Chasing Sorcery

By L. J. Hutton

Fantasy

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831
48 mins

Chapters 1& 2

Chapter 1
A Surprise Return
Rheged: late Harvest-moon

The wind tore at the clouds as they scudded across in front of the full moon. By its light a small fishing vessel raced before the storm that chased hard on its heels. As the opening to Maerske harbour appeared from between the towering cliffs, the fishermen fought to get the sails down before the craft was dashed to pieces at their foot. With a skill born of years of practice the wet canvas was wrestled down and tied to the stays, while the first mate and a hand strained against the tiller to negotiate the tide.
“A rough night to be coming home,” one of them said to the man standing in the bows. The moonlight silhouetted his hawk-like profile against the darkness of the approaching coast. He smiled, but said nothing and continued his watch as a small town came into view, nestled on either side of the river mouth which formed the harbour. Huge stones had been heaved into the water on the approach to form breakwaters on either side of the immediate entrance, making a funnel which broke the pounding waves before they reached the channel. Within the safety of their bulk a couple of other small craft had already reached safety, and were heading into the quays which projected out in regular ranks down both sides. The larger vessels were closest to the entrance, while the smaller boats lowered their masts and made their way under the spans of the huge timber and stone bridge that connected the two sides together.
What distinguished this from any of a number of other ports along this coast was the huge monastery which loomed on the south cliff above the town. In moonlight near as bright as day, vast, spired towers rose at the crossing and the west end of the church, and it shone off the three tiers of traceried windows which connected them. With its magnificent east-end window facing out over the sea, the abbey seemed to be defying the elements to do their worst to break such an airy blend of stone and glass. Behind it the massed ranks of the cloisters and other buildings of the complex stood in silent support of its defiance. As if on cue a bell began to toll, calling the monks to prayer, and, as candles were lit within the church, the light shone out of the windows making it a beacon on the headland.
“We normally tie up on the south side,” the owner said. He came to stand by his passenger’s side, trying not to show his curiosity. He had been well paid to bring this man across. Enough to make a difference to a simple man like him with winter coming on, but the condition had been the continued anonymity of the man. “Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”
“Not yet,” the stranger replied, “but I was thinking of trying The Mermaid.”
The fisherman laughed. “You’ve been here before haven’t you! Who are you?” The other man turned piercing blue eyes to face him and tried to keep his tone of voice easy going, not wishing to cause offence.
“It’s best if you don’t know. What I said when you took me on still holds. I promise you I’m doing nothing illegal. I’m not smuggling anything and I’m not a criminal, I’m just a soldier, and I’m not a deserter. I’ve got a message to deliver and it’s not good news, so I don’t want word of my arrival to get out until I’ve found the person I need to speak to. .... And yes, I know this place! So I’ve got no intention of sleeping at The Ferry Boat Inn. I want to wake up with my saddle bags intact and minus bed bugs!”
The men around him laughed in good humour. The Ferry Boat, sitting at the end of the coast road to the town, was notorious for cramming travellers into any corner they could find and fleecing them blind for bad food, bad beer, and cold, lousy bedding. It was also owned by the bishop and paid a large cut of what they acquired to his priests, who never seemed to have a problem over the conflict between such practices and their beliefs. The locals never set foot in the place, preferring the humbler inns closer to the fish markets, each of which had its own specialty fish dish and ales, and a warm welcome for those returning home.
The boat nudged the quayside, and while the crew tied it up and began offloading their catch, the stranger hoisted his saddled bags onto his shoulders and walked past drying nets and salt barrels to the road. Further along to his right he could see the lights of The Mermaid Inn, but he turned left and walked towards the harbour mouth. Between the houses a gap appeared and a long flight of steps rose straight up the headland towards the abbey. For a moment he paused and looked upwards. Tonight he had no intention of going that way, but tomorrow he had to make the decision of whether to approach the monks for information. That would depend on who was in charge up there now, and he needed to find out beforehand. In a four year absence much could have changed and despite what he had told the captain, he was not entirely sure of his reception. It was also another reason not to stay at The Ferry Boat. The townsfolk had little to do with the monks on a day to day basis and conducted their own business, except for the taxes sent up the hill. But a stranger arriving at night from across the sea would have had a messenger running straight from The Ferry to the priest, and him to the abbey.
Turning back, he walked along the wharf to The Mermaid and ducked inside. Immediately he was accosted by a blast of warm air, tempting smells and a deafening mixture of voices from the packed bar. The Mermaid was not a sophisticated inn. One long open room was served by a bar along the back wall with a fireplace at each end. In between, rough partitions had been made from old boat timbers with equally rough tables and benches in the cubicles, but most of the room stood open with shelves for beer mugs around the thick timber posts which supported the upper floors. Shouldering his way to the bar, the man finally managed to catch the eye of the wizened little man organizing the barmaids, although most of them didn’t seem to need it. So far, so good, the passenger thought. The Mermaid was still in the same hands. The little barman scuttled over, wiping his hands on his grubby apron.
“Yes sir? What can I do for you?” Then the little man stopped and looked again and a broad smile appeared. “By the Spirits! Ru...”
“No! No names! Not yet! Have you got a room I can have for tonight?”
“For you? Of course! Come on round.” The barman looked puzzled, but beckoned his guest to the side of the bar where a gap led through to the back rooms and the stairs. Rushing into the kitchen he called,
“Sal! Sal, look who’s here!” A huge woman with arms like a butcher turned round with an equally huge cauldron of something aromatic in her hands. She too broke into a grin and, dumping the cauldron onto the table as though it was a mere saucer, walked over and clasped the stranger to her more than ample bosom.
“You young bugger!” she scolded. “What were you thinking of disappearing like that and not a word for years!”
Managing to get her to arms’ length, the stranger smiled back.
“Fighting with the Jarl, Sal! They don’t let you home for feast days, you know! But I’ll tell you more in a minute. Have you got a room where we can talk without being overheard?”
“Ooh, being mysterious now are you?” she laughed. “All right. Go upstairs and the room at the end is free. We haven’t got many staying at the moment so the rooms at either side are empty too. I’ll send this out to that starving rabble in the bar, and then Ron and me are coming up! We want to know what’s got you scuttling around in the night like a stranger!”
He gave her a hug back and then turned and went up a narrow flight of stairs which was sandwiched between the kitchen and the bar. On the first floor a long passage ran down the centre of the building with rooms running off on either side. There were not many - the place was not that big - just three small ones to either side and a long narrow one at the far end. Another flight of stairs running up to the family’s rooms under the eaves continued the flight he had just come up. In the dim light of a small lamp the doorways loomed darkly, and he padded silently towards the end, pausing at each of them to listen for signs of habitation.
Satisfied that he was the sole occupant on this floor for now, he entered the far room and put his bags on the oak chest. The sight of the deep filled mattress and thick quilt was enough to tempt him to just flop on the bed and sleep. Until now he had paid no heed to the amount of time he had been travelling and the lack of sleep. Suddenly, being back here, in a place he had known as a boy, and the sense of comfort and security that brought with it, almost overwhelmed him. With great difficulty he forced himself to move away from the bed and sit on the stool by the window which looked out on the back street. He didn’t even trust himself with the large chair piled with cushions placed at the opposite one looking to the quays.
Luckily, he did not have long to wait. The protesting of the floor boards and the delicious aroma that wafted along before her announced Sally’s arrival. She entered the room bearing a tray with a large bowl of the smoked fish dish she had been cooking, a hunk of warm crusty bread, and a tankard. Behind her, her husband came in and pulled a small table up to the big chair.
“Come on, you look like you need some proper food in you,” she said. “And while you’re eating you can tell us what’s got you all furtive, Ruari MacBeth.” Hearing his name spoken in his home dialect was almost painfully welcome, especially as he knew that he would have to leave again as quickly as he had come back. He had never thought that his homecoming would be quite this way. Taking a spoonful of the aromatic fish stew he almost burnt his mouth, and so took a swig of the dark, malty ale before starting his story.
“By the Trees, I hardly know where to start for the best,” he said, taking another swallow of ale, “but you know it was decided that the raids that were burning villages up this coast had to be stopped.”
“Aye,” the little man, Ron, piped up. “Jarl Michael took some of his army out of this very port!”
Ruari nodded, and began to tell his tale. The ruler of the Island, the Jarl, had responded swiftly to the sudden raids from the east which had left fishing villages along the east coast deserted and in flames. The army had been called up and he had personally led them in a fleet, scraped together from all the vessels he could commandeer, across the narrow sea that separated them from their neighbours. For centuries the two peoples had traded peacefully to their mutual benefit, and it had been obvious from the outset that whoever these raiders were, they weren’t from the low lying lands on the opposite coast. Those people lived on the vast expanse of islands which were little more than sea marshes on the western edge of the separating sea. The islands became more substantial as they progressed away from it, becoming large stretches of rich, fertile land divided by the channels of the huge rivers which met in the region before emptying at the sea. Fishermen and farmers, they tended to live quite solitary lives in extended family groups who never reached the numbers of men who had torched the coast of Rheged.
