“Eyesobel! Lady! Eyesobel!”

          Isobel stopped and looked round, her hair blown around her face and into her mouth by the damp, chill wind. The lads ran up the hillside to her, surrounding her, dancing with excitement. “Lady, it's Per!”

          “Elven! Elven be coming!”

          “Per be with Elven!”

          Isobel's thoughts were with the straggle of people trudging along the track leading from the tower into the hills. Women, children and old men, all carrying packs on their backs, plodded beside loaded ponies and oxen. Many carried farm tools and kitchen knives as weapons. Had they enough food with them? Enough blankets and warm clothing? Should she go back into the tower and bring out more? The lad's words reached her belatedly, and made no sense. Per with the Elves? “What?”

          “Elven, Lady!”

          “We've seen them!”

          “Aye! - but Per?”

          “He rides with them, Lady!”

          “Sweet Milk too!”

          “We saw!”


             Fear squeezed Isobel's heart. She knew the Elves had returned, because Thorkild had armed and ridden out with his men, to discover where they were, leaving her to oversee the packing of the tower with smouldering peats. It was her job, as well, to lead their people into the hills, to the summer meadows where they grazed their cattle, there to hide. If the attackers should reach the tower, the peats would make them think carefully before they dared to carry gunpowder inside to blow it down. She hadn't known, though, that the Elves were so close. “Per with Elven? What say you? Get away! I've no time for such silly tales.”

          “True, Lady! We saw!”

          One tactless lad said, “They took him prisoner, maybe?”

          Isobel stared at him, and he was sorry he'd spoken. After a quick glance at his friends' faces, he faded behind them.

          Isobel darted away from them, towards the line of trudging people. Her kilted skirts, tied to her belt, exposed her lower legs, and the bundled skirts flopped about her as she ran. “Hurry! Elven are close!” Startled faces turned to her, and then women called children to them, shouldered packs, and started up the track with greater urgency. Isobel caught a woman by the arm. “Yanet, thou'rt in charge! Keep them moving!”

          “Where gan thee?” Yanet asked.

          “Never mind.” Isobel turned back to the lads who'd followed her. “Show me!”

          They led her by narrow sheep-tracks that skirted hillsides, by rocky fords of headlong brown streams, up steep slopes and through wooded hollows, to arrive, panting at a spot where they had her crawl up to the sky-line and peep cautiously over. Below, at a distance, she saw Elf-carts, those square, stinking, growling metal boxes that inched over the land on huge, strange wheels, without horses to pull them. She saw Elves, armed with big Elf-pistols, riding inside the carts and running beside them.

          Close to the elf-carts, riding on either side of them, and in front, were horsemen. Isobel’s eyes fixed, immediately, on Per. She would have picked him out in an eye’s blink from among a thousand horsemen. A steel bonnet covered his hair, and the distance was too great to see his face clearly, but she knew him by his figure, and the way he moved in the saddle. Beside him rode Sweet Milk.

          “See, Lady?” said one of the lads. “We told you true.”

          “You told me true,” she said, while her thoughts darted everywhere.

          How could Per and Sweet Milk – and other Sterkarms – be with the Elves? Why were they making for the tower?

          The Sterkarms rode freely among the Elf-carts, with no appearance of being prisoners. It wasn't possible that they'd taken the Elves prisoner – the Elves had fearful weapons and powerful carts, and there weren’t enough men in Per’s band to force them to do anything.

          An alliance? But Per hated the Elves, all but one. He would never join them, he would never lead them to the tower. He would die first. She was his mother and had raised him, and she knew.

          The boys lying on either side of her eagerly scanned her face. “What will we do, Lady?”

          Isobel had no answer for them. What to do? Gather her little army of women armed with kitchen knives, and old men armed with scythes and clubs, and lead them to Per’s rescue? As she watched her son ride, she couldn't believe that he needed rescue.

          “One of you,” she said to the boys, “catch a horse. Find Toorkild. Tell him.”

          The boys whispered among themselves, and then two of them slipped down the slope, got to their feet, and scampered away.

          Should she do nothing, and simply continue into the hills? Per must know what he was about, and if he led the Elves to the tower as some kind of ruse, he knew that the tower was booby-trapped, and would be on his guard.

          Isobel stood, showing herself a dark figure on the skyline. She felt the boys tug at her skirts, hissing warnings and trying to pull her down.

          She kicked at them, to free her skirts, and then ran down the hillside towards the Elves. Per must have reasons for riding with the Elves. Once she knew what they were, she could carry them back to the Sterkarms and Toorkild.

          “Gan!” she said to a boy who had followed her and caught at her arm.

