” said a soft, feminine voice from the doorway, “we ne’er looked back.”

 

All eyes in the hall turned to see a girl dressed in the hated tartan of Clan McGrew stepping inside. She was followed by the familiar figures of Leytan, Lady Mercury, Vyrrian Wren, and January Mallory. A murmur of unease, bordering on outrage, passed through the gathered Campbells.

 

“I’m no here for war,” said the girl, raising a hand in a placatory gesture. “We’ve already had that today.”

 

“Name yerself,” snapped Donnauld harshly.

 

“My name is Lorna,” the girl answered, “Lorna Mac Grou. And I am s’very proud to say that Alexander Cam Beul…” She placed very great emphasis on the family name, “…is the man I love.” Her eyes cast sadly down to where Alexander was lying, and she almost cried as she saw his terrible wounds. “Oh Alexander,” she almost whispered, “what did they do to ye?”

 

Lorna moved to the wounded man’s side, and several of the Campbells motioned to intercept her. At this, Leytan and Jan-Jan stepped forward, their hands held threateningly close to the pommels of their weapons.

 

“Touch her,” growled Leytan with great menace, while Lorna dropped to her knees by Alexander, “and you will spend the rest of your lives learning to do everything with your left hands only.”

 

This threat might have caused an uproar, but given everything that had happened over the previous couple of days, instead the Campbells seemed to retreat into themselves. Their concern almost melted anyway when they saw how benignly Lorna was tending Alexander’s injuries.

 

Leytan looked across the gathering, almost impudently, as he made sure there would be no further stubbornness. Then he glanced over at Lady Mercury and gave her a curt nod, to let her know she could proceed.

 

Lady Mercury, reunited with her amulet, stepped forward and addressed the beleaguered Clan Campbell.

 

“People of the honourable Campbell Clan,” she declared with impressive dignity. “We are here before you again, not to fight you, nor to perpetuate your war any further. We are here to tell you the truth. The true nature of the war you have been fighting.” She paused wearily, not just because she was unsure where to begin, but because she really doubted that it would be worth the effort of explaining. “I hope,” she added more softly, and even a little imploringly, “that this time we will be listened to…”

 

 

**Very approximately pronounced ‘Malcolm’.

 

Epilogue

 

“This feud,” explained Lady Mercury with calm vigour as she warmed to her subject, “could have ended many years ago, and should have done. But it did not. It continues to this day, for one reason, and one reason alone.” She took half a step forward, and enunciated what she saw as the ‘killer’ word, so to speak. “Profit. Your war, the deaths of dozens in your families and among your friends and neighbours, the destruction of your homes and lands… it was all highly profitable.”

 

The expressions on the faces of many of those she was addressing were blank. In some cases, it was simply because they spoke no English, but even most of those who did understand her words could not grasp their meaning.

 

“The feud came close to ending a number of times,” persisted Lady Mercury, “including this very week. Each time, something went wrong, and it appears that it was out of the control of either clan. And it was because someone else was controlling the events.” Confused looks were evolving into looks of doubt, so Lady Mercury decided not to pause now. “Whoever was providing you with weapons was selling equalising weapons to the McGrew Clan. These sales to both sides kept the two Clans at the same strength all the time, and so the feud could not end decisively.”

 

More blank looks, even a few looks of defiance at the suggestion that the McGrew Clan could be considered the equal of the Campbells.

 

“Don’t you see?” appealed Lady Mercury. “As long as the feud carries on, the need for weapons carries on too. Both sides continue to purchase regular supplies of weapons from the same provider.” She paused just briefly, allowing her words to sink in, then added, “The provider will keep getting richer and more powerful as long as both sides keep purchasing from him. The provider needs the war to carry on indefinitely! Therefore every time there’s a sign the war might come to an end, the provider intervenes. Creates some scandal.”

 

And that was what it was all about, Lady Mercury thought to herself with a very slight grin. Whoever the providers were, and she was fairly sure from the Latin text Lorna had mentioned that she knew who they were, they were playing both ends against the middle on a very grand scale. They were selling advanced weapons to both sides, probably at an obscene profit, but while also making sure that whichever weapon one side got, the other would get a weapon that neutralised its advantage. Thus there was little chance of the feud being decided on the battlefield, thus fighting would continue, and the clans’ need to purchase still more weaponry would continue unabated, perpetuating the resultant profits. “That,” she thought with grudging admiration, “is such contemptible business ethics that I should have thought of it first.”

 

Leytan stepped forward. “The war has to end, and it has to end now.” He gestured to Alexander and Lorna. “Look at these two. They’ve known it for some time, that the war had been carried long past its natural span. How ironic that it takes a pair of teenagers to see what the older, supposedly wiser eyes are blinded to. Look at Alexander. Look what has become of him, and all for what? For falling in love with someone whose only crime is her name.” He looked Donnchad in the eye. “All these decades of war, and the worst aspect is that neither clan can be the winner. Even if the feud were to end decisively now, it would already have been won by whoever has been manipulating you. They won many, many years ago. It would be interesting to find out exactly who they are, but first things first. Before you worry about finding them, the war must end.”

 

There was a long silence. It was clear that the meaning of their words had sunk in. It was also clear that there was acceptance.

 

“As your esteemed Chief will be delighted to hear,” commented Wren, “we’ll now abide by his wishes and return home. We’ve given you the knowledge you need to move forward at last. What you do with that knowledge is up to you.”

 

Donnchad nodded bleakly, while Donnauld stood up. “The Clan Campbell honours its debts.” He gave his older brother a sour look. “Even those incurred under irresponsible leaders. We owe ye five hundred sovereigns.”

 

A girl stepped up, carrying a bag of gold coins secured by an ornate drawstring. She presented the bag to Lady Mercury with a gracious bow, then retreated back into the crowd.

 

“As to the rest of what ye tell us,” continued Donnauld, “we will consider yer words, every word. I confess, they make a sense far more pleasing to my mind than sixty years of war ever could.”

 

At this, Lady Mercury performed an elegant curtsey, and with that she led her crew out of the hall, to begin the long, awkward journey south, back to the border, and to England. Crossing Winteria was still not going to be easy, but it would be far easier now they had no weapons shipment to guard. And for certain, they had no wish to travel by sea again.

 

There were no fond farewells, no rituals of goodbye. No one even saw them off. But in truth, none of them cared anyway. Dusk was not far off as they set on their way, and that did not concern them either. The excursion to Scotland had been a gruelling ordeal. They did not want affection, or even thanks. They just wanted to go home.

