Druid sorceress must defend claim to family title. Help comes from a stranger on a train.
"Black Agnes and the Yank" - 20
"Black Agnes and the Yank"
As usual, the London-Edinburgh train was almost full. Agnes spotted an empty set of seats across from a well-dressed young man typing on a tablet.
"Excuse me, are these seats taken?"
"Not that I know of." Mike looked up from his tablet to see a good looking black-haired young woman in her late twenties.
Agnes took her seat and started to finger her necklace.
The young man, who had been watching her, offered a handshake, "The name's Mike Harcos."
Shaken by the introduction, Agnes answered, "Excuse me?"
Mike sat back, "My name. I thought that since the trip is a few hours ..."
"You're an American."
"That obvious?" Mike thought his midwestern accent was gone after five years of living in London.
"It's the manner, very friendly -- not a bad thing. We are going to be train companions for a few hours. My name's Agnes. Agnes Randolph."
"Well, Mike Harcos, what takes you to Edinburgh?"
"I'm auditing a bank for my company."
Agnes smiled a bit. "You don't look like an auditor. Aren't they supposed to be balding and wear glasses?"
Mike laughed; the trip north was already looking better. "I'm a diversity hire. All my own hair and no glasses. And you, Agnes Randolph, what takes you to Edinburgh?"
"Actually, I'm headed to Dunbar, it's just east of Edinburgh. It's my family home."
"Partly, Dunbar's our ancestral home. I'm going for my investiture and to preside over the Midsummer Night's ceremonies."
"Like in Shakespeare?"
"Not quite. It's when we call on the spirits of the land to protect the family and help us prosper."
Mike stared back to Agnes.
"It must seem very strange to an American. The original Agnes Randolph was known as Black Agnes. Every generation since, a direct descendant is called on as the Clan Defender and takes that name. I was designated by my Nan, the last Black Agnes, as her successor and am to be invested during Midsummer."
"It is, which is why I plan on challenging your claim, cousin." They were interrupted by a redheaded woman with an American accent and a resemblance to Agnes. She was walking down the aisle accompanied by a dark-haired man dressed all in black.
Agnes turned to face the intruder. "You've some gall. Your branch lost all claims after Culloden. You were cursed as traitors and had to flee to the colonies." Gone was the gentle lilt in Agnes' voice replaced by a harder Scottish burr.
Ignoring Mike, the woman sat down next to him and across from Agnes. "So, old school, Cousin. It's the 21st Century."
"Aye, but the tradition is centuries old. What makes you think you can challenge me? I've got Nan's warrant."
"That's just a recommendation. In case of a challenge it is up to the Court."
"Your family's claim was thrown out by the Court of Sessions and they cannae rule about the Black Agnes."
"Which is why I am calling for a clan council and have asked for the trials."
"The Trials! Do you really think you can win? I've been training as a banduri since I was a wee yin. You can nae pick it up from a book." By now, all gentleness was gone from Agnes' speech.
Her cousin ignored her sentiments. "You'd be surprised what one can find on the internet. Anyway, must be going. We have a first-class compartment. See you at the Trials." She stood up and left with her escort. Mike watched them leave.
Mike interrupted Agnes' fuming, "Uhm, excuse me. What was that all about?"
"Our American cousins." Agnes spit it out like a curse. Taking a breath, she apologized. "No offense meant."
Tossing her hair back and pulling it back in a ponytail. "Do you know Scottish history?"
"Ah, well in the 1740s, most of the clans, including the Dunbars, favored Charles Stewart's claim for the British Crown. It all came to a head at Culloden."
"I've heard of that."
"Good. Well, the clan was assigned to defend Prince Charlie's flank. Her side of the family decided to run and pledge loyalty to Bloody Cumberland and George the Second."
"I thought the Scots lost at Culloden."
"We did, it was a massacre. At that time, the Black Agnes cursed the traitors. No one would deal with them. After a few of their kind were murdered, they fled to the American colonies."
"And that banduri thing you mentioned?"
"That. The best way to describe it is a druid sorceress."
Mike suppressed a laugh. "Sorceress like witch-type sorceress?"
"Laugh if you like, but druids have been around since before the Romans; and I saw my Nan do some amazing things."
