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End of Days

 

Project Paranormal

Author: Jo

Season 4

Part 14

 

**

 

Summary:  Angel’s a wanted man, and Giles is having tea with a banker called D’Eath.  Is this a good thing?  Will Buffy have to face their enemies alone?  And who are their enemies?

 

**

 

 

End of Days Part 1 : The Court of Hundred

 

 

Now

 

The speeding Discovery pulled up in the lay-by with a squeal of brakes, and two men scrambled out of it.  The third exited from the driver’s door rather more quickly but with a distinctly inhuman grace.  In grim silence, Angel locked the car, then walked round to the back and opened the tailgate, reaching into a cardboard box to retrieve something metallic, before shutting and locking it again.

 

“Are you sure about this?”  Giles’ voice was as steady as his expression, but even in the darkness, Angel could see the shadow of fear lurking in his eyes.

 

“Yes.”  Angel’s reply was terse as he clipped the iron shackles around his wrists.  He turned and held his hands behind his back as Giles stepped forward and fastened them securely together.

 

“We’re unarmed, Angel,” he said softly.  “If things go badly...”

 

“I understand.  Let’s get on with it.”

 

The two men glanced at each other, and then followed the bound vampire to the end of the lay-by.  A stile in the fence led to a faint path over the fields.  Angel shrugged off their offers of help, leaping the stile without a stumble and he strode off into the darkness, towards the looming bulk of the hill ahead.

 

Other faint tracks joined the one on which they walked, like tributaries to a river, tracks from the east and from the west, long-time relicts of travellers gathering from all directions.  By the time the path steepened into an uphill climb, it was broad and clear, even in the moonlight.  They made the ascent side by side, DCI Ian Collins on Angel’s left, Rupert Giles on his right.

 

The path curved off to the right, following the base of the ancient earthworks, but they had been instructed to continue straight ahead, and so they did.

 

The defensive embankments were forbidding, even millennia after they had been erected, a difficult climb, especially for a man without use of his hands.  Angel, not being a man, took them with ease, but Collins, unused to such scrambles, found himself slipping on the fine grasses of the sheep-cropped downland turf.

 

They paused just before breaching the brow of the hill.

 

“There’s still time to go back,” Giles offered.

 

“And leave him to die?”

 

“You don’t have to exchange your life for his,” said Collins, his first words since leaving Summerdown House.  Like Giles, his expression was set, a man used to hiding his own fear in the company of others, and yet Angel knew that it was there.

 

“Don’t I?  It’s my fault he’s here, and if that’s what it takes...”  Angel gave a small, wry smile.  “We’ll have to hope it doesn’t come to that, or Buffy will kill me.”

 

He eased his shoulders.  It was a long time since he’d last been shackled like this, and his muscles were stiffening painfully.  With a curt nod to his companions, he took the last few strides to the crest, and they hurriedly fell in beside him.  He wouldn’t have to do this alone.

 

+++++

 

Earlier

 

Giles politely moved his chair to one side as a secretary set down cups and saucers, a small teapot, a milk jug and a sugar bowl.  She left, taking the empty tray with her, and Giles turned back to the man on the other side of the desk.  He was a small man, dapper in his grey suit, with a primness about the mouth, his movements neat and precise.  He was exactly what one expected of an old-fashioned banker, and that was just what he was.

 

He settled back in his chair, waiting until Giles’ cup was filled, and then he cleared his throat with a precise little cough.

 

“Ahem.  You and your colleagues come very highly recommended, Mr Giles.  Our Chief Executive is acquainted with a member of your club.”  At Giles’ questioning look, he elaborated.  “The Sophists.”

 

“Ah.  Yes.  So, Mr D’Eath, what can I do for you?”

 

Richard D’Eath reached for a file on the corner of his desk, pulling it towards him.  It was the only file on this glass-covered wooden expanse, keeping company with a pristine blotting pad and a tastefully arranged desk set.  Opening it, he took out the top document, and placed it in front of Giles.  It was an estate agent’s brochure, a description of a property.  The photograph showed a large, imposing house, which clearly had a very old building at its heart.  It was called Clifford Hall, and the asking price made Giles wince.

 

Mr D’Eath steepled his fingers, resting his chin on the point of his carefully pared fingernails, watching as Giles read.  Uncertain of what was expected of him, Giles handed the brochure back.  The banker took it, and replaced it in the file, making sure it was carefully squared up with those beneath.  He didn’t, however, close the file.

 

“This is a very delicate matter, Mr Giles.”

 

“I understand.”

 

“And your discretion is assured.”  It wasn’t couched as a question.

 

“Most certainly.”

 

After an infinitesimal pause, D’Eath opened a drawer in his desk and drew out a bunch of keys, which he laid onto the file.

 

“These are the keys to the property, Mr Giles.  Our client purchased it some months ago, and has spent a considerable sum on improvements.  It was his intention to operate it as a wedding and conference venue, as well as being the family home.  His is an extended family and comprises himself, his wife, their five children, all aged under ten, his parents, and his brother and sister.”

 

Giles surveyed the upside-down photograph of the extensive pile.

 

“Yes,” he said.  “I can see that they must have a bit of a squeeze to get everyone in.”

 

D’Eath rewarded that sally at humour with a tight little smile.

 

“It’s moot, Mr Giles, because they no longer live there.  A month ago, our client told us of his decision to stop paying the mortgage, and he handed back the keys.  He wishes never to see the place again.”

 

“Goodness me.”

 

“Quite so.  Now the Bank must decide just what to do with the property, especially since handing back the keys doesn’t absolve him of responsibility.”

 

“I can see that you might have administrative difficulties with it, Mr D’Eath, but I’m not sure what I can do to help.  I’m certainly not in the market for a new property just now.”

 

There was that tight little smile again.

 

“I’m sure not, Mr Giles.  I gather you are even now extending Summerdown House.”

 

Giles sat up in his chair.  “How did you know that?”

 

“We’ve, ah, made enquiries already, Mr Giles.  Quite extensive enquiries.”

 

Giles wondered exactly what they’d found out, but judged it better not to ask.  Whatever they knew, Mr D’Eath had still asked for this meeting, whether that be despite his knowledge or because of it, and he presumably intended to offer some sort of business.

 

“It seems that what you learned was to your satisfaction?”

 

“Entirely so, I’m pleased to say.  And now we come to the crux of the matter.  The reason why the entire family abandoned Clifford Hall is that they say it is haunted.  The Bank wishes you to advise us whether this is so.”

 

Giles was astonished.

 

“That doesn’t seem to be a thing that a Bank would put much credence in.”

 

“Perhaps not, in times gone by, Mr Giles.  But in these modern times, we all have to take health and safety seriously.  Besides, our client is a man of some... reputation and substance.  We can’t dismiss what he says out of hand.”

 

There was more to it than that, Giles was sure, and he had a suspicion how the wind blew.  Still, banks paid well...  D’Eath interrupted his silent musing.

 

“Can I assume that you are interested in the case, Mr Giles?”

 

“Yes.  Yes, we are.  Now, tell me everything you know.”

 

+++++

 

Buffy was just hanging up the phone when Giles let himself in by the door from the courtyard.  He wondered whether that was another call to Dawn on the phone bill.  They were still almost daily events, after Andrew’s gruesome death.  And then he felt churlish for thinking in terms of expense, when Buffy was so worried about her sister. 

 

That reminded him.  He was going to have to find someone else to keep an eye on the Key made flesh.  Dawn had made it quite obvious what she thought of the suggestion that she come to make her home at Summerdown House.  ‘Burying herself in the backwoods’ was the kindest of the things she’d said.  He thought of how lost Buffy had been when she first arrived in Westbury, and that recollection made him realise how different it was now, how much she’d become part of the village, how at home she seemed.  How happy, most of the time.  Angel too, in his own, undemonstrative way.

 

The worried frown between Buffy’s eyes as he shut the door made it a running certainty that it had been Dawn on the other end of the call.

 

“Well,” he said, cheerfully, “I’m starving.  What have we got?”

 

“Chicken casserole,” she replied, her cheeriness as false as his.  “Angel’s dealing with that, but I need to go and check his seasoning.  He never gets it right first time.”  She swung round to the kitchen, to the noise of pots and pans, and Giles let her go.

 

So, when they sat down that evening, Buffy and Giles had chicken casserole

and Angel had blood still warm from the slaughterhouse.  Giles told them what he’d learned from Richard D’Eath.

 

“Nottingham?”  Angel said, meditatively.

 

Buffy looked up from her plate.  “Robin Hood and Friar Tuck?”

 

“I’m afraid not, Buffy.  I suspect it’s going to be much more boring than that.”  Giles applied himself to his chicken, but then paused and pointed his fork at his companions.  “Of course, it might not be boring at all.  There might be entirely too much excitement.  Screams in the corridor, blood in the beds, and silent doppelgängers.  That’s what we’re promised.  Better than a book at bedtime.”

 

“Might be an infestation of demons, or a poltergeist,” Angel suggested, putting down his empty glass and wondering whether he would seem greedy if he had another.  He was hungry tonight.  He’d almost got used to feeding with the household.  Almost.  But there were times when he wanted, no, needed, to glut himself, and he didn’t like to show that to anyone.  Tonight was one of those nights.

 

“Might be,” Giles replied, non-committally.  He was still exploring his own thoughts.

 

“Do we leave tomorrow?” Buffy wanted to know.  She would be glad of some activity.  A new case would be just right.

 

“No, I need to do some research first.  I told D’Eath we’d go on Sunday night.  A housekeeper will be there to meet us, and she’ll stay while we’re there, so we shan’t be slumming it.”

 

“Good!  Oh!  We’ll be back for the following Friday, won’t we?”

 

“Hmm?”  Giles was abstracted as he surveyed the orange and Cointreau trifle that Martha had left for them.

 

“Giles!  You haven’t forgotten?”

 

“Forgotten?  No, of course I haven’t forgotten.”  His eyes took on the hunted look of a man who’s certain he’s overlooked a crucial birthday or anniversary, and has no idea which.

 

Angel took pity on him.  “The formidable Ivy, and Walter the dark horse.”

 

“Of course.”  Giles hid his discomfiture behind a large helping of trifle.  Ivy Grittleton and Walter Satterthwaite had finally named the day, and the day was next Friday.  Evening, actually.  Oddly, they had decided on an evening wedding, conducted by Janet Alder, Westbury’s Humanist minister, and all of the Summerdown House contingent were invited.  A thought occurred to him.

 

“Does this mean shopping?”

 

Angel grimaced, but Buffy’s smile was sunny.  “It’s all done, Giles.  Unless you want to go out and get something sharper than tweed?”

 

+++++

 

Saturday brought research.  Improvements estimated to cost four million pounds had been made at Clifford Hall, and that was on top of the eye-watering purchase price.  It had its own website, marketing it as a wedding and conference venue, but when Giles flicked through the file that D’Eath had given him, he could find no record of a licence for such activity.  He wondered what the terms of the licence were, and who had issued it, and he dashed off a quick e-mail to the local planning department.  You couldn’t be too thorough.  He didn’t think that Jason Carter would have sold the soul of one of his children for a successful business venture but you just never knew.  After all, there were five of them, and the man might have reasoned that he could spare just one.

 

The owner – or perhaps he was now the ex-owner – was a self-made man, with a personal fortune assessed at twenty-five million pounds, mainly from gambling and night clubs.  His wife had been the senior croupier at one of his casinos, before their marriage.  Perhaps there were some aggrieved punters looking to make the family’s life a misery?  He made some notes around that thought, to follow up later.  Perhaps Ian Collins could help.

 

Before the Carters, the Hall had most lately been a private school, run along fashionably liberal lines, and had come to a predictable financially sticky end.  Lots of room there for psychic leftovers of angst and teenage hormones, then.

 

Notes were made and equipment readied.

 

Sunday brought Martha, to make Sunday lunch, and a visit from Ian Collins.

 

“Ian!  Haven’t you got a home to go to?”  Giles asked, as he surveyed the dark coat that he knew Collins normally wore for work, but his welcoming voice belied the words.

 

“He must have smelled the dinner.”  Martha’s cheery voice wafted down the corridor from the kitchen.

 

“Come in, Ian.  You’ll stay to eat with us?  Take your coat off, it’s a filthy day out there.”

 

Ian shrugged out of his dark blue overcoat, the wool pearled with beads of moisture from the clinging fog.

 

“I really didn’t come over to cadge a meal...” It was said with some regret.  Martha’s Sunday dinners were legendary.

 

“Of course not,” Giles soothed, “but now that you’re here, and at just the right time...  Angel, set another place, please.”

 

Buffy cast her eyes heavenwards, but with a smile, and went to fetch some more cutlery.

 

Collins looked embarrassed.  “Actually, I’m here on business.”

 

“It can wait until after we’ve had lunch,” Giles told him firmly.

 

“Well, I suppose I’m not actually on duty...”  Collins allowed himself to be persuaded, as much by the delicious odours emanating from the kitchen as anything else.  And he did need to get help.  Giles led him through to the dining room.

 

In the presence of others, Angel was still used to having his blood camouflaged as a tasty red soup or similar, but there was no time.  A cut glass ewer of premium Charolais already stood steaming on the table next to his place setting, with a matching tumbler, and Martha was ready to dish up the starters.  He laid the cutlery that Buffy silently handed him, and then picked up the ewer, intent on returning it to the kitchen.  He’d eat later.

 

Ian summed up the situation with one quick glance.

 

“Put it back down, Angel.  Just tell me it isn’t someone I know.  Or used to know.”

 

“Not unless you knew those big white bullocks that were frisking down in Otterhole field until Friday morning,” Martha said briskly, as she brought in the pumpkin soup.  “And if you did, we won’t make enquiries about that.”

 

She took the tureen and soup bowls from the tray, and then turned to Angel, who stood indecisively, with the ruby ewer still in his hand.

 

“Put that back down will you, and stop being a baby.  He knows you’ve got to eat.  Besides, that fight you had with the Mesmari demon the other day... well, you need to eat as much as you can, and these were reared totally organically so they must be good for you.”  She turned to Giles and Buffy.  “Make sure he doesn’t just play with his food, will you?”

 

Martha’s face fell in dismay as she realised what she’d said, but the others couldn’t hide their laughter, even Angel.  It was the necessary ice-breaker, and it was Ian Collins who took the ewer from Angel’s hand and put it back down on the table.

 

And so, they sat down together to pumpkin soup with crusty white bread and lashings of Somerset butter, followed by roast pork with all the trimmings, rib-sticking food for this dank late autumn day.  At least, three of them did, and when the fourth had emptied his glass, there were willing hands to refill it until the ewer was empty.

 

“Tell me about a Mesmari demon,” Ian asked.  It was Buffy who gave him the graphic description of something that looked human until it was recognised, but which then turned to its true appearance of a serpentine body, with the teeth of an alligator, a muscular tail that was equipped with razor-edged scales and long bony extensions from both wrists that were as sharp as stilettos. 

 

“And he only had a stake on him,” Buffy finished, with a glower at her hapless lover.  “He just wouldn’t wait until I got there.”

 

“It had camouflaged itself so well that it had a job and friends,” Angel shrugged apologetically.  “They never last long with a Mesmari.  It drains their energy until they no longer have the will to live.  They fade and die.”

 

Collins was shaken.  “Are there... are there many unrecognised demons living among us?”

 

Angel seemed to shrink in on himself, but it was clear that the policeman meant no offence.  Buffy put her hand on Angel’s arm.

 

“More than you might expect, Ian,” was Giles’ quiet reply.  “Most of them are just trying to get by.  We deal with the ones where co-existence is impossible.”

 

Collins looked as though he might say something else, but the door opened just then.

 

“I’ll be off in a few minutes,” Martha said, as she delivered the sticky toffee pudding.

 

“That was utterly delicious,” Collins told her as he leaned back in his chair, eyeing up the steaming pudding.  “Thank you.”  Giles smiled to see Martha preen at the compliment.  She bustled out, unfastening her pinafore as she did so.

 

The sudden shrilling of the telephone was cut short, and there was a short exchange of voices in the hall before Martha’s head reappeared around the door of the dining room.  She was ready to go, her hat pinned in place. 

 

“It’s Alice,” she told Giles.  “She needs to talk to you.”

 

Giles took the call in his study, and he was glad he had.  Alice’s news was confusing.

 

“Rupert, I’m not sure what to do.  I’ve had a break-in.”

 

“Are you hurt, Alice?”

 

“No, no, I wasn’t here.”

 

“That’s one good thing, then.  Is there a great deal of damage?”

 

“A smashed window.  They found a spade in the shed and threw that through the glass.”

 

Giles knew that Alice, a Silarri demon who was having more trouble passing for human as she aged, would be loath to call in human help.

 

“I’ll get John to come over this afternoon and fix it for you.”

 

“Thank you, Rupert.  That’s very kind.”

 

“Did they take much?”

 

“Almost nothing, and that’s what worries me!”

 

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.

 

There was a pause, and Giles knew that she was gathering her scattered wits

 

“They took the housekeeping money, which wasn’t hard for them to find.  But they only took one other thing, and that had been put away out of sight.  Rupert, they took my directory.”

 

The words came out on a near sob.

 

“Your directory?”  Giles was bemused.  “Your telephone directory?”

 

“No, no, of course not.”  His old teacher sounded irritated at his slowness.  “My demon directory.”

 

“Demon directory?”  Giles felt particularly stupid, but he’d no recollection of Alice ever mentioning a demon directory.  He wondered whether age and too many knocks on the head had addled his wits.  He often felt as though his brains were leaking out of his ears but her next words reassured him on that point.

 

“Oh, Rupert, I should have told you.  I... I wanted to find some more people of my own kind.  You can understand that, surely...?”

 

“Y...yes, o...of course,” he stammered, overcome by the sudden confidences.

 

“So, I started putting together everything I could remember from my parents, and from my childhood...”

 

Just how long had Alice been separated from her people, Giles wondered.

 

“And then I did some research, and I started to find where many of them were, at least in this country... N...not exact addresses, but territories, and where to start looking.  You understand?”

 

Giles did.

 

“And then, I discovered that I’d a real talent for tracking the clues down, and I wanted to repay you for all your help, and so I started to compile a demon directory.  Where the different clans are, where their main strongholds are, their tribal strengths, who the leaders are, their customs and habits...  I intended to give it to you for Christmas.”

 

“Why, Alice, that... that’s a wonderful thought!”

 

“Well, it might have been, but I think it’s going to be a great deal of trouble for you now,” said the old lady, with some asperity.  “Don’t you see?  Apart from a few pounds – oh, and my bus pass – that was all they took.  It’s as though that’s what they came for.  You should ask yourself why.”

 

Into Giles’ silence, she added, “And whatever they want to do, they’ve got a bus pass and some travelling money to do it with.”

 

Oh dear.

 

“I’ll come over later, when I’m free,” he told her.  “And if you can give me a description of the directory, I’ll try to put the word out quietly, just in case you’re wrong, and it’s found somewhere.  Although,” he added conscientiously, “from what you’ve told me, I don’t think you’re wrong.”

 

As he put the phone down, Giles really wanted to talk to Angel and Buffy as soon as possible.  Privately.  Ian might know, now, just what Angel and Buffy were, but he was clearly still rattled a little by the thought of demons living hidden amongst humanity.  It wouldn’t do to overload him.  Giles, however, had underrated serendipity.

 

He rejoined the others in the family room, led there by the aroma of fresh coffee.  As he poured his own from the pot, Ian Collins started to speak of the business that had brought him there.

 

“We’re very short staffed around here,” he said.  “Some people have the current epidemic cold, and others have got the sickness and diarrhoea, as well as the usual crop of drunken arrest-related injuries.  So, it’s all hands to the pump, so to speak.”

 

He fell silent, and Giles sat forward in his chair, encouragingly.

 

“I’d gone in to catch up with some paperwork, and to check a few things out that had been bothering me.  The desk sergeant, though, was trying to find someone to answer a call that had been sitting around since the early hours of the morning.  It was on my way home, so I said I’d go...”

 

He drank some of his coffee before continuing.

 

“I talked to the old man who’d reported it, first, and he told me that his neighbours had only moved in a few weeks ago, and they were very quiet, keeping themselves to themselves.  But, he thought he’d heard an intruder early this morning, raised voices, and loud noises.  And then a scream.  He’d heard nothing since.  He’s about ninety, so he clearly was too frail to go and investigate, and he called us.”

 

Collins fell silent again, and rubbed his hand over his face.

 

“The door was on the latch, so I just walked in when no one answered.  There was an elderly woman kneeling on the floor.  She wasn’t crying, or anything like that.  She was just silently cradling the body of an old man.  I could see he was dead, straightaway.”  He grimaced.  “There’s something about a dead body, isn’t there?”

 

He poured himself another cup of coffee, and no one interrupted him.

 

He looked up at Angel suddenly.

 

“No offence, Angel.  I just think of you as... you.”

 

Angel smiled.  “None taken.”

 

“So,” he continued, “I called for an ambulance, but when I tried to get the woman to come away from the body, she... she, well she went berserk.  She kept clinging to him, in hysterics.  In the end, the paramedics, when they arrived, gave her a sedative so they could take the body away.

 

“If she hadn’t done that...  If I’d seen him more clearly...”

 

He fell silent again.  Giles gave him a gentle nudge.  “Yes, Ian?”

 

“It was as they were putting him in the bag.  The light wasn’t very good in there, and I don’t think they noticed.  But I’d been there a while, and my eyes were accustomed to the gloom.  There was a band of scales around his neck.  Pink scales.  And on his hands.  He had a thick mane of long hair, but I think there were some in the hairline, too.”

 

Giles sat back in astonishment, thinking of Alice.  Could this be another Silarri?  If so, what a pity it was too late.  But the woman...

 

“The woman had those scales, too?”

 

Collins shook his head.  “No, not that I could see.  She looked perfectly...”  He gave a sharp laugh.  “I was going to say ‘normal’, but I’m beginning to wonder what normal is anymore.”

 

“You want us to check it out?” Angel asked, gently.

 

Collins nodded.  “Yes.  And let’s face it, if he wasn’t human, he probably doesn’t belong in a morgue, does he?”

 

And there was the crux of the matter, thought Giles.  There was no doubt that Collins was affected by what he’d seen, but he’d clearly come to the conclusion that the world might not benefit from knowing that non-humans lived amongst humanity.  That had made him think things that weren’t at all in keeping with his job as a policeman, and he was very uncomfortable about that.

 

“We’re committed to going to Nottingham, but I think that Angel could look this lady up, talk to her...”

 

“I’ll do it,” said Buffy.

 

Giles turned to her in surprise, and then decided that he really should have expected that.  Buffy had spent a lot of time with Alice, and must have recognised the description that Ian had given.  Who knew what confidences had been exchanged between them?  And besides, Buffy must be a good choice to talk to the grieving woman.  Perhaps she and Alice together...?  Yes.  There was one other thing, though.

 

“Buffy, if he was S... a demon, you might need to break into the morgue.”

 

“Been there, done that, no problem.”

 

“We’ve all been there and done that, I think,” said Giles with a grimace.

 

“Is this something I’d rather not know about?” Ian asked sternly.

 

“You don’t get out that easily,” Buffy told him, with her most winning smile.  “If that’s what I need to do, I’ll be coming to you for back-up.”

 

Collins gave a groan.  “I had a feeling that knowing you three would be the end of my career.”

 

“Oh, it won’t be that bad,” said Giles cheerfully.  “Besides, you’ll probably end up dead or in prison before you get fired.”

 

“Job’s comforter,” Collins grouched, but he didn’t refuse.  He pulled out his notebook and tore out a page, handing over the address for Mrs Elder.  Buffy tucked it into her bag.

 

“I’ll go over now,” she said, as she got up.  “Just in case she decides to move on.”

 

“A paramedic got her to bed,” Collins told her.  “The sedation should still be effective.”  He looked at his watch.  “But not for much longer.  They didn’t want to give her much because there was no one with her.”

 

“She won’t be alone for much longer,” Buffy said firmly.  “You two go and find out about this haunted hall.  Call me when you get there, you hear me?”

 

Angel grinned.  “Yes, Mum.”

 

And she was gone.

 

Giles got up, too.  “I’ll pop over to Alice’s before we go, Angel.  Shan’t be long.”  He’d tell Angel what was wrong on their journey. 

 

“Ian, we’re going up to Clifford Hall in Nottingham, I’d be very grateful if you could tell me whether there are any odd things about the Hall, or its owners.”

 

Collins nodded, and Giles scribbled the details into the policeman’s notebook.  An afterthought made its presence felt.  “Oh, and if you should happen to come across a handwritten book, a directory of demons actually, it’s been stolen in a break-in and might turn up if someone catches the burglar.”  He hoped he’d sounded nonchalant enough, but it was sensible to tell the policeman.

 

Angel quirked an eyebrow, but said nothing.

 

Collins frowned.  “It was Alice who rang just now, wasn’t it?  Your old teacher?  Has she had a break-in?”

 

“Yes, she...”

 

Damn.  Giles silently cursed the policeman’s acuity and his own big mouth.  Still, no use crying over spilt milk.

 

“It’s of no real consequence.  Nothing much was taken, and John will be over there shortly to repair the damage.  I’ll just go over and check that she’s okay.”

