Prologue - The Welsh Coast 1325
The little boy ran through the fields of barley after the dog. He was clutching a package of bread and cheese wrapped in a cloth and shouting to the dog to slow down. Pausing to catch his breath he gave a shrill whistle and the dog stopped immediately and turned back towards him.
“That's better!” he panted watching the dog run in a circle around him, his long pink tongue hanging out and his bright eyes on the boy. He had watched his father control the dogs with whistles to work the sheep and learned to control them this way.
“Right! Now let's find Tad!” He ran on through the barley, the dog now at his side, and out into the short scrub grass at the top of the cliffs where the sheep grazed. Running along the clifftop, the sheep scattering before him and the dog, he saw the shepherd in the distance raise a hand and wave to him........
Some while later the boy lay on his back looking up at the wide arch of blue sky above him and chewing on the crust of barley bread his father had given him. The dog lay beside him on the short wind blown grass, one eye on the sheep. His father had been called back to the barley fields and left him to watch the flock. His eyes were almost closing when the dog suddenly picked up his head and began to growl softly, his ears pricked.
“What is it Bran?” he asked, sitting up and looking around. “I don't see anything.”
The dog was on his feet now, his head low, nose pointing towards the cliffs. The boy got up carefully and began to crawl through the longer grass to the cliff edge. He could feel it himself now. A rumbling, seeming to come from deep within the ground beneath him as though the very earth itself was shuddering. He crept to the very edge of the cliff and peered cautiously over. At first he saw nothing but the scatter of limestone rocks at the base of the cliff and the broad expanse of sand before it. And then he saw it. Almost directly below him emerging from a gap in the rocks was......something. The head of some animal, but bigger, far bigger than any animal the boy had ever seen before, even the huge coursers ridden by the Baron's knights. The ears were wrong for a horse, bigger and more curved like great horns and the skin was covered in deep red scales. The head turned slightly to look along the line of the cliffs and, when satisfied that the beach was empty, the animal emerged fully.
The boy watched, holding his breath as the great body, two enormous wings folded along its back, moved out onto the sand, a long scaly tail trailing after it. He laid an arm over the dog, holding him down but this didn't seem to be necessary. Bran lay flattened to the earth, his eyes fixed on the creature, silent.
“It's a dragon Bran” he whispered, entranced. “A real dragon! No-one will ever believe this!”
The dragon moved out onto the beach and shook itself like a great dog, sand flying in all directions. It stretched out its broad wings and raised its head. The boy watched as the wings swept downwards and the dragon leapt up into the air. For just a moment it was level with the clifftop where he lay concealed in the long grass and then it was soaring up into the air. The great wings flapped once, powering the dragon out over the sea and then there was a flash of bright light and when the boy opened his eyes it was gone.
For a moment he wondered if he had really seen it but then he felt the dog stir under his hand and shake itself, standing up and staring out over the sea and he knew that Bran had seen it too. He returned to the spot on the cliffs many times for many years afterwards, but the dragon never returned.
Bill and I visited our cottage as often as we could get away from our various duties. Bill was busy mediated between Lilith and the members of the High Council and I spent rather too much time than was good for me in the Library. The cottage that Queen Mab had given us had become our refuge. Somewhere we knew we could get away from everyone and be alone together. So we weren't too happy, having arrived one evening after a particularly tough meeting of the Authority when several of the Chancellors had been even more argumentative than usual, to wake to the sound of a familiar snort just outside the door.
Bill heaved a sigh and snuggled deeper under the furs. “Much as I love them I do wish I could get some time alone with you......”
I wriggled closer. “You're still not tired of me after all this time?”
“I'll never tire of you my love!” He gave me a gentle kiss and began to struggle out of the furs “.......but I suppose we'd better go and see what they want.”
I lay back in the pile of furs on our bed and watched as Bill pulled on a pair of old jeans and a pale cream coloured henley. I smiled to myself thinking how much more relaxed and comfortable he looked than when he dressed in a smart suit for the formal meetings of the Vampire Authority. I climbed out reluctantly, pulled on some clothes and went to join him as he opened the door and stepped out into the bright sunlight of Faery.
I stood back and watched him, the sunlight showing up the paler streaks in his chocolate brown hair. I would never really get used to this. To seeing Bill standing in the bright sunshine. Even after all these years, since we spent most of our time on our own plane on earth where we could only venture outside after the sun had set, it still seemed so strange to me. I shook myself out of this contemplative mood and followed him out to where he was greeting the two great dragons who had become dear friends to us both. They had settled down on the grass at the edge of the lake, sitting up on their haunches, their leathery wings folded carefully against their sides and their thick scaly tails curled around their front paws like a couple of great cats.
“Good morning Arsozah!” I called cheerfully. “I've missed you.”
The great black head turned to me. “It has been some time since you have visited us. Your people keep you busy!” she said in a disapproving tone.
“She is quite correct!” said the great bronze Siriothrax. “We have been waiting for an opportunity to speak with you.”
Bill frowned. “Really? Why?”
He walked over to where Siriothrax sat and reach up to stroke his muzzle gently. “Not that we're not always pleased to see you, but was there something particular you wanted to talk about?”
“Indeed there is. One of our friends has lost his mate and we believe that you may be able to help him” he said.
Bill and I sat down on the grass beside the two dragons who crouched down with their heads on our level.
“I'm very sorry to hear that” said Bill. “Of course we will help him if we can. But what can we do? Our blood is not strong enough to revive a dragon!”
I heard the deep rumble which was Siriothrax laughing. “I did not mean that she is dead.......just that he has lost her!”
“How on earth do you lose a dragon?” I asked incredulously. “Where did she go?”
“He believes that she has gone to your world” said Arzosah. “That is why we hoped you could help to find her.”
Bill frowned. “No. That can't be. The satellite technology in use today would be able to pick up something the size of a dragon easily. The scanners used by the Authority cover the whole of the planet now and humans have the same technology. Believe me, someone would have noticed! Besides, I thought you said you never returned to earth?”
How such enormous creatures managed to look shifty was beyond me but somehow they managed it.
“Well......that was not strictly true. There have been times when some of us have returned....for various reasons. Particularly females, when they are nesting and needed to find somewhere safe. As there are no dragons in your world the chances of their nests being discovered by another dragon was very slight.”
I thought about this for a moment. “Are you saying that dragons returned to earth occasionally in the past? Through portals like the one you opened for us? And then returned here?”
It was as though a lightbulb had gone off inside my head! Suddenly all the myths and legends of dragons became clear to me. “That explains a lot!”
Bill turned to me looking puzzled. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Remember how we spoke of legends with Rahotep?” I said, my eyes shining with the excitement of discovery.
“He described how, when he was a child in ancient Egypt, his mother would warn him that, if he wasn't a good boy, the great serpent Apophis would come for him? The Dragons left our world many thousands of years ago and yet myths of winged serpents have persisted thoughout that time. They appear in the myths of the Chinese, the Babylonians, the Greeks. In South America the Aztecs and Mayans worshipped a winged serpent God named Quetzalcoatl. In Europe both St George and Beowolf fought dragons. But the most interesting thing is that the descriptions of these beasts from all over the world, is basically the same. Serpentine, reptilian creatures with scaly skin and large wings. The legends were consistent all around the world because there actually were dragons everywhere! But there was no physical evidence of them, no bones or fossils or anything like that to show that there were breeding colonies because they returned to Faery! They became part of myth and legend because they only appeared rarely and irregularly so no ancient peoples actually became familiar with them.”
“Well yes” said Bill thoughtfully. “That does explain the legends of individual dragons from the past. But it doesn't really help us does it? It doesn't explain how a dragon could have gone to our world now and remained undetected.”
“But she didn't go now” said Arsozah. “She laid her eggs in a cave on the coast when she and her mate were on earth many hundreds of years ago.”
Bill and I glanced at each other, puzzled.
“What......and she just left them?” I asked. Knowing how protective Arsozah was with her latest offspring I found this hard to believe.
“Dragon eggs can survive for thousands of years” she explained. They only begin to develop when the temperature rises either if the climate changes dramatically or if the mother incubates them herself. But, as you say, it would have been impossible for her to return now without being detected. This is why we believe she has returned to the time when the eggs were laid.”
I looked back at Bill again but he was looking as surprised as I was. I guessed I had heard her correctly after all.
“Okay” said Bill carefully. “Let me see if I've understood you. Are you saying that
dragons can open a portal to the past?”
I had learned over the years to read Bill's expressions with a high degree of accuracy and this one said “I'm sure I heard you say that, but I simply don't believe it!”
The shifty look was back in the great jewelled eyes and Arsozah's dark head turned to Siriothrax.
“Yes” he answered simply. “We can open portals to any time, past or future, although those who have travelled to the future rarely returned and so it is forbidden now.”
Bill stared up at him, his mouth open in shock. “And you're only mentioning this now? How many years have we been friends Lord Siriothrax? And yet you only see fit to tell us this when you need our help?”
Bill was clearly both angry and disappointed and Siriothrax heaved a huge sigh and lowered his head to the ground beside Bill.
“I am truly sorry my friend” he said. “We are ancient creatures with many secrets. I am the leader of my people, the oldest and the strongest of my kind and yet there are still many who disapprove of my friendship with you. I would trust you with my life and that is what I told my people, but I would quite understand if you do not wish to help us......it would, after all, be a dangerous journey for you.”
Bill sighed and reached over to stroke the great dragon's bronze muzzle. “Oh I understand believe me! We are well versed ourselves in the art of keeping secrets! Of course we will help you if we can. But what do you think we can do?”
The great jewelled eyes seem to light up and began to whirl with enthusiasm. “You'll help us?” asked Sirithrax, raising his head. “Well, as I said we can open a portal to the time to which we think Medea has gone but.......well.......we are large creatures, very noticeable! Our thought was that you, being able to pass as human, might be able to go through the portal and search for her without causing too much disturbance to the people?”
“You want us to go back in time?” I asked quietly. “How would we get back?”
“Trust you to think of that!” said Bill with a smile. “Always practical.”
“Don't you think it's a reasonable question?” I asked.
Bill smiled at me. “I wouldn't mind where or when we were as long as we were together.”
I couldn't help smiling back at him. “Yes.....very romantic, but we don't know what time we'd be going to do we? I suspect it would be before the Great Revelation wouldn't it?”
“I do not know the time, not in the way that you calculate time” said Siriothrax “but Hector, Medea's mate, has passed all he knows to me.” His forehead seemed to furrow in a frown as he looked down at Bill. “This is not something I can explain to you my friend, you must trust me.”
“So we'd be just.............looking for clues? Like what? Dragon footprints? Giant eggs? Burned villages? What?” I asked.
Arsozah gave a short laugh. “I do not know exactly, but you are resourceful people. I am sure you will be able to interpret any information you find.”
She heaved herself up onto her feet and Siriothrax did the same. “I'm sure you will need to discuss this between yourselves. We will return in three days to hear your decision.”
Well.......it didn't take us that long. Both Bill and I were fascinated by the idea of going back in time. Years of sitting on the High Council of the Authority and dealing with their petty concerns had made us eager for adventure and so three days later we were back at the cottage, each with a rucksack of supplies. The dragons were waiting for us and Siriothrax wasted no time in opening a portal on the grass before the cottage.
