Somewhere in Scotland, 1534 BCE
SWORDSINGER WATCHED IN TERROR from the green hills as they came to kill him.
Their armour was grafted to their living skin. Each of the thousands of warriors on the beach below had been taken as boys, at puberty, stolen from their owners, parents, or chiefs from places far away. Their skins had been abraded savagely. Unguents and oils had been applied to their bloodied flesh and the thick, tough rawhides of newly skinned bulls had then been sewn, wrapped and tied about their chests, their arms and their legs and, in the case of some of the larger warriors, about their heads and faces as well. The procedure was dangerous, even wasteful, as half of those who were forced to undergo "The Binding" died of massive infection.
But the unguents and oils, the salves, the salt-water baths and the steaming magic worked, after a fashion, on the rest and, while they never really healed and there was always pain, the skins of the survivors were ultimately absorbed by the heavy rawhides.
The hard-skinned warrior herd now milled about on the decks of dozens of galley ships. Those of the bulls who stood near rails bayed at the water and growled up at the hillside. Pierce-proof and angry, they lived inside their false skins, anxious for blood and battle and a little relief from their pain.
* * * * *
KING STOOD IN THE stern sheets of the lead ship watching the clamour and listening to the grunting. At six feet, he was far taller than his leathery warriors. Many of his little bulls had been stunted at puberty by the stranglehold of the hides. While King's hair was golden, long, and tied back, his bulls' heads were shorn roughly to the scalp. King wore long, layered robes of linen and silk, in colours of cream, saffron, burgundy, and blood red. His little bulls were naked but for short skirts of half-tanned leather, their hardened flesh beading a foul, rank sweat. The hides of the older ones, those with a stronger smell of death about them, were now, whatever colour they'd started out with, all slightly green.
King signalled with one of his iron rods for the drummers to begin. Huge hoops of wood stretched across with leather had been mounted on each ship, dozens of ships, dozens of drums, war clubs beating, beating deep, beating in time, the water bouncing with their echo. King felt the beat of the drums match that of his heart. He had an odd, too thin, too long face, which he masked with a bushy blonde beard. His face was split by a smile filled with overly long but perfect, white teeth. His eyes were sky blue and almond-slanted. He looked to his bulls.
The faces of his little animal men were covered with sores; their soft tissues, the folds of skin between the hard slabs of transplanted flesh, were crusted with scabs and raw and leaking blood and lymph. Their faces were round and swollen. Their complexions reflected the shades of many different lands. Their snarling and snapping mouths were filled with sharply pointed, roughly filed teeth. Their heavy hands were filled with weapons, pointed, edged, or stringed. Their hard, bare feet shuffled and stamped with restless impatience.
King's fleet was beached near the huge, flat-topped, pink boulder by the sea. The stone sat on the line where the sand turned to grass. Beyond the big stone grew the fat lands, green and fertile and filled with life--fine farms, villages of fishers, acres and acres of tilled fields filled with barley and wheat, cattle and pigs and promise. A land filled with women and children and their soft-skinned men. Once the oars of the thirty-six boats were shipped, King ordered the passing out of his cocktail, the opiate amphetamine distillate that dulled his animals' constant pain, dulled their fears while heightening their awareness and reaction time. They clamoured long and loud for their turns at the drinking horns. They knew from experience that another, more powerful brew would offer them euphoria when the battle was done.
The little bulls swarmed over the sides of the boats into the waist-deep surf and onto the beach where they milled about looking to King.
King waited for a ramp to be lowered to the beach and strode down it holding his iron staff. When he stood on the gravel and sand he looked up to the ridge that topped a gently rising hill behind the beach. He saw the horseman. King raised his staff and pointed the way, and the herd of snarling, thick-skinned bulls stampeded up towards the fat lands, towards the horseman.
* * * * *
THE SWORDSINGER COULD SMELL the stink of the herd even from the ridge top. Beasts. If King below was tall then Swordsinger, half a foot taller, was a giant. Atop his black stallion he was immense. Swordsinger wore deerskin trews and a jerkin, dyed forest green. A long, crimson cloak was pinned over his shoulders so he could be seen more easily by his own army. Swordsinger wore a silver and gold helm upon his head. It was affixed on each side with the spreading wings of a snow-white sea hawk. He carried two blades, one in each hand. Long and single-edged were his swords, gleaming and ever sharp.
Swordsinger was filled with fear, not just for his life but for the life of his daughter, his son, and his wife. Their lives and those of so very many more were at risk if these beasts could not be held and slaughtered.