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

A week had passed. Rogo D’Ara had only just arrived in Oxford when he was accosted by two men in dark grey livery, who ‘politely’ asked him to accompany them to meet their employer, a man of Rogo’s acquaintance. Rogo knew immediately who it was they meant, and what this meeting could entail.

 

They led him to a rather nondescript hall on the market square. Rogo had been there several times before and had always been impressed by how understated it was in comparison with some of the grand emerging architecture elsewhere in Oxford market, and that of course was the whole purpose. The hall needed to be large enough to accommodate the work that carried on within, but it also needed to be discreet enough not to catch the eye. Dozens of people would pass it every hour without altogether noticing it was even there.

 

Rogo was taken inside. The hall was divided into many small, dusty, slightly poky rooms, all of them loaded up with shelves and desks full of papers and hand-written books, giving the impression of a library sliced up by a giant knife. It all looked very dull, dismal, official and barren, which was again an impression that was intentional for discouraging attention, but also happened to be accurate. These were all very carefully arranged accounts, purchase and sale records, and personnel listings.

 

Rogo was led to one of the smallest offices right at the back of the hall. It had no windows, and was lit only by frame-guarded candles on opposite walls, leaving the room so full of murk and so dingy that Rogo could scarcely make out the unforgiving, backless timber bench that he was made to sit on.

 

Although the two men in grey immediately took their leave, Rogo could sense that he was not alone in the darkness. There was a compact oak desk ahead of him, and he knew the identity of the invisible figure sitting on the other side of it.

 

“You honour me with a personal audience, Chairman,” Rogo heard himself saying, and quietly cursed himself for offering such a grovelling and hackneyed greeting.

 

As if in answer to this very thought, the Chairman’s sepulchral voice uttered a contemptuous rebuke. “Spare me the ingratiating noises, Rogo. We are here to discuss business, as I always prefer it, not to play flattery-tennis.”

 

“Apologies, Chairman.”

 

“We are also to discuss the future,” continued the Chairman. “The future of the clan feud, and your role in it.”

 

Rogo was cautiously relieved to hear that. It meant he might still have a future of some kind, or why would the Chairman bother talking to him about it? Why not just execute him and have done with it?

 

“Is there news from the feud that I have not heard?” asked Rogo.

 

“You were in Scotland more recently than I,” the Chairman pointed out, “if there is news, you will know it.”

 

Rogo took the point with a polite nod. “The future then?”

 

“The ultimate weapon is the future, Rogo,” explained the Chairman. “We have done well to maintain the conflict for many years, but the signs are that it has been extended as far as we can take it. At least by old methods.”

 

“Ultimate weapon…” muttered Rogo uneasily. “Whatever its precise nature, such a device, by definition, would mean annihilation of the clans.”

 

“The weapon we have in mind,” persisted the Chairman, “will be a way of re-igniting the mutual paranoia and suspicion, while maintaining the deadlock we have so skillfully constructed. Both sides will feel as compelled to continue stockpiling arms in the peace that will ensue, as they had in time of war.”

 

“Peace?” Rogo boggled. “Surely the only hope they will have for peace is if such weapons are destroyed…”

 

“You are a fool, Rogo,” sniffed the Chairman. “That would be aiming at the wrong target entirely.”

 

“I do not understand.”

 

“You do not prevent a war by destroying the ultimate weapon!” the Chairman decried, like an impatient teacher screeching at a wayward pupil. “The one sure way to prevent a war is to destroy all obsolete weapons, then make sure both sides are armed with the ultimate weapon. Both sides will know that if either one uses it, the other will too, and both will be wiped out. That way, the ultimate weapon becomes its own deterrent, and neither side has anything else to fight with!” He paused as if satisfied with his explanation, then added an afterthought, “And even if they do, neither one will win. Balance, Rogo. Keeping two enemy factions in perfect balance. That is the Trinity’s secret, the skill that has enriched it for a lifetime, the skill that has made the Trinity what it is, and will continue to do so for many lifetimes to come.”

 

Rogo did not answer. He still looked a little uneasy, but just nodded his understanding.

 

The Chairman’s tone changed. “This point is a digression in any case. We do not wish to end the war, merely to heighten the fear that surrounds it. Fear, Rogo, is what discourages thought, fuels the human need to feel hatred. As long as the clans do not think, they will not realise the true cause of why they fight, or that their motivation to battle each other is not justice.” His tone suggested that he had started to smile. “It is not to correct the inequities over the ‘death’ of a boy from six decades ago. That is irrelevant, a mere pretext. Their motivation is simply to have someone to hate…”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

Two weeks later, representatives of the two clans met in Scone to begin negotiations on a peace agreement. It took just three days for those negotiations to break down.

 

From there, both clans were once more in the market for powerful weapons…

THE END

Balance – Part 3

Posted in Writings on May 27, 2014 by Martin Odoni

Chapt. 1

 

As plans went, this was not a masterpiece. Leytan had a number of skills in the sphere of survival – his Atlantean biology gave him great strength and resilience in water while his Winterian blood gave him enormous resistance to cold temperatures – but climbing was one aspect of the arts that he had not entirely mastered.

 

The plan he had devised to infiltrate the McGrew camp was a little intricate, and he was only now beginning to comprehend just what a daunting task he had set himself. Rather than try to approach the hillside on which the camp has been perched directly, he had chosen to journey along another valley further north, circle round the back of the hill, scale it, and approach the camp from the peak.

 

The early stages of the plan had been easy enough. The valley he had opted for ran more or less parallel to the valley that was between the McGrew camp and Inverchaber village, and the hills lining the southern edge of the valley gave excellent cover against the McGrews spotting Leytan’s horseback approach.

 

The difficulties started to become clear once he turned south, and realised that the hill where the McGrews were camped was well over a mile away. This was because the two valleys were not quite as parallel as he had expected; they diverged quite substantially the further west Leytan travelled, the northern valley veering further north, the southern valley continuing to stretch west.

 

Then, when he finally got within range of the hill, his heart began to sink. He noticed that the side that he had chosen to scale, though not a sheer cliff-face, might just as well have been. The gradient was a great deal nearer to vertical than horizontal.

 

It all meant that it was past sunset by the time he was in a position to start his climb, and so he decided he would have to wait until morning; there was no way he could hope to scale such a steep face in pitch darkness.

