had been sleeping when the attack came. Like Margaret Thatcher, she needed
very little sleep, but she treasured the hours from midnight to three am,
when she relinquished command to Tom Lacey;Wallingham's peerless steward,
her ally in many skirmishes with the conniving National Trust, years ago.
Usually she slept unaided, but she had taken a pill, tailored to give her
a measured dose of oblivion, because she was exhausted by the stress of
the Mr Pender situation. She had a guilty fondness for prescription drugs.
She had known nothing of Tom Lacey's last stand, or the decision to move
the prisoners. Her household officers had been unable to page her rooms,
her women had been silenced.
She was roused out of bed and brought to her study in her nightgown, in lamplight, meaning the generator must have failed. The drug clouded her mind, usually so sharp and decisive. She thought they were Wallingham men, holding her up by her arms because she did indeed feel on the point of falling.
'Where are they kept, ye auld witch-'
'Let me find my glasses.' The plan of Wallingham flung down on the desk, and the confused sounds she could hear, flooded her with the greatest terror. Fire.
But the hands were extremely rough, and the faces unknown to her. Instead of taking out her glasses she reached under the desk and pressed the panic button, then opened a small drawer in which she kept a very powerful talisman, a gold locket that held a nub of shrivelled flesh. She thrust it into the ringleader's face.
'Begone from here!'
She was struggling, a tinder-limbed, pitiful grotesque, in the arms of her captors, when the study doors were flung open and the young queen marched in.
Fiorinda knew the raiders at once. They tended to naked ropey limbs and heads scoured of hair, instead of dreads and ragged layers; and skin more luminously white than you often see in England. But they were obviously barmy army squaddies, the Scottish version of Ax's hippy guerrillas. The lunatic dregs of radical society, in other words, getting shot and not even asking for sixpence; and well over the top as usual. Her heart went out to them.
'Hey! What the fuck do you think you're doing!'
Altercation followed. The Scots were not willing to relinquish their prey, neither Lady Anne nor her elderly lady's maid; who was being roughly held still in a corner. They were righteous, stubborn, and unfavourably impressed by her ladyship's weapon of first resort, an object which Fiorinda suspected was the preserved and sanctified heart of a newborn. Abomination. Shall not suffer a witch to live, etc.
So, not Celtics then. Must be the other team.
She had to yell at them for about five minutes, handicapped by the fact that she could hardly understand a word they said, before she brought them to admit that raping politically sensitive VIP old ladies wasn't in the deal. All right, excuse me, didn't mean to insult anyone, not raping, beating up the old ladies-
Different, but enough like barmies for me to hold them.
'Lady Anne, you'll be able to contact Lord Mursal, or whoever else you wish, in a few hours. In the meantime you'll stay in your bedroom, under guard, and you won't be harmed. You're in the hands of a civilised nation now,' (pause to glare at the trainspotters) 'and you'll be given civilised treatment.'
She didn't know if it was gratitude, or undying hatred that she saw rise in the mad old eyes, as the PM's political consort was led away with her servant. Nor did she care. A baby's heart, how cute. Bless... Just don't get killed on my watch.
Someone turned the power back on. As they headed north from Lady Anne's suite the great public rooms were suddenly ablaze with light. The reivers started muttering.
'What is it now?'
The leader of the detachment said something incomprehensible.
'I'm sorry, I really don't understand. I may be a musician but I'm hopeless at languages. Is there a MacLean in the party?'
This put them on their dignity. An older man with a grizzled bullet head spoke up, in English that had the same nit-picking precision as Sovra Campbell's.
'The men are just saying, they accept the ruling on summary justice against persons, but what would the cailin rua's opineenion be on the removal of property?'
The cailin rua (it means red girl) barely hesitated. 'Take small stuff,' said Fiorinda, feeling like Lady Macbeth, and good about it. 'Don't waste time.'
The illusion was shortlived. They left Wallingham in the bare, windowless back of a van, which they shared with a dozen or so reivers. There was one dim bulkhead light. The Triumvirate sat close together; not touching, because they didn't want to show weakness. They were no longer themselves. An hour ago they had been Ax and Sage and Fiorinda, in prison. Now their charmed lives were over. What they had been, what they had done, their whole extraordinary career was over. Scenes rose up, all played to music. The reckless energy of Dissolution summer. The young Fiorinda screaming her desperate pain from Reading main stage; firelight and night. A huge crowd in summer sunlight held silent, entranced, passionately uplifted by Ax Preston's guitar. The fabulous weirdness of Aoxomoxoa's immersions, turning the world inside out in the ballroom at the Insanitude It was bad to know they had sold England, but they could tell themselves the country had to be better off than it had been with Greg Mursal. There was nothing to soften their own loss of face. It was devastating.
