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Chapter 4: Thursday - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall

His pitiless mouth pressed mercilessly down over hers.

Through the loose folds of the cloak she could feel the remorseless pressure of his engorged manhood against her. The fiery serpent of his tongue invaded her unresisting mouth, sending ripples of flame into the darkest, most hidden fastnesses of the citadel of her hitherto un-awakened body. Her sobbing, desperate breaths sucked in the steamy, sweaty essence of his driving maleness.

She moaned. At once both wholly resistant and wholly compelled, she was transfixed by the whirling black dark of his assertive pupils. He broke out of the kiss and smiled cruelly down at her.

“Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name,” he snarled.

Heedless of her resistance he caught her delicate green and silver silk gown in his two strong hands and ripped it top to bottom, exposing her flawless white flesh to the elements. Her naked back pressed against the bare stone of the tower, and she should have been frozen, but the heat of their mutual passion made her skin burn with an almost tropic heat.

“Now, lady, you are mine,” he exulted.

His weight bore down upon her, and she writhed feebly under him. She had believed resistance to male dominance the very essence of her nature, but now a traitorous part of her screamed out to be taken. But before they could consummate their passion the thin high note of a horn’s frantic blowing cut through the night with an echoing, throbbing, pulsating driving note that snatched up both of the figures on the battlements in its relentlessly overmastering rhythm.

With a hissed oath he pushed her aside, turning in one fluid movement and seizing in both hands Renaldobar, legendary blade of Ivrildorom.

My destiny calls,” he tossed back over his shoulder as he slid the legendary blade into the scabbard slung across his muscular back and climbed over the battlements, “But do you wait on my return - Proud Lady!”

Momentarily, he hung by one hand from the battlements and those lambent eyes glared passionately up at her for a single eternal second. Then he dropped silently to the deep snow which filled the dry moat many feet below - recovered himself with feline speed - and was gone into the night.

Cathy drew a deep breath, put down the sheets of print-out from which she had been reading and looked across at the assembled gathering sitting in judgment upon her. Before any of them could speak, Alan made a hesitant gesture with the hand that had been fiddling with his goatee with increasing unease throughout the reading.

“Now, people,” he fluted nervously, “Before we start our discussion, I’d just like to refresh all our memories about the ground rules here.”

He attempted a glance around the room. One or two of the more nervous delegates dodged his gaze, ducking their eyes below the level of the curling sandwiches still remaining on the table.

“As you know, though we’ve made absolutely cracking progress so far on sketching out the character, plot and background history matrices, we aren’t going to be writing any actual scenes for a while yet.”

He coughed, pointedly.

“I’d like to remind us all, people, that an exercise is all we’re engaged in here. Think of what Cathy has given us - it was beautifully crafted, Cathy, love - as a meta-fragment. This is one way these characters might interact in this universe, but others of you might interpret the essential energies of the situation differently. There are no wrong answers here, people!”

He surveyed the room from behind his round-rimmed glasses with an air of owlish determination. Jacqueline thought, however, that his voice betrayed an edge of nervousness, like a man trying to soothe a reputedly vicious dog.

“For Christ’s sake, man, get to the point,” Ken muttered from his vantage point against the mantelpiece.

Alan frowned.

“The point, everyone, is that I want you all to feel the essential fluidity - feel free to experiment, to play, to take risks! By the end of a few days our individual voices should be melding into one. In fact, I fancy you’ll be surprised at what will be happening by this time next week. But - don’t forget - before we can get to that stage, we need to check out each other’s strengths and - and less strong areas. Don’t feel frightened!”

He coughed, impressively.

“One or two people mentioned to me over the break - and, on reflection, I feel they had a valid point - that some of the debate in the earlier sessions was - perhaps - not coming over as constructively as I’m sure it was intended. I’m not finger-pointing here, people, I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone else. But think about it, people. Think about how you’re sounding. We’re trying to achieve something here, not be negative. So, having got that off my chest -“

Áine leaned over to Jacqueline, and whispered, not quite unobtrusively enough, it seemed, judging by Alan’s expression,

“Enough things off enough chests for one morning already, I’d have thought.”

Jacqueline suppressed a giggle. She hissed back, “And I know he’s going to be needing that curaisse he just tossed recklessly over the battlements in the throes of passion, too.”

“Unless you reckon maybe it stunned that squad of the Diabolical Duke’s minions who were waiting for him at the bottom? Just the sort of luck the jammy bastard might have.”

Cathy shot them an entirely unamused look. Alan coughed repressively.

“Cathy, love, that was a very - ah - compelling - and - intriguing - segment you presented to us. Now, people - do you have anything to throw onto the table?”

There was a pause.

Nicci raised a hesitant hand. Alan looked across at her. Somewhat tentatively, he smiled. “Yes, Nicci?”

He looks at her rather as though she were a performing chimpanzee. And, to say truly, is that so far off the mark?

“I - ah - don’t like the bit about his hair.” She flicked her own mop off her forehead and darted tense glances up and down the room. As no one showed signs of biting, she gathered courage. “I mean - it sounds all greasy and smelly and, well - eeargh! I mean, I’d have thought no one would believe she’d fancy someone who - ah - I mean - hasn’t like washed - in like, well, weeks, and - “

Her voice tailed to a sudden stop. Jacqueline, looking up, caught the tail end of the withering glance Ken Hemsworth had apparently flung in Nicci’s direction, and bit back a harsh retort. Unexpectedly protective of the younger woman, she heard her own voice chime in.

“Sorry, Cathy, but Nicci’s right. Pheromones notwithstanding, that’s a bit too much. Maybe they couldn’t wash on the trail, but surely the evil enchantress has got a bathroom or two concealed somewhere about her castle? I mean, her floor-length auburn tresses and that translucent ivory skin sound pretty high maintenance to me. He should have made the effort to freshen up, I think.”

Hemsworth gazed at her as though he were a biologist trying to decide what genus to assign her to. “I see. So, they’ve been thirty days travelling through the pathless wilderness, but I gather you’re still criticising our Lost and New-Found King for having run out of shower gel?”

She looked straight back at him, surprised at her calm ability to ride out his aggression.

“Not at all.” She paused. “But as, in your bit earlier, you had the Quest frying sausages and bacon on their twenty-eighth day in the wilderness, you must admit that the wanderers could have picked up a few body and hair care products from that handy corner shop they’d obviously found on their travels. Don’t you think?”

The unexpected ferocity in his face made her quail, but before he could say anything there was a sharp rumble of laughter around the room. In its aftermath, Alan appeared to be taking the temperature of the group.

“I think, Ken, you have to say touché to that one. It should act as a warning to us all - any lack of attention to detail and the suspension of disbelief upon which creative writing depends is going to coagulate and drop in little lumps to the bottom of the jar.”

Jacqueline noticed with amusement that it was not only Nicci who was looking rather baffled at this metaphor. Alan gulped, and evidently decided to press firmly on.

“Anyway, do we have any other comments to take this one further?”

Julian uncrossed his long legs, and uncurled himself from his wildly uncomfortable-looking hunched perch on one of the two window seats.

“Well, while I don’t want to fall into that tired patriarchal trap of nabbing a part of the agenda I properly ought to leave to the women here - I do feel someone needs to say something about the tone - if you aren’t planning to do it, that is, maybe I ought - “

“Get to the point, will you?” Cathy said tersely, shuffling her papers together.

“Ah, yes. Well, I confess I’m troubled by the non-consensual elements of this scene. Especially since - Cathy, you do know that I really have the deepest admiration of your writing skills, so I don’t wish you to see these comments as being anything other than wholly constructive - but don’t you feel that you’re reinforcing a dangerous literary cliché? Essentially - I don’t like putting it this way, but aren’t you coming perilously close to sending the message to the readers that women really want to be violated?”

Lucy looked up from the table, tossing back her short black curls, and tapping her pen assertively on the stack of hard-backed notebooks in which she had been taking detailed, beautifully-written notes in black ink since the course started.

“I agree. And here’s something else. Look, Catherine, I think - if you’ll forgive my saying so - that you’re letting yourself down here. I can see that these days it must be difficult to avoid the trap of thinking you have to bring in smut to stand a chance of being published, but you can’t let that temptation force you into ignoring fundamental character points. After all, this man was raised among elves. And yet you’ve shown him almost taken over by absolute naked lust. Please don’t get me wrong. It isn’t just my personal attitude to the glorification of non-marital sex - your views and behaviour aren’t my business - it’s a purely literary objection. You’re imposing values and attitudes that simply don’t have a place in elvish society.”

Cathy looked up, an expression of scornful disbelief on her face. “You know, Lucy, that we don’t see eye to eye on that point. So far as I’m concerned, when Tolkien wrote about elves that was his own Catholic prejudices talking. Nothing in the folklore supported how that tight-arsed left-footer fucked it up. So do you expect every fantasy author to be stuck with his prejudices and hang-ups forever?”

She shook her head determinedly, despite the fact that Lucy was glaring murderously at her.

” No, I’m trying to put the record straight. These characters, for me, are basically Tam Lin and Fair Janet. And if you’ve still got issues with that, then try taking a look at Child Ballad No. 39.”

At the far end of the table Kivren straightened up, took a visible breath, and leapt into the fray. Her dark hair bobbed earnestly round her face.