 

Leytan spent a long night sleeping fitfully at the foot of the hill. The elements did nothing to discomfort his sleep – they never did – but he was all too aware as he tried to rest of the cut-throats and brigands who would be sleeping on the other side of the hill.

 

Leytan woke just before dawn, just in time to recognise the final problem, and probably the worst; the hill was high. Very high. So high that south of the border it would probably be classed as a small mountain. In Scotland however, there was a different perspective on altitude, and so Donnchad had inadvertantly misled Leytan into expecting a straightforward climb. He had neglected to mention that it was over eight hundred feet high.

 

So now, as the late morning sun threatened without conviction to break through the drizzly clouds, Leytan found himself on a rocky ledge about halfway up.

 

“Note to self,” he murmured as he struggled to regain his breath, “next time Lady M says no… don’t say yes.”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

“I take it,” snarled Lady Mercury, “that you have an explanation for proceeding with this plan even after I withheld consent?”

 

Wren smiled the innocent smile of a child with violet stains round his mouth who is being questioned about missing blackberries.  “Only one? I’ve four or five.” He paused to reflect, then added, not very reassuringly, “I’m just trying to decide which one’ll get me off the hook.”

 

Lady Mercury raised an unamused eyebrow. She and Wren were stood on the edge of the village, gazing along the valley. Her voice was full of quiet anger, but Wren could sense that not far beneath her demeanour was real worry.

 

“You may not be the one in trouble,” she said tartly.

 

Wren did not look relieved at this. He knew quite enough to expect a scolding in the near future. “Look, we knew that if we waited for you to give the order, the clanwar would be over before we got started.”

 

“Which would save us the trouble.”

 

“We’d miss out on the five hundred sovereigns that Donnchad was promising us too,” Wren pointed out.

 

Lady Mercury’s eyes rolled in annoyance. “Which is another problem,” she said. “Five hundred sovereigns is well below our minimum hire-price.”

 

“It was all they could afford,” protested Wren.

 

“Then they should appeal to a charity,” answered Lady Mercury, losing patience. “It’s the precedent, Wren! How many times do I have to say this? If we show that we can be bartered down by appeals to sentiment, every prospective employer will start driving harder bargains.”

 

“Well…”

 

“And besides,” she added, refusing to be cut off, “while Leytan’s off doing this fool’s errand, we’re delaying receipt of the remaining three hundred that Rogo promised us.”

 

Wren shrugged. “It wasn’t my decision, ladyship,” he said. “I suggest you talk to Leytan about it when he gets back.” He turned and headed back inside.

 

“I plan to,” called Lady Mercury after him, “except I won’t be talking. I’ll be a lot louder than that.” She then added, though only to herself, “If he gets back.”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

The top of the hill was a long, uneven plateau, and although it was an awkward surface to walk on, at least when he reached it, Leytan found it a marked improvement on scaling the hillside. It was now early afternoon, and the climb had drained much of the strength from his limbs. Although the exhaustion and the aches and pains were a good thing in many ways – they kept his mind occupied and thus kept it from lapsing into dwelling on anything else – he really hoped he would not have to fight anyone on this mission, as he simply was not in the right shape for battle now.

 

His breath ran in and out of his lungs in laboured gasps, but the comparatively leisured stroll across the plateau meant that the strain was easing.

As Leytan staggered across the plateau for the next minute or so, he noticed it tilted very gradually to the far edge, around a hundred yards ahead, meaning he was effectively walking downhill, which was a help. The ground was fairly firm, gravelly rather than rocky, making a satisfying crunching sound beneath his feet.

 

The view ahead from this altitude was also spectacular. He could see for a great distance along the valley, with the sweeping, saturnine hills that lined it all the way to the horizon. The murky weather did little to dampen the charm of what he could see, and he was beginning to think that the climb might have been worth it just for the view.

 

Still, there were other priorities right now, and he had not travelled all this way north for purposes of tourism. Concentration was bound to be required as he neared the McGrew camp. Especially with that guard up ahead…

 

Leytan stood rooted to the spot for just a brief moment as the figure in the tartan of Clan McGrew at the lip of the hilltop ahead finally registered in his conscious mind. Sometimes he almost enjoyed fear. It was always a chilling sensation, which he of all people was bound to appreciate, and he also found it exciting and invigorating. He came alive when he was scared, and he often felt bored when he was not.

 

But right at this juncture, he was too exhausted to enjoy the sensation, and so he put the presence of this guard down to exceedingly poor timing.

 

Once his reflexes had woken up and retaken control of his limbs, Leytan ducked behind a nearby rock, then slowly raised his head above it. The guard appeared to have his back to him, which made sense as he would be on the look-out for an attack from the Campbells, and logically that would come along the valley from the east, whereas Leytan had travelled round the hill and approached from the west.

 

Leytan spotted that a little way off to his right there was a large patch of long grasses and rushes. They were not quite directly between him and the guard, but the grasses covered a lot of the ground close by. More importantly, they were very tall and overgrown.

 

Quietly, so quietly that his breath sounded deafening in his own ears, Leytan rose up from behind the rock, and keeping his head and shoulders low, he manouevred round and into the grasses, then dropped to his hands and knees so that he was completely hidden from view, and slowly crawled towards the guard.

 

Leytan was within twenty yards when he dared to rise up high enough to get a good view of the guard. To his mild surprise, the guard looked rather short and slightly-built. Even from behind, Leytan could tell that the guard had a beardless face and long hair, which was very dark and knotted.

 

Lowering his head once more, Leytan resumed crawling forward until he was right on the edge of the grasses. From this point to where the guard was standing, the ground gave way to soft peat, the type that breaks and turns viscous underfoot. Leytan frowned. This sort of ground was not conducive to fleetness or co-ordination. If he took a running charge at the guard, he might be slowed down enough by the ground to be noticed. Although Leytan was confident he could still win easily without the advantage of surprise, he did not want any risk of the guard calling for help. So he decided to try and take the problem of the ground out of the equation altogether.

 

Making sure that the guard was still facing away from him, Leytan rose to his full height, took several lengthy steps backwards, drew in a deep breath, took a run up to the edge of the grasses, then catapulted himself through the air at the guard.

 

It was a mistake.

 

For one thing, in his tired state, Leytan had misjudged the length of the leap. Only by about a yard or so, but it was enough for him to land short of his target.