“Okay.......so where exactly does this go?” I asked.
“I don't know exactly” he said. “Just that is in roughly the right time and place that Hector communicated to me.”
“Roughly?” said Bill. “How roughly? Is it day or night on the other side?”
“Siriothrax leaned forwards and pushed his snout through the portal for a moment. “It's dark” he reported, pulling his head back.
“Dark? That's very informative!” said Bill sourly.
“It's all we really need to know though isn't it?” I asked. “Why don't I take a look?”
I stepped boldly through the portal before Bill could stop me and looked around. It was certainly dark, but before I could investigate further I heard him shout something and turned to see the portal closing and to my horror, realised that he was not there. I was stranded somewhere in Wales in the 14th century.......alone.
I got a grip on myself and looked around me. I was in some kind of cellar, it was dark......so dark that, were I human, I would not have been able to see a thing. Moss and lichen clung to the damp stones and cobwebs hung everywhere. Wherever this place was it didn't seem to have been used for a long time. I pulled a powerful torch from my pack and shone it into every corner, but there appeared to be nothing here.
I didn't panic as I knew that Bill would be doing everything he could to find me. That he would continue to search until he tracked me down no matter how long it took. I turned to the spot where the portal had been and scratched a cross in the mildewed stone with a piece of loose rock I prised from the wall. I wanted to be sure that I knew where the portal was....... Then I sat down with my back to the wall to wait.
After what, according to my wristwatch, was two exceedingly boring hours, I began to feel the first pull of the sunrise outside. Bill would not be coming for me for a while and I needed to find somewhere to go to ground. There was a heavy wooden door at one end of the cellar and I forced it open a foot or so and peered out on a flight of stone steps thick with dust, heading upwards. It was obvious that neither the stairs nor the door had been used for a long time. I pulled it shut again and headed in the opposite direction. There was a narrow gap leading into an even older part of the cellar and the ground here was not stone, but earth. With a little shiver I realised that this looked like the safest place.
I woke at dusk the next day feeling profoundly grateful that Bill had taught me to do this even though we thought at the time that it would probably never be necessary. I checked the rest of the cellar but there was no indication that anyone had entered it while I slept. I thought that perhaps I should explore a little, but I was reluctant to leave the cellar.......what if Bill were to open the portal while I was away? After some thought I propped my rucksack up against the wall opposite the place where I had emerged. Bill would be sure to spot it. Opening the main door I slipped though and headed up the steps.
There was no light in the stairwell but I could see well enough to spot the dark cloth of an ancient tapestry hanging over the entrance to the steps. I stepped up behind it and stood silently for a moment listening. I heard the slight scrabbling of a rat in the corridor above, the faint rustling noise of a rush torch burning in a holder on the wall but nothing else, no breathing, no heartbeats, I was sure there was no-one there. I peeped cautiously out from behind the tapestry and scanned the narrow corridor.....it was empty. I padded along the stone flags, all my vampire senses on high alert, using all the stealth that I possessed, which was a considerable amount!
Around the next corner I saw a large iron bound door. There were two metal holders on the wall on either side containing rush torches but they were unlit and no-one currently stood guard at the door although it seemed to me that the flagstones on either side had the kind of dip in them that showed that people had stood there for long periods. I crept up to the door and listened carefully. No sound came from inside and I gently pushed the door open and slipped inside. The powerful scent of old blood hit me immediately. One torch was still lit on the wall and the flickering light showed me the reflection of iron bars, manacles and chains and a wooden table with a number of metal instruments on it. I was in a dungeon......a torture chamber.
I leaned back against the door and took a deep breath. I was vampire! I was faster and stronger than any of these people. No-one was going to catch me, never mind torture me! I had to repeat this several times to convince myself but I still couldn't bring myself to go over to the table......I really didn't want to know what those instruments were for and I sincerely hoped that I'd never find out! I tore my eyes away from the table and spotted a large wicker basket in a corner. Trying to ignore the smell of blood I peered cautiously inside. Clothing! I pulled out a tunic covered in suspicious bloodstains and realised with horror that this clothing had probably been taken from the bodies of dead prisoners. Nevertheless I would certainly be recognised as a stranger in my current attire of denim jeans and a Rolling Stones T shirt! I reached gingerly into the basket and began to search through the bloodstained clothing.
I had thought that I would need to try and disguise myself as a boy somehow but I was disgusted to discover womens' clothing in the basket as well. Women had been held and tortured here? I found one rough, homespun dress that would fit me and was not too badly stained. Perhaps the owner had merely been held prisoner here? Or maybe they had stripped her before......I gritted my teeth and tried not to think of that.
I hurried back to the cellar and changed my clothing, removing anything that could identify me as a stranger and stashing it in my pack, then crept back up towards the more inhabited areas of what I was now certain was a heavily fortified castle.
I passed a couple of people hurrying down corridors and was pleased to see that that they ignored me either due to the darkness of the candlelit passageways or because they assumed that I was simply one of the numerous serving girls. Then I spotted a woman trying to carry a large basket of logs. She was thin and grey haired and was struggling badly. The basket was clearly far too heavy for her to manage.
“Here! Let me help you with that.” I said, taking the basket from her easily.
“Oh thank you dear! That's very good of you. Just bring it along to the kitchens would you?”
I followed her towards the kitchens, keeping my head down with my hair falling over my face.
“What's your name dear?” she asked.
“My name's Alex” I answered.
“I'm Gwen” she said turning back to me with a little smile. “Could you put that down here?”
She indicated a spot beside the huge open fireplace and I put the basket down.
“You shouldn't be trying to carry this kind of weight at your age Gwen!” I said.
She gave a sad little smile. “I've no choice dear! My husband and both my sons were killed in the old King's war against the Scots. If I don't work, the Chamberlain won't pay me and I won't eat.”
She looked me over shrewdly. “I don't know you do I?” she asked.
I bit my lip. “Well....no. I'm not supposed to be here actually, I'm trying to hide” I said. “My husband used to beat me and so I ran away. Please don't give me away.....I can help you with your work, I'm stronger than I look!”
Gwen's wrinkled face creased with concern. “Oh you poor dear! Where are you hiding?”
I made a quick decision to trust her. “In the old cellars......the ones beyond the dungeons. Will I be safe there?”
She looked quite shocked for a moment. “Oh you'll not be disturbed down there! No-one ever goes there because of the ghost.”
“The cellars are haunted?” I asked, surprised. I had come across ghosts before and my faery blood seemed to make me sensitive to them but I had sensed nothing in the cellars.
“Oh yes dear!” She said, pulling her shawl around her shoulders. “They say this place may have been haunted since before the castle was built. I've worked here all my life. I served the old Lord Aberfraw, Lady Lowry's father, before she married the Baron and the ghost was seen even back then. He's been seen several times over the years.”
“This ghost's a man?” I asked, curiously. “Have you ever seen him?”
“I glimpsed him once many years ago” she whispered. “He looked just as he had been described to me by my mother. Pale, as you'd expect a ghost to be, with dark hair and bright blue eyes. He had strange clothing and he appeared to be searching for something and then he seemed to see me, stepped back and just disappeared.”
I stared at her in shock. Bill! This ghost was Bill.....he must be searching for me! He was looking in the right place but in the wrong times. The dragons must open the portal in the same position but at different times and he had come through several times in the past. I felt a wave of relief, sooner or later he'd find the right timeline and he'd be waiting for me.
Old Gwen was a huge help to me. I appointed myself her assistant and helped her fetch and carry for the cooks in the massive kitchens and carry wood up to the great hall and the nobles' chambers. The timing was perfect. She laid the fires early in the morning before dawn so I was able to help her with the heavy work and the fires were banked up and lit again after dark. I explained to her that I wanted to stay out of sight as much as possible and she seemed to accept that this was why I was never around during the daytime.
At the end of the first week she offered to share her wages with me but I refused. She looked a little surprised but I think she assumed that I was living on food stolen from the kitchens and wisely kept silent. In fact I had caught an unwary chambermaid one night and glamoured her, feeding just enough to keep up my strength. I suffered a considerable amount of guilt over this as I knew by then how little these girls were paid and how hard they worked.
She was also a great gossip and kept me informed of everything that went on in the castle. She had worked here all her life and from her I learned that the castle, now known as Castle Ventris, had been built by a family of the old Welsh nobility, the Aberfraws. When Edward I had defeated the Welsh and appointed his baby son as Prince of Wales he had given lands and property in Wales to his favourites and this castle had been handed over to Baron Erik Ventris. The daughter of the family, Lady Lowry, now known as Lady Love, had married the Baron on the understanding that her family would be safe and that the castle would remain in the hands of her children. However there had been no children and the Baron had recently been murdered in an ambush by a band of Welsh rebels. Lady Love was said to be pregnant but the general consensus of opinion was that this was unlikely and that she was using this as a ploy to retain control of the Shire, although she had managed to convince an emissary of the King.
“How do you think she managed that?” I asked as we sat in a corner of the kitchen one evening.
“No idea!” she said “although........there are ways! The people who do the testing are almost always men and they usually underestimate womens' cunning. They test your piss so if you can get hold of some from a farm animal that's pregnant, well........”
“That might work! Sneaky!” I said admiringly. “But she'd have to have help surely?”
Gwen leaned forward confidentially and whispered “well, if you ask me it was probably that devious chamberlain of the Baron's, Corbett! I wouldn't put anything past him!”
“Corbett?” I asked. “I've not seen him yet. He arrived with the Baron?”
“Old friends apparently! Folks say that the Baron had breeding but no brains and Corbett has brains but no breeding. They made a good team!”
“So what happens now that the Baron is dead?” I asked. “Corbett's still the Chamberlain?”
“Oh yes! I'm sure Lady Love would have trouble managing without him, he runs the place......”
Hmmm........ sounded interesting. I thought I should make an effort to see this man so when one of the servants came in and told Gwen that Lady Love needed a fire made up in the Great Hall I jumped up and picked up the basket of logs.
I followed Gwen through a narrow corridor and up some steps until we came out in a wide hallway with a great arched doorway leading off it. Two knights were guarding the door. Genuine knights with swords! Wow.....I was impressed. Rather to my disappointment they were not in armour but wore long tunics with a blue tabard over them bearing a coat of arms, presumably that of the late Baron Ventris. Both were big strong men but one was taller than the other and considerably more muscular. Gwen nodded to them and the taller man opened the door for us. I followed her in and paused for a moment in the doorway, gazing around me.
So far all I had seen of the castle was the stone flagged cellars and the kitchens. Other that this the only castles I had ever seen had been in ruins so it was something of a revelation to walk into a large room with a wooden floor over which were scattered a few fur rugs. I knew that the wood on the floor was not simply there because it was warmer than stone but as a symbol of wealth. Only the rich could afford to use wood for furnishing rather than burn it for heat. There was a huge fireplace at the far end of the room and a long wooden table in the centre with an elaborately carved chair at the head, before the fireplace, in which sat a young woman in an expensive looking gown, her long dark hair caught up in a golden net and long gold earrings glinting in the light of the candles. I assumed that this was the Baroness, Lady Love Ventris.
