Just at that moment a door opened behind him, and the street flooded with light. Derek’s left arm dropped like a stone, and he swiftly thrust the raised knife back inside his coat. Fiedel, unaware of what had almost befallen him, went on, turning the corner into the High Street, which was lit by gas lamps. There were people still about, and Derek remained behind at the corner. There would be other opportunities. There were always other opportunities.
Back at the inn, Gordon, Alexis and Michael were each, in their separate rooms, checking through the things they had prepared for the adventure, which was to begin the next morning at first light. Gordon had his special coat, deeply quilted on the inside, waxed against all conditions on the outside, and equipped with a selection of buckles and loop holes, so that it could fold from underneath into a bag or sack to sleep in. It was Gordon’s own design, made for him by a tailor in Edinburgh, and, in his own quiet way, he was as proud of it as anything he had ever done. Alongside the coat, rope, hooks, crampons, boots, a small tent which rolled up very tiny, but was big enough for two men, a compass, a mystery novel which he was reading, and a sword-stick, which was a heavy walking stick out of which could be pulled a sword if you first turned the handle, though otherwise not.
Alexis also had rope, crampons and boots, and a blanket sewn together with a sheet, and folded round and sewn again, stuffed with down. He had got the design from British officers in the Crimea, and a tailor in Jermyn street had (rather reluctantly and with much tutting) sewn it for him. He also had his portfolio of papers, including the all important design for the hydroelectricalistic wheels on the mountain side, which was the true purpose of the expedition. He also carried with him a set of self-filling map-makers pens, a theodolite, flags of various colours, a very long roll of copper wire, some insulating clips, a tin box full of fireworks, sealed with wax against the damp, and a sword stick which was the exact sibling of the one which Gordon carried: they had bought them together at an armourer near St James’s Palace, which was where the King lived when he was not either in state at Winchester, or in one of his numerous other castles and palaces up and down the country.
Michael’s packing was simpler. He too had boots, but no crampons, as he was not going mountaineering. His job was to dagotype the Mechcart in all its glory on the peak of the Ugly Sister, with the Mountain peak behind, and to take pictures of Alexis and Gordon in various adventuresome positions before they set off on the real climb. To this end, he had his infinitely (to him) precious Zeiss Jena Dagobox. It was one of only six in the whole of England, which rather lagged behind the German principalities, and especially behind France in the adoption of this technology. The Dagobox took rolls of film, rather than glass plates, and was no bigger than a shoebox, even with its objective-lens attached. “Suitable even for a mountain climb!”, the publicity ran, though, as luck would have it, no one had yet actually taken one onto a mountain. Michael would not have dared to either — the Zeiss Jena cost a year’s wages for an ordinary person. But Alexis, who was wealthier than most banks, had promised to make good all costs, including incidental damage. The moment they were back in Bidforst, Michael was to take the fastest horse he could find to the railway station at Worcester, and take the train straight to Winchester, where the offices of Daguerre & Co (England) would process his rolls of film with the utmost care and speed. From thence, copies would go to Brand’s reputationalist, a man who ensured that everything that Brand and Munroe did appeared promptly in the nation’s two great newspapers, and a further copy would be sent by post to Carl Zeiss, fourth of that name, in Jena, for Michael to claim his prize of 1,000 Marks for the first proven mountain Dagotype.
As well as the precious Zeiss, Michael had several blankets, boxes of film, additional lenses, and several pairs of very thick socks. Michael did not like to have cold feet.
* * *
A crowd had assembled at first light to see them off. Well-breakfasted, Alexis waved to them, while Gordon gave a curt nod. Derek was already sitting in the driver’s seat, holding the lever that controlled the direction of the great ball which both steered the Mechcart and also contributed to its power. The ball was equipped with a variety of studs and sharp points, which could be extended or retracted according to the conditions. Alexis and Gordon sat behind him, and Michael sat at the back. He squared up his Zeiss for a picture over their shoulders of the Mountain, dead ahead, and, having got what he wanted, climbed off again to get a picture of the Mechcart with the admiring crowd.
