I. The Beginning of the End
Carrick took his Lungo – no flavourings or fripperies – and chose a table in the far corner next to the window. He scanned the street, searching for the old man, but saw nothing. Disappointed, he unfolded his newspaper and tried to read but his periodic surveillance meant he took little in. He raised the tall cup to his mouth, taking tentative sips, and waved an uninterested, yet obliging, hand at the tan leather chair opposite when asked if the seat was taken.
The newcomer, though, surprised him by lowering himself stiffly into the much closer wooden chair and Carrick looked up to find himself studying a face that had become reasonably familiar over the past few days. Glimpsed, until this morning, only fleetingly and from a distance but, without doubt, the same face. Lined and worn. Pale skin nipped red by the chilly late-Spring breezes. Mid-seventies, Carrick guessed, despite the eyes – bright blue, alert and alive.
The vigilant eyes flitted down to Carrick’s newspaper. “I see you prefer your misinformation artfully delivered.”
“The Sudoku is more challenging too.” Carrick was happy to play word games. For now.
An equivocal smile hovered on the old man’s features. “Favourite writers?”
“In there? MacWalter and Beale.”
“Ah, the voices of reason. I tend to prefer the critics, the world-weary hacks. Gardner. Hutchinson. Gaye. In the end, they serve a greater purpose. Convincing those in the bubble that they are somehow representative. That negativity will win out. That aspiration is a weakness.”
Carrick gazed at the Caffe de Rege symbol on the window as he gathered his thoughts. Perhaps, in retrospect, in recent months, he’d been too indiscreet about the UK establishment; Dr Kelly, 7/7 and paedophilia in the corridors of power. He rejected quickly, though, the ridiculous notion that the Security and Intelligence Services might employ a secret cadre of septuagenarian assassins. Even more outlandish was the prospect of a pre-hit question and answer session. They could learn all they needed to know from his social media footprint – he hid very little. Clearly, however, he was being targeted in some way. By someone.
He smiled, realising he was checking the insignia on his coffee cup. He had not, after all, wandered into the Chestnut Tree Café. That, at least, lessened the prospects of him being spirited away and ‘re-educated’ in IngSoc. Not, of course, the absolute worst thing he could imagine. He did a little of his own probing. “And the others? At other newspapers? Corcoran? Faversham?”
The old man chuckled artlessly. ‘They speak for no-one. To no-one. Except themselves and each other. They’ll convince nobody.”
“And you. Who do you speak for?”
“I’m merely a messenger. Nothing more.”
“Then what’s the message? And why follow me around for days before delivering it?”
“My apologies. I realise it was clumsy but I wanted to choose the right time. Not to alarm your family. To marshal enough courage to speak with you.”
A pretty poor excuse for a contract killer, afraid to approach his target, thought Carrick, perhaps I’m not going to die just yet. Then, castigating himself for allowing his imagination to run riot, simply responded, “I’m all ears.”
“Let’s hope that at least one of them is able to hear.”
Carrick had put up with enough of the jousting. “Listen, I get the Biblical reference but I really hope you’re not about to invite me to a Personality Test or ask me to take a copy of The Watchtower. If you are, you’ve just wasted three days when you could have been targeting more saveable souls.”
The stranger laughed softly. “I, we, have been watching over you for far longer than three days, Mr Cunninghame. You, and others similar to you. But the choice has been made now. That is the message I’m happy to be able to deliver. You’ve been chosen.”
“Chosen?” Now Carrick was the one laughing. “By whom? For what purpose?”
The older man lowered his gaze and stared at the table for a number of seconds. When he raised his head to look back at Carrick, his eyes were filling with tears. “Not by whom. It would have been more accurate to ask by what. And the purpose? What greater purpose could there be? To be of service to your nation.”
II. The End of the Beginning
The lead horseman stood tall in his stirrups, as if doing so would give greater import to his words. He was getting impatient. “We have ridden hard from Dunfermline on a matter of the direst emergency and must speak with the abbot. Open the gate!”
The gateman, an illegitimate second cousin of the abbot, had not long been given his post and was wary of allowing strangers in at this ungodly hour, possibly upsetting his benefactor. His peace of mind was not helped by the knightly visitors refusing to divulge their names. And even in the half-light of a northern summer, not one of them wore any surcoat that he could identify. In these uncertain times, with disturbing news reaching the Abbey on an almost daily basis, he did not wish to expose his kinsman or, indeed, himself to any unnecessary danger.
“Can it not wait till morning? You may seek lodgings in Perth or take shelter in the barn yonder. The brothers rise early for Lauds, little more than three hours. Surely your message will save till then?”
