It was not for the first time in recent weeks that Rogo was trembling. It was for the first time in recent weeks that his trembles were brought on by fear rather than by cold weather.
He was sat in the darkened throne room of the deserted Tower of Goth. He had not wished to be there, it had not been part of his plans to be this far south at this juncture, but unfortunately he knew well from the misbegotten examples of former colleagues that when one received a summons to address the Chairman of The Trinity directly, one answered it, and quickly. And if, as in this case, the Trinity was too far away to attend in person, it was essential to find some remote form of communication to speak to them through. An unacceptable substitute of course was to send messengers with hand-written parchments.
He had received his summons to address the Chairman when the messenger boy had returned from the south. The Chairman was presently in secret residence within the city of Oxford, which was simply too far away to travel to. But Rogo knew that the Black Tower would still have the capacity to offer instant communication over such a distance, even if the Pool Of Veracity were no longer present.
"Chairman, do you hear me?" asked Rogo, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice.
There was no visible indication whatsoever, but there was a lot of sound. Loud, echoing, and very harsh.
"Your words are heard, Rogo," rumbled the petrifying, sharp, gravelly tones.
"You, er, commanded I make contact, Chairman," Rogo ventured tentatively.
"The crisis is not yet averted, Rogo," announced the Chairman. "Even if the shipment you have arranged does reach the Clan Campbell, there remains a possibility that the feud will end in the next few days."
Rogo nodded sadly. "I am aware of the attempt at detente, Chairman. As intimated in my last message, I will place one of my agents in the Campbell stronghold..."
"Your proposal is hereby rejected, Rogo," stated the Chairman flatly. "An assassination of one of the Clan Chiefs will cause initial consternation, for certain, and possibly a resumption of hostilities between the two factions. But it has been done before and there is great skepticism of visitors among the Campbells now. No one would get close."
Rogo was a little put out that his ideas were not going to be used, but he knew far better than to voice any protest. A decision once taken by the Chairman was set in stone. "Then what course should I take?"
"There will be no murder this time, Rogo," answered the Chairman, "for it is not necessary. There is no more foolproof method of disgracing a man than the truth, no more reliable method of driving a wedge between two factions than reality." His voice grew darker in tone. "And I have the most potent slice of reality to feed our two warring factions. The honour of feeding it to them is yours, Rogo."
Rogo sighed slightly, feeling a cold relief. If he was being trusted with such a task it meant he was still in favour with the consortium. If he was still in favour with the consortium, he should have a decent chance of still being alive in another week. "You do me too great an honour, Chairman..."
"For your sake, Rogo," growled the Chairman menacingly, "I hope you are wrong about that."
Rogo was able to keep most of his face still on hearing this, but his eyes could not hide the terror racing through him, the excruciating, rushing iciness constricting his heart, the knifing dread turning his bowels to water. He could offer no answer, lest his voice should betray his weakness with a quaver.
"Whatever happens, Rogo," the Chairman continued, "that feud is going to continue."
Lady Mercury was on the verge of tears. This was a remarkable turn of events in itself, as neither Leytan nor Wren could remember when they had last seen her in such a state. She was normally so in control of herself. But the icy weather and the absence of amenity as they trekked through the mighty-but-gloomy, jagged hills were taking a heavy toll on her. She had seldom looked so beleaguered in fact, exhausted, battered by the elements, and covered in cuts and bruises as a result of various stumbles and falls on the craggy, uneven ground. The tears forming at the corners of her eyes were as much from the uncertainty of when the ordeal would be over as from her wounds. She really had not understood the full enormity of what the mission would involve before they had set off.
They were gathered halfway up a grassy hillside where they had stopped to rest. They had sent Jan-Jan, with all her boundless energy, up to the peak to get a view into the distance to see if she could spot signs of a settlement, or even just a house or hut. Anything that could pass for civilisation.
There had been no sign of anything resembling a settlement since the village where they had purchased the horses, and no one there had seemed terribly sure of where best to search for the Campbells. Few enough of them had even been prepared to talk to strangers. Leytan had followed his map as best he could as he tried to guide the crew inland, but the problem was that it was drawn by an English cartographer whose knowledge of geography north of the border must have been perfunctory, to put it kindly. None of the crew wanted to put into words what they all suspected, which was that Captain Eastin had dropped them off in the wrong place. Wren quietly registered to himself that if he ever met Eastin again, the anally-retentive Captain would never forget exactly where he would find his pristine gangplanks permanently stuffed.
For his part, Leytan was really beginning to wish he had listened to his own inner doubts before agreeing to this mission. He still did not believe that they were being set up, at least not in a way that threatened them directly, but it still galled him that he was allowing himself to be manipulated.
