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Tales from the Pit

4. Blood Moon: the Assassins and the Princess

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It was deepest, darkest night. The white moon, which was nearly full but shrouded in a pale halo, shone out from the black clouds for a moment, casting silver fingers onto the broken setting of tall standing stones. The setting consisted of a line of stones with outliers, one of which was a prominent monolith with a hole piercing right through the stone near its top. 

    By this holed stone, a small fire hissed and sparked, shedding its shifting light on two huddled figures warming their hands. Both had dark cloaks wrapped tightly around themselves, both shivered as the chill wind sought out every seam and opening in their garments.

    “Will he come?” asked a muffled voice.

    “Yes, he will come, my lord king. He has but been delayed.”

    “I fear he may betray us.”

    “I think not – he would have nothing to gain. With our aid he may reign again in Strathclwyd; and that is his sole ambition – if I am any judge of men. As I have said: he has but been delayed. So be at peace, my lord king.”

    The king nodded at his companion, then hid his hands in the folds of his robes. “Yes, I suppose he does have much to gain,” he whispered. “But you? What do you have to gain? I do not think the rule of any realm would interest you. So why do you help us?”

    “Revenge, my lord king,” replied the other quietly. “I would have revenge on the murderers of my people. These Feni hunted us down, slaying all they could find, until all my people were dead, left rotting where they had fallen. I, alone, am left – the last. The Light has left El-Firion forever. Life and Death, Destruction and Creation, are the Word and the Weird of the Earth. By Azzchzog, I will restore the balance in the many names of my Dead. I would rid these unbelieving murderers from the land they desecrate and defile. Is that sufficient reason?”

    “I know not for I do not understand. Your speech and words are strange to me. Although I am not of the Feni, I am of one of their kindred people, one of the Seven Families that crossed the sea from the west. I share the religion you call unbelief. What say you now?”

    His companion eyed him for a moment, filled with reflected fire, but made no reply.

    “Nechtan the Old, I must trust you,” continued the king tightly, his hand searching for the hilt of a dagger concealed within the folds of his cloak. “It will be of little use and comfort to me that you pull down the House of Lord Donald by destroying mine. Do you understand my concerns?”

    “Only too well, my lord king. And in answer all I can tell you is if I sought your destruction, and not your help, then we would not be holding this council. By Azzchzog, you would be dead!” And the fire flared up for a moment, the tall standing stones looming over them, the holed monolith staring back at him with a dark eye. The king hastily removed his grasp from his dagger.

    “I am sorry,” he managed to say without sounding afraid. “I do not mean to offend.”

    Nechtan waved the apology away. “Your distrust is wearying,” he muttered, “but remember not all have my patience. One approaches now who is quick to anger.”

    The king had heard nothing and listened for a while. There was the dull clink of armour and soft footfalls of a man. Into the setting of stones strode a tall figure, a billowing cloak flapping in the gale, a sword held before him.

    “Hail, my friend,” said the king, jumping to his feet. “Greetings, my lord, Eocha ap Gawain, rightful King of Strathclwyd. I hope this ill night finds you well?”

    “Well enough,” replied the stranger lowering his sword. “And you, my lord, Malcolm of Lornland? How are you?”

    The King of Lornland shrugged in answer, then introduced his companion. “This is Nechtan,” he said softly, “Nechtan the Old.”

    “Nechtan the Old?” exclaimed Eocha in surprise. “Nechtan the Slayer? I have heard of you!”

    “Indeed,” said Nechtan, still seated by the fire. “Then does my presence displease you?”

    “No, of course not,” replied Eocha hastily, licking his lips. “It is just that I had not expected you in our, ah, conspiracy. Think no ill of me, I beg.”

    “I do not,” muttered Nechtan. “For we are all friends here – if not by choice then by necessity. This night is running out, we have much to discuss. Come, my lord Eocha, and be comforted by this fire, small and meagre though it may be. Let us set our minds on how we may achieve our desires: the restoration of the crown of Strathclwyd to you, my lord, Eocha; the restoration of the stolen lands of Carndubh and Blackwater to you, my lord Malcolm of Lornland; and the restoration of a little honour and peace for my murdered people. But simple ambitions each, my good lords.”

    The mage smiled, but his expression was without humour.

    “Indeed!” said Eocha ap Gawain, still ill at ease. “And I do not see how we may achieve these desires.”

    “Then, perhaps, I can help you,” said Nechtan. “For have I not thought long on this matter? The long years have concealed me, and soon my plans and plotting will come to an end. By Azzchzog and the Blood Moon, know you then that King Donald has contracted a bitter wasting disease to cripple and maim his last days alive. He has endured untold suffering these past months – it was the least I could do for him! But he will not live much longer and on the Eve of the Last Day, the Eve of the Blood Moon, he will die in torment. His World shall be left on the barren mountain with only my Dead for company; to Azzchzog I will send him where the chill shall pierce his soul and shrivel his being. For such is the cruel end I have planned for him!”

    “The Eve of the Last Day?” asked Malcolm. “The eve of the Blood Moon? Forgive me, but I do not know when that is or what you are talking about.”

    “I forget,” said Nechtan wearily. “I have outlasted my world – light has been robbed from El-Firion. Your religion is new to me but still the stranger. I will not explain – for to do so would be blasphemy to your ears, and such things are beyond the knowledge and wisdom of men of a later age. All I will tell you is that King Donald will die four days from now, that the moon will be eaten slowly until it turns red. The cycle is complete and a new time shall dawn.”

    “How can you be sure of this?” asked Malcolm.

    Nechtan shrugged.

    The King of Lornland nodded. “I am not saddened by this news,” he said, “whether or not it is true. And, may I say, I hope his death is as unpleasant as possible. But how can it help us?”

    “Ah, my lord, Malcolm of Lornland,” answered Nechtan with a quizzical smile, half mocking, half sympathetic. “Take no offence, I beg, but that is why men fear the name of Nechtan the Slayer, and laugh at Lord Malcolm of Lornland who lost half his kingdom in a wager.”

    Malcolm seemingly took no offence.

    “For see you,” continued Nechtan, “Lord Donald will die, and his only heir is an unwed daughter, a daughter who will inherit not only the lands of the Feni but also the ancient Kingdom of Strathclwyd and half of Lornland. And that is what should concern us, I reckon. So how may your lands and titles be restored?

    “Well, we will see won’t we? As soon as King Donald dies, his daughter, the Lady Shona, will become a ward of the High King, Lord Duff MacDuff MacAiden, Father of Dalria, and overlord of all these lands – chief scum floating on the sewerage. I need not tell you that you will never see you property again. Rather, the High King will marry this Shona off to one of his allies with all your lands as dowry.”

    “I am newly returned from the High King,” said Eocha evenly. “I asked if I might be considered as a husband for this Shona.”

    “What did he say?” asked Malcolm.

    “Need you ask?” said the other gruffly. “He insulted me, calling me a low-born upstart of a rude and defeated people, little fit to marry a tinker’s daughter, never mind a Dalrian princess. Fine words from a king whose people are little more than interloping pirates and back-stabbing brigands. Little matter that now! Princes must sometimes bow to robbers. Yet I would hardly have joined this conspiracy if the High King’s answer had been to my advantage.”

    Lord Malcolm of Lornland pondered Eocha’s words and frowned.

    “Yet,” said Nechtan, “all is far from lost. For see you, King Donald of the Feni might yet be persuaded to change his mind and leave his two closest friends all his lands and titles, dividing his wide kingdom between you both.”

    “How?” asked Eocha. “He despises both of us.”

    “It could be done,” said Nechtan. “It would please me greatly if he gave his lands into the hands of his bitterest enemies, knowing full well what he did but unable to prevent it. Now you know why I need your help.”

    The two kings wondered at that, but kept their peace.

    “But there is still one obstacle remaining to the throne of the Feni.” Nechtan paused for a moment. “The Lady Shona. She must die.”

    “Why?” asked Malcolm.

    “Donald could not leave his possessions to you whilst she yet lived. Shona would inherit these titles and lands for she is the only heir – or at least the only one of consequence. It would not matter that her father had contrary wishes. No, she must die. Of that I have no doubt! True, it would also take the dagger I have conjured in Donald’s guts and give it one last turn!”

    Malcolm looked about. “Could you not,” he whispered softly, “use one of your sorceries to destroy her?

    “Perhaps,” replied Nechtan, “but I would only do so as a last resort. And such things take time and energy. I have been patient all these years, and I would not have my plans cheated now. Not all of the Feni are fools. By Azzchzog and the Blood Moon, many still remember Nechtan the Old, Nechtan the Mage, Nechtan the Slayer! There are already mutterings his illness is caused by sorcery. No, we still have a little time. This can be done without resorting to magic.”

    “It would be madness if either me or lord Eocha attempted to kill Shona,” said Malcolm. “It is well known we have much reason to hate King Donald’s House. And we are virtually prisoners in his fortress. I was hardly able to slip away unnoticed”

    “It would be folly to do this deed yourselves,” agreed Nechtan. “I do not ask it of you. But you must know of men who would willingly commit such a murder. A cut-throat, a murderer, a man of the baser sort who does not mind getting his hands smeared with virgin’s blood.” And the mage smiled coldly, as if he saw some joke his companions could not understand.