Seline smiled at him. Huw was there too, standing impassively. He looked round for Angharad, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Derek started the motor. It purred into life with a faint whine. Then, very slowly and gently, it began to roll forward. Villagers jumped out of the way, as if it were some strange animal which might at any moment charge them down, but, really, they were in no danger. About half of the crowd decided that it had seen enough, and followed Seline back into the inn. The rest — including Claudine, Megan and Lizzie, followed the Mechcart to the end of the village. From there the road doubled back twice, and then adventurers were on their own. The mixed grit, ice and snow of the road gave way to the purest white snow, a foot thick at almost every point. Derek turned the screw which extended the spikes, and, with the extra grip it afforded, brought the Mechcart up to its majestic full thirty miles per hour. Alexis and Gordon put on goggles which they had kept in a small locker underneath their seats, while Michael turned round and faced the other way, wrapping his scarf four times round his face and pulling his hat down over his ears. The Mechcart gave off a faint warmth, through the action of the lead and sulphuric acid in its is power cells, underneath their seats, but it was a cold journey, even when the wind did not whip the top off the fallen snow and into their faces.
And so they journeyed.
Far away, on the other side of the mountain, Black Hand Nigel was inspecting his men. He was unquiet about the lack of signals from Bidforst. Had his man been captured? Was he at this very moment pouring out all he knew of the plans? At any other time he would have sent a swift rider to the village to find out, but, in the snow and ice, a rider would take two days to get there, and another two to get back. He might have considered abandoning the plan, but the Spanish gentleman who had ridden all the way to their lair had offered such a large amount of money that he felt it would really be a breach of honour among thieves to let such a quantity of cash pass by. But there were still a number of things which he could do to improve the odds, if things really were going badly, and one of those involved something rather beautiful which he had discovered and had restored, dating back to the days when the lair was a military fort.
Seline had a deal of clearing up to organise now that the adventuresome four had gone. The ‘Adventuresome Four’ was the title which locals had given to them, and it seemed as good as any for the time being. All the rooms had to be cleaned. Gordon had left his very tidy, Derek’s bed looked as if it had been barely slept in, but there were copious amounts of ash in one of the plant pots, and the room smelt badly of stale tobacco. Michael had done his best to tidy the bed, but he had somehow managed to fold all the bed clothes on the wrong side, and the result was chaos. Alexis seemed to have moved every piece of furniture round the room. He had made no attempt to tidy anything, but left cupboard doors hanging open and draws half pulled out.
From Alexis’s room, Seline could hear a conversation going on in the tap room. It was Claudine, and her two friends.
“Did you see the way he waved to the crowd?”, gushed Claudine. “He’s got such a step to him. No wonder those other three follow him.”
“They do not,” said Megan. “That man with the dagotype is there because he wants to sell his pictures to the newspapers, and that other man is there because he’s paid to be.”
“I didn’t think much of the one with the pictures,” opined Lizzie. Seline pursed her lips.
“But that Alexis,” said Claudine. “That’s what a real man is like. So strong, so brave, so clever—”
“So rich, you mean,” muttered Megan. “Any way, I was sure you liked Brian.”
“Oh, me and Brian—”, said Claudine, in a much louder voice, which Seline took to mean that Brian was sitting with his two friends not far away, “—he needs to prove himself to me. He needs to do something to show that I’m the one for him.”
“I thought we were talking about Alexis,” said Lizzie.
They were interrupted by Seline, who had now had enough of Claudine’s game-of-jealousy.
“Right, you three,” she said, coming through the door which led from the guest rooms to the tap-room. “Claudine, I need you to run some errands for me.”
“Go down to Huw’s house and fetch Angharad. And you, Megan, off to the baker and bring four loaves. They should have them already waiting. And Lizzie, you can help me mop the floor in the back passageway. The snow has started to thaw, and it’s all mud and puddles.”
The three girls gave her rebellious looks, but, treated to a glare in return, they set off obediently to the tasks which Seline had assigned them. As Seline had guessed, Brian, Horace and Edward were sitting at one end of the bar.
