Harrowing of Hell – Part Two

Derek awoke, aware of being in a strange room, in a strange bed. Alarmed, he sat up, then he remembered where he was and who he was with.

Elise was asleep beside him, her hair spread across the pillow like a pool of molten rose-gold. At rest she looked so vulnerable, so child-like that he could scarcely believe that this was the same woman that had teased and terrified him last night. If he had to put an age to her now he would have guessed sixteen, going on a century or two. Sunlight spilled from a gap in the curtains, drenching her, and in its glow she was so lovely that it almost hurt to look at her. He reached out to caress her cheek, afraid that the gentle touch would break the spell and cause her to vanish.

Her eyes opened slowly, as green as a field of unripe wheat, and she smiled. “Did you think me a dream?”

“Yes, perhaps I did. What happened last night still seems a little unreal.”

“Unreal?” She leaned over to kiss him, slowly and thoroughly. “Does that restore your grip on reality, my good doctor?”

“It’s helping,” he confessed. “But I’m not sure. Some aspects of last night are still a little hazy… “

The door flew open, victim of a violent kick, and Nick was there, gun in hand. “Get away from him, you bitch! If you’ve hurt him, I’ll kill you!”

Elise sat up, one hand still resting on Derek’s shoulder. He watched her with amazement and a hint of admiration that she was so unflustered by the intrusion, when his own pulse rate had been shunted into the fast lane by a punch of adrenalin. Her calm held, undisturbed by the precipitous arrival of a stranger in her bedroom and unconcerned by the trivial fact that he held a weapon. She’s utterly unaware of her nakedness, he thought, as unaware as a tiger is, or a dolphin. Nick was aware of it though; Derek saw his hand shake as the gun tracked upwards, following its target over the woman’s heart.

“Did I hurt you, Dr Rayne?” Elise asked innocently, her voice thick with amusement.

“Mortally!” He raised himself up on an elbow. “Nick, what are you doing here?”

“You were missing all night and you’d switched off the phone.” Nick didn’t lower the gun. “What the hell are you doing in her bed?”

A grin spread over the precept’s face, one of the slow, lazy kind, brimming over with warm, self-satisfied smugness. “What do you think we were doing?”

“Give the poor boy a furlough.” Elise squeezed his shoulder. “He needs one if he’s forgotten all about sex.”

Nick holstered his gun, turning away to hide the blush that flared crimson across his face. “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise… Damn it, I thought you guys didn’t trust each other… I thought you were practically enemies!”

“We were.” Derek looked up into Elise’s face, so familiar now and yet still that of a stranger. A dangerous woman, a magical creature, his lover – that last word gave him a frisson of delight and dread intermingled.

“Perhaps we still are,” she said, but there was affection in her peridot eyes, along with an odd mixture of playfulness and sorrow. “Go get yourself some breakfast, Nick. I’ll play chauffeur to your precept today, and bodyguard, if he needs that service.”

Nick looked doubtful, so Derek echoed the order. “Yes, go back to the island and don’t worry about me. I’m in safe hands.”

“And you’re not possessed, hypnotised, beguiled, enchanted or otherwise under some form of mental control?” Nick ran through the checklist.

Elise threw up her hands in horror and slid out of the bed. “There’s no reasoning with the boy! I’m going to take a shower. You talk to him!”

Both men followed her progress across the room and sighed when she disappeared from view.

“To answer your question, none of the above,” Derek said. “Only lust, I’m afraid.”

Nick finally smiled. “I’m not sure I blame you. She’s an extraordinary woman.”

“She certainly is!”

The ex-SEAL’s colour was rising again. “Look, shall I rustle up some coffee? I’m sure I can navigate my way around a strange kitchen, if that wouldn’t make her mad, that is?”

“Your coffee’s good enough to calm a raging beast.” Derek grinned, then sobered as he tried to wrap his imagination around that last image. “And I’m not sure I’d like to see Elise mad. That scenario might not be survivable!”

“No shit!” Nick agreed, heading for the kitchen.

***

When Derek left Elise’s apartment several hours later, the red Mustang was still parked along the street from his Explorer. He tapped on the window and Nick rolled it down.

“You couldn’t go back to the island, could you?”

“I called in to tell them you were safe – well, maybe not safe, but undamaged,” Nick said, sulkily. “I stayed in case you needed me. I just don’t trust that woman. I’m sorry if that offends you, but it’s just the way I feel.”

The precept smiled. “I’m not offended. Nick, will you do something for me? Will you watch Elise, follow her if she leaves here and tell me where she goes?”

“Hey, you don’t trust her either!” Nick grinned briefly. “Just how do you tail a mind-reader anyhow?”

“Carefully.” Derek paused. “Try to stay out of sight, if you can, but it’s my guess that she’ll know you’re there. If it amuses her to play along, she’ll let you track her, and if not she’ll do the vanishing thing.”

“Yes, Kristen told me about that; in fact, our Miss Adams has been bitching about ‘that DuBois woman’ to anyone who’ll listen since yesterday morning!”

“The feeling is mutual. Elise can’t stand our Kristen either.”

Nick’s grin widened. “Now, that would be some cat-fight – book me a ringside seat! Do you think they’d wrestle in mud?”

“Go wash your mind out with carbolic soap!” Derek scolded, keeping most of the amusement from his face as his imagination sketched in the details in glorious, gloopy Technicolor. “If thoughts like that leak out of your head, then Elise is liable to slap you, and it’s my guess that even your martial arts skills won’t save you from a thick lip and a bruised ego. Take my advice and tread carefully.”

“Take your advice? What, and break the habits of a lifetime?” Nick was still grinning. “Perhaps I might, just this once!”

***

Derek spent most of the day with the police, trying to convince them of their John Doe’s true identity. He was passed from person to person, with interminable waits in the corridor outside each office between each brief, frustrating interview. At last he met someone working on the case, a softly-spoken black detective called Albrecht. The man listened to him with a distant, dispassionate politeness and then launched into the difficult questions.

“You’ve known this man, Sloan, for many years, since college? When did you last see him?”

“Over a year ago.” That much was true. “We don’t meet often. The distance between us gets in the way.”

Albrecht nodded. “And you had no idea he was in San Francisco before today?”

“It was never his habit to inform me of his travel plans.” Derek smiled wryly – that was also true enough. “He liked to arrive unannounced, to surprise me.”

“You saw him yesterday? How was his memory?”

“Still blank, I’m afraid.”

The detective made a few notes and shuffled his papers. “There’s one thing I don’t understand, Dr Rayne. What made you visit our unknown man in the first place?”

Of all questions, the thorniest. “I was asked to visit him by a friend who had a hunch that I might recognise him.”

Albrecht leaned back in his chair, stared past Derek at some indeterminate point on the far wall and sighed. “Don’t tell me – this friend of yours is a woman, right? Tall, strawberry-blonde, looks like a model and plays it dumb, but is really much smarter than your average bear?”

“You must know her.” Derek observed, amused by the character sketch.

“I met her a couple of days ago, when she whisked your friend Sloan out of our custody.” His eyes narrowed. “Dr Elise Etienne DuBois – she has quite a history around here. Nothing criminal, of course, but she has a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time; she’ll call in a traffic accident and give first-aid until the paramedics arrive, or she’ll be on the scene of a violent attack and instead of a corpse, we find that the victim’s still breathing.”