“Ye Gods, man. I will break down the gate if I must and then cleave your head from your shoulders if you do not allow us entry. We are on a mission that concerns the future of the entire Kingdom.”
Seyton was certain that the gate would survive an assault from the obviously lightly-armed force. He was less sure that his neck would put up the same resistance to any sword wielded by the broad-shouldered man berating him. There was little doubt that these men would eventually gain entry, even if it were in a few hours when the Abbey stirred to life once more. He did not want to risk to fortune the prospect that the angry knight would have calmed down by then. He would try a different approach. “I am inclined to allow you and your party entry, sir Knight, but I must seek permission from those inside. Please wait.”
There was no answer and Seyton hurried into the depths of the abbey hoping to find anyone who would relieve him of this unbearable responsibility. Crossing the courtyard, he was delighted to see Brother Aongas emerging from the sacristy having, no doubt, just replaced the vestments and sacred vessels used for Matins. Seyton grabbed the unfortunate monk’s sleeve and, babbling incessantly all the while, dragged him bodily to the gatehouse where, having gained some intelligence from the gateman, he announced himself to the party outside the gates.
The lead horseman turned to the man on his right who represented the other great faction in their fractured nation and spoke quietly, “We are still agreed on our course?” The other’s curt nod sealed the pact.
“You will forgive me, Brother, if I do not reveal my identity and that of those who accompany me. I refuse to do so only for the safety of everyone inside. Others may follow us and it is best for all of you that you possess no information of use to them.” Edward Bruce knew that this was, at best, an optimistic premise. Any that followed them here were likely to show little compassion to those inside. “We are representatives of the Council of the Realm of Scotland and carry their instructions for the abbot. We also carry letters from Matthew de Crambeth, your own Bishop of Dunkeld, transported here from the French court. Our business is a serious one and relates to the very survival of our realm. I beseech you. We must come inside.”
The sacristan made his decision quickly. “I will wake the abbot.”
Thomas de Balmerino looked up from the letter at the nine earnest young men filling his small warming-house. “The Council could not have come to this decision lightly. As you know, however, we have been entrusted with this responsibility for hundreds of years. I must take some time to decide what I should do. After all, I see that your letter has not also been signed by the King.”
“The King no longer makes decisions for Scotland. It has been this way since December last. All know this to be true regardless of who occupies the throne. And that occupation, I’ll wager, will not last much longer. Indeed, none of us here can be sure that we still have a King.”
Bruce’s remarks drew a hard look from the young Comyn, but no argument.
“Nevertheless, it does leave me in a rather difficult position. I’m sure you understand.” The abbot stroked his chin. “Perhaps, the letter from my Lord, the Bishop of Dunkeld, may offer some guidance…”
“Forgive me, Father. There is no letter from the Bishop. It was a device we… I thought to use to help secure our speedy admission to the Abbey. Every minute wasted endangers the realm. I apologise.”
The abbot sighed deeply. “I must take some time to consider my response.”
Comyn now got to his feet. “I’m sorry, Father. The Council do not require your response. These are instructions, not requests. And we, as servants of the Council, cannot allow our aims to be frustrated. We shall remove the Stone and no-one will prevent us from doing so. You may be assured of that. And now, as instructed, the letter.”
Hesitantly, the clergyman placed the parchment in the young knight’s fist and he promptly threw the crumpled missive in the warming-house fire. All watched in silence as the document’s secrets expired in the flames.
Again it was the kinsman of Badenoch who spoke. “No use dawdling. Father, we will take what we have come for. The only question now is a replacement. Do you have anything suitable within the abbey or nearby?”
Edward, somewhat irked at having his leading part usurped was, nonetheless, impressed by the young man who was barely seventeen. He would take careful watching. Like all Comyns. The abbot, for his part, still stared at the fire, transfixed, and Edward took his opportunity. “Father! A substitute! We may already be running out of time. The Hammer may be close.”
The abbot seemed to wake from his paralysis but was still clearly wrestling with the implications of the demands made. He looked uncertainly at Edward but was distracted by the young Comyn gently laying a restraining hand on the forearm of an even more impatient knight whose hand had strayed to the handle of his dirk. “There is something, yet it is hardly suitable.”
“Show us,” chimed both young nobles, showing rare unity of purpose.
Only Bruce and Comyn could squeeze into the small chamber with the abbot. Despite the stench, both laughed open-mouthed and unreservedly.
“You have outdone yourself, Father. I can think of nothing more suitable,” Comyn declared, “for one so full of shit to use as his Kingly stool.”