In his terror, Swordsinger doubted his strength. There were so many of the beasts below. Despite their overwhelming numbers though, he knew they had but one brain. He could see the gaudy leader now, cavorting on the beach, and now he knew the answer, now there was a chance to save them all.
Swordsinger cried out in the ancient tongue, "Headless you will be and then so too your battle beasts." He reared his stallion up and rode back and forth along the grassy ridge above the bulls, taunting the herd with his billowing scarlet cape. The herd saw him and took the bait, swarming recklessly up to devour him.
As the bulls were halfway to their prey, their hard feet stamping into the soft, damp pasturelands, Swordsinger's Song grew up out of the rocks behind him. It swelled to thousands strong, their loud and demanding voices, their blaring horns, and their thundering drums roaring down at the herd, drums which beat faster, brighter and cleaner than those on the beach below.
The herd halted at the sound of the Song and then watched as the singers, their spear points gleaming in the sunrise, appeared on the ridge top. They saw the singers' linen skirts billow out around thick-muscled, sun-bronzed legs, their brightly woven mantles pinned with bits of shining gold, their beards, brown and russet and black and gold, and even some that were as white as a new moon.
The Song waited, quivering, and then Swordsinger attacked the herd. He rode down among them, his swords flashing, their heads rolling. His horse, at one with its rider, black as death, lashed out with deadly hooves, stamping and kicking and crushing with fury.
The Song thundered down behind him, still singing but killing now too. The Song's drummers waited on the ridge top, beating louder now to be heard above the din of battle, urging the singers on with their beat.
Axes fell, spears jabbed, swords cut and lunged and flashed amid the blood. The hardened bulls bit and tore as often as they clubbed and cut. Their hides turned many blows aside and their clawed hands wielded death to many of the Song.
Swordsinger's arms were strengthened by the knowledge that he and the Song were fighting an unspeakable evil. This was their land. Their homes lay in the glens behind them. Their women and children were waiting in the hidden places, waiting in fear, in terror, and in hope.
The bulls felt little or no pain in their drugged and abused flesh. Many of the herd fought on after grievous injury, slashing and snapping after losing a hand or an arm. Severed heads, rolling on the turf, continued snarling and croaking incomprehensible words that might have been curses or half-remembered prayers until their bloodshot eyes clouded over.
The Song raged and the herd spat. The hard-skinned bulls died but they killed too. Swordsinger had told the Song that the bulls' knees were weak and poorly covered. When the Song was among the herd, spear hafts and threshing flails swept out and the little bulls fell, only to have their softer parts pierced or crushed.
Swordsinger and his stallion terrorized the herd, slashing and killing and crushing and stomping, whirling about, splashed with blood and offal. The herd was falling apart. They were charging uphill on soft ground, while the Song charged downhill on turf that was home. One side fought in madness and heightened stupor, the other in outrage and fear. The herd's stampede faltered.
As the Song fell about the bulls, Swordsinger looked up from the battle. His face and arms were covered in sweat. Splashes of blood speckled the white feathers of his winged helm. He looked to King below.
King, his layers of brightly coloured clothes wafting about him in the stiff breeze, stood upon the large, round boulder where the beach met the grass. He knew his bulls would never turn, but he saw them fall. He saw defeat growing on the hillside and then he altered the lexicon of warfare.
King raised his iron rod high above his head. The drums aboard the boats stopped at once. He swung the rod so that it pointed at the boats and then swung the point of it up over his head and then down again so that it pointed at the melee on the hillside. Two thousand bulls then stood up from their hiding places behind the boats' gunnels. Two thousand laminated wood and horn recurved bows drew back and two thousand yew wood shafts took flight at the Song.
Swordsinger screamed, but in his panic cried out in his first tongue, a language not to be heard for three thousand years yet.
The cloud of arrows reached its apex. Swordsinger wheeled his horse and waved his swords to the sky.
The Song looked up. They'd never seen the like. Thousands of arrows like a vast flight of birds, humming to earth.
Swordsinger screamed for them to duck, to cover their heads. They looked to him and then back at the flight.
Even the bulls looked up and then they folded on the ground, folded tight so that only their hardened backs faced the sky.
Swordsinger stood in his stirrups and swung and twirled his blades above his head. He wove a pattern in the air cut with carbonized steel. Just before the arrows struck he saw another volley take flight.
The Song was struck hard. Many were pierced through the eyes as they watched the descent in fascination. The arrows were tipped with flakes of razor-sharp flint and bit deep. Some even drove down into the crouched bulls, punching through their unnatural hides. But King cared not. There were countless bulls.
The arrows failed to penetrate the pattern of steel Swordsinger wove. His blades knocked them aside like falling bits of straw. The second flight was in the air about to fall in their midst and, Swordsinger saw, a third had been launched. He knew there was but one hope.