This had created problems as soon as the Jarl and his army landed. The small folk of the coast had already retreated deep into the marshes, and further inland the raiders had destroyed as they came west, leaving nothing in the way of supplies to supplement what the army had brought with them. It had also become apparent very early on that this would be no quick campaign. In such terrain it was virtually impossible to bring an enemy to a set battle, which was Jarl Michael’s forte. Instead the raiders swooped on them in night raids, inflicting heavy casualties and retreating into the mists of the multitude of channels before they could be countered. Urgent requests for supplies had helped, but the first season had done little more than halt the raider’s advances.
At this point Michael had returned during the winter and pleaded for help from the Grand Master of the Knights of the Order of the Cross, professional soldiers to a man, who took vows much like monks to the Church, and lived the none-military side of their lives in almost monastic conditions. Ruari, as the illegitimate older son of Michael’s father, had been sent to the Order as he approached adulthood, in order to prevent the political complications of having a Jarl’s son older than the official heir around at court. As it turned out, the soldier’s life had appealed to him far more than that of the courtier, and he had risen swiftly to become the second in command of the Order in the Island. However, he was also very fond of his younger brother, which meant that he had been vocal in his support of Michael, and the need to provide support to the conscripted troops of the Jarl. Having only just returned from dealing with itinerant raiders in the far north, he had barely unpacked his bags before leaving to command the Knights in the east.
With the Knights bringing much needed tactical expertise, the second season of campaigning had been much more successful, and the army of Rheged had managed to reach the more solid farming lands of the Margen region. They took the town of the same name and had been welcomed with open arms as the rescuers of the flatlands. The winter, though, had been severe, bringing with it a sickness that had left men coughing until they brought up blood, and too weak to move. The only consolation was that while most of their troops recovered, if slowly, the raiders seemed to have even less resistance and died in great numbers. Yet this brought with it the problems of finding rotting corpses floating in the water, polluting the few supplies of fresh water.
By the spring, the conscripts’ numbers had been reduced by the large numbers of men who had had to be sent home to recuperate, and the Jarl had once more sent home for reinforcements. However, this time the new arrivals had been a strange mixture of men. Ruari had been immediately aware that they had received the dregs not only from the army, but the gaols of the provincial towns, and any trouble maker who could be shoved, conscious or otherwise, into the arms of the recruiting sergeants. Time and again he had gone to Michael’s tent to plead for caution before committing such a rag-taggle bunch of troops to the field, but there were always the new commanders who had come out with the men to push for what Michael wanted to hear.
Ruari stopped and rubbed the several days of stubble on his jaw as he looked away out of the window.
“Go on!” Ron said, sitting spellbound on the edge of the bed, but Sally’s eyes narrowed as she watched Ruari.
“Was that when Michael died?” she asked. Ruari looked back, his blue eyes sad, and nodded.
“Aye.... that was when it happened.” His voice choked, he struggled to find the right words to explain. “We argued. Michael and me. I can’t ever remember him talking to me like that before ... he said I didn’t want to fight ... he called me a coward.”
Sally gasped in shock. “He called you what? Michael? But you two were so close!”
He ran his hands through his ragged blond hair, and had to clear his voice before he could continue. The battle plan had been drawn up without even consulting him - in itself a first. Even more incredible was the fact that the enemy looked as though they were going to take the bait. Ruari had been unable do anything but look on in horror since Michael had resigned him to guarding the rear, while the unctuous young men who had newly appeared ousted his position defending Michael’s back.
Then the battle had begun. He could still see it, played out in slow motion before his eyes as, after the first feint, the enemy had begun to fall back. Spurred on by the delusion of success Michael had led the way forward, penetrating ever deeper into the enemy lines as they gave the appearance of it being a rout. Ruari with his faithful Knights by his side, had already drawn their swords, in direct disregard of Michael’s orders, and had formed up in their ferociously effective fighting phalanx. They began cutting their way towards Michael behind Ruari’s lead as the supposed enemy wounded started to rise up and close ranks behind Michael. Suddenly the new recruits folded and, turning on their heels, fled, abandoning Michael and his few men to the triumphant raiders. The rage of seeing his beloved brother so betrayed had fired Ruari into a spurt of almost superhuman strength, scything through all who stood before him. With his men carving a widening wedge behind him he had almost reached Michael before he saw the last of Michael’s brave household sink beneath the wave of hacking swords and daggers. With tears unashamedly in his eyes Ruari said to Sally and Ron,
“Do you know what the last thing he said was? ... He caught my eye and I saw him mouth, “I’m sorry, Ruari,” and then he was gone.” It had then been all Ruari and the Knights could do to cut themselves out of the fray.
“I’d have done anything to bring him back.” Ruari half whispered, cuffing at his eyes. “But we spent months running and hiding ourselves... Well ...all year really. The loyal men from Michael’s army all died that day. I don’t know what happened to the rest.....”
“They came back in the ships.” Ron told him.
“What ships?”
“Sacred Trees! They must have been waiting for them!” Ron looked sickened as the truth sunk in. “The Spirits damn them for cowards! They never were going to fight were they?”
“Aye, ... proves it, doesn’t it!” Ruari spat back bitterly. “Michael was murdered! Now do you see why I can’t let anyone know I’m back? I have to get to the Grand Master and we have to figure out how to tell Oswine. He should know how his father died.”
“Oh Ruari!” Sally exclaimed. “You don’t know? Grand Master Robert died two winters ago! And then the men coming back said you and the Knights were dead! Officially the Order doesn’t exist anymore!”
Ruari looked back at her, stunned. His plans had suddenly collapsed. He had been relying on Robert being able to take over the organization of a means to send boats back to retrieve the troops, while he continued to court to tell his half-nephew the dreadful news. Worse than this was the news that the armed support he had hoped for to help him retrieve the men he had left encamped on the far shore was apparently no longer in existence.
“What did they do with the granges, the recruitment camp, the old soldiers?” he asked in numb bemusement.
“Oh, they’re still all there!” Sally said emphatically. “At least they are for now! But without a leader they’re nominally under the control of the church. I’d bet that Archbishop Fulchere’s been taking a nice cut out of their produce. Let’s face it, if they could make enough to keep the Knights in the field, the crafty old sod will have wanted a finger in that pie!”
Ruari exhaled deeply, although not entirely relieved. The problem now would be to let those men in the granges know that he was still in the land of the living, and get his forces back to Rheged unnoticed. If he could arrange that, then he would have a force to back him up when the time came to confront Michael’s betrayers. Temporarily, until elections could be held to nominate a new Grand Master, he realized he was now the leader of the Order, and that complicated things no end. He was now responsible for the extraction of the entire dispersed companies of Knights he had left hidden in the coastal villages across the sea. His personal quest might have to wait, but should it?
“Is Abbot Jaenberht still up the road at the Abbey?” he asked his friends.
Sally and Ron shook their heads, which deepened his misery.
“No,” Sally told him, “he got moved on up to Mailros when the abbot up there died, oh ...over two years ago. The new abbot’s a real crook! He’s raised rents and chased some of the Abbey’s old tenants off their homes when they couldn’t pay the new rents!” She was full of indignation at this, which was of more importance in the upset of her small, personal world than Ruari’s news. However, as an old soldier, Ron saw the wider consequences.
“You were expecting Jaenberht’s help, weren’t you?” he said, frowning in concentration at Ruari’s predicament.
Ruari nodded. He had not anticipated Abbot Jaenberht’s total absence. The abbot was now elderly, but the last time Ruari had seen him he was sprightly and had had an energy that would have shamed many a younger man. Standing a good six feet tall, with a mane of white hair and patrician features, Jaenberht was not only physically commanding but was possessed of a formidable personality. Utterly incorruptible, he had taken an uncompromising stance against any form of moral deviance, but could be moved to equally vigorous acts of generosity on behalf of the genuinely needy, or the impassioned defence of the victims of those whom he regarded as the ungodly. Ruari had been terrified of him as a mischievous boy caught in various tight spots (such as scrumping apples from the Abbey orchards), but as an adult he had developed a huge respect for this one-man ecclesiastical whirlwind. If anyone could have advised him on who would have betrayed Michael, Ruari would have bet it was Jaenberht, who kept a close eye on the political comings and goings as the best way to defend his flock.
“Mailros, you say?” he queried, pushing the tray away and going to look out at the now silent quays. Their nods confirmed this and complicated his life beyond his ability to sort out in one night. Mailros was a monastery a long way north of where he was, outside of Scarfell, and in the opposite direction to the capital of Earlskirk, where the court and the headquarters of his Order lay. Ron came and reached up to put a hand on his shoulder comfortingly.
“Sleep on it, Ruari,” he said. “You're too tired to think straight tonight. Don’t worry, Sal and me’ll throw the last few drunks out, and shut up the inn for the night. Our other guests are regulars who’ll keep quiet. No-one need know you’re here at all. You’ll be safe.”
Awakening to the full impact of Ruari’s predicament Sally backed her husband up. “Whatever you do now, me dear, it won’t bring Michael back,” she sympathized. “So what you don’t want to do is go rushing into something until you know what’s been going on. Ron’s right, sleep here and decide in the morning. Better to decide with a clear head.”
Ruari nodded and thanked them. When they’d left him, he sank into the softness of the bed, but sleep was slow to come. Finally, close to dawn, he sank into a deep, exhausted sleep, only awakening to a loud hammering on the door of the inn down below.
