Chapter Six

Colonel Hamish Ogilvie stepped out of the helicopter and headed for the laboratory’s main entrance. His aide de camp scrambled out in his wake, while a detachment of troopers spread out around the site in a defensive cordon. A chap from Whitehall followed, one of the undersecretaries of the Home Office, a slightly rabbity and officious bureaucrat named Thornton Hargrove who had spent the entire journey up from London delineating the flaws, faults, and morally ambiguous antecedents of the SAS in general and Captain Stirling in particular. Ogilvie, weighing the pros and cons of tossing him out through the cargo doors, had finally snapped, “It’s your chaps who vetted this terrorist and cleared her for top secret work. If you haven’t the decency to admit your mistake, kindly refrain from blacking the reputation of the man trying to salvage this mess!”

Hargrove sputtered for several seconds, then clamped his lips shut and fell blessedly silent. Dawn had scarcely touched the Highland hills when Ogilvie stepped through the laboratory’s main door, held open by a bleary-eyed, worried young man who introduced himself as Marc Blundell. “We haven’t telephoned the constables, yet,” Blundell said, “Captain Stirling told us not to until you’d arrived.”

“Quite right,” Ogilvie nodded. “Let’s see it, then.”

He went through the entire lab, examining everything, and had his aide photograph the entire facility. Hargrove stalked along in his wake, yammering more blithering idiocies about SAS incompetence. Ogilvie was more interested in Brenna McEgan’s inert form, hooked into the time-controlling computers, than he was in the admittedly gory office where Terrance Beckett still lay where he’d fallen. And Ogilvie studied that crime scene with intense scrutiny, indeed, reconstructing the desperate fight in his mind, step by step.

The first, faint glimmerings of unease came when Ogilvie was examining Brenna McEgan’s face, which was badly bruised and swollen from a terrific blow. Given her slight frame, Ogilvie wondered how in the world she’d been able to keep fighting a man taller and heavier than she after such a blow—and so effectively, she’d been able to kill him. Ogilvie would have laid a wager such a blow would have knocked her cold. The next stirring of worry came when he looked over Cedric Banning and found abrasions on his knuckles. Banning had hit someone or something very hard, and very recently. Brenna McEgan? In which case, how had she been able to fend him off long enough to set the computers, strap herself to the headset, and jump backwards through time?

The clincher came twenty minutes later, when one of Ogilvie’s troopers, searching the perimeter of the site, came across a sodden bundle of cloth thrust under a rock at the bottom of a small stream which rushed past one corner of the property. “It’s a woman’s coat, sir,” the man said, snapping out a salute. “No bloodstains on it, but there’s a gun in the pocket.”

Ogilvie fished the gun out using the barrel of an inkpen, never touching the weapon with his hand. There was, indeed, a gun in the coat, a wicked little Makarov 9 mm. “Now why the devil would Brenna McEgan walk into yon lab to kill a man and use a ruddy great knife—risking substantial injury to herself in the process—when she had this in her pocket?”

Thornton Hargrove had blundered up behind him, slipping in the treacherous mud and cursing in his high and irritating voice. Hargrove said, “A knife is a better weapon to send a message of terror with. I’m surprised you don’t know that.”

Ogilvie glanced around. “Really? Now the IRA is very good at sending messages with their weapons. Generally, they do so with car bombs and suchlike, trying to blow up the Queen Mother, taking out an entire street of British office buildings, leveling some Orangemen’s favorite pub. Car bombs and AR-180s are their hallmarks. The one thing I have not seen them do is hack some man to pieces with a butcher’s knife. Not when they’ve access to a perfectly serviceable firearm.”

Hargrove sputtered again, turning red from the hairline down. Ogilvie studied the sopping coat, carefully slipping the Makarov back into its pocket. “And why, for the love of Mary, would she bother to hike out here in a drenching downpour and bury this at the bottom of a streambed? There isn’t a sign of blood anywhere on it—and there should be, if she stabbed Beckett to death. Nor can I imagine her taking it off and burying it, with gun in pocket, before killing him with the knife—yet there’s no blood on this coat, and a great deal of it on her blouse and skirt, which were under the coat. It makes no sense.”

Banning, on the other hand, had been stained in gore from shoulder to ankles. There was the note, of course, the claim that he’d slipped in the puddles of blood trying to reach Beckett, but something about that note and the little pieces of evidence mounting up rang hollow in Ogilvie’s ears. He turned to his aide, his voice as full of gravel as the stream where someone had hidden Brenna McEgan’s coat and gun.

“I want a background sweep on Cedric Banning, as well as Brenna McEgan. I want to know who pushed them in their prams and what they ate for dinner on their fifth birthdays. And I bloody well want it last week!”

His aide scrambled for the helicopter and its shielded radio equipment.

Ogilvie stalked back toward the lab while a cold fear grew in his heart that Trevor Stirling had gone into the past in pursuit of the wrong terrorist.

