The sun was shining brightly as Cerys chased her dog along the sands of the broad bay. The previous night's storm had blown itself out now and tiny puffs of cloud drifted high overhead against the blue sky.
She stopped as the dog picked up the stick she had thrown and spun around, racing back towards her, the water droplets flying from his long coat turned to glittering jewels by the sunlight.
“Oh no! No, no Gwyn! You bad boy!” The golden retriever raced around her in ever tightening circles, bouncing excitedly and spraying water all over her. He dropped the stick and crouched head down, tail wagging, waiting for Cerys to throw it again. She wiped the salt water from her eyes and glared down at him.
“Why must you always jump in the rock pools? You enjoy soaking me don't you?”
The dog looked up at her with a grin, his pink tongue hanging out as he panted happily.
“Right! Try this then!”
She pulled her arm back and flung the stick as hard as she could down the shoreline. It hit a rock and bounced around a corner of the cliff but Cerys didn't see this as she had covered her eyes to protect them from the spray of sand that flew up from the dog's paws as he took off across the beach. She brushed the sand from her T shirt and strolled after him.
She was halfway to the cliff when she heard the barking.
“Gwyn! What is it?”
She ran round the corner and stopped suddenly a hand raised to her mouth in shock. She and Gwyn had walked along this beach for years and she thought she knew every inch of it but, now, where yesterday there had been a long line of cliffs with the harsh grey towers of Criccieth Castle above them on the headland, today there was a pile of broken rock which had fallen away from the cliff and spilled down across the beach.
Gwyn was standing over the stick staring at the unfamiliar view. He turned his head when Cerys appeared and picked it up, wagging his tail hopefully.
“Wow! Look at that!” she murmured, patting the dog absently. “That storm last night must have loosened up the rock and caused a landslide!”
She slipped a hand through Gwyn's collar and held him still while she clipped on a short lead. “Better be careful lad. More of that might come down any minute!”
As she stood up she noticed a gap beside a large rock and walked forward to get a better look, the dog following obediently at her heels. The gap widened as she moved across the cliff face and in a moment she found herself peering into a dark space.
“It's a cave Gwyn!” she whispered, her eyes alight with excitement. “A new one! Shall we take a look?”
Carys had been exploring the caves along the bay for most of her life and she pulled out the small torch she carried in her pocket.
“We need to be careful boy! Stay close to me okay?”
She pressed the button and shone the torch into the break in the cliffs. It was clear that the gap opened up by the landslide had revealed a natural cavern carved out of the rock. After carefully examining the roof by torchlight to satisfy herself that there was no imminent danger of it collapsing on top of her, she stepped inside and looked around. The sandy floor of the cave sloped upwards to a sheet of granite which formed a floor going back into the darkness. She shone the torch around examining the walls until she came to the corner furthest from where she stood. A pile of broken rock lay on the floor but it was obvious that the gap they had fallen from was worked stone with sharp corners cut by hand.
“Look Gwyn! It looks like there was some kind of doorway there.”
She walked over to the doorway and shone the torch over the broken rubble. The torchlight revealed a short corridor, the floor covered with broken stone and the bottom of a flight of steps. However it was obvious that the stairway had collapsed and the rubble had blocked it completely.
“I'll bet that stairway originally went up to the cellars of the castle!” she whispered.
The dog nudged at her leg in response and as the beam of the torch moved she saw another chamber further in. Climbing carefully over the rubble Carys squeezed into the short corridor and peered into the chamber. What she saw made her skin break out into goosebumps and she shivered. The dim torchlight had revealed what appeared, at first glance, to be a pile of sticks and stones on the floor but as she stepped forward tentatively to get a closer look, in the same way that you can stare at a pattern of dots and suddenly see a face, the random pile of sticks resolved itself into a skeleton stretched out in the centre of the floor.
As she moved forward she felt a tug on the lead and looked back. Gwyn was lying on the threshold, his head resting on his paws. He whined quietly at her.
“Come on, it's okay” she whispered.
Gwyn didn't move.
“Oh all right! Stay there then! I'll be right back.....”
She dropped the lead and crept forward to examine the skeleton. Her first assumption was that it was a burial of some kind but as she got closer she realised that was unlikely. The position of the bones showed that the body had been laid out with its arms and legs outstretched and, to her horror, she noticed that four rusty iron nails appeared to have been driven through the bones of the hands and feet.
She stepped forward to get a better look and suddenly felt something. As though there had been a tension in the air which was abruptly released. She raised a hand to her face, feeling as though something had brushed past her in the darkness. Gwyn raised his head and whined again.
“Okay, you're right. This is creepy! Let's get back outside shall we?”
She picked up the lead and hurried out onto the beach, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight. Digging in her pocket for her phone she wondered who to call. She suspected that the Police wouldn't thank her for dragging them all the way out here. The remains had obviously been there for a very long time.
“Well Gwyn, like they say in the movie..... “who're you gonna call?”.....”
Carys had spent her whole life in the area and worked in her parents' Bed & Breakfast cleaning and waiting on the guests, but since the place was much quieter in the winter she had supplemented her income one year by helping out on an archaeological dig a few miles inland. She searched the phone's memory....yes! There it was! Dr Emrys Pritchard. He had been in charge of the dig and worked at the local museum some five miles away. He would know what to do.
Several hours later she sat on the rocks with Gwyn watching the activity below. The once pristine sand was churned up and marked with the tyre tracks of numerous vehicles that had driven along the beach to this remote spot. As she watched the familiar figure of Dr Pritchard came out of the cave mouth and looked around. He spotted her and waved.
“There you are Carys! Well it looks as though he's all ours.”
Despite Carys' reservations the Police had been notified and a representative from the Coroner’s Office had trailed out to the beach, muttering protests the whole time, and confirmed that the remains were much too old to be of any interest to the Police.
“I've been thinking about this” she said. “He must have come from the castle right? That's where those steps must go. There was no way in from the beach until the landslide last night.”
“I suspect that you're right” he answered, looking up at the ruins of the old castle on the headland. “It was built in the early part of the 13th Century by Llewellyn the Great and then modified following its capture by the forces of Edward I. It was used as a prison until 1404 when it was recaptured during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr and burnt down. That was probably when those steps collapsed and buried the entrance. Our man has been there for at least 600 years so I guess we'll probably never know who he was or how he died, although it obviously wasn't natural.”
Carys got up and brushed the sand from her knees. “Well, if you don't need me here I'd better be getting home” she said.
Dr Pritchard smiled at her. “Thanks for letting me know. This is an interesting find even if we have very little information. In fact, probably because we have so little information. Until now Pembroke Castle was thought to be the only castle in Britian to be built over a natural cavern. That was built in 1093 so this could have been a copy of the idea.”
He looked back at the cave mouth. “Intriguing....... I'd better be getting back myself. Can I give you a lift?”
His eyes never moved from the cave and Carys laughed. “No thanks! I can see you want to get back down there. We'll walk....right Gwyn?”
Gwyn put his head on one side and pricked his ears up a little. Cerys leaned down and scratched him behind an ear as Dr Pritchard clambered back down the rocks to the cave.
“What do you hear boy?” she asked.
She raised her head, realising that she could hear it too. A faint sound like the baying of hounds. She looked up to see a skein of geese flying overhead, the creak of their wings and the occasional honking sound evidently what had attracted the dog's attention.
“It's just some geese Gwyn” she said. “Nothing for you to worry about.” But for once the dog stayed beside her, walking obediently to heel, all the way home.
What was it that Howard Carter had said when he first looked into the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun and Lord Caernarvon had asked if he could see anything?
I remembered another quote which went “.......everywhere there was the gleam of gold”.
Well, when I got back to our apartment at the Authority in London that night I'd had enough of gold to last me a lifetime.......several lifetimes in fact. I'd spent what seemed like the last couple of weeks recording and cataloguing the items rescued from the Shrine of Tiamat and I was prepared to swear that my eyesight was fading from the glitter of all the gold.
I opened the door and walked into the apartment feeling completely wrung out, to see Bill curled up on the end of the sofa reading a book. I stood in the doorway for a moment just looking at him. He was engrossed in his reading and hadn't noticed me come in. He was wearing a pair of battered old jeans with a rip in the knee and a white henley shirt, his bare feet tucked up on the leather sofa and as I looked at him I could feel myself relaxing, all the cares of the night falling away from me.
What did anything else matter after all, as long as I had him?
As I watched him he must have felt me through the bond and he looked up slowly from his book, his handsome face lighting up with a smile when he saw me.
“There you are at last darling! Tough night?”
He held out a hand to me and I walked over and curled up next to him, his arm around my shoulders.
“Oh Bill! You don't know the half of it! I swear I never want to see any more gold as long as I walk the earth!”
Bill raised an eyebrow. “Really? Well I never thought I'd hear a woman say that! You do realise that you're letting the side down here?”
I giggled. “Well, okay! I'm not speaking for all women. But if they'd seen as much of it as I have over the last few weeks they'd feel the same. Do you realise that we've recorded over five thousand individual pieces from that shrine! I'm beginning to wish I'd never found the damn place.”
He placed a gentle kiss on my forehead. “Now I don't believe that for a moment” he whispered. “I've watched you examining those pieces, remember?”
“Oh......you know what I mean!” I sighed. “They're all individually fascinating and beautiful and unique, but I need a break......The museum and library are getting to be too much for me.”
Bill laughed. “But you love books! I'd have thought it was your ideal job?”
I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration. “I do! If it was just books I'd be fine. I love the library. It's everything else that's the problem! I'm trying to catalogue the entire contents of the Shrine of Tiamat, run a staff of about fifty people and now Ulrich's landed me with a budget the size of a small Banana republic!”
He put his arms around me and pulled me into an embrace, nuzzling at the hair at the nape of my neck. I shuddered as his lips brushed against my skin.
“You need to relax” he glanced at his watch. “We've got an hour or so before sunrise. How about an episode of Game of Thrones?”
“Battles, blood and violence. Very relaxing!” I muttered.
“You're a vampire darling, you know you love it!” he whispered. He turned me around and placed a finger under my chin, gently tipping my face up towards him.
“How long has it been since you've fed?” he asked, after examining my eyes for a moment. “You really must look after yourself you know. You get the DVDs and I'll heat up some blood for us.”
A few minutes later we were snuggled up together on the sofa watching the titles come up when Bill's phone rang.
“If that's Ulrich I am so not interested!” I said.
Bill looked at the screen. “It's Ulrich” he answered with a sigh.
I grabbed the remote and stopped the DVD as Bill answered the call.
“Hi Ulrich. What's the problem?”
He paused for a moment, listening...... “Because you only ever call me when you have a problem! That's how I know there's a problem Ulrich” he explained. “You should try calling with some good news occasionally, just for a change!”
He listened again. “So.......a serious problem then? Okay, I'll see you tomorrow......”
He hung up and pulled me back towards him. “I'm not dealing with this tonight! He's coming round to speak to us at dusk so we'd better be up early.”
He put a hand over my mouth. “I didn't even ask! Whatever it is, it can wait.”
It seemed, however, that it couldn't wait. When I woke the next night I rolled over sleepily reaching for Bill only to find that he wasn't there and I could hear voices coming from the lounge downstairs. Being so much younger, I slept later than Bill and it frustrated me sometimes. I jumped out of bed, pulled on my clothes and ran down the stairs. Sure enough Ulrich was seated on the leather sofa and as I jumped off the last stair Bill came out of the kitchen carrying two bottles of True Blood.
He saw me and smiled. “Ah, there you are sleepy! You have this one” he said, handing me a bottle. “I'm just heating up another for myself.”
As he spoke the microwave pinged and he fetched his own bottle and sat down beside me on the other sofa. I took a swig of the blood, mindful of the fact that we were lucky to have it. True Blood was still in short supply owing to the destruction of two of the major production centres by the Sanguinistas.
“So, what'd I miss?” I asked.
“Nothing yet” smiled Ulrich. “I wanted to speak to both of you.”
Bill leaned back and put an arm around me. “So, what's the problem then Ulrich?” he asked.
Ulrich was silent for a moment. “Well that's the problem.....we don't really know what's happening. That's why we need your help. Over the last five nights, five vampires have been murdered.”
Bill looked surprised. “These are dangerous times Ulrich. Sadly our kind are being murdered by humans every night. That's not unusual surely?”
“We don't think that these particular murders are being carried out by humans.”
I took another swig of my blood and listened carefully. Bill simply raised an eyebrow and waited for Ulrich to expand on this comment.
“Humans who come after us are armed with stakes and wooden bullets. These five vampires were not staked or shot, they were ripped apart.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
Ulrich's eyes turned to me.
“A good question” said Bill. “How can you specify the cause of death for a vampire? It's not as if there's enough left for a post mortem!”
“Well okay, for one of them we can't be sure but the others were wealthy enough to have human servants, guards. They were torn apart. The last one, who died last night, had her human secretary with her at her home in Oxford, he was also her lover. She was found in the bedroom. He was found in the hallway.......and the library.......and also the kitchen......”
I put a hand to my mouth. “Ulrich! That's horrible!”
“Yes, it is” he agreed. “Especially as you knew her. She had a seat on the High Council.”
Bill sat up. “Lydia?” he asked, astonished. “She's dead?”
“Yes, I'm afraid so.”
I was shocked. I couldn't say with any honesty that I'd liked Lydia very much but we certainly knew her. She had been one of the judges at Lazlo's trial. We had come up against her a few times at the Authority and she had a house not far from our own, just outside Oxford.
“So who do you think is responsible?” asked Bill.
“We think the question is not who, but what” answered Ulrich. “And we simply don't know. All the scenes have been examined and there's no evidence whatsoever, no damage to the property, no footprints, no witnesses, nothing.”
“Presumably the bodies of the humans have been examined? What's left of them anyway?” asked Bill
“Yes, that's why we think the attackers weren't human” said Ulrich grimly. “Dr Pasteur's first impression was that they had been attacked by dogs.”
“But no dog would be strong enough to kill a vampire!” said Bill. “we have to be dealing with Weres.”
“That's what we assumed. It had to be werewolves. So we called in the packmaster of the local pack for questioning but he denied all knowledge of it.”
Bill gave him a sceptical look. “And you believed him? A werewolf?”
“He voluntarily offered to be glamoured to prove he was telling the truth. I did it myself and he wasn't lying to us!”
“That doesn't prove they weren't involved though. Just that he didn't know about it” said Bill.
