Albion

 

21:30

Celia stared, astonished at the apparition on her doorstep. Memories not so much forgotten as carefully packed away on a shelf and labelled “Do not disturb” streamed through her consciousness, from many years ago.

Thirty-three years previously. Early November. 02:00

It was the wee small hours of a bright and frosty night of late autumn coasting into winter. Orion and his attendant constellations blazed down from high in the south, tempered by a waning crescent moon, upon a valley at the edge of the Derbyshire peaks. Tussocky grass was grey in the light, and feral rhododendrons formed black mounds like sleeping beasts. Here and there, pale stone showed where once, when Queen Victoria had been on the throne, this had been a formal garden.

This, she knew, but she had eyes for none of it. She sat , weeping with emotions her heart could not hold, on a horse, standing, gently steaming in the chill. The stink of horse sweat, leather, and blood filled her nostrils, as she watched three sets of riders, nine celestial, a dozen and one aerial, and maybe two dozen earthbound. All were riding away, abandoning her.

She would have cried out once more to the celestial riders, but in her heart of hearts, she knew it would be futile, even were her breath not choked with tears. Distantly, the ridiculous idea came to her that this must now be Monday morning, with school but a few hours away, reaffirming her connection with the mundane world.

She wiped her eyes clear with her forearm, and snuffled. Her handkerchief was long gone, used as bandaging in an earlier skirmish, so wiped her nose on the sleeve as well.

“Celia!” the cry was breathless. She looked up, to see her brother Simon running down the hill towards her, stumbling on the uneven ground.

“Are you all right?” he asked, coming closer.

“As best as can be. Yes. Nothing we'll need a doctor for.” She could not speak to him of her heartbreak, but surely he must be feeling something similar, for he sighed as he agreed that a doctor would not be needed.

Together, Simon behind, they rode back through the night to the farm where they lived, as the frost settled on the ground as they passed.

21:31

“Are you…”

The question faltered.

“I am Aradia, sister to she who rode with you along the shore.” There was a lilt, not Welsh, nor Irish, nor West Country, but cousin to all three in her voice.

Celia clutched at the bracelet she wore, in indecision. If, after all these years, things of magic were breaking through again into the waking world, all caution was needed, but there was nothing that warned her that this woman was other than she seemed. The night air was chill and damp, standing here with the door open.

Steeling herself, she stepped back, holding the door wide.

“Enter freely, and of your own will.” It seemed only right to quote that line from Dracula at this point. As she ushered the presence towards the living room, her eyes started to blur. In the doorway she paused, holding on to the door frame. She waved vaguely in the direction of the chairs, head bowed, eyes screwed tight to try to stem a flood, but to no avail.

Warm, fat drops pattered faintly on the carpet.

“You,” she began, but her chest tightened, and her throat felt blocked.

“You,” she tried again, with the same effect, then drew in a great breath, a racking, sighing sob. With this new reserve, she struggled out the words.

“You left me here by myself.”

What should have been an accusatory shout faded into an unvoiced sigh, and then choking and spluttering, as she wept out decades of bitterness and anguish that she had not even realised that she had been holding in. She let herself slide to the floor, and curl up, weeping more quietly now.

Arms enfolded her, and gentle soothing sounds of some wordless song. Slowly the tears and the sobbing subsided, and she struggled an arm free to wipe her face.

“What?” she tried speech again, felt it more likely to succeed, snuffled noisily, “Where did you all go? I tried to talk to Merlin, but the path to the gates was gone, nowhere would open.”

It had been, she remembered, a particularly wet and filthy winter, not like the bright, clear, if briefly unnaturally cold winter that had opened that year, and she and Simon had spent enough time in the rain and the mud trying to find the ways back to, even the faintest sign of, the hidden world. Eventually, the load on the old farm range that supplied the water for bath and washday had reached the point that old Joe had put his foot down and forbade more expeditions.

“It's the sort of thing that finds you,” he had reassured them, reminding them that he too had been drawn into this by their involvement, “not the sort of thing that lets you find it when it don't want. In the spring, when the weather brightens up, then you can look.”

But spring was interrupted by the return of their parents from their overseas posting, moving in to a new house, and getting ready for big school. In summer, the whole family, herself, Simon, and their parents had gone to stay on the farm for their holiday, and time away unsupervised was less, with family outings into Manchester, or Jodrell Bank, or into Wales taking up much of their time.

When there were times, in the long evenings of late summer, they had searched again, and again found that the hidden ways were lost, turns once taken being blocked by rocks, or old trees. Even, she remembered, the scene of that last battle, where the hidden world had manifested for the final time had become nothing more than a tumbledown old house, with some sort of squat or hippy commune in residence.

Years passed, with more adventurous family holidays, on the Continent, and by the time, as a student, she was considered old enough to be free to travel, she had put that magical year and a half behind her.

Later, when she had thought of looking again, Joe and his wife Betty had retired to an old folks' home, and she didn't have the base to work from, so the idea had been shelved indefinitely. In a tumble of years that seemed to have passed in moments, there had been marriage, miscarriage, divorce, and the effort of setting her life in order, single again.

And then tonight, when the long forgotten had, indeed, found her.

“Where did we go?” The lullaby had ended, and Aradia picked up the question she had left dangling. “Nowhere.”

Pause.

“Everywhere, perhaps. You know that we see time differently, that a night spent as a guest of the Lady of the Lake can be more than that in the visible world. And when you saw us last, there had been a great change — things from the past that had been loosed, and the whole fabric of the numinous was affected.”

Celia snuffled, and relaxed the tension that she hadn't been consciously aware of, and tried to get her breathing back into a steady pattern. In the pause in conversation, she became aware of a deep rumbling noise surrounding her.