* * *

It is perhaps a hundred sixty kilometers, straight-line, from Stirling, Scotland, to the site of the Sixth Legion’s ancient stronghold at Carlisle, in England’s border country, which Trevor Stirling eventually deduced must be the fortress Artorius was heading toward. His use of kilometers confused his host, who had never heard of metrics, of course, and resisted thinking in meters and centimeters and kilometers. Stirling realized it would not only be easier for him, as a twenty-first-century man, to think in terms of miles and feet and inches—he’d at least heard of them and knew approximately what each measurement meant—it would also be far safer if he stopped thinking in metrics, even in the privacy of his own thoughts. One slip-up in Brenna McEgan’s presence…

So he started the laborious process of allowing Ancelotis’ way of measuring things to filter into his mind, recasting the distance from Stirling to Carlisle as a hundred miles, more or less, as the crow flies. Ancelotis and Artorius didn’t call it Carlisle, of course, another difference Stirling had to get used to. They called it Caerleul. The Romans had called the winter-camp fortress Luguvalium, and later, Caer-Ligualid, names Stirling dredged up from rusty memory. Caer-Ligualid—eventually shortened in colloquial use to Caerleul—was close to the western terminus of Hadrian’s Wall, down on the Scottish border. He cast back through everything he’d ever read or heard about Roman settlements in Scotland and the border counties, from public school and university courses, from tour guides, from family holidays to museums and ruins, from road signs and chance remarks made by shopkeepers and pub owners, and dredged up a few tidbits of his own to add to Ancelotis’ memories.

There were two additional forts between Carlisle and the coast, far less important to the Romans than Luguvalium, itself, which had been winter headquarters of the Sixth Legion as far back as 127 a.d. or so. Three and a half centuries Artorius’ stronghold had already existed, squarely astride the crossroads of the major Roman roads through western Scotland and England. Stirling was betting Luguvalium was just as important to the Briton defenses as it had been to the Roman ones, a notion Ancelotis confirmed.

Aye, the king of Gododdin agreed, Caerleul is our greatest stronghold in the north. So long as we hold Caerleul, the Saxons will never take substantial ground from the northern Briton tribes. From Caerleul and Gododdin, we can thunder down on any army trying to enter from north, west, east or south, and meet them in force within a handful of days—and the Saxons well know it. As do the Irish and the Picts. Why else do you suppose Cutha wants alliance with Rheged? He hopes to probe our defenses at Caerleul and find a way to betray our fortress into his father’s hands, which would give them free rein in the south and a great chunk of the north.

It was, Stirling realized, a sound plan on Cutha’s part, since the Saxons would never have a free hand in the north of England so long as the thirty-six forts along Hadrian’s and the Antonine Wall remained in Briton hands. Those fortresses threatened any Saxon troop movements with a lightning attack from Briton strongholds between the Firth of Forth and the Firths of Solway and Clyde. Just how fast could a mounted troop of heavy cavalry move across country? Given their starting point from Stirling Castle Cliff, he estimated the journey to Carlisle would take a good three days, absolute minimum, by horseback. And given Artorius’ steady course southwestward along the Romans’ ancient but enduringly constructed military road, they would not be traveling the shortest route, either.

He had no idea how far west they would have to swing to find a road that cut south through the mountains. After a moment’s thought, however, Stirling supposed the ancient road couldn’t be too far from the modern roadway, given the same constraints faced by engineers at both ends of history. There were a limited number of options, when faced with the daunting and expensive task of pushing a road through mountains. In which case, they might well travel halfway to the Atlantic coast before swinging down through the natural pass in the Southern Uplands.

Three days might not be enough time, not if they had to follow that long, snaking route—and if his guess about the number of miles they could cover in one day was anywhere close to accurate. A very large “if” based mostly on the old cavalry song he’d heard a couple of slightly drunken American soldiers singing in a pub, once: forty miles a day on beans and hay in the regular army-o… The shift in thinking required to calculate travel time in terms of horseback, rather than car or even military lorry, was yet another rude awakening.

No wonder Artorius had been frantic to get under way.

Riding a horse was not as easy as it looked, either. Stirling discovered a few hours into the ordeal that if he blanked his mind and let Ancelotis’ muscles take over, he was less likely to jar himself beyond endurance, but it was still a grueling ride. When the last light faded above the hills, they lit torches hacked from deadwood in the forest and kept riding. They needed the torches, too. Cloud cover lay so thick above the mountain peaks, blocking any hint of moonlight, the riders couldn’t even see one another, much less the road. Stirling’s respect for the Celtic cataphracti rose enormously during a night that stretched out beyond the edge of forever. The only good thing to come of the exhausting ordeal was as unexpected as it was welcome. The more fatigue took its toll, the easier it became to let Ancelotis’ muscles take over on autopilot.