“Look, Cathy, you simply can’t rely on Child for anything. The so-called Scottish Ballads he collected were one of the worst cultural travesties ever to be foisted off on us. And goddess, have there ever been plenty to choose from. Low-fat Celtic romanticism served up for Romantic southern sensibilities. The version most people know of Tam Lin isn’t even authentic; just Burns doing the Borders for the carriage trade.”

She took a deep breath, and continued in her tirade. “Lucy, though, that doesn’t mean I agree with you about Tolkien’s take on elvish sensuality, either. If you read the Book of Lost Tales, you’ll see that the earlier sketches of Galadriel are oceans away from that travesty of a 50s housewife who gets up early to bake the lembas that Tolkien produced in the Lord of The Rings. I blame his publishers. I think Allen and Unwin insisted he tone down the vibrant, sensual lios alfar he’d originally planned. But I think originally he was trying to present a purer, more authentic view of the lios, as people knew of them before the chap-book sellers perverted the whole race into the vengeful, capricious aliens who come out of the Border ballads.”

She took another pause for breath.

“And anyway, even if perhaps he didn’t feel comfortable, given his religious heritage, of actually coming right out and saying it, I think Tolkien does have a real sense for the way the Otherworld - whether you think of it as Elfland or Logres or as something else - underpins the whole of what we think of as the day-to-day world - but just is more intense, more sensual - more real, I suppose you might say. And every so often Otherworld frays through, and we can almost see it. And you get hints of that in his work.”

It was evident from Lucy’s expression that she was spoilt for choice about which error to tackle first. Her indecision allowed Cathy, her voice cool and her expression dripping disdain, the chance to get a word in.

“I can’t agree - it’d be a better argument, dear, if we were talking about Charles Williams, and so far as we can tell Tolkien hated his guts - but you do seem a bit better read than I’m used to meeting.”

Kivren ducked her head. “I had - a superb teacher.”

Cathy raised her eyebrows. “Really? In Scotland? Good lord. And which University would that be?”

Kivren’s eyes glittered. “Edinburgh,” she spat.

“Oh. Interesting.” Cathy half-turned away from her.

Alan’s tongue passed nervously over his lips. Jacqueline’s eyes slid around the group. She had coped well enough with Ken, but was nervous of how she might be able to handle open warfare. And certainly Kivren’s hands clasping the edge of the table were dead white, and Áine ‘s head was up and her nostrils flared. Jacqueline’s first thought was:

An anthropologist would call this worth the detour. Common hatred of the Sassenach crosses all other cultural divides, it would seem.

She winced. Alan appeared to be working out the shortest distance to the exits.

Why can’t that idiot take charge, for god’s sake? It’s what he’s paid for, after all. No point calling yourself a facilitator if half the group’s at the throats of the other half. You won’t have anything left to facilitate if you don’t do something soon.

Jacqueline took a deep breath.

“Do you think, Cathy - and I’m wondering if this is perhaps something you weren’t even conscious of introducing - could it possibly be seen as a metaphor?”

Alan looked like a man who had been given an unexpected present. He nodded so vigorously that for a moment Jacqueline wondered whether his glasses were going to fly off into the room.

“Oh, yes, Jackie! That’s really exciting. On that interpretation, the scene gets a whole new vigour. The king will be restored to the land - much as in the Corn-Maiden mythos - but will have to bend it to his rule after the years of neglect. And no doubt those who go along with his restoration of order will be accused of being complicit in the land’s violation. Collaborateuses to be tarred and feathered. Oh, yes indeed. Now, what do you all think of that idea, people?”

Julian looked ecstatically across to them and crossed his legs twice round themselves, curling himself into an enthusiastic ball on the window-seat. “Yes, of course. Seen in that light I’d feel considerably happier. In fact, it reminds me of when in the fourth book of my Morgana Ascendant cycle I had the Irish missionary priests capture and rape the trainee Druidess in the stone circle. Although of course some of my beta readers did have reservations about whether that scene - although I was very careful to describe it in a wholly non-titillating way - might be misinterpreted as catering to male prurience, I explained that I was prepared to take that risk, because it was so central to how I saw the essential impact of Christianity on the Old Religion. An allegory of the dominant theme of the cycle, so to speak.”

Lucy bristled up again. Jacqueline sighed, and cowered back in the depths of her armchair. At which point Áine observed trenchantly:

“Anyway, I thought Sylvania was going to turn out to be your man’s twin sister who was stolen away at birth by the Evil Regent. Aren’t we talking incest here, folks?”

Cathy went pink, and started scrabbling guiltily for her photocopy of the character and plot matrices which had apparently slithered to the floor at her feet. Nicci muttered, with a hint of sulky triumph, “Perhaps if he’d paid more attention to washing, she’d have been able to spot that they looked exactly alike and they’d wouldn’t have got themselves into this mess.”

Ken curled his lip.

“I think, Nicci dearest, that you should tell your parents to sue that fancy boarding school of yours. After all, if an overcrowded comp in the roughest part of Leeds managed to beat enough knowledge into me to let me appreciate the total bollocks you are capable of uttering about subjects which should be within the general knowledge of an averagely bright six-year-old, then any decent lawyer ought to be able to get your school fees refunded without raising a sweat.”

For a moment it looked as though Nicci might be about to cry. Undemonstratively, Lucy looked up and said:

“I’ve got to my notebooks in rather a muddle here. Would you be good enough to give me a hand, so I can slot the loose stuff into the right places?”

Wordlessly Nicci nodded, got up, and joined Lucy at the table. Alan contemplated her, and then turned his gaze to Ken, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

“Ken, I think perhaps you need to give a bit of thought to how you may be coming over at this moment in time. I know you’re a perfectionist, and I can appreciate your impatience, but we’re working through an organic process here, and everyone needs to feel comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Ken surveyed him in a bored, faintly disbelieving way. For once undeterred, Alan persisted.

“I think you just need to rein back a little, here. Nicci made a perfectly valid point within the fantasy construct in which we’re dealing. Who are we to say how elvish or half-elven genetics work? And I think it was a little uncalled for, Ken, if you’ll allow me to say so, to make a comment about Nicci’s educational attainments which was so very nearly personal in its tone. I happen to know she was accepted onto a very competitive course at an excellent university -“

“God,” Ken said, “Proof positive that Blair’s buggered education standards in this country beyond hope of recall.”


Alan coughed, nervously. “I thought you called yourself a socialist, Ken.”

He sneered. “I do. That’s why I prefer my Tories honest enough to actually wear blue ribbons, rather than be hypocritical about it.”

Áine ran her fingers through her long red hair. “Then no doubt you get on with our proprietress, or whatever she calls herself. The way she cracks on, she’d have it she was at every major revolutionary happening this century since - ah, what was the expression now? Oh, sure. Since she stuck around St. Petersburg when she saw it was a time for a change.”

There was a moment’s charged silence. Then, sweetly and in her breathy Irish accent, Áine added:

“Which reminds me, Cathy. Do you really think it’s quite plausible for a Lost And New-Found King who’s been brought up by elves in a world before the Fall of Atlantis actually to know the lyrics to Sympathy For the Devil?”

Perhaps fortunately, at this moment there was a tap on the door, and Caitlin put her head around it. “I wondered,” she said to Alan, “If this would be a good moment for the staff to clear out those sandwich plates, and bring in fresh tea and coffee?”

Alan nodded. Jacqueline wondered whether he felt as buffeted as she did.

“Excellent timing, thanks,” he said. “And a good point for a natural break, too. See you all back here in ten, people.”

The residents’ sitting room was calm and deserted. Kivren put her head round the door, and then sank gratefully into one of the chintz armchairs, resting her head against the cool wood of the panelling that ran round the wall, drinking in the rich wax scent of its polish. She concentrated on deep breathing exercises, and all the other techniques that she had been taught to manage her anger. It worked, she supposed, dully; worked enough to turn her initial warm fury into dull misery. Tears began to leak unstoppably from under her tight-squeezed eyelids.

She heard the click of the latch and glanced up, prepared to be furious with whoever dared interrupt her. Lucy’s brusque, no-nonsense manner was, however, unexpectedly reassuring. Grown-up, even.

“I gathered you were finding that rather heavy going?”

She nodded. Lucy bent to the hearth, building up the wood-fire that spent its resinous fragrance into the room. While doing so, she somehow managed to gesture towards the plate that had been carefully placed on the coffee table.

“Eat a biscuit, and calm down. She’s not worth getting upset about, and deep down you know it.”

Kivren found the jammie dodger deeply comforting in its nursery familiarity. She swallowed determinedly.

“I taught maths for more than twenty years in one girl’s school or another. And year in, year out, sure as eggs were eggs you’d always get one like Catherine, ” Lucy said, resting back on her heels on the hearthrug and admiring the flames. “Sarcastic, spiteful, stirring up little feuds and jealousies for their own amusement - you learned to look out for them in advance, in the end.”

She paused, and then she turned round to look at Kivren.

“But in my third school, the headmistress took me on one side and told me a secret about the Catherines of this world. Never judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in her shoes, she said, and she pointed out to me something I’d missed about those hard-faced little troublemakers. Nine times out of ten they’d be the ones with the really bad problems at home. Messy divorces, fathers beating up their wives, mothers popping pills all day: you name it. And these were good schools, you understand, but in my experience money and position don’t protect anyone from anything much except starvation. But you’d never hear a cheep about her home problems from a girl like Catherine. Some people would rather be hated than pitied, it seems. But it’s a shame they make matters so hard on the rest of us. Now blow.”

