12 Days – the online novel written over Christmas-New Year 2010/11

12 Days is a story-teller interaction project, running at one chapter a day over the twelve days of Christmas. Each new chapter will be written and posted on the day. Comments received by any route will have an impact on how the story develops, in the same way that Dickens changed his instalments as he wrote them, and the way that anyone telling a story to a group has to respond as they go.

Chapter Twelve – the final chapter

Chapter Twelve – the final chapter

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin Turner Sedan, Fiedel, Geoffrey and Seline looked at each other in the visible darkness. A whisper passed down the line of people on the stairs, erupting into a murmur, and then shouts among the people outside.

They waited. There was no further sound, and now it was far too dark to see anything beyond the vaguest shadows through the heliographoscope.

“Sixteen kilometres,” said Sedan, “judging by the time between the flash and rumble. That is ten of your miles. And that is a powerful cannon. You heard how the projectile arrived before the gun’s report.”

“Why are they not firing again?”, said Fiedel.

“In all probability that was their first ranging shot, but they have realised that it is too dark to see well where it landed. In the morning, at first light, if they really mean to attack us, they will fire that shot again and watch more carefully. Then they will fire a shorter shot, which will fall too short. A calculation follows, and then they know exactly how far we are, and can continue to hit us.”

“Is there nothing we can do?”, said Seline.

“Not unless we can move the village, or attack the cannon. But there’s is no cannon here to shoot back,” replied Sedan.

“But who is they?” asked Geoffrey. “Who would fire a cannon at a defenceless English village.”

“I think I have the answer to that,” said Seline. Shes struck a match, lighting the candle which Fiedel had left behind the evening before. Then she pulled out the tiny note which Huw had sent, and read the message aloud:
“‘Robbers. Mountain. Village. Danger. Something strange’. Huw sent it by pigeon. I only got it right before you came into the inn, Professor.”

“It’s that murderous Lomax and Bart!”, said Geoffrey. “Quickly, back to the constable’s house, and we will grill it out of them.”

The constable met them in the street as they hurried back. Some of the crowd had dispersed as people went off to do the things they do when they think their lives, or worse, their property, are threatened. More had joined than had left, though, and when they came up to the constable, supporting Derek on his shoulder, they filled the street.

“What’s this, constable?”, said Geoffrey. “Why is this man injured?”

Then the constable explained that Bart and Lomax were gone — released by some unknown assailant who must also be loose in the village.

The crowd murmured.

Geoffrey turned to face them.

“Now, listen you people,” he said. They were well used to his voice of authority, but for once they were less inclined to believe it.
“Listen, or what?”, called a voice.
“Yeah, what are you going to do?”, called another.
“Now, listen —” began Geoffrey again, but the murmur of the crowd was already drowning him out.
Sedan plucked his arm. “Monsieur, if I may—?”
“By all means,” said Geoffrey.

Sedan jumped up on a stone block close to hand. The lights of the village were mainly behind him, though there was just enough for them to see his face. His cloak billowed, and, in the dusk, his semi-silhouette cut an imposing shape.

“People of Bidforst,” he began. “I am Sedan, as some of you know. I am not a spy, as some of you have thought, nor have I ever been. But I was an officer in the army of Napoleon, and I have fought many battles.

“It seems now clear that robbers from the mountain intend to attack our village. We do not know why. We have no clue why men whom we have never harmed should wish us ill. But we have all seen the shell that was fired into the woods over the river, and I assure you that, when the morning has come, we will see many more shells.

“I, Sedan, hero of a hundred fights, will tell you that we are able to defend this village, and to keep our families and our homes, but only if we have the resolve to do so. You have heard, no doubt, of Napoléon Bonaparte, emperor of France and England’s greatest ally against Spain. In those wars your people and my people fought side by side for the good of all. Now I tell you that Bonaparte was strong because he was courageous. We must be without fear, since those who fear are lost.

The murmuring crowd had fallen completely still.

“We have some time to make preparations, but not a great amount. For myself, I would begin the preparations at this instant. But I know in my heart that each one of you secretly longs to go to your home, to warn your families, to hide your valuables, to bolt your doors. It is not wrong to wish to do this, but if each of us thinks only of his own, then all of us will fall.

“Therefore, let each one now go to his home, and make whatever preparations he must — but I counsel you, do not trust to doors or bolts, which will be broken down, nor to burying your treasures, since that which is buried can be dug up again, nor to sending your loved ones away, since their flight will expose them to even greater dangers. Rather, let each man trust when the time comes to his fellow man, and to the preparations we make together. Go to your homes, but meet us again at the village hall at eight hours this evening. Bring with you what weapons you can find, be they swords or clubs or sharpened axes, or even the poles from broom handles.”

He paused.

There was a moment’s silence, and then everyone began talking at once.

“But what about —” began one voice, above the din.

“Non!”, declaimed Sedan, drawing himself up to his full height, and unsheathing his sword. “Non! There is no time for questions. Go now, and do not fail in your return!”

The crowd remained for one moment, like the hanging of a pall of smoke, and then it dispersed, as into the wind.

“Jolly good, old chap,” said Geoffrey, patting Sedan on the back as he climbed down.

“Quickly now,” said Sedan. We four must return to the inn. We will draw also on the Alexis and the Gordon, and someone must fetch Doctor Maurice.”

“And Michael,” said Seline.

“Michael?”, said Sedan. “Who is that?”

“The man with the dagotyper — who went on the mountain with the others.”

“Ah, yes. He can also come. He can record this for posterity if he wishes.”

They met again in the inn a few minutes later. The tap-room was full of people. Some had no particular preparations they wished to make at home, others were too mazed by the whole affair to take in what they were supposed to be doing, and some had yet to grasp (largely those who had been at the inn for some time) the true import of the situation.

“There’s no point trying to talk here,” said Seline. “Here, you, Claudine, shut up the bar and make everyone coffee. They’ll need sobering up tonight. Come on all of you, you can come up to my room.”

Seline’s room was on the top floor, up a rickety staircase which did not connect to the guest rooms. It was a large, low chamber which went from the front of the inn almost to the back, and in it were many strange and remarkable things.

She turned up the gas-lights. Michael would have loved to have spent an hour just looking at the wooden elephants, the Tibetan bowls, the African masks, the Chinese silks, and the strange miniatures of people dancing, far away. But there was no time.

She sat them down at a long, low table. It was rustic made, but, by the colour of the wood and the polish, it was old and had been seldom used.

“We must make the village impregnable,” began Professor Fiedel excitedly. He had been considering the defence of the village ever since he saw the cannon through the heliographoscope. Like almost every other English village, it had no walls (else it would have been a town), but he felt that if the garden walls and the rears of barns and houses could be somehow linked, a reasonable defence might be made. “All we need to do is erect barriers — perhaps twelve feet — in the gaps between the houses. Then we man these barriers, and the village cannot be taken.”

“Alexis,” said Michael, “you have that thing — you know, the thing with the electricalish lever and the blue flash. You could surround the village with that.”

“Big poles,” said Geoffrey. “If we get people to stand around the walls with big poles, they can stave off the attackers, like when you push a boat off the river-bank.”

Sedan shook his head.

“No, no, no,” he said. “If the robbers mean to attack the village, they must come down and overrun it with men — that is true — but if they are repulsed, they will return to firing their cannon. The village cannot withstand that cannon fire. Many will die, houses will burn.”

“It didn’t seem all that bad to me,” said Geoffrey. “I mean, it made a pretty mess of some of those trees, and I’d agree it would do some damage to someone’s roof, or to the church tower, but you’d be pretty unlucky to be hit by a cannon ball, wouldn’t you?”

Sedan shook his head again.

“That is because for their ranging shot they fired an inert projectile. They will do the same thing for their second shot, and their third. But after that, they will fire explosives. You have not seen explosive shells, I feel?”

Geoffrey shook his head.

“I’ve seen them,” said Fiedel. “In the War Museum in Winchester.”

“You have not seen them explode,” said Sedan.

Fiedel shook his head.

“When a shell explodes, it blasts everything around it. Walls collapse, people are blown to pieces, roofs fall. The things it blasts themselves blast further outward. Every shard of glass becomes a flying dagger. Every stone becomes a hurled hammer. In — let me think — in twenty shells, this village will be rubble, and only a handful of people will be in it still able to stand and fight.”

“Then what are we to do?”, said Seline.

“Warfare is based on deception, and it is based on understanding your enemy,” said Sedan. “We do not fully understand our enemy, but I would gamble that there is something here that he wants. If that thing is in the village, he will not at first wish to risk destroying what he seeks. Rather, he will first use the cannon to threaten. If threats do not deliver what he desires, he will use it to open up a path of easy attack. Only if the village cannot be entered, or the battle is turning against him, will he use it for destruction. This understanding of our enemy is crucial to our plan. To fight successfully, we must not give the impression that we cannot be attacked, but rather make a way which is so inviting that he will wish to attack us there. In this way, we deceive him. If we can bring all his men into the village, and surround them, and so defeat them, he will not wish to fire at his own men. Not unless he believes that all is lost. That is also why, once we have won, if we have won, we must offer him terms that make his surrender worthwhile. Otherwise, if all his men are dead or captured, in his fury he will turn that cannon to our annihilation. ”

The others looked at him.

Then Seline went to a cabinet at the far end of the room, underneath a wall hanging from the Ottomans, and brought back a map of the village.

“There, what can you do with that?”

And so, they began to plan.

During the night, two things happened. The robbers, with Black Hand Nigel at their head, made their way down the mountain road until they were in sight of the village. Just ten men were left behind with the cannon on the mountain — ten men and one telescope, to be precise, thought it was only a small, hand-held telescope, not a great instrument like the heliographoscope. The other ninety, carrying an enormous red canvas sheet and a huge pole which took two men to lift, settled in a hollow of the land just beyond the village. And two of their number went to spy out the territory.

Their report surprised Black Hand Nigel. The villagers were busy. Working through the night, they had blocked off all the decent entrances to the village. There were carts chained together in front of the main entrance, which was the road to the mountain, and a great haywain overturned and wedged between two houses at the Stratford road, to the east. To the west they had roped together two smaller carts. The road over the bridge had been blocked with old furniture. The villagers had also taken thought to their own defence. They were armed with scythes, mattocks, bill-hooks, axes, hatchets, long, make-shift spears, and some of them who looked like they might know how to use them with swords. The front way was the most heavily defended. There were twenty men on that barricade. The Stratford road had fifteen. The bridge had just five, but five could easily hold that bridge against a hundred. Only the Worcester road, to the west, was guarded sparsely. Just three men seemed to be on duty there, and two of them were youths who looked like they might cut and run at any moment.

Black Hand Nigel smiled at the news. There would be a deal more fun extorting what he wanted from villagers who thought they could defend themselves.

Sedan leaned quietly over the barricade at the front at the sun rose. It was a bright, clear morning. He remembered the morning before many other battles. He, too, smiled.

Brian, who stood beside him, did not smile. His fingers clenched and unclenched nervously on this hilt of his sword.
“What if I’m not brave?”, he said out loud.

“Pphht. You are brave,” said Sedan. “You stand here, ready to fight, even though you have never fought in your life before. That is bravery.”

“But I’m scared,” said Brian.

“Of course. You would be a fool not to be. But, when the time comes, think only of your enemy. Think only of the critical blow. You must kill him, or else he kills you. At that time, fear vanishes. You will see.”

Brian swallowed. Sedan’s advice made him only more nervous.

As day dawned, Nigel’s men raised up their great red canvas sheet on the pole, and they waved it to the west three times.

In answer, the cannoneers on the mountain repeated their shot of the night before, this time marking clearly where it landed. The villagers cowered as the shell whistled over their heads, splintering trees on the other side of the river.

“That is once,” said Sedan.

They waited. After what seemed an age, the cannon fired again. This time the whistling shell embedded itself in the ground a hundred yards in front of the last farm building to the north.

“That is twice,” he said.

They waited again. Sedan had told them all to cover themselves for the third shell. He did well to do so. It came whistling through the air as before, striking the old mill. But this time there was an enormous flash of light, a deafening roar, and huge sections of the mill flew in every direction. The whole of the west wall came crashing down, tipping the Heliographoscope onto the cold earth below. It burst into a hundred pieces, which went flying through the air.

“That is the third time,” muttered Sedan.

Then Nigel’s men charged. A group of them charged straight at the front gate. They were met by a hail of bricks, stones, roof-tiles, old pots and pans, and by one bottle with a flaming rag wrapped round it which burst into a pool of fire as it hit the ground. Two of the robbers were caught in it, and they rolled over and over trying to put out the flames. One of them crawled away. The other lay still.

A far larger group — fifty or more — ran swiftly and silently for the Worcester Road barricade. Nigel had guessed that they were keeping that one light so that they could send out a horseman galloping for the garrison at Worcester. It would be five hours before anyone got back from there, and he did not need to worry: they would be done long before that, one way or the other.

That group found that the walls of the houses at the west side had already been damaged by the explosion. The small carts had been overturned by the flying debris, and the guards were nowhere to be seen. So much the better. Pushing the carts to one side, they ran into the village, ready to cut down anyone who challenged them, and then take on the men manning the front barricade. There would be a brief fight, then they would bring down the barricade and Nigel’s men at the front would join them.

Every ground floor window was shuttered and barred against them, and every door was closed. No matter — no door would stand up to them for long once the village was in their hands. But the emptiness of the street and the lack of resistance was eerie. On the upper floors, they noticed as they went, hurrying but not quite running, that all the windows were open.

Suddenly, ahead of them, they ran into a hail of missiles. At first them put their hands over their heads to push through, but two pools of fire which erupted in front of them from well-thrown bottles of paraffin put a stop to that. They halted for a moment. Then, behind them, another hail of missiles. There was a space — a very narrow space — where they stood for a moment where the missiles did not seem to reach them. Their they pressed against each other. The missiles fell silent.

For no particular reason that they could make out, they seemed to be standing on a carpet of old tins, chains and pieces of metal, held together by copper wire. But there was no time to think about that:

Ahead of them, while they had been busy cowering from the aerial attack, a line of men appeared. Twenty, maybe twenty five, holding sharpened stakes. Then, behind them, cutting off escape, twenty men appeared also in a long line. For a moment they quailed, but only a moment. They could overrun either line without difficulty. Their captain, Black Hand Duke, jumped onto the stone block where Sedan had stood the night before.

“Ready, men!”, he bellowed.

At that moment a voice from behind shouted “NOW!”

Suddenly, the air around him was electric. Men screamed and fell. There was a flash of blue light. Stumbling, someone fell onto Black Hand Duke, and, grabbing hold of him, pulled him down as well.

The electricalish shock which they received was far greater than the one which had been given up at the castle. Alexis had been all night building an enormous condenser. It had taken twenty minutes to fully charge, with the Mechcart’s little stove running at full tilt and all of the electricalish cells pouring their energy into it. He had had to keep the stove going ever since then, because the makeshift condenser leaked constantly. But the effect, once he pressed down the contacts, was magnificent.

Villagers pressed in and secured the robbers with chains, ropes, the old village stocks which had not been used for sixty years, and sacks tightly bound over their heads and shoulders.