Sitting up with a jolt Ruari was temporarily at a loss to know where he was. He had his dagger in his hand and was on his feet before he realized he could hear Ron’s good natured banter with someone delivering something into the kitchens. His pulse still racing, he forced himself to walk casually to the front window and gaze out, as if an innocent traveller watching the sights. Everything seemed utterly normal down below, and a couple of seconds later he saw a heavy wagon pull out from the side of the inn and carry on along the quay to its next delivery. His disorientation was not helped by the realization that it must be approaching midmorning. It had been many years since he had slept so late, and just for a moment he wondered whether he had been slipped a sedative in his food. Which was ridiculous, of course, and common sense told him that it was actually because he trusted these people that he had relaxed so thoroughly. Even so he was conscious of the lost time and headed for his bags to see if he had something that resembled a clean shirt.
To his horror he found all his small clothing and shirts gone, but, before he could fathom out why that should be, Sal barrelled her way into the room.
“Ah! There you are! I didn’t think you’d sleep through that!” she exclaimed cheerily. “Here’s some breakfast for you, and since when, young Ruari, have you taken to sleeping in a civilized bed fully clothed? Your mother taught you better than that!”
Ruari was nonplussed at this chastisement. It had been so long since he had had the luxury of sleeping safely in a proper bedroom, it had never occurred to him to sleep in any other way than he had for the last few years in camp. Luckily, he was saved from having to answer by Ron appearing, clutching a basin and pitcher of steaming water.
“Hush, Sal!” Ron said, shaking his head in mock exasperation. He turned to Ruari, “She doesn’t understand!”
“What?” Sal demanded, glaring at them suspiciously for this implied male conspiracy in case it was insulting.
“He hasn’t had time to sleep in a bed, woman! And if he got undressed and someone attacked the camp he could be dead before he got his boots on! A soldier has to do that.”
Sal gave Ron a black look and disappeared back downstairs muttering darkly under her breath about men. While Ron, totally ignoring her departure, poured the hot water into the basin and produced soap and a razor from one of his capacious pockets.
“Now then,” he turned to Ruari, “I’ve taken all your stuff downstairs and given it a good scrub.” Ruari’s face dropped at the thought of how long it was now going to take to leave, but before he could say anything Ron had carried on. “It’s one of Sal’s baking days, so I had all the washing ready for when she finished and it’s drying on a pallet in the bread-oven. By the time you’re washed and fed it’ll be nearly dry.”
Ruari smiled ruefully at Ron, who was bustling around tidying the room, his bobbing walk making him look like a chirpy little bird. He had totally forgotten that Ron had been an excellent servant to the Order before his brother’s death had resulted in him coming here to care for the bereaved family. If Sal was one of the best cooks in the county, for everything else there was Ron, and it was his skills as a host and organizer which kept travellers returning time after time to the Mermaid. Ruari admired Ron, and not only for his organization - he had often thought if his brother’s widow had been Sally he would not have had the courage to marry her himself in order to keep her and her girls safe, he had have to have found another way!
“Come on! Hurry up and shave while that water’s hot,” Ron chirped at Ruari, disturbing his reverie. “You’ll have to be respectable to come up to see Father Walter.”
“Father Walter?” Ruari spluttered through the soap suds.
“Well, you need information, don’t you? You can’t go all the way to Mailros and back, and you can’t go to Abbot Alsige. Now, when Jaenberht left he wanted to take Walter with him, but Walter said he was too old to uproot and go so far away, so he stayed. He didn’t want to remain prior under Alsige, so he took over the old hermitage just down the road. I go up there every week and take him one of Sal’s pies, to make sure he’s all right and the monks haven’t forgotten him. He’s got rheumatism in his legs badly, so he doesn’t get about much, but lots of people come to him, and they tell him stuff because they think he never sees anyone to tell it on to. He knows more of what’s going on than anyone else round here. So get a move on and I’ll take you up there while Sal cooks dinner. No-one will question me going up there, and if they ask I’ll just say you’re a traveller who had news from Mailros.”
Ruari looked at Ron in amazement, who gave a gratified little chuckle before scurrying off on some other task. In one fell swoop Ron had sorted the first problem for him, and it suddenly occurred to him that Ron might be the ideal person to get a message out to the granges too. What had seemed to be becoming a list of increasingly impossible jobs had been reduced once more to the possible.
It was hard to resist the temptation to revel in the luxury of plenty of hot water and soap to wash in, and Ruari justified to himself taking longer than he might have on the basis of making himself presentable, so that he would not stand out now he was back in civilization. Just looking out of the window again and watching the ordinary people of Maerske going about their daily business made him realize how long it had been since he had seen such normality. If some of the clothes he saw were old, they were always clean and mended, and no-one looked as though they had spent the night sleeping rough. This was partly due to vagabonds being rounded up on a regular basis by the local magisters, and if they would not work they got conscripted into the Jarl’s army. Of course, this led to the kind of men Ruari had seen running from the last battle, but it also meant that he had to give the appearance of being a man going about legitimate business. Nothing would attract attention to him quicker than wandering around looking like a mercenary or an outlaw, and he could not afford for that to happen.
Ron reappeared as he was towelling himself dry and handed him a shirt that was several shades lighter than when it had arrived. A stiff bristled brush then appeared out of another of Ron’s pockets with which he proceeded to pound the dried mud off Ruari’s coat on the ledge of the back window. Ruari also realized that his boots had somehow disappeared and returned mud-less and buffed up during the night, so that once Ron handed his coat back to him, he was now more respectable, if a little worn at the edges. Standing back to check his handiwork, Ron gave a little bob of approval and then scurried out of the door.
“Come on!” his voice sounded from the other end of the corridor, and Ruari had to hurry to catch up with him.
As they emerged from the back door of the Mermaid a brisk breeze was coming in off the sea, playing cat’s paws with the waves, and there was a chill in the air despite the bright sunshine. They took the long flight of steps up to the headland which, to Ruari’s chagrin, left him puffing behind Ron who was far more used to the climb.
At the top they came out on the small town’s graveyard, which adjoined the monastery’s, and had its own little chapel sitting very humbly in the lee of its mighty neighbour. Under the pretext of pausing to look at the view Ruari caught his breath. Over in the far corner was his mother’s grave, but he did not dare go across in case they were being observed from the monastery, and someone came out to see which name the stranger had been paying his respects to. Intuitively Ron waited quietly by his side, until Ruari turned back to the path. They struck out on a well-worn path that took them out of the other end of the graveyard, past the great imposing gatehouse to the monastery on its land-ward side, and onto an exposed track that led south. It followed the coast, but well away from the edge and the long drop down the cliffs. On this coast strong winds were common, and no-one with any sense walked too close to the edge for fear of unexpected gusts, which had been known to sweep the unwary off onto the rocks below.
Under other circumstance the walk would have been pure pleasure for Ruari. The coming autumn had already started to turn the leaves, and the open moors lying to their west were bathed in warm browns and golds, with intermittent hazy patches of purple from the heather. It was perfect walking weather, and he drank in the clean air. He had forgotten how much the marshy conditions he had spent the last years living in gave an all pervading dank, slightly rotting edge to the air, as seaweed and other plants disappeared into the soggy mixture. Here even the sea air smelt of nothing more than the brine, and the moors had a wonderful array of subtle fragrances depending on the varieties of plants that were in any given spot.
In a dip in the way, sheltered from the sea, they came to a small stone hut. Around it a neat little garden contained what Ruari assumed to be herbs, although he had never got round to learning any but the most common ones. On a bench by the door, basking in the warmth, sat an elderly monk, his habit supplemented by a woollen blanket wrapped around his legs. Ron called out and gave a cheery wave which was returned, and the monk reached for a stout stick and began to lever himself up onto his feet. He stood very slowly and then took a few tentative steps towards them, by which time they had reached the dry stone wall of the garden. The older man grinned and said,
“The knees are playing up again! I’ll be all right once I get moving. I just stick when I stay in one position too long. Is that a pie?” He looked hopefully at the canvas bag over Ron’s shoulder.
“Would I come without one?” Ron answered jokingly. “It’d be more than me life’s worth! ...But I’d have thought you’d be more interested in who it is I’ve brought to see you.”
“I know I’m getting on,” Walter said, feigning to be in a huff, “but I’m not that far gone that I don’t recognize that young rascal, MacBeth!”
Ruari was not sure whether to be offended either. It was the second time in two days someone had called him young, which was something he had not been in quite a while. He now had a niggling worry that these people were not taking him all that seriously, which for their sakes as much as his was something he would have to change. He was therefore somewhat relieved when Father Walter became serious as he said,
“I’m so sorry about Michael, Ruari. As Jarl he was too impulsive, but he could have been a lot worse, and I know how fond you were of him.”
Ruari nodded, and as they returned to sit in the sun he once more went over his story. When he came to the end, Walter drew a deep breath.
“Well, that’s news indeed!” he said, rubbing his bald tonsure. “I don’t know what use I can be to you, unfortunately. You’re right, Jaenberht’s the one you really need to speak to if you want to find out about what’s going on at court. I’m afraid I don’t move in such illustrious company, although I’m flattered by Ron’s confidence in my ability. But of course you’re also right - Mailros is a long way in the wrong direction, and if this helps you, I’ll tell you in confidence, that I think the reason Jaenberht got moved so far was exactly that.