“Doesn’t that make her a good citizen who helps the police? It seems a little ungrateful to complain about that.”

“You’re right, I’m sure.” Albrecht scooped the papers back into their file. “So, you’re taking Mr Sloan back to England tomorrow? What do you want me to do with this case?”

“You might as well put it on the back burner.” Derek advised. “Until William remembers what happened to him, if he ever does, you don’t really have much to work with, do you?”

“Less than nothing,” the detective admitted, with a long-suffering smile. “Thank you for coming in, Dr Rayne – we can always use some help. And next time you see your friend, Dr DuBois, be sure and watch your back. I have a theory about her, that she’s a lightning-rod for trouble, and what’s the sense in standing within range and waiting for the sparks to hit you?”

“I’ll take care.” Derek agreed, shaking the man’s hand and taking his leave.

***

The house was silent when he got back. It was Rachel’s day to see patients and Nick was still watching Elise. Alex must be somewhere, but he didn’t meet her on the way up to his office. Derek settled behind his desk with a sigh and put a call through to the Ruling House.

London were less than ecstatic when he told them that Sloan was back from Hell, like an unlucky tourist, his body in San Francisco and his mental luggage who knew where. When Derek finally got to talk to Wallace, the man seemed disinterested in the whole affair; maybe he was just upset at the prospect of losing his job. He did agree that Sloan should be brought back to England and took it upon himself to inform Patricia. Derek ended the call and spent the next hour making the travel arrangements.

It was dusk when he’d finished. He went down to the kitchen for coffee and a sandwich, which he ate alone – there was still no sign of Alex. A dull, empty feeling enveloped him, the sensation of being wrapped in a shroud of weariness. Derek tried to shake it off, returning to his office to wallow in the sea of paperwork that was the lot of a precept. He lost track of the time and it was after nine when he was disturbed by a cursory knock just before the door swung open.

“Nick?” Derek blinked his eyes back into focus, surprised to see the young man back on the island. “Did Elise catch you on her tail?”

Nick subsided into a chair, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Oh, she knew I was there, right from the outset. She’s a game-player, that one. I think she’s possibly more devious than you are!”

Derek let that one go by, with a lift of his eyebrow. “So how did my little silversmith spend her day?”

“She stayed in that apartment for hours, then she went shopping for a few groceries. After that, she went downtown, on a tour of several small art galleries where we looked at watercolours, pottery and kinetic metal sculpture – given her sense of humour maybe she thought my cultural consciousness needed raising.” Nick frowned. “Then back to base, where she spent two hours doing whatever she does to make herself beautiful before going out to dinner at a place down at the Wharf. I couldn’t stay there for long – it was too public and they had what looked like an ex-wrestler on the door, six feet eight and two-forty pounds. I know you would’ve hated me to get into a brawl…”

“Retreat sounds like the best policy.” Derek paused. “I take it Elise didn’t dine alone?”

“No.” Nick looked as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. “She was with a man. Tall guy, very blond, clean-cut – if anyone ever had a full set of Aryan genes, he’d be the one. Sharp clothes – designer labels, very expensive. The staff were flocking round him like flies round a corpse.”

Derek was silent for a moment. When he spoke again his voice was distant, as if he’d taken a step back from his emotions. “Did they act as if they were friends?”

“On the surface, yes – but it was all fake smiles and false laughter. There was an undercurrent of hostility…” Nick shrugged. “What do I know? I was sneaking a look through a window, across a crowded room. I’m just guessing.”

“I’ll go with your guess.”

“Have to say that I didn’t like the look of the guy.” Nick admitted. “There was just something about him, something underhand, something menacing. In spite of his air of wealth and elegance, I get the feeling that he’s no stranger to the rougher parts of town, and I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley!”

Much later – it was around midnight – Derek put a call through to Elise’s number. No-one answered.

***

It was late afternoon on the following day when Derek and Sloan reached the Legacy safe-house in London. Derek’s fears that Sloan might be reluctant to travel by air, given his horrific past experiences in a plane crash, proved unfounded. William took a child-like delight in the journey, claiming a window-seat in the Lear jet and calling out in amazement at his first sight of the ocean. He watched the clouds sweep by beneath them and asked endless questions about the cities and landmarks that were visible as they crossed the continent. He slept for a while over the Atlantic, giving Derek some peace, then grew very excited as they flew  in low over the Thames to land at Heathrow. A car was waiting for them as arranged, and its driver was happy to give Sloan a guided tour, pointing out places of note along their route.

Derek paid it little attention. He’d managed to get through to Elise before they’d left San Francisco and invited her to join him on this journey. She’d refused, joking with him that she hated to fly. Derek scowled at the memory – the woman was a pilot, damn it! He’d picked up on a note of doubt in her voice, perhaps a reluctance to visit the Ruling House after its recent treatment of her? He hoped it was that, and not just her avoiding him. If what they’d had was going to be a one-night stand, he wanted to be the one to walk away.

The safe-house was one of several that operated under the Legacy’s control, a bolt-hole where members could take refuge and find help if the situation called for it. One in South London had once been owned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Derek recalled, but this one had a less illustrious history, a white-painted mansion on the edge of Regent’s Park. As they drew up on the gravel semi-circle at the front of the house, two figures emerged and hovered on the steps, Sir James Loxley Millard, the chairman of the Ruling Council, and one step behind his shoulder, Patricia Sloan. She fiddled with the edge of her jacket, the only outward sign of her anxiety, but as her husband got out of the car, her control snapped and she called out to him “William!”

Sloan turned to face her, smiling benignly as she ran across the distance between them. If she’d been hoping for a hug, she was disappointed; he didn’t move, didn’t even hold out his hand to her. She came to an erratic halt in front of this familiar zombie-like stranger. “William?”

“Hello, there,” Sloan said, still smiling. “Who are you? Are you another of my friends?”

“Dear God, it’s true!” Patti put her hands up to her face. They trembled, and tears shone in the corners of her eyes. “You really don’t remember anything, do you?”

The smile slipped off Sloan’s face, replaced by a puzzled, inward-searching look. “I wish I did remember you. It’s a crime to forget such a lovely face. I do recall some words… in sickness and in health, for better or for worse… Why do I know that?”

Patti couldn’t hold back her tears. “You said them when you married me… “

“We’re married?” Sloan shook his head. “I have no recollection of that. If I am your husband, I’ve lost so much!”

“If you are..? Of course you are!” Patti took him by the arm, leaning close to plant a kiss on his cheek. “We’ll mend your memory, William. We’ll rebuild it, piece by piece, no matter how long it takes.”

Derek stood by the car, watching her lead Sloan inside. Patti had always said that she didn’t blame him for her husband’s disappearance, but ignoring him now gave the lie to that.

Sir James came to his side. “That went well, much better than I thought it would. To see him like that…. dreadful, dreadful!”

Derek merely nodded his agreement, his eye drawn to where the western sky was splashed with the vivid red and orange of sunset, the colours intensified by air pollution over the city. Strange sounds reached his ears, deep, rasping roars and grunts, savage and wild, alien in these urban surroundings. “What on earth’s that?”

