Part 46: A Scotsman In Egypt - Chapter 45Nicolao Salamo leaned back in the wagon and closed his eyes, enjoying the sun on his face. His weather-beaten face looked like it had absorbed decades of the harsh Spanish sun, his eyes squinted and narrow and lined. His short cropped hair was still a dark black, making his age impossible to determine, he could have been anything between 30 and 50 years of age, but there was no doubting his vitality. His body was lean and scarred, and even lying back against the wagon it was clear he was a man who carried himself well. In any other group of men he would have stood out as a soldier and a man to be reckoned with.
Amongst the men in the wagon, however, he was just another man.
The wagon pulled up short outside the gates of the city, and the driver answered a series of questions from the guards stationed there. Nicolao's face did not change nor did his body move, but his ears strained to hear what was being said over the quiet conversation going on amongst the other 10 men in the wagon. It was a lost cause, he caught only a few words here and there, and the only one that seemed important was "Domingo".
One of the guards walked down the length of the wagon, peering at the men inside, and then looking under the wagon itself. Nicolao sat up and craned his neck up the length of the stone walls, taking in the towers and the other guards he could see patrolling between them.
"This city is like a woman's legs," muttered one of the other soldiers, noting what Nicolao was doing,"A great treasure within, but it takes the right type of man to get in."
Nicolao allowed a thin smile to cross his lips, and then turned his head as the guard stopped beside him and peered at him closely.
"Qué?" he asked.
"Who issued your orders to come here," demanded the guard.
"Guyllemes," muttered Nicolao, sounding bored. The guard nodded and moved around to the side of the other wagon, and asked a different question of another of the soldiers aboard the wagon before moving down to the next wagon behind theirs, and then the one after that and the one after that.
Finally after close to an hour, the wagons began moving again, Nicolao having long since taken advantage of a trick of old soldiers everywhere and fallen asleep regardless of his position or comfort. But as the wagons crossed the threshold into the gate, Nicolao's eyes opened a thin slit and took in everything around him.
Finally, Nevin of Shetland had gained access to Zaragoza.
Hew Mar rode through a world turned grey, snorting back a dripping nose and absolutely miserable.
Word had reached him from King Domnall himself, he was to ride West to Caen to secure the city against a potential attack from the Spanish. Scotland had found itself in the unfamiliar position of being on the defensive, trapped in a war where the movement of their armies was restricted by the enemy. He had been enjoying the brief period of peace Scotland had enjoyed following the destruction of the Sicilians, learning the ropes of Governance in Frankfurt, where the last King of England had met his demise and seen his Empire die. Now he was riding 700 men through the miserable grey cold of a late winter, leaving the luxury and warmth of Frankfurt to travel to Caen.
"My Lord," noted his spy - Cennedig of Ayrshire - returning from his scouting to meet Hew along the paved road,"There are men in the forest ahead, hiding amongst the trees."
"How many?" asked Hew, frowning. A small band of outlaws would hide from his forces, but a larger band might risk attacking from the trees and running with what equipment they could grab. In a winter like this, outlaws could do desperate things.
"Over 600, but the trees make it difficult to get an exact number," the Scout replied, surprising Hew,"I heard some speaking, they are English Rebels, my Lord, they may be John Allen's men."
Hew's frown deepened, John Allen had been an English soldier who had refused to give up his belief in his Empire even after it was destroyed. He had been gathering up smaller bands of surviving English soldiers over the last few months and proved a nuisance... but if he was waiting in the trees ahead with over 600 men then he was more than a nuisance, he was a threat.
"We cannae go around them," grunted Hew,"Nor should we, this is our land now, nae theirs."
He called over his Unit Commanders and issued quick orders, and then they resumed their march forward towards the trees and the waiting Rebels. Hew cursed Allen for choosing this time and place to come forward, he had no doubt he could put down the rebel band, but what worried him was the loss of life of his own men and the delay of their journey. Spanish ships had been seen near Caen, and they needed to be there as quickly as possible.
If that mean riding directly over John Allen to get there, then so be it.
As they rode forward, Allen's men become visible, appearing out of the trees like ghosts, moving with disturbing military precision. When Allen had been younger he'd been unsuccessfully tried for heresy, and ever since had embraced a severe, rigid discipline that obviously rubbed off on his men. This was no disparate band of rebels, outlaws and criminals, this was an English Army in all but name, appearing like a ghost from the corpse of their Empire to take revenge.