They slowed to a walk periodically to rest the horses and drank from skin pouches draped over the double front horns of their saddles. Stirling discovered trail rations—dried meat and leathery bread an unknown number of days old—in the oddly shaped saddlebags behind his rump, hung from the rear horns. He hadn’t even noticed them until Ancelotis reached back, digging into them for a quick meal. The stuff wasn’t remotely palatable, but he’d eaten worse field rations in the twenty-first century and he was hungry enough to eat shoe leather. It was still unsettling to have what felt like his own arm move under the direction of someone else’s mind; Stirling decided he did not enjoy the sensation, but couldn’t really complain, given the unpleasantness he’d inflicted on poor Ancelotis.

Ganhumara, as silent as the men of Artorius’ cavalry, maintained the killing pace without complaint, although her face showed pale and strained in the flickering light from torches. Morgana and Covianna, too, rode like women carved of iron, rather than yielding and womanly flesh. It was positively humiliating, to be outmatched by women, one of whom was more than ten years his junior, maybe closer to fifteen years younger. What in God’s name was he to do when the time came to fight the Saxons?

The dismal light of false dawn arrived with a cold dampness heavier than mist, not quite thick enough to call it drizzle. The wet air left him shivering beneath his woolen garments, deeply envious of the women’s fur-lined cloaks. They flashed across the invisible border of Strathclyde—another Dark Ages kingdom from Stirling’s history books—well before the sun could rise above the mountains at their backs. He wouldn’t have recognized the border from any other bump of ground his horse had jolted across, if not for a brief murmur he overheard between Covianna and Ganhumara.

“Strathclyde at last,” Covianna said quietly, catching the queen’s glance in the oyster-grey light of predawn. “I have always loved this land.”

“I would love it better without the constant wet and the God-cursed midges,” Ganhumara shot back, voice bitter as the wind whipping down the mountainsides.

Stirling, who had grown up in the relatively dryer eastern half of the Scottish Lowlands, was inclined to agree with the young queen’s assessment. The lowland reaches of western Scotland, far rainier than the eastern coast, were virtually uninhabitable during midge season, thanks to millions of aggressive gnats—a species apparently peculiar to the Scottish lowlands’ marshes—which drove fisherman, farmers, and campers alike indoors from sheer desperation. Grown men, usually unwary foreign tourists, were occasionally reduced to gibbering lunacy by the stinging clouds. Stirling shuddered to imagine what the effect would be on a person unable to retreat indoors or—worse yet—without access to strong insect repellant. Maybe that was the origin of the Pictish practice of smearing themselves with blue-tinted mud?

Whether or not he’d hit on the answer, Ancelotis found his speculation enormously funny, which left him alternating between lunatic grins and scowls at each new jolt of his saddle against anatomy that Stirling, at least, was unused to having jolted. The whole concept of something that would repel insects captured the Scots king’s fancy and he found himself attempting to explain the difficulties inherent in trying to produce from scratch something like DEET mosquito repellant, or even one of the widely available commercial brands, all of which required a fairly high-tech society with advanced knowledge of chemistry to produce. Churlish sot, Ancelotis complained at length. You might at least pay for the privilege of showing up inside my skull by sharing your wizardry at keeping off the God-cursed insects.

Stirling sighed. It was going to be a long year.

The distinctive scent of woodsmoke drifting on the early morning air tickled his nostrils before Stirling actually saw the source. As the road curved around the shoulder of a mountain, that source finally glimmered into view. Tiny fires dotted the grassy verges where the stone road stretched away through the predawn gloom. There was no village, which was what Stirling had expected to see, just hundreds of tiny cook fires where enough people to outfit a small army had camped beside the highway. Was it an army? More of Artorius’ men? Or maybe warriors beholden to the king of Strathclyde, whoever that might be?

As dawnlight strengthened and they neared the first encampment, Stirling realized this was no army at all, but ragged bands of refugees, hundreds of them, mostly on foot. A few tired-looking ponies pricked ears at the approach of the cataphracti‘s battle horses. More than a few women screamed and scattered for the forest, carrying small children, while their menfolk hunted for weapons. Who in the world were these people? The men were heavily tattooed, giving Stirling the answer even as Ancelotis snarled.

Picts!

The painted people.

Whole clans of them, driven southward by invading Irish. How the devil had they gotten past the line of watchtowers and mile forts along the border? Had they overwhelmed some isolated garrison, murdered the men on duty, and flooded across? Morgana, whose husband had just been murdered by Pictish invaders to Gododdin, went ashen in the grey dawnlight and young Medraut snarled out a string of oaths, gripping the pommel of his sword with a whitened hand. Covianna, riding close to Stirling’s horse, followed his stare. Her glance softened into one of pity.