 

For another, the guard was not as oblivious to his approach as appearances suggested. Therefore, it was the work of merely a side-step to the left to carry the guard out of Leytan’s path, so that even the impetus of the jump was not enough to complete the attack.

 

Worst of all, Leytan’s momentum post-leap had carried him right to the edge of the plateau. He teetered there briefly, waving his arms in a slightly comical manner as he struggled to retain his balance. He then leaned as much of his weight backwards as possible, causing himself to land on his rear end in the crumbling peat.

 

He looked up, his face tinged a rare shade of red by the humiliation, in time to see a metal blade flash across his eyeline and rest against his throat.

 

Leytan’s eyes locked on the eyes of the guard, who stood over him, sword drawn and held at the throat of his fallen assailant. The flat of the guard’s booted foot connected with Leytan’s chest, knocking the Winterian onto his back, and pinning him down. The guard took another step forward so as to keep the tip of the blade poised against Leytan’s larynx.

 

“I were thinking,” cooed the guard in a very soft, lilting accent, which sounded more puzzled than outraged, “that a Campbell were sneaking up on me. But nay Campbell is s’ham-fisted as ye. The noise ye made as ye ploughed through the grass…? And jumping at me from that far…? No Scot’d be s’clumsy. Are ye a sassenach or something?”

 

Leytan’s humiliation was compounded by surprise now that he had a good look at the guard’s face. There was quite a bit of mud caked onto it, mud that had clearly built up and dried onto the skin during the course of many weeks, indicating just how long the McGrews had been camped here. But more important was the realisation that the guard was a young woman, no older than twenty.

 

“No,” he answered stiffly. “Is it all right if I get up?”

 

“I’ll say it ain’t!” the girl snorted. “Who are ye?”

 

“My name is…”

 

Leytan’s voice tailed off and then he glanced, wide-eyed towards the lip of the hill, as though seeing some terrible manifestation. Startled, the girl followed his gaze, saw nothing… and then felt a sharp thump against her left calf muscle and her legs giving way underneath her. She toppled to the ground with a grunt, more of surprise than pain.

 

Having successfully tripped the girl up, Leytan was on his feet in an instant, stepping with harsh force onto her wrist, forcing her to release her claymore. Leytan then drew his own sword and held the tip at her throat, just to give her a precise taste of her own medicine.

 

“Well,” he sneered, unimpressed, “you had me believing that you’d be quite a formidable enemy at first. Then you fall for a trick like that. The mistake is entirely mine,” he added sardonically, pressing the tip of his sword a little more sharply against the girl’s throat. “Now please… scream.”

 

The girl, for her part, did not look especially scared. She was clearly well used to being in life-threatening situations. Leytan started to feel a grudging twinge of admiration for his victim. Clearly he was dealing, not with a mere callow child, but a fellow warrior. She did look a little bewildered by what he said though. “You wish me to scream?”

 

“Please,” hissed Leytan in a voice so chilling it sounded like it had been carried on an Arctic breeze. “I want you to scream because I really want an excuse to cut your throat. I’ve cut so many down the years, I couldn’t bear to fall out of practice now, not when I’ve perfected the art so well.” He said this last word with a bit of extra vehemence and force, pressing the tip of the blade a little harder into the girl’s flesh. He did not want to do this of course, but he realised that the girl could be useful, and that frightening her was the likeliest way of getting swift co-operation.

 

Sure enough, this time she was scared. She gave a slight whimper, and Leytan quickly relented.

 

“May I take it that your choice is for actions that will prolong your life then, as opposed to ones that will indulge my more impractical sense of pleasure?” It was worded as a question, but there was no doubt at all that Leytan was issuing a command. The girl nodded quietly, so Leytan sheathed his sword and held out a hand. “On your feet, girl.”

 

The girl reluctantly accepted his hand and allowed him to haul her upright, which he did with rather more force than was altogether necessary.

 

“Ye sure talk like a sassenach,” she murmurred in a way that left Leytan in no doubt – should there ever have been any – that she was not complimenting him.

 

“At present,” Leytan answered, “I am talking like one who is armed, to an enemy who is not. You are going to show me the safest way into your camp, girl.”

 

“Ye think so?”

 

“It depends,” shrugged Leytan, “on how committed you are to the aforementioned principal of prolonged lifespan, over giving me the excuse I so eagerly desire.”

 

The girl could not resist a tiny gulp of fear, but she remained impressively defiant. “What if I do scream when we get to the camp?”

 

“Scream in fear,” growled Leytan in a voice so low and so full of menace it was scarcely audible, “or scream in pain. But choose your moment to scream well, or you will scream your last.” He gestured to the lip of the hill. “Move.”

 

The girl hesitated, then started heading down the slope. Leytan followed, the tip of his sword at her back every step of the descent.

 

Chapt. 2

 

Rogo D’Ara hated the cold, he hated horseback rides and he hated not being in control of a situation. Given all this, and his present circumstances, he imagined that, had he been aware of them, Lord Fear would advise him to get a new careers guidance officer.

 

For Rogo, in his role as a servant of the Trinity, was currently on a horse that was galloping across the snowcapped planes of Winteria, in a desperate hurry to get north to the capital of Scone before a council of peace could convene.

 

(In the event, Lord Fear probably knew nothing of it, and it would matter little if he did. This had nothing to do with upstart technomancers suffering from delusions of invincibilty. Instead, it involved the will of the Chairman of the Wolfenden Trinity, which Rogo found a great deal more frightening.)

 

It had been easy enough getting clearance from the Winterian ‘Queen’, as Aesandre was fond of sporting herself, to cross her lands, which by now had enlarged to cover the borderlands of Northumbria all the way across Lothian to the southern edge of Edinburgh. Winteria was not officially a kingdom – the lands were still formally under the ownership of the local petty Lairds and Earls – but in practise, Aesandre was the magnate who called the shots, and she was clearly going to call a great many more before she was satisfied.

 

What was less easy was the physical act of journeying across lands that were unnaturally heavy with snow – Lord Fear often referred to Aesandre’s FREEZE spells as “keeping the air conditioning on high all year round” – and naturally light on portals and ley-paths. It all took time, and time was a precious resource in limited supply for Rogo.

 

He had already calculated what his actions at the peace talks would be; material had “fallen into the hands of” (read: been bought, extorted or stolen by) the higher echelons of the Trinity, material that would cause fresh and severe friction between the two clans. All he needed to do was anonymously leak the material to the appropriate Chief.