I must admit that I was a little surprised at his attitude. Bill was normally the most open minded and tolerant of men. He had evidently had a bad experience with werewolves at some time in the past. I recalled him mentioning that Russell Edgington had used a pack of werewolves as a kind of personal security force and I knew he and Russell had quite some history......I made a mental note to ask him about it.
Ulrich sighed. “That's what we thought, but it's not a simple as that. Any vampire would be able to fight off a single werewolf......or even two or three. This would have to be the work of a whole pack and if that were the case he would certainly know about it. These were not lone werewolf attacks Bill, they were highly organised. And besides.....Pasteur examined a couple of the bodies and noted that some had not just been pulled apart. One or two had bites right through the long bones of the arms and legs. That would require a bite pressure far in excess of any werewolf.”
Bill sat back on the sofa, thinking. “Some other kind of Were then?”
It was my turn to sit up. “There's other kinds?”
Ulrich looked at Bill, surprised.
“Why don't I know about this?” I demanded.
“Well......I guess it's just never come up” answered Bill. “On the rare occasions when I get you alone these days I have other things on my mind than Weres!”
He gave me the sort of seductive smile that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I suddenly wished fervently that Ulrich was somewhere else......
I pulled myself together with an effort. “So what else could it be?”
“Well.......” Bill thought for a moment. “ You know that shifters can change into any kind of animal? Weres, on the other hand, can only change into a specific animal. By far the most common are wolves but they can, in theory, be anything. I knew of a pack of werepanthers that lived close to my old home in Louisiana. Come to think of it, I can think of a man who might have been able to do this alone.”
“What does he turn into?” I asked, my eyes wide with astonishment.
“He's a tiger” said Bill, as though this was the most ordinary thing in the world. “But they're very rare and I'm pretty sure that there are none in England. I've heard of werelions and werebears as well, but the same thing applies.”
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” I murmured to myself. “But why should it have to be weres anyway? Why not shifters?”
“Shifters are normally loners who don't operate collectively and one animal is unlikely to be responsible for this” said Ulrich dismissively.
“Why not?” I asked. “You said shifters could change into anything. Couldn't you get a group of shifters who got together and changed into wolves? Then you'd have a pack of wolves, right? Or lions or tigers even?”
Ulrich looked at me for a moment and then turned to Bill. “She's right you know! It could happen......I'd never have thought of that myself but it's possible.”
“But why would they do this?” I asked, confused. “Okay, I know that weres and shifters have always disliked vampires but why would they go to these lengths? And why these vampires specifically? Did they live close together? Did they know each other? There must have been some connection.”
“That's the other problem” said Ulrich. “That's why I've come to you.......why we're sure they are connected. All the vampires who have been killed in this way are the progeny of Alberic.”
Bill's eyes narrowed. “I certainly hope you're not suggesting.....”
“No! No of course not!” said Ulrich quickly. “I know you hated Alberic, and you had good reason, but I would never believe that you would seek to extend your revenge to his offspring.” He paused for a moment.
“But it appears that someone is.”
“So......who else hated him?” I asked.
Ulrich gave a cynical laugh “How long have you got?” he asked. “You met him, what do you think? He was one of my oldest friends, I knew him from my human life but I had no illusions about him. Even when he was human he had a remarkable talent for pissing people off........it could be anyone!”
I laughed, I couldn't help myself. Bill looked a bit surprised and I must admit that I was surprised myself, but I think he was as relieved as I was that I could laugh about it. After all, Alberic had arranged for my murder. He was the reason that I was now a vampire.
“Well we can narrow that down a bit surely” I said, after a moment's thought. “All the murders have occurred here in England. I don't think Alberic was British originally so when did he arrive here?”
“Well he moved all over Europe in the Middle Ages. He spent some time in the Middle East, even lived in China for a while and moved here permanently when the library was transferred to London in the 1800s but we first came to this country at the end of our human lives back in the 14th Century. In fact our journey here was probably the reason we were turned. If I hadn't accompanied him here I might never have been made vampire.”
Bill leaned forward. “Wait......are you saying that you and Alberic had the same maker? That you were brothers?”
“Technically, yes. But back then there wasn't the kind of organisation and structure to our society that there is now. Bill, I believe that you have met Dracula? Well, his attitude to his progeny was common back then. We were largely left to fend for ourselves. The strong survived.......”
Ulrich's voice tailed off and I thought I could see a trace of old pain in his eyes as he recalled the trauma of his turning.
“So why did you come here?” I asked. “How did you know Alberic?”
Ulrich sighed. “We grew up together. I was born in the year 1285 in the Kingdom of Bohemia. My father was a minor noble, serving the local Prince. It was a time of considerable uncertainty in both the secular and religious worlds. The Pope had abandoned Rome and was living in exile in Avignon and the German Princes had finally managed to elect an Emperor in Rudolph I, the first of the Hapsburgs. I was raised to be a soldier but I had a tutor who did his best to teach me my letters as well.
Alberic was the son of a woodcutter on my father's estate and he was brought in to keep me company in my studies. He was never going to be soldier material but it was soon clear that he far surpassed me as a scholar. We were very close for a time, until I left home to train with the Teutonic Knights and Alberic joined a local monastery.”
“Alberic was a monk?” asked Bill. Disbelief etched in his expression.
Ulrich laughed. “No! He would never have taken the vows. He was just a lay brother. He was really only interested in gaining access to their library. He was never a religious man, far from it, his interest was more in the old religions, the Druids and the Celtic and Norse Gods. He spent all the time he could manage in the Monks' scriptorium studying their works on demonology.”
“Now why doesn't that surprise me?” I said coldly.
Ulrich gave me a small smile. “Yes......I'm afraid he always had an interest in the occult. I couldn't understand it myself, but then I was never much interested in books anyway.”
He held up a hand. “I know, I know......that statement is anathema to you Alex. But in those days education was rare and men of my station had clerks and scribes to read their correspondence and write the replies for them. I was trained as a soldier and that was why Alberic asked me to accompany him. He needed me to protect him.”
I looked at Ulrich, seated comfortably on our dark leather sofa, one arm resting along the back, his tie loosened over his crisp tailored shirt and smart, Paul Smith suit.
He smiled. “Hard to believe now I know, but I was once a warrior......and a powerful one too!”
Actually it wasn't that hard. Ulrich was a big, strong man with the blue eyes and blond hair that indicated his Germanic heritage. I had a sudden vision of him mounted on an armoured charger like the one I had seen Milus Corbett ride. His long blond hair tied back and flowing down over a dark cloak, a broadsword strapped across his back.
“I spent several years with the Knights and while I was away Alberic left home to travel. It was during this period that he spent some time in the Benedictine monastery at Melk where he found an ancient text, a copy of something supposedly written by the Roman Governor of Britain about their battle against the old Celtic religion and referring to the secret of eternal life.”
I smiled. “Well, I think we already know about that don't we?”
Ulrich laughed. “Actually I'm pretty sure that this wasn't what he had in mind at the time.”
His expression turned serious. “Although.......I have long been convinced that something he did caused our maker to be drawn to us. Our turning was not a random accident! Unfortunately for him the text he found was not only incomplete but it was also forbidden. When the librarian at Melk discovered what he was doing he was reported to the abbot and thrown out.......”
“Incomplete?” I asked. “So he came to Britain looking for a complete copy?”
“When I returned home from my training Alberic was waiting for me. He had a plan to travel to these islands and he wanted me to accompany him across Britain to Wales.”
“Let me guess. You were heading for Anglesey.”
Ulrich looked over at me. “Now why would you think that?” He asked.
I smiled. “The Isle of Anglesey “Ynys Môn” was a stronghold of the Druids. If Alberic was looking for esoteric knowledge, that's where he would go.”
He smiled back at me. “You see.......I knew I'd done the right thing to choose you as his successor at the Library.”
Bill frowned. “I hope you're not suggesting that Alex is in any way like him!” he said firmly.
I put a hand on his arm “Actually, he's right” I said gently. “I never thought I'd say this, but honestly I think we were quite alike in some ways. I think that, if I'd had the chance to get to know him, I might even have liked him. Well...............when he was younger perhaps.”
Bill looked horrified but Ulrich was looking at me with a strange expression of contentment and understanding.
“Yes” he said quietly. “I'd never have said this before as I know Bill would have gone nuts........but you remind me very much of Alberic when he was young. You have his enthusiasm, his desire for knowledge but that, in a way, was his downfall. He was fascinated with magic, and became obsessed with gaining immortality. But then when he got it he found that it bored him. He became arrogant and bullying, believing he was better than everyone else, that his knowledge set him apart somehow.......”
I looked into Ulrich's eyes and I could see the pain of the loss of his old friend, the friend that he had truly lost a long, long time ago.
I took Bill's hand and looked up at him. “Promise me you'll never let me get like that!” I said.
He smiled down at me. “You never would” he answered gently. “That's just not who you are. Besides you have him as an example! But I promise I'll slap you down as soon as you start getting uppity! Will that do?”
I could feel his love flowing into me through the bond and I smiled back at him. “I guess that'll have to do then.”
Ulrich watched us for a moment, knowing that we were lost in each other, then he reached forward and took my hand. “I hate to ask this of you Alex, I know what Alberic did to you, but you're the only one I can think of who might be able to help us. You're bright, intelligent and you're young enough to have some fresh ideas, plus you have the resources of the library at your disposal. So will you help us? We're desperate. We really have no idea what's happening here or why.
The only thing I can be sure of is that another of Alberic's children will die tonight.”
And he was right.
Ulrich's phone had rung just as he was preparing to leave our apartment with the news that another death had been reported. This one was a woman named Matilda, a delightfully old fashioned name I thought, until I realised that she had been turned in the Middle Ages and had probably been named after the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England. Apparently her young male lover was the only human killed this time as none of her other servants had been with her in the house at the time.
“How many offspring does Alberic have?” I asked as we headed out to the garage where Ulrich's cars were waiting.
“A lot!” sighed Ulrich. “He was never one to stint himself with anything! Although a good many of them live abroad.”
He stopped suddenly as a thought struck him. “I should check that out. See if any have been murdered outside this country......”
He was already dialling as he got into the lead car.
Matilda was evidently a wealthy woman as her property turned out to be a substantial manor house set in its own grounds to the north of London. The tall wrought iron gates stood open and the three black Authority cars swept up the gravel driveway and pulled up outside the front door.
“So?” I asked, as Ulrich got out of the first car.
“Nothing known, and it would have been known” he answered. “So it appears that this is only happening here.”
“So what does that tell us?” asked Bill, doubtfully. “That there is only one killer and he'll move on when he's wiped out all of Alberic's progeny in the UK? Or that, whatever this is, it's restricted to this country?”
“Or perhaps.....” I murmured, almost to myself “.....that whatever is happening was caused by something he has done in this country?”
Bill nodded thoughtfully and took my hand as we headed up the steps to the front door.
Several of the black clad Authority security guards stood just inside the hallway and stood back to allow Ulrich to enter the lounge at the far end of the hallway. We could all smell the sharp coppery tang of blood as we walked down the hall.
As we reached the door we met Dr Pasteur coming out. “Ah! Ulrich, and Mr and Mrs Compton, how nice to see you again! Such a shame it couldn't be under better circumstances.....” he grimaced. “It's not very pleasant I'm afraid, it looks as though the young man was trying to protect her. But this time whatever it is decided to make an example of him.”
He stepped aside, allowing Ulrich to walk into the large room beyond. Bill followed him, saw what lay on the polished wooden floor and put out an arm to stop me.
“Oh come on Bill, if you want me to help I have to know what's going on! I'm not a child!”
He gave a small sigh. “I know! I can't help it.......”
I smiled at him. “It's sweet of you to want to protect me and I do appreciate it, really I do. But I'll be okay.......I promise.”
He moved his arm and I stepped past him into the room and immediately realised why he had done it. Matilda's lover couldn't have been more than twenty years old. He lay in a pool of blood in the centre of the floor, his clothing torn to shreds. His arms and legs had been ripped off and laid stretched out around him in a star shape and to my horror I saw that his hands and feet had been nailed to the wooden floor. I tried hard not to look at his face and sincerely hoped that he had been already dead when these mutilations had happened.
Behind him lay another pool of blood with a few wisps of smoke coming from it which I had to assume was all that remained of Matilda.
“Well that's one good theory disposed of!” I muttered to myself. “No animal did that!”
Ulrich was staring down at the body. “I'm not so sure......look at those claw marks on his chest.”
I forced myself to look at the body a little closer and had to admit that Ulrich was right. His throat had been torn out and there were three parallel gashes across his chest and down across his stomach which had almost disembowelled the poor boy.
“I see what you mean. But no animal drove those nails through his hands and feet. Only a human would think up something like that......”
“So.......are we back to the werewolf theory?” asked Bill.
“All I know at the moment is that I need some fresh air!”
I walked through the open French windows and stood on the small terrace looking out over the immaculate lawn to the woods beyond. There was a plantation of pine trees growing up to the edge of the property and as I gazed into the darkness between the trees the hairs on my arms began to stand up and I shivered.
Bill came out behind me and gathered me up into his arms, standing close and hugging my body to his.
“Are you okay? You're shivering.”
“I don't know. There's something about those trees that makes me......uneasy.”
“You are vampire now sweetheart, you have nothing to fear. There's nothing out there that's scarier than you!”
I turned my head to look up at him. “I expect that's what Matilda thought......” I said quietly.
I felt his arms tighten around me protectively. “Hmmm......good point!” He turned to look back inside. “Have you checked out those woods?” he called.
One of the armed guards stepped out onto the terrace. “There was no sign of anything Mr Compton, Sir. No matter what the little girl thinks.”
“Little girl?” Bill frowned and turned to the guard. “What little girl?”
“I think she's the daughter of one of the cleaners Sir” explained the guard. “Said something about seeing a dog in the woods, but there's no trace of anything.”
Bill eyed him speculatively. “I know you guys are chosen for brawn and not brains but, in view of what's lying on the floor in there, you didn't think that this might be relevant?”
The guard managed to look both annoyed and embarrassed at the same time. “It'd take more than one dog to do something like that Sir!” he said stiffly.
“Possibly there were more that she didn't see?” I suggested quietly. “Is she still here?”
“The child will be in bed madam!” said the guard.
We moved to the drawing room as the guard excused himself and hurried out and in about five minutes a woman came in leading a sleepy little girl in Minnie Mouse pyjamas. I smiled at her and knelt down on the floor.
“Hello sweetheart. What's your name?” I asked.