Leytan was concerned about other matters too. All of the weapons in the shipment were sealed in large oak chests that had been padlocked. Before the crew had set off, Rogo had made clear that the padlocks could only be opened by either of two keys; he possessed one, and the clan chief of the Campbells, Donnchad*, possessed the other. But during the night after landing in Scotland, while the others slept, Leytan had been unable to sleep with the unease he was experiencing. His curiosity finally got the better of him. Using his power to reduce the temperature of the air around him, he froze up the padlock on one of the chests until the iron it was made from had turned as brittle as glass. Then a simple punch of the fist shattered the lock into a thousand small fragments. When he opened the chest, he was alarmed to discover that it contained hundreds of longbows.
The longbow was a relatively new invention in Europe, a far larger and more powerful variant of the old bow-and-arrow; whereas the older bow, now already beginning to take on the nickname of the 'shortbow', had a range of a few scores of yards, the new design had such a vast plane and drawstring that its range was hundreds of yards.
The thought of a clan community of several hundred Highlanders raiding across the north of England while armed with these things made Leytan go a little pale.
He was also curious as to what effect the longbows might have on the balance of power between the two clans. The longbow as a weapon was practically unheard of this far north, little used outside Wales, and credible defences against it were few and far between. Surely the McGrews were finished, and the long feud between them and the Campbells was about to come to a very bloody and decisive end.
Leytan gazed out across the hills. There was no doubt about it, this landscape was of a beautiful shape, if a little grim in colour. But nice scenery was of little use, and the lack of colour, and the heavy black clouds, full of the threat of more rain, were definitely having a bad impact on Lady Mercury's morale.
What he really hated about going down dead-ends like these though was the waiting; while they were waiting for Jan-Jan to get back from scouting, Leytan was given time to brood about broader matters. He had nothing at these times to stop himself dwelling on other times, other places. What was raging through his mind at this point were the deaths. Every single kill he had made, the expressions on the faces of each of his victims as he struck them down, passed through his thoughts - these were moments that would never die from his memory he was sure, and not just for reasons of professional pride - and it led him to ask the question he had asked after every single one; if I have to face that choice once more, will I be able to kill again? Every time he had done it, every time he had taken a life, he had found himself only half-sure he had truly done it, and therefore doubting that he could do it again. Even after becoming a professional killer, he still experienced it, that doubt, that question. And every time, when the choice came round again, he still found the answer to be yes.
He hated the doubt, hated thinking about it, partly because it was a sign of weakness, but also because he was disturbed by the memories whenever he dwelt on them for long; a further sign of weakness.
It was something he could never speak to another about, something he always wished to drive discussions away from. Yet still part of him yearned to shout it out, to share it with another who might understand. It was a yearning that always left him feeling alone.
"Jan-Jan back! Jan-Jan back!"
Leytan was snapped out of his reverie as the cheery urchin came bounding and skidding down the slope on all-fours, like a mountain cat darting after distant prey. Fitting, Leytan mused, given the girl's background, but he still felt his head spinning at the thought of how much energy she seemed to have. Was I like that when I was younger? he wondered. And if he was, where had it all gone? Had he doused the fire of youth in the cooling of his adult Winterian blood?
"Report, feline," hissed Lady Mercury, her voice betraying just how much she wanted an excuse to take her mood out on someone.
"Jan-Jan seen it!" cried the girl. "Jan-Jan see it past two hill-things!" She gestured to the west. "That-way-that-way!"
"What did you see exactly?" asked Wren suspiciously.
"Smoke!" said Jan-Jan with pride. "Smoke! Smoke! Campfire! Jan-Jan think campfire!"
Leytan and Wren exchanged doubtful looks, then looked to Lady Mercury, who sighed, nodded and re-gathered herself with an impressive rush of dignity. She started heading down the hill to where they had tethered the horses, commanding, "Let's go west."
* * *
Between the exhaustion, the cut-up ground, the uneven surface, and the increasing obstinacy of the horses, it took nearly six hours to reach the source of the smoke. By the time they reached the outskirts of the settlement, the crew were all completely bedraggled.
What they found when they reached the source did not look very promising. The hill path they were following led down onto a long flat plain in a valley between two sweeping hills, where there was a large ring of stony huts with open rooves. The smoke seemed to be coming from a long hall near the centre; presumably there was some kind of hearth inside.
Leytan blew out his cheeks, grasped the tether of the horse he was guiding, and led the crew down the path. As they got to the edge of the ring of huts, a large number of men dressed in a particularly dark tartan seemed to melt into view out of nowhere. Within a moment, three of them had circled round the back, cutting off the visitors' retreat, while more of them closed in on the flanks.
