Creative

Chapter Seven — New Year’s Eve

Chapter Seven — New Year’s Eve

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin TurnerThe wind whipped round Gordon’s face. It bit at the space on his wrists between his sleeves and his gloves. His arms ached. His heart pounded.

He felt more than saw that the rope around his waist was slack, not taut. That meant that — if Alexis were not still falling — then they were not too far apart, and he had also found, for now at least, a stable place to stand, or something firm to hang on to. He shouted again, but there was no answer.

He reached around with his feet. There was not much in the way of footholds. He was desperate to get at least some of the weight off his arms — and off the tree root. Some roots can be very sturdy, and will put up with a lot of weight. He remembered, quite at random, a root in his father’s garden which they had tried to dig out. It resisted pulling, hacking with a spade, even chopping with an axe. There had been no way to get a saw to it, and they had even talked about using explosives. The funny thing was that it did not seem to belong to any particular tree.

He tried to focus his mind.

His scrabbling feet still found no foothold, but he somehow managed to get them between his body and the rock, and so began to walk upwards. This was dangerous, because it meant more stress on the tree root—

There was a lurch, and he rocked back a nine inches. The root was definitely loose now. He felt it indefinably easing towards him — easing—

Suddenly he was falling again. He was toppling head first. This would be the end of him, surely.

In an instant, he was buried eight foot deep in chilling snow. This was good — a relief — because it had given him the softest of soft landings. But unless he could right himself quickly he would be suffocated, as those caught in avalanches so often are. Even if he could right himself and clamber up onto the surface, the cold which now pressed against every limb and prodded and probed like reaching tentacles was sapping his strength.

He struck out, like a swimmer, flailing this way and that. The snow closed in above him, but below it shifted. Then, once again, he was falling. He must have been on some unsupported snow bridge, like a flying buttress at a cathedral.

Thud!

He landed on something which was hard (though some snow had cushioned his fall). It was now absolutely dark. Feeling his way around, he reckoned that his was a cave, part rock, part packed snow. Feeling in his backpack, he found a tiny folder of matches. Fingers trembling, ready to snuff it out in an instant if need be, he lit the first match and looked around.

It was a cave. By some chance, he had fallen through a large hole in the roof, near the front, which had been packed with snow. Some of the snow now lay on the cave floor, but other snow had moved to fill its space, and there was no sign of sky above. The rope, which was still round his waist, went up into the ceiling as if it were hanging from a trapdoor.

The cave was a decentish enough size. The walls were twelve feet apart, and really quite regular, arching smoothly upwards. He imagined that from the outside, it might look somewhat as mouse-holes are supposed to look, though mouse-holes never do look like that, and neither do caves. As the match went out, he realised that his mind was wandering again. He must stick to the task at hand.

The first thing to do was to try to rescue Alexis, or at least to make contact with him. Together they stood a chance, alone they did not.

Gently, he pulled on the rope. It came quite easily, so he pulled — slowly — hand over hand. Ten feet of rope went by. This was either good, since it meant that Alexis was not far away, or terribly, terribly bad. He bit his tongue as he pulled further, wondering if what he would find at the other end of that rope was not Alexis, but a frayed end, cut either by a knife, which is what a climber must do when he falls irretrievably far and must save his fellow-climber’s life by sacrificing his own, or by some sharp rock of the mountain.

So he pulled, and twenty feet of rope went by. This meant that every anchor they had hammered with such care into the cliff-face had come away as if it were no more than a pin in butter. Thirty feet of rope went by, and now he was beginning to believe that he was pulling only on loose rope. He bit his lip.

Then — the rope went taut. He tugged again, though gently, in case it were merely caught on something.

The rope tugged back.

He could have danced or jumped for joy. He pulled on the rope three times, which was their signal for “I am safe”. The rope tugged back twice. After “I am safe”, two pulls meant “I am alright, but not in a safe place.” Gordon tugged back seven times, carefully counting under his breath. Seven times meant “come to me”. One tug in reply meant “yes”.

Gordon lit a second match and hastily looked around for anything he could fix the rope to. There were some scattered rocks, though these were too light to counterbalance the weight of a man. He could brace himself on the side of the cave — that would be the best thing. He tugged seven times again, and then wrapped a couple of coils of loose rope around himself. He felt the rope tighten as Alexis took up the slack. It stayed tight — but did not pull — for a long time. Five hundred slow breaths, by Gordon’s reckoning. He wondered what had gone wrong.

Then, a flurry of snow falling onto him, and Alexis came climbing down through the cave roof, something dazzling bright bouncing this way and that from his pack.

“Good to see you,” he said, as he dropped the last two feet onto the cave floor.

“Good to see you too,” said Gordon. “Are you alright?”

“Desperately, desperately cold. Can we light a fire here?”

Neither Gordon nor Alexis knew it, but they had come round the side of the mountain, and were now on the perilous south face, the sheerest, steepest part, which had never been scaled, not even in summer. If they could have looked out, they would have been looking at the long promontory, which ended in cliffs and a steep path several miles towards the village.

On the other side of the mountain, Michael had run until his legs would carry him no further. There was no moon, but the Milky Way stretched out in all its glory past over the mountain from north to south. In the snow, the starlight gave light enough to see by, but, aside from more mountain, more stars, and more snow, there was nothing to see.

He was ready to sink down on his knees, and return to the drowsy warm slumber he had almost succumbed to earlier, when he saw something that surprised him. Over the next ridge, only visible because of the way it darkened the stars behind it from moment to moment, was a column of black smoke. Had he found his way back to the castle? Unlikely, since the stove would long since have gone out. Was it a human habitation, perhaps a shepherd’s cottage high on the mountainside? Or robbers? Or gypsies? Whoever it was, there was fire and warmth.

He slogged on through the snow.

From the ridge he saw — what? Shadows, but no fire. What made smoke but no fire? Whatever it was, it would surely be warm. Or was this the scene of an earlier camp? Was it robbers, and, seeing him coming, they had hastily put out the flames, and were now waiting for him in the dark.

He wished he had a sword. But, sword or no sword, he needed the warmth. He set off down the slope.

The shadows focussed themselves before he reached it. Not a camp, not a cottage, but the Mechcart, its overnight stove merrily burning its coal as it recharged the electricalish cells.

“Derek, Derek,” he called, not wishing to be a cause of alarm and misunderstanding. There was no reply. He called again. Still no reply. Fearing the worst, he ran forwards. The Mechcart was a mess of shadows. It was hard to tell — he felt his way around it. The carapace was up, but, inside, there was no sign of Derek. What had happened? Had he, too, followed the elusive voices? Had he been attacked, and dragged off kidnapped? Or had he decided to go part of the way up the mountain with Gordon and Alexis?

He stared hard at the ground for footprints, but could make nothing of anything. Now desperately tired, he climbed under the carapace. The floor below where the cells charged was deliciously warm. Reaching, he found from somewhere a travel blanket or rug, and, wrapping it around him, he lay down in the footwells beneath the seats, and went to sleep.

Derek, of course, had long since reached the Robbers’ lair. Black Hand Nigel was in high spirits. He praised Derek for the way he had tricked Gordon and Alexis, and he was especially pleased because, at the village, Bart had managed finally to get to the Heliographoscope. They had been merrily signalling each other until the light went, and there was much news to tell.

All of the village was now in the grip of Black Hand Gang gossip. They were absolutely certain that Sedan, who had attacked innocent Mr Lomax in the street with a tale so far-fetched that it could only have come from a drunk or a lunatic, was behind bars, in the tiny makeshift jail at the constable’s house. As a result, they had relaxed the guard on the old mill, and the youth who was supposed to be watching it had nipped round the back for a jar of beer and some time with one of the local girls. Professor Fiedel, who had come so close to wrecking all their plans, was not to be found, though Lomax had said that he would probably be alright. A search of Fiedel’s house had revealed nothing. They had sent a message out to the doctor, who was at Chipping Norton several miles away, but the messenger had not yet returned.

Nigel and Derek spent much of the night doing some serious drinking, and slept long into the morning. You know the expression ‘as thick as thieves’? Derek and Nigel were as thick with each other as only thieves can be, and called for more beer, and bacon, and sausage, and black pudding, and fried potato, and fried egg, and fried bread, and fried tomato, and a peculiar kind of pancake that was popular among the Black Hand Gang the moment they woke up.

After that, they got to their plans.

Derek would spend New Year with the robbers. A string of events had been planned for that night, though most of them, to those who were not robbers, would have seemed to be a desperately similar series of drunken singing, drunken gambling, drunken fighting, and, to round it off, drunken drinking. He would then return to the Mechcart in time to collect Alexis and Gordon, and take them as agreed back to the Krak de Montagne. That night, Sunday night, the robbers, all 99 of them (there were 99 official robbers in the Black Hand Gang, though many more in the lair who were camp followers, servants, or young cutpurses desperate to be accepted into the gang when a member fell away) would be at the Krak. Those who had been caught by the Blue Shock, as they now called it, were rather leery of any repeat of the experience — they had had headaches ever since, and one of them swore that he had lost his ability to hit an apple with a knife at ten yards, though others struggled to remember that he had previously performed that particular feat. To overcome this, they would on the Sunday morning visit the hut and remove the nails from the wooden roof, using string  to keep the planks temporarily in place. As night fell, one robber would come with a knife on a pole and cut the string, while others, with other poles, would push the planks aside. When this was done, another group would swing down on ropes and, jumping into the roof-less hut, would instantly take Gordon, Alexis and Michael captive. This would be assisted by Derek telling them to stay in the hut while he single handedly dealt with the robbers, as before.

Once they were sure that they had all the papers, maps, charts and notes, as Lomax had indicated, they would truss up their three victims, take them to a good, big cliff not far from the castle and, removing their bonds since evidence is something no robber holds dear, push them off the edge. Then, since ‘doing the job properly’ was one of Black Hand Nigel’s mottos, and the main reason why had risen to be chief of the gang, they would roll big stones down on top of them, and shovel on snow.

Derek would then walk mournfully back to the village — there was some discussion about that, as Derek wanted to drive the Mechcart, but Nigel wanted to take it back to the lair — and tell the news that Michael, Gordon and Alexis had each failed to return from the climb, and, with so much time gone, must now be considered lost. He would suggest a search party, and if such a party were forthcoming, would allow them after some detours (for one must never make these things too easy) to find their bodies at the bottom of the cliff. To counter Derek’s concerns about the Mechcart, Nigel had promised that they would also throw a quantity of old bits of metal and some barrels over the cliff edge, to give the impression that the cart had been foolishly and impetuously driven that way.

It was long past lunchtime — even the very late lunchtime which follows a long-sleep and a big breakfast — by the time they had finally hammered out their plan. Nigel despatched a junior Black Hander to take the message up to their Heliographoscoper, who would send it, via the mirror on the mountainside, to Bart who had agreed to be there at two o’clock to receive it.

Down in the village, the previous day, Brian had had an unusual afternoon. It was his turn to watch the Helgoscope (as it was now officially known — the old professor had used some other name, but it had been rather hard to get your tongue round, and had swiftly fallen into disuse), not that there was very much point to that: the spy, Sedan, was in custody, and wouldn’t be sending any more messages, not then, and not ever. An angry crowd had gathered outside the constable’s house, armed with mattocks and scythes and other instruments of agricultural anger. The constable had seen them off: he had no liking for Frenchmen, nor for spies neither, as he explained, but the law was the law, and the law had to be honoured and obeyed. As lynch-mobs go, the villagers had been fairly half-hearted, and dispersed to gossip and chat.

Brian, though, was still packed off to the Helgoscope. Fortunately the weather had taken a turn for the warmer. All traces of snow, except for the last piles in drifts and shadows, had gone, and, with his coat wrapped around him and a couple of bottles of beer which he had managed to acquire from the still closed but largely unguarded inn, he felt that he could satisfactorily settle down with a copy of the Winchester Gazette to read the Christmas thriller, which promised thrills, spills, and, as a bonus, excitement.

He had not been there long, though, when there was a pattering of feet, and the sound of girls, giggling.

“Is there anyone up there?”, called a voice which was like Claudine’s voice. Brian was very confused about Claudine. They had had a sort of arrangement — nothing public or official, but an understanding that they were in some sense or other together. But Claudine seemed to have cooled on him recently. Brian might have blamed the party which had arrived by Mechcart. Claudine had mentioned something about one of them. But he had not actually paid that much attention. Women, as a rule, were a mystery to him, except for his little sister who liked flowers and played with dolls.

“Just me, Brian,” he said.

“Oh, Brian!”, she replied, coming up the staircase. “I’m so worried, and I’ve been so confused.” She then poured out a long story about how worried she was about the men out on the mountain, and how confused she had been about her feelings recently. She wanted a real man, a hero, but she also wanted to be with someone who was tender and kind, and who knew the real her. Alexis — the man on the mountain, with the cart-thingy — was a hero. But he did not really know her. She wanted someone who could give her lovely gifts (she made a point of this several times), but also someone she had grown up with, a local man who knew the village, and knew her, and was comfortable with her family (Alexis had not met her mother — what would he think of her?), and would one day own his own farm, or perhaps have a worthwhile trade such as a blacksmith (Brian had not really followed everything, but he was minded to remind her that he himself was going to be a blacksmith), and who wouldn’t be going off into the wild on mad adventures. She thought perhaps if only Alexis really understood just how frightened she was by his adventures that he would settle down and be a good husband, but, if not, she would rather marry someone — and this was terribly difficult to make such a choice — she would rather marry someone dependable than someone adventurous. But it was important that such a person proved his love, for example with a New Year’s gift, of the kind it was customary for lovers to give in Warwickshire at that time.