The walls were hung with tapestries which effectively kept out the draughts. There were a couple of shields mounted on the wall on either side of the fireplace and, continuing the martial theme, a stand on which hung a long coat of mail with a helmet above it. I made another assumption that this had belonged to the late Baron. I felt a little push between my shoulders from Gwen and I hurried down the length of the hall to the fireplace, put down the basket and began to help Gwen lay the fire. I could hear voices behind me and had registered that one was male, probably the Chamberlain but it wasn't until we stood up to leave that I got a look at him.
He was wearing black leather riding boots and dark breeches with a long pale blue tunic, heavily embroidered and with half a dozen silver buttons running up each sleeve from the wrist. Over the tunic he wore a long sleeveless coat in a fine dark dyed wool with gold bands down the front and trimmed with black fur. I tried hard not to stare but it was difficult. The man could have been Bill's brother! Older, with a greying beard, neatly trimmed, but with the same high, well defined cheekbones and straight nose. But his eyes! They were Bill's eyes, bright blue and yet harder somehow. Bill had suffered in the past but now he was happy and relaxed and it showed in the warmth of his eyes. I somehow knew that this man had lived a hard life and seen a lot of pain and suffering, some of which was probably his own.
Gwen took my arm and hurried me out but not before the Chamberlain had noticed me staring at him and turned to look at me. I felt his eyes on me as Gwen and I left the great hall and I remembered to pretend to struggle a little with the heavy basket.
“So was that the Chamberlain?” I asked.
“That was Milus Corbett!” she said. “And if I were you I'd hope that he didn't notice you. Or if he did, that he forgets about you!”
Just then we saw two women coming down the corridor towards us. Identical twins, I noticed. Gwen lowered her eyes and nudged me up against the wall, allowing them to pass.
“Those two are Corbett's pets” she whispered. “You don't want to get on the wrong side of them......”
“What? Both of them?” I asked.
“So I've heard......” she whispered darkly. She obviously didn't approve! “They don't like it when he notices anyone else. You'd do better to stay away!”
Well it soon transpired that I had no choice since Corbett evidently had noticed me. The very next evening Gwen bustled over to me as I entered the kitchens.
“Leon Tell, the Reeve, was here earlier asking for you!” she said. “Apparently the Chamberlain has asked for you as a chambermaid.”
“Okay.......just to clean his rooms? Doesn't sound too bad” I said reassuringly.
But Gwen evidently wasn't convinced. “You just be careful Alex! He has a nasty temper. He probably needs you because that poor young French lad can't manage too much at the moment” she said darkly.
“French lad? What French lad?” I asked.
“Well.......” she took my arm and drew me aside confidentially. “Originally he was the Baron's body servant, but then when he died Corbett seemed to take over, the boy waited on him, looked after his clothes and his armour and.......other things......”
“What kind of other things?” I asked. I only wanted information as to what the duties might be but Gwen evidently found the question embarrassing.
“Oh! Well.......” she blushed deeply. “He used the boy........um......he's not married you see..........”
All suddenly became clear! “Oh! I see!” I said quickly, trying to save her the further embarrassment of having to describe Corbett's relationship with the young man in more detail.
“But the twins.......” I asked, puzzled.
“Yes, them too!” she said quickly
“Busy man! He probably won't have any time to notice me!” I said lightly. Then I recalled what she had said about the French boy not being able to manage the work any more. I didn't like to ask exactly what she meant, but I resolved to keep an eye out for him......
I didn't have long to wait as at that very moment the lad came into the kitchen and I saw immediately what she meant. The boy's face was marred by several unpleasant bruises and a bloody scrape across one eyebrow. He was walking slightly awkwardly as well, as though his ribs were painful. Frankly he looked as though he'd been beaten to within an inch of his life. Uh oh! Had Corbett done this?
He came over and patted me on the arm. “You come with me” he said in halting English. “You will 'elp me to wait on M'sieu le Chamberlain.”
Oh I will, will I? I thought to myself. Well okay.......but you try that on me pal and you're in for a nasty surprise!
I followed the lad out of the kitchens and across the main hallway. He led me up a narrow staircase and down another dark, lamplit corridor to an elaborately carved, iron studded door. I noticed that there were narrow windows on one side of the corridor and, glancing out, I realised that I was looking down onto the inner courtyard of the castle. Turning back I saw that the French boy had opened the door and was gesturing for me to enter. I walked in and had to admit to a slight pang of disappointment on finding the room empty. Corbett must be about one of his numerous duties in some other part of the Castle.
I looked around with the interest of a historian who finally had the chance to examine some history. The floor was made from thick planks of oak with what looked like a wolfskin before the fireplace. A wide bed dominated one end of the room, covered with an expensive looking, embroidered bedspread. At the foot of the bed was a large iron bound chest and hanging from the oak ceiling beams on four stout chains was an iron wheel studded with candle holders each containing a thick wax candle.
On the far side of the fireplace stood a wooden stand of the same type that I had noticed in the Great Hall. Over the stand was draped a coat of chain mail and a long sword in a leather scabbard lay propped up on the windowledge beside it. Another stout iron candle holder stood up against one wall. It was the height of a man and branched at the top to accommodate about ten more candles. Before this was a wooden desk with a carved wooden chair behind it. As I passed the desk I noticed a pile of scrolls lying in the corner and the Librarian in me itched to pick them up and read them but the boy was hustling me over to the fireplace where a birch broom was leaning against the wall. He picked it up and handed it to me.
“You sweep floors” he said.
Well.....okay. I wasn't afraid of a bit of work, so I picked up the broom and began sweeping the dust and ashes from last night's fire off the floor. The boy watched me for a moment and then, seemingly satisfied that I was able to sweep the floor without supervision, left me to my work. I have to admit that, after cleaning the place thoroughly I was unable to resist taking a peek at the scrolls on Corbett's desk. Two were maps of the coastline which proved interesting in that they showed numerous little bays and inlets which might provide caves suitable for a nesting dragon. One however, appeared to be a letter from the Baron of a neighbouring Shire. It informed Corbett that he was arranging for the transport of some artefact to the court at Windsor. I wondered why he would leave such a personal letter openly on his desk and then it occurred to me that the servants who were normally in his chambers would probably have been unable to read it.
I swept and cleaned Corbett's chamber for the next two nights and then on the third night I opened the door and was halfway to the fireplace to pick up the broom before I realised that he was sitting at the desk writing. He glanced up at me briefly and then went back to his work. I began my usual round of sweeping and after a few minutes the door opened and a woman came in who I recognised immediately as one of the twins. She was carrying a pair of Corbett's riding boots. He looked up as she entered.
“Put them down on the chest” he ordered brusquely.
She placed the boots on the curved lid of the chest and looked over at me.
“Who's this Corbie?” she asked.
“Just a chambermaid!” he said, although I noticed that his eyes lingered on me slightly longer than was absolutely necessary.
It seemed that she noticed this as well as she flounced out in a huff.
“Send the boy in to me!” Corbett called after her.
She had obviously heard him as a few minutes later the boy arrived and Corbett sent him off on some errand. I was busy trying to remain unnoticed and so I was a little startled when two men appeared manhandling between them a large copper bathtub filled with steaming hot water.
Corbett shoo'ed them out and shut the door behind them, pulling down a large beam to effectively lock it from the inside. He then deliberately caught my eye and gestured at the tub.
“You want me to clean the bath?” I asked, confused.
He laughed. “No! I want you to clean yourself! You smell terrible......haven't you ever had a bath girl?”
I struggled to keep in character, thinking of all the times I had lounged in an enormous hot tub in Bill's arms.
“Um.....no, not indoors anyway!” I whispered.
“Well get your clothes off and get in!” He tossed me a washcloth. “Give yourself a good scrub.....at the moment I wouldn't touch you with a ten foot pole!”
I stared at the tub wondering if I dared to tell him that was fine by me.....
He turned back and gave me a look that said quite clearly what he intended. I sighed, surely I couldn't have been stupid enough to think that I could work at the Castle for any length of time without someone noticing me and wanting to use me this way? This was going to be awkward!
I looked down at the steaming tub and thought for a moment. He was right about one thing. I was filthy! I really needed a bath. I decided that I was going to play along and I pulled the borrowed dress over my head and stepped into the hot water. I relaxed for the first time in several nights and ducked my head under the water to wash out the dust and smoke from my hair. When I was satisfied that I was as clean as I was likely to get I stepped out of the tub and reached for the cloth lying on the bed but Corbett was too quick and pinned it down with his hand.
“Let's get a look at you shall we?” he asked, standing up.
Jeez this was embarrassing! But what, after all, did I have to be embarrassed about? Bill had always admired my body so why shouldn't I be proud of it! I stood in front of him and looked him in the eyes.
“Well.......who'd have thought that such beauty would be hidden under that shapeless sack?” he whispered. He reached out and took my breast in his hand and I suppressed a gasp of shock. His hand was rough with callouses from wielding a sword but it was warm! He leaned forward and pressed his lips against my nipple curling his hot tongue around it. Bill's flesh was cool and smooth, all the old scars on his skin from his service in the Civil war long since healed by the power of his vampire blood, but this man was mortal......human. I took a breath and I could smell the sweat on his skin, hear the roaring of the blood in his veins. For a moment I wondered what his body would feel like, his hot flesh pressed against mine. "Well?" he murmured. "Are you going to co-operate?”
I had to admit that I wasn't entirely averse to his suggestion. He was certainly very attractive!
I shook myself. Damn it Alex! Get a grip!
“No!” I said firmly.
He looked surprised. Evidently women didn't usually refuse him, or not serving girls at least. He reached forward and brushed the tips of his fingers over my bare breast and down over my stomach. “Such perfect flesh....” he whispered “.....don't make me have to damage it!”
I sighed. “Try that and you will really regret it!” I said softly.
Rather to my surprise he laughed. “I don't know what to make of you girl!” he said, walking slowly around me examining me from all angles.
“I'm the Chamberlain of this Shire. Nothing happens around here that I don't know about. I know everyone who works in this castle.....in fact I pay the wages of everyone who works here and I don't know you. I've made extensive enquiries and I can't find anyone who even saw you arrive here!”
I looked down at my feet thinking furiously. This man was obviously highly intelligent but there was no way he'd believe me if I told him the truth.
“Well.....I guess they just didn't notice me?” I hazarded quietly.
He stared at me, frowning. “They are guards! Paid mercenaries! It's their job to notice things!”
This was bad.....very bad. If there was one thing I had learned during my short stay it was that Milus Corbett was a ruthless man and quite capable of ordering me to be tortured until I told him the truth. I made a decision....
“I didn't come from outside the castle” I told him. “I came from the future.”
He blinked. “I'm sorry? Did I hear that correctly?”
“I think so!”
A small smile curled the corners of his lips and he sat down on the edge of the bed and regarded me with something almost like respect.
“Interesting! So you can tell me what's going to happen in my future?” he asked with only a slight touch of sarcasm.