“With the Scotti invading from Ireland,” she said quietly, the word Scotti translating into “brigand” in Stirling’s mind, “the Irish are pouring more men and settlers into Dalriada, so these poor wretches have nowhere to go. Their Pictish kin in Fortriu won’t give them land—Fortriu has enough trouble, holding its borders against the Irish. Strathclyde doesn’t want them, any more than you do, in Gododdin.” Covianna sighed. “Most of them want nothing more than passage to Galwyddel, I’ll wager. We Britons have long since conquered the Galwyddellian Picts, of course, but it’s a better destination for them than many I could name. Galwyddel has need of fighting men loyal to the Britons, if the queen of Galwyddel—and the Dux Bellorum—have the wisdom to gain that loyalty.” Covianna glanced at Morgana, then back to Stirling. “If Artorius would grant these wretches safe passage, a place to settle, and a little training, he would gain several hundred infantry to defend the western coast against the Irish.”

Her tone hinted most clearly that Artorius would do no such thing, particularly since his sister had just been widowed. At least, he wouldn’t without a good deal of prompting from his allies—and Stirling realized abruptly that Covianna wanted him to argue the case to the Dux Bellorum. Her take on the situation made sense. A great deal of sense, both politically and from a military standpoint. Who better to throw into the breach against Irish invaders than desperate refugees who already hated the Irish bitterly? It would certainly save Briton lives. The trouble was, Stirling had no idea whether or not those lives were supposed to be saved. Anything he did out of the ordinary might change history, defeating his whole purpose in coming here. It was hellish, not knowing what he could and couldn’t safely do, particularly when the soldier in him recognized a militarily sound solution to multiple problems. Ancelotis, whose brother lay in an early grave, also remained silent, for perfectly understandable reasons.

Covianna’s eyes went as chilly as the morning wind off the distant Atlantic. Artorius was shouting commands to the cataphracti officers when a rumble of thunder rolled into their awareness, from further down the Roman road. A living thunder, Stirling realized abruptly, hundreds of horses at the gallop. An instant later, an immense body of heavily armed Celtic cavalry swept across the farthest visible Pictish camps, laying waste in a charge that struck the Picts like an earthquake. The newly arrived army drove the men back with brutal force, hacking down any who offered armed resistance, setting fire to ragged possessions, driving off weary ponies and scraggly herds of Highlands sheep.

Artorius shouted, “Attack! They’re trapped between Strathclyde’s men and ourselves! Cut them down where they stand!”

Stirling bit his tongue to keep from protesting. He had no right to protest—even if he’d dared risk changing history. Artorius led a second devastating charge that smashed into the desperate Picts, a hammer blow against the anvil of Strathclyde’s forces. The Picts reeled, struck back desperately with pikes and arrows and spears, spitting the horses more often than the men, so that riders went crashing to the ground beneath their thrashing, pain-crazed mounts. Stirling had no choice but to follow Artorius’ lead; for him to take any other action would amount to treason in the face of the enemy. The cataphracti of Gododdin roared into battle at his heels, even as Stirling struggled to free his heavy sword from its scabbard.

He managed to draw the sword and attempted a few ineptly clumsy swings with it, endangering nothing but his own horse. His mount clamped its ears back and went stiff-legged in a battle maneuver that nearly unseated him. In utter desperation, Stirling yielded to the fierce mind sharing brain space with his own. Ancelotis, clamoring for control of their actions, took over instantly, which left Stirling in the eerie position of passive observer while his body hacked and hewed and cut down men in a broad swath of destruction.

It was over within minutes. The cataphracti hunted down the last of the Pictish men through the forest and butchered them before herding the women and children across open fields toward the Roman road. Stirling found himself trembling with fatigue and shock. He clutched a filthy, gore-stained sword and blood dripped down his armor. He felt sick with the brutality of it, even after the combat and death he’d witnessed in Belfast. It was not at all the same, shooting a man or seeing someone blown to bits by a terrorist’s bomb as it was gutting someone on swordpoint at arm’s reach. Killing with a blade was far more personal, both for the man killed and the man doing the killing. He found no honor at all in riding down and slaughtering refugees who were all but helpless.

Ancelotis reacted to this with cold rage. Look you there, Stirling of Caer-Iudeu, and tell me again that yon barbarians were helpless! Men of the cataphracti were down by the dozens, wounded horses screaming, riders hacked to death by enraged, desperate men. Artorius himself had dismounted to kneel over one such fallen man. A boy in his mid teens, freckled and fair, with thick, copper-colored hair visible beneath the edges of his helmet, had crouched over the fallen man, as well, his distress so deep, it was clear the dead man could be no one but the boy’s father. When Stirling caught a gleam of gold at the boy’s neck—and at the fallen warrior’s—he realized with a deep chill that a king had fallen in this battle. Another king, dead at the hands of Picts…

Ancelotis groaned aloud and spurred his horse closer, providing Stirling with a name. Dumgual Hen of Strathclyde, may the saints help us… . Stirling slid out of the saddle in time to hear the boy cry, ” ‘Tis my fault! Mother charged me to watch his back, and I failed him! Artorius, what am I to do?”

Artorius laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Take him home. Bury him with honors and give your mother what comfort and courage you can. No man could have guarded his back any better than you, lad. The pikemen took his horse down so fast, no one could have reached him before the bastards had cut his throat. You tried valiantly, lad, as did I.”