Brian, to be entirely honest, had not listened to a great deal of the actual content of what she was saying. He was conscious first of all that she was talking to him and, despite the other giggles below which suggested she had friends with her, was choosing to do so alone. He was also aware that, every so often, she took his hand in hers, though she then dropped it again, which was something she had not done for a while. Then he realised that she was sitting beside him, rather than in front of him.

Finally, she led him downstairs, out of the old mill, to a small shack off to the side, which was altogether cleaner, warmer, and more private.

It was of course then that Bart, who had been waiting quite concealed a little way off, went into the old mill. He did not need to see people to know exactly how many had gone in, and how many had come out again, and where they went to: the characteristic sounds of each were enough to paint him the clearest picture, even of places the eye could not have seen, since sound travels through walls and around corners.

It was quite dark by the time Brian emerged from the shack. He was not quite sure that he had won Claudine back, he was more on a sort of probation. But it was vitally important that he find a gift for her the next morning which would suitably prove his love, and his worth, at the New Year’s Dance in the village hall.

That was yesterday, and now it was today. Brian got up early, in a flurry, to seek advice from the village shop-keepers. The shop-keepers did not open until nine-thirty, since it was the middle of winter and deliveries were in any case delayed, so Brian paced around, peering through the windows of the ironmonger, and the dressmaker, and the apothecary, and the man who sold pottery, and the fancy goods store, and the bookshop which was also the newsagent.

Of the thing he saw in the windows, all were fraught with difficulties. Claudine liked dresses, but Brian did not know what size she was (it did not occur to him that the dressmaker might know exactly what size she was, and, indeed, have an exact knowledge of everything she had bought or worn since her twelfth birthday), and choosing the wrong size would be disastrous. The apothecary sold a range of soaps and beauty products, but buying soaps might suggest that he thought Claudine needed to wash more often, and buying beauty products was like saying to her that she was ugly. A flower-pot might be a nice thing to buy, but he rather felt that, if you gave a flower-pot, there ought to be a flower in it. But where did you find a flower for a pot in the middle of winter? Fancy goods seemed a promising line, but when he looked in the window, he did not really fancy any of the goods on offer, which included dog-collars and horse-brasses and shoe-horns. If he were buying something for himself, he might have chosen a book. Brian was a voracious reader. He had read all of the tales of the Black Hand Gang (in which it was explained why they were called the Black Hand Gang in the first place. Apparently they had originally favoured the ‘Red Hand Gang’, but someone had pointed out to them that being caught Red-Handed was not something that any robber would gladly be), and also a series of fantastical writings which imagine what England would have been like if there were no Mountain. It was all very amusing. But he had never seen Claudine read a book, and he had never actually seen her in the bookshop, and he recalled now that she had several times chided him for spending his time with his nose in a book when he could be paying attention to her. Perhaps that was where he had gone wrong! He resolved that, whatever it was, the gift would not be a book.

As he paced to and fro, he noticed someone stumbling along from the end of the village. The man — it was a man — seemed quite ill. He was grabbing hold of the fenceposts and the gateposts, not as one drunk, but as one who is short of breath, and can barely walk at all.

It was Professor Fiedel.

Now, Brian had the spare key to the inn, which was how he had managed to acquire the bottles of beer the previous day. He did some odd bits of repairs for Seline from time to time, and had not given it back to her.

Brian was very fond of Fiedel, who had leant him many a book over many years, though comparatively few of them were thrillers or mysteries. So he ran to him, and realising that all was very much not well, he scooped him up, put him over his shoulder, and carried him off to the inn.

It was chilly inside: the fires had not been lit. Brian set him down in an armchair, and hastily poured him a shot of brandy. He thought about pouring one for himself, but decided that would be dishonest, brandy falling into quite a different category from beer bottles. Fiedel spluttered and revived somewhat at the brandy, which gave Brian the confidence to leave him be for a few minutes while he hastily kindled the fire. Once the flames had caught, he dragged Fiedel’s chair across the floor, making a groove in the polished floorboards, and then ran out into the street to look for help.

A very few minutes later, the tap-room of the Inn was as full as it would have been if it had actually been open. Some — like the constable and Geoffrey — had come because Brian had asked them. Some had followed the constable, because everyone knew dark doings were afoot and, as long as the constable were there to keep everyone safe, it was always better to find out first-hand than to hear it from a neighbour. Some had come in simply because they saw that a fire was burning, found the door to be open, and assumed that Seline was back and would shortly pour them a pint of something warm against the winter’s cold.

Most men, in Fiedel’s situation, would have hung on to their enfeebled state for as long as possible in order to get maximum attention, and possibly a couple more free brandies. But Fiedel was, in every way, not most men.

As soon as he was sufficiently revived, he sat up, and started giving incomprehensible instructions and a series of explanations which explained nothing, and only led to further questions.

He demanded:

First, that they ride to Temple Grafton and fetch the optician, with his lens grinder. When asked if he felt his eyesight was poor, he told them it had never been better.

Second, he insisted that they redouble the guard on the Heliographoscope, since their lives were in peril.

Third, when they reassured him that their lives were not in peril, because Sedan the spy had been arrested, he insisted that they release Sedan at once, and bring him straight there.

Fourth, when they told him that they could not release Sedan, because he stood of the serious charge of affray, having attacked Lomax in the street, Fiedel insisted that they absolutely release Sedan, and arrest Lomax instead.

Fifth, he told them that they must send a messenger to the mountain post-haste, because Derek, Michael, Gordon and Alexis were in mortal peril, and must be forewarned and, preferably, forearmed.

Finally, he told them to go to the end of the village and bring back the doctor. When they told him that the doctor was away, but had been sent for, he told them not to be ridiculous: the doctor had looked after him and, since he had walked out of the doctor’s house and through the woods when the doctor was not looking, the doctor must now be very worried and deserved some form of explanation. This made no sense whatsoever, since the doctor lived in quite a different part of the village, in a little house with no garden with a front door that opened straight onto the street, as far away from any trees as it was reasonably possible to be.

Nobody noticed that Lomax had been in the tap-room while all this was happening, and nobody noticed that he slipped out once Fiedel had mentioned the other doctor. Most of the people in there had their attention fixed on Fiedel, and the rest were looking around for Seline, or beginning to experiment with how you got the pump for the beer started so that they could pour themselves a drink. Like Brian, they refrained from opening the bottles of spirits on the shelf behind the bar.

Michael awoke from a deep slumber. His limbs were wonderfully relaxed, and his ankle was quite better. He found that he was curled up still under a blanket under the carapace. The floor held the barest trace of warmth, and there was a coolish, but not cold, breeze coming under the flaps. He looked out. The sky had papered over again. It was surely mid-morning, or late morning, judging by the portion of sky which was slightly brighter than the rest.

“Morning Michael,” said a woman’s voice, which he had absolutely not expected to hear.

“I’ve made you some breakfast,” it said. Michael rubbed his eyes. Peering in through the front of the carapace was Seline, long black hair gently lifting in the breeze. For a moment he thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

“Thought I’d find you here,” she said chattily, as if she had run into him in the baker’s shop.

“What are you doing here?”, he asked.

“Oh, we’ve had some trouble with Angharad. Very wild she is at the moment. I hope she hasn’t caused you too much difficulties. Huw sent me a message, see. He caught up with her, but then she ran off again. Found her this morning, though, and she said you might be here.”

“Angharad?”

“Yes, silly, you’ve been chasing around after her for the last few days.”

“No, no, that’s not right. I’ve been following the Spirit of the Mountain.”

“Spirit of the Mountain? Angharad? Don’t talk daft. She’s no more the Spirit of the Mountain than I am. She’s just a wilful girl who knows these slopes far too well and likes to play tricks on travellers.”

Michael climbed out of the Mechcart.

“Saw in a good light, did you? In broad daylight?”

“Well, no, it was dark…”

“Well, there you are. Your boys are in a spot of bother as well, though, from what I hear. There’s a reason no climber has ever climbed the mountain in the middle of winter: it’s just plain stupid.”

She handed him a hunk of bread with some ham in it.

“Come on, we’ve got a distance to go.”

On the south face, Gordon and Alexis had managed to fix up their tent inside the cave, and, with Gordon’s coat and Alexis’s specially sewn blanket roll, they had huddled up close for the night. They too had slept far into the morning, and were now munching through chocolate and raisins. Alexis had the idea of using the rope, which he had left sandwiched between two rocks somewhere up above, to grout out the snow round the cave hole, which they could then use as a chimney for a fire, but all they managed to do was to shake more snow down into the cave. Alexis then tried to climb the rope again, but the snow further up had become compacted, and he could not shift it.

“This isn’t much good,” he said, shining his electricalish light around the recesses of the cave. There was a dim light around them of daylight through thick ice, but not really enough to see by. His sweep revealed smooth rock sides. The front of the cave was thickly compacted snow, worse than the roof. They tried digging at it, but it was heavy and hard. The back was an enormous wall of ice, from the floor to the roof. It was quite smooth and, even shining the light into it, they could not tell whether it was ice on rock, or ice that might lead elsewhere.

“You know, old chap,” said Alexis, “this is just right to be the front of one of those mining tunnels the Romans were supposed to have dug, and no-one ever found since.”

“Well, if it remains iced up like this, you could see why no-one would ever find it. That’s definitely the front, where the snow is, facing onto the mountain. Do you reckon if we could get through this ice we might find our way into the old mine workings?”

“We just might do that.”

“I’m not sure how much of an improvement that would be, though I dare say we’d be able to light a fire. How long is that light thing of yours good for? I don’t fancy getting lost in a maze of tunnels without so much as a light.”

“A few hours, perhaps.”

Alexis picked up a fist-sized rock and hurled it against the ice. It made a booming sound as it flew off, but made little impression. Gordon picked up a bigger rock and, with both hands, swung it hard right into the centre of the wall. He got a much heavier thud for his pains, but when he looked for cracks appearing he saw nothing.

“We’re just scratching the surface. Come on, we can do this without your light. Let’s both heave on this big rock and see if we can’t make something shift.”

They worked at if for what seemed hours. The chill in the cave grew worse, and the light steadily faded. No cracks appeared in the ice.

Eventually they had to rest.

“It’s bloody well not fair,” said Alexis, banging his fist on his pack. “It’s New Year’s tonight, and we’ll never set off those fireworks. The whole thing’s ruined.”

“Ach, come on Alexis. Who cares about the fireworks? We’ll get out of this somehow, and we’ll get all the measurements we need”, said Gordon. But secretly, he did not feel there was much chance of them getting out at all, and was wondering if there was any way they could collect the gunpowder from the fireworks and make some kind of explosive to blast their way out.

Just at that moment, there was a boom from behind them, in the ice-wall. For a couple of seconds nothing, and then another boom. Then, every few seconds for about half an hour after that another boom.

“What’s happening?”, said Alexis, “are those explosions in the tunnels? Is there mine gas? Have we triggered something?”

Gordon chewed his tongue as he considered.

“If the stories are correct, they mined silver here, not coal. And this is not the kind of mountain where you would find coal, so I doubt there would be methane.”

“Then what is it?”

“I have no idea.”

The slow boom — boom — boom continued long after they were heartily sick of it. But just as it had become a sound they were simply used to, there was another sound from behind them. Not a boom — boom, but the sharp, spiteful sound of ice cracking.

Jumping up, they seized their rock and smashed it against the ice wall. The cracking increased. Sharp fragments of ice flew off and stung them. In a minute, there was an enormous fissure, stretching from floor to ceiling and from left to right. If they had stopped to listen, they would have noticed that the booming had now ceased. But they did not stop, and instead pounded on with manic fury.

After two minutes, the ice gave way, revealing a tunnel ahead of them, littered with smashed and broken ice nodules. Leaving their packs and the tent behind them, they rushed forwards.

There was a splintering, shocking sound, as a huge quantity of ice from above crashed down on their heads, followed by a drenching torrent of freezing water. Somehow they struggled to their feet, wet through, shivering, half blinded. Dazed by it all they stumbled on, stopping only when Alexis’s light picked out a yawning chasm beneath them. They halted, grasping at each other to stop themselves from falling. Below, stretched out as far as the eye could see, going back deep into the mountain, was a black, subterranean lake. It was a twenty foot drop, and no knowing what rocks lay under the surface.

“That was a narrow escape,” said Gordon, through chattering teeth. Alexis was shivering uncontrollably.

Then, without any warning or indication whatsoever, a voice behind them said:

“In you go then.”

They were picked or pushed or propelled or something off the precarious ledge, and sent tumbling straight down the drop.

There was an almighty splash as they hit the water, and Alexis found himself sinking, sinking deep into wet darkness.

Chapter eight appears on New Year’s Day.

Chapter Six — Thursday

Chapter Six — Thursday

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin TurnerThe message that Seline sent to Huw was short and simple: “I am coming.”

As soon as she was able, she shooed the last customers out of the tap-room, and then did a sweep of the parlours and the salon. “Go and drink at home for once,” she told them, and handed bottles to favoured regulars who protested. “Go on, have this one on me. You look like you could use the exercise,” she chided, “I’m shutting up early tonight. Had some bad news, I have, and I must be attending to it.”

She planned to leave at first light, but before she went to bed, she wanted to see Professor Fiedel and tell him everything she knew. She might just as well have gone left outside the front door as right, in which case she would have gone to the constable’s house. But she had little respect for the constable, and like many inn-keepers, did not especially wish to be known as someone too close to the police. So she went right, avoiding the patches of refrozen snow, and wrapping her shawl tightly round her shoulders against the cold.

