Part 27: A Scotsman In Egypt - Chapter 26"I see locusts spreading across the sky, a field of wheat laying open before them, and a white crowned unicorn standing in defence. I see the locusts descending on the Unicorn, swarming it and surrounding it in order to bring it down."
"I see a great Mongol Warlord clashing with King Edward on the field of battle. I see the Scottish army overwhelmed and the fate of battle held in the balance. I see the balance tipped when the Mongol Warlord's head is the one held high.... and I see the King of Scotland lying dead and thousands lining the streets to mourn."
So had spoken the Soothsayer in Cairo, and now her vision was coming to pass. King Edward Canmore had engaged in single combat with Subutai the Merciless, dreaded Warlord of the Mongol Horde. Now the survivor sat his horse before the remaining Scottish Cavalry and the gathering Mongol Horde, staring with hard eyes at his enemies.
And Edmund and the gathered men stared in disbelief at the sneering face of Subutai the Merciless. The battle was at its tipping point, and it was the Mongol Warlord's head held high.
Held high by King Edward Canmore, sitting his horse and staring down the Mongol Horde as he clutched the severed head of the Warlord by its bloody hair.
"This?" he growled in a low whisper in the preternatural quiet of the battlefield,"This is Genghis Khan reborn? This is the great Mongol Warlord? This is the death of Scotland?"
THIS!" he screamed, pitching the severed, still sneering head of Subutai into his horrified men,"THIS IS NOTHING BUT A PIECE OF SHIT!"
The Mongols stood uncertainly in a circle around the head of their Warlord, not only shocked by the death of the apparently invincible Subutai but also left leaderless.... what were they supposed to do now?
"Edmund," grunted Edward, and for the first time Edmund realized his brother was barely able to sit upright, covering his obvious pain and discomfort behind a stern mask that only someone as close to him as Edmund could see through,"Lead the men up the hill, leave these broken bastards here."
Edmund turned and looked back at the gaping, gawping Mongols, then nodded and lifted his good arm, ordering the cavalry forward. They moved past Edward, who waited for the disturbingly small number of surviving Scottish horse to pass before speaking to the assembled Horde once more.
"I am going to ride up that hill now, if ye come up after us, we will kill every last one of ye. If ye turn and try to retreat, our archers and trebuchets will bring ye down in ye hundreds and we'll hunt the survivors down till none are left. I suggest ye take ye own lives here and now, for ye'll nae take Emperor's Bridge from Scotland, and one way or the other, ye WILL join Subutai and Batu in hell this day."
Then he turned and slowly rode his horse up the hill as the shell-shocked Mongols watched him depart, standing calf deep amongst the dead.
He reached the top and bit back a groan of pain. His men were staring at him with awe, forgetting for the moment what the Mongols were sure to remember at any moment, the Scottish were outnumbered by a considerable margin. Subutai had fought like a demon, and at one point had been close to choking him to death. It was madness for a man in his mid-sixties to think he could beat a 26 year old Warlord at the peak of his physical fitness, especially a madman like Subutai who was filled with rage and not a small portion of insanity. But Subutai had failed to take something into consideration.
Edward was Scottish.
"Trebuchets fire on their position," Edward ordered,"Runners, the time to fill ye orders is now. I want our reserve infantry here on the double. Archers, if those bastards down there grow some balls, pull ye swords and hold them on the hill until our reserves arrive."
Edmund rode up beside Edward, concern on his face.
"Edward, are ye-"
"I dinnae have time to be anything but fine, Edmund," snapped Edward, sweat running freely down his face as it took on a paleness Edmund did not like,"This battle is nae over yet."
Down on Emperor's Bridge, the Mongols ducked uselessly as a flaming rock smashed into them, and they pushed forward to escape the flaming death. In their haste, one of them kicked Subutai's head away, and it was as if the action broke the spell Edward had cast on them. It finally sunk in that Subutai was dead, but they were alive.... and there were far more of them than the Skot-tish.