“Oh, he always had a soft spot for the old monastery. It’s where he joined as a novice, after all. But he didn’t return willingly. Archbishop Fulchere really pushed him into a corner over moving, which must be about the only time he’s won an argument with Jaenberht, but it came to a point where it was down to hunches. Jaenberht couldn’t prove that Fulchere was manoeuvring him out of the way, and I know he was sure that someone brighter than Fulchere was pulling the strings, but couldn’t prove that either. We were pretty sure it was someone at court, because Fulchere was always a political appointment, so if as you say, there’s a traitor in their midst I’d say you’re looking for one and the same person. There’s a clever and nasty mind at work here, and the two things smell too much alike for it to be a coincidence of more than one person acting the same.
“I don’t know about you, but I find it too convenient that Jaenberht got separated from the court just before those reinforcements you just told me about got sent out. And the more I think about it, the less I like the fact that your Grand Master Robert died in his prime not so long after they left. It’s all too convenient. If Jaenberht had been nearby it would have been our Order that would have taken temporary control of the Knights, and you can be sure that Jaenberht would have had a new master elected. Somehow word of Robert’s death never made it out of the capital for months. The excuse was, with you abroad, it was a temporary measure ’til you got back. Then when you were reported killed nothing happened and a year had passed, so it was difficult to persuade people that there was any urgency to act.” He shook his head in exasperation. “What I don’t understand is why someone closer to the heart of things hasn’t tried to take action to stop all of this.”
“You don’t know, maybe they have.” Ron tried to be optimistic. “Like you said, we’re a bit out of it over here. Perhaps they have and it’s all sorted but the news hasn’t reached us yet.”
“I don’t know,” Ruari sighed. “Oh, I wish it would turn out like that - but I’ve a nasty feeling it won’t. If it was sorted, someone should surely have been sent out to see what had really happened to us? It would be the first action of anyone with the best interests of the Order at heart. And if they believed we were dead, why not elect a new Grand Master, even if it was someone less awkward than Robert? They could have put a figurehead in place. Father Walter’s right, this sounds like some long-term scheme being put into place, and I don’t like the sound of it.”
Suddenly it felt much colder despite the drop in the breeze. They mulled it over for over an hour longer but to no avail. The best plan of action they could come up with was that Ron would go to Thornby, where the nearest grange lay just outside of, with word of Ruari’s return. As someone who had been merely a lay servant he would not need to be taken directly to whoever was in charge, so if a puppet now controlled the grange he could circumvent him and talk to the ordinary soldiers without comment. Ruari, on the other hand, would have been unable to enter inconspicuously, and they decided that such an appearance might be too dangerous in the circumstances. If Robert could die mysteriously, then it behoved them to be cautious. However, Ron would wait a week. By then, the fishermen would be out en masse, taking advantage of the calmer weather after the equinox, when gales had driven them into port. The Mermaid would be quiet and it would arouse no comment for him to be absent.
Ruari, on the other hand was going to make directly for the capital. Whichever way they looked at it, they found they could make no sensible decision when they had no idea of what had happened at the heart of the country. They were operating blindly and the only solution was for someone to go and observe - which had to be Ruari. Walter’s health prevented him, despite great willingness to be of use and a deep reluctance to send Ruari into danger, and Ron didn’t have the contacts to get close enough to find out.
Ron got up and decided to go straight back to the inn. He wanted to investigate the store of abandoned property left at the inn to create a suitable disguise for Ruari. Anything that would make him look less like a soldier, which might trigger people’s memories, had to be a good thing, they felt. Wishing Walter farewell, Ron trotted off and Ruari lingered on the pretext that an abbey messenger might have business to discuss and so it made sense for him to return later. It also saved him from having to either hide in his room or sit in the bar, either of which might be cause for comment.
Once Ron had disappeared Ruari turned back to Walter.
“You know what I have to ask you don’t you,” was more of a statement than a question.
Walter gave a knowing smile.
“Yes, of course, and he’s safe. Jaenberht took him with him under the pretext of being his personal assistant. He had never have left that to chance!”
“Thank the Spirits! You know I couldn’t ask, even in front of Ron.”
A growing dread had been growing in Ruari as they’d spoken. His family had a close kept secret which only a few outsiders, and not all of the family, knew about. Ruari’s father had had an older son by his first wife. The son had grown up into a healthy and strong boy until tragedy had struck. In an age where violence was common it was normal for any youth from a good family to undertake weapons training, if only as self-defence. Such weapons included swords, quarter-staffs, maces and morning-stars - a lethal spiked ball of steel on a chain, wielded on a bar - which if mastered was devastating, but which was fiendishly difficult to control. Few men used it as a weapon of choice for that reason, but it had had its moment of fashion until the number of casualties from practicing grew too great.
One of those had been Hubert, the Jarl’s son. One minute he was the heir most men aspired to have and then, one blow to his helmet later, an idiot who could barely string a sentence together. His father had been devastated. Hubert’s mother had only died weeks before, and as an adult Ruari had later wondered whether that had been the cause of Hubert’s lapse of attention.
The Jarl had called in every physician in the land, and a few more from outside, but to no avail. Hubert remained mentally and physically crippled, and had been sent to the quiet of a manor in the hills with a carefully chosen group of servants, while the Jarl consoled himself with Ruari’s mother. Ruari’s birth had done much to ease his father’s pain, and then, when the political necessity of producing a new heir had forced him to remarry, Michael’s birth had filled that gap. What so few knew was that despite his afflictions Hubert had fathered a son himself. Their father had been furious when he found out that Hubert’s warders had been so careless as to allow him to form an attachment to one of the serving girls, and beside himself as to what to do with the child. It had been Jaenberht who had suggested placing the child in the care of his Order, which was independent of the Church within the Island and so politically neutral. So the little boy became Brother Kenelm.
Hubert had not lived much longer as his health had been in decline for years, but Kenelm was also not the boy his father had been. Desperately short-sighted and small for his age, he would have struggled to live a normal life in the aggressive climate at court, especially as he seemed to have no ambition or aggression in his nature. Whenever Ruari had visited he had found Kenelm to be a child of a sunny disposition, never happier than when he was helping out in the abbey gardens where he seemed to have a natural talent. Although they were so unalike, Ruari had felt a protective attachment to his half-nephew, not least because their bastardy made them both politically sensitive pawns in the games of jostling for favour and power around the Jarl.
The title had long been hereditary by Ruari’s time, but had originally been an appointment of the first among equals. Once upon a time a great high-king had ruled from the eastern Island, Brychan, over Rheged, Ergardia, Celidon, and Prydein as one, with a chancellor on each of the Island countries. The high-kings were now lost to the mists of time, but the idea of the Jarl being merely a chancellor, barely higher than the rest, had led to many a past incumbent losing his life at the hands of his fellow earls hoping to rise to the office. Even the strongest of men, like Ruari’s father, had only limited power to force his wishes on the council of earls, and Ruari understood why it was vital to have a clear line of succession. However, far from stopping him from taking an interest in Kenelm’s well-being, he had seen it as being important that he made the effort because no-one else could be seen to do so.
Now he had become increasingly worried over Kenelm’s fate. He doubted whether the child he had known had undergone a sudden change of personality, and he could only imagine the fear and confusion Kenelm would feel if he fell into the hands of political schemers. As far as Ruari knew no-one had ever told the child who his father was, but that would be no protection against those who might see him as a useful tool and a puppet to put on the council, to control and to rule from behind. His relief was visible, then, as he realized that if whoever was behind the current chaos thought Mailros was far enough away to neutralize Jaenberht, its distance also meant that Kenelm was probably safe for now. Walter had obviously come to the same conclusion.
“As far as anyone at Mailros will know, Kenelm was found on our gate steps and taken in. I know you haven’t seen him of late since he’s begun to grow up, but certainly the last time I saw him there was nothing in his appearance that would suggest who he’s related to. He’s still fair-haired like you, but unless he grows extraordinarily fast there’s no sign of him being tall like you and Michael, and he’s more round faced, but not like Michael’s Oswine. He’s quite angelic actually, which I suppose makes him ideally suited to fit most people’s idea of a monk, and that can’t be a bad thing under the circumstances.”
Ruari gave him his heartfelt thanks and reluctantly made his way back down to The Mermaid. By now the nights were beginning to draw in, and by the time he was descending the steps from the abbey the occasional lamp was being lit in the houses he passed, giving him glimpses of the family lives going on inside them. Part of him felt a sadness that the option to lead such a normal life had been taken away from him without him ever having the choice. He walked to the harbour wall and silently vowed that if ever he got out of this mess he would make sure that Kenelm got that choice. As far as he knew Kenelm had not taken vows that could not be undone, and Ruari would not let that happen unless it was by an active choice by his nephew. There had to be a better way of protecting his life.
Not that Ruari had anything against someone becoming a monk if that was what they truly wanted. He had seen enough of the world to know that there were many worse options. Watching the waves roll in he knew that his bleak mood was brought on by his own sense of being swept along by forces beyond his control. All his life he had been trained to protect and serve, to take control of dangerous situations, and now his every move was being predetermined by the actions of people he had no knowledge of. If the first rule of engagement was to get to know your enemy, then he had failed spectacularly so far.