She opened her eyes, and struggled up onto one elbow. All the cats were there, sitting with tails tucked around their front paws, like Egyptian ornaments, marking an arc around the two of them, and purring, their gazes fixed on Aradia.

Aradia opened her arms. As if — no, scratch that, Celia thought, there was no supposition about it — on cue, the cats stretched, ambled forwards, and rubbed around her and scrambled over her, purring all the while, as if intoxicated on catnip, but without the drooling. Even Moglet, who only put up with people because they opened tins and provided warm, dry houses joined in.

“They were going crazy, like something was after them, well, Lump and Jemmy at least. The other two were out. Now look at them!”

“They are sensitive to more than people are, and I fear my arrival was less than subtle. But they are my mother's affinity, and they know my heritage.”

Celia sat up, pulled a handkerchief from her jeans pocket, and blew her nose. She felt she ought to offer hospitality, but the idea of providing coffee to such as her guest seemed incongruous. Spring water would seem more appropriate — but not the fizzy sort.

A thought struck her.

“It's not a coincidence, is it, your turning up tonight, along with all the other surprises.”

Aradia looked up from the swarming cats, the delight in them draining from her face.

“No, indeed it is not. There is a greater peril facing us than you have faced before. The powers of the Abyss have launched a most insidious scheme to ensure their victory.”

“Only to be expected, I suppose, when it looks like we might actually be on the path to as near a Golden Age as is physically possible, that they would want to counter-attack.”

“No, their threat is more subtle. However beneficent the intentions of this intruder from beyond tomorrow may have been, she is in league with the powers of the Abyss, and the keepers of their Engines of Darkness. Do you not comprehend what she is about? She seeks nothing less than the annihilation of humanity.”

“No! Not brought to nothing. The whole point is that there will be successors, better than us. They might even be us.”

A sudden thought crossed her mind. There had been some pretty weird shit in some of the web sites Nils had shown her.

“Unless this is all some simulation, in which case we can carry on just so long as we don't overload the hardware by trying to run more computation than it can perform.”

Aradia looked at her with a pained expression that Celia guessed represented inner turmoil. Around her the cats had gone silent, and were just echoing her gaze.

“I don't suppose that made much sense to you. I was meaning that perhaps this world was all a glamour, and the Visitor's actions might bring it all tumbling down. Or she might simply fail.”

She paused for breath, reflected.

“Jeez, just listen to me,” she muttered in self disgust, “I start off weeping at you, and then start yelling, and it's not even that time of the month yet. I'm sorry, Aradia, I'm all on edge today. Heck, I don't even know what day it is at the moment, having been called out in the middle of the night.

“You know,” she paused, almost embarrassed, at the brink of confession. Aradia nodded for her to continue. “You know,” picking up the thread, “when last we met, and were parted, Merlin told me that one day we would ride together once again, and I'd not be called back. I thought I knew what the hereafter held for me, and Heaven and Hell could both go hang.

“But he'd also told me, incidentally, explaining other woes, that we humans concentrated on things and not thoughts. I don't think he was intending to give career advice, but it ended up that way. What could be more clearly pure thoughts in abstract than maths? And then I discovered computers, where thoughts could work on the world.

“It was like magic — thoughts set down into words of power, in incantations that had purpose. But along the way, I lost that original assurance. All the philosophers of strong AI, Dennett's it's algorithms all the way down, the neuroscience, consciousness studies — how could I know what had really happened? I was, so I am assured, as inert, the I that feels as off-line, when I was under anaesthetic to have my tonsils out as I was when we rode together, but you were not there the second time.

“So while I was on the road to becoming what I am now, that strange old woman who lives at the edge of the village, with just her cats, working little charms and protections for folk who ask, I lost that early certainty.

“Today, my charms and incantations failed against some minor scheme of the Visitor — some mechanism I doubt she's even aware of overcame almost everything I could do. I could tell that she had done something, but not really what or how.. I know she has power, and power of a sort that could make real things that I'd not really had the daring and depth of vision to dream of.

“Magic, more magic than I had dared consider realizable. Dreams of pure thought. I tell you, some of the stuff I've read today has been…” She shook her head, unable to find a word for the awe she had felt. Things that days before she would have dismissed as the current masturbatory techno-fantasy about IT that had replaced the now failed space migration Dream.

“Merlin was right, you know. He said your magic was of the heart, but what the Visitor offers speaks to the head, and that is how I'd become accustomed to work. I don't mean to be slighting, but I couldn't trust that you'd be there any more.

“So today I first get the sign that some of the wild promises of the mundane world can come to fruition — and then you turn up on my doorstep, and want me to choose my allegiance between the things I can understand and can even see how they'd be implemented, and what it is that you are offering. It's not that easy, I'm afraid.”

She looked imploringly at Aradia, and saw that the presence there was also something more, something finer, than mortal clay, limned with a subliminal tinge of silvery fire.

“Perhaps I can show you, in ways that you can trust, and our paths can go on side by side. There is time, after all. One woman cannot seduce the whole world in a night.”

“Her forces seem to have seduced enough of the 'net in a few hours to have effective control. Maybe tonight she's going to seed some white goo that'll reduce the Earth to computronium, uploading us as it goes. I don't know the resources she has at her disposal, but they could be more powerful and subtle than any magics I've seen. Yes, even the unleashing of Fimbrulwinter.”

“I feel the import of your words, if not their meaning. Be assured, she is but one emissary, alone. And now she has withdrawn for the moment, back to her own time. Her sky castle floats above us, but only dull enchantments persist, and their eyes are now looking east, to the things building in the wormwood swamps. Now we can ride.”