They cheered: it was an astonishing victory, taking out more than half of the Black Hand Gang’s force at a stroke.

But their cheer was short-lived. There was a whistling overhead, and they saw a shell explode straight into the beloved church tower. Ancient stones — stones which might have stayed there until the end of time — came flying through the air. One man was knocked to the ground, and felt a sharp pain and looked to find his right arm hanging at a horrible angle, the bone snapped in two.

“Arretez!”, bellowed Sedan from the front barricade. “You, robber, we wish to parley.”

He was a man of extraordinary courage. Without waiting to see if Black Hand Nigel would accept his terms, he leaped down from the barricade. Brian — not sure why he did it — leaped after him.

“Ah, très bien,” said Sedan. “Very great courage. But, now, we walk slowly with our arms wide out, palms front. This is a dangerous moment.”

“You, what do you want?”, said Nigel. “Can’t you see I’m busy conquering your village?”

“Conquering? I have fifty of your men prisoners inside, taken in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye. Inside my barricade I have ten horsemen. They are ready to ride and cut down your miserable men, hunting them until they fall down and beg for mercy. I have one hundred angry villagers who will see you torn in two before giving you an inch. You will never conquer this village.”

“Conquer, pulverise, it’s all the same to me. You see that gun, up there on that long hill that leads out from the mountain? I give it one more signal, and it will start to fire. Again, and again, and again. I’ve only told it to fire one shot at a time for now. That’s been enough, just to give you a taste of what’s coming. But as soon as I send the big signal, it starts, and it doesn’t stop until everything is rubble and ashes. What do you think about that?”

“I think you are very foolish,” said Sedan. Nigel made as to draw his sword, but he slowed when Brian stepped up, hand on his own hilt.

“Call me that again—” said Nigel.

“You clearly want something, otherwise you would not be here. Otherwise you would not have sent your men into danger in the village, you would already have smashed it to smithereens. So you are not going to pulverise it. Tell me what it is that you want, perhaps I can help you.”

A man behind Nigel, whose face was swathed in a scarf, stepped up. Slowly he unwound the scarf. It was Lomax.

“We want all the plans that Alexis Brand and Gordon Munroe made from the top of the mountain. Give us those, and we will leave you in peace.”

“Very well, I will ask,” said Sedan. “Brian, go back to the barrier, and ask Mr Munroe and Mr Brand if they are willing to trade their plans for the safety of the village.”

Brian went back at a run — he was glad to be away from the robbers, with their matted black hair, grizzled faces and strange markings on the sides of their faces and on their arms.

He came back a minute later.

“They say they can’t give you the plans, because they were stolen last night.”

“Pah,” said Lomax, spitting. “Do not try to deceive me. The plans that were stolen last night were only those that were made before the expedition. Tell them to bring me the real plans, the plans from the mountain summit. For those, the village is safe. If they refuse, we destroy, and then extract them from their dead fingers among the rubble. Do not imagine that we jest.”

Brian went back at a run.

A minute later he came back a second time.

“They say they cannot give you the plans.”

“Then all of you die!”, said Lomax. “I have spent a hundred thousand of the Emperor of Spain’s doubloons. I will not be thwarted now.”

Brian went off at a run to the barricade again. There was some gesturing this time, and some shouting, and eventually Gordon and Alexis came back with him. Both of them wore swords openly — borrowed from Sedan’s collection — and they wore stiff leather jerkins.

Alexis looked long and hard into Lomax’s eyes before he spoke.

“You — I know you now. You were that man who claimed to be a journalist who took such an interest in all our doings last year. You interviewed us several times for your paper, but no story appeared. So, you were a spy after all.”

“I am a servant of my king,” said Lomax, bowing. “I am honoured to do him honour.”

“A likely story,” said Alexis, sneering, “most likely you do it only for the money.”

Lomax bridled, but Nigel stepped between them.

“Be that all as it may, there’s just one question which we have to settle now. Are you giving us the plans, or are we destroying the village.”

“We cannot give you the plans”, said Gordon.

“Cannot?”, said Lomax. “Will not!”

“We cannot give you the plans,” said Gordon, “and I want you to listen to me very carefully while I say this, because we never climbed the summit of the mountain.”

“Such a stupid lie,” said Lomax. “If you will lie, at least lie properly. You insult my intelligence. I watched your fireworks on the mountain top. You were there, and if you were there, then you made your plans and charts and measurements and markings. There is no doubt about it.”

“We were not there,” said Gordon. “I cannot entirely satisfactorily explain to you what did happen, but the fireworks were let off by the man Huw, who I believe you have met.”

“Huw? Huw?”, said Lomax. “That old fool, the mad man from the mountain, with his prattle about his sacred purpose. Do not make me furious. Give me those plans right away, or we pound the village until you come to your sense!”

“We cannot give you the plans, because we have no plans to give.”

“ENOUGH!”, shouted Lomax.

Black Hand Nigel snarled, and he signalled in the air.

With a huge sweeping movement behind him, the flag-men began to wave their flags.

In an instant Gordon and Alexis drew their swords, as did Sedan and Brian. Nigel and Lomax drew theirs, and robbers rushed up to support them.

High and far away, they saw the flash of the gun.

The people in the village saw it too. It meant that the parley had failed. They were going to be broken and smashed and exploded and pulverised. It was the end of their village, the end of their lives. Some broke down openly and wept. Others leaped down from the barricade to join the fight. Michael was at the front of them, with Geoffrey a little way behind. Horace and Edward were there with bill hooks, and the constable came up with his police truncheon in one hand, and a nasty looking knife which he had once confiscated from a burglar.

Seline did none of these things. She hid for a moment under an archway while the shell landed. It hit the bridge — the ancient Roman bridge, which had withstood so much time — breaking the centre of its span and hurling those who had been guarding it into the Avon.
Then she ran to the dovecot, and, taking the last pigeon which had been born on the mountain, she wrote a note for Huw: “All now lost. Save us.” She let the bird go fluttering into the air. It flew confused for a few seconds, disoriented by the explosions that had been around it. Then, on giddy wings, it picked up its direction, flying straight out along the mountain road, over the heads of the fighting robbers and villagers, over the red flag, straight towards the mountain.

Huw had watched the flashes and heard the bangs with growing concern. He had not understood the previous day what the gun was doing — he had never seen such a gun firing in anger, and he did not mark the way the dead shell had fallen on the trees over the river. But the explosion at the mill had made everything clear to him. He hoped — believed — that the villagers would be able to defeat the robbers. He trusted Seline a great deal, and believed that she would find a way. But when the cannon began to fire again, he was filled with doubt.

In the mean time, full battle was joined.

“We must get the flag,” bawled Sedan. “Nothing else matters. Only the flag can end the firing.” But his words were largely lost as a wave of shouting villagers reached him.

Brian found himself face to face with Lomax. He had never fought with a sword before, only a stick in pretend fights. He waved the weapon in front of him. Lomax laughed, long and loud, before stepping in to finish him off, which would be the work of a moment. But that laughter was too long: Horace head-butted him from the side, sending him rolling over and over.

Sedan faced Black Hand Nigel. Nigel had a huge cutlass in his hand, and, as he squared up to Sedan, he pulled something else from inside his jerkin: it was a pistol. Instantly Sedan was on the attack. Nigel had no time to point the pistol. He was parrying for his life under a whirlwind of blows, the like of which he had never before conceived or heard. Sedan’s blade was everywhere, cutting from above, thrusting from below, sending his own blade spinning this way and that. He dropped the pistol and tried to wield his cutlass with both hands, the back of his neck dripping with fear as Sedan’s blade, one handed, seemed to press him right back whenever Sedan desired, at other times seeming to melt away. Nigel was not just on the back foot now — he was running — he was running away as fast as his legs would carry him. Sedan was after him, and he would have caught him and killed him, except that he turned to take the flag.

Then his face filled with horror, and he let out a long, low wail.

In the attack, one of the villagers had come out with one of the bottles filled with paraffin with a lighted rag wrapped around them. Not wanting to injure any of his own side, he had hurled it long and high, at the two men who were right at the back — the two men who were guarding the flag. They split when they saw it coming, and the bottle exploded in a pool of flame right on top of the canvas.

By the time Sedan reached it, it was burning so hot that there was no way he could get near it. He cast around in desperation for any sign of water with which to extinguish it. But there was nothing. He screamed again.

The robbers were now in complete disarray — they were fleeing this way and that. The battle was won — the battle was won, but the village was doomed.

“Back to the village everyone,” he yelled. Get buckets, water, do everything you can to put out the flames as the shells land. Maybe we still save something.”

And so it was that Black Hand Nigel, Lomax, and a handful of others  were able to go running back along the mountain path. Nigel laughed as he went. He had got nothing for all his pains, and, likely as not, the militia would be out the next day combing the mountain for the Black Hand Gang. That would be the end of them, no doubt, though he would escape easily himself. But the village was doomed. Done for. Nothing could stop that cannon now. Even if they could fly, they could do nothing against it.

Shells rained on the village, smashing beautiful houses, hurling flame from roof to roof, turning what was one of the most picturesque places in England into the site of a disaster. The cannoneers were not quick about reloading: they had had little practice, but the steady shell after shell, every three or four minutes, was undoing in a morning what forty generations had built up with so much love, and with so much pain.

Many shells had fallen by the time the pigeon reached Huw. He almost did not need to read the note: he knew what Seline would be saying. It was now up to him, only up to him.

He stood looking down. The promontory was very much in the path of the avalanche, if the avalanche were called. With all the extra snow they had had in the coldest winter for many, many years, the avalanche would sweep away the cannon, and go miles across the plain. They would see the last clouds of snow drifting towards the village. But there was no time to call the avalanche. He could be at the Drum in twenty minutes — that was another five or six of those shells. To call the avalanche might take two hours — an hour, maybe, because Angharad had already loosened much of the rocks and snow, and it was teetering already. By that time there wouldn’t really be anything left of Bidforst. Poor Seline was down there, and she was depending on him.

It really was for him now to do what he had always known that he one day would do.

Very gently, he woke Angharad. She had been sleeping beside him, right there on the top of the mountain. Neither of them was bothered by the cold, or by time, or by any of those things that mortals fear or long for.

He kissed her gently on the forehead.

“‘Bye Bye, Angharad, my love. When this is over, go and find Seline. You stay with her, now. Stay with her. I love you always.”

And then, taking a gigantic leap, he jumped off the summit, rolling  down the steep slope below. As he went, he pulled rocks from the slopes and cliffs beside him, and set them rolling too. He was coming up fast now on the place where Angharad’s avalanche had failed. He set his legs going faster, now partly rolling, partly running, partly tumbling along as he went.

The snow was all around him: if he had to go, this was the way he wanted to go. He was moving now faster than he had ever moved, deeper in the mountain’s secret life than he had ever been. He was one with the mountain as never before — then he reached the dip and rise which had foiled the first avalanche. He felt himself slowing — he redoubled his efforts.

And then:

Suddenly he was flying off the edge into clear blue sky. Rock, snow, ice, boulders, and great clouds and balls which mixed them all together flew after him. There was a great crashing roar. The sides of the mountain were moving with him.

From the village Seline watched through tears as she saw the cloud of snow begin. The tears were in part for the village, which already lay ruined around her. But much more they were for Huw. He had long ago told her about the Drum, and about calling the avalanche, and how long that would take, and he had told her about the other way, the way of last result, where he must become the avalanche. But even he, he thought, would not survive that. He would be buried beneath a tonne of snow, without air — he needed air to breathe — without any hope of rescue. He had told her that, if he ever had in the darkest desperation to do it, that he hoped he went quickly.

She watched, and the tears came streaming down her face.

The cannoneers heard the rumble and roar from the behind them, but they paid no attention. They were much too far and much too low to be worried about the mountain. They had had a bit of a bet on about whether or not the firing of the cannon might trigger a snow fall, but, even if it did, it would be miles away behind them.

They were wrong.

The enormous tide of snow behind them crashed down the mountain as if it were on wings. The pent up energy gathered force after force after force, picking up speed as its weight increased.

“Watch out—” began one as the tide came over the last crest. But that was all he, or any of them, ever said. The snow swept them off the cliff, crushing them beneath and burying them in thirty feet of white and grey and black.

And that was the end of them.

The snow did not reach to the village, or anywhere near it, which had always been Huw’s great fear. But it blocked the pass completely, and it stayed blocked until the late spring. Lomax, Nigel and the others found themselves caught between the village and the mountain with nowhere to go. Some said they were seen, with a small man who carried a white stick, making their way along the Stratford Road, but that is all hearsay.

It was almost dark by the time they made the village safe. Fires were put out, falling rubble was carefully removed. Three men, a woman and a child had been killed in the terrible explosions. Not many, you may think, but a disaster of unheralded proportions in a community of just four hundred souls. Many more were injured. The Mechcart was completely destroyed. Alexis looked at it ruefully in the fading light, before snorting, and turning on his heel:
“A cart running on electricality. It was a stupid idea anyway. Who would countenance such a thing?”

Alexis took the events very hard. He knew full well that none of it would have happened if it were not for him. Sedan and Fiedel explained to him many times that it was Lomax and the robbers who were guilty, but he did not regain his old confidence for many months, and perhaps he never regained his old swagger.

Angharad appeared the next morning in Seline’s room, and she stayed there for many weeks. What they said to each other, no-one ever knew.

Neither Gordon nor Alexis nor Michael felt it was appropriate to leave the village in its time of need. Michael’s pictures did appear in the Winchester Gazette, though Mr Zeiss did not consider there was sufficient proof that he had shot the pictures on a mountain to award him the prize.

It was February by the time they felt ready to move on. A vast army of builders had arrived with consignments of stone from Winchester, and Chester, and Manchester, and every other place where Alexis’s money could find them. They rebuilt the bridge, and they rebuilt many of the buildings, and, for no reason that anyone could understand, they rebuilt the old mill. Alexis was very secretive about the mill, until, one day, he invited almost all of the village to a marquee he had had erected there.

The marquee surrounded the mill, so that it stuck out of the top of it. But there was something funny about the roof. It was a sort of dome, with a strange slit in it.

“Friends”, he began, when everyone had had their fill of food and drink. They really were friends now. “Friends, in many ways we owe our lives to so many people, but, in honour of you all, I wish to present to the whole village, but especially to Professor Fiedel, who did so much to save the day, a very special gift.”

Then he pulled a string, and the whole side of the mill came away on a great hinge, as if it were a door. Inside, in shining brass and bronze, was the most magnificent astronomical telescope, built into an observatory the like of which has not been seen outside of the royal observatory at Eastleigh. Fiedel felt all of this strength leaving him, as it had done so many weeks before, but this time he was able to stand and make a speech.

Alexis presented Sedan with an entire case of swords, from Japan, and China, and Toledo, and Paris, and Leeuwaarden, and Vienna, and from all the finest sword makers in the rest of the world.

“And now, I believe that someone else has an announcement to make,” he said.

“Indeed,” said Michael, standing up and taking Seline by the hand. He led her up to the platform. She smiled, but nervously. They had grown to be close friends, but she had no inkling of what was to come.

“Seline,” said Michael, “I want to ask you to marry me.”