Slipping in through the back door of the inn he crept past the kitchen and went up to his room. In a while he would go down for food, but first he had to pack. Tomorrow he had to leave for the capital and find out what was happening. Blundering around like this was getting him nowhere and he was sick of it.

~~~***~~~

Chapter 2
Adrift in the Fog
Rheged: late Harvest-moon

The next morning dawned in total contrast to the previous day. A damp sea mist had wrapped itself around Maerskee, muffling sounds and soaking everything. Ron had talked to a wool-trading guest who had come into town on business and now had an empty pack horse he was returning with to his hamlet high on the moors, so Ruari could ride part of the way. Once well away from the coast he could take the chance of hiring a horse without too many questions being asked, but he had to get there first. It was a large, broad, placid beast who stood patiently by while Ruari said his good-byes to Ron and Sal. The scene was made awkward by the hovering farmer and their wariness of saying anything compromising in public, and all three had a hard time making it seem normal when they knew Ruari was riding into danger.
Keeping it brief Ruari mounted up and turned the horse to follow the sheep farmer who had already started across the bridge. He turned out to be a taciturn man who spoke little, which suited Ruari. It saved him the trouble of making up explanations and he was in no mood to make the effort for small talk. If their progress was not fast it was steady as they climbed along well used roads up onto the moors. Ruari had hoped the mist might lift once they got out of the river valley, but it was widespread and showed no sign of ending, even higher up. Luckily, they took a broad highway which ran parallel to the coast for a short way and then turned west on an equally broad, metalled way that cut inland, so there was little chance of going astray.
As the morning wore on, the mist seemed to get even thicker, and it bothered him that it muffled all sounds. All he could hear was the steady clip-clop of the horses’ hooves. There was no sound of the birds who lived up here, which in itself was not abnormal for the weather, but they could provide good advance warning of anyone approaching off the road when they were up and about foraging. The only consolation was that the fog was so thick you could have been within yards of the road and not seen it, or who was on it. Ruari could only hope that any outlaws had had the sense to stay in camp, rather than risk getting hopelessly lost in the vague hope of finding someone worth robbing on a day like this.
The morning passed and they finally came on a wayside hut, little more than walls and a roof, which was there as a refuge for travellers, especially in winter when sudden snow storms could drift and leave people trapped. The farmer dismounted and led his horse to the stone trough by the side of the hut and Ruari joined him.
“I don’t like this,” the farmer muttered worriedly. “This is full-blown fog not mist.”
“Aye, it’s early in the year for this, isn’t it?” Ruari asked, his instincts aroused to full alert by his companion’s anxiety. “This isn’t normal is it?”
“No!” the farmer said emphatically, his fear now giving him voice. “And this isn’t the first of the year either, it’s been happening off and on for the last three months.”
“Three months? So it happened in the summer too?”
“Oh, yes! But there’s something worse.”
“What?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Ruari could see the man was truly scared. Whatever it was it was real to him, even if it turned out to be nothing more than fireside stories which had got out of hand.
“Sometimes there’s something in the fog... I know that sounds daft, and I don’t know what it is. But after the first couple of these fogs, word started to go round that stock was disappearing. And you needn’t look at me sideways, I’m no fool. Yes, I thought it was just tall tales, at first. But then the one night the folks in the next farm to me heard a racket outside. The sheepdog was howling, not growling like he does when there’s a fox in the sheep pen or anything, whining like he was scared to death. Well, Ted goes out to see what it was ... and, well ... that was the last anyone saw of Ted.”
“What? He fell? Drowned?”
The farmer shrugged and raised his hands. It turned out that no body was ever found, and in that area there were no deep pools or steep drops. The whole hamlet and surrounding farms had turned out to search without success.
“The weirdest thing was it looked like his footsteps just stopped. Well, that shook everyone. Him and his wife were real close, so it wasn’t like he took off with some other woman - poor soul she’s not been right since. Then last month we had another one of these fogs, and afterwards I went out to check my flock. Three were missing but we found the body of a fourth.” He stopped and shuddered. “The head and shoulders were there, but behind that it was stripped to the bone to where its back legs would have been, but they’d gone completely.”
“You saw this yourself?” Ruari questioned. The man nodded. So, there was no chance that this was just whispered stories that had got bigger with the telling. Nor did he need telling that this didn’t sound like any normal predator.
“You said stripped to the bone?”
“Aye,” the man confirmed, “and when I say stripped, I mean stripped! There wasn’t a scrap of flesh, and where it started it was like a clean cut. I tell you what else as well - there was no blood! Nowhere. Not on the ground, or on the bones, or coming out of the front bit. Horrible it was!”
Ruari could begin to feel his skin creep. No wonder the wildlife was keeping quiet.
“But it, whatever ‘it’ is, isn’t all through the fog? It just appears in spots?” he asked.
The farmer confirmed it. Sometimes nothing happened in their area at all, but the word had spread that other parts of the moors had had similar experiences, and whenever such things took place it was always in the fog. To Ruari it seemed that something was using it as cover to hunt in, but he had no idea what that might be. He suddenly realize why the farmer had been so eager to have a travelling companion, and he could not blame him for that. When he asked it turned out that the man had been storing up his yarn until he had as much as his horses could carry. He had set out with both fully laden and him leading them on the day Ruari had landed, because the gales would keep the fog at bay, and had walked into the night to reach Maerskee to get in early before the other autumn traders arrived. The horses had needed a rest, so he had waited the day. He was now wishing he had walked back, so leaving them unladen, but which would have meant he could have returned the same day.
Ruari clapped him reassuringly on the shoulder and gestured him to mount up.
“Come on, at least there’s two of us. How far do you think we have to go?”
The farmer thought about it and then said he thought that they probably only had an hour to go before they reached a small hamlet on the crossroads between the road they were on and the one that ran from Moorport to Romsby. It turned out that the farmer’s name was Martin, and now he was quite happy for Ruari to ride alongside him. Ruari had been introduced to him as Rob, and it was hard to keep his identity concealed. He was glad that he had taken the precaution of putting his mail shirt on under his borrowed clothing, thinking then more of an assassin’s knife. His sword lay strapped farther back than usual so that the fall of his heavy felt boat-cloak covered it, but as they rode he hitched it back to its normal spot. Surreptitiously he tucked his leather gloves into his pockets and slid his hand into the saddle bag to retrieve the mail backed ones he was used to fighting in. The feeling of frustration was back again. He knew that Martin would probably feel much safer if he knew he was travelling with a trained Knight, but Ruari did not dare tell him in case he let it slip when he was retelling the tale back at home.
It was a little over the hour, in the mid afternoon, when they smelt wood smoke in the air and guessed they were almost at the crossroads. Martin kneed his horse forward so that Ruari was lagging back by a horse’s length when he suddenly felt something behind him. Without thinking the training took over. In one fluid movement he had kicked his feet out of the stirrups and vaulted to the ground drawing his sword as he spun to face back the way they had come. Behind them a block of the fog suddenly seemed more solid.
Ruari stepped and then fléched at it. Whatever it was it was totally unprepared for the explosion of movement towards it and even less for the driving force behind Ruari’s outstretched arm and sword. As the fine pattern-welded steel blade seared its way into the fog there was an unearthly shriek and an acrid sulphurous smell. Before Ruari could reprise there was a crack like distant thunder and a rush of wind, as though something had been sucked away, as the thick patch of fog disappeared into thin air. Almost instantly around them the rest of the fog began to lift to little more than a mist. Ruari swung around, questing to either side, sword at the ready, but there seemed no sign of anything else. He spun back to the horse which stood shivering alongside Martin who had caught its reins, and then caught sight of Martin’s shocked face.
For a moment Ruari thought it was the understandable shock of what had just happened that had turned Martin white. Then, as he strode forward to take the horse’s reins for himself, he realized that Martin was staring at him wide eyed.
“By the Spirits! You’re a Knight!” Martin gasped weakly.
Ruari suddenly remembered that their distinctive dragon-headed cross was emblazoned in the weave on the back of his gloves, and that he was still brandishing a sword that had an equally distinctive guard in the shape of the same cross. It was one thing he had not had to guard against showing in the east where his enemies were a known quantity.
“Ahh....” he muttered ruefully, wondering what to say.
“You saved my life! ...That thing, it was behind us wasn’t it?”
“Aye. ‘Thing’ is about the right description. I don’t know if I killed it or what. It didn’t feel like I hit anything or connected with it, it just went.”
Martin shook his head. “I don’t care what it is as long as it doesn’t come back. But you? Who are you?”
Ruari groaned inwardly. Why did his life have to be so complicated? Before he could answer though, Martin went on,
“Why would a Knight protect someone like me? They said you were all just out to get rich. That you were corrupt, and say prayers to the old gods and raise up demons and stuff, when you’re not too drunk or having orgies.”
“Where in the Tree’s name did you get that crap from?” Ruari asked in astonishment.
Martin had the grace to look shamefaced and admit that it was the word that had been going round the markets for the last couple of years. “That’s why the Church took you over. They said you lot needed bringing back to the ways of civilized decent people, not lording it about and preying on innocent folks.”
Ruari groaned and leant his arms on his saddle, looking up at Martin.