“Ride? Where? And I've not been on a horse hardly since our paths crossed last.”

“The grey wolf out of time has been recruiting in Kaer Ludd. You will have to confront her minions.”

“Ludlow? Out Shropshire way?”

“No, Kaer Ludd, on the Old Man River.”

“The Mississippi? I didn't think you'd know about the States. Going to take some getting there.”

Aradia was clearly getting frustrated, almost stamped her foot.

“Kaer Ludd, three days march south, where Bran's head lay, till Arthur decided he didn't need its protection.”

Light dawned.

“Oh, London — Ludgate — Old father Thames. I would have thought these days we'd be catching a train to King's Cross, platform 9¾, change here for Boadicea's tomb.”

Though she knew that was no longer the accepted version of the name of the Iceni war queen who had briefly given pause to the civilising Empire, the old version came more easily to her tongue.

“Actually, it would make sense to take the train. Probably a bit late to catch one tonight, even if I drove down to Stevenage or Welwyn. Can start bright and early in the morning, and be reasonably fresh, if you're right about things not being urgent now.”

“No, we must travel by the hidden ways, for there are things we must do on the way. Dress yourself for travel, and let us depart.”

“I was afraid it would be that sort of gig again.

“But what about the cats? I can't just go haring off with gay abandon any more. I have responsibilities these days. Give me an hour or so.”

22:30

The white horse galloped down the lane, Celia clinging on behind Aradia, as the hooves struck silver sparks from the roadway.

Handling responsibilities had taken time. At least all she had needed to do for her clients had been to activate the clause in her contract covering illness or family emergency, sending out the necessary e-mails and redirecting intrusion detection notification. Sorting out the cats had taken more effort, but eventually she had been able to persuade Nils, another cat person, to come out to feed them, if she would leave a key for him to find.

Then had come the fun and games of digging out hiking gear and similar essentials, choosing what to wear, pruning the amount of electronic gear she usually carried, and getting the whole lot into a medium sized rucksack, while Aradia waited, radiating impatience. When finally she was ready as she was going to get, and the house secured, she was rewarded with a smile.

With a farewell to the cats, who followed her to the front door, she had locked the door, and turned to face this unexpected adventure. Above, the rain had long ceased, and the cloud was beginning to break up, leaving the sky much as it had been early that morning — was it really only the same day yet? — only with the waning moon low in the east.

Recalling how the waning moon had favoured their adversaries, all those long years ago, she had felt it an inauspicious beginning, and fidgeted with her bracelet for reassurance. Aradia had meanwhile mounted her horse, and walked it around to her, patting the creature's back to indicate that she should join her.

A leap left her mostly sprawled across the horse like a sack, with Aradia's right hand grabbing her belt, preventing her sliding back to the ground. Fortunately, the horse was placid, as with a great deal of effort, she had managed to swing herself around, and clamber into a sitting position on the saddle blanket behind Aradia.

“Last time I did this,” she joked, “I didn't have this body to deal with.” She had remained short, and stocky, even while her figure had developed in her teens, and had built up an unladylike amount of upper body muscle rowing at college. Now, while she had kept up training in the gym, she had added, she ruefully admitted to herself, an extra measure of avoirdupois. Age was also starting to contribute a measure of decline in suppleness.

Aradia did not reply, but had instead slapped the horse gently and it had launched forwards.

Celia's house was near the end of a winding cul-de-sac of a side road, and the horse had trotted carefully along it, until reaching the road along which the village was built. Here, they had turned to the south, and Aradia had spoken words in some half familiar tongue to her mount.

That had been like putting the pedal to the metal in a performance car. The horse seemed to uncoil like a cheetah, its sudden acceleration catching Celia by surprise. Her grasp around Aradia's waist almost failed, letting her tumble backwards before she tightened her embrace convulsively.

“Should have worn my cycle helmet,” she thought, knowing now what the important thing was that she hadn't packed.

The other woman, slight in build as she was in comparison, felt immovable in the saddle, and after the brief panic, Celia was able to relax her grasp, and pay attention to what was happening.

They kept to the road only until leaving the village, and the road bore off to the right, and the horse kept straight on, leaping the hedge, and onto a field of part ploughed in stubble. ‘South,’ she thought, ‘well, we're just about on the Greenwich meridian here, so that makes sense for London.’

Hooves pounded like drum beats on the earth, as they flew over the autumn farmland, mostly ploughed and maybe even sown wheatfields, the occasional patch of other crops, and odd coppices, some shielding rusting iron sheds and Dutch barns. Hedges were taken in their stride, even the leap, land, and leap again as they crossed a road. A car, a few lengths from the touchdown blared its horn, but was left behind in the instant.

The land now tended into a long shallow slope downhill, the lights of Cambridge and attendant villages clear. Watching the aspect of those lights, she could see that they were wheeling in a slow arc to the left, towards the town. A shape loomed up out of the darkness, a radio telescope, one of the array built on the old railway line to Bedford.

As if this were a waymark, their course bore further to the left, paralleling the telescope array, maybe a hundred yards to their left. The thought that alongside such monuments of science and engineering, she was passenger on a magic horse that was galloping at maybe sixty miles an hour, with the rider not even equipped with stirrups made her feel that the world no longer made sense. And while the night air streamed in her hair, it was not making her eyes water, for all the rate they were covering ground.

A thread of headlights, little clumps of traffic, showed the approaching main road. This time the horse gathered itself, hunched to the ground, and sprang. They sailed high over the road, traffic passing beneath them, clearing in the same bound the high hedge around the main radio astronomy observatory buildings. Celia braced herself for the impact, eyes squeezed tight.