    “And yet,” said Malcolm, “such a killer might not be easy to find at short notice. He would have to have the cunning of a fox, the honour of a sewer rat. His greed for gold would have to be greater than his love of life. This would be dangerous, difficult murder. We would need to find the most callous assassin in all this land.”

    “I know of such a man,” said Eocha.

    “Who?” asked Malcolm.

    “A character who calls himself Worm, a pale villainous creature. I know for certain he is staying at Aodh’s Tower on the border with Cowlsmark. I have been told he is efficient and discreet.”

    “Good,” said Nechtan, “have you gold?”

    “Of course,” said Eocha, “quite enough to employ him.”

    “Then contact this Worm with our proposal,” continued the mage, “and if he will not accept make sure he does not talk. You must tell him of our urgency. By Azzchzog, Shona must die tomorrow – or the day after at the very latest. I need not tell you he must not know nor guess of our involvement. And you should arrange to have this assassin caught after he has completed his foul work. As you have said: both of you are living at Dundonald. You should capture this assassin yourselves. Do you understand?”

    “Aye,” said Malcolm.

    “Yes,” replied Eocha ap Gawain. “I will see to this matter without delay. Well, I have suffered this cold long enough. I will leave you now and send a messenger to Aodh’s Tower with all speed.” He stood up and eyed his fellow conspirators. “Farewell for this time, Nechtan the slayer. Farewell, Malcolm.”

    Eocha strode to edge of the setting of standing stones, then vanished into the gloom.

    “Come,” said Nechtan, looking at the pale moon. “There is still much to do.”

 

II

 

The trees rustled gently in the morning breezes, the sun shining weakly through the mist which hung and curled in the valleys. A muddy path led through the midst of the open forest and forded a swollen burn by two massive hewn boulders. The air was heavy with moisture: the slender branches of the silver birch dripped and the grass stalks were wet with dew.

    Along the track, from the east, came a rider on a shaggy pony. He was a pale jolly fellow with short black hair and merry blue eyes. An adventurer, mercenary or some other brigand, he was dressed in a leather tunic and breeks, his trousers tucked into the tops of his sodden boots. A sword lay across the shoulders of his pony. Its sheath was tattered and cracked, but the sword was as sharp as a razor. Several daggers of various sizes were strapped to the front of his tunic; and amongst his other possessions were a bow and a quiver of arrows, a skin full of blood red wine, and a large bag of gold.

    It was this last item that was the cause of Revile’s excellent humour.

    The assassin leaned back a little and unstoppered his wine-skin, taking a long drink. Then, spurring his pony on through the water, he forded the stream by the two mighty rocks and climbed up the far bank. 

    Revile rode eagerly on down the forest track, towards the town and stronghold of Dundonald, which was also known as Dunadd, brooding on its rock. 

 

Revile met nobody on the long journey through the forest of Carnmor, and the miles passed without company. In the late afternoon, he climbed one last slope out of the trees and gazed down on Dundonald, the fortress of Lord Donald of the Feni, shielding his eyes from the glare of the westering sun. The wide glen ran back to the north, the meandering river wandering lazily to the sea in a haze to the south-west. The bottom of the glen was flat, marshy and featureless – except, that is, for the large rock and fortress of Dundonald.

    Dundonald was a sprawling place of earthworks and fortifications, of ditches and palisades surrounding the rock. Within the fortress proper – within the Citadel – were halls, storerooms, apartments, kitchens, brew-houses, butteries, and other buildings the use of which Revile could not discern. The Citadel with its Great Hall was built on top of a large steeply-sided rock, and could only be a reached across a narrow bridge which spanned a chasm hewn from the hill, then through a steeply enclosed entrance, carved from the natural rock and defended by several gates. The highest part of the rock was crowned with the rich but precarious dwelling of Lord Donald and his daughter, Lady Shona.

    A road led to the bridge and entrance, leading through the mass of cramped houses and dwellings confined within the high wooden palisade and deep ditch. Sentries paced the walls and guarded the gates into the Dundonald: the north and south entrances were the busiest with wains, riders and walkers thronging the wide roads to the capital of the lands of the Feni.

    There was no traffic from the east, from where Revile sat on his pony, a day’s ride from Aodh’s Tower.

    The assassin peered down a moment longer, then encouraged his horse into a canter down the track towards the gently reeking fortress.

    Dundonald was a sprawling place indeed – and it had the most sprawling midden and cesspool upon which Revile had ever set eyes.

 

Revile reached the eastern gate, and pulled his pony to a halt. He was watched by a small group of soldiery guarding the eastern entrance. The palisade loomed over him, the ditch was filled with sharpened stakes. A thin log bridge crossed the ditch and led to the open, iron-spiked gates. The assassin dismounted and led his pony to the bridge.

    “Greetings,” shouted one of the guards, and hurried across to Revile. “Greetings, stranger.”

    Revile waited for the guard.

    Two other guards followed the first from the gates, their flaxen braided hair streaming from their polished helmets, dressed in fine clothes and dangling earrings. They were all tall men, much taller than Revile, and had sea-grey eyes and proud faces – the assassin seemed small, dark and shabby beside them. These were men of the Feni, the most noble of the Seven Clans of the Dalria – although many men might have called them proud and arrogant. Impressive and lordly, almost, the noble Feni might have appeared to lesser men. 

     Revile, a lesser man, was less than impressed.

    “Welcome to Dundonald, sir,” said the first of the Feni, friendly enough but towering over the assassin. “I hope you find your stay here pleasant. But first it is my duty to delay you a little. For I must ask you your business and name.” The Feni had a strange sing-song accent, which Revile, despite his good humour, found irritating.

    “Of course,” said the assassin, brightly in response. “My name is Maggot, a traveller from Mannan to the south and east. I have a little gold and heard the repute of Dundonald from afar. I thought to visit your fortress during the Festival of the Last Battle: I was told one day’s travel would be worth the miles – that the celebrations should not be missed.”

    “You were not mistaken,” smiled the guard.

    “Then I’m not too late?”

    “Indeed not. This is the first day of the festival and the celebrations are only just beginning.”

    “Then I’m glad,” said the assassin with enthusiasm. “Are travellers welcome? I would not intrude.”

    “All are welcome,” replied the guard. “You may enter the fortress presently. But this one favour I would beg: no weapons are to be drawn within the walls – no matter what the cause – and none, at all, are to be carried in the presence of the Lord Donald or the Lady Shona.”

    Revile nodded. It was not an uncommon custom. “All right and proper,” he said.

    The assassin was led across the bridge, through the gates, and into Dundonald. The streets were already filled with celebrating people; colourful banners were draped across the otherwise rather shabby buildings. Revile followed the guard along and then up a winding road towards the Citadel, peering at the many houses and revellers. The Feni he chanced upon were merry – drunk anyway – and many danced and greeted him with kind words. Revile smiled back, taking a drink or a friendly kiss, his pony plodding behind him.

    Never had the assassin been made so welcome in any town – and never with less reason. 

 

Revile and his guide approached the chasm that separated the rest of the town from the Citadel. Here, he searched the massive grey walls and the many clustered buildings with his eyes. The stronghold was built of stone, roofed with dark stone, defended by ramparts of grey stone. Many towers and battlements and turrets looked north and east and south. It was a mighty fortress, not to be reduced or breached by a host of enemies if properly provisioned and garrisoned – except, perhaps, by treachery.

    Almost despite himself, Revile was impressed by the stark grandeur and dark strength of Dundonald.

    The assassin smiled at the sinking sun and the long shadows. It would be a grand night for a murder, despite the almost full moon.

 

III

 

It was very much later before Revile remembered his reason for visiting Dundonald, later still before he considered making a move in its furtherance. He had been given a small but clean apartment in the very Citadel; his pony had been housed in the large stables. The Feni were a courteous people, and he had been given everything for which he had asked. After having washed and eaten well in his chamber, he went out, as night fell, to explore the many slypes and alleys and passages that formed a maze around the huddled Citadel. As the very last rays of the sun disappeared behind the hills to the west, Revile returned to his room to wait for fullest night.

    To his surprise, he was invited to a banquet to be held in the Great Hall to celebrate the ‘First Night’: a commemoration of the great battle when the Old People, the Ing, were finally vanquished. That war had been bitter, and the Feni had ruthlessly exterminated all that remained of their enemies: old men, pregnant women, children, babies – everyone. To the Feni, the Ing were sorcerous low-born heathens who reputedly practised human sacrifice and collected the severed heads of their enemies. Little better than vermin they were: rats inhabiting the bleak glens and rude fastnesses of Lornland and Fenis. And no more did the Feni fear the night or the Ing, fear the silent unexplained murder that visited the securest fortress – dark murder summoned by the Ing warlocks. Only a few of the Feni still remembered Nechtan the Mage, Nechtan the Old, Nechtan the Slayer: that his body was never found, that nobody knew what became of him.

