Authors: Andrew Symon
Once they had collected their belongings, Ossian led the others outside. They strode purposefully towards the wooden gate that led to the low road entrance. Doonya and Hart, in earnest discussion, emerged more slowly.
Looking over his shoulder, Ossian said, “It’s all right, Dad. I’ll take them back. I know the way.”
“Dad!” called Rana. “Can you bring Nuxie? I left him in the bedroom.”
Doonya waved a hand to show that he had heard.
As the youngsters reached the gate, Ossian stopped and turned round.
“D’you fancy goin’ to a party?” he said. “You’ve hours yet, it’s no’ even suppertime.”
Jack looked quizzically at him. “What kind of party?”
“The fun kind,” replied Ossian testily. “Who’s up for it?”
“I am,” said Petros. “Work’s a doddle, I can handle it. Where are we going?”
“It’s all right,” said Ossian, seeing Rana and Lizzie look doubtful. “It’s no’ far from the castle. You can go back whenever you want.”
“OK …” said Rana slowly. “But Mum’s expecting us, and Dad’s just behind, so he’ll know if we’ve gone somewhere else.”
The five stepped up to the mound, and Ossian put his cloak around the others.
“Wind-flock Cos-Howe,” he said.
A loud low whisper reverberated, and Jack felt himself starting to spin.
The spinning stopped, and Jack’s nausea quickly settled. Ossian’s cloak was still around the others, but Jack could see that they were in a dark chamber, lit only by two burning torches.
“Told you I’d get you here all right,” announced Ossian with evident satisfaction. “Let’s get inside.”
“Wait a minute,” said Rana. “Lizzie’s feeling sick again.”
“Come on,” said Petros encouragingly. “We’ll find you somewhere to sit down.”
He led Lizzie as they all made their way towards a great wooden door at the end of the gloomy chamber. It was very different from the Shian square, with its shafts of light coming down from the crystals.
“Where exactly are we?” Jack asked.
“Cos-Howe,” said Ossian. “For years this was only really a cave where local Shian met sometimes. But the Stone’s opened it up again, so they’re havin’ a party. I didn’t tell you before because I didn’t want you tellin’ my parents.”
“Why?” challenged Rana. “What’s wrong with them knowing we’ve gone to a party?”
“Let’s just say they don’t exactly approve o’ some o’ my friends,” replied Ossian cagily. “Anyway, we’re no’ that far from the castle if you really want to go back.”
“We’re in Edinburgh again?” asked Rana. “It took longer to get up to Keldy.”
“You’re just gettin’ used to it,” answered Ossian. “Come on, the party’s started.”
The noise coming through the great wooden door confirmed that a party was indeed underway. A young man of about seventeen appeared.
“So, you’ve turned up, have you?”
“These are my cousins from Rangie. This is Petros and Jack, and Petros’s sisters. Lizzie doesn’t feel well.”
The young man opened the door fully and motioned them in. “I hope you brought something.”
On cue, Ossian produced a bottle from within his cloak.
“My mother’s. It’s good stuff.”
Rana looked suspiciously at Ossian. “Did you steal that from home?”
“Mum makes it to be drunk, so what’s the problem?”
“What is it?” asked Jack.
“Heather wine,” replied Ossian. “It’s quite bitter, but you get used to it. Let’s find a table.”
He led the way into the main room, a full twenty yards long, where the party was in full swing. Burning torches on the wall provided the only illumination. Tables had been pushed along each side, with others scattered around the centre. Single chairs, some upright, others on their side, were strewn haphazardly about. Groups of young men and women were talking, singing or playing games of chance. A strange musical blend of melodies and refrains could be heard from flutes, fiddles, guitars, and mandolins; none seemed to be playing the same tune.
“I’ll go and say hi to a few people,” explained Ossian, finding a spare table. “Wait here. I wouldn’t talk to too many folk just yet. They’ve got to find out who you are.”
Jack reckoned that the forty or fifty young men and women were between about fifteen and twenty, the men outnumbering the women. The flickering light of the torches gave a slightly eerie glow to the place. The noise was loud, but not overwhelming.
My first proper party
, thought Jack.
From the end of the room came the smell of roasted food. Jack’s stomach rumbled. Lunch seemed a long time ago.
“Where did Ossian say this place was?” asked Rana.