A clean white handkerchief was suddenly in front of Kivren’s nose. She mopped herself up. Lucy, with more tact than she would previously have credited her with, had removed herself to the window, opened it about four inches, and lit a cigarette, tapping the ash out into the flower-bed below the window.

“You don’t, I take it?” Lucy enquired, proffering the packet. Kivren shook her head.

“Wise girl. Wish I didn’t.” She looked out into the garden and made a small, harsh, disapproving noise. “Hm.”

Kivren followed the line of her gaze. Nicci and Ken, somewhat underdressed given the weather conditions, were taking a stroll through the snow-covered gardens. From Nicci’s gestures, it appeared she was remonstrating forcibly to him about his behaviour during the previous session. From the contemptuous expression on Ken’s face, it seemed she was having little effect.

“A very silly, ill-educated girl. Shame, really. Her memory is something quite remarkable. But she has, it appears, neither the skills nor the inclination to benefit from the talents she’s been blessed with. And besotted, I’m afraid, with a thoroughly undesirable young man,” Lucy said disapprovingly. Kivren suppressed an unexpected grin; there could scarcely be five years difference in age between Ken and Lucy, and Ken, in any event, gave the impression of having being born an embittered forty-something.

Kivren took a second biscuit, and was in the act of raising it to her lips when the door to the room swung open.

“Oh, so this is where you are.”

Cathy and Áine walked into the room.

“We’ve been having a talk,” Cathy said abruptly, “And we’ve agreed we don’t like how things are going at the moment. And I wanted to run a suggestion past you.”

She paused, twining her hands nervously round each other. Áine nudged her.

“Well, go on. I think it’s a great idea. In fact, judging by this morning, if we ever want to get past chapter one of this novel, I reckon it’s our only hope.”

Encouraged, apparently, Cathy said, “Actually this is based on a dodge we worked out when I was doing post-grad at York. There were a group of us who paid our way by writing Mills & Boons and novelisations of TV shows - it’s amazing how much a bunch of poverty stricken grad students could churn out once we got the system working.”

Involuntarily, Kivren’s fingers clenched over the biscuit, crushing it to crumbs. Unobtrusively, she dropped them into the fire, brushing her hands down the side of her jeans, and making her voice as coolly non-committal as possible. “Really? That’s - unusual.”

Cathy nodded.

“I know, True Confessions of an Aspiring PhD or what? But it worked like a charm - and beat waitressing, any day. We had the English grads nicking the plots - the historians doing the research - the psychologists inserting the plausible factual errors - the classicists doing the proof-reading, and the philosophers making the coffee. And we all shared the writing. But if any of you lot breathe a word about this to our Ken, I tell you, I’ll slit all your throats. I don’t fancy listening to him sneer about whoring away at hackwork -“

Lucy’s expression was pained but she forbore to comment.

“That wee gobshite?” Áine tossed back her hair. “I tell you, I’d as likely grass you up to your man as to send Ian Paisley a Christmas card. Is that right, Kivren?”

A breakthrough - at last. Well, let’s see how she reacts to this one.

“You’ll not hear a word out of me. Count me as your original secret, black and midnight hag.”

She hid a swift flicker of triumph as Cathy paled. “Don’t quote that play. Unless you reckon the bad luck doesn’t happen if you’re Scotch?”

Kivren made her voice sound bored.

“Please, must you? Scots, or Scottish, not Scotch. Unless you’re buying. But you’re right: it’s a silly play. To say nothing of a damned libel on the best king we ever had. By the way, did you ever read that novel someone wrote about the Macbeths a couple of years ago, trying to put the story straight? It wasn’t bad, I thought. Very interesting take on Gruoch.”

Cathy shook her head, briskly. “Historical fantasies aren’t my bag. Sorry. Anyway, look, we’re a bit strapped for time. I’d better get on. This was how we used to do it. We’d work out the basic plot and characters and such collectively, and then we’d split into groups of three or so, each with a group of chapters to produce for the next meeting of the whole group. And we had a deal that no-one in any study group ever let on to the whole syndicate which bits of any assignment was written by any individual. That meant no-one got overly protective about it when bits had to be carved out to tie it into the whole thing. And there were enough of us in each group to make sure we stuck to the plot, and few enough so we could actually make progress. And people didn’t end up getting their egos stamped on.”

“Well,” Lucy said doubtfully, “That certainly sounds as though it could work. But we’d have to make sure Alan set up the groups properly.”

“You get Ken,” Kivren suggested. “None of us could tackle him.”

There was a rather grim smile on Lucy’s face. “Gladly, provided it keeps me out of the way of Julian’s nonsense. For a supposedly educated person, the way he seems to have swallowed Robert Graves’ speculative irreligious nonsense wholesale, without question, irks me. And as for Nicci - well, we’ll think of somewhere to put her well away from Ken -“

“OK, so long as it’s anywhere but my team.” Cathy paused, and then grinned. “Tell you what. Suppose I try and get Jackie on side over supper - can you tackle Julian, Kivren? I don’t think he likes me much.”

I do wonder why. Bitch.

Kivren smiled. “Yes, why not? But what about Nicci and Ken?”

“Nicci’ll swallow it,” Áine said. “Anything to draw Ken’s fire off her, poor kid. She was shaking with nerves when she got up to read her bit this morning, did you see? And he just waded in and shredded her. Plain nasty that man can be.”

Cathy shrugged. “Well, at least he was quite funny with it. And you must admit she was asking for it - wittering on about “the Evil Reagent” - what did she think he was, a Chemistry experiment gone wrong?”

“Well, I think he should pick on someone up to his weight, at that. But then, I don’t know what she’s doing on this course at all,” Kivren said.

Áine glanced out of the window. The two under discussion were still walking aimlessly about the gardens, deep in conversation.

“Well, if you don’t know by now, it’s not my job to enlighten you.”

“No, I do know that much, at least. If they aren’t having an affair, why the hell does she put up with the way he treats her? But coming on this course can’t be the cheapest way to have a fling, now can it? And she doesn’t seem to have anything special by way of a job.”

Áine shrugged. “Darling Daddy picking up the tab, I’d lay you odds. Though he’d have to be totally devoted if he thinks creative writing’s Nicci’s forte.”

Cathy nodded, her eyes glittering maliciously. “Well, with one exception. You’d have to admit she rates a literary award for Special Services To The Apostrophe.”

There was a brief snort of laughter from Lucy.

“A piece of punctuation she boldly takes where no punctuation has gone before.”

Kivren gave an assenting nod.

“Anne McCaffrey has a lot to answer for.”

Cathy, turning away from the window and apparently dismissing the topic, said,

“Well, if you’re all agreed we should try it, we’ve just got to convince Alan. Áine why don’t you trap him in the snug when we go to the pub this evening, and try a touch of the blarney on him? Let him buy you a couple of pints and sneak glances down your blouse, and you’ll have convinced him he invented the whole idea by the end of the evening.”

“Sweet Jesus and Mary! Can’t youse Brits do anything for yourselves?”

Lucy opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment, fortunately, the door opened again.

“Oh, wonderful. So many of you at once. Two minutes, and we’re back in again, people.”

Kivren took a moment before the mirror over the mantelpiece, after the others had left the room, to check that her face was acceptably composed. She took a deep breath, and then headed back into the conference room. But her participation in the rest of the afternoon’s discussion was noticeably absent: several of her fellow delegates made a point of mentioning it. She smiled, politely, and kept her own counsel. After all, she had had plenty of practice.

Ken paused, looking either way down the corridor. Once he had established that the coast was clear he moved quietly out of his room, allowing the door to click shut behind him. No one intercepted him on his passage down the stairs. He could hear a low, reassuringly absorbed murmur of conversation from the residents’ sitting room as he passed. His hand was on the latch of the front door when a cool voice sounded behind him.

“Leaving us a little early this evening, Mr Hemsworth? I didn’t think the group was due to go out for another half hour or so?”

He turned. Caitlin had just come out of her office. He repressed an impulse to swear, and made his voice deliberately bland.

“They aren’t, so far as I know. Alan’s still showing them slides of ancient earthworks, while they work out where we visit next - if we can get to any of them with these imbecilic access restrictions in place. We had to clamber over a few locked gates even to get to the Cerne Giant. Anyhow, I’m afraid there’s only so many tumuli I can take in a day. “

He attempted a roguish smile, with the ghost of a wink. After a moment’s pause, Caitlin returned the smile. He continued.

“Alan’s gone to so much trouble to get his slides together, and he’s so proud of them I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t interested. So I’m afraid I - ah - developed a strategic headache. If he asks, can you tell him I’ve gone out to see if I can walk it off, and that if I feel up to it, I’ll meet up with the rest of the group later? And how about you? Are you coming along to the Rose and Crown? Can I offer to buy you a drink?”

She shook her head. “Got to catch up with my paperwork, I’m afraid. As I’m giving myself a night off tomorrow. This business doesn’t let you have the luxury of two nights off in succession. Specially not these days.”