Fiedel’s light was on, but there was no answer when she rang the bell. “Perhaps he’s disconnected it,” she said to herself. It was not unusual for Fiedel to be undertaking peculiar experiments which involved removing parts from the door bell, or other household items. Sometimes it was because he did not wish to be disturbed, other times because he wanted the part for something, and it was easier to get it that way than to find it in his workshop.

She banged on the door, and when this produced no result, she banged on the window. Finally, since this also produced no result, she pushed the door hard, to see if it would open.

Open it did.

It was warm inside the house, though this didn’t mean anything: Fiedel kept his house heated even when he was not in it, in contradiction to all good sense and economy.

“Professor Fiedel,” she called, “Professor Fiedel! Professor Fiedel! I hope you don’t mind, but I couldn’t get an answer when I rang, or when I knocked!”

No answer. She was in the hallway. There was a door to the right, the front room, a door a little further along, through which she had never been, and, at the end, the door to the kitchen, which itself led through to the scullery, and thence to Fiedel’s workshop. Just before you got to the kitchen were the stairs to the first floor. She had never been to the first floor. It was not like Fiedel to be sleeping at this time — he slept very little, often working late into the night and then arising a few hours later with the answer to his problem already dancing inside his brain. If he was asleep, Seline told herself, she would not go up those stairs and look for him. Certainly not!

“Professor Fiedel,” she called again. If he was not asleep, and he was in the house — the light from the front room suggested he was, since he was religious about turning off the lights when not at home, quite contrary to his policy on heating — then he must surely be in the workshop at the back, since that was the only place where he would not be able to hear her.

“Professor Fiedel,” she continued to call as she made her way to the back. The kitchen light was on, gas merrily burning. By the brightness of the glowing mantle, it had been on for some time. She looked out of the kitchen window. There was no light from the workshop, and the kitchen door was bolted shut. Most strange. What to do?

She resolved to try the front room. There was a light on there, which suggested that Fiedel had been doing something which involved both it and the kitchen. “Think like a Professor,” she told herself. “What would a Professor do that means having the lights on in the kitchen and the front room, but where he still can’t here you when you knock on the front door?”

She racked her brains for a moment, but no inspiration came. The ways of professors were dark to her.

She pushed open the door to the front room. The heat was oppressive, as if someone had turned the stove up to warm it and forgotten to turn it down again. On the table was a tea-pot, and a tea-cup, from which someone had drunk, and in the seat by the fire was something that looked like a man, but his head lolling back, breathing in shuddering gasps — heavens, it was a man! It was Professor Fiedel.

“Professor Fiedel!”, she shrieked. She sprang across the room, narrowly avoiding upsetting the tea-things. Fiedel’s skin was quite cold, his eyes were closed, he was drawing breath fitfully. She felt his pulse — they’d taught her to do that years before — and it was erratic. Or perhaps she was checking it wrong. She put her ear to his chest, and his heart was definitely beating strangely. It sounded faint and far away.

What to do, what to do? She must get help.

She ran out into the street shouting “Help! Help!”, and ran straight into the black-cloaked, black-booted figure of Monsieur Sedan. He gave her a hard stare — perhaps he attributed his humiliation of the day before entirely to Seline, and perhaps he was right.

“How can I assist, Mademoiselle?”

“Oh help me! Help me! It’s Professor Fiedel. I think he’s dying!”

“But that is impossible. I saw Fiedel just a few minutes ago, perhaps half an hour. He was walking down the street with that man Lomax. They went together into the Professor’s house.”

Seline stared at him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she yelled. “Fiedel’s alone, and he’s dying. Now will you help me?”

“Of course.”

He followed her quickly inside the house. Fiedel half sat, half lay in the same condition. Sedan’s face quickly filled with concern.

“Yes, yes, you are right. We must hurry. We must get him to the doctor.”

“The doctor’s away until New Year’s.”

“No, no, not that doctor. We must take him to the old doctor who fought with the French in North Africa.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“No, you would not have seen him. He drinks no beer or wine, and seldom comes into the village. But you must help me carry him. Fiedel is a small man, but it is hard for one man in the snow.”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

Pushing the tea things out of the way, they managed to half carry, half drag Fiedel’s lifeless form into the hall. Seline wrapped her shawl around him, and pulled an old cloak from the coat rack to cover his legs. “He’ll freeze without it,” she said.

With Sedan taking most of the weight, they went back onto the High Street, turning left to the part of the village where the houses began to grow fewer.

“How much further is it?”, asked Seline, as they passed the very last house that she could ever remember seeing.

“It is — that is to say, we must take this path.”

He led her through a wicket gate into what appeared to be a compact coppice, almost a miniature forest. The trees stood very thick up to a tiny path that meandered among them.

“Is there really a house here?”

“Patience, patience.”

Just as she thought that Sedan was deceiving her, and had brought her and the dying Fiedel into the wilds for some terrible purpose, she saw the flicker of a light ahead of them. They were tramping on snow, now: no feet had disturbed this path, and the woods had kept the sun from unfreezing it in the short winter daylight. Then they were at the house, which sat, without garden or fence, right up against the trees.

Supporting Fiedel somehow, Sedan banged on the door until a white haired man, stooped with age, opened it.

“Maurice,” he said, “you must help me. Here is Professor Fiedel, and he is dying.”

They exchanged some words in French which Seline did not understand, then the man who was evidently called Maurice (Seline later learned that his real name was Dr Morris) let them inside.

“How long has he been like this?”, was his first question.

“No more than a half hour,” said Sedan, before Seline could speak. “I saw him myself walking and talking with that man Lomax. When we found him, Lomax was gone.”

“What, Señor Lomax who was the Spanish ambassador’s special equerry to Marakesh, until that incident with the dancer?”

“I did not know this,” said Sedan.

“Oh, it was famous in its day,” he continued to examine Fiedel while he talked, “Lomax was a very young man, far too young for the responsibility he carried. But he had dash, and swagger, and he was well connected in Spain. His job was to carry coded messages from Marakesh to Tangiers. But he came under the spell of a dancer, and, before he knew it, his papers were gone, and the dancer with them. He was sent back to Spain in disgrace.”

“And you know this, how? And how is it that you have never said anything?”

“I only saw him in the village last week for the first time. With my leg, you know, I don’t get out. But the reason I know about the dancer and the papers — well, of course, it was a matter of very much gossip in Marakesh. I still have his papers somewhere…”

“YOU have his papers?”

“I was the one who paid the dancer. It was all rather pointless really. There was nothing in the letters of any importance. If I had known that I would not have paid the dancer quite as much money. But it did for Lomax.”

“So Lomax is still working for Spain?”

“Oh, without a doubt. Once a spy, always a spy, don’t you know?”

“I am a cavalry officer. I know nothing of spying.”

“Evidently. Look, Sedan, and you, girl, whatever your name is. This man has been drugged. Atropine, or some such, I wouldn’t mind guessing. Without a proper work up by a toxicologist there’s no way of quite knowing, but he’s going to be asleep for — let me see — quite a few hours. You need to keep him warm, and you need to keep him under observation. You can put him in the spare bed here for now. No point moving him again. I can watch him — let me see —”

“I’ll watch him first,” said Seline. “I have to make a journey tomorrow, but I’ll watch him until then.”

“That’s not too sensible,” said Morris. “No-one can watch all night. It’s not humanly possible. I’ll take the first watch — you too can drowse in front of the fire. Heaven knows, I’ve fallen asleep myself doing that often enough. Sedan can watch from midnight. He’s had enough practice at that. And you, my dear, can start at four. When do you need to set off?”

“I need to be gone by eight, sir.”

“Good enough. Your friend Fiedel should be awake by then. If he isn’t, I’ll try to get a stimulant into him. Then we’ll see.”

When the villagers — those that liked to — came to the inn for breakfast the next morning, the door was locked, and there was a note, written in spidery but graceful black handwriting: “The inn is closed until New Year. Go and drink somewhere else.”

This prompted a deal of grumbling. Not only was there no breakfast, but it meant that the Spirit of the Mountain’s famous New Year’s Eve celebrations would not be going ahead.

Claudine was at the head of the grumblers.

“It’s that Michael, the dagotyper. I knew she was after him the moment I saw them together. He’s on the mountainside, and she’s gone after him. Mark my words.”

“Yeah, it’s madness when someone falls in love with a man they’ve just met,” said Megan. It took Claudine a moment to catch on.

“Are you talking about Alexis? What Alexis and I have is Pure. It’s not like other loves.”

“You’ve only met him once,” ventured Lizzie. Claudine was well used to putting up with Megan’s sniping, but this attack from an unexpected source riled her more than she would have cared to admit.

“What are you talking about, Lizzie? Me and Alexis, we talked all the time. Now he’s up on the mountain being brave, braver than anyone, especially than that Michael — or —”, she looked round for her usual audience, though she may for a moment have forgotten the original purpose of her game, “— or than any of the lads round here. Alexis is a hero, and he’s a gentleman, and, most of all, he’s a true man.”

Far, far away, after a night of watchfulness and frequent alarms, though there was sign neither of the ghostly laughter nor of robbers, Alexis, Gordon, Michael and Derek were finishing their breakfast. They were to set off shortly, taking the Mechcart as far as it would go, and then, for Gordon and Alexis, continuing the ascent on foot.

Michael had an announcement.

“Listen, friends—”, he wondered if he had mis-played it by calling them ‘friends’. Would ‘colleagues’ have been better, or ‘fellow-adventurers’, or, simply, to Gordon and Alexis, ‘sirs’? “I can’t go with you in the Mechcart up the mountainside.”

“Why ever not?”, said Alexis.

“Well, really—”, Michael had not quite expected to have to defend his decision, “the thing is, with this leg, I mean, I need to be back here to get a really good shot of you with those fireworks. This really is the very best vantage point. But that would mean driving with you in the Mechcart to the other side of the pass, and then walking all the way back again. I don’t think I’ll manage it. I really don’t think I could do it.”

“Who’ll keep Derek company?”, asked Gordon.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, sir.” Said Derek. “I’ll sit cosy in the cart and sew up my coat. Been meaning to do that. I can think humble thoughts, and meditate on the enlightenment of my soul.”

Gordon raised one eyebrow. He had never quite expected Derek to discuss souls, enlightened or unenlightened. What he did not know was that the phrase was a common catchphrase at that time in the Robber’s Lair, although quite possibly no-one using it had very little inkling of what it was supposed to mean.

“Won’t you be afraid of being attacked by the robbers?”, said Gordon, to Michael.

“Oh, I think he’ll be quite safe,” said Derek, interrupting. He seemed implausibly keen for Michael to stay behind. “I don’t think they’ll dare to show their faces here for a bit.”

“Well, of course, of course,” said Gordon, as if he thought he might have perhaps offended Derek by playing down the effect of his heroics.

“I think it’s rather poor spirit,” said Alexis, “but if you’re leg really won’t stand a little walk across the valley, then you’d better stay here. But I shall count the number of dagotypes you take, and if they’re not up to scratch, it will come out of your bonus.”

That was the end of breakfast. Gordon and Alexis loaded their climbing supplies onto the Mechcart — things they had brought with them from Bidforst, supplemented by things which they had previously had brought for them and left in the the cabin — while Derek made quite a show of assembling enough food to last him more than a week. He told them that waiting was hungry work, and he had no intention of starving. Alexis and Gordon patted him on the back, and said “of course, of course”.

Alexis was quite short with Michael, and neither said goodbye nor waved as they drove off, but Gordon took the time to shake his hand and mutter, “I know what you’re about, Michael, and I would do exactly the same thing in your place. Get us a few pictures of that spirit-girl. I’ll square it with Alexis if it comes to it. If it gets to be a big thing, and I think it will, he’ll forget he was ever against it and say it was all his own idea. But watch that leg.”

Then they were gone, the Mechcart slowly picking its way among the boulders on the other side, and Michael, standing in the gateway to the castle watching them away.

Once he was sure they were out of sight, he quickly returned to the hut and got out his Zeiss dagotyper and several rolls of film. His foot was still a little tender, but nothing that would really inconvenience him provided he picked his way carefully. He stuffed some bars of chocolate from the tin box and a brown-paper bag full of raisins into his coat pockets, and took a few minutes to finish off the coffee. He wondered about bringing a cup to heat snow in to drink, but eventually decided that, if he went along that road, he would end up taking half of the contents of the hut with him, when what he really needed was to be able to move quickly. But he did take a box of matches, and wrapped a length of rope over his shoulder. Then he was ready. He set out through the castle gate, and began to cast his way about, looking for anything which might or might not be a clue.

The Mechcart performed admirably on the mountain side. That is to say, it took them about a mile along their way, at more or less the speed a donkey would go, and eventually reached the point which Alexis adjudged to be its terminus, rather earlier than a donkey would have done.

“Now, where’s that dratted picture-maker when you need him?”, he said testily. The other two smiled. Gordon knew that Alexis would be much better company once there was no longer an audience for him to play to. Derek knew — well, you will see what Derek knew shortly.

Gordon and Alexis climbed off the cart, and, reminding Derek that he must wait at that exact spot, and be there whenever they got back, which they estimated at being around lunchtime on Sunday, but might be sooner or later, set off up the mountain. Derek for his part shook their hands and promised that he would be the very model of someone who watched and waited.