“Cos-Howe,” replied her brother. “I think it’s only a couple of miles from the castle, but I don’t know the way.”
“So we’re stuck here?” asked Lizzie, feeling a little better.
Ossian reappeared, carrying a tray of drinks and food.
“I’ve told people you’re here, and it’s no problem,” he announced, setting the tray down on the table. “There you go, some juniper juice for you.” Turning to a young man at the next table, he continued, “Hi, Toozy. Any chance o’ gettin’ in on the cards?”
Jack didn’t recognise the card game being played by the group of four young men next to them.
“Sure, pull up a chair.”
Gratefully, Ossian pushed his chair along to the next table.
“Are you just going to leave us, then?” demanded Rana.
“It’s OK, you can mingle now. I told you, people know who you are.”
don’t know who
are,” said Rana indignantly. “And they’re all much older than us.”
“Come on,” said Petros to Jack. “We’ll see if we can join another card game. You get the tray. You two had better come with us,” he added to his sisters.
Rana and Lizzie got up from their chairs with no hint of enthusiasm, and followed the boys as they wandered along the line of tables. Seeing one group of card players that did not appear too raucous, Petros approached.
“We’re Ossian’s cousins. Can we join you?”
The young man was about seventeen, with hair down past his shoulders. He peered into Petros’s face for a few moments.
“You’re a bit young for this place, aren’t you?” It wasn’t said aggressively, more matter-of-fact.
“I’m thirteen,” replied Petros defensively. “I’ve been working for a year now.”
The young man continued staring at him, then slowly looked round at Jack, Rana and Lizzie. The others at the table were watching with interest. Casually, the young man indicated with a sweep of his arm that they could sit down.
“I’m Oobit,” he said simply. “This is Gandie, Tom and Radge.”
Jack and Petros grabbed two chairs each and pulled them up to the table. Cautiously, Rana and Lizzie also sat down.
“D’you want in?” queried Oobit.
“What game is it?” asked Jack uncertainly.
“Hunt the Queen,” replied Gandie, rubbing his hands together. “I hope you’ve brought your silver shillings, because I’m on hot form today.”
Petros surreptitiously slipped a few coins into Jack’s pocket, and they were dealt in on the following hand. Jack played cautiously, trying to copy what the others did, but he quickly lost his money. Petros was faring better, and over the next hour he accumulated a small mound of coins.
Suddenly Tom stood and slammed his cards down.
“Cheat!” He punched Radge on the side of the head.
Radge spun off his chair, clutching his ear and howling.
“Grab the money!” hissed Rana to Petros, who appeared stunned. Jack stepped forward, scooped up Petros’s winnings and retreated.
Tom and Radge began flailing at each other, uttering threats and curses in equal measure. To Jack’s surprise, Oobit and Gandie just looked on and made no attempt to intervene.
“Shouldn’t we stop them?” he asked.
“Why?” replied Oobit. “Radge is always cheating. It’s time he was taught a lesson.”
A tall fair-haired muscular man came over. He watched as Radge and Tom tried unsuccessfully to pin the other’s arms to his side.
“Time for real wrestling, I think.” The man had an air of authority, and Jack saw that Oobit simply nodded his agreement.
“Who’s that?” Jack asked Gandie.
“Oh, that’s Cosmo. He keeps things going here. Smart too – knows loads of stuff about stuff.”
The man called Cosmo bent down, and with his powerful arms picked up the scuffling Radge and Tom. Both stopped struggling, but continued to glower at each other. Cosmo sat them both down and turned to face the centre of the large room. He swept his left arm slowly in front of him, and the upturned chairs and tables slid away to the side of the room. With a flick of his left hand, Cosmo pointed to the side walls. The number of blazing torches doubled.
This place is amazing
, thought Jack.
The music and chatter died away quickly. Cosmo gestured to two young men of about sixteen, and each moved to the centre of the room. Rana and Lizzie had to squirm forward so that they could see. Jack remained at the back of the crowd and stood on a chair.
“What’s happening?” said Petros to Oobit.
“Wrestling. We usually have a few contests before we go off to France.”
The contest was quickly a one-sided affair. Flung onto his back once more, the smaller of the two young men snarled angrily. His opponent Davie, confident of victory, took time to look around and acknowledge his friends’ cheers. Reaching into his shirt, the smaller man withdrew two shiny stones, and uttering a sharp cry he threw them to the floor. There was a flash of purple smoke, and his opponent sank to his knees, howling with pain.