The boy’s tears tracked messily down his face, but Artorius’ words had clearly eased at least some of his wild grief and guilt. The Dux Bellorum hesitated, then added heavily, “Strathclyde’s council of elders must name a new ruler, lad, and quickly. Do not be distressed, Clinoch, whatever their decision, whether they confirm you now or name another to hold Strathclyde until you are ready. I will cast my vote in your favor, for I saw how well you fought this day, and I know you to be a steady and wise lad, with the nerve to do what must be done. But your councillors must act in the best interests of your people, just as the councillors of Gododdin have named Ancelotis to the throne until Gwalchmai is older. You must vow to aid them however you can.”

The boy’s head snapped up and his face washed white beneath its dusting of tan freckles. The full import of his father’s death struck with devastating force as it came home that he might well be called upon to take his father’s place as king—or, perhaps even worse, not be called.

Ancelotis slid to the ground and strode across to clasp Clinoch’s arm in a grip of equals. “I grieve with you, Clinoch, and with all of Strathclyde. Your father will be sorely missed. But,” and he, too, laid a hand on the boy’s trembling shoulder, “your father has trained you well. My sword and men are at your call, should you need us. I pledge to defend Strathclyde if defense be needed in this time of confusion and grief. But you will avenge him, Clinoch, just as I will avenge my slain brother, this I swear by all that is holy.”

Suppressed weeping shook the boy’s young shoulders as he met Stirling’s eyes, his own reddened and wet. “Yes,” he said harshly. “I will have heads for this!” Then, visibly struggling to recall the courtesies, “Forgive me, I had not heard the news of Lot Luwddoc.”

“Nor could you have, and him slain not two days since. We’re bound for a council of the northern kings at Caerleul, a council I’m thinking you will attend as an equal, for I, too, will speak in your favor, Clinoch son of Dumgual Hen.”

“I thank you for that,” the boy said, bringing himself under steadier control.

Artorius said quietly, “Come, Clinoch, we must bear him home to your mother at Caer-Brithon, then ride for Caerleul as if all the demons of hell were at our heels, for the Saxons have challenged the sovereignty of Rheged itself.”

Clinoch’s breath caught as he stared into Artorius’ angry grey eyes. “Challenged Rheged? Are they mad?”

“Only with greed. You’re needed, heir of Strathclyde, as you have never been needed in your life.”

“Then we will sing my father’s funeral dirges in the saddle and leave him to be buried by my mother and younger brothers. Strathclyde can ill afford the number of orphans the Saxons would gift us with.”

“Well spoken,” Ancelotis nodded.

They lifted Dumgual Hen’s body, placing him across the saddle of a riderless horse and bound him there securely for the king’s final journey. Dumgual’s own mount lay dead at Stirling’s feet, chest and ribs pierced by long, broken pikes which had brought both animal and king down to destruction. Clinoch recovered his father’s sword and cleaned the blood from it, then sheathed it in an ornate scabbard decorated with silver and strapped it to his own horse before vaulting into the saddle.

Soldiers of the cataphracti were recovering their dead, as well, while others stripped weaponry from the Pictish men they’d slain. So far as Stirling could see, the Picts had nothing else of value that would tempt the Briton cavalry to loot. The sight sickened him, however, worse than Belfast. Without food or supplies, the surviving women and children would starve. Surely Ancelotis and Artorius could see the risk posed by ravenous marauders desperate for food to put into their children’s bellies? The Pictish refugees were heading disconsolately northward, not even permitted to bury their newly slain along the verges of the Roman road. Carrion crows were already circling overhead, waiting their chance.

As Stirling struggled back into his own saddle, he caught snatches of conversation from the Celtic cavalrymen, angry mutters about heathen Picts who refused to die properly on their own side of the border, who came in ravening bands to kill Celtic royalty. Covianna Nim, Queen Ganhumara, and Queen Morgana had remained well clear of the battle, although both queens clenched swords and Morgana’s fingers were white from the strength of her grip. The women reined their horses nearer and Ganhumara edged her way over to Medraut, who had rushed into the battle with Artorius and Ancelotis and sat staring bleakly at the heir to Strathclyde. The boy’s sword dripped with as much gore as any other Briton’s.

Ganhumara spoke too quietly for Stirling to catch the words, but he found Morgana gazing narrowly at her nephew and Artorius’ wife. Stirling realized with a start of surprise that Medraut and Ganhumara were almost exactly the same age. The look Medraut gave the young queen rang alarm bells at the back of Stirling’s skull, a look of compounded misery, grief, and hopeless love.

The murky and complexly shifting political nightmare into which he’d been so abruptly thrust deepened another degree as the full import of that look sank in. Morgana’s nephew, a potential heir surely, to someone’s kingdom given his family history, was helplessly in love with Artorius’ beautiful young queen. And the look—and touch—she gave in return were far more tender than any he’d seen her bestow on her husband. Deeper and deeper this disaster grew, and Stirling had no idea how to navigate his way through it.