His eyes glanced around, noting the generous proportions and elegant plasterwork of the hall. His nostrils flared as he breathed in the heavy wax scent rising from the oak panelling.

The kind of high gloss on that wood only comes if you hand polish it daily. For decades. And how many times have you ever had a duster in your own hand, Mrs Naismith?

Oh, spare me the sob stories. What does someone who owns a place like this really know about hard work?

It was an effort to keep his voice pleasant. “Oh? I’m surprised you haven’t considered selling up and retiring to the Canaries or somewhere. Specially considering the god-awful English weather - and business the way it must be at the moment.”

An expression of sheer surprise crossed her face, before the closed social smile locked inexorably back into position. “Oh, I couldn’t sell up. This is a family house - before I inherited I’d been coming here for as long as I can remember. Dreadful place, the Canaries, anyway. Practically no local culture left, and full of awful British ex-pats and timeshares. Not my scene at all. Anyway, if you want to get away while the going’s good, I think you shouldn’t delay your walk any longer, Mr Hemsworth. It sounds as though they might be beginning to wrap up in there.”

Politely, she held the door open to him. He was ten yards down the snow-covered drive before it occurred to him he had been deliberately snubbed. He looked back at the locked door of the guest house behind him, and considered momentarily going back to have it out with the arrogant bitch. His watch, however, beeped the hour at that moment, reminding him that he was on the verge of being late for his meeting. She would get what was coming to her, anyway. They all would. It was only a matter of time.

His lips curved into a smile as he bent his head into the cold wind, and strode firmly down the main street towards the river and the lane that led to the Mill House.

His hostess’s voice was breathy with overtones of suppressed excitement and some other emotion he couldn’t identify. If it were not so utterly implausible he would have been inclined to think it was fear.

“Ken! How perfectly lovely you could come and actually see our little home, at last. Isn’t it simply perfect? Like something out of a period thriller. Listen to the river tinkling away beneath the flags on the floor. Isn’t it evocative? Oh, I have to confess something. Such a bore, I’m afraid. Hugo’s been dragged off to London, to this wretched awards ceremony, he simply couldn’t get out of it, though his agent phoned me to say he was in an absolutely filthy mood when he got to Paddington - still, one of the perils of celebrity, I suppose - one’s time is literally not one’s own. But Ken, there’s someone here you simply must meet. He’s an absolutely essential part of our little syndicate, and I’m so pleased I can introduce you at last.”

She indicated with one much be-ringed hand a figure sitting in the shadowy cavern of the inglenook. At her gesture, the stranger got to his feet in a movement of smooth grace.

He deliberately flattened his vowels. “Ken Hemsworth. Call me Ken. And you are?”

The other man stepped out of the shadows into the centre of the room. Ken’s irritation increased almost to breaking point as he took in that his fellow guest - a man about five years older than he was, he guessed - affected long silver-blond hair, caught up into a pony-tail with a black velvet ribbon, and was generally dressed with an air of expensive foppishness.

Wonderful. The great Hugo Somerville has gone off to some media mutual arse-licking festival, and they’ve wheeled out some poncy ac-tor for the sole purpose of patronising me.

In cold, precise tones the other said:

“I’m afraid my name’s too well known in - ah - relevant circles for us to take the risk of using it openly for the time being in connection with - our little deal. I’ve taken the liberty of - ah - borrowing the name of an old friend of the family as my nom de guerre. You may call me Mr Riddle.”

Ken’s irritation increased. His lips curled. “And what does this old friend of the family have to say about your helping yourself to his name?”

“Mr Riddle” raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Nothing. He is - alas - no longer in a position to say anything about anything.”

Ken could feel his sneer becoming more pronounced. “How unlucky.”

Mr Riddle’s eyebrow went up even further. “For him, certainly.” He paused. “But most fortunate for you.”

The atmosphere in the wake of that comment was almost palpable. Innogen broke in. “I’m sure Ken is quite aware of the need to keep watertight security, Mr Riddle, you know,” she said.

“Yes, I am,” Ken said, slowly and deliberately, “Which is why this stuff about a syndicate - which comes as complete news to me, I might say - bothers me. I’d assumed, Innogen, that you and your husband were funding the acquisition of the Empowerment Centre outright.”

She emitted the nervous tinkling laugh again.

“Oh, dear. People do get such an inflated impression of one’s resources once one enters the public eye. Sorry to disillusion you, Ken dear, but no. Hugo’s production company seems to be sucking down simply every spare penny - I couldn’t dream of tapping him up at this stage for a direct investment in the Empowerment Centre - not that that implies anything about his commitment to it, of course, he’s always been completely supportive - and anyway, if he’s not a direct investor it gives him a far freer hand with what he’s able to do and say to promote our little venture. The BBC can be so stuffy, don’t you find?”

It was an effort not to voice his fury. He pushed back the anger in his voice to dry irony.

“I see.” Ken turned to Mr Riddle. “So I take it you’ve been brought in as a financial backer, is that it?”

Mr Riddle raised an eyebrow and paused before responding, somehow managing to convey with the repositioning of a scant few millimetres of muscle both disdain and surprise that anyone would have the presumption to ask him a question touching on his financial resources.

“Regrettably, there are at the moment a couple of - ah - temporary but annoying encumbrances preventing my access to my capital for any such purpose. Interested as I am in the Centre becoming a success.”

Ken snorted. “Well, Innogen, it seems you’ve got me involved under somewhat false pretences. Even if I were in a position to raise funding beyond the initial stake we agreed at the outset - and I’m not saying it would be impossible, just that this wasn’t the deal we signed up to - I’d certainly be expecting far more than the mere directorship you promised me if I extended my commitment like that.”

Riddle’s voice had a patrician edge that made Ken’s hackles rise.

“‘I’m sure the funds should be available elsewhere without having to call on you. In fact, wasn’t Hugo supposed to be finalising the Centre’s credit line this evening, in between acknowledging the homage of the unwashed Mu - multitude, Innogen?”

She fluttered nervously, making something of a business of opening a new bottle of wine before responding.

“Of course he is. I’m expecting a phone call within the hour. One of our closest supporters has committed herself to find all the money we could possibly need.”

Mr Riddle’s voice sounded pointed.

“Even if we have to pay over the odds for the premises?”

Ken’s mouth was dry, suddenly, as he recollected Caitlin’s tone in the hallway. Nonetheless, he was proud of himself for being able to keep control of his countenance.

“Trust me. In a few days she’ll be begging to do the deal. At any price the - syndicate - condescends to offer. She hasn’t even seen trouble yet.”

Mr Riddle’s eyes passed dispassionately over him. With a nasty churning sensation in his gut Ken felt as though he were back at primary school, with a pair of basilisk eyes on him and a voice from yards above his head saying sternly,

Someone is fibbing here. And none of us are going home until that someone owns up.”

He sneered back regardless. Mr Riddle gave him a reptilian smile.

“How - confident. Well, we’ll all be relying on you - ah - Ken.”

Innogen’s tinkling laugh sounded again, jarringly out of place in the circumstances.

“Well, then that’s wonderful. Shall we drink to that, then?”

She topped up the glasses before either of them could say anything. Ken sipped, and had to concede that the wine was better than anything else he had ever tasted. That in itself was enough to fuel his ire. He was about to say something, when he caught Mr Riddle’s sardonic gaze on him. Somehow, that made the remark less witty than he thought it had been. In reluctant acquiescence he raised his glass to clink against Innogen’s.

“To our Centre,” he mouthed, meaninglessly. Across the glasses he could see an ice-cold pair of eyes regarding him with neither pity nor interest. He thrust his sudden up welling of doubt back into the depths of his mind.

“Fuck, do you suppose that’s the general standard of talent round here?”

Kivren turned at Nicci’s exclamation, almost spilling the drinks she was carefully carrying towards the table they had colonised in the corner of the pub. Áine, true to the deal, had borne Alan off into the snug, so only Jacqueline, Julian and Lucy were sitting there. Two pints of scrumpy in the convivial atmosphere of the pub, and the blessed absence of both Cathy and Ken, who had taken their gadfly presences off somewhere or other after supper, had done much to revive her.

It was not hard to work out who had triggered the comment. She gave the blond boy a swift glance.

“Can’t be.” Her voice was swift and laconic. Nicci put her head on one side.

“Why not?”

“They haven’t built a motorway here yet.”

Nicci giggled appreciatively. Either that or something else about their little group had attracted the stranger’s attention. He said something to the tall, broad-shouldered young man he was chatting to (“And I wouldn’t actually chuck his friend out of my bed, either,” Kivren observed), to which the other nodded assentingly, and started to walk over towards them.

“My god! Looks like he wants to talk to us.”

Her exclamation distracted Jacqueline (who was being firm, but polite with Julian about the universality of the Corn-maiden legend, and its relationship to crop circles) and she looked up. Kivren noticed her sudden stillness as the blond boy arrived at their table, and smiled across at her.

“Hello. I hope you’re feeling better?”

Jacqueline’s voice was low. “Much, thanks.”

Nicci broke in, sounding at once eager and intrusive. “Jackie, why don’t you introduce us?”

Jacqueline, momentarily, looked flustered. The blond boy raised an eyebrow: Kivren thought there was a mixture of amusement and affront, as at an over-familiarity, in his expression.