The Fire & Ice crew all froze on the spot - almost literally - as they realised they were surrounded. They were in no fit state for combat, even with the powers that Lady Mercury and Leytan had at their disposal. They all slowly raised their arms in surrender.
Lady Mercury spoke up. "We mean no harm and no intrusion. We seek the village of Inverchaber."
"Inverchaber you have found," came a voice from the men between her and the village.
One of the clansmen, wearing a long white feather on his chest, and with his shoulder-length dark hair tied back in a tail, stepped forward with his top lip pulled back in a nasty snarl.
"Any McGrew-filth," he declared, "setting foot on the turf of Clan Campbell, will be cleaved. Very slowly. And very noisily." He stood up straight and proud. He was quite a lean figure, healthy-looking and solidly-built. Leytan and Wren were both very capable fighters of course, but in their current shape there seemed little hope of them beating this man, even if none of his colleagues came to his aid. "Speak now, and speak true," he continued at a growl and a rhyme, "is any one among ye a McGrew?"
Leytan glanced at Lady Mercury and gave her an upward frown. "Well, we've arrived."
It did not take long to establish the crew's innocence of the hideous crime of being clansmen of the McGrews, and to explain why they were there. Nonetheless, most of the gathered Scots eyed their visitors with skepticism and resentment. They clearly disliked Lady Mercury for her splendid, if spoiled clothing, and found the mix of Anglo accents bewilderingly foreign to them. Many of them, furthermore, only spoke an eastern form of Gaelic, and so regarded the alien language that Leytan and Lady Mercury spoke in as some kind of witch's curse.
The feathered spokesman for the Campbells introduced himself as Donnchad, the Chief. He was somewhat younger than Leytan had been expecting, no older than his late-twenties. His politeness was of the 'blunt diplomacy' variety; nothing spoken rudely or aggressively, but he was straight-talking, to the point, and made no bones about any truth, no matter how unpalatable it might be.
"Ye're welcome to stay for one night to recuperate," he explained, "and then ye will leave. Ye will remain under armed guard for the duration of your stay." He spat on the ground right at Wren's feet. "We have to be careful about McGrew assassins."
Wren glared at Donnchad furiously. "You don't seriously think...?
"We don't know what to think!" Donnchad retorted. "But my father was murdered by McGrew assassins two years ago, just when we were negotiating a truce with them!" His eyes seemed to blaze with anger. "A truce! We negotiated in good faith, and they murdered my father!"
Donnchad drew a sword on violent impulse. Reflexively, Leytan and Wren moved their hands to the pommels of their own swords, but were careful not to draw them. They realised that it would be a suicidal gesture, and besides, looking at Donnchad, he seemed to be lost in a despairing memory, and not fully aware of drawing his weapon.
"It's a good old McGrew trick, the assassin," explained Donnchad with a strange kind of fierce despondency. "The Trojan Horse. What better way to get an assassin into our midst than to win our trust with an offer of peace...?" He glanced up at Wren accusingly, "Or a gift of weapons?"
Leytan stepped forward and spoke in his coolest of cool voices, a voice that might have been soothing enough to take the heat out of Lord Fear's favourite fireball. "I can assure you, we are not interlopers, or representatives of the Campbells in any way. It is true that we are assassins, but that is not the task we have been hired for. We are here simply to deliver these weapons to you. Once that is done, our obligation here is complete." He paused for breath, then added, "We will abide by your wishes, and we gratefully accept your offer of a night's lodging. I can assure you it is most needed."
Donnchad's expression did not soften one iota, but after a moment he nodded mildly and turned and headed back to the hall at the heart of the village. He called a command in Gaelic over his shoulder, and some of his men shuffled over to the carts to start unloading the weaponry.
Lady Mercury stepped up to Leytan's side and murmurred quietly to him, "Well handled, but even at this stage, I am still unsure what you have dragged us into."
Leytan's response was measured, but unimpressed. "I am aware that you told me so, ladyship," he sniffed, "but nothing has actually happened that we were not anticipating to this point." He then added, a little more sourly, "I also note that for all your vaunted mastery of diplomacy, it is my negotiations that keep us alive."
Leytan strode away before Lady Mercury could answer; she looked affronted and angered that Leytan could dare to speak to her like that, but she was too tired to protest.
Lady Mercury glanced down to where Jan-Jan was crouched. "Let's go see if we can find a fire then."
