(from Ghosts & Scholars 25)

"Okay guys, this is it!"

Rex Phipps, deputy head of accounts, stood akimbo, pistol on hip, his forage cap shoved rakishly back, for all the world like Luke Skywalker rallying his doughty rebels against the Empire. The difference, Bill Dane thought, was that Star Wars didn't take place in a wooded valley in Northumberland on a drizzly August weekend. Oh yes, and Skywalker wasn't quite such a tosser.

Dane glanced at some of his fellow paladins. There was Colin (whose expression read: A Pep Talk, Yeah, Good Idea Rex, Motivation, Right!); then the four from the third floor, who he didn't know really; and finally young Tracy, bless her, trying to look like she'd recovered from her broken nail. That nail was a Purple Heart earned in the first battle, and which had rendered her almost as useless as Dane in the second, brief contest. Now it was time for the third clash of arms before lunch, and Rex wanted A Result.

"Okay, we've been thrashed twice by those flash buggers in Marketing. Things are going badly. I'm not going to pretend they're not. But we can turn this thing around."

He paused for effect before continuing, with an outline of a plan which might have been a tad over-complicated for a Waffen SS division. For eight young-to-middle-aged office wallahs it was deranged, but no-one protested. Rex had a way of dominating meetings. It was his one real skill among the many he thought he possessed.

As the grand strategy unfolded, though, Dane realised that it wasn't necessarily going to be so bad. Rex explained that he was to be "sentry on the northern flank", along with young Tracy. "Stay well spaced out," Rex ordered; "no holing up together for a smoke." Rex and Colin would be venturing further along the ridge to try and get around behind the advancing enemy. The rest of the team would be pushing out to the west and south of the 'ammo dump' - a pile of blue plastic milk-crates they were defending against the more numerous and much more energetic Reds.

For a second Dane mockingly thought of real last-ditch battles like Verdun and Stalingrad. But then he had a flash of insight. It wasn't just that Rex was a humourless prat - he really did have that killer instinct: the 'go for the jugular' mentality this paint-ball weekend was supposed to hone to a keen edge. Dane realised, as he took in his superior's shining eyes and clipped syllables, that he was looking at a man who could take a life, and enjoy doing it. If their silly toy guns had been firing live rounds instead of just pellets of vegetable dye, Rex would be giving them much the same gung-ho speech, right down to the last line:

"Remember: Kill them before they kill you!"

Tracy smiled nervously at that, but young Colin grinned wolfishly and, before he caught Bill's eye, made as if to punch the air. The good soldier. He'd go far.

"Okay," said Rex. "Let's go and kick some Red ass!"

Half an hour later Bill Dane collapsed, wheezing, onto his plump rear, not caring if he presented a sitting target to Red advance scouts. Sod them. He was knackered. The climb up what had seemed a gentle slope had taken the wind out of his soft, pampered body, and he was now determined to put said wind back in. Along with a little medicinal something to pep him up, of course.

"Now that is a good idea, me old mate," he muttered under his breath.

He'd begun talking to himself more and more during the day's games of silly buggers - perhaps to keep up his spirits. He didn't like the old, wild woods that, when you stopped to listen, seemed filled with half-recognised sounds. The crack of twigs breaking, the creak of branches, the strange far-off cries that must be birds or foxes, the rustle of bracken in a distant breeze - well, it might have been inspiring to Wordsworth, but to Dane it simply reinforced his love of the big city. Why couldn't they just have played laser tag for fifteen minutes, and then gone to the pub? Better still, they could have missed out the laser tag.

He put down his pistol, glad to be rid of the unwieldy thing, and shifted his weight to his left buttock as he groped across his right for his hip flask. After a brief struggle he extricated the precious vessel. Then he had to put the flask down while he struggled with his mask, a combination of wraparound goggles and nose-and-mouth protector with breathing holes. Finally getting the damn thing off, he impatiently upended the flask, sending a stream of Drambuie down his throat. It didn't touch the sides.

"Ah, Bonny Scotland, I even forgive ye for Andy Stewart!"