“Louise” she lisped quietly, looking around at us with a worried expression.
“Don't be scared Louise, you're not in any trouble. I just want you to tell me what you saw in the woods tonight.” I said with a smile.
“Mummy said I imagined it” she said with a glance up at her mother.
I smiled. “My mummy always said I had too much imagination” I said confidentially. “So you can tell me.....”
“Well.....I thought it was a dog.”
“What kind of dog sweetheart?” I asked. “What did it look like?”
“It was big and it had red eyes” she whispered. “It was looking right at me.” She lowered her voice still further and whispered “but it wasn't a real dog!”
He mother gave a sigh. “Now Louise.......”
Bill put a hand on her arm warningly. “Please? Let her speak.”
“What makes you say that Louise?” I asked.
“I could see the trees behind it, like it wasn't really there?” she said thoughtfully. “But it was there....”
“It's very dark in the trees” said Bill softly. “Are you sure it wasn't just a shadow?”
She turned her head to look up at Bill and for a moment I thought she wasn't going to reply. Then she seemed to decide that Bill's question was worthy of an answer.
“It couldn't have been a shadow!” she said contemptuously. “It was white!”
We let Louise go back to bed and sat down in the drawing room to think about this new information.
“Did that help at all?” asked Ulrich.
“I'm not sure” I answered. “There are lots of legends from all over England about spectral dogs, they're usually supposed to appear to people as an omen of death. That's where Conan Doyle got the idea for “The Hound of The Baskervilles”. But they are always described as black. They're even known as “Black Dogs”. Spectral white hounds are something different......”
“Whatever it was it seems certain that it was something supernatural?” said Bill.
“It certainly looks that way!” I agreed.
“There is one other thing” said Ulrich seriously. “We don't know how Alberic's offspring are being identified and targeted. It seems likely that, whatever this is, it can sense his blood. Since we had the same maker, I share his blood and so I'm stepping up my security. However, just in case they are being identified by some more mundane method, since you have taken over his position at the library I would recommend that you stay away from it until we have a better idea of what's going on........just in case.”
Bill tensed. “Do you seriously think she might be in danger?” he asked.
“I don't know” snapped Ulrich. I could hear the anxiety in his voice. He was used to wielding complete authority. His helplessness to stop what was happening was clearly infuriating him.
I put a hand on his arm. “I think we should leave London for a while. We'll be in touch by phone but keeping together is just asking for trouble, right?” I asked reasonably.
“Where will you go?” he asked. “To Oxford?”
“That didn't help Lydia did it?” I asked. “No, I can think of somewhere else that we can hide out for a while.”
The Coast of France 1310
Ulrich was seriously beginning to wish that he had stayed at home.
He and Alberic had set off in good spirits, travelling west across Bohemia and into northern France where his father's money soon secured them a passage across the channel to England. The captain of the small, single sailed Cog had looked Ulrich up and down and eyed his great chestnut charger doubtfully.
“You're a bit late sir! The old King died a few years back and I hear that son of his isn't much of a warrior. Not half the man his father was, you'll likely not get much work from him!”
“I'll take my chances” answered Ulrich. “My scribe here will help your men to load his horse and our gear but no one is to touch my destrier but me, is that understood?”
The stocky sailor looked up at the great horse and nodded. “Oh aye! I think I can guarantee that sir!”
Half an hour later Ulrich could understand why.
Alberic's placid mare had walked up the narrow swaying gangplank without a second glance but Ulrich’s great warhorse was having none of it! The animal took one look at the water and braced his forelegs against the cobbles, refusing to budge and no amount of heaving and swearing would shift him.
He looked around to see Alberic sat quietly on a bollard, wrapped in his black Benedictine habit watching with interest.
“This was your idea!” he growled. “You might like to give me a hand?”
Alberic stood up with a smile. “Allow me!” he said and took the reins in one hand. With his other hand he reached into a leather pouch hanging from his belt.
Ulrich put a hand around his wrist and leaned closer. “That animal cost me a fortune. If you harm him I'll kill you!”
A cynical smile appeared on Alberic's lips. “You mean he cost your father a fortune don't you? Don't worry! I won't hurt him.....”
He looked up at Ulrich, his stare unwavering, until Ulrich released his wrist and backed off. Then he removed his hand from the bag and Ulrich saw red dust the colour of dried blood in his hand. He pulled gently on the reins and the great horse lowered his head curiously. He raised his hand and blew softly, sending a puff of the red dust into the horse's nostrils. The great animal blinked at him and snorted but didn't try to pull away as Alberic patted its muzzle gently and murmured something to it.
He began to walk slowly towards the quayside and the horse followed him trustingly. To Ulrich's surprise, and the obvious relief of all the sailors, it paced calmly up the gangplank and onto the deck where Alberic handed the reins to a groom and looked back at him smugly. Ulrich had never really believed his friend's talk of the strange powers he had read about in his dusty old manuscripts. He had accompanied him because he wanted to travel, to look for adventure. He looked up at Alberic standing on the deck and shivered.
Their crossing was uneventful as the sea was calm and quiet and they landed on the south coast and headed northwest towards the estuary of the great River Severn. Ulrich had learned his lesson and allowed Alberic to lead both the horses onto the flat bottomed ferry which took them across and landed them within sight of the great grey walls of the castle at Chepstow, tucked into a curve of the River Wye.
“We should stay away from the castles in the south” said Alberic. “Tomorrow we'll head north along the old dyke built by the King of Mercia to keep out the Welsh. The English have taken over under their warrior King Edward but the peoples of the North and the West, the Scots and the Welsh, remember the old Celtic traditions. That's where we'll find the information I need”
Close to the ferry was a small Inn catering for travellers and Ulrich marched in as though he owned it and demanded a room for the night. Alberic watched his friend with interest. He had the natural air of command of the noble born, he behaved as if he expected to be obeyed instantly and so he was. It was as simple as that. Alberic had used this effect to his advantage. He knew that people who rarely left their own village tended to take strangers at face value and because of this the Benedictine habit he had stolen from the Abbey at Melk had proved very useful. He had studied the monks and learned to behave as they did and so, since he looked like a monk, walked like a monk, spoke like a monk and dressed like a monk, it was easy for people to assume that he was a monk.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. He had found much to admire in the monastic communities he had visited, their strong mindedness and intellectual rigour. But he knew that he could never live a life of asceticism and self denial. As far as he was concerned, the pleasures of the flesh were there to be enjoyed. What was the point of all the information in the monastic libraries if you couldn't use it to better your own life? He had been born into poverty and he knew that it was not meant for him. In truth he despised the monks for their simple acceptance of their lot. There would be no more going hungry and sleeping on flea infested mattresses for him! Alberic intended to live a life of luxury for as long as he could manage......and if he was right, that could be a very long time.
He smiled to himself at the thought as they headed up into the woods on the top of the cliffs overlooking the water the next morning. The Wye was their constant companion for the day as the trail snaked along beside it, along the wooded hills to the east of the river. It was at this point that their luck ran out and a storm blew in from the coast. They rode, wet and miserable, through the woods until they came to a clearing among some rocks where Ulrich called a halt.
“We should stop for the night. It's slippery underfoot and we could be close to the edge without realising it in this rain. We'll camp among the rocks here.”
Between them they unfastened a rolled up waxed cloth from the back of Ulrich's saddle and fixed up a makeshift shelter amongst the trees. Trying to light a fire would have been a waste of time as everything was so wet so, after hobbling the horses, they both curled up on the damp ground wrapped up in their cloaks and tried to get some sleep.
The next morning dawned bright and clear and Ulrich peered out from under the flap of the improvised tent and gave a sigh of relief. He stood up stiffly and walked across the clearing to check on the horses. The old mature woodland was in full leaf, light finding it difficult to penetrate the thick foliage, but on the other side of the clearing he spotted a curious rock formation. He was a tall man but the granite stack was half as tall again as he was. Just beyond the rock was a gap in the trees and Ulrich stopped, entranced.
They were on the edge of the escarpment looking down over the broad valley of the Wye. Below them lay the wide panorama of the river, winding through the fields and on a broad open area beside the river stood the magnificent Abbey of Tintern. The brilliant white walls of the great Abbey Church gleamed in the morning sunlight with the cloisters and other Abbey buildings clustered around it. From where he stood Ulrich could see the white dots of the sheep, from which the Abbey gained its wealth, in the surrounding fields together with one or two of the white clad Cistercian monks about their morning duties.
He stood taking in the magnificent view for a moment and then turned to find that Alberic appeared to be much more interested in their camp-site.
“Just take a look at this view!” he called.
Alberic walked over to him but, instead of looking out at the magnificent vista before them, he began to examine the curious column of rock at the edge of the escarpment.
“What are you doing?” he asked, watching his friend with some exasperation.
“Yes, this must be it!” muttered Alberic to himself.
“Must be what?” asked Ulrich, mystified.
Alberic stretched up and placed his hand on the flat top of the rock. “This, my friend, is the Devil's Pulpit!”
Ulrich laughed. “Indeed? And why should a simple rock have been given such an ill omened name?”
“According to my informant, a local man that I spoke to at the Inn in Chepstow, the stories say that over a century ago when the Abbey was being built, Satan himself stood here and hurled down insults on the monks building their new home far below” explained Alberic.
“Satan himself?” asked Ulrich sceptically.
“So it is said” answered Alberic calmly. “And I believe it! There is power here my friend, I can feel it. It has weakened over the years but it is still here........”
Ulrich sighed. He turned to look from the bright sunlit vista of the Abbey and the river and back to Alberic in his black Benedictine habit standing in the gloomy darkness under the trees and shivered slightly. He wondered, not for the first time, if he had done the right thing in accompanying his friend on this quest.
About an hour later they arrived at the gatehouse of the Abbey. They had packed up their wet camp, saddled up their horses and wound their way down through the trees and across the water meadows dotted with sheep to the grey stone entrance. The gate was standing hospitably open and an elderly white clad monk sat on a stool just inside the gateway dozing in the early morning sunshine.
Ulrich and Alberic dismounted in the wide open space before the Gatehouse and led their horses over the cobbles, the noise of their iron shod hooves on the stone waking the old man with a start.
“Good morning brother!” said Alberic with a smile. “I am Alberic of Melk, a lay brother from the Abbey. This is my friend and companion Sir Ulrich of Bohemia. We would welcome the hospitality of your house as we were caught out in the storm last night.”
The old monk heaved himself up onto his feet, not without some difficulty. “You are most welcome brother Alberic, Sir Ulrich, please.......follow me.”
As they followed the old man across the courtyard towards the Abbey guesthouse Ulrich noticed a tall, thin faced monk come out of the Chapter House and head towards the church. The monk looked up and spotted the sizeable figure of Ulrich leading his great warhorse across the yard and changed his mind, heading over to them.
“Good morning Prior Heribert!” called the old monk. “May I introduce Brother Alberic of Melk and his companion Sir Ulrich of Bohemia.?”
“Thank you Brother Madoc.” The somewhat harsh lines of the Prior's thin, ascetic face softened as he smiled down at the old man. “I'll take them off your hands shall I?”
Brother Madoc turned back to them. “I'll leave you in the hands of our good Prior gentlemen. I must return to my duties at the Gatehouse.”
“Thank you Brother” answered Ulrich politely and smiled to himself. A glance at the Prior's face showed that he was well aware that the old man's 'duties' appeared to consist primarily of sleeping in the sun.
“Follow me gentlemen” instructed the Prior, turning back to his visitors.
“I notice that the Abbey buildings are all on the north side of the church rather than the south side as is more usual?” noted Alberic casually.
“Observant of you, Brother” answered the Prior. “Our Abbey has grown considerably from its first foundation and the original foundations for our church were laid too close to the river for the monastic buildings to be placed to the south. The Prior waved over a lay brother and instructed him to take the horses to the stables and proceeded to give Ulrich and Alberic a tour of the Abbey, at least, those parts of it which were accessible to those who were not part of the monastic community.
Its crowning glory was the great Abbey Church, a grand structure completed only nine years earlier with soaring Gothic arches and windows with delicate stone tracery. It was surrounded by substantial outbuildings including the cloisters, where much of the life of the abbey community took place, chapter house, library, refectory, dormitories and infirmary. The Abbot's house and the guesthouse were on the north side of the complex, furthest from the church and outside the wall dividing the monastic buildings from those accessible to the local people.
The prior left them at the guesthouse door and Ulrich walked in and looked around him with some distaste. The lay brother had unsaddled the horses and brought their packs into the guesthouse, placing them on two of the six beds in the long narrow room, a carved wooden cross fixed to the whitewashed wall above each one. There was very little else in the plainly furnished room and to Ulrich's relief it appeared that they were currently the only guests of the Abbey. He walked over to one of the beds and felt the thin straw mattress.
“Perhaps we would have done better to find an Inn in the towm?” he suggested.
Alberic laughed. “There is one thing of which I can assure you my friend. This is luxury compared to the monks' dormitory, although I suspect that the Abbot, and probably also the Prior, live in a little more comfort. We can rest here for the day and spread out our clothing on the grass to dry out in the sun. A meal and a good night's sleep and we'll be on our way. I should like to have a chat with the Librarian if I can but I doubt we will find anything of much significance here.”
Ulrich looked confused. “Why not?” he asked.
“This is a Cistercian House.” explained Alberic. “The rule of St Benedict specifies 'holy reading' but since the monks are forbidden earthly possessions it is therefore necessary to maintain a monastic library. The Cistercian Order, on the other hand, focusses more on manual labour. The Order derives from the village of Cîteaux. Near Dijon in eastern France where a group of Benedictine monks from the monastery of Molesme founded Cîteaux Abbey in 1098, with the goal of following more closely the Rule of St Benedict.”
Alberic gave a smug smile. “Among the best known of them was Alberic of Cîteaux who was the first Abbot. The goal of Cistercian life was a return to the literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict. The monks tried to replicate monastic life exactly as it had been in Benedict's time, particularly in the return to manual labour, especially agriculture, a special characteristic of Cistercian life. As you can see they have considerable flocks of sheep in this valley. Consequently the more intellectual pursuits were allowed to fall into disuse and these days many of their lay brothers cannot even read!” He sounded disgusted by this lack of education.
Ulrich spent most of the day tending to his horse and then dozing in the sun, catching up on the sleep he had missed during the storm the previous night. Alberic, on the other hand, set off purposefully towards the lay brothers' refectory to see what information he could extract from any of the brothers who happened to be around and who were able to speak with him.