They set out again, riding steadily south in a massive column, Gododdin in formation behind Ancelotis and Strathclyde in formation behind Prince Clinoch. The drizzle which had plagued them through the night thickened into an hours-long downpour which soaked through Stirling’s wool cloak and ran in chilly runnels down the neck of his cuirass, soaking tunics and trousers to the skin. The wind blew mercurial sheets of rain across the road, slashing horses and riders alike. Stirling was used to patrols through the worst sorts of weather, but never on horseback and never after an exhausting and sickening battle from horseback, and certainly never faced with the prospect of no central heating and no tea—not even coffee—to warm him at the end of the grueling day.

During the long day, they passed small Briton settlements, mostly walled villages and small hill forts, and Roman fortlets, teacup-sized forts of less than a hectare, where auxiliary troops were quartered, along with the even smaller mile forts and fortified stone watchtowers with their circular wooden palisades, defensive ditches, and their boxlike wooden viewing platforms jutting out on all four sides. They sent riders to every fort and tower they passed, to spread the word of the kings lost in the fighting and exhort them to greater vigilance during this crisis.

Empty fields stood fallow, already stripped of their standing hay crop or grain, the bounty of harvest stored now in large stone barns to protect it from the rats and the rain. Ancelotis muttered, Aye, and it’s one of God’s own miracles we got the crops in without disaster, for the weather’s been foul, unseasonably wet and cold. We had men working in the fields by torchlight, in shifts with the women and the children, to get the harvest in before the rains left all in ruin. We lost a portion of the hay, as it was.

Starvation, Stirling realized with a cold chill, was only one poor harvest away, when no international trade routes existed to ship food by air or sea. He was too accustomed to living in a world where one nation’s bounty could be sent in a matter of hours to another’s drought- or flood-starved thousands. Another surprise for Stirling was the number of Christian churches they passed, constructed of stone or wood, depending on the size and wealth of the village or town that had built it. His surprise, in turn, startled Ancelotis. Are you not a Christian, then? the Scots king demanded warily.

Well, yes, Stirling responded, but I hadn’t realized there would be so many churches, this early in history.

Ancelotis snorted, a sound of mingled anger and disgust. I may be descended from Druid judges and kings, but those Druids have been Christian for two centuries, Stirling of Caer-Iudeu. Mark you, there are those who follow the old ways, more now than when the Romans were still among us, but we follow the teachings of Christ closely enough. Not, he added wryly, that Rome is so very well pleased with us. Heresy, they call our notions of free will and the immortality of a man’s soul. It’s been a century or more since they declared our greatest Briton philosopher, Pelagius, a heretic.

Heretic? Stirling blinked, startled at the deadly serious use of such a word. He’d forgotten, or perhaps had never viscerally understood, how serious a matter heresy had been in the early Christian centuries. That disturbed him, deeply. Ancelotis, undaunted, continued to rail.

Imagine, declaring a man heretic because he dared stand up to that swine Augustine! And him with his damnable notions of predetermination, giving a man no moral reason not to sin! Why should a man follow truth and righteousness, when his nature and fate are set in stone before he’s born, leading him to sin as God wills, rather than as he chooses. Bah! Ancelotis spat disgustedly to one side. ‘Tis the knaves in Rome are guilty of heresy. Any fool can see a man must have his choice, whether to sin or no, or the notion of sin and redemption from it are nothing but a mockery. Let Rome rot in her dissipation, I say. I would almost rather sit down at table with these barbarians, Picts and Irish and Saxons, pagan and godless though they be, than a priest of Rome who calls us heretics for following the Christ as He was meant to be followed.

Clearly, the state of religion in the sixth-century British Isles was every bit as explosive a matter as it was in twenty-first-century Northern Ireland. Stirling vowed never, ever to get into a philosophical debate over religion with anyone from the sixth century. Ancelotis’ vehemence reminded him all too unpleasantly of Belfast’s raging argument over which version of Christianity would be the accepted, right, and true one. Nominally Christian or not, Stirling spotted occasional roadside shrines, some of them obviously pagan. These were often situated near groves of trees, wells, or natural springs. He caught glimpses of women in several of the groves, doing what, he wasn’t at all prepared to guess and Ancelotis wouldn’t be baited into commenting.

Surrounding it all—hill forts, villages, churches, fortlets, and pagan shrines—were the stubbled fields, orchards stripped of their ripened fruit, their leaves having mellowed in shades of buttery gold and coppery fire against the dark, wet wood, and water meadows and common-land pastures where flocks of hardy sheep and sturdy cattle grazed. Peasant farmers and shepherds, busy at the tasks of slaughtering pigs and cattle for the winter’s larder and the shearing of wool from those sheep marked out for mutton stew, shaded their eyes and shouted as the cataphracti passed, a glittering cavalcade of armor and sun-burnished weapons.