Their climb to begin with was little more than a steep walk, though a steep walk on a hard crust of refrozen snow. The path was clear enough, both from the map that they had made during their balloon ride, and from the way the snow lay flat rather than bumpy ahead of them.

“So, you really think man can tame the mountain?”, said Gordon. When it was just the two of them, Alexis was an excellent conversationalist.

“Well, now, really. I think it can. I rather think it can. This path — for example — widen it here, and change the banking there, and give it an extra wiggle right back at that point down there to decrease the gradient, and coat the whole thing in asphalt, and you could have a road better than any road in Winchester. A road right to the top of the mountain.”

“But who would take such a road?”

“Tourists, sightseers, anyone looking to go the most direct route, rather than wiggling through the hinterland and round the pass. I mean, look —” they had come up onto a wide vista, which showed the great promontory which reached towards the village and the old Roman road Ricknield Street. The village was almost invisible, either hidden behind the foot-hill, or shrouded in haze, but the Roman road ran like a sharp line drawn across the landscape, as far as the eye could see. “Look, if you cut straight up that long hill, continuing the road, you would come up about —, well, over there somewhere. There’s obviously a much more direct route on the Western side of the mountain, but no-one is taking it now because there’s no road there, and because they would find the prospect too daunting. But, imagine the rise of the Mechcart. Imagine that, perhaps, let me be daring, think what it would be like if every family, or, perhaps every four families together, were to share a Mechcart. Thousands upon thousands of them on the roads, going tirelessly from place to place, stopping only every sixty miles to recharge their cells. To a Mechcart, an asphalt road would be pure heaven, whether it was flat across a plain, or at a steep slope up a mountain. See, there, from the village to the beginning of the mountain is five miles, less perhaps. From there to the summit another five. Perhaps a little more. And then the land slopes down more gently on the other side, so add another twenty before you are out of it. We had to go sixty miles just to reach the pass, and it would be another forty on the other side. A hundred miles, where forty would have done just as well.”

“Is it only roads you would put on the mountain?”

“Heavens no. Of course, we will put the water-wheels there first. We will use the limitless power of falling water to drive electricalish construction machines. Along side the roads, which we can build fast, far faster than anyone imagines, we will have hotels, chalets, bungalows, inexpensive maisonettes, perhaps even little flats that the poor and foolish can buy shares in, visiting them for just two weeks in every year. Cable cars, of course, and ski slopes.”

“You’re not worried about avalanches?”

“Pfft! Avalanches. There is undoubtedly a scientificalish solution to the problem of the avalanche. Great struts can be inserted, for example, to bolster the snow and stop it from slipping.”

“I’m not sure about that,” said Gordon. “Back home, I’ve seen one or two avalanches. They are quite awesome. I doubt that buttressing and strutting would hold them back.”

“That merely means that no-one has yet fully put their mind to their eradication. Now, what is this?”

They had come to the first obstacle. The path led straight to an ice-cliff, and stopped. There was no particular point in skirting the cliff to the left, because the path led downwards, and none at all in skirting to the right, as there was a drop of perhaps twenty feet to a scree slope below.

Gordon uncoiled a length of rope, and Alexis started fitting crampons to his boots.

Far below, Derek had finished sewing up his coat. It was not a repair that a tailor might have made, but it was serviceable enough. Looking over his shoulder to check that Alexis and Gordon really were out of sight, he set off, on foot, back down the path, aiming to skirt the pass so that he did not run into Michael, and by that route come to the Robber’s Lair, where he could drink and play cards until it was time to come back on the Sunday and greet his employers, possibly with further tales of his daring-do.

Even further below, and on the other side of the pass, Michael had still found no trace of the lights, or the laughter, or the dancing girl. But he did not give up hope. Pausing to eat some chocolate and raisins, he decided that he would now return to the castle, sleep until night fall, and then set off in the darkness which seemed her preferred time. He would not be able to capture pictures in the dark, but he could track her until morning came, getting his pictures then.

It was not perhaps an entirely well-developed or considered plan, but it was enough to keep Michael’s spirits up while he walked.

Now we must return for a while to the village. The crowd had eventually dispersed, though, here and there, clumps of villagers stood whispering on street corners, which was unusual for Bidforst at any time of year except high summer. It was not long before they had something else to gossip about.

Angry words were heard from a side-street. There was a sound as of running feet, more angry words, and the unmistakeable sound of a glove being slapped against someone’s face.

“You challenge me, then?” — it was a voice like the voice of —

“I challenge you!” — that was unmistakably the voice of Sedan, the Frenchman who everyone knew to be a spy.

From the side-street spilled out into the High Street a scene which had seldom been visited on the village for a century. Sedan had thrown down his hat and cloak, and Lomax, for Lomax was the owner of the other voice, had taken off his winter coat. They stood facing each other, three yards apart, Lomax with a rapier which had been a sword-stick, and Sedan with an officer’s sword from the French cavalry.

They drew their swords up to their noses, and wafted them downwards in salute.

“En Garde, then!”, shouted Lomax.

“En Garde!”, agreed Sedan.

Then they were at it, hammer and tongs. Sedan, who was angriest, went for Lomax like a whirlwind, his blade flying hither and thither as he eluded his enemies parries, or struck back when the blade found his. Lomax stepped back, and back, trying to draw Sedan into overreaching himself, so that, with a simple parry riposte, he could skewer his opponent and see him off for good.

Lomax was now up against the wall, but his cool head was beginning to tell against Sedan’s temper. Twice Sedan slipped, and only managed to stop himself from falling, and twice he had to parry Lomax’s thrust lying almost prone on the flagstones as he pushed himself back upwards with his free hand.

“Stop!”, yelled a voice from up the street, “Stop this at once!”

Into sight, the constable came running, blowing on his whistle, while from the other direction came Geoffrey. He had drawn his own sword, also from a sword-stick (the villagers had not until then realised quite how many of them there were about) and, jumping into the fray, he got his blade — and his body — between the two adversaries.

“Magistrate!”, said Lomax, sizing up the new situation in an instant. “I insist you arrest this man, who attacked me in an unprovoked assault.”

“I ACCUSE”, yelled Sedan, completely unable to modulate his anger, “THIS MAN of MURDERING PROFESSOR FIEDEL!”

There was a sudden hush. Murder was as foreign to village life as duelling in the streets.

The constable came up.

“Which should I arrest, sir?”, he said.

“Is Professor Fiedel dead?”

“I have no idea,” said Lomax. “I have not seen Fiedel since yesterday. If he is dead, it is none of my doing and nothing to do with me.”

“Is Professor Fiedel dead?”, said Geoffrey again, this time turning to Sedan. Sedan was still red in the face and beside himself with rage.

“Dead — or as good as”, he spluttered.

“Well, which is it?”, said Geoffrey. “I can’t very well have a man arrested for murder when the alleged victim is still alive.”

“He lies — drugged — fighting for his life — asleep — at the doctor’s house, down there.”

“Well, is he asleep, or is he fighting for his life?”

Someone tugged at Geoffrey’s arm.

“Pleasing your honour, the doctor’s house isn’t down there, it’s over there.”

“And the doctor is away”, said someone else.

“There you are,” said Lomax, “all complete nonsense. I am accused of murdering a man who is alive, and who lies asleep and awake at the house of a doctor who is not here, and it is the wrong house.”

The constable had had enough. Producing a pair of handcuffs from his belt, he locked them onto Sedan’s wrists.

“Emmanuel Sedan, I am arresting you on a charge of public affray, and the making of false allegations against a resident of this village. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say now may be taken down and used as evidence against you in a court of law. Now, have you anything to say?”

“Only that I tell the truth, and this man lies, and it is he, not I, who is a spy!”

Geoffrey gestured to the constable, who led Sedan away. When Geoffrey looked back, Lomax was nowhere to be seen.

On the other side of the mountain, Derek picked his way carefully among the paths. A stiff drink was in his mind, and real food — not the tinned stuff which he hated — and various other delights of the Robbers’ lair which he had not been able to sample since taking on the role of a respectable factotum. The light was going fast, leaving the the world bathed in the blue evening half-light. He had no fears about losing his way, but he did not want to be mistaken by a hidden scout for an honest man, since honest men are to robbers what robbers are to honest men, when they approach their homes.

Michael, however, was entirely lost. He had found no sign of the lights or the voices or the dancer, but, having decided to return to the castle and sleep until evening, he could not find the paths that he had taken to get there either. He was in several minds what to do. He had heard that you could make a bivouac in snow, and quite comfortably spend the night without fear of the elements. But the snow looked awfully cold to be making any kind of a bivouac in, and, now that he thought about it, he did not have any particularly clear mental picture of what a bivouac might be. Was it a hole you dug in the ground? Or did you try to construct a lean-to with a piece of cloth and a boulder. He had no cloth, aside from the coat he was wearing, and he was reluctant to give that up, though he had plenty of rope. He looked hard at the rope. He wondered if it were possible to weave rope into a bivouac, but the only thing he had heard that could be woven with a rope was a net. Then he looked up at the stars — for once, the clouds were gone, and the stars shone down brightly. Supposing he were to make a net, and bring down some of the stars? They would be warm, and one of them might have a bivouac, or know another star that had one, and they could all snuggle up together in a bivouac with hot and cold running water, and boulders which kept off the wind, and offered clean handkerchieves to those in need.

For now, he thought, the best thing to do would be to sit down on the snow, and wait to see if a bivouac came past. There was no point in trying to net or construct a bivouac if there was a chance that one might be passing at any moment.

He began to feel delightfully warm. Warmth was spreading up though his feet, through the boulders, down along the snow where the fairies were turning into angel cakes, and the angels were climbing down from the fir trees where they had been made to stand on account of a shortage of Christmas baubles.

It really was time to sleep, though he thought he would presently help himself to a piece of pumpkin.

A light flashed in front of his eyes. He tried to fend it off. It was not the time for lights. It was the time for sleep. Then a heavenly scent wafted past his nose, and golden hair waved past his eyelids. He knew the hair was golden, even though his eyes were closed—

Suddenly he sat up, and clambered to his feet. He felt slow, and knew that he had been falling into the state of delirium which is called hypothermia.

Lights flickered around him — were they real lights, or was he dreaming that he had woken? He jumped up and down, but then did not know if he were really jumping up and down, or jumping up and down in his dream.

Then he heard the voice. It was the same voice as the other night.

“It’s this way, it is. It’s this way. It’s this way it is, it’s this way.”

He glanced this way and that, and saw, momentarily on the ridge, the shape of the dancing girl. He clambered after her, his dagotyper banging against him as he did, and, by this, in some strange way, he knew that he now really was awake.

The lights flickered, and the voice called him again, but more distantly. He redoubled his efforts, and set off, running over icy ridges and snowy troughs, after the golden haired dancing figure.

Gordon and Alexis had scaled the first cliff without difficulty. It was a text-book cliff, from Madison’s Cliffs, book two. The light was good, so they had continued on up a path that led from it, and thence to a rocky ledge which was free of snow, and where some grass grew. There they had eaten raisins and chocolate, and taken a sip from a patent tonic bottle which Alexis was keen to try out. There was a tiny stream trickling past the ledge, part icicle, part icy water, and they both had a long drink from that before moving on.

It was not long before they reached a cliff which was part rock, and part ice, and this was what gave them real trouble. The handholds were good to begin with, but then they found the rock above to be rotten, and it came away whenever they tried to seize it. If they hammered spikes into it, the spikes came away too, so they were forced to follow the good rock left, always going more to the left than they were going upwards. Gordon — he was the better mountaineer — went first, and Alexis held the rope as he went behind. There were far fewer places to anchor the rope than Gordon would have liked, and, looking back, he realised that they had already gone far too far.

The dark began to draw in on them. They had somehow missed the sunset, which must have been occluded by the cliff face when they made that funny turn, and now the dusk had deepened to the point that it was hard to see what was a hand-hold and what was merely a shadow.

Just as Gordon was beginning to think desperate thoughts, a light appeared above him. Not a powerful light, nor yet a constant light, but, nonetheless, a light. In that light he could just-to-say make out a ledge some way above him. If he could get there, then he could instruct Alexis as to exactly where he should put his feet, or, failing that, haul him up with the rope.

Straining and reaching and panting hard, he somehow dragged himself up the rock face. His one thought was to reach the ledge while there was light enough to do it. There was no time to hammer anchor points for the rope. He was going to make it — he was going to make it.

With a last great effort he pulled himself up the to edge, and looked over it. He could never quite remember what happened exactly after that. He felt that someone had taken his hand, and he distinctly remembered the words

“Over you go, then”.

What is certain is that he fell backwards from the ledge. He fell four times his own height before the first anchor caught the rope. But it caught it only for an instant. Like a piece of string pulling on loose staples, the anchor points flew one by one from the cliff-face as he fell. He went tumbling down a slope that was no longer sheer cliff, but was no place to brace himself, and, by the cry above and to the right, he knew that Alexis too was now falling.

Then something else falling banged his head, and the next thing he knew he was scrabbling, crawling, hanging on for dear life in the face of grim death. His hands had fixed on something — not rope, perhaps a tree root — which gave slightly, and, though it did give, he knew that he was no longer falling.

“Alexis”, he called hoarsely, but there was no response.

Gordon was alone, in the dark, in mid-winter, hanging onto a tree-root on the side of the mountain.

Chapter Seven will appear on Friday, New Year’s Eve.

Chapter Five — Wednesday

As Alexis screamed, two silhouetted figures reached the door of the hut.

Michael stabbed down on the little lever on the block of wood with wires attached that Alexis had given him. He had no idea what it might do — if anything at all — but, unable to even stand without difficulty, and with nothing beyond the iron poker from the fire to defend himself, it was the only thing he could do.