 

“Look, if you’re going to Nottingham tonight, you really ought to get off.  You’ll need to detour.  Some idiot loaded his wagon wrong, and when he had to slam on the anchors, he lost the load.  He had drums of steel cable, up to 2 tons each, and they simply rolled off the back and bounced round the motorway.  The M1’s closed just south of Nottingham until they can get a forklift out there to pick everything up.  It’ll be mayhem on all the surrounding roads.  I’ll go and see Alice.  She’s out on Green Lane, isn’t she?”

 

“Absolutely no need, old man,” Giles said hurriedly.

 

But Collins was already out in the hall, reaching for his coat.  “It’s no trouble at all.  I’ll get a description of the missing book, and I’ll see that she’s okay.  I’ll keep an eye on her while you’re away.  A shock like that can affect an old lady badly.”

 

Giles swallowed hard.  “Y...yes, of course.”  And then he muttered, “But I think that Alice might be hardier than you expect.”

 

With a wave, Collins walked down the hall.  Angel mouthed ‘Phone Alice’ to Giles, who nodded.  But serendipity took another hand.  As Collins pulled open the door, a matronly woman, accompanied by a lanky youth, had her hand raised to knock.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, covered in confusion, “I was looking for Mr Giles.”

 

“Mrs Whitelaw,” Giles acknowledged, from behind Collins’ shoulder.  “And Ricky.  What can I do for you?”

 

Collins slipped out.  As he left, he heard Mrs Whitelaw say, “Ricky insists that he’s got an important message for you, Mr Giles.  I’m really sorry to bother you, but he’s been very upset, until I said I would bring him to see you.”

 

“Please.  Come in.”

 

And then the door closed on the new visitors.

 

Inside, Angel grinned at Giles, and motioned having a telephone to his ear, then slipped into the study.  He was going to call Alice and warn her that Collins was on his way.  Giles took his visitors to the breakfast room, where there were fewer distractions for Ricky.  The lad was a good-hearted youth, always laughing, always likeable.  But, he was someone who in simpler and unkinder times would have been called the village idiot. 

 

That was not only unkind, but also unfair.  Although he would always have the mind of a child, Ricky had his own sort of intelligence.  It was just different, less connected to things of this world.

 

Giles made a cup of tea for himself and Mrs Whitelaw, and for Ricky he hunted around the larder until he found some lemonade in a glass jug.  Mrs Whitelaw sat with her knees together, her elbows tightly pressed against her ribs, both hands clenched on the top of her handbag.  He thought that she might be trying to intrude as little upon this alien space as possible.  Not for the first time, he wondered about the difficulties of this widow’s life.

 

He handed the lemonade to Ricky with a smile, and sat down with them.  He knew Ricky, of course.  Everyone in the old village knew Ricky.  The youth had helped John to clear up the autumn leaves, as he did every year, and although his work rate was low, he was diligent, and loved to be working with other men.  At the end of winter, he would help with the hedging and ditching.  And he made himself useful at Lisa’s, willingly mucking out the horses, all of whom welcomed him into their boxes.

 

“Hello, Ricky.”

 

“Hello, Mr Rupert Giles.”

 

“Come on, Ricky.  Tell Mr Giles what you came here to tell him.”

 

Ricky nodded happily.  “Pretty lady told me.”

 

Giles adjusted his mental expectations.  “Pretty lady?”

 

“Went to High Oak yesterday.”  Ricky nodded sagely.

 

High Oak was the tree out at the start of the downs, for which the lane outside was named.  The gnarled and ancient oak had been there for centuries, and there were many tales about it.  Giles knew that there would be some sense behind this apparent non sequitur.  He just had to find it.

 

“And the pretty lady was there?”

 

“No, silly.”

 

His mother tutted, and looked sharply at her son.  He sat with downcast eyes.

 

“Tell me about High Oak, Ricky.”

 

“I like High Oak.  I fell out of it once.”

 

“So did I.”

 

Ricky grinned at that shared experience.  “Go there a lot.  I fell asleep yesterday.”

 

Yesterday had been a tiny Indian summer, warm and hot, and the turf at the base of the tree was especially soft.

 

“That’s where I saw the lady with the fire on her head.”

 

Giles frowned as he tried to interpret this.  A demon of fire?  Or a flaming redhead?  But Ricky was warming to his theme.

 

“She had nice eyes, too...”

 

Perhaps that tilted the scales more towards a redhead rather than a fire demon?  Ella?  Could it possibly be Ella, his lost love?

 

“Did she tell you her name?”

 

“No, no, no.  But she said that you should remember the tree.  She made me repeat that lots of times so’s I wouldn’t forget.”

 

Tree?  Could it be Willow?  Willow?  Or Ella?  Or a figment of Ricky’s imagination?

 

“She was glad the wolfman got here, with his bits of paper.”

 

That shook Giles, and he leaned forward onto the table.  Ricky copied him, his elbows all askew.

 

“She told me to tell you that bad things are going to happen.  You need to be ready.  It’ll be Mr Angel first, and then really bad things.  And the people who look all funny.  And then it’s Mr Angel again.”

 

“Angel?”

 

“All of you.  Every one of the friends.  You have to help him, both of him.  Or we won’t be doing the hedges again.  It’s all blood and dirt and fire, she said, and she made me remember that.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”  Both of him?  What does Ricky mean by ‘both of him’? 

 

Ricky obligingly started to repeat himself, verbatim.

 

Giles was baffled, but when Ricky had finished his repetition, he asked, “When is this going to happen, Ricky?”

 

“Not yet.  A little while to go, but you must watch for it, she said.”

 

But watch for what?  Blood and dirt and fire?  They were normal occupational hazards, but this sounded apocalyptic.  End of the world stuff.  And Oz’s pieces of paper had been scorched and burned.  What did any of it mean?

 

People who look all funny?  Vampires?  Clowns?  He asked the question.

 

Ricky’s face screwed up in concentration.  “You know.  Almost like people, but not exactly.  Different people.”  He sat back in his chair, humming to himself.

 

“Did the lady say anything else?”

 

Once more, Ricky scowled in an agony of effort, and then shook his head.  “No, except I have to go back and she’ll try to come again.”

 

“What did she look like?”

 

The young man smiled broadly.  “Pretty!”

 

Giles wasn’t going to get anything else.  “Thank you for coming, Ricky.  And thank you, Mrs Whitelaw, for bringing him.  If you see the pretty lady again, young man, come and see me straight away, will you?”

 

Ricky nodded happily.  “Certainly will, Mr Rupert Giles.”

 

Giles pressed a five pound note into his hand as he left.

 

+++++

 

Buffy pulled up at the small Victorian terrace house in the back streets of Trowbridge.  The house was neat, and newly refurbished.  Its warm red brick and bright blue door seemed too... normal... to hide demonic secrets.  The tiny front garden had been gravelled over.  She recognised the single plant growing in the centre.  It was a red cordyline, and she knew that because Giles had some in the courtyard planters.  He’d been angsting with John about whether to move them under cover for the winter.

 

The front door was locked, and no one responded to her knocking.  She retreated back down the path a little way, and scanned the frontage of the building.  No conveniently open windows.  Not that she could get in that way as long as it was still daylight.  Perhaps there would be something round the back... And it would be dark by about half-past four.  That was less than an hour away.  She was almost in the act of turning round when the red door of the neighbouring house slowly opened, revealing an old, old man in the threshold.

 

“Are you looking for Mrs Elder, Miss?”  His voice sounded as ancient as he was, nothing more than a creaking whisper.

 

“Yes,” she called out to him.  “Yes, I am.  I was sent by the policeman who was here.  To make sure she’s alright.”  She gave him a winning smile as she jogged from one path to the other.  Up close, he smelled of milk, and shaving foam, and, very slightly, of urine.  It was the smell of age, and she shuddered, as she wondered whether she would come to this.  Well, not the shaving foam, perhaps.

 

His dark trousers were held up by a tightly cinched belt, his hips as narrow as his shrunken waist.  When he stuck his hand into his pocket, it seemed to Buffy that he must push the trousers off their precarious perch on his scrawny hip bones, but the belt held, and his hand came out clutching a key.

 

“The ambulance lass gave me this.  It’s Mrs Elder’s front door key.”  He eyed up Buffy’s large bag.  “I’ll take you in.”

 

Carefully, he locked his own door, and stepped slowly onto the path.  Buffy held out her arm, and he took it with a smile of thanks.

 

“I’m Len, by the way.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Len.  I’m Buffy.  I’m a... counsellor.”

 

He stopped, suddenly suspicious.  “You’re from the Council?  Hasn’t she got enough trouble?”

 

“No, Len, I’m not from the Council.  I’m here to help her.”

 

He looked hard at her, his faded, rheumy eyes seeming to take in more than they should.  “Aye, I reckon you are.”

 

He stared down at the postage stamp lawn, with its fringe of faded red geraniums and white petunias.  “Gary Elder used to do that bit of garden for me.  They were new here, but straight away, he said he’d do it.  Don’t get many like that nowadays.  Mind you,” he scratched his half-shaved chin, “he always did it with a muffler on, and gloves.  Said he felt cold, even on hot days.”

 

“Muffler?”  Buffy looked confused, thinking of car parts.

 

Len grinned.  “Yeah.  You know, those white silk scarves we all had, when I was young.”  He peered at her again, and sighed.  “No, I don’t suppose you would remember.”

 

“This Gary Elder – he was an old-fashioned sort of guy?”

 

“Aye, I suppose you could say that, but I’m probably the wrong person to ask.  Don’t think so good any more.”

 

“I think you’re as sharp as a tack, Len.  Come on, let’s go and find Mrs Elder.”

 

His parchment-skinned hand, no more than a fistful of knuckles and blue, twisted veins, was firm on her arm as he shuffled down the path, and she saw that he still had his worn and frayed house slippers on.  At last, they reached Mrs Elder’s blue front door.  Len put out his arthritic right hand, the key trembling in his grasp as he fitted it into the lock.

 

Inside, the house was sparely furnished, Spartan, even.  Len levered himself down into one of the two armchairs.  “I’ll wait here,” he told her. 

 

Buffy smiled at him.  She liked him.  He might be old and frail, but he was going to ensure that some stranger didn’t make off with Mrs Elder’s non-existent knickknacks.  Buffy made her way upstairs, where the rooms were equally spare.  In the second one, a woman lay asleep, but restless, her hands clutching spasmodically at the blue eiderdown that covered her.  Buffy walked softly downstairs and made all of them a cup of tea, then she sat down by Mrs Elder, to wait.

 

+++++

 

By car, the journey from Summerdown House to Alice’s cottage on Green Lane took only a few minutes.  Collins pulled up outside the little house, its bright, white walls and natural oak woodwork lit up by the warm earthen pots of bright red geraniums.  There were other plants that he didn’t recognise, but he knew a geranium when he saw one.

 

The cottage was at the end of the lane; at least, it was at the end of the lane as a highway down which a car could travel.  After that, it became a deeply rutted green road, running between high, unkempt hedges that overhung it, making a dark tunnel even now, when most of the leaves had fallen.  In that moist, pungent air, the cottage looked like the last homely house before the places where there might be dragons.  Or even dungeons.

 

He pushed open the wooden gate that hung loose on its hinges.  Now, closer up, he could see a few small signs of neglect.  Still, Alice was in her eighties.  It was to be expected that she couldn’t do everything.

 

Around the bounds of the cottage, vegetation hung, lank and yellowing in the clinging November mist.  The trees had mostly lost their leaves, and their black, reaching branches dripped silently.  In the garden, though, autumn colours still reigned, with flowers in yellows and reds and bronze, and foliage in brilliant scarlets and oranges and all the other colours of flame, culminating in those fiery geraniums.  It was as though the cottage occupied a different time frame to the world beyond it.  Two or three weeks behind, perhaps.

 

He smiled at such a fond and foolish notion, as he trod up the seven steps and knocked on the wooden door.  Association with Summerdown House was clearly making him fanciful.

 

Inside, Alice was talking to Angel on the phone when she heard the car draw up outside.  With a brief word of thanks, she rang off and hurried into her bedroom.  She had no time for preparation.  Giles’ creams and potions had helped for a while, but her Silarri nature was reasserting itself.  She opened a drawer and pulled out a long velvet scarf in rich, deep reds, woven with black and gold threads.  Quickly, she wound it around her neck, its fluid lines hiding the bands of new, pink scales around her throat.  Then she pulled on a pair of black lace fingerless mitts, covering the scales on her hands. 

 

And then there was a knock at the door.  She glanced in the mirror, and primped her hair with her fingers to make sure that it hid the scales around her hairline.  Yes, that would do.  She glanced into the living room, to make sure there was nothing... incriminating...

 

Drat.  She’d forgotten.  When Angel called, she’d been revisiting the past, a futile waste of time, but occasionally she couldn’t help it.  She gathered up the scrapbook, mementoes from her younger days.  Despite the man at the door, she couldn’t help but pause at what she’d been reading.

 

It was a well-worn piece of paper that she’d carried since she was sixteen years old, a mere infant in Silarri terms.  Her mother had started to tell her some Silarri secrets, and this had been the first lesson in a really important secret, a lesson that had never been continued.  Her parents had been beaten to death the next day, in one of the disturbances following the Moroccan civil war, and she had only escaped by luck and speed.

 

And she had never learned the rest of that lesson.  The first part was how to make that first change to human form by her own abilities, rather than by her mother’s.  The next part would have been how to maintain and renew that form.  The third part would have been how to change it.  Or at least that’s what her mother had told her.  It all seemed like a fairy tale now.  Without those vital lessons from her mother, she was condemned to gradually lose this form of humanity, and to revert to that of a Silarri.  The reversion might take a hundred years to finalise, especially if Giles found another effective lotion, but it was inevitable.

 

A voice called out.  “Miss Yeo!  Are you there?”

 

With a stern mental shake, she put the book away in a drawer, and hurried into the hall.

 

She stood behind the door and assumed the demeanour of a very elderly lady.  “Yes?” she called out, in a quavering voice.

 

“It’s Collins, Miss Yeo.  The policeman.  I’m a friend of Mr Giles.”  Collins had briefly met Alice on a couple of occasions, but he wasn’t sure she would remember him.

 

“Oh, yes,” came the uncertain voice behind the door.  “The Detective Chief Inspector.  So kind of you to call, but I don’t need a policeman, thank you.”

 

“I wonder if I might come in for a few minutes, Miss Yeo.  I shan’t keep you, I promise.  Or I could come back, if it isn’t convenient just now?”

 

Alice sighed.  Another time might be even less convenient.  She opened the door.

 

“Come in, Chief Inspector.”

 

“Ian,” he said as he stepped over the threshold.  “I’m not on duty.”

 

She took his mist-pearled coat, and showed him into the living room.  Perhaps, if she didn’t offer him refreshments, he would go more quickly.  It went against the grain, though. 

 

He waited for her to choose a seat, at the end of the chintz-covered settee, and then sat down in one of her armchairs.  He was a tall man, and he stretched his long legs out in front of him, seemingly quite at ease.

 

“Giles tells me you’ve had a break-in, Miss Yeo.”

 

“Yes, so stupid.  I had to go out for a very short time.”  She didn’t tell him that she’d taken advantage of the fog to go for a brisk walk down the lane.  “Posting a letter, you know.”

 

“Then you were very lucky that they’d gone when you got back.  Are you sure that you’re alright?”

 

“Oh, yes, thank you.  So kind of you to ask.”

 

“Would you like me to look round and check your security?”

 

“Oh!  Oh, I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do that!  John will be over later, and he’ll mend the window, and check everything else.  Thank you so much.”

 

“Well, if you change your mind, just let me know.”  He handed over his card and Alice put it on the table beside her.  “Now, Giles wants me to look out for a book that was stolen.  Can you tell me what to look for?”

 

Alice had learned early that the best lies were those that were closest to the truth.

 

“I can show you.  Did Rupert tell you that I was doing it as a surprise for him, for Christmas?  I found I couldn’t get it all into one book, and I was about to start a second one.”  She got up and disappeared into another room.  When she came back, she had a thick book in her hand.  She handed it over to Collins.  It was A5 size, about an inch thick, bound in soft green leather.  There was a diamond-shaped lozenge in the centre, made of small opalescent squares of mother-of-pearl.  Golden filigree corner guards, each with an emerald in the centre, sat on the corners, and there was an ornate golden lock, with a key in it.  The fittings might have been gold, but he suspected they were pinchbeck, and the emeralds paste.  Nevertheless, he could see what would have attracted a thief.

 

On the front cover, hand-blocked gold lettering read The Lesser Domesday Book, Volume II.

 

His eyebrow quirked.  “Domesday?”

 

She felt the blood rush to her cheeks.  “It... it was just a conceit, a fanciful notion, really.”

 

He opened the book.  It was blank inside.

 

“I hadn’t started it yet.  This was locked in a cupboard in the other room, and the one that was taken was in that drawer, by my computer.”  She pointed to a neat reproduction secretaire.

 

He looked across at the computer.  It wasn’t the most up to date piece of equipment, heavy and bulky, not like stealing a laptop.

 

“And inside was information on demons?”

 

“Um...”

 

“It’s okay, Miss Yeo.  I know about Giles, and Angel and Buffy, and what they do.”

 

He did, did he?  She wondered whether he knew all there was to know.  Not all the truth, then...  “Well, then, yes.  It was simply a hand-written record of where most of the major settlements are, and related information about customs and mores.”

 

“Can you think why anyone would want to steal it?”

 

“Not really.  Demons are quite secretive, of course.  Perhaps someone found what I was doing, and didn’t want me... erm... spilling the beans.”

 

“Yes, I expect it’s something like this.”  It might be, of course, but he suspected that an opportunistic housebreaker had snatched it up thinking it might be worth a bob or two.  If Alice had only been out briefly, she might well have disturbed them, which would explain why so little else had been taken. Still, he had to bear the more sinister possibilities in mind. 

 

He closed the book and looked more carefully at the cover.  “This is beautiful work.  Was it done by someone in the village?”

 

Definitely a detective through and through, thought Alice.  “Thank you.  But no one else knew about it.  I did it.”

 

There was that quirky eyebrow again.  Unaware that she did it, she fingered the bracelet on her arm.  It was a circlet of silver and deep blue lapis lazuli, shot with spidery veins of gold, and it had been given to her by her mother for her sixteenth birthday.  She had the other matching pieces upstairs.  She didn’t wear those often, but it was a rare day when she didn’t wear her bracelet.  She played with it when she was nervous, or deep in thought.

 

“I learned to bind books when I was young,” she declared, feeling defensive.  “It isn’t so difficult, and you don’t need complicated machinery.  I haven’t done any for a while, but I have everything necessary for this sort of work.”

 

He handed the book back.  “It is beautiful.”  He sat back in his chair, and then nodded towards a photograph on a side table, framed by silver Art Nouveau.  It was of a young woman.  “Is that you?”

 

She almost lied, and said that it was her mother, but remembered her mantra of the closer to the truth the better.  Besides, she had perhaps been quite pretty then, and she was proud of that.  Worse, she wanted him to know it.  Older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser.  “Yes.  I was in Paris for a while.”

 

Collins got up for a closer look.  Alice was elegant now, but she had been beautiful then.  When he looked at her, he could still see the remnants of that ravaged beauty.  He turned back to the photograph and smiled as he felt a faint stirring.  She’d been just the sort of dark-haired dasher who really turned him on.

 

“You were a real eyeful, weren’t you,” he said with a smile that robbed the words of any offence. 

 

Once more, she felt that unfamiliar rush of blood to her cheeks, and it was difficult to keep the timbre of an elderly lady in her voice.  “Thank you.  Perhaps not such a mean bit,” she conceded, “but that was a long time ago.”  She kept the photograph there to remind her of what she had been.  Sometimes she needed that.  And sometimes, she put it away because she couldn’t bear to look at it.

 

He moved back to his chair, seemingly unwilling to leave just yet, and Alice wasn’t sorry.  She got visitors, although not many.  She was accustomed to the loneliness, but perhaps not entirely resigned to it.  A few minutes of conversation surely couldn’t hurt, if she were careful?

 

“You were a primary school teacher, weren’t you?  That was how you first came across Giles?”

 

“Yes and yes.  He was an unusual little boy.  It isn’t many who would want to remember me after all these years.”

 

“It isn’t all that many primary school teachers who would be compiling directories of demons for their ex-pupils,” he replied drily, but with a smile.  “What were you doing in Paris?  Teaching again?”

 

“For some of the time, a little.”

 

There was that soft smile again.

 

“Were you born in Paris?  You don’t seem to have a French accent.”

 

“No.  I... I was born in North Africa.  Morocco.”

 

“Ah!  Your ancestors were white slaved by Barbary pirates, then!  Perhaps they were from Baltimore...”

 

Her nose wrinkled in perplexity for a second, and then she had it.

 

“Baltimore, County Cork!  The Barbary pirates cleared it out to the last child in...Sixteen something...”  Then her face fell theatrically.  “More likely my ancestors were the Barbary pirates.”

 

Collins laughed.  “Then you must have been a fearsome teacher!”

 

She giggled, and then remembered her elderly persona.  Oh, but she was enjoying herself.

 

“Would you like a cup of coffee, Chief Inspector?”

 

“Ian.  Please.  And yes, very much.”

 

Remembering that girlish giggle, she improved on her elderly image.  She had a black walking stick, which she kept handy largely for defence, but which she now picked up and used for its original intended purpose, allowing her shoulders to hunch a little.  Once in the kitchen, she laid the cane down, and started, carefully, to make coffee.  As she waited for the kettle to sing, she busied herself finding a few things to put onto a plate – a couple of fresh scones, made that morning, a chocolate cup cake, some shortbread fingers – and then she made a cafetière of her favourite Viennese coffee with figs and poured a jug of cream.

 

She bent down to pick up a tray and a dark shape leapt past her shoulder.  She looked up, to see Poppy, one of her two black and white cats, stalking purposefully towards the cream.  Dropping the tray, she swept Poppy off the worktop and put her firmly on the floor.

 

“It isn’t your tea time yet,” she said sternly.  Poppy twitched her tail, and looked nonchalant.

 

Alice went to the sink to wash her hands, and that was her undoing.  She took off her mitts.  Putting the towel back on its hook, she unthinkingly ran her fingers through her hair, pushing the heavy fall of it away from her temple.  And then something made her turn towards the door.  Collins stood there, his gaze riveted to that upraised hand.  She knew what he could see there, the pinkly pearlescent scales that covered all the skin from her wrist to her knuckles, and the thick band of scales that ran over her temple.

 

“You’re a demon, aren’t you?”  His voice was carefully neutral.

 

She didn’t answer.  What was there to say?

 

He walked into the kitchen, and she wondered whether he meant to take some sort of direct action.  Instead, he picked up the tray that she had dropped, and started moving the cups and the cafetière onto it.  She watched him in silence.

 

“I came to give you a hand.  Do you need that stick at all, or are you going to bring the scones?”

 

+++++

 

Buffy didn’t have long to wait.  She’d only drunk half her cup of tea when Mrs Elder’s eyes opened.  She struggled to focus, and then Buffy saw her eyes clear as she fought her way out of the mists of the sedative.

 

“Who are you?” Her voice was a parched whisper.  And then she remembered.  “Gary...”

 

Buffy put her hand out and laid it over Mrs Elder’s own.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

 

The first sob was soft and stifled, but its successors racked the woman’s body.  Moved, Buffy sat on the edge of the bed and put her arms around Mrs Elder’s thin shoulders, holding her close.  They stayed like that for a long time.

 

+++++

 

“So you went straight from Morocco to Paris?”

 

“No.  I went to Portugal first, then Spain and Italy.”  She’d dropped her elderly lady voice, and reassumed her normal thrilling contralto.  Alice’s lips tightened as she remembered how Italy broke her heart, and taught her that humans and demons couldn’t mix. 

 

If Collins saw that involuntary reaction, he gave no sign.  “Were you in Lisbon?”

 

“For a little while.”

 

“I loved Lisbon.  It’s an incredible city.  Is that really you in the photograph, by the way?”

 

“It most certainly is, young man.”  Her tone was acid.

 

“Do you mind if I ask – how old are you, actually?”

 

She hesitated.  Well, why not.  “Two hundred and seven.”

 

Collins fell silent for a moment.  “Like Angel, then.”

 

“No, not at all like Angel.  Besides, he’s older than me.”

 

Collins couldn’t help but laugh at that sign of sharp defensiveness, and they talked companionably again.  Soon, each had a black and white cat curled up on their lap.  Ah!  A Jellicle cat, Collins had greeted Daisy, much to Alice’s delight, and possibly to Daisy’s, because who knew, with cats?  They talked of art and opera, of poetry and places, of books and theatre.  What they didn’t speak of was the fact that Alice was a demon.

 

+++++

 

Buffy helped steady the cup as Mrs Elder picked it up.

 

“Thank you,” she whispered, as she tried to sip the hot liquid. 

 

Len looked on from his chair.  “Will you and the lass do, now, Mrs Elder?”  She nodded her reply.  “Well, then, I’ll be getting along and leave you to it.  You know where I am if you need anything.  My granddaughter will be round tomorrow to do my shopping.  I’ll ask her to knock and do yours, shall I?”