    Revile knew the story, and might have sympathised with the Ing for he had no love for the Feni. Indeed, he cared little for the feast: the assassin was unimpressed by victory celebrations for one-sided battles. He agreed to attend because he guessed the Lady Shona would be present – her father was too ill – and it would certainly have been suspicious not to have done so. The assassin was taken to the Great Hall and followed the many other guests – Feni and visitors – into the lofty, sound-filled chamber. He smiled at every one he met.

    He was taken to a table near the back of the Hall, given a mug for his wine and a platter for his meat. He sat himself down between two other visitors: a wandering monk from Bernecia, and a heavily built, brooding individual, who called himself Conan. Revile made conversation with the cleric, but soon tired of his other companion who was boring and prone to exaggeration beyond even the assassin. Revile eventually changed places with the cleric, who was called Wilmund, when Conan became totally unbearable after a mug or two of wine, claiming he was actually a king or descended from a saint, or some such nonsense. Revile fingered the edge of a dirk, thinking of one or two places where it might find a home.

    After about an hour, Conan fell unconscious under the table, and Wilmund and Revile drew a large sigh of relief. The two companions chatted quietly about all the places they had seen and visited. The cleric had travelled almost as widely as the assassin and they talked of southern deserts and the pyramids; the east and its fabulous cities and civilisations; the north, the mighty Kings and Jarls; the west and the kingdoms of Bernecia, Dalria, Pentland, and Strathclwyd. Revile spent some time quizzing Wilmund about possible enemies of the Feni, and learnt of the ceding of Strathclwyd from its native king – and the ridiculous tale of how Lord Malcolm of Lornland had lost half his kingdom in a wager. To be precise, on the role of two dice: two dice, the cleric assured Revile, which were weighted in Malcolm’s favour. The King of Lornland had forgotten the roll. The assassin laughed. Their conversation turned to trivialities as they drank more wine, and finally degenerated into joke telling. Wilmund, as a cleric, knew the crudest and dirtiest jokes: soon they were roaring with laughter.

    Just after midnight, Wilmund decided to retire for he was due to leave the next day, continuing a journey to the holy monastery on I, an island by Mula just off the coast. Revile bade him good night, then got down to the serious business of eating and drinking.

    He leaned back for a moment, looking for someone new – preferably female – to talk to, a mug of wine in one hand, half a roasted chicken in the other. Peering forwards to the High Table, he searched for a glimpse of the Lady Shona. Finally he found her, surrounded by a press of worshipful nobles. She was a handsome woman: athletically built with broad shoulders, long flaxen-coloured hair streaming about her neck, and clad in a leather jerkin and rough shirt. No shrinking violet or blushing maiden, the Lady Shona joked and brawled with her nobles and other menfolk. Revile grinned as she drained her goblet to the dregs and then ordered more wine in a mighty bellow. She was like no princess he had seen before.

    Some instinct prompted the assassin to sit up straighter. He had a niggling sensation something was wrong. Shona ordered more wine again, but her servants had vanished and did not attend her. The Lady looked around in bewilderment.

    Revile stood up awkwardly, cursing the amount of drink and food he had consumed. And as he rose to his feet, he searched in his tunic for a dirk. A side door into the Hall was thrown back, and a party of heavily-armed men burst into the chamber. They were smaller and darker in colouring than the Feni. Revile guessed they were from Strathclwyd.

     They ran towards the High Table, cutting down any who barred their way. The Feni fell back before them. All except Shona herself. She grabbed a carving knife from a joint of meat, then leapt forward into the fray. Revile sprinted up the Hall.

    And things went from bad to worse for the Lady Shona. She fought unaided; the men of Strathclwyd surrounded her. There were seven assassins – but two had already fallen to her knife. Revile had never seen any weapon more effectively handled.

    An axe was raised high above her head. The stroke would have cloven her head in two had it been completed. At that moment, Revile launched a dagger at the axe-wielder. It flashed past Shona’s head – narrowly missing her – and sank to the hilts in the axe-wielder’s throat.

    Shona disembowelled another, fighting with skill and ferocity and little care for her own safety. Her eyes shone with blood-lust.

    Only three of the assassins remained.

    With little thought for his own safety, Revile jumped on top of the High Table, launching himself into the struggling group. Another dirk appeared in his hand, a man died with an opened throat. The Lady Shona almost beheaded another.

    The last assassin turned and fled. But Shona leapt after him, followed a moment later by Revile. The last man was cut down as he fled, daggers and knives driven again and again into his back until he lay still, still that is apart from his twitching limbs. Shona checked the rest of the assassins were dead by stabbing them in the throat. A large pool of blood oozed from the corpses.

    “We have not met, I think,” Shona said to Revile when they had completed their butchery. Her voice was husky, she was perspiring and splattered with gore, but seemed well content. She wiped blood from her hands on the tunic of one of the assassins. “What is your name, friend?”

    Revile mopped his brow. “I am called Maggot,” he said with a grin. “You, I guess, are the Lady Shona of the Feni.”

    She smiled back. “Indeed I am,” she said, taking his hand, “although I wasn’t blessed with such a pretty name as you – apt though it may be. Come, Sir Maggot, join me at my table. I must thank you for saving my life.” She decided not to mention that he should not have been carrying any weapons, nor should he have drawn them in her presence.

    “Thank you, my lady.”

    “Shona will do,” she said a little curtly. “Have a place set!” she ordered, “have the bodies of these treacherous dogs removed and spike their heads on the gates! Clean up their blood. Come you cowardly swine! Come now! The danger has passed! You need no longer fear for your lives! And bring me more wine!”

    Men hurriedly dragged the corpses from the Great Hall, washed the gore from the floor, and more wine finally arrived.

    “Why are you all silent?” the Lady Shona cried in a loud voice. “This is a feast – not a funeral!”

    Gradually talking and laughing resumed, and in a few minutes it was as if nothing had happened. Revile sat down at the side of Shona, helping himself to a goblet of wine. The wine was certainly better than the drink served at the lower tables.

    “Were they of Strathclwyd?” he asked her. “Or are all your guests so friendly? Perhaps the sourness of the wine angered them.”

    “They were men of Strathclwyd,” she replied, turning towards him. “I have no doubt of that. Treacherous dogs! Where is Eocha? I should have him boiled in oil for this!”

    “Has he reason to hate you?” said Revile in an innocent voice.

    “Yes,” she said softly. “We have stolen lands from these Stratchclwydians? ... Strathclwydans? ... Strathclwydui? ... damn them! I can’t even say their name. We have stolen land from the men of Strathclwyd, stolen their ancient kingdom; we have imprisoned their king, forced him to swear allegiance to the High King of Dalria. What do you think, Sir Maggot? We the Feni, the interlopers and foreign raiders from across the sea that we are, have defeated and enslaved them, an ancient and proud people. Do they have reason to hate us?”

    “Perhaps,” he replied, “but surely killing you wouldn’t help either this Eocha or his people.”

    “How do you mean?”

    “Well, if they had murdered you,” he said thoughtfully, guzzling wine between muses, “what would have happened?”

    “My warriors would invade their stinking land and waste it from Alclwyd to Caerisle.”

    “That’s what I guessed.”

    “Ah, Sir Maggot, all that would happen except for one thing: I am an only child and my father is near death. If I was murdered, my people would be left leaderless and quite possibly divided. Who knows what would happen then?”

    “Perhaps what you say is true,” said Revile, “although I think your people would stay united even if it was only for long enough to devastate Strathclwyd. The Strathclwydians? ... Strathclwydus? ... Strathclwydruns? ... people of Strathclwyd could gain nothing just by your death. There must be some other reason.”

    “Perhaps you are right,” she said, sounding bored, “but what does it matter? Politics, plots and the machinations of princelings and kinglets are quite tiresome. I am still alive at present. No doubt they will try again. Let us hope they have not poisoned the wine!”

    Revile helped himself to some venison: the fighting had left him hungry again. “You fight well,” he told her. “I hadn’t thought it possible for a royal princess, if you won’t take offence.”

    She favoured him with a sour expression. “My father had a son, Osric,” she said softly, “but my brother left Dundonald when I was still a child: he was different, whatever that means. I needs do although I’m the weaker sex.” Revile grinned at that. “And, may I tell you,” she went on, “I have no wish to play the role of the weak and fragile princess. That is a part for a simpering girl, parading before men until one asks for your hand. But I will not be sold off like some chattel, married to the highest bidder!”

    Revile shrugged. “Then you don’t need to be,” he said. “You are the heir to wide lands and powerful armies. Who could force you?”

    “The High King,” she replied softly. “He could and he will. I am a pawn in his games, but a pawn with lands and property. How can I refuse him? Pawns have no power.”

    “On a chess board perhaps,” said the assassin. “But in this world the High King would risk war. Wouldn’t your people follow you?”

    “I hope so,” she whispered, “but I could not plunge Dalria into a war. It would be brother fighting brother. Our enemies would use it to destroy us, drive us back into the sea like the pirates they believe us.”

    Revile shrugged. “Then pack a sword,” he said, “some provisions, take a little gold. Ride out into the wide world. Someone who fights as well as you would get on fine.”

    “Thank you for saying so, but you misunderstand me, I think. I do not crave freedom; I am well content here. But I wish to rule in my own right, not as the servant of some man, however noble he may be. But I have said enough on the matter, Sir Maggot. Come, tell me something of yourself.”