He blessed the moment of foresight that had prompted him to conceal the little silver-plated receptacle of joy that morning, when they'd been getting changed at the absurdly-named Combat Centre. There were individual cubicles because it was a mixed team; otherwise taking booze might have proved tricky with Rex and his ADC Colin about. Even as it was, Dane had felt the flask as an unreasonably heavy weight during the ridiculous pep-talks. There was much eager talk of fire and movement, camouflage, defence in depth and reconnaissance in force. All to be done by five accountants and three admin girls. Two-nil down before elevenses. Hah!

The spreading warmth of the spirit, and the realisation that his breathing was getting back to normal, recalled Dane to his surroundings. He twisted awkwardly to look at the brow of the ridge he'd just climbed. Surely there was something missing? Of course. Where was the statue he'd noticed from the foot of the hill, standing silent amid the trees and towering bracken? He could have sworn he'd seen it from the little valley, a human figure but unnaturally still. Surely a statue, then, shadowed by the spreading trees, and greenish-grey with old mosses. Or so he'd thought. He'd taken the thing as his mark, telling himself he was heading for something, as opposed to running away from the faked-up mayhem of the battle. Had he been fooled into thinking a tree stump or some-such was a sculpted figure? A trick of the light? That must be it. His eyes weren't up to much, after all, and he couldn't wear his specs under the mask.

But wait. He heaved himself to his feet. Yes, there was a piece of worked stone among the trees. But it was set too far back to be seen from the valley - and, anyway, as he began to make his way cautiously towards it over the uneven ground, he realised it was not a statue, merely a sort of plinth, a cube of time-disfigured granite. For a moment he wondered if the statue might have fallen off the block as he'd scrambled up the hill, then told himself not to be so stupid. The stone wasn't a vacant plinth, or at least there was no sign of anything having been broken off the top. It was hard to be sure, though, as the thing was badly overgrown with mosses and lichens, except for one side where words were incised deeply. Was it some kind of surveyor's landmark or boundary stone? Who on earth would put a monument up here? He looked around, fearful (why fearful?) that he'd stumbled on an old cemetery. But no, he saw no sign of any other stones.

Reassured, he leant closer to make out the inscription, his short sight now a boon. Some words were so far gone as to be illegible, but he could still piece a lot of it together. It began with what must be a date. He couldn't quite make out the day, but raised his eyebrows at the month - a coincidence. And that must be the year in Roman numerals. Fourteen hundred and something? And below it, what could only be the phrase "on this day". Then came a line in capitals:


"Lady Margaret," said Dane. Then he stood erect, and looked about him. What had changed? Had he heard something? Even a slight sound would carry a long way in the still air. And then he realised it was not a sound but its absence that was worrying. Hadn't the birds been singing earlier? He recalled B-movies in which the phrase "It's too damn quiet!" had been the inevitable precursor to Something Nasty. A Red teamer might well be stalking him. He reluctantly went back for his gun, and, feeling idiotic, thumbed the safety catch off. Then he read on. What was Lady Margaret's surname? Dove-something? Or perhaps what looked like a V was a half-W?

A hand clasped his shoulder. He screamed and spun round, at the same time trying to grab his gun but knocking it into the bracken. "Bill!" said Tracy, her eyes wide behind her mask. She stumbled backwards and fell, with comic suddenness, onto her backside. He leaned against the monument and slid to the ground. His voice was loud and angry in the uneasy silence.

"Christ on a bike, don't ever do that again!"

For a second they stared at each other, two cowards in a shadowy wood. Then they burst out laughing, and with many a tearful "Now, stop it!", and lots of 'shushing', tried to avoid catching the other's eye for the best part of a minute.

"Oh God," said Bill finally, "I thought that was my first heart attack for certain."

"I'm sorry, Bill," said Tracy, moving over to plonk down next to him. There was just room for both their backs against the squat monolith.

"Never mind; no harm done," he replied, reaching for his flask again. "Here, get that down you, kidder. Good for the nerves."

Tears came to her eyes as she took a healthy swig.

"Oooh, that's better."

She handed the flask back and he took a wee dram before secreting it again.

"So we both had the same idea, eh? Get away from the nutters."