"CHARGE!" roared a Mongol Warrior, and Edward winced. They were coming too soon, the first of the Reserve Infantry had only just arrived, lightly armored Spearmen exhausted from their quick charge across the desert to join the battle.
The Mongols were disadvantaged by the slope they had to run up, but their sheer numbers allowed them to keep pressing up into the Spearmen as they struggled to stop them. The sheer weight of their numbers forced the Mongols to spread out, which in turn allowed them to press against the remaining Scottish forces on the hill. Even spread thin, they outnumbered the Scottish, and began pressing them back, their proximity to the Scots negating once more the Trebuchets.
"Hold them! Hold them!" roared Edward as the Mongols pressed forward eagerly. The death of Subutai was forgotten now; they were once more The Horde, a hive-mind of destruction that could not be stopped.
And then a Catapult blast smashed directly into their centre.
"SCOTLAND!" roared the Reserve Infantry as the Catapult operators began reloading, while Hospitaller Knights led forth Crusader and Feudal Knights, Spearmen and - feared the world around, with tales of their ferocity even reaching the distant Mongol lands of the East - Highlanders.
"I warned ye, ye bastards!" cried Edward,"DEATH TO THE MONGOLS! DEATH TO THE HORDE!"
And the Mongols confidence - only so recently won back - broke.
The Mongols ran, the Scottish gave chase, and across and around Emperor's Bridge - named for a Byzantine Emperor who died defending it from the Turks - both Scots and Mongols lay dead, just as Subutai had predicted.
But Subutai had been wrong; the nation that made up the greatest numbers of dead was not the Scottish, but the Mongols.
The Scottish chased down the Mongols, breaking them into small groups and exterminating them mercilessly. The Highlanders laughed and taunted the fleeing, screaming Mongols as they brought them down, and back on the hill a single Mongol horseman sat staring in horror at the dead behind him, the fleeing Mongols before him and the greater part of the Scottish army directly in his path.
"Demons from Hell," gasped the Mongol,"They are truly not human, I must warn Berkai and Orda. The Horde must know that when we rode West we left the world and rode into Hell."
He turned his horse, and then an arrow caught him high in the neck at the same time that several more smacked into his horse, and they both collapsed.
King Edward sat beside Edmund and smiled as he watched the Horde being run down, his army moving into formation around him as he stared over the body-clogged bridge. His body ached, he was sure he'd broken a few ribs in his fight with Subutai, and his neck would be bruised black and blue from the choking the Warlord had given him. But he was alive, and he would live. The Mongols remained a threat, but nothing like they had once been. They could not threaten Scotland, and while Berkai and Orda were still separated from Aradai and Chaghatai the Horde could be kept isolated from forming a greater whole. They would be wiped out, of that he had no doubt.
"Edward, ye need attention," Edmund snapped,"Ye're putting up a brave face, but I can see ye are need in medical attention.
Edward turned to dismiss his brother's concerns, but then stopped as he saw Edmund's face. His brother was pale and sweating profusely, one arm hung limp and he was breathing heavily.
"Edmund?" Edward asked, eyes widening as Edmund's eyes rolled back in his head and slumped forward and almost fell from his horse, stopped only by Edward grabbing at him,"Edmund!"
The innkeeper swallowed nervously as he rapped once again at the door. Cairo was hanging under a heavy heat unusual even for the Desert City, and there was an ill feeling in the air. His mood wasn't helped any by the man standing behind him, who cleared his throat impatiently as the innkeeper knocked again.
"Open the door," hissed the man, his accent unfamiliar to the innkeeper, who nevertheless recognized the note of authority. The Innkeeper opened the door and the forbidding robed Inquisitor pushed past him, snapping,"Patrick MacDougall, you have been seen attending the home of a known heretic, and named by her during her inquisition as a heretic yourself. You will come with me and answer thes-"
The Innkeeper's brow furrowed even more as the Inquisitor's voice cut off, and his eyes widened as the man exited the room with an emotionless face, heading towards the stairs.
