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Balance - Episode 4, 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 that 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."




         "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 King William himself in attendance, was a matter of the deepest embarrassment.


         It was as 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, " 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 eveything 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 propogate 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'.