Main Characters: Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Psylocke and Bishop
Disclaimer: Mostly Marvel's. If you think it is, it is. Much of the rest belongs, if anything, to Britain. I rather think if I hadn't been born here I'd have had to move here. I've been all over Europe, and it's certainly not the most beautiful part overall, but where Britain is beautiful it is unique, because Britain is, in a way that has nothing to do with History or Anthropology, and very little to do with Geology, old. I don't believe in magic, but if it did exist anywhere it would exist in certain parts of Britain.
The Summer Country was for a brief time one of the Seven Kingdoms of Britain (along with Essex). It was centred on the region now known as Somerset, in the west of England. The modern suffix 'Chester' as part of a town's name means – in Britain, anyway – that it was once a Roman fort. And yes, I know the Wendigo is an Inuit legend. I relocated it for the purpose of the story, capische?
This story is set in a very alternate timeline. It's around 650 AD, and the Franks have built their great empire in what is now France and Germany. However, the Roman Empire remains strong across the Mediterranean, roughly encompassing modern-day Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the western part of Asia Minor. Meanwhile the Mongols have got started six hundred years early, conquering all Asia except India and Japan. The Scotii are already firmly established in the north of Britain, the Saxons were stopped half way across modern-day England, Brittany fell to the Franks, and the Huns never existed. Apologies to everyone who has ever tried to teach me history. On the plus side, Kung Fu (as Gongfu) has been around as a martial art since at least the 5th century BC, so no anachronisms there.The Summer Country
At the heart of the Summer Country lies the great forest.
The Summer Country is an ill-defined region. In the time of the High King Christopher the Seafarer, when the men of Britain traded with lands as far afield as Africa and the great empire of the Mongols, the Summer Country meant the entire island, from the highlands of the north to the marshlands of the south, from the wild kingdoms of Ireland in the west to the grim lands of the Saxons in the East. But the Corsair would not live forever, although he had lived a long time, and four years before our story begins he had shuffled off this mortal coil. Here arose the first problem.
The Corsair had two sons. Both were fine young men, handsome, intelligent and skilled in war, and they loved one another, as brothers should. If Scott, the elder, was a little faster in his studies, a little faster with his sword, this brought only admiration from his brother Alex. When a match had been arranged between Alex and Lorna, eldest daughter of the King of Denmark, Scott had supported his brother in his every attempt to win the princess' heart. When Scott had fallen for Jean, the daughter of old Earl Grey, Alex, happily married, had been one of the few young men of the court who had not been a rival for the lady's affections. It seemed that the succession was secure in the hands of these two strong young men.
Except that they were both Gifted.
Opinion was divided as to whether the Gifts with which some people were born came from God or the Devil. It was known that the old philosopher, Xavier, King Christopher's truest friend, had been Gifted, and that he had believed that all such gifts came from within, from the soul of man, and that all the Gifted should seek to use their powers to aid the world. It was also known that the Saxon Marauders, curbed since the Corsair's treaty with Essex, included many Gifted. Much uncertainty existed about the provenance of these Gifts, but their powers could not be doubted. Both of the princes could release energy blasts of unbelievable force, Scott from his blazing eyes, Alex from his entire body. When it was revealed that both of their wives were also gifted – and with a power to rival any, at that – many of the more superstitious people around began to mutter darkly of conspiracies. After Scott came to the throne and named Andrew de Warrene, the fabulously wealthy Duke of Worth, one of his most senior advisors, some of the outlying regions refused to acknowledge him as High King. This was reasonable – it was their ancient right – but they had to propose their own candidate. The only man to be set against Scott in wealth, rank and power was Nathaniel the Shaper, Pale Lord of the East Saxons and Master of the Marauders.
Which brings us back to the Great Forest.
The Great Forest is another poorly defined region. It can be said to run from the Frankish Sea to the south in a line up the middle of the country to the Highlands of the north, but not this entire region is what the people like to think of as the Great Forest. When most of the common folk of the Summer Country spoke of the Great Forest or, more normally, the Forest, they meant the thick southern woodlands which divided the heartlands of the kingdom from Essex, land of the Saxons. These woodlands are rich with game, filled to bursting with birds, beasts – and men, for the Forest is a great refuge for fugitives.
Despite this, in the past three years the Forest had become one of the safest places east of the capital at Castle-in-the-West, as the Romans called it, or Westchester, as it has become. Since the death of Xavier prejudice, inspired by the hysteria in the Three Empires of Europa – proud, ancient, Rome to the south, savage Frankia in the west, and the mysterious lands in the far east that are ruled by the Mongols – had risen to be a very real problem, despite the efforts of the King and his allies, and so many of the Gifted had fled into the forest seeking refuge. It was from among these that the Lord of the Forest arose.
The Nightcrawler, men called him, and spoke of his demonic appearance. It was said that he came from the eastern regions of Frankia, that he had fled to Britain in the face of persecution, and that he had now determined that he would not be moved. It was said that he was the offspring of a Succubus and a great Frankish general, that he was raised by a witch, and even that he had links with the Brotherhood. The people – Gifted and normal – that lived under his auspices cared for none of this. They knew that their leader was a brave, kind man of great intelligence and remarkable generosity, a master swordsman and a gifted scholar. They knew, too, that his demonic appearance was belied by his great piety – there were few men more Christian outside of holy orders – and that his faith was tempered by a great cynicism, the origins of which they did not know.
The Nightcrawler's name was Kurt Wagner. He was indeed of eastern Frankish stock, though his parents were a Gifted woman – who had, admittedly, often been compared to a soul-stealing she-demon – and a minor Frankish nobleman. His skill and learning were his personal achievements, for he had never known his family and had had no teachers before he came to the Forest, but his mastery of the ways of the woods had been taught to him by another, a man believed by most to be a legend, the savage man-beast known as the Iron Claw, though he claimed no name other than Logan. The story of how his claws and bones came to be cast in metal harder than steel was known to only one other mortal in the world, a descendant of the being that had caused it, while the rest of his past was a secret unknown to man.
Our story begins with an ending, the end of a long journey. A man who spoke with the exotic accent of Rome, a tall, grim man who called himself Castle and, when asked, gave his employment as 'traveller', brought news of this journey to the court at Westchester. He would not stay even the one night that courtesy demanded, but said that he must continue by ship to the Middle Sea and the great island of Sicily. However, the news that he brought was enough to make all but the strictest observers of etiquette overlook this breach.
'The Lady Elisabeth Braddock is alive, and even now awaits a ship to Britain. She is coming home. But she is changed.'
Before the Danes and the Saxons settled in Britain, before the Romans came, some said before the first men were there, the Earl Braddock had held power in the Summer Country. It was rumoured that the first Earl had been a Lord of the Sidhe, and that, though he married a mortal woman, his people returned at intervals to refresh the stock of his progeny. Even before there were Gifts the Braddocks had, through ancient magics, wielded great power. The Romans, said legend, had only conquered the island because the Earl of the time was a traitor. Since the rise of the Gifted the Braddocks had lost their monopoly on power in the realm – and it was said to be resentment over this that had driven the Lady Elisabeth's brother, Jamie, to insanity and, in turn, to drive away his Gifted sister (for the magic was wielded only by the men of Braddock) – but the Earl remained a man of great significance, the foremost of his rank, and, since Xavier destroyed Jamie Braddock in the last year of the reign of Christopher the Corsair, this place had fallen to a man many judged worthy of it.
Brian and Elisabeth Braddock had been born twins, and the blood of the Sidhe had therefore run unusually thick in their veins. There is magic to all twins, and this was only enhanced by their heritage. Add to that Elisabeth's Gift – a power to rival that of Xavier – and it was clear at a very early stage that she would one day be an ally of immense value. When her insane elder brother drove her out many hearts were broken – for she was a great beauty – but many more political schemes were thrown to the winds.
And now she was coming home. Her location was unknown, her point of arrival uncertain, and her new appearance could only be speculated on, but the rumours travelled as rumours do, like fire in dry grass, and it was only a few days before it came to the ears of interested parties – Nathan, Lord of the East Saxons, the Duke of Worth, and to the Nightcrawler, in his forest camp. And through him it came to the ears of the Iron Claw, Logan.
Logan lived alone. He had long been solitary by temperament, and his blunt manner and fearsome legend made him a hard man to befriend. The Nightcrawler visited him regularly, though, to receive advice and to give news in exchange, and so the old hermit was not surprised when his remarkable acquaintance materialised in a puff of purple brimstone in his herb garden.
Kurt spoke to his closest friend for a long time. They had much to discuss. They spoke of the recent murder of an innocent young Gifted named Douglas, of the wandering spy who had set his heart on Kurt's young ward Katherine the Jewess, of the recent death of the Warbird battling the Brotherhood in Roman Hispania, of the ambassadors sent by the Emperor Caius Julius Caesar Constantius Latverius Victor to demand the eradication of the Gifted from Britain, of the King's response (he simply met the ambassador in person, with Andrew de Warrene at his side and his wife using her power to accept the Roman's credentials. Faced with all this the man had barely summoned up the courage to deliver his message; that he went ahead was a tribute to the fear in which the Emperor was held).
And then the Nightcrawler mentioned the Lady Braddock.
'And?' said Logan.
'That is all I know, my friend.' Kurt told him. 'Why?'
'When she arrives, we keep an eye out for her.' Logan told him.
'Ist gut. Might I ask why?'
'You might. I might tell you. But not today.' Logan rose from his relaxed crouch, and headed in to the woods. Kurt hesitated for a moment, and then vanished in a puff of brimstone.
Another man who paid particular attention to the news was Andrew de Warrene, Duke of Worth and bosom companion to the King. The de Warrenes were of Frankish stock, although their continental lands had long since passed to another branch of the family. Eighty years ago a young de Warrene had married the Dowager Countess of Worth, a widow of fabulous wealth. Forty years ago Andrew's grandfather had, for exceptional military service, been named a Duke, much to the chagrin of many of the old native families. And twenty-seven years ago their first Gifted child was born, Andrew de Warrene, known as the Angel for his wings.
The Duke was a man of great physical beauty. This, combined with his great feathery wings, had brought him much of what he wanted in life. Most of the rest had come from his skill-at-arms, his affable disposition, and his keen sense for the political. Only one goal had ever truly escaped him, and that was the hand of Elisabeth, Lady Braddock.
The Dukes of Worth had ever sought to increase their power in the Summer Country. The most common route for their ambitions was through careful marriages, such as the one that had first brought them to prominence in the last century, and in this respect the Lady Elisabeth was an unequalled prize. Not only did she come from the oldest and wealthiest family in the land, not only was she a beauty to rival the Queen herself, but her Gift – that of the Mindspeech – was perhaps the most politically useful in the world. De Warrene sought her as a tool that would enable him to dominate the politics of all Britain. And if she was not currently the heir to the entire Braddock estates – well, these things could be arranged. The Duke was a good man, but his ambition burned with a dangerous brightness, and now at last his goals might be realised. When he heard the news he went, as protocol demanded, to Brian, Lord Braddock, and asked for that worthy's permission to pay court to his sister upon her arrival. The Braddock agreed – for he and de Warrene had enough in common to consider one another as friends – and, as protocol demanded, he added in the formulaic, 'If it pleases the Lady my sister.' The Duke was satisfied; within a twelvemonth he would be married to the Lady Elisabeth. And if her beauty had been destroyed by these famous changes? Well, he could stomach that in exchange for her wealth and power.
The Lady Elisabeth Braddock, known lately as the Lady Mandarin, as Kwannon, in some ways also as Revanche, and, lately, Betsy, was nearing the end of her journey. After six years away, after all the twists and turns of fate, she was returning home. Right now, though, she was lying asleep in her cabin on the Mongol trade ship on which the great Khan had bought her passage. Lying in a hammock slung at the foot of the bed, similarly asleep, was her servant, a young Chinese Gifted whose name loosely translated to mean 'Joyfulness' or 'Jubilation'. The Lady Betsy had been teaching her the language of Britain, as well as Latin and Frankish, using patience and her powers, but the girl still had a strong accent and insisted on calling herself 'Jubilee'.
Jubilee's eyes were – almost uniquely in her homeland – a clear blue. She was unused to the cold of these new climes, and so it was these eyes that opened first, before Betsy's violet ones. She promptly fell clumsily out of her hammock, and landed easily on her feet. She had possessed a remarkable agility even before she entered the service of the Lady Mandarin, as many in the Mongol Empire still thought of her, and in the two years since she had been well trained, in dancing, in acrobatics – and in combat. Now she awkwardly pulled on her clothes, and moved over to wake her mistress. Then she stumbled out of the cabin to find some breakfast.
Bishop grunted when she trod on him, so she trod on him again. He muttered several undoubtedly vile curses in his own language, and glared up at her.
'Was that really necessary?' he snarled in Mongol.
'No. But it was fun.' She told him.
'The Lady should not tolerate your insolence. Among my people, you would have your tongue cut out.' Bishop owed Lady Braddock his life and freedom, and had so sworn to serve as her bodyguard (to which she responded that she hadn't freed him just so he could make himself a slave once more, and insisted on paying him a salary). Despite his gruff manner he really did care not only for his mistress but also for the young girl she had been given in Samarkand.
'Among my people, a man like you would be made to wear a lot less.' Jubilee told him now. Bishop, she considered, wore far too many furs, even if he did come from a really hot country. Plus he was attractive – there was no one to equal him in height or strength in all the Mongol Empire, she believed. 'Come on; let's go dig up some food. Preferably with honey.'
The gigantic black man and the petite Chinese girl headed forward to the galley, where Jubilee pulled her favourite 'I've-got-big-blue-eyes-and-the-enormous-man-behind-me-has-a-very-large-sword' trick to persuade the cook to give them a bowl of fresh fruit for the Lady Elisabeth, a hunk of cold beef for Bishop, and a small basket of honey cakes for the girl. The two of them headed back, Jubilee scarfing the cakes while Bishop chewed thoughtfully on his meat.
'Y'know,' said Jubilee, who was in the habit of running words together, 'you and me are never going to fit in the Summer Country. It'll be like this boat crew…'
'Ship.' Interrupted Bishop, heavily. Jubilee crammed half a honey cake into her mouth and chewed noisily for a minute before continuing.
'It'll be like this boat crew, only everyone on the island. At least they won't go crazy about the Gifts, from what Betsy says.'
'The Lady Elisabeth told us that her people might be a little more tolerant, once they get over the shock. She did not say they would not find us frightening. Therefore, hold in your powers. And hold your tongue, too. It would be best to pretend not to speak the language, at least until Her Ladyship knows where she stands.'
'Yeah, well.' Jubilee paused, then yelled, 'Hey, your Purpleship, time to wakey-wakey! Me bring much fruit, yum yum!' Jubilee collapsed into giggles, and the door opened to reveal the Lady Elisabeth Braddock, wide awake and dressed in a simple robe of deep blue silk.
'Thank you, Jubilation.' She said calmly, and reached out to take a couple of pieces. 'Now, come and do my hair. They may or may not know of my arrival, but if there is a welcoming committee I'd like to look my best. It seems wise to try and find out who is after me for what reason as early as possible, especially as we will be landing in Windlesham.'
The Romans had abandoned Britain three centuries ago, as they had abandoned Frankia. Although they had officially pulled out, remnants of their presence continued for at least the next fifty years. The first king of the Summer Country was a Roman citizen, a former Tribune who had settled in the beautiful isle. Although he and his kind – for many of the men who had soldiered there once fell in love with the green hills, bleak moor land, and verdant forests and chose to end their days there – were accepted as part of Britain, it was never forgotten that the Romans had come as conquerors and stayed as oppressors. Therefore, when an ally was sought against the Franks and then the Saxons, the people of Britain turned to the Danes instead of to the Romans.
The Roman invasion had, of course, been by sea. One of the first things they had done to consolidate their landings had been to fortify and improve several convenient ports. One of the largest of these had been the town now known as Windlesham. They threw a high stockade around it – the wood later replaced by stone – dredged the harbour deep enough for their heavy, sluggish troop transports, and placed on the dockside the great cranes – or Windlasses – from which the port now took its name. Lying but seven miles east of the Great Forest Windlesham had been one of the last places to fall to the Saxons before they were finally stopped, and it had remained in their hands ever since.
The Saxons made their capital at Londinium, which they called London, but it was at Windlesham that much of the true politics went on, for it was the nearest southern port both to Europa and to the Summer Country. It was here that all the trading ships docked to offload cargoes for London or the Summer Country's outpost at Winchester. It was here that the spies, the thieves, the mercenaries and the diplomats came in search of refuge or profit. Since the coming of the Saxons, Windlesham had become one of the wealthiest cities on the south coast. And although it fell under the auspices of whosoever ruled Essex, the true king of Windlesham was the man who could play all the factions off against one another. That man was Gambit.
Father Remiel. The Viscomte LeBeau. The King of Thieves. Devil-Eye. The tall, thin man who ruled Windlesham had many names, many false identities. He had never hidden his Frankish origins – but the port was full of Franks. Whether the rumours about him – that he was a priest, that he was of noble birth, that he was Gifted, that he did not truly exist at all – were true, very few could say – and of those, none would. Nathaniel, Lord of Essex, knew of him and had even used his services in the past. The Duke of Worth had placed a price of eighty pounds – the highest in recorded history – on his head after his cousin was seduced and her jewellery stolen (the fact that the lady had always insisted that it wasn't necessary and she'd be very happy to do it all again had led him to shut her in a nunnery and increase the reward to one hundred pounds). The Nightcrawler routed most of the valuables his people stole through this man, and thereby out of Britain. Everything that happened in Windlesham came to his ears, and any attempt to harm his people was dealt with swiftly and summarily. Windlesham belonged to Gambit.
Gambit, of course, belonged to no one, but he did occasionally do favours for the various parties with an interest in Windlesham. While destroying him was in nobody's interests, if he annoyed any of the major magnates of the south he could probably be broken, and so Gambit made occasional gifts of information – the one commodity that no one ever refused – to keep everyone happy. Sometimes he was asked for other things. On the evening before the arrival of the Lady Elisabeth he was asked for one of these things.
There was one in every city in the world; it was the bar where criminals met. It was different everywhere; it might be a tent in one corner of the bazaar, a smoke-filled cellar, or in some parts of the Roman Empire where politics was the only profitable industry, a sumptuous conference chamber. In Windlesham it was a quiet, tastefully decorated pub, well lit but full of shadowed alcoves. It was called the Fish Eagle, and it served the best wine in Britain. It was here that Gambit liked to hold his court. It was here that he was brooding over mulled wine when the Marauder known as Scalphunter dropped into the chair beside him.
