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?”
“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.