The result was extraordinary.

For the tiniest instant the edges of the hut lit up with a searing blue which Michael had never seen before. Cries choked from the throats of the men in the doorway. With a huge bang, they were hurled backwards into the night, and shuddered for a moment, shaking on the snow.

This changed everything. The three men converging on Gordon turned tail and ran. The man holding Alexis down reaching with his knife for his throat lost his grip, and rolled backwards as Alexis pushed him away and clambered to his knees.

At that moment, Derek roared. He roared, and he ran. He roared, and he ran, arms waving in the air.

It was a majestic sight. His huge coat flapped behind him as if it had become a pair of wings. He swung huge fists around his head, and shouted. With the echoes, and the confusion, and everything, neither Alexis nor Gordon nor Michael could quite make out the words he was shouting. Perhaps there were no words, perhaps it was the guttural cry of berserk fury which had echoed off that hillside a thousand years before in the age of the Vikings.

Derek, ran, and all of the fleeting, attacking figures ran before him. The man attacking Alexis ran. The two men who were shaking on the snow picked themselves up and ran.

Within seconds they were out of sight. Cries resounded for a few minutes more. Then silence.

“I hope he’s alright,” said Michael.

Neither Derek, nor the robbers, nor the strange lights and voices returned all that night. The three of them took it in turns to watch while the other two slept, though none of them slept well. They rose with first light, and cast around the frozen snow for clues about the night’s adventure.

The churning of the ground at the scene of the fight was obvious. The snow, which had turned to mush as a result of the day’s thaw and their constant traipsing to and fro had already begun to refreeze when the attack started. It retained clear, though softened, imprints of many feet, and a big hollowed out depression where Alexis had fallen. They followed the footprints back, and saw that their attackers had cunningly hidden themselves in pairs at different points in the ruins, where they could easily observe the hut through cracks in the masonry, low walls or narrow vistas of archways, but where they could not themselves be observed, except in bright daylight, and only by someone who knew where to look and what to look out for.

Where they had come from was less clear. They must have arrived while the snow was thawing, and though there were signs which might be tracks, there was no way of telling which had been footsteps and which were simply pocks in the land. Everything was now iced over again, leaving a brittle crust on the world of whiteness which glistened.

It was at that point that Derek returned.

His coat had been slashed down one side, there were deep mud spatters up to his knees, he was bruised, and there was a nasty gash over his left eye.

“Is anybody there?”, he called, because the hut was deserted. They did not at first hear him, being some ways over the ridge. When they eventually did, they crept back in some fear and trepidation. By the time they finally saw it was him — through the window of the hut — he had refilled the stove, and was cooking a breakfast of tinned ham, tinned apple, and fresh eggs.

They might have asked him where he got the eggs, but they did not.

Instead, overjoyed, they feted him like a hero. Alexis insisted on completing the cooking of breakfast himself, while they laid out a table in his honour. They demanded again and again to hear the story of his fearless onslaught on twenty (they had miscounted, as is easy to do when counting footprints) ruffians in the snow.

Derek, for his part, played the modest hero. He told them that he had stood, in fear, in the doorway, and, to his shame, had stepped to one side when the two robbers made to go inside. He had been as astonished as anyone (even Alexis had been surprised the magnitude of the effect) when Michael had pressed the lever and the hut had become engulfed in blue light. When he saw the robbers turn and flee, something tripped inside him like a switch, and he had run after them without any thought for the consequences, “like a true hero,” as Alexis interjected. He chased them in clumps and one by one until he was quite exhausted. None were willing to stand up and fight, though there were a couple of times when one or more were cornered and, for the briefest of brief moments, had to face him. That was where the gash and the slash had come from.

Finally, when there was no-one left to chase, and he knew he would never find his way back to the castle in the dark, he found an overhanging bush which had both kept the snow from falling, and also provided complete concealment, and, with the help of dry sticks and the autumn’s leaf mould, became a reasonable place to lie down and sleep. So he wrapped his cloak twice around him, taking care to double fold over the place where it had been damaged, and slept.

They continued to praise him throughout breakfast, and, sporadically, for the rest of the day. It quite drove the question of the origin of the eggs from their minds.

Now, what had really happened was this. Derek had no particular interest in fighting his own friends, and did not wish to be an unnecessary casualty, so he had stood as much in the shadows as he could, ready to reveal himself at an appropriate moment. The attack at this stage would ruin all of their plans completely, but there was really nothing he could do about it, since it was obvious that Bart had still been unable to signal.

The bright blue flash took him completely by surprise. He had never seen the discharge of a large condenser, or we might say capacitor, before. There was no reason apparent to him, nor to the rest of the robbers, that this could not happen again and again until it had killed or disabled all of them.

For a moment, he entirely lost his nerve, and ran away screaming with the others. But then he realised that he was running with the robbers (several of whom he recognised, their faces being revealed by the flash of light, though they had not recognised him), and that the robbers would still regard him as the enemy. So, as he ran, he began to shout: “It’s me, you fools, Black Hand Derek.” He had to shout it several times before anybody made sense of what he was saying, and they were a long way from the castle before anyone was interested enough to pay attention.

Then they gathered round him in a tight group, and questioned him closely.

The upshot, of course, is that he went back with them the three hour journey to the robbers lair, ate a hearty meal and drank his fill, shared all the plans and stratagems with Black Hand Nigel. After a bit of a sleep, he ruefully slashed his own coat, first making sure that he would eventually be able to sew it up again, and persuaded an old friend to give him a biff over the eyebrow. Shortly before first light, he set off back towards castle, and arrived, somewhat tired, and ready for breakfast, with a box of eggs that he purloined from someone’s supplies on the way out of the lair, there being, despite the popular adage, very little honour among thieves.

As well as discussing strategy, plans and tactics, Black Hand Nigel had also shown him his pride and joy, now fully restored, gleaming in a corner of the Robbers’ workshop — but more of that later.

The search, and the hero’s breakfast for Derek, had put them a little behind the day’s schedule, so, hero or no hero, wound or no wound, they piled him onto the front of the Mechcart to drive them up the long and winding path to the top of the Ugly Sister, the lower of the two mountain peaks, and the only one which could be reached by road, rather than by climbing. They took care to bring with them an extra bag of coal, three buckets, brushes, cloths, and a large quantity of soap.

In Bidforst, Professor Fiedel had also risen very early. He had tossed and turned all night as he thought about the marvellous telescope. There were parts of the mechanism which made no sense to him. Setting off at first light with a ruler, pencils, and several sheets of paper, he made his way to the old mill, and greeted the local lad, probably Horace or Edward, though Fiedel was none too sure of their names, who had been paid a shilling to guard it through the night. If Fiedel were a more practical person he might have noticed that Horace or possibly Edward had brought blankets and a pillow with him, and did not entirely have the look of one who had gone without sleep for his shilling. He might also have noticed a bottle, but he did not.

He was there for most of the morning, making measurements, lifting and closing flaps, and, at one point, peering among the rafters until he found a trap door which opened through the roof to the skies above.

Then he was satisfied.

He appeared at the Spirit of the Mountain some minutes later, ate a hearty lunch, and then stood up to tell the assembly (it was not an assembly, except in the sense that a number of people had assembled to eat and to drink) that he had an Announcement.

Apparently he had mentioned to a number of people on the way over that he was to make an Announcement, because he looked carefully at his watch, and waited (while everyone fidgeted) until exactly one o’clock, post meridian, to begin. One or two people, including the constable and Geoffrey, arrived while he waited.

“Friends, you are no doubt familiar with the strange arrival in our village of a Mystery,” he began. He recounted the events, which you have already heard, and gave his own summary of the previous day’s hearing. Then it was time for the Announcement proper.

“Last night I tossed and turned upon my bed. I lay thinking ‘why is that device so complex’? There is a certain complexity required for a mount which will correctly follow the motions of the heavens, and there is a certain complexity required for the very precise focus that must take place on an instrument of that magnitude. But I have been to Jena myself, and I have seen the workshops of the great Carl Zeiss, and I know that the Zeiss family has for generations prized simplicity and elegance in its designs. It is not the way of the Germanic peoples to needlessly elaborate: form must follow function, lest it degenerate into superfluous—” he hesitated for a moment, “— into superfluous superfluosity. But to move on. It seemed to me that there must be another purpose to this instrument, and, since we cannot use the instrument without the missing eyepiece, it further seemed to me that, if correct measurements were taken, and a real image projected onto a piece of paper, as an example of one such thing onto which a real image might be projected, then an eyepiece could be constructed.

“Therefore, I hastened myself at first light to return to the old mill, where I was greeted by Ed— that is, by one of our esteemed local youth, who was faithfully guarding the instrument against the onset of ruffians, or, indeed, rascals.”

“Is there a point to this”, muttered someone. There was a mumbled chorus of assent.

“I say, old man,” said Geoffrey, “do tell us what the announcement is.”

“The instrument in the abandoned mill is not a telescope, it is a heliographoscope.”

There was a pause, as of a collective intake of breath. It was clear that Fiedel had said something momentous, but no-one but Fiedel himself actually understood the word that he had said.

“We don’t know what that is,” muttered someone.

“Tell us what a helgascope is, Fiedel,” said Geoffrey.

“A heliographoscope is a telescope with a heliograph designed into it. It is a device for signalling my means of light drawn from the sun, or perhaps some other source, to a similar device many, many miles away. Judging by the power of this particular heliographoscope, the signal could be seen sixty, perhaps seventy miles hence, in the right conditions.”

There was a murmur as this began to sink in.

“And where’s this one pointing?” called the constable.

“Without the eyepiece it is difficult to see where exactly it is aimed — doubtless the operator takes the eyepiece with him to assure that, in such a circumstance as this, his counterpart cannot be easily discovered. But, by line of sight, this would go through the pass in the mountain, or perhaps to some place a little up the mountain side.”

“And that’s where the other helgascope is?” said Geoffrey.

“Not necessarily. Someone with such a knowledge of optics as the commissioner of this instrument, which must have cost many hundreds of pounds, could also have placed a prism, or possibly a mirror, at an exact place on the mountain side, which would enable the signal to be transmitted further, down perhaps to—”

“The Robber’s Lair!”, shouted someone. There was a collective gasp.

“Now, now,” said the constable, getting to his feet. He had been half-sitting in the window ledge, since all the chairs were taken. “Now, now, there’s no such thing as the Robber’s Lair. There’s no call for believing these tales.”

“The Black Hand Gang!” shouted someone else. “There’s someone in our village working for the Black Hand Gang!”

“Now, now!”, began the constable again, but his voice was drowned by the general hubbub as everyone rose to their feet, or started talking or even shouting earnestly or yet angrily with their neighbour.

The tales of the doings of the Black Hand Gang were no doubt exaggerated, and had been helped along by a series of popular fictional stories published in the Winchester Gazette which played strongly on garrotting, the sudden disappearance of respectable women, bodies slipped secretly into oversized coffins intended for another recipient, poisonings, beatings, and, in one particularly gruesome episode, a man’s hand held in acid until it burned away to a cinder.

Geoffrey remonstrated with Fiedel, with the constable at his elbow.

“Well, really,” said Fiedel, “I had no idea they would make the association with the Black Hand Gang. What nonsense. I was merely following the immutable laws of physics.”

It was more than an hour before the hubbub subsided.

In that time, the Mechcart had crawled its way right the way up the path to the peak of the Ugly Sister. They had come through the low cloud, and the sun shone brightly, though coldly. To the east, the valleys below were invisible in thick greyness. To the west, the sun glinted off the snows of the true summit.

They set immediately about the task of melting snow in pans they placed over the Mechcart’s stove. Once they had enough, they set to and washed it down — the days of driving through slush, mud and the grit which the villagers sometimes put down on local roads had turned it into a grim, grey-brown contraption which might have been an example of the military art of camouflage.

Michael’s foot had improved somewhat, though it still hurt if he put too much weight on it too suddenly. They had washed and cleaned Derek’s gash before leaving, though his coat was still in a sorry state. After they had cleaned the Mechcart, Gordon pulled up the carapace, and he and Alexis took it in turns to change into cleaner clothes, which they had retrieved the previous day from a suitcase buried under the floor of the hut, next to the supplies of tins.

Both of them came out looking rather creased. Michael suggested that a flat iron was what was needed, but no flat iron had been brought.

“You’ll just have to take the picture in a way which hides the creases,” said Gordon, though Michael could not tell if he were serious or not.

Finally, it was time for Michael to do the job he had been paid to do. He set up his tripod in various places and got pictures of the Mechcart, in all its glory, from the front, from the side, from the rear, from underneath so that it loomed higher than the mountain, and from above looking down the slope so that the mist-shrouded valley appeared to be a sea of fog beneath.

In the mean time, Alexis had the bright idea of heating up big stones with which they could iron themselves. The most that could be said for this was that, afterwards, the stones were very clean and shiny. There did not appear to be any great improvement in the look of their clothes, although, as is often pointed out, looks are not everything.

Michael ran through several rolls of film on the pictures of Alexis, Gordon, Gordon and Alexis, Gordon with the Mechcart, Alexis with the Mechcart, Alexis and Gordon with the Mechcart, and, as a final treat, Derek and Gordon and Alexis and the Mechcart, in honour of Derek’s heroics the previous night. All these had to be taken with the front of the vehicle, the rear, the side showing the Mountain behind, the side with the misty valley and shooting upwards so that they all appeared as giants. Michael recorded each shot in a notebook, setting out all the particulars one by one. He also made sketches of the mountain side to which he added notes as reference.