Soon the wheels were leaping over very poorly surfaced road. Now to make this work, thought Ax, stubbornly positive. He wished they'd been able to manage their own escape, but if it had been possible, where does that get you? Ax and Fiorinda and Sage, running for their lives or fomenting a civil war No, this was the right choice, statesman's choice; and now to make this work. Say it often enough, it'll come true. For England. For all those people he had served, all ages, all dresscodes, through the years of disaster. He could feel Sage's exhaustion beside him, and the big cat's fear of what this jolting journey was doing to his eyes
It was a foretaste. There would be months of this. They would be taken from place to place, paraded in public. They would be interrogated, hopefully without torture, they would be taken from one captivity to another. A figure like Ax Preston is either dux bellorum or a piece of currency, passed from hand to hand. They saw it all stretching out ahead, and closed their eyes. We will never escape. Mouths stitched shut. Occasionally one of the Scots asked Ax a question, and he answered calmly and confidently.
After a couple of hours the van drew up. They were handed out, into cool air and a feeling of landscape emptiness, almost like the desert. They saw misty stars: a shadowy mass of trees, and a thin, sharp-angled blot rising in the foreground. Is that a house ? It was a house of sorts that was revealed, when the Scots brought up the big lights. Two gable ends and a chimney, no roof, not much of the walls left; a stone floored lean-to kitchen silted with rubble. Ax asked, were they stopping for the night. That got a laugh, because it was nearly dawn.
'Business,' said one of the men (if there were women, they were hard to spot).
There was no sign of the small army that had taken Wallingham, only this one van. Everyone moved into the ruined house; the Triumvirate closely surrounded. Fiorinda noticed that she could understand everything being said to her, which meant this must be a MacLean party, Highlanders. She saw that Ax and Sage had realised the same thing, and they were uneasy too. They were in the hands of the Celtics, for some private business. Fuck, that doesn't sound good Everyone sat in a circle, there was an atmosphere of expectancy. The high-powered ATP battery lamps were hooded, to mimimise the escape of light into the sky. The men took out their Wallingham souvenirs, and showed them to each other. Gold boxes, trinkets, little rolled-up razored canvases; piece of antique jewellery. The three large items of loot felt self-conscious. One of the commanders of the raid came and sat opposite them in the open centre of the circle. His name was Neil. He greeted Ax and Sage with the respect due for what they'd done back in the house; and introduced himself to Fiorinda, with dignity.
'Now we seal the contract.'
'I'm not going to sign anything here,' said Ax firmly. 'Not until we get to Edinburgh, to the Assembly. I intend to do this by the book, no side deals.'
He was clutching at straws.
'It's no' about signing things, and it won't wait.'
Beside Neil sat a small man with a bowed back and a neck like a turkey, dressed in a white singlet and black cotton trousers, seriously tattooed around his bald, wrinkled head and down his arms. Where had he come from? He didn't look like a raider. 'It's me you've got to see,' he said. 'Don't worry, I'm an expert.'
It seemed Ax had to be tattooed. Neil agreed that this stipulation had never been on the table before; but it had always been in mind. If Ax refused, the Celtic Party, largest single political voice in Scotland, would simply withdraw support from the Edinburgh deal, and it would collapse.
'The Celtics of Scotland don't entirely trust the Assembly,' explained Neil, in soft-spoken, reasonable tone. 'They don't entirely trust Ax Preston either, and you'll understand that, Sir. They're with you all the way in condemning extremists. But they remember the Velvet Invasion, and they have a lingering feeling in their minds that Mr Preston kills Celtics, or at least tars all Celtics with the same brush. A little knotwork will make a big difference.'
'I'll have to think it over,' said Ax, realising he'd been doublecrossed.
'That's the first count,' said Neil. 'The second count is that you are known to be a wily fucker, but once you have our badge on you, you'll have a harder time wriggling out of the bargain. We'll be recording the operation, hope that's okay.'
They laid Ax on his back on a reed mat. The tattooist took out his inks and needles from a briefcase. 'My name's Billy,' he said to Ax, in his piping little voice. 'I'm not a Scot, I'm not Celtic. I'm a wanderer, maybe older than Celtic, maybe nothing. I chose this spot: I've been around here before. It's called the Wood Court, and it's holy. No shrine nor stone nor sacrifice, none of that, it's just a right place.'
Two massive reiver hands settled on Ax's skull, with a vice-like grip, and the lamps moved closer, so he felt their heat.
'Keep yer head still,' advised Billy, 'and it won't take half an hour. If you can't, it's going to be longer.'
He kept his head still.