There was widespread applause.

“Well,” she said, “don’t you think I’m a little old for you?”

He looked at her in wonderment.

“What’s a couple of years?”, he said.

“More than a couple of years,” she replied. “But if you’re set on it, I think you should ask my father.”

“Who’s your father?”, said Michael, looking around to see if there was someone he had not met.

There was someone standing in the entrance to the marquee. An enormous bulk. Someone they had not seen for a long time.

“That’s right.” Said Seline. “Who’s my father,” and she gestured to the entrance.

Ever head turned, every eye focused.

“DA!”, yelled Angharad in ecstatic joy, and she ran over to where Huw stood, smiling as never before.

“That’s right,” said Seline. “Who’s my father.” But she wasn’t saying ‘Who’, but ‘Huw’, which, as you recall from the beginning of this tale, she pronounced in exactly the same way.

There was more applause, and much astonishment. Nobody in the village had ever guessed.

“Oh, you can have her,” said Huw from the entrance. He spoke softly, but his voice filled the place. “She’s nothing but trouble, mind you. Not like my little Angharad.”

“So, how old actually are you?”, said Michael, a few minutes later, when they were on their own.

“A bit more than six hundred years, if you must know. Though didn’t you know it’s rude to ask a lady her age? After Angharad’s Ma died, Huw went into a sort of a decline. Then he met my mother, who was a mortal woman. He was ever so sad when she passed on, though they’d had a good run together. I’m part mortal myself, which is why I’ve grown up more quickly than Angharad. But, let me say, you’re not thinking of taking me away from the village, are you? Because I won’t be having that.”

There are only two further things to tell. It was on the day of the party that Brian finally gave Claudine Sedan’s gifts. She was very red faced when he gave them to her, and threw her arms round him. Then she steadied herself, and said:

“What’s that for then, Brian? Does it mean what I think it means?”
Brian smiled.

“It’s a going away present, really. A goodbye gift. I’ve got a job working with Alexis, as his personal dagotyper. Michael’s shown me all the things, and Alexis has given me my own Zeiss.”

“And are you going to take me with you?”

“No, Claudine. This is goodbye.”

Claudine was very quiet for the rest of that day.

As for Derek — is it not true that some, as they say, have all the luck? His part in the plot was never discovered. Alexis and Gordon gave him many handsome gifts, and the most splendid references possible. He is even now plying his trade in Winchester, where all dark deeds begin.

Chapter Eleven – the Penultimate Chapter

Chapter Eleven – the Penultimate Chapter

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin TurnerProfessor Fiedel glanced desperately around the mill loft. Lomax stood, smiling, sword point hovering around Sedan’s neck. Bart was scrabbling on the floor for the knife.

Fiedel’s entire body was limp. In the spasm of fear, all of the life had flowed out of his arms and legs. He only had the strength — only had the strength to fall.

He let himself fall, crumpling onto the floor, but crumpling onto the very place where the knife had fallen. Bart heard him go, and stretched out with fluttering fingers. Fiedel watched the fingers pass over him, felt them touch him, in a wondering horror. But he still did not have the strength to act — nor any notion of what he should do.

But he had done enough.

With a flick of his left arm, Sedan brought his thick black cloak up, flapping over Lomax’s sword, enveloping it. He almost drew it completely from Lomax’s grasp, but the Spaniard, seeing what was happening in an instant, snatched the blade backwards, bringing it back into position to cut Sedan’s throat.

But Sedan was no longer there. As her brought the cloak up, he twisted away, putting the heliographoscope between them.

“Do you not wish to fight me?”, said Lomax.

Sedan glanced down at Fiedel and Bart. Fiedel lay supine, lifeless — there was no blood. Had he fainted? Had he been knocked out? He knelt for a moment to roll Bart out of the way. Fiedel’s eyes flickered. He was trying to say something.

That gave Lomax time to get past the heliographoscope. Raising his sword high above his head, he aimed a savage cut at Fiedel.
Sedan was up in an instant. Arcing his blade so it flashed in the blink of an eye through the positions of sixte, octave and prime, he swept Lomax’s blade out of the way — but not for long.

Lomax sprang forward. Bringing his sword up over Sedan’s pommel he punched straight for his heart. But Sedan was too quick for him. He wafted his weapon after Lomax’s in a move that no fencing master ever taught. Lomax’s edge was almost caught up among his fingers, but at the last split-second he lifted his hand, catching the tip on the guard. Then — straight from the parry, Sedan spun his weapon into a riposte, swinging down like a burst of lightning, simultaneously beating Lomax’s blade so hard that it almost went flying from his hand. Lomax pulled back for the parry, but he was too slow and too late. He yanked his head backwards, but not far enough! Sedan’s point, sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, caught him on the cheek bone and drew a line down to his chin. Lomax leapt back, teetering dangerously on the top of the stairs. Sedan lunged: a beautiful, powerful, intense, explosive lunge to the fullest extent of his reach — nine feet from his back heel to the tip of his blade, to pass straight through Lomax’s body and pierce his heart. It would have been the end of Lomax, but at that moment Bart grabbed hold of Sedan’s leg, bringing him rolling to the floor. Bart clutched at Sedan’s sword arm so that Lomax could administer the coup de grace.

But Lomax did nothing.

Bart lifted his head — sounds, sounds he did not like.

There were feet, on the stairs. Feet descending. There was the soft rasping whoosh of a sword being sheathed. Bart heard the feet running out through the mill door. Then Lomax’s voice:
“Help, help! You must help. Upstairs. Thieves! Murder! Sedan is murdering Fiedel. You must hurry. Go! Go! That way!”
In a moment the stairs were a clatter of running feet.

“Drop your sword, Sedan!”, bellowed the constable’s voice. “This time I’ll see to it that you hang for this.”

“No, no!”, came a feeble voice. It was Fiedel, pulling himself up to a sitting position as he finally found the strength to move and to speak. “No. Lomax is the one you want.”

There was the sound of running feet again, and then Bart was  pulled roughly to his feet. It took no more than a few words from Fiedel, and his arms were pulled behind his back, and he felt the cold iron of hand-cuffs.

“No!”, yelled Fiedel.

Everybody except Bart looked round. Neither he nor Sedan had seen how it had happened, but a glancing sword blow, or something, had come down on the delicate mechanism of the heliographoscope. A huge gouge had been taken out of one of the adjustment cogs, but, worst of all, there were shards of glass scattered on the dusty, floury wooden floor. Some priceless lens had been broken, or, worse still, the huge fragile mirror, which was far beyond Fiedel’s skill to replicate, was perhaps smashed.

Bart could not see this. But he heard, evidently when Fiedel went over to the brass barrel and touched it, the sound of glass fragments, shaking.

He chuckled. Even if he was finished himself, Fiedel’s dream was broken too.

Lomax ran straight out of the mill and down towards the inn. There were horses there. He would take one and flee — southwards down Ryknield Street all the way to Winchester, and thence to Southampton and a boat to Spain. If he had had a chance to hear from Bart what he had learned while he signalled, he would probably have set off in the other direction to meet up with them, and so come by his prize when they attacked the village. But he knew nothing of this.

He never reached the inn. Half-way down the road he ran straight into Derek, who was off to find one of the girls who had caught his eye the previous day.

Seeing Derek, a plan came into Lomax’s head: an idea came into his head. It was an excellent idea, a stratagem worthy of the best. It would save his life, get him the plans, notes and surveys which he was still desperate to purchase, being still under the mis-apprehension that Alexis and Gordon had made their measurements from the top of the mountain, and it would see him safe on his way without a hue and cry behind him.

Quickly, he whispered into Derek’s ear. Derek grinned, and seized hold of him.

Half a minute later, the pursuing party made up of the constable, Geoffrey and Sedan came shouting and bellowing after him.

“I’ve got him!”, yelled Derek. “Don’t worry, I’ve got him,” and he held Lomax up by the scruff of the coat collar.

They marched Lomax back to the constable’s house, where Horace and Edward had already brought Bart. Fiedel was a little behind them, panting still. His heart was fluttering, and there was a pain along his left arm.

At the constable’s house, there was some argument about what to do. Built into the ground floor was one small jail cell with bars and a barred door, leading off the police office. Fiedel was of the opinion that Bart and Lomax should be kept separately.

“But look, Fiedel,” said Geoffrey. “There’s no other cell.”

“Well, put one of the them in the cellar then,” said Fiedel. But there were no cellars for the houses on that side of the road: they were too close to the river, and the cellars would have been constantly flooded. Then the constable suggested that, since Bart was a blind man, he probably wouldn’t cause much trouble, and so could be kept somewhere else — perhaps in one of the rooms at the inn. But Fiedel was dead against that. Bart was far more dangerous than he looked, he argued.

In the end they decided to put them both in the same cell, but tell them there was to be no talking. As you can see, neither Geoffrey nor Fiedel nor yet the constable had any particular experience dealing with cunning spies or hardened criminals. The worst that had ever been in this particular cell were sheep rustlers, awaiting transportation to the county court in Warwick.

Word spread quickly round the village: the rogues had been foiled, the bandits were beaten, the accomplice of the robbers had been captured. Little groups gathered on the streets. They knew, of course, nothing of the true plans of the Black Hand Gang, nor of the purpose for which Lomax had paid them, and, quite naturally, they held up Derek as a hero even more than they ever had before. Tales of adventures on mountainsides are all very well, but Derek had saved the whole village (the part played by Sedan was considered to be less significant) and brought the villains to justice.

One the dusk began to deepen, the tap-room at the inn began to fill, and they ate, drank, and toasted Derek long into the night.

Fiedel went straight back to the mill. The sun had now very firmly set, and he was reduced to peering around the workings of the heliographoscope with a candle. The gouged cog was bent out of shape, but could probably be salvaged. Inside the great barrel, Fiedel was relieved to discover that the great mirror was still intact. But there was another lens, not a very big one, but crucial, in the collar onto which the eye-piece he had made would have fitted. There was nothing which could be done that night. In the morning he would be able to take more measurements, and perhaps grind a new lens.

This was a particularly cruel blow for Fiedel. He had secretly coveted the instrument, and was sure that, with some very elementary adjustments, and the rotation of one bracket which could be easily unscrewed, that the heliographoscope could become a very serviceable astronomical telescope. Moreover, the very next morning, the fourth of January, there was to be a partial eclipse of the sun. It would have been an absolutely perfect time to put the noble instrument to a noble use.

When there was really no light more to see by, and the flickering candlelight could show him no more, he ruefully made his way back to his house, and slept.

Midnight came, and went. The robbers, under the direct command of Black Hand Nigel, who were dragging the heavy object under canvas which Huw had seen from a distance had long since made camp, lighting a fire, eating mutton, and sleeping under the canvas by turns, while the others took watch.

Huw sat high on the mountain summit with Angharad. They neither feared nor felt the cold. Far below they saw the lights of the village, and nearer, but still a distance, they saw the glow from the stove of the hut in the castle.

Dawn came, light slowly reaching across the far mountains, across the continent of Europe, across the North Sea, over the fens, moving inch by inch across the forest, up the foothills.

Huw watched it as he had so often watched. He held Angharad close to him. She had not slept. Occasionally she had let out a sob, and Huw had whispered words of comfort.

The sun’s rays touched the robbers with their heavy load. They swiftly drew themselves into order, swallowed a mouthful of food, and began to pull their strange and heavy burden. They were going mostly up hill now as they approached the pass. The thawing and refreezing of the snow had left their path icy and lumpy, and they laboured almost until mid-day when they drew near to their fellows waiting at the castle.

At the inn, Gordon and Alexis had debated long into the night, and they began the debate again at breakfast.

“So you absolutely believe that you have given your word to that old mad man and will not be returning to the mountain?,” said Alexis, testily. Claudine had asked Seline if she might help serve at breakfast. Seline was inclined to say no, but she was short-handed, it being Bob’s morning off, and the tap-room had filled with early diners so quickly that she was forced to set up tables in the parlours.

“Would you like some coffee, Alexis?”, she said to Alexis, smiling and leaning forward. She did not wait for his reply, but poured the coffee anyway. Alexis ignored her.

“So is that really your position?”, he went on.

Gordon chewed a piece of toast, without butter, and then held it up as though he were holding a piece of chalk at an illustrated lecture.”

“On the exact status of the gentleman we encountered, I’m willing to suspend judgement — for now — though, since in the natural world we have examples of exceptionally long-lived beings, it does not necessarily surprise me that there should be such a human being in existence. Whether his connection with the mountain is, as he says, some kind of supernatural bond, or is merely the result of his living there and being there for a very long time, so that he has formed a sort of symbiotic affinity with it, is a point on which I would not venture an opinion. But as to his ability to prevent us from reaching the summit, I would say that there is no real doubt. He very clearly knows many of the secrets of the mountain, and we would be fools to attempt it without his permission.”

“But you know he’ll never give his permission. And we need those water wheels. We need the power.”

“Ah, well, you say he’ll never give permission, but have we really tried to persuade him? Even a man such as that, even if he is really who he believes that he is, cannot reject progress for ever. The rise of science is a notion that even a mountain man cannot fail to be inspired by.”

“Tosh,” said Alexis, “and you know it is.”

“Would you like some jam? Or some marmalade? Or butter?”, interrupted Claudine, once more leaning over him.

“I wouldn’t mind a little more toast, my dear,” said Gordon. Claudine glared at him, and went off to get more toast.

When she came back, Michael had joined them.

“So, young Michael,” said Gordon. “We haven’t really had a chance to catch up on your adventures. What did you make of that man, Huw? Did he tell you his history of the mountain, and did you believe it?”

Michael had already begun to slurp a cup of coffee, and put it down quickly to answer the question, almost upsetting it over the table cloth. Claudine tutted as she mopped up the small amount which had spilled.

“I think —”, began Michael, “— I think we were very lucky to come out of it alive.”

“Ay, but you were in pursuit of the Spirit of the Mountain right from the start. Did you get your pictures? Do you still believe in it? Are you going to search again?”

“As for my pictures, they’ve gone off to Winchester to be developed. I’m expecting them back any day. But they’ll look just fine. My days of chasing ghosts are done, though. Much, much too dangerous. You never know what you might find.”

He gave Gordon a knowing look, and then refused to talk about it any further. Alexis snorted, and called for more mushrooms.

Bart and Lomax had spent a passable night in their cell. They had imagined that they would have plenty of time for conversation once the constable went to bed, but, for once, the organisation of guards was rather strict, and done rather competently. Every two hours another man came to watch them, and he sat, beady eyes on them, pen and paper at the ready, to record anything they might say to each other, and to stop them as much as possible from conversing at all.

Eventually they slept. As dawn came, Lomax began to sing.

“Stop that singing,” said their guard, whose name does not come into this story.

“I am Spanish,” said Lomax. “All Spaniards sing in the morning. It is a well known fact.”

He sang several songs in Spanish, and then began in French, before moving onto German.

“If you’re going to sing, I want bleeding’ well singing in English,” shouted the guard. His nerves were rather frayed, as he had been one of the revellers the night before, and had been called much earlier in the morning than he would have liked.

“By all means,” said Lomax. “Would you like to sing with me?”