Near sunset, the road they’d been following met up with another Roman highway running north-south through the mountains. A small fortification, larger than the mile forts they had passed with clockwork regularity, guarded the junction where two valleys met, each with their snaking road of stone looking like faded grey ribbons in the long shadows. Wooden towers jutted up against the darkening sky, while curls of smoke drifted toward the clouds from cookfires and—so Stirling hoped, at any rate—from the firepits that fueled the central heating system. The arched spans of a one-story aqueduct marched away toward whatever water source was nearest. Clearly, the Romans had considered this little crossroads fort critical enough to spend sufficient manpower, time, and money constructing a military aqueduct for it. A small village had sprung up in the shadows of the fort’s walls, sending delicious smells wafting their way. Dogs broke into a furious clamor as they thundered into the village, heading for the fort’s big wooden gates.

Artorius halted the combined cavalcade long enough to eat a hot meal, rest and feed the horses, and catch four hours’ sleep. Stirling craved that more than anything else; more, even, than the thick stew and hot bread which their hosts at the little garrison served their royal guests. There wasn’t even plaster on the walls here, just bare stones, squared off and mortared like brick. The lack of potatoes in the stew reminded Stirling with dull and admittedly selfish unhappiness of other deprivations he would face during the coming year. No fish and chips—at least, no thick-cut, deep-fried potato slices to eat with the fish—no ketchup to eat with the nonexistent potatoes, no corn, no coffee, no tea… not even a lowly chocolate bar. None of those items would be available anywhere in the British Isles for centuries.

The reality of sixth-century Britain crashed down across Stirling all over again, in all its appalling crudity, bringing home with brutal suddenness just how very trapped and alone he was. Home lay at least forty, maybe fifty miles behind him—and some sixteen centuries in his future. A whole millennium and more than half of another…

He held back a groan and sought the privy, a separate room with troughs engineered into the stone floors and wooden planks with holes cut through them topping stone retaining walls. The trickle of water could be heard, a steady stream of it entering from one side of each trough, washing the troughs clean through a drain hole in the other end, presumably into a communal cesspit. His privy business done, he staggered past several dark storage rooms piled high with weapons and spare lamps, jugs of oil and probably wine, judging from the smell, and stored foodstuffs, then reeled into the wet night air. He found the barracks where they were to be quartered by following the sound of Artorius’ snoring.

Weary to his toe bones, Stirling collapsed on the camp bed reserved for his use, asleep before he finished falling down.

* * *

Lailoken had rarely been happier.

He’d ridden almost nonstop from Caer-Iudeu to Caerleul, in the process leaving behind two stolen farm horses, badly foundered by his ruthless determination to reach Caerleul ahead of the Dux Bellorum’s cataphracti and its royal escort. Exhausting as it was, he reached the ancient Roman fortress on the Solway Firth well in advance of Artorius. He arrived just past sunset, riding a third sturdy draft horse liberated during the night from a farmer who had failed, foolishly, to brand his livestock. Banning, as pleased as Lailoken by the speed they had made, immediately gave him a deeply distressing order: Sell the horse.

Sell it? But—but, ’tis the most wealth I’ve had in years! It is one thing, surely, to ride an animal into the ground for good cause, but now we’ve made it safely here, you want me to just give it up?

Banning overrode his protest with ruthless logic. If the farmer we borrowed this sorry nag from comes looking, he could make things difficult, even without the proof of a branding mark. I will not risk drawing attention in such a fashion! When we need another animal, we will buy it. And don’t fret about money, I’ll help you earn more cash than you’ve ever dreamed of owning. Just sell the damned beast and be quick about it!

Within half an hour, he’d sold the horse for a good price, which left Lailoken’s purse delightfully heavy with gold. At Banning’s insistence, he scrubbed himself off at a horse trough behind a stable. I can’t bear the smell of your pits, Banning growled, and I’ll not spend another moment with greasy hair and dirt three centimeters thick where you’ve not washed the filth off for a month, at least. And buy new clothing, the rags you’re wearing now are fit for nothing but burning. Do you think we can win a place in the royal household, where the decisions will be made that affect our goals, stinking worse than a pigsty?

Deeply chastened by the rebuke and mortified to his toes to be found wanting by his supernatural visitor—he didn’t even dare to ask what a “centimeter” was—Lailoken bought a cake of soap, a new pair of boots and fine new clothing, even a warm woolen cloak to replace his tattered and much-mended one. Having cleansed himself in ritual appeasement, Lailoken emerged from the alley behind the stable as a man transformed, clad in the thickest woolen trousers he had ever owned, a beautiful yellow linen tunic worn under a crimson one of embroidered wool.

Strong leather lacings bound warm boots to his calves. He fastened the new cloak with a silver penannular cloak pin which his fingers kept drifting up to caress possessively. A new rucksack held his belongings—harp, flute, their protective sealskin cases, more new clothing—and he wore a long, heavy-bladed scramasax and sheath, hung from a thick and sturdy new belt with a silver buckle, its chased designs matching the cloak pin. The scramasax hilt and sheath might have been heartlessly plain by most standards, but Lailoken had never owned anything so fine.