“Well.......no, probably not” I admitted. “I'd never heard of you before.”
He assumed a disappointed expression. “Oh dear! Didn't I make any mark on history? How very remiss of me!” he said. “That is unfortunate!”
“Well.....most people don't!” I parried desperately. “History is all about Kings and Queens, wars and peace treaties.......”
“I fought for Edward Longshanks against the Scots” he said in an offended tone. “I was decorated by the King for valour......”
“I'm afraid you're not being very convincing!”
I sighed. If I didn't come up with something I was going to be in real trouble here.
“What year is it?” I asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “The year of our Lord 1312” he said patiently.
I thought frantically back to all the books I used to read obsessively. Surely they would stand me in good stead now?
“Edward II” I said thoughtfully “married to Isabella of France in 1308”
“Yes.....we know that!”
“Made his favourite Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall in 1307”
Corbett's eyes narrowed. “Yes!” he snapped “we know that too!”
That sounded personal. There was something here I might be able to use.
“You know him?” I asked innocently.
Corbett's lip curled into a snarl. “I have had the misfortune of meeting my Lord of Cornwall, yes.”
“What's the date?” I asked eagerly.
“2nd of June! Why?”
“Because in less than two weeks Gaveston will have been exiled by the King.......”
“But this time he will be captured and tried by a court of Barons led by the Earl of Warwick and executed.”
Corbett froze. “Executed? By Warwick?” he asked.
“Well......the stories are confused, but one tale says that he was run through with a sword and then beheaded by two Welshmen.”
He was silent for a moment. “Well.....personally I hope you're correct. That French bitch fully deserves to die. And fortunately we won't have long to wait will we?”
He gave me an evil little smile. “If you've lied to me and raised my hopes in vain I'll make sure you suffer for it!”
Okay, that was one threat too many. I lost my temper and bared my fangs at him. “You might find that a little more difficult than you think!” I hissed.
He remained seated on the edge of the bed but I could see his body tense as he stared at me, although he seemed strangely unafraid.
“Are you some kind of demon?” he asked curiously. He seemed to be far more ready to believe this than I would have expected. I had always thought that illustrated Medieval manuscripts showing fantastical creatures, demons and angels were some kind of sophisticated joke but now I realised that Corbett, at least, actually believed that it was possible to meet a demon. And in a way, he was right.
“You might say so” I said carefully.
“So have you come to exact punishment for my sins?” he asked. “Father Ruskin always suspected that a demon would come to claim me one day, although I must admit, if I'd known that it would have a body like yours I'd have committed a few more, just to be on the safe side!”
I laughed. “I have no doubt that your sins are numerous and extensive!” I said. “But they don't interest me in the slightest.”
“What a shame! Are you sure? I can demonstrate if you like.....I've had lots of practice!”
Just then there was a knock at the door.
“Chamberlain.....the Baroness needs you! Visitors are arriving!” The voice was that of the Reeve.
Corbett got up and went to the window. He glanced out and then leaned forward, staring down into the courtyard. After a moment he turned back to me with a curiously hungry expression.
“Our visitors carry the banners of Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick.....”
“I need to go downstairs and greet our guests” he said. “Quickly, help me with this!”
He pulled the homespun shirt he was wearing over his head and reached for a finer one in a pale blue silk. I helped him into the shirt, noticing as I did so the numerous scars on his chest and back. He was obviously a fighting man so the healed wounds on his chest did not surprise me but several of the marks on his back made me pause and examine them more closely. They appeared to be old burn scars and I couldn't imagine how he could have come by these in battle. I traced my fingertip down a silver stripe about five inches long on his shoulder blade and observed that the others seemed exactly the same size and length, as though they had been caused by the same thing.
He felt my touch and shrugged his shoulders, causing the shirt to slide down over his back, covering up the marks.
“What on earth caused those burns?” I asked. “They almost look deliberate!”
He sat down on the edge of the bed still facing away from me and didn't turn to look at me. For a moment I thought he wasn't going to answer, but then he spoke, his voice seeming to come from very far away.
“I was brought up in a foundling home” he said. “We were punished harshly for disobedience.......” He turned to look at me and there was a slight smile on his lips. “Obedience has never been in my nature I'm afraid.”
I was horrified but somehow I knew that he didn't want my sympathy, or anyone else's for that matter. He had obviously grown up relying only on himself and had simply never wanted or needed anyone else.
“I can see why you're not afraid of demons” I said softly. “You've evidently spent time in hell already. I suspect you could cope with any suffering I could inflict upon you!”
He gazed intently into my eyes for a moment. “Willingly........” he whispered.
For a second I thought he was going to kiss me but then he stood up, picked up the fur trimmed coat and pulled it on.
“Wait here until I return” he ordered
“Umm........might not be possible” I answered.
He turned back to look at me, surprised and obviously displeased. It seemed that people didn't normally question his orders.
“Demon? Remember?” I said. “I cannot remain here past the dawn.”
He regarded me for a moment, head on one side. “Interesting! You can only roam our earth during the hours of darkness?”
This seemed to fit with his understanding of the denizens of the underworld and so he accepted it readily.
He swept out of the room, closing the door behind him and I relaxed. Okay.......what now? I picked up the dress and dunked it in the tub, scrubbing it to get off the worst of the bloodstains and then draped it over the edge of the tub before the fire to dry.
It was unfortunate, then, that when the twins arrived and strolled into Corbett's chambers as though they owned them I was lying snuggled up in his bed.......naked.
To say that they were not happy was a massive understatement. They were furious........they both glared at me for a moment.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked one, coming over to the bed.
“I'm waiting for my dress to dry” I answered.
The other one gave me a nasty grin. “Well you needn't worry about that, you won't be needing it now, get out!”
I pulled the coverlet up around me in an instinctively protective gesture. “I don't think so! The Chamberlain told me to stay here........I wouldn't want to disobey his orders.”
“I said get out” she shrieked angrily.
I sighed. “Look, the dress is still damp and if you think I’m going to walk around this castle without it you can think again!”
They both moved towards me and I braced myself against the head of the bed. “And don't even think about trying to make me or you'll regret it!” I warned.
The sisters glanced at each other and reached for me. I got the impression that they had dealt with interlopers on what they considered to be their territory before. They had not, however, had to deal with a vampire.
I kicked the first twin unceremoniously in the stomach and she toppled off the edge of the bed and landed on the floor with a satisfying thud. The second grabbed me by the arm and tried to pull me off the bed. . She soon discovered that I was far stronger than she was and she had the disadvantage of a long gown which hampered her movement. I got hold of it by the neckline and ripped it half off before giving her a push over the end of the bed leaving her sprawled over the curved lid of Corbett's trunk.
By this time the first twin had struggled to her feet and swung a punch at me. I blocked it and swung back, landing a right hook which sent her flying across the room where she collapsed in a breathless heap in front of the door just as it opened and the Chamberlain walked in.
He surveyed the scene in silence for a moment.
“Well really ladies! Under normal circumstances I'd be quite happy to have several half naked women fighting in my bedroom but at the moment I have more important matters on my mind” he said. “Would someone care to enlighten me as to exactly what is going on?”
“We found her in your bed!” said one of the twins indignantly, picking herself up from the floor. “She said you'd told her to stay here!”
“As indeed I had” answered Corbett calmly.
“These are my chambers Ramona! If I want her in here, then here she will stay. Is that clear?”
He looked over at me and raised an eyebrow.
“I was just trying to stop them from throwing me out into the corridor stark naked” I explained in a reasonable tone.
He looked at the twins with their dishevelled, torn dresses. A few bruises were starting to appear and Ramona had a distinct black eye. “You seem to be having some success.......” he said. “You two......out!”
“I said out!” he snarled.
After another glance at each other the twins gathered their torn gowns to themselves and slunk out, heading back down the corridor. They were walking behind the wall alongside the bed and I discovered that I could faintly hear their voices. I concentrated for a moment.
“........know how long we're going to have to put up with that pig?” muttered one.
“Until Piers tells us otherwise” whispered the other.
“I'm going to make sure I'm there when Piers deals with him! He'll show.......”
The voices faded into the distance as they moved too far along the corridor for even my sensitive hearing to pick up.
Piers? Were they talking about Gaveston?
I pulled the coverlet up over myself again. “Umm........excuse me........Mr Corbett?”
He turned back from the door with a grin. “Most of the ladies who end up naked in my bed call me Milus” he said.
“Okay Milus, who exactly are those girls?” I asked. “They don't sound local?”
“As a matter of fact they're not” he answered. “They were a condolence gift from the King on the death of the Baron.”
“A gift for the Baroness?”
“Well, yes. They were intended as maidservants but my Lady already has a trusted maidservant who has been with her since she was a child, so.......”
“So you appropriated them?” I asked.
“I couldn't resist.......”
“No, I don't suppose you could” I said thoughtfully. “Knowing the King's reputation, do you think he would have organised these gifts himself, or maybe delegated the task to one of his courtiers?” I suggested.
“Because I overheard them talking just now and, charming though you no doubt are, I think they have an ulterior motive for hanging around you.......”
Corbett looked at me in disbelief. “You overheard them? That's impossible, that wall is a foot thick!”
I just sat and watched him as he worked it out for himself. “You can hear through walls? Some kind of demonic talent?”
“So what were they saying?” he asked.
“They referred to one of the King's courtiers” I said quietly. “I suspect that they have been sent to spy to spy on you and your Baroness.”
Corbett's expression darkened. “Gaveston!” he growled.
“I heard the name Piers.......”
I almost expected him to storm out of the chamber and drag them back but he was evidently too clever for that.
“Yes.......” he said thoughtfully. “Gaveston knew things about me.....private things.....I thought the boy had told him, but it must have been those two......”
“The French boy?” I asked.
“Is that why you beat the poor lad half to death?”
He sat down heavily on the end of the bed. “I lost my temper. Gaveston humiliated me and I took it out on the boy.”
He looked across at me and I was surprised to see a tear in his eye. “I'm so sorry. He's terrified of me isn't he?”
“With good reason!”
“I don't know what to do......how to make it right......”
I sighed. “Just be kind to him..... ”
I put a hand out and tentatively rested it on Milus' shoulder. I almost expected him to shrug it off, he was the resolutely self-reliant type, he'd always had to be........but he didn't.
“He idolises you, anyone can see that! But yes, he's afraid of you. He has no idea what he did wrong, how could he when he didn't do anything wrong! And so he doesn't know when he might unwittingly anger you again and get another beating.”
Milus sighed. “He's a good lad, he does his work well.”
“Then tell him that!” I said. “He needs to know when you're pleased with him. Once he knows he's doing the right thing then he'll relax, but it'll take time.”
He was silent for a while and then murmured “I'll try, I will...... he deserves it. He has no family here, no-one to care for him, no-where else to go. He's entirely alone in the world.......I know how that feels.” His voice had dropped to a whisper and I knew he was remembering his own childhood. I left him to his thoughts for a while, reaching for the dress and pulling it over my head.
Feeling a little more confident now that I was no longer naked I asked. “So why is the Earl of Warwick visiting?”