    “There’s not much to tell.”

    “So you’ll be mysterious, will you? Where are you from? What do you do?”

    “Very well,” he said, feigning reluctance, “I suppose you’d call me an adventurer. I go wherever I think there will be gold or silver. As for where I come from? In truth I have no home – or nowhere I could call home. Such is an adventurer’s sad life!”

    “And very tragic it sounds,” she said in a solemn tone, but there was amusement in her eyes. “You don’t seem too depressed!”

    “I hide it well, I think.”

    “Come then, tell me of your adventures.”

    Revile laughed, for he was not a man who quickly tired of talking about himself.

 

The assassin and the princess talked and jested and drank well into the long autumn night. Revile enjoyed her company: it was with some surprise he realised he liked her. This was unhealthy for an assassin, akin to the butcher caring for a lamb he was about to slaughter. In the end, to him anyway, it mattered little.

    Finally, however, the celebration began to break up, and the Lady Shona retired to her chambers, wishing Sir Maggot sweet dreams.

    Revile walked thoughtfully to his own small apartment.

    It was a shame he had to kill her.

 

IV

 

The moon had set.

    A dark shape flitted from shadow to shadow. A few torches flared from along the battlements, but the shape vanished against the darkness of the stonework. Two sentries passed within a pace or two. Their watchful eyes saw nothing. The shape waited until they had disappeared from view, then stepped out into the light.

    Revile stood back for a moment, peering upwards to the roof of the royal apartments on the highest part of the rock of the Citadel. His hands and face were covered in soot. Only the whites of his eyes were clearly visible in the flickering light. There was a window thirty or so feet above him. He inspected the climb carefully. It did not look too difficult.

    Taking a padded grappling hook from a small pack, the assassin again checked the battlements were deserted. Then he swung the grapple about his head a few times, before throwing it towards the roof. It caught on the eaves. Revile tested the hold. Then, with great agility and speed, he scuttled up the rope, and soon stood on the window ledge. The window was shuttered. By slipping a dagger between the shutters, he undid the latch and opened them. He stole into the chamber, retrieving the grapple, coiling the rope.

    Shona’s room was quiet, quiet as the grave, the only sound her untroubled snoring as she slept. Revile was not troubled that she should awake: she had drunk enough wine to drown a whale. Revile closed the shutters softly, then slipped over to the bed. Although it was dark, he located the princess without difficulty and stood over the cot, peering down. She stirred slightly and sighed – but the assassin hesitated, his daggers left untouched.

    He left her bed side, padding across the rugs to the door, listening intently. He heard nothing untoward, then decided to search the room for anything of value. He carefully avoided a stool by the side of her bed; quickly rummaged through her clothing and effects; finally inspected a chest at the end of her cot. It was locked. While Revile had some skill at opening locks, it was too dark for such work. He searched for the key, but it could not be found. Guessing it might be around Shona’s neck, he returned to the bed and gently pulled back her blankets and furs. The woman lay quite still. Revile stared down at her naked body. But still he hesitated.

    There was a soft click from the door.

    The assassin froze, hardly dared to breathe.

    The door opened a fraction, a little light entering from the corridor. Noiselessly, Revile sank to the floor, hidden by the bed.

    He heard the door creaking slightly, a soft footfall, then a click as it closed.

    Somebody else was in the chamber. Revile wormed his way to the foot of the cot.

    “At last,” whispered a voice with a southern accent. “Sleep soundly, Lady Shona of the accursed Feni – so soundly that you never awake.” There was a short laugh. “We have failed once tonight, but not again.”

    There was a faint ring of metal.

    Revile the assassin leapt soundlessly to his feet. His eyes were fixed on a darker shape stooped over the bed. With the hilt of his dagger, he clubbed the figure from behind.

    Shona moaned in her sleep.

    The assassin dragged the unconscious man from the bed, then sat astride him. His dagger was held to the man’s throat, the other hand over his mouth. Revile gently tried to revive him.

    “Who are you?” whispered Revile into his face.

    The man groaned softly.

    “Who are you?” repeated Revile, pressing the dirk tighter, looking to see if Shona stirred.

    “Gareth ap Uther,” moaned Gareth, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

    “What are you doing here?”

    Gareth said nothing more, but he opened his eyes. His stare was wild and bleary.

    Revile drew blood from his throat.

    “I was sent to kill the Lady Shona,” Gareth managed shakily.

    “Who by?”

    “The King.”

    “The King of Strathclwyd?”

    “Yes,” he grunted, focusing his stare.

    “Why does this Eocha want Shona killed?”

    “By the Dragon, they stole our kingdom, forced us to swear allegiance to Dalria.”

    “How would killing Shona help you?”

    “I don’t know. Nechtan ordered it,” whispered Gareth. “I don’t know why. You must believe me.”

    Revile looked puzzled. “Nechtan the Mage?” he said softly. “Nechtan the Slayer?”

    “Yes.”

    “This is a strange alliance of old enemies,” said the assassin. “Is there anyone else in this conspiracy?”

    “Malcolm, the King of Lornland. That is all.”

    “I don’t understand,” said Revile. “Do you know me?”

    “Yes, you are Worm.”

    The assassin sighed. “Is it they who pay me?” he asked. “Eocha and the rest?”

    “Yes.”

    “You’re sure now? O well,” the assassin fell silent. He clamped one hand over Gareth’s mouth and nose – then sank his dagger into his heart. Gareth tensed, let out a sigh, then went limp. Revile released him. “Sorry, Gareth, son of Uther,” he told the corpse.

    He returned to Shona’s bed, his dirk dripping blood. “Well, my lady,” he thought, “lost in your dreams, eh?” He sighed. “No,” he said out loud, “not this way. It’s too dangerous.”

    Revile uncoiled the rope from his pack, padded across to the window, opened the shutters.

    The cold wind blew on his face. “Am I going soft?” he asked the night. “I wonder.”

    He climbed onto the window ledge.

 

V

 

Revile slept late the following morning.

    He had spent some time washing the soot from his features, blood from his dagger and tunic. His small room was frosty cold. He shivered under his thin blanket until he had finally fallen asleep.

    An instant later – it seemed – there was a knocking on his door. He started and jumped out of bed, drawing his sword before he could check himself. The knocking came again, but this time the assassin relaxed, put away his sword, and answered the door. The Lady Shona stood there, looking as fresh as a mountain spring. She was dressed as if for hunting: only the fullness of her breast and fairness of her features betrayed her for a woman.

    “Greetings, Sir Maggot,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “How are you this fair morning?”

    Revile yawned and scratched at a flea bite under his tunic. “Suffering a little,” he admitted. “Your hospitality was too generous. You have a strong constitution, my lady. Stronger than Maggot’s to be sure.”

    “Perhaps,” she replied. “It might interest you to know I had a visitor in my bed chamber last night.”

    “Really?” said Revile. “I didn’t think you’d tell me all your secrets. Do you try to make me jealous?”

    She smiled thinly. “I did not invite him,” she said. “The poor fellow tripped over his own feet and stabbed himself through the heart – or so it seems.”

    Revile raised his eyebrows. “How inconsiderate of him,” he yawned again. “Perhaps he chose death rather than failure under your furs.” But then he added, in a more serious tone. “Or maybe he was a Strathclwyduthian? ... Strathclwydtutute? ... Strathclwydussian? ... mmm ... a man of Strathclwyd.”

    “Perhaps he was. How did you know?”

    “I was his accomplice – but seeing the error of my ways, I repented and killed him in remorse. You have found me out.”

    “Hmmm,” considered the woman. “Perhaps. It would not surprise me. You are a strange one, Sir Maggot. Anyway, it is not important. I am going on a spot of hunting. Would you care to join me?”

    “Why not?” Revile slept fully clothed, including his boots. Quickly belting on his sword, he collected his bow and quiver of arrows and said: “Lead on, my lady, and if you have some wine I’d bless you!”

    “As it happens,” she replied, “I do.” She gave him a half-full skin. “And my name is Shona.”

    “You are an angel amongst women, Shona,” said Revile. 

    “Hush,” said the woman.

    Shona led the assassin down from the Citadel to the stables in a wide courtyard. A large number of nobles were gathered there, waiting for the Lady Shona. The Dalrian lords threw Revile some rather ugly and ill-favoured looks. It did not seem right that their princess should be so familiar with a low-born adventurer – no matter how bravely he had saved her life.

    The assassin ignored them. He might have laughed himself. The nobles were seated upon garrons, mere hill ponies, and they looked ridiculous in their armour and painted shields and flaxen hair and golden earrings, like over-sized children on toys too small for them. Revile climbed onto his own sturdy beast with a grin. Only the Lady Shona and Eocha ap Gawain had proper horses; they towered above all else.

     “Well, Eocha,” declared Shona, “it seems that once again your people have tried to murder me. I think I should hold you responsible. I hope I never find out you a hand in this.”

    “Of course not, my lady,” protested Eocha. “Why would I wish you harm? I have only affection for you and your father. Some of my rebellious and hot-headed people believe – wrongly, I have often pleaded with them – that you Feni have harmed them, that you treacherously stole their ancient kingdom, that you are back-stabbing stinking thieves, murdering scum-sucking brigands.” The Feni muttered angrily. Eocha ignored them. “I am prevented from returning to Alclwyd. If I was allowed, I would seek out these villains and deal with them, the scum!”