'LeBeau.' He said. 'Essex needs a favour.'
'Needs? Dis better be good. Dis better have a good payoff.'
'Women.' Said Scalphunter. 'You give us the one we want, we give you the one you want.' Gambit's expression changed to one of contempt.
'You don' got no woman I want. I don' sell people, 'specially not to your kind.' Scalphunter grinned.
'Rumour is, you fell for Rogue. Of the Brotherhood.'
'I heard dat one too. And I heard de one about me and de queen. And de one about me and Sontag. What your interest?' The gigantic Saxon's grin widened.
'She killed the Warbird, I heard. Champion of Rome, and Rogue just touched her, and she died.'
'Dat's de way Gambit heard it, too. You going anywhere wit' dis?'
'Did Gambit hear that the same thing will happen to anyone she touches? Or that Nathaniel could just fix that problem for her?' Now Gambit looked at him for a long moment.
'Now dat last… dat I didn't know. Who does Essex want?'
'Elisabeth Braddock.' Replied the Marauder, and slid an enamelled miniature across the table.
Which is how Gambit came to be at the dockside on that bright spring morning when a tall, purple-haired, golden-skinned woman disembarked from a Frankish merchantman, accompanied by a petite blue-eyed Chinese girl and a dark-skinned giant who carried her single chest easily on one shoulder, and muttered his thoughts to make it easier for her to read them.
'I can see eight watchers, in at least three different teams.'
'Bishop.' Said Jubilee. 'This place may be Gift City, but we've still gotta be some of the weirdest people they've ever seen. Everybody's watching us.'
[He's right] the Lady Elisabeth said in her head. [There are nine people watching out for us specifically. Ah, here comes the first overture…] A tall man in livery was making his way towards them. As he neared his gaze flickered nervously to Bishop, before centring on Elisabeth.
'Lady Braddock?' He asked. She gave him a regal nod. 'My master bids you accept his hospitality and protection on your return to this most blessed isle and until such time as you are within the borders of the Summer Country.'
'And your master would be?'
'His Grace the Duke of Worth.' It was clear that he was used to the title impressing people, especially ladies. Unfortunately, the Lady Elisabeth was used to people being impressed by everything about her.
'Then you may thank his grace and tell him that, with the last time he provided me with an escort still fresh in my memory, I fear I must respectfully decline his offer.' The man looked nonplussed.
'The… last time?'
'Yes. Nine years ago, when his father had him invested as Baron of the North Marches. He offered to take me flying, as a pretext to get inside my dress. I am afraid that I cannot but take this overture as being similarly intentioned. You may tell that to Andrew de Warrene.' He took a step back.
'If I were to give such a message to his grace he will be… upset.'
'At being found out? Very well then, you may tell him this instead; if he wishes to court me, he must do so in person. That will be all, sir.' Her voice, if not her appearance, was enough to remind him of protocol.
'Yes, my lady.' She shoved past him, and pushed into the crowd. People got out of her way, as Jubilee and Bishop followed her.
'So, this de Warrene guy…' said Jubilee. 'Rich, is he?'
'One of the wealthiest men in the Summer Country.' Elisabeth told her.
'But ugly, huh?'
'One of the most beautiful, too.'
'Where's the catch, then?'
'The Duke of Worth would be the perfect husband were he interested in me as a woman.' She was told. 'However, his interest in me stems from my family's wealth and power and my own personal Gift. A mind reader is one of the most valuable tools a politician can ask for.'
'Hey, I understand politics. My mother was a general's concubine, remember?'
'Quite.' Said Elisabeth out loud, as another man stepped out in front of them. This came as a surprise, as neither she nor Bishop had noticed him before.
'De Lady Elisabeth Braddock?' he asked in a tone that suggested that an affirmative answer would lead extremely rapidly to all kinds of wonderful and exciting – and probably highly immoral – things happening. Elisabeth was used to this. However, she was also extremely open-minded when it came to things that were wonderful, exciting and highly immoral.
'Indeed.' She replied, with a tone that matched his. 'And you are?' She couldn't get into his head – at least not with subtlety – and this intrigued her as much as his tall, lean form and his handsome, demon-eyed face.
'Dey call me Gambit. I was wondering if you would do me the honour of becoming my guest.' She looked around as people appeared around them. Bishop growled. Jubilee's hands suddenly glowed with energy. The Lady Elisabeth Braddock maintained her smile.
'I see. I could kill you now, you know?'
'Probably. And den dese people could kill you. Gambit mean you no harm. He want you alive.'
'To sell to the highest bidder? Well, that's going to happen anyway when I get home, God knows, and if you wish to share in the profits, who am I to gainsay you? Peace, Bishop. We shall go with them.'
Late that same evening a man walked alone into the great forest. He was small, and wiry, and shabbily dressed. He was also unarmed. He had untidy black hair and icy blue eyes, and he walked without fear into the territory of the Nightcrawler.
He had been walking for almost an hour when the Nightcrawler appeared on a rock just ahead of him in a puff of purple smoke.
'Herr Wisdom.' Said the outlaw. 'I was unaware that Katherine had invited you.'
'It's a free forest, Wagner. Anyway, it's you I'm here to see.'
'I was talking to Gambit this afternoon.'
'I was not aware that you were a member of his guild.'
'I'm not even a resident of his city. Are you going to listen to me?'
'Very well. What has the thief to say to me?'
'Nothing. Never say different, mate, not if you value his friendship. It's what he just happened to let slip to me and has no control over who I tell that's important.'
'Lady Braddock. He's got her. He's selling her to the Marauders, I don't know what for. I do know that if he's somehow prevented from receiving payment then he'll stop at nothing to find whoever is responsible, and apparently the Brotherhood will help him. He told me he's making the trade in two days, and then the Marauders are taking her to London on the East Ridgeway. You can do what you like with that information. Personally I reckon de Warrene would pay most for it and Earl Braddock would do the best for the Lady. Your choice.' Wisdom turned away.
'Wait.' Called the Nightcrawler.
'Yeah?' replied the other man, over his shoulder.
'If you see her… tell my sister she will always be welcome here.'
'And your mother?' Wisdom was grinning.
'Tell her nothing.' Answered the outlaw, his face suddenly grim.
'East Ridgeway?' Said Logan, when Kurt asked his advice. 'No way to ambush 'em.'
'Indeed.' Said Wagner.
'You could surprise 'em, though.' The old man told him.
'Why would I? Surely the Summer Country would be able to rescue her?'
'You might as a favour to me.' Logan told him. 'My advice, tell Braddock. What I want, though? Maybe send young Samuel to tell Braddock about this. You and me, we go and intercept the Marauders, maybe ask some of your people if they'd like to come along. I'll attack them. You can get the lady out. You don't have to come, though.'
'Might I ask again what your interest in the Braddocks is?'
'You didn't ask last time. But I'll tell you. Short version, I owed one of their ancestors. That means I owe his descendants. I pay my debts, Kurt. While I breathe, Lady Braddock stays free. But this'll be risky, and anyone who does come had better be committed.' Kurt looked at him.
'You taught me all I know of woodcraft.' He said.
'Maybe I did.'
'You did. Without you, I would not have lived a month in this forest. You taught me to survive, and more. I had fled half way across the world because of what I am, given up everything I ever had. I had lost faith. You made me stop running, and fight for myself. You gave me the courage to turn this forest into a haven. You did not just teach me to survive, Logan, you taught me to live. I pay my debts, too. You have never asked anything of me before. On this, I will follow you. If you walk into hell to fight Lucifer himself I will follow you.'
Logan looked at him for a long moment. Then he nodded.
'If we don't stop the marauders, and they take her to Nathaniel, we might just have to, Kurt.' He turned, and headed towards his hut. 'I'll be at your camp in one hour.'
Two days later Gambit betrayed one of his last principles.
He had murdered, lied, stolen and cheated his way across Frankia. He had worked for Essex and the Brotherhood, had sold information to the Emperor Victor, had married a woman for politics and then murdered her brother for honour, had taken holy orders and repeatedly flouted his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – all with a light heart. The one thing he had never done was taken power over a woman and betrayed her for his own profit. He told himself that he did this only for Rogue. He told himself that Wisdom would tell the Nightcrawler who would take the word to the Summer Country who would arrange… he did not know what.
He was selling this woman, in exchange for something he wanted.
He hadn't spoken to her since his people brought her in. The Brotherhood had guarded her and her servants together. Both the man and the girl had decided to stick by their mistress. He could not fault that, or the woman's courage. By all accounts she had simply waited calmly, although the presence of the orphan Leech in the building where she was held had probably discouraged her from trying to use her Gift in an escape attempt.
Now Leech stood by his side. Gambit knew it was wrong to use a child as a weapon, but the Marauders were truly dangerous and he liked to take every possible precaution when dealing with them. Standing to either side were two members of the Brotherhood whose Gifts, unlike his, could operate even in Leech's presence; the steel-skinned giant from the far north of Scythia, and the squat Saxon named Mortimer, while on the other side of Leech stood their leader, the Raven, mother of Rogue by adoption and – though very few knew this – of the Nightcrawler by birth.
Gambit himself was sprawled in a chair, a cup of wine at his elbow, the Lady Elisabeth seated by his side. Considering she was about to be given to one of the most feared men in the land, she seemed remarkably calm. He told her so.
'Indeed. Maybe one day I'll tell you about the last evil sorcerer to whom I was sold.' She replied.
'Dat how you ended up looking like you do?' She turned a cold gaze on him.
'Oh yes. But I took my revenge. Admittedly I don't see Stark or his magic armour knocking around, much less the armies of the Great Kahn, but the boy isn't coming with me now, is he?'
'You reckon your Gifts will help you? Belle, Nathaniel's got more ways of controlling dem dan Britain's got Gifted.' The time for talk was over; the door opened as Scalphunter, Rogue, and the Marauders named Sontag and Michael entered. Rogue looked pale and nervous, but she wasn't wearing her gloves. Gambit's heart leapt within him, but he remained calm and apparently relaxed.
'That isn't Lady Braddock.' Said Scalphunter without preliminaries.
'Ne? She just looks a little different, that's all. Don't you t'ink, if Gambit was goin' to pass off a fake he'd try one who actually looked like de picture you gave him?'
'Prove that this is Lady Braddock.' Gambit grinned.
'How? Take her, give us Rogue, and if she turns out a fake you can come after him later.' Raven intervened.
'Well…' said Scalphunter, tugging at his moustache. 'Rogue could absorb her mind.' Gambit sprang to his feet, Mortimer and the Scythian close beside him.
'You'll have to climb over plenty o' dead bodies before you get to dat, Marauder.' He was actually snarling. 'Anyway, I thought Essex had got rid of it.'
'Better.' Said Rogue, managing a smile. 'I can control it.' Mystique smiled back. 'And I can touch her, and take just enough to find out who she really is.'
'Also,' put in Scalphunter, 'take the answer to this question; who was her suitor immediately before the Duke of Worth?'
'Lord Derby, wasn't it?' said Gambit, puzzled. This was common knowledge.
'Unless you count my flirtation with the prince Alexander.' Inserted the Lady under discussion. All eyes turned to her, and she shrugged. 'Just taking the easiest route to the inevitable.' Raven stepped forward, and held out her arms to Rogue, who promptly ran to her. Gambit shoved the Lady. She moved forwards, and then paused.
'My servants?' She asked, without turning.
'Dey will be released.' Gambit told her. 'Tomorrow.'
'Kill them.' Said Scalphunter. A throwing knife slammed into the table next to his hand. Gambit was on his feet, eyes blazing.
'Next time you suggest somet'in like dat, Scalphunter, I kill you.'
'You're a fool, Gambit.' The Raven told him. 'Your principles will get you killed yourself one day.'
'What principles?' Asked Scalphunter. 'I know your life story, Father Remiel. You have no principles.'
'I still got de one. I'm not going to kill a little girl on de say-so of Essex. Or anyone. Now go, while you still got legs to go on.' Scalphunter grinned, then turned and pulled a collar from his belt of weaponry.
'Must I?' Asked the Lady Elisabeth in a manner that suggested minor irritation. The Marauder captain continued grinning as he locked it around her neck, and then tossed the end of the attached chain to Michael. The gigantic Frank turned and walked out, not bothering to check that she was following. Sontag and Scalphunter followed. Gambit watched them go, and then collapsed back into his chair. For some reason he looked tired and defeated.
'Remy?' It was Rogue. He looked up at her.
'I jus' did a terrible thing, chere.' He told her. 'And I got to rely on Wisdom to make it right. Dis really don' look good.' He turned his head away.
They let her ride her own horse. That, at least, was a blessing. Against that was the fact that she was a prisoner, that Kodiak and the Mongol, Kim, kept on leering at her, that Essex had a reputation for using dark magics to twist the human mind, body and soul, and that something – probably the damned collar – was blocking her powers. All in all, it was not an auspicious start to the day. It was a reflection of Essex's power since the deaths of Xavier and the Corsair that his marauders were able to ride through the streets of Windlesham with a woman clearly held prisoner, and not only did no-one give them a second glance, most managed to avoid looking at them altogether. Ah, well, she decided. As Confucius said, when your horse is led by another at least you may watch the scenery.
She had forgotten just how beautiful Britain was. From the summit of the Ridgeway she was able to see for miles over the forest to the west and as far as the river Thames to the north and east. It was a beautiful landscape, and it almost made her glad the marauders had picked this route.
Except that it precluded more or less any chance of ambushing the dozen riders.
Anyone approaching from any direction could be seen from at least two miles away. Fortunately for the Lady Elisabeth the man named Logan was not just anyone.
The Wolverine, or Glutton, is found in the sub arctic regions in the north of Canada and Europe. It grows to a maximum length of roughly three feet, is slow moving and sluggish, and somewhat resembles a small bear, though it is in fact effectively an overlarge weasel. While any other weasel would consider it gigantic it seems fairly small to the bears and moose that abound in many of the areas it calls home. Despite this, and despite its low speed, the wolverine thinks nothing of taking down foes of much larger size. It does this through persistence, strength, and cunning.
Logan had travelled the world in his youth, and again as he grew older. In the far off lands now ruled by the Mongols he had studied under master wrestlers and monks of the Shao Lin order. In the near-legendary India, land of spice and ivory, he had lived among the devotees of Kali, goddess of birth and death, who had counted him sacred for his own powers of death and resurrection, and from them learned the subtle arts of duplicity and disguise that they used to surprise even the wariest of travellers on the long roads of the plains. In far Japan he had learned the arts of a warrior – to shape, hone and use the four weapons every Samurai must become proficient in, the sword, the bow, the body and the mind. He had broken horses in Hispania and walked between waterholes in the deserts of Arabia. He had, four centuries ago, fought alongside the Jews against Vespasian, in the glory days of Rome, when the Franks and the Mongols were ignorant barbarians, and he had ridden with the Scythians as they raided Greece. Three hundred years before the Corsair made his alliance with the Danes he had reached Scandinavia, where his courage, tenacity and cunning had earned him the one epithet he never refused. Wolverine, they called him, and he used every skill he had ever learned to emulate that creature in his most terrible battle. The full story of how the Wolverine battled the Wendigo, the man-eating demon of the far north, of his deal with Wayland the Smith, Prince of the Sidhe and friend of Asgard, and of his alliance with the Braddock, is not to be told here. But these were his skills. Men called him the Iron Claw now, and indeed there was iron in those six terrible blades, but when he went in to battle Logan always thought of himself as the Wolverine.
Cunning. Powerful. Utterly inescapable. The Wolverine would pursue his enemy until they at last stood at bay, and then he would fight until they were dead. That was all there was to it. But a true hunter knows when to chase, and when to wait, and the Wolverine had stood face to face with the Erl-King, Master of the Wild Hunt, himself, and met him as an equal.
And this is how he was able to take the marauders by surprise, bursting from the pit in which he had lain, motionless, since an hour before dawn to tear open the throat of Sontag.
Scalphunter was, for the first time in over a decade, taken by surprise. As his lover fell his mind worked, identifying the attacker as the legendary Iron Claw, attempting to analyse his abilities from the way he moved. However, his body simply froze for several terrible seconds.
Michael, too large to sit a horse, flung himself forwards instantly, his massive fists plunging at the foe. Logan ducked and twisted, sheathing his claws as he gripped the giant's arms and threw him, to tumble down the side of the ridge. He had deliberately chosen to attack at one of its steepest points, and so that opponent – physically the toughest of the Marauders – would be unable to join the fight. As he came to his feet Logan had to twist to avoid the thrust of Kodiak's glowing javelin; his claws burst free once more to send the squat Icelander leaping backwards. At that moment Scalphunter finally broke his shocked paralysis and shoved his horse forward to interpose himself between the two combatants. Sontag was dead. It was all his mind could focus on as he slid from the saddle, his scimitar scraping free from its scabbard on his back. Logan had paused, sensing the possibility of a further delay. A challenge would mean spectators, which would mean an increased likelihood of the guards abandoning the Lady Elisabeth in order to watch.
'You're mine.' Scalphunter told the shorter man in harsh tones. Logan grinned wolfishly, and extended a second set of claws. Scalphunter drew a long, heavy-bladed knife with his left hand and stepped forwards.
Elisabeth knew the legend of the Iron Claw and, more than that, her father had once told her a little of the true story of the Wolverine. She knew that this newcomer must be him. She did not know whether he was here to rescue her, or simply to settle some kind of personal vendetta, and she really couldn't have cared less. They had left her legs untied, and there were only two men left guarding her, the rest having moved forward, first to fight and then to watch the single combat. It was a matter of moments to slide out of the saddle and pull both men after her. She let one of them draw a knife, and then, having knocked them both unconscious, was able to use it to cut her bonds. She straightened up, holding the knife ready to throw, but all the marauders appeared distracted. She reached up to her collar, but it was locked firmly in place. At that moment Michael finally dragged himself over the edge of the ridge, and she was suddenly face to face with a stony-skinned giant. Michael grinned.
There was a loud 'BAMF', and suddenly she was faced with two enemies. The newcomer looked like a demon, but even without her powers she could tell that he was simply Gifted. Physically, he was clearly weaker than Michael, so she decided to put him down first.