“This is Draco, Nicci. He was kind enough to give me a lift back from Cerne on Monday.”

“Oh!” Nicci surveyed him with a surprised expression. “Was that you who came into the pub in Cerne with Caitlin, then? You look different, somehow.”

The young man - Draco? And what an odd name that was, Kivren thought suddenly - smiled distantly. He could hardly be older than Nicci, but there was something about the controlled way he held himself that suggested that on some level he had maturity beyond his years.

Before, however, he could say anything the other young man, now wearing his outdoor things, was at the table, accompanied by two deliriously excited liver and white spaniels.

“Sorry, Draco,” he said abruptly, “But I’m going to have to dump the canine mutiny on you. Phil’s left his lights on, and gone and flattened his battery, and I’ve promised to loan him our jump leads and the use of our battery to get him started.”

Draco raised an eyebrow. “We have - ah - jump leads?”

His friend patted a bulging coat pocket, from which a tangled mass of red and black wiring was protruding.

“We do now.”

“Ah. What you keep in your pockets never ceases to surprise me.”

Their eyes met as though they were sharing an immensely private joke. Then Draco, his last comment apparently reminding him of something, cast his eye around the course delegates sitting at the table, added:

“By the way - didn’t Caitlin tell me you people were writing a fantasy novel?”

His friend shot Draco a look which conveyed a degree of reproof, which Draco conspicuously ignored. His friend shrugged.

“I’m going out into the car-park. I may be some time. Don’t - ah -“

Draco grinned mischievously. “Would I?”

“I’ll leave that between you and your conscience, shall I? If any.”

He was gone. Draco turned back to them.

“No faith in me, none at all,” he muttered. “Anyway, what about this novel?”

Nicci nodded enthusiastically, and patted the empty seat next to her. “Come and join us, so we can tell you about it?”

He hesitated, momentarily, and then smiled. “OK”.

He picked up his drink and slid into the empty seat. The dogs followed him, rolling ecstatically over to be tickled and fussed with by anyone within range. “So, what’s this novel about?”

Nicci started to enumerate points, checking them off on her fingers.

“Well, there’s a Quest, and they’re tracking across the wilderness in search of the Artefacts of Doom -“

“Personally,” Draco interrupted, “Anything labelled anything like that I’d be tracking the opposite way across the wilderness just so as to avoid -“

Jacqueline smiled, for the first time since he had joined the group. “I did suggest that given the odds on survival a bit more reluctance on the part of the Questees to participate would have been plausible -“

Julian, who had been writhing around himself in apparent paroxysms of suppressed comment, could contain himself no more.

“Look, we had this all out on the first session. These are all responsible people, all leaders in their respective communities. How could they stand by, whatever the personal risk, and risk the Artefacts passing back into the control of the Dark Shadow?”

“With an ease that would astound you,” Draco murmured. “So there’s a Dark Shadow as well? And what does he do? Apart from collect Artefacts of Doom, that is? I suppose he does have a business as well as a hobby?”

Lucy looked at him as though she found it difficult to believe he was real. “I take it you’re one of those people who despise genre fiction on principle,” she said stiffly. He smiled, suddenly, and reached down to tickle the ears of the nearer dog.

“Oh, no,” he breathed gently, “It’s just that for light relief I prefer something more escapist.”

Lucy snorted. “I’ll be over at the quiz machine,” she said, getting up and moving away from the table. Not for the first time that week, Kivren wondered whether writing fantasy had a destructive effect on the sense of humour. The new arrival raised an eyebrow in an expression of comic helplessness, and Kivren, although aware of being manipulated, was moved to intervene.

“So what do you read, then?”

He paused. “Varies a lot. Seems to be Thirties detective stories at the moment, mostly.”

She heard herself, as though from a long way away, say, “And have you discovered the way to commit the perfect murder yet?”

There was a pause. He looked across at her, his grey eyes searching deep into hers. For a moment she was almost tempted to scream in panic. He has a dangerous face, she heard a voice, apparently from outside herself, chime in, before she conquered her idiocy. He held her gaze a moment longer.

“No,” he said, “I knew how to do that before I started reading them. But I gave up the idea once I grasped that the best I could hope for, however good my plan was, would be the gentlemanly way out in the library. Terribly moral form of literature, don’t you think?”

“It’s nice to know you recognise some form of morality.”

The harsh North-Country tones from above their heads caught them all by surprise. Draco looked up, his face coolly impassive.

“I’m sorry?”

Ken was still in his outdoor clothes, the draught from the pub car-park chilling the air as the door drifted slowly closed behind him. His face was suffused with fury as he stared at the little group, who almost involuntarily closed up together in defence against his wrath.

Despite the expressions of agonised embarrassment from the rest of his course-mates (He’s getting off on that, Kivren thought suddenly, and then chided herself for being uncharitable) Ken jabbed an aggressive thumb in the direction of the dogs.

“They’re yours, I gather?”

The smooth, cut-glass, light tones were almost amused. “I’m not entirely sure which way round they’d think it is. But I pay for their food, yes.”

“Yes. And it would seem to have escaped your notice that this is a pub-restaurant. And last time I looked, the law of the land was that dogs may not be brought into any premises where food is being served.”

Draco raised his eyebrows. “Really?” Deliberately, he caught the eye of the landlord over the bar, and raised his voice very slightly above normal conversational level.


A silence fell on the bar in which the ringing of bells and snatches of music from the quiz machine were suddenly the only distraction.

“Ah - yes?”

“You’ve got any problem with having the dogs in here?”

The landlord’s mouth hung open for a split second before he evidently recovered his wits. He shook his head.

“Why would there be?”

“Just checking, thanks.” Draco turned back to Ken. “There you are, you see. Sorted.”

Kivren was suddenly very aware of Ken’s heavy breathing, and the pasty-white shade of his skin. Involuntarily, she moved out of range of his fists. He glared at Draco.

“So - just who do you think you are? Coming in here, behaving as if you own the village - “

Slowly, Draco got to his feet. He extended a hand to Ken.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” he said sweetly. “Draco Malfoy.” He paused. “And as a matter of fact, no, I don’t. Not any more.”

Before Ken could respond there was a scream from Lucy by the quiz machine.

“Oh, shit! It’s a rat - a bleeding rat for goodness sake!”

A small dark shape streaked suddenly across the carpet. The dogs gave vent to a sudden torrent of barking, and dived frantically after it.

“What the fuck -?”

Faster than Kivren could have predicted anyone could move, Draco had vaulted over the table in pursuit of the spaniels. A blast of icy air swept through the bar as the door from the pub car park crashed open and the tall young man they had seen earlier was briefly outlined in it, before he also dived after the dogs. There was a confused interval, with some angry shouting (Kivren could have sworn that not much of it was in any language she understood, which ruled out English, French, German and Gaelic for starters) and blurrily fast movements before suddenly the scene resolved itself. The tall young man was holding one of the two dogs firmly round its middle, while it barked defiance on the world at large, while the other was restrained by Draco’s hand on its collar.

Draco straightened up. “Looks like the catch on the hutch got loose again.”

He had his other hand gripped firmly around the middle of a plump black-and-white guinea pig, which he proffered towards the landlord. Kivren was almost sure she could see the landlord fall back half a foot, and then gather himself together.

“You’ll have to tell the kids to be more careful.”

Kivren, side-on, thought she saw the landlord’s lips move soundlessly in something which looked like: but we don’t keep guinea-pigs. The young man looked determinedly back at him. You do now she heard in her head, and gulped. Calm down, she scolded herself. Stop letting your imagination take charge.

“Thanks,” the landlord breathed. “I’ll be sure to mention it.”

Draco turned towards the woman next to the quiz machine. “I’m sure this chap’s sorry he startled you,” he said, holding the small wriggling creature out towards her. Although she stretched out a finger to stroke the blinking guinea pig tentatively on the nose, Lucy still looked suspiciously at it.

“But I know I saw a rat -“

“Easy mistake to make.”

The flat Lancashire tones from the tall young man were at once reassuring and prosaic.

“After all, when I was a kid and asked if I could keep them, my grandma told me guinea pigs were just rats with no tails and a good PR agency. Can I get anyone a drink?”

When they were settled back round the table Kivren looked round to see where Ken had got to. Apparently, however, he had vanished. Draco, nudging the dogs back under the table after their excitement (he had presented the guinea pig to the landlord who had gone away with it, still looking bemused), moved round to accommodate Lucy, who appeared to have abandoned the quiz machine in favour of conversation. His friend, when he returned with the drinks, slid into a seat on the other side of the table.

“Apparently, Neville, in their story the Dark Shadow is collecting Artefacts of Doom,” Draco told his friend brightly. His friend raised his eyebrows in a resigned manner.

“What for? Can he trade them in for something? Exchange your complete set of Artefacts of Doom for guaranteed world domination, that sort of thing?”

To Kivren’s apprehension, the flippancy of the two young men was jarring visibly on Julian. He waved his hand in an exasperated manner. “Look, we are trying to create something original here. And we are dealing with working titles, after all. You might stop sneering and give us credit for trying to create something rather than be mere passive consumers. The Dark Shadow invested his power in the Artefacts of Doom, and then lost them -“

The drawling light voice sounded extremely mocking.