He even bought a felted wool hat, a well-made Phrygian-style cap that he could pull down over his ears to keep them warm. His old clothing he gave to a one-legged old beggar sitting outside the gates of the massive legionary fortress, whose walls dominated the town.

Lailoken followed his nose to the nearest public taverna to fill his empty belly and proceeded to polish off an entire roasted chicken, a heaping plateful of cooked parsnips and beans, half a loaf of bread, and a thick hunk of cheese, washed down with several mugs of mead. The taverna was crowded with off-duty soldiers from the fortress, whose voices roared like summer thunder and echoed off the ceiling beams. Laughter, ribald jokes, and stories of dubious veracity extolling the teller’s great prowess in bed or in battle were shouted across the scarred wooden tables while cheap alcohol flowed like the tide.

A couple of women with brazen smiles and low-cut, tightly-cinched gowns, carried trenchers full of hot food and wooden pitchers full of mead, ale, and cheap wine, undulating their way between the tables, leaning over the customers’ shoulders to fill plates and mugs, and laughing at the rough groping hands, lewd stares, and monetarily beneficial transactions proposed at least twice a minute. Lailoken had no desire to follow where doubtless several hundred men had plowed before, so he merely grunted at the suggestive postures and smiles, ordered more food, and watched narrowly as the occasional minstrel wandered in, broke into song, and was hooted, shouted, and drowned out by men who fancied themselves singers but could have claimed better kinship with a marshful of croaking frogs.

He found the tavern keeper and arranged to buy a room for the night, then sought out the other minstrels, pulling out his flute and joining in the lively jig that rollicked its way across the shouting, seething mass of drunken soldiers. Between songs, he asked after business and found, to both his and Banning’s intense delight, that his newfound compatriots frequently provided music for Rheged’s royal villa, playing not only for King Meirchion and Queen Thaney, but also for Artorius, the Dux Bellorum, and his favorite officers.

An hour’s investment of flattery, of playing in a group with flute and harp, and of half a dozen or so rounds of mead paid for out of Lailoken’s funds, won an invitation to play as a member of their troupe for as long as he planned to remain at Caerleul. He accepted graciously, paid for another round of drinks, and launched into a comical series of songs that had the nearest soldiers roaring and slapping the table in appreciation. Lailoken tossed his new hat onto the floor in front of him, brim up, and grinned as coins came pelting his way, along with roared requests for bawdy favorites.

It was nearly midnight before the last of the soldiers finally staggered out into the night, leaving the tavern keeper to lock his shutters and the minstrels to case their instruments and drift off to their rented beds. Lailoken poured a surprising number of coins from his hat, delighted at the jingle they made when he added them to the balance of his horse-sale money.

All he had to do now was set in motion Banning’s plans.

I shall want a large and private workroom somewhere in the town, Banning mused, a place we can work undisturbed.

How am I to pay for such a room? Lailoken frowned. The gold from our stolen horse will not last forever, and prices always rise when there is talk of war. I cannot earn enough playing and singing to pay for more than a few nights’ lodging or a few meals.

Banning chuckled. Leave that to me. Britons enjoy gambling, don’t they?

We’re Britons, are we not? Lailoken responded with stung pride. Throwing the dice is a most popular sport, has been ever since the legions brought the game from Rome. Lailoken’s frown faded as he saw the possibilities. A pair of dice and a board on which to properly toss them shouldn’t cost too much, unless you’ve set your heart on some fancy thing inlaid with silver and fashioned from imported ivory from Africa or jade from Constantinople.

A humble board will do, Banning mused, but we must secure a good set of dice. Ivory would be best, as it’s easier to make alterations that are less readily detected than with sets made of stone or wood.

Alterations? Lailoken blinked. What do you mean, alterations? Do you plan to cheat?

Banning roared with laughter. Oh, that is priceless, and you a man who’s stolen three horses in as many days! You didn’t think I would walk into a game and play fairly? Not when we require a large stockpile of money, as quickly as we can lay hands on it? Bah, what do I care if some wealthy Briton nobleman loses a portion of his fortune to us? Or a soldier, for that matter, when his gold is destined to help you and me destroy enemies he will therefore never have to fight with sword and spear? Think of it as a tax they don’t know they’re paying, to levy troops they don’t realize they’re supporting. Believe me, when the blow is struck, all of Britain will be in awe of what you and I accomplish.

Lailoken couldn’t imagine how cheating a few rich men at dice would enable him to destroy the Irish, but he had absolute faith in his personal god. Banning was a being of fire and awesome knowledge and knew so many secrets of power, the memories they shared left him dizzy and shaking with wondrous terror. If Banning said he needed ivory dice to destroy their enemies, then Lailoken would get them, whatever the cost.

Vengeance, after all, was worth no less.

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