Kurt leaped over the woman's kick, saw her punch coming nearly a full second in advance, and ducked smoothly, right into her other foot. As always, he landed on his feet, wondering how he and Logan had failed to consider the possibility that she would regard them as a threat, and barely managed to block as she slashed with her knife. Reacting with the lightning reflexes that made him so deadly with a sword, he caught her wrist and jerked her off balance. Then he teleported.
Elisabeth was shocked and disorientated. She staggered away from the blue-furred Gifted, instinctively reaching for weapons and powers that were not there. Even as she did so her opponent vanished once more, reappearing seconds later along with Logan. Hurriedly reassessing the situation she stepped back. Logan grinned.
'Lady Betsy, this is the Nightcrawler. Kurt, say hi to the first proper fighter I've met since returning to this island.' The outlaw smiled, and bowed.
'Your Ladyship's beauty astounds me. If you would come this way, we have horses waiting.' She stared, surprised, and then replied.
'Gambit still has my companions. He said he would release them tomorrow. If his word can be trusted, I would appreciate your aiding them as you have aided me. And can you get this damned collar off?' Logan extended a claw.
'Do you trust me?'
'You would not kill a Braddock.' She told him, remembering the story. He grinned, and reached the blade to her neck. The collar fell away, sliced through by the hardest metal known to this world, and the Lady Elisabeth felt her powers return in a rush. The Nightcrawler, she noted, was wondering about her statement, while on another level his mind counted how long they had until the Marauders found their trail, and worried about the possibility of them finding his people – the outlaws of the forest, she realised. From Logan she could get almost nothing, save a great patience and a slight concern for her well-being. She sensed sudden decisiveness from him.
'Lady, if you'd go with Kurt, I'll take the Marauders off our trail. The Elf interrupted something, and I wouldn't mind to finish it.'
Sunrise, and Jubilee and Bishop were free. Gambit's men pulled the bags off their heads, and they saw that they were standing outside the walls of Windlesham. Turning back Jubilee could see no sign of the gate by which they had exited the city. Turning once more she saw that the thieves had left three horses for them, and, as Bishop appeared to have discovered, a note. He held it out to her.
'Can you read this language?' He demanded.
'Dunno.' Said Jubilee. She accepted the scrap of parchment and frowned at it.
'Let me.' Said a voice, and an elegant yet powerful hand plucked the note from her fingers. Bishop and Jubilee looked up in astonishment.
'Lady Elisabeth.' Said Bishop. 'We…'
'Thought the Marauders had me? I'm afraid I was rescued. Now, if you two would just mount up the Nightcrawler has people waiting for us.'
'The What?' Asked Jubilee.
'Nightcrawler. I believe it is a kind of worm. However, the Nightcrawler is an… outlaw, of sorts. And Gifted. Logan has asked him to care for us.'
'Hi, darlin'.' A voice growled in her ear. Bishop spun, reaching for the sword that was not there. Jubilee simply pivoted on her heel and smiled at the short, powerful man who stood there.
'Oh. Him. Hello.' Logan blinked in surprise. This was not a normal reaction. He paused, and then grinned at Bishop. The gigantic African glared at him.
'You coming?' He asked, and turned back towards his horse.
The Nightcrawler's camp, deep in the Forest, was more like a large village. Nearly fifty structures were scattered around in a particularly thin patch of woodland, including a small watermill, several store huts (two of them raised up on stilts to keep the rats out), latrines (at the most downriver and downwind extreme of the camp), huts and houses for individuals and families, and two large dormitory buildings for those who were too young or lazy to live on their own. There was a smithy, an archery butt and a cookhouse. There was a large pen for the pigs that were released to forage all day. There were also lookout posts covering every pathway within a mile. Elisabeth was impressed.
'All that it lacks is your manor house, Nightcrawler.' She said dryly.
'Indeed.' He said. 'I am afraid that we are not yet ready to begin construction, but until then my hut is your hut. You will probably want to rest before the exertions of the day. We will have someone guide you to your brother's estates tomorrow morning.'
'You mean we're not welcome for more than one day? The Duke of Worth cannot be paying you as well as I thought.'
'You think I need paying?' growled Logan from her other side.
'You don't, of course, Wolverine.' She said. Nightcrawler shot a glance at his friend, who to his knowledge accepted no sobriquet, at least to his face. The short man showed no expression, though, as the noblewoman continued. 'But you – the outlaw – what is in this for you?'
'Logan is my friend. So, I came to rescue you at his request. As to my hospitality… when I came here I swore to do my utmost to ensure that no one, man or woman, greybeard or child, Gifted or pure, would come to any harm that they did not bring to themselves. While you sojourn here, you are under my protection so long as you obey the laws of the forest. As to your welcome… I offer you, as I offer everyone, hospitality for a night and a day. If you wish to stay beyond that, you must join us, though even then you may leave whenever you wish.'
'Then why should I not join you?' The Nightcrawler grinned, white teeth against indigo fur.
'Because then you would be of my people, and an outlaw, at least as far as such as yourself may become an outlaw. That is not my law, that is the King's.'
'I see. I shall consider whether to join you tonight, then, and give you my decision in the morning.' Logan grinned. For all his youth, the Nightcrawler was seldom nonplussed. It was… interesting.
'Join us? But… why?'
'Because, according to your testimony, you are probably the only man in Britain who has the potential to sell me, and will not exercise it. Also, I am fond of blue.' She glanced down at her blue travelling dress pointedly. It had been slightly ripped in the struggle with the marauders, but its colour was still clear, as was the figure it barely needed to emphasize. She smiled as he blushed, and added 'and purple, as it happens.' Jubilee giggled.
The next morning Jubilee was once again the first to awaken. Bishop was not sleeping across the doorway this time, so she had to take a brief detour in order to tread heavily on his ribcage. He jerked awake, and glared at her.
'Breakfast.' She told him.
'Do you ever not think with your stomach?' He growled.
'According to Her Likes-Furry-Banditness, I'm too young to start thinking with other parts. Back home I'd probably already be married.'
'Among my people also. She is not really attracted to the Nightcrawler, is she?' Bishop sounded extremely interested. Jubilee smirked.
'Maybe. Remember, though, we were with two bandits yesterday. And they both had lots of hair.' Her smirk widened. 'The one with the claws was a bit… old, though.' Bishop glared at her. Jubilee carried on smiling. She was following her nose, and the building they were approaching smelled of fresh-baked bread. 'Cookhouse?' she asked, gesturing at it.
'I would guess so.' The massive black man replied. 'Remember, we are strange to them. If they stare, do not stare back.'
'Bish, their boss has blue fur.' Jubilee pushed through the door. 'We won't stand out all that much.' She switched to British as she entered the kitchen. 'Hello. Are you the cook?' It sounded slightly awkward, and Jubilee realised that this was the first time in her life that she had used the language with someone who did not also speak Mongol.
The tall, fair-haired young man who was tending the two large cauldrons that simmered in the fireplace turned and smiled at her.
'Just for this morning.' He said, smiling brightly. 'My name is Sam.'
'I'm Jubilee. This is Bishop. Do you make breakfast?'
'Uh-huh. Would you like some porridge?' Jubilee frowned. She knew the word, and she had seen the substance, but…
'Bishop, what's porridge like?' She hissed in Mongol.
'Filling. You eat it with honey.' He replied, knowing that if it had honey on it Jubilee would eat more or less anything. She smiled, and turned back to Sam.
'Yes, please.' He ladled up, and gave Bishop a rather bigger bowl of his own. Jubilee located the honey with the ease that Bishop often reckoned was a second Gift, and proceeded to smother her food in it. She perched on a stool nearby so she could talk to Sam.
'So, uh… you're with Lady Braddock?' He asked.
'Yep. Are there a lot of Gifted here?'
'There's about thirty. Maybe a dozen of us have useful powers.'
'Really? What can you do?'
'I can fly. And things can't seem to hurt me when I'm flying, so I can use myself as a battering ram.'
'You can fly! Can you carry other people? Does everyone ask you that first?'
'Usually that comes second. Most people start with 'how'? And yes, but not very heavy people.' He glanced at Bishop. 'So, where did you come from?'
'China.' She smiled.
'Where's that? Is it in Britain?'
'No, it's ten thousand miles east. It's ruled by the Mongols.'
'Oh. I'm from Cornwall. That's about a hundred and fifty miles west of here. How'd you get to the Forest?' Jubilee's mouth was full, so it was a moment before she could answer.
'Oh, my mistress got captured by this guy Gambit and sold to the marauders and rescued by this guy Wolverine and your boss with the blue fur and they brought us here. Yesterday evening.'
'Oh. And, uh, how'd you get to Britain?'
'By boat.' She smiled charmingly, and then relented. 'We rode across China and the Khanates with the Great Khan, and then sailed from Sardis in the Roman Empire. The Khan himself bought us passage, and paid the boat captain…'
'Ship.' Said Bishop through gritted teeth.
'And the Khan paid the boat captain extra to take us right to Britain. Which is cool, but nice.'
'Cool?' Asked Sam. It was early spring, but the weather seemed to him to be unusually mild.
'Yeah. Not that I can't take it – you should see the steppes at midwinter – but it's just not totally comfortable, y'know?'
'It is never this cold in my land.' Interjected Bishop.
'Right. So says talks-very-little guy. Hey, Bish, show him your intimidating stare.' Bishop glared. Sam paled visibly. Jubilee giggled. 'Ya get used to it.' She said.
'I still think you should have your tongue cut out.' The big man told her.
'Huh. Think you could take this Wolverine guy, Bish?'
'I have not seen him fight.' Jubilee turned back to Sam.
'Bishop's got this big 'warrior honour' thing going. He owes Lady Elisabeth his life, so he's her bodyguard, and he has to prove himself in combat and so on. He was the champion of the Mandarin's death pits.'
'He's this evil sorcerer guy back home. Really hates the Mongols. He captured Lady Elisabeth and swapped her body with his top assassin so he could use her Gift, and tried to control her. But this guy Stark – no-one knows what he looks like, 'cause he's got this big suit of magic armour and he never takes it off – rescued her and then they got together to kill the Mandarin and the Great Khan was so grateful he showered them both with gifts. Including me.' She smiled. 'So… how did you come here?'
'Uh… that's quite a story. I was just down the mines – we mine silver in Cornwall – and there was a cave-in, and I somehow just blasted through the rocks. And then the local priest said I must be an agent of hell, so I flew away. And Kurt – the Nightcrawler – found me, and I came to live here.' Jubilee smiled and nodded.
'So who cooks for Kurt?'
'Oh, he eats with the rest of us. He'll probably be in soon.'
'Oh.' Jubilee paused. 'Even when he has guests?'
'You want some food to take to your mistress?' The place was filling up, and Jubilee was absolutely certain that the Lady Elisabeth would be furious if she had to jostle with the crowd for food.
'Yes. That would definitely…'
'Not be necessary.' Said the Nightcrawler behind her. 'Your mistress has gone to eat breakfast with Logan.' Jubilee spun, blushing. The Nightcrawler smiled, white teeth gleaming in dark fur. 'She assured me she could look after herself.'
'Who is Logan?' Demanded Bishop, towering over the outlaw.
'He is the man that rescued her yesterday. Did you not know?'
'She said he was called Wolverine.' Jubilee told him, momentarily distracted.
'Ja. And that is very strange. I have known Logan some years, and he has never accepted a kenning up until now. Yet he makes no complaint when she calls him Wolverine?'
'I don't know, but she needs me to attend to her! Take me now.' Kurt smiled, remembering when he had made such mistakes with the British idiom. Then he held out his hand. Jubilee took it, there was a loud 'BAMF', and…
Betsy, as she had agreed to let him call her, was extremely good, Wolverine reflected. Clearly the skills of the ninja had evolved since his time among them; several of the techniques she used seemed barely recognisable. With his claws sheathed, she was almost managing to keep up with him. Her reach was greater, though she did not use that properly to her advantage. Being trained by people only slightly taller than him might well have that effect, he reflected as he ducked under a kick and caught the reverse on his forearm. Added to that her higher centre of gravity made for a less stable base, allowing him to do this, and send her sprawling.
He moved in, pressing his advantage, and then heard a 'BAMF'. His new assailant moved with such speed that her first kick drove into his kidneys before he could raise a hand to defend himself. He twisted, blocking her next attack, and then to his surprise Jubilee leapt clear over his head with agility bettered in his experience only by Kurt and certain of the Shao Lin. He rolled forward, turned, blocked, and was saved from retaliating as the Lady Elisabeth sat up and announced, 'That will do, Jubilation.' The girl didn't exactly stand down, but nor did she attack him. He grinned his feral grin, and said, 'Girl's got talent.'
'Indeed.' Said Betsy. 'She can't hold a blade to save her own life, though.'
'Waitaminute! You two were just sparring?' The subject of their conversation interrupted.
'You thought I was attackin' a guest?' he half-snarled, before relenting. 'Sorry, darlin'. Easy mistake to make. No harm done, and you did right by what you could see.'
'Uh… yeah. Hang on, were you using Gongfu?'
'Wolverine is probably the most skilled exponent of the art that I have ever encountered.' Her mistress told her. 'He was also kind enough to offer me breakfast,' she added, reading the girl's original mission. 'It is cooking even as we speak.' Jubilee scowled. Annoying though her owner was at times, she nonetheless liked the strange woman, and part of her worldview was that the Lady Elisabeth's breakfast was her, Jubilee's, business. Under exceptional circumstances Bishop might be able to get it, but short, hairy, pale-skinned foreigners were definitely not on the list of those permitted to be involved.
'We should get Bishop to taste it.' She said darkly.
'The Wolverine would not poison my food.' Was her mistress' response.
'We can hope.' The small girl suddenly smiled. 'Knowing Bishop, though, he wouldn't even notice it.' The Lady Elisabeth smiled with her, and Logan and the Nightcrawler gave identical small, teeth-baring grins. 'Speaking of which, he's probably going crazy worrying right now.'
'I will fetch him.' The Nightcrawler announced.
'So tell me,' asked Kurt a few minutes later, 'why do you call my friend Logan the Wolverine?' The Lady Elisabeth fell silent, and then looked at the man under discussion. He paused, chewing thoughtfully, and swallowed before speaking.
'This goes back a long time.' He said. 'Three hundred years, when Rome was the only empire, and Britain was a dozen petty kingdoms.'
In those times the Braddock was a king in his own right, for this was long before the Saxons came. However, the power lay not with the King, Culhwch, but with his son, Bran.
The boy's mother was the Sidhe princess Olwen the Fair, daughter of Wayland the Smith and, though she had died in childbirth, she lived on through her child, for he was nearer to the Fay than any of his family for over a century, and his grandfather was a great prince. To the people of Britain he was Bran Braddock the Blessed, but among the Sidhe he was spoken of as the Prince Bran, son of Olwen. He could fly faster than the wind, and smash down walls of Roman stone with his fists. No sword could cut his skin, and he was truly fey – he had dreams and visions of the future. In his youth, though, he felt the wanderlust, as young men are wont to do, and sought permission from his father to travel, seeking adventure and a name. His father gave him this permission, and so he rose into the air and flew east and north, for he had it in him to see the sunless lands, where even today not even the power of Magnus can hold sway. Back then this land was so wild that not even the Wild Hunt would go there lightly, but go there they did and three hundred years ago, when Bran the son of Olwen was wandering, the man named Logan was riding with the Hunt.
How Logan came to ride with those most terrible of the Sidhe, and to be the bondsman of their horned king, is a story for another day. By the time of this tale, though, the Lady of the Silver Fox had left the Hunt to run with Artemis on the slopes of Mount Leucus, taking the Oath of the Virgin. However that may be, Logan rode with the Wild Hunt into the Sunless Lands, where the cold can stop a man's heart. And when he asked the Erl-King what prey they hunted here, he was told, 'We hunt the Wendigo.'
The Wendigo was a terrible monster that haunted all the northlands, but dwelt in a cave in the iciest and darkest regions. It had the strength of two hundred men, and a hide tough as mail armour. Its fangs and claws could tear through steel, and it was said that if any man somehow struck it down it would return to life, and he would be its first victim. The truth, though, was to prove more terrible even than this.
People do live in the Sunless Lands, for where there is no rule of law the lawless will congregate and, though life was hard in that barren land, some of them flourished despite the hunger and the monsters. At times chiefs have arisen, to extend their rule over the outlaws and masterless men who inhabit the coastal regions. When Bran Braddock came to the land the ruler was a man named Aethelread. Aethelread was not an evil man, but of necessity he trusted no one and seldom showed mercy. The arrival of one of the legendary Braddocks of Britain was a cause of much fear in his following.
Bran entered the feast hall of Aethelread the Ruthless alone and on foot. He walked the length of the room towards the high seat, and all present knew him by his stature and his beauty, and all present wondered what a man of his courage and power could want with the prince of brigands. Not one of them, from Aethelread down to the slaves serving them, expected any good to come of this meeting. And yet Bran greeted him formally and with courtesy, showed him honour, and then asked for a boon. He had come, he said, seeking a name for himself by doing great deeds. Now, although at this time there were still dragons in the western part of the world, they were old and wise, and spoke peace with men, and so the young prince of the Fay had flown to these wastelands seeking some great beast to slay for honour and perhaps for his badge. Aethelread, who, if not wise, was truly cunning, heard him out and answered the youth as politely as he knew how, and bade him sit at his right hand in the feast for, he said, that night many of his followers would be assembled in the hall, and among them they would surely know of a beast worthy of a Braddock.
The feast was long and, if the fare was poor by the standards to which Bran was used, the company was convivial – for Aethelread's laws were stern, and his arm strong, and so there was safety in his feasthall. The outlaws and masterless men drank and laughed and sang, and told long stories and huge lies, and most of all they spoke of the terrible beasts that ruled inland. From all their talk they arrived at a consensus – the most terrible of all the beasts of the Sunless Lands, the creature whose mere howl was enough to send the bravest warriors fleeing in terror, was the Wendigo.
For nine days the son of Culhwch and Olwen hunted the Wendigo. By day he ran or flew over the Sunless Lands, by his power seeing where nature provided no light, and by night he hunted in his dreams, seeking a sign of where and how he should find the great beast. On the ninth night he dreamed of running across the wasteland on all fours, and of tearing asunder any who crossed his path, and the following morning he met the Wendigo at a ford, and it gave voice to its terrible howl of 'Wen-Di-Go'.