          “Lady - !” His voice broke.

          She pushed him off. He was in danger, but she wasn’t. Per would never hurt her, and the Elves would see nothing but a country-woman who was no threat to them. They might laugh at her, they might insult her with words, but they were too intent on their own purposes to waste time in hurting her. So there was little risk in what she did, and it would help Toorkild, and help keep the women, children and old men safe. On she ran, her kilted skirts swaying about her knees.


Gareth hated everyone around him, and was pretty sure that if he bet on them all hating him, he would win.

          They were supposed to be on his side, but the other 21st-Siders despised him; and in the privacy of his own head, where he didn't have to be polite, he thought they were scum. Patterson, and Burnett and Plug... Big, aggressive, scum. Ignorant and proud-of-their-ignorance-scum. Self-satisfied, armed scum.

          And then there were the ones on horseback. The Sterkarms. Mounted thugs. Murderous hooligans with eight foot lances. Even their ponies looked thuggish, being thick-set and shaggy, with untrimmed manes and tails hanging to the ground. Evil eyed, unshaven, thuggish ponies.

          He could talk to the Sterkarms, after a fashion. That was how he'd ended up in this hellish place. He'd thought that learning languages was a good idea. He'd thought that trying to get ahead, to get promotion, was a good idea. So he'd put himself forward to learn the Sterkarm's dialect from a few tapes and notes made by Andrea bloody Mitchell, and got himself assigned to James Windsor's pet project. Being Windsor's blue-eyed boy had made it worth learning a language that sounded like someone with terminal bronchitis, coughing, hawking and choking, or so he'd thought.

          Now he wished he'd concentrated on a career selling hamburgers in a funny hat. He might have smelled all the time of onions and grease, but he wouldn't have been held hostage by savages five hundred years from home. He wouldn't have been here, aching, hungry, damp, chafed, blistered and scared.

          He trudged along, on sore feet, just behind the mercenaries, close enough to keep up, but far enough behind to be out of their sight. The less they noticed him, the less he had to endure their tedious, lame-brained jibing. You couldn't talk to them about anything but football and women – or, rather, their curiously stunted view of women and their grandiose vision of football. They were hateful. Were the Sterkarms worse? Hard to decide. He had even less idea of what went on in their heads than he had of what passed for thought with the mercenaries.

          Closing down his forebrain, and operating only the testosterone-fuelled reptile-brain, enabled him to understand the mercenaries perfectly. It was simply a matter of shutting the algebra and geometry books, and using the counting-beads: one plus two equals three.

          The Sterkarms were something else again. They were thugs, but they weren't stupid. They used a different number-base altogether, and he didn't know what it was. Honour, for instance. Honour was a big thing with them. They had to behave with honour. They couldn't bear it if someone even hinted that they'd behaved dishonorably. But, it seemed, by their definition, lying and treachery were honorable. Burning children alive, cutting off an elderly woman's head and tying it to their saddlebow, cutting a girl's throat – all these things were, according to them, honorable.

          They really scared him. He was scared of the mercernaries, and hated their jeering and sniggering; but he was a 21st-sider, like them. Technically, he was their boss, and they knew that when they returned to the 21st, they'd have to account for at least some of their actions. He felt fairly certain that the mercenaries wouldn't kill him.

          With the Sterkarms, who could tell? They didn't even need a reason to kill him – only some grudge against him that made sense to them. They were proven, practiced killers, and they feared no law because, here, in their country, they were the law.

          If I ever get back to the 21st, Gareth thought, even for five minutes – for one minute – I'm resigning. Stuffing leaflets through letterboxes is better than this. Living in a cardboard box with a dog on a string is better than this.

          He felt vibration through the ground under his feet. Horses approaching. He'd been keeping his eyes down, to minimise his misery, and the soft turf muffled the sound of hoofbeats; and the uncomfortable, hot helmet he wore had built in ear-protectors. Not much sound reached him.

          He looked up, squinting against the light, and there they were – the bulk and loom and heat and moist stinking sweatiness of a horse lumbering alongside him. A fly flew into his face. Hair from a mane drifted across his cheek. He breathed in the Sterkarm reek: horse-sweat and dung, and greased leather: peat-smoke, wet dog and the salty urinal stink of unwashed man.

          Two horses. Another horse came up on his other side, penning him between walls of horseflesh. Towering above him, the riders each carried an eight foot lance, the butt resting on the toe of the rider's boot and squeaking as it shifted slightly.   The lances didn't gleam, as in stories, because they'd been covered in a mixture of soot and grease. The Sterkarms treated all their helmets, shields, buckles and horse-harness in the same way, to protect them from rust, and to dull them. The Sterkarms didn't want to gleam. Gleaming armour, flashing in the sun, told your enemy – or the people you were lying in wait for - where you were.