 

But it would be far more effective if he could get the material to him at the optimum moment; when the ambassadors of the two Clan Chiefs were in discussions over the issue that had started the feud off over sixty years before. This was the disappearance of Tyler, the first son of the then Clan Chief, Balfour Mac Grou. Tyler was still only six years old, and had been out hunting in the forests of Glendach when he had vanished. The heavily-mutilated body of a young boy was found just two days later in the grounds of an inn in the nearby village of Clachaig. A crofter who lived on the lands of the Campbells, who had come west to visit a dying relative, had been the only guest to stay in the inn for the past three nights. And he had stipulated that Clan Campbell was paying for his board and lodging, supposedly on compassionate grounds.

 

The dead body was so badly mutilated that no one ever identified it for certain as Tyler Mac Grou. But nonetheless, insinuation fed off innuendo fed off silogism, and soon the Campbells and McGrews were at each others’ throats over what was assumed to be a brutal murder of a defenceless child. That young Tyler was never found did not help, as it meant it was impossible to allay the belief that the corpse found at the inn was he. Who it really was, no one ever knew, nor was his cause of death ever established, but the feud had carried on for over six decades since.

 

For Rogo’s part, the true circumstances of the death, such as he understood them, were of little interest beyond minor intellectual exercise. He had first heard of the mystery about three years previously when he had first entered the employ of the Trinity, and straight away he had spotted, not only the leaps of logic that the McGrews had resorted to, but also the outright absurdities. If the crofter really had committed the murder, why had he chosen to stay in the inn for another two nights after the boy had vanished? Why had he chosen to register at the inn under his real name, or to name Clan Campbell as the sponsor of his visit, if he was there to commit bloody murder? It sounded far more likely to Rogo that the corpse that was found at the inn, whether he were the young Tyler or otherwise, had simply had the dreadful misfortune of being attacked by hungry wolves.

 

To Rogo, this was all a happy misfortune, for the simple reason that it had proven so to his employers. After years of feuding, which had led to a number of bloody battles, and at one point even threatened to tip all the Highlands into civil war, the two clans had lost many men and were on the brink of exhaustion. Refusing to back down or swallow their pride, they had therefore decided to start seeking out fresh supplies of weaponry and equipment.

 

Up stepped the Wolfenden Trinity, a small group of traders that had recently started out in the north of neighbouring England. They had secured a trade route guaranteeing regular supplies of reinforced steel from the Spanish lands, and had among their number some of the most skilled craftsmen in feudal Europe. They began constructing swords, spears and pikes, all of which they would send north to the two warring clans, offering them to whichever bid the highest.

 

The Trinity’s profits were swift and huge as a result of the feud, and this allowed them to hire more craftsmen and to purchase even larger supplies of steel, which in turn allowed them to produce a still higher number of weapons, all of which were greedily bought up by the McGrews and the Campbells, resulting in ever-growing profits. Upward the profits and supplies spiralled.

 

This pattern carried on for over sixty years, by which time, the mysterious Trinity had grown so vast it secretly had traders, craftsmen and haulers in every town and village in England, and was spreading its tendrils into Scotland, Wales, and France, cornering more and more markets. It even had its own men placed in Aragon and Castille, allowing it to take direct control of the steel supply-line.

 

It also had developed into other areas, especially that of fighting men. Wishing to make sure that it had might on its side where it needed it, and especially for eliminating dangerous commercial opponents, it started recruiting assassins and mercenaries. There was at least one professional assassin in the employ of the Trinity in every county in England. On one occasion, just a year back, the Trinity had even tried to recruit Fire & Ice to its ranks. Lady Mercury had not liked the idea and refused; she did not even mention the offer to the others.

 

The most extraordinary aspect of this was that the Trinity had become a huge and powerful consortium, and yet hardly anyone knew anything about them. Most people had not even heard of them. Even many powerful magnates and aristocrats had no idea that it existed. Lord Fear, for instance, rather foolishly assumed that the various suppliers of metals and weaponry he purchased on a regular basis were all independents. In fact, most of them secretly answered to the Chairman of the Trinity; for most traders, it was the only way they could get access to the kinds of goods they wished to sell, or to get the market space they needed.

 

The Trinity remained mysterious and almost unknown, as it suited its leaders and safeguarded their power. The Trinity could be protected from the rapacious laws of the Royal Court only so long as the Royal Court had no idea what it was. Furthermore, the Trinity could protect itself from other rival factions that could only target the fingers and thumbs, totally unaware that the heart and mind behind the operation was elsewhere entirely.

 

Rogo was a rising star in the Trinity’s ranks, and he knew that the peace council between the McGrews and the Campbells was his biggest opportunity yet.

 

He just had to get there in time.

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

Leytan watched the girl suspiciously. The descent was taking a conspicuously long time, and followed an obvious winding route, around boulders and jagged edges. The general shape of the descent was diagonally south and down, but it varied very wildly in a way that had Leytan doubting.

 

“Stop,” he instructed softly after about ten minutes.

 

The girl stopped and turned to look at him. Her eyes betrayed quiet fear. He decided to lower the sword, and stepped past her, gazing down the hillside ahead. There was no sign of the camp as yet, although the curve of the hill and its many protuberances might account for that. He turned and looked at the girl again. He was about to demand an explanation of where she was taking him, but instead he paused again, and studied her face. Through the grime, he noticed that her complexion was gently pale. The face was rounded, shaped almost like a heart. Her eyes were an extremely dark green, almost like emeralds.

 

After a while he asked, “What’s your name?”

 

The girl did not answer. She just stared at him, the set of her jaw suggesting defiance, the gleam in her eyes showing real terror.

 

“Come now, girl,” Leytan coaxed gently, “I may not be as unfriendly as I have led you to believe.”

 

“So you’re nay a killer?” sneered the girl, sounding no more convinced than if he had told her that he had spent the previous weekend on a tour of Asgard.

 

“I’ve killed,” admitted Leytan, “quite a lot.”

 

“There’s a difference?”

 

Leytan stiffened his shoulders. “There is to me.” Feeling that proximity might have been making the girl uneasy, he took a tiny step back. “My name is Leytan, for what it’s worth.”

 

The girl said nothing again.

 

“Look,” he tried more openly, “I know what you must suspect; that I’m a Campbell sympathiser, and that I plan to attack the McGrew camp. It’s not as simple as that.”