Bran and the Wendigo battled until nightfall, strength matching strength and speed matching speed, and as the faint light of the horizon faded Bran's sword shattered on the beast's hide, and he was forced to flee. For nine full days he fought the Wendigo, and on some days he forced the beast to run, howling, to lick his wounds, and on some days he was himself beaten and humiliated, until, at last, at sundown on the ninth day, he lifted his enemy high into the air, and hurled it down, impaling it on a great spire of rock.
And here the true horror of the Wendigo showed itself, for it was not a beast of nature, but rather a daemon of hell, that possessed the bodies of mortals. Now, as it died, the curse passed to its killer, and Bran the Blessed, the mightiest of all men, added his power to that of the monster. The Fay youth had indeed slain the monster – and in so doing become it. If before it had the strength of two hundred men, now it was as strong as a thousand. If before it could strike with the speed of a cobra, now it faster than an arrow. The Wendigo was now more powerful than ever before.
And the Wild Hunt sought it as their prey.
The wildest of the Fay had slain dragons when the world was young. They had driven the high Sidhe of the Seeley Court from the forests of Germany, and for a hundred years they had hunted sorcerers in Roman Hispania, until there were none to be found in the entire peninsular. They had Nightmares for steeds and Dire Wolves for hounds. Their blades burned with magics older than humanity, that meant that no wound made by them could be healed, save by the touch of that same blade. They could track an albatross at sea through a five-day storm, and had been learning the arts of killing when the races of Men were discovering fire. More than two dozen of them rode out behind the Horned King and his bondsman, the Wolverine, to hunt the Wendigo.
Nine escaped. The Wolverine himself stayed and fought the gigantic creature, his claws of bone shattering on its thick hide, his unequalled skill serving only to prolong his death. Finally the Wendigo tore him open, ripping his very bones to shreds. Not even his powers could deal with such injuries and, as the Wendigo fell to feasting on the sweet flesh of the Sidhe, the man named Logan prepared himself for death.
He was saved by the Erl-King's brother, Wayland the Smith, called the Maker, Lord of the Forge. Wayland is the oldest of all the Princes of the Sidhe, and the only one who belongs to neither of the two courts, instead serving as smith to both. Wayland is a tall man, and well built. His hand and his leg were lost in some ancient deed, and so he forged replacements for himself by magic and by his art. His hand is of ivory and silver, constructed with such skill that it is as strong as adamant and yet seems soft and fleshy, while his leg is of hardest steel. The heat of his smithy darkens his skin, and he wears his black hair and moustache long and free. His lover is the South Wind, which comes from both desert and sea, and brings both drought and storms. Despite her tempestuous nature the South Wind herself is a lady of immense calm and peace, and possessed of no small affection for her lover's earlier offspring. Always, though, she shows dichotomy, of dark and light, heat and cold, placidity and tempest. She loved the Maker for his honest soul – so rare among his people – and for his care of both his own fickle people and the simpler souls of humanity, and he loved her because she represented everything he was not. It was to him the wild Storm-Wind swept from the sunless lands of the north with the news of his grandson's battle with the Wendigo, and of his transformation into that beast upon his victory.
Wayland made haste to the Wendigo's lair, but found only the bodies of the Wild Huntsmen, and the Wolverine, dying slowly as his powers fought to keep him alive. Wayland is the most powerful of sorcerers as well as the most skilled of metalworkers – though he prefers not to use these abilities. The tale of the terrible price he paid for the full might of his powers and of the defeat of his brother is not to be told here; suffice it to say that the Lord of the Forge wields his magic only in the most dire extreme. The possession of his grandson was such an extreme, and so he made Logan an offer; that he would save the warrior's life, and stand surety for his bond to the Horned King, and in exchange the human would free Prince Bran, the son of Olwen, from the Wendigo's curse. Wayland would give him an amulet that would contain the daemon within it so long as no man wore it, and he would give him the means to fight the abomination that had once been the fairest warrior of Britain, and to survive.
Logan's bones had been shattered. The Smith-God forged them anew, from hardest adamant wrapped with Thunderbolt Iron. Logan's claws had been unable to pierce the Wendigo's hide. Wayland coated them, also, in this hardest of all metals, such that they could cut through any lesser substance and would never lose their edge. Again, Logan had been simply too slow and too weak to battle the Wendigo bearing the power of the Braddock. Wayland taught to him the ancient words of magic that would deny Bran and any of his kin of the powers their ancestry and their magic gifted them. Finally, because of the power these words gave him, the Maker placed the Wolverine under a most powerful Geas, that he should not sleep two nights in one hall until Bran was free of the curse of the Wendigo, and that after the Wendigo was defeated he should never after allow to harm to befall a Braddock, save at the peril of his own life. Then Wayland sent him out to battle the great beast once again.
Even stripped of its Fay powers the Wendigo was a terrible opponent. Its strength was still greater than Logan's, and its hide was still as tough as thrice-tempered steel. The Wolverine's claws were far harder than this, though, and he was able to tear into the beast's body – and here a new power emerged, for as fast as Logan tore into it, its wounds healed themselves. He, too, could heal the damage done to him, and this time it could not break his bones or tear open his body. They fought for hours, until both man and beast were reeling in exhaustion. At last, the Wolverine sprang on to the beast's shoulders, and placed the amulet of the Maker on its brow. The daemon roared it's agony as it was drawn forth from the body of Bran the Blessed, and he fell, unconscious and sorely wounded, while the amulet glowed dully with the baneful power within.
When he had nursed Bran back to health, Logan returned with him to Britain, and saw him safe to his father's hold. After this, he went out into the world once more, to hide the Wendigo's amulet.
When his recovery was complete, Bran travelled to the hold of his father's kinsman, Arthur the Bear, called the Pendragon, ruler of Logres, and served him for nine years, earning the name of the Lance-Lord for his valour and skill-at-arms. The powers the Wolverine had taken from him could never be returned, but his courage and beauty were a part of him. At last it ended when he betrayed Arthur for love, and so caused the fall of Logres and the rise of the Saxons.
Wayland and the South Wind remained together for a further two centuries, and then she abandoned him as all of his lovers do in time. Legend says that she was with child when she finally left him, but what became of that none know.
In time the Wolverine returned to Britain, and became the old man of the Great Forest. In all that time he has never told of the fate of the Wendigo's amulet, while the true story of Bran the Blessed, called Lancelot, has remained in his family, told only to the children of Braddock and their most trusted servants.
This, then, was the tale that Logan and the Lady Elisabeth told their friends that morning. By the time they were done, the sun was high in the sky, and their meal was long finished. When at last they fell silent, no one else spoke for a long moment, and then Jubilee asked,
'So what did you do with the amulet?' Logan did not answer.
'Is that story true?' Asked Bishop.
'You doubt me?' the older man growled.
'I have never heard of this Smith-God, or of the South Wind.'
'Most people in Britain have never heard of Doondari.' Bishop lifted his head.
'But you have?'
'Like the story says, I once travelled a lot.' Silence fell once more, and then the Nightcrawler felt compelled to ask,
'So… when her ladyship says you would not harm a Braddock, is this because of some perceived debt to the descendants of the Smith-God, or because his… Geas still holds, or because of some other event that you have not told us about?' Logan's grin was feral.
'The Geas still holds. Why do you think I hid in the forest when her ladyship's brother…'
'Betsy, please.' Broke in the lady.
'When Betsy's brother made war on the Corsair and Xavier?' Kurt nodded. 'You'd better get back to the camp, Kurt. Your people will probably be worrying by now. You know they fall to pieces when you're not there to sort things out.'
'Zehr gut. Do any of you wish to accompany me, or will you be content to be entertained by Logan for the next few hours, at least?'
'I think he and I should talk.' Betsy replied.
'I think you should not stay with this man.' Rumbled Bishop. 'He has admitted…'
'That he can't do anything to hurt her.' Interrupted Jubilee. C'mon, Bish, let's stay.' She turned to Logan. 'So how did you get to be with the Wild Hunt?' She asked, as the Nightcrawler teleported away.
Wisdom was waiting back in the camp. The young man had a reputation throughout the Summer Country as a man who could find things out. His principle customers had long been Nathaniel of Essex and the man called Gambit, but since the day he met the young Gifted known as Katherine the Jewess he had got into the habit of giving the Nightcrawler information for a fraction of his usual fees. Even so, the Nightcrawler would not have dealt with him had he not so clearly made Katherine happier than she had been since the day a mob had murdered her parents. Though a Christian of unquestionable faith himself, Kurt took a compassionate and enlightened view of all other religions, in part because of the fact that, in his experience, a Christian and a Roman Polytheist were equally likely to demonise or accept his appearance, regardless of religion, and in part because as far as he was concerned, they were all just people. Wisdom, however, for some reason rubbed his fur the wrong way – probably something to do with the way the smaller man not only acted as though he knew far more than everybody else, but also made it clear through what he said and did that he actually did know far more. Now, therefore, he gave his most calculatedly disturbing grin, taking care to show off all of his unusually sharp and white fangs, and said,
'Herr Wisdom. Twice in three days. Are you at last going to settle down, perhaps?' The Celt returned his smile. Somehow, even though his teeth were no larger or more numerous than was the norm, he managed to seem equally disconcerting.
'Wagner.' He said, his tone one of repressed triumph. 'The Pale Lord is very upset with you.'
'You are now taking orders direct from Essex?' Kurt managed to keep the surprise out of his voice. Wisdom was notoriously mercenary, but he was also known to avoid subjecting himself directly to any authority.
'Nope. Just news. Nathaniel has ordered the Marauders to, and I quote, burn down every tree in the forest if that is what it takes. He wants you dead, Wagner. No, cancel that. He wants your people dead; he wants you to experiment on, and find out just how much pain the human body can bear.'
'Consider me terrified. How does he plan to carry out this scheme without the royal forces intervening? He has five hundred spears, but the Summer Country can muster over a thousand.' The Nightcrawler affected total relaxation, though he had already guessed at the answer.
'Not without de Warrene they can't. Essex won't have an edge, but stopping him would cost the king far too much, if the men of Worth march alongside the Marauders.'
'Has any agreement been made?'
'No. But the Angel arrived in London this very morning. He was probably planning on buying the Lady Elisabeth off Nathaniel, but now he may well march into the forest with the Saxons.'
'Things… move fast.' Kurt was thoughtful. 'I think I should take her ladyship home, if I can persuade her.' He paused, then for the first time in their acquaintance sat down in front of Wisdom. 'How does my mother stand? And Gambit?'
'Gambit leeches off the Forest as much as off the sea. He would not see the Pale Lord achieve dominance there. But your law is… not friendly to his raiders. He gave me to understand that he would try to persuade the Brotherhood to assist you, and send aid himself, only if he could be given rights of banditry in the Great Forest. He also asked me to tell you that he considers a band such as the Brotherhood to be worth fifty warriors, and his own people fifty more. I don't think he's particularly exaggerating.'
'And your stance?' Kurt looked up and saw his poker face mirrored.
'That depends on Kitty.'
The fortress of Nathaniel stood at the northern edge of London. It had been built out of white marble, imported from Italy, to the design of the most gifted mason of the Frankish empire. It was built to be both an impregnable fortress and a place of astounding beauty, but the reputation of its lord lent it a deeply sinister air. Carrion circled the towers, occasionally swooping towards the inner courtyard, while Saxon Huscarls guarded the walls themselves, their great axes and pointed helms always visible against the skyline. Deep beneath it the dungeons were said to be filled with hideous, twisted things, the results of the obscene experiments in which Nathaniel the Shaper engaged in his efforts to resist the ravages of time itself. The people of London seldom saw the Pale Lord himself, but it was rumoured that the sorcerer was no longer even faintly human.
The captain of the Marauders, on the other hand, was as human as any man in Britain – to his eternal regret.
He had been born Thomas Grey, younger brother of John, the ninth Earl Grey, making him uncle of the lady Jean, now queen of the Summer Country. Jean had been born Gifted, with one of the most truly powerful minds in the world. Her uncle had watched this from afar, seen her potential, and been able only to curse his own weakness. He was himself immensely dangerous – but not through any quirk of genetics. Since his late childhood he had dedicated himself to mastering every weapon he encountered, most particularly his bare hands. He had, by the age of seventeen, when his niece was born, been reckoned the most skilled warrior of Britain. By the age of thirty, he had become the most wanted outlaw. His brother's blood was on his hands, and so he must flee.
He lived as a fugitive for three years, calling himself Crow. Then, twelve years ago, the Marauders had found him. They were Gifted, well trained, and heavily armed, while he was a man in rags, carrying only a spear and a knife – but still he had killed four of them before he was captured. Faced with an outlaw of such skill, the Marauders had hurried to recruit him. Crow never spoke of his past – though the Pale Lord knew of it – and when, after five years, he had risen to leadership of the Marauders, he had again taken a new name. He had taken to keeping a lock of hair from every man he killed in single combat, and men were already calling by the name he now took. In the seven years since, he had been known only as Scalphunter. His life was at last glorious – he had found his niche. He led the Marauders in their raids, delighting in slaughter and desperate combat alike, and in between times – in between times there was Sontag, his lieutenant and lover.
But Sontag had died on the claws of Logan, and so now, alone, he brooded.
To the chamber of this man walked Nathaniel the Shaper, the Pale Lord, one of the most dangerous men in the Summer Country. Anyone else he would have summoned; by going to see the Scalphunter he acknowledged his servant's rank and strengthened the man's loyalty. The preceding evening the Scalphunter had ridden in at the head of a troop of Marauders, but unaccompanied by the Lady Elisabeth Braddock. Hearing his account, his master had ordered him to come up with a plan for the capture and execution of the Nightcrawler. Now, twelve hours later, he had come to demand results.
Unfortunately, Scalphunter didn't have any.
Instead, he stood up before his master and demanded permission to hunt down the Iron Claw and tear out the man's guts with his bare hands. He was refused.
'You are a master with your weapons, Scalphunter, but your true value to me lies in your abilities as a leader and a strategist. Rest assured, Logan will die, and you will watch his torment first. But for now the life I desire is that of the Nightcrawler. Tell me how he can be reached.'
'Not at all by us while he holds Lady Braddock. The Marauders are seen as little better than what we truly are in the Summer Country even now, and if we are seen as attacking a man who, for all his thieving, remains a firm supporter of the King, the royal army would surely intervene. Even if it did not, the Braddock would bring his forces, and there are few in Britain more powerful than him.'
'And if I, Braddock's choice for his sister, March with you?' Asked a voice, and Andrew de Warrene, Duke of Worth, called the Angel, stepped out from behind the Pale Lord. Scalphunter paused.
'How many men would you bring with you?' He asked.
'I have two hundred spears and thirty archers two days march away. Twenty Cataphracti will be here within the hour. I understand that you lead close to five hundred men?'
'Four hundred and eighty spears, and ninety archers. The Nightcrawler has less than a hundred men, but the Braddock may call on nearly two hundred, including his light horse.' Scalphunter was on his feet now, looking down at a map. 'There are forty of them, all told, and they could out ride and out fight your Cataphracts any day. Which road are your infantry taking?' Nathaniel smiled. Once you removed the politics from a situation, Scalphunter would be guaranteed to see the way forward. He looked up, realising that he had just been asked a question.
'Can you manage here with seventy spearmen? Sire?'
'Yes. How many men can the King put into the field?' The Angel looked up.
'Even without Braddock's or my own, he still has six hundred spears and over a hundred archers, as well as his Knights. He will not fight, though, will he?'
'Not while you are with us, Lord Worth. The Braddock will not fight while you are with us either – unless he is persuaded that you are no friend to his sister. If that happens – well, the Summer Country would not be unhappy to see an end to my reign. It would cost them dear at this time, but given sufficient motivation they might consider their men well spent.'
'Not Scott.' Asserted Scalphunter. 'The man would walk over fire in a worthy cause, but he would not risk the life of a single man for anything less than a direct threat to the security of his kingdom. No, I expect that all we shall face is the Nightcrawler's outlaws, although Gambit may cause trouble.'
'I will deal with LeBeau.' Declared the Pale Lord. 'Do not forget that Wagner has a number of Gifted at his disposal.'
'So have we. No, two hundred marauders sweeping in from the east, while half that number of your men,' Scalphunter nodded at the Angel, 'advance from the northwest. They should follow this river, here.' His finger ran across the map. 'The Nightcrawler will appeal for help to the lords in the southwest, but will not expect any except possibly from the Braddock. That depends on how grateful the Earl's sister is for her rescue or kidnap. Instead, he will attempt to take his people past us and into the northern forests. He will try to pass between our two forces, along this valley, here.' He stabbed at the spot. 'One hundred archers, three hundred spears, and every Gifted we have will be dispersed around this area, then, waiting for them.' De Warrene laughed out loud.
'So you expect the bandit to notice our three hundred men sweeping through the forest from two different directions, but to completely overlook four hundred warriors gathering in between their lines? If you worked for me, Scalphunter, you'd now be cleaning the sties.' The big man grinned.
'There are always multiple factors to consider, Angel.' He told the Duke. 'Do not forget that my master is one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world. A charm of concealment is nothing to him. Provided the men light no fires and do not move around too much, Logan himself could not detect them.'
'The true name of the Iron Claw, the old man of the Forest. He is with those who hold your intended. And he is mine.'
'No.' Said Nathaniel. 'It is the nature of Logan's powers that he cannot be killed by you. Wounds to his body will heal, while his skull and bones are made of adamant, and we have no weapon that can shatter them. No, it will take a great beast to destroy him, and this is what I have created. Of the blood of the Fay, of Logan, and of the terrible beast called Wendigo I have made a man who can equal him in savagery and speed, and far exceed him in strength. He waits in the depths of this fortress even as we speak. I have named him Sabretooth, and with him on the hunt, Scalphunter, the Iron Claw will be no threat.' The big man accepted his master's words without question. He had long since learned that if the Shaper said a thing was so, it was so.
'Very well. Worth, if you would return to you main force as soon as you are rested. I would like half your men to be marching here and the other half preparing for their sweep through the Forest at dawn tomorrow. If all goes well we can begin in four days, and within a week the Nightcrawler will be our prisoner, the Lady Elisabeth will be your bride, and the Iron Claw will be a mutilated corpse.'