“Look, I promise you, I’ve never preyed on anyone, and I’ve certainly never seen an orgy at any place associated with my Order - a few amongst conscripts when they’ve won battles, but never Knights, all right? I’m going to have to trust you not to tell anyone what you’ve just seen, so let’s get to that inn and get some food and I’ll try to explain why I’m here. But please, please don’t say what just happened. Tell them we just made it here when we heard that thing kill something else and go, all right?”
Martin nodded thoughtfully. “All right. Whether it’s true or not I owe you my life, so yes, I’ll keep your secret in there, but I want to know what’s going on.”
By now the mist was lifting, and they could see they were almost at the highest point on the moor. Out of the gloom it was another bright autumn afternoon, with the lowering sun bathing everything in shades of rich golds and reds. The inn stood right on the crossroads and was full of travellers all obviously unwilling to risk moving on in the fog. Ruari and Martin managed to arrange for a hot pie and a beer each, and then found that their news that the fog was lifting resulted in a mass exodus as travellers rushed to retrieve packs and horses and move on before the fog could return. For once luck was with them. The thing had obviously been lurking around for some time and several other travellers had had narrow escapes, so they only stood out in being the last to see it. By the time the pie arrived they were the only ones in the room, and were able to take the seat in the window, away from the bar. The landlord and his wife were tired out from having had a full house all night and for most of the day, and retreated to the kitchen to recover, so Ruari and Martin had the place to themselves.
“Right,” Martin munched round a mouthful of pie, “come on, let’s hear it then.”
Ruari gave him an edited version of the events of the last few years, carefully avoiding mentioning his rank within the Knights, or the conclusions Ron, Walter and he had come to regarding Michael’s murder.
“So you see, don’t you, I have to find out what’s going on. But I promise you, I’ve been in the Order since I was a lad of sixteen, and the granges were respectable places, where men like me got training, and older men retired to. Not everyone was an angel, I grant you, but then most were like me from the wrong side of some nobleman’s blanket. Or their much younger sons, sent to the Order to save them the trouble of providing for them, or splitting the family land’s up. Some were better suited to the life than others. I knew a few who would have done better in the Church, but there was always a place for them, because we needed someone to keep the books and take vows to be able to take the services for the rest of us, and the Church trained them for us! So it’s rich to say we weren’t making the proper observances!
“Others, I’ll grant you, were a blood thirsty bunch, but amongst us they were forced to toe the line, and believe me, the punishments were severe for anyone bringing the Order into disrepute. Going back a fair few years I remember one lad who came to us who was a complete monster. Nothing we did made much of an impression on him. Then one night he got out, went to a local farm and raped and murdered the younger daughter there. Rolled back up to the grange drunk as a lord, he did. Thought we’d just stick him in the prison for another spell. Well, we did, until Grand Master Robert could get there. Then we marched him into town, and in front of her family and every person the Order could round up, the Knights were drawn up in rank and he was executed in front of them. There was no messing about. He’d proved himself to be no better than a wild animal and he was put down like one.”
Martin was wide-eyed at this.
“Executed? You mean hanged?”
“Oh no. Hanging wasn’t thought to be a public enough sign of our disapproval. The two he’d been closest to had to hold his arms while he was pulled over a block, two others held his legs, and a giant of a knight with a sharp axe took his head off.”
“Bugger me!” Martin said in amazement. “What do you lot do with a traitor then?”
Ruari chuckled. “Don’t know. We’ve never had one of them! They don’t last that long if they’re dodgy. They’re first on the boat to the nearest war, which usually sorts their priorities out. It clears the mind something shocking having screaming hoards of raiders, Attacotti or DeÁine coming at you.”
“I bet it does!” Martin’s voice was filled with awe. “Have you seen many wars?”
“Aye, a few. The really big one was when I was still a novice, twenty-five years ago. That was when we all went with the Jarl’s army to join the massed armies from the other island states in Brychan to stop the DeÁine.”
“Why did you go, I mean the Knights?” Martin asked. Ruari could not believe how uninformed he could be of the biggest event of their lifetimes - and Martin travelled, so he was probably better than most for knowing what was going on. No wonder it had been so easy to blacken the Order’s name. Had they done this to themselves in some way, by not communicating with the ordinary people, or was this further evidence of the ability of their unknown adversary?
“Don’t you know the Order’s history?” he asked.
Martin shook his head. “Not really. Bits and pieces, but I never understood why there was an Order, or for that matter why there’s the Church and then the different orders of monks.”
Checking the view out of the window Ruari could see that they were headed for a clear night.
“Look, I tell you what. Let’s get going. It’ll be safe to ride all the way to your farm now, if you can give me a bed for the night, and I’ll explain on the way.”
Martin was only too pleased to have an armed escort to his door now, and so they paid the weary and incurious landlord and mounted up once more. This time a pleasant breeze greeted them, and to Ruari’s relief the air was filled with bird-song as the wildlife resumed their usual habits - the best sign, as far as he was concerned, that everything was returning to normal. As their horses walked on, Ruari restarted his history lesson.
In the long gone past the high-king had been faced with fighting to secure his people’s right to live on the Islands. A race they’d known little of, the DeÁine, had claimed overlordship and vicious battles had been fought. Their almost supernatural strength had intimidated the normal conscripted armies, and so the high-king had ordered the formation of a military order. The initial prohibition on marriage and families had been to ensure they would have no ties to hold them back, and the religious training had been included to provide them with the moral and spiritual strength to cope with whatever came their way in the battles to come. It had not been made public why the DeÁine had retreated then, but after five hundred years they had returned to claim their right over the Islands.
Ruari remembered the call to arms. For many veterans it had been the chance to prove that they were as good as the soldiers of legend whose names were still revered. As he explained to Martin, the difference this time was that they were the only force that operated on all of the Islands. With the high-king by now long gone, it had been the respective Grand Masters who had coordinated the response, and pressured the separate chancellors to respond to the threat. It had been more good fortune than anything else that the men in charge had been of a temperament to see cooperation as being to everyone’s benefit. Choosing his words carefully Ruari went on.
“Here in Rheged we were lucky. The Jarl, that’s Jarl Michael’s grandfather was too old to fight himself so he sent my...” He checked himself just before he said ‘father’, “ehm, his son, and he was prepared to work alongside the Knights. We shipped out to Brychan and found that their leaders had spent the last decades fighting amongst themselves. Over there it was the monks who were holding things together.
“Originally there was only one church, but then some amongst them decided that it was becoming too corrupt and worldly. So they approached the high-king to be allowed to form a separate group who would live their lives away from the world. The idea was that they’d spend their time in prayer while the church’s main function would be to minister to the spiritual needs of the people. Well time went on, and the world changed. The church on each of the Islands developed its own character. So did the monastic groups, and us Knights too. In the west the monks became rich and powerful, holding vast amounts of land. By the time we reached Brychan the church was a rival to the leader - silly bugger was even calling himself the king - and they’d both undermined the strength of the Knights.
“The chancellor of Brychan decided to call himself a king because that was where the old high-kings had their seat, but he was powerless unless he had the backing of his nobility. Our monks don’t have much time for the Brychan lot - they think they lost their way a long time ago - but when they sent messages asking for our help, the abbots here met up and decided to petition the Jarl.”
“Why?” Martin asked, feeling very much the simple countryman in the face of such a wide sweep of events.
“Well, they had the old scrolls that recorded what happened the last time the DeÁine fought us. The monasteries are now the only places where anyone studies the past much, but that meant they saw the danger as not just something threatening Brychan. Over on its eastern border is a huge mountain range which is about the best natural barrier besides the sea. They knew if the DeÁine got across in numbers Brychan would fall; and then Prydein, in the south, and even we in the east would’ve had little chance. There’s less of a strait between any of us and Brychan, than us and the lowlands across the sea in the east where I’ve just been. Even Celidon and Ergardia, with their mountain strongholds, would’ve had small chance of holding out on their own, and they knew it.”
When the Grand Master of the Order in Brychan sent out a call for help to all members of the Order, the other Grand Masters each went to their own rulers with the monks, and together they had pushed and persuaded until the force was brought together. For three years the combined army fought the DeÁine until they secured the mountain passes, and then won a great battle at Moytirra allowing a truce. In that time the Knights of Brychan regained lost prestige. The ruler of Brychan had been fatally wounded leading his troops and the Grand Master of the Prydein sept, Hugh de Burh had taken over command of their whole forces.
Then eight years ago the flower of a whole generation from Celidon, which was always a sparsely populated island, had been virtually wiped out when the Knights and their supporting soldiers had fought a heroic stand against a surprise attack by vastly superior numbers of DeÁine in the north of Brychan. Their near neighbours, Ergardia, now undertook to send Knights for their defence from their sept should the need arise.
“So you see that’s why we had to respond to the eastern threat. The sept in Brychan still guards the mountain passes. In Prydein they’ve always held the line against the Attacotti, and although they’re not a fraction of the threat the DeÁine are, because they’re within the inner seas of the Islands, if they get out of control they can cut us off from one another. Ergardia is next closest to the Attacotti, and they still have responsibility for Celidon. We couldn’t afford to let the eastern raiders get beyond us in case they joined with the Attacotti. This is what we do. We protect. The individual Islands might argue with one another, but we don’t get involved in that. The Order doesn’t get dragged into territorial disputes. We’re here to protect everyone. That means you and your family, and people like you in all the Islands.”