 

Still the girl said nothing.

 

“Cards on the table then,” persisted Leytan. “I did ship some fighting goods to Inverchaber.” He could see a steely anger forming at the corners of the girl’s eyes at this. “But I’ve had my suspicions over what’s happening here, and I wish to enter the McGrew camp so I can see the other side of this feud for myself.”

 

“Then why do ye try and sneak in?” demanded the girl. “Why did ye no just come to us and talk?”

 

Leytan stared at her for a moment, then came to a decision. He put his sword away and gestured down the hill. “Very well then. I will do that. Show the way and I will talk to your leader, man to man.”

 

The girl raised an eyebrow. “Ye presume a lot.”

 

“I do?”

 

“Aye,” said the girl. “I mean, I bet ye thought I were a man when ye first saw me. War’s a man’s game, right?”

 

Leytan bowed his head slightly, accepting the admonition. “Man to woman then, as the case might be.”

 

The girl slowly stepped past Leytan, but keeping her eyes fixed on his until she was fully ahead of him. “Follow me then.”

 

“I thank you kindly, girl,” nodded Leytan respectfully as he got into stride in her wake.

 

After only a slight hesitation, the girl responded, “Lorna. My name is Lorna Mac Grou.”

 

Leytan briefly allowed himself that rare privilege of a smile once more.

 

Chapt. 3

 

“You have to leave?” Wren was startled. “At a time like this?”

 

Donnchad gave him a cursory glance. He was not used to having his decisions questioned, nor was he interested in the opinions of unwanted guests.

 

They were in the village hall, and many of the villagers were gathered there to hear Donnachad address them. Out of polite regard for his visitors, he had made the address a second time in English. He was announcing that he was heading for Scone to attend the peace council with the McGrews at King Alexander’s command.

 

At first, the timing of this did seem a little alarming, but in truth, Donnchad had put off attending for as long as he could. Knowing that he had a new consignment of longbows on the way from England, he had opted to despatch a party of ambassadors to Scone to stall the council as much as possible, while he made one last attempt at removing the McGrew camp from the village’s doorstep, and so negotiate the armistice from a position of strength. But he was aware that he could hardly stay away indefinitely; his attendance was a Royal command, and Alexander III was no King to overlook disobedience for long.

 

Now that the attack on the camp had proved so futile, Donnchad had decided that there was no point in further delays. He would have to negotiate from a position of weakness.

 

Wren knew that it really was none of his business – and Lady Mercury clearly did not want it to be any of hers – but he was bothered. He was not entirely sure what it was that was bothering him, or even why he was interested come to that. But he had shared the others’ concerns right from the outset that something seemed out of place about the whole mission, even if he had been rather quieter about it. And he had an edgy feeling that if Donnchad left now, he would miss out on learning some critical information.

 

“Shouldn’t you at least wait until Leytan returns?” Wren begged.

 

“And why would I do that?” sniffed Donnchad in a tone that suggested he might set off all the sooner just to spite Wren.

 

“Because he might find out something while he’s spying on that camp,” explained Wren. “And that knowledge could be crucial to your negotiations. ‘Knowledge is power,’ they say.”

 

“‘Englishmen are a pain’, I say,” retorted the Chief nastily. “I’ll be away for around eight days. I expect ye to be long gone from my lands, and preferably from my country, by the time I return, Englishman.”

 

With that, Donnchad turned and headed out of the hall and back across the common to his small stone house. On the way, he swept past Lady Mercury briskly and without greeting. Disdainfully, she watched him go, then turned and headed to the hall. Wren and Jan-Jan met her on the front step.

 

“I told you he wouldn’t listen,” sniffed Lady Mercury.

 

“I told you not to say I told you,” Wren answered back in a ‘tongue-stuck-out-of-the-mouth’ sort of way. Before Lady Mercury could make an infuriated retort he continued. “If Donnchad leaves, there’s no point in Leytan completing his mission. And more important perhaps,” he added, “we won’t get paid. Unless you’re confident that you can talk some of these people to part with five hundred sovereigns on your say-so.”

 

Lady Mercury looked around the village at the occasional passers-by – all downtrodden, half-starved, still trading with one another in animal skins and furs – and doubted that they even had half that much money between them, let alone the will to part with it. There was no doubt that the Chief held the purse strings in this village, very tightly and very exclusively. “Probably not,” she admitted.

 

“Besides,” said Wren shamelessly, “I’m feeling too curious about this feud just to walk away now.”

 

“Ah,” murmurred Lady Mercury, suddenly sounding tired, “another who thinks curiosity constitutes a worthwhile purpose.”

 

“Oh I never said curiosity was worthwhile, Ladyship,” Wren replied with a smirk that reeked of self-indulgence. “It doesn’t stop me wanting to satisfy it.”

 

Lady Mercury’s response was very clipped. “If you are prepared to die for your curiosity, Wren,” she sneered, “that is your own look-out. You won’t involve me.”

 

Wren let out a resigned sigh. “Go home then, Ladyship,” he suggested. “In the meantime, Leytan may need my help. We’ll see you in a few weeks.” And with that, he turned and trudged off out of the village, beginning the long trek along the valley toward the McGrew camp.

 

“I won’t count on that,” muttered Lady Mercury, although not loud enough for Wren to hear it. “Come on, Jan-Jan. Let’s go home.”

 

Jan-Jan looked up at Lady Mercury with a dismal frown. She had not enjoyed this journey one jot, and for sure she wanted very much to go home. But Lady Mercury could see from the look in the girl’s eyes that she was uneasy at the thought of leaving anyone behind.

 

“I know, Jan-Jan,” said Lady Mercury, without waiting to hear any objections, “I know.”

 

“Jan-Jan say we go with Wren-Wren,” the feral girl squeaked imploringly.

 

“It’s not our business!” insisted Lady Mercury stubbornly.

 

Jan-Jan folded her arms and started pouting a little. Lady Mercury stared at her momentarily, then rolled her eyes. This was an argument, she realised, that she was not allowed to win, no matter which of her colleagues she argued it with. She glanced over to where Wren was marching away into the distance, and sighed.