At that precise moment the Iron Claw was more relaxed than he had been while in company for over a century. He had known people more beautiful than Betsy, stronger than Bishop and noisier than Jubilee many times in the past – but he had seldom found such strong personalities, or such natural combat talent, as these three displayed. Bishop was a truly remarkable fighter. It was not just the man's size, but the remarkable speed and precision with which he moved. He was not as fast as the Nightcrawler – few men were – but he clearly had far more experience, and his massive broadsword would be enough to shatter lighter weapons should their owners prove fast enough to parry. Logan was very glad the immense black man was on his side. Betsy was remarkably beautiful, as only the women of the Far East could be, but far taller and stronger than any of them. She moved with elegance and understated grace that transformed itself into terrible speed when she fought or sparred, while it was clear that whoever it was from whom she had taken her skills was almost as well trained as Logan himself. It was Jubilee, though, who had really seized his attention. Too young to interest him as a woman, she nonetheless fascinated him with her unending curiosity and complete fearlessness. He wasn't sure whether the girl was remarkably intelligent or completely mindless, but as he watched her move and listened to her talk he became increasingly convinced that, with the proper training, she could be a warrior of rare skill.
'But can you give her that training?' Her mistress asked him as the girl ran to look at his herb garden. He looked at her. He didn't need to ask how she new what he was thinking.
'Can't you?' He asked.
'I'm going to have to find a husband, become a nun, or leave Britain before too long. A husband would never accept her as a daughter, a life of serenity and chaste prayer would suit neither of us, and she deserves a chance to settle down and grow up.' She glanced around. 'This forest seems as good a place as any. I could never marry a man like you, Logan, but I could, perhaps, give you a daughter. What do you think?'
'That you're making a rather sudden decision.'
'Not so. I have been thinking what to do with Jubilee since the day she was given to me, and that has been nearly two years. I ask you, Logan, could you raise Jubilee as a daughter, teach her some of the skills we share, and enable her to find her own way in this world? She will never fit in here as a slave girl or servant, but as a Gifted warrior, she might be perfect.'
'You hope I might take her back to her own people?'
'I hope you might teach her to find her own way back. You may remember that the empire of the Mongols has no more room for independent women than Britain.'
'What's her Gift?'
'She can weave light out of the air, and spin it into shapes or throw it like fire. If she were ever to use it right she would be as lethal as the Prince Alexander, and rather more versatile. However, as the Marauders helped me to prove yesterday, a warrior needs to learn to fight with more than just Gifts. Can you teach her? Will you teach her?' Logan glanced over to where the girl had just taken a standing double jump on to Bishop's shoulders and thence into a tree. She swung by one hand for a moment, and then spun herself backwards to land on her feet twenty feet below.
'I might give it a try.' He pronounced. ''Course, I can't teach her if she doesn't want to learn.'
'Of course not. Jubilation!'
'Yes, your Ladyship?' Replied the girl as she somersaulted towards them. 'Playtime over already? You found out blue boy's prospects?'
[In a few year's time it might be worth encouraging those two.] Betsy said in Logan's head. [Though God only knows what the offspring would be like.]
[Their personalities are too similar.] Logan thought as loudly as he could. [Jubilee and Bishop would be a more likely match. Hell, Jubilee and the King would be a more likely match.]
[A fair point.] Conceded Betsy. 'Do not be facetious, Jubilation. How would you like to continue your studies of Gongfu under Mr Logan, who can also teach you numerous other skills and techniques?'
'Uh… It'd be an honour, Betsy.' Replied the girl, forgetting herself in her surprise.
'Yes, but do you want to?' Demanded her owner. 'You have the choice, child.'
'Yes. Yes, I do wanna learn. Thanks for saying you'll teach me, Mr Wolvera… Wolfer… Wolvie.'
'It ain't nothin', darlin. But my name ain't Wolvie.'
'My name ain't darlin'. I call you Wolvie.' He considered a growl, but settled on a grin. 'Anyhow, I should be getting you lot headed back towards the camp.' The Lady Elisabeth rose to her feet and gestured to Bishop.
As they walked, the big man suddenly asked, 'Where do we go from here?'
'We go to my brother, first. He should be able to care for me adequately, Bishop, and so you may if you wish be free of your obligation.'
That night, with the Nightcrawler's people gathered round, Jubilee danced. The dance – which had no music – was a long one, and beautiful, in the main effortlessly simple, but with sudden bursts of breathtakingly complex movement. Several of those watching began to guess, but only Logan and the Lady Elisabeth knew enough to see for certain that the smooth, rather sensual movements of the girl-child could, if used correctly, be utterly lethal. It was a dance, but only as much as any duel is a dance, and to Logan's eyes it seemed incomplete without a partner for the girl. To her mistress it seemed tragic that a child so young should have needed to learn such skills.
Jubilee danced, and the light danced with her. Glowing balls of bright, coloured flame formed in the air around her, whirling and weaving across the clearing, and darting down from the sky above so that it seemed as though the stars themselves had come to join her. It was, even to Logan, a truly remarkable sight, and one he was to remember to the end of his days.
Beside the fire, but away from the crowd and on the opposite side to Jubilee, Logan and the Nightcrawler discussed the situation with Wisdom and the Lady Elisabeth. No mention was made of the fact that this was her second night as his guest.
'Scalphunter's cunning as they come, and the Saxons are tough bastards.' Was Wisdom's informed opinion. 'He'll have a plan that you'll see, and there'll be at least two extra layers to it.'
'So we peel 'em off, one by one.' Replied Logan.
'That seems foolhardy.' Bishop rumbled from the shadows. Everyone turned to look at him. He paused, and then stepped forward. 'You expect a triple bluff?' On the other side of the fire Jubilee leapt into the air leaving a rainbow of sparks in her wake.
'That would be one way to describe it, yes.' Replied Kurt.
'Then you should hold back until you see all the layers of his plan, and then avoid them all. Go round. As I understand it you have no reason to fight him if you can only run from him. The onus of forcing battle lies on him.'
'True.' Grunted Logan. 'Which means he'll have to sweep the Forest.'
'A line of men can be easily broken at any point on its length.' Pointed out Bishop.
'But he'll place a weak point in his line to tempt us.' Said Betsy. 'Which will actually feature a hidden concentration of his forces. But that will only be the second layer.'
'And the third?' Asked Bishop.
'How should I know?'
'You have the Mindspeech. Can you not reach in to his head and pluck his plans from him unawares?' Betsy answered with a hollow laugh.
'It doesn't work that way, Bishop.' She told him. 'Even if I could reach him at this range I could not go that deep undetected. No, what we really need is some way to avoid the trap altogether. Kurt, how many passengers can you carry?'
'One, and that over short distances only. No, we would need a vanisher of far greater power than myself. No help there.' Wisdom looked up.
'Maybe there is. How do you feel about asking your mother for help?'
Kurt's father had been the Graf von Wagner, a captain in the armies of the German Franks. His mother, though…
She was known as the Raven, though no one remembered why. As Logan could attest she was one of the world's older Gifted and, like Logan, she owed her longevity to her powers. She could transform her body with a thought into the form of any other being, and she had for centuries used this to good effect, gaining for herself wealth, wisdom, and the name of Demon. She was human, though, and when the Gifted proliferated she recognised her own. When first Rome and then Frankia declared the Gifted creatures of evil she had therefore gathered a band with which to fight back. They called themselves the Brotherhood, and were drawn from the furthest extremes of the two empires. There was the young albino Angelo, the Roman patrician Amara Aquila, the Briton Mortimer and the bitter Black Spanish woman called Cecilia. There was Raven's lover, the Seer called Destiny, and their foster daughter, the hapless Rogue. And at the centre, holding them all together, the team's bulwark in battle and their confidante in the quiet times, was the silent, steel-skinned giant from Scythia whom Raven had dubbed the Colossus.
The man called Wisdom knew many things. He had… a talent for finding things out. Among the things he knew and communicated to the Nightcrawler was the location of the headquarters of the Brotherhood. Among them were the name of the Colossus, and the identity of the Scythian's sister.
The Nightcrawler arrived at the old hill fort of Sarum with his trademark 'BAMF'. The fortress had been a centre of the region before the Romans had come and gone, and its great earthen walls and ditches were still among the most formidable fortifications west of the Forest. The gateways were guarded and the walls patrolled by the Raven's petty Gifted; his powers had let Kurt bypass these. He arrived on the summit, less than thirty feet from the carefully built hut at its centre, and right in front of a slim, grey-haired woman with a kind face and empty eye-sockets.
'Kurt' Said Destiny, the delight strong in her voice. 'You came. I was not sure that you would. Raven is inside, and Piotr is waiting by the west gate. I spoke to Illyana ten minutes ago, and she said there would be no problem with bringing your people here if you asked.'
'Irene.' Replied Kurt. 'It is nice to know that things have been organised without my being consulted. However, I have not asked. Why should I bring them here? Come to that, who is Illyana? And if she is who I think she is, what will be her price?'
'She said to tell you a favour, no larger than the one she will do for you…'
'And just as acceptable to you as this rescue mission is to me. Or perhaps I should say, no less distasteful.' The Nightcrawler spun to confront the newcomer who had just emerged from the ether immediately behind him.
The Childe Magik was a young girl, not yet sixteen, with milk-white skin and hair of pale gold. She wore an expression of unconscious innocence, and seemed defenceless and defendable, standing barefoot and clad only in a white shift dress. Her true nature was revealed in the malice that gleamed in her midnight-blue eyes, though, and the Nightcrawler found that he could somehow 'see' the dark magic that swirled around her.
'Darkchilde' He greeted her by her title. He had had dealings with this being before, and once again she left him feeling as though insects were crawling beneath his skin.
'Illyana!' Destiny sounded delighted at the girl's presence, though if any could see her true nature it was she. 'Kurt and I were just discussing why he should bring his people to Sarum.'
'Really? The elf finally getting over his fear of his mother, then?' Magik's voice was low and gentle, but it carried a bitter undertone, and Kurt could not help but wonder once again at the source of the creature's evil.
'How soon can you open a portal to bring my people here?' He asked, staying calm despite himself.
'Never.' The demoness smiled at him. 'But I can bring them all to Limbo, and then bring them here. I could even bring your village intact, and save it from the Saxon flames, at no extra cost. Of course,' she looked around the hilltop, lit by bonfires and starlight. 'The mill would be left high and dry, and there'd be no foundations, but what price freedom?'
'You are the one setting it.' Kurt told her.
'True. Shall we go and start your people preparing to move? How many are there?'
'Almost three hundred, including women and children.'
'I'll just go and tell Raven that you're coming.' Put in Destiny. As she turned away the Demon that looked like a child and the man that looked like a demon could both hear her muttering, 'I see she'll only argue for three hours, too.'
The transfer itself was simple. Before setting out Kurt had asked Logan and Betsy to organise his people for departure, and when he and the Darkechilde returned to his forest village it was to find Bishop working out an order of march, in case it should prove necessary. Illyana opened her strange, circular portals and his people moved through.
Betsy was one of the last to approach. Bishop standing massive at her shoulder, she moved forwards – and then the Darkechilde stepped out to bar her way.
'There is a smell of magic about you, Lady.' The blonde girl told her. 'Very powerful, but not your own. Not any of Britain or the Two Empires, either. You shall not enter my realm.' Betsy paused, and lifted her chin at the other woman. For the briefest of moments Kurt's fur stood on end, and then the older woman stepped back.
'Very well.' She said coolly. 'Kurt, it appears that I will be travelling on foot after all. I shall go by my brother's estates. I should have little difficulty evading my pursuers.'
'With the Sinister Lord's magic seeking you?' Asked the demoness. Her smile was pure malice. 'You'll be captured, enchanted and discarded before you get two miles out of the forest. All this greenery – this life – conceals you, same as if you were in a city. You can't go cross-country, though. It won't work.'
'Windlesham?' Logan asked her.
'It seems that it will have to be.' She replied.
'I can protect her.' Bishop reassured him. 'Insofar as she can be said to need protection. Kurt and his people will need you.'
'Too bad I ain't goin' with him, then. Assurances or none, no way I'm going through that witch's portal.'
'Afraid, man-beast?' Asked the sorceress in question, seeming to materialise at his elbow.
'There's magic on me not your own.' Logan pointed out. 'Why no objections?'
'There would be.' She smiled. 'But only if you wanted to go.'
Logan looked at the Darkechilde, and then looked around himself at the wreckage of what had been a village, home to his closest living friend, and then at that friend, who was wearing an expression of concern.
'I'll go east.' He said. 'When they're worried, then I head south. I'll join these two in Windlesham within two weeks.'
'I'm comin' with you.' Declared Jubilee, unconsciously beginning to imitate his speech patterns.
'You're goin' with Betsy, or Kurt.' The old man told her. 'I've lived here close on two centuries. I know the ways of the Forest. You've been here barely two days. Any other circumstances, I'd bring you to learn. Here and now, that'd just get us both dead.'
Jubilee sulked and whined at first, then, once she had realised that this kind of behaviour was unlikely to endear her to Logan, she attempted logic. None of it did any good; he was adamant in his insistence that he go alone. Ultimately, she reluctantly agreed to accompany her former mistress and Bishop southwards.
They had been riding for half an hour before Bishop spoke his mind.
'You do not seriously intend returning yourself to the care of that… thief, do you?'
'The Darkechilde's is not the only magic on this island, Bishop.' Replied the lady Betsy. 'Although the blood runs far stronger in the males of my line, I am not without power of my own. First, though, we need to reach the right place.' This took them about fifteen minutes more. The right place turned out to be a rather small but fairly ordinary clearing. There was an unusual preponderance of Oak trees set about it, though, and, in the exact centre, a neat circle of clover. Betsy walked over to this.
'What makes this plant grow so?' Bishop asked.
'The footfalls of dancing fairies, the old wives say.' Replied Betsy. 'Though in truth it merely indicates a place of weakness between this world and that of the Sidhe. Our powers are at their strongest here. Stand in the circle, both of you.' The man and the girl stood in the circle, and the woman removed her boots and walked three times around them anticlockwise, muttering in a smooth, liquid language that neither of them had heard before. There was a faint shimmering, and the land outside the circle changed, from the thick trees of the forest to a ring of massive, grey, sarsen stones. Many of them were toppled and all were worn by wind and weather, but it was nonetheless a place of brooding magnificence.
'What is this?' Jubilee demanded.
'The Henge.' Replied her former mistress. 'Legend has it that in ancient times Britain was ruled by a race of giants, after whose ruler the Island was called Albion. The legends say that the Sidhe turned the royal court of Albion to stone as they danced in this field, and so it was named the Giant's Dance.'
'Is that true?' Jubilee asked. She could feel the age and power of this place, but while it seemed incredible, it also seemed human – or at least as human as Logan.
'The stones were raised by men.' She was told. 'They built the Henge as a place of power, though, to contain forces that owned this island long before my people or the giants were even dreamed of.' She paused. 'In truth they have nothing to do with any of us, but they are not malevolent, and while we are here neither the Pale Lord nor the Darkechilde can reach us.'
'What happens when all the stones fall?' Bishop's power, little used day to day, was to absorb power in almost all his forms, and he could feel it filling him here, as it had filled the Henge.
'As long as the stones are remembered by men they will serve their purpose.' Betsy's voice had become distant. 'When even the dream of them has fallen, they will return.'
'Who?' Asked Bishop, and the Lady Elisabeth Braddock answered him with the truth, but a moment later she reached into the minds of her two companions and erased the knowledge she had given them, and a moment after that she herself forgot.
'It was from this stone,' she told them instead, 'that Arthur raised his great sword Excalibur.'
'Who?' Was Jubilee's reply.
Logan headed east at what was, for him, an easy pace, sustainable for days on end without refreshment. That it was as fast as most men ran was incidental to him; his one concern was to hit the Marauders early and hit them hard. Nature had given him a nose and ears far more sensitive than most animals, while his own experience had taught him to overlook nothing, and so even as he travelled Logan knew everything that went on in the forest around. There was no way on this earth he could be surprised.
Even so, he had less than a minutes warning of the presence of the Sabretooth.
Men tell one another, we are destroying our planet. Look at all the species we have eradicated. They misunderstand. They forget the billions of species that were extinct long before apes walked erect, before primitive men spoke, before humans formed societies. They forget that they, themselves, are products of nature, and all their works no more unnatural than the tree houses of the Orang-utan or the dams of the beaver. Nature is never gentle or kind. Life is raised and nurtured only as part of the food chain, itself designed for destruction. Nature may not always be red in tooth and claw, but many of its components are.
Even knowing all this, Logan had never seen or even imagined anything like this creature. The two of them fought silently and brutally, tearing at one another, claws of bone and adamant slicing through flesh, wounds healing within seconds of being inflicted. Logan had decades of training, centuries of experience, and a natural ferocity that had provided an edge in a thousand fights. All this was as nothing before the incredible speed, strength and brutality that his opponent brought to the fight. It tore Logan open and, mad with pain, he descended on it in frenzy, cutting and slashing and watching its injuries heal without understanding what he was seeing.
His ribs and skull were impenetrable, and so the Sabretooth could not kill him. It could maim and worry him, though, and this it did, until the ancient man fell into unconsciousness.
And then the Pale Lord came for him.
Kurt's mother was waiting for him when he emerged from the Darkechilde's portal.
'Raven.' He said briefly, and attempted to move past her. She caught his arm.
'Kurt. We have to talk.'
'I have nothing to say to you, mother.'
'Not even, thank you?'
'For seducing my father? For throwing me in the Rhine? For killing the woman who was far more of a mother to me than you ever were?'
'For letting your people come here, Kurt.' He stopped.
'For granting shelter to your son and sanctuary to those that needed it?' Destiny moved up to the two of them.
'Of course,' she told them, 'the real reason for all this is that you treated Rogue so much better than him, my love, and so he feels jealousy. If there had been no other children, he would probably just resent you a little.'
'Yes. After all, no-one really hates their natural mother for killing their foster-mother.'
'Kurt!' Said Destiny. 'You know quite well that Margali was insane, and evil, and manipulating you to her own ends. Why, if it hadn't been for her, poor Illyana would probably be another happy child even today.'
'If it hadn't been for Raven…'
'You would never have been born. Now, both of you apologise – at least for this argument, if not for the past – and try to organise these people. The Marauders will be here in less than a week, and your friends before tomorrow dawn. Except Logan, of course. Essex has him in London.' Kurt turned and stared at her. 'Don't worry. He won't be harmed. The Pale Lord promised the Scalphunter that he could personally supervise his death, and Logan will escape before his return. Probably.' She smiled beatifically. 'I can't wait to meet Betsy. There's nothing we can do for Logan right now, Kurt, so you'd better look after your people.' After a moment's hesitation, Kurt chose to believe her, and turned away.
Betsy arrived just before sundown. The forces of Essex would arrive in six days time.