“Did you get any information from the Librarian” asked Ulrich casually as they rode away the following morning.
“Not really. They have very little here that dates from before their own foundation and nothing at all written in any of the old Celtic languages. I suspect that I was correct in my assumption that I will find what I'm looking for in the older monasteries of the north and west. Although he did let slip something interesting. He knows a man who dealt in old manuscripts, a Jew, who is currently working as a scribe at a castle in the north. He told him of a woman, a healer reputed to have strange powers......”
Alberic turned to look at his companion. “It wouldn't take long to take a look?”
“Where is this place?” asked Ulrich.
“North, on the coast. A Shire that was handed over to one of King Edward's constables. Baron Erik Ventris.”
Ulrich and Alberic spent the next ten days travelling north along the path of the great dyke built by King Offa of Mercia. When they reached the coast they turned west and on the morning of the twelfth day they saw, from the coastal track, the grey stone towers of a castle a few miles inland. Ulrich urged his horse to the top of a rise in the track and peered inland.
“Would that be it do you think?” he asked.
“I imagine so” answered Alberic. “Let's go and find out.”
They followed the track inland from the coast until they came to a small bustling town clustered around the walls of the castle. As they rode up towards the gatehouse Ulrich noticed a statue placed next to the entrance. The stone was clean and white with no sign of weathering. The only flaw he could see was the nose, which appeared to have been broken off and fastened carefully back again.
“That looks new” observed Alberic, dismounting. “I wonder who it is?”
Ulrich dismounted to join him and looked around. Across the way, in the doorway of a butcher's shop, stood a man watching them suspiciously.
“Who does this statue commemorate friend?” called Ulrich.
“That's the late Baron that is” he replied.
Ulrich glanced at Alberic. “He's dead?” he asked, turning back to the butcher. “So who runs your Shire now? His son?”
“Baron didn't have no son” said the man, leaning on the doorpost. “Shire's run by the Chamberlain, same as it was while he was alive. He weren't a lot of use to be truthful.......” he leaned over and spat on the ground, though whether this was a simple clearing of the throat or a comment on the capability of the late Baron Ventris, Ulrich couldn't tell.
“His wife is in charge now but that probably won't last long. With no son the English King will no doubt want to hand our Shire over to some favourite.”
The man didn't seem particularly happy about this and Ulrich decided to probe a little further.
“A popular woman is she?” he asked.
“She's a Welsh woman!” snapped the man. “Lady Lowry Aberffraw, daughter of the old lords.....” he stopped and turned back into his shop, offering no further opinion, clearly thinking he had said too much already.
“I see.....thank you for the information friend” said Ulrich.
More people were beginning to arrive in the town square. Housewives moving from bakery to butchery filling baskets with provisions for the day. A black clad priest came across the drawbridge from the castle with a couple of knights leading their horses. Ulrich's eye was drawn to a woman with long greying hair who was handing a bunch of herbs to a woman with a small child. Behind her in the shadows stood a man dressed in a hooded dark habit not unlike the one Alberic wore. He stood with his head bowed, his face hidden in the dark recesses of the hood but Ulrich had the distinct impression that he was watching them.
He nudged Alberic. “There's an Inn down here, come on, we need to talk.”
Ten minutes later they were sitting at a table in a dark corner of the Inn each with a mug of small ale. “Well......should we stay here for a while?” asked Ulrich. “I could offer my services to this Chamberlain. I suspect he could always use more men.”
Alberic took a swig of his ale. “Yes, you do that. If you can get yourself a position at the castle then I'll explore the countryside and see what I can find out. I have some ideas already and I should travel to the island alone anyway. The monastery of St Seiriol was founded in the sixth century. It conforms to the old forms of Celtic Christianity, very different from monasteries on the mainland. I'll be more likely to win the trust of the monks alone.
“Then we had probably better split up now” said Ulrich, looking around the dark back room of the Inn. “I don't want to have to answer a load of questions about who you are.”
Alberic finished his ale and stood up. “You're right, I'll head on west today. I'll meet you where we turned off the coast track in ten days time, agreed?”
Ulrich nodded and watched as his friend slipped out of the Inn, head down and almost unnoticed in his dark habit.
Ulrich downed the rest of his own ale and was about to leave when a shadow fell across the table. He looked up, then up a little further. The man standing beside the table was easily as big as he was, if not bigger, the muscles in his chest straining against the pale blue tunic.
“You're a stranger in these parts?” he asked. “A fighting man by the look of you.”
“I've travelled here from the Kingdom of Bohemia” answered Ulrich. “I think I might like to stay a while. Though I'll need somewhere to stay, maybe to earn a little money while I'm here?”
The man pulled up the stool recently vacated by Alberic and sat down, waving to the Innkeeper who hurried up with two more mugs of ale.
“If you're looking for work I might be able to help you. We lost a few men in a scrap with some of the Welsh rebels in the woods south of here a few days back.”
He took a swig of the ale and glanced down at the sword which Ulrich had laid down on the floor at his feet. “You any good with that?”
“I can hold my own” answered Ulrich, unwilling to give too much away at a first meeting.
“Come up to the castle tomorrow and ask for the Chamberlain. I'll let him know to expect you.” The man stood up, nodded to Ulrich and turned away.
“Am I to know your name sir?” asked Ulrich curiously.
The man looked back with a smile. “Locke” he said. “The name's Locke”
The next morning Ulrich presented himself at the castle gatehouse as instructed and requested an audience with the Baron's Chamberlain. He had sat unobtrusively in the corner of the Inn for most of the previous day, nursing a mug of ale and listening the the talk and had already absorbed a considerable amount of information about the castle, its inhabitants and its neighbours. Perhaps the most interesting of which was that the Baroness had gone to Windsor after a summons from the king.
He was shown into a long reception chamber, wood panelled and with a large open fireplace at one end. A long wooden table filled the centre of the room and at the far end, seated with his back to the fire writing in a ledger sat the Chamberlain. Milus Corbett, that was the name Ulrich had heard mentioned. He eyed the man with interest. The villagers had spoken of him with respect, if not fear, and Ulrich was intrigued. His face was in shadow but Ulrich's first impression was of a man smaller than himself with greying hair and beard both cropped short.
After a moment, carefully judged to make Ulrich feel a little uncomfortable, he looked up and Ulrich noted high, sculpted cheekbones and sharp blue eyes. A remarkably handsome man and one who, if Ulrich was any Judge, was accustomed to giving orders and getting his own way.
“Ah! You must be the man Sir Locke told me about?” The knight from Bohemia with no name! Or at least, none that Locke knew?” he said.
“My name is Ulrich. Your knight suggested that you might be in a position to hire me as a mercenary?”
“I'm always on the lookout for good men” said Corbett pushing the chair back and looking Ulrich over carefully. “We are surrounded by enemies here, and I'm not too sure about our friends either.”
“Since I have come through his lands how do you know Sir that I am not already allied with your neighbour Baron Pryce?” asked Ulrich curiously.
Corbett smiled. “Pryce? He's too tight to pay for men with any real skill. And you Sir look to me like a skilled man.”
“I trained with the Teutonic Knights in western Bohemia” said Ulrich with no little pride.
Corbett leaned back in his elaborately carved chair and raised an eyebrow. “Sir Locke didn't tell me that!”
“Sir Locke didn't know!”
“Indeed? Then I may be unable to afford you myself!”
“I may not stay long” said Ulrich, considering. “I travel with a friend, a scholar who is searching for an ancient manuscript. But I would join you for a roof over my head and food for myself and my horse until we decide to move on?”
He thought he saw a flicker of interest in Corbett's sharp blue eyes at the mention of the text but he said nothing.
“You know of the Welsh rebels? The Byth Encil?” asked Corbett. “They killed Baron Ventris not long ago and attacked his widow while she was returning home. You may be required to fight sooner than you think!”
Ulrich smiled calmly. A group of barley farmers and fishermen? How skilled could they be? “That won't be a problem.”
So Ulrich spent the next few days settling in, talking with the other knights who seemed to be a mixture of mercenaries from England and local Welshmen who, he noticed, were far from popular with their fellow countrymen in the town.
He went out on a few routine patrols and noticed the admiring glances at his magnificent horse.
After a few days he heard talk that there was to be a visit by Baron Pryce from the neighbouring Shire and, sure enough, the next morning Pryce and his Chamberlain arrived with a small escort. Curious, Ulrich contrived to be grooming his horse near to the gatehouse as Corbett and the Reeve went out to meet them and it seemed that there had been some confusion as Pryce had clearly expected to meet with the Baroness. He was not particularly happy and Corbett was at his most diplomatic, apologising profusely and inviting the party to stay the night and return home the next day.
However, it was obvious to Ulrich, listening unnoticed in the background, that he had engineered the situation for some purpose of his own. He followed Corbett back into the castle and hung around watching from a distance until he saw the Reeve approach him looking worried. He looked around to check that they were alone and Ulrich pressed himself to the wall just around a corner of the corridor where he would not be seen.
“Your pardon Chamberlain” said the Reeve in a hushed tone. “A report somewhat disturbing I'm afraid. Foot soldiers discovered a body along the south court trail this morning, limbs severed, body carved with devil's symbols, a sacrifice of some kind.”
Corbett looked furious. “Shit!” he snapped.
“I've seen the remains” murmured the Reeve. “It was murder and by a hideous hand.”
Corbett thought for a moment. “Be certain that your men say nothing of this crime” he instructed curtly. “We do not want Baron Pryce to think that Satan dances at our gate!”
Ulrich had heard enough and slipped away down the corridor before he could be discovered.
Later that afternoon the Chamberlain had organised an impromptu tournament to entertain the Baron and Ulrich was roped in for a demonstration fencing match with one of Pryce's men, who was nowhere close to a match for him. In fact the Baron's men were being beaten in all the bouts but since, with Corbett's encouragement, two young women who appeared to be identical twins were fawning over Pryce, he failed to notice this.
The next morning Pryce and his entourage left and, to Ulrich's surprise, it appeared that there had been a tragedy during the night. The body of Pryce's chamberlain lay slumped over his horse having apparently choked on a chicken bone.
As soon as they were out of sight Corbett called for a group of his men to check on the scene of the hideous murder reported by the Reeve the previous day. They rode in close formation, Corbett at the head with the Reeve at his side and the four knights in two pairs behind him. Ulrich was at the rear and was therefore the last to see the remains.
“Dear God!” Corbett urged his horse forward and looked down at the dismembered corpse with distaste. “Get rid of this.....quickly! The last thing we need is for the people to think that the Baroness can no longer be relied upon to keep order in the Shire!”
Two of the knights dismounted and lifted the body aside, picking up the arms and legs and piling them on top to allow Ulrich and Locke to dig a reasonably deep grave.
“Should we not be investigating this Chamberlain?” asked the Reeve quietly.
“What exactly would you suggest we do?” asked Corbett.
“Does this look like a normal murder to you? Do you not think that the common people would consider it.......Satanic? If we start asking questions we'll only start a panic” said Corbett reasonably. “Better to clean up first and consider the implications later.”
Ulrich paused in his digging for a moment and looked around him. The earth was damp and covered with last winter's dead leaves but just in front of him he thought he could see a shape drawn in the earth. He stood up straight and looked around him, was that something too? The ground was disturbed by the men and their horses but Ulrich was suddenly sure that there had been a circle drawn around the corpse with strange symbols set into it. Was that what Corbett had noticed?
“Alberic!” he thought to himself.
He went back to his digging, careful to obscure as many of the esoteric symbols as he could see.
On the journey back to the castle Ulrich found himself riding next to the Chamberlain. The other knights had fallen back and were talking amongst themselves.
Corbett turned to him and edged his horse a little closer. “So Sir Ulrich, you seem to me to be a well travelled man. You have crossed northern Europe from Bohemia, am I right?”
“Yes, that's right” answered Ulrich carefully.
He gestured with a turn of his head back towards the grave Ulrich had just dug. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?” he asked.
“No! I can honestly say that I've never seen anything like that in my life before” answered Ulrich “and I fervently hope I never do again!”
“It seemed to me that there was more than just blind savagery there, don't you agree? The way the corpse was laid out. The cuts on the body. There was a degree of forethought. More than you would expect from some random madman?”
“Damn it!” thought Ulrich. “This man is sharp!”
He gave Corbett a patient smile. “Surely none but a madman would even think of such a thing? Has something like this happened before?” he asked, hoping that it had as that would exonerate Alberic.
“Good God no!” said Corbett, shocked. “Why do you ask?” His piercing blue eyes fixed on Ulrich who felt for a moment as if they were looking directly into his mind. He realised that he would have to be really careful in his dealings with this man.
“I was just curious” he answered with a bland smile.
Corbett eyed him suspiciously for a moment, then gave a sigh. “These are unsettled times. We must all be on our guard Sir Ulrich.”
To Ulrich's relief he seemed to relax a little and changed the subject. “So, I trust you find your accommodation at the castle comfortable?”
“Very comfortable thank you Chamberlain” answered Ulrich. “Much better than many of the Inns I've stayed in!”
Corbett watched him for a moment. “You interest me Sir Ulrich” he said. “I'm curious as to what you're doing here.”
He glanced over at Ulrich's great chestnut charger. “Judging by the quality of your horse and your gear, you're clearly a man of means and yet you hire yourself out to me as a mercenary. Why?”
Ulrich laughed. “I thought I'd hired myself to your Baroness?” he said lightly.
Corbett was evidently not impressed with this response. “My Lady relies on my advice in all things” he said coldly. “As did the Baron.”
“Of course!” agreed Ulrich hurriedly. “I'm sure she is right to do so.”
“You appear to have avoided my question Sir Ulrich” said Corbett, watching him closely.
Ulrich sighed. “I wanted to see some of the world, travel to different places, look for adventure!”
He smiled at Corbett. “I was probably spoilt by my father and when my friend asked me if I wished to join him on his travels my father readily agreed. He probably thought it would knock some sense into me! Fathers are like that aren't they?”
Corbett's cold blue eyes slid away from him. “I never knew my father......” he said quietly.
Suddenly he sat up straighter and Ulrich got the distinct impression that he regretted mentioning that snippet of information. Corbett seemed like the sort of man who hoarded information like currency, and then used it to good advantage. “Come! We must be getting back. Her Ladyship will be returning tonight!”