Agnes put her hands on her thighs, "Well, when I was a young girl, we went to Edinburgh to shop and got caught in a robbery. One of the robbers tried to grab my amulet." She lifted the necklace she was wearing. "He must have thought it was a nice piece of jewelry. As his hand closed around it, Nan points at him and says 'Crh'. That's Gaelic for pain. Next thing, he collapses and starts screaming in total agony."
"Nan used to say coincidence is an explanation used by non-believers."
"With respect to your grandmother. There is usually a good explanation."
"When he was examined at hospital, they found nothing wrong."
"The power of suggestion."
"Oh, and I suppose the robber just happened to speak Scottish Gaelic?"
Mike could tell he hit a nerve as the lilt was once again leaving Agnes' speech. He raised his hands in surrender and smiled, "You got me. So, you're - "
Agnes laughed, "A sorceress. I know it sounds bizarre when you say it, but my family goes back to before recorded history in Scotland. According to legend, the original Black Agnes defended Dunbar Castle using druid magic and in exchange dedicated herself and her descendants to the old ways."
"And as a direct descendant ..."
"I'm sworn to fulfill her pledge."
"And the Trials?"
"I have to show both my lineage and my knowledge of the old ways. It probably sounds a bit strange, but it is my family tradition."
"So, tell me some more traditions." They spent the rest of the trip talking about Scotland. Mike told Agnes about growing up in the American Midwest and how he ended up in England after going to school. Agnes spoke of her being a lecturer of medieval history. By the time they were in Edinburgh, they were sitting next to each other.
Coming into Edinburgh Station, they both gathered their bags and made their way down the aisle. Once they were both on the platform, Agnes put her bags down, "Listen, Mike, you've been a good companion and you seem interested in Scottish history. Would like to be my guest at the challenge?"
"You sure? It sounds kind of private."
"Guests are allowed. I think you'd enjoy it and get a better idea of what I was speaking of." In a quieter tone, Agnes tilted her head down and added, "And I'd like you to be there."
"Well, then I guess I'll be there."
A few days later, Mike stepped off the train in Dunbar station and was greeted by a hug from Agnes. Next to her was a stocky, redheaded man.
"Thanks for meeting me. I'm sure you are busy getting ready."
"At this point, I'm ready or not." Turning to the man next to her. "This is my brother Malcolm. He'll be showing you around while I'm busy. He can explain things during the trials."
Mike shook Malcolm's hand, "Thanks, that's very nice of you."
Malcolm, whose accent was much stronger than Agnes'. "Nae, when her ladyship asks, it's a command."
Turning to Agnes, "Her ladyship?"
"Did she not tell you? My sister is Lady Agnes Randolph of Dunbar." He bowed low from the waist. "I'm only the shiftless younger brother."
Mike mimicked the bow. "If I'd known you were aristocracy, I'd have been on my best behavior."
"You were fine. My brother is being an arse. I don't use my title except for official occasions. Anyway, I thought we'd take you to your hotel and then over to the Castle."
On the way to the hotel, Agnes and her brother explained that tonight was Midsummer's Night Eve, so the Trials were limited to judging the candidate's lineage and then an examination on clan history. The general public would be allowed to attend. The next night attendance was restricted to recognized members of the clan and invited guests.
"That's when the Harry Potter thing takes place?" Mike joked.
Agnes responded with mock indignation. "AH! The Harry Potter thing!" Shaking her head incredulously, "I ought to strike you with a claymore." Smiling she continued, "But yes, it's the Harry Potter thing. It starts with the rising of the full moon on Midsummer Night."
"I told you it's all about the magic."
That evening, Mike and Malcolm were in the front row of the crowd. A rope separated it from a clearing where there were three wooden thrones. Two low platforms stood approximately ten feet in front of the chairs.
A short drum roll quieted the crowd. Malcolm leaned over to Mike, "It's starting."
Mike watched the procession. First was a man in a kilt carrying what Malcolm explained was a Scottish version of a halberd. Next were two men and a woman in formal wear with sashes in the Dunbar tartan. A short distance after them were the two candidates for the title.