“And you three, be off with you and play in the snow while there’s some left. Breakfast is over, and we’re not opening again until lunch time. Go and do something useful with your holiday.”
It was a few minutes later, having wrapped greaseproof paper around Lizzie’s new boots to keep them from being spoiled, that Seline overheard something which was to change the course of events dramatically.
Now, the front of “The Spirit of the Mountain” was on the High Street, but there was a side door onto Church Lane, and the inn, which was hundreds of years old, ran right the way back to a little alley which was commonly used for bringing in groceries, but which had remained unused on account of the snow.
Once Lizzie was hard at work on the floor, Seline went through the tiny courtyard at the back to stick her nose through the gate and see if she needed to do anything about the back alleyway in case the melting snow were to turn to flood.
There were two men in the alley. This was most strange. No one had any call to loitering there. It led only to the inn and to a blacksmiths which was temporarily closed due to the bad weather and a family illness. And nobody with any sense would be loitering in the snow, especially not with a thaw setting in.
Quick as a flash, she pulled her head back where she could not be seen, and listened. A heated argument was going on.
“But you promised me that you would signal them. You told me that, without fail, you would send to them a signal such that our plan would be effective.” The voice was angry.
“There’s trouble at old mill,” said a silky voice, with a chuckle. Now, this was a voice which Seline knew, and, it was her principal reason for both disliking and distrusting Blind Bart, as he was known in the village. Bart’s usual voice, which every villager knew and recognised, was the voice of a cantankerous countryman, always ready to remonstrate. It was the voice they had all heard when he came to shout about the Mechcart. But there was another voice, which few heard, which was the voice she heard now. She could never prove it, and it was not really in her nature to try, but the silky-smooth voice always seemed to know more than it should, and most often, a day or so later, some crime or misdeed had taken place which that voice had obliquely (and always obliquely) referenced.
“What sort of trouble,” said the other voice, which Seline identified as Lomax. Mister Lomax he always called himself, and he had lived in the village now for two years, styling himself as an agricultural scientist. Certainly he spent a great deal of time measuring crop yields and questioning farmers about their techniques, though Seline had never seen any particular results from all the notes he took. But, early on during his stay in the village, someone had come to visit him. They had spoken in some foreign language, but what she recalled overhearing again and again was “Señor Lomax… Señor Lomax… Señor Lomax…”
“Professor Fiedel has discovered the signalling machine. For now he believes it is an astronomer’s telescope, and that this means there is another man of science in the village. But he has told his friend Geoffrey the magistrate, and Geoffrey the magistrate has brought in the constable.”
“Well, dispose of them, then.”
“What, three men, including the magistrate and the constable, in a Warwickshire village? I don’t think so.”
They would have said more, perhaps, but at that moment Seline sneezed. It was the kind of sneeze that you only sneeze when you know that the worst thing you can possibly do is sneeze. It begins as the knowledge that you should not sneeze, and then becomes a wondering if you might sneeze, and from there a tickle in the nose, and from then an uncontrollable urge, which you try to hold back, and the more you hold it back the worse it becomes, until finally the sneeze, full blown (if I might use that term) trumpets out like something that an elephant might have been rather proud of.
“Hush, there is someone there,” said Lomax. There was a rasp of metal on metal — the drawing of a knife or sword.
Seline sneezed again, and then, to make a virtue out of a necessity, loudly banged her broom against the gate, and thrust it through.
“It is that foolish woman from the inn. Deal with her — we must not be seen together.”
A scurrying and a flurrying sound in the snow.
“Is that you, Mistress Seline,” called the raucous voice of Bart, changed instantly from his other tone.
“Bart?”, called Seline, “is that you? What are you doing round the back of our alley in the snow?”
“I don’t mean no harm, Mistress Seline, you know I don’t. Have you got rid of them pack of adventuresome nonsense, with their strange cart?”
“They’ve gone on their way, if that’s what you’re asking,” shouted Seline through the fence.
“You should never have let them leave that thing on the public road,” he shouted back.
“It’s a free country, and a free road. I’m sure they pay their taxes just the same as you do.”
“Bah,” said Bart. “Posh folk in their posh contraption.”