“Just the lions – they always sing their bush ballads at this time of day.” Sir James smiled at his colleague’s confusion. “The Zoo, Derek – it’s just along the road. Now, come inside, my boy. I’m sure you could use a drink!”

***

The lions roared again at dawn, waking him from uneasy sleep. He dozed for a time, until the butler, Faversham, came in with a tray. It seemed he was an honoured guest – coffee had been provided instead of the traditional bitter, stewed tea. Derek didn’t hurry downstairs; when he entered the dining room, Sir James was sitting in a pool of pale morning sunlight, eating toast and paging through a copy of the Guardian. They exchanged few words over breakfast. Sir James knew the value of silence before nine o’clock.

“How’s Sloan this morning?” Derek asked eventually.

“Well enough.” The man paused. “I talked to him for a while last night. He isn’t the man I knew at all. Certainly he wears Sloan’s face, but that’s just a shell, a shallow veneer, and underneath there’s nothing.”

“He has no soul,” Derek said. “That’s still trapped in hell.”

“And can she free it, that woman, our inhuman agent?”

“What do you know about Elise DuBois? What does the Legacy have about her in its files, sealed up so none but the Council can access it?”

“I know that she’s dangerous.” Sir James leaned back in his chair. “You’d do well to stay away from her. How involved are you with our pretty little demon-hunter?”

“I think that’s my business, not yours.”

“Derek, you didn’t?” Sir James laughed. “From the look on your face, you did! Oh, you’re a brave man, my friend! Tread carefully, though – Miss DuBois has a vicious streak. I certainly wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her!”

“What is she?”

Sir James’ expression became serious. “I don’t know. I do know that she’s helped us out before, although the dates and the details of the cases she worked on have been deleted from our files. I don’t recall the Council engaging her services in all of the time I’ve been with the Legacy, that is, since the late 50s.”

Faversham drifted across the room, a dark-suited wraith. “Sir, there’s a young woman outside,” he said. “She wants to know if Dr Rayne can come out to play.”

“Miss DuBois, no doubt?” Sir James sighed. “Invite her in.”

“She won’t come in, sir. She says that she prefers to wait outside.”

Derek suppressed a smile. “Then I’d better go to her.“

“Derek,” Sir James placed a hand on his shoulder. “Take my advice and stay out of this entire affair.”

“I’m too far down the road to turn back now. Besides, even the Council agree that she’s our only hope of recovering Sloan’s mind.”

Elise was leaning on the door jamb, arms folded, her toes on the edge of the threshold. She grinned at Derek, but there was a coldness in her eyes when she saw Sir James.

“Do come in,” he said, just as coldly. “I’ll have the staff remove all the garlic, holy water and crosses first, if you like!”

“I’m not a vampire.” She bared her teeth in a brief snarl, and for a moment it seemed that she did have fangs. Derek blinked – it must have been a trick of the light. “Pack an overnight bag, Dr Rayne. I’d like to take you to meet one of my old friends.”

“I don’t think you should leave London.” Sir James countered. “Have your friend visit us here.”

“Am I your dog, to beg and bark at your command?” Elise shrugged and turned away. “I’ll see you back in San Francisco then, Derek, in a few days…”

“Wait. I’ll come with you.”

It took him ten minutes to throw the basics into a holdall. When he went down again she was still waiting patiently at the door, under Faversham’s watchful eye. She led him along the street, to where a metallic green Land Rover was parked neatly at the kerb.

“Where did you get this?” Derek asked, as she opened up the back for his luggage.

“I borrowed it.”

“Legally, I hope!”

“Of course, from another of my friends. I’m not a thief…”

“Except for the odd jewel, eh?” He went around the far side of the vehicle and found himself in the passenger seat.

“I’d better drive.” Elise grinned at him. “Until we’re well out of London and into the country.”

“Where are we going?” he asked, as she pulled away from the kerb.

“Glastonbury.” She paused to read a roadsign before deciding which way to turn. “Where else would you look for the Holy Grail?”

“That old thing?” He teased. “The Legacy already have it, locked away in the vaults somewhere.”

“Mais non, they don’t,” she muttered, choosing another turning. “The True Cross and the real shroud – not that fake from Turin – but not the Grail.”

“And I suppose you know where it really is?”

“Oui.” She winked. “But I promised not to tell!”

Derek cringed as she hurled the Land Rover around the complicated junction at Hammersmith, sweeping across three lanes of traffic and blowing a kiss to a taxi-driver who involuntarily gave way to them. “Christ, woman! Keep both hands on the wheel, will you?”

“Have a little faith!” Elise chuckled. “I’ve landed a ‘copter blind in fog and I’m rated to pilot the Shuttle. Compared to that, this is a snip!”

He waited until she’d threaded her way up the slip roads and onto the motorway, the M4, before asking “You were with NASA for a while, weren’t you? Why did you leave?”

“They threw me out.” She switched lanes to overtake a slow-moving caravan. It felt to Derek as if they were going far too fast, then he recalled that the legal speed limit here was seventy mph. “I wasn’t the ‘right stuff’. Oh, I was great at not throwing up when they whirled me around in their centrifuge-thing, but I’m not a team player. You may have noticed that I’m not so hot at taking orders.”

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you disappointed not to have the chance to go into space?”

She glanced sideways at him, a bright flash of green. “Are you deliberately playing dumb? The Legacy obviously have a detailed file on me, although the dates may have been juggled a little, to protect the innocent. NASA offered me a place as medic on a shuttle mission in ‘86. Why do you think I didn’t want to go?”

“Challenger?” Inwardly he cursed himself for being so stupid. “Did you have a premonition?”

“You could say that.” She smiled sadly. “The moment I heard the name, it was like tumbling into liquid fire. I passed out, fitting and screaming on my way down to the floor. My audience said it was quite spectacular.”

“Didn’t you tell them what you’d seen?”

“Of course I did.” Sorrow crossed her face, old pain that still haunted her. “But NASA don’t believe in precognition. It doesn’t fit in with their views of the universe.”

“So you just left? You didn’t do anything else?”

She spared a moment to look straight at him. “You can’t save everybody, Derek. Sometimes people die and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it – you know that.”

He was silent for a while, watching the city go by. Elise searched in vain for some music on the radio, swore under her breath when all she could find was talk and settled for one of the eclectic selection of tapes in the glove-box. Derek watched her in amusement as she sang along to a motley collection of 70s songs. She was totally unselfconscious, almost unaware that she had an audience.

“Do you know the words to all of them?” he asked, as she came to the end of a particularly energetic version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’.

“I have a head full of trivia, that’s all. I remember too much.” She shrugged, then launched into the next song. “Pack away your sorrows, put away your evening star – but don’t change your clothes, I like you just the way you are!”

The tape ran out just after they passed Windsor, the castle visible from the motorway, small and neat, like a child’s toy. Derek rummaged through the rest and found one of Tom Lehrer songs. “Hey, I haven’t heard these for years!”

“Then stick it on the cosmic jukebox.”