On their return to the castle Ulrich headed to the stables ostensibly to tend to his horse but, to be truthful, to avoid the bustle of servants preparing for the return of the Baroness. She rode in a few hours later with an escort of knights and with her maidservant at her side. Ulrich observed her from a distance as she greeted Corbett warmly, a small slender woman, her dark hair caught up in a golden net. He watched as Corbett followed her though the great arched doorway, one hand protectively behind her almost, but not quite, on her shoulder.
He woke the next morning to the sound of servants running down the corridor. Looking out he saw a group of riders approaching through the town. There was a sizeable escort around two riders, their unfamiliar banners fluttering in the morning breeze.
He hurried out into the corridor and peered out of the window overlooking the courtyard. The visitors had dismounted, their caparisoned horses and banners left outside, and were walking across the grassed courtyard to where the Chamberlain clad in a fur trimmed cloak awaited them. Ulrich watched as the newcomer, a wealthy man to judge by his richly embroidered clothing, spoke to him and to the Baroness as she emerged from the doorway and was then escorted into the castle by the Baroness's own maidservant.
Ulrich hurried down to the kitchens and found a couple of the other knights sitting at a long oak table eating from a bowl of fruit.
“Who are our visitors?” he asked, helping himself to a rich purple plum.
One of the other knights leaned back in his chair and grinned up at him. “That was Sir Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall” he said. “Just arrived from Windsor.”
Ulrich was surprised and, in truth, a little worried. Gaveston was the King's favourite. What on earth was he doing here? What possible interest could such a powerful man have in this unassuming place. He had assumed that he and Alberic would pass unnoticed here but perhaps he was wrong.
He was walking thoughtfully back to his chambers when he passed Sir Locke in one of the corridors surrounding the central courtyard.
The big man nodded politely. “Good day Sir Ulrich!”
Ulrich was just about to reply when suddenly a door at the end of the corridor burst open and the Chamberlain's young French servant ran out.
“Help me! M'sieu...quickly!” he called frantically.
Locke looked round and at that moment Ulrich heard the crash of breaking furniture from inside the room. As they ran down the passageway they heard the grunts and cries of two men fighting coming from inside the chamber. Locke and Ulrich burst into the room behind the French boy to see Chamberlain Corbett pinned on his back on a table against the wall by a man Ulrich knew as Gawain Maddox, the Punisher. Before they could do anything Corbett had punched Maddox in the ribs causing him to loosen his grip. He wriggled out of his hold like a snake and lashed out with a boot, catching Maddox in his already bruised ribs, making him fall back with a grunt of pain.
Locke and Ulrich grabbed him and held him off as Corbett stood for moment with his hands on his knees getting his breath back.
Locke was wrestling Maddox away but Maddox was fighting back and Locke raised a hand to punch him. Before he could do so. Corbett held up a hand.
“Hold! Hold!......... Maddox and I were engaged in a friendly demonstration of defence!”
He was breathing heavily as he patted Maddox on the shoulder in a genial manner but Maddox shook his hand off. It certainly did not appear friendly to Ulrich.
Corbett's lower lip was spilt and bleeding freely as was a cut just above his eye. “I was sharing some grappling skills we plied on the Scottish battlefield” he said with a smile. He waved his hand to dismiss them as the French boy bustled over to help him clean his cuts. As Ulrich left the room he passed the twins who appeared devastated by the injuries to the Chamberlain.
Ulrich eyed them with considerable interest. He had heard stories from the other knights about Corbett's exploits in the bedchamber.......most of which he hadn't entirely believed. He headed back to his chamber, his mind working furiously. What was going on here? That was a serious fight if he'd ever seen one. His respect for the Chamberlain grew as he considered what he had witnessed. Maddox was a big strong man and it looked as though he had surprised Corbett at his writing table. Yet the older man had certainly been holding his own in the scrap.......
Ulrich shook his head. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable here. There was too much going on that he didn't understand. Perhaps it was time they moved on.
On the morning of the tenth day Ulrich slipped out of the castle and rode out to the coast. There was no sign of Alberic so he left his horse to graze on the tough, wind blown grass and sat on a rock looking out over the grey sea and trying to put his chaotic thoughts in order. Could his friend really have been responsible for such a horrific murder? Ulrich had to admit to himself that it was possible.
The next question was what, if anything, should he do about it?
As he sat pondering these depressing thoughts he heard a sound behind him and, assuming it was Alberic, he turned to look along the coast path. Standing a hundred yards away on the track was a man that Ulrich recalled seeing in the town. He had accompanied the healer that Alberic had heard of from the Librarian at Tintern. A woman known as Annora. He wore a black habit similar to a monk's with a deep hood which hid his face and carried a long staff. He was watching Ulrich with an intensity that he found a little unnerving.
“Do I know you? Speak out man!” cried Ulrich.
The man shook his head in silence. Then he took a step closer, looking into Ulrich's face. “Von Schröeder?.......Ulrich?”
The voice was little more than a croak but Ulrich recognised it instantly.
“Ludwig? Is that you?” he grasped his arm, “My God man! We thought you dead years ago!”
Ulrich's mind flashed back to a clearing in a woodland where he and some of his fellow squires had been set upon by bandits while out training. His swordmaster Ludwig Von Zettel had fought off the band almost single handed, shouting to the boys to run while they could. The last thing he saw was Ludwig engulfed in flames as one of the bandits flung a flask of burning oil over him.
“What happened to you? We brought men back to the spot but you were gone.”
“I don't recall very much” said Ludwig. “But the bandits must have thought me dead as well for they left me and fled. I recall a caravan passing through the woods.........a woman who insisted that I be lifted into the bed of the wagon. She saved my life and now my life is hers.”
“But you must return Ludwig! You were the finest swordsman of our Order! As a teacher you were beyond compare!.......your woman would be welcomed with you.”
“No Ulrich. My life has been more eventful that you could know but I know now that I will never leave this place.”
He reached up and placed a scarred hand on Ulrich's cheek. “But I must warn you. The one you travel with, the man who was with you at the Inn.......he walks a dark path Ulrich. Take care that he does not draw you down with him!”
He turned and walked away down to the beach and along the sand without another word.
As he stared after him Ulrich gradually became aware that he was being observed and he turned round to see Alberic standing on the track watching him.
“So” he asked. “Have you succeeded in your quest my friend?”
Alberic came and sat down beside him. “Well.......yes and no.”
Ulrich snorted impatiently. “What does that mean? Either you have or you haven't! Did you find the manuscript?”
“Oh yes.....that wasn't a problem. The few monks remaining on the island are very unworldly. They welcomed me and freely allowed me access to their texts. It never occurred to them that someone might steal one!”
Ulrich sighed. “You're going to burn in Hell Alberic, you know that don't you? Stealing from the monks? Lying to holy men?” He shook his head in disbelief.
Alberic laughed. “Well I hope to avoid that fate for as long as possible, that's the whole point isn't it? The text gives me the information I needed but so far my efforts have been unsuccessful.”
Ulrich sat up. “Yes, about that. A few days ago a body was found on the trail a mile or so from here. Dismembered and mutilated. Did that have anything to do with you?”
“Don't worry, he was just a vagrant. No one's going to miss him.”
Ulrich gaped at him in horror. “Alberic! How can you be so calm about it? You killed a man!”
Alberic assumed a surprised expression. “Are you going to tell me you've never killed a man?” he asked in a reasonable tone.
“That was different! I'm a soldier, the men I've killed were trying to kill me! This was in cold blood and.........by God, Alberic.......this was just wrong!”
Alberic gave a smug smile. “To gain great power one must make great sacrifices” he said calmly. “Besides I have you to watch over me don't I? You're working for the Baroness's Justicar.”
“Don't count on me being able to protect you! Corbett already suspects that there was something Satanic about these murders. If he finds out that I knew anything about it, I'm a dead man!”
“Don't be foolish” smiled the monk. “He's not going to harm one of his best men!”
“Alberic!” hissed Ulrich furiously. “You don't know the man! He's completely ruthless! They tell me that he executed his own brother! And don't think he won't find out. Nothing happens in this Shire that he doesn't know about. You'd better make sure this doesn't happen again!”
Even Alberic looked shocked at this. “His brother?” then he gave a small smile. “Ruthless indeed......an interesting man. Very well, I'll be careful.”
It was only after he had left that Ulrich thought to wonder if he meant that he'd be careful that it didn't happen again or that he'd be careful Corbett didn't find out.
The Shropshire Union Canal – Present Day
We went back to the Authority Headquarters in London in the cars they had provided for the trip to Matilda's house and threw a few things into some bags. I barely had time to grab a couple of books on British Mythology and my laptop before Bill whisked me out into his car and we set off for our hideaway.
The “Lady Eleanor” was tied up to a pontoon in the quiet end of the marina. We could see faint lights behind the portholes of some of the boats but the water was still and smooth, reflecting the lights of the restaurant and bar at the far end which was doing a good trade. The strains of a live band drifted over the water as Bill and I got out of the car and carried our baggage on board. I was loading up the fridge with bottles of True Blood when Bill squeezed past me on the way to the saloon.
“Hmm......I like this boat” he murmured. “There's so little room.”
I looked round. “Whatever do you mean?” I asked, confused.
Bill stepped forward, his body pressing me up against the bulkhead in the restricted space. “See! I can squash up against you without needing to think up an excuse” he whispered, leaning down to brush his lips across my neck.
“When have you ever needed an excuse?” I murmured, tilting my face up to his. His mouth found mine immediately and his arms slid around me as he deepened the kiss.
“Okay, hold it right there tiger!” I said, wriggling out of his grasp. “Let's get the rest of the stuff on board and move somewhere further out of the way before you start getting amorous shall we?”
“I suppose that's sensible” muttered Bill in a slightly disappointed tone.
“We need to find somewhere with a good mobile signal so we can access the Library records via the internet” I reminded him.
“The Library! Oh yes.....how could I possibly have forgotten that!” said Bill in a tone which made it clear that historical research was not in the forefront of his mind.
Bill and I had used “Lady Eleanor” quite a lot and he was becoming quite handy as a crew member. He untied the bow and I manoeuvred us out of the marina, returning the cheerful waves of a group of people sitting on the wooden decking outside the bar. We headed out into the countryside and Bill came down through the boat and sat on the bench in the cockpit with me.
“Do you miss it?” he asked suddenly.
“Miss what?” I asked, puzzled.
“Sitting out in the evening drinking with friends” he explained.
“I can sit and drink with friends now” I said, turning to look at him.
He was watching me with a pensive expression. “It's not the same though is it?” he said.
I laughed. “Are you asking me if I miss alcohol?”
I watched him and realised that he was being serious. “You're asking me if I miss my human life” I said quietly.
Bill didn't reply, he just watched me, his luminous eyes fixed on mine.
“Sweetheart, there's nowhere in the world I'd rather be than right here with you” I said emphatically.
Bill reached over and took my hand, raising it to his lips. “I sometimes wonder what I could possibly have done to deserve you.”
The boat was heading into a cutting with a red sandstone cliff on one side and a steep wooded bank on the other.
“This looks like a nice quiet spot. Lets tie up here and I'll show you.” I said with a smile.
I drifted the boat in to the bank and Bill fastened mooring pins into the aluminium piling along the bank and tied her up. I headed forward towards the saloon where I'd set a match to the stove earlier and was pleased to see it burning steadily making the tiny cabin feel cosy.
Bill had followed me down and I turned my head to ask for a True Blood. He nodded and then slid his arms around me and pulled me against his body. I threw my arms around his neck, clinging to him as his mouth found mine, his hands holding me tight. He lifted me up so I was sitting on the counter in the galley and slid his hands under my shirt. Struggling for a moment with the buttons he reached around to unhook my bra. Having freed my breasts he leaned forward and buried his face between them, sucking gently at the nipples.
I wrapped my legs around his waist and pulled his shirt over his head. He picked me up off the counter with my legs still around his waist and carried me into the saloon.
“Hey, what happened to my True Blood?” I asked as he unfastened my jeans and pulled them down. He wriggled out of his pants and knelt down, pinning my hands over my head and straddling my waist as I lay on the rug before the little wood burning stove.
“You'll get it when I'm done with you!” he growled.
A shiver ran through me as I looked up at him crouching over me, muscles tense as his eyes ran over my body. He gave off an impression of immense strength, held in check as he leaned down to kiss my stomach.
“I always loved to look at you in the firelight” he whispered. “Your skin is like ivory.”
His mouth lowered to mine again and his tongue licked at my bottom lip, sucking it into his mouth and nibbling gently. He reached for my hips and lifted them as he entered me and I tilted myself up so he'd slide deeper. “Oh Alex” he breathed as his pace quickened and he buried his face in the nape of my neck. I clung to him as he moved wondering how I'd been so lucky to be loved by such a man.
Bill was an extremely thorough lover and several hours later even our vampire stamina was exhausted and we lay entwined on the rug.
“You should research naked more often” said Bill with a sly smile, his hand gently stroking my bare skin.
“You'd like that?” I asked.
“Certainly! I'd be happy to lend my assistance any time!” he purred into my ear.
“Well, there's the problem right there” I said with a sad little sigh. “With you around I'd never get any work done at all now would I?”
“Not if I had anything to do with it, no” agreed Bill with a grin.
“Seriously though, we should come out here more often” he murmured drowsily, trailing a lazy fingertip over my stomach. It's nice to have you completely to myself for a while.”
“I could say the same about you” I said. “You're always in meetings these days. I only get to see you when Lily can spare you......”
“Things are....difficult....at the moment” he said slowly. “You know everything I do about what's happening on the High Council. The Sanguinista uprising caused a lot of problems for us, but it's beginning to calm down a little now. We should be able to have some time to ourselves.”
“If we can sort out what's going on now” I said, rolling over an laying my head on his bare chest. “Ulrich seems convinced that there's some connection with Alberic's visit to Wales. Okay, let's think about this. Alberic was in the kingdom of Gwynedd in the early 1300s but the murders of his offspring only started about a week ago. If there's some connection, why has it taken so long for anything to happen? Why wait until after Alberic had met the true death? It just doesn't make sense!”
“If the killings are connected to his actions back in Wales then it has to be another vampire that's responsible surely?” said Bill. “Nothing else could survive so long!”
“But why would they wait so long? Something must have happened.....recently.....”
I reached up to the bench seat, lifted down the laptop and began a search for information in the local North Wales News sites. After half an hour of scrolling through information about sheep farmers, arguments about parking charges and adverts from the local tourist board and trying to ignore Bill's half hearted attempts to distract me I spotted something interesting. In one of the local papers I found a story about how a large natural cavern had been found beneath Criccieth Castle when a landslide had damaged the cliffs under the headland. Being a history fiend I was naturally drawn to castles anyway but I noticed that the building was started in the 1230s which would mean that Alberic might have visited it.
