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Balance - Episode 3, 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 murmurred 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."




         "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 William'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 William the Lyon 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?"




         "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."