Logan opened his eyes. The room he was in was absolutely dark, but that didn't worry him. It stank of old blood and excrement, but he had lived with such smells before. The floor and walls, he discovered, were of stone; he could not reach the ceiling, and there was no apparent door.
He was in an oubliette, stuck in a pit and left to rot.
He extended his claws, then retracted them, and felt the tiny exit wounds heal over. His Gift was still active, which seemed strange; Essex had a reputation for stealing these and other powers at will. The obvious conclusion was that the sorcerer wanted him in perfect health – for the wounds of his battle with the Sabertooth were gone as if they had never been – in order that he should survive in captivity longer.
Torture, then. He could ignore pain at will, and the damage would heal, and so he had nothing to fear from torture.
Even so, he had friends to help.
He re-extended his claws, and, working by touch, began cutting a toehold in the wall.
At the sign of the Fish Eagle two men entered the back room – Gambit and Wisdom. Gambit sprawled negligently in a chair; Wisdom, in a show of studied nonchalance, leaned against the table. Both had brought drinks with them, from which they sipped. In the end it was Gambit who broke the silence.
'Well?' Wisdom looked at him for the first time since entering the room.
'Just thought you might like to know.' He said. 'Lady Braddock's at Sarum, with the Nightcrawler and his people and the Brotherhood.'
'The Scalphunter and the Angel will hit them in five days. They've got seven hundred fighting men. That's odds of five to one.' Gambit looked at him, a strange light burning in his demonic eyes.
'You t'ink you can play games wit' me, don' you?'
'I don't think anything, LeBeau. I know Katherine is at Sarum, and if the Marauders capture her she'll wish she were dead. I know the Raven's there, and when the Raven is in danger the Rogue fights beside her. I know that any other women the Marauders capture will be in the same boat as Katherine.' He and Gambit looked at each other for a long moment.
'You t'ink I should go and die at her side, is dat it?'
'I know where I'm going. Anyone else wants to tag along, they're welcome.'
The Romans did not, as a rule, use maps. Nor did the Franks or the Mongols. In Britain, however, many of the Earls of Braddock had been able to fly by their magic, and some had used this ability to good purpose, drawing what they saw of the island from above. After centuries, and with the navigational priorities of the Corsair, the Royal Court of Windlesham had an extensive collection.
They also had their own spy networks, which was how the King came to be able to plot the recently reported disposition of the men of Essex and Worth on one of these maps.
'What the hell is Essex playing at?' demanded the captain of the Knights of the Summer Country. He was a tall, muscular man, middle-aged, one-eyed and possessed of considerable intelligence, and Scott had just introduced him to the chart.
'More to the point, Nicholas, what is Andrew playing at?'
'It looks like he's conforming on Essex.' The Captain looked up. 'Your friend's no fool. He wouldn't change sides without some serious motivation.'
'Even then, he wouldn't move against me so openly.' Nicholas surveyed the map.
'They haven't crossed the Forest yet?'
'They're preparing to.'
'We can't move against them till they do. A troop build-up could be disastrous if it was noticed.'
'Prepare the garrison to defend Westchester, then. How many of the Knights are here?'
'I can have sixty men ready to ride out by dawn tomorrow, sire.'
'Good. I will accompany you.'
Kindly contact Earl Braddock and inform him of our course.' The King's index finger traced a route on the map. 'Tell him we would appreciate a rendezvous with his Horse Archers in four days time, at the Henge. Nathaniel's magic cannot reach there.'
'His Marauders can.'
'I'll take that risk, Nicholas.'
'Why are you here?'
'To be wit' you.'
'It seems that you are an easy man to underestimate.'
'I have my reasons for being here.'
'That is what I meant. The Old Testament – which the Jews also accept – claims that a good woman is wealth beyond rubies.'
'That's enough of that, Wagner.'
'Ja? And you, Gambit, greetings. I did not look to see you here.'
'Well, I be here now. And I brought some company. Dese are some of my soldiers. Dey ain't many but,' and Gambit looked around, slightly theatrically. 'It looks like you need all de help you can get.'
'You could take Rogue now and go. I'm sure that with twenty of you and her you could get through the enemy scouts. Their main force is still three days away.'
'T'ank you, Raven, but I make a lot of money of de Nightcrawler. Dis be business. Why are you sitting here?'
'My son needs my help.' There was a brief moment of slightly embarrassed silence.
'You misunderstand Gambit. Why are we jus' sittin' here waitin' for de bad guys? We should be making dem bleed.'
'This is the best defensive point for a hundred miles. We of the Brotherhood have been fortifying it for months. We have the defences prepared, rest assured.'
'We do not incline towards a… static defence, Herr… LeBeau?'
'Dat's me. My people, we be best in de dark. When de Marauders get here, dey not goin' to have much sleep at night.'
The pit, Logan had discovered, was thirty-two feet deep, and covered by a granite flagstone.
He hung by one set of claws and a pair of shallow toeholds, using his free hand to gouge away at the slab of rock above his head. It was, he had discovered, thicker than his claws were long, which did not bode well for a rapid escape. He had been scraping at it for two days now, though, and on a couple of occasions his claws had broken through. Exhaustion, hunger and thirst were beginning to take their toll, but he was certain that within a few hours at most he would break through.
Up above, beside the massive slab of rock, the Sabretooth crouched and waited.
Reorganising the order of march had been problematic, to say the least, but the Scalphunter was richly rewarded for his ability to overcome problems. He had forced the pace of his main force and drawn the various sections of the army together until now they had seven hundred men headed west towards the edge of the forest. He had early communicated with his master, who had informed him that the Nightcrawler's people, for some reason still accompanied by the Lady Elisabeth Braddock, had united with the Brotherhood at Sarum. Nathaniel had warned his servant that the Marauders could not afford to linger; if they were caught in the Summer Country in such numbers, it could only be taken to be an invasion. Scalphunter had therefore contracted the army into a single column, using only the horsemen of de Warrene for reconnaissance. It was not, to him, a satisfactory arrangement; he felt he could not rely on the Britons as well as he could have his own scouts, but to send his own men ahead would have increased the likelihood of meeting the full might of the army of the Summer Country.
Two days from Sarum, ten miles from the edge of the forest, the attacks begun.
The leader of a troop of Worth's Cataphracti, riding in file on one flank, suddenly collapsed from his saddle, an arrow in his throat. His men rode forward into the forest, but found nothing.
A Marauder Huscarl stepped behind a tree to relieve himself, and was found a few minutes later with his throat cut.
A small explosion killed two archers and injured several more; the survivors explained that the blast had originated in a thrown pebble.
As the attacks went on – mere pin-pricks, never enough to sway the course of march, just enough to keep the men constantly on edge – Scalphunter recognised in them the hand of Gambit.
There would be a reckoning, he determined, and soon.
Logan's right fist burst through the shattered flagstone, grasping at the air for a handhold.
The Sabretooth grasped his wrist in a grip of iron, and hauled him through the floor, rock shattering before the impact of his unbreakable body. Logan then found himself slammed into the wall with sufficient force to send shards of stone driving across the small room. Stunned, he could only gasp for air as his opponent slammed him into the opposite wall, then back into the first, which, under the force of the massive blow, shattered.
A shard of stone four inches long drove into the Sabretooth's eye. The massive creature howled in pain and, for a moment, simply held Logan. It was enough. Logan's right hand claws extended, impaling his enemy's hand and severing two fingers. Even as these began to grow back, Logan brought his other fist round, and drove the three foot-long claws into the Sabretooth's face. They sliced through flesh and iron-hard bone, and carved into the monster's brain.
His hand spasmed open, dropping Logan. He staggered back, making incomprehensible snarling sounds. Logan gathered his remaining energy for another attack, but it proved unnecessary. The massive creature, made from man, beast and demon, collapsed.
The wounds in its face had already healed over. Muscles continued to twitch across its body, but it seemed, to all intents and purposes, dead. Logan, who had neither eaten nor slept in four days, slumped to his knees beside it.
Then pushed himself up. He did not know where he was, but he could guess. Sarum was nine days march away, but a man could ride the distance in a third of the time, on a good horse. Logan did not doubt that the horses in Essex's stables would be of the finest. He could be their in two days if he rode the animal to death, and while he knew the hardship of long rides he would at least be able to rest a little on the way.
All that was needed was for him – alone, exhausted, starving and almost naked – to escape from the most terrible fortress in Britain.
Logan's lips parted in an almost feral grin; he liked a simply definable objective.
The Marauders and their allies reached Sarum beneath a sunset that turned the world and the clouds to gold. They encamped on the eastern side, and the Angel led his remaining Cataphracti – for three had died on the march – around the fortress, looking for weakness and finding none. At dawn the next day he dressed in a coat of steel chain mail cut to let his wings operate, buckled on his greaves and breastplate, took his longsword and helm, and went out to issue a challenge. He, the most highly trained swordsman in the Summer Country, demanded that whoever had stolen his beloved (and the Lady Elisabeth laughed out loud at his words) should face him in open single combat. His great wings flapped as he spoke, and he added that if he fell, his men would have no reason to fight. However, he demanded, if he won he would spare the life of his opponent only in exchange for the Lady Braddock.
'Remind me again why you don't just hand me over?' That lady asked idly as she leant against the rampart.
'Yes, remind us.' Said the Raven.
'You are… my guest.' Said Kurt. 'Mother, I offered this woman sanctuary. As the eldest male of our house I make such decisions for all of us…'
'That can be remedied.' Declared the Raven, shifting smoothly into a male version of herself.
'It doesn't matter.' Declared Destiny. 'Whatever happens, there will be much blood shed this day.'
Below them, Andrew de Warrene, Duke of Worth, repeated his challenge. His armour shone silver in the morning sunlight.
'In that case…' Said the Nightcrawler, picking up his sword. There was a puff of purple smoke and a loud 'BAMF', and suddenly two figures stood on the plain below.
Imagine two men fighting a duel of blades. Both are masters of their craft. One, the taller, wields a longsword which adds to his already greater reach with a skill born of long training under the finest swordsmen money can hire, and of ultimately exceeding all of them in their art and their science. The other wields his shorter, lighter blade with a combination of natural talent and the teachings of a man who in his time exceeded the finest teachers that could be found, and learned in alleyways and on battlefields every foul trick that mankind ever invented. The taller is clad in mail and plate that shines like silver; his opponent is armoured only in the dark shadows that grow around him. The silver one aids himself with his great feathery wings, which provide him with balance and, on occasion, flight from a deadly blow, while the dark one counters with his superhuman agility, enough to let him dodge or catch an arrow in flight, let alone evade a sword blade. They fight for long minutes, their blades dancing, their breath coming in ragged gasps. Finally, they break apart, Angel and Demon facing one another across sword's point and blade's edge.
She does not love you, Worth.' The Nightcrawler told his foe.
'Could she love you?' the beautiful nobleman asked, contempt heavy in his voice. 'A blue-skinned devil?'
'I do not fight for love.'
'Why are you facing me, then?'
'Because you threaten my people.' Kurt told him, and attacked.
Blades dancing. The scrape of steel edge against steel edge. Feints made and openings left. The Angel suddenly lunged, and the men of Worth and Essex cheered – but the Nightcrawler somehow spun away unharmed, to drive his blade at his opponent's side.
The Angel lifted into the air. His great wings flapping, he flew high and far before swooping back in to attack the Nightcrawler at great speed. In response, Kurt leaped into the air and teleported, materialising a few feet away, slashing at the Angel's left flank as he swept past. De Warrene turned, slashing at him again, and once more Kurt avoided the blow. The winged man suddenly shot forward, his blade sweeping low-high to gut his enemy – and once more Kurt teleported, materialising behind his enemy with a loud 'BAMF' to drive his sword through the unarmoured root of the taller man's right wing.
The Angel screamed. He twisted, his wing trying to beat and only succeeding in shredding itself on the blade on which he was impaled. He screamed again, and the Nightcrawler pulled his weapon free in a brief spray of blood. Andrew de Warrene, Duke of Worth, dropped to his knees in defeat.
For a brief moment Kurt toyed with the thought of raising his blade once more and finishing the man, but he knew better; to defend himself, his followers or his guests against an attacker was noble, but to cut down one of the greatest lords of the Summer Country would ultimately cost him his life. Instead he picked up the man's sword, turned his back on the marauders and, slowly and deliberately, walked back to Sarum.
'They will not attack today.' The Raven declared. 'Not after the defeat of their champion.' She paused, seeming uncomfortable. 'It was… well done, Kurt.'
'Thank you, mother. Did not Destiny say they would?'
'I said there will be much blood shed this day. That may not mean in battle. Watch the night, Kurt, and let Gambit take his men to the enemy camp. Tomorrow comes the real test.'
Two hours after sundown. In the Marauder camp every tenth man was stood-to, while the rest slept atop their weapons, swords drawn, armour fastened.
Gambit had brought with him from Windlesham twenty well-trained men. They were experts in moving silently through the dark, in passing a man by without being noticed. They were thieves, and their master was a thief. They did not kill lightly, for Gambit's law was harsh and their membership of his guild brought with it obedience to his rules. This night, however, they went out among the enemy, and did the work of butchers – footpads or worse, cutting men's throats as they lay sleeping. With them went the Lady Elisabeth and Bishop. The noblewoman and the warrior had no more taste for the night's murder than did the thieves, but both were pragmatic enough to do what needed to be done.
The Nightcrawler sat on the inner wall of Sarum, Jubilee at his side, and prayed for the souls of his friends and of those they were about to murder.
The Scalphunter sat beside a dying fire, and waited. They would send the thieves, he knew, men who moved through the dark as surely as in the light. Against this he would banish the darkness when the moment came. His right hand resting on the jar of oil by his side, he glanced at the bizarre and silent figure that crouched to his left. Light would fill the camp, he thought, and then he would punish LeBeau for his treachery.
Wisdom led them forward. Of all those present he had the least distaste for this work; though no assassin, he had long ago learnt not to let any emotion come between him and his goal. His one weakness was Katherine, and she was behind him, threatened by these men towards whose flames he crawled.
Wisdom knew many secrets, and one that he had never shared casually was that he was himself Gifted, such that he was never unarmed. Now, as he neared the fire, he raised his hand and sent an invisible blade of pure heat to slice into the guard's throat. The man's windpipe was cauterised shut, his spine severed; he could only fall, to die motionless and silent beside his friends.
Seeing him fall, Gambit waved his men forward. The thieves moved up on the fire around which nine men slept. As always when on a job, they were all partnered, and now a pair of thieves seized each Saxon, covering his mouth and pinning his arms even as they cut his throat. Many of Gambit's men had never killed before, and one of them turned aside and vomited quietly, his companion passing him a canteen taken from a corpse. Bishop and Betsy moved up beside Gambit and he nodded silently, beckoning them towards the next campfire in. Once again Wisdom cut the watchman down, and once again the thieves moved in and bent to their grim work.
The Scalphunter tensed. There had been a sound, almost too quiet to hear, but he had not grown old in bloodshed by ignoring his senses. He knew, however, that he could not afford a false alarm. He stood for a long moment in silence, listening, and heard another, similar sound; the faintest muffled gasp. Reaching for the jar of oil, he raised it above his head, and turned to look at the creature beside him.
'Now.' He said, and threw the oil into the fire.
Light filled the entire plain, glaring, flickering light, red and orange and yellow and blue, firelight magnified a thousand times, a light like that of a hundred thousand torches, or the biggest bonfire in the world.
Darkness is the thief's friend. Light, though… the light belongs to the warriors of the shield wall, and to the archers.
Gambit brought his head up as the light came. An arrow shot past his chin and drove into the shoulder of one of his men. Marauders were struggling to their feet, their officers shouting at them to form up. That was pointless, Gambit knew. His men were individually dangerous, but scattered and lightly armed as they were the well trained and well-armed Saxons would easily cut them down. They had to run, at the mercy of the archers – unless he could destroy the source of that great light, for no campfire could burn so bright so fast. He turned, and ran towards the light, relying on the insanity of the manoeuvre to slow the enemy's reactions.
It worked. He ran straight between the knots of suddenly-roused axe men, leaped clean over a hobbled horse, and landed less than thirty feet from the central campfire, staff in his right hand, dagger in his left. Scalphunter was waiting for him, sword drawn, and by his side…
There were a lot of legends about the horrific magical abilities of Nathaniel the Shaper, of how he twisted men's minds and bodies to his own ends, of how he summoned up demons from the blackest hells, of how he lived on human souls. Most, Gambit believed, were true. One story he had never believed – simply because there was no evidence of it – was that of the Lord of Essex's Crystal Golem, a man created by magic out of the purest glass. It stood before him now, though, arms raised as it captured the light of the flaring campfire and magnified it, radiating it across the plain. Scalphunter grinned; a blade of steel and a staff of wood would be equally useless against such a creature. Gambit grinned back, and in his left hand the dagger began to glow pink, almost unnoticeable in the fire's oil-fuelled glare.
'You can't do more than scratch it, LeBeau.' Scalphunter declared as he stepped forward. He had never seen the Frank fight, but he was confident that he could beat the man.
'Not with steel, n'est pas?' His opponent replied, and flung the knife. It slammed into the chest of the Golem, and exploded.
Gambit's black thief's cloak was made of bearskin, reinforced along the seams with leather. As the man of glass shattered, hurling razor sharp shards of crystal in all directions, he ducked under it, praying desperately. A needle-thin sliver drove through and sliced open the back of his left hand; another, larger piece drove into his bicep, and there was a stinging pain that flared up in his right thigh before settling into a terrible, pulsing ache. As quickly as he had covered himself, he whipped the cloak off himself as Scalphunter, his face – the only part of him not covered in mail and leather armour – cut and bleeding where he had looked towards the explosion, rushed to attack him.
The thief avoided the warrior's first two blows – powerful strokes designed to cut him down while he was off balance – and caught the third on his staff, attempting to shove the bigger man away. Scalphunter was stronger than him, however, and shoved forward, before rasping his sword back to slash at Gambit. Dancing apart, they circled briefly, before closing once more, the sword chipping chunks from the staff.
'You never should have come here, LeBeau.' Scalphunter said. Gambit forced him back with a swift series of jabbing attacks aimed at his face and wrists. He wasn't going to answer; as of a minute before, his breath had become too precious to waste on taunts. 'I'll kill you, here and now.' His opponent continued. 'But Rogue… My Lord will take her powers away – you know he can, LeBeau – and then we'll give her to the Marauders.' Gambit, dancing around him, was beginning to snarl faintly. More tellingly, he was no longer attempting to escape. Scalphunter grinned. 'Let me tell you exactly what we're going to do to her.'