Milus looked up and seemed to almost shake himself. “Well........it appears that you were correct” he said. “His Grace the Duke of Cornwall has been exiled but it seems he has ignored the edict and is still in England somewhere in hiding. We have been asked to assist the Ordainers by providing information as to his whereabouts. However, my Lady surprised me by suggesting that we bring him to Warwick ourselves. There is a considerable reward!”
“Do you know where he is?” I asked.
“Not yet” he said grimly. “But I soon will.......”
To my horror I realised that he was planning to use the twins to get this information. “But you don't know for sure that they know where he is!” I exclaimed.
“No......but I can give them the opportunity to tell me” he said with a sly smile.
I must have looked puzzled as he explained. “The news of Warwick's arrival is all over the castle. It won't be long before they pluck up the courage to come back here and ask what's happening. I shall tell them that Warwick has discovered where Gaveston is hiding and we shall see what happens. If they do nothing then it will be obvious that they don't know where he is, but if they run........”
I didn't like to think about what might happen then. “I'd better leave” I said. “They won't want to find me here.”
He took my hand and raised it to his lips. “Thank you my beautiful little demon” he said with a smile. “You've been very helpful.” He dropped a gentle kiss on the back of my hand.
I left him sitting at his desk and slipped out.
I headed back down the stairs and towards the cellars feeling that I'd had more than enough excitement for one night, but as I passed the dungeon I was stopped in my tracks by a powerful smell of fresh blood.
I stopped and looked around but the corridor was silent, dark and empty. I really didn't want to go into the dungeon as I was fearful of what I might find there but the scent of blood was strong and I realised that I was very hungry. I slipped in through the great iron studded door and immediately saw that there was a man slumped inside the cage on the far side of the room. There was a deep, water filled pit in the centre with a wooden bridge over it and I crept across wondering why, if there was a prisoner here, there were no guards. When I reached the other side I understood. The man was not only locked inside the cage, one wrist manacled to the bars, but both of his legs appeared to be broken. In addition to this he lay in a pool of his own blood and, judging by the smell, the rest of the blood splashed over the stone flags was also his. Even if the doors had stood open he would not have been capable of escape.
The smell was overpowering and my fangs ran out as I breathed in the scent of his blood. I went over to the cage and the man opened his eyes and looked up at me.
“What are you doing in here girl?” he groaned. “This is no place for you!”
“I crouched down beside him. “What can I do? How can I help you?” I asked.
He almost laughed but it was obviously too painful. “There's nothing you can do for me now, it's too late. Just get out of here while you can.”
“Why have they done this to you?”
“Because I'm prepared to fight for my country! They've broken my body, but not my spirit. I'm in agony now and they'll keep me alive until they get the information they want. I don't want to betray my friends, but.......” he reached through the bars for my hand. “Do you truly want to help me girl? Then take a knife from that table over there and cut my throat before they get back. That's the only mercy left for me now!”
I looked into his eyes and saw only the despair of approaching death.
“Is that what you truly want?” I asked.
“I'm dying girl. My body is too damaged to recover, and even if that were possible I could never fight or even work again and I'd starve.”
“Then give me your hand” I whispered.
I looked into his eyes and caught his mind with my glamour. Bill had taught me to do this long ago but I had rarely used it.
“You will feel no more pain.....” I breathed and I watched as the strain left his eyes and he relaxed.
“.......no more pain.....” I raised his wrist to my lips and bit down into the vein. I knew that he wanted this but I still could not bear to look at him as I drained what remained of his blood.
I sat beside the cage for a while, shocked by the horror of what I had done until my sensitive hearing picked up footsteps approaching in the corridor outside. I jumped up and looked around in a panic. At the far side of the dungeon, behind the cage, the wall was uneven and I spotted a small gap which might just hide me. I just had time to slip into the niche out of sight in the darkness before the great, iron bound door opened and five men came in. The Chamberlain was in the lead and with him was the man I had been told was Maddox, the Punisher, with his assistant each carrying a torch which they fitted into holders on the wall. Two of the knights stationed themselves beside the door.
Milus clearly wasn't happy. “You've got nothing? I need names Maddox!” he growled. “It's your task to get this information!”
He strode over to the cage and kicked the body lying slumped against the bars. There was no reaction. He froze and crouched down, reaching through the bars for the man's neck. He felt for a pulse and then sighed, leaning forward with his forehead against the bars.
“Nice work Maddox! As a torturer you make a damn good executioner!”
Maddox looked confused. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Corbett stood up abruptly and kicked the locked door in frustration hard enough to make the bars rattle.
“He's dead you idiot!” he hissed.
“But......he can't be!” said the Punisher's assistant, coming over to the cage. “He was alive when we left and the cage door's still locked......”
“Well he's dead now!” snarled Corbett. “Locke! Get rid of him!”
He stalked back across the dungeon to where Maddox stood and leaned in close.
“Don't let this happen again” he said quietly. “Or it'll be the worse for you. I'm not a man to make idle threats, you know that!”
Somehow I found this quiet statement, after his previous anger, to be even more frightening than if he had ranted and screamed at him. He turned without another word and left.
For a moment no-one moved and then the larger of the two knights, presumably Locke, turned to Maddox and said “Well open the door then, let's get him out.”
His assistant picked up a large iron key from the table, running his fingers over the instruments, obviously checking that they were all still there, then came over and opened the door to the cage. He helped Locke haul the body out and I watched as Locke picked it up and tossed it into the pit. Since there was no-one left to guard, the two knights were clearly no longer required and they left Maddox and his assistant to themselves.
The assistant, Marshall, leaned back on the edge of the table and watched his master for a moment.
“Did you kill him?” he asked.
“No” he replied. “Did you?”
“No! But if Corbett thinks we did we're in real trouble. He's a dangerous man to cross.”
The Punisher heaved a sigh. “Well, there's nothing more for us here. Let's go.”
I waited, hidden in the darkness, until I was sure that they were well away before slipping out and back towards the cellar. That had been close. I was playing a dangerous game here.
“Oh Bill” I thought. “Where are you?”
I set off back towards the cellars. At least the body was gone and there was no chance that Milus would find out who had killed his prisoner......at least, I certainly hoped not.
Suddenly I felt a rush of warmth pour through me and I almost stumbled with the shock of it. I gasped and stopped, realising at once what it must be. Bill! He was here! I raced back to the cellars to find him crouched in front of my backpack, examining it.
“Bill!” I leapt into his arms and he gathered me to him and began kissing me hungrily.
“Alex darling!” Are you okay? What's happened.....” he held me away from him “......what's that terrible smell?”
“Ah! Yes well......that's probably me. Or not me exactly, but my dress.” I explained hurriedly.
“It stinks of old blood!” said Bill, examining me carefully. “But it's not yours?”
“No.......that would be from the previous owner” I said. “I stole it from a basket in the dungeons along the corridor.”
Bill looked horrified. “you mean the previous owner is dead? Hence the blood?”
“Believe me this was the best I could find. The others were much worse!”
“Oh my poor darling! What have I put you through?” he said guiltily.
I hugged him, ignoring the slight wince and the wrinkling of his nose. I guessed I must be used to the smell by now. “I was fine! I knew you'd manage to get here sooner or later. But what happened? Why did the portal close so fast?”
“We're not sure. I guess Siriothrax lost concentration for a moment and then when he opened it again there was no sign of you. We assumed the time was wrong and kept trying until I spotted your backpack and I knew we had the right time.”
I chuckled. “Yes! I know!”
Bill frowned down at me. “How could you possibly know that?” he asked.
“You must have come through too early a couple of times. You were seen and thought to be a ghost! When I heard the cellars were supposedly haunted by a pale, dark haired man I knew it had to be you!”
“So have you learned anything?” he asked. “About the dragon?”
“Nothing!” I said. “Old Gwen must know everything there is to know about the area but she's never heard of any stories about a dragon.”
Bill thought for a moment. “That must mean that we are too early?” he said. “If she had been here in the past your informant would have heard, so she must come here at a later time. What year is this?”
“Hmm......Siriothrax is going on some information provided to him by Hector. Maybe we should speak to him ourselves? Perhaps he could remember something that would enable you to pinpoint the date more accurately” he suggested.
I looked behind him at the wall where I had scratched a cross. There was a definite fuzziness to the stonework.
“The portal's still open?” I asked.
“Oh yes! We learned our lesson there. They hold it open until I get back, we didn't want both of us stranded in different pasts!”
“Then let's go!”
We stepped through and emerged on the grass beside the lake outside our cottage. It was only after the portal had closed that I wondered what would happen back in 1312. Gwen, Milus, all the people I had met would simply never see me again. It would be as though I had disappeared the same way I had appeared. If Milus needed any further proof that I was a demon then that would probably do it.
The two dragons were waiting on the lakeside and Bill explained that we needed to speak with Hector ourselves. They nodded and both flew off over the lake.
I sat on the bench outside the cottage door. The relief of seeing Bill again had made me forget for a moment the enormity of what I had just done but now it suddenly came flooding back and Bill, feeling this through the blood bond, turned back to me looking worried.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You look fine......quite well fed in fact!”
I stared at him and burst into tears.
“Oh Alex, darling! Whatever's wrong?” he came over and sat beside me, holding me in his arms as I clung to him and wept.
“Oh Bill......I......I killed a man! I had to do it!”
He let me cry for a while and then began to gently stroke my hair. “Tell me what happened sweetheart” he said.
So I explained to him everything that had happened in the dungeons.
“I had to do it Bill.......I couldn't help him, and I was so hungry.....”
Bill sighed. “Yes of course you did! You did the right thing. He was suffering and you put an end to it.”
I looked up at him, surprised. “You've done this too?” I asked.
“Oh yes....” he whispered sadly. “Many times. I have wandered across battlefields searching for those too severely wounded to be saved in order to slake my thirst. Sometimes that's the only help you can give them. Besides, your actions may well have saved the lives of his friends.”
“He would never have given them up!” I exclaimed.
“Don't be too sure of that!” said Bill. “I'm sure he didn't want to, but men will say anything under torture. From what you said, part of the reason that he wanted you to take his life was to save theirs.”
I knew that this was true but somehow it still didn't help much. In all my years as a vampire Bill and I had survived on donor blood and Tru Blood. I had never killed anyone before. Bill hugged me tight, trying to comfort me, evidently aware of just how bad I was feeling about it.
“I won't try and tell you to forget it, because I know you won't be able to” he said gently. “Believe me I know how you feel. It's very hard to resist the call of blood, but I really think you did the right thing, not just for you but for him as well. If you had left him he would have been tortured further. No-one could have saved him Alex. He would have suffered unimaginable pain before he died and possibly even the pain of knowing that he had betrayed his friends. You saved him from that at least.”
I heaved a sigh. “Yes I know. It's one thing to read about torture in the 14th Century but to actually see it.........”
Bill kissed my forehead tenderly. “Why don't you go and change out of that awful dress?” he asked with a smile.
I gave him a rather weak smile in return and headed into the cottage. I changed back into my jeans and T shirt and washed the blood tears from my face. As I was struggling to drag a brush through my tangled hair I heard the rustling of great leathery wings and glanced out of the window to see the dragons returning.