 

“Thank you,” the woman whispered again.

 

“Can you manage?”  Buffy asked him.  “Shall I come with you?”

 

“Nay, lass, you stay here.  I can hang on to the fence if I have to.”

 

Len shuffled across to the door.  “Nice to meet you, Buffy,” he said, as he let himself out.

 

When Buffy turned back to her, Mrs Elder’s face was white with fear.  “Buffy?” she asked.  “You’re Buffy?  The Slayer?”

 

+++++

 

“No,” said Alice.  “No, Buffy isn’t at all like the other Slayers.  On the whole, they used to be just as vicious and merciless and uncaring as the creatures they slaughtered.  They were raised by the Council, largely a gaggle of old men, isolated from the real world, trained to become killing machines, so what could you expect?”

 

“And Buffy wasn’t?”  Collins was genuinely interested.

 

“No.  They overlooked her until she was actually called.  That made her very different to the institutionalised teenagers that the others were.  I was terrified when I knew what Giles had brought home.  I knew how implacable a Slayer can be.  I’d heard about Angel, too.  Well, word gets out about two such champions of humanity, doesn’t it?”

 

“Not to some of us,” said Collins with a grimace.  “It came as a shock to me.  But you sound as though you’d come across a Slayer before?”

 

“Yes.  She was in Paris.  That’s why I left.  She didn’t care who she killed, and she nearly got me.  She was so close...”

 

“She must have been lucky to single out a primary school teacher.”

 

Alice wondered how much to say, and then gave a mental shrug.  It was so... liberating... to be able to talk about her past.  “I wasn’t a teacher then.  I was dancing at the Folies Bergère.  I was at the Moulin Rouge, later.”

 

Collins’ eyes widened, and then, involuntarily, he looked back at the photograph.  Yes.  Tall, willowy, a sultry beauty.  He could see that.

 

Alice saw his glance.  “It wasn’t me she came for, at least not initially.  She came for the vampire who was also a dancer there.  Now, that one was definitely an eyeful, but the Slayer got her.”

 

Collins shook his head slowly.  “I’m new to all this,” he said.  “It’s hard to take in.”

 

“More coffee, Ian?” Alice asked.

 

+++++

 

Mrs Elder was still fearful, but Buffy had managed to convince her that she wasn’t here to do any slaying.  It seemed that the presence in Westbury of the Slayer and Angel the vampire was well known in demon communities now.  Not that Buffy had found it easy to get Mrs Elder to admit to the presence of demons.  It was mention of the mortuary that did it.

 

“Gary... that was his name, wasn’t it?  Gary’s been taken to the mortuary.  What do you think will happen, on Monday, when they come to do an autopsy?  What will they find?”

 

Mrs Elder buried her face in her hands.

 

Gently, Buffy pressed her point.  “He was Silarri, wasn’t he?”

 

“How did you know?”

 

“I have a friend who’s Silarri.  I recognised the description of the scales.”

 

The woman looked up at her, tears gleaming on her cheeks, but she said nothing.

 

“How did he die?  Heart attack?  He was quite old, wasn’t he?”

 

“No!” Mrs Elder spat out.  “No.  He was young, for a Silarri, and he did not die a natural death.  He was murdered!”

 

Buffy instinctively put her hand out, almost drew it back, and then reached out again to take Mrs Elder’s hand.  “Tell me.  Tell me what happened.  If it’s something for me to deal with, I’ll deal.  If it’s a human who did it, you can be sure that the policeman who came this morning will catch whoever did it.  He’s a friend of mine, too.”

 

It took more reassurances, and gentle prompting, but Buffy got the rest of the story from her.  Gary and Mary Elder had lived in Spain for many years, but had recently moved back to England, and settled, for now, in Trowbridge.  All had been well until last night, when an unknown demon had knocked on the door, burst in, and killed Gary.

 

It had been a single stroke, a blade almost as fine as wire, and it had been plunged directly into his heart.

 

“There was no blood,” Mary whispered.  “Not a drop.  He just died in my arms.”

 

“Do you know who did it?”

 

“No.  No... He was hooded when he came in, but his hood came off.  I’d never seen anyone like him before.”  Try as she would, though, to give a description, she became tangled and incoherent.  Buffy decided that she needed Angel to take up a new job as an identikit artist.

 

“We need to talk about this again, when you feel you can handle it,” she told Mary, “because whoever did this isn’t going to get away with it, but right now I need to know whether to get his body from the mortuary.  Because if I do, I need to do that tonight.  Tell me, if they do an autopsy, will they know that he isn’t human?”

 

Mary nodded.  “It’s all my fault.”  It came out almost as a wail.  “All my fault.  He stayed as he was, for me.  Because he was married to me, because he loved me, and because I was getting older...”  Her breath hitched in her chest. “He was going to visit his family and do something about the appearance of the scales next week, but because of all those things, he put off peshcalo.  Without that, he could have passed...”

 

“Peshcalo?”

 

“I thought you said you had a Silarri friend?”

 

“I do.”

 

“Then ask your friend about peshcalo.  Renewal.”

 

+++++

 

“They live very dangerous lives, Ian.  But Buffy has more compassion and empathy in her little finger than ever an ordinary Slayer does.  That’s partly because of her family upbringing, and partly because she’s got Angel.  That man bleeds for everyone that he kills, you know?”

 

“I thought they were both pretty implacable, Alice.  They can certainly notch up a body count.”

 

“Yes, but I’ve learned that Angel feels he should have been able to save everyone, that they should all get a chance at changing their ways, as he has.”

 

“Bit of a Messiah complex, then?”

 

Alice gave a short laugh.  “Hardly.” She nibbled at another scone.  “Shame about Ella, really.”

 

“Ella?”

 

“Of course, you didn’t know Ella.  She and Rupert were... an item.  She died saving the world.”

 

“I wouldn’t have thought that Giles would involve the general public in the things that they do.”

 

“Oh, Ella wasn’t general public.  She was a very powerful witch.  Very powerful.  She was part of the Coven.”

 

“We’ve got a Coven?”  Collins knew he was a good detective, but he felt as though he’d been walking around with his senses closed off.

 

“Oh, not anymore.  They all died.  About three years ago, now.  Left a lot of vacant houses in the area.”

 

“Did no one wonder why there were so many bodies all at once?”

 

Alice shook her head.  “There were no bodies.  They were... assumed.  Is that the right word?  Assumed into the Earth, I suppose.  The aftershocks of all of that were... substantial.”

 

“I remember a lot of strange happenings, around then.  I’d been seconded to work with the Met, in London, and we had our hands too full to worry about anywhere else.  But I’m surprised I never came across the reports of such a number of missing women, when I got back.”

 

“Oh, no, they would never have come to the notice of the police.  That’s part of the magic of a witch’s house – a feeling that all is well, that nothing is amiss, for neighbours or passers-by.  And none of them had close family.  No one will have reported them missing.  And even if they had, there were deaths and disappearances all over the county.”

 

Collins wondered whether he was absorbing too much information too fast to make any sense of it.  He fastened onto one, small understandable item.

 

“So their houses were just left unoccupied?”

 

“Yes and no.  There was a woman who could have been a member of the Coven, who was invited to join over fifty years ago, but who turned it down for a normal life, to have a husband and a family.  She was left the guardianship of their properties, awaiting the rise of new Coven members.  This region is the place in England where the Earth has most power.  They’ll be attracted here.  And I expect she’ll be on the lookout for them.”

 

Collins felt the small and understandable move away from his grasp.  “Who is this?”

 

Alice looked at him speculatively, and picked up her cup.  “Ivy Grittleton,” she told him.

 

+++++

 

“I suppose it’s a good sign that we haven’t had a call from Alice?”

 

Angel grunted a non-committal reply to Giles’ question.  He was driving, and the closure of the M1 had left surrounding routes in chaos.  He was irritated by the idiocy of some drivers.

 

“She would have called if anything had gone amiss, wouldn’t she?  Or Ian would?”

 

That same uncommunicative grunt.

 

“Who on earth would break into Alice’s?  And is it significant that they took a book about demons?”

 

Grunt.

 

“I wonder how Buffy’s getting on with Mrs Elder?”

 

“She’ll call when she’s able.  Stop worrying, Giles.  Now, tell me about this place we’re going to.”

 

Giles sighed, and gathered his thoughts.

 

“The owners saw their children on staircases, in corridors, sitting in rooms, and playing in the hall, but the children didn’t respond to them in any way, and were later found to have been in entirely different parts of the house.”

 

“Hmmm.  Doppelgängers?”

 

“A fetch?”  Fetches were ghostly doubles, harbingers of death.

 

“We’ve certainly seen those before.”

 

“Future foretellings?”  Giles chewed the leg of his glasses.  “Hmm.  Or reflective mirages?  Shadows of the past?”

 

“Maybe.  What else?”

 

“Screaming in the corridors.  Blood-curdling, according to the notes.  Mainly, but not entirely, in the wee small hours.”

 

“Ghost?  Demon?”

 

“Or a poltergeist?  No, wait, the eldest child is nine.  That seems a bit young to prompt a poltergeist.”  In Giles’ experience, on the whole poltergeists seemed to be the result of teenage hormones.

 

“Or just children’s pranks?”

 

“Hah!”

 

“What else?  Damn.”  The latter was aimed at someone who’d cut Angel up badly, almost taking the Porsche’s front bumper off.  Angel drummed his fingers on the wheel.

 

“Blood all over the beds.  Oh, and great smears of it down the walls.”

 

“Real blood, or, um, spectral blood?”

 

“I’m hoping you’re going to be able to determine that.”

 

Angel grinned.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

+++++

 

“And you have no contact with any other Silarri?”  Collins tried to imagine the isolation of not knowing any others of your kind.

 

“No.  There aren’t many of us.  We’re hard to find.  That’s what I was researching, when I had the idea for the book for Rupert.  I wanted to find someone other than me...”

 

And I wanted to find whether there truly are other parts to Silarri magic, whether there can ever be renewal, she wanted to say, but she held her peace.  She didn’t know why she was talking so freely to this man.  True, he was young and personable, and he was very interesting to talk to.  True, he was a good listener, encouraging her to talk, but she’d met enough people with that skill; she’d learned to keep her own counsel, and she was normally as close-mouthed as they came.  But this man made her feel like a person again, not just another old woman.  In that respect, this man was like Rupert and Angel and Buffy.

 

“How long have you been alone, Alice?”

 

“Since I was sixteen...”  She said it in a whisper,   Oh, not all the time, but alone enough.  Alone too much.

 

She never knew why it happened.  She was a two hundred and seven year old demon in a body that looked eighty, and she was old enough to know better, to have better control.  But that simple half sentence, ‘Since I was sixteen’, brought with it its own mental baggage, an image as sharp and as real as if it had only happened that morning, of her parents’ bodies hanging from the trees in the dusty square.  Not for being demons.  No one had ever known about that.  They had died for living in the wrong time, in the wrong place, in the extended hostilities that always followed civil war.

 

A single glistening tear slid down her wrinkled apple cheek, then another and another.  A tiny sob escaped her, as she struggled to find a handkerchief.  A large, man’s handkerchief was pressed into her hand, and a strong arm encircled her thin shoulders.

 

“There, there,” said Ian Collins, a man who looked as though he would run a mile at the sight of a feminine tear, rising to the occasion.  “There, there, never mind,” rubbing her back as though she were an infant with wind.  He held her while she cried, his position bringing him almost face to face with the photograph of Alice as an enchanting young woman.  It was a pity that he was never to know her in her youth, but he knew that if she had been that age now, with just that tilt of her chin and sparkle in her eye, such platonic comforting would have been so very much harder in every sense of the word.

 

He stayed like that until Alice’s tears started to dry, and then his phone trilled a demand to be recognised.  He still had one arm around her shoulder as he answered it.

 

“Buffy.”

 

+++++

 

“Quiet!”

 

“I’m not used to being stealthy,” Collins grumbled in a whisper.  “If I break and enter, it’s normally in a very public way, and with a very big key.”

 

Buffy smiled to herself.  She was glad not to be doing this by herself, and she knew that if they were interrupted, Ian was resourceful enough to get them out of it without arrests and paperwork.

 

A mortuary was a mortuary, whether in California or Wiltshire, and she knew how to find her way around one.  It didn’t take her long to find Gary Elder.  He was lying on a trolley, covered by a green sheet, ready for autopsy – or post-mortem as they called it here – on the following morning.  She pulled the sheet back and started to unbutton his shirt.

 

“What are you doing?” Collins hissed.  “We need to get out of here.”

 

“You want me to do this in front of his wife?”

 

The policeman subsided, and came to stand beside the Slayer.  He pointed to a tiny red mark on the breast, and then pulled at the flesh to reveal a small laceration.  “That’s the killing blow.  And hardly a drop of blood.  Very professional.  Why him?  Who needed to kill him and why?  We need to talk to his wife again.  She must have some information that would help us catch the killer.”

 

Buffy put her hand out to the concentric circles of pink scales around the base of his throat, pearlescent even in the feeble light of a torch with failing batteries.  They were bigger and bolder than Alice’s, more colourful.  She didn’t know whether that was individual variation, or a male/female thing.  She traced them with her finger, and looked up at the policeman by her side.

 

“You aren’t going to be involved.  The whole point of breaking and entering is so that Gary Elder doesn’t come to the attention of the authorities.  The police won’t be investigating his death, because he’s a demon.  You don’t do that.”

 

He picked up the corpse’s hand, and ran his finger over the scales there, feeling the cool smoothness of them, like tiny plaques of pink mother of pearl, his skin tingling at the touch.  “There’s a first time for everything,” he said.  “Besides, he was a person, and he deserves justice.  So does his wife.  Even if I have to do it off-duty.”

 

Buffy scrutinised his face, but his expression gave nothing away.

 

“Do you need to see anything else?”

 

He shook his head.

 

“Let’s go, then.”  Wonderingly, she rolled the body in the green sheet, and hefted it over her shoulder.

 

“Here!  I say!  You can’t do that!”

 

“What?”

 

“Carry him like that!”

 

She was about to say that he was past minding the indignity, and they really had to go now, when Collins finished his thought.  “I mean, you’re a girl.  Let me carry him.”

 

She heaved a sigh and set off for the door, trying not to trip on the trailing ends of the sheet.

 

“I’m a Slayer,” she told him.  “I can toss you from one end of this building to another.  You can get the doors.”

 

They crept out of the side door, Collins shutting it carefully behind them, when there was an unwelcome intrusion from behind them.

 

“Sir?  What are doing here?  Is that a body?  I saw your car... I mean... I say, sir... Is that a body?  And why is Buffy carrying it?”

 

Reluctantly, Collins turned round to face his sergeant, Gavin Lincoln.

 

+++++

 

Angel drew the Porsche up in front of an imposing house.  It had a central building flanked by two huge, identical wings with a round tower on the end of the wing on the left.  The whole thing was softened by broad flower borders along the length of the building, now faded with the season, and standard roses, with a few late blooms.  Giles surveyed the building critically.

 

“Parts of it date back to the Conquest.  That tower, does, I expect.”  He looked across to Angel, with a grin.  “It’s even older than you.”

 

Angel snorted, but grinned back.  Then he pointed to the opening door.  “Looks like we’re expected.”

 

“I sincerely hope so.  In fact, I sincerely hope there’s some supper forthcoming.  Don’t worry, I’ll eat yours.”

 

The housekeeper waited on the threshold for them as they retrieved their bags from the back seat.  “Good evening,” she greeted them.  “I’ve let Cook go home, but she’s left you a cold collation in the Yellow Dining Room, and there is hot soup, and I’ll make you some tea and coffee.”

 

“Sounds fine.  Thank you.  I’m sorry we got delayed.”  Angel gave the housekeeper his sunniest smile, and her very correct demeanour unbent a little.  Giles saw what he was doing, and dug an elbow into his ribs, with a scowl.  It had paid off, though, because later that evening she brought them a tantalus of decanters, brandy, port and two sorts of whisky.

 

For now, though, she took them into the house, and up a broad staircase.  “We have seventeen bedrooms,” she told them.  “I can make up beds for you in any of them, but I thought you might prefer rooms in the family wing, close to where Mr and Mrs Carter saw the apparitions.”

 

“That will be fine.  Um... Did you see them, Mrs Horridge?”

 

She shook her head at Giles’ question.  “No, but my rooms are at the opposite end of the house.  The family lived here, with their main reception rooms in Clifford’s Tower.  That part was built by Ralph de Clifford, twenty years after the Conquest.  Here we are.”

 

She pushed open a door and stood back to allow Giles to enter, then she opened another a few feet further down the corridor, on the opposite side.  Giles’ room was themed in grey and lemon.  Angel’s, as luck would have it, was rose pink and dark blood red.

 

Mrs Horridge said, “Come downstairs when you’re ready, and I’ll show you the Yellow Dining Room.”

 

“There’s no need to wait around for us,” Giles told her.  “I’m sure we can find our way to it.”

 

“There are ten reception rooms, a gymnasium and a cinema.  It might take you a little while,” she said, drily.  “I’ll meet you at the bottom of the staircase.”

 

+++++

 

“Why are you stealing bodies, sir?”

 

“Do you think you could drop the ‘sir’?  I’d probably better not be on duty right now.  And do you think we could deal with the questions later, and get out of here now?  Collins moved round Buffy and opened the boot of his car.

 

“Better put him in here, Buffy.  I’m sure he’ll forgive us.”

 

“Look sir, I’m not sure I should let you do this...”

 

“How are you getting on with Lina?” Buffy asked, from somewhere beneath the green sheet that was gradually sliding away from the body it was meant to cover.  Lina was a demoness with a very talented prehensile tail.  Even in the darkness, she could see that Gavin Lincoln blushed. 

 

“She went back home last week.”  His voice was wistful.

 

Home for Lina was another dimension.  Occasionally, Buffy had wondered exactly how many dimensions there were, but the thought of the ones she knew about made her heart ache, and she rarely dwelled on the issue.

 

“Did you actually notice that she wasn’t... quite like other girls?”  Buffy hefted the body of Gary Elder a bit higher onto her shoulder as she asked the question, and wished Gavin would get out of the way.

 

The sergeant flushed again, and looked down at his shoes.  He didn’t answer, which was answer enough for Buffy, if she’d needed it.  With quills and a tail, Gavin would have had to be blind not to notice.

 

“This guy’s like Lina.  Well, not exactly like Lina, but he doesn’t belong in there, for sure.  Now, will someone give me a hand before I drop him?”

 

+++++

 

Mrs Horridge led them to the Yellow Dining Room, which was definitely yellow, although that didn’t spoil Giles’ appetite.  He fell on the food like the wolf on the fold.  Angel had already eaten, in the privacy of his room.  Once they were fed and watered, they asked if the housekeeper had time to show them the rooms in the house where the incidents had occurred.

 

All were in the family wing.  A corridor outside the Pink Drawing Room, where disembodied men’s voices had been heard; the main staircase, where there had been ghastly screams; The Nursery, where drops of blood had been scattered on the white lace counterpane of the youngest child; the Rainbow Room, where the older children slept, and where gouts of blood had been smeared among the rainbows on the walls; the Cinema, where the children had been seen watching a film, unresponsive children who had neither acknowledged nor spoken to anyone else, and who subsequently swore they had never been there.

 

Mrs Horridge said that there had been other apparitions in this wing of the house, but these were the ones where she could identify the location clearly.  So far as she knew, the other wing was unaffected.

 

“I’ll retire, now, if you no longer need me,” she said, with a small bow.  “What time would you like breakfast?  Eight o’clock?  Or later?”

 

“Eight will be fine,” Giles told her.  “Thank you.”

 

She turned to go, but Angel called her back.  “Mrs Horridge...  Do you believe in these sightings?”

 

She didn’t answer immediately.  She stood looking down at the floor, her hands tightly clenched together.  Her mouth opened, but then she shut it again, without speaking.  Eventually, she looked up at Angel.

 

“Well, I know the blood was there, because I cleaned it up myself.  But I haven’t seen or heard anything else.  I haven’t felt cold chills or seen shadows, or any of the other things that are supposed to go with a haunting.  I don’t know.  But the blood was there.  I can’t tell you anything else.”

 

Angel nodded, accepting her answer.  “Do you have the bloodied counterpane, still?” he asked.

 

“Yes, but it’s been laundered.”

 

“Never mind.  If you could find it for us?  And if you could show me where your rooms are, so that we don’t disturb you?  We’ll be prowling around tonight, checking things out.”

 

Mrs Horridge sniffed.  “Of course.  I’m sure that Mr D’Eath – and you, of course – know what you’re doing.”

 

Angel gave her that winning smile again, and she almost smiled back.  She led Angel to the linen cupboard, where she pulled out a small white counterpane for him, and then she led him to the far end of the other wing, showing him her suite of rooms on the upper floor.

 

“Thank you, Mrs Horridge.  We’ll try not to make too much noise.  If you get worried by anything, just shout and we’ll hear you.”

 

+++++

 

They took the body back to Summerdown House, laying him carefully in the store room by the garage.

 

“What now?” Gavin asked.  “Do we have somewhere safe to dump the body?”

 

Buffy thought of the sink hole at the bottom of Giles’ Golden Acre Field, where so many other demon corpses had gone.

 

“No!”  She raised her hand a little, emphasising the single word.

 

“No.  The Silarri have their own customs.  Mrs Elder wants to involve his family, and to give him a proper funeral.  I’m thinking that perhaps Alice should help?”

 

Collins nodded, understanding.  It might help Mrs Elder, and it might also help Alice if she could finally contact some people of her own species.  Remembering the bright and sparkling humanity of the elderly lady, he decided that ‘species’ sounded like an odd word to use, no matter how technically accurate it was.

 

“Yes.  That would be a good idea.”

 

Gavin looked confused.  “Alice?”

 

+++++

 

“There’s blood on this.”

 

They were back in the Yellow Dining Room with a snifter of a rather fine brandy each.  Angel examined a new area of the counterpane.

 

“But I can’t get a proper sense of it.  The scent is overwhelmed by washing enzymes and bleach.  But there’s definitely blood.  I’ll take the Nursery and the Rainbow Room.  And the staircase.  Do you want to take the Pink Drawing Room and the Cinema?”

 

Giles savoured a mouthful of the brandy.  “I’m getting a bit tired of the poncey room names.”

 

Angel grinned.  “Me too.  But they are descriptive, and...”

 

He was interrupted by his phone, which trilled the Danse Macabre in tortured tones.  He groaned as he reached into his pocket.  “She said she’d find a way to make me pay...”

 

“Pay for what?” Giles asked, interested.  But Angel answered the phone, leaving Giles’ curiosity unfulfilled.  The one-sided conversation that he heard left him even more bemused.

 

“Buffy...”

 

“Slow down... Say again?”

 

“Alice?  He did?”

 

“He stayed how long with her?”

 

“Gavin as well?”

 

“Yes, yes, I think that’s a really good idea.”

 

“Yes, we’re just about to set to work.  Tell you later...”

 

When he’d rung off, he updated Giles, who goggled at the fact that Ian Collins now knew that Alice was a demon, and almost choked when he knew that the policeman had still found her interesting enough to spend a couple of hours with her in conversation.  He was seriously disturbed to find that Buffy and Ian had been interrupted when they’d recovered Gary Elder’s body, and only a little mollified to find that they’d been discovered by Gavin Lincoln.  Giles knew about Lina.

 

And Giles was thoughtful to find that, in the morning, Elder’s family would send a vehicle to collect both his body and his widow; and he actually smiled to learn that Alice had introduced herself to Mrs Elder and was staying with her overnight.  And then he goggled again when he learned that by some magic that Mrs Elder had never seen, and that apparently both Alice and his books were blissfully unaware of, at least some of the Silarri were able to renew the human form that they wore. 

 

Both he and Angel could see the potential there.

 

It was with a lot to think about that they set about their appointed tasks.

 

Angel headed first to the rooms where blood had been seen.  He found nothing unusual in the Nursery, not counting the fact that it was a room full of giant teddy bears, fluffy sheep and tinkling mobiles.  Here, it seemed, the blood had been confined to those drops on the bedspread.

 

He moved to the adjacent Rainbow Room, used by the older children.  The blood had been found by the door, Mrs Horridge had said.  The smell of it hit him as soon as he walked in.  This time it hadn’t been washed and bleached to near extinction.  Instead, ordinary soap and water had been used to remove it from the painted wall.  It might be invisible now to the human eye, but it was very discernible to the vampire nose.  And what he smelled made him frown, a puzzling scent that he couldn’t rationalise in this context.

 

He cleared his mind of that conundrum, and then he sat and closed his eyes, listening, testing, trying to locate any trace of anything else unnatural.  There was nothing.

 

He was still turning over the puzzle as he headed for the central staircase.  There, he stood on the galleried landing, looking down into the marble-tiled hall beneath, extending every single sense.  There was nothing.

 

And then, he felt someone walk over his grave as a shiver ran up his back.  He looked back over his shoulder, and saw a sliver of movement from the corner of his eye.  He whirled round, and stood, transfixed.  A large, ornate French-style mirror hung on the wall.  In it, he saw himself.