The guard shook his head.

“Then I will ask my colleague to sing, instead.”

“Do what you bleeding’ well like.”

“Very well.”

Lomax began to sing, and, presently, Bart began to sing with him. Lomax had a sweet tenor with a beautiful tremolo, whereas Bart had a rather more grating tone which was not particularly tenor, nor bass, nor baritone, but could be most charitably described as ‘nether tone’.

And they sang, to the guard’s great annoyance, for the best part of two hours. To begin with they sang well known songs, with well known words to well known tunes. But, after a while, they began to improvise. Lomax sang a song about a little bird that everyone loved which came out of its cage, took a fine diamond ring in its beak, and flew out of the window, never to be seen again. It was rather touching, and, despite himself, the guard became quite involved with the song, and almost shed a tear when the bird ‘with the feathers as blue as blue’ finally winged its way south, over the fields, and over the sea to France.

Bart’s improvisations were more prosaic. To the tune of ‘the bear climbed up the mountain’, he sang ‘the robbers came down the mountain, the robbers came down the mountain, the robbers came down the mountain, and what did they do there?’

The guard was less impressed by this, and wanted to hear more about the little bird, but, instead, Bart began a song about Drummer Hoff who — and you may know this song — ‘fired it off’.

You have of course gathered exactly what they were doing, though the guard never did. By means of singing, Bart explained in great detail how the robbers planned to attack the village, and Lomax in turn explained his own plan — or as much of it as he thought good for Bart to hear, since Lomax’s plan did not involve Bart quite as much as he wanted Bart to believe.

Professor Fiedel, naturally, was up at first light, with his ruler and his papers at the old mill. His chagrin at not being able to watch the sun’s eclipse by means of the telescope was somewhat softened when he saw low clouding sweeping in, muffling the sunlight: he would not have seen a thing anyway.

As soon as he believed he was ready, he scuttled home, and set to work once more at his grinding. And there he stayed right the way through lunch, and on into the afternoon.

Seline had a full house again for lunch. She happily accepted a further offer of help from Claudine, but, to her dismay, sent her into the kitchen to peel sprouts. A minute later, Brian arrived to help her.

“Oh, it’s you is it?”, she said, and tossed her hair. But secretly she was pleased. She was running out of ways to pretend that there was something between her and Alexis, and needed to stir Brian to some certain action before the opportunity faded. Alexis and Gordon were due to leave the next day anyway — she had overheard them talking about it — and it was absolutely essential to the plan that Brian believed he was winning her from Alexis before Alexis left of his own accord, leaving her high and dry and a sort of leftover for Brian to pick up if he felt like it, but otherwise not.

Brian was in more than two minds about the whole thing. He had not found a suitable moment to give Claudine the comb and mirror which Sedan had provided for him, and he seemed further away than ever from winning her affections. In his imagination he saw himself handing over the gift, only to discover that Alexis had given her a something much more precious — he could not quite picture what that would be, but knew that it would be expensive. He knew there was a speech you were supposed to say, but Monsieur Sedan had not written it down for him, and he now felt ashamed to ask for it to be repeated.

The peeled in silence for a bit, and then Claudine began, as if to herself, as a stage monologue:
“He needs to be brave. He needs to be handsome. And he needs to love me.”
Then she said it again, and again, in a kind of rhythm.
“What at you talking about?”, said Brian.
“Oh, it’s just a rhyme for peeling sprouts,” she said. “Lot’s of girls say it. You didn’t think I was talking about you, did you? That’s very sweet.”
Brian looked down, red-faced.
“Will he marry me, will he marry me, will he marry me, on my wedding day?” she chanted, a few minutes later.
This time Brian said nothing.
“Oh Brian,” said Claudine as if to herself as they were finishing, “I wish you were brave. I wish you only loved me enough to give me something beautiful.”
And then she washed her hands, without looking at him, and almost pirouetted as she moved away, at something between a step and a slow waltz.
Brian shook his head.

High on the mountain, Huw held Angharad close to him, and watched the robbers. He partly held her close so that she would not see them again. Little by little he had coaxed the story out of her. He had not perhaps got it entirely right, but he was filled both with a great deal of sorrow, and a great deal of anger. Part of him wanted to storm down the mountain and deal with them. But the other part of him, which had cared for so long both for the mountain and for all those who found their way onto it, knew that that would be entirely wrong.

So he sat and watched. He did not understand what they were doing. The men had paused, briefly, to eat some kind of lunch. He saw them sauntering this way and that, standing in clumps. More he could not see at that great distance. After that he saw all of them together pull the great big thing under canvas, still on its sleds, to the place where the pass road goes down hill, and the path onto the promontory goes right. He wondered how they would fare with the sleds once they came off the snow and onto grass and gravel further down the road. All of the low-lying countryside was now clear, dull-green grey grass and leafless trees, after the shining brilliance of vast fields of white.

But they did not go downwards, towards the village. Instead, they took the path, turning right towards the west, skirting the mountain side for a while, and then running along the top in parallel with the Bidforst road, but at a much greater height. That path was not used much: you could not possibly get down to the village from the promontory, because it ended in cliffs. The grass was good there, though, in the spring, and shepherds often took their sheep there once the last snows were gone.

It took all of the men to get it up onto the path, but, after that, it slid easily, and they moved more swiftly until, as the light again began to fade and dusk began to fall, they reached the cliffs with their drop down to the plain below. There they stopped. By that time, they had been caught up by a single man and a donkey, pulling a smaller sled. Whatever the donkey was pulling was heavy, but not so heavy as the big thing. It, too, stopped with the group at the cliff. There was a moving around — the men were now so far away again that they were the tiniest specks, and it was only because he had seen them pass below that he knew what they were.

He knew what they were, but not what they did, and that troubled him greatly. Long, long before that, he had already made up his mind that they were not only up to no good, but the no good to which they were up was a far worse kind of no good than that to which they were usually up. Huw liked long and complicated sentences, and he rolled this one around in his mind for some time as he thought about it. But the note he wrote on a tiny sheet of paper, and poked into the tiny tube on the foot of the pigeon that he had been cradling in his coat — that note was short, and too the point. He wrote: “Robbers. Mountain. Village. Danger. Something strange”, and he let it go, with its blessing, to make its way back to its home at the inn.

Rising into the sky, the pigeon flew once around their heads, spiralling, until it made out by that strange sense that pigeons have the direction it should fly, and set off.

It flew straight along the path the robbers had taken, and right over their heads as it made for the lower land beyond the cliff edge. If the pigeon could only have recorded what it saw, or brought them a report of it, much harm would have been averted. But it was only a bird, and it was doing its best.

It passed the two robber-scouts slinking back along the road towards the pass. They had walked as bold as brass through the village, bought a drink in the Inn, and chatted amiably with some of the locals. But they had not seen Derek, who was busy with something else. Again, if they had, and had managed to share their plans, or perhaps together make a new one, then what followed might never have happened at all. But they did not.

It flew over the constable’s house. If it could have looked in through the windows, it would have seen something worth seeing. But it did not.

Finally, it flapped into the dove-cot, in the little courtyard where Michael had at exactly that moment taken Gordon aside.

“I know I’m speaking out of place,” he said, “but I think you should be careful of Derek.”

“Derek?”, said Gordon, “but, man, he’s the hero of the hour.”

“Is he now?”, said Michael, “I wonder.” And then he explained Derek’s strange absence the night he arrived at the Mechcart, and one or two other suspicions he had been entertaining. Had Derek really fought off all those robbers? And the arrest of Lomax, was that not very convenient?

Gordon did not think much of the last two points, but he minded the absence from the Mechcart very much. If he had located the tunnels, and spent the night there, then surely he would have said something? And why stay in a cold tunnel when the stove on the cart was keeping things so warm? Likewise, if he had gone back to the castle, why not say so? They might have chided him for leaving the Mechcart unattended on the mountain side, but, as no ill came of it, they would not have held it against him. Gordon could think of a number of plausible places that Derek might have gone to, but — and here was the rub — he could think of no reason as to why Derek would not have told them where he had been, and why.

“Leave this with me, lad,” he said. “I’ll talk to Alexis, but at the right moment. You may have noticed, but he’s a man of moods, and has has to be handled right.”

He went back into the inn to find Alexis, and Michael, noticing that a pigeon had arrived, went to find Seline.

Alexis was not in the tap-room, but Gordon did not have to look far to find him. Just down the ground-floor corridor, which is where the two best bedrooms were, he heard a sound of furniture being moved and a yelling voice. It was Alexis.

“Have you got my portfolio?”, he said accusingly.

“It’s under your mattress,” said Gordon, closing the bedroom door behind him. “That’s where you hide it.”

“It is NOT!”, said Alexis hotly. “Now, if this is a practical joke—”
Gordon took him by the shoulder.

“How long have you known me, Alexis?”

“Well, about ten years — no, more.”

“And, in all those years, have you ever known me to do anything as unscientific or irreverent as play a practical joke — leaving aside those you played yourself into which you attempted unsuccessfully to inveigle me?”
“No—”
“Well then. Let’s search again. When and where did you have it last?”

But they were to search in vain, because at that moment events had taken another turn.

It was Derek, of course, who had purloined it. This was Lomax’s plan, and a far simpler and more effective plan it proved to be than all of the ambushes on mountain passes which had been so carefully planned, and had so demonstrably failed.

At that very moment, Derek was lying, moaning, blood pouring from a nasty gash in his head, alongside Horace, who had, until twenty minutes before, been guarding Lomax and Bart. The cell door was swinging open, and neither Bart nor Lomax were anywhere to be seen.

The constable found them. He was bringing a bottle of something strong and warming for Derek, who had volunteered to take the late afternoon shift guarding the prisoners. The constable thought it a fine thing that someone as well loved, and as courageous, as Derek should volunteer to take his turn.

Horace was just coming to as the constable found them. Horace would be alright — had had taken a nasty knock to the back of the head, but young men have thick skulls, and Horace was not known for using his head more than he absolutely had to. He would take no lasting harm. But Derek — the constable’s eyes filled with concern as he felt Derek’s pulse, checked his breathing, and then wrapped a bandage from the first aid box three times right around the wound.

This was, as you recall, not very different from the trick Derek had played before. The wound looked nasty, but was in reality very shallow. What had happened was this. Derek’s room and Michael’s room were on the top floor, and he had to pass both Gordon’s and Alexis’s rooms to reach the stairs. He waited until Gordon was out in the courtyard, talking to Michael, while Alexis was in the tap-room, buying drinks and holding court. He had been a successful thief for some time, and it did not take him more than a moment to look for the portfolio under the mattress, though Alexis believed that this was an altogether secret and safe place to hide it. A portfolio is a big enough thing to carry, but it disappeared easily until the folds of Derek’s enormous coat which, as well as keeping him warm on many a night, had in its time concealed a very large number of stolen items, some for many days.

He stumbled slightly as he walked past Alexis in the tap-room, but Alexis had his back to him, and did not see. Then, going swiftly but not hurriedly along the street, he came to the constable’s house a little before four, which was the time at which he was due to relieve Horace.

Horace was very glad to see him. Bart and Lomax had ceased singing before he took up his turn, but Lomax glared at him the whole time, while Bart moved his head in a strange fashion, as if he were hearing things that no other ear could hear.

Horace was entirely unprepared for the blow when Derek brought a huge tea-tray (minus the tea things) on the back of his head, and fell instantly. Derek, Lomax and Bart then swiftly exchanged their news. Derek, with the benefit of his previous conversation, understood Lomax’s plan better than Bart did. Unlike Lomax, who thought that the robbers’ raid was now a useless distraction, Derek saw how they could turn it to their advantage, ensuring that no search party would be sent out after them. Lomax and Bart needed only to hide out that night, and they would be quite, quite safe. He handed the portfolio over, checked the street to see that they were unobserved, and, unlocking the cell with the keys which were foolishly but conveniently kept on a hook underneath the window, he let them out into the fading light.

Derek had no particular desire to be lying in his own blood for long, so he sat just beside the window where he could see the street without being easily seen, and waited. When he saw the constable appear, he swiftly cut himself, wiped the knife on Horace’s hair, swirled the blood around a little to make it look worse than it was, and lay down.

And that is how the constable found him.

Seline smoothed the pigeon’s feathers and cooed to it as she extracted the tiny message from its leg. She loved birds, and all kinds of animals, and was as delighted as the pigeon whenever one of her own returned to her.

Her face fell when she got the message. She did not know what to do. It was clear that something terrible was happening — clear to her, but not clear in a way she could explain very well to the constable, or even to Geoffrey. Biting her lip, she walked back into the tap-room.

Just at that moment, Fiedel came rushing in.

“Everybody stop what you are doing!”, he shouted. His entrance was so abrupt that everybody did.

“You must all come with me — come with me right now. We are in the gravest possible danger.” This was so far removed from Fiedel’s more usual announcements to the assembly that people really did get up, leaving their drinks behind, and follow him down the street. Sedan was there right at the front of them. Seline came at the rear. She was loathe to leave the inn, especially after what happened the last time she left it, but Fiedel’s words, coupled with the note she had received, persuaded her.

They traipsed down on mass to the old mill, passing the constable’s house where, at that very moment, he was busy bandaging Derek’s wound.

The loft of the mill house was not remotely big enough to hold all those people, so Fiedel took Geoffrey as magistrate, Sedan as his friend and recent saviour, and Seline as a representative of the village up to see. Others crowded in behind. Sedan noted the dents in the heliographoscope, but was pleased when Fiedel told him that he had managed to create another lens — not a perfect lens, not like the treasured Zeiss lenses, but enough.

One by one they peered through the eye-piece.

The image was a little blurry, even when Fiedel showed them how to adjust the focus. There were fringes of yellow on one side, and blue on the other. He made them stand with their hands off the instrument, because otherwise, as he explained, they would set the whole thing shaking and never see a thing.

While the others looked, Fiedel showed each of them the exact spot on the mountain to which he had pointed the device. He could no longer find the exact spot it had been originally aimed at, the damaged cog had seen to that, so, after spending most of the day making the new lens, he had decided to make a slow and careful scan of the mountainside. Even in its damaged state, it was the most marvellous instrument. You could see, he swore, a blade of grass on a hillside ten miles away.

When it was Seline’s turn she could not make out anything like a blade of grass, though it was now twilight and getting steadily darker. What she did see was the most extraordinary collection of tubes. Big tubes, bound together facing in the same direction, upwards and pointed very much in their direction. They were mounted  on some kind of two-wheeled carriage. She could not see it, but the wheels were themselves standing on sleds, the same sleds that Huw had seen. Men were moving around it. The bundle of tubes was enormous.

“I think we can all see what it is,” said Fiedel.

“Is it another one of these — ‘heliographoscopes'”, said Seline, pronouncing the word carefully, still peering at it.

“That’s what I first thought,” said Fiedel. “But it’s absolutely apparent what it really is.”

“Yes, very very clear,” said Sedan, dryly.

“Well, what is it then, Fiedel? Come on old chap, do let us in.” Said Geoffrey.

“Ooh!”, said Seline, involuntarily. “It just moved.”

“Which way is it now pointing?”, said Sedan, urgently.