They settled on the grass on the edge of the lake and Bill walked over to them. Between our two friends was an unfamiliar dragon who I assumed was Hector, the mate of Medea. He was a deep coppery red colour shading to a dark bronze on his head and legs.
Siriothrax lowered his head to Bill and said “This is Hector. He may be able to give you some more information about where Medea has gone.”
I went over and introduced myself. Hector looked down at me and heaved a great sigh.
“It was such a long time ago that Medea laid our clutch. I have no idea how you would record time so I don't see how I can help you? I gave Siriothrax all the information I could remember. That should have got you to the right place at least and as close as possible in time.”
“Do you know anything about what was happening at the time?” I asked rather desperately. “Give me something to work with here!”
The great head hung down beside me as the dragon thought back to his time in our world so long ago.
“We didn't take much heed of the human world!” He muttered. “But......I think I recall hearing people speak of a scandal regarding the King? His wife had left him......gone to France and begun an affair with one of his enemies?”
“Edward II” I said. “Yes that would fit! His wife Isabella became the mistress of Roger Mortimer in 1325 and overthrew her husband the following year. I was close! I was in 1312......we just need another 13 years......”
“We should be able to manage that” said Arsozah, looking over at Siriothrax.
“Yes......no problem!” he replied.
Bill looked at me a little doubtfully. “I'm not sure that Alex should go back” he said. “She had quite a difficult time......”
Three huge heads turned to me questioningly.
“Oh no, Bill! I'll be fine honestly!” I protested. “I know far more about that period than you do, and I can look after myself, you know that. Besides, you'll be with me this time.”
Bill took my hands. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I'm sure.”
“Okay, you know I'd never try and stop you from doing anything......I just want you to be sure.”
I squeezed his hands. “I know that. Now come on, let's go and find this dragon!”
“Okay, so what do we do now?” asked Bill. “Everything looks pretty much the same.”
We were standing in the same corner of the cellars of Castle Ventris. There was, perhaps, an extra layer of dust over my footprints but other than that Bill was correct.
“I doubt that anything much has changed down here since the castle was built!” I said. “Or ever will, come to that.”
“So how do we find out what year this is?” he asked.
I thought for a minute. “We really don't want to be here for any longer than we need to be” I said. “Last time I didn't have any choice as I had to wait for you to find me so I tried to blend in.........”
“If you think I'm going to put on a dress you can think again!” said Bill.
I giggled. “We could always disguise you as a knight. We'd just have to wait until one of the guards passed by, knock him on the head and steal his clothes.......that always works in the movies!”
Bill gave me a look.
“We're going to have to ask someone” I said thoughtfully, “and it's going to sound really odd. We also need to find out if there have been any dragon sightings so I suggest we quit the undercover stuff and just ask.”
“Well, there's one person who assured me that nothing happens in this Shire without his knowledge and, since he's already met me, it shouldn't cause any more problems. I suggest we ask the Chamberlain.”
Bill raised an enquiring eyebrow.
“His name is Milus Corbett, he was a companion of the late Baron Ventris in the wars against the Scots” I explained. “I met him last time I was here, he's very astute. If anyone would have the information we need it would be him.”
“Very well, you're the expert! Where would we find him?” he asked.
We made our way to Corbett's chambers without incident but just as I moved to open the door it swung open and a boy of about five or six came out. He looked up at me and Bill and frowned.
“Have you come to see my father?” he asked. “Because he's busy working!”
“The Chamberlain is your father?” I asked, surprised. So we must be at least six years after my last visit.....
Bill squatted down so that he was on a level with the little boy. “We need to speak with your father. It's very important!”
“Well, I'll ask him......but you shouldn't disturb him when he's working you know. He'll probably be angry with you!” He turned and went back into the chamber and we followed him.
The chamber didn't appear to have changed much, the coverlet on the bed was a different colour but everything else was just as I remembered it. Corbett was sitting at the desk, writing. He looked up, saw me and went pale.
“Father......there are some people here asking for you.”
He stood up and put a hand protectively on the boy's shoulder. “Thank you Erik. Now off you go and play with your friends.....” he walked him to the door and closed it behind him. Then he turned to me, his hand on the hilt of his dagger, his expression a strange combination of anger and fear.
“If you harm him in any way, demon or not, I swear I'll kill you!” he growled.
I was shocked into silence for a moment. “Oh Milus! I promise you, I'd never harm him! How could you think that?”
“Well.......then what are you doing here? It's been, what ten, twelve years?” he asked, clearly puzzled by my sudden appearance. He did not appear to have noticed Bill standing unobtrusively in the shadows beside the door.
“Well......that's part of what we need to find out” I said.
He was staring intently at me. “You've not changed at all! You look exactly as I remember you.” he said wonderingly. “Well......the bits I can see at any rate.”
He evidently hadn't changed much either! He had a few more grey hairs and a couple more lines around his eyes but the eyes themselves were as bright and sharp as I remembered.
There was a cough from the shadows. “So how much else of you has he seen?” asked Bill, sounding merely curious.
“Ah! Well, pretty much all of me actually” I admitted.
“And why exactly was that necessary?”
“He offered me a bath!” I said. “I really needed one. You said yourself how much I stank.....”
“Did he offer you anything else?”
“Certainly!” said Milus, chipping in quite unnecessarily in my opinion. “She could have had whatever she fancied.....who is this by the way?”
“This is Bill......my husband!” I explained.
“And did you help yourself to anything else?” asked Bill.
Milus turned to me. “You never mentioned a husband?”
“You didn't tell him about me?” asked Bill, incensed.
“I was trying to stay undercover!” I growled.
“You might have mentioned that you were married!”
“The subject never came up!”
“You could have brought it up yourself!”
“There was never an appropriate time!”
“I would have thought that before he got you naked and tried to get you into bed would have been an appropriate time!”
“Oh I see! Because when you were undercover at Darius Ashman's you told Ptolemy Berenice all about me, right?”
Bill deflated slightly. “Well.......no!” he blustered. “That was entirely different!”
“I'm sure it was! And the fact that you and Berenice were old lovers didn't come into it at all......”
I heard a soft chuckle and we both turned to see Milus sitting on the bed watching us.
“Well demons or not, I can tell you two are together!” he said. “You certainly argue like an old married couple!”
Bill and I looked at each other and I began to giggle uncontrollably. I went over to Bill and hugged him. “Don't be so silly!” I said. “Nothing happened, I promise you!”
He put a proprietorial arm around me and gave Milus what could only be described as a dirty look. “I'm glad to hear it! I wouldn't expect anything less from you sweetheart.”
I turned back to Milus. “So.......I know what happened to Gaveston, but were you involved?” I asked curiously.
Milus smiled coldly. “I was there! We discovered that he was being protected by the Earl of Pembroke and we captured him and handed him over to Warwick for the reward. He was executed immediately by our Punisher Maddox.”
I didn't know what exactly had happened between him and Gaveston and I didn't want to ask but his obvious pleasure in his part in the execution was just a little unsettling. Whatever it was, Milus had obviously hated him with a passion.
Just then the door opened and a young man came in carrying a bowl of fruit. “The Baroness sent these for you M'sieu” he said.
If it were not for the French accent I would not have recognised him. The frightened boy I had known had grown into a confident and remarkably handsome young man. He placed the bowl on the table and gave Milus a little bow.
Milus smiled at him. “Convey my thanks to my Lady please” he said.
Bill and I had backed into the shadows of the candlelit chamber and were standing in that frozen stillness that only vampires can achieve and so he did not notice us and he left with another little bow.
“He seems happy” I said.
“I believe so” answered Milus. “It took a while for his confidence to return but eventually he began to relax and now........well, he's certainly very popular among the young ladies!”
“Well, now that you two have caught up on current events perhaps we could ask for some information?” said Bill patiently. “That is what we're here for after all.”
“Yes......why are you here?” asked Milus getting up from the bed. “What do you want from me?”
“Well first of all, you said it was about 12 years since I was here last? That would make it 1324?” I asked.
“1325” he said.
I punched the air. “Yes! Spot on! Those dragons have got the hang of it now!”
Bill laughed. “It looks that way!”
Milus was staring at me with his mouth open. “Dragons? Please, you can't expect me to believe that!”
I grinned at him. “Why not?” I asked. “What exactly do you think we are?”
“Well........I'm not entirely sure, but you're certainly not dragons. You seem human in most respects at least.”
“So I suppose you wouldn't be able to help us track down a dragon in this area?” asked Bill.
Rather to my surprise he grinned back at us. “Well as a matter of fact I think I can!” he said. “The Reeve told me some ridiculous tale just the other day that he'd heard when going around the coastal villages. Some fisherman had come back with a story about a dragon living in a cave. The son of one of the shepherds had apparently seen it and told his friends. They all laughed at him of course but the fisherman was on the same beach one day and saw it too. He was trying to gather a group of locals to try and hunt it down.”
“No he mustn’t!”
Bill and I both spoke at once and Milus looked surprised.
“I wouldn't worry about it if I were you. These people are just simple peasant farmers. They couldn't organise a hunting party!” he said in a disparaging tone. “If there really is a dragon, which I doubt, it'll simply be able to fly away won't it?”
“No! She won't!” I said. “She has hatchlings in that cave, she won't leave them!”
“It's female? And you know her?”
“Well, not exactly. We know her friends and they sent us to try and find her and bring her home.”
His eye's narrowed slightly as he looked at me. “You're serious aren't you? You think there really is a dragon?”
“I guarantee it!” I said. “And if the Reeve can show us where this cave is he can see it!”
Milus laughed. “Oh no! If anyone in this castle is going to get the opportunity to see a dragon it's going to be me!” he said. “Come with me and I'll show you the place.”
He opened the door and gestured for us to leave, showing us down the stairs to a door which opened into the courtyard. For the first time I stepped outside the castle and walked through the great arched gateway under the portcullis and over the bridge into the town that clung to the thick, grey walls.
Crowds of people were hurrying about their business, carrying wood or weapons or loaves of bread. One man walked past with half a pig slung over one shoulder. Chickens ran around our feet and a woman with a dog herded a couple of goats down an alleyway. Bill and I got a few strange glances, presumably due to our outlandish clothing, but once people realised that we were with Corbett they ignored us and moved on. I looked around me, fascinated, while following Milus who was picking his way through the mud to a long thatched building. “I assume you can both ride?” he asked.
“Oh yes!” answered Bill. “I'm sure we can manage.”
Milus ordered a pair of horses to be saddled for us and while we were mounting up he led out a heavily muscled grey stallion.
“This old boy is Quinton, my destrier” he explained, patting his neck fondly. “He has carried me safely through many a battle during the Scottish wars. Now we are both too old for war but he still needs some exercise, don't you boy?”
The horse snorted and stamped a hoof the size of a dinner plate. Milus swung himself up into the saddle nimbly enough, despite his claim that he was too old for war. He was evidently as much at home on his horse as on his own two feet. We set off out of the small town and began following a dirt track through the woods.
“So young Erik is your son?” I asked.
“He is named for my dear friend the Baron” he answered. “My older boy Gwyn is named for his grandfather.”