* * *
The four travellers were allowed to sleep round the large fire in the long hall of the village, much to Jan-Jan's relief, but also to Lady Mercury's. To be warm, dry and indoors had turned into a rare pleasure, a novelty and a luxury that they wanted to revel in for as long as they could. With Wren, the feeling was probably double; although he was less likely to admit it, he was always prone to the cold, and he had been getting noticeably quieter as the journey had worn on.
By morning, it would have been an exaggeration to say that they were fully recovered, but at least they were no longer soaked right through. The sun was also out, giving a pale, creamy glaze to the length of the valley. It was still cold though.
Leytan, who had slept as far from the fire as he could, was up at first light. He had been woken, not by the rays of dawn, but by a commotion outside. The men-at-arms of the Clan were gathering in the centre of the village, longbows and quivers strapped to their shoulders. Leytan stepped outside to watch as Donnchad addressed the mass of his men in Gaelic.
The address lasted a few minutes, and Leytan understood none of it, but he did pick up on a growing fervour both in Donnchad's eloquence and in the reaction of his men.
When he finished with a very recognisable crescendo, his men let rip a mighty roar of unmistakeable blood-lust and as one they began galloping across the plain toward distant hills, with Donnchad at their head.
The roar had been enough to wake the others inside from their slumber, and they hurried to the door to see what was happening.
"What was all that noise?" demanded Lady Mercury.
"Looks like some kind of Highland Charge to me," commented Wren.
"It is," grunted Leytan.
"Who-who they fight?" asked Jan-Jan, who had adopted a defensive crouch on nervous reflex.
"I think we can guess."
Wren's eyes moved up his forehead so sharply they almost looked like they were trying to break free of it and see the world. "The McGrews? Here?"
Leytan nodded. "A raiding party." He thought for a moment. "I reckon that may be why Donnchad wanted the weapons. Maybe there's a McGrew camp set up in the area, and they wanted to attack it."
Lady Mercury had a look of disinterested understanding on her face. "Makes sense," she nodded, "but hardly our business now." She turned back inside and started gathering her few possessions together. "We should get ready to leave. Donnchad made very clear that he wanted us to be on our way this morning."
Leytan glanced back through the doorway at her and suddenly raised a cautionary palm. "I don't think we should just yet, Constance," he suggested.
Lady Mercury stopped and look back at him in astonishment. "And why not?"
Leytan looked serious. "I want to know exactly what the outcome of this battle is going to be first."
Leytan stiffened his shoulders very slightly. "I'm curious."
Lady Mercury rolled her eyes at this. "Oh, well I'm glad we have a worthwhile reason." She returned her attention to getting her belongings together.
Leytan could tell that his words from the previous night were still rankling with her. "Look, I know it looks like we've completed our mission fairly smoothly, but I still have this feeling..."
"A feeling?" snorted Lady Mercury, turning to look up at him again. "Well that's all right then. Mr Ice-blood himself, man of total emotional control, has a feeling. Therefore the world must be in turmoil, therefore there must be something wrong here..."
"Yes!" hissed Leytan, giving a rare display of anger. "Yes there is. You and your spells, and your diplomatic gobbledegook. There you are, so busy staring at your spellbooks and your rulebooks. Feeling, instinct... have you really forgotten how crucial they are when trying to unravel a mystery?"
"Chief," interjected Wren in a way that Leytan found altogether far from welcome, "that's what we don't understand. As far as we can see, there is no mystery here."
Leytan immediately forced himself to calm down again by pressing a little coolness into his own blood. "There is something out of place here, Vyrrian," he said simply, "and I want to know what it is." He turned away and stepped away from the hall.
"Where is Ley-Ley going?" cried Jan-Jan.
"I'm not going anywhere," Leytan answered, not even glancing over his shoulder, but walking over to a stretch of grass on the edge of the village. "But if the rest of you wish to leave... well you must suit yourselves of course. I can find my own way back to Angar."
Wren and Jan-Jan exchanged awkward looks. They could sense the enormous friction developing between Lady Mercury and Leytan. They knew that her ladyship could pull rank and order him to return south with the rest of them, but they also knew that she was not keen on doing that. If it had been anyone else in the crew, she would not hesitate, but her personal relationship with Leytan made things far more complicated. She was also stubborn though, and would never let a man win an argument without pulling her teeth first.
Wren stared at Lady Mercury for a moment. After a while, she began to sense his eyes on her and soon enough she could not resist taking a bite. "What?" she snapped, turning to glower at him.
"It wouldn't cost us anything to stay until we learn what happens, would it?" suggested Wren.
"It could cost us our throats, Wren," Lady Mercury pointed out, "especially if Donnchad decides we're violating his terms."
"I doubt he will," answered Wren. "If he wins the battle he'll be in too good a mood to want to attack his guests, and if he loses, he probably won't be in good enough shape to do it."