Hew sent his crossbowmen forward as Allen's archers pulled up and prepared to fire their arrows into the Scots. Hew gritted his teeth, he knew Allen would have studied his techniques; it only made sense too considering he Governed Frankfurt now. But it meant this battle had the disquieting feeling of facing himself.
"Infantry, get up in support of the crossbowmen," ordered Hew, then muttered to himself,"If ye've done ye studies, Allen, ye'll be riding up to attack our crossbowmen now. Ye archers will be able to continue firing on us while ours will be trapped in battle... but I have a little surprise waiting for ye."
As the Infantry swamped Allen's cavalry, Hew allowed a grin to cross his face as he heard one of the riders cursing loudly. That had to be Allen, and now he knew exactly where to aim his next attack.
"SCOTTISH CAVALRY!" he roared,"FOLLOW ME!"
They crashed into the Rebel Cavalry, and Hew cast about him with a fury, taking out his rage at being taken out of his comfortable new home and life, at Spain for ruining Scotland's rare peace, and at the English for refusing to die long after they should have.
He spotted Allen pulling clear of the fray, blowing his horn and screaming for his armored Swordsmen to cover the retreat of his cavalry. To Hew's surprise, they did just that, throwing themselves into harms way and certain death to allow their General to escape.
"Dammit, they've turned him into a Symbol for their damned Rebellion," hissed Hew angrily,"DINNAE LET THAT BASTARD ALLEN ESCAPE!"
Allen pulled clear off the rest of his men and rode away, putting distance between himself and those fighting and dying. Hew's eyes never left him, though, and he pushed his own horse faster, chasing after the English Rebel.
"TURN AND FACE ME YE COWARDLY BASTARD!" roared Hew, taking a leaf out of his Father's book and screaming a series of curses at his fleeing enemy. His horse was a trained warhorse, faster and better cared for than Allen's, and he quickly caught up to the man. Allen twisted his horse about and glared at Hew from his armored helm, clearly furious.
"This land is ENGLAND!" he roared.
"Nae ye idiot," hissed Hew contempteously,"Ye mad fool, ye're fighting a rebellion for a dead Empire in land that used to be owned by the Holy Roman Empire... ye've nae more historical tie to this land than I do... the only difference between us is that I earned the right to rule this land in battle."
"Then I shall do the same," growled Allen,"I shall kill you!"
"Ye're more than welcome to try," smiled Hew cruelly, and then both men rode their horses towards each other.
In Rome, Gordon of Edinburgh sat patiently while the elderly Pope smiled uncertainly as he looked over the documents the Diplomat had brought him. Since the death of Gille Calline the Balleol, Gordon had struggled with tasks that had seemed so easy while under the legendary old Diplomat's tutelage. He had never realized how much Gille Calline's reputation and past actions had eased the traditionally difficult task of seeking an audience with The Pope.... plus The Balleol had also run all aspects of his household, including the finances and the hiring and firing of servants and workmen.
But slowly and surely, Gordon had been learning the ropes, discovering the patience Gille Calline had tried to instill in him, as well as the lessons about acting as if one was constantly being watched and judged.
In Rome, Gordon had learned, that wasn't paranoia.
Now he sat in a private meeting with the Pope, only his fourth since Gille's death, despite the fact the old Diplomat had held weekly meetings with The Pope for years before he died. He had organized this meeting at King Domnall's request, after spending a week writing up the proposal in a variety of different ways. Finally he had come up with what he believed to be a compelling and foolproof argument for Scotland's request of The Pope.
The ex-communication of Spain.
"You raise many valid points, my friend," smiled The Pope, finally finishing the document. His voice was quavery, and his hands trembled, and Gordon was careful to hide his distaste as a thin line of drool hung down from The "Christ-on-Earth's" mouth,"But ex-communication is a very serious matter, King Mallobo has always been a good Christian in the pas-"
"Your Holiness," smiled Gordon winningly, speaking in fluent Latin,"Adam and Eve always followed the word of God until Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Cain always loved his brother Abel, until he slew him. Spain may have served God in the past, but they do not serve God now, they have attacked Scotland without provocation, and Scotland has always been and is now, the servants of God."