A Welsh name, I thought. So at least he hadn't fathered the children on the twins. He was eyeing me as though he knew what I was thinking and his next words confirmed it.
“Their mother is Isobel, Lady Love's maidservant, my wife!” he said firmly.
I smiled. “I hope you are very happy together.”
His peaceful smile told me that, despite the horrific abuse he had suffered in his youth and his harsh, unforgiving life he had finally found some happiness.
We rode on for a while in silence and then I just had to ask. “Should I ask what happened to the twins?”
“They are both dead” he said.
“By your hand?”
“No, not directly.........although one died by my order. The other, perhaps indirectly. After the death of her sister she escaped and ran away. Her body was found later in the woods.......at least, most of it.”
I'll be the first to admit that I hadn't liked the twins but I was still sorry to hear of their deaths. I was beginning to realise that I should be grateful that I didn't live in such harsh times.
I heard Bill ask Milus some military question and they began swapping tales of their experiences of war. I trailed along behind them, my ears pricked for any sounds in the surrounding woods as I noticed that Milus appeared equally vigilant, evidently keeping an eye out for the Welsh rebels I had heard so much about. However, everything appeared peaceful and after about half an hour we came out into scrubland dotted with gorse bushes and headed down the path of a stream and out onto a wide beach.
Milus pulled up Quinton, with some difficulty as he clearly wanted to race off down the beach, and called out “The cave I told you about is in the cliffs about half a mile to the west. Follow me!”
He loosened the tight rein and Quinton leapt forward and raced off across the empty sand with Bill and me in hot pursuit. Half a mile further on we found ourselves at the base of a tall limestone cliff. Huge chunks of rock, loosened by winter storms, lay scattered on the beach and piled up at the base of the cliff.
“There!” called Milus, pointing to a dark crevice in the rock. “That's the entrance.”
We dismounted and clambered carefully up the rocks to the cave entrance.
Milus was ahead of us and he crept cautiously up to the cave mouth and looked inside. “I don't see anything” he said, “but there's a strange smell.........”
I heard a slight sound come from deep within the cave, something like a cough. I'd heard that sound before! I grabbed Milus by the arm and pulled him back behind the rock just as a gout of flame shot out of the cave mouth.
“Careful!” I scolded. “If you think there's a dragon in there then you don't just peer round the corner! Not if you want to keep your eyebrows!”
Milus was looking considerably shocked. I suspected that, despite having witnessed proof of my demonhood, he hadn't really believed in the dragon. Bill put out a hand and gently pushed him back from the cave mouth.
“Medea!” He called. “I command you by the power of your true name to come out and speak with us!”
There was silence for a moment and then I heard an angry growl from the depths of the cave and heavy footsteps coming towards us. Milus was staring intently at the cave mouth.
“I don't see anything” he whispered after a moment or two.
“Look higher up!” I said.
He raised his head and gasped as he saw the enormous scaly head that had emerged considerably further up the opening than he was expecting. The head tilted and a pair of angry eyes locked onto us.
“How could you know my name human?” she snarled. “Do not imagine that you can make me serve you!”
Bill held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “Easy there! I have no wish to command you Medea. I just didn't want to get fried!”
The head dropped to Bill's level and the blazing eyes examined him for a moment. “Who told you my name?” she hissed.
“Your name was given to me by Siriothrax” explained Bill, calmly.
Medea's head jerked back in surprise and her eyes widened. “You know the name of Lord Siriothrax? How could you possibly have tricked him into revealing that?”
“He is my friend” said Bill simply. “He trusts me. In fact he trusts me sufficiently to allow me to ride on his back. As Alex here does with his mate Arsozah.”
The dragon's jaw dropped slightly and she stared at us in amazement. “Then what do you want with me?” she asked, evidently confused.
“We've come to help you get home” said Bill. “Hector is very worried about you!”
The huge beast shook herself slightly and emerged fully from the cave onto the rocks.....despite having been hidden in a cave for a while incubating her eggs she was still a magnificent creature. Her scales were a deep glossy red and looking at her, I felt sure that she was the model for the dragon which had appeared for centuries on the Welsh Flag. I heard Milus move back a little further behind me. She stood on the rocky slope and lowered her head to our level.
“Hector sent you?” she asked, astonished.
“Yes” I said. “He was concerned about you and he's right! It's not safe for you here. People are preparing to hunt you and anyway, this time isn't safe any more. There's going to be trouble soon, fighting that might well spill over into this area.”
As we were speaking I saw Medea's ears flick up and she turned her head to look back at the cave. I turned to see what she was looking at and there, in the gap in the cliff, stood a baby dragon.
I had seen immature dragons before but never one this young. He was about the size of a large dog and marked in splotches of green and grey which gave him very effective camouflage amongst the lichen covered rocks. He had a generally softer look to him than the adults as he had not yet developed the horns on his head or the bony spikes along his spine and wings. His head was shorter, the muzzle softer looking and he had the baby animal's overly large eyes. I was instantly entranced......
I crouched down on the rocks and held out a hand to him. “Well hello......” I whispered. “Aren't you just adorable?”
After a quick glance up at his mother he padded over to me, wobbling slightly on the uneven rocks, and pushed his muzzle into my hand. I scratched him gently behind the ear and he began to make a soft purring noise.
“No, you can't have one!” said Bill firmly.
I laughed. “Don't be silly! Just look at the size of his mother........ But you have to admit he's terribly cute!”
I heard a rustling sound and looked around to see two more heads peering around the rocks at me.
“How many are there?” I asked Medea.
“I hatched seven eggs” she said “but they are really too young to leave the nest.”
“One by one the other six baby dragons ventured out of the cave and wobbled over to us. Two more came to join me and three made straight for Medea but the last one headed unhesitatingly for Milus who was standing just behind me and began to rub his head trustingly against Milus' legs just like a pet dog. Milus reached down and tentatively began to scratch him behind the ear.
“It's a baby dragon!” he whispered, as though until he had touched it he couldn't actually believe what he was seeing. “It really exists!”
“See! I knew you didn't believe me!” I said.
“Well can you blame me?” he asked, crouching down beside me to pet the baby and looking up at the great bulk of the red dragon towering over us. “Who in their right senses would believe this?”
Medea lowered her head towards me. “You are correct about men having discovered us” she said. “I noticed several humans on the beach a few nights ago and they seemed to be searching the cliffs, but you seemed to suggest that there is more danger here than that?”
Milus sat back on a rock with the baby dragon's head in his lap and eyed me speculatively. “You have more information on our future?” he asked.
“Nothing that I'm sure you couldn't work out for yourself!” I said. “You must be aware of the King's association with Hugh Despenser? Didn't Edward and Despenser defeat the Marcher Barons in......” I thought for a moment “......1321? That would be about four years ago?”
“That's right” said Milus. “The kingdom is always at risk when we have a weak King and Edward is not half the man his father was. He seems unable to function without some favourite to help him. First Gaveston, and now Hugh Despenser, who is back in power again, curse him. Even this far north when any of the farmers lose one of their sheep or cattle they say it has 'gone to Caerphilly'.”
I laughed and Bill turned to me. “Caerphilly?” he asked, puzzled.
“Despenser inherited the Lordship of Glamorgan, including Cardiff and Caerphilly Castles, from his marriage to Eleanor de Clare” I explained. “He was notoriously ruthless and grasping, well known for confiscating any stock that trespassed on his lands.”
“Last year one of the leaders of the Barons, Roger Mortimer escaped from imprisonment and fled to France where he was joined by Queen Isabella” said Milus thoughtfully. “Is that what you mean? That they will cause more trouble for the King?”
“I'm afraid so” I said, turning to Medea. “That's why you need to leave and bring your brood with you.”
“But I cannot take them all with me They are too young to fly, they would have to be carried and I cannot leave them to go and fetch help.”
“You are the only dragon who can find this place again so you will have to go!” said Bill. “Hector will return with you.”
“How can I leave my hatchlings unprotected? They would be helpless if those men returned!” cried Medea. “No! I must stay!”
“I will stay and protect them” said Bill.
“No Bill, you can't!” I said. “There's no guarantee that they'll come back during the night next time. What if they come back in daylight?”
Milus gave a little cough. “I will guard them during daylight if you will relieve me at nightfall.”
We stared at him. “Are you sure about this?” asked Bill doubtfully.
Milus narrowed his eyes and stared him down. “If I say that I will do this then it will be done!” he said simply.
I turned to Medea. “Look, I'll come with you, I'll only be in the way here and the sooner we go, the sooner we can get back here. You can return as close as possible to this time, right?”
“You know that this process is not.....exact” she said worriedly. “I might be a few days out.”
“Then we will protect your children until that time!” said Bill firmly. “Now go!”
Medea and I burst out over the lake and swept down in a long glide to where the three dragons were lounging in front of our cottage. I saw Hector heave himself up to his feet and head down to the spot on the lakeshore where we were headed and as soon as Medea touched down he was nuzzling at her face and murmuring endearments. Then he suddenly seemed to realise that we were alone.
“What happened?” he asked. “Did they not hatch?”
She rubbed at his neck with her head affectionately. “Yes, yes they are fine but they are too young to fly so we must go and fetch them back here. Alex tells me that there will soon be war and it will be too dangerous for them to remain there.
She looked up at Siriothrax and Arsozah who had ambled over to us. “There are seven hatchlings” she said with a touch of pride. “We will have to bring one each but even if you help us we will need to make more than one trip. We should hurry!”
“Just one moment!” I said. “I've been thinking about this and I have an idea. Arsozah, can you take me to the Mill House?” I asked.
The great black head turned to look at me, perched on Medea's shoulders. “You want me to take you back to your world?” she asked.
“Just a brief trip. There's something I'd like you to bring back.”
“Very well” she stepped up alongside Medea. “Climb over here.”
I performed a rather undignified scramble from the back of one dragon to another and in moments Arsozah and I were flying over the Mill House.
“Down there, in the field!” I called, and she swept down obediently over the fields behind the house.
In the corner of the furthest field was the remains of an old Land Rover which had been sitting there, quietly deteriorating for years. All the tyres were flat and the canvas roof had long since rotted away revealing the three metal bars across the open back.
“Can you pick that up?” I asked.
“Certainly!” she replied, sweeping her great wings back and hovering over the vehicle. She reached down and hooked her enormous talons around the bars, then swept her wings downwards, powering up into the air. There was a brief moment of resistance as the long grass and weeds which had grown up around the wheels tried to hang on but no vegetation was a match for Arsozah's strength. With a ripping sound the axles tore free and we were away.
Moments later we were back on the lakeside and the four dragons were standing around the wreck of the Land Rover looking puzzled.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked.
Four heads turned to me with identical expressions of bewilderment.
I sighed. “We take it with us” I explained patiently. “Drop it on the beach, put the hatchlings inside and bring them all back at once.”
They all stared at me. “Well? Would it work?” I asked.
Hector turned his head to look at Siriothrax. “When you told me that you had asked your human friends to help us I thought you had gone mad” he said. “I couldn't imagine what they could do to help. But you were right. We could never have done this without them.”