The sound of hooves had resumed for some seconds before she realised that they had touched down without her having been aware of it. Here radio telescope dishes and aerials were scattered around them, while they held their course.

Another minor road leapt, and a couple of farm houses, and they were again following the linear array, closing rapidly on its end. But before they passed that point, they peeled away to the south. Ahead now was the line of a high ridge that came from the right and ended ahead of them. In a fold of land ahead, lights of another village could be seen, nestled at the foot of the slope, and, bright to the left, the lights of an agrochemical plant.

Now the spectacular leaps were to clear the line of trees that followed the Cam as it meandered back and forth across its floodplain. Coming level with the ridgeline, the land opened once more to the south, showing to the right the lights of a cement works, its tall chimney gushing steam, and to the left another main road. The A10, once, the Great Cambridge Road.

Was this the path they were to take? It was the main route to the City, but having seen how their course had scrupulously avoided habitation, she wondered how they might ever get as close as the M25 London Orbital Motorway.

Aradia steered them to the left, crossing the river one more time, closing on the road fast. Soaring over the road, they carried on along the arc, now heading definitely north of east, the moon riding among cloud to their right.

Another leap, this time the King's Cross line. Platform 9¾ was out then. And still the relentless beat of hooves coming down like thunder across the countryside, pausing only as they cleared hedges and more of the minor roads that dribbled south out of the villages that surrounded the city.

The land rose ahead of them to a hilltop crowned with trees. This was clearly another landmark, for Aradia turned right here across a further expanse of farmland, though Celia was feeling quite lost, save that she knew Cambridge was somewhere to the north, maybe five, six miles away.

A thrum of traffic ahead, one of the few external noises that had come to her on this ride, announced the M11 motorway as they bore down upon it. Here, a bridge carried a farm track across the main route, and this was the path Aradia took, rather than guiding them to another soaring leap.

They followed the track until close to a farm house, then veered north, to take leaps over another river — it had to be another of the rivers Cam — and the Liverpool Street railway line, aiming at the gap between two more villages.

The joining road crossed, their route bent sharply left, crossing more tree lined streams, before reaching open country. To the left, the red light atop the incinerator chimney showed Addenbrooke's Hospital, and ahead, low wooded hills.

‘Ah,’ Celia thought, recognising now where she was, ‘the Gog-Magog hills. That figures.’

Their course followed the grain of the country, taking a long slope that led straight to where a tongue of trees reached towards them. As the trees neared, the hectic pace eased. At a walk, they passed the trees close on their left. Approaching the dual carriageway that crossed their path, and they crossed it circumspectly, like ordinary riders. Where they crossed, a driveway led uphill, breaching a wall, and they took this path.

‘Wandlebury,’ Celia decided, expecting soon to come out into the open where the earthwork ring lay. But as she waited, the path dwindled to a mere scratch in the earth, a thinning of the litter of the woodland floor. Surely they must come out of this little patch of trees soon.

The minutes had passed, too many of them, under the dark roof of trees, when the appearance of light ahead showed that they were about to emerge into the open once again. But what they saw when they emerged did nothing to reassure Celia.

Surrounded by trees, the great open space contained a vast grassy mound that described a ring. And on its crest, standing stones, stark in the moonlight. This was not Wandlebury, here was not stone circle country. She cast about her. The sky to the north was free of orange taint. This wasn't Kansas — or Cambridge — any more.

The horse continued steadily to the ring, cresting it, and towards the centre. There in the moonlight, a dark figure, masculine, a broad spread of antlers on its brow. Celia remembered that figure from less happy days.

About twenty feet from the figure, Aradia halted the horse.

“Well met, Hunter! What do you here?”

The figure did not answer, but its nostrils flared as it drank in the night breeze that rose from the south. Aradia turned and seemed to harken, but though she held her breath, Celia could mark nothing but the sounds of horsey breathing and her own heartbeat.

“Yes,” Aradia spoke as if in agreement to an unvoiced statement, “The grey wolf has returned, and her minion — is it a changeling or is it simply ensorcelled? She has given it power, that is not to be denied.

“Celia, I fear your task may be more than we had expected. You will have to be fortified yourself against a greater threat.”

“Look, talking I can do, computers I can do. I don't do facing down ray-gun toting post-human Terminators.”

“You have faced the Hunter, and stood against Morgan le Fay.”

“And last time we met, Morgan left me for dead, and nearly finished the job in passing when she loosed the Shadow. Only the gifts of the Lady of the Lake…” Celia felt the penny drop “No. No magic swords, shields or the like. Dressing up like Xena and wandering around London is just going to get me locked up.”

“No, you still have the Mark the Lady gave you; other gifts will be as subtle.”

Aradia turned again to the Hunter. His eyes flashed in the moonlight. He raised one arm, and pointed out across the circle, in no special direction that Celia could see.

“Yes,” Aradia nodded in agreement, “I shall take the bearer of the Mark to the chapel. Fare thee well, o Herne.”

And hauling on the reins, she urged the horse on.

About the witching hour

The road ran on, straight, a faintly glistening ribbon in the moonlight. The horse's hooves sounded loud in the stillness of the night.

They had left the stone circle in a different direction to that indicated by the Hunter, to follow another faint path through the trees. After emerging from the wood, the path continued, over maybe a mile of scrubby grassland, before they encountered the first road.

Paved with large stone slabs, set proud of the surrounding ground level, it stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. They turned on to it, taking the more southerly route.

Here, even with the road unbroken, empty of other travellers, Aradia did not resume the whirlwind ride, but just kept the horse to a steady trot, as if time no longer mattered. Celia wondered how that would affect her — twice before, she had spent what had felt like a few hours in a place outside the normal run of existence, and returned to find that she had skipped a whole day. How many weeks might she have lost when all this was over, she feared to think.