Once the judges took their seats and the two competitors took their stands, the man in the kilt addressed the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are here tonight to judge the challenge by Heather Dunbar of American to Agnes Randolph's claim to the title of Black Agnes. Tonight's challenge is of lineage and history. Both have shown records that attest to their being direct descendants of the original Black Agnes. The lineage of both are verified. In addition, Agnes Randolph has the warrant of the last Black Agnes as the rightful heir to the title."
Malcolm leaned over to Mike, "Now comes the family history. My sister has that locked."
For the next hour, the members of the council asked questions stretching out over eight hundred years of history. Mike tried to keep track of how many answers each of them got right, but there were too many questions over the hour. At that point, the council stood and convened in private.
Mike asked Malcolm, "How'd she do?"
"Pretty good. She missed a few, nothing important and the Dunbar missed more and some important ones. Sis still has the stronger claim since Nan named her as successor."
A few minutes later the council ended their conference and handed a paper to the man in the kilt. "We have a decision! Based on lineage and questioning, both claimants have shown they are worthy of the title Black Agnes. The final decision will be based on the private part of the ceremony tomorrow night. Goodnight all and safe passage."
Malcolm turned to Mike, "Well that's it for tonight. Now, care for a drink? The family's having a bit of a 'do' at our local and I know Ags would like to see you there."
At the 'do, Agnes, now dressed in jeans and a blouse, walked toward Mike and Malcolm. On the way, she was stopped and congratulated by members of her family. Mike and Malcolm started clapping when she finally got to them.
Taking a whiskey from the bar, "So, Mike, what do you think?"
"The tourists loved it." Malcolm finished his whiskey. "Speaking of which ..." Malcolm nodded over to a group of young ladies on the public side of the bar.
Agnes followed his direction. "Go, you dog." Malcolm bowed and started to leave when Agnes called after him. "Malc, be careful, we don't need any more pretenders."
Malcolm grinning turned back, "No guarantee your ladyship."
Agnes shook her head and sipped her whiskey, "That man."
"He seems like a nice guy."
"Oh, he is, a bit of a dog, but he's a head for commerce and pretty much runs the estate and the family businesses."
"Are there a lot of them?"
"Enough. An advantage of being an old family." Noticing Mike had finished his whiskey, Agnes asked, "Can I get you another?"
"Sure, but I insist on paying. Malcolm bought the last round."
Agnes laughed, "He's having you on."
"Don't tell me you own the bar."
"No, the bar's owned by the distillery." Stopping to take a sip of her whiskey. "We own the distillery. I told you old family."
With drinks replenished, Mike asked about the next day's agenda.
"Well, I'll have to turn you over to Malcolm for sightseeing during the day. I have preparations. But I'll see you after no matter how it goes."
Sitting at a small booth, Agnes and Michael continued their conversation from the train, although it was mostly one-sided as Mike did not say much about his family. At the end of the night, Agnes walked Mike to his hotel. They ended the night with a kiss.
Mike had just finished getting dressed the next morning when there was a pounding on his door.
"You better not have my sister in there, or I'll gut you like a trout."
Opening it, he saw a grinning Malcolm with an arm wrapped around one of the girls from last night.
"Good Morning Malcolm. And how are you this morning?"
"I'm lovely Michael, thank you. Let me introduce you to Patty. Patty, this is Michael Haircoat, Lady Agnes' consort."
"I'm am not your sister's consort." Turning to the girl. "And its Harcos. Pleased to meet you. Despite Malcolm's claims, I'm just a friend."
Malcolm interrupted, "Good, now that we're done with the social amenities, how about some breakfast? I'm feckin' starving and we've got a long day ahead. I'm go'n' to show you both the glories of Dunbar."
After breakfast, they spent the day visiting the sites. Eventually, Malcolm dropped Patty off at her hotel swearing he would call the next day. He and Mike headed to the castle.
The crowd that evening was much smaller and formed up in groups rather than the single mass that had watched the Trials the night before. Malcolm led Mike over to where his family was assembled and formally introduced him. Pointing to the different groups, Malcolm told Mike who was who, paying particular attention to a group of women in white. "They're the local Grove."
"Grove?" Mike asked.
"A group of druids. They'll be monitoring the challenge." Meanwhile, Mike noticed the man who had been with Agnes Dunbar on the train was standing alone and talking to himself.