"Yes yes," muttered Saracinus, nodding his head slowly,"It is in the Bible that all answers can be found... if your left hand offends you, cut it off.... thou shalt not covet.... I am who I am...."
"Your Holiness?" asked Gordon, powerless to prevent a quizzical look.
"....for God so loved the world..." muttered Saracinus, then shook his head and gave the same uncertain smile that had been on his face for so long now,"Yes yes, Spain shall be ex-communicated, I will wri... I will write up....I will... I....."
"Your Holiness?" gasped Gordon, standing up as exhilaration and apprehension welled up within him. He was so close to gaining what King Domnall wanted,"You will write u-"
In horror, Gordon watched as the Pope suddenly sat up straight in his chair with his face locked in a shocked rictus, then collapsed forward against the table with a sickening thud. Gordon stood staring, eyes wide, and then he finally found his voice.
"Oh shit.... not again."
The Rebels had broken off and retreated back down the road, leaving behind the Scottish and their own dead. Bodies lay strewn across the road and between trees, and as a group of Highland Nobles moved to rejoin the rest of the men, they heard the sound of approaching hooves. Holding their swords at the ready, they watched a figure ride through the trees leading a riderless horse, emerging from the shadows to reveal his identity.
"Regroup men," Hew Mar ordered them, pulling up beside them on his horse as he held up John Allen's severed head,"Then we ride and show those Rebel bastards their "symbol" is dead and their rebellion with it."
As the last of the Rebels disappeared into the trees of the surrounding forests, Hew Mar was satisfied he had seen the last of them, at least in such large numbers and organization. He had cut the head off of the serpent and the body would die, but now he was left with a fresh problem.
He had been meant to bring 700 extra men to the garrison at Caen and scare off the potential Spanish invaders. Now he had been delayed, the men he had left were in need of repairs to their armor, he required replacement horses and, worst of all, he'd lost over half of his men. Of the 694 he had brought from Frankfurt, only 304 remained.
King Domnall was not going to be happy.
Nevin of Shetland moved through the streets of Zaragoza with the smooth gait of a soldier at ease, blending in perfectly with the other Spanish soldiers. He had been there for a week now under the guide of veteran Spanish soldier Nicolao Salamo, and had been as readily accepted as the other men he had traveled to Zaragoza with.
It was a strange city, lightly populated in terms of citizens, with a garrison of highly disciplined soldiers given the run of the city. Normally this was a recipe for disaster, but the city ran with military precision, and there was surprisingly no crime, no brawls over drink or women, the soldiers that were off-duty even watched how much they drank.
Nevin put it down to the man who run the city, which of course was not the Governor, Goncalui Guyllemes, but the mysterious Domingo Manuel. Nevin had a great deal of respect for the mysterious man, who ran Zaragoza like it was a self-contained world, preventing outside incursion from even the people of his own Nation. All military planning took place under Manuel's supervision, who took orders only from King Mallobo himself, who sent him coded messages by bird that would be indecipherable to any by Mallobo and Manuel. Nevin knew that for a fact, before they had become desperate enough to risk him trying to infiltrate the city, he and Aodh Canmore had intercepted several such messages and failed to translate them. Nevin was still sometimes taken aback with the breathtaking simplicity that had allowed Spain to bypass and castrate Scotland's unparalleled Spy Network. They simply ran all plans through one untouchable man in one inaccessible city.
Still, he had successfully infiltrated Zaragoza, and over the last week he had gleaned invaluable information regarding the city, but nothing about Spain's campaign against Scotland. The soldiers in Zaragoza's garrison were here to defend the city on the off-chance that Scotland left the gateway city of Toulouse undefended to attack them, which in turn would open up the entirety of Scotland's French and Milanese Holdings. What Nevin really needed was to infiltrate the inner circle of Zaragoza's rulers - the mini-spy network that Domingo Manuel controlled absolutely - men whom he had names for but no faces to place them.
Esteban Macia, Jacome Bernaldo and Vaasco Curral.