          Gareth pulled off his helmet, and a din rushed on his ears, made up of wind, in bushes, horse-harness creaking and jangling, bird-song, stamping hooves, horses snorting, men shouting... He shaded his eyes as he looked up, trying to see who the riders were. The big one, that was Sweet Milk. He had huge, saucer-round blue eyes, but those big blue peepers were set beneath neanderthal brows, and his cheekbones were like shield bosses. A craggy, scary face.

          The other was Per May, the bandit-chief now that his father had been killed. His nickname, 'May', meant 'The Maiden' or 'The Girl', and had been given to him because of his good looks. Gareth knew that both looks and nickname were deceiving. This was a man who had married a young girl, a very beautiful young girl and, hours later, had held her at the edge of his father's grave, cut her throat, and thrown her down on the corpse.

Gareth wasn't happy to have these killers close to him. They could ride him down with their horses. They could stab him with their lances.   Every muscle tight with apprehension, he waited to hear what they wanted.

         Vah air denna shtead?” Per shouted. What is this place? He looked around at the hills as he yelled. He didn't know he was shouting. The Sterkarms always yelled. They spent most of their time outside, and chatted from hillside to hillside. Gareth thought that, when Per was in bed with Andrea, he probably leaned close and bawled sweet nothings in her ear. It explained why the woman never listened to sense. She'd gone deaf.

          Per was turning in his saddle, looking at the outlines of the hills. “Denna air vor lant,” he shouted. This is our land. “Denna air Shtairkairm lant.

          Gareth saw Patterson glance back at them, saw Burnett grinning, and sighed. “You were told - “

          “This be our dale,” Per said. “Our water. Will our tower be up there?” He nodded towards the further end of the valley.

          “This be Elfland,” Gareth said, sticking to the official story. “Not your country. Elfland. You were told it would look just like your country. It's glamoured. Elf-Windsor's enemies have glamoured it to confuse you.” That was the tale they'd been spun. That they were leaving their own world for Elfland, to fight for Elf-Windsor against his enemies.

          “There be no elf-cart ruts,” Per said. Sweet Milk, as usual, said nothing, merely sat his horse and lent his bulk and weight to whatever Per said. He was one of the most unsmiling and silent men Gareth had ever come across. Just being near him as he towered and loomed, and silently, unsmilingly stared, was nerve-wracking.

          “There's no what?” Gareth asked.

          “Ruts. From the Elfcarts. The Elfcarts made big ruts up and down our valley. Where be they?”

          “Er – the Elves made a mistake,” Gareth said. “When they copied your world, they forgot about the ruts.” The truth was, there had only ever been a couple of Elf-carts introduced into this 16th-side, and the Sterkarms of this world had destroyed them. There had never been many ruts, and those there had been had vanished.

          “Er – the Elves made a mistake,” Gareth said. “When they copied your world, they forgot about the ruts.” The truth was, there had only ever been a couple of Elf-carts introduced into this 16th-side, and the Sterkarms of this world had destroyed them. There had never been many ruts, and those there had been had vanished.

          Per stared down at him for a moment, thinking god knew what, then kicked up his horse and rode away, back to the head of the straggling line of men. Sweet Milk followed, though he glowered at Gareth for as long as he could.


Per, as he rode, looked about him, and shook his head as he recognised the slope of a hillspur, a particular thorn tree, a stretch of loose stones at the edge of the stream. This was Bedesdale, with Bedes Water running through it. He knew this land so well that he could have found his way in the dark.

          A little way ahead lay the thing that had made him turn back and question Gareth – an elf-cart, on its side, blackened with burning, dented, twisted, stripped of mirrors and panels. Who had done that to an elf-cart? And when? And yet, there were no deep ruts made by the passing up and down the dale of the cart's big wheels.

          A movement on the sky-line seized his eye immediately. A woman had stood, and now came down the slope. A boy clung to her arm, but was pushed away, and soon ran off, disappearing over the hill's top.

          The woman came on. Per's heart jolted inside him. The woman was his mother. Her skirts were kilted up as if she'd been working in the fields; and her hair was covered with nothing but a cloth scarf. A long skein of hair, fair like his own, had escaped from it, and flew in the breeze.

          But the Elves had led them through the Elf-Gate – through a door into the hillside, and deep into the hill, deep underground. They'd brought them out from under the hill to Elf-Land, a place altogether uncanny.