She nodded, and smiled, slightly shamefaced to be caught sneaking off, but glad of his company, Bill thought. He flattered himself that Tracy liked him - not fancied, of course, but she looked on him as a slightly disreputable uncle. It had been clear for some time that she was a bit scared by Rex, and considered Colin a creep. So here they were, two deserters. Which, he realised, meant twenty-five percent losses for Blue army without an enemy shot fired. How very tragic.

"I'm surprised you came right up here, though," Tracy said suddenly.

"Why's that?" he asked, puzzled.

"Well, didn't that bloke tell us it wasn't safe?"

Dane cast his mind back to the introductory briefing. His powers of concentration hadn't been at their shaky best, given that the session had taken place at the ungodly hour - for a Saturday - of eight-thirty. They'd been issued with their protective masks, told how to load and fire their guns, and each had been given a taste of what a shot felt like when you were hit in the back. When it came to her turn to be shot, Tracy had squeaked, to general amusement. And, yes, now he thought about it, hadn't the older of the two instructors said something about sticking to the valley if possible and not going up the north ridge? Dane couldn't recall if he'd given a reason. He did recall that the older bloke had had a local accent while the younger man, who'd briskly moved on to tactics, had not. Funny the things you remembered.

"Yes, well," he said lamely, "perhaps there are potholes or something. Might be dangerous to go crashing around in the bush." But would there be potholes on top of a hill? He vaguely thought not.

"Here's a laugh! I thought I saw one of that other lot, a while back," Tracy said, nodding towards the way she must have come upon him. The route lay along the ridge, through the trees. The undergrowth looked quite dense - an ideal place for a sniper to hide. You could hide a regiment in there, in among the green-black shadows.

"You saw one of Red team?" he asked, thinking, "Who else, you old fool?"

"Well, I could have sworn - you know how they're covered in bits of grass and stuff, camouflage? Looks daft. Anyhow, I thought it was a bloke and I shot at him. I hit him and all, I did! First time, Pow! like Clint Eastwood. Only he doesn't close his eyes when he shoots, does he?"

She giggled, and he smiled and shook his head.

"Anyway, when I looked again there was nowt there! Just blue paint on the tree. So I must have been seeing things. Daft or what?"

"Well, at least you've tried. More than I have."

And so saying, he lumbered to his feet and started casting about for his gun. It took him a while to retrieve it, as he was in no hurry to resume hostilities. But he supposed they would have to go back to the Centre in a while and claim they'd got lost, or something. When he turned to ask Tracy if she had any better ideas, he saw she was squatting before the monument, tracing letters with a tentative forefinger.

"Here, I didn't know they had divers in them days," she exclaimed.

Intrigued, he hunkered down beside her and looked where she was pointing. Sure enough, the word was apparently "divers", but he had a feeling that wasn't its meaning. He tried to decipher the entire line, drawing on years of crossword addiction and scrabble playing.


He felt himself squinting, as if that would restore the erased lettering. But it did, or at least some trick of the mind seemed to recreate the mutilated words. The absence of moss on that one side made it easier. Of course, the inscription must be on the north side, where moss won't grow...

"Did- with two dees and an ee, I suppose - something Divers Arts, erm, Inspire Her - Retainers? Did with, or did by? Anyway, Did By or With Divers Arts Inspire Her Retainers. Yes. And then, see this next line? They were - well, that probably says 'untiring'. Yeah, must be."

Tracy looked impressed, if slightly baffled.

"What're retainers?"

"Well, soldiers - a private army, really, drawn from the feudal lord's estates - fighting men tied to the land. In this part of the world, back in the year dot, all the big nobs had them. This Lady Mags seems to have been a bit fearsome, even by the standards of the time. Funny that the inscription's in English - if it's from the fifteenth century, I'd have thought it ought to be in Latin. Maybe it was carved later for some reason."

The girl mulled this over for a moment, then asked: "So what war's it a memorial to? I mean, who were they fighting?"

"Oh, the Scots, probably - see, down here it says they slew the Scots - erm - to a man, that must be. Yes, and something about the English being heavily outnumbered. Just a skirmish, really, not a battle."

"But why fight over this?" she asked, looking round at the desolate landscape. She had a point. But maybe, he hazarded, it had once been a key defensive spot on a big estate, an estate that had long since been run down until there was nothing left.