By the third song in, ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’, Derek found himself joining in the chorus, then he earned a round of applause from Elise for managing ‘The Periodic Table’ without a single mistake. Maidenhead went by and then Reading, but as they approached Hungerford a warning came through on the radio that a lorry had shed its load of cakes, bringing traffic to a standstill beyond the next junction.

“Just imagine it, Swiss rolls and jam tarts all over the westbound carriageway – confectionery carnage!” Elise wrinkled her nose in mock-horror. “We’ll have to take the scenic route. Truth to tell, I was considering doing that anyway.”

“Do you want me to take a turn at the wheel?”

She took the slip-road off the motorway, sparing him a glance as she threaded through the traffic. “It’s five a.m. in San Fran. How jet-lagged are you?”

“Pretty much,” he admitted. “I didn’t sleep well, what with the time difference and a strange bed.”

“And no-one to share it with?” She teased, squeezing his knee as she changed gear. “Did you miss me, mon amour?”

Derek paused before making his confession. “Yes, I did.”

“Voilà, another conquest!” Elise giggled. “I shall string you along for a while, I think, before I crush you utterly and cast you off for another!”

“Perhaps I’ll abandon you, discarding you for a younger and prettier model?”

“Younger, oui, but prettier? You’d have to search a dozen worlds to find such a one, n’est pas?” She was abruptly serious, her eyes sage-green and sad. “But you won’t leave me – you never do. I’ve always betrayed you, for some good, stupid reason or another, but you’re always true, always constant.”

“You really do believe in past lives, don’t you?” Derek observed. “I’m afraid I don’t share your certainty.”

Whether reincarnation was real or not was a moot point at the moment, as the past was all around them. They travelled through an ancient landscape full of iron-age fortifications and burial mounds, with white horses and other figures carved into the chalk hills. Elise took them past Silbury Hill and the Kennet long-barrows, and then side-tracked to Stonehenge, where they stopped for lunch. They ate insipid sandwiches and drank weak tea from plastic cups, sitting in the car park overlooking the famous stone circle.

“They imprison it behind a fence, then trap it in an enclosure of wire mesh.” Elise shook her head, her wild curls dancing in the breeze. “Do they really think that will tame its magic?”

“Why did they build it?” Derek wondered.

“For the same reason they built Angkor Wat, St Paul’s Cathedral or the Trans-Am tower – because they could.”

“What was it for? Do you like the theory that it was used to chart astronomic events?”

“It was a temple to the sun-goddess.” There it was again, the twinkle of mischief in her eye.

“All of the ancient civilisations – Egypt, Greece, Rome and most of Western Europe – worshipped the sun as a male deity. Amon-Ra, Phoebus, Apollo, Mithras – all aspects of the sun as a god…”

“Sexual bias, equating solar power with maleness,” she said, sweetly. “After all, the priests were all men.”

Derek grinned at her. “Why must you always try to wind me up?”

“Because you’re so cute when you’re angry!”

“Cute?” He twisted the grin into a scowl.

“Well, your mother must have thought you were, once.” Her mood flipped, as suddenly as a cloud crossing the face of the sun. “Ah, Derek, look at it! This ancient, holy site encircled by a fence, an island of antiquity, a mere scrap of what was before the march of those twin demons, Progress and Technology, obliterated the old world. Everything has changed so much. The miles we’ve covered today in mere hours would have taken days on horseback and over a week on foot. Much of Southern England was under forest at that time, with few roads and tracks. There were wolves here then, and wild boar. It was dangerous to travel alone and madness to be outside a village or hill-fort when night fell. It was beautiful though, with the sky ink-black, unblemished by streetlights, and the stars burning white-hot, close enough to reach out and touch!”

He shivered at the loneliness in her voice. “You talk about it as if you were there. Another life?”

“Bien sûr. I’ve died a few times since then. Six, seven deaths, maybe more. I forget.” She wrinkled her nose in a pretty grimace. “Being burnt at the stake was the worst. I’d highly recommend avoiding that means of shuffling off this mortal coil if you have any choice in the matter!”

Derek assumed she was joking again. “When were you burnt at the stake?”

“Fifteenth century, or was it the sixteenth? I was in Italy, in Florence, and I fell a-foul of a Borgia.”

He laughed at that. “You have such an imagination! I suppose that while you were there you sat for da Vinci when he painted the Mona Lisa?”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “Don’t be ridiculous! Everyone knows that’s Leo in drag!”

Back on the road, with Elise still at the wheel, they drove through a thunderstorm at Shepton Mallet, under the sweep of a rainbow that arched across the horizon. The rain stopped as they neared Glastonbury and the cows were standing up again as they passed a vineyard and then the festival site.

“Ever been?” Derek asked.

“A few times. Got baked in 96 and drowned in 97. I like the Healing field best. People get so caught up in the atmosphere that they’ll pay you for all kinds of New-Age shit. A couple of Tarot readings will earn you enough for breakfast, but I usually stick to simple cures like soothing sunburn or fixing sprained ankles. One year I had to deliver a baby. That was pretty cool.”

“I didn’t think that obstetrics was your forté?”

“Me? I’m great with other people’s babies, especially those that come out backwards, hung on their own cords and half-dead.”

“Sounds like my own birth,” he recalled. “It was a dark and stormy night – no, really, it was! My mother went into early labour and they couldn’t get her off Angel Island. There was no helicopter then, of course, but the weather was so foul that they couldn’t have used it anyhow. It was a complicated delivery apparently, and we both almost died. We would have, if one of my father’s friends hadn’t known enough about midwifery to sort out the problems. According to my mother, it was the only time she’d ever seen Winston fall apart.”

“So even back then you had your own guardian angel? Who was it?”

“A woman. I never knew her name.” Derek frowned. “Winston never spoke of it and my mother was oddly reticent on the subject.”

They reached Glastonbury, driving past the Tor and down into the small town. Elise found a space for the Land Rover in the car park just off the High Street. Derek climbed out a little gingerly, stiff from sitting still for so long.

“Backache?” Elise asked.

“I get pain from time to time. Occupational hazard – comes of being thrown around by so many demons!”

“We’ll go for a walk after we’ve booked into the hotel. Perhaps that’ll help.” She took both of their bags. “If not – well, you’ve had one of my healing massages before.”

“I remember.” He limped after her. “And I wouldn’t say no to another, even if my back’s stopped hurting by then.”

The hotel, the George and Pilgrims, was at number 1, High Street. Elise paused on the threshold. “I should have asked this before. Do we want one room or two?”

“I imagine that one will do.” He grinned. “Shall we sign the register as Doctor and Mrs Smith?”

“Doctor and Doctor Smith!” She corrected.

As it turned out, Elise signed the book, dazzling the male receptionist with a perfect smile and a flash of a corporate Amex card issued to the Phoenix Project.

“Are we on expenses?” Derek asked, on the way up to their room.

“Mais oui, Monsieur DuBois!” She giggled. “But don’t worry – Phoenix can afford it. Our bank account is held in Switzerland, for tax reasons.”

Their room was small, lacked a TV and a mini bar, and the bathroom was across the hall. The decor was olde-worlde and quaint, with tapestry curtains and dark wood panelling, and the four-poster bed creaked when Elise bounced on it and declared it soft enough to be comfortable. It reminded Derek of the halls at Oxford, dusty and musty, full of history and tired glory, and he felt immediately at home.