He turned back to me. “Yes Alex, this will work. Thank you!”
I explained to Arsozah and Siriothrax that Medea would take us straight back to the beach and therefore we wouldn't need to the portal into the castle cellars again and they immediately volunteered to go back with us and help so when I returned I was mounted on Arsozah and at the head of a group of four dragons
It was immediately obvious that there had been trouble.
I looked up at the mouth of the cave and saw Milus standing on guard. He was wearing a padded cotton tunic to protect his skin from the heavy knee length chainmail which I had seen in his chambers. A tough leather jerkin covered his torso heavily buckled and padded on the shoulders and cinched in with a broad leather belt with his long scabbard hanging from one side and a short dagger on the other. Over his shoulders hung a long wool cloak buckled over his chest which hung down over the dark breeches to his tough leather riding boots.
He stood balanced easily on the rocks outside the cave mouth, sword in hand, and I noticed with a shock that there was a splash of blood across his cheek. However, judging by the blood on his blade and the two broken bodies that lay on the rocks below him, it was probably not his.
Just then an arrow hit the rocks at his feet, missing him by a few inches. He jumped back into the shelter of the rocks and I spotted the archer on the clifftop shift his position and draw again. Before he could loose the arrow he gave a cry and suddenly his limp body was flying out over the cliff to land on the rocks below. Bill stood on the clifftop in his place and raised a hand to greet me.
Arsozah dropped the Land Rover and settled down onto the sand and as the other three dragons settled down around us I saw Bill jump from the clifftop and float gently down to the beach. Milus watched him with his mouth open for a moment and then began to climb down the rocks to where we stood.
I ran over to where Milus had jumped down onto the sand alongside Bill.
“What happened? Are you okay?” I reached up to touch the blood on his cheek.
Milus wiped his blade carefully on a scrap of cloth and sheathed the sword before answering. “Half a dozen men arrived just before sunset and found the cave. I warned them not to come any closer but they ignored me. I guess they thought that, since I was only one man, they could deal with me.......big mistake!”
“Who were they?” I asked.
“They were armed with billhooks and clubs so I'd guess they were from the outlying farms. The certainly weren't trained soldiers. Several of them rushed me at once but I had the advantage of higher ground and I was better armed and armoured. I tried to warn them off but they wouldn't listen and I was forced to kill two of them before the others withdrew. Then they started shooting from the clifftop......but Bill soon put a stop to that!” He glanced over at Bill with a smile. “Thanks!”
Bill nodded. It was second nature to him to watch a comrade's back when there was trouble.
He turned to me with a frown. “What on earth are you doing with that thing?” he asked, pointing at the wreck of the Land Rover.
“What is that thing?” asked Milus curiously.
“Think of it as a large basket for carrying baby dragons.” I said with a grin. “Where are they?”
Milus turned back to the rocks and whistled. Almost immediately half a dozen heads emerged from the gap in the cliff where the youngsters had evidently been keeping just out of sight. Milus beckoned to them. “Well come on! It's safe now....”
They began to scramble down the rocks towards him while Hector stood beside me and watched in amazement as his new children clustered around Milus fighting to get close to him.
“They certainly seem to like you!” he rumbled, sounding slightly annoyed.
“Milus, this is Hector, the proud father” I said.
Milus paused for a moment from petting the young dragons. “Your children are highly intelligent creatures” he said. “They appreciate that I was defending them against their enemies.”
“Yes, I see that!” said Hector. “And we are both very grateful to you. But I must admit that I don't really understand......... you risked your life for them. Why would you do this?”
Milus shrugged. “I am a soldier! Knighted by the King. It is my task to protect those who can't protect themselves.” He smiled a little ruefully. “ I think perhaps I've let go of that principle in recent years.”
I thought of the body of the Welshman that I had seen unceremoniously tossed into the pit and the unknown fate of the twins who had spied on him and betrayed him to Gaveston. He was a hard man, uncompromising, but then he lived in hard times.
Hector and Medea both bowed their heads in salute to Milus and then turned back to the beach, shepherding their boisterous youngsters ahead of them.
I felt a presence behind me and turned to see Bill. “So” he asked. “Was the Land Rover your idea?”
“Seemed like a possibility” I said. “We really need to get them all back at once.”
“I see! Well it seems to be working!” said Bill watching Medea picking up her hatchlings gently by the scruff of their necks like an enormous mother cat and placing them in the back of the old Land Rover while Hector supervised and struggled to stop them from climbing back out again.
I turned to Milus and put a hand on his arm. “We'll be leaving soon, you will......you'll be okay won't you?”
“I wasn't hurt!” he laughed. “I'll be fine!”
“That wasn't what I meant. There's trouble coming, you must know that. I just want you to be careful” I said.
He smiled at me. “You're concerned about me? That's very sweet of you. You know that we live in difficult times. But then, we always have. Knowledge is my service. It is my duty to advise the Baroness of the best course for her to take. But you, my little demon, already know what that course would be do you not?”
I thought of all the people whose lives would be at risk in the coming rebellion if Milus gave Lady Love the wrong advice. People that I had met, innocents like Gwen, Isobel and young Erik, people who had no control over the direction their lives would take.
“Your Shire is already ruled by a woman Milus” I said. “I'm sure you will choose the right path.”
He looked around and lowered his voice as if afraid of being overheard. “The Queen?” he asked softly, eyebrows raised. “She and her lover Mortimer will overthrow the King?”
I said nothing but nodded slightly. I knew I shouldn't be doing this.......giving Milus information about the future might conceivably change the course of history. But I knew that Queen Isabella succeeded in her rebellion anyway so I doubted if the support of one Welsh Shire would make an enormous difference.
“Baron Pryce is for the King” he whispered thoughtfully. “We would have to be careful, but I will ensure that she and her court are aware of our support.”
He reached forward and put a hand behind my head. Before I could stop him he kissed me gently. “Thank you!” he breathed. “The information you gave me about Gaveston pleased me greatly, but this knowledge could save us all.”
I knew that Queen Isabella was an unforgiving woman and had deposed her husband and executed his associates. I thought of the descriptions I had read of the terrible death of Hugh Despenser and shuddered at the thought of Milus suffering such a fate.
“Please, take care” I whispered.
Bill put a hand on my shoulder. “I think we're ready” he said.
Milus walked with us down the beach to where the dragons waited and shook Bill's hand. “It's been.....instructive......to meet you Mr Compton.” he said.
“You realise that you can never tell anyone about this?” said Bill.
He laughed. “I'd never dare! They would think me insane!”
He looked up into the clear blue sky. “It is enough for me to know that somewhere out there is a world where dragons live.”
He stood back and watched as Bill and I mounted Arsozah and Siriothrax and we hovered over the beach while Medea took off and picked up the old Land Rover containing the hatchlings, Hector following close behind her. As we moved off I saw him turn and climb back up the cliff reaching the top just as we formed up into a group to pass through the portal back to our own time.
About a month later Bill and I took a trip to North Wales and visited the rocky beach and the cave where Medea had made her nest. It looked almost exactly as it had done in the 14th Century so it was quite a shock to come upon the ruins of Castle Ventris. The western walls and two of the towers still stood but the rest was gone, the thick walls fallen and the stone taken away by the locals to build their houses and barns for their animals. I wandered across the broken flagstones towards a sunken area of stone heading for the spot where someone had erected a stout iron fence. When I reached it and peered over I realised that I was standing on all that was left of the dungeon. Before me was the water filled pit where Sir Locke had tossed the body of the Welsh rebel and who knew how many others? I wondered idly if anyone had thought to excavate the pit and what they might find there........
In the village nearby we found the remains of a Norman Priory Church and at the eastern end were what appeared to be the cover stones of several substantial tombs. The largest showed a Knight in full armour, lying beside his lady. I was examining this when a churchwarden appeared and came over to us.
“Do you know who was buried here?” I asked.
“Oh these are not the original burials” he explained. “The stones were brought in here in the late 18th century from the chapel at the old castle. This once marked the resting place of the first English Baron who gave his name to the castle. Baron Erik Ventris and his wife Lady Lowry Aberfraw. The Baron died in 1312 but his wife survived him for many years. She was much loved apparently and her Shire was one of the very few to escape unscathed after Queen Isabella's overthrow of Edward II in 1326” he said.
“Most of the Welsh Shires supported the King, particularly since he was holed up in Caerphilly Castle with Hugh Despenser. But for some reason she kept her men out of it and supported the Queen........ no-one really knows why.”
He smiled at me. “Women's intuition perhaps? Her decision certainly saved the lives of many of her people and the Queen subsequently ruled that she could run the Shire herself without having to marry again, presumably as a reward for her support.”
“I expect there are quite a few stories told about that time?” I asked curiously.
He laughed. “Oh yes! It's said that in about 1331 the new King Edward III sent a force to deal with the Baroness since it was known that she had supported his mother and Mortimer. He had overthrown Mortimer and executed him by this time. Lady Lowry's forces were led by her Chamberlain who was a veteran of the King's grandfather's wars against the Scots. He is generally thought to have been too old to fight, however it's said that he insisted on leading her men personally although they were heavily outnumbered.
The story says that the King's army was ranged before the much smaller force from Castle Ventris and were about to attack when an enormous red dragon appeared and landed between the armies. It went up to the Chamberlain and appeared to speak with him before positioning itself alongside him. The horses of the King's forces began to panic but the Chamberlain's old charger seemed quite calm in the presence of the great beast. The King's army was said to have been so terrified that they fled without a shot being fired. After that Ventrishire was left in peace.”
Bill and I glanced at each other. “A dragon?” I asked.
“Well obviously it wasn't a real dragon” he explained with a superior smile. “It's generally assumed that a force of Welsh rebels arrived to back up the Baroness's men, the story of a dragon was simply a metaphor, the red dragon being the symbol of Wales.”
“Oh, I see!” said Bill. “Yes, that makes sense.”
The churchwarden chuckled. “A dragon! Really, sometimes we Welsh can be very inventive don't you think?”
“Oh certainly!” I said with a smile.
He gave a little nod and left us to look around.
Bill waited until the door had closed and then turned to me. “You know, I'm going to have to have a word with them! They can't keep doing this......”
I laughed. “It's too late now. I'll bet Medea and Hector have both been keeping an eye on him!”
We wandered around the church for a while and I noticed that there were several more tombstones belonging to others of the Aberfraw family but my eye was drawn to a broken effigy in the corner of the Nave. The face was weathered into a blank oval and the figure itself was broken into three pieces, but it also showed a knight clasping a sword between his hands. A piece of broken stone showing the carved folds of his cloak had fallen and was lying beside the figure. A broken carving at his feet bore the letters “C O . B”.
I thought of the last glimpse I'd had of Milus Corbett, just before Medea had opened the portal. He had been mounted on his grey charger Quinton on the edge of the cliff, his dark cloak draped over the horse's rump. He had raised a hand in acknowledgement and watched as we disappeared. I smiled to myself, imagining him preparing to take Quinton into battle for one last time in defence of his Lady and his wife and family.
I placed a kiss on my hand and pressed it gently onto the broken, weathered stone.
“Goodbye Milus......” I whispered.