In an instant Cosmo had stepped forward, holding out his left palm.
It was as if the smaller man had been frozen. He stood motionless, a startled look on his face. Several young men ran forward and helped Davie to the side of the room. He was holding his face and shouting that he couldn’t see.
“What’s happening?” asked Rana.
“You’re not allowed to use hex stones,” explained Oobit. “Rob could have blinded Davie.”
The atmosphere had changed abruptly. From a raucous crowd shouting encouragement, it was now subdued. Rob, transfixed, could only move his eyes. From the chair on which he stood, Jack read Rob’s face: terror.
Cosmo faced Rob, his expression one of complete contempt. Grabbing Rob’s collar, he dragged him backwards, and threw him disdainfully into a corner.
“There will be no use of hexes in our contests,” he announced emphatically. “I am sorry that our young guests have witnessed this breach of our rules. But let us continue. We cannot let this spoil our preparations.”
Two more young men dutifully moved forward to the centre of the room and began to wrestle.
Over the next half hour Jack witnessed three further contests, all more evenly matched than the first. Cheers and applause greeted the end of each challenge, with the winner returning triumphantly to his friends and the loser retreating quietly to a side table where he could nurse his injuries and drown his sorrows.
The girls had a ringside view, but while Rana was spell-bound by the action, Lizzie found it disturbing – and yet unmissable. Jack, enthralled by the contests, shouted encouragement along with everyone else. Noting his enthusiasm, Cosmo stepped forward after one particularly energetic bout, and held up his hand.
“My friends,” he began. “These contests build us for our match tonight in France. I think we have time for one more bout. Ossian, come forward. And young Jack of Rangie, you shall challenge him.”
Jack’s heart almost stopped. He had been enjoying the contests, but had never considered taking part. Although Ossian was younger by a year or two than most of the Cos-Howe lads, he was bigger than several of them, and obviously much stronger than Jack.
“Come on, Jack,” encouraged Cosmo. “You’re not scared to wrestle your cousin, are you?”
Jack didn’t notice as Cosmo winked slyly at Ossian. Climbing hesitantly down from his chair, Jack made his way to the centre of the room where Ossian stood, smiling. Slowly they circled each other, then Ossian darted forward and grabbed Jack’s arms. Jack tried to wriggle, but soon found himself sprawling on the floor. While Ossian bowed grandly to the audience’s ironic cheers, Jack quickly got to his feet and ran forward, gripping Ossian’s waist. Taken by surprise, Ossian was briefly winded, and he staggered back, tripping and falling. Mocking cheers echoed around the room. Determined not to be humiliated by his smaller cousin, Ossian stood up and moving swiftly forward, twisted and threw Jack onto the floor.
Over the next five minutes, he systematically repeated this. Time after time, Jack fell with a back-crunching thump, and yet, even as his back begged him to lie there and concede, each time he got up and faced his big cousin. After what seemed the tenth time, he staggered to his feet again, but was having trouble focussing. Cosmo stepped forward and deftly parted them.
“A worthy contestant!” he shouted, to loud applause. “Determination like this is rare. We have a mascot for tonight!”
Ossian put his arm around Jack’s shoulders. “Are you all right?” he asked anxiously. “You should’ve stayed down ages ago. If you get up, I’ve got to put you down again.”
Jack tried to speak, but no sound came out. His legs were wobbling, and the pain across his back was excruciating. Rana ran forward and tried to hug him, which made him writhe in agony.
“How come you weren’t picked?” She decided to take things out on her brother. “You’re older, you should have taken Jack’s place.”
“He couldn’t,” explained Ossian. “Cosmo chose Jack, he’d no choice. And Jack made a good go o’ it. I thought he’d stay down after the first couple o’ throws. Look, I’ll get him some heather wine, that’ll pick him up.”
Ossian returned a few moments later with two goblets full of wine.
“Your health, wee cousin!” He took a deep draught of the wine, and smacked his lips.
Jack took a sip, and immediately spluttered as the wine reached his throat.
“He shouldn’t be having wine,” shouted Lizzie indignantly. “Mum’ll be furious if she finds out.”