I scrolled down the article and clicked on a link to the local museum.
“Bill, come and look at this. I think I might have found something.......”
He was behind me in a moment, looking over my bare shoulder at the screen. I had used a password given to me by Professor Hulton at the British Museum to access a collection of photographs taken in the cavern under the castle. Bill watched as I scrolled through them and clicked on one of the thumbnails, expanding it to fill the screen.
The picture showed the inside of the inner cavern. There were a few brushes, trowels and other archaeological equipment lying around on the dusty stone floor, but in the centre of the picture was a skeleton. It was stretched out on its back, the remains of its arms and legs spread out wide.
“That looks......familiar” said Bill quietly.
I enlarged part of the picture and we both gasped. “Look at the left hand Bill. That's a nail isn't it?”
We stared at the screen in silence for a moment. “That's weird” murmured Bill. “Could it be just a coincidence?”
“This cavern was discovered on the afternoon of Saturday the 10th by a girl walking her dog on the beach” I said. “The first of Alberic's progeny was murdered that night......and one every night since. “That's some coincidence!”
“So who do you think he was?” he asked.
“I have no idea who he was” I answered. “But I'll give you good odds that Alberic killed him!”
I stared at the picture on the computer screen for a moment longer. “I need to see this place” I said decisively. “There must be something else.....something they missed......some clue as to why Alberic would do that.”
“Do you think the archaeologists would let us examine the cavern?” I asked doubtfully, turning to Bill.
“Well.....so long as you put some clothes on first.....” answered Bill with a smile.
I couldn't help smiling back. I had been so engrossed in my discovery that I had ignored the fact that we were both still naked. Bill was lying on his side on the rug in front of the little wood burning stove, propped up on one elbow watching me.
“Yes, obviously!” I said with a grin.
“Alex, darling, you are the Librarian of the Vampire Authority! A member of the High Council! Trust me, they'll let you into the cavern.”
I sat up and took a deep breath. “Right then! I'll call this......I glanced at the screen......Dr Pritchard and arrange it shall I?”
Bill's eyes had widened slightly as I sat up and he eyed my gently swaying breasts with interest. “Give him a call in a minute or two” he whispered, reaching for me.
I swung my leg over his hips and knelt astride him on the rug, leaning down to kiss him. “You know I'd love to stay here and make love with you.....but people are dying Bill. The longer we take to work out what's happening, the more vampires will die....”
Bill kissed me one last time and then sat up, reaching up to the small dining table for my handbag. “Here” he said, fishing out my phone “Call him....”
Urgent though our request was, I still fetched a dressing gown from the cabin before calling the number on the museum's webpage. I just didn't feel comfortable talking to an unknown man on the phone while Bill's eyes roamed over my naked body with a frankly salacious interest. He, on the other hand, seemed to have no such reservations and sprawled happily on the rug watching me, his ivory pale skin glowing in the flickering firelight.
He was quite right of course. Once I had explained who I was, Dr Pritchard couldn't do enough for me. He would be delighted to show me around the excavation personally. Tomorrow night? That would be fine!
We thought it would be only fair to inform Ulrich of our plans but I admit that I was a little surprised that he insisted on accompanying us. I got the distinct impression that he knew more than he was saying....... He arranged to meet us with a car at Chester and so Bill reluctantly put some clothes on and untied the boat so we could head north.
The Shropshire Union Canal ran just outside the city wall of the old Roman city of Chester along the Northgate and down through a series of locks into the mooring basin at Tower Wharf where we had agreed to meet Ulrich. Bill and I worked our way down the locks helped, and on occasion, hindered by groups of cheerful young people heading down to a nightclub next to the basin. I steered the “Lady Eleanor” into a space outside “The Thomas Telford” and our helpers melted away as half a dozen black clad and armoured Authority Security Guards appeared and proceeded to tie up the boat to the mooring rings provided for visitors.
Bill made a point of thanking our helpers as they headed into the bar, all of whom were understandably intimidated by our grim looking guards.
Ulrich was standing beside the car watching as we locked up and came towards him.
“Is it really necessary to take heavily armed guards with you everywhere Ulrich?” asked Bill. “You scared the living daylights out of those kids! They were only trying to be helpful....”
“You can't be too careful Bill” said Ulrich. “I haven't survived this long by taking chances. You know there are still Sanguinistas out there that we haven't traced.”
“All the more reason to have humans on our side!” said Bill patiently. “We were getting on fine until your guards waded in and frightened them off!”
Ulrich held open the door of one of the cars. “We've got more important things to worry about at the moment” he said, ushering us into the plush leather interior.
We settled ourselves into the back of the car and headed out into North Wales.
As we drove along the coast road Ulrich was silent looking out at the sea and when we passed the ruined castle and pulled up on the headland beside a path going down to the beach he got out of the car and looked around him.
“I know this place!” he said. “Alberic and I passed through here on our journey.”
Before he could say any more a man came running up the cliff path. He was wearing chinos with big pockets and tough hiking boots and I could see the outline of a notebook in one of the pockets. He pushed his dark curly hair back from his face and walked up to us.
“Mrs Compton?” he asked. “From the Vampire Authority?”
He smiled at me. “The Librarian?” I've heard of you from colleagues of mine at the University.”
He held out his hand. “I'm Dr Emrys Pritchard, the archaeologist in charge of the site.”
I hesitated a moment too long before taking his hand and he looked embarrassed. “Sorry! I shouldn't have done that should I?” he asked guiltily.
I laughed. “It's okay, don't worry. Can you show us the chamber where the body was found?”
“Sure” he answered. “There are lights in the cavern but I'd better go down the path first with the torch. You might miss your footing in the dark.”
“I doubt it!” said Bill patiently.
Dr Pritchard looked confused for a moment and then embarrassment took over again. “Oh......I'm sorry, of course you won't. I'm afraid I'm not used to meeting vampires.”
“It's quite alright!” I said firmly. “There's no reason why you should be. Can we just go down please?”
Waiting at the bottom of the path was a young woman that Dr Pritchard introduced as Cerys, the girl who had found the cavern. She had been helping out on the excavation and she followed us into the brightly lit space.
I walked into the cavern, Bill a step behind me and I felt it immediately, the power.....
I held up a hand. “Stop there Bill!” I whispered.
Bill paused obediently. “What is it?” he asked.
“There's power here” I whispered. “I can feel it. Its fading but it's still there.”
Dr Pritchard and Cerys both watched me curiously as I prowled around the cavern keeping carefully away from the skeleton which still lay in the centre of the floor. And then I saw something. I knelt down and brushed at the dust with my fingertips. “What's this?” I asked.
Scratched into the floor was a marking I had never seen before. I didn't recognise it but it looked deliberate.
Dr Pritchard peered down at the floor. “I don't see.....oh wait, I see something. But it's so faint I'd never have noticed it.”
He knelt down beside beside me, pulling what looked like a paintbrush from one of his numerous pockets and using it to brush the dust from the mark scratched into the stone.
Bill had moved over to the other side of the skeleton and was peering down at the floor. “Here's another!” he called.
In a few moments we had uncovered five of the marks surrounding the skeleton. One at the head and one each at the hands and feet.
“Have you dated the skeleton?” I asked
“We've had a sample of bone tested” answered Dr Pritchard. But it's not a very precise science I'm afraid. He died sometime between 1280 and 1340, that's the closest we can get.”
I turned to Ulrich. “And when were you and Alberic here?”
“1310” he said. “I was living in a Shire a few miles from here, working for the Chamberlain, a man named Milus Corbett.”
Bill and I glanced at each other. We'd only missed him by a few years!
“So it's possible?” I asked.
Ulrich bent down and examined one of the marks. He sat back on his heels and put his head in his hands. “Damn him!” he muttered. “He swore to me that he wouldn't do this again!”
“Again? What do you mean again? You mean he'd done this before?” I asked, horrified.
Ulrich stood up slowly. We found a body......I helped to bury it. It was...... dismembered” he pointed to one of the marks. “This mark was carved into its chest. And it wasn't the first.....”
He looked at me guiltily. “Alberic confessed to me that it was his work.”
Bill glared at him, clearly furious. “And when we found a dismembered body at Matilda's, hands and feet nailed to the floor, you didn't think to mention this?” he snapped.
“It wasn't the same!” muttered Ulrich. “The body we found wasn't fixed down.....there were no symbols at Matilda's.” He sighed. “I've seen a lot of horrible things in my time. You try to forget them........”
“But what was he trying to achieve?” I wondered.
Then it struck me. “It's a circle!” I said.
Everyone looked at me as if I'd gone mad.
“No, it's a circle of power!” I explained. “A magic circle. Practitioners of magic use them to protect themselves from the power of the beings that they summon up. Alberic was inside the circle summoning something, just like he did with us, Bill. That bastard has been doing this for hundreds of years!”
I turned to Cerys. “You were the first person to enter this place right? Tell me exactly what happened. You had a dog with you, did he come in?”
“No” she said slowly. “He wouldn't come in. He stayed on the threshold.”
“Sensible animal!” said Bill.
“But you came right in. What did you feel?” I asked.
Cerys closed her eyes and thought. “There was something. It was as though something had snapped, a tension in the air. And I thought I felt something brush past me? Like, maybe there were bats in here?”
Suddenly, with a cold certainty, I realised what had happened here.
“So you were right?” asked Bill, watching me carefully and seeing the realisation on my face.
“No! I was wrong. Completely wrong!” I said. “I thought that Alberic had made the circle to protect himself and I was right about that, but not in the way I thought. The circle wasn't designed to keep something out! It was designed to keep something in! The murder called something here and the circle trapped it.”
I turned to Cerys. “Then when you walked into the chamber you crossed the design. You broke the circle and it was released! That's what you felt. It's been imprisoned here for 700 years......no wonder it's angry!”
Cerys stared at me with horrified eyes. “You mean this is my fault?” she asked.
Bill put a hand on her arm. “No, of course not! How could you possibly have known? You couldn't even see the circle. No, this is Alberic's fault.”
Hours later we were sitting in the bar of a local hotel. Ulrich's guards had cleared out all the other guests and we had sat in silence as Ulrich told us the full story of his trip to North Wales with Alberic in 1310.
I was stunned by the fact that Ulrich, Bill and I had all known Milus Corbett. I wondered what would have happened if we had met? Back in the 14th Century? Would he have recognised us when he met us again in Egypt hundreds of years later?
I dragged my thoughts back to the present with some difficulty.
“You told us that you came to Wales with Alberic at the end of your human life. So what happened to you?” I asked gently. “Who was your maker?”
“It happened on our last night” answered Ulrich. “We were going to set off on our journey home the next morning. It was Alberic's suggestion and I assumed that he had given up his quest for immortality, but now.......well, I guess he had succeeded. A vampire came to us that night. He had been a priest of the old religion, a Druid. I think I tried to convince myself that Alberic's actions had nothing to do with it, that it was co-incidence. I always told myself that we were turned because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time but now, I'm not so sure. Perhaps this thing sent him as part of a deal he made with Alberic? Perhaps Alberic never meant me to be with him when it happened? I guess I'll never know now........”
“Is that possible?” asked Bill. “That Alberic made a deal with this entity. The murdered man in exchange for eternal life?”
“You're asking me? How would I know? I know very little about black magic......but it doesn't sound very balanced to me. One life in exchange for Alberic living forever?”
A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Perhaps that wasn't the whole deal? Perhaps Alberic trapped this creature deliberately and then agreed to set it free in exchange for eternal life?”
“And then he reneged on the deal. Typical!” said Bill with a snort. “I'm beginning to have some sympathy for whatever it is!”
“But we have no better idea of what this entity actually is” said Ulrich rather desperately. “How on earth are we ever going to find it?”
“Okay, let's go back to first principles here” I said, trying to remain calm. “This 'secret' of Alberic's, he found it in a manuscript in the Abbey at Melk which was incomplete. Then he found a complete copy at St Seiriols on Anglesey. So where is it?”
“What do you mean?” asked Ulrich.
“Well he didn't just read it, memorise it and put it back did he? You said he stole it. So what did he do with it? Where is it now? Did you see it?”
“No.....he never showed it to me and I never asked. I was simply not interested. But he would have kept it. Alberic collected manuscripts.”
Bill and I looked at each other. “The Library!”
I ran my fingers through my hair and groaned.
Ulrich looked confused. “But that's good isn't it? We know where it probably is?”
“Ulrich! Have you any idea how many uncatalogued manuscripts there are in the Library? It could take years to find it!........unless.......”
I thought for a moment. “There was a locked cabinet in Alberic's office with his personal papers in it. That's where I found the Erlking's book. It could be in there?”
“You've never looked at them?” asked Bill, surprised.
“Not closely! I despised Alberic remember? And there's so much more stuff in the Library that I found much more interesting. But they were scanned. Sara did it, I remember she insisted, saying they were Alberic's treasures.”
I pulled my tablet out of my bag and called up the Library records. Bill moved up closer and looked over my shoulder as the logon screen, a closed book with the Authority logo embossed on the cover, appeared. I typed in my access code and began to scroll through the collection of manuscripts.
After a few minutes searching I found something. “You said he found the manuscript at the monastery of St Seiriol?” I asked. “Seiriol the Fair?”
Ulrich gave me a patient look. “Do you really think I'd know that?” He asked. “You're lucky I could remember the name of the wretched Saint!”
“Okay, there's something here with the stamp of a Medieval monastery. It's in Latin........” I was silent for a while, reading what appeared to be the record of a Roman Governor's interrogation of a Druid priest. The priest was warning him that if he continued to oppress his people the Druids would summon the God of Death to deal with the Roman invaders. It gave an incantation in what was either Old Welsh or Gaelic or perhaps a forerunner of both, which summoned Arawn the Celtic God of the dead who ruled over Annwn the realm of death.
I leaned back in my chair. “Oh crap!”
“What is it?” asked Bill.
“I assumed he'd summoned a demon or a spirit of some kind, but I was wrong again. He summoned a God!”
Ulrich gave a short laugh. “That was Alberic all right! He was never one for half measures!”
“This is no laughing matter Ulrich!” I said sharply. “This is Arawn. He's the Celtic equivalent of Hades, he's far more powerful than any spirit.”
“Over to you” said Ulrich quickly. “You're the one who talks to Gods!”