Elise didn’t bother to unpack, simply dropping her case on the floor. “If you still fancy that walk, we could go to the Abbey.”

“Sure. Why not?”

They wandered along to the gates, scarcely fifty yards along the street. Henry VIII had done a grand job of dissolving this religious centre; there wasn’t much left of it, just a few battered walls, a trio of gothic arches and the remnants of what once had been an impressive window.

“It’s ‘one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit’,” Elise said, guessing his thoughts.

“It must have been splendid in its time.” He followed her along what remained of the nave.

“It was ‘an house fit for the King’s majesty and no-one else’. You know the legend, of course, that this was the first Christian centre in Britain? Joseph of Arimathea built a shrine dedicated to the Virgin here,  the site of which was later used for the Lady Chapel.”

Derek was familiar with the tale; this place had more than its fair share of folklore. “He brought the Grail here too, and when he plunged his staff into the earth it grew into the miraculous Glastonbury thorn that flowers on old Christmas day.”

“The original tree is up on Wearyall Hill, but they have one of its offspring here.” She gestured towards the hawthorn, now covered in fresh green leaf.  “In the fifth century this was one of the great centres of the Celtic church, that odd amalgam of Catholicism and pagan ideas. They had a perpetual choir here, singing the liturgy at all hours, yet even all that piousness and grace couldn’t save them. For many centuries it remained a holy place – St Patrick set up the monastery and St Dunstan made it great – but Cromwell destroyed it, Thomas, that is, not Oliver. The abbot was hung in the autumn of 1539 and the lands were dispersed. The Church only bought it back in 1908.”

Derek let her words flow over him, breathing in the atmosphere of this place. “There’s still something here, a sense of peace, an air of serenity.”

“Spirits of place, that’s what you can sense,” Elise said, her mischief waking again. “Magic runs deep here in Avalon, magic that was old even before the monks came. Some writers refer to it as the Presences, equating the spirits with old gods – Nodens, Gwyn ap Nudd, Ceridwen, Elen and the giant Albion.”

“Some people believe a lot of nonsense about Glastonbury.” Derek said unkindly.

“Le monde est plein de fous,” she agreed, softly.

He walked behind the woman until she paused in front of the stone set into the grass. “Ah, the famous grave – ‘Here lies Arthur, king of the Britons’. Do you think it’s true, or just a PR job by the monks to bring income to their abbey?”

“No-one’s buried here now. There were some bones, but they were removed in the twelfth century.” she sighed. “It was never Arthur. He isn’t dead.”

“The legend of the once and future King, sleeping through the centuries, waiting to awake in the time of England’s greatest need?”

“Under the hollow hills, in a crystal cave? It’s a nice story and an old one; the fall from a golden age, the lost-yet-not-lost sleeping hero and the hope of his return. Who knows? It might be so. The Mendips are full of caverns, at Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole, some large enough to hide an army in.”

“What? Weren’t you there, in the King’s court at Camelot, living one of your other lives?” Derek teased. “Don’t tell me – you were Guinevere, right?”

“Arthur did exist, perhaps not as the great king, but certainly as a Celtic warlord. He fortified Cadbury and won a dozen victories against the Saxons, driving them out of the land.” Elise replied. “And I wasn’t the Queen. I was the enchantress, Nimue.”

“The faithless, treacherous woman who beguiled and imprisoned Merlin?”

“It wasn’t like that.” She peered up from under her lashes and pouted at him. “History was unkind to me – I got bad press.”

He played along with the game. “Did I live then? Who was I? One of the knights, I hope?”

“Do you see yourself as Lancelot, mon cher? Or Gawain, who fought the Green Knight, or Percival, who found the Grail?” Her eyes sparkled, as green as the leaves on the Holy Thorn. “Do you know the real secret of the Grail, the truth at the heart of its mysteries? The Grail isn’t in the world, the world is in the Grail.”

Derek laughed with her and it was only as they walked back to the hotel that he realised how adroitly she’d avoided giving him an answer. “Wait a minute – I’m not going to let you wriggle out of this one. Who was I?”

Elise paused, her mirth suddenly swept away by a gust of sorrow. “You were Merlin, of course. Who else would you be?”
She was quiet for a long while after that, refusing to be drawn out into conversation. They ate an indifferent meal in the restaurant, involving lamb and a selection of sad vegetables; Elise called it dinner, but it felt more like lunch to Derek. He waited until they’d almost finished before asking the question that had lurked at the back of his mind for almost two whole days.

“The other night, when you went out to the Wharf to meet that man…?”

“When you set Nick to follow me?” A hint of her normal animation crept back. “Why did you do that?”

Derek gazed directly into her eyes. “Who was he?”

“An old friend.” She glanced away. “That’s all you need to know.”

“Tell me who he was.”

“Non.” She almost managed to smile. “Why is it so important? Are you jealous?”

“Elise..!”

“I told you that I’d need to call in some favours to rescue Sloan. That’s all it was. I met with an old friend and asked for his help.” She sighed. “He refused, just as I expected him to. Aid from that quarter was a vain hope, a lost cause, but I had to ask.”

“Who was he?” Derek reached across the table, taking a firm grip on her wrist. “Tell me!”

If he was hurting her, the pain didn’t show on her face. “You don’t want to know, really, you don’t!”

“If you won’t give me the truth, I’ll break your arm!” He thought she’d see through his bluff. It was an empty threat. How could he bring himself to harm her?

Elise lowered her eyes. “Okay, you win.”

Derek released her, amazed that she’d backed down. He waited for her answer, yet she still seemed reluctant to give it. “Elise..?”

“He isn’t a man.” She frowned. “He’s one of the Eternal and such creatures use many names. He’s the Morning-star.”

“Who?”

“Le diable,” Elise said. “Lucifer.”

He was getting used to this feeling, the point at which their conversation tumbled into nightmare. “You dined with the devil?”

“Who better to help us free Sloan’s soul from Hell?”

Derek shook his head. “This is a joke, isn’t it? You and your quirky sense of humour – you can’t be serious?”

Her turn for the piercing stare. She held his gaze for many seconds, then shrugged. “Bien sûr, a joke. What else would it be?”

He didn’t dare to ask for the name again and concealed his unease by tipping the last of his wine down his throat. Elise drank her coffee, then played with the empty cup, twisting it around in its saucer.

“To you and the Legacy, he’s the enemy,” she said quietly. “And yet, he was once an angel, the greatest of the Host. The virtue of eons isn’t so easily torn away, not even in nine days of falling into the abyss; it lingers in his blood, in his bones and in whatever remains of his soul. Luce did nothing wrong.”

“Nothing wrong? He was cast out of heaven…!”

“For disagreeing with the status quo and arguing with his betters?” She smiled sadly. “What child hasn’t done that? I bet you did, and so did I. But, enough of this! I was always advised never to talk about religion or politics on a first date, so let’s close the subject.”

“This is our second date,” he corrected.

“I don’t know about that. I’m not sure that I’d call take-out eaten in my living room a real date.”

He finally managed a smile. “And what do you call what happened afterwards?”

“Fate,” she said.