“But - how careless can you get? What’s wrong with his bank vault, anyway?”

“Oh, really! Do you just have to keep on sniping because some people have more creativity and imagination than you have?”

To emphasise the point, he lent forward towards Draco and wagged an admonishing forefinger in his face. The blond young man stiffened as Julian invaded his personal space, an expression of frozen distaste on his elegantly carved features. Neville, who had initially been looking amused, put out a restraining hand and rested it on Draco’s forearm.

Idiot ! Kivren thought abruptly. Julian simply can’t imagine a world in which someone might land him a smack in the kisser. How the hell has he managed to get to the age he has without being proved wrong?

The sense of conflict swirling about the bar made her feel almost physically ill. As always, she had to do something to restore harmony. She had, after all, been famous for that talent, once. With a brief flicker of pain she remembered Simon at the last night party following a particularly trying production of Fauré’s Requiem, in which only the non-stop, full-stretch exercise of her diplomatic talents for three solid weeks had prevented the sopranos killing the contraltos, and the strings declaring UDI from the rest of the orchestra.

He had solemnly sprayed her with sparkling perry, intoning in his deep, infinitely sensuous voice,

“I name this oil tanker the Motor Vessel “Serenity”. And long may you sail the troubled waters of the world.” And she had blushed furiously through the dripping rattails of her ruined hair at the grinning choir and orchestra.

And less than three months later a sales rep coming the other way, too fast in freezing fog -

She blinked. Despite memory, she heard herself assuming the tone Simon had dubbed her Pollyanna Voice, “Well, the novel’s not just about Artefacts of Doom. There’s all sorts of other court intrigue going on, as well.”

Draco turned towards her. Apparently his friend’s gesture had checked his immediate impulse to wreak violence on Julian, because he turned away from him towards her, raised an eyebrow and murmured, picking up on the cue, “Really? That sounds - intriguing. Tell me more.”

She sighed with relief. Before, however, she could elucidate a shadow fell across the table. She looked up to see Alan, slightly crumpled and indefinably strained. He had a somewhat nervous smile on his lips, and Kivren wondered whether the conflict was getting too much for him, too.

“May I join you?”

Without waiting for an invitation he slid into a vacant seat, and continued rapidly: “The principal problem we’ve been having with the court intrigue is the High Priestess.”

Draco raised an eyebrow. “Why? Is it that difficult to get her down?”

Nicci suppressed a giggle, and Kivren caught Draco flicking her a knowing, sidelong look. Alan made his voice quelling. “If Áine were here - given that the High Priestess was her idea in the first place - she’d give you trouble for that one. The servants of the Goddess never drink the Holy Brew and go into the sacred trance except for strictly - ah - ritual purposes.”

He paused, and added thoughtfully,

“Mind you, judging by what we’ve done so far there does seem to be a great deal of ritual needed in that temple.”

There was a nervous titter, though Julian remained stony. Lucy treated Alan to a severe glance. “And where is Áine? Not eaten her, have you?”

Alan looked suddenly awkward. “No - I - she was asked if she wanted to play pool by some of the locals. I thought - it seemed - it would have been standoffish to refuse -“

As one, the group turned its fascinated gaze towards the pool table. Draco let out his breath in a sound that was almost, Kivren thought, a whistle.

“My god!”

Lucy looked questioningly across at him. “There’s a problem?”

“Well -“

Neville, intervening before he could say any more, muttered hurriedly, “I think Draco means that that’s Nick Winzar and his brothers who seem to be teaching her the rules over there. They’re - um - a bit, well - “

He paused. Draco leapt in again.

“Well, put it this way, your friend might get taught more than the rules of pool. In this village the Winzars are famed for the enthusiasm with which they sow their wild oats - “

Kivren, in an attempt to lighten the mood, raised her eyebrows. “Ah?” she purred, deliberately dropping her voice into its lowest register. “And Áine a good Catholic girl, too. No doubt she’ll be rushing off to Mass at the first opportunity -“

Draco’s face looked alive, his lips parted to say something -

“To pray for crop failure, you understand,” Kivren added, almost as an afterthought. Draco snorted with laughter, though Lucy sniffed, and muttered something about the hypocrisy of Catholic confession under her breath.

Neville coughed. “Anyway,” he said with a rather self-conscious determination to wrench them back to less difficult topics, “What’s this woman the High Priestess of?”

Lucy snorted. “Primal Earth-mother cults, obviously. Over-done, and derivative, if you ask me - to say nothing of pernicious dangerous nonsense when people start taking it seriously -“

Kivren was conscious of a disapproving glance directed towards the triple-stranded Celtic amulet she was wearing, and flushed.

“It’d have been a much better thing ecologically if a lot more people had taken it seriously a lot earlier,” she said hotly. “The Goddess tradition emphasizes the mystical, deeply symbiotic relationship between humans and the land -“

“You’re so right, Kivs,” Julian broke in. “And in this part of the country you see the remains of that relationship still etched so deeply - the earthworks, the stone circles, the chalk figures cut out of the hillside - the fundamental round of the planets and seasons celebrated, not suppressed -” He looked pointedly at Draco. “Of course, it may be that this sort of thing only strikes us so clearly because we’re from outside the area. Someone like you - who I presume have lived here all your life - may have become so familiar with the scenery as to be de-sensitised to the nuances.”

There was a moment’s pause, and then Draco’s eyes danced wickedly. “I’d say you were right there. Certainly the only land round here I feel any sort of deeply mystical symbiotic relationship with is the chunk I own - but then I do feel a really close bond with that.”

“Draco!” his friend said reprovingly. Neville’s tone, however, had sounded more resigned than repressive. Draco flicked him a grin, and he smiled reluctantly back. Julian, however, paled with anger.

“I suppose you would. It was the development of destructive notions of private land-ownership which started to erode that very bond I’ve been talking about. Perhaps if you could manage to get your head around other notions of how humans could relate to the land they inhabit, it’d widen your horizons.”

Draco paused, considering, then shrugged. “Nope. Can’t see it. For mystical bonds with the land, title deeds do it for me, every time. It’s a family thing.”

Julian opened his lips to say something else, but Jacqueline, evidently catching on to the peace-keeping idea slightly late, said hurriedly,

“Anyway, our big debate on the novel at present is whether the High Priestess is going to turn out Good or Dark. And everyone on the course seems to have a different view. It makes characterisation rather complicated.”

Kivren bobbed her head energetically, trying to keep the conversational ball in play.

“Of course, maybe the real problem is perhaps we’re too close to her - it’d be nice to have the perspective of someone outside-?”

She looked hopefully across at Draco’s friend, who seemed to have an understanding face. Not letting her down, Neville smiled, and said, “I think I’d need to know an awful lot more about her before making any judgments. Far too many people make that kind of decision just on superficial appearances, you know.”

He flicked a glance at Draco - too quick and complex to decode, though Kivren thought she detected amusement and, unexpectedly, tenderness in it. Draco flushed. Before, however, he could say anything Nicci’s voice cut in.

“Well, I can’t see that the High Priestess would be anything other than completely evil.”

Several people raised surprised eyebrows at her vehemence. She looked, momentarily, confused at having the attention of the table, but ploughed gamely on.

“I mean, she’s far and away the most powerful woman in the Realm, and there don’t actually seem to be all that many things for women to do there -“

“A point some of us have mentioned,” Julian observed with an edge to his tone. Lucy’s expression was set.

“Yes, I know you have. Repeatedly. But you shouldn’t let your politics deflect you from the demands of the genre we’re writing in. This is mythic history we’re writing. The roles for women are determined by the form we’ve chosen - it would simply look like an absurd and contrived polemic, otherwise -“

Kivren found herself shaking her head vigorously. “Look, Lucy, we’ve had this argument so many times. Every time I try to point out that there are lots of plausible roles women could play in heroic fantasy - sorry, mythic history - if the authors only let them, you accuse me of trying to insist on a rule that all dragons must be female, for equal opportunities purposes -“

Neville grinned wickedly.

“All the truly terrifying dragons I’ve ever met have been female, as a matter of fact -” he said.

His friend raised an eyebrow, but before he could say anything Julian interjected huffily,

“If you don’t mind my saying so, I’d be careful with those knee-jerk misogynistic comments. Few things sound tackier than members of one minority slagging off another -“

One of those abrupt, inexplicable silences fell on the bar. An angel’s flying overhead, Kivren’s grandmother - the one who had the Sight - had used to say about such moments. Into the hush Neville said,

“Not a minority, as a matter of fact.”


Julian’s expression was a disbelieving sneer. Neville’s tones remained those of mild apology.

“Women. Nearly 51% of the population, last time I checked the statistics. Not a minority. Technically. I’m sorry, anyway. We interrupted - sorry, I didn’t get your name, earlier. Anyway, you were saying about the High Priestess -?”

He gestured to Nicci to continue. Before, however, she could do so (truth to tell, she looked frozen to the spot at having the group’s attention redirected back towards her) Jacqueline pulled out her purse. “My round, isn’t it? Everyone having the same again?”

She vanished in the direction of the bar.

“Anyway,” Alan said, ” You’re right. Nicci was in the middle of making a very interesting point. Go on, Nicci.”

She gulped, flickering her eyes nervously around those at the table as though they were a tribunal in judgment upon her. Her voice shook.