"Or perhaps the Scots came back to finish the job," she remarked, losing interest. She stood up, stretching, and Bill was about to do the same when something flew over his head. A paint-shot? It must have been - but hadn't it made the wrong kind of noise? Before he could recall what it sounded like, Tracy had screamed and fallen clumsily backwards, clutching with both hands at her throat. Dane thought: somebody on Red team's spotted the ridge, and they're not sloping off for a sly fag. Then, as he was crawling over to her on elbows and belly, he realised what the sound in the air had been like. An arrow. Which was impossible. It was just a freak acoustic effect that had made a pellet swish so loudly - the same freak effect that made the second shot equally loud, now, as he reached the prone girl.

Why wasn't she moving? Then she moaned slightly and he felt intense relief. Of course, she'd just fainted - it was shock on top of the exertion and liquor. He pulled down the high, heavily-padded collar of her jacket. There was a red mark at the base of her throat. A round mark, very small, not at all the sort of bruise you might expect from the dissipated impact of a gelatine ball. And where was the red splash of dye? Had the pellet failed to burst?

It was time to stop fooling himself. Dane threw himself flat as the wind of a third arrow - yes, definitely an arrow - tickled his left ear. Was there a mad archer out there, joining in with the pretend-battle? There were certainly enough nutcases in the world these days, so why shouldn't one be up in the hills for a day out? But surely an arrow would have gone straight through Tracy's collar, and her throat? Perhaps the archer was shooting from a great distance; but the accuracy of the shafts suggested otherwise. It made no sense. But either someone was out to kill them, or playing silly buggers in an incredibly reckless way.

Tracy moaned, telling him they were in the trees. Of course they were. Well, he was - Dane hoped he was facing just one lunatic. "Quiet, now!" he told her urgently. Some detached part of his mind commented ironically on this new-found decisiveness - like a boozy old gunfighter showing his mettle. Robert Vaughn, eat your heart out. The thought of guns made him grope for Tracy's pistol where it had fallen. With painful clarity, he realised he had one chance. A blast in the face from a paint gun would make even a lunatic think twice. It took time to string an arrow. After the unseen maniac's next shot, then, would be the moment.

Another whistling sound, and this time the shaft spent its energy in the bracken near his face. It was, he saw with surprise, a wooden arrow. The detached part of him mused that it must be old, to look so much like a straight, thin branch, its flights like withered leaves. But he was already rising to his haunches, looking back along the line the shaft had taken for the archer, his pistol levelled with his right hand and steadied with his left.

There was no-one there of course. He relaxed, but then tensed again. No-one had silenced the birds once more. No-one had stirred that low bough. No-one was moving now, out from the cover of the trunk. It was No-one formed of dappled sunlight and shade; No-one unreasonably assuming shape, becoming a body of brown rust and rotten leather, with a face of blurred mossy hollows; No-one raising a man-high bow of rough, wild wood with a fleshless hand, as the other tensed beside a ragged flap of ear. Forcing himself not to think for a vital, timeless instant, Dane sighted and pulled the trigger. The recoil jolted back along his arm and shoulder. His shot struck what was no longer a nose, completed its ruination. Spurts of pastel blue spattered from eyeless sockets and toothless mouth as the figure loosed its arrow. It hit him square over the heart.

He walked among pale trees under a colourless light. Dreaming, he took no comfort from knowing that he dreamed. It was important not to look directly at the trees, not to look straight at their faces - great-eyed faces with down-turned mouths. He could see them out of the corners of his eyes. There were men in the trees. Not among them, but in them, enslaved for all time; and he felt the pain of their bondage - human limbs bound by those of wood, veins which should have carried blood bearing instead thin sap, nerves entwined tortuously among centuried roots. Tied to the land.

There were also men among the trees, though, he realised. The first he saw was a round-faced young man in an old-style tin helmet, pack on his back, carrying a rifle with a fixed bayonet. The soldier moved nervously through the wood for a few moments, but then put down his rifle, unslung his pack and sat down with his back to a tree. Dane wanted to cry out but no sound would come as the soldier unpacked his tobacco tin and began rolling a cigarette. Mouths opened in bark, and branches groped.