 

Lady Mercury made sure none of the villagers were watching, as what she was about to do was bound to frighten them, and then snapped her fingers and cast a communication charm. “Wren,” she muttered quietly, “wait for us.”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

Lorna was as good as her word, such as she gave any, and it was only around a quarter of an hour before she and Leytan arrived above the camp. Leytan was all the more intrigued when he saw it. It was not made up of tents composed of rags and strips of cloth, but instead it was a wide array of tiny timberwood huts, less than half the normal height of a man. It was clear they were purely there for sheltering under at night; there were dozens of men here, and none of them were inside the huts at present. But more important – and revealing – was that the rooves of the huts were peppered with arrows from longbows.

 

“So that’s how you survived the Campbells’ attack,” mused Leytan. “You sheltered inside those contraptions.”

 

“Inside them,” nodded Lorna, “behind them, under them. Most of the arrows just landed on the rooves.” She added a little more sadly, “Of course a few of us weren’t so lucky and got hit by a rebound, or just didn’t hae enough cover. Got porcupined. But we only lost three men s’far.”

 

Leytan allowed himself to feel amused by this for a moment, but only for a moment; other questions needed answering, the most important of which he decided to leave until last. Instead, he started with, “They must have taken a while to build?”

 

“No,” shrugged Lorna, “only about an hour each.”

 

Leytan was genuinely astonished at this. “An hour? You mean you cut down the trees, you pruned the branches, you planed the timbers, you set them in the ground, you bound them into walls, you roofed them… in an hour each?”

 

“No. We didn’t have to do most of that. We just assembled them.”

 

“You mean,” asked Leytan carefully, “that they were ready for assembly when you obtained them?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So they were in fact manufactured by someone else, and supplied to you?”

 

“Ye have a mind like a steel trap, Leytan,” Lorna remarked, entirely sardonically.

 

“And when did you take delivery of them?” Leytan pressed. He had to get as much information as possible before entering the camp. He knew that there was little likelihood that the other McGrews would be prepared to discuss the details with a stranger, and that was assuming they were prepared not to gut him on sight. “They look… quite new.”

 

“They are quite new,” nodded Lorna. “We got them a couple of weeks ago.”

 

A couple of weeks, Leytan mused grimly. Now that would have been around the same time that Rogo… He broke the train of thought there, when he realised it was only confirming something he had been suspecting for a while. Time to bite the apple, he decided. “Who is your supplier, Lorna?”

 

Lorna looked a little unsure. “Chief McGrew wouldn’e tell most of us,” she explained in halting tones that made Leytan scowl. “He kept saying stuff about trade secrets, whatever they are.” She reflected briefly, then added, “But I did hear him mentioning something once, I didn’e think much of it at the time.”

 

“About what?”

 

“Well like I say, I dinna know what it means,” explained Lorna a little feebly.

 

“It still might be useful,” snapped Leytan. “Tell me what it is you heard.”

 

“Some kind of gibberish,” said Lorna. “It could mean nothing. But it sounded like a code. He said something like…” She hesitated as she struggled to pluck the words from faded memory. ‘O-V-M-N-2-V-R’.”

 

Leytan blinked. “What does that mean? Are they initials or something?”

 

Lorna looked annoyed. “How the hell should I know? I told you, it doesn’e mean anything to me!”

 

“Sorry,” Leytan apologised softly. “Shall we proceed then? The day is wearing on.”

 

“Proceed?” Lorna looked confused. “What with?”

 

Leytan said nothing, but gestured with his hand towards the camp. The penny seemed to drop and Lorna nodded. She led him into the camp itself.

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

Scone was all the more sightly for being icy and snowbound, but Rogo was not the type to appreciate it. For one, aesthetics were not something he was particularly responsive to. For another, he hated the ice and snow on broad principle.

 

The peace council had convened each morning for the last ten days in the palace of Scone itself. Rogo had learned to his considerable relief that the negotiations had become bogged down in long waves of recriminations and counter-recriminations between the different clans. Headway had been almost non-existent, and several meetings had come deliciously close to breaking out into violence. Best of all, the Chief of the Campbells had still not arrived to take up the reins of negotiation.

 

The palace was a hive of diplomatic activity, with officials and dignitaries rushing in and out at all times as the conference progressed – or failed to progress as the case might be.

 

Rogo stood outside a tiny house on the edge of the town. The palace was across from where he stood. He had a scroll in his hand, and he knew that all he needed to do was to get that scroll into the palace in time for when Chief Donnchad arrived, which was expected to be the next morning.

 

He did not wish to risk the frontal approach as there were bound to be awkward questions for him. But he did need to find a way of getting the scroll into the hands of a Campbell dignitary.

 

Rogo realised that his apparel was attracting attention of the kind he did not wish to receive from passers-by. He was definitely the best-dressed man in town, even the King of Scots himself would not be as richly-attired. Any move Rogo made therefore was bound to be noticed.

 

It was not market day, but Rogo noticed that there were a few stalls set up around the town square, and the vendors were doing a modestly good trade, due to the many conference workers having to fetch supplies of, among other things, food and parchment for the negotiations in the palace.

 

Rogo smiled to himself as an idea formed in his mind.

 

        *                      *                      *

 

“The only thing worse than a scrawny Campbell spy,” growled Kinlay Mac Grou, second son of the Chief of the McGrew clan, and head of the camp, “is a scrawny sassenach spy.”

 

Introductions had been chilling, which was hardly surprising. Leytan was surrounded by dozens of well-armed, not-well-fed, and well-toughened Highland warriors, the clan McGrew. They were quite an array of large-built, resentful young men and women in weathered, muddy tartan dress, and a bad mood brought on by making do with one meal a day for several months. They were all glowering at Leytan with enormous suspicion, one that was not allayed at all by the brass he had displayed in just walking in through the metaphorical front door.

 

Leytan kept his expression mild, not allowing any of the contempt he felt for the monotonous parochialism of the two clans to become apparent. “I would suggest,” he answered, “that your lucky number is up. I am neither.”

 

Lorna spoke up. “He could’a killed me up on the peak, Kinlay. He were going to sneak up on us, but he agreed to meet ye instead.”

 

Kinlay gave her a disparaging look. He and Lorna were second cousins once-removed, not exactly immediate relatives, and Leytan had noticed that familiar warmth between them was correspondingly slight. In fact, Kinlay had spoken precisely three sentences to her since Leytan had arrived, and all had been short-tempered and condescending.

 

The latest one was little better. “Ye really are a fool if ye think that proves anything!” He turned back to Leytan. “If ye’re no a sassenach, what are ye then?”

