In the fourteen hundred years since Merlin made him immortal, Jason Blood had gradually ceased to be an Englishman. He was, he told himself, a citizen of the World.
He had sworn allegiance to his King, to Arthur, the ultimate and the only English King in his mind. But even a knight’s oath could only bind for so long. When he swore that oath, he swore as a mortal man. He pledged a mortal lifetime, and that promise he more than made good. He could not know the demands of service would entail making him an immortal in order to cage a demon.
You thought, oh keeper mine,
A rhyming demon, no less.
Something amusing, Etrigan?
What the agent of Hell found so amusing, Jason knew he would find out soon enough.
Fourteen hundred forty three years ago, Jason Blood had ceased to be an Englishman. But today’s excursion made him feel otherwise. He felt nostalgic. The music of pipe bands droned in the distance—not one band, not one song, but several bands playing at once. It was a long, long time since Jason Blood heard such a sound.
He strolled past booths selling steak and kidney pie, Cornish pasties, Scotch eggs and haggis. It was a long time since he had smelled those aromas.
Jason lived chiefly in Gotham, Seattle, Buenos Aires, Rome, Tokyo and St. Barth’s. When he got back to England at all, it seemed he was either shuttling between Heathrow and Gatwick, or else immersed in some business that permitted no more indulgence than a hurried sandwich from a London TGI Friday’s. He never made it into the country to discover signs such as this:
For a hardened warrior made cynical through centuries battling evil while bonded to a demon, Jason Blood felt more buoyant and hopeful than he had in years.
“Red, I’m confused.”
“What else is new?” came the snide reply.
Harley sighed and continued walking up the hill towards the fairgrounds. She was used to being shut out of the master plan. She knew Poison Ivy was here, and she knew Poison Ivy was pissed. But specifics were not forthcoming.
The first scheme Ivy had shared with Harley: She would begin by enslaving the Grand Marshal of this hideous event. The games were to be opened, they had learned, by one Laird Galen MacDonald of Glencairn, come to Gotham especially to wave at a parade of bagpipes and declare these Highland Games officially open, [Huzzah!]. Ivy thought it would be most fitting if, instead of declaring the games officially open (Huzzah!), he publicly condemned them for promoting the cruel slaughter of plant life, and then did penance by signing all his twenty-seven generations of wealth over to the Wilderness Warriors.
It was, she thought, a good plan. Then they learned that Galen MacDonald was staying at Wayne Manor, the honored guest of Bruce Wayne.
The plan, suddenly, looked less viable.
It was not a good time to piss off Catty. Not if she was about to vacate that beautiful rent-controlled penthouse with that enormous terrace overlooking all the trees of Robinson and Gotham Central Parks. Pamela enjoyed living in the park proper, certainly. It was her natural element. But as much as she liked to believe herself a humanoid plant, there were times she wanted to bed down on 300-count Egyptian cotton, not topsoil and mulch. With Catty’s place, she could give up the greenhouse and have a delicious indoor retreat of her own that hung suspended like a floating cloud over her beloved oaks. And—if she had indoor digs, she would not only be able to provide for her orchids and other hothouse vegetation, she would have a place for Harley. She simply must get Harley out of that madman’s Ha-Hacienda.
So enslaving Galen MacDonald was dropped to Plan B.
“There can be only one.”
Jason Blood looked at the bumper sticker in
disgust as more demonic laughter rung in his ears.
His delight with the quaint homey aspects of the Highland Games faltered
when he found the merchandise booths. Clan
tartans and emblems were to be expected, and in this day and age that meant mugs
and mousepads as much kilts and tams.
Books on history and folklore were to be expected as well—and as with
the food, the scope was broader than Scotland alone.
Blood, always a history buff, eagerly perused volumes on the histories of
Ireland, England, and Wales. Unfortunately,
interspersed with the legitimate histories, Blood began finding curious volumes
of “Druid Poetry,” “Celtic Tales,” and “Lost Wisdom of the Goddess” .
Then came the final horror: movie merchandise. This was not some Renaissance Faire or theme park, and Blood had come confident that there would be no children playing dress up in improbable armor, swinging styrofoam broadswords like softball bats and calling themselves knights! He hadn’t realized movies like Braveheart provided an “in” for the sale of novelty swords and shields. And he especially hadn’t figured on this final horror: a movie called The Highlander, an immortal warrior—who just happened to be Scottish.
I am Duncan McCloud of the Clan McCloud.
was Etrigan’s comment, in between bouts of more mocking laughter.
Jason sniffed and left that booth, only to be assaulted by the sight of a soccer mom in the robes of an Acadian alchemist, hocking Enya CDs, scented candles, and “witch oil.”
He stomped off in disgust. Why did the children, the ignorants and the dimwits always manage to—
“Jason? Jason Blood? You are back in Gotham City!”
Jason looked quizzically at the vendor that called to him, a small woman with half-moon glasses and a mass of graying hair that always escaped its neat, prim bun. It was Miriam Nash, proprietor of The Curiosity Shop, one of the finest covert magic shops in America. Jason sidestepped the soccer mom alchemist and went to the booth called Crystals of Avalon.