There was nothing to achieve in fretting, she told herself, and had settled down just to watch the world drift by, until perhaps she might fall asleep. If she could manage to do so, and so long as she didn't then fall off the horse.

Around, the world seemed completely deserted, gently rolling country with patches of trees and scrub amongst long grass. At intervals things hooted or shrieked in the distance. Once she caught a brief glimpse of wings, silent in the moonlight, as an owl passed overhead.

After some while, they had reached a crossroads, where another similar road crossed the first at an angle. Save for one standing stone a few feet away from either track, the crossing was unmarked, though it gave the impression that it ought to have been marked by a gibbet.

They had taken the part-right turn, now heading slightly west of south. The woods were denser here, the road occasionally passing through such areas. Nowhere was there sign of fields, ploughing, even a trail of smoke.

It was as if humanity had already vanished from this land, leaving only the beasts and birds, the skittering and squealings of whose small lives and deaths could be heard in the undergrowth.

Now, as the land rolled down into a wide river valley, the road bent, heading due west, but Aradia kept on the original bearing through a screen of trees along the roadside. Emerging from the gloom, they came out onto a smooth greensward, scattered with low, dark, bushes — and the first sign of intelligence aside from the road.

A brick wall surrounded a cluster of darkened buildings, up the hill to their left; and, ahead, something looking like a faux-classical feature of some country estate. White, proportioned like a Greek temple, with colonnades, it sat close by the riverbank, gleaming and silent.

“The chapel. We rest here for the night, to keep vigil.”

Celia groaned. It was a long time since she had pulled an all-nighter, and she was getting stiff, and a little sore from the ride. She had forgotten quite how uncomfortable adventures tended to be.

“Be of stout heart! This is a needful purification for the struggle ahead.”

They halted by the front of the temple — chapel? — which faced up towards the darkened place further uphill, Aradia leaping down lightly, Celia glad for the offer of a helping hand, and aware of other discomforts, the results of the beer she had drunk. As soon as she felt herself established on terra firma once more, she walked John Wayne-like to the nearest hedge, pulled down jeans and knickers, and squatted for blessed relief.

At least on this adventure she wasn't reduced to squatting down ankle-deep in a freezing brook, with snow falling thick around her, to piss where the scent would not betray her trail.

“OK, so I'm still only flesh and blood,” she answered the disapproving look she received as she returned to the chapel, rucksack over one shoulder, still tucking her shirt in.

Aradia, silent, held out one hand, and, guessing the intent, Celia took it. The old moon shone on the two silver bracelets around the two wrists. Aradia started to lead them into the shadowed area of the columns, but Celia, her mind elsewhere, didn't follow immediately.

As they stepped in amongst the columns, into the surprisingly brightly moonlit interior, Celia finally articulated the question that had been bothering her since the ride began.

“The bracelet, the Mark. You have the silver of the new moon, the Lady of the Lake had the ivory of the full, and Morgan, the old moon ebony. That fits nicely with the three ages of woman — and when I received mine, I was a maid.

“But now I'm not a maid, never truly a mother, and I'm sure as hell not yet a crone, even by the crudest measure of menopause.”

Loosing her grasp, she raised her hand, almost shaking her fist in Aradia's face.

“I've worn this ever since we parted, as protection against things like the Shadow, and then out of habit. But I don't know where I fit in this scheme, if this thing truly — no, not belongs to me — I don't think it ever did. Fits me, I guess is what I mean.

“And now the moon is waning. Will Morgan be waiting for us? Can I hope to stand against her?”

She stood silent, head bowed, arms hanging by her sides, feeling tired.

“In your heart, you are still a maid. Not just the feeling that you are a young woman trapped in an aging body, but in the manner you conduct yourself.

“In that, the Mark still fits you. And that will make you strong to overcome the darkness. But now, we must prepare ourselves for the struggle.”

The interior of the chapel was open, bounded by the colonnade except on the river end, where a plain altar stood in front of a small, bare, chamber. Despite being open to the elements, there was no dust, no dried leaves or other windblown debris.

Aradia knelt in front of the altarstone, and raised her arms, calling out something in a strange tongue. Shrugging off her rucksack, and drawing out her sleeping bag for a hassock, Celia joined her in kneeling, feeling foolish and uncomfortable, not knowing what she was supposed to be doing, her mind whirling rather than clear.

The hour of the wolf

Awareness snapped suddenly into being. Celia realised that she had fallen asleep, still kneeling. Despite the warm clothes she was wearing, she felt deeply chilled.

The shadows had moved, showing hours had passed, and light now fell bright on the altar. To her right, Aradia still knelt, eyes half closed, unfocussed, a fierce ecstasy on her face. She, at least, was gaining something from the experience.

Carefully, as quietly as she could, Celia stood up. Her legs were mostly asleep, and she was sure that the popping of various joints would have woken her companion from her trance, but it did not seem so. Tottering on legs that didn't like this particular game, she reached the pillars along the side of the enclosed space, and leaning there for support, ran through her usual routine of warm-up, warm-down stretches.

Feeling rather more at ease with her body after that, she stepped out into the night. While, as Aradia had implied, she didn't think old or feel old, the sheer weight of Anno Domini was definitely beginning to take its toll. She would quite definitely be in the market for a rebuild, if the Visitor were to offer — it would be so nice to have a body that responded like it was twenty-five again.