"What of MacDougall?" he asked, and the Inquisitor turned a blank face back on him.
"The Devil has claimed the coward all ready," he growled, and continued on his way. The Innkeeper looked into the room MacDougall had paid for through the month, and sighed in frustration when he saw the dangling legs.
Why would the man kill himself during this time of celebration for the city? Surely he'd heard the news that King Edward had been victorious against the Mongols?
In Mosul, King Edward sat by the bedside of his beloved brother. Edmund's wounds had been greater than he'd known, and the Doctors claimed he was beyond salvation. Edward could scarce believe it, other than being confined to his bed and too weak to walk about, Edmund seemed otherwise normal. Edward himself - a week after the battle at Emperor's Bridge - was already over the worst of the aches and pains of the battle, with his ribs bandaged up as they went through the maddeningly slow healing process. If any of them had been likely to die, he thought it would have been him, but instead he felt as fit as ever.
On their first day back the Doctors had performed their cutting and stitching and told Edward his brother would die before the night's end.
On the second day, Edmund had been awake but too weak too talk.
On the third day he asked for food.
On the fourth day he refused a Priest's request to perform the last rites for him and hear his deathbed confession, snapping tiredly that he would not be a hypocrite at the end of his life. The Priest had been shocked to hear Edmund freely admit what all knew, that he was an atheist, and even more horrified to hear Edmund say that if he was wrong, he'd rather die wrong than a hypocrite who recanted his sins out of fear. Despite his own strongly held religious beliefs, Edward had never been prouder of his brother.
On the fifth day, Edmund called Edward to his bedside and told him that he would make a confession, but to him and not God. He admitted that he had deliberately brought about the situation that led to Comgell and Matad's death. Edward listened to his brother's tearful confession of what he claimed to be the only action in his life he felt guilty for, then placed a hand on his shoulder and told him the truth. He'd always known. Edmund had smiled before slipping into a peaceful sleep, saying that they'd always warned him not to underestimate his brother, the genius.
On the sixth day, Edward sat with his brother and told him what he knew Edmund was waiting to hear. With Gawain dead, there could be no doubt who must be the new heir to the Scottish Empire. It was fate, a mirror of their own youth. Two Scottish Princes - brothers - had left Scotland and come to Egypt to achieve a mad dream, and against all probability they'd succeeded. Now as they reached the ends of their lives, two Scottish Princes - brothers - would succeed them. Domnall would be the King of Scotland when Edward died, and his twin Nectan would be his heir. Edmund clasped his brother's hand and thanked him, and Edward felt a wrenching deep inside of him as he prepared for his brother to die. But once more, Scottish hardiness won out over Death's implacable grip, and Edmund fell into a deep slumber.
On the seventh day - today - Edward sat with Edmund on a balcony overlooking Mosul and the desert beyond. He'd been moved from his bed to watch the sun set and smiled as he felt the sun's rays on his face.
"Father would be proud despite himself, I think," Edmund said,"We've built quite the Empire for ourselves, have we nae?"
"Aye," smiled Edward,"And ye sons will expand it. Domnall is a good lad, even if he still has much to learn. But we were the same, in our youth, and he comes from good stock."
They sat quietly together for a few moments, and then Edward asked the question that had been bothering him for all the years that his own faith had grown.
"Edmund, if ye do nae believe in God.... what do ye think will happen to ye when ye die?"
"Who knows," smiled Edmund and Edward was surprised at the serenity in his brother's eyes,"I have studied much of death, one can hardly live in Egypt and nae. Some believe the mind plays a final trick, creating infinity in a moment, giving a man more joy than we can believe exists and distracting him from the end. Others think we just.... stop. Others believe our bodies return to dust, and eventually the dust becomes something again - an animal, a man, who knows, maybe a tree!"