    “I doubt it not,” said Shona lightly, “but have a care to loose your arrows in the right direction.”

    With that, she nudged her horse into a trot, followed by her nobles and lords. She rode out of the north gate, passing many town’s folk and fortress guards. Revile trotted along behind her, an idea suddenly springing to mind. But he kept his thoughts to himself.

    The body of horsemen rode along the northern road for some miles, then veered to the east into the higher and drier ground; and they entered an expansive, open forest, which covered the rolling hills and sheltered glens before the glowering mountains. It was warm for the time of year, the sun cast green and golden shadows on the turf. The forest was teeming with life: deer, bear, wolves, wild boar, otter, beaver, salmon, birds and many other creatures. Winter was rapidly approaching, but its touch had not yet been felt in this corner of the world.

    The riders gathered in a large clearing, and after drinking from a horn of mead, they set out into the woods after the luckless prey that roamed the wilderness.

    The Lady Shona, Eocha ap Gawain and two servants rode off in one direction along a wide forest track. Although their horses were larger and swifter than the garrons, they were less adept at negotiating rough terrain. Revile spurred his own pony across country, hoping for a quicker, straighter and yet more devious route.

 

VI

 

The Lady Shona and Eocha ap Gawain thundered down the track, followed some distance behind by the princess’s two servants. Shona had managed to convince the King of Strathclwyd that she did not really suspect him of plotting to murder her. Consequently, Eocha seemed in a happier mood, and he charged along the path in abandon, a long spear before him. Shona was armed with a hunting bow and a dagger, and she led the small party, bow in one hand, reins in the other. She spurred her horse on to greater speed, enjoying the feeling of rushing air against her face.

    Her horse suddenly gave out a troubled neigh, stopping its gallop so suddenly Shona was nearly thrown. Eocha was hard put not to spit the stricken horse with his spear. The princess leapt lightly from the saddle and examined the beast. It limped, and the woman sighed bitterly.

    “Ah, my friend,” she told the horse, stroking its neck. “I have ridden you too recklessly. No more hunting for you today.”

    The horse nuzzled her neck and whinnied.

    “Take my horse,” said Eocha gallantly. “I will ride one of these garrons.”

    She shook her head. “No,” she told him, “your beast has an evil gleam in its eye.” Her two servants came riding up at that point. “I will take one of these garrons. They will suit well enough – and teach me not to be so foolish again.”

    She sent her servants back to the fortress with the injured horse, then sprang into the saddle of her new mount, a rather plump but sure-footed pony. Shona continued the hunt. Eocha ap Gawain trotted after her, a dark and calculating expression on his face. He rode behind the princess, his spear lowered to the height of her back. Spurring his horse on, he slowly gained on Shona. After all, hunting accidents were all the too common, and by the time this one was discovered he would be half way back to Alclwyd. The Feni would hunt him but it was worth the risk: Shona was getting more and more suspicious. “Let Nechtan deal with Lord Donald,” he thought grimly. “Let the old mage plot on with out me!”

    But the Lady Shona was not as trusting as Eocha had imagined. She wheeled around in the saddle to find the King of Strathclwyd bearing down on her. Without slowing her pony, she twisted in the saddle and loosed an arrow in his direction.

    The arrow missed by a hair, the flight scoring Eocha’s cheek, but was sufficient to give her a few more strides of a lead.

    But Eocha grinned again and chased after her. The princess swallowed and struggled to fit another arrow to her bow. Eocha was only a short distance behind, his spear only feet from impaling her. She frantically dug her heels into the belly of her pony, but the poor beast was galloping as fast as it ever would. She swept out her dagger and hewed at the spear point, but her blows had no effect on the iron barb. Shona leaned as far forward as possible, but she could no longer avoid the keen tip of the spear between her shoulder blades.

    There was a dull snap like the breaking of a dry branch, and Shona heard a crash behind her. Eocha’s horse stopped short and slithered to a halt.

    Shona pulled up her pony, and gazed back down the trail.

    Lord Eocha ap Gawain, King of Strathclwyd, lay sprawled in the old leaves and dirt of the track. His shivered spear lay beside him and his sweating horse stood over him. He was dead. His head was looking back over his left shoulder. His neck had been broken.

    She rode back to where he lay and stared down at his corpse. Apart from his neck, there was no other sign of violence and his horse was not harmed. She examined the branches above her head and discovered a thin rope had been tied tightly between two trunks, stretching across the track. It was this that had killed the treacherous Eocha. She smiled grimly, then started the ride back to the clearing.

    A short time later she reached the opening in the trees where other nobles and servants awaited her. Revile sat there, a newly killed deer across the shoulders of his pony. Other riders still emerged through the trees.

    “Hail, my lady,” greeted Sir Maggot, jumping gallantly to the ground and helping the princess dismount. “No luck, eh?” he said, then hesitated, regarding his hand. It was red with blood. “Are you wounded? Where is Eocha?”

    “It is a scratch merely, Sir Maggot,” said Shona sadly. “My lord Eocha mistook me for a deer and would have spitted me if he could.”

    “I see,” said Revile, examining her back. “It is not deep. You were lucky, I guess.”

    “I would say!” said the woman. “And in more ways than one. I won the race by a neck. At least I no longer fear my lord Eocha.”

    “Why? Is he dead?”

    “Very,” said Shona, “and I will have his head spiked. I should have done it earlier.”

    “A delightful adornment to any gate,” said Revile, “but I, for one, am saddened by his death.”

    “Why?” demanded the Lady Shona.

    “Well, we’ll never find out how to say the name of his people, you know, the Strathclwydwhatsits. Have you any wine left? All this death makes a man thirsty.”

    “So that’s why you drink so much!”

 

VII

 

Lord Malcolm of Lornland was dismayed by the demise of his fellow conspirator, although he had no love for the King of Strathclwyd. It was so bizarre. He sat with his back against a standing stone, pondering this new turn of events, not sure that he should remain part of the plot. He was worried. It should have been so easy to murder Shona.

    “Do you think he talked?” Malcolm asked Nechtan.

    The old mage peered at his companion. “No,” he said, looking away, “he would not have had a chance. That much I am certain.” He sighed. “By Azzchzog and the Blood Moon, but I wish I knew why he took matters into his own hands. I do not know how things could have gone so wrong. Is this Worm, or Maggot – or whatever he calls himself – to be trusted?”

    “How can a man ever tell?” replied Malcolm. “Eocha believed so, but now he is dead and Shona is still living. And this Worm has the favour of the Lady Shona, or so it is said. He saved her from the men of Strathclwyd. Yet maybe this was just to get closer to her. I do not know.”

    “Eocha should not have interfered,” muttered Nechtan. “We had made our plan.”

    “I know,” said the King of Lornland wearily.

    “Perhaps I should take I hand,” said the mage, sounding just as tired. “By Azzchzog and the Blood Moon, the old king will die tomorrow. I think I will risk my sorceries this second-last time. I judge I have the strength, and this is a powerful time of the year when magic is at its strongest. Let us forget this assassin, this Worm. Let him keep the gold – I will deal with him later. He has done naught but get in the way. No, my friend, I can no longer do this alone. You must help me.” And he sighed again. “I am getting too old for all this. My ancient bones need that long rest in the final sleep. Aye, Malcolm, Nechtan the Mage has lived too long.”

 

VIII

 

Revile and the Lady Shona walked the battlements together, taking the brisk evening air. A wind had got up and clouds rushed away to the west. The full moon was hidden. They had left the second night of feasting early, and wandered aimlessly about the Citadel, talking and looking at the bright stars and the full moon. Both appeared to be quite drunk, but the assassin was sober and still committed to his mission. He was patiently waiting for a moment to push her from the battlements. Shona’s inebriation was caused, at least in part, by some clear liquid he had poured into her goblet.

    “What do you do, Sir Maggot?” asked Shona again.

    “I have already told you,” replied Revile, “I am an adventurer.”

    “Then why did you come to this fortress?” she asked. “There is not much adventure to be found here. I, of all people, know that too well.”

    “I heard about your Festival at Aodh’s Tower, and having nothing better to do I thought I would give Dundonald a visit. In truth, I had become quite bored and would have done much to relieve the monotony. I have enjoyed myself more here.”

    “You still have not satisfied my curiosity,” she said. “You say you are an adventurer. What exactly does that involve? Thievery? Murder?”

    “Depends,” said the assassin, “what’s on offer at the time. I have thieved, it is true. I have also been a mercenary but I didn’t like that much – too many rules, fat men giving orders, being thrown into the most dangerous of battles. I have worked as a bodyguard, but it is impossible to know who to trust. I prefer the life of a wanderer, making a living where I can. Anyway, I came into a little money and thought I would take a little rest up here in the north. But generally I just do what ever comes along.”

    “Do you never become tired with your kind of life?”

    “Yes, sometimes,” he replied, “but if I settle down for a while I quickly become restless. Adventuring is just a way of life, a profession. Nothing else would suit.”