When they went upstairs, Derek opted to soak his aching back in a hot bath. His time-sense was shot to hell; it ought to be mid-afternoon and yet he was bone-weary and exhausted. He dragged himself back across to their room and flopped face-down on the bed, damp and naked. Elise made no comment – she just knelt beside him and began to work on his sore muscles. He fell asleep under the warm, healing touch of her gentle hands.

***

Derek opened one eye. Through a gap between the curtains he could see a cold grey sky. He was alone in the bed. Elise was gone. That realisation gave him enough of a kick-start to force his unwilling body out of its luxuriously-relaxed state and make it sit up.

“Bonjour.” She was in the corner of the room, working some kind of arcane ritual with a steaming kettle and a handful of paper sachets. “Tea or coffee? I warn you, the latter is instant.”

“Then I’ll take the tea.”

She finished working the spell and brought two cups back to the bed. “How do you feel this morning?”

“Better.” He risked moving his back, surprised at the absence of pain. “Much better. Tell me, did I wake in the middle of the night and did we make love, or was I just dreaming?”

“Do you usually have X-rated dreams?” She smiled. “Ah, perhaps you do, what with your psychic senses and visitations from succubi, serpent-women and the like…”

“You aren’t a succubus, are you?” He was only half-serious.

“No.” She pursed her lips. “I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of that one. You score a first for that, Dr Rayne!”

“Are you one of the Eternal?”

“What is this, twenty questions?”

“If that gets me an answer, I’ll play. Animal, vegetable or mineral?”

Her eyes glittered. “Yes.”

“Yes? Which one are you?”

“Whichever you like.” She wrinkled her nose. “Not a sprout, though – I don’t like them. Or mercury – that’s probably too toxic. An animal would be best, preferably one with a backbone.  I stay clear of slugs, snails, worms and the like – nasty little creeping eyeless things, yeugh!”

He gave up. “Why can’t you just tell me, instead of being so evasive?”

“If everything in life was easy, we’d all die of boredom.” Vast, limitless sorrow lurked at the edges of her smile. “Without problems to solve and evil to fight, what would be the point?”

They ate a huge, unhealthy and leisurely breakfast down in the restaurant. Elise lingered over coffee, seeming in no hurry to go anywhere.

“Whereabouts in the town does your friend live?” Derek asked eventually.

“She doesn’t live in Glastonbury,” the silversmith admitted. “She doesn’t live anywhere permanent – she has no fixed abode. She’s a traveller; all she owns is in a bus and she moves around, usually to the site of the latest protest. Greenham Common, Twyford Down, the Newbury by-pass, the new runway at Manchester – she was there, in the thick of it.”

Derek sighed inwardly. He should have known that any friend of Elise’s would be odd; not for her an ordinary, average friendship with some respectable married woman with two point four children and a husband who did something in the City. “So how do we find her?”

“She’ll be here today, somewhere within a twelve-mile radius of the Tor.” Elise shrugged. “It’s May Eve.”

The date had slipped his mind. “Yes, April 30th. Walpurgisnacht. That means it’s your birthday tomorrow.”

She looked confused. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Yes, May 1st. That’s what it says on your driver’s licence.”

“Does it?” Wickedness was back in her eyes. “Then it must be true, eh? Facts and figures, dates and numbers, all recorded in black and white. Lies are spoken, but whatever gets into print is the truth.”

“Is every piece of data the Legacy have on file about you false?”

“That would be too easy. I hid a few truths in there, just to keep you all confused.”

“Do you enjoy being so exasperating?”

“Absolument! Don’t you?” Before he could answer, she pulled a rapid change of subject out of left-field. “What do you know about the Glastonbury giants?”

Derek blinked. “What, that nonsense? The idea that you can trace out a zodiac in a great circle around the Tor, using streams, ditches, tracks, banks and sundry earthworks to outline the figures? All of the signs are meant to be represented, in the right order, except that Cancer is a ship not a crab, Libra is a dove and Aquarius is an eagle or phoenix. It was dreamed up by some dotty woman in the 1920s and has been described as the biggest Rorschach test in the world.”

“You’re good, precept!” She grinned at him. “Can’t fault your memory, but wasn’t that just a touch judgmental?”

“If you stare at anything long enough, you can make shapes out of nothing. Give me a map and I’ll find anything you like – UFOs, mythical monsters, an aardvark and his cucumber, Mickey Mouse and Pluto too! That’s human psychology, not magic.”

“Some people believe in la zodiaque.” She insisted. “John Dee, Elizabeth I’s royal astrologer, was one of them, long before Kathleen Maltwood rediscovered it. He called it Merlin’s Secret, with the comment ‘thus is astrologie and astronomie carefullie and exactly married and measured in a scientific reconstruction of the heavens’. It’s said to have been constructed almost three thousand years ago by the megalith-builders who came from Sumeria, which may be the source of the county name, Somerset. Other local place names have uncanny links to the signs at that location; Canters Green and Breech Lane on the equine parts of Sagittarius, Lady Springs and a tumulus called Wimble Toot on the breast of Virgo, and Hell Ditch between the claws of Scorpio. There’s even a representation of Cerberus known locally as the Girt Dog of Langport, which has a place called Wagg on its tail.”

“And you believe in all this, do you?”

“Moi? Non, c’est de la camelote!” she said, with a wry smile at the pun. “I think it’s a load of junk, but others favour such eccentric theories. Who am I to trample on their faith?”

“What does any of this have to do with your friend?”

“It’s how we’ll find her – she’ll be on one of the giants. One of the earth signs, at a guess. We should start our search on Virgo.”

“Does she have a name, this friend of yours?” Derek asked. “She is human, I trust, and not another of the Eternal?”

“Her name’s Jennet, and Heaven’s no friend to her. She’s one of the Fair Folk.”

“A fairy?” He’d raised his voice too much; the other guests were beginning to stare. He made an effort to calm down. “I thought they’d all ceased to exist when we stopped believing in them?”

“Some people never stopped,” Elise said softly. “And some things are too powerful to fade away, even in the face of the disbelief of millions. Shall we go and meet one?”

Derek followed her out of the restaurant. “Do you have any pointers for me on how to behave in the presence of one of Tinkerbell’s relatives? I mean, I know I shouldn’t laugh at her wings and magic wand…”

“Be nice,” Elise advised. “And don’t mention donkeys. She’s still a bit sensitive over that love-potion mishap!”

It was drizzling outside and cold enough that Derek was glad of his leather jacket. He let Elise take the driving seat and they left Glastonbury on the road to Street, passing between Paradise to the left and Wearyall Hill to the right, then taking the minor road down to Somerton. Elise was quiet until they passed through a village called Marshall’s Elm.

“This is where Aries and Taurus intersect, the ram to our right and the bull on the left. Up on the hill there is the Hood Monument, rising from Taurus’ brow like a horn.”

Derek surrendered to the game. “Doesn’t that make him a unicorn, not a bull?”

“Capricorn’s the unicorn and one of the standard bearers of the Royal coat of arms – the lion and the unicorn, fighting for the crown.” She slowed down behind a tractor, fidgeting until they had room to pass. “Shall we pay your sign a visit? Which is it?”