Dane turned away, only to see another man - this one seemingly older than the first, and in old-fashioned country clothing - crouching in a glade. He had a shotgun, and was apparently stalking something, or perhaps someone. The hunter, if that's what he was, couldn't see that something was stalking him - a stick-thin figure which, to Dane's relief, spent most of its time flitting from shadow to shadow. It creaked slightly as it jerked along.

Dane set his face dead ahead, on the path he knew he must follow; the path that led out of the trees. Then he realised there was a wind blowing, stirring the leaf-litter and bracken, rustling among the branches that arched over him. There were words in the wind, words sung by a thin, hateful voice which seemed compounded of many voices, as if the leaves and branches themselves were singing. He didn't want to hear them but he had no choice:

"O reivers bold ye know of old
'Tis death to tread on Dowie land
For brigands all must surely fall
To Mistress Margaret's tireless band."

And then, as he came to the end of the pathway, he understood, and the cold, pale light became a whitewashed ceiling, and the keening song faded before anxious voices asking him if he could hear them, if he was in pain, and did he know what day it was?

"Yes. No. I think so, now," he said.

"There are stories," said the instructor, after his younger colleague had gone to recall the rest of the players. He paused for a moment, and Dane fought down his impatience. The man was one of those rare folk who weighed every thought carefully before speaking it, or leaving it unspoken.
"Yes, and there have been accidents. Nothing recent, though. And nothing serious since we started the wargaming. People seeing things, that's all. If I'd thought..."

He paused again then, unable or unwilling to say what he might have thought. And after all, Dane considered, it's only one day a year. He must have told himself that a hundred times.

"These stories," asked Dane, finally; "did one involve army manoeuvres?"

The man looked at him for a moment, then seemed to reach a decision: "Aye, in the War. Shock, they said. The army hushed it up. Lots of lads got killed on manoeuvres, anyway."

"Was there something about a hunter, before that? Maybe last century?"

Once more the other paused carefully before replying: "Not a hunter. A keeper. That was in the days when keepers sometimes had nasty - accidents. Especially the buggers who shot poachers and bragged about it. He wasn't even on his master's land when he... So the story goes. There are lots of stories, like I say."

"But it's always worst for those who are out to kill? Or who've been trained to, maybe?"

The other didn't reply to this, but rose, saying he must go and help call off the skirmish. However, as he reached the doorway of the Centre's small first-aid room, he stopped briefly and, without turning round, said: "There are rules".

A moment after he left, Tracy came in with two mugs of tea. Earlier, Dane had overheard her telling the instructors that she'd seen him collapse and tried to revive him, before running to the Centre for help. Perhaps that was how she remembered it. Why not? Memory had a way of scarring over some things, and perhaps that was all to the good.

"Better for you than whisky," she said ruefully, perching on the bed as she handed him his mug. He realised what their version of events would have to be. Tiredness, too little to eat that morning, and the Drambuie in bodies unused to exertion, would serve to explain when the ambulance arrived. And it was a little enough mishap they'd both had, when all was said and done. Best let it lie, and maybe one day it would be forgotten. Perhaps, soon, he would remember it as the morning he had a suspected stroke.

So they chatted for a few minutes, and then Tracy left to phone her boyfriend and tell him about her day's adventure. As she went she told Dane he should get some sleep. He realised then that he was really tired, and so was dozing lightly when he heard the returning combatants. There seemed to be a lot of running about, real headless chicken stuff. Why did so many voices have to be raised over one old fool's fainting fit? Surely that couldn't be a woman crying, almost hysterical? He felt angry at the fuss, half-ashamed at being the cause of it. Then - as he heard the first sirens in the distance - Tracy burst in, horrified by her news but thrilled to bring it.

It was nearly dark by the time the police had finished checking the scene - for what that was worth - but finally they took away the bodies. Statements had been taken from everyone in the meantime, of course, and Dane had said what little he could. But he knew, as he climbed aboard the coach taking him home to urban sanity, and without looking back at the woods, that he could never tell them what really mattered: that Rex had had that real killer instinct, and Colin had played the good soldier to the end.

Copyright © 1997 David Longhorn
October 1997

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