The elderly man paced to and fro before his old oak desk, occasionally glancing at the small, ornamental gold chest glinting sickly green in the candle light.
He paced his study, uneasy in the dim light, treading a path side to side between the large bay windows and his desk.
He stopped, slowly reached out a hand and placed it on the chest.
There was a rap at the study door. All he did was flinch slightly, but he berated himself even for that.
He took a deep breath, made his face expressionless and strolled confidently to open the door.
“Please, do come in,” his voice was courteous and controlled.
The servant in the corridor darted a last nervous glance at the visitor, and departed swiftly. The figure cloaked in shadow stepped into the candlelight, and bowed slightly.
The elderly man let out a breath he had not realised he was holding. This man seemed normal but on closer inspection he noticed the odd feline quality of the face. Was this a man, a woman, or something else?
The stranger moved towards the small golden chest, and the elderly man was reminded of his old hunting cat Riley: the deadly, fluid grace, the ease of movement. Once he himself had walked just so. Now he had to find other ways to be dangerous.
“So, this is it,” it was half question half statement.
“Yes, this is it,” replied the old man.
The chest winked evilly in the dim light.
For several moments both of them stared fixedly at the chest, until it seemed to lurch, to bend somehow and both looked away, eyes wide.
“The contents cannot be removed then,” the stranger said with fervent certainty.
“No, I realise this will make travel difficult but there is no other choice”.
“Not as difficult as you think,” replied the stranger.
He put out his hands, hesitated, and proceeded to lift the small golden chest easily off the desk.
“It took four men to lift that in here!” the old man gasped.
“And a handsome sum you paid them I’m sure,” laughed the visitor, a touch strained.
Cursing himself inwardly the old man regained his composure, “So you will take it?”
“We will, we will take it and we will travel as far as possible, and then we will destroy it,” he said, laying down the chest.
He almost breathed a sigh of relief, he was getting old.
“What makes you think you can destroy it after everybody else who has tried?”
The stranger laughed once more, “The arrogance of youth I suppose.”
His face hardened. “Now old man, there is the issue of our payment.”
Now the real struggle will begin, thought the old man.
“We know we will not come back from this mission; we are not as stupid as you seem to think, so all that we ask is..."
Outside, shots were fired and within seconds there was a battle raging.
“Treachery!” both men cried as one, and both reached for non-existent weapons.
“If not you then…!” The old man spun on his heel, and peered out the bay windows.
A squad of musketeers was advancing across the lawn before the window, most appeared to be women.
Casting off any remaining composure the old man turned to his visitor, “I do not know how but they are here and you must leave!”
“You must leave man! My enemy has arrived!”
A volley boomed out, and both men dropped instinctively. The air was filled with glass and musket balls. Furniture and books were ripped apart. The old man rolled out from under his desk, ignoring his many cuts, and drawing a hidden sabre out with him, he tossed it to the stranger.
“Run! The chest must never fall into their hands!”
He ran, awkwardly with the chest tucked under his arm, but he ran, out of the study door and into the maze of corridors. He glanced back once to see the old man unloading two flintlock pistols into the musketeers streaming in the window, and that was all he saw. But he knew he’d never see the old man again. This was a mixed blessing.
It wasn’t until his first encounter that he realised how much the chest hindered him.
He turned a corner and found himself face to face with an enemy officer. In that moment even he should have died, but the woman was slow; her sword arm remained rigid by her side, and she allowed him time for his inhuman reflexes to come into play. He back stepped and aimed a neat slice at her throat, but the chest had him off balance and he only nicked her. She was wary now; he would have little chance to put down the chest, even if she were slow.
Two enemy musketeers rounded the corner ahead. He would have to end this now.
He wearily crouched, as if to put down the chest, and the woman struck. He flowed easily to the side of her sword stroke and slashed out at her… and the chest seemed to grow heavier, much heavier, carrying him completely off balance and making him crash into the wall. But not before his sabre went home and the woman crumpled to the ground.
The two musketeers advanced on him quickly. He hurled the chest into the face of one; rolling away and slashing the others leg out from under him. The man screamed and lashed out wildly with his musket, and the visitor mercilessly cut his throat. The second, a woman, had a broken nose and was trying to bring her musket round to fire in his face. He cut her throat too.
He bent to pick up the chest, which now seemed lighter than a cushion, and moved on through the house, avoiding contact as much as possible.
He sneaked out a servant’s door and made his way stealthily through the fighting to a nearby wood.
“Marandus!” he called out, his voice pitched low.
“Zacharius, that you?” someone called back.
“What’s going on?”
“The Covenanters have attacked, we need to be leaving now... and the old man is dead,” replied Zacharius.
More men appeared from the shadows, and a grave silence settled over the wood, although the distant sounds of fighting could still be heard.
“And we have the chest,” Marandus spoke softly. “So he is dead and we have no agreement AND we have the bloody chest! This was all for nothing, less than nothing!
There were murmurs of agreement.
“I agree, but now we have it, and it won’t just go away, I know what you will suggest Marandus; that we leave the chest for the Covenanters and go home, but it is our responsibility now, and we must deal with it. We cannot act like scared children and pretend this did not happen.” It was said levelly, calmly, but Marandus only seemed to become more heated.
“Scared children are we? You would dare mock us!?”
Marandus pulled a pistol from his pocket. Zacharius had expected violence of some sort from Marandus after this fiasco, but not of such a nature, and not so soon. He had misjudged the situation and that burned more than the bullet that entered his shoulder, and propelled him backwards into a tree.
He watched them mount up and ride out of the woods, away from the fighting. He noticed they took the chest as well. He had to laugh at that.