Martin rode on in silence for a while thinking about that before asking, “Then why did the Church say they needed to take you over?”
Ruari scratched his jaw thoughtfully.
“I don’t really know. That’s one of the things I need to find out about. My best guess at the moment is that as the current archbishop was always a political appointment - he belongs to one of the great families who’d love to have one of their own become chancellor - it’s political. On the other hand, our Order has a lot of resources, granges and houses in the main towns, and while the Church might be concerned with the hereafter it’s also never turned down the opportunity to line its pockets in the here and now.”
Martin muttered scathingly about the local churchmen he knew who, as far as he was concerned, were good for little besides fleecing the very people they were supposed to help. By this time the moon had risen and they were descending the western shoulder of the moors. They now took a small track off to their right and Martin led them down to a group of small farmsteads nestled in the valley of a stream. His house was closest to the road. Stabling the horses, they went into the house where an anxious woman and a teenage boy sat waiting expectantly. The relief at Martin’s return was overwhelming and, as his wife pressed food and hot herb tea on them, they had to tell their tale. To Ruari’s relief Martin made no mention of who he was, brushing over Ruari’s encounter as a warning which had given them time to reach the inn. A truckle bed was wheeled out from beneath the settle and Ruari was left to sleep for what was left of the night.
In the morning it was overcast, but with high clouds which showed no sign of turning misty again. After breakfast Martin offered to ride a little further with him to a large manor in the next valley where he was sure Ruari would be able to buy a horse. The story would be that it had been Ruari’s horse that the thing had preyed on, which was why he was now riding Martin’s horse. By turning up with a neighbour Martin felt there would be a better chance of them helping Ruari, especially as, having sold his yarn, he could now pay the rent for the next few months to them. Had he died they would have been one less tenant, and they were already in the position of having to leave Ted’s widow in her farm, even though she was struggling to pay, because no-one could be persuaded to take up tenancies on the moors at the moment.
Martin obviously knew his neighbours well and they responded exactly as he had predicted. Ruari handed over his money and received a solid, healthy moorland pony. If it was unlike the sleek, highly trained war-horses he normally rode, it was also much livelier and nimble than Martin’s stolid packhorse. Back on the main road Martin was going to turn for home while Ruari was continuing east, and they bade each other farewell.
“Look, I believe you.” Martin said. “I hadn’t ever thought of things beyond the moors before, to be honest, but it sounds like round here we might have to before long. So don’t worry, I’ll keep your secret, and if you’re passing again and there’s anything I can do to help you just come and find me, all right?”
Gratefully Ruari thanked him, and then a thought occurred to him. “Actually there is something you could do for me,” he said. “In a week’s time Ron is going to try to reach Thornby’s grange for me. Normally he’d come over the moors, but after yesterday I don’t want him travelling alone up here, and I don’t think they know much in Maerske of what’s happening round here. Could you get a message up to that inn at the crossroads to be taken on to The Mermaid? Let them know what’s going on, and tell Ron to catch a boat up the coast and then go to Thornby up the river. It’s a bit longer but it’s safer now.”
“Of course,” Martin said willingly. “I know Ron and Sal well, we all stop there when we go to Maerske to trade. I’ll have no trouble letting them know, and there should be several wagons coming through within the next week to get the boats before the winter storms start, so there’ll be plenty of chances to get a letter down there.”
Thanking him once more, Ruari turned and kneed the sprightly pony into a brisk trot. At the top of the steep scarp which led down off the moors, he turned and looked back and saw Martin in the far distance give a final wave before he disappeared as Ruari descended. The road snaked tightly down the nearly sheer, white limestone escarpment, and at the bottom Ruari found himself in softer countryside. On the moors most folk farmed sheep, but down in the valley on the better soil all manner of crops were grown, giving the countryside a patchwork quilt effect. As the day wore on the land he was travelling through became more populated, and by the time he stopped for the night, the land was crisscrossed with lesser roads and lanes, and he had plenty of choice of stopping places. Almost every crossroads of any size had some sort of inn, ranging from small places that were little bigger than the normal village house, to great establishments catering to the high and mighty who might be travelling to the capital.
He chose a medium sized place, big enough to have plenty of travellers where he would not stand out, but not one of the more prestigious ones that he may have stayed in on official business in the past. Ruari sat in the corner of the bar and ate alone, trying to listen to the conversations going on around him which might provide a clue as to what he could expect to find. Unfortunately, being on the direct route up to the moors, the strange goings on up there were of more current concern. Many of the bar’s customers were either heading for the east coast ports or knew someone who was, and this time of year was one of the busiest trading periods. Wool which had been sheared in the spring had now been woven into cloth, and was waiting to be shipped round the coast or further afield for dying, then to be returned, or for garment making at the other end.
Coming back were loads of grain from the fields in the south and west to help supplement their own crops over the winter. Normally these came by boat as being quicker and easier to move in larger quantities, but Ruari gathered that many merchants had chosen to hire teams of horses and wagons to come around the mountains rather than risk the moor roads running inland from the eastern ports. Of course the price of such stock was going up as bringing goods the slow way round by road took longer and was more costly. A general air of gloom pervaded the room as the travelling merchants speculated on the knock-on effect to their respective trades, not least an increase in the cost of stopping in inns if the price of food went up.
Feeling unwilling to join in, Ruari made the excuse of an early departure and returned to his room. He had learned little of any use to him, and spent most of the night tossing fretfully on the rock-hard bed as his mind played out random scenarios and refused to turn off. By the morning he was feeling tetchy and tired. As soon as he heard people up and about, he took his bags and went downstairs. After a quick breakfast, he paid and left, anxious to be on his way. The pony had obviously had a better night of it and was fully rested and bouncing with energy, so Ruari let her set her own brisk pace, and they were soon clipping along the main road into Earlskirk.
The capital sat on a knoll and was visible from many miles away except on the murkiest of days. The roofs of the royal complex rose above the town, accompanied by the towers of the great cathedral which sat alongside it, and Ruari halted as they came into sight to scrutinize the scene. As far as he could tell it all looked very normal. Flags flew where they ought to have, there was a steady stream of traffic going in and out of the great gate he could see from this angle, and there seemed every indication that the same was happening on the other main roads in. So far so good, but then he had not expected anything else at this stage. If there had been anything drastically interfering with the daily life of such a large number of people it would have been noticed far and wide. Whatever he was looking for would only become apparent closer to the court itself.
It took the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon to get close to the town gate. In many ways the gate was symbolic rather than defensive. Like the others into the town it stood with two massive towers flanking the opening, and a pair of iron studded oak gates. However, you only had to look to the side of the towers to realize that the walls were much less imposing. They rose to only half the height of the gateway and were of rough cast stone, trimmed only as far as necessary by the masons to make them sit on one another with the aid of some equally rough mortar. Their main purpose was to ensure that traders passed through the gates to pay their tolls, and to stop opportunistic raiders riding in and catching the town unawares.
They were not designed to withstand a siege. If it came to that, the defensive position was up the hill at the castellated court. What bothered Ruari was that normally the walls were kept in decent repair, whereas he could see as he rode along the road that they were now festooned with weeds. Even the odd small bush had been allowed to root itself in the mortar, providing handholds for anyone of reasonable agility.
A wide deep ditch lay in front of each gate forcing the traffic to either side of it and channelling it into a single file by the time it reached the gate. One side had wagons and people going in, the other, similar traffic going out. It seemed to be a purely logistical solution, but Ruari knew that it also stopped the heavy wagons getting up speed and ploughing straight into the town while the toll keepers were busy with another. He dismounted and joined the in-going queue. The only people who rode through the gates were people of consequence, and while his position entitled him to ride it would single him out straight away. So he would blend in with the ordinary travellers and traders by leading his pony in. In front of him the woman driving a wagon laden with turnips kept up a constant harrying of the poor man walking beside it, who was obviously her husband. She had a shrill voice that set Ruari’s teeth on edge and he hung back slightly, feeling embarrassed for the man having such a public humiliation.
The wagoner behind him chuckled. “She don’t give up, do she?” he commented to Ruari.
“Poor bugger! Fancy being married to that!” Ruari replied, thinking that this was a good opening to engage someone in conversation. Traders were usually the best informed about goings on in any town, because their livelihood could depend on knowing if trouble was coming. The man seemed willing to have someone to while away the wait with, and as they made their slow progress towards the gate he regaled Ruari with tales of the city. It made it easy for Ruari to act the part of returning trader and passed himself off as the journeyman to an armourer, so that it was natural to ask of the court in the guise of seeking arms commissions. The man sucked in through his teeth and shook his head.
“Doubt if you’ll have much luck here then, mate,” he told Ruari. “These days the king don’t seem worried about the army much anymore.”
“King?” Ruari queried in astonishment. “What king? Rheged has only ever had a chancellor!”
“By the Spirits, you have been away a long time, haven’t you! When the news came that Jarl Michael died, oh ages ago, his son declared it was time for a change.”
“Oh did he now!”