The thieves – those that were left – straggled back in to Sarum. Eight had died out there for sure, and two others were missing. Several of those that had made it back had been wounded, and Kurt and Raven brought up their healers. Last in were the Lady Elisabeth, Bishop and Wisdom.
'Where's Remy?' Demanded Rogue.
'I last saw him running towards the Marauders.' Bishop said; he had returned from the plain covered in blood, but without a scratch on him.
'Returned to his own.' Said Raven.
'Now, hang on…' Said Wisdom.
'I would not have expected such behaviour.' Said Kurt.
'Say what you like about Gambit – and I usually do – but…' Wisdom was trying to argue.
'Indeed. He seemed… not trustworthy, but strangely honest.' Betsy agreed with Kurt.
'He'd give his soul to the devil if the deal was good enough, but…' Wisdom did not have friends in the conventional sense, but if there was one man with whom he would get drunk it was LeBeau.
'At least now we no longer have to deal with his pursuit of…' Raven paused.
'He'd cut his own hand off before he betrayed his own.' Wisdom finished. Kurt and Raven asked one another simultaneously.
The girl named Rogue flew high through the night, feeling the wind in her hair. She seldom really used the abilities she had stolen from the Warbird; she had only had them a short time, and was nervous of her limits. Flight, though… that was power to prize. And right now she could feel the power in her limbs and, more than that, she could feel just what her life would be like without Gambit. It had been simple and lonely before he arrived, and it would be bleak indeed if he died. She could see the main campfire, now, still flaring from the oil poured on it, and around one side of it a thick ring of men, watching the two gladiators who circled and fought within. Rogue swooped.
'…Of course, she also won't be able to walk by then either, so the inability to eat hardly matters.' Gambit was sobbing with rage as he made attack after wild attack; Scalphunter was grinning as he parried or avoided them easily; early in the fight he had feared the younger man's Gift, but now there was no way he'd think to use it. Dodging another blow, he stepped past the thief, and slashed his sword through the man's cloak to slice open his back. Gambit didn't even notice, but simply turned and continued his murderous assault. As he made yet another rush, Scalphunter decided to end it; stepping forward, he caught the other man's staff in his left hand, and with his right lunged forward, hilt first. The spike on the pommel of his sword impaled the thief's wrist, and he finally reacted, forced to release his weapon. Scalphunter threw it aside, and slashed forward, his blade biting deep into Gambit's side. Silent, he dropped to his knees, and the Marauder raised his blade to finish him.
Rogue hit him at full speed, hurling him backwards clean through the fire, scattering flaming brands everywhere. As the Saxons scattered to escape the heat, she gathered up her lover in her arms and lifted into the air, before arrowing desperately away. In the darkness she could not locate Sarum, and so she simply flew, finally setting down only when Gambit began to move. She placed him on his feet, but he promptly collapsed, bleeding heavily. She could barely see him in the starlight, but she knew that the spreading patch of darkness beneath him was not a good sign. Desperate, she tore at his clothes, searching for the wound that was killing him.
She found the stab-wound in his leg first, and was amazed that he had stood for so long. The slice across his back was obvious, but, though messy, not serious. It was the terrible gash in his side that made her heart sink. She knew nothing of medicine, and everyone she knew who did was based far away. All Rogue could do was bind the cuts with strips of cloth, and wait until morning.
Bishop found the Nightcrawler sitting alone on the wall, midway between two of the watch points that the Brotherhood had set up.
'You do not approve.' The big man said.
'I appreciate the necessity.' Kurt told him.
'Nevertheless, you do not approve.' Behind them, in the old feast hall that stood within Sarum, a thief choked back screams as the dark-skinned Iberian Gifted Cecilia dug an arrowhead out of his shoulder.
'You murdered men in their sleep. Did you think that I would sing and dance? They call me the Nightcrawler, because I move silent through the darkness. I have been a lot of things, Herr Bishop, but a murderer has never been one of them.'
'We cannot all choose our course as you did.'
'Yes. I understand you owe the Lady Elisabeth a debt of honour. Even so, could you not have dissuaded…'
'I did not follow her into the night.' Bishop said. 'But she would not let me go into danger alone.' Kurt paused.
'Who are you, Bishop?' He asked. 'What is this debt you owe her? What lets you murder men so callously?'
'Experience.' Was the reply. 'The first time I did such a thing it was against my will. Even now, I do not feel that it was my choice this night.' He paused, and then told his story.
Egypt lies at the northeastern corner of the vast continent of Africa, yet it is the southernmost province of Rome. Beyond Egypt is the desert (though it was not always a desert, and Bishop's people still tell tales of the green it was before, when they were Kings, before they earned the enmity of the gods), and beyond that thick jungles full of poison and predators.
Between the desert and the jungles lived a proud people, like the Ethiopians in some ways, and like the Arabs in others, but of neither race. They were mighty hunters and brave warriors, on balance as good a people as any and better than many. They seldom travelled – for the desert and the jungle would swallow any who dared – but enough of them had filtered north to Egypt for them to be known and valued as excellent bodyguards and gladiators, and the finest hunters in Africa.
Into one tribe of these people – the tribe's name does not matter, as he alone remembers it – Bishop was born and, two years after him, his sister – whose name, also, no longer has meaning. He was always large and powerful, the strongest youth of his tribe, and his uncle, their most skilled hunter, took the boy under his wing early on. By the time he was twelve he was as good as many twice his age, and as tall and strong as a youth of fifteen. It was at this time that the Slavers came from Egypt.
Their captain was a Roman named Macrinus, although the men themselves were mostly Syrians. Knowing the reputation of Bishop's people as individual warriors, Macrinus placed his men in a circle round the village and had them use their bows to shoot down every adult in the place. Those who survived the arrows were cut down when the raiders rode in. Bishop's uncle, wounded in the lung and the leg, lay with the dead until the enemy turned aside, then rose and killed two with his spear before Macrinus rode forward to cut him down personally. Bishop himself rushed forward to avenge the dead, but was beaten to the ground. Then Macrinus took his knife, and carved his initial 'M' into Bishop's face, leaving his mark for the entire world to see. Finally, the surviving children and a few women were roped together and dragged north, into the desert.
More than half of them died. Bishop survived, because he was strong and angry, and his sister survived, because he protected her and because she loved him. Eventually they reached Alexandria, where they were sold one by one in the great market.
Bishop's sister went early, to a Greek trader who intended to train her and sell her at a profit. Bishop himself, disfigured by Macrinus' knife, fetched a low price, and was sent to the mines.
The mines of Egypt will kill a strong man in three years, a boy in three months. The endless, lightless work sapped at a man's strength and will until he no longer cared whether he lived or died. Bishop lived five years there, surviving by his anger and by the strength the gods had given him. Finally, when he was seventeen, the traders came calling. Merchants had come from the East, from the Empire of the Mongols, seeking slaves to become Gladiators, and the mines were always a reliable source of cooperative muscle. Bishop – a huntsman of deepest Africa, his young frame gigantic in muscle – could not be passed up. He was sent east, to fight in the Death-Pits of China. It was there that the Mandarin purchased him.
The Death-Pits were a place of blood and hatred. A man could have no friends there, for their gaolers delighted in pitting any who showed fellow feeling against one another. A man could not live long there, for the stronger he proved the stronger the enemies he was pitted against. Bishop was strong, and again he lived, even as he was called upon to slaughter men three and four at a time. He received no formal training in those brutal, gore-filled years, but lived by his wits and his natural talent, thereby overcoming enemy after enemy until he was acknowledged champion supreme. For this great talent – for the ability to guess his opponent's actions seconds in advance, and to react serpent swift almost before an attack was made – the Mandarin, Lord of China, singled him out. He was taken from the arena, and given true training in the use of blades, and then told his fate; he was now to be an assassin.
'I refused then.' Said Bishop. 'I do not know why, or where I found the strength; I had been killing for a long time, but somehow combat in the arena did not seem to me as murder.' Kurt nodded. Jubilee, crouched in the darkness less than twenty feet away, remained frozen, knowing that this was probably her only chance to learn her friend's story.
'He found your sister?' Asked Kurt. Bishop stared at him for a moment, and reminded himself never to underestimate this man.
'Yes. He threatened me with her death. It worked.'
'And you became his killer?'
'Until I could not stand it. I attempted to… rescue my sister. I went with a sword against a sorcerer. He… humiliated me, and then, to punish me, he made me watch as his men killed her.' Bishop paused. 'It took nine days. After that, I was his slave once more.' He stood as if to leave, but Kurt put a hand on his arm.
'I do not believe you would obey him out of fear, mein freunde.' It was a rare form of address from Kurt.
'Believe what you like, Nightcrawler. We cannot all have your noble, courageous heart.'
'Tell me.' Bishop had been brusque, but Kurt's voice was low, with threatening undertones. 'You can know nothing of my 'virtue', African, but I would know. Why did you serve the Mandarin?'
'Because of what he did to my sister.'
'Which was?' Kurt had realised early on in their acquaintance that Bishop almost certainly never lied. Now the big man paused, and then reached under his leather breastplate. To anyone without Kurt's night vision the object he removed would have been invisible, but he could clearly see a fragment of polished bone, hanging around Bishop's neck on a steel chain. The swordsman turned to the outlaw and held it out on the palm of one hand.
'He trapped her soul.' Bishop said, icy calm. 'Within this indestructible shard of bone rests all that truly is of my sister. With it, he could inflict unimaginable torments on her. Even after his death his magic binds her, such that no sorcerer I have yet found could break the spell.' Kurt simply nodded.
Within his tent, far below, Andrew de Warrene listened to the night, and to the groans of the wounded and dying, and to the blood pounding in his own ears, and to anything else but the chirurgeon who stood over him saying that to save his life they must amputate his wings.
Twenty miles away, at the edge of the Forest, Rogue sat beside her dying lover and wept at her own impotence. As she sat beside him, her clothes soaked with blood, a man stepped out of the night, seeming to just appear suddenly.
'Smelled the blood three miles off.' Logan told the girl. He had never seen her before, but he had heard a description and, when Kurt had been visiting with his sister, had smelled traces of her scent. 'You Rogue?' She nodded as he crouched beside Gambit, inspecting the thief's wounds.
'C-can you save him?' She asked.
'I can try.' Said Logan, and began to use the skills taught to him by a priestess of Isis who had once been his lover.
Within Sarum Jubilee slept huddled in her cloak, trying to stave off the images of her overactive imagination as it speculated as to how a woman could be killed over nine days. A short distance away Bishop and Wisdom advised the Nightcrawler and the Raven as they planned for the morning's battle. They were massively outnumbered, and had barely enough people to defend the high walls.
In London Nathaniel the Shaper finished reviving the Sabretooth, and prepared a spell that would transport both of them to the Marauder camp.
And, seven miles from Sarum, at the ancient Henge, the Giant's Dance, the Knights of the Summer Country and the Horse Archers of Earl Braddock camped together, their leaders – the King, the Earl, and Nicholas, the Captain of the Knights – talking quietly over a map. They had earlier seen a great light blaze up from near the old fortress, and tomorrow they would ride out to investigate.
'There will be blood.' Said Brian; his powers of precognition were as nothing to those of Destiny, but they were nonetheless accurate.
'The Marauders?' Nicholas asked. Brian paused.
'I do not know. I saw a sword, it's blade red, and a hill upon a plain. Nothing more.'
'Sarum. The great fortress of the plain. We ride there at first light.' The King had spoken.
At first light the Marauders attacked, running to the base of the hill and stumbling up it awkwardly while behind them the archers fired volley after volley. The defenders let the Saxons get half way up the slope, and then Raven signalled one of her followers. Amara Aquila's father was a Claudian, a member of the greatest of the Imperial families of Rome, and had been Consul once. He had banished his daughter when her Gift first manifested, though, without thinking of her potential. Amara was quite probably the most powerful member of the Brotherhood, and now she stood up on the wall, her body glowing bright like fire, and used it.
The earth itself split asunder. Marauders screamed as massive boulders erupted from the ground to hurtle down the slope into their packed ranks. At one point lava burst up from the ground in a miniature volcano. The Saxons fled, only a few of them dead but the rest panicked beyond all reason. And Amara Aquila staggered back inside the walls, exhausted by the massive exertion, and fell into the arms of her lover, Angelo.
'You did well, Amara.' Raven told her. 'Rest now. We will need you again.'
'Some things, mother, cannot but be said, and some things are merely stating the obvious in order to assert your authority.' Kurt said. Below them the Saxons struggled to reform. Below them a portal opened, and the Pale Lord of Essex stepped out, the Sabretooth at his side.
The Lady Elisabeth stepped up beside them, dressed for combat, her hair in a braid and a long, curved sword slung across her back.
'Next time, we will have to face them hand-to-hand.' She said. Nathaniel is here.' She pointed. 'It may be that we have to face them… powerless.' Kurt smiled, and rested his hand on his sword-hilt.
'I would not say that we are ever truly powerless, Betsy.' Beside him his mother drew her great broadsword. 'And Raven and I have a reckoning, now.' Rogue had not returned. Gambit's allegiance was unknown to them, but they were certain that if Rogue had not returned it could only be because of death or captivity.
The presence of their lord and master on the field had forced the Saxons into order. Splitting off a large reserve, Scalphunter sent four columns, each of over a hundred men, marching forwards. He himself commanded the remainder.
'Four simultaneous assaults.'
'Coordination will be difficult.'
'If they hit within an hour of each other we will fall, mother.' The Brotherhood member named Mortimer moved up beside them.
'Should we prepare a retreat?' He asked his mistress. She looked at him.
'To where?' Asked Destiny from behind her. 'If we stay, we may live. If we flee, I see only death, for all of us.'
'Samuel!' Called the Nightcrawler.
'Sir?' The young Cornish Gifted ran over from his place on the wall.
'That column.' Said the Nightcrawler, pointing to the rearmost. 'I would esteem it highly if you would scatter them as much as you can. Slow them down, alles klarr?'
'Yes sir.' Samuel lifted off the ground and flew forward, alone, to attack a force of over a hundred men. Raven stared at Kurt in admiration.
'And he just… obeys?' She asked.
'Because he knows what he is doing.' He replied. Below them, Samuel smashed through the foremost ranks. 'We can hold two columns, at most. Have you anything…?'
'The Colossus. He may be able to hold one of the gates alone, assuming they attack at the gates.'
'They will at first.' Declared Bishop. 'But if one man alone holds a gate, and cannot be killed, you go around him.'
'There's no time to talk.' Snarled Wisdom. 'Get that Roman girl back up here.'
'Amara's too tired.' Mortimer responded. Samuel shot up into the sky, and then dived once more. 'Can't anyone think how to fight without Gifts? Or did we spend a week building booby-traps for the good of our health?' There was silence, as his superiors looked at him in surprise. Then,
'Herr Wisdom, if you would be so good as to light the brush on the Eastern rampart. Herr Mortimer, if you would take Cecilia with you and deal with any Gifted the Saxons may have brought who can survive passing through the flames.'
'Moving.' Said Wisdom, and headed off, Mortimer leaping after him.
'Herr Bishop, the pits should be funnelling their right-hand column towards… there. Take forty men, and the Lady Elisabeth, and hold them, please.' Bishop turned, shouting out for four of the men they had placed in command of Tens. Below, the Marauder named Michael had struck Samuel a massive blow, sending him spinning off to embed himself in the ground. He did not move, and the Marauders hurried forward, axes raised. Kurt paused, and then used his Gift to travel down to the plain and retrieve the young man. Reappearing just inside the wall, he called the Colossus over to take his charge to their healers, and then touched his mother's arm.
'Mother, the Brotherhood are yours. With your Gifts, you should be able to hold the left-hand column between the landslip and the second firewall. Wait before you light it. I will take the main force, and hold the centre.' She nodded, and moved off, beckoning her followers. Below them the Marauders struggled up the steep slopes of Sarum. At the rear, the fourth column had reorganised, and was starting to follow, but it was half a mile behind the main force.
'What is taking so long?' Nathaniel demanded.
'They have managed to funnel our men into just three assault points.' He was told. 'This lets them hold our superior numbers.'
'Well? Throw in the reserve and outflank them.'
'My men will not march through fire.'
'Then I shall extinguish the flames. Send your men forward. And remember, Lady Braddock is to be taken alive.'
'That will not be easy.' Essex grinned.
'Then send her to me.'
'How?' The grotesque, white-skinned figure laughed softly.
'Magic.' He made a movement in the air, and suddenly there was a whip of blue flame in his hand. 'But strike her with this – her and no other – and she shall be sent here.'
'You have that power?' The Scalphunter knew that if he could have used such means to transfer the Lady from Windlesham, Sontag would still be alive.
'Its range is very limited.' The Scalphunter alone had the right to question his master's orders. Even so, irritation had crept into the Pale Lord's voice.
'And once she is here? She is not without skill herself.'
'I have the Sabretooth. What more could I need?'
On the outer walls of Sarum the marauders had shown none of the previous days hesitation. They were out for revenge, and more frightened of their master than of the defenders. They swarmed up, and the outlaws and Brotherhood cut them down. Despite their disadvantage of fighting from a lower level, though, the Marauders were better trained, better armed, and there were more of them. They were managing to inflict casualties.
The Brotherhood held their ground against odds of three to one, blades thrusting down, blades thrust back at them. At their head fought the Raven, a spinning blur of blue flesh and bright steel. She cut down the first four men to come at her without a hint of difficulty, and then turned, blade raised, to confront the next.
The gigantic, rock-skinned Marauder known as Michael smiled at her, secure in his invulnerability. His massive fists were spattered with the blood of the previous two Brotherhood who had attempted to fight him.
Raven lunged for his eyes, but he simply turned his head and let the blade scrape across his stone-hard cheek. Twice more she struck, and then he caught her blade in one hand, snapping it effortlessly. She would have retreated, but his next move was to grab her by the hair even as she turned. Two of the Brotherhood pushed forward to her side, only to be chopped down by the Saxons. Then Michael lifted her into the air. She kicked at him frantically, but he simply grinned, and then threw her into the front ranks of the defenders. Her followers stepped back and lowered their weapons to avoid harming her, and Michael stepped forward into the gap, kicking another Brotherhood aside. He raised one massive fist to crush the life out of her.