"Your words speak more for your optimism than they do for your brain," sneered Lady Mercury. "If they lose, they might choose to blame it on the weapons. And they will blame the weapons on those who provided them."
Wren sighed. He knew from experience that this was an argument that he was never going to win. He motioned to Jan-Jan to go and help Lady Mercury finish packing things together, then strode outside to join Leytan.
"She's angry, Chief," he announced when he reached him.
"Maybe we'd feel happier going along with you if we knew exactly what you're expecting to find," suggested Wren.
"If I knew that," responded Leytan, "there would be little point in staying. And as I said before, none of you have to go along with me anyway."
"Don't you want us to?"
"Yes," Leytan conceded. "Survival in a hostile land is not easy when there is no one to watch your back, but as her ladyship says, we would only be staying to suit my curiosity."
Wren nodded. "I'll stay too."
Leytan looked over at him. "Thank you. Would you like to tell me why?"
Wren shrugged. "I've been looking for an excuse not to have to travel with Jan-Jan all the way home anyway," he explained.
"You don't want to tell me why," concluded Leytan.
"Would I tell you if I did?"
Leytan's expression was unreadable. "Your motivation is something I have never been sure of, Vyrrian. Never."
It was late afternoon when the Campbell men-at-arms finally returned. They were traipsing slowly and disconsolately back across the plain, heads bowed, shoulders slumped. Their numbers appeared roughly the same as those who had set off, and what injuries there were appeared very few and minor. They certainly did not look as if they were a beaten army, at least not physically, but mentally and emotionally, they looked completely wrecked.
Astonished, Leytan, Wren and Lady Mercury saw the small army arriving back in the village. Jan-Jan was asleep in the hall.
Wren nervously ran over to accost Donnchad. "What happened?" he demanded.
Donnchad raised his head enough to look Wren in the eyes. His own pale eyes looked reddened and bloodshot. "Failure." A tear formed at the corner of his eye. "Defeat..." he murmured in a hush.
* * *
It took about an hour to extract the full story of what had happened in the battle. It turned out that the skirmish was hardly a defeat at all. It had generally been a huge deadlock.
The Campbells had found the raiding party of McGrew clansmen camped on a mountainside about three miles to the west. They had been engaged in hit-and-run attacks on the Campbell village for several months from that position, and were on such high ground that counter-attacks had proven impossible. The longbows had been suggested to them by Rogo as a method of attacking the camp without having to climb up to them. With the McGrews largely armed with claymores and a very small number of shortbows, it should have been easy to destroy the camp.
However, when the attack began, the Campbells found that most of their arrows had no effect. They put it down to their inexperience in using the weapon. After several hours of bombarding the McGrew camp, they ran out of arrows. The McGrews, outnumbered, chose not to counter-attack, but just stayed in the camp, taunting their assailants, and eventually Donnchad gave the deflating order to withdraw. His clansmen headed home, despairing at their failure to protect their village and the loved ones there.
Leytan rubbed his jaw as he listened to this story. He was greatly surprised by what he was hearing. When Donnchad had finished his explanation, Leytan took Wren and Lady Mercury to one side.
"This still doesn't add up," he whispered urgently, "in fact it makes less sense than ever. Even taking cover, the McGrews should have been cut to ribbons by those longbows."
"I agree," admitted Lady Mercury, "but I still fail to see what that has to do with us, and I still fail to see why you insisted we should stay."
"I didn't," Leytan reminded her, "and I am unsure why you chose to."
"Can we leave that domestic dispute to one side for a moment please?" suggested Wren, as politely as he could. "What exactly do you want to do about all this, Leytan?"
Leytan glanced over to where Donnchad was standing barking orders to his men, then looked back at Wren with an avaricious look on his face. "I'm going to propose a new deal to our kind hosts." He spoke out loud. "Donnchad, we must talk."
The Clan chief turned and looked at him sharply. "Ye and yer companions shouldnae even be here, Mr Leytan."
Leytan looked derisive. "You have far more serious matters to worry about than chasing us out of town, Donnchad, and you know it. Especially as I believe we may be able to help you."
Donnchad's expression turned suspicious. "How can you help us, Sassenach?"
"Firstly," Leytan countered, "I am not an Englishman. Secondly, the events you describe make no sense. I believe we can make sense of them for you, and give you a chance to rid yourself of that camp."
Donnchad was visibly skeptical. He glanced at a couple of his clansmen, each of whom nodded unhappily. He then looked back at Leytan resentfully and asked, "How much?"
* 'Donnchad' is very roughly pronounced 'Duncan', which is what the name evolved to in early modern parlance.
Click here to read Part 3