 

+++++

 

Giles could find nothing amiss in his assigned areas, the Pink Drawing Room and the Cinema.  He was too tired to use all the methods of detection at his disposal, but he’d do that after a good night’s sleep.  He was almost sure that he would still find nothing.  When he got back to the Yellow Dining Room, Angel sat at the grand mahogany table rolling a brandy balloon between his long fingers.  The glass was half full.  Giles took one look at Angel’s closed expression, and wondered how much had already been drunk from that glass.

 

“Did you find any evidence of blood, Angel?” he asked, his voice nonchalant.

 

“Yeah.  In the Rainbow Room.  Very clear.”

 

“And?”

 

“It wasn’t human.  It was lamb.”  Angel’s gaze was riveted on the contents of his glass.

 

Giles’ open hand slapped down onto the table.  He was exultant.  “I knew it!  This is all a scam!  We get the credit squeeze, and he’s spending a lot of money on this house.  Then he can’t get a licence to operate it as a business.  He’s losing money hand over fist, he can’t keep up the payments...  It’s like the Amityville Horror – he thinks he’ll either make money because people will flock to the haunted house, or at the very least he can get rid of the debt by handing it over to his bank.  Hah!  I knew it!”

 

“No, Giles,” Angel said patiently.  “You don’t understand.  It was a lamb.  A newborn lamb.”

 

Giles stood still, a fresh glass in one hand, a decanter in the other.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

 

Angel swirled the brandy around before taking a drink.  “It’s November.  It’ll be weeks before there are any newborn, skippy lambs ready to have their throats slit in sacrifice.”

 

“Frozen blood?” Giles asked, after he’d taken that in.

 

Angel shook his head.  “No.  There’s a difference between fresh and frozen.  It’s subtle, but it’s there.  This was fresh.”

 

Giles sat down opposite the vampire who was possibly his closest friend.  “That isn’t all, is it?” he asked, sagely.

 

There was a long silence, and Giles started to worry about that blank, closed expression on Angel’s face.  He didn’t prompt an answer though, and his patience was eventually rewarded.

 

“You remember that big mirror at the head of the staircase?”

 

Giles nodded.  “About eight feet high, five feet across?  French, Louis Quinze pier glass, carved gilt wood?  Oh, yes, with griffins on top.  I remember.”

 

“Thinking of buying one?” Angel asked, with the ghost of a smile.

 

“I used to have a relationship with an antiques dealer.  Long time ago.”

 

Angel took a mouthful of the fiery spirit.

 

“Yeah, well... I saw myself in it.”

 

Giles gaped, shocked to the core.

 

“You saw your reflection?”

 

For the first time, Angel looked up.  “No.  I saw myself.”  He took another long swallow of brandy.

 

“I seem to be incredibly dense just now.  I think you’d better explain it to me.”

 

“The mirror showed me me, but it wasn’t the me of here and now.  It... it was a strange, gangrel thing.  Thin, with tattered clothes, bloody, it looked as though it hadn’t slept for a month.  Worn leather trousers – no, Giles...” He gave a small, grim smile.  “Not Angelus.  I was wearing them as protection against weapons, I think.  Those, and a leather jacket....”

 

Angel fell silent again.  He could see it again, in his mind’s eye.  The bloody half-healed wound, where someone had tried to slice off his cheek.  His knee had been broken recently, and wasn’t quite mended, and so he was favouring it.  His clothes and skin were smeared with muck and blood, and his right hand was burned, still painful, and so he carried his sword in his left hand.  His taut, alabaster skin spoke of weeks of starvation.  And he’d looked straight out of the mirror at Angel looking in.

 

“You think it was a fetch?”  It was the first thing that came to Giles’ mind.  Blood and dirt and fire, was what he thought.

 

Giles was genuinely worried.  A fetch, or doppelgänger, was the ghostly double of a living person, some evil form of bilocation.  True fetches were harbingers of bad luck, and seeing one’s own ghostly double was said to be an omen of death.  Angel might already be dead, but Giles didn’t want him any deader.

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because I saw Buffy, too.”

 

She’d looked as tired and thin as Angel had, her hazel eyes huge in her pale face.  She was still human, but she didn’t look as though she’d seen the sun for a long time.  She, too, was bruised and bloody.  And she, too, had stared out of the mirror at the Angel of this here and now, then put up her hand in a warding gesture, as though to fend off an evil spirit.

 

Both of them were bloodied up to the elbows. 

 

He could see, but there was nothing to hear, not even the sound of his own breathing.  In absolute silence, they sank to their knees, scrubbing at their bloody arms with the dry, sandy dust.  And then they held each other, clutching desperately at each other, but kissing tenderly.  And the image had gone.

 

Angel tossed back a full inch of brandy.

 

“I think it was him.”

 

“Him?”

 

“The one from the other dimension.  He had Buffy with him.”

 

“But... Angel, Buffy there is dead!”

 

“Buffy here was dead, too.  For a while.”

 

“You think he was using an Urn of Osiris to bring Buffy back?”  Giles was incredulous.

 

“I think he’d already done that.  She’d been back for a while, I’m certain.  I think they sacrificed the lamb for another reason, maybe to bring someone else back from the dead.  You, maybe, or perhaps Willow...”

 

Giles rubbed his forehead in perplexity.  His brain seemed to consist of nothing but fog.  “But Angel, if all this is real, then it can’t have anything to do with the lamb’s blood in this house.  That happened more than a month ago!”

 

Angel shrugged.  “Don’t ask me about the vagaries of space and time.  I don’t know whether it was real.  It just felt real.  Besides, even if it’s real, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

 

Giles picked up Angel’s glass and took both of them for a large refill.

 

“No,” he said, as he put the half-full glass back in front of Angel.  “No, I don’t suppose there is.”

 

After a pause, Giles asked, “Did... erm... did it look as though they’d succeeded?  With the Urn of Osiris?”

 

Angel’s attention was once more focused on the brandy, but all he could see was the despair on their faces.

 

“No.”

 

+++++

 

Buffy poured hot milk onto the chocolate in her Stonehenge mug.  She’d driven past it many times, but she’d never been back to visit the ancient henge after the terrible happenings her first year here, but Kevin had given the mug to her last Christmas.  She sat down at the kitchen table to drink her hot chocolate; it was late, she’d had a tiring day and she missed Angel.  She wouldn’t be long out of bed.  Just as soon as she’d had a hot, milky drink...

 

She definitely missed Angel.  She missed Giles as well.  In fact, she missed having company in this big, echoing house.  It was rare for her to be here alone, at night.  Even Aristotle and Zillah were out, doing whatever cats do on a miserable night like this.  She glanced out of the window, but in the murky darkness she couldn’t see anything of the new wing that was now almost finished.  Every step of the way through choosing fittings and furnishings, Angel had either moaned and whined, or maintained a stoical, manly silence.  She smiled to herself as she sipped the chocolate. 

 

Her jaw cracked as she yawned.  Bed was looking really good just now, even if it was an empty one.  She wasn’t going to walk across the courtyard to the flat over the garage.  Sleeping during the day had been impossible there, with the noise from the building work, and she and Angel had shared their time between the main guest room here or the flat in Bath.  She’d stay here tonight.

 

She picked up her mug to finish the last of her chocolate, and then checked her watch.  Just short of the witching hour.  Not that there were any witches around here, not to speak of.  Not anymore.  Definitely time for bed, if she was getting maudlin.  Then came the knock on the door, a heavy knock, speaking of heavy business.  She opened a drawer for one of the stakes that she kept behind the cutlery tray.  Demons and vampires didn’t generally come knocking on the Slayer’s door, but you never knew... She tucked the stake into the back waistband of her jeans.  Only then did she go and open the door.

 

The demon at the door gave her a deep bow.

 

“Slayer.”

 

He wasn’t much taller than she was, and humanoid in form, but his skin was a shiny rich mahogany colour.  She was reminded of polished cherry bark.  He wore drab-coloured slacks and a dark woollen polo-necked shirt beneath an Italian leather jacket.  He looked as though he would have been at home in any cosmopolitan city, apart from that interesting skin effect.  Over the jacket, though, and quite out of keeping with his modish dress, he wore a broad golden sash from shoulder to hip.  In his hand he carried a stiff tube of red, embossed leather.

 

She stood with her hands on her hips, the stake in easy reach.

 

“You’ve got the advantage of me.”

 

“I am Alvaric, and I wear the golden sash of the messenger.”

 

“I can see you’ve got a sash, okay.  So, what’s the message?”

 

He bowed again.  “I regret, Slayer, that I must ask to speak to Angelus.  My business is with him.”

 

She cocked her head to one side and looked at him, consideringly.  “There’s no Angelus here, and never will be.”

 

“Please do not play word games with me, Slayer.”

 

“Whatever you want, you can talk to me.  We all work together here.  What’s the trouble?”

 

“I must speak to the vampire, Angelus.”

 

She looked again at the dignity and gravitas of him, and relented.  Perhaps, sometimes, a demon only felt comfortable speaking to another demon.  And this intrigued her.

 

“Angel’s away on business.”

 

He said nothing, but his body language tsked.

 

“He’ll be back in a couple of days.”

 

“Then I shall return two nights from now.” 

 

He made her another formal bow, and melted silently away into the thick, misty darkness.  Which was strange, she thought afterwards, as she prepared for bed, because that gravelled courtyard definitely came with an underfoot crunch factor.  Even Angel had difficulty being totally silent just there, at least to her ears. 

 

She stood on the doorstep, chilled, for several long minutes, her arms wrapped around herself, as though she only had to wait for the answers to appear.  Then she thought of the other person who was alone in this house tonight.  She slipped out towards the front of the house.  The rose garden there still had a few late blooms, despite the weather.  Regardless of the thorns, she broke off the best of them, an old-fashioned yellow rose, crammed with petals, and then let herself into the store room.

 

Gary Elder’s body lay on the floor, covered by the green sheet.  Carefully, she put the rose on his swathed breast.

 

“Rest easy,” she told him.  “We’ll find who did it.  I promise.”  Then she wondered whether tonight’s visit had anything to do with this.

 

She had trouble falling asleep, with this new puzzle to chew over, and with an empty space beside her.  When she finally did, it was to dreams of pain and tears and betrayal, and a blessed sword through the heart.

 

+++++

 

The next afternoon, as Buffy sorted through a bag full of clean but battle-damaged clothes, finding those that were worth mending and those that would never again serve for anything more than cat blankets and dusters, a vehicle crunched into the courtyard.  It was a silver people-carrier, and it had four occupants.  Buffy went out to greet them.  Alice helped Mary Elder, dressed head to foot in black, to get out of the car, while two men got out of the front seats.

 

“Buffy,” said Mrs Elder, “let me introduce you to my brother-in-law and my father-in-law.”

 

Buffy turned to greet the two men.  Neither of them had so much as a suggestion of scales.  One was tall, with a mane of silver hair.  His manner was grave, and she could see the pain in his eyes.  He looked about sixty, but Buffy was well aware that looks were deceptive with the Silarri.  The other was younger, with thick, brown hair, stocky and strong.  He looked at her with suspicion.

 

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she told them both.

 

“Did you kill him?” the brother blurted out.

 

Mary Elder took his arm.  “No, David.  I swear that she did not.”

 

He said no more, but didn’t look mollified.

 

“Would you like to come in?” she asked them.  “I can make coffee... Or tea?”

 

The father, Edward, shook his head.  “Thank you, no.  We need to hurry.  Where’s my son, please?”

 

She took him to the store room.  It was cold in there, and the rose lay as fresh as when she’d picked it.  He looked at her in surprise.

 

“I’m grateful to you,” he said, “for your care of my son.”

 

“I’ll help you lift him.”

 

They laid him carefully in the back of the vehicle, and then disguised him with a covering of blankets.  The men got into their seats with nods of farewell, but Alice and Mrs Elder came over to Buffy.

 

“I’m going to stay with the Elders for a few days,” Alice told her.  “Would you ask Martha if she would be a dear, and feed Poppy and Daisy for me?”  She wore a serious expression, but beneath it, Buffy sensed suppressed excitement, and anticipation.

 

“Where are you going?” she asked, suddenly worried at what could happen to the old teacher.  Giles would never forgive her if she mislaid Alice.

 

“Hungerford, would you believe?”

 

“Hungerford?  Berkshire?  What’s that, like fifty miles away?”

 

“Amazing that they should be so close, isn’t it?”  Alice gave Buffy the address and her cell phone number.  “You won’t forget Poppy and Daisy, will you?”

 

“No, of course not.  Call us, or we’ll worry.  Giles will have chewed his fingernails to the quick.”

 

Alice gave her a hug and, to her surprise, so did Mary Elder.  And then they were gone.

 

+++++

 

No matter what they did, Angel and Giles couldn’t find any sign of an unnatural presence, or activity, at Clifford Hall.  On Tuesday, Giles spent most of the day, and Angel spent most of the night, surveying every inch of the place.  They had potions, powders, meters, gauges, and Angel’s preternatural senses.  There was nothing.  The mirror, now, was just a mirror, and as blank when Angel stood in front of it as when no one stood within its reach.  The scent of the lamb’s blood was fading, and they heard no screaming in any of the corridors.  Not the Cinema, and not any of the other rooms, showed any sign of doppelgängers. 

 

Clifford Hall was just a house.

 

They talked about what Angel had seen in the mirror.  At least, Giles talked and Angel listened.  Angel had become as introspective and brooding as Giles had ever known him.  He was also making serious inroads into the brandy.

 

Angel was clear that he hadn’t seen an hallucination; at least, as clear as anyone could be, when there is only one witness.  When he tried to sleep on Tuesday, though, his dreams were full of formless fears, and then full of all-too-well-remembered horrors from his time in Acathla’s Hell.  His breakfast that day was blood and brandy, and then he decided that he really needed to pull himself together.

 

+++++

 

It was a sad household that greeted Alice.  The house was a small two-bedroomed end of terrace, perhaps thirty years old, and situated in an area that was packed with recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Groups of young men were living in single rooms, and families lived in converted garden sheds and garages, all of them trying to earn a living, all of them dreaming of moving on to better things.  They were largely Polish, but there were so many other nationalities, in an ever-changing population, that the Elder family could pass unnoticed.  In their case, they owned the whole house, but it seemed at first to Alice to be sublet several times over, because there were so many visitors, come for the obsequies.

 

Alice expected to be an unnecessary outsider, but she was greeted with dignified warmth by Gary Elder’s mother and sisters, with brave smiles and trembling lips, and then by the rest of his family.  The men gathered around the car, to bring in the body of their kinsman.  The women ushered her and Mary into the tiny house, to the front room where refreshments were laid out, the usual cold funeral meats and other foods that were less recognisable. 

 

The men carried Gary Elder into the room on the other side of the hall, where the dining table had been made into a temporary catafalque.  Alice joined the women, with their cloths and bowls of hot soapy water, as they closed the door of the room, and set about washing the body, and then anointing him with scented oils and unguents.  Finally, they wrapped him in a winding-sheet and laid him onto the catafalque.

 

The women took Alice upstairs, to the tiny bathroom, where they took turns to cleanse themselves after the cleansing of the corpse, and then they joined the men.  Each person was given a plate, heaped with food from the funeral feast, carrying them into the crowded room where the corpse lay, and where the men had set out all the chairs in the house.

 

Sarah, one of Gary’s sisters, leaned across to Alice.  “Now it’s time for the story-telling and the songs.”

 

Everyone there told stories, or chanted songs, of the life of Gary Elder, bringing the dead back to vivid life once more, even if only in memory.  They spoke from their own knowledge, of experiences and adventures shared, starting from his birth.  It was left to Mary Elder, speaking from her place by the head of the corpse, to deliver the encomium to him as a husband, to tell stories of their life together, and then to tell of his death.

 

When she was done, Mrs Elder asked Alice to speak of what had happened afterwards, of the people Mary didn’t know, but who had helped her.  There was consternation and suspicion in the room at first, at the involvement of the Slayer but, as Alice continued to speak, there was surprise and there was interest.  But there was still suspicion.

 

Gary Elder’s life had been long, and the story-telling lasted well into the night.  Some parts of it were surprising for Alice.  Gary Elder had been elected as head of the tiny clan of Silarri, despite being married to a human, which was why they had moved back to England from Spain, and he would now be succeeded by his father, until a new election was held.  Alice wondered how she could ever have missed the existence of members of her own species so close to Westbury, no matter how well they had blended with humanity.

 

As she spoke, Alice looked around at the Silarri gathered in that room.  They were of all apparent ages, from late teenage onwards.  Gary’s parents were the oldest, somewhere near Alice’s own apparent age.  Not one of them showed signs of scales, or of any reversion to the Silarri natural appearance.

 

When it was all over, there was sadness and anger at his death, but there was joy in the memory of everything he had been.  He’d been a good man.

 

The women withdrew back into the room where the funeral feast was laid out and the men busied themselves with the body.  As Mary’s mother-in-law pressed a cup of tea into her hand, Alice heard the front door close, and then the car pull away.

 

“They’ve taken him away for burial,” Cecilia Elder told her.  “It isn’t far away, so we’ll be able to visit when we want.  Mary says that your own parents are dead.  I’m sorry, my dear.  Where are they buried?”

 

Alice saw once more those sad, battered bodies hanging from the trees in the central square.  They hadn’t been alone, but all the others had been their human neighbours.  And then the bodies had been cut down and tossed over the town walls, for the dogs to feast on.

 

Her throat filled with pain, and she couldn’t speak, but she managed to swallow it down, although not until her hostess had noticed her distress, and laid a comforting hand on her arm.

 

“They have no grave,” was all that Alice could say.  “Where... where will they take him?”

 

Now it was Cecilia who was almost overcome by her grief, but at last she gave a tiny smile through her tears.  “We have a small, private burial ground.  It passes unnoticed, because funerals are so rare for us.”  At first, Alice thought she wouldn’t say more, but then she gave that tiny, self-deprecating smile again.  “It passes as a Victorian pet cemetery.”

 

Her sob was audible, and Mary Elder, tears now falling down her cheeks, held her mother-in-law close.  The women wept together.

 

+++++

 

Giles and Angel drove back from Nottingham on Wednesday night, having failed to find any further supernatural activity.

 

“Ian says that there’s really nothing against Jason Carter.  He had a few minor offences as a young man, and he sometimes sails close to the wind nowadays, in his line of work, but nothing to suggest he’d engineer a scam like this.”  Giles scanned through his notes.  “From what I can see here, I think I’d agree.  And he’s been very protective of his children, so it seems unlikely he’d involve them in this.”

 

“What about enemies?”  Angel pressed the Porsche forward past a lumbering tanker on an uphill stretch.

 

“Nothing recent.  Carter settles his debts, and deals with aggro as it arises.”

 

“So all we’ve got for sure now is the blood and the mirror?”

 

“Yes.”  Giles rubbed his forehead.  “And Alice is staying with some Silarri.  How strange...”

 

Angel nodded.  “Yes.  Living so close... There’s a lot more demons living unnoticed among humanity than anyone might think.  Buffy’s really pleased that Alice has found some... well, I suppose you could call them relatives, of a sort.  Did Ian have anything to say about Alice’s Lesser Domesday Book?”

 

“His best guess at the moment is that someone took it because of the fancy fittings that Alice used, thinking they were real, and that the book might be valuable, or at least that they could rive off the fittings and sell those.  Bit like the Vikings, really.”

 

Angel lifted an eyebrow in question.

 

“The Vikings used to raid monasteries on the coast.  They’d steal all the treasures, including the books, but often they just ripped the valuable covers off the books and threw the contents away.  Couldn’t read, of course.  Mind you, I expect many modern burglars can’t read either.”

 

“You go with the opportunistic house breaker hypothesis?”

 

“Not entirely, but for Alice’s sake, let’s pretend we do.”

 

“Yeah.  Let’s.”  Angel seemed about to say more, so Giles stayed silent.  “What did you say about the mirror?”

 

“Um.  French.  Louis Quinze.  Pier glass...”

 

“What’s a pier glass?”

 

“In large houses and mansions, they were mirrors that were mounted on the piers of the building.  They sat between windows...”

 

+++++

 

The visiting mourners had gone, and an exhausted Alice spent the remainder of the night in a room that she shared with Mary Elder.  As she climbed into bed, Cecilia Elder came in, and sat on the edge of the bed.

 

“Mary will be staying with us for the foreseeable future, Alice, but we would like you to stay for a little while, too.”

 

“I’m afraid...”

 

“No.”  Cecilia held up her hand in negation of whatever Alice was going to say.  “No, don’t refuse until you hear me out.  Edward and I are in agreement.”

 

She took Alice’s hand in her own.

 

“I’m a lot older than you, Alice.  You could be my daughter, or my granddaughter.  You lost your parents far too young, and your mother was unable to teach you the things that you should know.  For those things, I want to stand to you in place of your mother.  I want to show you the things she would have done.”

 

“Why?” Alice whispered.

 

“There are few enough of us, Alice.  We should all help each other.  And you were kind to my daughter-in-law.”

 

“So was Buffy.”

 

“Yes.  She was.  You have good friends.  Stay with us for a little while.”

 

“I would like to, Cecilia.  But a friend of mine is getting married on Friday, and I want to be there.”

 

Cecilia’s grip on her hand tightened.  “You should be back here before the thirteenth.  Before full moon.  It’s important.  Will you do that?”

 

Alice’s excitement mounted.  She had no doubt what her answer would be.  “Yes.  Yes, I will.”

 

Exhausted as she was, sleep was a long time coming for Alice.  As she tossed and turned, she looked over at the equally exhausted Mary Elder, who at least had managed to find sleep, and she decided that she would talk to her about a marriage between a demon and a human, and how it had worked.

 

+++++

 

“So what else did Buffy say about that messenger?”

 

“That was it, Giles.”

 

“Well, I must say, it’s all very strange.”

 

“I agree.”

 

“Are you sure she didn’t say anything else?”

 

Angel sighed.  “You’ll be able to ask her yourself.  We’ll be back in ten minutes.”

 

“She definitely said he’d be coming back?”

 

“Yeah.  Tomorrow night.”

 

“The golden sash of the messenger.  Hmm.  I’ve never heard of that before.”

 

“Me neither.  Must be an English thing.”

 

Giles tutted.  They’d carefully avoided further discussion of the idea of mirrors and windows, until they had time each to mull over their own thoughts.  The messenger was more pressing, though.

 

“She didn’t say that he was threatening, in any way?”

 

Angel shook his head.  “No.  All very correct and polite.”

 

“I’ll see what I can find, then.”

 

Buffy and Angel slept that night in their flat over the garage.  At least, they slept some of that night.  They’d been apart for three days, and needed to become reacquainted in a way that would be better without someone else in earshot.

 

Afterwards, as she lay curled up against Angel’s breast, her finger tracing gentle paths around his navel, Buffy asked, “Do you think we should worry about this mirror thing?”

 

Angel took her hand in his, imprisoning it to stop the sweet torment.  “What does your Slayer sense tell you?”

 

“That would be a yes.”

 

“And is there anything we can do about it?”

 

She sighed.  “That would be a no, so far as we know.”

 

He turned towards her, to take her in his arms and hold her close.  “Then we have to trust that they can handle it.  If it’s true, and not an hallucination, then at least they’re both alive.  And if it’s untrue, then anything could be happening.  But that’s there, and this is here.  And remember, the Queen said that the walls between dimensions were still thin.  They’ll strengthen in time, but I guess we have to expect some bleeding between worlds.”

 

She pressed herself up against him as she felt his interest burgeon once more.  “And this messenger?”

 

“We’ll find out about that tomorrow night...  Tonight, technically...  Now, my lady, there’s something else you should be worrying about.”  That last was whispered to her, his voice husky and, in common charity, she turned her attention to the cause of concern.

 

+++++

 

He was tired, but Giles spent the larger part of the night researching messengers with sashes.  He wanted this out of the way so that he could concentrate on mirrors and windows and fetches.  Not for the first time, he silently inveighed against the loss of so many books with the destruction of the Watchers’ library.

 

After exhausting the volumes in his study, he sat back and thought deeply.  Something was niggling at the edges of his mind.  He put Aristotle down.  The cat had been curled in his lap for the last hour, and he stalked out in high dudgeon when dislodged.  With a smile for his pet, Giles climbed the stairs to the secondary library in the bedroom behind his.  He pulled a small trunk out from under the bed.  Inside it were bits and pieces of books, scrolls and parchments.  None of them were complete.

 

He only had to scan through thirty or forty book fragments, before he found what he was looking for.  It was part of the notebook of an eighteenth century antiquarian, a gentleman scholar called John Cleveden.  A resident of Bristol, he had been to County Durham, and this notebook seemed to be his record of that visit.  Only a few intact pages remained.  Giles had found it in a mixed box that he had bought cheaply, at an auction.  The rest of the book – and others in the box – had been chewed by rats.  The leather cover, almost in its entirety, had been eaten away, and so had most of the outer pages.  All that was left was the inner core, and even there, not all the pages were complete.

 

Cleveden had hired men to dig holes in interesting-looking hills, and one of those had been the hill of Sadberge.  He had found some bones, and close by those bones had been a crumbling leather artefact, a roll of some sort, now rather squashed.  Cleveden had sketched the thing, making the best guess he could at the embossing that had once graced it.