“Miriam, what is this? You run the best magic shop east of New Orleans. What on earth are you doing peddling crystals to New Age kooks?”
“It’s nice to see you too, Jason, after so long. You’re looking well. In answer to your question, I am a businesswoman. I can hardly stay in business selling you $1.29 of bobile root twice a year.”
Poison Ivy’s second master plan was ambitious, to say the least. She could speak to plants of all varieties, she could command the smaller kinds to move about and do her bidding. With care, she could even train large, specially bred specimens like the flytraps to follow her commands. But you didn’t just walk up to a tree and order it into battle. Even she could not approach a forest of 200-year-old elms and tell them to charge. Getting trees to move at all took a special kind of persuasion, and getting them to actually attack might just stretch her influence past the breaking point.
To make matters worse, when she tried telling Harley her concerns, her devoted sidekick LAUGHED. Poison Ivy did not like laughter under any circumstances, but Jokeresque laughter was the worst, and Jokeresque laughter aimed at her was intolerable.
“Something funny?” she pronounced with a raised eyebrow.
“Just the idea itself, Red, the fighting trees. Like in that Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers.”
Poison Ivy had not seen The Two Towers, simply based on the title. Two-anything was always bad news for her.
And now it turned out this odious motion picture with two in the title had scenes like Harley was describing of warrior trees avenging the destruction of a forest. It was too much. She couldn’t possibly associate herself with such a plan now.
The enslavement of Galen MacDonald was relegated to Alternate Plan C.
Tree Rampage—Plan B.
And Plan A? Still, she had no Plan A.
Dick Grayson stood on the playing field, resplendent in his Bludhaven PD sweatshirt and Clan Gordon kilt. He held a pitchfork and looked down at the burlap bundle for the sheaf toss. He poked it, then looked up at the pole. It was a warm-up period, getting the feel of the field, allowing family to shoot video, local papers to snap photos. Instinctively, Dick slipped into stand-up mode.
“I can see how this sport got started,” he told the other athletes, “Two lads, one lass, a bottle o’ scotch and a bale o’ hay: ‘I bet I can throw this higher than he can.’”
There was a round of rewarding laughter and then—a wolf whistle. Dick turned in dread, already knowing what he would see: Roy.
“Before you say something inappropriate,” Dick warned, wagging a finger at his fellow Titan’s nose, “I would point out that there are sixteen strong men on this field who are on this field because they’re the kind of men who throw trees for fun. And they are all wearing kilts. Now, what did you come here to say to me?”
“Just came to wish you luck, man,” Roy smiled, offering his hand.
Dick raised an eyebrow. That was… odd.
A fine diversion, these games, you
What Ho, a Knight, but not like thee,
Jason tuned out the demon’s taunts as best he could. Whatever had Etrigan worked up, he would learn soon enough.
“Jason Blood, the man, the myth, the legend.”
Jason turned with a smile that, for once, expressed pleasure rather than malice. That greeting was unmistakable, as was the rich purring voice that produced it.
“Selina Kyle, what a surprise. Does this mean you’ve considered my offer and are so eager to accept, you couldn’t wait until dark for Catwoman to come see me about it?”
“Afraid not,” she laughed it off as if he were teasing. “I had no idea you’d be here. A friend of a friend is competing in the games. This is just a coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Jason said sincerely.
“Well… tough,” she answered.
That was her way. In the adventures they’d shared, Jason had never seen Catwoman lose that easy manner, and their adventures had included supernatural episodes that would shake most mortals’ equilibrium. Of course, she’d never learned about Etrigan, thank God. As far as she knew, he was just an expert on the occult with enough money to hire her from time to time. If they continued long enough, she would eventually notice, as Miriam had, that he didn’t age. Then she would either accept it, as Miriam did, or start finding reasons to avoid him, like Nicole, and Pierre, and Victor, and a hundred others.
“Come and watch the games with us,” Selina was saying. She pointed to risers beside the playing field. Jason winced. Much as he liked the lady, he was a loner, and the family atmosphere of this festival was starting to grate. The prospect of sitting with a merry band of her “friends of friends” was not appealing.
“Perhaps later,” he said with the crisp bow of another era, and walked off.
A lady’s man, methinks,
Shut up, Etrigan.
Stephanie Brown’s mother was Scottish and proud of it. Her father, Cluemaster, was a trivia hound. Result: Stephanie had more information at her disposal about Highland sports than even Barbara could scrounge from the internet.
“So the caber isn’t really thrown,” she told the little cluster of spectators at the grandstand, “it’s more like it’s flipped over, and it’s not for distance, it’s for accuracy. You want to come as close to landing in a twelve o’clock position as you can.”
Dick approached from a circle of athletes.
“Steph—Coach, half a minute,” he said, pulling her aside to the awe of the spectators. “You didn’t brief me on that one.” He pointed to a small circle of men holding a large boxweight by a metal ring, swinging it between their legs, and then over their head.
“Oh, that’s the iron throw,” she said.
“The. Iron. Throw.” He repeated each word distinctly.