The sun began to set.

It was the setting sun that Michael particularly wanted to capture. The strong, long shadows and the golden light were — in his view — much more interesting. He tried for some silhouettes of Gordon and Alexis, and, just as the last rays were beginning to disappear, he took a small quantity of powder and placed it in a special powder, and attached it by a piece of vulcanised wire to the Zeiss dagotyper. He positioned Gordon, Alexis and the Mechcart particularly carefully, and made them stare at him for a long time. Finally, when he was quite ready, he depressed the shutter button, and there was a bright flash. It was not a flash of the same type as the flash in the hut the night before, but it rather scared Derek. Alexis laughed.

“Ah, even a hero can be alarmed by something he hasn’t seen before,” he said. “Magnesium powder triggered by electricality, if I’m not mistaken, Michael?”

Michael nodded.

“Endless uses to electricality,” Alexis went on. “And tomorrow begins the big adventure. In five years time, if we do our job properly, both sides of this mountain will be humming with water-wheels. Think of it, the last truly wild part of England tamed for the convenience of man. We will have electricality into every town, every village, every street, perhaps, one day, into every home. Electricalish carts will whoosh down our streets, cleanly and safely. The horse-drawn carriage will be a thing of the past. Even electricalish trains could be made to work. And then, flying machines — not like balloons or dirigibles, but true flying machines with wings that go up and down like birds.”

Gordon, Michael and even Derek stood in awe for a moment at the world of the future which Alexis described. Then they turned and stared for a minute as the sun finally set behind the mountain. Quickly packing their things together, they set off downhill while there was still twilight enough to see by, and thus made their way back to the Krak de Montagne without further adventure.

Huw stood for a long time watching the Mechcart rise up the side of the Ugly Sister. Not that Huw called it the Ugly Sister. He had his own name for it, an old name. To him, both peaks of the mountain were beautiful, as was every rivulet, every stream, every cave, every dell, every ridge and contour. He had thought a long time about the drawing he had seen at the inn. Huw could move very swiftly across snow-covered terrain, but it was still a long walk. He was saddened by the plan he had seen, which he understood rather better than Alexis would probably have given him credit for. There were hill-sides and mountain sides in Wales and Scotland which had been tamed in the way that Alexis seemed to want. With funicular railways and steam powered cable cars and little tourist-tea rooms at the top, they had lost the splendid danger, the majesty, which ought to remain if a mountain were to be worthy of the name.

For now, though, his main concern was to find Angharad. She had always been a wild child, full of passion not patience, and she could be the very mischief. He had just managed to catch hold of her in the castle the night before, but there had been the strange blue flash, as if someone had bottled lightning, and he had lost her again. After that, he followed the pack of robbers some distance. At first he thought that they had taken Derek prisoner, and he felt it was his duty to at least make some attempt to save him. But Derek did not behave as any prisoner might, and he observed, with deepening sadness, that Derek came back, unhindered, the next morning.

Something would have to be done about that, but in time, in time.

So he followed an old trail, one the ancient Britons had used, back along the side of the Ugly Sister, down to a place which he called The Drum. Now, the Drum was a very secret and dangerous place, and, over many years, he had blocked up paths to it, and dug out streams, so that passers-by would never be drawn there, no matter how far from their way they wandered.

Years — many, many years — before, he had discovered that if you shouted in the Drum, the echoes came back to you ten-fold, a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold. And it was in just the wrong place, or you might say in just the right place, on the mountain for the sound to carry in such away that other echoing dells responded and resounded in the same way.

You have probably heard that shouting can set off an avalanche, and you may well have also heard that this is merely a myth, and shouting can do no such thing. Huw had seen many avalanches from the mountain-side. He had pulled sheep and cattle from the crushing snow, sometimes alive, mostly not, and he had seen men disappear and their bodies remain hidden until the spring. Huw knew very well that no amount of shouting would bring down an avalanche, no matter how tiny. Except, that is, in the Drum. It could not be done in one go. A chance shout, here and there, would echo for a while, but fade away and be gone. But there was a particular pattern of shouting, a rhythm you could build up, which, done in exactly the right way, would grow and grow until rocks on the high ridges began to creak. If you continued, and used all your strength, those creaking rocks would begin to move, and if those rocks began to move, loose gravel would begin to fall. If the snow at that time were loose, as it often is when there has been a great fall of snow, and it has not had time to thaw and freeze and freeze and thaw until it is quite solid, then the falling gravel and the creaking rocks would set shivers of slithering snow alive, and the whole would begin to slowly move, and if it continued to move, it would move more quickly, and then, so fast that you could not see what was happening, it would turn from a slow drifting to a rushing, roaring, rock splitting, earth moving, land gouging enormous tide of snow which would sweep in minutes down the length of the mountain, tearing trees from their roots, and smashing everything in its path.

Such was the Drum, and Huw moved as silently as he could through it, and over the hill beyond, to a place where Angharad had often played when she was small.

She sat there now, golden hair flowing as she tossed her head from side to side, perhaps with an imaginary playmate that only she could see. She wore a simple muslin dress, and did not seem to feel the cold at all, wearing only the slightest shoes such as a dancer might wear.

Huw came on warily. If he startled her, she would be off again, wreaking heaven knows what further danger to travellers good and bad alike.

“Angharad,” he said gently, as he came down the slope. He made sure that he was coming from the place right ahead of her, so that she would not be surprised.

“Angharad,” he said again.

She looked up. “Da!”, she called out, happily. “Have you come to find me again?”

“I have, Angharad. I want to take you home.”

“Oh, Da, there’s no call for that,” she said, or, rather, she half-said, half-sang. “There’s no call for that, there’s no call for that.”

“There is child, we should be safe at home in front of the fire-side,” he said.

“Safe I am, Da. How could I be not safe on the Mountain?”

“Safe you are, child,” he said, “but others are not. Have you no care for them?”

“They are bad men, Da. They want to spoil our Mountain. I heard them talking as I listened at their window.”

“That’s not for us to judge if they be bad or no,” said Huw. “Come, take my hand.”

He was now standing beside her. She looked up, and smiled, then she looked away at the  mountain side, looked back, and smiled again. Then she took his hand, and went with him, back up along the ancient track.

Evening fell in the village. Seline had been fretting all day. She had cleaned all the bedrooms a second time, even though there had been no new guests arriving. She had swept all the lingering snow from the courtyard, and scrubbed and polished every glass in the bar. She was not at all surprised by Fiedel’s Announcement, though, like Geoffrey and the constable, she thought that his manner of announcing it could have been improved. The whole village was now buzzing with the story. The Black Hand Gang had been signalling from Bidforst for years, they said. Countless travellers had lost their possessions, or even their lives. Bidforst would soon be uncovered as a den of thieves, and the army would arrive to question every last one of them.

There had been some unpleasantness already. The constable had grabbed hold of Bart — blind people, along with foreigners, were implicitly suspect in the constable’s mind. He had seen him lingering near the old mill several times in the previous months, and, when challenged, had never been able to give a good account of his whereabouts. Grabbing him by the collar in the street outside the village, he had accused Bart there and then of being in league with the robbers. Seline might have quite approved of this action at other times, but a crowd immediately gathered, and normally peace-loving villagers had been lifting their sticks menacingly, or reaching for loose stones from the street.

Geoffrey and Fiedel had intervened.

“Constable, put that man down,” expostulated Fiedel.

“I seen him down by that mill far too often,” protested the constable. “He’s the one, I say that he is.”

“Were you not listening to a word I said?”, said Fiedel. “The heliographoscope is an optical instrument. Optical! Optical I say. Does that word mean nothing to you? This is man is Blind! How can a blind man operate a heliographoscope? It is physically impossible.”

“Says he’s blind,” said the constable obdurately. “But who knows for sure?”

“Best to let him go,” said Geoffrey, in a low voice, “everyone in the village watched him grow up. We’ve all plucked him out of the way of horses and carts, old chap. No question about it. Best to let him go.”

The constable gave Geoffrey a half-desperate, half-savage glance, and then, as if letting go of something dirty, removed his fingers from Bart’s collar.

“Nothing to see here, friends,” said Geoffrey to the crowd. “Be about your business.”

The crowd dispersed sullenly, leaving Geoffrey, the constable, Professor Fiedel and Bart alone in the middle of the High Street. Lomax came up to them.

“Ah, that was very well done, magistrate,” he said to Geoffrey. “And you, professor.” The constable gave him a sharp look. Lomax looked at his boots and mumbled something, then, “Yes, I quite regret my claims of yesterday. I do not entirely understand what came over me. It was almost as if — well, someone had to own such a telescope. Of course, I had no idea.”

He seemed now to be addressing his comments to Fiedel, and the others, now beginning to shiver as a a slight breeze wafted cooling air around their shoulders, one by one moved away. The constable stomped off in somewhat of a dudgeon towards his house. Bart, flaring his nostrils, went off about his own business, and Geoffrey, feeling the need of a something-or-other, made his way back into the inn. Seline was not in the tap-room, she was out by the dove-cot, writing a message for Huw to be sent by a pigeon that she kept in a separate cage, which had been raised on the mountain.

“Professor, I wonder if you would do the honour,” said Lomax, once the others were away, “of drinking a cup of tea with me. I would invite you to my house, but, sadly, I am quite out of tea at this moment. Perhaps, though, we might go to yours?”

Fiedel had become quite suspicious of Lomax as a result of his ‘claims of yesterday’, as he had put it moments before, but Lomax was, despite everything, a man of science like himself, and therefore deserved to accorded a professional courtesy.

“Of course, of course, sir. Come right along,” he said.

Lomax walked with him to the far end of the High Street, which is where the Professor lived. He had a bright green door, and big sash windows. The house went back a long way, ending in what had once been stables, but were now the home of the Professor’s laboratory and workshop, and a tiny museum of his collection of fossils, Saxon artefacts, and the great inventions of years gone by, such as the Archimedes screw, the catapult, the steam engine, and the top hat.

“It’s good to be out of the chilly air,” said the professor, opening the door. Warmth flooded into their faces. He helped Lomax take off his coat, and settled him into the front room, beside a fire which was running on a variation on coke, of the Professor’s own invention.

Fiedel bustled into the kitchen to put the kettle on, and returned with a tray of tea cups, sugar, and a small jug of milk. Then he went back to fill the teapot with boiling water from the kettle, and, covering it with a curiously knitted tea-cosy (also his own design), he returned to where Lomax sat in the front.

He did not, therefore, see as Lomax produced a small paper bag from his inside pocket, and poured it into the milk jug, quickly stirring it round with a teaspoon to make sure it dissolved, before wiping the spoon on his handkerchief and replacing it.

“Oh, look at that,” said Fiedel chattily, as he returned. “One of those tea-spoons is upside down. I always place them with the convex area pointing upwards, so that no dust gathers inside. Just one of my things, you know. Now, are you pre-lactarian or post-lactarian?”

“I’m sorry?”, said Lomax.

“Pre-lactarian or post-lactarian. Some like to have their milk in first, so that the temperature remains always below 212 degrees and the milk is not scalded, whereas others prefer to put the milk in afterwards, for no reason which is readily apparent to those of a scientific turn of mind. But of course —” his hand moved to the milk jug “—being a man of science, you are pre-lactarian.”

“No, no,” said Lomax, putting his hand right over his cup. “I do not take milk in tea at all. I am, therefore, I suppose, a sine-lactarian.” He chuckled at his own joke.

Fiedel gave him a sharp look.

“No milk in tea? Well, all the more for me.” And he poured exactly two fifths of an inch of milk into teacup, and then poured tea from the pot into the cups.

“You do not strain the tea?”, said Lomax.

“Ah, no, and I am glad you ask. Inside the teapot I have placed a gauze bag. I place the tea inside that, having first warmed the pot, and, subsequently, the boiling water. The tea correctly infuses with the water, but, when I pour it, none of the leaves go into the cups.”

“Quite magnificent,” said Lomax, “but I am keeping you from drinking.”

“Quite so,” said Fiedel, and lifted his cup to his lips.

Then a thought struck him, and he put the tea-cup down again without drinking. Lomax frowned.

“You know,” said Fiedel, “I really am rather curious as to why you should wish to claim that the heliographoscope was your own when it was not. From a properly objective, scientific point of view, you must have known that this would end poorly.”

“Oh, I agree. I do quite agree,” said Lomax. “I fear I was overcome by the strangest of psychological phenomena. But, please, do drink while I recount—”

“Ah, yes”, said Fiedel, once more bringing his cup to his lips, “do recount.”

“Yes, I fear I was so engrossed by the formalities of the hearing — you are drinking your tea, very good — that, in the strangest way possible, I wished to be part of it. You yourself had already taken the key role of cross-examiner, and the good Geoffrey was, as his position befits, in the chair. The only role left to me was of witness, but no witnesses were being called, unless I actually put myself forward as — my dear Professor, you seem suddenly ill.”

“…funny feeling in my throat…” said the Professor, lolling a little in his chair.

“Quickly, quickly, you must drink something soothing. This jug of milk, perhaps! Take the milk — yes, that’s very good. Now drink it down. Drink it down in one. Excellent. Excellent.”

The Professor slumped backward in his chair. Lomax quickly removed the milk jug, took it and his own tea-cup back to the kitchen, and washed both of them carefully, replacing the cup and saucer on the shelf, but refilling the jug with milk and taking it back to place it on the tray in the front room. He plumped up the cushion on the chair on which he had been sitting, and quickly wiped the floor where his wet boots had made a mark. Retracing his steps, he checked that no sign of his visit remained, and then he stood for a moment scrutinising his handiwork.