Now, Seline had already heard about the telescope from listening to Professor Fiedel. As inn-keeper and bar-lady, she generally had a pretty shrewd idea of what was going on in the village, and, in the way of a quiet country place, most people were happy to tell their secrets to their friends in front of her while she poured the drinks. She did not immediately grasp how a telescope could be a signalling machine, and she certainly had no clear idea about how a blind man would operate it, but she had heard enough to put her on the right track.
Ten minutes later she was putting on a thick coat. “Mind the inn for a minute, Megan, and put those loaves into the bread rack” she called, as she closed the door behind her.
You might imagine that Seline was on her way to the constable. But she was not. Village inn-keepers need to keep many counsels, and to be seen as too thick with the law was not something which would be good for business in the long run. In any case, she had a better idea, and there was someone she had been promising to visit since before Christmas.
At the very end of the village was the house of Sedan the Spy. ‘Spy’ was not his official profession, and he never described himself as such. But he was a Frenchman, who always wore a black hat, of the kind that (in the imagination of the village children) spies always wore. He also wore a long black cape, rather than a good English coat, and long black boots. And, in any case he was French (have I mentioned this?)
Naturally, no-one had ever caught him spying, and, if put to it, no-one had much of an explanation as to why England’s greatest ally (if you exclude the sister nations Wales and Scotland) should have sent a spy into rural Warwickshire. But, Sedan did send and receive a good deal of correspondence, which is naturally what spies would do, so, all in all, it was a fairly safe belief that Sedan the Spy was, after all, a Spy.
Seline neither believed nor disbelieved the story. The suspension of belief or disbelief, and of judgement, was another necessary quality in her profession. But she liked Sedan, and she saw danger for him if matters progressed unchecked.
Sedan’s house had a black door (naturally) with a heavy silver knocker. Seline knocked it three times, very deliberately. There was a flurry from behind the lace curtains — Sedan’s was the only house in the village to have lace curtains — and the door opened.
“Ah, Seline, you have come to visit me. Welcome, as always, please, come inside.”
His drawing room was large, panelled with black oak, and set with many mirrors. There was a piece of furniture known as a bureau in the corner, which was covered in many papers. Sedan’s hands were stained with ink, and it was clear that he had been writing with his scratchy steel pen since early that morning. He was fully dressed, minus the hat and cape, and wore boots rather than house slippers, as if he were ready to leave at any moment. But there was no sign or stain of snow on the boots, and Seline guessed that he had not left the house for many days.
“Please, do sit down. You will permit me to pour you some tea, with citron? You have come on business, I see. We must discuss it, but first, I will tell you a joke, which I have been practising for you.”
Seline balanced the tea-cup on her knees, while Sedan stood, rather in the manner of a man reciting poetry or reading a part in a play, and told his joke.
“Why does the Christmas alphabet have one letter less than the regular alphabet?”
Seline raised her eyebrows in expectation.
“Please, Seline, my friend, you have to say ‘I don’t know, why does the Christmas alphabet have one letter less than the regular alphabet?”
Seline nodded, and said the words as requested.
“Because—”, and he took a dramatic pause, “— it has no ‘L’.”
Seline thought for a moment.
“I’m not quite sure—”
“No L. Noël, Nowell, as you English say. In France, we call Christmas Noël. You have this also in your song ‘Nowell, Nowell’.”
“Oh, I see,” said Seline, clapping her hands together and laughing. “That’s very good. I must tell my customers.”
“Ah, good, you are too kind. But, now, to business.”
Swiftly, Seline told him about the telescope that Fiedel had discovered, about the visitors to the village, and about the conversation she overheard between Bart and Lomax.
“Ah, yes, this is very interesting. And what has it to do with me?”
“Well, at the moment, nothing. But in a little while they will work out that this telescope is not a telescope at all, but is some means of signalling over long distances. And who do you think they will blame for that?”
“Yes, it is true that I have encountered prejudice in this village relating to my nationality and style of dress. But a man must dress according to his style even in a village, not so?”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
“Of course. But you are also right. A foreigner is always a suspect. But this Señor Lomax you speak of, he is a foreigner, and Spanish. Why should the blame not fall on him?”