“Leo.”

“Leo?” She exclaimed, almost steering the Land Rover into the ditch. “Who’s editing the truth now, Derek? When did Leo last fall in November?”

“It says August in my medical records.”

“Do you get many squalls in August, with weather so bad that passage to the mainland is impossible?” She paused. “We’re on Leo now, looking into his jaws. Do the vibes feel right to you?”

“Don’t you think I’d make a good lion?”

She considered it, then shook her head. “Maybe it’s your rising sign, but I had you pegged for a Scorpion, I really did.”

They turned east at Somerton, skirting the small town, taking the road for Frome.

“We cross Leo at this point and pass his tail at Christian’s Cross.” Elise was taking her duties as guide seriously. “Then we run between the Libran dove at Barton  St David and the maiden-hag of Virgo beyond Keinton Mandeville to the south.”

“Does that last place have any links with St Keyne, the Welsh princess who fled her suitors to become an anchorite at Keynsham?”

“She was the de-paganised version of Ceridwen. She turned all the local snakes into stone, a wonderful explanation for the ammonites in the limestone near her cell.”

Derek watched the landscape roll past, the small, uneven fields and the scraps of woodland. In the hedges, the blackthorn was in flower, a pale froth of blossom over the new leaves, and the ditches were bejewelled with primroses and shy violets. The sun finally broke through the cloud and its warmth steamed the rain from the road.  At the next junction they turned north-east on a road that ran as straight as a die for as far as the eye could follow it.

“A Roman road?” Derek guessed.

“Fosse Way,”  she agreed. “All the way to Lincoln, as straight as a spear, not like the rolling road the English drunkard made.”

“For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green?”

She laughed at that. “Did I bring you to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands?”

They made better speed on the Roman road, passing signs tempting them to turn off towards villages with odd names; West Lydford, Lottisham and Hornblotton.

“We’re on your Scorpion now, nipping between its claws,” Elise said, slowing drastically and swinging onto a narrow lane. Ahead of them, away in the distance, Derek caught sight of the Tor, hanging like an exclamation mark over the land.

“It does that to you, doesn’t it?” She noted the direction of his gaze. “Appears all of a sudden and makes you catch your breath?”

“Small wonder that it’s the focus for so much mystery and myth.”

“It looms over Avalon like a misplaced Mexican pyramid…” She sensed rather than saw the flash of pain that burst in him. “Sorry, did I brush against a raw nerve? Bad memories?”

“Yes.” He had it locked down again, that particular fragment of evil, secured safe and tight in the dark depths. “Ones I don’t want to talk about.”

“You’ve picked up too many scars in such a short life.” She accused, not lifting her eyes from the road.

“Short?” He laughed. “I’m twice your age, girl!”

“No.” There it was again, that unsettling lilt to her voice. “Nobody’s that old.”

Derek let that hang in the air between them, not rising to the bait. The lane twisted and turned like a serpent, with here a crossroads and there a handful of houses scarcely numerous enough to dignify with the name of village. Elise was silent for some time, until they reached a main road and turned back towards Glastonbury. “There!”

They were past before he had a chance to see what she’d spotted, so she turned the Land Rover around in a gateway and backtracked. There was a farmhouse beside the road with a campsite in its orchard, a handful of blue and green tents, and tucked away at the rear of the field, an old single-decker bus. Elise swung off the road and parked on the patch of gravel by the house.

“That’s it?” Derek asked, as they climbed out and crossed the wet grass. “We’ve found her?”

“This is it.” Elise shooed a group of hens and a cockerel out of the way. “We’re on the Goat’s back here. Capricorn – I should have known.”

The bus might once have been painted in bright psychedelic swirls; it was hard to tell, as it had faded into a gentle pattern of muted pastels. Elise thumped on its door with the flat of her hand.

It was flung open by a woman dressed in combat trousers and a cropped top that left her stomach bare. She had a ring in her nose and another through her navel, with a pearl and a malachite bead on it that jingled together when she moved. Henna tattoos decorated her wrists and the backs of her hands, an intricate design of Celtic swirls. She wore a gold ring set with an immense green stone; Derek presumed it must be a faux emerald as it seemed too large to be real, then it came to him that such gems were known as elfstones. Her hair was as pale as flax and wound into a mess of pin-curls, following the latest trend.

“I give you good day, Jennet,” Elise said, bobbing in a little curtsy.

“Yo, Thea!” She leapt down from the bus and hugged her friend. “Changed your colours again, I see. Have you changed your name to match?”

“I’m called Elise DuBois when I wear this face.” The silversmith replied. “What name do you go by these days, Jennet or Titania?”

“Just Tania. I dropped the ‘Tit’ to sound more modern. One has to keep up with the times.”

“I have to say that I like the jewellery.” Elise flicked the beads on the woman’s navel ring. “Hey, do you think I should get one of these?”

“Waste of time. You heal too fast.” Her eyes moved to Derek and he saw that they were an extraordinary violet-blue colour. “And who’s this?”

“Allow me to introduce Dr Derek Rayne,” Elise said gravely.

Tania stepped forwards to shake his hand. Her touch prickled like static on his skin, making his psychic sense writhe and almost wake. He heard distant music, a piper playing a lilting air, and he had a fleeting impression of the woman cloaked in shadow, with tiny stars glowing in her hair.

“You idiot, Thea!” Tania dropped his hand as if it was a hot coal. “What were you thinking, bringing him here?”

“It was necessary.”

“But here…? On his own sign, and with Aquarius and all that represents over yonder at the Tor.” She waved in a vague westerly direction. “Ill advised, my dear, ill advised!”

“Are you going to let us in – or shall we go?” Elise demanded.

Tania sighed. “Okay, go in.”

The interior of the bus was in twilight, a cramped space hung with velvet drapes in indigo and purple, opulent and overdone, a hybrid between a brothel and a fortune-teller’s tent. Much of the floor area was taken up with a huge sofa which was hemmed in on one side by a glass-fronted display cabinet and on the other by a desk topped with a purple iMac, and the balance of empty space was filled with a plethora of floor cushions. Every spare inch of the walls was covered by shelves; they and the cabinet were packed full of an eclectic mixture of junk, apothecary bottles,  jars of herbs and books.

Flickering votive candles in blue glass holders hung from the roof, which was painted black and dotted with luminescent stars, and the rest of the light came from a halogen lamp over the desk. A witchball was suspended at the cab end of the bus, its silvered surface throwing back their contorted reflections. In amongst the clutter, Derek’s eyes were drawn to a silver cup set with stones, garnets and amethysts.

“Ah, the Grail,” Tania said, smiling at the direction of his gaze. “Not the real one, of course, but a pretty enough fake. Fifteenth century, I believe.”

“Fifteenth century, my arse!” Elise snorted. “I made that for you last year, with these hands!”

“The marks on it are authentic.” Tania insisted. “I suppose you forged them?”

The silversmith picked one end of the sofa and sank onto it, sulking. “I suppose I did.”

Tania made tea for them, something green and herbal that smelled of seaweed. Derek didn’t drink much of it. His eye was drawn to the iMac. Its screen displayed some kind of techno-pagan website.