“At us, I think. Ow!!” She jumped back from the eye-piece, blinking and shaking her head.

They did not need to ask what she had seen. They all saw it: a flash, as bright as the flash of fireworks, but nastier and more spiteful.

Sedan began to count, under his breath.

“It is a cannon,” said Fiedel, “and it is pointed at us.”

Something came whistling over their heads, landing on the far side of the river with the sound of the splintering and crashing of many trees. A moment later, a dull boom echoed from the mountain.

“My God,” said Geoffrey. “We’re under attack.”

The twelfth and final chapter appears on Wednesday 5th of January — twelfth night.

Chapter Ten — Monday 3rd of January

Chapter Ten — Monday 3rd of January

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin TurnerProfessor Fiedel woke up very early in the morning. It was not light, nor anything like it. Climbing out of bed, he turned up the gas, crept downstairs, and, still in his nightshirt, stuck his feet into a pair of rubberised boots, wrapped a coat around him, and went out through the kitchen to his workshop.

One end of the workshop was excessively tidy. Everything stood lined up on benches, or labelled in tiny wooden drawers, or hung on the wall in a specially marked out space, so that it would go back exactly right when it was no longer needed.

The other end was exceptionally messy. Boxes were piled higgledy-piggledy, with other, less box-like objects laid in the gaps. In those gaps there were flat things piled on round things, heavy things piled on soft things, and utterly, utterly breakable things piled onto things that looked as though they might tip over at any moment.

An uninformed visitor would have imagined that this was a workshop shared by two very different people, perhaps a symbiotic partnership of two different types of mind who found they benefited most from each other’s contrasting working styles. The visitor might have imagined that the environment was both creative and argumentative — one could picture the tidy man constantly infuriated by the untidy man’s chaotic ways, and the untidy man perpetually baffled by the other’s tedious methodicity.

If that visitor had been told that just one man, Professor Fiedel, worked here, and he would most likely have thought Fiedel was mad. The truth was that these were just two sides of Fiedel’s contradictory nature. An extraordinary polymath, he had written books on male millinery and on refinements to the reciprocating heat engine, published learned articles on criminology and cake decoration, and won international awards both for the application of the sciences to diplomacy, and a new method for packaging eggs so that they did not break on the way to market. Sometimes he did almost nothing for months, spending his time playing cribbage with his friend Geoffrey (Geoffrey always lost, but never seemed to mind, and, indeed, perpetually presented a boyish hope that he would somehow win the next game), or playing the piano for children’s parties (he was an exceptional violinist, but appalling pianist, predictably, he turned down many engagements to play the violin, but jealously pursued every opportunity to play the piano). At other times, he would work from before dawn to after dusk, even during the summer, subsisting on jellied fruits, pickled spring onions, a kind of bean which he grew in his hot-house, and fresh goat’s milk, drinking very strong black tea if for some reason he became cold.

This morning looked like it might be the beginning of a period of feverish activity. Eschewing the carefully laid out tools and scientific instruments (Fiedel was one of only three people in the village who used the word ‘eschewing’ regularly and also knew what it meant), he went straight to the untidy pile at the end of the workshop — and beyond it, into the store room where, periodically, he put the things which were not sufficiently needful to be either with the tidied tools nor the chaotic pile. As you can imagine, there were corners of the store room which were very tidy, and corners where the corners themselves were no longer visible.

He dived straight in to the oldest, messiest pile, knowing exactly what he was looking for, and exactly where he had left it twenty-two-and-a-half years before, shortly after he moved into the house.

What he sought was the prototype of a child’s glass grinding set. There had been a vogue for scientific toys round about that time, and a manufacturer had sent him two prototype toys for his comments. One was a fully working model of a steam engine, which could run on little rails from one end of its plinth to the other, burning methylated spirit and with fully working steam pistons that could either drive itself, or be connected to a proposed series of other scientific toys, or scientoys, as they were to be called, thereby instructing the child in the principles of the reciprocating heat engine, and also encouraging them to plead with parents, uncles and doting grandfathers for the other toys to make up the set.

The other was this glass grinding set, which enabled a child, with careful adult supervision and safety goggles, to grind a variety of kinds of glass into concave, convex, plano-concave, plano-convex, and other forms of lenses. Additional glass would be available by mail order, and a further set of prisms was being considered.

Fiedel had experimented with both for about half a day each. He wrote back to the manufacturer to say that there was really no point bringing the steam engine to market, since it really only did one thing, and the fleeting attractions — even with add-ons — would lose the child’s attention swiftly. The glass grinding set, though, he suggested was a certain winner, since a child could spend up to a month after school working on a lens, and would be able to understand the whole science of optics. However, he did point out that the manufacturer had made a mistake by including a number of pre-ground lenses, and lenses which had been ground to a certain extent and now merely needed finishing off, since this would afford the child less education than creating all the lenses from first principles.

Thus answered, the manufacturer immediately cancelled the glass grinding project, and set up a factory to churn out steam engines. Twenty-two years later, the steam engines were still the manufacturer’s biggest seller, and were to be found (new) in the homes of the children of the wealthy up and down the land and (second hand and poorly repaired) as demonstration models in the free schools set up for the poverty-stricken.

After several tries — there were other objects in the way which he had no recollection of — he pulled out the “Young Glass Grinder — a scientoy for the enquiring child and his father”, and, blowing off some dust which had inconsiderately settled on the box, took it straight to his tidy bench.

The contents were exactly as he remembered them, including the poorly judged ready made lenses.

However, it was these lenses which he was precisely interested in. He had been infuriated the previous day to discover that not only was the optician not travelling from Temple Grafton, but the optician had in fact moved to Leamington some three years before. If the optician were clearly unwilling to be of use, then it was down to him to complete the task himself.

He had a little steam powered grinding wheel on his bench. It was powered by a rather useful little steam engine which he had been given or lent a little more than twenty years before, for some unknown purpose. It ran on methylated spirits, and was just the thing for tasks which would otherwise be too tedious to complete. He wondered for a moment if anyone had ever thought of marketing them commercially.

Pulling out his sheaf of measurements — he had been back several times on Sunday to check and recheck them — he set to work with logarithm tables (until he became cross at the lack of accuracy on the logarithm tables, and after that calculated them in his head) to determine the exact arcs which would be required to construct the eye piece he would need.

Once he had the necessary result, he set to work, craning over the little grinder, refining the lenses he needed.

Angharad had lain in the Drum all night. She had begun by sobbing, and then gone on to wailing, and once she was done with wailing, she took to listening to her own heart beating very fast. The leering, jeering faces were still vivid in her mind’s eye. The cold did not bother her, it was all part and parcel of the mountain, her mountain. The mountain had always cared for her, as she had cared for it. But now there were men on the mountain — wicked men. She savoured the word ‘wicked’ in her mouth. She had heard all about wickedness in church. The men of Noah’s time were wicked. Several other places had had wicked men. She imagined that there were probably also wicked women, though these had received less coverage. But she had never expected to meet a wicked man, and never dreamt that she might meet several, all at the same time. 

Not being a judgemental sort, she generally retained an open mind on most subjects, but she was fast coming to the conclusion that wickedness was, in reality, actually really very bad indeed. Her Da, Huw, had sometimes explained to her about law, and Law, and the Law, and The Law, which all seemed rather confusing. But, if there were to be law, it seemed to her that wickedness really ought to be against the law. She wondered if wickedness were in some way related to Crime — she was almost entirely sure that Da had explained that there were laws against Crime.

Gradually, her thoughts led her towards a point of peace, and she had eventually drifted into something a little like sleep. She woke more or less with the dawn, and rose to her feet with at least as much resolve as Fiedel, miles away down in his workshop. She was in the Drum — she knew this, because Da had always told her to keep very quiet in the Drum. But why was that? It was the danger of avalanche. Once in a very long while, Da came here to call down an avalanche. He did it when the snow had piled so high that, if it piled higher, it would eventually threaten to block the pass or even make its way down to the village. He had done it in a very particular way — she tilted her head to one side as she tried to remember that way. It began with a — no, that was wrong, it was more of a — ah — now she was remembering it.

She thought once more about those jeering faces, and the wickedness behind them. She would put an end to that wickedness. She would bring down an avalanche so powerful that it would bury the castle and block the pass, and everything near and around them, and anyone and everyone in them, until the snow thawed in late spring.

She thought for a moment that this, in itself, might be a Wicked thing. She Ought not to do it. But she was going to do it anyway. She stamped her foot, and, hearing the echo in the Drum that came from it, she remembered how the calling must begin. Not having Da’s deep voice, she took hold of a hollow log, and a stone big enough to fill one hand, and began to pound it, keeping time with the echoes so that the sound grew and grew and grew.

In the village, the Mechcart had arrived the previous day with its passengers and driver hours after dark. They came in to a heroes’ welcome, thanks to Seline who had told her usual customers that they could come back at eight. She made them all line up outside the inn as the Mechcart drove by (it had arrived a little earlier than that, so she sent them round the back of the village to mark time). Claudine, especially, had smiled and curtsied for Alexis, though he seemed to pay her little interest. He and Gordon were far more interested in seeing that Derek was properly honoured for his heroic fight against fifty robbers. Alexis insisted on paying for free beer for all. In the end, he finished up paying not only for all the free beer they drank that night, but also for the unaccounted beer which had gone missing while Seline was away. It must be recorded that this was almost certainly a technical accounting oversight on Seline’s part.

Brian cheered Alexis and Gordon, and cheered especially hard for Derek. Afterwards, there were angry words with Claudine. He still had not given her the gifts provided by Sedan.

“I wish you were brave like Alexis — or even like that Derek,” she said. “I don’t see you fighting off robbers. I don’t see you fighting off even one robber. If I was being robbed right now you’d most likely stand by and watch it happen.”

“That’s not true, Claudine. You know I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”

“Do I know that? Do I? When have you ever done anything to protect me?” — she did not wait for him to ask when she had ever been in need of his protection — “When have you ever done anything for me? Come on Brian, speak up. It’s time you showed me you really cared. It’s enough to make me cry.”

And she did start to cry, and was led away by her two friends, who gave Brian nasty looks. Whatever their criticisms of Claudine in private, Megan and Lizzie knew their responsibilities as her friends in the pursuit of matters of the heart.

One person who did not cheer was Lomax. He had come out of hiding. Though he did not particularly believe Fiedel’s assurances, he, after putting out some feelers through acquaintances whom he had been cultivating for some time, went to see Geoffrey, ostensibly to ‘turn himself in’, but, in reality, to find out if there were plans to arrest him. Geoffrey assured him that, though a highly respected, indeed, revered, member of the local community, Professor Fiedel had no power to issue arrest warrants, and that neither he, Geoffrey, nor the constable had seen anything which looked like proof or even evidence that there was any case to be made against Lomax. However, he did warn him not to provoke Sedan, since another affray would most likely see them both end up in jail, this time without reprieve.

When he saw the Mechcart return, and realised that both Gordon Munroe and Alexis Brand were on it, still in complete possession of all their notes, maps and papers, he was beside himself with rage. His first thought was immediately to find Bart, and have him transmit a message that the deal was off, since the Black Hand Gang seemed incapable of the most rudimentary piece of mountain banditry, which any self-respecting Catalan brigand would have pulled off with no fuss and no excuses. But he decided to talk to Derek first — the plans really were rather important to him, in fact, he had staked his entire future career on acquiring them, as well as a very large amount of the Spanish treasury’s money. He did not wish to lose his nerve, only to discover that matters were fully in hand. Nonetheless, he did not want to make contact with Derek openly. Arrest or no arrest, he was now a marked man, and people in the village muttered and whispered whenever he walked by, much as they muttered and whispered whenever Sedan walked by.

“Not safe for us to meet openly,” he wrote on a note. “Meet at dawn, usual place.” He then folded up the note very tight, so that it was no bigger than a coin, and pressed it into Derek’s hand when he walked up to congratulate him.

“Ah, Mister Desmond,” he said, shaking his hand, “such an honour to have a hero among us.”

This is why Lomax stood in the lee of the old mill a few minutes before sunrise. From the vague snoring above, it appeared that the mill was once more guarded, though the dedication of the guards had evidently not improved.

“I am very angry,” said Lomax. 

“Why’s that, then?”, replied Derek.

“Why? I offer you and your friends a princely sum — really, a princely sum, such as you will not get by raiding farms and stealing from travellers in ten years — and yet no result do I see.”

“Well, I can explain all that, but, all I need to say is that matters are fully in hand.”

“What is that, ‘in hand’? Explain, recount, give me the details.”

“Now, Señor Lomax, I first need to confer with my colleagues before giving details, not wishing to give you information on which you may later rely which proves to be false. But matters are fully in hand. Entirely in hand.”

“Good, then we confer with your colleagues.”

“Alright, let’s find Bart, and he can send and receive our messages.”

“There is a problem. While you have been away, the interferers in the village have discovered the signalling machine. I have stood accused of complicity — impudence! — and even Bart is not above suspicion. That Fiedel, he knows and suspects too much, and he has a mind to find out more. Of all the people in the village, Fiedel is the one to be feared.”

“I’ll see to Fiedel.”

“No, no. Yesterday, today, you are a hero in this place. We must make the most of that. We cannot jeopardise it. No, Bart must do the deed.”

“Bart?”

“I have calculated exactly what is to happen. I will station Bart here, upstairs in the mill. It will be a simple matter — the simplest, since we deal with simpletons — to lure away the youth who has been told to watch. Fiedel will be here sooner or later — most likely sooner. He cannot keep away from this place, being fascinated by the device like a moth with a candle flame. Once Fiedel has been dealt with, then is the best time to send and to receive the signals.”

“But Bart?”

“Fiedel believes he is innocent. He accused Bart yesterday but Bart persuaded him. Now, having, in his belief, made a false accusation, in your English way he will be mortified and not dare to distrust Bart again.”

“But how?”

“See, it is very simple. Fiedel will stand in exactly one place to make once again his measurements. Always the same measurements, over and again. Bart has a very exact sense of space. He steps in — I have stood in the place myself, and almost done the deed, but believed it was not needed — and, with a single jerk, Fiedel’s blood is spilled.”

“And it will be all over Bart, Then Bart gets arrested. Don’t think he won’t give you up, because he will, and you’ll give me up.”

“No. No. Bart makes on himself a shallow cut, very messy. Then he drops the knife outside the window, so that it lands as if cast away by the fleeing murderer. Bart quickly sends and receives our messages. When done, he begins to wail, and scream. Attention will be attracted — it will be, because the people are very nervous. They come running. They find a knife, covered in blood, outside — good, it means that whoever has wielded it has gone. They run up the stairs. By running up the stairs, they make sure that any dust or old flour which has fallen — it is always falling in that mill — is once again disturbed, so that a clever investigator, if there were one, would be unable to see that no-one had run down the stairs. Upstairs they find Fiedel, whose life blood has now ebbed away. They find Bart — the horror! Who would attack a blind man? They find Fiedel. The job is done.”

“What about the knife?”

“I have one here. I took it from the kitchen at the inn. I do not like the inn keeper. Let the investigation come back to her.”

“Alright then. What time?”