“No-one else knows that. And, anyway, he’s sure to be prepared for it. He may already be planning to pin the blame on you.”
“Ah, quite, just like a Spaniard. Napoleon the first should have defeated them and made for himself a grand empire. It could have happened, you know.”
“But what about it?”
“Well, what do you suggest that I do?”
“Go to the Constable and tell him that you were expecting a delivery of a very precious and expensive telescope, but that the delivery has never arrived, and you have now received letters which suggest that it has been stolen. Everyone knows that you send a receive letters all the time, and that all of your furniture was delivered from France. If they ask you why you have such a telescope, you simply say to them ‘As everyone knows, I am a spy, of course I must have a telescope’.”
“And this will work?”
“They’ll take is as a joke. It’s the English sense of humour.”
“Ah, yes, yes indeed. Very funny. I see it now. And what happens then?”
“The constable already knows where the telescope is. All you have to do is claim it. Some of the lads in the village will help you dismantle it.”
“And what if the real owner claims it?”
“He can’t, not without giving the whole game away.”
“Interesting. I will think on what you say. You may see me at the Constable’s a little later in the day.”
Seline arrived back at the in inn to find Claudine sitting nervously in the most uncomfortable seat nearest the door, hands tightly folded on her knees. She stood up the moment that Seline walked through the door.
“Oh, Seline, it’s Angharad. She’s missing.”
“I knocked on her door, like you said. I knocked several times. Then, as the door wasn’t locked, which it wouldn’t be, I took a peak inside. The fire hadn’t been lit, and there was no sign of breakfast — you know Huw always puts his own things away — so I wondered, ‘is she sick?’, so I went upstairs, ever so quietly. I knocked on the first door I could find, but no-one answered. Then I saw another door with a painting of daffodils on it, and you know Angharad loves daffodils, so I thought to myself ‘that’s Angharad’s room’, so I knocked on that, but there was no answer, so I knocked a bit harder and called out, but there was still no answer, so in the end I pushed the door open. The bed hadn’t been slept in, and there was a new candle in the candle-holder which hadn’t been lit, and the window was a little open, so that the whole room was freezing, I mean, really freezing, and Angharad is gone.”
“Have you told Huw this?”
“Huw wasn’t around. I came straight back, but you weren’t here. So I’ve been waiting all this time, and I’ve been worrying, and you know what Angharad is like. I saw her dancing in the snow in her night gown once. Do you think she’s run away?”
Seline pursed her lips.
“Angharad looks after herself very well. She’s always been a wild girl, always will be. I’ll let Huw know. He understands his daughter better than anyone. Maybe they’ve gone off together. — And here is Huw.”
At that moment, Huw came in through the front door. He was shaking snow from his boots. With the thaw setting in, the snow had turned from a dusting of powder to clingy, wet snow. He stamped his feet to get it off.
Seline explained what had happened.
“I’d best be off after her,” said Huw. He showed no sign of surprise, nor of worry, nor of anything else. His face was a picture of placidity, as if in his time he had seen all things, and this was merely the repeat of an earlier incident. “She’ll have quite a head start, which may not turn out so well, but I’ll catch up with her eventually.”
“Do you know where she’s gone,” said Claudine, anxiously.
“Oh, she’s gone where any daughter of mine would go,” she glanced at Seline, “she’s off to the Mountain.”
“The Mountain?”, cried Claudine. “In all this snow?”
“Count on it,” said Huw. “Well, must be on my way.”
“Here, take something for the journey,” said Seline, disappearing into the back. She returned with a satchel, into which she had put a whole ham.
“Much obliged to you, Seline. Be good now.” And he turned on his heel and went out through the door, setting off as if he was going to let the sheep into a nearby field, or taking the dog for a walk.
“Do you think he’ll find her,” said Claudine, through tears.
“There, there, girl, it’ll all be fine.”
Sedan knocked on the constable’s door.