The sky now was mostly clear, and, looking up, it revealed an unexpected sight. There, drifting against the stars just as it had last night, the starship, a bright ring she now knew to be about 50 km in diameter, but now, at its centre was a pinhead of light that must, at that distance, be ten miles across, vaster than mountains. And from that centre, arching into the west, the tail of a comet.

She did not know where the thing at the centre — clearly a cometary nucleus, or outer planet moonlet — had come from; and she wondered how many others had read its implied message : co-operate or die. She instantly felt cut off from the info-sea that normally was there for her to access with hardly a thought, her reflex to tune into the latest news and informed speculation thwarted. Post-human cruel-to-be-kind despotism suddenly seemed more attractive than this antique idyll.

Soon, the head of the comet sank past the horizon, the tail fading into the east. The show was over. Now what?

She still carried her sleeping bag in her left hand. Taking conscious note of its presence, she was minded to make use of it. She unfurled it, and returned to the back of the chapel, where she laid it out, and climbed in. The floor was hard, and her body clock all awry, but sleep did in fact come quickly.

Dawn

Sunlight woke her, but though the light was bright, the air was chill. With eyes closed still, she saw the sunlight as a furnace red blaze, not inviting her to part her eyelids into glare. Already she was conscious of shoulder and neck being stiff from sleeping awkwardly, and of the looming weight of that hung-over feeling, for which alcohol was entirely blameless, that followed a late night that had become an early morning before it was bed time.

And her mouth felt like the proverbial parrot's cage. She swallowed thickly, and sat up. The chapel was as blinding bright as she had expected, polished white marble in clear sunlight, falling in bands across the interior.

She was alone there.

“God damn the stupid bitch,” she muttered to herself, as anxiety flooded through her. If she had been abandoned here, she was not sure that she would be able to make her way home.

She struggled out of the sleeping bag, and walked over to her rucksack, rolling her shoulders to try to work the stiffness out. In one of the pockets, she found the end of a roll of mints, and took one to suck on while she repacked the sleeping bag. It had some of the virtues of the old trick of sucking upon a pebble, and made her mouth feel less foul.

Thus fortified, she slung the bag over her shoulders, and headed out the north side of the chapel, towards the road.

She stepped out into the spring morning. Undeniably spring, with the trees unmistakably bursting into leaf, and bluebells spiking dark green, not yet in flower, amongst the hedges. She started, then relaxed. It was something she ought to have expected, remembering in the depths of winter, that the floating isle of the Lady of the Lake had been summer while winter was on the outer world. What more natural than high spring when she was come from autumn?

Damn all the mirthless poets who called this cruelty. This was what she yearned for as the reward for surviving another winter, at least while the North Atlantic Convergence still held. She breathed deeply of the clean fresh air, luxuriating in the warmth of the sun, stretching cat-like to unknot muscles, and began to stride towards the road.

Voices. Womens' voices, chattering, with the occasional burst of laughter, brought to her on the breeze.

Turning to her right, she saw a small group of figures in white from the community at the top of the hill, which by daylight looked like an abbey. She hesitated a moment, then, feeling that however wrong-headed, or marching to the beat of a different memetic environment Aradia might be, that she was in some sense on her side, and would not abandon her anywhere hostile, Celia started towards the newcomers.

Closer to hand, she could see that there were three of them, dressed like orthodox Moslem women, but in white. Or like nuns, she corrected herself, thinking of mythic Britain, and not the 21st century. Three, and a representation of the three ages, though all seemed hale, and none bowed by age or disease. Pox, rickets and deficiency diseases did not, she supposed, belong in myth.

“Good morrow, good ladies.” The archaic form came naturally.

“Good morrow, Lady of the Mark.” The crone spoke, an apple cheeked granny with ferocious white eyebrows and few teeth. Dentistry didn't feature either, she feared.

“Is she,” began the maid, a willowy child, whose age Celia was hard put to guess, asking of the third, and then remembering manners, or perhaps gathering her courage, “Are you truly she who regained the stone Firefrost from Queen Morgan of the Northern Isles?”

She thought back. She had been much younger than this novice at the time. She smiled as if at a niece-by-custom whom she was indulging.

“Only because I lost it to her in the first place. If either of us had known what that old heirloom was, I could have handed it to Merlin when first I met him. And I'd not be here today if I'd done so.

“You have come to take me somewhere?”

The idiom of statement voiced as question baffled them for a while. The middle of the three, a stout woman, still clinging to the vestiges of youth — that might be forty at home, but was probably nearer thirty here caught on first.

“Come, there is the lustration and then the breaking of fasts.”

About the third hour

She was alone again.

Sitting at the table in the refectory, high windows in the cool stone walls letting in the morning sunlight, a mug of small beer, a small loaf of sweet white bread, a pat of butter serving as her breakfast. The beer was only slightly sour, and un-hopped, some other herbs serving for bittering, and the loaf only slightly gritty.

The three women had taken her into this convent, telling her that the Lady Aradia would return from her at sunset, because that was her way. Within the walls, she had been taken to a bath house, and the crone had explained that she was to be bathed.

“Um, I think I ought use the latrine first.”

The maid led her across the court, as Celia steeled herself for something like the outdoor privy one set of grandparents had still used when she was a child, or the two footprints and a hole so beloved of the rural French. She tried not to think of the war stories her brother had told of backpacking in North Africa. She was delighted to find something almost Roman, well lit and ventilated — thought obviously perishing in winter — a communal bench over a sluice, but glad she had packed a bog roll along with the rest of her kit.

Returned to the bath, she found warm water already steaming in the stoneware trough — it looked more like an overgrown sink than a bath. A couple more novices — as she classified the girls who had gathered — were there to undress her, as they might any lady; but zips and buttons — rather than laces and toggles — baffled them.