    “Have you slain many people?” she asked.

    “This is a strange question to ask me again!” he replied, sounding a little irritated. “But yes, I have killed the odd one or two. As you have yourself, no doubt. But only when there was no other way.”

    “Is there no other way now, I wonder? I suppose you are going to add me to this odd one or two.” The woman regarded him closely. “That is what they paid for you, is it not? You see, I am not as trusting as you might have thought. I had my men go through your possessions. They found much gold. I can not believe you earned it honestly.”

    “I don’t know how you can believe this of me,” said Revile in a hurt tone. “I saved your life, remember. Why would I have bothered if I intended to murder you myself?”

    “Because you knew you would not be paid the rest of your blood money.”

    The assassin shook his head as if trying to clear it.

    “It is strange,” the Lady Shona went on, “very strange. The one man I have any regard for in this whole world is only in my company so he can kill me. Three times you have saved my life unwittingly.”

    “My lady,” he told her, “you are very drunk.”

    “My name is Shona,” she replied, “and in the morning I will still be telling the truth.”

    “You don’t know what you’re saying,” said the assassin uncomfortably.

    “Do I not?” she said, her words slurred. “Do you take me for a fool? It was you who set that rope across the track and so killed Eocha. I believe it was you who was in my chamber when the assassin came visiting. Come on then, Sir Maggot, do what they paid you to do. Cast me from the walls and have done with it.”

    Revile could find nothing to say.

    “What do you say to that?” said Shona, and she staggered. “Eh?” And she prodded him in the chest with her finger. “Eh? You feigned friendship so you might murder me the more easily.”

    “That’s not true,” said Revile tiredly. “And why would I have needed to bother? I could kill you easily enough as a stranger.”

    She lurched against him, said something incoherent. Mumbling as if in her sleep, she fell into Revile’s arms and went limp. The potion had finally taken effect.

    Revile sighed. The princess was unconscious, her head lolled. The assassin lifted her easily into his arms and carried her to the battlements. He held her out over the wall, his arms trembling with her weight.

    Then he saw the moon, emerging into a break in the clouds, and his jaw dropped. It was unnaturally dim and was red in colour. He placed the Lady Shona carefully on the ground, and rubbed his eyes. There could be no mistake: it was a blood moon. He shook his head. Gathering himself, he once more took Shona in his arms and carried her to the parapet.

    But then he heard a strange scraping sound. The noises were coming from the wall below him. “What by Helgard?” he muttered: it was proving to be a extremely strange night. He put Shona down again and leaned out, staring down into the gloomy chasm.

    His eyes opened wide in surprise and fear. Several things were climbing the wall. This was impossible in itself for the courses of masonry were laid without crevice or hold, and the rock below the walls was shear.

    The assassin peered down again, not quite able to believe his senses. There were four climbers. The climbers were skeletons, fleshless and bony, clad in rusty armour and rags, clutching notched weapons.

    Revile looked about wildly, completely at a loss under the strange wan light of the blood moon. “Helgard!” he muttered. “Ganish, Thor, Hanuman, Mithra and all the saints protect me!” He staggered back from the battlements.

    But then, like an arrow loosed from the bow, he scooped Shona up in his arms and ran for the nearest door.

    A bony hand appeared over the wall.

    Revile tugged at the latch frantically and finally got the door open. He leapt inside, slamming the door behind him, dropping Shona untidily on the floor. But his luck had deserted him. The entrance could not be barred; he was cornered in a small roof-top storeroom. The chamber was filled with arrows and weaponry, casks of oil and piles of stones, for the defence of the fortress during a siege. There was no other way out. His only hope was the Dead had no business with him or Shona; but then he thought of Nechtan and all hope withered. He searched for some weapon with which he might defend himself – but what use were weapons against the Dead? He shuddered slightly and swallowed.

    There was a pounding at the door, then another.

    The timbers protested and splintered. The assassin saw patches of night sky as bony fists hammered through the wood. He retreated to the far wall, dragging Shona with him. Fumbling with tinder and flint, he tried to light a torch so that he might, at least, see. Finally he succeeded and placed the torch in a brazier by his side. The darkness was thrown back, but the light did nothing to improve Revile’s spirits.

    The door held for a moment longer, then shivered and crashed inwards. A tall skeleton stood there, peering in with eyeless sockets. It advanced across the threshold, turning its skull from side to side as if it could smell their life-blood. It carried a shield decorated with the painted devices of Fenis and Dalria.

    The assassin looked at the skeleton, his expression grim. Not really expecting to be able to do anything, he picked up a halberd and, in the same action, brought it crashing down on the outstretched skull. The skull was split asunder; bones scattered over the floor. The three other Dead stepped over the remains. Revile cleaved all three and they disintegrated into chaos. He grinned.

    But the smile died on his lips. Hideously slowly, as if there was no reason to hurry, the fragments and bones started to move back together, pulling themselves along the floor. The bones reformed and the joints snapped back together. It was like some terrible nightmare. And in a while, the skeletons reformed and picked up their weapons. They stood at the door, then shambled into the storeroom.

    Revile took another step back, nearly tripping over a small cask of oil. The Dead shuffled, their lifeless jaws working as if they tried to speak. The assassin looked at the cask. He threw down the halberd, then unstoppered the small barrel, kicking it over. The viscous oil ran under the feet of the skeletons. Grabbing Shona, he snatched the torch from the brazier. The Dead were only a short distance away, flailing with their thin arms.

    The assassin jumped atop the other barrels, his muscles straining, and leapt towards the door. Something caught at his arm and did not let go. Revile tore away with all his strength, letting out a cry of pain, dead fingers ripping his tunic and gouging his flesh. Stopping at the door, Revile wheeled round. The Dead had turned towards him. The assassin grinned, then tossed the torch into the storeroom.

    Momentarily nothing happened. But then there was a great whoosh and flames sprung from the door. Revile ran along the battlements, carrying Shona.

    There were three massive explosions, then a fourth. The assassin and the princess were thrown to the ground by the force of the blasts. The building shook, fire flared from the roof.

    Revile picked himself off the ground and sighed, looking at his handiwork. He caught his breath for a moment longer, then hurried off to tell the Watch what had happened.

    It would not be easy to explain why he had decided to burn down the fortress.

 

IX

 

Revile woke about midday. He moaned in his sleep, then sat up in his furs, coming out of some evil dream. He stared about the room, but there were no skeletons lurking in the shadows or sneaking in through the shuttered windows. Relaxing, he lay down again and rubbed his arm. There were four deep wounds there: he examined them carefully, searching for any sign of infection. But they appeared to be healing, so he scratched his head in a thoughtful way and yawned.

    He had not got to bed until very late, or early anyway. The fire had been quickly brought under control. But it was the moon that fascinated Revile: slowly he had seen it return to normal. It was a strange time, but he had no way of explaining it.

    He decided to forget it, and he yawned again.

    Dragging himself from his bed, and shivering a little in the cold, he padded across to the window. He threw open the shutters and peered out into the courtyard. The morning was chilly and crisp, a thin covering of snow lay on the cobbles. The assassin groaned. Grey clouds rolled down from the north-east, a few snow flakes fluttered past the window.

    

Later, as Revile still watched the snow, there was a soft rap on his door. He answered it: again it was the Lady Shona. She appeared both bright and cheerful, and smiled at him.

    “Greetings, Sir Maggot,” she said huskily. “How are you this chill morning?”

    “Weary, my lady,” he replied. “Very weary. This is a most tiring climate you have. Yesterday it is sunny and warm; today it is cold and snows. I am very weary with it.”

    “I would guess your weariness is due to too many late nights, my friend. Anyway, what are you doing?”

    “I am watching your snow and thinking of the South.”

    “Then again I am not surprised you are weary,” she said. “Perhaps I could find you some thing more exciting to do …”

    “I don’t doubt it,” said Revile evenly.

    “I may find you one presently,” she went on, “but it seems I am in your debt again. And, so, I must thank you. But have a care not to burn the rest of my House. Anyway, I am grateful, Sir Maggot.”

    The assassin nodded slowly. “You weren’t so sure last night,” he told her, “you were convinced I intended to murder you.”

    “I was drunk – or whatever.”

    “Perhaps,” he replied, then turned back to the window. 

    “I had not expected,” the woman said softly, “to find myself alive this morning.”

    Revile gripped the edge of the window sill; his knuckles went white. “You have naught to fear from me, my lady,” he said, “of that be sure.”

    “I do not doubt you, Sir Maggot,” she said, more seriously. “Now, how is your fencing?”

    “Fencing, my lady?” he said, grinning at her. “Would you have me out in the snow fixing your pig-pens?”

    “Fool!” she snorted. “I meant your sword-play!”

    “I know. I’m competent, I’d guess.”

    “I’ve a mind to test you.”

    “Very well.”

 

Shona led him from the apartment to a narrow flight of stairs, and climbing these, took him to a large chamber. The room was empty except for a table, chairs, and several racks of different weapons: swords, axes, spears, maces, polearms, and all other types of bludgeons and cleavers. Revile had brought his own sword and – he reckoned – there was not a weapon there to match it.

    “You have a good sword,” Shona commented. “How did you come by it?”