“Dick, it’s just like the sheaf toss: they set the highbar, everybody makes their throw, whoever clears it goes on to the next round, then they raise the bar higher…”
“It’s a freaking block of iron!”
“It’s the same principle as the sheaf!”
“It’s a block of iron! How much does that thing weigh?”
“56 pounds. And I’m supposed to swing that monster between my legs—I wouldn’t do that in the tights, but like this! Hoping for what, enough momentum so when I throw it over my head, it doesn’t kerplunk right back down into my skull like Harvey Dent’s boot!”
“Dick, what do you want me to say? It’s the iron throw, that’s how it goes.”
“Okay. Steph, I’m going back in there because I haven’t figured a way out of this yet, but I want you to go back up there and deliver a message to Bruce when you see him. Tell him, what I said about Zogger that first night, I take it back. I take it all back.”
So Madness has a girl.
“Oops, hey, look where you’re going, Buddy. Look at that, you got my lunch all over your shoes! Now I gotta go back and get another one, and I’ve already lost sight of Red, and we’re gonna miss the start of the—Hey, look at your hair! Wicked dye streak. That’s so completely fresh—”
“Silence,” Jason said firmly, staring down into Harley Quinn’s eyes. “Your friend who told you to use nailpolish remover to unstick yourself from the kitchen table…” He turned, gazing slowly and methodically across the crowd, “…you will find by traveling down that path. When you reach the demonstrations with the sheep dog, you have gone too far. Turn around, and in the yellow tent on your left, you will find your friend ‘Red.’”
“I will?” Harley asked in wonder.
“But it would be better if you did not. You will wind up back in Arkham by nightfall no matter what. If you go there now, voluntarily, to be with your Mr. J, you will suffer considerably less injury.”
“Freaking now,” Harley squeaked. “Going away,” she said, backing away slowly. “Bye, bye now,” she waved, “See you later, scary freaky person.”
“That’s my studmuffin!” Barbara called from the Wayne-Gordon enclave beside the grandstand. “Does my champion have the best knees going or what?”
Selina looked sideways at Stephanie, Stephanie looked sideways at Cassie, Cassie looked sideways at Galen McDonald—climbing the stairs to the grandstand, his body language and weight distribution informing her he had a flask with at least 12 oz of liquid fastened beneath his kilt. Cassie looked back at Stephanie who looked back at Selina who looked back at Barbara.
“You’re all jealous,” Barbara winked, then she pulled Selina aside to talk quietly. “Where did all the men go, anyway? I mean, I know Dick and Dad are both getting ready to march in the opening ceremonies.”
“Tim is with Cecily in the bleachers,” Selina answered. “Officially, he thought it would be better if there were no outsiders around so we could, you know, speak freely.”
“They’re avoiding Stephanie.”
“Ouch, that’s a little petty, isn’t it?”
Selina raised an eyebrow, then explained, “Well, that depends on your point of view. It seems Steph was doing the ‘ethnic pride’ thing earlier, brought them some of her national dishes, like she was extending the olive branch.”
“Uh oh, I see where this is going. She fed them haggis before telling them what it was, didn’t she?”
“Haggis, oatmeal cakes, and something called cullen skink.”
Barbara cackled. “I wish I’d thought of that with Helena,” she said, “Olive branch, come to family dinner. Eat up on sheep innards and cream of fish!”
“Jason Blood. Back in Gotham City.”
It was neither a question nor a challenge, nor even a greeting. It was a simple statement of fact.
Batman could not rightly disapprove Jason Blood’s presence in Gotham. He owed both the man and the demon from occasions past. And it had to be said that, as magic-users and meta-beings went, Blood was more serious about his quest and responsible with his powers than most. But it also had to be said that Jason didn’t give a damn about having Batman’s approval for operating in Gotham City, which Bruce found annoying.
Blood was of another world and another system. He saw the rise of the superheroes; he knew the first of the Mystery Men. He would never hold them in awe the way modern men and women did. Nevertheless, Gotham was Batman’s city. You would think a relic of feudal times would understand that better than the run-of-the-mill JLAers, but alas.
“Hello, Bruce. You’re looking well.”
“Jason, I thought we agreed long ago to leave the glad-handing pleasantries to the others.”
“I wasn’t being polite; I am quite sincere. You look… well. Since we last met, you have found balance.”
“Reading my aura?” Bruce asked sarcastically.
“I would do nothing so crude. I know that you have found balance just as you know that vendor shortchanged the man in blue: from a dozen minute details your detective eyes perceive without even realizing. You process them unconsciously. And only if I draw the vendor to your attention and ask ‘How do you know he shortchanged the man in blue,’ will you even begin to realize what you know and why you know it.”
“Look Harley, that man talking to Bruce Wayne, he must be MacDonald.”
“Heh, heh. Him? Oh Red, I don’t like this plan. He’s creepy.”
“Don’t worry, Harl. You won’t have to have anything to do with him. I don’t want to cross swords with Catty, so your job is to get Wayne away from him. Once he’s out of the way, Catty couldn’t possibly object to my having a little talk with Laird MacDonald.”
To be continued…