As it had the night before, a drum roll announced the ceremony. However, tonight instead of the man with a halberd, the group was led by an older woman dressed in a white gown, a crown of leaves and white berries, and holding a staff. "Mistletoe and oak." Malcolm told Mike, "Strong magic for Druids." While the thrones were there, the platforms were absent. Instead, Agnes and Heather took their places in front of the three women.
"Sisters," the older woman announced, bowing to the Grove. Turning then to the audience, "We are here tonight to settle the claim to be the Black Agnes. Both claimants must show that they are banduri. We shall start with the midsummer ceremony."
The two candidates were led to separate piles of timber. At the nod of the presiding Druid, each one began intoning in Gaelic. The pile in front of Agnes quickly into flame. About a minute later, the pile in front of Heather had only started to smoke.
Next each of the candidates was asked a series of questions about maladies and traditional cures. Then, an older woman was brought before them and each was asked to diagnose what was wrong based only on laying of hands. They wrote their diagnosis and treatment on papers which were then sealed and handed them to the three women judges who deliberated over the documents.
Eventually, the older woman stood up and addressed the two women and the crowd. "Although there are some differences on specific courses of treatment, it is the opinion of the Council that both contenders have a knowledge of the ancient ways and medicine. The decision on which of the two will be named the Black Agnes will fall to the last event - trial by combat." Turning to the two. "Sisters, I remind you of the seriousness of this ordeal. Therefore, you are cautioned to pay attention to your spells. You can do nothing that causes the death or permanent injury of your opponent. Nor can another assist in casting spells for you. The match will end when one of the two parties surrenders, or the Council determines that one of you has been rendered powerless. You have one minute to give your final offerings."
Heather stood and limbered up like a boxer, while Agnes took a dirk and made a small cut on her hand letting the blood drip into the dirt. She intoned, "Oh Mother, I believe that you are the source of all life and power. Give me your helpless daughter strength and permit the elements to assist me in my trial."
"Are you ready?" The senior judged asked.
Both women answered, "Aye."
Raising her staff, the senior judge proclaimed, "Let the trial begin!"
Heather immediately started causing stones to fly in around Agnes. She did not flinch. Instead, she swiftly raised her right hand causing the dirt under Dunbar's feet to shift, knocking her on the ground. Then Agnes spit in the direction of Heather who found herself drenched in a storm that was no larger than the area around her.
Pushing wet hair out of her face, Heather raised both arms and brought them down sharply causing Agnes to take a knee. She continued this attack every time Agnes tried to stand. Between assaults, Agnes was able to raise one hand and blow across it, raising a small gust that pushed Heather back but did not stop the attacks.
"Something's wrong," Malcolm exclaimed.
"Why do you say that?" Mike was focused more on the crowd than on the contest.
"Because that Breath spell should have knocked Dunbar on her arse."
Returning his attention to the contest, Mike was nervously twisting a ring on his right hand. "Are you sure?"
"Aye, she's done it enough to me. It's usually a gale force."
Agnes looked like she was about to surrender. Still on her knees, she shook her head and flicked a finger in the direction of Dunbar. A small rock flew past Heather's ear causing her to flinch. This was enough time for Agnes to stand. Throwing back her shoulders she focused on her cousin. She then extended her right-hand palm up while wiggling the fingers of her left hand above it.
"Oh, do it, girl" Malcolm cried.
"What is she doing?" Mike's attention was back on Agnes Randolph.
"She's calling up the iron."
"Doesn't iron defeated magic."
"It does if you touch it. But she's not touching it. She's extracting it from the ground. It's in almost all the dirt around here. If she does what I think she'll do, it will end the contest."
"She's going to form iron bracelets. That will prevent Dunbar from casting any spells."
"How do you know all this?"
"Who do you think she practices on?" They turned their attention back to the contest. As Malcolm had predicted, thin grey veins were working themselves up Heather's gown and down her arms. However, she was so busy trying to recover the offensive she did not notice it until they had formed bracelets around each wrist.
"Damn, nothing's working." She cried as she tried numerous spells.
Agnes strolled over, "Problem, Cousin?" spitting out the last word.
"What did you do?" Heather shouted furiously.