    “It’s a long story,” he replied, “but it is the hardest and strongest steel I have ever chanced upon. Even so, the edge is notched.”

    “Perhaps it has seen too much use?” she said with a smile. “Too many foolish innocents have thrown themselves on it?”

    “That again,” said Revile wearily. “I thought you might have grown tired of such questions. Anyway, a sword is not an assassin’s weapon.”

    “I never said it was,” she replied. The princess unbuckled her cloak and rolled it up, placing it on the table. She shivered a little in the cold for there was no fire in the chamber. Selecting a sword from one of the racks, she tested its balance and cutting edge. “This will do,” she said, and sent the weapon whistling through the air.

    “No armour, my lady?” asked Revile. “Is that not dangerous?” She was dressed only in a woollen tunic and leggings.

    “My name is Shona,” she said absently, “and I have no need of any armour.”

    “Very well, then,” said the assassin. “When you are ready?”

    And they fought. The Lady Shona proved to be as expert a swordsperson as Revile had ever met. Her technique and stance were faultless; she was as strong and skilful as any man. Shona was full of tricks, feinting and ducking and weaving, her sword flashing hypnotically in the torch-light. She made no allowances for any stumble or mistake by her opponent. Revile parried and battled as if for his life: he only narrowly avoided a sweep of her blade that would have disembowelled him. He wiped sweat from his nose and grinned.

    For they were quite well matched. The Lady Shona had the greater skill and strength but less experience of real combat. Revile’s reactions defied sight, his stamina seemed endless, and he had survived countless fights. He had beaten many men who were superior in technique simply because of his patience, speed, and because he fought in a very cunning, devious way.

    They struggled round the chamber, sometimes Revile winning the initiative, sometimes the princess. In one melee, the assassin took a shallow cut on his shoulder; as they joined blades again, he slipped under her guard, slicing through her tunic, nicking her stomach.

    Then the battle shifted out of Shona’s control; the assassin assumed the initiative. Soon she was retreating to defend herself. And she was tiring fast, or so Revile believed. He forced her back towards the table.

    But just when he thought he had the victory, he found she was toying with him. With a dexterity Revile had not thought possible, she whirled out of his reach and his last slash went wide. She caught his sword with hers and, with a flick of the wrist, sent his weapon from his grasp, spinning through the air. Shona grinned and wiped her forehead.

    It was the assassin’s turn to back towards the table, the point of her sword held to his throat. Shona forced him over the table, grabbing the front of his tunic with one hand, holding her sword across his neck. He could feel the sharp blade against his throat; did not even dare swallow. A drop of sweat rolled from the princess’s chin and landed on his forehead.

    “I enjoyed that, Sir Maggot,” she told him, breathing heavily, “and all the more because I have won in the end. I fear you underestimated me.”

    “I fear I may have,” he panted, “but I’m not the only who is stupid.” 

    Shona felt a tickling against her belly. She glanced down and found Revile held a long dirk to her stomach. She laughed and said: “This is a pretty pickle. What should we do?”

    The assassin shrugged, still bent over the table. “Resume the battle?” he suggested. “I’ve no desire for a slit throat, and I guess you don’t want your stomach opened to the spine.”

    But she remained pressed against him. “I think I would prefer to die this way,” she said, “taking my assassin with me. So much better than a hunting accident, or a knife in my sleep, or poison in my wine. What do you say? Would that not be better, Sir Maggot?”

    “My lady, you have nothing to fear from me. Haven’t I already saved your life on two occasions? If it wasn’t for me, you’d already be dead. Think on it.”

    She shook her head. “You take me for a fool,” she told him, “a poor, blind, foolish woman. I would rather die this way.”

    “Listen,” he said a little angrily, “don’t be so stupid! You have all your life stretching away before you. There is always risk – that can’t be avoided. But it is not from me. I promise you. Helgard, after all that has happened you must trust me now!”

    “You fear that you will die, that is all!”

    “Do I?” he said. “Yet I don’t think you would murder me – not like this, not now. In the heat of battle you might, in combat. But you’re no assassin!”

    “And you, Sir Maggot?”

    “I am an adventurer only,” he said. “I promise you. You are in deadly peril perhaps. But you must trust me. Helgard, what do I need to do convince you?”

    She grinned, then released him. Turning from him, she examined her stomach and the thin cut there. Revile stood up, the dagger still clutched in his hand. He loomed over the stooping woman, his arm raised high – but then the weapon dropped from his hand and clattered to the floor. His eyes were fixed on a point over the princess’s shoulder; but his stare was vacant.

    The Lady Shona whirled around on her heel, but the smile died on her lips. Revile was as motionless as a statue.

    “Greetings, Lady Shona of the accursed Feni,” said a strange voice. “Greetings and well met.”

    The princess froze, then spun quickly, her sword held before her. “Who are you?” she demanded. “How dare you enter this room without knocking!”

    The hooded figure smiled grimly. “I do not come or go at your bidding,” he told her. “I am Nechtan the Old, Nechtan the Mage, Nechtan the Slayer!”

    She gripped the hilt of her sword more tightly. “What do you want with me?” she asked, her knuckles whitening. “What is your business here?”

    “By Azzchzog, can you not guess?” he replied in a voice of death.

    “What have I ever done to you?” she angrily replied. 

    “You ask?” he thundered, yet taken unaware by the sharpness of her tone. “You of the Feni ask? What have you been celebrating these days? Your glorious victory, the noble war you fought against us? You murdered my people to the last child – you slaughtered them all – stole the light from El-Firion! Except me, you forgot about me, and I will have my revenge!”

    “I am sorry,” she said. “Truly sorry about your people. I understand how you must feel.”

    “Do you?” he cried. “Do you? By Azzchzog, how could you?”

    “But I do,” she said with feeling. “I know what it is like to be alone and without friend or lover.”

    “Pah!” spat Nechtan the mage. “You do not know! Have you seen your loved ones slain, seen women and children violated and tortured, heard their last cries of agony? Do you know what happened – what your people did – to my wife, my beautiful wife? When they had finished using her they cut her open with a heated knife and took my half-formed child from her womb! By Azzchzog, I will destroy you” he added coldly, “I will destroy you all!”

    “So how did you escape,” she asked, “when your family, when your whole people were massacred?”

    “What?”

    “Why did you not die with them? How did you escape Nechtan the Old?”

    “I saved myself,” he said. “I could not save them.”

    “So you left your wife to be tortured?” replied the princess in a tone of scorn. “You left them to die while you ran for your own safety? You did nothing to help them?”

    “What could I do?” replied the mage. “I could have done nothing but die uselessly.”

    “Who can say?” she said coldly. “Why did you leave? Were you afraid to die, old man? Was that it? You coward, you craven, stinking yellow coward!”

    “You reproach me?” he cried in bewilderment. “You?”

    “Yes,” she hissed. “Yessss! Maybe the war against you was unjust, maybe it was. But do you know what they did to my mother, my dear mother that I never knew. She died just as horribly as your wife. My father was devastated, he has never recovered from the anguish. I was left alone, just a child, robbed of affection and love. Was that just?”

    “It was war!”

    “Exactly, you craven! Your people were no better than us. Your people were just as savage, just as cruel. But we were not cowards. My father did not desert my mother in her need. He rescued her from your savages even though she died a little time later from her injuries. But you? You left your wife! You left her, you cowardly dog!”

    “I don’t need to listen to this!”

    “Silence!” she commanded. He was so stunned by the compunction in her voice that he faltered. “What have you done to my friend?”

    “He is under a simple spell,” replied the mage before he could check himself. But then he recovered, his voice became hard. “But by then you will be dead! Your words are as nothing. No matter how cowardly my part was, you people still wronged us. You will pay for your arrogance and conceit! For tomorrow, your father will die – in agony – and he will leave his lands to Malcolm of Lornland. There will be a bloody war with Strathclwyd which will consume your people. By Azzchzog, I have seen it! It will happen, have no doubt of that. I tell you this so you go to your death in despair. My revenge will be complete ...”

 

Revile saw and heard everything that was happening. He knew he should do something to help the princess, but his thoughts were vague and imprecise: he could not concentrate. He tried to move his muscles, but they would not respond to his will. There was a pain that seared him as if a heated dagger was turned in his stomach. The assassin would have cried out if he could. His vision swam; the world reeled.

    But he was Revile the assassin. Stubbornly he had fought against many terrors, stubbornly he fought against the spell, no matter how much it cost him. To be dominated by anything was unbearable. He had too much pride to submit. He was in agony but he battled with the compulsion until his muscles trembled and his fingers twitched. Slowly his hand balled into a fist and moved jerkily towards the front of his tunic.

 

“... I will have my revenge. Prepare to die, Lady Shona, prepare to die!”

    Nechtan the Mage started to mumble a few strange words, and the air crackled with energy at his spell. The Lady Shona stood defiantly before him, bracing herself for the attack. “Come on you, craven,” she cried, “come on, Nechtan the Bold!”

    But the mage did not hear her. He began to wave his hands. A spasm took the princess as he clenched his fist. Dropping her sword, she bent double in agony. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came. Her stomach bulged and bubbled as if her organs were trying to escape out through her belly. Her chest heaved. Blood trickled through her hands. It was as if someone had got hold of her insides and was trying to tear them out.