“Oh, it’s you, is it?”, said the constable as he opened it. He had no particular liking for foreigners, and had often searched his book of bye-laws to see if being French was not, at least some of the time, a punishable offence.
“I wish to report a theft.”
“Oh, really. Well, you’d best step inside. What have you stolen, and from who?”
Geoffrey and Professor Fiedel were already inside the cramped office which served as the village police station. They had mugs of tea.
“Now, as luck may have it, we have the magistrate and his trusted friend already, so we can make this quick. This foreign gentleman wishes to report that he has committed a crime, the theft of an item.”
“No, no, no,” said Sedan. He bowed politely to Fiedel and to Geoffrey, who nodded in return. “I wish to report something has been stolen from me. A very rare and valuable telescope, to be transported from France by wagon. It was expected a month ago, but what with the winter weather and all I had thought it was delayed. But today I have been reviewing my correspondence, and saw a letter I had overlooked, informing me that the item had been delivered.”
“Very good, sir,” said the constable, noting this down. “And what were the approximate dimensions of the object in question? And had you, as the importer, paid the full import duty at an English port, as I have to inform you that, if duty were not paid, your delivery may well have been impounded—”
“Actually,” interrupted Geoffrey, “I think we may have found your telescope. Is it about eight feet long and five feet wide, highly polished brass, with a sort of mirror contraption and a carriage on wheels, and lots of cogs and dials?”
“Yes, it would be like that — I have not seen it yet myself, having only the word of by correspondent in Paris that it was to be delivered.”
There was a pause.
“Well, sir,” said the Constable at length, “we may have come into the possession of knowledge of the whereabouts of some such object as has been described. If you can produce the necessary paper work, I’m sure that we can match it up and see if it is indeed your object, and not some other object of a similarity—”
“Oh, really,” said Professor Fiedel, who had none of the constables objections to foreigners, being half-Hanoverian himself, “don’t be ridiculous. As if there would be two telescopes of that kind in one village.”
“— subject to the production of the proper paperwork, and evidence that duty has been paid to His Majesty’s Excise,” continued the constable in a louder voice.
“Ah, I’m sure I have the paper work somewhere,” said Sedan. “It is of course in French. You read French naturally?”
“I read the King’s English, and no other. You’ll have to produce a certified translation—”
“Oh, I can read French,” said Fiedel testily. “But, Monsieur Sedan, you must tell me about your telescope. Is its purpose astronomical or terrestrial, really, I had no idea that you are such a man of science. You will be a colossal asset to your village. I see a bright future. A subscription could be got up for a lecture hall, perhaps in time an academy…?”
Far away, now, trundling along at something like thirty miles an hour, the Mechcart purred its way through the snow. The thaw had not begun to reach that part of the road. They were now well into the foothills, though the village could still be seen whenever they topped a rise. Michael was entertaining them with snippets of information about the mountain he had picked up from Seline.
“And they say that the Romans mined silver here. The whole mountain is supposed to be riddled with tunnels — but since the Romans left, no-one has ever managed to find the entrance.”
“It will be a folk tale, as like as not,” said Gordon. “These classical writers sat at their desks in Rome, and wrote down any tale that came from the outer provinces as if it were Gospel. But was there not something written down by the Venerable Bede?”
“Oh, Bede writes about the mountain, alright,” said Alexis. He had switched on a heating element under each of the seats, and, once out of sight of the village, had pulled up a cowl or tent which went over most of the passenger area, though it did little for Derek who was sitting at the front with his huge coat wrapped twice around him. They had also passed round a little bottle of something warming, and the conversation had taken off from that point. “But Bede isn’t interested in silver mines. No, he’s interested in the miracle of Saint Edgwin’s stream.”
“Saint Edgwin’s stream?”, said Michael.
“There are many streams that flow down the mountain,” said Alexis. “Gordon has them all mapped out on the maps we made from the balloon flight. They join together not far from here to form the White Avon, which joins the Red Avon a little below Bidforst and becomes the Blue Avon—”
“It’s called the White Avon because of the churning of the waters over the many rapids,” interrupted Gordon.