"I gave you a little welcome home gift. A set of bracelets. Iron bracelets!" Walking away, she returned to her side of the field, turned and cried out, "Think of it as a souvenir of when you had the cheek to challenge me." She blew across her hand knocking Heather to the ground where she lay
After a minute with no actions by Heather Dunbar, the Council announced that the trials were done. The presiding judge stood and walked to the middle of the field before proclaiming, "Clan Dunbar. Having proven herself in all matters of knowledge and defended herself in combat, Agnes Randolph has proven herself worthy of being the Black Agnes." Turning toward Agnes, "Come forward." Once Agnes was in front of her. "You, Agnes Randolph, are hereby invested with the responsibilities and duties of the Black Agnes. Take this staff, which the original Black Agnes held during the defense of Castle Dunbar as evidence of your position as the clan's protector."
Taking the staff in both hands and raising it above her head, Agnes turned to the crowd and cried. "I pledge my heart, my soul, and my life to defend and protect Clan Dunbar and all its members. Let the fires light and the whiskey pour." The crowd roared its approval and stacks of kindling and firewood stacked around the yard spontaneously burst into flame. Tables of food were uncovered, and kegs opened to signal the beginning of the celebration. A band began to play traditional Scottish reels, jigs, and waltzes while the crowd danced and celebrated.
Eventually, Agnes made her way to where Malcolm and Mike were standing. Malcolm took a knee before his sister. "I bow before the majesty of the Black Agnes."
"Get up, you feckin' idiot."
Standing, he gave his sister a big hug. "Never doubted you would win, Ags."
Freeing herself from his grasp. "Go away with you. I need to talk to Michael."
Malcolm grinned, "Of course you do. Well, I should make sure that the clan doesn't drink away this year's profits."
Once they were alone, Agnes quit grinning and addressed Mike. "Now, what did you do?"
"What do you mean?"
"When I was getting beaten down, I looked over at you and Malcolm. You were twisting your ring and murmuring something. Then I felt a surge of power."
"Maybe I gave you good luck."
"No, it was more than that. Now tell me or I swear ..." raising her hand back like she was about to throw another curse.
Putting his hands up in surrender, Mike answered. "Okay, I may have evened the playing field."
Putting her hand down, Agnes asked, "And what does that mean?"
Putting his own hands down and straightening his jacket, Mike asked, "Do you know any Hungarian?"
"No, and why would I?"
"No reason." He shrugged. "Anyway, Harcos is Hungarian for Warrior."
"Is that supposed to mean anything?"
"Your people have the Black Agnes. My people have the Harcos."
"Your people? You're a Yank."
"Only my generation. My family's Romani."
"Please, Romani. Anyway, I'm considered Romani nobility. Along with that comes the knowledge of the ways of the magi or the old ways as you put it. I thought you could use some help during the trial."
Agnes started to shake her head. "NO! NO! NO! That means I cheated. I can't be the Black Agnes."
"Actually, it was your cousin that was cheating."
"How? You -"
"Blocked the shriveling spell that was being used on you."
"She couldn't have two spells working at once. That takes decades to learn."
"She wasn't. Her Romani was."
"The dark-haired guy with her. I spotted him on the train. He's Czarny. Black Romani. Probably a hired gun she found on-line. I saw him again when the trial started. Malcolm said your spells weren't working the way that they should, and I knew there was some other magic at work. I traced it to him and used a mirror curse. Any spell he tried turned back on him. I figured it evened things out."
"So, you're telling me you're a wizard."
"One way to put it. We usually use the term magus. It means I know things."
Jabbing Mike in the chest, Agnes snarled "And you said nothing while I was going on about Druid magic?"
Taking the hand that was poking him in the chest and kissing it, he looked her in the eye, "Your family ruled Scotland. My people have been pursued and persecuted in almost every country in Europe. Romani nobility are taught to stay hidden, especially when using our knowledge."
Putting her hands on her hips, she turned to where the women of the Grove were celebrating, "I should tell the Council about what Dunbar tried to pull off."
Mike put a hand on her shoulder. "No need. Right now, your cousin and her hired gun are having a terrible outbreak of boils and diarrhea."
Smiling, Agnes placed her arms around Mike's neck and gave him a much longer kiss than the night before. She then took his arm and led him toward the celebrations. "So, my fine gypsy prince, did I tell you that Druids believe that there is tremendous power in sexual congress."
"Anything I can do to help."