“I'll do it,” she had declared, and efficiently peeled off her clothes, piling them on her rucksack.

The bath water was cooler than she cared for, the heavy bath leaching the heat, but the washing of body and hair was sensual. Indeed, while her scalp was being worked on, only the tepid nature of the water — nearly, but not quite cool — kept her from dozing.

“Do I pass muster?” she asked, when the last of the soap had been washed from her hair.

“You are ready, my lady,” the matron declared, motioning the novices to assist her from the bath, and wrap her in sheets. It took a second for her to realise that towels were serious futuretech for this sort of environment, and then she did what she could to dry herself.

“Now you must be dressed in white, while you stay with us,” the matron advised.

“How much more of this…,” she paused, feeling unwilling to swear at this woman who was clearly trying to do her best by an unexpected — and possibly VIP status — guest.

“Of what?”

“This ceremony.”

“For the moment, this is all. But to strengthen the virtue of the Lady in you for the coming struggle, you must follow our guidance.”

She shrugged, and walked over to the pile of her belongings. Packing spare underwear had been good forethought. Fortunately they were a workaday set of white cotton knickers and a sport bra that she displayed, declaring “Silver counts as white for lunar purposes.”

As she had hoped, there was no dissent, and she acquiesced to the novices hauling a set of white robes over her head, and setting the wimple on her head.

They had then left the bath house, the novices carrying her belongings, into a rabbit warren of buildings. A room — a nun's cell — was shown her, and her baggage deposited there, and then she had been brought to the refectory.

The other sisters, it appeared, had eaten earlier, in the grey light before dawn, but food was found to hand, and by now, she was indeed ready for it. And here she had been left, the three waiting until she had eaten to return to take her to the Abbess.

Consequently she was taking breakfast in a very leisurely fashion, trying to assimilate all that had happened. That the folk here seemed to know more of her — or at least expect more of her — than she herself did came as no surprise. She had read this enough times in the past. Though she might be no whining disbeliever — her past brushes with the magical having been brutal and direct enough, even now, airbrushed by the passage of time — she was not going to be uncritical. For all Aradia's claim that she was going to show her enough convince her of the rightness of the case, she still had no idea of her agenda, what she truly represented, and how it all fitted into a future that the Visitor was intimating was but bringing forward something that would happen anyway.

What side was she really on? She needed data. She needed a 'net connection, and time to trawl the various borderline crack-pot archives — extropian, transhumanist, singularitarian — that Nils had pointed her at. She needed to talk with the high signal to noise posters. She really needed to talk to the Visitor, or at least her agent here, for all the risk of neurohacking subversion that might entail. She needed to find out what it was that the Visitor was aiming for; and just as importantly, what it was that she was trying to avoid, why she needed to abolish the history that gave her birth.

Then, maybe, Celia felt, she might have a clue as to how she herself should react.

She most emphatically did not need to be stuck here in this ersatz SCA meets Hollywood chunk of the Middle ages, with people talking past her, parked here incommunicado in this, this…

She looked around at the hall she sat in. It was almost what one might expect if the Church had subsumed the old Olympians, and this were an Abbey of Saint Diana — not the People's bloody Barbie-doll plastic slut Princess, still only, she was glad, a secular canonisation, but the original, Diana the Virgin Huntress, a far bloodier and more ambiguous character indeed.

She sighed, and took another mouthful of the sour beer, another bite of the bread.

Mid-morning

After an interval that had left her wondering if she had been forgotten, and had started pacing the length of the refectory, one of the nuns had finally arrived, informing her that the Abbess would see her now. She was then led through a cloistered court, and up a steep spiral stair — its treads not too worn — to a dark corridor, lit only by small openings barely bigger than arrow slits.

Her guide opened one of the doors, and ushered her through into what looked like a don's office in one of the older Cambridge colleges, transposed only slightly further into history.

Seated at a table bearing quills and inkpots and other related paraphernalia, a severe looking woman that Celia would have said looked a few years older than herself, but guessed might be her junior, setting aside oddities with time. Books, bound in old style, but looking new — being new, no doubt — filled a small set of shelves behind her, next to a reasonably large window of passably transparent glass that let daylight onto the desk from the side.

There was no chair on Celia's side of the table, but there was a trunk standing against the far wall, near a fireplace in which a few small logs smoked to little apparent effect. Determined to seize some psychological initiative, she crossed to the trunk and perched on one corner, in a deliberately informal pose, right ankle on left shin.

There was a tightening of lips across the room, and the appearance of words being choked back. It was plain that this was not the sort of behaviour that was usually expected. She kept the momentum by immediately speaking.

“I'm glad you could find time to see me. Now perhaps I can get some answers to some significant questions, starting with the big one.

“What on Earth am I doing here?

“I was supposed to be being taken to London, to Kaer Ludd, to confront the Visitor, or the person she had recruited, but we stopped here, at the little chapel thing by the river. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I'd been abandoned here.

“If I'm going to be of any use to anyone, I need to get back to my England, before whatever might happen does happen. Each time I've been spent a night in the hospitality of the Lady of the Lake, I've lost a whole extra day. How much time is burning while I'm sitting here, twiddling my thumbs?”

The Abbess seemed caught off balance. She looked as if about to speak, then paused, then began.

“You were brought here for the time to prepare yourself, as you usually would, before the confrontation. Is there something we have omitted? You do wear the Mark, do you not?”

“This?” Celia held up her arm, letting the sleeve of her robe fall back to reveal the bracelet. “I wear it, more out of habit than anything else. I was told that I needed to wear it, for my own protection, and a few times, it did do some magical things for me, but that was long ago when I was a little girl.