The three Spies served as Manuel's advisers and confidants, and were the only ones who could offer Nevin any "in" into Manuel's mind. The important thing was to be careful not to arouse suspicion, he had to play things ju-
He passed an alley way and suddenly he was crashing into the ground, dragged into the alley by a lightning quick grab. He rolled instinctively backwards and came to his feet, finding himself face to face with a man in a hooded brown robe.
"What is the meaning of this?" he growled in Spanish,"Yo-"
A thick rod smashed into the back of his head and he collapsed to the ground, revealing the other hooded man standing behind him.
"This is him?" asked Vaasco Curral.
"Yes," grinned Jacome Bernaldo,"Help me gather him up, Manuel is waiting."
"GORDON OF EDINBURGH!" came the shouted cry, and Gordon winced as he stood and felt every eye in the Court on him.
It seemed Pope Villanus had a different approach to audiences than his predecessors.
With the election of the new Pope, Gordon had requested another audience with The Pope and been pleased to be granted one immediately. He'd been less pleased, however, when he discovered that EVERYONE had been granted audiences with the new Pope, and they were all going to be public.
Pope Villanus believed that the workings of God should be seen by all to show that the Papacy was above the petty politics of humanity, and this decision had thrown the Court into chaos, because "petty politics" was exactly how the Church had operated for hundreds of years.
"Speak your request of his Holiness!" came the cry, and Gordon hid a sigh as he felt hundreds of eyes on him. Not just Nobles and other Diplomats, but commoners enjoying the rare privilege of viewing their betters.
"I come to speak of Spain, and their unwarranted aggressions against Scotland!" he cried,"I come t-"
"UNWARRANTED!?!!" shouted another voice, and Gordon had to hold back a wince, that was one of the Spanish Diplomats, just as he'd expected,"SCOTLAND INSULTED SPAIN BY TAKING CAGLIARI OUT FROM UNDER US! THEN THE SCOTTISH KING DELIBERATELY INSULTED SPAIN'S HONOR BY REFUSING TO APOLOGIZE! UNWARRANTED!?! HOW DARE YOU!?!"
"No Scotsman ever attacked any Spaniard, it was Spain that opened up aggressions against us," replied Gordon smoothly, holding back his own temper in a desperate desire to look like the voice of reason,"But this is not the ti-"
"I agree," spoke the Pope, who despite his age of 51 had a strong and commanding voice,"This is not the time to speak of the politics and aggressions of two nations when a far greater peril threatens this Church. I care little for which Catholic Nation holds what stretch of land, for all is in service to God in the end. I have called you all together today to speak of the danger of heretics, and the threat they pose to the Church and to the souls of humanity. Their words are like honey, and entice with "common sense" and "calls to reason", and that is what makes them so dangerous, they pervert the natural truth and message of God! We must..."
As The Pope continued on, voice growing louder and more histrionic as he launched into what would end up being a nine hour speech on the dangers of allowing heresy to go unchecked, Gordon settled back into his seat and let his mind race as he struggled to retain the blank face Gille Calline had so often stressed as a necessity. There would be no help from the Church in Scotland's campaign against Spain, as had been the case for so long in their history, they were on their own.
Nevin was in darkness.
He had awoken several minutes earlier and staggered to his knees, but attempts to get higher had resulted in a beating with sticks till he had acquiesced to the silent demand and stayed on his knees. His wrists were tied behind his back, and his ankles tied together as well, a hood placed over his head, his knees digging into hard stone. He sniffed deeply and got a full order of his own sweat and the harsh wool of the hood, but also soil, mold and a faint decay. The only noises he could hear were muffled by the hood, but appeared to be restricted to breathing and nothing else. He could hear no people, no animals, none of the usual sounds of a city but also none of the sounds of a farm or forest... so he could only speculate that he was in a basement of a building or an underground prison cell. The lack of the smell of other people indicated this was not a cell, even an abandoned one, and no smell of vegetables or manure indicated he was not in a rural setting. He doubted he had been unconscious long enough to be transported far, so he was still in Zaragoza, in a basement somewhere, and the sounds of breathing could be isolated... there were four people standing close by, staring at him.
"By now he'll have figured out more than the hood can hide," spoke a cultured voice, and suddenly the hood was pulled clear. He blinked, even the faint illumination of guttering torches on the wall of the basement enough to nearly blind him after the darkness of the hood. He stared at the silhouettes of the men in front of him as his vision cleared enough to show him his captors, and he could not help but smile.