 

Cleveden’s sketching left much to be desired, and a rat’s teeth marks still showed quite clearly, where it had chewed off the end of the drawing.  But, if he squinted hard and used his imagination, Giles thought that he could see the embossed torso of a humanoid figure.  It seemed to be wearing a sash.

 

At the bottom of the page, Cleveden had added a post script.  On the way back home, his pack horse had bolted into the River Trent, and had been overcome.  Its load, including the leather artefact, had never been recovered.  Cleveden hadn’t examined it properly before its loss, and this record was all that remained.  Like so many antiquarians, with so much of the remnants of the past, he’d attributed it to the Romans.

 

Thoughtfully, Giles carried his find down to his study, and began to rummage around in one of the desk drawers.

 

+++++

 

“Sadberge?” Buffy asked as she reached for the coffee pot.  “Doesn’t sound very English.”

 

“Viking, means flat-topped hill,” Giles said, around a mouthful of toast.  Angel pushed the coffee pot across the table.

 

“Viking?”  Buffy seemed to be pursuing Giles for information before he’d even got to his second cup of tea.  She was unbearably bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning.

 

“Big, hairy warriors with horns on their helmets.  Went berserk a lot.”

 

“Yes,” she said, with forced patience.  “What I meant was, what are the Vikings to do with any of this?”

 

“I doubt they had much to do with anything... although, Sadberge was a wapentake.”

 

“Wapentake?  Now you’re definitely yanking my chain.”

 

It had been a long night for Giles, and he hadn’t had enough sleep before he was woken by Buffy’s cheery attempts at making breakfast.  The only bright part, he thought with a stab of guilty gratitude, was that the lovers had spent the night in their own quarters.  The house was solid and soundproof, but not that soundproof. He didn’t feel up to this inquisition, at least not on an empty stomach.  He buttered another piece of toast and made her wait.

 

“The northern counties – Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and so on – were divided into wapentakes, in much as the same way as the more southerly counties had hundreds...”

 

“Hundreds?”

 

Angel gave her a quelling glance.  She stuck her tongue out at him, then subsided.  Giles cast a grateful glance at the vampire.

 

“A hundred was a Saxon administrative division, and was the amount of land required to feed a hundred families.  A wapentake was much the same.  The word ‘wapentake’ evidently means ‘weapon take’, and comes from the fact that land was held in return for military service to a chief.  Well, either that, or the warriors would take their weapons to meetings, and signify assent by clashing the weapons together, although how you would ever know whether they were in the majority with all that racket going on beats me, and...”

 

Now it was Giles’ turn to get a quelling glance from Angel.

 

“Sorry, I was rambling on...”

 

“Just a bit.”  Buffy’s grin took the sting from the words.  “Now, is there anything special about this Sadberry place?”

 

“Sadberge.  Only really that it retained its autonomy for quite a long time after all the other wapentakes and hundreds, by a sheer fluke.  And it might or might not still be oddly placed...  It changed hands between the Scots and the Earls of Northumbria and the Prince Bishops of Durham.  There was a bit of heraldic tidying up in the reign of Victoria which uncovered the fact that the wapentake still existed as an entity.  Apparently that made her Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Empress of India, and Countess of Sadberge.  They’ve got a marker stone to that effect in the local village.”

 

“Heralds?  Messengers?” Angel asked with a frown.

 

“I...I think that’s coincidence.  The article that Cleveden found seems to relate to the leather scroll tube that our visitor had – did you see any of the decoration, Buffy?”

 

She shook her head.  “He held it in his hand all the time.”

 

“But the hill of Sadberge was significant.  As with the Hundreds, the court met in a prominent position, on top of a hill.  If you were going to hang a man, you wanted everyone in the wapentake to see.  So, if demons used the same location, it’s possible that the scroll tube was a message from another area to their equivalent of the Sadberge Wapentake, all those centuries ago.”

 

“And the bones?” Angel asked, gently.

 

“Got in the way of all those clashing weapons,” Buffy replied, with an impish grin.

 

“Hmph.  I’ve no idea.  If it was the messenger, he could have been there for centuries.”  Giles reached over to an envelope at the end of the table.  “I haven’t been able to make any sense of these fragments that Oz brought to us, either.  And there may, of course, be many more scattered across the world that we shall never know about.  It’s as though someone had written letters, and they’d been thrown into a furnace, and a few small pieces had drifted away on the heat and the smoke.”

 

He shook his head dubiously, and sorted through the small pile of fragments.

 

“But look at this.”  He pulled out a tiny fragment and placed it in the centre of the table.  The edges, like all the other pieces, were charred, and just a single syllable was legible.

 

erg’

 

“An erg is a unit of work – or an area of shifting sand dunes in the Sahara.  Or, it could be part of the name Sadberge.  Any one of them might be right, or it might be something we haven’t yet thought of.”

 

“Well,” said Buffy brightly, as she pushed her plate away, “as long as it isn’t the Sahara.  Angel doesn’t do so well in hot sunny places with no buildings, no shade, no nothing but sand.”  She stood up.  “And I prefer my boyfriend the way he is, and not sunburned.”

 

She headed for the door.  “I’ve got a list of dodgy places from Ian.  I’m off to look for Alice’s book.  See you later.”

 

Angel poured himself another glass of blood.  He was still hungry.  “I’ll take the research shift, if you like, Giles.”

 

“Thanks.  I’ve got to go and see our current employer.  I’m not at all sure what to say to him, though.”

 

“You’ll think of something.”

 

+++++

 

Tea was served with the same gentle ceremony, and the banker sat behind his desk with the same prim expression.

 

“You say that the house is haunted, Mr Giles?” he asked, with some small indications of incredulity, once the secretary had closed the door behind her.

 

“No.  I do not say that.  I’ve discussed this at length with my colleague...”

 

“Your colleague called Angel?”  Mr D’Eath asked.  “An affectation, perhaps?”

 

Giles chose his words carefully.  “Some of us are afflicted for a whole lifetime by the appellations that our progenitors bestow up on us, wouldn’t you say, Mr D’Eath?”

 

There was that prim little smile again.  “As you say.  Please.  Do continue.  I interrupted you, I believe.”

 

“Yes.  Well, we’ve discussed this at length.  It may be possible that a... a rival, or an enemy, has, um... has had access to the house, and Mr Carter’s family, is, er... triggering certain, um... let’s call them hallucinatory booby traps, although that doesn’t quite describe it... that have been left behind.”

 

“Practical jokes, you think?”

 

“No... no... the blood would suggest something more serious.  But we believe that Mr Carter definitely saw and heard the things that he reported to you.”

 

D’Eath turned the bunch of keys over and over in his hand.  “I see.  And is the property saleable?”

 

“I would suggest not immediately.  We’d like to go over it again.  Some of the erm... devices... might be... er... time-dependant.”

 

D’Eath sipped his tea in silence.

 

“Very well, Mr Giles.  The bank is grateful for your services.  Keep the keys for the next little while.  In any event, it would be foolish in the extreme for us to try to sell the property now, when the... erm... bottom appears to have fallen out of the market.  It might almost be disappearing into another dimension, don’t you think?  I’m sorry, did that mouthful go down the wrong way?  Do have a biscuit – they’re Rich Tea, I believe.  Yes, keep the keys.  But the housekeeper should be present whenever you’re there.  Is that acceptable?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“And you should invoice the bank for the work undertaken so far, and thereafter on a monthly basis.  Yes?”

 

“Thank you, Mr D’Eath.”

 

Replete with good tea, and promises of timely settlement, Giles made his way to some lesser-known book shops, those with private rooms that didn’t involve the dirty mack brigade, to see what he could find.  Forewarned was, after all, forearmed, but he was terribly afraid they were going to be winging it if they got a visit tonight.

 

Meanwhile, Mr D’Eath made a phone call.

 

“Yes, sir.  Yes, he was very cagy, very cagy indeed, but I’m certain they know what’s going on.  Mrs Horridge is sure about that, too.  I do believe they are the most appropriate people to deal with this.

 

“Yes, I have every confidence.

 

“Thank you, sir.  I’ll keep you posted, of course.”

 

When he’d hung up, Mr D’Eath poured himself another cup of tea, and wondered whether he should have been more forthright with Rupert Giles.  He didn’t want to colour the man’s actions with his own beliefs, though, nor those of any other member of Project Paranormal.  They were most resourceful.  Most resourceful.  And he could be wrong.

 

+++++

 

Ian Collins shrugged out of his damp overcoat and threw it over a kitchen chair.  He pulled open the refrigerator door to reveal half a loaf of sliced bread, a jar of mayonnaise and chunk of cheddar cheese that had grown hard and cracked on the outside and had been sweating badly at some point.  He really was going to have to get down to the supermarket sometime soon, but he was too tired to face it just now.

 

Resigned, he shrugged back into his coat and headed for the fish and chip shop, where he was a regular customer.  Too many working hours, too few leisure hours, and an empty house to come home to, did not make for a good diet.  They were factors that didn’t make for a lot of other things, either.  A comfortable home life for one.  Long-lived relationships for another.

 

As he washed up his plate, he thought of another evening in a cold house.  It would be two weeks before he’d see the children again, and that was the next planned highlight of his social life.

 

Decisive, he put the coat back on again.  On his way, he stopped off at the local garage and bought a bunch of white, single daisy-flowered chrysanthemums, and hoped they’d be acceptable.

 

+++++

 

By the time they’d gathered for their evening meal, they’d all admitted defeat for the day.  Buffy had found no trace of either the book or the showy fittings from the book.  Giles hadn’t found anything useful about the messengers, but he’d brought home a box full of uncatalogued books that one of the shops had put aside for him.  Angel had found nothing useful, either about the messenger, or about Clifford House.

 

These things dominated their discussion over dinner, together with consideration of the charred fragments that Oz had brought, and Ricky’s dream beneath the High Oak.  But, for all their discussions, they came no closer to understanding events, and whether they might in any way be connected, or be related to the demon who’d come calling.

 

It seemed that they had no option but to simply wait for the arrival of the messenger.

 

“Perhaps,” said Giles, polishing his glasses, “someone simply wishes to offer us a new job?”

 

“Could be,” said Buffy, doubtfully.

 

Angel said nothing.  He was waiting for the knock at the door.

 

+++++

 

“You have to remember that the European powers were intent on exterminating the Barbary pirates, and the Barbary pirates were still taking slaves.  Algiers was a haven for them until about 1830, when the French moved in.”  Alice frowned at her recollections.

 

“You were never taken?”  Collins sat forward in his chair, a glass of claret in his hand and an intent expression on his face.

 

“No, thank goodness, although I had a few close scrapes.  I couldn’t stay in Morocco, but I had nowhere else to go.  It was a difficult time.  I knew that my parents had been to Egypt...”  Alice paused, with a shy little smile.  “I was conceived there during the Battle of the Nile.  Afterwards, my parents watched the explosion of the French flagship, L’Orient, and they always told me that was why I loved fireworks.”

 

Collins, smiling at that charming confidence, dredged through his memories of his history lessons.  “So, that was when, 1798?  And you were born in 1799?”

 

“Naughty!  And wrong.  Pregnancy for us lasts a lot longer.  Anyway, I made towards Egypt, but I had to stick to the coast.  It was a long and difficult journey for a young girl, alone.  And Egypt wasn’t what I had expected, so I kept going east.  I was glad when I eventually fell in with the Queen of Palmyra.”

 

Collins refilled both their glasses.  “The Queen of Palmyra?  That rings a bell, but I can’t place it...  Oh.  Zenobia?”

 

“No, silly!  I’m not that old.  Lady Hester Stanhope.  The niece of the Prime Minister, William Pitt.  She went to live among the Bedouins.”

 

“Good heavens!”

 

“She was very interesting.  Demanding, and probably as mad as a hatter, but definitely interesting.  I actually liked her.  I was sorry to hear that she’d died alone and in poverty.”

 

“It was among the tribes that you learned to dance?”

 

“Well, I did, but not so much as later, when I reached Paris.  Work was hard to come by there, honest work at least, and so I finished up at the Folies Bergère.  You absolutely had to be able to dance, there, and to dance for long hours.  The next time I was in Paris, I went to the Moulin Rouge, and that was just as hard, but the dancing was different.  The can-can, you know.”

 

A mental image formed in Collins’ mind, and he had to work hard to shake it off, especially when the photograph of Alice as a young woman caught his eye.  “How long did you do that for?”

 

“Years.  There wasn’t much work for someone like me.  And I had to keep moving on because...”

 

Collins nodded in sympathy, not needing the end of the sentence.  When you didn’t age, or aged only slowly, you’d have to move on.  Angel would, eventually...

 

“A wonderful woman in Kent gave me a job as governess to her daughters, but then I had to move again, and I went to the English Hollywood, Shoreham-by-Sea.  Bungalow Town, you know.  That was terrific fun.  And in the winter, in those days, it was very popular among the rich to go and visit Palmyra.  I got work as a tour guide most years, since I was so familiar with the area...”

 

“The original Cook’s Tour?” he asked with a smile.

 

“Oh, no.  I did those as well!  Bungalow Town was swept aside at the start of the Second World War, though, because of the fears of invasion.  They simply bulldozed the beach clear.  That was terribly sad.  So I went to be a Land Girl – in the Land Army you know.  I loved working on the farms.”

 

“How on earth did you get to be a primary school teacher?” he asked in amazement.

 

“After the war, they were desperate for people.  And I enjoyed it, so I stayed.  And I stayed long enough to get older.”

 

Detective Chief Inspector Ian Collins looked at the elderly lady with whom he was sharing the evening.  She was no longer affecting the stoop of the frail ancient, but she had the pale skin, the whiteness, of the very old, barring, of course, the pink scales that she hadn’t felt the need to cover up in front of him; her hair was white, and fine, with a pinkness showing through from her scalp; her eyes were an indeterminate colour, a sort of pale hazel; and her skin was wrinkled, like the last stored apple in spring.  But intelligence and humour shone through in everything she said.  He thought he might be half in love with the woman she had been, a woman who was now dead and buried under the weight of all those years.  He condemned himself for a fool, always wanting the unattainable.

 

He was surprised that she never seemed to have married, or had children, but then he supposed that, in terms of permanent relationships, being a demon might be a bit like being a copper.  No one else was prepared to put up with it.

 

He wanted to know more about Alice’s stay with the Queen of Palmyra, about Paris, about Bungalow Town.  About everything.

 

+++++

 

The knock came at midnight.  Both Buffy and Giles rose from their chairs to answer, but Angel was before them.

 

“Stay here.  Just in case.”

 

Buffy seemed inclined to argue, but Angel looked hard at her, and then glanced towards Giles.  The message was clear to her.  Look after him if things go bad.

 

He pulled the courtyard door open, and the man – the demon – who stood there was exactly as Buffy had described.  Short, very human-looking except for that tree-bark skin, impeccably dressed, and with a golden shoulder sash.  He carried a red leather scroll tube in one hand.

 

“Angelus?”

 

“I’m Angel.”  It felt like defensive pleading.  The messenger didn’t argue, but his face told its own story.  Sophistry, it said.

 

The messenger cocked his head, as though listening.  “Walk with me,” he said.

 

“No one will disturb us.”

 

“Nevertheless, walk with me, please.”

 

Angel could detect no other scents on the sharp November breeze, and so he acceded, pulling the door shut behind him.  They strolled, side by side, across the courtyard and onto the drive, the gravel crunching underfoot.  At last, the messenger came to a halt, and turned to face the other demon.  He held out the red leather tube.

 

“I carry a summons for you from the Court of Hundred, where you are called to appear to answer charges that will be laid against you.”

 

“What charges?”

 

“The summons explains the charges and the process.”

 

“You tell me.”  Angel had not so far taken the scroll from the messenger.  The little demon shrugged, and tugged the end off the tube, pulling out the scroll inside.

 

“You are summoned to answer for the murder of two envoys from the Court of Hundred.  The process to be followed...”

 

“Enough!  I don’t know about any envoys, and I’m not responsible to your Court for my actions.  I’m responsible only to my own conscience.  Take that answer back to them.”

 

Angel turned on his heel, but the messenger called out to him.  “If you do not answer this summons, the next one will be more exigent.”  He received no answer, and watched the vampire stalk silently back into the house.

 

+++++

 

Giles was distinctly put out, but tried to hide it, although not very successfully.  Buffy was furious, and made no bones about that fact.

 

“You didn’t even find out who they were and what they were talking about?” she raged.  “Now we don’t even know how they’re going to come at us, or who will do the coming!  And who are these people you’re supposed to have killed?  A normal slaying?  Or something else?  Did we make a mistake?  We can’t even check out their names!”

 

Giles said nothing.  He didn’t need to.  Buffy was saying it all for him.  Angel took all the anger that she chose to heap on him without complaint, and more infuriatingly, without explanation.

 

All he would say was, “I’m not playing their games.  If there’s something to come, it’ll come.”

 

She was still angry when they went to bed.  Her anger, of course, like Giles’ indignation, sprang from fear: fear for him, fear of the unknown threat to him, fear that he knew something and was shutting her out.  She turned her back on him.  It took her a long time to fall asleep, and only when she did, did he put an arm over her hip.  And only then did she nestle back against him with a sigh.

 

+++++

 

Buffy absented herself for most of the following day, searching for Alice’s book, and incidentally, looking for anything out of the ordinary in the local area. 

 

The day was one of the rare November days when the sky was cloudless and the breeze balmy, blowing up from the south.  Giles decided to go riding after days of seeming incarceration.  The horses had already been sent for the winter to Lisa’s livery stable.  There was never much time for riding nowadays at Summerdown House, and they were useful to Lisa for her winter events.  Lisa went with him, on Giles’ second horse, Celoso.  Whether by accident or design, even Giles perhaps never knew, he guided Windsor on a path that led past the High Oak and onto Summer Down.

 

Ricky Whitelaw was curled up beneath the ancient oak, his jacket rolled up as a pillow beneath his head.  He was fast asleep.  Giles’ immediate reaction was to dismount and wake him up.  Instead, he tugged Windsor’s head around and dug his heels in, cantering away over the springy turf.  He didn’t see Zillah curled up in the crook of Ricky’s arm, her black coat no more than a shadow under the tree.

 

He stayed at Lisa’s for a cup of coffee.

 

“We’ve not seen enough of you recently,” he told her as he leaned back in his chair with his mug in his hand.  “What’s been keeping you so busy?”

 

She looked thoughtfully at him before answering.  “Divorce,” she replied, eventually.

 

“I beg your pardon?” 

 

He put the mug down on the table forcefully enough to splash a little of the coffee.  The reaction pleased her, although she was careful not to show it.  The torch she carried for him still burned even though it was only fed by the occasional companionable dinner out, or a show.

 

“The decree nisi arrived yesterday.  I didn’t really believe it until I saw that.  Another six weeks, and I’ll be free of him.”

 

“You’ve kept that very quiet.”

 

“You’ve not been around much, either.”

 

He gave a little nod but said nothing.  She could have screamed.

 

“He wouldn’t give me a divorce, so Ian helped me to find out what he’d been doing.  He’s fathered three children since we split up, so the rest just followed... He’ll be excommunicated now, I imagine.  He probably thinks that means he’s going to Hell.”

 

Giles grimaced.  People wouldn’t so lightly think of themselves as destined for Hell, if they really believed.  Or if they really knew...

 

Then he took Lisa’s hand across the table.  “I’m so glad for you.  So you and Ian...?”

 

Sometimes, Lisa thought, screaming simply wasn’t enough.

 

“Ian?” she scoffed.  “Good heavens, no.  We’re very good friends, but not a couple.”

 

No, Giles thought.  Of course they weren’t.  He’d surely have noticed that.  An occasional companionable dinner, or a show, and that was all he remembered between Ian and Lisa.  Besides, Nick had seen quite a lot of Lisa, and Ian had been there some of the time.  Not very couply behaviour.  Just three good friends, as he himself was, with them. 

 

He gave himself a mental shake.  Sometimes he imagined things where nothing existed.  Like, occasionally he would turn his head and imagine that he saw Ella from the corner of his eye.  Love was so... fleeting.  Friendship.  That was something you could count on.

 

He said all that was proper to Lisa, and felt it in his heart.  He was her friend, and he was happy that a line had at last been drawn under an unhappy part of her life.  Then she walked with him to where his car was parked.  As he said his goodbyes, Aristotle strolled up the drive.  Giles watched him in astonishment.

 

“What’s he doing up here?  He didn’t hitch a lift in the car did he?”  He had visions of the ginger cat clinging in fear to some part of the engine compartment.

 

Lisa laughed.  If Giles had thought about it, he’d have said it was a brittle laugh, but he didn’t.  “I doubt it,” she said.  “When Windsor and Celoso are here, he pops up regularly to see them, probably to check that they’re being treated right.”

 

“Really?”  Giles looked down as Aristotle leaned in towards his boots, pressing himself against the rubber, circling round and round.  He bent down to stroke the cat just as Ari moved away.  Then, with studied deliberation, Aristotle turned his back on his owner.  His tail quivered, and a stream of urine hit Giles’ boot at calf level.

 

“Damn it all!  He started doing that a few weeks ago.”

 

Giles strode over to the edge of the paddock and snatched at a handful of grass, cursing again when a nettle smarted against the palm of his hand.  As he swiped the vegetation over the wet patch, he saw Aristotle turn to give him a solemn stare.  One eyelid slowly closed, and it seemed to him that the cat deliberately winked.

 

“He’s marking you!” she crowed.  “Good boy, Aristotle.”  Then she took pity on Giles.  “I wonder who he thinks needs to know that he’s around?  Is there a stray tom in the area?  Or is he marking you against something else’s interest?”

 

“It isn’t anyone else he does it to,” Giles grouched, only half listening, “only me.”

 

“At least they’re rubber,” she consoled him.

 

He grunted and gave her a peck on the cheek before getting in his car and driving off.

 

Lisa watched him go, her expression inscrutable, then she strode over to the stable block.  The straw rustled in an empty loose box as she passed.  Lisa leaned over the door, picked up the pitchfork that was propped against the wall, and hurled it at the unfortunate rat.  Her aim was true, but it didn’t relieve her feelings.

 

+++++

 

A measure of harmony had been restored to the Summerdown household by the time they arrived at Ivy and Walter’s wedding.  It was to be held in the village hall, with the local humanist minister, Janet Alder, officiating.  The hall itself must have taken hours to deck out.  Despite the season, it overflowed with flowers of all sorts, from simple white daisies to regal white lilies, all garlanded with foaming greenery.  Holly branches, heavy with berries, added brilliant splashes of red.  Great bouquets of autumn branches in flaming colours perhaps symbolised this wedding in the autumn of their lives.  Drapes of satins and laces and voiles, tied with elegant knots of ribbon, hung from the walls.

 

Trestle tables stood at the back of the hall, laden with plates and platters and dishes of food, all currently swathed in shiny cling film.  Giles grinned to see it.  Between them, Ivy and Walter had a bevy of children and grandchildren, and they had all been busy.  He knew that Alice had made cakes, and Martha had made heaven-knew-what, but everyone had pitched in.

 

Giles knew most of those gathered in the hall by name, and all of them by sight.  So did Angel and Buffy.  Martha and John knew even more of them, and had done so for most of their lives.  Alice had taught most of them.

 

The little group, Giles and Angel and Buffy, Martha and John, Lisa and Alice, circulated among those gathered.  Perhaps in defiance of the season, most of the women had elected to come in outfits of soft, ice-cream colours.  Martha looked resplendent in a powder blue floral dress, and a powder blue linen jacket.  John couldn’t seem to bear to let her go, his hand on her elbow and a smile on his face wherever they went.  Buffy had opted for a mossy green dress but, unlike Martha and John, she and Angel moved separately.  Their rift wasn’t entirely healed yet.

 

The general consensus of the villagers in Westbury had been that Ivy Grittleton would never actually name the day.  She had kept her elderly beau, Walter Satterthwaite, dancing attendance on her for over five years, and most people believed that it would stay that way.  And then she had surprised them all, possibly including Walter, although when she walked in on his arm, he wore a broad and genuine smile.

 

The minister now moved to the table that had been set up at the front of the hall, and everyone took their places, before the doors opened to admit the happy couple.

 

Ivy wore a long crêpe dress in a flattering dusky pink, an ashes of roses colour.  She had a long, loose coat in a matching figured lace, and a matching frothy hat that would have been perfectly at home at Royal Ascot on Ladies’ Day.  Walter wore a rusty black suit that might once have fitted him, and a silver tie with a huge Windsor knot held his shirt collar up against his wattled neck. 

 

John leaned over to Giles, who was standing in front of him.  “He looks as happy as Larry, doesn’t he?  Her, too.”  Indeed they did.  Behind them walked the Reverend Templeman, vicar at St Cyprian’s church.  Janet Alder might be officiating, but a humanist wedding had no legal standing, and therefore, the happy couple’s first stop had been at the local Register Office.  The Reverend Templeman had been their witness.

 

Janet Alder took a breath, and started to speak.