“Nowadays when I need to prepare special incantations for some confrontation, it means spending time trawling the 'net, and installing patches. And yesterday, the Visitor cleft through all the defences I could mount, just in passing.

“There is no preparation I know how to make. Even if there were, there isn't the kit to do any of that here — or at least I don't see any evidence for power or network sockets here.”

“But the vigil, the lustration, the robing?”

“Might have had some effect if I knew how to use this. But I found a more practical form of magic, one more in tune with the zeitgeist.

“Someone along the way has miscalculated. I'm not the sorceress you'd need to face a post-human like the Visitor. And I only have hearsay that what she is doing might be ill intended.”

“So far — last I caught the news — she had cast down tyrants, and denied to all sides the centres of contention in wars that have festered most of my lifetime. Blunt or abrupt she may be, but that is no different to how the Yanks act when they notice the rest of the world. If anything, she is showing much more finesse than they do.”

The Abbess was clearly floundering. Not surprising, Celia thought, when faced with a lifetime's worth of future shock in a few minutes.

“She means the end of all this.”

The woman looked tired and old.

“So does the passage of time. At home, this has mostly passed away already. And if the Ascension comes as an apotheosis, then you will be able to recreate it all, if that is truly your desire.”

“These things may pass away for you, but here all that is worthwhile endures. But now the unnatural comet sweeps overhead, signalling an end to things.”

The Abbess sat back, looking old, shrunken, defeated. Her eyes were downcast. There was nothing Celia could say that could rebut that assertion. The Visitor was indeed intent on bringing an end to the human world.

And since she was here in the flesh, access to this place must be a physical possibility, something within the scope of Transcendent power. After the mundane world, then soon this too would fall.

“Yes, I saw the comet. It drifted through the skies I expected. But here the seasons are askew. What is this place, exactly?”

“One of the houses of the order of Saint Artemis, the largest in the southern part of Albion.”

“Albion?”

“This land, the dominion of Queen Gloriana, who reigns until the King returns.”

“The King. I saw him, I think, where he sleeps, with Merlin guarding him and his company. Long ago, and it was safeguarding his sleep that won me the Mark.”

“Yes, he awaits the day foretold.”

“The day of his nation's need. So why isn't he stirring now? Not that the whole Round Table would be any use against directed energy weapons and hypervelocity kinetic kill projectiles. And those are just what the Visitor has already used.”

“This is not the battle that the King waits for. This is something unforeseen, a violation of history. Why else does one of the Moon daughters walk among us unheralded, bringing you here on her own steed?”

“Yeah, bringing me. An old hacker, scratching a living as a sysadmin, with a magic bracelet she can't use. At best I can be a delivery system for whatever resides here. That's how it worked before.

“If you think we need more than that, then you need to find a teacher fast.”

The Abbess considered briefly.

“I can send for Sister Eloise, who is our karcist. How much…”

The words were cut off by the sounds of a commotion outside. There were riders in the court beneath the window, and sisters in white milling around.

The door opened, and a nun stood at the threshold.

“Begging you pardon, Mother, Lady, but you'd better come.”

Celia followed the nun and the Abbess back to the stair and down into the open. Stepping into the sun was a welcome warmth after the cool brightness of the stone, but it glared so that she reached out of habit for sunglasses, and snorted in annoyance. She had brought a pair, but they were with her other things. So, when in Albion, she would have to make like the locals.

The two riders were men. One, she placed as a knight, though more akin to those of a gritty late 90s film like Jeanne d'Arc than an idealised one from, say, Excalibur. His mail coat was iron dark, blackened like rust treatments made the metal, as were the studs on the leather of his gauntlets. His trousers were black leather, baggy and wrinkled like an Angel's, and his boots showed metal toecaps. His head was bare, showing thick black hair, cut into a pudding basin shape, just over his eyebrows, and the rest an uneven stubble, like the growth of his beard.

His horse looked like one from a brewer's dray, mainly dark brown, with long creamy mane, and tail, and the same long pale hair over its mighty hooves. Across its back, behind the saddle, weapons, mace, axe and sword, larger than the one at the knight's belt.

The other rider on a lesser horse, leading another, carried the baggage, and a couple of spears. He was a fair haired boy, dressed in a leather jerkin over normal seeming — allowing for the local technology — clothes. A squire, quickly categorised and forgotten.

“Sir Knight,” the Abbess called out, as they approached, “what is your errand?”

“Queen's business, ma'am. She bids me bring the Lady of the Mark to her court.”

“Do we trust him?” Celia whispered to the Abbess, while she tried to ensure that the bracelet was concealed within her sleeve.

The knight walked his horse towards them. The horse was so tall that Celia barely reached the rider's knee, and she joined in the general retreat as the other nuns edged back, keeping a distance where they didn't have to crane their necks to see his face.

This steady state endured a few instants before the knight stopped his horse, and vaulted off its back, landing with surprising silence, slightly crouched to take the impact. He stepped forwards.

Not unpleasant looking, Celia thought, but phauw! he smells like a one-man gaming convention, wrinkling her nose at the smell of sweat and badly cured leather.

He drew a scroll, bound with ribbon and sealed from a saddle bag, and held it out to the Abbess. She studied the seal briefly, then opened the message.

“This is the royal seal. Here, Sir Knight, is she whom you seek.”

He swung his shield round from where it had been slung across his back, and drew his sword. Celia was ready to break and run, when he knelt, offering the hilt of the sword to her.

“At your service, my Lady of the Mark,” said the Red Cross Knight.


© Steve Gilham 2002
© Mr. Tines 2002


Chapter 2 — Celestial

Chapter 4 — Empyrean

Contents