“Ay. Said we’d not seen hide nor hair of anyone from the other Islands for so long we should forget about them and start looking after ourselves. Said it was ridiculous losing his father to some daft war overseas just to satisfy some ancient idea of obligation. From now on he was going to take full control of Rheged for its own people and look to them first. Very popular that was! People lined the streets so deep even the pickpockets couldn’t work when he went to the cathedral to be crowned.”
“Crowned? With what?” Ruari was almost speechless in shock at this news. Rheged had no traditional regalia except for the chancellor’s chain of office, which was to remind the incumbent that he was chained to the obligations of the needs of the people.
“A crown you twit!” the trader said good-naturedly. “They found an old one deep in the treasury, or so it’s said. It looked pretty old anyway as far as any of us could see when he rode back to the castle with it on.”
Ruari scoured his memory for what might have been buried in the strong room at the castle. He had not been down there for years, and then only rarely, but there were not that many such items in it that it would have been possible to overlook one. In sudden horror he turned to the trader again and asked,
“Did it look like it was made of iron, not gold or silver? No jewels, and more like a fancily worked helmet?”
“Aye, that’s the one,” the man answered cheerfully, oblivious to Ruari’s shocked appearance.
Luckily they reached the porter at that moment and so Ruari was not required to explain. He handed over his silver penny and left his new companion to sort out tariffs on his load of barley, evidently heading to the town brewers and subject to increased charges. Ruari felt physically queasy at the thought of what Oswine had done. The ‘crown’ was nothing to do with Rheged itself. It had been brought to the safe keeping of the castle after the DeÁine had left the first time, and was one of a number of pieces which it was believed harnessed their power. Ruari found an open inn but ordered a mug of caff - piping hot and invigorating - rather than beer and sat on the bench outside, desperately racking his memory for what he had been told of the piece.
He had a memory of his father taking Michael and himself down to the strong-room one wet afternoon and telling them of how the great alliance had first driven the DeÁine back, but he also had vague memories of being told that this had only been possible because the DeÁine had been too presumptuous. Thinking that the Islands’ people would provide little resistance, the DeÁine had brought objects of power to give them strength to overrule the people, and had distributed them among their number on the different Islands. The people had fought a hit and run war and had managed to take one of these objects, a gorget - a deep collar of fine mail designed to protect the throat. Afterwards they had noticed that their enemy was weaker without it, and had sent messages to the other resistance fighters for the need to try to acquire the others. The helmet had been discovered in another Island, Prydein Ruari thought, but as they also hid another piece - a scabbard - it had been decided that the Helm should be separated from its fellow power-holder and it had been brought to Rheged, where it had remained buried for centuries.
The one thing Ruari remembered clearly though, was that they had been told under no circumstance to ever put the Helm on, not even in play. His father had known the lure of old armour and crowns to a pair of mischievous, imaginative boys, and had seen them playing out the stories of the old kings of legend in the practice yard with their wooden swords. So he had gone to great lengths to impress upon them that this was no small matter. He was well aware that while they should not normally be allowed in the room, there was nothing like inquisitive boys for finding their way into places they should not be. The pieces of power corrupt, he had told them.
“They weren’t meant for normal people like us to wear, and we aren’t strong enough to control them. If you were stupid enough to put it on it would creep into your soul and start to control you. The DeÁine are pulled to the pieces and the pieces are pulled to them, so without knowing it you would start to do things to help it make its way back. It will head for the nearest DeÁine like iron filings to a magnet,” he had warned them, “and if you’re with it who knows where you might end up.”
The Scabbard was still in Prydein, as far as Ruari knew, and the fourth piece, the Gauntlet should still be in Celidon. The Gorget had been in Brychan until the return of the DeÁine and the battles Ruari had fought in. Then it had been decided that it was too dangerous for such a piece to be so close to the frontier, and so it had been removed under the protection of the Knights to a safe place in Ergardia - the only Island not already hiding another piece. Ruari had seen evidence of its power himself. Because of his family connections he had been selected as part of the guard drawn from the Knights of each of the countries to escort the Gorget to Ergardia.
No sooner had they left the fortress of Breslyn where it had been hidden deep in a dungeon, than they had run into trouble. It attracted like flies those who were already twisted or corrupt in some way. They had been constantly harried by footpads, vagabonds and thieves, slowing their progress down to their growing concern. A boat had been waiting off the northern tip of the island of Camais which lay in the northeast of Brychan, to make the short crossing to Celidon, but the tides there were treacherous and the times of sailing were limited. This route had been deliberately chosen to keep them away from inhabited areas as much as possible, and given how much it pulled at the weak-minded, the Knights had been grateful they had not had to try to take it by a more populated route. The problem had been that the weather had led them to an enforced wait of a week on the coast, waiting for the vicious whirlpools off the coast to subside in strength again, and by then the DeÁine had appeared.
Ruari still did not know how they had made it through the army lines and gone unnoticed that far. He had later guessed that they had gone north and followed the difficult northern coastline around the mountains - in itself a remarkable feat as there was little except goat tracks, even when the towering range lowered at the coast with its chain of Knights’ castles. There had only been six DeÁine Hunters, but that had been enough to inflict heavy casualties on the Knights, even though they were all experienced warriors themselves. Out of a party of thirty Knights there had only been nine left to continue the journey when they had finally killed the last of the DeÁine.
Rather than bury the bodies, they had taken them out in the boat with them and fed them into the current to take them down into the whirlpools. There were stories that the DeÁine could raise their dead, and while it seemed unlikely, no-one felt like taking the chance of having to fight them all over again. In the close proximity of the boat one of the Knights had succumbed and tried to kill his fellows, and they had been forced to tie him up in the bows where he had gone completely mad. Even after they had delivered the cursed thing and it had been buried again in a lead casket in another dungeon, the poor man had not recovered, and had been left to the mercies of a monastery as far away from the Gorget as Ruari and his friends could find.
Now though Ruari wondered if Oswine had gone rummaging in Michael’s absence. It would explain so much of the peculiar goings on if Oswine, never the brightest of young men, had been tempted to try the thing on. He had always been somewhat easily led, and Ruari could see that having once put it on he would have been drawn back to it time and again, with its hold on him getting stronger all the time. However, it still did not explain the cunning mind behind the events of the last few years. From what Ruari knew of the pieces, they drove the person’s emotions, and he was fairly sure that they had no intelligence of their own. So it could not possibly be the piece that had contrived to create the situation that had led to Michael’s death, since it could not give Oswine intelligence that he did not have to start with.
He was also pretty sure that its influence only lasted while someone was in relatively close proximity to the thing unless they had actually touched it, so it had not been what was driving the men who had come over to join the army. That smelt of much more worldly offers of rewards. The more he thought about it the more he was convinced that he was still looking for something of flesh and blood, even if it had been corrupted beyond its normal bounds.
He drained the dregs of the caff and set the mug on the window ledge where it would not get smashed. Unhitching the pony’s reins from the hook in the wall, he was just about to mount up when he heard horses trotting briskly towards him. That meant they were being ridden not led and that meant someone who might recognize him. He averted his face and pretended to be adjusting the girth on the saddle, glancing up as they drew level to see who it might be.
To his delight it was the three men he would most have wished to find here. There was no mistaking them. Gerard was a huge man, deeply tanned and with an unruly mop of black curly hair, who even when dismounted towered over others. Built like a castle keep, he required the services of a massive horse, which under other circumstances might have looked more at home pulling one of the brewers’ drays which could be seen within the city walls. Osbern was nearly as tall and dark, and although Ruari was a little over average height they were both bigger than him, but whereas Gerard was bulky, Osbern was of medium build. Gerard usually had the appearance of an unmade bed on the move but Osbern was always meticulously turned out, his collar-length dark hair neatly combed down and the simple, almost severe, clothes he favoured always freshly laundered except under the most desperate of circumstances.
In total contrast, Edmund was a little shorter than Ruari and of the same lean build, although again dark like the other two. Quick witted, amusing and lively, he could jolly the sometimes morose Osbern, and moderated Gerard's occasional overbearing ebullience. Long ago they had all been on campaign together and the friendship had lasted, despite the complete contrast in personalities, or perhaps because of it.
Dropping the saddle flap Ruari turned and called out.
“Edmund! Gerard! Osbern!”
The three men halted and turned his way in astonishment, but to his surprise they quickly crowded round him as if to hide him.
“By the Spirits! It’s you!” Gerard exclaimed.
“Quick, get on that shaggy thing and ride between us!” Osbern commanded.
“Gerard, your house is closest, we’ll go there,” Edmund said. “Not a word, you,” he directed at Ruari, “I’ll explain later, now move!”
Ruari found himself hustled along for the half dozen streets it took to reach the rambling town house which Gerard's family had owned for generations. Massive oak timbers in-filled with wattle and daub rose four floors from the street, each one leaning out over the others, so that with its neighbours it seemed to be trying to join with the similar houses on the opposite side. The street was consequently always in shadow, and the three scoured the darker corners for loiterers as they trotted into the yard behind the house through an arched gateway at its side.
The yard was more private but still overlooked by the houses in the street behind, so they barely allowed Ruari time to dismount before they hustled him inside. He was dismayed and alarmed. He would have sworn that these three were incorruptible but their actions now were inexplicable and worrying. Had they been close enough to the Helm to be twisted by it? He hoped not, but suddenly he found he could not be sure.

~~~***~~~


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