“I go on-line via satellite. There’s a dish on the roof.” Tania moved to the keyboard and closed the connection.

“Very high-tech.” Derek observed. “An interesting contrast with the magical trappings, the astrology and suchlike. Oh, and by the way, I’m not a Capricorn.”

Tania frowned at him, a grim expression ill-suited to her delicate face. “The Giants can also be considered as figures from Arthurian myth, the true ‘Round Table’ out of the stories. The Goat stands for Merlin.”

Derek laughed, shaking his head, looking to Elise to share the joke. She didn’t even smile. “Look, for the last time, I’m not Merlin – okay?”

“Yeah, right! And I suppose you aren’t a prophet either, born within sound of the sea?” Tania exclaimed. “You mortals! You forget so damn much!”

“You haven’t asked why we’re here.” Elise reminded.

“I know that!” She spun around, danced three steps across the bus and sat down on a cushion, all without spilling a drop from her tea-cup. “Tonight’s May Eve and the righteous gather to descend into Annwn. Will you go with us to harry Hell?”

“We’ve business there,” the silversmith declared. “Count us in.”

It was at this point that the game fell to pieces around Derek and he started to panic. One lunatic he could handle – he was even growing quite fond of her – but two madwomen were too much for him. “Wait just one minute, Elise! Are you seriously suggesting that we walk into Hell and ask nicely if we can have Sloan’s soul back?”

“Mais oui.” She didn’t even bat an eyelid. “Sure beats opening the boxes!”

“There are certain times and places when the gates to the underworld open.” Tania explained. “Midsummer, All Hallow’s eve and May eve are the times, and the place tonight is the Tor. A group of us will keep vigil there until the path appears, then we’ll enter and save a few souls from torment. It’s known as the harrowing of Hell – you must have heard of it?”

“Yes, perhaps.” Derek floundered against this tide of madness. “A group of you? More of the Fair Folk and Elise’s people?”

“My people?” Annoyance flared in the silversmith’s eyes. “What, fishing again, mon cher? Don’t you ever tire of chasing after the truth?”

“It is my life’s work.”

That made her smile. “There aren’t many of my kind left, so few that you might count us all on one set of fingers and toes. As far as I’m aware, I’m the only one currently in this system.”

“Little remains of Faerie in this world. Most of my friends and courtiers are gone, swept away on the tides of time.” Tania sighed. “No, all of our companions tonight will be human – I won’t say ordinary, because none of them are, but you might pass them by in the street and not give them a second glance. Elise, do you know if our mutual friend is coming, our little…?”

Elise lifted a finger and the woman was silent, as if the words had caught like burrs in her throat. They glared at each other, amethyst and peridot in conflict, then Tania turned away and Elise allowed herself a tiny smile of triumph. Derek had the feeling that a long argument had been condensed into those few seconds of rapport.

“We meet at the Chalice Well at five o’clock,” Tania said, wearily. “Bring a sweater or two – it can get very cold up on the Tor. A blanket to sit on might be a good idea, and bring food and drink if you like. Will you need any drugs? I can lay my hands on most illicit substances.”

“I don’t take drugs!” Derek protested.

“What, not even the merest sniff of cannabis?” Elise raised an eyebrow, mimicking his own gesture. “Didn’t you study anthropology and philosophy alongside the bone-digging? Sampling something mind-altering – LSD, peyote or magic mushrooms – used to be part of the syllabus.”

“I suppose he didn’t inhale.” Tania added drily. “Seriously, the first time you venture into the underworld, it helps to be half out of your skull.”

Derek found an icy smile. “And what makes you think this is my first trip to Hell?”

***

They played tourists for the rest of the day, he and Elise, driving up to Wells and wandering round the quaint town, its cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace. Derek felt he ought to be anxious over their plans for the evening, but his companion turned aside all his questions, and was so relaxed and carefree that eventually her mood rubbed off on him. After that, he enjoyed the sightseeing, the freedom of having nowhere he had to be and nothing in particular he had to do. They ate lunch in a pub and spent some time in a second-hand bookshop, where he found several dusty volumes of occult lore and ancient history, not to mention an almost-mint copy of Kit William’s Masquerade that he thought would amuse Kat. They even found time on the way back to take a detour to Cadbury Castle.

The path through the trees up to the hill-fort was steep and slippery after the night’s rain, and they were both breathless when they reached the summit. There was little to show that this place had ever been inhabited, except for the grassed-over ramparts and the uneven ground within them.

“I worked here for a while, when they excavated the site.” Elise confessed. “We uncovered the foundations of a Roman temple over there, but we didn’t find Camelot.”

“You couldn’t have been on that dig!” Derek protested. “That was in the late 60s, before you were born.”

“Perhaps those were someone else’s memories? Perhaps I stole them?”

“And I thought you were an ethical mind-reader who didn’t do things like that?”

“Just because I don’t sneak into your head doesn’t mean I never do it to anyone else.” She started to climb one of the perimeter banks. “Up here. Let’s look at the view!”

He scrambled up after her. The countryside spread out before them, a quilt of woodland and fields painted in the fresh-washed greens of spring, and away in the distance, the cone of the Tor crowned with its insolent tower.

“She is not any common Earth, Water or Wood or Air,” Elise murmured. “But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye, where you and I will fare.”

“And you’ll play Puck, I suppose?” He smiled, recognising the quote. “Why not, since we already have Titania?”

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Her answering grin was as bright as the sun peeping around a cloud. “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended – that you have but slumber’d here.”

“Wrong date – it’s May eve, not Midsummer.” He scolded. “Elise, level with me. Is it safe for us to take part in this lunatic ritual tonight?”

“You don’t trust me, do you?” With a mood-flip, she was serious. “Why are you so wary of me?”

He tried to find reasons for his gut feelings about her. “Everything I know about you is contradictory, wound about with fiction and lies. I’ve lost count of the people who’ve warned me that you’re dangerous – you’ve said it about yourself – and you never give me a straight answer about anything.“

“Straight?” She began her shrug, then squared her shoulders. “Okay, here’s one – tout droit. No harm will come to you tonight, I promise – no, better than that, I swear it, on my blood, on my soul. Your safety is assured.”

Her intensity made him nervous. “Odd things to swear on. Most people swear by their patron deity.”

“What god would have me? No orthodox one, that’s for sure!” She sidetracked the issue. “We ought to go. We need to pick some stuff up from the hotel before we meet Tania.”

“We shouldn’t be late.” Derek agreed. “I’d hate to upset the Queen of Faerie!”

“Time was when it would have taken hours to get to the Isle of Glass from here, travelling by boat through the meres and marshes,” Elise said. “Did you know that this area was flooded by the sea as late as 1811?”

“It may be again, if global warming is as disastrous as some experts predict.”

“It isn’t nature you should fear, but simple acts of man. Petty cruelties and the wars of rival tribes, that’s the recipe for cataclysm. The day is thine – the darkness cometh.” She shivered. “Not for a while yet, but all too soon.”

Derek caught an echo of her melancholy, a dull, leaden feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Is that a true vision or just a guess?”

“ Future history,” she said, with an enigmatic shrug. “Che sera sera. Now, we must go. Viens tu, vite!”

 

Go on to Part Three

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