 

+++++

 

A hundred miles away Nick Hunt, surgeon par excellence, sat alone at his great walnut dining table, his long legs crossed in front of him, and his dark blond hair fallen untidily over his eyes.  He pushed it aside angrily and contemplated broaching the second bottle of brandy.

 

He’d seen off a rare visitor that morning, and he’d been drinking ever since.  His godfather.  His godfather had turned up yesterday, and with all the ruthlessness of a Mafia godfather, that gentle, studious cleric had got him by the balls and twisted hard.  Figuratively speaking, of course.

 

The old man had always taken his godfathering seriously, but in a way that appealed to a boy.  The occasional five pound note during his incarceration at the school of his father’s choice; in the run up to Christmas chocolate liqueurs that he’d shared around the dorm; a fine Swiss army knife that the other boys had truly envied, and that he’d had to fight to keep.  All the tokens had been small things, but memorable things.  Nick’s mother had died when Nick was young, and after the death of his remaining parent, a decade ago, his godfather had been in touch from time to time, with kindly words and a sharp eye to which way the wind blew.

 

Who would have thought that a bishop could be so worldly?

 

After dinner last night, they’d been talking about life, the universe and everything.  After a while, the old man had stared at a painting on the wall, Samson and Delilah, by one of the minor members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  His gaze passed over that to a painting of Darwin’s finches.

 

“Darwin’s two-hundred year anniversary, this year,” he remarked, scratching his ear thoughtfully.  “I was watching some man talking about it on television the other day.  He said that he was proud that every single one of his ancestors, right back to the first piece of DNA, had survived to reproduce.  That was a good thought.  I liked it.  Although, the same can be said of every single living creature, of course.  Including you.

 

Nick had felt a chill in the pit of his stomach, and had taken a deep swallow of brandy to try and dispel it.

 

And then, that thoughtful, compassionately ruthless man had given Nick The Talk.  Indulging oneself to the top of one’s bent was fine in one’s salad days.  Young bucks should kick over the traces from time to time, and young men should eat their wild oats.  Or something like that.

 

But men had responsibilities, he had said, and grown men had to live up to them.  He’d said a lot more, too, all of which Nick knew to be true, in his heart and in his genes.

 

Next week would see yet another year in Nick’s dish, and he was feeling the pressure of every one of them.  He looked around him, too much in drink to see anything of the here and now very clearly, but seeing the last two hundred years in stark detail.  This house, and the small estate that went with it, had been left to him by his father, and by his grandfather and great-grandfather before him.  There was the clear expectation that Nicholas would leave it to his son, and his son’s son.  His family believed in the generational thing.  So did the bishop.

 

And there was no one else.  He had no brothers or sisters, no aunts or uncles.  His ancestral line was very direct and very linear, as straight and as sharp as a sword.  He had no children, so far as he knew.  Oh, yes, there had been women.  His lips twisted into a sneer.  He’d slept with some very beautiful women, also as sharp as a sword.  The men he’d loved hadn’t often been much better.

 

Lucky at cards, unlucky in love.  That’s what they said.  He didn’t gamble much, but he always seemed to be lucky at bridge, so maybe that was the price.  Maybe he should give up bridge.

 

With a sharp bark of laughter, he unscrewed the new bottle.  He hadn’t quite sunk to swigging it from the bottle, but there was no time to wait for it to be carefully decanted.  He poured a glassful, sloshing some of the dark amber liquor onto the table.  He didn’t notice that his shirt cuff mopped up the spillage.

 

He was in love, of course.  How could he not be?  But then, he was in love with a vampire who could give him more than a couple of hundred years, and who was irrevocably in love with the Vampire Slayer, and she with him.  How could anyone not know Angel and love him?  His mind’s eye conjured up for him an image of the unattainable.

 

What he saw was tall and deceptively lithe, with muscles that rippled beneath a skin of alabaster, and eyes that drew you down into the abyss with him.  And a smile that swallowed you whole.  A being with the beauty of a fallen archangel, holding inside him the soul of a gracious warrior and the spirit of an unredeemed demon from the darkest pit of hell.  How could such a one ever be satisfied with the love of a normal human being?

 

This was a love that definitely was never going to see results, and Nick was lonely.  Despite his profession and all it brought, his friends and acquaintances, his clubs, societies and associations, his charitable activities, Nick was lonely.

 

And there was still the issue of, well, issue.

 

Time was passing.  He was wearing his years well, but they were still passing, as the bishop had gently reminded him.  The bishop was right.  There was no more time for dalliance.  And yet, he would rather slit his throat now, sitting at his dining room table, than leg-shackle himself to any of those beautiful, hungry women.

 

In a few days, he’d be spending some time in Westbury, visiting his contemporary, Rupert Giles, and that selfsame vampire and slayer.  And celebrating a birthday.

 

The humour of it penetrated the brandy fumes.

 

Apparently, Angel would never tell Buffy either the date of his resurrection as a vampire, which was a date he said should be forgotten, or the date of his human birth, which he deemed to be a date not worth celebrating.  After years of trying, she had declared that Angel would be like the English Queen.  He would have an official birthday, and it would be a different one each year.

 

Nick had been with them when Buffy had made this decision, and she’d picked on a date there and then.  23rd November, she said.  Giles had asked why that date, and she’d said it just popped into her head.  It seemed like a good date.  Only Nick had noticed, because only Nick had been looking at Angel at that very moment.  If a vampire could blench, this one had.  The date obviously had some significance that he wasn’t prepared to declare.  He’d covered it up straight away, but Nick had seen, and he wondered at the time whether Buffy had accidentally hit on that very date when Angel had had his humanity taken from him. 

 

So, Nick would go to Angel’s official birthday dinner, and be his usual jovial self, and then, wallowing in the genial misery of watching the happiness that Angel and Buffy found in each other, he would perhaps find the resolution to decide which of the ravening wolves he would throw himself to.

 

He poured himself another half glass full, but he didn’t put the bottle down.  He turned it around to look at the dusty label.  It was one that had been laid down by his grandfather.  It hit the far wall with the bright sound of shattering glass, but even that didn’t afford him any satisfaction.

 

+++++

 

It was Angel’s turn to go and get some drinks from the bar.  Considering that it was the village hall, it was relatively well stocked.  Tony and Andy from the Boar’s Head were responsible for that.  He ordered a whisky for himself.  He was the designated driver, but a few glasses of whisky – and a bottle of two of beer, and a few glasses of wine – were no match at all for the demon, as had so often happened when he’d tried to get drunk.  It took a lot.

 

He found himself next to Walter.

 

“I wouldn’t have thought the bridegroom would have to queue for drinks,” Angel remarked mildly.

 

Walter grinned.  “Aye, lad, but this getting wed is hard on the feet.”  Walter had been much in demand, and had been dancing most of the night, so far.

 

It was Angel’s turn to grin.  Walter turned and gazed meditatively at him, his mouth pursed.

 

“You know, lad, the quickest way to make up with a lass is on the dance floor, but I thought you’d know that.”

 

“What?”  Angel had been sure that the mere frisson of chilliness at their table hadn’t been noticeable to anyone else.

 

“Closest thing to making love to her.”

 

Angel almost blushed.

 

“Oh, I don’t mean one of these modern things where they throw themselves all over the dance floor.  More one of those smooch ones.”  Walter smiled, apparently in memory.  “Go on, Twinkletoes, dance with your young lady.”

 

Angel took both the drinks and the advice.

 

Pressed up to him on the dance floor, Buffy simply couldn’t maintain her aloofness.  It wasn’t just the scent of him, so unique, so distinctive, hitting straight at her libido.  Nor was it just the feel of him, the solidity, the tenderness, or the fact that he needed her, borne out by the hardness that was so evident between them.  It was the knowledge that, at any time, one or both of them might die, and their time on Earth would be ended.  Tonight, tomorrow, next month.  It could be any time.  Each day should be lived as though it were their last.

 

She melted into his embrace.  She needed to know what was going on with him, but there was more than one way to skin a cat.  She’d find a different way.

 

+++++

 

Also out on the dance floor, John held Martha closely, tugging her in to him.  She pushed him away a little.

 

“Silly old fool,” she said fondly.  “I can’t breathe.”  It must have been the wine he’d drunk, she decided later.  They didn’t drink very much themselves, and he wasn’t all that used to it.  But she needed some explanation for why John, that most undemonstrative man, should lean into her again so that his words would be heard only by her.

 

“I don’t ever want to lose you.  I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”

 

“Well, you’re in no danger of doing that, unless you squeeze me to death right here and now.”

 

He glanced across at Giles, talking to Alice.  “They get involved in some dangerous things, love.  Let them do the heroing.  You stay in your kitchen, so that you can come home to me.”

 

She looked up at him and smiled a loving smile.  “They’d never let me get hurt.  You’re as daft as a brush.  Now, you get yourself off to Shellard’s tomorrow – they shut at noon, mind, and you get that security camera for Alice.”

 

He laughed, and the mood seemed to pass.  “Yes, Missus.”  But he still held her tight.

 

+++++

 

Alice watched Giles walk over to Mrs Brewster, the postmistress, who’d been temporarily left alone.  She saw couples dancing, slowly circling round the floor, holding onto each other like a drowning man clings to a spar.  There was something fey in the atmosphere tonight.  And then she wondered what it would be like to share your life with someone as completely as some of these people did.  To have no secrets.  To allow yourself to love someone so much.  She’d tried it once, and she’d crashed and burned.  How did they manage it?  Why did they keep coming back to try again?

 

She watched Ivy and Walter.  She thought that Ivy had softened, mellowed, and that was entirely Walter’s doing.  People changed each other.  Was that always a good thing?  She looked at Angel and Buffy.  Perhaps it was.

 

She wondered how the village would feel if it knew that tonight, under this small roof, it was harbouring a Silarri demon, a Watcher, a vampire, a Slayer, and...

 

She looked back at Ivy and Walter.  ...And a might-have-been witch and a might-have-been magus, both of whom, decades ago, had given up their callings for the sake of love.  She thought about the atmosphere in the air tonight, and wondered whether perhaps their callings had yet given up on them.

 

And then she looked at Lisa, talking to dour old George Laverton, who had inexplicably taken in a weakly Hereford calf and raised it to be a strapping young... she wasn’t sure what the word was, because George hadn’t had it gelded yet, and it wasn’t old enough to be a bull.  He’d called it Handsome Norman, which told her that his pet bullock, CiderBoy, might now be long-eaten pies and sausages and steaks, but he wasn’t forgotten.  Handsome Norman was an almost-lost variety of cider apple from Herefordshire.

 

Lisa moved on from George at the same time that Giles moved on from Mrs Brewster, and they bumped into each other with smiles.  Alice wondered how Giles could be so blind.

 

+++++

 

The weekend passed quietly, as the household caught up with essential jobs, and essential research into the problems besetting them. 

 

John obediently bought a security camera and fitted it at Alice’s.  While he was there, she asked if Martha could look after Poppy and Daisy for a few days, perhaps as long as a week, since she had to go away again.

 

“You’ll be sure and get back for Angel’s official birthday, won’t you?”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she assured him.  They both chuckled.  Buffy’s exasperation had amused them.

 

Ivy and Walter went to Yorkshire for a honeymoon, and the bets were that Ivy would terrify Walter’s family into total submission.  The betters would have been taken aback by the level of harmony that prevailed.

 

Sunday brought Remembrance Sunday, and they gathered with the people of Westbury to remember all the dead of all the wars to save humanity.  War dead were war dead, no matter what species had killed them.

 

The world turned, and its turning brought them to Monday.

 

+++++

 

Monday began as peaceably as the weekend had been.  The weather was fair, and even the post simply brought its normal load of the weird and the wonderful, and the merely irritating.  Dave the postman handed the bundle of letters to Martha, and then gingerly offered her a large, bulky and heavy Jiffy bag that squished unpleasantly when squeezed.  The postmark was Leicestershire.

 

Giles opened the letters first.  There were a few strange happenings that might mean work, the most interesting being a possibly haunted toilet in a pub in Sheffield.  There were the usual number of circulars from various charities asking for direct debit donations, most of which seemed to assume that a hundred pounds a month was an affordable sum for the average family to give.  There were leaflets offering vertical blinds, garage doors, and weatherproof coatings guaranteed to smarten up any building.  And there was yet another letter seeking work placement, this time from a student at Hertfordshire University, who seemed to assume that Project Paranormal was somehow akin to Santa’s Workshop, devising Halloween goodies for that once a year festival.

 

He carried the Jiffy bag into the kitchen, where Martha brandished a vegetable knife at him, and warned him of dire penalties if the contents caused any damage.  It was with some trepidation that he borrowed the knife, and carefully slit the padded bag open.  Inside, hermetically sealed and in a splintered wooden box, was a badly flattened Stilton cheese.  The post had not treated it well.  When he’d fought his way into the wrapper, he could tell from the aroma that it had once been a perfect cheese, to be enjoyed with port and nuts, or with a moist plum loaf.

 

Martha gathered up the injured thing.  “Don’t worry,” she soothed.  “I can find some wonderful recipes that include Stilton cheese.”

 

“But to cook with it!” he moaned.

 

“Do you want to scrape it off the cheese board?”

 

She thought that he might have whimpered, and then a thought struck her.  “Who sent it?  It isn’t enchanted, or poisoned, or demoned, or anything, is it?”

 

He fumbled around among the wrappings until he found a card.  The cheese came from a client whose dairy had been badly afflicted by a sullen supernatural presence that soured the milk and made the cheese rancid.  They’d dealt with the problem for her, some months ago now, and she had promised them the first mature cheese when she got back into production.  This was it, a half size one especially made for them.

 

Giles was still bemoaning the Stilton, and stealing spoonfuls of the cheese crumbs, as he and Angel and Buffy worked their way through the remainder of the post.  The business that the delivery had brought for them consisted of small, simple jobs, and they welcomed that, as a distraction from the bigger things that hung over them.  Angel offered to take the exorcism of the Sheffield pub toilet with an unspoken notion of calling in at Clifford Hall on the way.  Of looking once more into that mirror.

 

Giles understood this, but Buffy did not, and so she didn’t argue, and it was arranged.  But events conspired against them.  The sun sets early in November in northern latitudes, and it was gone by about 4.15pm.  Angel had stayed for dinner, but would be gone within an hour.

 

Half an hour after sunset, a knock came to the courtyard door.  It was the messenger.  Or, the Messenger, as all three of them were starting to think of him.  Again he asked Angelus to walk with him.

 

Out of earshot of the house, he proffered the same red leather tube.

 

“You will wish to open it this time, Angelus.”

 

“Why?”

 

The Messenger said nothing, simply stood there with the scroll tube held in his outstretched hand.  Angel repeated his question.

 

“Because I told you that the next summons would be more exigent.”

 

This time, Angel took the tube.  He removed the cap and pulled out the scroll.  Something rattled inside it, and the vampire in him started to rouse.  He tipped up the scroll and an arrow fell into the palm of his hand.  Part of its length was covered in blood.  The blood was fresh, and he knew from the scent whose it was.  Anger, an anger more akin to wrath, uncoiled within him, and the demon howled.

 

He turned to the Messenger with a snarl.  The demon had gone, and no amount of searching revealed any sign of him.

 

+++++

 

It was Buffy who came out to find him.  By that time, he’d read the scroll, and he stood there with the scroll and the tube in one hand, and the bloodied arrow in the other.

 

“We have to call Ian,” he told her, briskly.

 

“What is this?” She tried to take the arrow from him.  He wouldn’t let her, and walked back to the house.

 

“We have to call Ian,” he repeated.

 

“Is that Ian’s blood?” she demanded.  He shook his head.  She ran after him, and took hold of his arm, pulling him back.

 

“Angel.  You have to stop this!  What is going on?”

 

“I’ll tell both of you,” he told her after a tiny pause.  “But only once I’ve spoken to Ian.”

 

Ian Collins was still at his office.  Angel switched onto speaker phone.

 

“Ian, is Gavin with you?”

 

“No.  I sent him to interview a couple of people in connection with the murder of Gary Elder.  He should have been back by now.”

 

“Has he got a cell phone with him?”

 

“Cell...?  Oh, yes.” 

 

“Please.  Try him.  See whether he’s okay.”

 

“Angel, I’d have heard if anything had happened to him.”

 

“Please.  Just humour me.”

 

“Okay.  I’ll call you back.”

 

Less than five minutes later, he was on the phone again.  “I can’t raise him.  His phone is out of range.  There’s absolutely nowhere round here that’s out of range.”

 

Angel swallowed down his guilt.  “I think he’s been...taken.”

 

“Why would anyone want to abduct Gavin, for heaven’s sake?”

 

“To force my hand.  It’s all my fault.”

 

“I’ll be there in half an hour.  Don’t start without me.”

 

They did, but had to go through it all again when Ian arrived.  As the Messenger had said, the scroll was a summons requiring Angel to appear before the Court of Hundred on the following day, to answer for the murder of two previous messengers of the Court.  The Messenger would return for his answer, and would give him instructions on the process to be followed and where to appear.

 

No one understood the references to the murdered messengers, and their names meant nothing to anyone.  Giles knew a bit about Hundreds, though.

 

“I told you about wapentakes and hundreds when we were talking about Sadberge...”

 

“You didn’t tell me.”  Collins looked confused, so Giles repeated what they’d already talked about.”

 

“See?  I told you those Mr Whippy things were important.”  Buffy crossed her arms defiantly.

 

“So,” said Giles smoothly, as though he hadn’t been interrupted, “it would seem that demons copied the Anglo-Saxon hundreds... Or maybe the Anglo-Saxons copied them?  How would we know?”

 

“I’m not sure that’s the important thing,” said Collins brusquely.  “Forgive me, but the important thing here seems to be to get Gavin back safely.”

 

“I agree,” said Angel, his voice grave.  “That’s why I’ll go.”

 

“I don’t like this,” Buffy said, her voice heated.  “These stupid century things don’t pretend to do any real law stuff, do they, Giles?”

 

“Buffy, I know nothing of demon hundreds.  I’m certain there are no references to them in the books I have.  They’re clearly very secretive.  But, the Anglo-Saxon hundreds and the Viking wapentakes were stripped of their final powers in, I think, 1836 by the Church Commissioners.  Before that, their authority had been diluted, certainly, but at the height of their power, they raised taxes and administered the King’s justice.  They literally had the power of life and death over everyone living in their hundred.”

 

“But that isn’t what this is about, is it?  Killing Angel?”  No one answered her.

 

The Messenger returned a little before midnight.  Angel strode across the threshold and wrapped his fist around the demon’s throat.

 

“Where is he?  Is he dead?”  He shoved the demon hard across the expanse of gravel, thrusting him backwards against the low courtyard wall, bending him until it seemed that his spine must break.  Then he let go of the throat.

 

“Well?  Is he dead?”

 

“Of course he is not dead.  He is simply the means of persuading you to answer to the Court.  Although, I cannot answer for his safety if you do not attend.  That is part of my message.”  The demon spoke with as much dignity as was possible, under the circumstances.

 

“Then tell me what you’ve done with him.  Where is he now?”

 

“I have done nothing, and I cannot answer your question.”

 

Angel drew back his fist.

 

“Hitting me will serve no purpose.  I will tell you whatever needs saying without that.”

 

“It might make me feel better,” Angel growled.

 

“Will it?  Perhaps so.  I cannot answer your question because I am only the Messenger, a servant of the Court.  Other servants will have taken the policeman.”

 

“Then tell me what I need to do to get him back.”

 

“Let me up, and I will do so.  But I may speak only to you.”

 

Angel looked back to the doorway.  Buffy and Giles stood behind him, with Collins a few feet away.

 

“No.  You’re going to break the habits of a lifetime and speak to us all.”  As Buffy spoke, she stalked up to the captive demon.  She was about to say more, but she caught Angel’s slight shake of his head, and she bit back the words.  This was Angel’s show, and she had to let him run it.  She gave him a short nod, and stepped back.

 

“You should listen to the lady,” Angel said to the Messenger, but he allowed the demon to stand upright.  He stayed close up and threatening, though.  The demon seemed prepared for that.

 

“This is your choice, then, Angelus.  You will be ready at eight o’clock tomorrow night.  A different messenger will be here to tell you where the Court will sit.  You will please oblige me by respecting the messenger’s status.  You should bring one person with you, to speak for you, one person and no more.  Both of you should be unarmed...”

 

As he continued to give his instructions, Angel became aware that Giles had taken Buffy’s arm, and Collins had his hand on her shoulder, reinforcing her slim self-control.

 

“Do you agree?”

 

“When will Gavin Lincoln be released?”

 

“As soon as you have presented yourself and are securely within the Court.”

 

“Then I agree.”

 

“You have until eight o’clock tomorrow night, then, to prepare yourself, you and the one who will speak for you.”

 

“Let the policeman go now.  Tonight.  I give you my word I’ll come.”

 

“You do not admit the charges.  The Court will not find it possible to trust you to hold to your word.  He will be kept safe.”

 

“I’ll go with you now, if I must.”

 

“No!”  The Messenger was shocked.  “You must have time for preparation.  I must go now, to take back your answer.”

 

Dissatisfied, but unsure what else to do, Angel stood back to allow him to pass.

 

“If you won’t take Angel, exchange Gavin for me, instead.”  Everyone looked at Ian Collins.  “He’s my responsibility, and I know more about what’s happening here than he does.”

 

“Your feelings do you honour, Detective Chief Inspector, but the Court has made its decision.”

 

He bowed, and walked off into the darkness.

 

Later, in their room, Buffy sat down on the edge of their bed, her head bowed in worry.  “I guess,” she said quietly, “if I hadn’t been here, if I’d decided to go to that exorcism, you wouldn’t have told me that the Messenger came back?”

 

Angel sat down next to her, and took her hand in both of his.  He smoothed a fallen lock of hair back from her brow.

 

“I would have told you.  I’ve got over keeping things like that from you.  We’re a couple.  We have to share.”  He regarded her shrewdly.  “Just like you’ve got over needing to front everything up yourself.”

 

She pressed the palm of her hand against his cheek.

 

“Tomorrow night, we’ll deal with this Court together.  It’s a coupley thing.”

 

He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head.

 

“No.  We won’t.  You know the Messenger said that was one of the conditions.  ‘Not the Slayer,’ he said.  ‘This is not a matter for the Slayer.’  You remember that – I thought you were going to pull Giles’ arm out of its socket.  I’m taking Giles with me.”

 

“Angel...”

 

“No, Buffy.  I need you here, not there.  If it all goes wrong, I need you free to ride to the rescue.”

 

She looked up dubiously, and he tried to lighten the moment.

 

“What?”  he asked, playfully.  “You don’t think you’re up to it?  You’d leave me languishing in some demon jail?”

 

He cursed himself when he saw her stricken face.  She’d sent him to Hell and left him there, and while he didn’t blame her for it in any way, it was one of those memories that time could never soften, for either of them.  He tried never to remind her of it, even when his sufferings there occupied his darkest nightmares.  Now, he’d laid it out in the open to lacerate her conscience again.

 

He took her in his arms, and tried to make amends with soothing reassurances.  “There, it’s alright, no, no, don’t cry...”

 

In bed, he held her as though she were the most fragile thing in the world, and then he made love to her as though she were unbreakable.

 

+++++

 

Alice was welcomed back warmly to the house of Gary Elder’s parents.  Mary Elder was still there, and Alice had a moment of panic when DCI Collins telephoned to speak to the widow.  He didn’t know Alice was away from home, though, and no one enlightened him.  Alice didn’t want anyone to know what she was doing.  It might, after all, go so very wrong.

 

Cecilia took her through to the privacy of the small, lean-to conservatory.

 

“Sit here, Alice,” she told her, after giving her another embrace.  “I’ll fetch us some tea, and then we can have a comfortable talk.  There is so much for you to know before the full moon.  Gary would have been so pleased that you found us.  He used to say that he was sure there were so many lost souls of all species, separated from their heritage.”

 

“Oh, that reminds me,” Alice said, digging into the leather tote bag that she carried.  “I found this, years ago, in a market in Portugal.”  She handed a carefully wrapped parcel to Cecilia.  It was an oblate sphere of jet, slightly flattened at top and bottom.  It was the size of a large man’s fist, and it had been carved with layers of closely-fitting writhing snakes, all identical in form and size.  It was a beautiful piece of art, and anyone seeing it could be forgiven for thinking that it had, at the very least, been inspired by the work of MC Escher and carried out by a lover of Art Nouveau and the ancient Celts. 

 

Alice, though, knew the truth, or at least part of it.  Her parents had owned one very similar.  It was possible that this was the very one, since she’d been unable to carry away anything but bare necessities when she fled from their home.  It was Silarri work.

 

“I want you to have it.”

 

Cecilia held it out in the palm of her hand, her expression inscrutable.  “Do you know what this is, Alice?”

 

“No, but I know that it’s Silarri.  My mother had one like it on her dressing table.”

 

“And you were drawn to it, in that market?”

 

Alice nodded, feeling like a schoolgirl who’d overlooked some important lesson.

 

“Then that is good,” said her hostess with a smile.  “Thank you, Alice.  It’s beautiful.  Now, I’ll get that tea.”

 

+++++

 

The Messenger had spoken to them of preparation, but since they had no knowledge of the two dead Messengers, there seemed to be little that they could do, without more information from the Court. 