“— but the legend or the miracle of Saint Edgwin’s stream is that it never freezes, even in the very coldest winter. Edgwin, who was one of the first Saxon saints, is supposed to have climbed the mountain in a dispute with a local spirit, or troll, or ogre, or perhaps just a land-owner. That part isn’t really clear in Bede, but, to prove that his God was greater than the mountain, he thrust his staff into the ground, and a spring broke out, and that spring has never failed, even in the very coldest of cold weather when all of the other waterfalls turn to ice.”
“And is it true?”, said Michael.
“True?” said Alexis. “Bede was written down more than a thousand years ago. Of course it isn’t true. How could it possibly be true?”
“Well, there may be some truth in it,” said Gordon. “I took the liberty of measuring the temperature of the water at the confluence of the Red and White Avons, yesterday. While you two were enjoying yourselves after lunch, I went for a walk and made some observations. The White Avon is a whole degree warmer than the Red Avon where the two merge. The story may have begun with that.”
They were now beginning to climb quite steeply as they passed out of the foothills and into the beginning of the pass. The shape of the castle came into focus, first as a dot on the hillside, and then as a hard shape, and then as quite clearly, no longer to be confused with a cliff edge, or some feature of the landscape, but as the walls of a vast fortress. They were broken down in places, and one of the towers was in ruins. Michael wondered what it must have been like to guard that pass in Edward’s day, with wolves outside the gates and robbers lurking on the hillside. Krak de Montagne did not look as if it were a hospitable place
What he did not know was that robbers were lurking on the hillside above him even as he imagined them. Scouts, sent out by Black Hand Nigel, had arrived at the Krak an hour before, and were now concealed on the high path which ran above them. The high path had been part of the original fortifications, dating back to the ancient Britons, who had in their turn guarded the pass against their own enemies. Armed men could lie there in wait, surveying those who came along the road, and, if need arose, hurling rocks or lighted torches on their heads.
For now, the robbers were content to wait.
Although Michael did not notice them, Derek did. He knew that part of the landscape quite well, having been Black Hand Derek for several years before he became the respectable Mister Derek Desmond, factotum and Gentleman’s Gentleman to the wealthy and famous.
“I say, are you alright, Derek?”, said Alexis.
“Yes, quite alright sir, just had something in my eye for a moment.”
Derek had been trying to wave his hand to attract the attention of the scouts above, without at the same time attracting the attention of the passengers in the Mechcart. The attempt was unsuccessful. But he had to make contact with them in one way or another. If they attacked — as per the original plan — after Brand and Munroe descended from the Ugly Sister, they would not have all the drawings and surveys which Lomax wished to purchase from the ascent of the Mountain summit itself.
They arrived under the castle walls just as the light was beginning to fade. The sky was paper white, and, despite the thaw, they had not seen the sun for most of the day. Michael imagined that they would simply station the Mechcart in the lee of a suitable wall, and make camp there, but Derek, Alexis and Gordon had other ideas.
Inside the castle the snow was deep and untouched, but this did not deter Derek. With the spikes from the Mechcart’s ball fully extended, he drove them straight inside, through a collapsed archway to the left, and then to the right, where a hut or cabin made from new wood stood.
“What’s this?”, said Michael.
“Ah, you’ll never manage adventures properly if you set off without knowing what’s ahead of you,” said Alexis. “We had a gang of workmen come here in the summer. They built this hut, and laid up a good supply of coal.”
“Well, even with the marvels of the new sciences, you can’t make electricality out of nothing. We needed coal here to recharge the cells. There’s a week’s supply. No need to mention this to anyone who isn’t part of the adventure. Preserve the mystique, and all that. I’m afraid that the food won’t be very interesting, but we should have some tins of boiled beef and vegetables.”
Things were almost, but not quite, as Alexis had said. The hut was in good order, but one of the windows had been left open, and there was snow on much of the floor. Gordon set to work with a broom clearing it up, while Derek set to lighting a fire in a cast iron stove, which bore the legend “Made in Manchester”. Alexis gave directions, while Michael looked around in amazement.