“Soon. Very soon. Perhaps in the next hour. He is very persistent. He will be here. He comes several times each day.”

Huw was uneasy. 

He had watched the robbers that morning. Some had remained at the Krak. They were inside the hut, now, taking none of the precautions they had been taking the previous day. They were laughing and feasting, but they were also sharpening cutlasses, axes and knives. By the glint, he thought one was polishing a knuckle-duster. 

Others, though, had slipped away in the night. Half their number, he thought. Some he had seen making their way towards Bidforst, moving furtively along the road, often hiding whenever startled — perhaps by the sound of a bird, he could not tell — and keeping very low whenever they were in the line-of-sight of the village. These were obviously scouts, but scouts for what? The Mechcart had arrived safely. The ambush which the robbers had been so plainly planning was clearly foiled. Huw did not care for the Mechcart. He foresaw a time when such devices would be crawling up and down the cliffs of his Mountain. But he could see why, for robbers, it would be a tremendous prize, worth much in the way of preparation. But once it was in the village, what could they possibly do? There were always folk about, and any attempt to make off with it could not possibly succeed.

That left still twenty, thirty, forty of the men unaccounted for, and, gazing long and hard into the distance, he thought he knew where they were. A long trail of men, heaving something terribly heavy. The thing, covered in canvas or cloth, so that its outline was obscured, and running on a sled or skis, was moving over the snow. The men were going very slowly indeed, and they seemed to take frequent breaks. Upward slopes, even quite gentle ones, slowed them further. He could not imagine what could be so important that they were willing to take all that trouble to shift it.

He was uneasy about something else, though. There was movement in the snow. Not movement on top of the snow, not things going up or over or around the snow, but the tiniest tremor in the snow itself. It was not an earthquake. It was not the beginnings of an eruption. It was something, something else…

“Angharad!”

Jumping down from the ridge where he stood, he ran with all the speed he could. His long strides carried him swiftly over the rocks and snow. He did not fear falling, knowing every stone, very stump, every dip and rise as if it were part of his own hand. He ran as he had never run before. Down, down, down to the place where he knew she would be.

He could hear it now — a drumming, shouting, yelling, which moved the snows of the mountain in time to its own beat.

In the Drum, Angharad stood beating her hollow log with a great stone. She jumped from rock to rock as she did so, letting every thud land in time with the echoes. The noise was already enormous. It was louder than fireworks, louder than a roaring gale, louder than a sea-storm crashing into a cliff face. 

“No, Angharad, no!”, he called, but it was futile. She could not hear him. Now he felt the deep packed snow high on the summit begin to shake. 

“No, Angharad! It’s too much. It’ll bury everything. It’ll bury the village!”

He leaped down. She could see him now. She glared. Her eyes had been crying — he had never seen her eyes in tears before, they reminded him so much of her mother. He waved to her to stop, but she did not stop. Instead, she turned away from him.

High on the mountain top, a piece of boulder, fissured in many places by the years of sun and snow and wind and frost, cracked. A piece fell off, rolled, slowed, then, just as it was about to stop, tumbled over the edge. It gathered pace as it went, dislodging other stones. Then it, and its fellows, were rolling down a snow slope. They gathered weight as they went, and pieces went flying off to begin their own descent.

Huw felt it.

“Angharad!” he yelled as he ran. Then, very gently, he put his arms around her, so that she could no longer beat the log. She half turned to him, glaring, furious. But he hugged her more tightly, whispering,

“Angharad, Angharad, my golden girl. What are you doing, love? What are you doing?”

The shrieking, roaring, stomping, banging echoes began to subside. It was a minute — a long minute — before the last reverberation ended. But far above, there was the sound of snow, ice and boulders crashing down.

“No!”, moaned Huw. “No!”

He listened, and listened again. Somehow — whether the mountain had heard the voice it knew, or for some other reason — the far crashing was growing less.

High above, the racing, rolling, thundering rush of snow, rock and ice had run down into a dip. Now the dip went first down, and then rose up again, before ending in a sheer drop of a hundred feet. Below was a vast snow slope, a great field of snow set at an angle like the branches of an oak tree, as wide as four cricket grounds. Below that the land sloped less steeply, but more than enough to keep the avalanche moving if it should reach it. But it did not reach it. The front runners — the original rock, and its first cousins — rolled down into the dip, and up the other side, and stopped, teetering, a few yards from the edge. The snow rush behind caught up with them, pushing them a few feet further, and also stopped. Finally, the last stragglers rolled into the snow rush, piling up behind it and along it like a suddenly frozen wave, and they, too, became still. 

Far below, Huw sighed.

“Da!”, said Angharad, looking at him accusingly.

“Angharad, Angharad, what have you been doing? Why have you been crying? Tell me my love, tell me.”

She started to sob again, and it was a long time before she was able to speak.

Alexis and Gordon cleared a space for Derek when he returned to the inn for a late breakfast, pushing Michael a little further down the table. The tap-room was largely empty apart from them. Seline was in the back somewhere and the regulars, not entirely sure of their welcome, were a little later arriving than usual.

“Hail to the conquering hero,” said Alexis.

Michael frowned. He was not sure that he trusted Derek. Why had Derek not been there when he first reached the Mechcart? Where had he been that night? Not sleeping in the open. What, then? But there was clearly no point in voicing his suspicions to Gordon, much less to Alexis. 

He finished his coffee and got up to find Seline.

“Not staying to toast Derek?”, said Alexis, pointing at the pile of toast and chortling at his own joke. But Michael walked on without seeming to hear him.

Fiedel was still in his workshop at three o’clock. He had ground a whole succession of lenses, with minor differences. Lens grinding was more complex than he thought: there were fringes of yellow and blue at the edges of some of his lenses, and in others the image appeared double, or had an extra reflection. Then there was the question of the tube. He had a number of brass tubes in his workshop, but they were all just too big or just too small to be the ones that he wanted. Eventually he settled for putting cotton wool around one of the smaller tubes, to pad it out, and also finding a tube which was large enough to go right over the place where the eye-piece was needed, also packed with cotton wool. Then he wondered if the cotton wool would be enough to hold the eye-piece in place. Chaotic Fiedel would have been happy to simply hold the eye-piece with his fingers. But Tidy Fiedel was in the ascendent, so he carefully constructed a ratchet system which would allow him to minutely adjust the eye-piece, independent of all the other adjustments on the heliographoscope.

Finally, at a quarter past three, he was ready. He looked at the time. Heavens! He must get dressed at once. Sunset would be with him — he did a quick calculation — at seven minutes past four. He must hurry.

Lomax and Bart had made the same calculation. Bart had waited in the old mill almost the whole day. He had been forced to hand over to Horace, whose turn it otherwise was to watch, a whole bottle of brandy. Horace was now sleeping it off in the shed. Lomax had loitered under the trees, a stone’s throw away, for much the same length of time. Where was Fiedel? It was really quite insufferable. Finally, with just a half hour of daylight left, he stalked into the mill, up the stairs, and told Bart he had enough of waiting for Fiedel, Fiedel almost certainly wasn’t going to come, and Bart had better send the signals anyway.

It was while Fiedel was getting dressed that a sudden burst of inspiration hit him, like a flash of brilliant light. He was exactly musing, as it happens, on the nature of inspiration, and how it was like a flash of light, when the thought struck him. How could a blind man see? How could a blind man operate a telescope? He knew it must be Bart — it surely must be Bart, because he was obviously in league with whoever had stood behind him in the mill. But a blind man could go on operating a telescope for ever without any ordinary suspicion ever falling on him. Even if he were caught, nobody would believe it. But — as he now realised — Bart did not need to be able to ‘see’, not in the ordinary sense.

Pulling his breeches on back to front — chaotic Fiedel, who worked by brilliance, had now taken charge — he put the now complete eye-piece in his coat pocket, and made for the mill, by way of the inn: he wanted first to make an Announcement.

“Friends,” he declaimed as he walked through the door. The inn was now tolerably full. Edward and Brian sat at one end of the bar, Claudine, Megan and Lizzie had their accustomed spot not far from them. Alexis had gathered a little circle of villagers, to whom he was telling a story. The various bottles, mugs, glasses and tankards scattered around them suggested that his powers as an orator had been well supplemented with the power of a free drink. Claudine sat with her chin on her hands, watching Alexis adoringly, flicking her glance from time to time towards Brian, to make sure that he was watching her watch Alexis. Michael sat at the bar deep in conversation with Seline. Gordon was not to be seen, and, more disappointingly, neither was Geoffrey. Geoffrey was always the great foil for his Announcements, always ready to ask the Obvious Question when Fiedel required it. But no matter.

“Friends, I have an announcement.”

Slowly, the conversations stilled, and every head turned towards him.

“We have all been concerned — and rightly — by the presence of a mysterious device, the heliographoscope, in our village. We know that this device has been placed here only for the purpose of signalling. We know that it is pointed in such a way that its purpose in signalling can only be to serve the interests of those criminal elements popularly known as the Black Hand Gang. As a footnote to the Black Hand Gang, I might add — but no matter.” He had noticed that attention was beginning to slip, and his theory on the derivation of the name ‘Black Hand’, from the Malay ‘Blacan’, also called ‘Belacan’, which was a shrimp paste, could wait for another time.

“I have two announcements. First, I know exactly who the culprit is, who has been signalling, and why he needed no eye-piece with which to see,” attention lifted again when he mentioned the culprit, though the matter of the missing eye-piece was regarded as something of a Fiedel obsession that bore no relation to anything, “and, second, I have now constructed such an eye-piece so that we can turn the heliographoscope against them! We will use it—” he paused for dramatic effect — “as a Telescope!” Pulling the eye-piece from his pocket, he lifted it over his head in triumph.

This slightly convoluted announcement did not have the effect Fiedel expected. When it became apparent that Fiedel was not going, at that moment, to name the culprit, and that the real purpose of the announcement was to go on about his blessed eye-piece, most of the assembly went back to whatever it is they were doing. Without Geoffrey to ask the questions, the drama was less than it usually was.

One person, though, did respond.

It was Sedan, black cloaked, black booted, sitting in a corner on his own. He had sat watching Brian, giving him occasional encouraging nods. But Brian had done nothing but watch Claudine watch Alexis. Sedan had sighed: the English would never be a nation of great lovers, that was the opinion forced upon him. 

His gratitude to Fiedel, though, was even greater than his gratitude to Brian, so he got up and went over to him, to politely ask what the discoveries meant. Two minutes later his face was full of concern.

“I will fetch the magistrate, and — that constable. We must cordon off the mill at once, and make a search throughout the village. Deputies must be deputised to assist with the venture. Do not move from this spot.”

“Well, my good fellow, that is most gratifying that you see the situation as I do,” said Fiedel. “But I really cannot remain here any longer. I must go straight away to the old mill, and test out this eyepiece before the light is gone. Such a powerful telescope, even with such a large mirror, requires light to see by.”

Sedan looked at him and frowned.

“Very well, I will catch up with you the instant I have found the others. But be very careful — be most careful. You know not where this Bart is. He could be anywhere, dogging your path, ready to spring.”

“He’s still blind, you know”, said Fiedel.

“Nonetheless, be careful.”

Sedan hurried off to find Geoffrey the magistrate, while Fiedel set off along the road to the old mill. He was quite cross: it was an announcement that affected all of them, they had talked about nothing else for the last week, yet they paid no attention. How was that? How could that be?

He was still chuntering along to himself when he came in sight of the mill. Mindful of Sedan’s instruction to be careful, he walked right the way round it before going in. When he reached the one point below where you could just — if you knew what you were looking for — see the glass of the heliographoscope, he saw something which thrilled him with interest. The glass flashed! He watched it for almost a minute. It was quite faint, something that you would not have noticed unless you expected it. Flash, no flash, flash flash flash, no flash, flash no flash flash no flash long no flash, flash flash.

It was absolutely clearly a signal. It was the signal. The heliographoscope was in use. He tried to follow the flashes. They were not Mr Morse’s code. The signal seemed to make a distinction between no flash, long no flash, flash and a long flash, which was one more variation than Morse had specified. Perhaps it was a cipher of a different kind? He must get a closer look.

Very quietly, he entered the mill and, stealthily as he could, he crept up the stairs. Two steps below the landing, he saw — exactly as he had predicted — Blind Bart crouched over the heliographoscope, with his eye to the place where the eye-piece should have been, and with his other hand on the shutter which let the light in from above.

He watched for a long, long time, breathing slowly, evenly, not breaking the silence which was punctuated only by the clackety-clack-clack as Bart operated the shutter.

Finally, Bart spoke.

“I know you’re there. You forget, Professor, that I can hear. I can hear everything. You outside the mill, you on the stairs, you breathing, you even now, creaking in those creaking shoes, even though you are holding your breath.”

“So, you are the signaller,” said Fiedel, climbing the last two steps.

“That surprised you, didn’t it,” said Bart.

“As a matter of fact, it did not,” said Fiedel. “I worked it out this afternoon. You told me yourself that your eyes could not focus, that you could only see dark and light. Today I created an eye-piece for this heliographoscope. As I ground the lenses, I got to thinking about the science of optics, and the wonders of spectacles, and how people who would previously have been considered blind could now see to work. Then I wondered about a truly blind man, and if there were any optic that could give a blind man their sight back. I wondered about a pair of spectacles as long as this eye-piece. But the field of view would be so tiny that they would be of no use. For a moment I considered an extraordinarily large optic, such as the heliographoscope. It occurred to me that the heliographoscope was exactly the optic which corrected your sight, and the eye-piece I had just constructed was exactly the formula which would give you back your sight.”

“Well, you’re still wrong, then,” said Bart.

“Quite so. I put it to my eye, to see if it entirely replicated the condition you described, but it did not. My vision was very much blurred, but I could still see shapes and patterns in the distance. But then I saw something else — a flash of light from I know not where. And then it struck me, as a flash of brilliance like the flash of light.” He stepped right up to Bart.

“What, then?”, said Bart.

“To receive signals, you do not need to be able to focus at all. All you need is to see the difference between light and dark, exactly as you described to me that you could do. You must have a fine memory, to be able to remember what you see, or is it something like reading? The eye translates to the brain without conscious thought?”

“Well,” said Bart, “it’s just a good thing I see one thing that you don’t see.”

“And what is that?”

“This!”

And with a flash, he had the knife, stolen from the kitchen at the inn, at Fiedel’s throat.

“Now die, and good riddance to you!”

“NOT SO FAST!”, said another voice. A voice from the stairs. The conversation had masked the sound of boots on wood, and now it was too late. But anyone in the village would have known that voice — it was Sedan, the Frenchman. He came up onto the landing, and took a step forward.

“I’ve got him by the throat, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!” croaked Bart. He drew the knife tighter, pressing against Fiedel’s skin. Fiedel felt his flesh crawl, and held his breath tight. The coldest of cold sweat was running down his back.

“Fine,” said Sedan. “You win. I cannot stop you from harming him. But I can cut you into pieces one by one after you have done it. I was a French Cavalry Officer, hah. I fought the dervishes in the desert. I fought the Russians at Balaclava. I have seen, and done, many terrible things. And I do not wait. Do your deed, or drop the knife. For I will not hesitate.”