He laughed, a carefree sound that broke Edward's heart,"I dinnae know, and I honestly dinnae care. I have lived more in my life than 1000 men, and I have confessed my only regret to the only man whose opinion matters. I sit here in a City we conquered, my sons' futures assured and my life lived well. I sit in the sun with my beloved brother, and I think to myself.... this is nae a bad way to die at all. Nae, it's nae a bad way to die at all."
Edward and Edmund sat in silence for several minutes watching the sun set, and when Edward finally turned to speak again, he saw Edmund sitting with a small smile on his face, staring with unseeing eyes into the desert.
"Nae Edmund," smiled Edward sadly, taking his brother's cooling hand in his own,"It's nae a bad way to die."
And thus, seven days after the battle with the Mongols had ended; it claimed its last victim. Edmund Canmore was dead.
Domnall Canmore received the message of his Father's death in the middle of the night, woken as he slept. He sent the messenger off and sat at the foot of his bed, reading the message penned in his Uncle's own hand over and over again. Some of the best memories of his life were riding with his Father and Uncle as they prepared for their aborted Moorish Campaign, and now he felt ashamed for his recent feelings of anger towards them both. He'd been left in Edessa while they rode first to Mosul, and then against the Mongols at Emperor's Bridge, passed over in favor of Gawain.
Now he saw what a blessing in disguise that had been, for Gawain was dead, his father was dead, and now he was heir to the mightiest Empire in the world. What a fool he'd been to feel disrespected, he'd give up all he now had if it meant his Father could live again.
As his brother sat in his room absorbing the news of his Father's death, Aodh Canmore knelt in the Chapel with tears streaming down his face, hands clutched together as he begged God to forgive his Father and accept him into heaven. The most important figure in his life outside of God was dead, and Aodh was terrified that his Father's well noted lack of belief would see burn in the fires of hell.
"Please, dinnae punish him, merciful Father," sobbed Aodh,"Please!"
Early in the morning in Antioch found Nectan Canmore at his table eating breakfast when the message of his Father's death arrived. He read the message with shock, stunned at the news despite the knowledge that his Father had been badly injured in the battle with the Mongols. He stared at the breakfast table, all hunger for food gone as he announced with a trembling voice the dire news.
As heartfelt commiserations were offered, his Advisor knelt beside him and asked him if he wanted to cancel his usual early morning training session and clear his day's meetings with the city's bankers. He stared ahead for a few moments, and then nodded thanks to those expressing their sorrow before answering.
"Nae, death comes to all men, but the work of the living must continue."
In Cairo, young Aed Canmore was laughing with some of his favoured men during a late afternoon training session when the messenger brought the news. He read it with a grim face, and then called over his men.
"Lads, I've bad news," he told them,"My Uncle Edmund has died of his wounds."
The men stood to attention and thumped their chests at the news, and Aed grinned. His Uncle had always been kind, but never overly interested in him. But these men had known and respected Edmund, and it was their respect that Aed craved. He'd killed Kublai to make them see he was a true fighting Scotsman, and trained with them so they could see he wasn't some noble fop given command because of his blood.
"Forget today's training," he said,"Go into the city, spread the news, and have a drink on me. Raise your ale to Edmund Canmore, and may it be a long time before we met him again."
His men saluted and moved off, clearly grateful to Aed for his generosity. He smiled, he couldn't stand ale himself, but the men loved the stuff, and anyone who got his round in was all right by them. They would go into the city and let them know of Edmund's death, and then they'd drink to his memory and get maudlin, and then they'd tell happy stories and get merry, and at the end of it all they'd remember it was Aed who had given them that joy. Life was a series of small victories like this, and Aed silently thanked his Uncle for giving him the opportunity.
A week later in Nottingham, Adam Canmore stood naked in front of his mirror, frowning.