 

“This and that,” Leytan non-answered, “but then I’m not very fond of being labeled.” He paused and then added, somewhat cryptically, “I am not a number, and I am barely a human being.”

 

“Ye really are English,” said another of the clansmen nastily.

 

“I say we just cleave his throat and be done wi’ it!” added another.

 

Leytan gently raised a hand in a placatory gesture, requesting leave to speak. “I am not here to spy on you,” he insisted, not altogether accurately, “although I admit I am here to obtain information.”

 

“What information?” demanded Kinlay, his hard, dark eyes almost aflame with accusation.

 

Leytan was not sure how to articulate his thoughts in a way that the McGrews would not have heard a hundred times before. “Your feud with the Campbells has lasted a very long time,” he commented gently. “I was just curious; why have you never made your peace with them?”

 

“You could’a asked your Campbell friends that!” spat Kinlay, who had been made well aware of where Leytan had arrived from.

 

“I like to hear both sides of an argument.”

 

Kinlay’s expression said all anyone needed to know of how convincing he found that, but his voice said nothing. He turned away from Leytan for a moment, glared down the valley as though deep in thought, then turned back.

 

Then he began to speak. He told the history of the feud, albeit with transparent and reprehensible bias, from the death of Tyler Mac Grou, through the opening of hostilities, to the various personal duels and full-scale battles right up to the present day.

 

In all, Kinlay’s story took over twenty minutes to relate, but immediately, Leytan’s suspicions had been rekindled and magnified. There was something in this history that he found incredibly hard to swallow. “You mean to say,” he asked, gently, very carefully, “that in all that time… what, three generations? In all that time, you’ve made no attempt to come to terms?” Leytan could see from the expression on Kinlay’s face that a ferocious rebuke was imminent, so he quickly carried on, “I mean, is anyone who was alive at the time of the original murder still alive today? Is anyone who had anything whatever to do with what happened still around?”

 

There were puzzled looks exchanged among his audience at this point. The aggressive suspicion was allayed enough by his question for Leytan to be confident that he really had their attention now.

 

“Seriously,” he stressed, “have there been no attempts at all to find a peace settlement?” He thought about his own question and added, “I’m sure the Chief of the Campbells mentioned something about an attempt from several years ago.”

 

One of the other clansmen, an exceptionally tall man with heavy, dark hair but a thick, reddish beard, spoke up. “Oh aye, and no just then. We’ve offered them Campbells chance to surrender plenty of times.”

 

“I don’t mean surrender,” Leytan corrected him, “or a demand of tribute. I mean just a straightforward armistice.”

 

Kinlay spoke up again, his tone irritable. “Aye, we know what you mean. Yes, both sides have offered peace in the past, many times.”

 

Leytan glanced at Lorna and saw her uneasy expression. It was clear this was a subject she had discussed before, and it seemed likely that the conclusion was an unhappy one.

 

“And yet the feud continues?” Leytan pressed.

 

“Because the Campbells always betray us afterwards!” hissed another one from the crowd.

 

Leytan allowed himself to look a little downcast. “They say the same of you,” he explained, “and that the last attempt at a truce ended in failure when a McGrew assassin murdered the old Chief of the Campbells…”

 

“Lies!” cried Kinlay. “Lies! We wanted that peace more than they did!” Kinlay drew his sword in reflexive rage, as though daring Leytan to repeat the accusation.

 

Leytan blinked calmly. Other than that he did not so much as flinch. “Tell me, Mac Grou,” he said very softly, “what do the Campbells say when you accuse their ancestors of murdering Tyler?”

 

Again the rage in Kinlay’s eyes was dissipated very quickly and suddenly by a few shrewd words. He lowered his sword and looked confused. “That’s… different…” he uttered a little feebly.

 

“Do they say that the accusation is a lie then?”

 

“It’s no a lie!” cried the red-bearded one.

 

“You know that, do you?” asked Leytan. “Were you there when the boy died? You saw a Campbell murder Tyler Mac Grou?”

 

“Well…” came the stuttering reply, “no, but…”

 

“And yet you are still sure,” noted Leytan, “just as they are sure that the McGrew clan murdered their Chief.”

 

There was no response to this. Leytan decided to satisfy himself with successfully defusing their self-righteousness for now. It was hardly the point anyway, and he did not want to get sidetracked on it.

 

“So returning to the point,” Leytan resumed, “there are sometimes attempts to quell hostilities?”

 

There were a few snorts of derision at the rather wordy way he had expressed the question, but Kinlay nodded. “There’s an armistice council in Scone right now,” he explained with a slight smirk. “I imagine this camp is one of the things they’re talking about right now.”

 

Leytan raised an eyebrow. How interesting, he thought, that both sides should receive fresh supplies of military equipment just as they were getting ready to negotiate another ceasefire. And again rather too much to be a coincidence? “What other attempts have their been to find peace, Mac Grou?” he asked. “And more importantly, how did they go wrong?”

 

        *                                      *                                      *

 

No one was sure exactly where the scroll came from. No one was sure who had written it, or how it had come to be in Scone. What they were sure of very quickly was that its contents were accurate, and put everything in jeopardy.

 

The Campbell menial had merely been in the market to purchase some extra quills for the new-arrivals who had accompanied Donnchad to the conference. The rather well-dressed vendor supplied a full pouch of goose-feathers for a single penny – apparently there had been another vendor supplying the same type on that very spot of the marketplace that morning for two shillings, but he had disappeared rather suddenly, shortly before the new vendor showed up – but when the pouch was presented to Donnchad, he found in amongst the quills a large scroll.

 

On it was an account of a romance between a young man and a young woman. A young man and a young woman who were divided by being of two families who had been feuding for generations. The young man’s name was Campbell. The young woman’s name was Mac Grou. The events of the account had taken place over the last two months.

 

The young man was the Campbell Chief’s own cousin, who had accompanied Donnchad to the conference. When Donnchad demanded an explanation, his cousin could not hide his guilt.

 

Donnchad was outraged, his fury toward his cousin as nothing next to his fury toward the McGrew clan for, as he saw it, daring to attempt mixing blood with the Campbells.

 

He burst into the conference chamber, slammed his fist on the table right in front of the McGrew Chief.

 

“These… ‘negotiations‘,” he declared in a dangerous hush, spitting the word ‘negotiations’ like he was trying to get something foul-tasting out of his mouth, “are over.”

END OF PART 3

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