          Then they'd been led under the hill again, on their way to yet another world, a world where they would fight the Elves' enemies. To this place.

          The Elves had warned them that the enemy would use magic against them, making the strange seem familiar. The world they rode through was a copy of their own, but not quite right. There were mistakes, like those elf-cart ruts, and the burned wreck. The enemy Elves were playing with their thoughts and memories, to confuse them.

          The woman came hesitantly down the slope, pausing and looking back, and seeming as if she would run away; but then coming on. She called out, “Per!” Her voice carried faintly through the thin air.

          Per looked at Sweet Milk, but all Sweet Milk's attention was focussed on the woman.

          She was closer now, and they saw her face. It was so like Isobel, so perfect a copy, that Per was shocked and scared – feelings that instantly turned to anger. How dare this thing, how dare it, take on his mother's shape?

          Closer still the woman-thing came, but more slowly, taking long pauses between steps. As she neared, she stared up into Per's face. She said, “Per? Whyfor? Whyfor with Elven?”

          It had his mother's voice! - and spoke like a Sterkarm. Or it made him think it did. Loathsome thing.

          Something she saw in his face made her take a determined step forward, reaching out a hand as if to touch his knee. Per couldn't bear it to touch him. He pulled the pistol from his saddle-holster, and pointed it at the thing.

          The seeming-woman drew back, her hands rising towards her face. The thing had the manner of a woman exactly – that, or it had dazzled his sight so he saw visions. She said, “Per?”

          Per felt, through his prickling skin, the other Sterkarm men around him, as lost in this familiar but alien world as he, and watching to see what lead he would give. His father was dead - murdered by Grannams - so now they looked to him.   He wanted to look to Sweet Milk, but forced his head not to turn. Sweet Milk was his foster-father, but not a Sterkarm. He had to stop looking to fathers, and lead himself.

          His uncertainty added to his fear, and that rolled up with his anger and loathing. Gripping his horse with his knees, he dropped the reins and took hold of the pistol with both hands. Over it, he saw the woman-thing quail, and its appeal to his pity, its duplicity, made his anger swell. He pulled the trigger.

          Pistols were less use than bow, lance or sword. Often the powder was damp and didn't explode; or it merely flashed in the pan, and lent no force to the ball. Or the barrel exploded under the pressure, and maimed the shooter while leaving the target unharmed. Or the pistol's mere inaccuracy made the ball fly wide. At the back of Per's mind, as he braced himself for the explosion and recoil, was the thought that, for one reason or another, the ball would miss. The thing in his mother's shape, whatever it was, would run away, having learned that a Sterkarm was hard to fool - and he would have proved his good faith to the Elves, and set an example to his men.

          But the woman-thing was close. The ball hit its woman's-face, his mother's face, with a crunch of metal impacting bone and flesh. The thing fell back, dead-weight, thumped into the heather. He didn't hear it make a sound.

          Per's horse, Fowl, shook his head and turned away from the explosion beside his ear. Per kept his seat with his knees and took up the reins again, as he shoved the pistol back in its holster. Some of the other horses shyed a little, but they had been trained to raiding. They'd heard pistols fired, and smelled blood before.

          From high on the hillside came a faint cry. The other Elf-things had seen.

          Per looked round to find Sweet Milk and other men, staring at him.

          Other men, foot men, came up, trudging and running – Elves, with their Elf-pistols and their big packs on their backs, and that other Elf, Garrett, the one who could talk English. They gathered round the body, staring at it. Some looked up at Per.

          “It died like a woman,” Per said. He forced the words through set teeth, and gulped down a thickness in his throat, but he kept his voice from shaking, and was able to look round and laugh. His men, too, laughed – except Sweet Milk, who dismounted to make sure the woman was dead. Sweet Milk was soft like that. A quick death was his kindness.

          The leader of the Elves, Patterson, said something, and Per looked to Garrett.

          “He says, 'Well done,'” Gareth said. In fact, Patterson had said, 'Nice one,' but that would be hard to translate, and the sense was the same. More or less. He didn't try to convey the irony with which Patterson had spoken.

          Per kicked up his horse, and rode on. A Sterkarm laird had no time or use for praise from Patterson.

          Gareth stayed by the body, watching Sweet Milk bloody the dead woman's skirts by wiping his knife on them. There was something dreadfully compelling about corpses. He found himself staring at a lot of them recently.

          He watched Sweet Milk tug a neckerchief from the woman's dress, and cover her face with it. Rising to his full height, the big man gave Gareth his hard stare before remounting and riding away.

          Gareth thought: Per killed his mother. No good is going to come of this.


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