“Well, like I said. If she’s got to the top, and it’s, like, the only top job a woman actually can do - well, apart from be Queen, of course, and she’s dead anyway, then stands to reason the woman who actually got the job would be a total bitch, wouldn’t she? I’ve met one myself.”

The entire table looked at her in fascination. Alan cleared his throat. “Er - Nicci - that’s a wonderful cliff-hanger - you might want to bear in mind that technique for your next snippet, love - but we’re literally hanging on the edge of our seats here. You’ve actually met a High Priestess?”

Nicci looked at him with an unfeigned air of Do I have to humour this madman? which left Kivren choking back an urge to giggle.

“No,” she said slowly and very patiently, “I meant: a woman who was a total bitch to work for because she claimed she’d had such a hell of a job getting to where she was. It was in this health centre I was temping in, as a receptionist. She was the senior doctor, and she must have been about sixty if she was a day, and half the time she was bollocking me for not having done anything more with my education given all the blah, blah about how hard she’d had to fight to be allowed to become a professional at all, and the other half she was bollocking me for not having the files where she wanted them. Stupid cow. I mean, if everyone went off to be doctors, who’d do the filing?”

There was a stunned silence. Kivren was sure, from the frozen expressions of most of the group, that they were picturing Nicci on the loose with a scalpel in her hand and heartily giving thanks to whatever gods they prayed to that she had, apparently, been bereft of driving career ambition.

It was Neville who broke the silence. “That’s all very well,” he said gently, “And I’m sure she was a horror, but there’s a difference between being irredeemably evil and being a total shit to work for, you know.”

“There is?” Nicci’s face crumpled in puzzlement.

“Sure is,” Draco broke in, his eyes alight with mischief. “I mean, I shudder to think what Mrs P. says about me behind my back, especially this week -“

His friend shot him a quick, knowing grin.

“And who’s Mrs P.?” Julian asked, the sides of his mouth curling in a sneer. Draco, Kivren could tell, was decidedly not Mr Garrowby’s cup of tea.

And thank god Ken decided to flounce off after the first skirmish.

“My cook. Well, cook/housekeeper, actually. In my father’s day we used to have one of each, but since he died and I leased off most of the Manor we don’t really need -“

He tailed off. There was a frozen silence over the table again. Draco shrugged.

“Anyway,” he said, “I can also say that I’ve met enough people who were charm personified, but after a conversation with them you could look down and see the hilt of a knife sticking out from between your ribs and still be asking yourself Now where did that come from? ten minutes later.

Julian’s lips curled even more contemptuously.

Now you’re simply being melodramatic.”

Draco’s cold grey eyes met his, and Kivren gave an involuntary shiver.

“Frequently, yes. But not at the moment, actually.”

Neville coughed, and turned towards Alan. “Anyway,” he said politely,” You were saying about the High Priestess?”

“Well, I think it’s an interesting point about the relationship between evil and freedom of choice Nicci made. Perhaps essentially having your career options limited to a choice of enchantress, bar-maid, sacred prostitute -“

Draco raised an eyebrow. “Sacred prostitute? Whatever happened to the ordinary sort?”

“Pressures towards monopolisation exerted by a supplier in a dominant position in the market rendered the sector economically unviable,” Alan observed dryly.

“He means,” Kivren put in, having seen Nicci’s despairingly uncomprehending look, “That the Temple eunuchs came round and beat up all the unsanctified ones until they either converted or agreed to embrace chastity.”

Lucy pursed her lips. “The whole scene seemed quite unnecessary to me. I don’t see why we have to dwell on that sort of thing -“

“I expect,” Draco observed, “It was there so you could get in a nice tense bit where the heroine gets sold into the Temple and the hero has to get her out with her virtue unscathed -“

“Semi-scathed,” Kivren corrected. “Áine was in charge of that aspect of plot planning.”

Julian gave them both a disapproving look.

“For me,” he said pointedly, “Those scenes were thematically essential to demonstrate the tension between the Temple of the God-King and its slave-prostitutes, and the High Priestess and her acolytes dedicated to the service of the Goddess, and their unashamed celebration of human sexuality. Otherwise, how else would you show the inherent conflict between the patriarchal and matriarchal principles?”

Lucy snorted, but Julian, once off on his favourite topic, was unstoppable. He gestured excitably.

“I mean, because of centuries of dominance of the Christian patriarchal tradition in the Western world no-one even considers the case for matriarchy as the basis for a society any more -“

Draco shuddered, visibly. Neville’s lips moved, silently. Kivren thought he was saying, “Heaven forbid.”

Julian frowned. “Take your own position.” He jabbed an accusing finger in Draco’s direction. “I mean, I gather you’re the Lord of the Manor here, or whatever. But I bet you’ve never even paused to consider that if you’d been born a girl, in this society, then you wouldn’t be.”

Draco looked him up and down, slowly. “Yes I would, actually,” he said. After a moment’s thought, he added, “Provided my parents hadn’t provided me with a brother, that was.”

They looked at him. He shrugged expressively, and added, “There was never an actual rule that you had to be male to inherit. Just the next legitimate direct heir. In fact, one of my ancestresses - Anne Malfoy - was an unholy terror who happened to fetch up as the Lord in Elizabethan times - got through three husbands in quick succession and managed to double the size of the family estates as a result. Then she got invited to Court by John Dee when she was about 50 or so, and sparked off major ructions when there was a suspicion that she might be eying up Sir Philip Sidney as husband number four -“

Kivren giggled. “Yes, I can see the Sidneys might have been worried -“

Draco looked coolly at her. “Well, they may well have been, for all I know. I was talking about ructions in my family.”

Julian looked at him sceptically. “And what did they call the husbands? The Ladies of the Manor?”

Draco’s eyes were chips of ice. “They called them Mr Malfoy. Of course. The name goes with the land.”

Lucy raised her eyebrows. “Ah. I see. Feudal but not necessarily patrilinear.”

Draco nodded.

“Yes. The wheels only fell off the whole system when by the 19th century men had got a lot twitchier about changing their names even for shed-loads of land, so the next female Lord of the Manor - Arabella - couldn’t find anyone who was prepared to marry her on her terms, so she died of disappointment, allegedly, and the estate went to her uncle, when they finally managed to track him down. Who happened to be my great-great grandfather, so there you are.”

Nicci said with an air of carefully thinking it out as she spoke, “Then if you only had a daughter, then she’d eventually be the Lord of the Manor, and anyone who married her would have to change his name to hers?”

Draco raised a surprised eyebrow. “I suppose so. Not that I’ve ever thought of it that way. Or that it’s a scenario which is at all likely to happen.”

His friend gave a slow, amused smile, and then got up to assist Jacqueline, who had just returned carrying a trayful of drinks, in deploying them about the table.

“No sign of Áine planning to rejoin us?” Kivren asked. Jacqueline nodded at the pool table.

“Not for the foreseeable future,” she said, shrugging expressively.

“Poor unsuspecting lads,” Lucy muttered. Neville looked at her.

“Well, I’ve never heard Nick described that way before. And Mike’s record, if anything, is even worse. And as for Joshua -!”

Nicci looked over towards the pool-table with an indefinably wistful air.

“I think I’ll just wander over there and see when she’ll be getting back,” she said, and, picking up her drink, headed determinedly across the bar.

The little group gazed after her. Jacqueline turned to Draco.

“Seems like your warning was more of an advertisement.”

“Very potent, the charm of the bad boy,” Kivren chimed in.

“Well,” Alan said, “I do hope they’re going to be all right -“

“If they’ve survived Parkhurst -” Neville sounded thoughtful. Alan looked sharply at him.

“I was meaning the girls. If these young men really have a sexual reputation like that -“

Kivren, who had always hated hypocrites, felt her forehead creasing. “Don’t be silly, Alan,” she said, “No-one’s going to rape Áine -“

“Well,” Lucy snapped, “If they wanted to, they’d have to be damn quick to get in there before she yelled out, “Please, please.” “

Lucy!” Julian’s voice was shocked. She shook her head determinedly.

“I speak as I find.”

There was an awkward silence, broken by Neville.

“Well,” he said, “And you still haven’t decided if the High Priestess is going to be evil or not.”

As if reprieved, they flung themselves into a babble of conversation.

Some time later, Kivren, reaching down by her feet for her handbag to see whether she had enough for the next round, felt her fingers close on an unfamiliar piece of paper, strangely bulky for its size, which had not been there before. Acting on some instinct she barely understood she unrolled it in her hand below the level of the table. And having taken in the contents, the letters cut-and-pasted from newspapers, in one shocked unbelieving instant her hand had crushed it before anyone could ask what it could be. Unobtrusively, she dropped it into the ashtray.

Bright grey eyes were looking at her, challenging her.

“Do you play pool?” A light, very English voice said. “If not, then why not?”

She smiled and got up from the table.

The rest of the delegates seemed to have dissipated themselves about the pub, some to watch the pool game and others to the bar. Neville, not without contrivance, found himself alone at the table with the woman Draco had covertly pointed out to him. Under cover of their conversation he assessed her discreetly. She had a long bony face, which looked tireder and more lined than her apparent age warranted. Her nervous fingers raked unconsciously through her grey-blond hair, which was currently loosely hanging about her face, to slightly below her jaw line. The hair, and her face’s elongated elegance, gave her something of the air of an afghan hound. Her eyes, however she tried to control them, kept drifting towards the ashtray on the table. Neville kept his eyes as carefully away from it.