“Why does it have to be me! This is serious Ulrich. He's a God of Death!”
“And......” said Ulrich with a raised eyebrow, “what are you?”
I paused for a moment.
“You're already dead!” He explained patiently. “What can he do?”
“That didn't help Lydia did it!” I snapped. “Or Matilda? Or any of the others?”
“That's true” he acknowledged with a sigh. “And it won't help any of the others that he'll go after either......”
“That's not entirely fair Ulrich” protested Bill mildly. “You've no right to try and put pressure on her like that. None of this is her fault!”
I looked up at them. “No. But if I can help, then I should.... but it's not the talking that's the problem” I said thoughtfully. “How are we going to get in touch with him?”
“Well Alberic managed to summon him didn't he?” asked Bill.
“And that was what caused this whole problem in the first place!” I replied. “Leaving out the fact that he murdered someone in order to perform the summoning ceremony......which I'm not prepared to do by the way......summoning anything, a spirit, a demon or a God, is only going to annoy them. That's why you need the circle, to protect yourself.”
“They never seem too angry when they talk to you” observed Bill.
“That's because they come and visit us of their own accord” I explained. “A summoning involves a degree of compulsion. That's where you're in trouble. And Arawn is pretty pissed off with vampires in general at the moment anyway.......”
How do you know this was the entity that Alberic managed to conjure up though? He might have made a mistake?
“The hounds” I said emphatically. “Arawn is said to have a pack of distinctive white hounds with red tips to their ears. “The Cŵn Annwn”, the Hounds of Annwn. You remember Dr Pasteur saying that the victims looked as though they had been torn apart by dogs?”
Bill nodded thoughtfully. “And the little girl, Louise? She saw one in the woods.”
“But we can't just let him carry on killing!” said Ulrich. “There must be something you can do?”
I thought for a moment. “There might be a way” I said slowly. “Arawn is a God of death, he rules over Annwn, the realm of the dead, but he is also associated with the Wild Hunt. His hounds, the Cŵn Annwn, are part of the pack. Perhaps the Erlking would be prepared to help us?”
Ulrich sat up suddenly. “That's that.......creature …...on the great black horse? The one that I saw in the Library that night? The one who killed Alberic?”
“That's right” I said. “I gave him Alberic's copy of 'The Songs of the Erlking' which contained the summoning incantation and he destroyed it. He's tracked down and destroyed almost all the copies in existence now. Hopefully he might feel that he owes me a favour.......”
Having made the decision that I would try asking the Erlking for help the next problem was how to contact him. Although we could get to Faery we had no idea how to find him and I was pretty sure that Mab would take a dim view of us wandering around at large in her lands anyway.
“We'll have to ask Queen Mab” I said.
Bill sighed. “I don't like to ask her for favours but I think you're right. There's no other way.”
Ulrich watched us for a moment. “So......you can contact her?”
Bill nodded. “We can, but I think we'd better do this ourselves Ulrich. She wouldn't appreciate having a load of Authority guards hanging around.”
Ulrich had met Mab of course, she'd attended several meetings of the High Council and she had been at her most imperious and intimidating at the time. And the Winter Queen being intimidating was pretty impressive! Ulrich agreed quickly that we should deal with her ourselves.
He dropped us off outside “The Thomas Telford” in Chester and headed back to London, after a short argument during which Bill and I flatly refused to have any guards on board the “Lady Eleanor” with us.
“We're dealing with other immortals here Ulrich” Bill had explained patiently. “If anything were to go wrong, your guards wouldn't be able to help us. We'd just get more people killed!”
I heaved a sigh of relief as the cars drove off. I had grown to like Ulrich, more so since I had heard the story of his turning, but he could certainly be a trial at times. As I stepped on board and unlocked the boat I noticed a couple of faces in the windows opposite watching us from the relative safety of the bar and waved at them. They waved back, rather tentatively, as we set off.
We'd been moving steadily southwards from Chester. I preferred to make longer journeys through open countryside where there were less people as, even though more boats now moved at night, I still liked to show some consideration to humans sleeping on moored boats. After a few miles we came to a spot where the woods came down to the bank on one side of the canal and there was a clear open field of long waving grass, surrounded by more woodland, on the other.
We tied up under an overhanging oak tree and sat on the bench seat in the bows. “Okay, shall we see if we can contact Queen Mab?” asked Bill quietly.
I was wearing my grandmother's necklace, the teardrop shaped opal that the Faery Queen had enchanted, hanging under my T shirt but Bill smiled at me and rubbed gently at the ring on the third finger of his left hand. “Allow me!”
We sat and listened to the calling of Tawny Owls in the woods for a while until I spotted movement among the trees. A pale figure came into view moving through the old oaks like a ghost and moments later Queen Mab was standing on the bank beside us.
“Good evening William, Alexandra. It's been a while since you called me to your world.” She looked around her curiously. “And such a lovely place! I had forgotten how beautiful it can be.......well, how can I help you?”
She seemed in a good mood and Bill stood up and offered her his hand politely.
“Please sit down my Lady, we have a favour to ask of you.”
She stepped delicately on board the “Lady Eleanor” and sat down beside me on the cushioned bench seat.
We apologised for disturbing her and she smiled at us. “Please! You have both proved yourselves to be good friends to my people. I would not have been able to negotiate with the Vampire Authority without your help William and I would not have the power I wield among the Fae had you not chosen to return the Book that was lost. I understand the suffering that decision cost you and I know from experience that you would not ask me to do anything that would put the Fae at risk. Anything I can do to help you I will gladly do.”
So we told her the story of Alberic's visit to North Wales, that his actions appeared to have resulted in the recent deaths of many of his offspring and how we believed that our only hope of contacting the vengeful God who we believed was responsible was through the Erlking. She listened carefully and then thought for a moment.
“This vampire, Alberic, he was the one who attempted to have you murdered?” she asked, her strange opalescent eyes on me. “The one who was killed by the Lord of the Hunt?”
“Yes, that's right” I agreed.
“And yet you still wish to help his offspring?”
“Why yes! They aren't responsible for what he did!”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I would expect no less of you Alexandra. You have a good heart.”
“Do you think he will agree to help us?” asked Bill.
I have to tell you that what you say does not come as a complete surprise to me. You are correct in your assumption that the Celtic God of the Underworld has returned. We have all felt this. He disappeared hundreds of years ago and no-one knew what had happened to him. Just over ten days ago we felt........something. Something powerful.”
“A disturbance in The Force?” I asked with a smile.
“Why yes, something like that” she replied seriously, completely missing the pop culture reference.
“I will relay your request to the Lord of the Hunt. If he assists you, what do you intend to do?” she asked curiously. “Will you confront Lord Arawn?”
“I don't want to!” I said. “The whole idea scares me, but I don't see that we have much choice.”
I turned to Bill and he took my hand. “Ulrich is a friend of ours and he shares Alberic's blood. He could be next. He might even come after me as I was linked to Alberic through the Library.”
Bill squeezed my hand gently. “He'll have to go through me!” he said softly.
“I must return to my lands and inform my Lord the Erlking of your situation” she said. But I should perhaps warn you that we Fae are not the only creatures who are aware of his return.......” as she spoke she appeared to fade and with a breath of cool air, she was gone.
“What did that mean?” asked Bill.
I thought about it. “Well.......I guess other Gods would know? Perhaps you should contact Lily? We could use some backup!”
“I don't like to bother her at the moment” said Bill. “She's out of the country visiting the Authority members in the US.”
He stood up and stretched. “I suppose we just wait and see what happens next” he said. “Perhaps we should move again? What do you think?” He eyed the dark woods nervously.
“We should probably stay here” I said. “I'm not sure how Mab would let him know where we are otherwise. He might be able to find us anywhere but it's best not to take chances.”
Bill picked up a cushion and moved over to sit beside me. “Come here, you” he murmured. “You don't have to do this alone you know, regardless of what Ulrich might have suggested. I'll be right there with you.”
He put his arm around me and pulled me closer. I rested my head on his chest and snuggled up against him. “I know that Bill. I rely on you......”
We lay curled up on the padded bench, taking the opportunity to relax for a while. A single leaf drifted down from the oak tree above us and settled on my cheek. Bill brushed it off gently and it was replaced with another, then another.
He looked up, his eyes narrowing as he peered between the branches. “What is this? The babes in the wood?” he muttered.
I felt a tingling on my skin as I did when in the presence of Fae magic and sat up. “Bill! There's something here!” I whispered.
Bill tensed. “What is it? Can you tell?” he asked quietly.
An overwhelming scent of flowers filled the air around us and a woman's voice spoke softly out of the air. “You are the ones who seek the Lord of Death?”
“Well.......we do need to speak with him. If that's possible” said Bill.
“Can you help us with that?” I asked tentatively.
There was a tinkling laugh and the voice said “You have the blood of the Celts in you. He will find you, woman!”
There was a pause and then the voice spoke again. “Who am I? If you know my name then perhaps I will help you.”
I breathed in the heady scent and suddenly one of the old stories came back to me. Stories old 'Mam Gi' my Welsh grandmother used to tell me when I was a child.
“Blodeuwedd!” I whispered.
There was silence for a moment, then the soft voice said “I will do my best to help you if I can.......”
The whisper faded away and suddenly we were showered with petals falling from a clear sky like brightly coloured snow.
Bill blinked and brushed a couple of flowers from his shoulders. “Okay? So who was that?”
I lay back, trying to recall the old stories of the Mabinogion. “She was the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. He was cursed by his mother the Moon Goddess Arianrhodda. She cursed him three times. That he would never have a name unless she gave him one, that he would never have a weapon unless she armed him and that he would never find a wife in this world. He and his uncle Gwydion tricked her into giving him a name and arming him and then they created a wife for him from oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet…........ Blodeuwedd......... the woman made from flowers.”
Bill was silent for a moment, watching me. “And she actually exists?” he asked.
“You know what the Gods have told us Bill. If enough people believe in her, then why not?”
A frown creased Bill's forehead. “But humans believe all kinds of crazy stuff!” he said. “Most children believe in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas! Does that mean that they're out there somewhere?” he waved a hand at the woods surrounding us.
“A creature who comes in the middle of the night to take children's teeth? Jeez....I certainly hope not!” I said with a laugh.
“I don't know how this works Bill” I said seriously after a moment's thought. “Perhaps they have to be associated with some kind of religion.....to be worshipped? I don't know. I used to believe that there was something living in the back of the washing machine that ate one out of every pair of my socks! I'm pretty sure that doesn't exist!”
I paused and glanced around me, half expecting some small shy creature with half a sock protruding from its jaws to appear out of the undergrowth.....but nothing showed itself. “Uh, nope! Pretty sure.”
Bill stifled a giggle. “Okay, I know it sounds silly, but we've seen some weird things you and I.”
I stood up brushing the flower petals off my jeans. “And I suspect we'll see a lot more before this is over!” I said.
As I smiled up at him Bill suddenly stiffened and turned away from me, his head tilted on one side. We stood in the bows of the boat, listening and my blood ran cold as I heard, in the woods behind us, the faint baying of hounds.
Bill reached down and pulled a long knife from a sheath on his boot. “Get back in the boat Alex!” he said quietly, his eyes scanning the woods. “Lock the doors.”
“Bill, it's me he wants” I whispered.
“I don't give a damn what he wants!” growled Bill, his long fangs gleaming in the moonlight. “He's not getting you, not while I walk the earth!”
I felt hot tears prick at my eyes as I turned to him. “Listen Bill, if he takes me, he'll leave you alone.....”
Bill put an arm around my waist and hugged me fiercely to him. “But I don't want to be alone! I've been alone and I never want to go back! I nearly lost you once before and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I'd rather face the true death than lose you!”
“Then let me come with you!” I said urgently.
Bill put a finger across my lips. “Don't make me compel you to stay here Alex. You know I could.......”
I blinked. I knew, of course, that he was my maker and he had not released me so technically he was right. He could force me to stay, although he'd never tried such a thing before.
He leaned forward and kissed me and then, before I could stop him, he leapt off the boat and stood in the open field waiting as the pack of spectral white hounds raced through the long grass towards him. I held my breath as the pack surrounded him snapping and snarling. Bill braced himself, crouching slightly, balancing lightly on the balls of his feet, the long knife grasped in one hand, his fangs bared, but the hounds did not attack.
“It's not him I want, woman! You are Alberic's successor!”
The voice seemed to come from the midst of the pack of hounds. Somehow I knew that hiding on the “Lady Eleanor” wasn't going to help me. I took a deep breath, jumped down off the boat and walked out onto the field.
Bill tried to run to me but the white hounds held him at bay.
As I stopped in the grass field a figure rose up from amongst the hounds and came towards me. He wore a belted tunic to just above his knees and leggings bound with leather thongs over soft boots. A woollen cloak hung from his shoulders, fastened at the neck with an elaborate enamelled buckle in a Celtic knot pattern. A long sword and a curved hunting horn hung from his embossed leather belt and two broad silver cuffs with enamelled patterns encircled his wrists. His long black hair was held back by a matching silver band. A single white hound accompanied him, the russet tips of its ears flicking back and forth as it listened for any instructions from its master.
“Your master imprisoned me” he growled. “And now you will pay the price!”
I was angry now and I faced up to him. “Alberic was never my master!” I said. “Why should I pay for his misdeeds?”
His lips curled up in a sneer. “Tell me why I should not kill you right now?” he asked.
“Because I should be extremely displeased!”
The voice came from directly behind me and as it spoke I felt hot breath on the back of my neck. I turned my head and behind me was the dark, shadowy form of the great black charger belonging to the Erlking. Fire glowed in his eyes and his nostrils and he stamped a hoof angrily causing the hounds to back off a little.
“This woman is protected by Mab, the Winter Queen!” hissed the black clad rider. “She and her husband have proved themselves to be loyal friends of the Fae race. They have ridden out with the Wild Hunt and yet you dare to send your hounds after them?”
He turned his great horned head to look at Bill. “Do not fear the hounds William, they will not harm you. They recognise you from the hunt.”
Bill didn't look entirely convinced but he began to walk towards me and this time the pack of hounds parted to let him through. They paced alongside him as he approached me but made no attempt to stop him as he stalked up to the angry God.
“You think Alberic has wronged you?” He asked furiously. “Join the queue! He tried to kill my wife! He put me in an impossible position where I had to choose between making her a vampire or letting her die. I can quite understand that you want to punish him but you're too late! He's dead. The leader of the Hunt took what little remained of his black soul.”