    Nechtan continued his spell in a harsh voice. Shona opened her mouth and green bile spilled over the floor. The bubbling and convulsions became fiercer; blood spurted from her clenched fists.

    There was a whirling noise, a thud, the spell was suddenly cut short. Shona went limp, wheezing where she lay.

    Nechtan the Mage sank to his knees, a dagger buried in his chest to the hilts. Bright red blood coursed from the wound, soaked the front of his robe. He toppled forward and his head thumped off the stone floor. The mage twitched once.

    Shona dragged herself to her feet, still bent with pain. She straightened up slowly and gazed at Revile, blinking the sweat from her eyes. The assassin was soaked, his face scarlet. He sagged back, leaning against the table.

    “Helgard,” he said. “Helgard.”

    The princess grinned through the pain. “It seems it is your destiny to save me,” she said. “Never mind.”

    “It is a honour,” he replied. “Is Nechtan dead? I would be certain.”

    But when they looked for the body, it was gone. Only Revile’s dagger remained where the mage had fallen.

    The assassin and the princess frowned at each other.

 

X

 

“Was that true about your mother?” asked Revile.

    A great feast was in progress, and the sounds of laughter and merriment all but drowned their conversation. The celebration was triply glad: it was the Last Day, the anniversary of the concluding battle with the Old People, the Ing; Lord Donald had recovered a little from his illness, and his death no longer looked certain; and Nechtan the Mage was almost definitely dead – at last. Everything had turned out for the best. The princess and the assassin sat at the High Table together, laughing and joking. They no longer even received their share of ugly glances. The Feni nobility were too inebriated to care about Maggot’s low birth.

    “Was that about your mother true?” Revile said again, this time more loudly.

    “Ah no,” she replied, sounding ashamed. “It was a complete and utter lie. I was not even born when the Last Battle was fought, as Nechtan would have realised if he had thought about it for a moment. My mother died peacefully in her bed two years ago. I thought it was a good thing to say at the time.”

    The assassin laughed. “You were very convincing,” he told her.

    “As you are yourself, Sir Maggot,” she replied with a half-smile. “A plausible rogue.”

    “Thank you,” he said, bowing his head. “I am honoured by your courtesy.”

    “It was nothing,” said the princess, taking a drink from her goblet. “So,” she went on, “what are your plans now? I think your business here is finished. Unless I am mistaken?”

    “I’ll be around for a while yet,” he said softly. “After that, who knows? I have a mind to take passage for the south to escape the coming winter. I need a rest in the sun. There is more there for one with my talents. Besides, I’m getting too well known for my comfort. Anyway, how do we know Nechtan is dead? Perhaps he is only gathering his strength for the next blood moon.”

    “Then let us hope it is many years away. Anyway, I will miss you, Sir Maggot,” she said, “and feel the less secure. For I have not forgotten Nechtan’s prediction: he said Fenis would be devastated, that the Feni would be consumed in a bloody war. He told me he’d seen it.”

    “Perhaps he was lying,” replied the assassin. “Why would he tell you the truth?”

    She shook her head and shivered. “No,” she said in a whisper, “there was truth in his voice. I might have need for one of your talents again.”

    “Well, if you have need of me, I’ll come. Send word to the Wastrel, a tavern in Llaith in Lothland. Ask for Maggot.”

    “I will,” she said brightly.    

    “Anyway,” he said, “what are you going to do in my absence? Will you marry a grizzled greybeard as you feared?”

    “I hope not,” she said. “It appears my father will survive this illness, and as long as he lives I will be safe. But he will not last forever. I do not wish to look beyond that. Sometimes I wish I was a man, for then they would leave me alone!”

    “Don’t say that,” said Revile, “I think you’re fine as a woman.”

    “Why thank you, my silver-tongued knight,” she grinned. “I had not thought Sir Maggot so chivalrous!”

    “Is it chivalrous to simply tell the truth?”

    “No, probably not,” she replied, “but I thank you anyway.”

    They fell silent – yet shortly they were jesting and drinking again.

 

Lord Malcolm, King of Lornland, approached the High Table, the very picture of cordiality. In one hand was a goblet, the other a flagon of blood-red wine. 

    “May I join your company?” he asked, lurching slightly, spilling some of the wine from his goblet.

    “If you must,” said the princess in a far-from-friendly tone. Space was made; Malcolm sat down between Shona and Maggot.

    “Have some of my wine,” said the King of Lornland. “It is a truly excellent vintage, all the way from the land of the Franks. It is truly excellent, yes truly excellent.”

    “That would be delightful,” said Shona sweetly, “but I already have plenty.”

    Revile indicated that his only goblet was full to brimming. The three sat for some minutes without saying anything. Then Shona’s attention was distracted by one of her nobles, who was telling an absurd tale about Conan, who had told a ludicrous story about being a king in his own right. The Feni had thrown him out the previous evening when he had started a brawl.

    “I must talk to you,” Revile whispered to Malcolm. “I plan to poison the princess. Have you got my gold?”

    The King of Lornland nodded.

    “Good,” the assassin went on, “then say and do nothing.”

    Revile reached across the table and took Shona’s now empty goblet and started to fill it with wine from a large jug by his side. He ignored Malcolm’s excellent vintage. With a dextrous slight of hand, he emptied the contents of a small phial into the goblet. Only Malcolm saw him do it.

    The assassin returned the goblet to the Lady Shona and watched her drink the wine. Malcolm grinned.

    “It will take some minutes,” Revile told him in a whisper, then drained his own goblet. He refilled it from Malcolm’s flagon. The King of Lornland took a sip of his own wine.

    Shona was relating the appearance of Nechtan the Mage in the armoury, and there was much jesting and ribaldry at the old wizard’s expense. But Revile took exception to something that was said, and shouted an obscenity at one of the nobles.

    “What did you call me, you low-born scum?” bellowed the lord, heaving himself to his feet. “You son of a whore!”

    “Nothing to your favour, you pot-bellied scum-sucking slime-bag!” replied the assassin, rising unsteadily and knocking Malcolm backwards off the bench. Revile lurched against the table.

    “Stop this!” cried the Lady Shona. “Sit down both of you!”

    Revile seated himself angrily, then helped Malcolm back to the bench, handing him a goblet of wine.

    “Sorry,” he said to the King of Lornland. “But the arrogance of some of these so-called nobles! It makes my blood boil, don’t you know? I hope you’re not injured?”

    “No, I am fine,” said Malcolm, then whispered in Revile’s ear: “How much longer will it be? Shona seems unaffected.”

    “Patience, my friend,” said the assassin. “I know my business.” Revile took his goblet and drained it to the dregs.

    Suddenly, he clutched at his throat, making several strange gurgling sounds. He gave out one last gasp – then slumped over the table. His goblet clattered away across the floor.

    Malcolm feigned surprise. “What is wrong?” he said, shaking the assassin’s shoulder. Revile did not stir. “Perhaps he has drunk too much?”

    “Perhaps,” said Shona, “he’s probably jesting with us.”

    “Very well,” said Malcolm, and he took another sip from his goblet.

    Revile sat up and grinned at the King of Lornland. “You are perceptive, my lady,” he said, winking at Malcolm, but then whispering: “I think your wine is a little too sour for my taste. Too much poison in it, I’d reckon. But I did not wish to waste such an excellent vintage. So you’ll be glad to know I swopped goblets with your good self.”

    “But the princess?” spluttered the King of Lornland. “The gold?”

    “Ah, that,” he said with a smile. “The phial contained only water. And while that may be a shock to Shona’s system, I don’t think it’ll kill her. And the gold? I’ll survive without it.”

    “You ... treac ... erous ... low ... down ... bas ...,” Lord Malcolm staggered from the bench, his eyes wide in terror. A convulsion took him; he stumbled, collapsing backwards with a large crash. Revile moved along the bench and sat next to Shona.

    “What is wrong with him?” asked the princess, looking over her shoulder at the prostrate King of Lornland.

    “I think he has died,” replied Revile. “I fear his wine disagreed with him. I would leave his excellent vintage alone for it is too potent a brew – even for you, my lady.”

    “Is he the last?” asked Shona.

    “I don’t know what you mean.”

    “O well,” she sighed. “I think I’ll have his head spiked all the same.”

    Revile nodded. “He’ll complete the set,” said the assassin. “You’ll soon have to build more gates, my lady.”

    “My name is Shona!”

 

XI

 

“Well, farewell, Sir Maggot.”

        “It’s been quite fun,” he replied. “I shall miss Dundonald and its lady.” He leapt lightly onto the back of his pony. “Good-bye!”

    “Fare well, Sir Maggot!” cried Shona.

    Revile encouraged his pony into a trot, riding up the track and never looking back. He reached the top of the ridge by the edge of the forest of Carnmor. Stopping just inside the trees, he turned his pony around, peering back down at Dundonald and its walls and towers. There was a group of people by the east gate. One of them waved.

    Revile waved back, then rode into the forest. The assassin had gold and wine for the journey east, but his expression was thoughtful and he did not smile.

 

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