With a quiet nudge with the side of his foot he guided the two dogs into her direction. Her fingers came down to tickle and caress them, and her eyes broke away from his gaze.

“Don’t encourage them. They’re terrible sluts, you know.”

She turned and grinned at him. “They’re spaniels. What else could you expect?”

“Well, at least you know the nature of the beast.”

He leant down towards the dogs, and, as he had suspected, she took the opportunity to stretch out her hand to the ashtray. He heard a slight indrawn breath, and straightened up in time to catch her with the smoothed out piece of paper in front of her and an expression of such desolation on her face that he felt moved to reach out and put his hand over hers. He deliberately caught her gaze and held it.

“If that’s what I think it is, then the conventional thing to say at this point is that people who write anonymous letters are sad gits with more problems than the people who receive them.”

He paused.

“And anyone who actually comes out with that crap has obviously never had one.”

She looked up at that, searching his face. What she saw must have appeared sincere, because she let out a shuddering breath.

“You too?”

He nodded. “Quite often. You’d think one would get more thick-skinned about it, but I think actually you just get better at hiding it.”

“Why-?” She coloured up, as she plainly thought better of her question, and he smiled at her in an effort to reassure her. He inclined his head in the direction of the pool table, where Draco and Nicci were now taking on Kivren and Julian amid much hilarity.

“Good grief, really? In this day and age?”

He shrugged. “We’re - from a surprisingly conservative background. And there are - rather more specific reasons.”

His eyes lingered over the curve of Draco’s spine as he bent over the pool table. She was obviously reading something from Neville’s expression, because she said abruptly:

“Your friend doesn’t seem afraid of fighting fire with fire. Would that be one of the reasons?”

He knew his mouth must have twisted up in a wry grimace, because her face momentarily reflected it.

“Oh. Did I miss something earlier?”

She spoke quickly, clearly aiming to reassure.

“Nothing too bad. Ken - you missed our Ken, he came in just before that business with the dogs and obviously decided to slope off in the kerfuffle - anyway, he had a go at your friend and - got rather more than he bargained for.”

“Oh dear. Any blood spilt?” She was, he could tell, trying to work out whether the comment was intended literally or metaphorically. As he rather wanted to know the answer himself, he kept his expression open and confiding. She smiled nervously and said:

“Actually, I think Ken would have preferred it if it had been a fist-fight. He claims to have considered turning pro boxer in his youth. But your friend took him down with purely verbal daggers. Even with someone who wears his chips on his sleeve like Ken, spotting exactly where his weakest spot was before they’d been introduced was - impressive.”

He winced. “I’m sure it was. Oh, god.”

Her calming, conscientious duty smile came back. “Ken was asking for it, you know -“

“I’m sure that’s true. The trouble is, with Draco, the retaliation is usually so memorable everyone always forgets that there was provocation in the first place.”

Her face lightened into a real smile at last. “Not with our Ken. You could come in immediately after someone had just let off a thermo-nuclear device on his head, and you’d probably just think “Oh, he must have been asking for it.” “

Her eyes dropped back down to the paper in front of her, and her smile faded. “I’d be a lot happier if I was sure that piece of poison was him. The worst bit is wondering whether it’s someone you like, someone you think you’re getting along with -“

She put a determined note in her voice. “I suppose in one way it serves me right. I shouldn’t have read it. It wasn’t addressed to me, after all.”

“About you, though?”

Lucy had left her cigarette lighter on the table. She set fire to the paper and let it burn to ashes, and then nodded, apparently unable to speak. Abruptly, she started to get her things together, evidently planning a departure.

“Nasty.” He looked across at her. “Can I walk you back to the guest-house?”

“I -” She looked at him. “I’ve been on my own in much more dangerous places, you know. And in any case -“

“Yes, I know. No stereotyping. And it’s a short walk up a very well lit main street and it isn’t even very late and all the rest of it. But - well, you’ve obviously had a bit of a shock, and - also - look, when I was out trying to help Phil fix his car, I spotted someone hanging around the car-park behaving a bit oddly. I’d feel happier if you didn’t leave here alone. Honestly.”

She obviously thought about it for a moment, and nodded. As they left the pub he caught Draco’s eye. Wait for me. I’ll be back. Draco gave the tiniest of nods to show he had understood, and bent over the pool table again.

He did not re-enter the pub on his return, but gestured with one hand towards the Porsche. The car’s hazard lights flashed obediently, and he opened the driver’s-side door and got in. The dogs hopped into the back. A second or so later a dark figure came out of the pub and slid into the passenger seat beside him. They were halfway up the hill before either of them spoke.

“Not a moment too soon,” Draco said lightly. “I was thinking that you were going to have to dive in to defend my virtue against Nicci. Now there’s a girl who will not take a hint.”

Despite his other preoccupations, Neville grinned. “Want to avoid that sort of trouble, get yourself a different car.”

They took the corner onto the start of the Manor drive in a spray of flying snow. Neville slowed momentarily for the gates, and then continued over the bumpy frozen track at a marginally more prudent pace than he had taken the well-gritted main road.

“But you enjoy driving this one so much,” Draco said. “Unless you want to let me-“

“No. And I hoped by now you’d appreciate exactly why.”

Draco shrugged. “If you’re going to get that sort of shit for it anyway, why not have the benefits too?”

No. End of story. I’ll buy myself a new car when the business can stand it.”

Draco dropped the subject as they pulled up at the back of the house.

As they went in through the kitchen he said, petulantly, “Anyway, Nicci didn’t even see the car. It was all down to my charm.”

“And your claiming to own the village had nothing to do with it?”

“No I didn’t!” He spun, indignantly, before realising he was being laughed at. “Complete misrepresentation. What I claimed was that I used to own the village, and don’t any more. More or less true, give or take fifteen generations or so. Anyway, who told you about that?”

“Jacqueline. But I’ll tell you about her later. Was the guy you had the row with a heftily built type in a leather jacket?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

Neville hesitated.

‘When I was out in the car-park, there were two guys came up to the pub door, but only one of them went through it. He looked round for the other, and couldn’t spot him, so after a minute or two looking around and getting seriously wound up about it he went on ahead. And that was the guy I just described. I could see him properly in the light, when the pub door opened.”

Draco’s eyes narrowed.

“And the other one?”

“Mm, yes, him. Well, once he’d seen the other guy safely into the pub he must have dropped the Concealment Charm -“

Draco drew in his breath sharply.

What did he look like?”

Draco’s voice was not loud, but the intensity in it shook the car, as though he had shouted. Nonetheless, Neville made his own voice factual and non-committal.

“No idea. He was making damn sure no-one got a look at his face, and in the circumstances I wasn’t planning on making myself conspicuous.”

There was the sound of an inhalation - runaway breathing being brought back under control, perhaps - from the dark interior of the car.

And what the fuck’s all that about, then? Being given some information occasionally would make a nice change, love.

“Did he see you?”

Neville shook his head. “I kept my head under Phil’s bonnet making supposedly informed noises at his fan-belt. But I can tell you one thing: that guy very definitely spotted the Porsche, and I’m pretty certain that was when he decided not to go into the pub. Anyway, then things got really interesting. He bent down to the pub door and released something through it . And then he Disapparated. So I got the hell into the pub, and found myself in the middle of total bedlam.”

He raised his eyebrows in an enquiring way. Draco avoided his implied question.

“Oh, I see. I was wondering how you managed to arrive so fast.”

Neville shrugged.

Nope. Looks like we’re into information strictly as needed. As usual. Fuck!

He affected having noticed nothing, and made himself sound nonchalant.

“Scared shitless. Didn’t know what the hell he’d let loose.”

Draco waved his hands airily, but, Neville suspected, with something of self-doubt underlying the carefree exterior.

“A cornered rat would have been quite enough to give Marvolo and Riddle heart failure if they’d managed to catch up with it. I left them with a big enough problem by Transfiguring it into a guinea pig: if I’d thought it wouldn’t land me in shit with the Ministry I’d have gone for a bowl of particularly pacifistic dog-food.”

“I somehow think Caitlin’s guests wouldn’t have swallowed that.”

“I could have made it vegetarian dog-food.”

Neville snorted. “Anyway, that’s Ken being trouble again. And Jacqueline seems to suspect he’s behind her particular problems, too.”

“Which are?”

“Some bastard’s got hold of some information about her that she’d rather no-one knew, and it’s being spread to the rest of the course by nasty little anonymous notes.”

“What sort of information?”

Neville hesitated. “She told me when I was walking her home. I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“And I’m anyone?”

“For these purposes, yes. I promised.”

Draco sighed. “There’s only so much absolute integrity I can cope with on a domestic level.”

“Tough. Anyway, it’s nothing either of us would worry about, honestly. No room to talk, in fact.”

Draco exhaled. “OK. Oh, lord. Do we have to tell Caitlin?”

“Not until she asks.” He paused. “Oh god. Do you think it’s something to do with not having magic -that means they behave like such imbeciles, I mean?”

There was a pause.

“Must be, wouldn’t you think?” Draco enquired reasonably.