When the fire was lit, Alexis sent Derek off to stoke the Mechcart so that it would recharge, and got Michael taking pictures of him doing it. They manoeuvred the cart round several times so that the castle walls were clearly visible, and the slopes of the mountain in the distance. The cloud was far too low to see the peak, which annoyed Alexis. Michael noted that whenever he got into a position where he might include the hut in the picture, Alexis hastily moved him round.
When they got back inside, Gordon had shovelled fresh snow into a pan, and was heating water for a broth made from one of the tin cans, which had been buried in a steel box under a trap-door in the floor. Michael thought that Alexis’s ‘hut’ was a rather more sturdy dwelling than many of the slums around Winchester, but he did not say so. He resolved, though, to get some pictures of it while Alexis was not looking.
It was now quite dark, except for the glow from the stove. Alexis had a very strange light in a tube, which ran off electricality. He flicked it on and off several times to make sure that it was working, but told them that he would save it up for later.
Tired out by the cold and the day’s exertions, they one by one unrolled their blankets or bedrolls and lay down on wooden bunks. Michael noticed in the almost-dark that Gordon had, indeed, buckled his coat together to sleep in, and that Derek really did sleep with his ugly coat wrapped around him.
Around midnight, the skies cleared, and half moon shone down on them. Suddenly, Michael knew that he was wide awake, and he was hearing the strangest sound echoing round the castle walls.
Wondering if he was dreaming, he pulled himself upright, and banged his head on the bunk above him, where Derek was sleeping. That was enough to tell him he was not dreaming. The sound echoing was like laughter. It slid and bounced every which way around the hut. Shivering with cold, he quickly pulled on his breeches, his boots and his overcoat, and ventured out through the door.
Strange lights danced all around, sending eerie shadows moving this way and that. The sound of laughter was magnified and diffused by the echoes, and he could not see where it was coming from.
A strange dread — the dread you get from seeing a ghost, rather than the dread you get from visiting the dentist — began in the pit of his stomach, and worked its way up through his shoulders, setting his spine tingling.
The laughter seemed perhaps — was it, or was it not? — to be coming from the other side of that archway. He desperately wanted to take his Zeiss with him, but there was not the remote possibility of enough light to get an image.
As carefully and quietly as he could, he stepped out across the snow, following the laughter. He was right, it was coming from that archway. There seemed to be words now, but he could not make them out. Words and perhaps singing or chanting. Was this the night time ritual of some strange sect?
Lights flickered here and there, but whenever he looked at them they disappeared. There seemed to be no source. He was through the archway now, and the laughter seemed to be coming from a bit further. Then he saw something — only for a moment — a glint of something glistening, like some magical fabric fluttering in the breeze. But there was no breeze.
He ran forward, slithering in the snow, and almost falling on his face. A glitter and a glint and a glimpse again. There was a stairway ahead, to the left, and he saw now a foot — a foot, with a dancer’s slipper, disappearing up the stairway ahead of him. Jumping up, he pushed on, first into a steep drift of snow that encompassed him, almost burying him, smothering him in cold. Summoning all his strength he somehow found something solid beneath his feet, and kicked upwards. He was rewarded by what must be the bottom of the flight of steps, and drew himself out of the drift. The laughter was all around him now. He ran up the stairway, almost turning his foot on a loose stone, which fell clattering on the other stairs, to land silently in the snow. Now he saw a loose fold of garment — a glistening, glowing, ghostly white, like gossamer and phosphorous. The stair way went up and up. He could see the figure now ahead of him, running, or dancing along a parapet or walkway. It was a young woman, golden hair flowing and turning as she danced to and fro. In the poor light he could make out nothing more of her than that, except that, as she danced, she did not seem to sink at all into the snow. He ran after her.
The floor below gave way beneath his weight, and he fell straight through.
With thrashing arms and groping hands, he somehow managed to catch hold of a piece of masonry, and held on for dear life. Below, the ground was sickeningly distant. His hands were slipping, the masonry was crumbling, he felt it turning as it began to come away.
“Help! Help me!”, he called, but the only answer came as laughter.
Then he knew that he was falling.
Chapter Four appears on 28 December.