There was a sound of a sword ringing from a sheath. Swords in the air do not make the sounds that many people think they do. There is little whooshing and swooshing. But Bart’s ears were finely attuned. He heard the tiniest disturbance as the blade approached his throat.

The knife went clattering down onto the wooden floor. Fiedel let out a long breath. He felt his entire body going limp. 

But then he let out a yelp as he saw something from the corner of his eye.

“NOT SO FAST, YOURSELF,” said a different voice, also from the stairs. It was Lomax. His sword was drawn, arm out-stretched, the point hovering by Sedan’s ear. Sedan began to turn, and caught the tip of the blade from the corner of his eye.

“Bart, pick up the knife!”, he said. Bart stooped to retrieve it. Fiedel wanted to spring away, but his strength was gone.

“Now,” said Lomax, “Finish him!”

Chapter 11 appears on Tuesday 4th of January.

Chapter Nine — Sunday 2nd of January

Chapter Nine — Sunday 2nd of January

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin TurnerProfessor Fiedel thought quickly. He knew there was someone behind him — the moving figure was reflected twenty times in the polished brass of the Heliographoscope. But as long as he pretended he did not see, he had a small chance. Fiedel was not in any sense a man of action, though, in his youth, he had been a fiendishly fast player of the game Fives, where you hit a ball around a court by hand, using a padded glove. But that was years ago, and probably not very relevant — it was strange, he mused, at the very moment that he knew he had no time for musing, how the mind brought sudden memories of that kind to the fore.

“Ay is blind!”, said Bart, and, now that Fiedel had noticed that Bart’s accent was shifting, he felt that he was beginning to overdo it.

“Then how do you explain the way you reacted just now?”, he barked. There was no further movement from behind him.

“Ah, you sighted people are all the same. You think blind is like having your eyes tight shut all the time. Well it isn’t. I can see light and dark, and if you wave something very close at me it makes me jump. But my eyes don’t focus — that’s what the doctor told my mum.”

“Hmm.”, said Fiedel. He was not sure if he believed this, though it was plausible enough. But he must seem to believe it completely.

“So you are not in league with the robbers?”

“Robbers?” Bart’s accent was shifting again. “What would robbers want wiv’ me? Anyway, I thought it was that Lomax you wanted. That’s the talk of the village. You got the police lookin’ for ‘im.”

“Lomax is innocent,” said Fiedel quickly. He noticed from the twenty reflections that whoever it was had moved a little backwards. “There was never anything against him, only what Monsieur Sedan said.”

“Why did you tell the constable to go after him, then?”

“I thought we would snare the real spy by blaming Lomax.”

“And that wasn’t Sedan?”

“Hush, now. Bart, can you keep a secret?”

“What secret?”

“Just that secret. I’m going to go now. I’m sorry I doubted you. It must be very hard being blind. I am very sorry.”

“Yah,” said Bart, spitting, “you ain’t sorry at all.”

Keeping a desperately straight back, and making sure that he never looked like turning to the right or to the left, Fiedel faced his body towards the stairs. This was the worst part, because he could no longer see the reflection in the heliographoscope. Very carefully, he went down, one footfall after another, one step at a time.

Once he reached the bottom, he make a deal of noise making his way out of the mill, and then, as stealthily as he could, he crept back to the space underneath the glassless mill window, through which the heliographoscope pointed.

It was no use: he could hear furious whispering, but there was not enough to carry.

What he would have heard, if the whispers had carried, was something like this:

“Why didn’t you kill him when you had the chance?”; this was Bart’s smooth voice, utterly different from the voice he put on for Fiedel.

“And have the professor disappear again? Not if it could be avoided. Suspicion would have come straight back to me. With the professor really missing, they would have searched high and low until they found me. If he had really seen though — I apologise for the unintended reference — what it is you do, then it would have been time to slit his throat, once and for all. As it is, you are exonerated and I, it appears, am a free man.”

“Yeah, well don’t count on it. Come on, we won’t get a signal out tonight. Damn these cloudy winter skies. If he crosses us again though, next time, I say we kill him.”

Fiedel would have found this extraordinarily instructive, and might perhaps have saved him a great deal of time, and even more. But we must not get ahead of ourselves. He did not hear it, though he remained convinced that, somehow or other, Bart was the principal operator of the Heliographoscope. He just needed to work out how a blind man could possibly be signalling and receiving signals through an instrument which had only one purpose, and that was to focus light.

Somehow, he felt that he had almost solved the problem there and then, but he could not finger the thought which held the key to it. He wandered off back into the village as night fell.

Elsewhere, the night was quiet: exceptionally quiet. In the mountain tunnels, Gordon and Alexis had resolved to go back to the village in the morning. They wanted some time to think, and it did not seem wise to argue with Huw when stuck inside the tunnels of his own mountain.

Michael sat up late into the night with Seline. He had many questions about Huw, and about Angharad. He was working up to perhaps asking if he might get a picture of Angharad dancing with the strange flickering lights. But that is quite a difficult thing to ask, and he never quite got there.

The Black Hand Gang by and large had a warm and uneventful night. The weather had grown milder, the fire was hot, their bellies were full, and everyone was happy, except the two who, by rotation, had to do sentry duty in case anyone returned to the castle. But no-one did return.

Derek reached the Mechcart as twilight was beginning. He had got very confused in the snow, which was not at all like him, and had been hearing voices around him for most of the trip. He put it down to the amount he had drunk the previous night. Even by his standards it was a lot, and his headache, having first faded a little, had come back with a throbbing vengeance. So it was that he went almost twice as far as he needed to before eventually tracking it down. He hastily filled up the stove with coal, and, after heating up some snow for a mug of tea, curled up inside his big coat, and went to sleep in the footwell, exactly as Michael had done.

Sunday dawned over good folk and bad folk alike. The villagers, who would all have described themselves as ‘good folk’, made their way to church. It was customary for the Rector to preach on the year ahead, though in some years this was supplemented by an invitation for all the children to bring their Christmas presents to the front. But this year, he preached on the subject of compassion, and led prayers for ‘those in danger on mountains’. He made many references in his sermon to the long friendship between England and France. He was perhaps not a man gifted in the arts of veiled inference and barbed example, having set his mind on gentleness and honesty since his first days as a curate, but, from his point of view, this was the closest thing to a topical sermon he had ever preached, and he strode nervously to the front door to shake the hands of his parishioners, wondering if any would take him to task for it. None did — perhaps because many of them had their minds set on something else.

In the absence of Seline, a group of villagers had formed themselves into an ‘inn committee’, to run that essential amenity until she returned. They had agreed to pay themselves only reasonable wages, from the till takings, and to operate the inn as close to Seline’s style as they could.

Sunday lunch was not quite as Seline would have prepared it, even with the help of Bob who worked in the kitchen. Bob was good at taking orders, which worked well for them, since Seline liked giving them, but he was not very swift when left to his own devices. Most of the diners had to wait more than an hour for Sunday roast, and when it did arrive, it was for some cooked so well that the word ‘burnt’ would have been a better description, while for others it was cold, and showed little signs of ever having been anything more than rather warm. Several dishes were sent back, and by the time they had been re-cooked, or entirely thrown away and started again, it was getting on for three o’clock. In the mean time, the drink had flowed freely, and not every draught of ale or bottle of wine had been rung through the till, which was left open for the convenience of those serving. To keep the impatient diners somewhat mollified, many rounds of bread and butter had been served, and eventually someone was being despatched to search the cellars to see if there were any more butter which could be brought up. They did not find butter, but did return with several bottles of expensive Belgian beer, which went straight out to the tables.

It was at that moment that Seline walked in. She had that man with her, the slightly thin man, who made pictures with his dagotyper. Nobody quite knew why he had suddenly reappeared in the village, since he was supposed to be on the mountain with the others, but nobody really had much time to think about it.

“WHAT is going on HERE?”, bellowed Seline.

Everybody froze. It was as if they had all been captured in a single moment in one of Michael’s dagotypes.

“What are you doing with all that food?”, she asked, “and what are YOU doing behind my bar?” — this was directed at Mr Gwinnigle, a member of the committee, who does not otherwise come into this story — “and what are YOU doing ferrying things back and forwards into my kitchen?”

Suddenly, everyone spoke at once. They all had varying ideas, though, on what needed to be said. Some decided to take Seline to task for abandoning the inn at just the moment they all needed it. Some wanted to explain to her how they had only her best interests at heart, and were running the inn so well that she would doubtless want to employ many of them when she had rested from her journey. Some waved coins or bank-notes, as proof that they had intended all along to pay for their meals and various drinks.

“Out!”, she shouted. “Every one of you, out!”, adding, when there appeared to be no general exodus, “OUT! OUT, now. No, you’re not waiting for your dinner. It’s long past dinner time, go and fend for yourselves for once. And leave that bottle behind. You all should be ashamed. What is the world coming to?”

For a moment more, nobody moved. Then, all at once, satisfied and unsatisfied diners alike pulled back their chairs, got up, and went sheepishly to the door. There were some mutinous looks, but no-one said a word.

“Don’t come back until eight o’clock!”, called Seline after them. Then she closed the door, turned the key, and began the task of straightening and sorting and washing and cleaning, assisted by Michael who had taken the opportunity to catch the scene of mayhem as Seline arrived, the departure of the villagers, and the empty room full of the wreckage of Sunday lunch gone horribly wrong, all on his Zeiss dagotyper. He had a triptych in his mind which he thought he might sell to the Winchester Gazette.

So, Michael and Seline had returned, but where were the others, and what had become of the Mechcart, not to mention the robbers’ ambush?

“You’d best be setting of for the village, now,” Huw told them all at breakfast. Angharad had already told him what she had seen — robbers prowling, robbers preparing, robbers read to pounce, all at the old castle.

“We’ve still got some things at the castle,” said Alexis. “We can drive back there, and perhaps spend the night.”

“No,” said Huw, “you should go back to the village. Castle’s not safe for you tonight. There a doings afoot,” he added darkly.

Something in his manner impressed Gordon, at least.

“I’ll take Michael back to the village the short way,” said Seline. “We might have a bit of a party tonight, to celebrate your triumph.”

“What triumph?”, said Alexis, bleakly.

“Well, there were fireworks from the top of the mountain to mark the New Year. Never happened before. Wouldn’t have happened without you.”

“Are you saying that we should pretend we reached the summit?”, said Gordon.

“Well, it’s up to you what you say, and don’t say, unless you think that a story about tunnels and the spirit of the mountain is going to be easier for folk to believe.”

Gordon frowned, but Alexis chuckled.

Huw led them Alexis and Gordon out into a snowy dell just one hillock from the cart. It was the strangest thing, but from ten feet away, you really could not tell that that rock concealed the end of a tunnel beneath its shadow. Alexis tried to fix the place in his memory — he had much more than half a mind to come back, perhaps in the spring, and get inside those tunnels again.

“I’ll be leaving you here,” said Huw. “I’ve over things to be attending to.” Of Angharad they had seen no sign all day.

They climbed the hillock, and half slid, half walked down to the bottom where the Mechcart lay. The heat from its stove, and from the electricalish cells as they charged, had cleared the snow around it, making it look from the hillside like the print of a gigantic foot.

In the lee-side, Derek sat on a fold-able canvas stool, eating peaches from a tin.

“Derek!”, called Alexis. Derek got up to greet them.

“There you are,” he went on, “faithful Derek. What a man you are, waiting out these days in the cold. Now, let’s get on, we’re going straight back to the village.”

Derek started, though they misunderstood the reason.

“We need to go to the castle first,” he said.

“No, no, we’ll get the things picked up some other time. They’re only things, after all,” said Alexis jovially.

“But — we have to go to the castle, — because of —”, Derek looked around for inspiration, “— because the dagotyper will be waiting there. We can’t leave him behind.”

“Derek, Derek, what a man you are,” said Alexis, “always thinking of others. But Michael’s safe. He’s — well, he got his picture’s at New Year, and he’s gone back down to the village. He’ll be half-way there by now, I shouldn’t wonder. We, that is, we ran in to him, at some point, as we came down the mountain.” Alexis had not decided (nor discussed with Gordon) how much of the story they were going to share even with faithful Derek, and he realised he was on the point of sharing rather more of it than might be healthy, secrets being best kept between the fewest people.

“So, how have you been?”, he said, quickly changing the subject. “How were your two nights on the mountainside? Did the Mechcart keep you warm? Any signs of robbers? Or ghosts? Wild animals, or have you been taking in the stark winter beauty of the snowy wilderness?”

Once more it was Derek’s turn to fumble for words.

“It’s been — fine — that is, except when it was cloudy. There was a very fine night. We, I, of course, got a good look at the fireworks. Very impressive sir, very impressive —”, he was on firmer territory now, “— I always knew you’d do it. There were people at the village who said you wouldn’t. I don’t wish to appear to you as a man who gambles, sir, and I’m not a gambling man as a rule, but I may just have won a few shillings out of it, which I’ll be happy to collect.”

“Splendid, splendid. And we’ll tell them all about you in the village, your bravery and heroics. There were one or two pretty girls down there, I noticed. I’m sure they will be very interested in the Man who Fought Off Fifty.”

“I think it was just a couple of dozen, sir.”

“No need to ‘sir’ me now, Derek. It may have seemed like a couple of dozen to you at the time, but that’s just your bravery talking. I’m sure that fifty will sound much better when the tale is told, and I’m sure there’s none who’ll speak against it, is there Gordon?”

Gordon raised one eyebrow, but did not say anything. As you have doubtless gathered, like many men who are on the point of telling a rather large lie, Alexis was keen to involve Derek in — if not the same lie — another story which would make him complicit in supporting their account of their own doings, when the time came. Gordon, for his part, was by no means so decided that they should allow a misunderstanding about their doings to be perpetuated, but that was a matter he intended to discuss with Alexis in private.

Derek had now realised that they really did intend to go straight back to the village, and he could not think of any way to persuade them otherwise. This was a terrible setback to his plans. As far as he knew, Gordon and Alexis had been to the summit, made all their maps and notes and measurements, and were fully in possession of them. It was now essential to get those away from them, but how?

He thought for a moment about quickly slitting their throats — potentially messy, and he would have to wash down the Mechcart, and then make himself very scarce before an eventual rescuing party found the bodies: it is very hard to undo a slit throat, after it has been done, and even the most lackadaisical coroner tends not to overlook such details. If he had known about the tunnels, he would probably have chanced it: a body in a tunnel is liable to stay hidden until there is no chance of every finding out how it got there. But he did not know about the tunnels, and, as many years of ruffian, rascal and rogue lore had taught him (for rogues, rascals and ruffians have their own books and learnings, which are passed down from generation to generation), any body will come to light eventually, unless you have done something with it so that you know it will stay hidden.

He looked at Gordon and Alexis, and felt the knife blade under his coat. Perhaps he could make it look as if they had been attacked by wild animals? Then he thought again. Both of them had their sword-sticks, and they seemed fairly handy in a fight. Two against one, and a knife against swords, did not seem very good odds.

“Right you are then, sirs,” he said. Tossing his empty peach-tin into the snow, he switched on the Mechcart, and prepared to drive away.