"Let's see how good you are.... Nevin of Shetland," smiled the tallest man, a dignified silver-haired Spaniard in his fifties,"I am sure you know our names, can you attach them to our faces?"
"You are Domingo Manuel, that is easy," replied Nevin, his face blank,"From left to right, I would guess Vaasco Curral, Esteban Macia and Jacome Bernaldo."
"Oh yes, he's good," smiled Jacome,"Anyone else I'd say guessed Vaasco by his age, then took the 50/50 chance between me and Esteban... but not him, no.... this one is too clever to live."
"And too valuable to kill.... yet," smiled Domingo,"First we have to pick his brains."
"Aodh, look at this," grunted Domnall, handing a slip of paper to Aodh.
"Ye ken that I had all ready heard of this, Domnall," nodded Aodh, who had long since - against Nevin's own advice - told his Brother that Nevin was not the true Spymaster of the Scottish Empire, and that before that job had come to Aodh, it had been their dead brother Nectan's.
"Aye," sighed Domnall, sitting in Aodh's study and somehow seeming smaller than at any point that Aodh could remember in his life.... he looked defeated,"But it is but another in an endless series of setbacks for us.... Aodh, I cannae fight a war like this... this.... this waiting! This goes against everything I know, everything Uncle Edward taught me about war, every instinct in my body. Father might have been able to do this, but he never taught me, and I dinnae have the knack to lay back in wait like a spider. Those men in Cagliari who died... they died fighting for Scotland, I should have had an army ride to their aid... and I should have been at their head! But I did nae and I was nae, because of those accursed Spanish ships! I feel like a prisoner here in Milan, and my sentence is served for the deaths of every one of those soldiers who died at Cagliari and Algiers because I could nae send them aid..... Aodh, I NEED TO FIGHT!"
"Ye need patience, Brother," replied Aodh calmly,"As ye told me so long ago, ye must choose when to fight.... but when the time is right, ye will unleash the fires of hell on the Spanish."
"But when, Brother? WHEN!?!" howled Domnall in anguish, standing up and stalking about the room,"If I was out there in the field I would at least ken that I could do something! Everything that has happened to us leaves me feeling impotent... the fall of Cagliari; Mar losing half his men to some mad English Rebel; the death of Pope Saracinus; Pope Villanus' obsession with heresy costing us Church Support; this fresh siege of Algiers; and ye mysterious friend disappearing.... nothing is going right for Scotland, Aodh, we have fallen from peace into dark days!"
"Domnall," smiled Aodh sadly, feeling his Brother's pain and wishing that he could tell him more,"Have ye ever heard the saying, it is always darkest before the dawn?"
"Do you really think you can make me talk?" Nevin asked.
"There is not a man alive who cannot be broken without the proper tools," grinned Domingo,"Do you have any idea how long I have dreamed of this day?"
"I am sorry to ruin your dream for you," Nevin sighed,"But I will not talk."
"Oh?" chuckled Domingo,"And pray tell why not?"
Finally, Nevin's blank face revealed emotion, as a huge smile broke out over his face,"Because of him."
Jacome squawked as he collapsed to the ground, spasming wildly as Vaasco's throat suddenly erupted with blood and Esteban crumpled bonelessly to the ground, eyes rolling back in their sockets. Domingo's jaw dropped open in shock as he twisted around, and a black shape emerged from the shadows. To the Spanish Spy's credit, his reaction was almost immediate as he grabbed at the dagger on his side and moved into a defensive stance. But the shadowy figure moved like quicksilver, darting around Domingo's thrusting arm and snapping his wrist, causing him to drop the dagger as a heel was driven into the back of his knee, dropping him to the floor. A hand gripped his hair and pulled his head back, exposing his neck, and he felt a blade pressed against his neck as he was turned to face the similarly kneeling Nevin.
Domingo Manuel had just been introduced to Farquar the Killer.
"Now what?" grunted Domingo, swallowing nervously and trying but failing to keep his face blank despite the tumultuous events of the last few seconds.
"Now?" asked Nevin, still grinning as he stood up straight and held out his hands, the ropes that had bound them falling away - as if by magic.
"Now I am going to pick your brain."