 

Collins could find no reference to murder victims wearing golden sashes, although he was surprised to find that there were separate references to five bodies with strange physical characteristics.  In each case, the body had been stolen from the mortuary before autopsy was possible.  Remembering his night-time bodysnatching episode with Buffy, Collins didn’t have to ask himself whether these might be the bodies of demons.  He passed the information to Summerdown House, but it wasn’t much help.

 

Neither Angel nor Buffy had any recollection of slaying a demon such as the Messenger, either deliberately or accidentally, and so a specific defence was impossible.  It seemed that, once Gavin was free, Angel and Giles would have to play it by ear.

 

They’d gathered around the table in the breakfast room.  Angel got up and walked through to the utility wing, to the weapons cupboard.  He came back carrying a cardboard box that rattled as he set it down.  Buffy lifted up a flap to see a couple of large and deadly bowie knives, a short-handled battleaxe, a knobkerrie, a selection of stakes, some chain and a pair of shackles.

 

“This is your version of unarmed, is it?  I definitely approve.  I thought for a while you were going soft in the head.  I thought it might be old age.”  She gave him a puckish grin.  His answering one was rueful.

 

“Sorry.  You’ll have to go with old age.”

 

What?

 

“My word... my honour... seems to be important to these people, so I guess it’s a general thing with them.  If we don’t meet their conditions, I think we’re all...in trouble.”  He was going to say ‘dead’, and she wasn’t fooled by his change of words.  “This is just in case.”

 

Before she could answer, a knock came to the door.

 

“That’s early!” she protested.  “It should be, like, another twenty minutes!”

 

But it wasn’t a messenger.  It was Ian Collins.

 

“I’m coming with you,” he said, as he stepped into the hall.

 

There were several minutes of bedlam, with Buffy’s strident indignation dominant.  If anyone else was going, it was her.  Angel withdrew from the argument and carried his cardboard box out to the Discovery, tucking the box out of sight in the back.

 

“No, Buffy,” Ian said, when he could make himself heard.  “I need to go to get Gavin out of there, and make sure he’s okay.  He’s my responsibility.  If they won’t let me go with them, I’ll simply follow along behind.”

 

The argument still wasn’t settled when a second knock came.  It was the messenger.

 

He bowed gravely to Angel and handed him a folded and sealed piece of parchment.  Angel examined the seal before breaking it.  It was a five-petalled flower, maybe a rose.   Sub rosa, he wondered.  He read the note with surprise.

 

“Do you have questions?”

 

“No.  We’ll be there.”

 

The messenger nodded, and was gone.

 

“Giles,” he called, briskly.  “We’re on in fifteen minutes.”

 

“Where the hell can we get to in fifteen minutes?”

 

“Bratton Camp.”

 

Where?

 

+++++

 

Now

 

The three breasted the final rise of Bratton Camp, a set of Iron Age earthworks a few minutes’ drive from Summer Down.  The Westbury White Horse had been carved into the hillside below it, obliterating a length of embankment.  The earthworks were extensive, encompassing the whole hilltop.  Even Angel couldn’t see into the heart of the hill fort, though, because of the veil of mist that had now become enshrouding fog, swirling around them as they walked.

 

Like ghosts, three men materialised out of the fog around them.  Each held a large sword.

 

“Why have you brought two companions, Angelus?” the first one asked.  “The conditions were that you might bring just one to speak for you.”

 

Collins answered before Angel could.  “Angel didn’t bring me to speak for him, although I would if he so wished.  I am Detective Chief Inspector Collins, and the man that you hold hostage against Angel’s appearance is my man, my subordinate.  I have come for him.  He is my responsibility.”

 

The lead warrior hesitated, and said, “The judges will decide.  Follow us.”

 

And then they were through the wall of fog, and the inner fort lay in a clear, moonlit night.

 

Nine figures sat on folding stools. 

 

“An Ennead,” Giles whispered to no one in particular, as they were ushered forward.

 

Behind the judges stood a small crowd of warriors, each with a sword in his hand.  A further group stood to one side.  Angel had the incongruent thought that it looked like the wapentake weapons theory had it.  The Messenger, still wearing his golden sash, stood next to the nine.

 

Two of the warriors ahead of them snapped up their swords, blocking their path and forcing them to halt.  The third continued on to the nine seated figures, bending over to them and whispering.  When he’d finished, he stalked back.

 

“I must search you all for weapons or other threats.”

 

“We were told to come unarmed, and we have,” Angel said with quiet dignity.  “You have my word.”

 

“Nevertheless.”

 

Collins shrugged, and held out his arms.  The warrior patted him down very thoroughly.  The Messenger signalled to one of the men standing behind the judges, who crossed the broad expanse of turf to escort Collins closer to the seated demons.

 

The judge in the centre of the nine addressed him.  “Detective Chief Inspector Collins, we understand that you have come for your servant.  This does you credit.  If we allow you to remain, will you observe the rules of this Court?”

 

“If you tell me what they are, and if they are just and fair rules, then yes.  Where is Gavin Lincoln?”

 

“In good time.  Please stay there.”

 

Then, Giles was searched and taken forward to stand some yards away from Collins.  Only Angel remained.  Something different awaited him.

 

The warrior looked him in the eyes.  “I need to take your clothes.  Now.”

 

The security seemed excessive.  Either they were very afraid of him, and wanted to examine every stitch and seam, or this was about wrong-footing and humiliating him.  If that was the case, they were in for a disappointment.  He’d never been uncomfortable in his skin, not in that way.  Still, there was a problem.

 

“Little difficult, shackled like this.”

 

“The policeman will not be released if you resist.”

 

“I won’t.”

 

Silently, the warrior moved behind him and unlinked the manacles.

 

“Strip.”

 

Deliberately and without haste, Angel took off his leather jacket, and his black linen shirt.  Then, he toed off his shoes, and pulled off his socks.  He offered all those up to the warrior, who took them in stony silence.

 

“More?”  The only reply was continued silence.

 

With the same deliberate lack of haste, he uncinched his belt and unzipped his flies, pushed down his black jeans and stepped out of them.  After a momentary hesitation, he stripped off his boxer shorts. 

 

“Want to search anywhere else,” he asked his guard, who silently shook his head.

 

He stood, then, a pale figure in the moonlight, clad only in two steel manacles but wrapped in his own powerful dignity.

 

Giles and Collins stared at the tableau, Collins in pursed-lip disapproval, Giles in growing anger at this treatment of his friend.  But Giles’ warrior-escort had to restrain him because of what happened next.

 

The man confronting the naked vampire gestured to him to step forwards, even as he handed the discarded clothing to someone else.  About halfway to where the judges sat, two turves had been removed, and Angel was told to stand between them.  Giles was appalled to see heavy chains pulled from beneath where the turves had lain.  One end of each was anchored to something buried deep in the chalk, and he wondered how long these restraints had been in use. 

 

Angel seemed prepared for something like this.  More swiftly than the eye could follow, his hands shot out and grasped the ends of the chains.

 

“Do you treat everyone like this?”  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “Not until I see Gavin Lincoln.  I’ve gone along with you so far, but I want to see him.  Now.”

 

The warrior looked to the panel of judges.  The man in the centre gestured to the group of demons standing to one side of the court.  They moved apart to reveal a dark figure lying on the turf.

 

With a small cry of anger, Collins made towards the figure, but he was restrained.  As he struggled, the judge called out to him.

 

“He is sedated.”

 

“Then let me go to him.”

 

The judge nodded, and Collins ran to his sergeant.  The man was barely conscious, his eyes closed, his skin ashen.  He pressed two fingers to the pulse point on Lincoln’s neck.  It throbbed strongly, but Collins’ eyes were drawn to a dark stain on the blue shirt, surrounding a ragged hole.  The whiteness of a dressing showed underneath.

 

“He’s been shot in the shoulder, Angel,” he called out, “but he’s alive.  His heart’s steady.”

 

Angel remembered the bloodied arrow and his fists clenched around the chains.  There was going to be a price paid for this.  He’d make sure of that.

 

“He needs medical attention!”  His voice was a snarl, and it was an effort not to show his demon face, and perhaps it wasn’t an effort worth making.

 

“He is not in danger,” said the judge who had spoken before.  “We made sure of that.  The sooner we proceed, the sooner he can have that attention.”

 

Angel threw the chains down to the grass, and held his arms out compliantly.  His expression, however, was forbidding.  The chains were locked onto the manacles, lengthy enough to allow him to stand, short enough that he could neither move from the spot nor reach the attachments to free himself, and heavy enough to be a burden.

 

Collins looked up at the prisoner from where he knelt by his sergeant.  He’s chained like an animal, he thought, or a wounded but defiant colossus, a personification of shackled power.  More, there was something about the moonlight on that bare alabaster skin.  He knew that vampires were creatures of darkness, of course, but as he looked at Angel, it was as though the solid creature of flesh and bone that he called friend became something else.  Something that faded in and out of the moon shadows, almost transparent at times and then coalescing again, the pallor of his body becoming one with the silvery light, as a stalking tiger becomes invisible in the tall grass.  Then Collins shook his head.  He was an ordinary copper.  He’d got no business thinking such fanciful thoughts.

 

Giles, meanwhile, had to be held back as he protested the treatment of his friend.

 

“What the hell are you doing,” he shouted indignantly.  “How can you treat him like this when he’s here willingly?”

 

“Not so willingly,” said the judge who seemed to be acting as spokesman.

 

“Giles.”  Angel’s voice was pitched to command.  “Let’s get on with this.”  Giles subsided, but reluctantly.

 

“We have summoned you here, Angelus...”

 

“No,” said Giles, “you go too quickly.  Who are you, to think you can summon Angel like this?”

 

The judge nodded his head in acknowledgement.  “Of course.  You have been called before the Commonwealth of Clans, and we represent all those clans in England, Wales and Scotland who have chosen to live peaceably in the world of Men.  The nine most populous of the clans are represented here.  I am Estes, and I act as Speaker for this gathering, here on the moot mound of my clan, within the Hundred of Whorwellsdown and Westbury.

 

“Also here as your judges are the Speakers of the Hundreds of Harbledown, Amounderness, Powdershire, Bedlingtonshire, Applebyshire, Hallamshire, Halfshire and Sedberge.  These men behind us are their escorts, and those...” He gestured to the demons around Lincoln and Collins, “are my officers.  You have met Alvaric, my Messenger.”

 

Conscious that all eyes were upon him, but not self-conscious about it, Angel regarded the demons ranged around the Court.  They could almost all pass as human.  They would have no difficulty in working or mixing with humanity.  And for those who were a little more different, he guessed that the internet would make running a business easy.  They probably went by different names than Estes and Alvaric, too.

 

He didn’t make the mistake of supposing that any of the clans were particularly populous.  Demons were always few and far between.  A ‘hundred’ no doubt meant something different to the Saxon hundred, or the Viking Wapentake.  If it meant the area supporting a hundred demon families, which might be the entire nation of a particular species, the hundred could take in the whole country.  And a significant proportion of the menfolk of these nine clans were gathered here.

 

He looked back to the Speaker.  “And what do all these clans want of me?”

 

The Speaker sat straight and tall, his voice authoritative.  “Last year, we had just such a meeting as this, at Sadberge.  There had been... killings... in other countries, and then the same killings started here.”

 

Slayers?  Could there be unrecognised Slayers, Angel wondered.  Is that why they didn’t want Buffy here?  They said it was a charge of murder.  Is someone going to kill Buffy while I’m shackled here?

 

He couldn’t help himself.  He yanked at the chains.  “What’s happening to Buffy?” he shouted.  “Is that why you’re keeping us here?”

 

“No!” Speaker Estes said, shocked.  “The Slayer is quite outside these proceedings.”  He paused, and then resumed his judicial opening statement.  “We wished to speak with you about these killings, and so, thirteen months ago, we sent a pair of Messengers.  They disappeared. Not even their bodies have been found.  And so we sent people to find them.  It took our investigators some time to uncover what had happened.”

 

“Thirteen months?”  Giles interjected.

 

“No. Mr Giles.  A long time, but not that long.  The rest of the time has been spent in meetings such as this, agreeing a common solution.  It is no easier for different clans of demons to work together than it is for nations of humans.”

 

“And this is that solution?”  Giles’ lip curled contemptuously.

 

“Yes,” the Speaker replied with dignity.  “When you removed your shirt, vampire, we all saw the mark of Angelus on your back.  Do you deny it?”

 

He waited for Angel to answer, but none was forthcoming.  What, indeed, could Angel say?

 

“Very well.  So you acknowledge that you are Angelus.”

 

Angel remained silent, but Giles denied it on his behalf.

 

“No.  No, he isn’t Angelus.  Not anymore.  Not for a long time now, and certainly not thirteen months ago.”

 

The Speaker shrugged.  “What’s in a name?  Because what our investigators found was that our Messengers had been killed by the person they were sent to find.  By you, Angelus.  We have witnesses.”

 

He gestured to the Messenger, who walked off into the wall of fog.

 

“And Commonwealth Messengers are sacrosanct.  They wear the golden sash of their office to give them protection in the sight of all nations.  Killing a Messenger in the course of his duty is the most heinous crime.”

 

“If Angel killed demons, it was because they were harming people,” Giles declared hotly.  “If they weren’t harming people, then Angel did not kill them.”

 

“You think Angelus would baulk at slaying a couple of peaceful demons?  It wasn’t hard to discover what happened, once we found where to look.  The crime was perpetrated in public.”  Now it was the Speaker’s turn to be contemptuous.  “Here are our witnesses.”

 

Seven demons walked in a line behind the Messenger, demons of all sorts and sizes, parading in front of the captive.  Each stood and looked at Angel, looked long and hard, and then moved on to make way for the next.

 

When it was over, the Speaker asked each of them, “Is that the man you saw killing the Commonwealth Messengers.”  Each answered with a firm ‘Yes’.  The line of witnesses started to move off.

 

“I protest!”  Giles was indignant.  “I say, stop there, all of you.  How do we know who you are, and whether you’re telling the truth?  I want to question each of you.”

 

“No, Giles.”  Angel’s voice was quiet, but unmistakeably determined.  “No.  You forget.  They’re right.  I’m responsible.”

 

“You admit it now?”  The Speaker leaned forward with a frown.

 

“I... Angel, I don’t understand.  What are you saying?  You never killed these men.”

 

“Think back, Giles, to just over a year ago.”

 

“Oh, my Lord...”

 

There was no time for him to say more.  A long, black-feathered shaft flew past Angel, past Giles, and struck the Speaker in the chest.  A second arrow cut down the judge at the left hand end of the arc, and a third took the Messenger in the shoulder.  It was done in the blink of an eye.

 

“Down!   Everyone get down!  NOW!”

 

Angel’s voice cut through the shocked silence, and then there was pandemonium.  There was not a scrap of cover on that bare hill top, other than the natural unevenness of the land, and the encircling fog, and that was little enough against unseen assailants.

 

Warriors dragged their Speakers onto the ground or into the clinging fog, as another flight of arrows sped past Angel.  He saw men fall.

 

Collins pulled Lincoln behind the slim cover of the stools, but these had been set on a slight rise in the ground, and he lay flat behind that tiny ridge, his own body shielding his sergeant’s.

 

Giles grabbed the wounded Messenger, his hand beneath the demon’s armpits, and dragged him towards Collins.

 

“Look after him,” he gasped, “I’ll see what I can do for Angel.”  He stood up into a crouch, bending as low as he could, as a third and a fourth volley raked the fleeing judges.  More men fell.  The assailants were nocking their arrows with inhuman speed.  A fifth volley flew by, but one of the three arrows came too close.  It pierced Giles’ tweed jacket, and his shirt, leaving a shallow but painful wound along his ribs, and he stumbled back to the ground.

 

Not thirty seconds had passed.  Words rang out, in a harsh, guttural voice, and the mist thinned into gauzy tatters, exposing small knots of warriors surrounding the remaining judges.  The wounded and dead were scattered around.

 

Behind Angel, who was straining at his bonds, stood three demons armoured in dark green leather, their faces grey-skinned and sharply angular with large, faceted, insectile eyes.  They wielded short compound bows and there were sheaves of arrows stuck into the ground at their feet.

 

“I knew that fog barrier was magical,” Giles muttered to Collins, and then he pushed himself back to his feet and started to sprint towards Angel.  A firm blow from behind knocked him onto his face as the warrior who had first greeted them ran past toward the prisoner, his sword raised.

 

Both of them were too late.

 

As the first arrows sped past him, Angel knew that he had to help himself.  Immobilised here, like a bull for gelding, he was at their mercy.  One well-placed arrow in the back would dust him.

 

There was just enough slack in the chains to allow him to take a firm grip on each of them, just below the shackles, but they were thick and heavy, and to break either of them with one hand seemed an impossible task.  Still, he had to try.

 

He clenched his fists around the chains, and with a grunt, he heaved, his muscles bunching and flexing as he exerted all his strength.  As he did so, he saw the fleeing men fall to the arrows.  He saw Collins protecting Lincoln, and Giles trying to find cover for the wounded Messenger, and then he closed his eyes and heaved again.  The tendons stood out in his neck, and his straining muscles burned like fire.  Still he pulled.  He heard tendons cracking in his arms and legs, ready to snap with the effort, and he slipped unnoticed into game face for that extra strength.  Even then, sweat ran down those knotted muscles, and he thought that they might burst.  The iron links held firm.

 

He’d lost count of the number of volleys that had been loosed, although he’d felt the wind of passage of each one.  He wouldn’t be ignored much longer.  He cursed that thought when sudden fiery pain welled in the small of his back as an arrow struck just below the kidney.  He let go of the chains, now bloodied from his abraded palms.  With a deep breath, because old habits die hard, he bent his knees, ignoring the sting as he took up a grip on the chains again, this time lower down.  And then he put the demon to the final test, and he heaved.  With every last ounce of his accumulated power, he heaved at the chains, slowly straightening his knees, feeling the strength flow from thighs to back, to shoulders and arms.  The skin ripped from his palms as the rusted links slipped through his grasp, but he shifted his grip until his fingers were jammed into the centre of the links, and he continued to rise from his crouched position.

 

Every overtaxed muscle, every ligament, every tendon cracked with the supreme effort, but he clenched his jaw and continued to rise, Collins’ chained colossus determined to be free.  His body felt consumed by fire as suffering flesh tried to obey an indomitable will.  Veins throbbed as the demon drew on the mystical power of the blood, and of everything that had gone to make him what he was now.

 

Yet, the chains were well-forged, and the iron was stronger than even this vampire’s flesh.  He thought they might be enchanted.  But chains are only as strong as their weakest link.  Or as their anchorage.

 

When it seemed that something inside him must break, it was the chains that at last gave way.  On his left side, iron grated against concrete deep in the earth as the attachment point groaned and pulled free.  On his right side, a sharp ringing snap sounded, as the concrete broke in two.  With the weight gone, he fell forward onto his knees, leaving bloodied handprints on the chalky turf.  That saved his life.  In the act of falling, an arrow speared into the top of his shoulder, in the space where his heart had been, only a moment before.

 

As he scrambled to his feet, he saw Giles run towards him and then fall to the ground as the warrior shoved him from behind.  Giles hadn’t seen the arrow aimed at him, but the warrior had, and his deft swing of the sword batted it aside.  Giles’ life, too, had been saved by a fall.

 

More men were now running towards the archers, but the arrows were picking them off too quickly.  Angel turned to the attacking demons behind him, on the path that he himself had followed up to Bratton Camp, to the Court of Hundred.  The trailing chains slowed him down as he sprinted over the turf, hampering him when the assassins understood his purpose.  The demon in the centre began to fire directly at him. 

 

The first arrow he deflected on one of the manacles, but he was too clumsy for the second one, and it scored a bloody wound on his forearm.  The next buried itself deep in his groin, but he was almost on the group now, and he ignored the searing pain as he reached down to the right hand chain, on which a lump of concrete still dragged.  The charging Clan warrior had reached the assassin on the left and Angel aimed for the one in the centre.  Whirling the concrete like a crude morningstar, he crashed it into the archer’s temple.  As the demon fell, Angel didn’t need to see the caved-in skull to know that it was dead.

 

Before he could take out the remaining attacker, another arrow sliced into his lower chest, buried almost to the feathers in his ribcage.  The assassin then took to his heels, sprinting to the embankment.  Ignoring the pain, Angel leapt with a snarl, slinging forward the chain on his left wrist.  It wrapped around the demon’s neck and, with a sharp jerk, Angel dragged the creature back towards him, taking it in mid-leap, and crashing down to the ground, the demon beneath him.  The shaft in his ribs splintered, but that wasn’t the only sound he heard.  The demon’s neck had broken.

 

Angel spun round towards the third demon, yelling to the warrior not to kill it.  He was too late, turning just in time to see its head bouncing over the turf.  Exhausted, he knelt with bowed head.  Now they had no chance of interrogating these demons, of finding out why they had attacked this gathering.

 

The warrior walked over to him.

 

“You were very brave, Angelus.”

 

“It’s Angel.”

 

“I am Syroh.  Thank you.”  Syroh looked at the embedded arrows, then held out his hand.  “Can you stand if I help you?”

 

“I can manage.”  But Angel let Syroh pull him up.  “Secure the bodies, will you?  We’ll need to find out what we can, since we can’t talk to them.”

 

“You want to help us?”

 

Forgetting the specific wounds in the overall pain, Angel shrugged, then winced as the arrowheads shifted, causing more damage.  “Can’t have assassins wandering around the lanes of England.”

 

Syroh made no comment as he helped Angel back to where the Court had been gathered, and where now men were picking themselves up and checking those still on the ground.  Angel saw Collins moving amongst the stricken, feeling pulses, turning men over, just as the others were.  Giles walked towards him, on the phone.  He ended the call, and held out his hand to Angel, grasping his arm wrist to wrist, a warrior’s clasp.

 

“I can’t tell you how glad...”

 

“I know, Giles.”  He pointed to the darkening stain on Giles’ shirt.  “Just a flesh wound?”

 

Giles nodded.  “Better than many.”

 

The warriors had gathered up the dead, and the dying and the wounded.  There were nine dead, six warriors and three judges.  A fourth judge, Estes the Speaker, was gravely injured, the Messenger only a little less so.  Seven warriors were wounded, five of them seriously, two to the point of death.

 

“Shall I pull those out, Angel,” Giles asked dubiously, surveying the bristling arrow shafts.

 

Angel shook his head.  “Break them off at the surface.  I can manage with that.  It’ll be easier to get the arrow heads out later if the shafts are still there.”  He dug his nails into his wounded palms to stop from crying out as Giles complied.  Then he turned to Syroh.  “I’d like my clothes, please.  And these chains off.”

 

Syroh looked away, and Angel thought that he would refuse, but instead he signalled to a man with a bag slung over his shoulder.

 

“No!”  The voice was weak and thready.  It was Estes.  The warrior who knelt by him helped him to sit up.  “No!  This must be attended to now, as soon as wounds have been bound up, and someone sent to find the healer.”

 

“I’ve sent for a healer myself,” Giles told him with a frown.  “Everything else can wait.”

 

“No!  It becomes more urgent.”

 

Syroh took a step forward.  “Speaker, are you certain?” 

 

“Yes.  It will not take many minutes.  I have not enough strength for it to take longer.”

 

“Speaker...”

 

Estes coughed up blood.

 

“Arrange it, before I die.”

 

In a gesture that might be exasperation, Syroh unclipped the chains from Angel’s wrists.  “You can take the manacles off,” the warrior told him.  Angel did so, and dropped them onto the grass, before kneeling by Estes.

 

“This is madness,” he said to the Speaker.  “We can reconvene later.  I’ll return, I promise.”

 

“No.  Now.  Quickly.”

 

The remaining Speakers gathered round, pale and nervous.

 

“Angelus.  You admitted the murder of our Messengers?”  Estes’ voice was no more than a whisper now, blood running from the corner of his mouth.

 

“Angel...”  Giles couldn’t think how to stop Angel from taking onto his shoulders sins that truly weren’t his.

 

“A moment, Giles.  I didn’t say I murdered them.  I said I was responsible.  Giles, please tell the Court...”

 

Giles cleared his throat.  “Um.  Just over a year ago, the Angelus from another dimension broke through to this one.  We, um, dealt with him, and he went back to his own dimension, but not before he’d done a lot of things that Angel would be blamed for.”

 

“Show me your wrist.”  The words bubbled from Estes’ throat.  Angel didn’t pretend to misunderstand, and he held out his right wrist.

 

“Syroh...”  The warrior took the place of his fellow demon, taking the weight of Estes’ shoulders easily.  Estes opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  Syroh understood, though.  He spoke quickly to the man he had replaced.

 

“Bring the witness Arriyah.”

 

The demoness who came was tall and handsome, a woman in early middle age.

 

“Arriyah, the Court understands that you saw the man who murdered our Messengers, and that you saw him naked.”

 

“That’s true.  He was bedding three women in the club where I work.  I was serving them at the time.  Wine and whisky,” she added, hastily.  “The Messengers called for him to come out to speak with them, as a matter of urgency.  I took the message in to him.  He left the women.  I followed him out and saw him greet the Messengers and then tear out their throats.  As they died, he told them that he would listen if they could get their message out now.  Then he laughed, and left them in a pool of their own blood in the vestibule, and went back to the women.  They were dead, too, when he finally left, but he paid compensation for them, and so my employer took no action.”