If this were a melodrama, he would have chosen that moment to laugh long and loud, and the laugh would almost certainly have been heard by cowering widows and orphans nearby. But he did not, and it was not. Instead, opening the door first a crack so that he could see that the street was empty, he went out into the night, closed the door behind him, and set off to find Bart.

Chapter Six appears on Thursday 30 December.

Chapter Four — Tuesday

Chapter Four — Tuesday

MMasonry came crashing around his head as Michael flailed, grasping at air. Somehow he knew that what was below him was not deep snow, which might save him, but the hard stone which the parapet he had stood on had kept free of all but the slightest dusting.

His stomach gave a lurch — would it hurt? Would it hurt for long?

Whoomph!

Something huge and heavy from the side knocked him out of the air and into a wall at the side. He thudded into the wall, and a numbing pain shot through his shoulder. Then he was falling again — but only for a moment. He fell hard onto a rough ledge of stone — not the stone far below which would have shattered his bones, but the remains of a chamber or corridor below the one he had fallen from. He had fallen awkwardly, twisting his ankle underneath him. He looked down and around.

Of the animal, thing or person which had knocked him out of the air, there was no sign. What was it? Who was it? Not the elfin figure he had been following, which was so slight that it could scarcely have swayed him. A huge dog? A wolf? A bear?

There were prints in the snow on the other side, but the angle was wrong to see them properly, and they were smudged and scuffed. Something or someone had leaped across that gap to save him. It had run on afterwards, perhaps unable to stop. To his right was an open doorway, leading, he guessed, to the stairway he had climbed. That stairway was snow-free, and retained no tracks. He listened for a moment to see if it, he or she were coming back, but there was no sound — no sound from the rescuer, and no sound of laughter from the strange, supernatural apparition which had lured him there.

He pulled himself to his feet, and tested his weight on his twisted ankle. Pain shot through his leg, almost reaching the numb pain that continued to press down from his shoulder. He knelt down and rubbed it. It had not — yet — swollen up. Perhaps the boot had taken more of the strain that he thought. He tried to stand on it again, and this time the pain was less. What had he been thinking of? Running after a ghost in the freezing snow in a deserted ruin at dead of night?

Slowly, he hobbled back down the stairs. The cold snow on his ankle brought blessed relief. He stopped to pack more of it into the top of his boot. In this way, he struggled back to the hut, pulled his boots off, and dragged himself into bed. He realised that he was now very cold. Shivering, he lay for a moment thinking about his adventure. Then sleep took him.

Far away, at the robbers’ lair, the scouts were returning to report to Black Hand Nigel. They had seen strange things — a horseless cart which churned its way through the snow — but they had also seen the two men they were expecting. Gordon and Alexis had been carefully described to them.

Black Hand Nigel, who had stayed awake late into the night, drinking strong coffee and smoking strong tobacco, was pleased with the news. He listened intently, and then turned to his lieutenant.

“At midnight, we strike,” was all he said.

* * *

It rained through much of the night in Bidforst, not washing away all the snow, which was cold and compacted, but flushing it from roofs both thatched and tiled. Some of the villagers were up early with buckets, dealing with fresh leaks, or keeping impromptu rivulets from coursing through their back doors and out through their front doors. There was still ice on the Red Avon, but none on the White Avon, confirming, if he had needed the confirmation, that Gordon’s observation about the rivers held true.

There was commotion at the Spirit of the Mountain: Geoffrey had called an impromptu hearing, to settle the ‘Question of Ownership of an Item Salvaged’, as the typewritten notice on the doors of the post office, of the village hall, and of the constable’s house stated. Seline knew the most about it, and therefore said the least, though, as it will turn out, she did not know quite as much as she imagined. Brian, Horace and Edward knew almost nothing, and speculated loudly. Had someone found the entrance to the silver mines? Had they found a hoard of Roman silver? A few miles away in Cleeve Prior, a man had once found a sack of Saxon coins. Though they were mostly copper, it had made him rich enough to never need to work again.

Half the village gathered at the hall as the clock struck nine. The constable solemnly opened the door, and they burst in. The room was rather cold and damp — nothing really had happened there since the village party, a week before Christmas — though someone, probably the constable, had lit the stove some time before. Claudine, Lizzie and Megan chose seats close up to the stove, but older and wiser people, knowing how oppressive the heat from the stove would become, picked places a little further away, content to put up with the dank chill for a while in return for a tolerable seat throughout.

In normal circumstances, Geoffrey would have had the telescope brought to the hearing, so that people could look at it. But they had found a snag — try as they might, they could find now way to shift it. Fiedel surmised that it was in some way bolted to the floor, but they could not find the place in the floor, looking upwards from below, where the bolts were.

The arrangement of the hall was as follows: all the chairs were set in a square, with a single column down the centre where people could walk. At the front was a table, at which sat Geoffrey and the Constable, and to one side was a sort of lectern, which was to be used for witness statements.

Geoffrey harrumphed, and got to his feet.

“Fellow villagers, I have called this hearing to ascertain the ownership of a certain item which has come to our attention.” People who knew Geoffrey well were quite used to his style on formal occasions, though those who had only seen him in the tap-room of the Spirit would have been surprised by his air of definiteness and authority.

“The hearing relates to a brass telescope, discovered by Professor Fiedel, a resident of this village, in the early morning of the twenty-sixth of December, this year Anno Domini two thousand and ten, at the place which is popularly known as ‘the old mill’, though is marked correctly on the land registry as ‘Philbin’s Mill’.”

There was rather more of this, and you already know the details, so there is little point in repeating them at this point. You might imagine that the affair would be a formality to confirm Sedan’s ownership. But new evidence had come to light, or rather, not come to light. Sedan did not seem able to produce the promised paper-work, or anything like it. He had offered some papers, but Fiedel had pointed out that they were, in fact, a list of particulars of a bone china tea-set which had been sent by sea from Shanghai. Sedan was put on the stand to make his declaration that the telescope was missing, but, under cross-examination from Fiedel, who had switched without appearing to notice it from being his advocate of the day before to his chief opponent, he could confirm that that telescope was the actual telescope he was missing, since he had never seen it, nor could he point to any authoritative description of it in any of his papers.

Sedan was dismissed from the witness box with a caution from Geoffrey.

The hearing adjourned for elevenses, and the sun peered out from behind the clouds to warm the villagers who spilled out along the high street to buy pastries or mugs of soup, and to hasten the thaw.

Far away, in the shadows of the Krak de Montaigne, the sun shone with no less kindliness, though with less effect: the temperature remained below freezing, and what rain there had been had frozen, leaving icicles hanging like daggers from every jutting stone, archway and parapet.

Gordon was bandaging Michael ankle for the third time, packing it with fresh snow. Alexis was quietly fuming, not so much because the injury would interrupt the expedition, as they planned to ride the old path to the top of the Ugly Sister, but because it was unplanned, and because something important (he did not admit this, even to himself) had happened to someone else, meaning that, for a while at least, he was not the centre of attention.

Derek had set off on a long walk. He told the others that he was scouting out the land, seeing who it was that had been in the castle, and if they were hostile. In reality, he was trying desperately to make contact with the robbers. But the scouts were long gone, and the main party was yet to arrive.

The main party was at that moment preparing its weapons. Guns of all kinds, except for ridiculous old-fashioned flint-locks or blunderbusses, were generally in short supply among them. More importantly, Black Hand Nigel held a deep and long standing suspicion, or, if you like, superstition, about the effect of firing shots on the mountainside. It was said that there were places on the mountain where the slightest shout would set off the avalanche, leaving everyone for miles around buried in yards of snow, to be pulled out as frozen remains months later when the late spring finally exposed them. But they had no shortage of axes, mattocks, scythes, viciously sharpened pruning hooks and marline spikes, and knives, daggers and cutlasses.

Only a small party was to go: twelve was more than enough to deal with four men. In fact, as you know, it was not twelve men against four men, but thirteen men against three men. However, because of the break down in communication, Black Hand Nigel did not know that their man had been successfully inserted into the expedition. Nigel, who knew Derek well from years before, would have recognised him in a moment, but he had not been with the scouts, nor was he planning to go with the raiding party. He could have saved himself quite some trouble if he had been.

Back in the village, elevenses came to an end. Geoffrey reconvened the hearing, introducing a surprising development. Another person had stepped forward to claim the telescope. It was Mr Lomax.

Many eyebrows were raised. Fiedel, continuing in his self-chosen role of chief prosecutor, or, at least, as inquisitor, questioned him.

“Now, Mr Lomax, please state for the record your name.”

“It is Mr Lomax,” said Lomax. There was the faintest ripple of laughter from the public seats.

“Ah, quite so,” said Fiedel, as if he had expected some other answer.

“Now, tell us in your own words, what is your claim to ownership of the aforementioned item.”

“Ah, thank you. Thank you. I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight, and I thank the court for its patience—”

“This is not a court,” interrupted Geoffrey, “it is merely a hearing.”

“Ah, I thank you again for the correction, and I tender my apologies for the village for the confusion which I have caused. As everyone here knows — I call on everyone as my witness — I have lived among you for three years, and my profession is as an agriculturalist. I have noted with detailed notes of a most scientific nature the very excellent way in which you go about your agriculture, and, indeed, your horticulture, and other forms of culture which are so advanced in this community. I am a man of science, and like every man of science, I delight in the use of the most precise and up to date instruments.”

“Get to the point,” someone muttered from the third row.

“Ah, I thank you,” said Lomax, clearly intent on thanking the assembly for everything. “I welcome the opportunity to move on. A few months ago, a business associate of mine — a man whose anxiety to please sometimes overtakes his desire to manage paperwork — came to me with an offer which, in my heart, I knew I could not refuse. It was the opportunity to own the finest Zeiss telescope, an item which is seldom to be found outside of Saxe-Weimar. Naturally I seized the chance, and insisted he arrange delivery as swiftly as he might. Since my associate is not — I am not sure how to put this in the presence of the court, I mean hearing — entirely reliable, I insisted that cash would be payable only upon successful delivery. But, since, like many persons of limited trustworthiness, he insisted that he would not deliver unless I first demonstrated that I had the means to pay.

“A compromise was reached, by which I mean we struck a deal, which was that he would deliver the telescope to the old mill, which I knew from my researches to be no longer in use, so that I could assure myself that it was complete and functional. I would then pay him the money, and we would later, if we were both mutually satisfied, transfer the item to my dwelling.

“With this agreed, we set about it, and the telescope was brought under cover of nightfall — for which I beg the court, I mean hearing’s, indulgence, being confident that no actual law was broken — to the old mill, where it was reassembled. I found myself entirely satisfied, and paid the cash. But, that very day, three weeks and two days ago as you all recall, snow began to fall, and there has been no opportunity to complete its transportation.

“This, then, is my account. I apologise for the waste of the court’s, that is the hearing’s, time by my failure to do these things in public, and resolve to live a better and more transparent person.”

He bowed to the gathering, as if he had completed a recitation, and seemed on the point of taking his seat. Professor Fiedel, however, was not finished with him.

“Mister Lomax,” he said, “the hearing, I am sure, thanks you for your candour. But, since we have you here, and, I am sure, all of us are curious, perhaps you could answer one or two technical questions about the telescope.”

“By all means.”

“First, what is the design and focal length of this particular instrument?”

“It is a catadiotropic reflecting telescope, known especially in England as a Newtonian telescope, which distinguishes it from a Galilean telescope. It has a remarkable two thousand millimetre focal length, which is approximately two yards in English measure.”

“Thank you, Mister Lomax. I am sure everyone will agree,” he turned to the assembly, which was largely looking out of the window, or staring aimlessly into space, “that this is a very clear and complete description of the optical principles of the telescope. But, tell me, is the telescope complete as it stands, or are you expecting a further delivery of parts?”

“As I have said, the telescope was assembled to my complete satisfaction.”

“So there are no parts missing.”

“That is correct.”

“How then, do you account for the fact that this telescope cannot be focussed for the naked eye, and evidently does require an additional eyepiece for its function?”

“Well, I, that is, I am sure that — the scoundrel! The scoundrel must have taken away the eyepiece after I had left. Doubtless he will try to sell me the eyepiece all over again…”

The audience may not have understood (to be entirely correct, did not understand) the science or even the mechanics of Fiedel’s questioning, but they were well placed to read the looks of smug satisfaction, bewilderment, fear, and desperation which passed across Lomax’s face in quick succession. Lomax continued to try to bluster for a further minute, to a rising tide of jeers and laughter. Eventually he subsided, raising his hands in an appeal to Geoffrey.

Geoffrey sat impassively while all this was happening, eventually, at the point that Lomax gave up, leaning forward to consult with the constable and with Professor Fiedel. He banged his fist on the table for silence.

“Mr Lomax, the hearing has heard your presentation. I fear I must make the same warning to you as I made to Mr Sedan. You are in the presence of officers of the King’s Bench, even though this is not a formal court hearing. You have made a presentation in order to acquire a valuable scientific instrument which we on the bench are inclined to refer to by the jurisprudential term of ‘a pack of lies’. Why you have chosen to do this is not clear to the court at this moment, but you have placed yourself in the clearest danger of a charge of perjury.”

He looked down at his notes, and then back at the assembly.

“Unless there is anyone else who wishes to come forward with their own version of how a brass telescope came to be in an abandoned mill, I propose that we adjourn for luncheon. This matter remains open, and we shall reconvene once further evidence becomes apparent.”