“You have had your revenge” I said boldly. “Alberic is dead by the hand of the Erlking, you have taken out your anger on his progeny who had nothing to do with your long imprisonment. And now you wish to extend your vengeance to his associates? That is not justice my Lord, that is mere spite and it is unworthy of you.”
The God was silent, watching me as I stepped a little closer. “I cannot imagine what you went through, trapped for all that time, but the one responsible for your suffering is gone.”
“I can” said Bill softly.
Arawn turned on him at once. “How dare you suggest that you understand me!” he snarled. “How could you?”
“Because I know someone who suffered in a similar way. My daughter Azaria was trapped in a casket of silver for hundreds of years and her suffering was worse than yours as the silver caused her unending agony.”
Bill's clear blue eyes misted over with pink tears as he continued. “For so many nights I held her, weeping, in my arms as she recalled the horror of her imprisonment........ Yes, she wanted revenge on her betrayer, but she would never have considered taking out her anger on his children. Alex is right, this is unworthy of you.”
Arawn's angry gaze dropped and I thought he looked a little shamefaced. Then he looked up.
“Perhaps you are right, but I need to know how he did this? How did he gain the power to summon me as he did? The only people who could do this were the priests of the old religion.”
“That's how he learned it. He read the invocation in an ancient manuscript” I explained.
Arawn's lips curled up in an evil smile. “And so you betray yourself! Now I know that you lie, woman!” he hissed. “The Druids never wrote down their lore, they passed it from one to another in stories and song and all are now long gone from this world.”
“It wasn't written by the Druids” I relied calmly. “It was written by their conquerors, the Romans. They learned it through the torture of your priests.”
“So how do I know that this will not happen again?” he asked. “Where is this manuscript now?”
Bill put a hand on my arm and shook his head slightly, obviously concerned that Arawn should not learn that I was in possession of the manuscript but I knew that, if we were to gain his trust, we had to be honest with him.
“It is in the Library of the Vampire Authority in London. When I return home I will burn it.”
I didn't mention that it had been scanned into the archives. I felt that the intricacies of deleting documents from the internet might be too much for him.
“You think that I will trust you, woman?” he growled.
I'd had enough of this. “My name is Alexandra” I said quietly.
We stared at each other for a moment and then he sighed. “Why should I believe that you will do this for me Alexandra?” he asked.
I turned to look back at the silent shadowy figure of the Erlking on his great black horse. “Because I did the same for your.....colleague here.” I explained.
Arawn looked up at the Erlking with a questioning expression.
“Alexandra speaks the truth” he said simply. “She found the book that Alberic used to attempt to summon me and she gave it over to me freely to destroy it. If she says that she will burn the manuscript, then she will do so.”
“You seemed to have no difficulty finding me” I said. “Blodeuwedd told me it was because of my Celtic blood. If you wish you may come to the Library and destroy the manuscript yourself.”
Arawn looked at me for a moment, considering.
“I believe that you will do this Alexandra” he said slowly. “But.......”
I smiled at him. “But you'd rather see it for yourself? I can understand that. Come to the Library then.......you will be welcome.”
Bill and I sat in the leather armchairs in the main cabin of the “Lady Eleanor” and eyed each other warily.
“I'm sorry” I admitted, after a slightly uncomfortable silence. “I know you told me to stay on the boat, but you know it wouldn't have made any difference.....”
Bill sighed. “yes, I know. I just can't get over this urge to protect you. I know you don't really need protecting any more but I just can't help it. To me you'll always been that frightened but brave little girl that I met in the bookshop.”
I got up from my chair and curled up in his lap. “Believe me Bill, that frightened little girl is still in here! I know that you want to protect me......and I love you for it. Please don't apologise for it. I want you to protect me.”
I snuggled up against the hard muscles of his chest and felt his arms tighten around me.
“You've no need to apologise either” he murmured, his lips brushing my hair. “I shouldn't have threatened to compel you to stay on the boat. I had no right to do that.”
“You had every right” I muttered quietly into his chest. “You are my maker after all.”
Bill's hand slid away from my back and I felt his long delicate fingers curl under my chin, tilting my face up to look at him.
“Alex? You know I would never force you to do anything don't you? I only said it because I was afraid for you. I'm more worried about how you'd feel if I ever did anything like that. You'd probably hate me for it.......wouldn't you?”
I looked up into his deep blue eyes, concern written clearly on his pale features and sighed. “I don't know Bill. I honestly don't know how I'd feel. I wouldn't like it that's for sure but........that's why I backed down. I don't think I ever want to find out.”
He stood up with me in his arms and began to walk down the narrow passageway to our sleeping cabin.
“You forgive me then.....for coming out into the field?” I asked.
“I can't imagine how I was daft enough to think I had any right to stop you!” he answered with a smile. “And now you've another to add to the list of Gods who are besotted with you!”
I giggled as we fell onto the bed together. “Nonsense! I do not have a list! Besides, I very much doubt that Arawn is besotted with me anyway.”
“If he isn't now, he soon will be” said Bill with a grin. “Sobek already is. Odin invited you to visit him in Asgard didn't he? You just wait......''' you'll have him and those hounds of his eating out of your hand in no time!”
I pulled my shirt off over my head and pushed him back onto the bed kneeling astride his hips. “And what about you then?” I demanded. “Mab? Lily? Bast?”
Bill wriggled out of his jeans and rolled us over and pinning me down under him, his hands on my waist. “Oh please! Don't remind me!”
He grasped my hips, his hands cool on my skin and pulled me towards him so that we lay pressed together, my body moulded to his as though we shared one flesh and one soul. I carefully removed his shirt, planting gentle kisses on his ivory skin as I explored each soft hollow and curving muscle of his body.
He lay back enjoying my attention until he could stand it no longer and he proceeded to demonstrate how much he adored me.......
Lying on the bed hours later, relaxed into a bonelessly contented stupor, I could feel the prickling on my skin that meant dawn was approaching and, looking out, I could see pale wisps of mist rising from the grass field where Arawn's hounds had run just a few hours before.
Had that really happened? The whole episode had a strange, dreamlike quality to it but, despite Bill's best efforts, I could still almost feel the hot breath of the Erlking's monstrous horse on the back of my neck. It had been real all right!
“I thought it wise to leave when we did.”
We had headed back up to Chester and met Ulrich at the the “Thomas Telford” bar beside the canal basin. His eyes seemed to cloud over as he thought back to the distant past.
“Chamberlain Corbett was a very clever man. I began to think that he knew I had information on the killings and I didn't want to risk hanging around until he decided to find out for sure! I had accompanied Sir Locke into the dungeons on a couple of occasions and I certainly didn't want any of Maddox's instruments used on me!”
“What made you think that?” I enquired curiously.
Ulrich shrugged. “I'm not really sure, he wasn't a man you could easily read. It was just the occasional look. The way he singled me out and questioned me after we buried the body that was found just off the South Court Trail. At the time I thought he was just asking me as I was perhaps more experienced than his other men, I had travelled over most of northern Europe after all but, thinking it over later, I wasn't so certain. He seemed to suspect that I might know something about it and I knew that Sir Locke had probably seen me with Alberic in the tavern.......
And then there was Ludwig. He tried to warn me. He said that Alberic was on a “dark path” and he was right.”
I thought back to my own time in Ventrisshire. I had heard talk of the healer Annora and her mute companion. The idea was that he was Ulrich's old swordmaster was astonishing. It really was a small world out there, time notwithstanding.
“How do you think he knew?” asked Bill.
Ulrich smiled. “I suspect it was the woman he was with. The one who healed his burns. I heard her described by some as a healer and by others as a witch. I would never have imagined that Ludwig would take up with a witch, but I suspect that there was another reason he stayed with her and why he refused to leave the Shire.
I noticed it as soon as I saw Corbett's Executioner, the Punisher, Maddox. I knew he reminded me of someone but until I met Ludwig on the coast road I couldn't recall who. Of course no-one else would have known as no-one there had ever seen him before he was so horribly scarred in the fire, but I saw it straight away. Maddox was the image of him, when he was young and whole.”
“He was Ludwig's son?” I asked, surprised. His and Annora's?”
Ulrich looked up at me, narrowing his eyes. “How do you know her name?” he asked suspiciously. “I'm sure I never mentioned it.”
Oops..... “You must have done!” I said briskly. “How else could I have known it?”
He stared at me for a moment, considering, then sighed. “I guess I must have.....”
Bill gave me a warning look and I resolved to be more careful in future. I didn't even want to attempt to explain how I knew her name.
Over the next week I began to be aware that Bill was coming up with various excuses to accompany me to the Library. He would need to look something up, or want to examine some papers, or just claim he had some spare time and sit in the corner of my office reading. I knew what he was up to of course and at the end of the week I closed my laptop and looked over at him sitting quietly in the corner with a book.
“You must have other things to do Bill?” I said. “You really can't spend all your time here just in case Arawn shows up!”
As he looked up at me a lock of his thick, chocolate brown hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it back impatiently.
“I'll spend as much time here as proves to be necessary” he answered firmly.
“Don't you trust me?” I enquired mildly.
He smiled warmly at me. “I trust you implicitly my darling. I just don't trust him!”
He put down the book and came over to me, sliding his arm around my waist and pulling me closer to place a gentle kiss on my lips. I returned it with enthusiasm and felt his body melt against me.
Lost as I was in his kiss I almost didn't hear the slight cough behind me, but I felt Bill's arms tighten around me and realised that I hadn't imagined the tiny sound. I sighed and turned round expecting to see one of my assistant Librarians come to ask some question about filing or cataloguing.
I was wrong.
The face of the God of Death was naturally stern but a slight smile lightened his expression as he watched us.
“Please forgive me!” he said quietly. “I didn't mean to interrupt........”
I tried to take a step towards him but Bill didn't let go of me.
“Bill!” I whispered. “It's okay.....”
Arawn held out his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Please do not fear that I will attempt to harm her” he said. “On the contrary, I have come to offer my apologies for my behaviour towards you both.”
Bill looked down at me for a moment and then released me. However, he wasn't prepared to accept the situation quite to easily and he made a point of placing himself between me and Arawn. He seemed relaxed but it was the stillness of a great cat, eyes always watchful behind the calm surface.
For a moment they each had that hackles raised, ears back look that two dogs give each other before deciding whether or not to fight. Then Bill gave a slight nod and pulled out a chair.
“Won't you sit down?” he asked politely.
I sat on the edge of the desk and Bill pulled his chair over and sat down. Arawn lowered himself slowly into the office chair and watched us for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
“I was angry” he said, simply. “For hundreds of years I was trapped in that circle, becoming angrier and more frustrated as time went on. The cavern was sealed and no-one even knew that it was there.....I had truly begun to think that I would never be freed. The only thing that kept me sane.....” he gave a slight smile “.......well relatively sane at least, was the knowledge that the creature who had trapped me was also now immortal. I spent my time plotting my revenge and then, when I was finally released, to find that he was already gone......I think perhaps I did lose my mind for a while.”
He looked up at me thoughtfully.
“I don't believe that anyone has ever spoken to me as you did. Or if they have, it was so long ago that I have forgotten it. You shamed me my dear, I should like to convey my apologies to your people for all the harm I have caused and if there is anything that I can do to make restitution, please be assured that I shall willingly do it.”
I thought of the terrible scene of carnage we had witnessed at Matilda's house, the dismembered body of her human lover, the blood, the terror in the eyes of the little child who had seen one of his hounds in the woods. But I knew there was no point in bringing this up now. It was done and we all had to live with it.
“We will pass on your apologies to the High Council” I told him.
After all, he was a God. There was very little else we could do. At least no more would die and he did seem to appreciate the wrong he had done and had offered to try to atone for it.
I reached over the desk and opened the top drawer. Inside was a plastic folder containing a manuscript. I slid it out of the plastic cover and looked down at it. It was ragged and stained, the writing faded and the parchment worn with age. It looked completely innocent, harmless, and yet this was what had caused all the pain and suffering of the recent weeks, not to mention Arawn's long imprisonment.
I handed it to him. He took it and examined it with obvious astonishment.
“This?” he asked, looking up at me. “This is what he used to summon me and to trap me in the circle?”
“Well......that, plus the hideous murder and mutilation of some poor unknown man” I said. “I understand that was done simply to get your attention. And it wasn't the first time either, I'm told he'd killed a couple of others before getting the incantation right.”
Arawn had the grace to look a little embarrassed at this. “Things were.......different then” he muttered.
“Things are certainly different now!” I said. “You'll have a lot of catching up to do.”
He looked back at me and raised an eyebrow. “Oh things certainly are different!” he said. “I have met several of my fellow immortals over the last few days and your name has been mentioned frequently.”
I sat back on the edge of the desk and thought about this. I wasn't entirely sure that I liked the implications.
Bill certainly didn't.
“Who has spoken to you about my wife?” he asked, his blue eyes hard and sharp. “And what have they told you?”
Arawn raised a hand. “Oh they were nothing but complimentary! I was informed that she had been very helpful to several immortals. They hold her in high regard I can assure you. In fact I was.......threatened.”
I blinked. “Whatever do you mean? Threatened by who?”
“The Lordfather Odin for one” he answered. “He told me that you were under his protection and that I was to treat you with the greatest respect, together with your husband.”
He nodded at Bill.
“Then there was the Egyptian, The Crocodile. He assured me that if I harmed you in any was he would tear out my heart and eat it!”
I giggled. “Sobek? Oh I'm sure he didn't mean it.”
Arawn eyed me soberly. “Oh I can assure you he was quite serious my dear!”
“Oh!” I said in a small voice. I hadn't realised that I was quite so popular.
To cover my confusion I got up and fetched a small silver dish from a cupboard behind my desk and held it out to him. He understood my meaning and dropped the manuscript onto it. I placed the dish on my desk and rummaged in a drawer looking for matches.
“Allow me my dear” he said and held out his hand over the manuscript.
As we watched the parchment began to blacken and curl at the edges and a trace of smoke rose from the dish. It burned with a strange, unearthly light and, within a few seconds, there was nothing left of it but ashes.
The God stared at it in silence for a while and then lifted his head to look at me.
“Thank you my dear. I understand that I can trust you to deal with any further copies that you may come across in your researches?” He looked around and through the door of my office out into the Library with interest.
“Of course” I answered.
He stood up and bowed to me then, turning to him, bowed to Bill as well.
“I am in your debt” he said.
Then, as we watched, he simply faded away........