"I need to train more," he moaned, clutching at his paunch,"Do ye think the men mock me for my lack of muscle?"
"Oh darling, you're perfect as you are," purred Cassandra, his Mistress now of many years.
"Aye," smiled Adam, and she faked a moan of appreciation as she saw his pathetic excuse for a manhood rise at the sight of her nude form,"Cassandra, sometimes I feel ye're the only one who truly understands me, who values me. Since my Father died I..."
She let his voice drone on and gave appropriate responses at the right times. She had heard all of this before, heard him moan about his insecurities and fears and secret belief that his men did not respect him, which was why he ruled so harshly over them. She amused herself by counting the number of warts on his nude form, long since past any revulsion at the sight of them. He paced about like a woman in front of the mirror and she had to suppress a cruel smile as she imagined mimicking him for her "true" lover later tonight. Robert the Highland Noble was cruel as well, but in a way that excited her like Adam never could.
He continued droning on and she thought back once more to the message he had received, read and dismissed immediately earlier in the day. Prince Edmund had died over in that Godforsaken desert on the other edge of the world, and THAT excited her, because it meant that Adam Canmore was now one step closer to the Throne of Scotland.
One month after his brother's death, King Edward kneeled at the foot of his bed saying his prayers, as he did every night. He hopped to his feet, not even thinking about how easily he moved for his age, when most men would be in their dotage or, more likely, dead.
He hopped into his bed and lay on his back, feeling confused. Usually at night when he lay in bed, he fell immediately to sleep, and slept solidly through for six hours before coming fully awake. But now he just lay here, and sleep would not come, even as the bed seemed to gently sway and rock like the motion of a boat, and his eyes slowly closed as the sounds of the sea impossibly filled his ears.
His eyes opened and he rolled from the bunk, swinging his feet around onto the floor. He stepped up and swayed as he felt the floor move beneath him, rocking and rolling like a... like a.... like a boat?
He staggered out of the cabin feeling confused, staring in surprise as the sea surrounding him, the coast retreating behind them. He grabbed at a rail to steady his feet, staring down at the ocean feeling surprise but no concern, no fear. Everything seemed.... right.
"King Edward," said a calm voice, and he turned to see Edmund standing before him... but young again, hair dark and face unlined.
"Edmund, what is this?" he asked, smiling despite himself... it was Edmund!
"God is calling ye home, Edward," smiled Edmund,"And I have been waiting for ye."
"Nae, nae," gasped Edward,"It's nae the right time, I still have so much work t-"
"Ye work is done, and others remain to finish it for ye," Edmund said, placing a hand on Edward's shoulder,"Now it is time for the Canmore Brothers to go on one last great adventure."
Edward looked about at the ocean surrounding them, fading from a dark blue to a soft white in all directions. He turned and looked back at the rapidly fading coast, and felt a knot of tension in his chest loosen and a great pressure lifted from his shoulders.
"Aye," he grinned,"I like th.... wait, Edmund.... is this "one last trick of the mind" like ye told me?"
"Maybe it is," smiled Edmund,"Maybe I'm dead and only exist in ye mind now. Or maybe ye were right all along, or maybe neither of us were. Ye dinnae ken now and ye never will while ye live, brother, so in the end, it is a matter of faith."
Edward looked back at the coast, a mere speck on the horizon in a sea of white now, then let loose a long sigh of breath and felt the pressure and tension completely fade. Domnall would be a fine King, and Nectan a fine Prince, and both would serve Scotland well.
"Aye then, Edmund, let us see what awaits us past the final horizon," he laughed,"Alexander and David had best be waiting and ready with a round!"
"I'm sure we'll see Alexander," smiled Edmund.
The two Scottish brothers stood at the bow of the ship, white light surrounding them, and then one last final concern occurred to Edward.
"Edmund?" he asked.
"Aye, Edward?" asked Edmund with a smile.
"Do ye think there'll be women?"