He stood up.

“All rise,” declaimed the constable. And they did.

Professor Fiedel joined Geoffrey for lunch at the Spirit of the Mountain.

“So, we are no further than we were,” he said, picking at a piece of boiled ham.

“Oh, I don’t know, old chap,” said Geoffrey, who had once more set aside his King’s Bench tone for his usual jovially diffident self. “We know that it doesn’t belong to Sedan. Lucky escape for Sedan, that, really. The constable would have arrested him at the drop of a hat if he’d got himself in any further. And what about that Lomax? Never really spoken to him before. He’s an odd fish, if ever there was one.”

“Yes, yes, Lomax,” said Fiedel. “I wonder where he’s really from. Italian, do you think?”

“Oh, well, you know me, old man,” mumbled Geoffrey through a potato, “foreigners are all the same to me. Can’t tell one from the other.”

“He’s Spanish,” said Seline, leaning over them to replenish the sauce dish, though there was no need to, as it was still full. Even in the twenty-first century, when international incidents were settled at the negotiating table rather than in open warfare, Spain was still England’s great enemy.

“Now, Seline,” said Fiedel quickly, “there’s no proof of that.”

“Suit yourself,” said Seline, somewhat uncharacteristically, and she turned rather sharply away to see to the other tables. Sedan had already given her an account of the morning’s proceedings, and his own humiliation. He was as philosophical as only a Frenchman can be in such circumstances. “Ah, at least they will not point the finger of blame at me,” he said. She poured him a glass of wine from the special barrel, before sending him on his way.

A few minutes later she went out into the back. The snow was thawing merrily, and her little courtyard was almost clear. Water trickled steadily from the alleyway.

She was just bending down to make sure that the drains were clear of leaves, when she noticed that there was a new visitor to the dovecot. She and a few other inns in south Warwickshire kept homing pigeons, by which they could send messages to each other. The pigeons had done little flying in the snow, but here was one of her own pigeons, hopping around with a note attached to its leg. She took the bird in her hand and smoothed its feathers, pulling the note from the tiny tube.

It was from Huw. Now she understood: Huw had taken the bird with him when he left. It was only a tiny scrap of paper, and it was written in a language which was not quite Welsh, nor yet Breton or Walloon, but, nonetheless, the words were words which Seline understood. In English, it would have read, simply: “Angharad very bad. Doing my best.”

Seline stood and stared at the message for a long time. Silly old Huw! Why couldn’t he write to tell her what he wanted her to do? Or perhaps there was nothing that she could do, except wait. She scrunched the piece of paper in her fist, and stuck it inside her apron.

Back in the tap-room, Claudine, Lizzie and Megan had chosen seats much closer to Edward, Horace and Brian than they usually did. Claudine was just working up to talking about how dangerous the mountain was, how no one had ever climbed it so late in the season, how brave the men must be who were facing it, how —

“Can’t you shut up for a moment, you stupid girl?”, snapped Seline. Instantly, every head present was turned towards her. Seline never, ever snapped at paying customers.

For a moment Claudine cowered, and then she chose to stand her ground.

“What’s it to you if I want to talk about the mountain? What’s it to you if I want to talk about Alexis? It’s a free country isn’t it? I can talk about whoever I want. I bet you talk about that Michael the dagotyper — oh yes you do, I saw you, we all did, with your hand on his arm.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Seline. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, foolish girl.”

But afterwards she went into the back and smoothed out Huw’s message so that she could read it again. Angharad. Angharad!

At that very moment, Huw was standing on an overhanging precipice on the far slope of the Ugly Sister. Huw’s eyes were not like ordinary men’s eyes, and he saw many things a great way off. The morning mist had completely cleared, and he saw, a great way off, like tiny ants, black against the snow, men issuing from the gates of the Black Hand Gang’s lair. Huw knew all about the Black Hand Gang. He had watched them run amok on his mountain far too often. They were a scourge, a blot on the landscape. More than once he had used his mountain-craft and cunning to thwart their plans, but equally as often he had found himself powerless to hold them back, especially when they set off in numbers: one man can scarcely fight off twelve.

He watched them for a long time as they made their way up the goat-trails. They were perhaps three hours off, and the path they were taking could bring them only to one place — the strange little hut which workmen had built during the summer in the ruins of the Krak de Montagne. Alexis Brand and the others were there: Huw had seen the Mechcart, and the column of smoke rising from the chimney of their little stove.

Down in the little hut, Alexis was moving papers around a card table. Michael’s ankle was not as badly twisted as they had first feared, but it meant some minor adjustments to his plan. When he was ready, he called the others in.

“Right, now, we had expected to spend today making measurements and surveying points of the pass. Thanks to our little adventure last night,” he cast a pointed glance, “we are a little behind schedule. Tomorrow we ascend the secondary summit, which is locally called the Ugly Sister. We will go the whole way by Mechcart, and our intrepid dagotyper — if he is able — will execute a series of pictures demonstrating that the Mechcart is the equal of the mountain. I have a particular fine image in my mind of myself, one foot on the fender of the cart —” Gordon shot him a warning glance “—but enough of that. We will go up and down in a single day. The following day, Gordon and will begin the ascent of the Mountain proper. We can ride much of the distance in the Mechcart, leaving us almost two full days to reach the summit by midnight on New Year’s Eve. From there, we will set off our fireworks — Michael, make sure that you capture those in a suitably dramatic fashion, perhaps with the side of the Mechcart in view. I have persuaded some young men in the village to set off answering fireworks from the church tower, and the bell-ringers will ring the bells. On New Years’ day we begin the descent, and complete it on Sunday, returning to this place to spend the night here. The following day we ride in triumph back to the village, and Michael goes by fast horse, if he is fit to ride, to Worcester, from where he can get the train to Winchester. With a very little luck, our pictures will fill the newspapers for the entire week which follows, which my reputationalist informs me is the time of year that most journalists are on holiday, and editors therefore struggle to find news. Are you alright, Derek?”

Derek had been muttering to himself throughout, making the occasional note on a piece of paper.

“Just trying to get the details straight in my head, sir. What will I be doing while your good sirs ascend the mountain?”

“Ah, very good, Derek, you and Michael can stay with with the Mechcart. We will take an extra bag of coal with us, and, what with the carapace and the burner, you should both be warm enough.”

“Very good, sir.”

“But, now, before we go any further, I have to say something very serious indeed. I have uncovered that there is a spy at work!”

“A spy?”, said Michael.

“A spy,” muttered Gordon, drily.

“A spy?”, said Derek, stiffening. The words seem to choke in his throat.

“A spy!”, said Alexis, having gained exactly the response he had hoped for. “Gordon and I have known for some time that foreign powers are after the work we are doing. It is our intention — and I confide this now to you, gentlemen, as men who share in the dangers of our adventure, and should therefore share in its secrets, that we intend to complete a hydrographical survey, with a view to generating electricality from the swift flows down the mountainside. The implications of this I am sure are clear to you. Cheap, clean electricalness, from an endless and inexhaustible supply. It will make England the greatest nation on earth.

“Naturally, there are spies. But I have reason to believe that there is a spy right here, right now.”

Derek made as if to get to his feet. His hand moved towards the knife concealed in his coat.

“Calm, there, Derek,” said Alexis. “The spy is not right in this room. I followed the tracks left by Michael last night, and I looked around for other tracks near the castle. One set I minded particularly — a pair of feet in boots, with a single, narrow mark, exactly the mark that would be left by a shepherd’s crook, or a mountain guide’s staff.”

“Well, it’s probably just a shepherd!”, said Gordon, who had less patience for Alexis’s melodramatics than the other two. “Heavens, it’s hardly unlikely that a shepherd would be out looking for a lost sheep.”

“That is not all I saw,” said Alexis. “Late this morning, I saw a pigeon fluttering into the air, and setting off with great purpose towards the village. I watched it until it was no longer in sight, its course unwavering.”

“You saw a pigeon, man!”

“This was absolutely certainly a homing pigeon. Pigeons do not otherwise flutter upwards and then head for home in that way.”

“And did you see a message tied to its foot?”

“It was too far away to see any such thing. But there is one more thing, I have seen the spy himself!”

“Really?”, said Michael.

“Well, you could have said so straight off,” said Gordon.

“Only in silhouette, and from a distance. But it was the vast bulk of a man I shall not quickly forget. It was that man, Huw, who, at the village attempted to insert himself into our party. What’s more, he took a very good look at the plan which came out of my portfolio the other day.”

“Ach, man, you’re obsessed. He took a good look at your plan, and handed it back to you. If he was a spy, do you not think he would have hared off down the street with it?”

“Not if he wanted to watch our movements and see what we were about.”

“What should we do about him, Mister Brand?”, said Derek, who had visibly relaxed.

“Well, for now, there’s nothing we can do except be on our guard. There’s no law against being out on the mountain in winter. But we must be careful to say nothing where we can be overheard about our plans and our programme.”

Outside the hut, mist was once again rising from the snow, especially around the streams which still trickled through the ice past the fortress. Of the stream which never froze there was no sign, though, as Gordon pointed out, that was a stream from the main peak, and was on the other side of the mountain.

Darkness began to fall. Derek stoked up the burner in the Mechcart, and the stove in the hut. Alexis was busy with something outside, working with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver and his long reel of copper wire until the light was quite gone. He did not say what he had been doing.

In the mean time, the robbers had reached the castle, and, making use of the mist and darkness, had taken up places barely a hundred yards from the hut. They had had a long and arduous trip: snow had inexplicably fallen from the rocks above when no wind blew, and several times their way was blocked by a fallen tree. At one place, little stones began to fall on their heads, followed by clouds of dust, mud, ice and snow. A few seconds later a huge murmuring and rumbling from above told them that a rock-fall was in progress. They had scant seconds to scamper back before a rush of more ice, more snow, and more mud preceded three great boulders which blocked the path completely. In the end they had to turn round and circumvent them, taking another route which cost them almost an hour. They were glad to reach the gaunt safety of the castle, and gladder still of the darkness and mist, a robber’s closest friends throughout all the ages of mankind.

They waited, somewhat shivering, because the temperature had again dropped and melted snow was now refreezing around them, for the order from their captain, Black Hand Clem, who was one of Black Hand Nigel’s most trusted lieutenants.

And they waited.

Something strange was happening.

Lights played across the castle wall. Laughter echoed from parapet to parapet and from arch to arch. Lying in his bed, Michael knew the laughter from the previous night. He was desperate to get up and pursue it again. Something in that laugh tingled through his spine. He sat up, and put his foot out of bed.

Pain filled him the moment it touched the floor, reminding him of why he could not, or not tonight, follow that voice. But the laughter continued, maddeningly, drawing nearer and closer and further and more distant. He pulled himself out of bed, drew his breaches on, and went to sit beside the stove, gazing out of the tiny window.

After some time, he heard the sound of Gordon stirring, and, presently, he too was awake.

“What is that sound?”, he said.

“That’s the sound I heard last night, and, look, there are the lights flickering.”

“And you say it was the form of a woman you followed?”

“A young woman, a girl, dancing in something that shimmered. She seemed to feel no cold, nor did her feet seem to touch the snow.”

“Well, I did’ner believe yer story about the lights and the voices—”, his accent had become thicker, as if some of the city sophistication had been stripped away, exposing the highlander beneath, “but I hear and see it now. You’ll not be wanting to take a look tonight with that foot.”

He shook Alexis, who grumbled about being woken up, but eventually climbed out of bed and came to sit at the window.

They listened to the laughter for almost an hour. Then, suddenly, it was cut off. The dancing lights vanished. Alexis was about to speak, but Gordon put his hand on his arm. Instead of the laughter and the lights, there was a sharp cry, like an order, and the sound of men grunting and slipping as they ran through the snow towards the hut.

Alexis grabbed for his sword stick, and Gordon did the same. Derek sat bolt up in bed, as if he had not been asleep at all, and jumped down. For some reason his boots were already on. Michael had no stick, no sword, and no knife. He was looking for the poker from the stove when Alexis pushed something into his hands. It was a sort of push-lever screwed to a piece of wood, and two wires ran from it.

“When someone touches the window or opens the door, push this button,” he whispered. “Not before, and not after, and hold it only for a moment.”

Then he leaped for the door, followed by Gordon and by Derek. They burst out into the snowy, misty darkness to see shapes of men hurtling towards them. There was a glint of metal here and a sound of cutlass in sheath there.

Alexis was the first to find a man to fight. In one movement he drew his sword from its stick, flailing it at the man in front him. Metal crashed into metal, and he and the robber stood for the shortest moment pushing at each other’s blades. Then Alexis disengaged his blade, beating the other’s as he came back round, and lunged at him.

If that lunge had hit, the robber would have fallen to the ground fatally wounded. But Alexis had trained on gymnasiums with rubberised floors. Fighting in snow was new to him. He lost his footing as he lunged, doing no more than slash at his opponent’s knee, which brought a squeal of pain, and then he was down, rolling in the snow while the other, also down, rolled over him was a sharp blade to finish him off.

Alexis’s sword arm was pinned underneath his body. With his left arm he desperately tried to fend off his attacker, who had dropped his own sword and snatched a knife from his belt.

At the same moment, three men converged on Gordon, while Derek, long knife drawn in the door way stood for a second motionless. Michael, unable to trust his leg, stared outwards at the swift shadows.

Alexis screamed, a terrifying, blood curdling scream.

Chapter Five appears on Wednesday 29 December.

Back to Top