On the other side of the pass, the robbers waited. Many of them were still down by the campfire, but scouts remained at the castle, and several of the others were getting their positions ready, bringing in bits of brush wood to lie or stand on, and anything else which would keep them a little bit warm. Ambushing — they had done it before — usually involved a long, cold wait.

In among the castle walls came dancing Angharad. One of the scouts crossed himself — he was from those parts, and had heard tell of the tales of the Spirit of the Mountain. But the other scout let out a screech, like the screech of the Screech Owl, which was a signal to the others that they were under attack. Robbers came rushing up from the campfire, keeping low to the ground with knives or cutlasses drawn, hiding themselves as best they might, but ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

Now, one of the robber’s had brought with him a large net. It was not part of the plan, and Black Hand Derek had scolded him for bringing it along. But it was there, all the same, lying behind a broken pillar where it would not be seen from the hut, or by anyone casually walking or driving in among the ruins. Very quietly, two of the robbers, who were among the first to arrive, gestured to each other. Carefully, they picked it up, and seeing that dancing Angharad was oblivious to all movement except her own, they quietly drew it open, and spread it out on the snow.

Angharad came dancing this way and that way. Lights and laughter flickered and followed around her, and many of the robbers cowered. You would think that  a robber, surrounded by his fellows, with but a single policeman in twenty miles, would not be afraid of anything. But this strange dancing figure, about whom so many tales were told, was something quite other. Seeing her sent a shiver through their spines, and made beads of sweat pop out of their foreheads and run down into their eyes.

Angharad stepped onto the net.

Whoosh!

The two robbers pulled the ends, drawing it in an instant over her head, and then running to each other to pull it tight.

The ghostly laughter ceased, though the lights did not. They came and gathered around her, circling the net.

Another robber climbed up on an arch, and, signalling his friends, got them to throw up the ropes which were attached to the corners. Then, grabbing into them, he drew them over the capstone, and put his weight to it. As he went down, the net and Angharad went up, until she was hanging, helpless, in the air.

“Let me go!”, she yelled.

For a moment there was no reply. Then, one by one, the robbers . began to laugh. First a chuckle from here, then a snort from there, then full, deep throated laughter from almost everywhere. In the end even the robber who had crossed himself started to laugh — a nervous, timid laugh, which did not last long.

“Let me go!”, she yelled again.

Just at that moment Black Hand Nigel came up. He had still been busy down at the campfire, and, since he heard no sounds of fighting, he had taken his time to come up more slowly, more quietly, and more secretly: if his own men were caught in a counter-ambush, he did not wish to also be part of it.

What he saw filled him with a far greater dread than any counter-ambush.

“What are you doing?”, he bawled at the man who was holding onto the ropes of the net.

“We’ve caught a fairy!”, shouted the man. “We’ve caught a fairy! Never been done before. We’ll sell her at the county fair. That’ll make a mint more even than this business you’ve got going here, and with a deal less fuss.”

“You put her down this instant,” said Black Hand Nigel. “It’s not canny to catch one of these.”

“Shan’t!”, yelled the man, mutinously.

Nigel stepped forward, raising his cutlass. He would chop the man down if he had to. He had been an honest robber all his life, and he heeded his mother’s advice she gave him when he was small: “Little Nigel, steal all you want and may fate be good to ye, but never tangle with the dark, and have no truck with ghosts nor ghouls nor fairies neither.”

He took another step forward, but so did the men around the net, and they were stepping towards him, raising their own weapons.

“I think it’s time we had a new leader!”, shouted the man with the net.

“Now lads, lads —” began Nigel. The men took another step towards him.

Then something strange and especially uncanny happened. The lights continued to flicker around Angharad, but now they were joined by voices. Not laughter as before, but strange, ghostly voices. Then the lights began to wrap themselves around the ropes of the net, and the voices began to sing. Then the lights started to twirl themselves as they wrapped around the ropes, and the voices began to sing higher and higher. Then the lights grew brighter — intolerably brighter — and now the voices were screaming.

Every man, whether he intended to or not, dropped what he was holding and put his hands over his ears. The screaming was intense pain. Some bent double as it became louder and louder. The net fell to the ground, but Angharad did not. She remained in the air, as the net turned to charred ashes beneath her.

Nobody saw what happened after that. They were bent over, or trying to push their heads into the snow, or hiding themselves in stone corners. When the shrieking finally faded, they looked upwards, to see Angharad gone.

There was silence.

Nigel ran up, and, seizing a piece of tree-branch which was lying in the snow, began to beat the net-man over the head. The others watched him do it. All the mutiny had been driven out of their heads. They gathered round as Derek beat, jeering and hollering. The two men whose idea it had all been — once they saw that no-one remembered this — joined in with the jeering.

But they were all terrified.

Angharad, too, was terrified. Those men, with their yellow teeth, and their unshaven beards, and their matted black hair, all holding knives like fangs, laughing at her, shouting at her, looking at her. She had never in her whole life up to that moment been in danger, or not danger that she knew about and understood, and the effect on her was crushing, shattering. The screaming voices the men had heard had been her scream, though it was the residue of her mother’s magic which had charred the ropes and spirited her away.

Now she ran. She ran as she had never run before in her life, speeding away from those men. And she cried, huge, hot, wet tears, the like of which she had never known.

And so she came to a place she thought was safe, the place her Da called ‘the Drum’, and she sat there, curled up, for a long, long time, sobbing.

The robber who had held the net cowered under Nigel’s beating for a long time, too. They kept on at him for what seemed like for ever. But eventually Nigel spat at him, and the other men spat at him as well, and they told him to clear off, and go away, and take his bad luck somewhere else. He was not really hurt — the branched had lashed across his face and scratched him badly, but there were no bones broken and there was no blood.

Alexis and Gordon had told Derek to keep to a very particular route, which kept them out of sight of the castle. This was quite a lot further than the most direct way, and once or twice they had to stop the Mechcart, and get out and heave it over a particularly sharp hump. Once they set off into a dell which turned out to be a deep bowl of frozen snow. They persevered for a minute or so, thinking it would get better soon, but in the end they had to stop, and put ropes around the rear wheels, and drag it slowly backwards. That delayed them by almost an hour. It was now nearing two o’clock, so they stopped to have something to eat before continuing. When they got going again it was gone three o’clock. It was already less light than it had been, and Gordon began to wonder if they would be back onto the proper road before night fell.

After that they made good progress, but the delay — as you will see — had very profound consequences for everyone.

The robber who had been thrown out was called Sprim. No-one really knew why he was called Sprim. His mother had called him Peterkin, but, then, his mother had not in mind the profession he eventually took up. He abandoned ‘Peterkin’ shortly after his first adventure with shoplifting, and his friends started calling him Sprim, for no adequately explained reason, soon afterwards.

Sprim walked along the road that led down from the castle, miserable as only a thoroughly wicked man can be. He still felt that they could somehow have got away with keeping the fairy. It was all Black Hand Nigel’s fault, because, somehow, by distracting them, he had let the fairy do whatever it was she did. All the men were behind him. If only he had taken on Black Hand Nigel there and then, then they would still have the fairy, and he would now be king of the gang — Black Hand Sprim. Black Hand Sprim the merciless. That was a good sounding name. He would have been the greatest of all the Black Handers, and everyone, up and down the nation, would tremble at his name. He was particularly glad, while remaining miserable, as he thought that that he had given up on ‘Peterkin’, which would not have been suitable at all.

But now it was all wasted. His entire career blown. He would wander off into the snow, and perhaps fall down dead, or be eaten by some savage beast. Then they would be sorry. Except, of course, he knew that they wouldn’t be. They wouldn’t be sorry at all. They would dance at his funeral, and, if they were to find his body, they would dance on that as well. ‘Sprim with his bad luck. Good riddance to Sprim. Down with Sprim.’ He knew they would say those things, because those (and far worse things) were the things they had been shouting at him.

If only he could do something that would make them want him back again. If only there were something he could do that was so clever, and yet so wicked, that they would take him back on any terms he wanted. Surely there must be something?

As a rule, these somethings do not come along when you want them. But on this occasion one did, because, as he came over the crest of a hill, he saw the Mechcart pulling off some goat-track onto the road. He saw the Mechcart, and Derek, who was scanning the horizon as he drove for any sign of the robbers, saw him too.

Knowing he had just one chance to do it, Derek took his chance in his hands. Pulling the Mechcart to a grinding halt, he said,

“I’ve — er — got to stop. You know, got to — it was the peaches.”

Alexis and Gordon waved him off good-naturedly, quickly falling into their own conversation. Derek pelted up the road, sprinting as fast as he could. They had come out below the snow line. Three days thaw had left the road quite clear, and only patches of snow here and there to remind them there had ever been snow at all.

“Down,” he said to Sprim, pushing his head down, out of sight of the Mechcart, as he reached the ridge. “Now listen…”

He quickly explained that they were headed for the village. He had already held them up as much as he could, and if he tried any more, they would become suspicious. So Prim must get back to the robbers, and they must hurtle down the road as fast as they could. Concealment was no longer important. They must reach the Mechcart and deal with it before it came into sight of the village. The ‘goods were on them’, as he eloquently put it, and this was their final, only, absolutely final chance to do the deed.

Then he ran back. Sprim, for his part, turned back towards the castle. But he did not go anything like as quickly. He was turning over in his own mind how he could best set this to his advantage. It was no longer enough to be welcomed back into the gang — he could see them now, toasting him with hot cider and bringing him the chocolates he was particularly fond of — he needed to establish himself as Nigel’s successor in waiting, and then make sure, in time, that that waiting was not too prolonged.

The conversation which Derek interrupted when he returned to the Mechcart was something like this.

“Well, wasn’t that the biggest load of tosh you ever head in your entire life?”, Alexis had said.

“And what, may I ask, do you mean by that?”

“That Huw. What did he take us for?”

Gordon had raised an eyebrow.

“You still regard the man as a spy, or perhaps an impostor? I thought we had gone rather beyond that.”

“Well, not a spy, obviously. We’re well beyond that. A madman, perhaps. Do you think it was drink? Or opium? Or some strange mushroom? Or some kind of poisoning, like lead or mercury. I’ll bet there’s mercury seeping through the walls of those mines, and it’s completely turned his head.”

“So, you don’t believe him, then?”

“Believe him? A man tells you he is — quite literally – as old as the hills, tells you he saw Julius Caesar on the mountain side? How can you possibly believe that?”

“The evidence did rather seem to be on his side.”

“What evidence?”

“The languages, for one. Not something a simple villager would know. And the history, and his knowledge of the tunnels, and of many of the secrets of the mountain of which we were entirely unaware.”

“He could have learned the languages by correspondence course! Ditto the history. I’ll grant you he knew his way round the tunnels, but since that was what most likely turned his head in the first place, I’d say that was a point against him, not for him.”

“The innkeeper — Seline — seemed to know him well, and she seemed entirely to believe his story. Does she seem mad to you as well?”

“She’s a simple innkeeper! She’s as fooled by him as you evidently are.”

“At the inn, she did not seem simple. She struck me as a shrewd businesswoman who is very hard to take in indeed.”

“You’re not really saying you believe his story, surely? It’s — it’s completely unscientific.”

“No, Alexis. This is a point on which we’ve disagreed before. All the evidence points to it. It is unscientific to disregard the evidence.”

“No, it’s not! His story has absolutely no credibility—”

“Ah, quite. You have always found it easy to believe things which were easy to believe because they were like other things which were easy to believe. That’s a very worthy attitude from a technologist such as yourself, but it’s not scientific—”

“Hush, here comes Derek.”

When Derek returned, he found them discussing the colour of apples.

Sprim — he was considering calling himself ‘The’ Sprim, as it sounded more imposing — walked steadily back the way he had come, right up to the place near the castle where you would first hear sounds from the road. Then he started to run. He ran quite slowly, but with great determination, as a man who has run an extraordinary distance, and yet has kept himself paced so that he would be certain-sure to arrive.

When he came inside the castle walls, he ran to a convenient space in the centre, and then sank to his knees. The light was almost gone, something which he had calculated would help him make the best entrance.

Then, as if summoning the strength out of some deep, inner, reserve, he got to his feet and yelled in a loud voice.

“Friends, I have news. We must act at once!”

From behind an archway, somebody ran out and grabbed him.

“What are you doing, fool? We are about to make an ambush. Silence.”

“NO! NO! The men have eluded us. Even now they are making their way back to the village! I have seen them with my own eyes! I have conversed with Black Hand Derek. We must hurry, hurry, if we are to catch them before it is too late.”

An actor of Greek tragedy could not have declaimed the words more loudly, nor more clearly, nor more mournfully.

They had the desired effect. Presently, a little knot of men gathered around him, and into their midst came Black Hand Nigel. He was not pleased.

“What the blazes do you mean, Peterkin?”

“Sprim!”, said Sprim. “My name’s Sprim. I don’t know who Peterkin is.”

“Peterkin’s the name your mother gave you,” growled Black Hand Nigel, who always took the trouble to do background checks on would-be-robbers who tried to join the gang. It was surprising what it sometimes turned up. “You ceased to be Sprim when you were thrown out of the gang, more than an hour ago.”

Sprim or Peterkin told his story again, with additional details which he had held in reserve.

“Quickly, you!”, bawled Nigel to a robber whose name was Binks, and who could run swiftly. “Get down that road and see if this fool is telling the truth.”

“No, no!”, said Sprim-Peterkin. “We must go now, we must go now!” He said this knowing full well that it would be far too late for them to catch the Mechcart, but he wanted it to be absolutely clear, in retrospect, that it was Black Hand Nigel’s fault, and not his.

Binks returned some time later. He had made the trip in very much less time both there and back than Peterkin-Sprim had taken to go in just one direction, and he had seen the Mechcart a long way down the road, headed for the village.

“Can we catch them,” said Black Hand Nigel, “before they reach the village?”

“If we go now, and we hurry, we may be able to catch them before they Reach the village,” said Binks cautiously, “but they will have been in sight of the village for some time, and others may well have seen them. Others probably will have seen them.”

“If only we had gone when I said!” moaned Sprim-Peterkin.

Black Hand Nigel growled, and Sprim held his tongue.

Then he called the men together.

“It seems that we should welcome one of our number back to us,” he said. “Sprim here —”, Sprim beamed at the mention of his proper name, “— may be a prize fool, and an idiot, and several other things beside, but he has brought us valuable information, and we should thank him for it. We will do so in the time honoured manner, but at the proper time. For now, it seems that our prey has eluded us.”

“Oh, mercy!”, cried Sprim, rather overdoing it, as amateurs so easily do.

Nigel growled at him again.

“We cannot capture the cart before it reaches the village. Therefore,” he raised his hand, as there was a muttering, “therefore, I propose a bold stroke such as the Black Hand Gang have never before compassed. We are going to attack the village. We are going to overrun it, we are going to put its buildings to the flame, and — since we can afford to have no witnesses — we will put its people to the sword.”

There was utter silence. In all the history of the Black Hand Gang (that is, the true history, not the history as described in the shocker-stories of the Winchester Gazette), no such action had ever been contemplated or undertaken.

Chapter Ten appears on Monday 3rd January.

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