The Colossus was a simple man, and silent, but by no means stupid. He lived his life by his own code, and he followed the Raven not out of desperation or fear, as did most of his fellows, but because it interested him. Even so, he respected her intentions, and had a fraternal affection for Rogue who, he knew, would be heartbroken if her mother were to die. He stepped forward, through the ranks of the Brotherhood, and caught the Marauder's fist as it descended. Michael gave an audible grunt as, for the first time in his life, his strength was equalled. He looked up, already drawing back his other arm for a blow that would make his opponent regret his intervention.
'Enough.' Said Piotr the Scythian, and drove his right fist straight through Michael's face.
The gigantic Marauder fell, and the Brotherhood pushed forward, their blades chopping at the Saxons with renewed vigour. Two lifted the unconscious form of the Raven as the Colossus, his long silence at last broken, led them forward, his massive fists making a mockery of armour and shields as blades glanced off his steel hide.
Half way along the walls, the Nightcrawler led his men. His Gift moved him rapidly along the wall, appearing at intervals of seconds to cut down or distract foe after foe, now in front of them, now stabbing at their backs. The Marauder Kim, darting his blade forward at the defenders, was expecting his appearance. As the blue-furred devil appeared, Kim spun, reaching out with his empty left hand. Even as he did so, one of the Nightcrawler's outlaws thrust forward with a spear, taking him low in the side. Kurt caught the dying man's wrist, and then screamed as the grinning Mongol unleashed his Gift, throwing his powers to the four winds. The outlaw attempted to teleport, and materialised two hundred yards away, nine feet above the firewall and unconscious. Reacting with commendable speed Mortimer leaped through the air to catch him inches from the fierce blaze, before flipping back to his position within the walls. Aside from singed fur the Nightcrawler was without serious injury, but he was very definitely out of the fight.
Spotting the flash of purple hair the Scalphunter led his reserve towards the flank of Bishop's position. The firewall was as yet unbroken, and the Marauder knew that, though his master's power could extinguish it temporarily, it could not render the fuel fireproof; it would only be a matter of time and magic before it re-ignited. He would have to take his men over the wall before he captured the Lady Elisabeth.
Above, Bishop and the Lady Elisabeth Braddock fought side by side. Forty of the Nightcrawler's outlaws backed them, but these two consummate warriors barely needed the support. The two long blades – Bishop's massive scimitar and Betsy's slim, curved sword – sliced into foe after foe. The previous night's butchery had sickened both of them, but this was true combat, what they had both been born to. Despite their slim forces it was at this point more than any other that the Marauders faltered and were beaten back, unable to survive the presence of the two Gifted, neither of whom used their powers. Then, just when it seemed the assault would collapse, the firewall on their left collapsed, and the Scalphunter's reserve smashed through.
The Scalphunter carved through the enemy ranks, leaving dead and dying outlaws behind him. These defenders, until recently winning against reduced odds of two to one, now found themselves faced by a massive injection of fresh enemies, while they themselves were exhausted. To run would be to die, but even so they faltered and nearly broke. Instead they collapsed onto a knot of men, blades stabbing at the marauders. At the centre of the line the Scalphunter saw the Lady Elisabeth, fighting beside a massive, unfamiliar black man who was bleeding from his shoulder and face. Uncoiling the whip that Essex had given him, he stepped forward and lashed out with rattlesnake speed. As it touched her, the purple-haired Lady screamed in agony, her composure shattering.
Jubilee had been ordered to stay with the healers, the women and children, and the other non-combatants. It must have been a lapse in her former mistress's concentration that led her to give such a command, because on any other day she would have known that the girl would never obey it. Instead she had swiftly moved up in support of her friends, ready at any moment to hurl bright light into the face of any Saxon who threatened. Instead she was witness to the awe-inspiring sight of Bishop and Betsy in combat, cutting down enemies before Jubilee could even register their presence, let alone use her powers against them. When the flank attack came the girl had joined the huddle that rapidly formed, working her way closer to her friends. She had grown up in the camps of the Great Khan's armies, and was under no illusions as to her fate should her side lose. Although this was her first time in battle, she had seen the aftermath of combat, and had witnessed gladiatorial fights before. She had never killed, but she had seen death, and she believed herself inured to it.
The Lady Elisabeth's scream was like nothing she had ever heard before.
With a surge of adrenaline the girl leaped over an outlaw to reach her friend's side. Even as she reached out to aid her, though, the Lady Elisabeth began to fade from view. Jubilee grasped for her arm, and the two of them vanished together.
Bishop watched as the woman he had sworn to protect, from whom he had accepted a retainer, to whom he had given his service, of whose salt he had eaten, vanished, and with her the young girl who was as close to being his friend as anyone, who had in her mind replaced his dead sister, whose black skin and yellow hair had been the complete opposite of Jubilee, but whose personality, in the brief time that he had known her, was so close. He remembered his sister, snarling defiance even as the Mandarin's Executioners peeled off her skin, and Jubilee, years later, standing up to the Sorcerer, taunting him angrily to hide her own terror. Both had been children. Both had died through his failure. Now he turned on the killer of his mistress and his friend, a man big as himself, and as broad through the shoulders, his whip discarded and a great sword in its place in his hand. He stepped forward. A Marauder lunged at him, and Bishop cut away the man's sword-arm without even looking at him.
'I am Bishop, champion of the Death-Pits.' He said. No-one hearing the simple introduction could doubt that it was anything but a challenge. The Scalphunter waved his men back.
'I am the Scalphunter, leader of the Marauders.' He answered. 'The Crow, Bladesmaster of Britain.' Bishop saluted him in the manner of the arena, and the Scalphunter grinned in anticipation.
Heavy blades struck together and, before the eyes of the watching Marauders and the handful of surviving outlaws, the two warriors engaged.
Below, on the plain, Jubilee found herself alive and unharmed, crouched beside the unconscious form of the Lady Elisabeth. Over her loomed the massive figure of Nathaniel the Shaper. Beside him stood the Sabretooth.
The Pale Lord spoke.
'Kill the girl. Do not touch the woman.' The massive monster surged forward, and Jubilee leaped frantically backwards, searching for an escape route.
A few hundred yards away Logan, scenting the beast with whom he had so brutally fought, turned away from the sounds of battle and ran towards the smell of fear.
The Scalphunter was a master swordsman, a natural leader and a born killer. There were few opponents he could not beat through strength and skill, but on those rare occasions when he encountered an opponent who was capable of troubling him he tended to use intimidation and insults to distract or enrage the other man, usually enabling a rapid victory. He had beaten Gambit – and come close to killing him – as much by enraging the Frank as by outfighting him. Against Bishop, though, this tactic would be useless; he had, so far as could be seen, killed Bishop's mistress, and the man was already angry.
This was not the shouting, clumsy fury, or the snarling irrationality, that the Scalphunter liked his opponents to feel and that gave him the advantage. This was something he had never before faced, though he had heard of it; cold rage. Bishop was single-mindedly committed to the Scalphunter's death, and the Marauder could tell that he would destroy anything that came between him and his goal. Moreover, as he had rapidly discovered, Bishop was his equal in speed and strength, and possessed of an even greater reach. The Scalphunter had often fought with the possibility of defeat, but never before had it seemed so likely.
Blade scraped across blade, as the two warriors moved around one another, striking, dodging, feinting, seeking an opening, attempting to draw one another into the openings they left deliberately. They kept their blades close to their bodies except when they struck, and then they withdrew lightning fast. Neither could find an advantage, so both fought defensively, seeking a weakness.
Bishop had a shallow gouge from the spike of a battle-axe in his left shoulder, and a knife-wound high in his right cheek, just under the eye. A throwing blade had cut through his defences to fill his mouth with blood, leaving him spitting in pain. He had been fighting for over an hour already, and his limbs felt like lead. By comparison Scalphunter seemed, despite the long and hurried march up the hill and his sleepless night, perfectly fresh and probably capable of fighting on all day. Despite his rage the gigantic African remained calm and rational, and, although he would not admit to fear, he was concerned that he might well lose this fight – and then, he knew, the outlaws behind him would be massacred. Since they had in any case been losing, he knew that the Scalphunter would not have given up such a considerable advantage unless confident of his ultimate victory. Bishop had always won his fights by his natural skill and hard training, and for the first time since his release from the Mandarin's service he felt that that might not be enough.
The Scalphunter was indeed confident of his victory, but he was a cautious man and, as always, had made a fallback plan. Among the ranks of the Marauders stood the young Icelander named Kodiak, a master of the javelin. Since his recruitment he had had standing orders to kill anyone who seemed to have beaten the Scalphunter, and to preserve his captain's life. In the seven years since he had been given this duty, he had not once had to carry it out. Now, though, he saw his captain matched by the gigantic pit-fighter, and quietly drew one of his short, barbed javelins from the quiver he carried on his back.
Jubilee stumbled, twisted, landed on her feet and kept running. She hated to abandon her friend – who she could only assume was still alive – but she had enough sense to understand that she could not defeat the Sabretooth. Instead she ran desperately for the trees.
She didn't make it. The massive monster leaped, knocking her to the ground as she tried to twist aside. She rolled, her lower back brutally clawed, and tried to rise. The Sabretooth swatted her down with a single blow of one massive paw. He raised his hand to finish her and, desperate, she hurled the light backward, harsher than she had ever thrown before. He snarled in pain, and she rolled sideways as he flailed at his eyes and the air around him, momentarily blinded. Then, he began to turn back towards her.
Logan stepped out of the woods twenty feet away, and snarled gently.
That was all it took; a moment later the beast that walked like a man and the man with the senses of a beast were hurling themselves at one another, claws reaching. Jubilee had thought the Lady Elisabeth graceful and Bishop powerful. She had fought Logan impressive when he sparred with her then mistress. Now, though, she saw the Wolverine unleashed, his claws slicing through his opponent with astonishing speed, careless of his own life, existing simply to destroy his opponent. Ignoring the throbbing of the gashes the Sabretooth had inflicted on her she forced herself to her feet and watched as the two creatures tore at each other.
'He can't win.' The Pale Lord said behind her. Jubilee spun. 'I created the Sabretooth specifically to kill Logan. There's no way it can lose. It can't be killed, and it can't be stopped. Even if you were to cut off it's head it would continue fighting.' Jubilee summoned her powers, but he dissipated the light with a gesture. 'Such a waste.' He said. 'You turn the air itself to fire – and you use it as flashes of light.' He paused. 'Now I suppose I must kill you myself.' Behind him the Lady Elisabeth was rising to her feet. Jubilee felt a flash of hope, and made sure her expression was blank.
The Pale Lord stepped forward; Jubilee attempted to attack, but found herself immobilised by his magic. Behind him, Betsy ran forward and leaped to attack him; he turned, lightning fast, blocked her thrusting hand, and hit her, hard. She landed fifteen feet away, struggling to breathe.
'Do behave, Lady Braddock. I do so want you alive.' The woman rose to her feet, careful to let no hint of the pain of her cracked ribs show in her stance. Nathaniel raised one hand, reaching for the magic with which to strike her down. Jubilee reached out, and exploded the air in front of his eyes. The Lady Elisabeth, forewarned by her own powers, rushed forwards, eyes closed, and opened them just in time to drive a fist in to the Pale Lord's throat. He didn't even flinch.
Bishop turned aside the Scalphunter's blow, stepping forward. The Scalphunter attempted to hold his ground, and suddenly Bishop was grappling him, their muscles straining against one another. Here the African had a clear advantage; his arms were longer and more powerful, and he was at least twenty years younger than his opponent. Even so, those twenty years had been spent learning every underhand trick and brutal gouge there was, and the Briton employed every one of them.
Relying on his leather armour and thick furs, Bishop dropped his sword to hang on its wrist-thong, and caught his opponent in a powerful bear hug. With his left hand the Scalphunter drew one of his many daggers and stabbed it in to Bishop's shoulder. The Gifted warrior merely grunted as the Marauder attempted to force his arm up to stab at his face, then, exerting all his remaining energy, he half-turned, throwing his enemy. It was a desperate gambit, in effect an admission of defeat, and they both knew it. The Scalphunter landed hard, and immediately began to rise, producing a fresh blade from his belt as Bishop gripped his sword once more and prepared to go down fighting.
As he did so he stepped forward, and Kodiak's javelin, glowing with the energy of his Gift, drove into his hip.
Bishop grunted in pain once more, dropping down to one knee, and then his eyes widened as the energy with which the weapon had been charged was forced in to him. It should have blown him in two, and it took less than a second for Kodiak to realise something was wrong.
Bishop stood up. The spear had been consumed by it's own energy and, though the wound remained open, it no longer bled. As the Scalphunter stepped forward, Bishop raised his left fist. It glowed the same ghastly red as Kodiak's power. He grinned.
'That was without honour.' He said, and then unleashed the energy in a single devastating blast that burned clean through the Scalphunter's body, vaporising his right lung as it did so.
The Marauder captain fell in a spray of blood. Ignoring the shouted orders of their Sergeants, his followers began to fall back from the massive Gifted.
'Attack.' Bishop said quietly, and the dozen survivors of the forty outlaws he had led advanced with him against more than ten times their number of Saxons. Who retreated.
All along the wall the Marauders – still more than three hundred strong – fell back, as Bishop and Piotr led the battered remnant of the defenders forwards. Over half their number had fallen, but the survivors were the most deadly of them, survivors by their luck and skill. In the centre the Nightcrawler's men were marshalled by Wisdom, the small man soaked in blood but uninjured. The Saxons fell back before them, their officers trying desperately to reform them into a defensive line.
And across the plain there appeared one hundred horsemen, riding like the furies that adorned the shield of their leader. Above them streamed the pennant of Captain Nicholas, the crowned fortress of the Earl Braddock and the Phoenix badge of the Summer Country. Above the banners flew the Earl Braddock himself, moving as fast as the men below him rode, prepared to deal death to the enemies of his King.
As they rode the King himself, eyes blazing with power, saw his nemesis, Nathaniel of Essex, standing alone behind his army, striking with his magic at a slim, purple-headed figure. Signalling his captain to ride on, he turned his horse aside, drawing his sword.
The Pale Lord unleashed a final blast of magic that struck down the Lady Elisabeth, leaving her bloodied and unconscious. He was gasping for breath and, looking up at his retreating warriors, he suddenly understood that he had overextended himself. He was tired, his forces were almost broken, and he would be lucky if he could summon the energy to transport himself and the Sabretooth back to London. He turned to look for his greatest creation.
It was gone. Or rather, it was spread in torn pieces across the field and the edge of the forest, none larger than a hand. In the middle of the fragments crouched the Wolverine, claws extended, covered in blood and many of his more severe wounds not yet healed. He charged.
Nathaniel was tired, but he still had enough magic to blast down Logan with fire. As he watched he saw the warrior struggling to rise, his wounds already healing, and called on his reserves of power to burn the warrior once more.
The Knights of the Summer Country smashed into the flank of the Saxon host, tearing through them in a welter of blood and screaming horses. Such was their speed, such was the shock of their assault, and such was their discipline, that not one of them was harmed as they carved through the Marauders. Seeing this attack the defenders of Sarum gave up their slow advance and, with a single yell from seventy throats, charged their enemies.
Who broke and ran.
The Knights rode them down, slaughtering the brutal warriors whom they had hated for so long. The Saxons fled before them, trying desperately to escape, only to come up against the encircling Horse Archers of the Earl Braddock, and the Earl himself who flew among them, striking men down bare-fisted.
Nathaniel, struggling to finally kill Logan, who was proving truly indestructible, saw the slaughter. He was defeated, he knew. He had to flee. He walked forward towards the unconscious form of the Lady Elisabeth, calling on his reserves of energy to carry himself and his hostage away from the bloody ruin of his army and the rider who was charging down on him.
And Jubilee, suddenly free from his magic, hit him with everything she had.
The Pale Lord staggered backwards, blinded and burned by the sudden attack, possessed of the power to escape but no longer able to perform the necessary spell.
Scott, King of the Summer Country, rode straight for him. As Nathaniel of Essex, the oppressor of half Scott's rightful realm, straightened, recovering from the attack, Scott unleashed his Gift. A beam of crimson force, more powerful than any magic, tore in to the Pale Lord.
And blasted him apart.
Wisdom left after the battle. Katherine, his love, followed him. They headed north, to the lands of the Scotii. A year later the news reached the Summer Country that they had been seen in service of one of the Lords of the Emerald Isle.
The Lady Elisabeth, supported by the King himself, met her brother in a field of corpses. Despite her changed face, he recognised her instantly, and the twins embraced.
Gambit, thanks to Logan's attentions, recovered from his wounds with only the loss of some of the movement in his right hand. He and Rogue returned to Windlesham together, with his surviving thieves.
The Raven and the Nightcrawler were honoured for their part in the destruction of Essex with titles and pardons. Kurt was designated Warden of the Forest. His followers, the outlaws of the forest, were pardoned with him, and they built a new home. Their village – centred on his house – rested on the very edge of the forest. Kurt named it Ravenburg, though his mother left Britain within a year.
Andrew de Warrene, the wingless Angel, was exiled for his part in the brief and bloody affair. Following something said to him by the Pale Lord before his wings were amputated, he made his way towards the Roman Empire, seeking his dead ally's old master.
Logan did not return to the forest, as he had thought he would. Five months to the day after the battle at Sarum, he and Jubilee accompanied Bishop to seek his old ally, the Lord of the Forge, in the hopes that he might free Bishop's sister.
Well, that's it. My first finished Fanfic, and it's over thirty thousand words. Four months occasional work, and I'm already two and a half thousand words into the sequel. I won't finish it without feedback, though, so if for some reason you liked this work, please tell me about it. Also, if you have any constructive criticism, I'd love to hear it, even if it's about plot incoherency, poor characterisation or lack of emotional involvement. If you want to flame me, feel free, but send the URL or ISBN of something you've done that's better if you do. And remember to capitalise the letter 'I'.
To anyone who's just read the whole thing, thank you for your time and patience, and I hope you enjoyed reading this rather more than I did writing it.
Finally, if for some reason you want to archive this thing, go ahead, but send me an E-Mail to say where, and leave my name at the top. Whatever else you want to do, go ahead; it's really too big to MST anyway.
Oh yeah, and one final thing.
I have nothing against Warren Worthington III
Seriously. Nothing. I made him a bad guy in this purely for the sake of the duel with Nightcrawler – one of the few moments I planned ahead of time, and it cocked up anyway. I just liked the dichotomy of the noble demon and the corrupt angel fighting it out.