Swordsinger charged. A blade in each hand, he charged down the hill towards King on his stone. He guided the stallion with his knees and could feel the horse's need to kill, too.
Swordsinger knew the arrows were only effective as volleys. The herd's bowmen showed no evidence of real skill, other than their ability to draw and launch in unison. Marksmanship, hitting a moving target, a charging target running downhill, seemed surely beyond them. He would kill King. Kill King and save the future.
King, standing on his stone, watched Swordsinger's charge. King raised his iron rod and carefully pointed it at the charging horseman. He breathed deeply and then let out half his breath. A sound like the clap of thunder rocked the beach and Swordsinger was flung from his saddle.
A horrible Banshee howling cried out from the high rocks of the ridge and cut through the clamour of the killing.
The battle was lost. The drummers on the ridge beat the Song's retreat. Those who could run back up the hill did so. Those who couldn't, blinded or crippled by the volleys of arrows, staggered about until the bulls tore them apart. The dead cared not.
* * * * *
Kingstone Bay, Dalraida, Scotland, The Present
NOBODY KNEW WHY IT was called Kingstone. The huge, pink stone lay a quarter of a mile from the seacoast along a flat stretch of pasture that, Ian Murray had read, had itself once been the seabed. Over the millennia, the ocean had retreated or the land had risen up and its coastlines altered.
"Continents evolve, just like us," thought Murray. He stood on the lip of the long, shallow trough in the side of the hill above Kingstone slicing loaves out of the damp earth. With a practised flick of his wrist, he flipped the mucky blocks of peat from his spade onto the grass above the cut and then dug into the turf again. Every ten minutes or so, Murray would stop and gather the turves into small mounds so they could begin to dry out.
In times past, not so long ago, in fact, turves like these would be used year-round to heat the hearths of every home on the islands. Now they were only used to smoke the Duke's barley malt for his famous whisky.
"Good whisky, though," the man mumbled. "In moderation, remember, in moderation." Murray always carried some of 'The Duke's' in his knapsack.
Ian Murray had been cutting turves in his spare time for as long as he could remember. The man was in his fifties and wore an old tattered sweater, rough woollen pants and calf-high rubber Wellingtons. His face was wind-burned from a life of living by the sea. What hair he still had was mostly around his ears. White with memories of blonde, it straggled out from beneath an old tweed hat. Murray always had a pipe in his mouth whether it was smoking or not. When he wasn't cutting peat he was fishing for herring, or counting sheep, or cutting trees for the forestry service, or mucking out the stable for the old Duke. There was always work.
"That's odd." Murray's spade crunched through something unusual. He stepped down into the trough and plucked something up from out of the peat.
"Finger bone. Hmm." He poked about some more and then spotted a flash of gold. He got down on his hands and knees and started to gently remove the layers of peat from around that glint.
A face lay beneath the peat. Murray stood up. "Hello, old timer". The face was the colour of the mud, slightly withered but well-fleshed. Murray touched the cheeks of the dead face. It was pliable, not quite soft, more like leather than skin. There were whiskers on the chin, long lashes on the tightly closed eyes, and Murray could see there was lots of hair woven through the peat. The glint came from a finger-thick arrow of gold which transfixed the centre of the corpse's forehead. The rest of the body was still well covered.
Murray climbed out of the trough and fetched a knapsack from the pannier of his bicycle. He sat down on the edge of the trough beside the dead man's face, withdrew his anorak, and gently covered the corpse with it. Then he removed a cell phone and a silver flask from the bag. He sipped whisky from the flask as he called the Castle.
An hour later, a gleaming new, dark green Range Rover rolled to a stop some ten feet from the large, pink boulder. A medium-sized but very wide man in a thick, white sweater climbed out of the driver's seat. An older and very tall man in a long, green, waxed-cotton coat and knee-high leather riding boots climbed out of the passenger's seat. The pair walked the short distance up the grassy hill to Ian Murray. When the pair arrived at the trough, Murray stood up, nodded in a friendly manner and, with a flourish, uncovered the face in the peat moss.
The older man and his companion crossed themselves. The old man knelt and gently touched the soft, dark brown skin. He muttered something in Gaelic to his companion, who promptly pulled a cell phone from his pocket and keyed in a number.
Within an hour, an olive-drab canvas tent was set up over the remains. The tent itself was stretched over with ragged camouflage netting. Three teams of six men each, dressed as farmers but armed with shotguns, began patrolling the area around the clock. Road access to the area was cut off, blocked by army surplus trucks and hard-faced men loyal only to the Duke.