 

“Is this that man?”  She started to answer him but Syroh continued, “Be absolutely certain.  You know what depends on this.”

 

“Ask him to stand where I can see him.”

 

Syroh nodded to Angel, who rose from where he knelt and took a pace towards Arriyah.  Her face paled, and she stepped backwards.

 

“I’m sorry.”  His voice was soft, apologetic.  He moved a few paces to one side, wincing as the arrows moved within him.  Her simple narrative had affected him more than he wanted to show.  He knew she was telling the truth.  He could feel those soft throats squeezed between his fingers, the tough cartilage ripping, the hot spurts of blood...  And he could taste the blood of those whores, spiced with sex and honeyed with repletion.  Angelus must have made a killing somewhere, if he’d bothered to pay compensation.

 

Arriyah walked slowly around him, taking in every detail, from top to toe.  She finished by standing in front of him, and staring into his face.  She picked up his hand and inspected his wrist.  Then, she surprised him, and every other living soul at the Court.  Her hand went out to him again, lower, coaxing, teasing, expertly rousing him despite the chill of the November night, and heedless of the agony in his groin.  When she had what she wanted, she bent to examine him.  More than anything else that had happened tonight, this inspection made him want to blush.

 

She moved back to where she had been standing, but he remained where he was, embarrassed.

 

“This is exactly the vampire,” she said, in her clear voice.  “And yet, there are differences.  His eyes, his expression, the tone of his voice.  All those are...different.  He has the tattoo on his back, and yet he does not have the tattoo of an A within a circle that I saw on that one’s wrist.  Also, that one had an unusual piercing,” she pointed to her handiwork, “a serpent in the form of a ring that was threaded into a version of the tattoo on his wrist.”

 

Giles winced at the thought of that.  When he looked across at Collins, he could see that the policeman had winced, too.

 

“I can see neither the piercing nor the tattoo.  And there are no marks where they would have been.”

 

Angel could feel Acathla holding him down while that was done, relived it as he writhed in pain, although after those centuries of self-annihilation in Hell, he didn’t know whether he relived it in memory or imagination.  “The piercing would heal completely if the ring was taken out,” he said to Estes. 

 

Giles tutted at this assistance of the prosecution case.

 

“What about the tattoos?” Syroh asked.

 

Angel almost shrugged, but managed to stop himself and avoid the pain of those moving arrows.  It was just tolerable, if he kept quite still.  “So far as I know, the tattoos would be there for good.  This one is.  At least, unless magic’s involved.”

 

“I have told you all I can,” Arriyah said.  She stepped aside, but no one asked her to go, and she stayed, watching carefully.

 

Estes squeezed Syroh’s hand.  “And this is your defence,” the warrior asked, “that another Angelus came to our dimension and committed these crimes?”

 

Angel hesitated, and Giles wanted to beat him.  At last, the accused said, “He did things that I would have done, if I were still Angelus.  I can feel them, taste them, know that they would seem absolutely right to him.  What do you want me to say, except that I didn’t do them?  Not these things.  But I’ve done plenty like them, when I was nothing other than Angelus.”

 

Giles thought that perhaps he should beat him, if they got out of this.

 

What happened next, then, was a surprise. 

 

Estes nodded to Syroh, then felt for his hand, as though he couldn’t see it.  “Is it still Martinmas?” he whispered.

 

“Yes, yes it is.  We haven’t been here long.”

 

“Then, if everyone is agreed...”  Estes couldn’t manage anymore.

 

“Look,” Giles said, hurriedly, “he needs medical attention, badly.”

 

“He needs this finished,” Syroh responded fiercely, “and besides, the healer is on her way.  You think we should call one of your ambulances for him?”  He looked up at the remaining judges.  “What say you?”

 

The first one said, “Aye.”  The others all nodded, and repeated their assent.

 

All very well, Giles thought, but aye what?

 

“Angelus,” Syroh began.  “We accept your defence in respect of the murder of our Messengers.”

 

Collins glanced at Giles, and knew that he felt the same relief that he did.  Angel’s face was impassive.

 

“However,” the warrior continued, “you feel a certain amount of responsibility in the matter, and that may be pertinent to what we now have to say, on this Martinmas night. 

 

“Our investigators have learned of the work that the three of you carry out, at the house of the Watcher.  Now we have seen your fighting skills at first hand, and we are grateful for your help on this terrible night.  But, this is not the first time in recent times that assassins have been sent to kill us.  That was why our Messengers went in search of you in the first place, and had we known then what we know now, they would have been safe.  But, they followed the wrong trail, and found the wrong vampire.

 

“The Commonwealth of Clans wishes to swear you into their service, to hire you, for a period until the next hiring night, and beyond if necessary, to find out who is trying to kill the leaders of the demon clans, and to stop them.”

 

Giles could hold himself in check no longer.  Outraged, he turned to Syroh with venom.  “You mean that this is a Martinmas Hiring Fair with only one candidate?  This whole charade could have been accomplished in my study, without bloodshed, or kidnappings, or any of this malarkey?”

 

Estes reached out again to Syroh, his fingers feeble.

 

“It was necessary.”

 

“I’ll do it.  We’ll all do it.”  Angel was emphatic.

 

“We have not yet spoken of fees.”  Syroh seemed puzzled.

 

“We don’t do everything we do for money,” Angel told him, with quiet dignity.

 

“But a hiring needs a bargain, a contract.”

 

“The bargain is that you need help, and we can provide it.”  Angel gestured around him.  “The contract seems to have been written in blood.  You’ll pay us what you can, when you can.  When we’ve dealt with the cost of this night, you will tell us everything, in the safety of Giles’ study.  Now, can I please have my clothes?”

 

+++++

 

Neve Brookes started into wakefulness with a gasp, her hands clutching at the rough bed of reeds beneath her back.  She exhaled deeply, ridding her lungs of the fragrant, intoxicating smoke that she’d inhaled.  It was long moments, though, before she opened her eyes, as she tried to hold on to what she had seen in her dream, as she tried to understand it.

 

She exhaled again.  There was a different scent still in her nostrils, an acrid smell of chemical corrosion, mingled with the sweeter scent of burned flesh, and the stench of sweated fear.  Her ears still rang with harsh, guttural cries and the clash of metal.  And her mind’s sight was filled with a large eye, liquid gold surrounded by bronze scales, the upper lid drooping down into the sleep of death.  Alien thoughts had driven out all others, and she didn’t understand what it was all about.

 

The images started to slip away, like the dragon that had gazed into her heart, and the thoughts became no more than torn wisps of November mist.

 

She turned over and pushed herself up, onto her hands and knees, weak still from the visions.  At last, using the windowsill for leverage, she found the strength to stand.

 

Mechanically, she cleared away the ashes of her herbs, and the stubs of the candles and swept the rushes out of her new summer house and onto a plastic garden sheet, to be carried to the compost heap.  Never use the same herbage twice, her mother had told her.  Not because it loses its virtue, but because it gains in potency, absorbs your working, becomes unpredictable, and who knows where that can lead you.

 

What had the dragon been trying to tell her at the moment of its death?  Why had it chosen her?  In her dreams, she’d once been granted an audience with a basilisk in need, and the people of Project Paranormal had helped it.  Then it had gone back to its normal plane of existence, where all the other dragons and their kin now dwelt.  That wasn’t where this golden-eyed bronze dragon had been.  She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did.  Perhaps the dragon had told her.

 

She gathered up the corners of the garden sheet, bundling up the rushes, and carried it down the brick path to the heap at the bottom of the garden.  As she brushed past the last of the lavender, and the overhanging stems of lemon balm, their mingled fragrances refreshing her, she wondered about the dragon.  It was a reptile, and reptiles shed their skin, didn’t they?  Snakes shed their tired old skin and came up bright and shiny and new.  That was why the snake was so often used as the symbol of eternity, because it kept renewing itself.  Did dragons do the same?  Was this dragon shedding its tired, worn out body, ready to slip into another plane of existence with a bright, shiny new life?  So why would it need her?  What was its message?

 

She slipped past the reed bed, where her sewage waste was harmlessly broken down and emptied her bundle onto the mouldering compost heap.  Should she contact Project Paranormal again?  And tell them what?  That she’d heard the clangour of Hell in some forsaken alley, and she’d seen a dying dragon?  That it had tried to speak to her across space or time or dimensions, she’d no idea which?  No.  She would try again another day, when her body was more receptive.  It didn’t feel like a satisfactory decision, but it was the best she could do.  She wondered whether her ancestress, Maud of Mordiford, would have been able to do better.

 

+++++

 

The bent and crooked form of the elderly healer limped towards them in the darkness.  A tall warrior followed behind, carrying her satchel. 

 

Angel was still trying to dress, but the pain of movement decided him to stick to jeans, shoes and his jacket.  He looked around at the losses as he tried to get his wounded shoulder into the jacket.  It seemed that each judge had brought two warriors with them, and there had been half a dozen officers of the Court.  They’d been caught by surprise, and few enough remained alive and unhurt.

 

“What in Radermach’s hairy armpit is going on here?  Why aren’t the wounded being tended better?” the old woman called out as she stumped up to the knot of survivors.

 

“That’s exactly what I’ve been saying,” Giles muttered, but even as he did, he heard the breath rattle ominously in Estes’ throat. 

 

Syroh bent over him, as the older man lay in his lap.  “Speaker... Father...”

 

The healer pushed him aside.  “Let me work.”

 

“What about you?”  Syroh looked up with concern at Angel.

 

“I’ll manage.”  Then, to Giles, “Did you mean what I thought you meant about summoning a healer of your own?”

 

“You did.  He said he’d set off straight away.”

 

“Good,” said Angel, with a great deal of relief.  With the numbness of battle gone, he could barely move without screaming, and he wasn’t going to be much good here.  “What are we going to do with the dead and wounded?”

 

“Let’s talk to their people.”

 

They left Syroh with his father and the healer, and went to talk to the other Speakers.  They were from all over the country, staying in boarding houses, and cheap hotels, or dossing down with friends.  The one remaining warrior from the local Whorwellsdown Hundred delegation told them where Estes and his family lived quietly in Westbury.  When he mentioned the street, Giles and Angel recognised it as being part of the newer village, but run down, crowded and cheap. There would be no room to make that house into a virtual hospital, and Giles couldn’t imagine carrying a mortally wounded man into one of the local B & B’s.  Carrying a demon into a hospital was out of the question.

 

“The ones that aren’t local had better come to Summerdown House,” Giles told them.  “The dead, too.  We can find some place for them to rest until their own people can collect them.”

 

The Speakers nodded their assent and moved away to make the arrangements.

 

“Where are you going to keep almost a dozen bodies?”  Collins asked, intrigued.

 

“If all else fails, we can lay them in the sinkhole.  That’s where we put all the dead demon bodies.”

 

“My goodness.  Words fail me.”

 

“Good.  Bring Gavin, if he’s conscious.  Come on, Angel; let’s get you back to the car.”

 

Gavin Lincoln wasn’t yet conscious, but the healer took time to rummage in her bag for a small capsule while Giles gave Syroh directions for the walking wounded.  He’d send transport back for the rest.

 

Collins broke the capsule under Lincoln’s nose as directed, and the sergeant came to with a sneeze.  He was groggy, and took a few minutes to find his feet.  “Don’t start asking questions,” Collins warned him.  “There’s no time right now.  We’ll explain it all later.  How’s your shoulder?”

 

“It hurts like the devil, sir.”

 

“Hmm.  Well, the devil’s certainly been in it tonight.  Come on.”

 

It took them a lot longer to get back to the Discovery than it had to come from it, and Collins and Giles had to help both Angel and Lincoln on the way.  Giles supported Angel as he eased into the passenger seat.  He tossed the keys to Collins and got into the back with Gavin, a phone held to his ear.

 

“Lisa.  Sorry, I know it’s late.  Can you help us?  Is your horse box clean...?”

 

+++++

 

When they arrived at the courtyard, Nick Hunt was before them.  His Bentley was drawn up by the garage, and a chauffeur stood by the bonnet as Nick talked to Buffy by the door, full of his usual bluff geniality.  He’d clearly just arrived, but Buffy rounded on them as soon as the doors of the Discovery opened.

 

“What’s happened?  Who’s hurt?”  Her voice was sharp with anger and fear.  Nick leaned thankfully against the door frame.  Buffy stalked over to Angel, still sitting in the car.

 

He smiled at her.  “I could do with a hand here.”  He saw a tirade threatening, and said softly, “Not now, love.  We’ve got more wounded coming.”

 

She looked hard at him, then nodded, and held out her arm.  He slid out with a groan, letting her take some of his weight.

 

Giles held his hand out to Nick.  “Thanks for coming, Nick.  But a chauffeur?”

 

Nick grinned happily.  “Drunk as a wheelbarrow when you rang, old boy.  Jimmy Parke helps out on the estate from time to time.  Good man.”

 

“Perhaps he’d be happier not knowing what’s going on tonight,” Giles observed sagely.  “The Cedars, perhaps?”  That was a local hotel, not far away.

 

Nick nodded.  “Jimmy,” he called, “bring that box from the boot, will you, then take the bus over to the Cedars?  Rack it up to me, of course, and you’d better book an extra room.  They might not have accommodation for me here.”

 

“You think you’re going to have time to sleep?” Giles asked him with a knowing look. 

 

He left Nick to set everything up and went back to Bratton Camp.  This time, he used the much handier car park just behind the hilltop.  Lisa was already there.

 

+++++

 

Buffy didn’t stay with Angel, or try to look at his wounds.  She’d deal with him later, when there was time.  Instead, she put her jacket on and took up station outside in the courtyard, waiting for the expected arrivals.  Collins went with her.

 

Nick had set himself up in the kitchen.  Angel could detect the lingering fumes of brandy, but if Nick had been drunk earlier, it didn’t show, apart from the occasional unsteadiness if he turned round too quickly.  Nick grinned uncertainly at him.  “I never drink when I’m working.  Stop me if you think I’m messing up...  Now, let’s look at you...”

 

But Angel insisted that he was fine, and could wait until the others had been seen to.  The first arrived as Nick was checking over the wound in Gavin’s shoulder.

 

“I’ll wash it and redress it later,” he told the sergeant.  “It looks good, though.  I think it’ll heal cleanly.”  Then he turned to the new arrival.

 

The night was spent stitching and splinting and bandaging.  And laying out bodies as carefully as possible, even when nothing was known about the post mortem practices of the individuals concerned.  The healer came in with the last of her patients, by which time Nick had scratched his head over some fundamentally different anatomy, consulted with Angel, and asked some basic questions of anyone of the same species as the patient.

 

Nick was never happier than when immersed in the puzzles that were his patients.  What he’d also realised in recent times was that he never felt so alive as when he was involved in the wildly wonderful world that Rupert Giles had reluctantly shown him.  And now he was to meet a demon healer.  Excellent.  If only so many people hadn’t died this night...

 

The healer, who introduced herself as Asha, was at first nonplussed that a human surgeon would exert all his skills to save her people, and then frosty that he might try to overshadow her.  But, he deferred properly to her, and before long they were working comfortably together.

 

The last patient was Estes, carried in by Syroh.  Whatever the healer had done for him on that hilltop had kept him alive, but he still had one foot over Death’s doorstep.  As Syroh laid him on the kitchen table, he exhaled gently.  It was his last breath.  Nothing they did could bring him back.

 

“I’m truly sorry for your loss,” Angel told his son.

 

Syroh stared down at the pale face of his father, marred by the golden blood that he had coughed up.  “He has worked tirelessly for a year to try and bring about our safety.  You gave him hope by showing him that his belief was not misplaced.  You will live up to that for him, won’t you?”

 

“We will.  You’ll have to tell us everything.”

 

“When the dead are buried will be soon enough.  But we will not wait upon the mourning, before we meet.  There will be time enough for grief later.”  He picked up his father’s body in both arms, lifting him from the kitchen table.  “I should like to sit alone with him for a few minutes.”

 

“Of course,” Angel told him.  “Giles is out there somewhere, but if you can’t see him, take your father into that small room next to the garage.  I think they’ll be using the flat above for the wounded.  They’ve already used the bedrooms in here.”

 

Syroh nodded, and Asha held the door for him.  “I’ll see to the proper rituals for the dead,” she said.  “At least, the ones that must be done now.  I shall be back later.  You,” she nodded to Nick, “You should see to this young man here.”  She smiled a grim and toothless smile at Angel.  “He’s in a lot of pain.”

 

“If you need help with your rituals,” Nick replied, “give Rupert a shout.  He’ll be only too willing.  And if you see Ian Collins out there, send him in here, please.  He can give me a helping hand with a reluctant patient.”

 

Collins came into the kitchen to see Nick hand a large glass of whisky to Angel.

 

“I’ve no more anaesthetic,” he said.  “Get that down you.”

 

“I don’t need...”

 

“Yes, you do,” Collins interrupted brusquely.  “Don’t forget, I’ve seen what’s what.”

 

Angel sighed and took a gulp of whisky, felt its burn as it slid down his gullet.

 

“Now,” said Nick, “I’m a doctor.  Tell me where it hurts.”

 

Angel grinned a little.  “Tell me where it doesn’t...”

 

Collins stalked over and pointed to the approximate positions of the four arrows.  Nick pursed his lips and sucked in his breath. 

 

“Ouch.”  He held out his hand for Angel’s clothes.  “On your side, I think, to start with.”

 

Wincing, Angel obeyed.  The arrow in his shoulder didn’t take long, and the wound was soon cleaned and dressed.  Nick surveyed the one below his kidneys for a full minute before turning to his bag and pulling out a different pair of forceps.

 

“Drink the whisky,” he said, “because this is going to hurt,” and then he started to dig.

 

If the first two were bad, the other two were worse.  The arrow in Angel’s chest had slid in deep, between the rib bones, almost to the fletching.  Nick carefully felt around the back of the ribcage, then he found Martha’s sharpest vegetable knife, and cleaned up the splintered end.

 

“Ian, please hold Angel up a little.  Yes.  Just there, and if you could move your hands apart a little?  Perfect.  Angel, close your eyes, please.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because your doctor told you to.  Thank you.”

 

Then, watched by Ian Collins, who seemed inclined to protest, Nick picked a small metal dish off the draining board and pulled a wooden meat mallet out of a pot of utensils.  Quickly, he placed the inverted dish over the end of the arrow, and hit it hard with the mallet.

 

Angel gasped, and his eyes flew open, but he didn’t move.  Once again Angel felt Nick’s warm fingers, slippery with blood this time. 

 

“I’ll be quick.”  Deftly, Nick grasped the protruding arrow head, and pulled the shaft through.

 

Angel lay with his eyes closed, and his fists clenched while Nick finished cleaning and dressing the wounds.  “Got any more of that whisky,” he asked, eventually.

 

“Absolutely.”

 

Angel heard the chink of glass and smelled the whisky.  He really needed this.  And there was still one more to go.  He felt the glass pressed into his hand.  Only then did he open his eyes.

 

“Right.   Have a good slurp, then make yourself comfortable on your back.  Nearly there.”

 

Angel obeyed, and closed his eyes again.  He could wish that vampires didn’t feel pain, but the fact that he did gave him a... a connection to humanity.  It was to be treasured, but not now, not in the middle of it.  Instead, he allowed the whisky to flood his senses.

 

Nick reached out touch the final wound.  It was inches – no, millimetres – away from what might be a disaster even for a vampire.  And that vampire’s lover.  “Buffy’s a lucky girl,” he remarked, to no one in particular.  Carefully, he moved the essential Angel out of the way.  When he saw the results of his touch, he added, “In more ways than one.”

 

He rummaged through his instruments.  “Ian, would you mind pressing here... And here...  Now, just pull the lips of the wound apart a little...  That’s fine.  Angel, this is really going to hurt.”

 

It really did.

 

+++++

 

No one remembered that Tuesday was one of Martha’s days.  John, carrying two bags of shopping, bumped into her back as she pulled up short at the kitchen door.  She took in the mayhem at a glance.

 

Her largest Le Creuset casserole bubbled gently on the hob.  Towels and tea cloths, stained with the sorts of colours normally associated with the jellies at children’s parties, were heaped by the side of the deep stone sink.  Bloodied bandages hung from beneath the lid of the pedal bin.  Someone had made an effort at clearing up, but the work surfaces were soiled, utensils badly in need of a good wash were scattered around, and nothing was where it ought to be.  And on the table lay a neat array of black-shafted arrows, each with a wickedly-barbed flint arrowhead.

 

“John, put the bags in the pantry, would you, love?  This kitchen will need a good scrub before I put anything down it that we’re going to eat.”

 

John stared over Martha’s shoulder.  “Where is everyone?”  He turned as a small sound from down the hall caught his attention.  “Wait here, sweet.”  He dropped the bags onto the hall carpet, and quietly opened the study door.  Giles was curled up underneath an old eiderdown on the floor, snoring softly.  John shut the door again just as quietly.

 

Then, he crossed the hall and peered round the drawing room door.  The curtains were tightly drawn, and Buffy and Angel were curled up on the Chinese rug in front of the hearth, covered only by Angel’s long woollen coat. 

 

Angel snapped into instant wakefulness.  “Sorry about the mess,” he said softly. 

 

John thought that all three of them looked exhausted.  “Breakfast can wait,” he said, and backed out.

 

Martha, meanwhile, had tried to go upstairs, a pile of clean towels and bed linen in her arms.  A man with a sword stood at the top of the stairs, denying her access.  Martha glared at the man.

 

“I’ll have no heathen getting underfoot while I’m going about my work,” she declared with a glower.

 

“There are sick people here,” the man said.

 

“Then you’d better let me put these away,” said the irate housekeeper, “and tell me what they’d all like for breakfast!”

 

The man nodded, with the ghost of a smile, and let her pass.

 

When she got back downstairs, John had started to scrub up the kitchen.  She picked up the lid of the Le Creuset dish on the hob.  Simmering gently inside it was an array of surgical instruments.  She audibly ground her teeth.

 

John walked softly around her until the kitchen sparkled in its customary way, the kettle was singing, and the smell of frying bacon, sizzling eggs and some strange, bubbling porridge wafted around the room.

 

The normal household gathered around the breakfast room table.

 

“I think those instruments are cooked now,” she remarked, the snap of frost still in her voice.

 

“Oh, they’ll be Nick’s,” Giles remarked, reaching wearily for a slice of toast.

 

Martha unbent a little.  Nick was a great favourite of hers, and that had little to do with the shameless flattery he lavished upon her.  “Will he be up for breakfast?” she asked.

 

“He’s gone to stay with Lisa.  He was going to go to The Cedars, but he was so tired, he just fell into her car and went with her.  Ian took Gavin home with him, and I think everyone else is here.  I believe their relatives are coming for them today, but Nick has said not to let them go until he or Asha has seen them again.”

 

“Asha?”

 

“The healer.  Where did she finish up last night?”

 

Angel eased his position.  He hurt all over, and he was packing in the blood again.  This morning, he’d broken into their slender supplies of human blood.  “Last I saw, she was sitting over the bodies in the store room.  Their equivalent of a wake, I guess.”

 

“She’s still there,” Buffy observed, as she sliced the top off her boiled egg.  “I went to look while you were all fighting over the bathroom.”

 

“Hmph,” said Martha as she stalked out to find the healer, and see whether she wanted to be fed.

 

+++++

 

Alice and Cecilia climbed the loft ladder, into the roof space.  Edward pushed the ladder back up and closed the trap door behind them.  Alice, expecting cement dust, spiders and layers of fibre glass insulation, was surprised to find that the loft had been boarded out, carpeted, and comfortably, if sparely furnished.

 

Hand-painted wall hangings lined the sloping roof.  They depicted what Alice first identified as mythical scenes, although afterwards she wasn’t so sure.  Two futons lay side by side, with a white flokati rug on either side.

 

Cecilia took Alice by the hand and led her over to two piles of soft floor cushions separated by a small, ebony cube of a table, the top carved with strange, reptilian shapes.  They seated themselves, Cecilia putting down the small, lidded basket that she had brought with her.  Then she took Alice’s hands between her own, in a gesture that mimicked prayer.

 

“Alice, let me ask you...  Are you artistic?”

 

“Does it matter?”

 

“Bear with me.”  Cecilia squeezed Alice’s hands.

 

“I suppose so.  I do some decorative bookbinding, and I decorate cakes.  People seem to think they’re pretty.”

 

Cecilia nodded in self-satisfaction. 

 

“All Silarri women can make beautiful things.  You will see why.  What I am about to tell you is passed down from mother to daughter.  I stand as your mother in this, and you as my daughter.”

 

Alice couldn’t help but smile at that.  Cecilia looked at least thirty years younger than she did.

 

Cecilia let go of Alice’s hands and reached into the basket.  The object that she pulled out seemed to be the sphere that Alice had given her as a gift, but when Alice looked more closely, she could see that the edges of the carvings were less sharp, more worn.

 

“This is the Orb of Peshcalo, the sphere of renewal.  A mother will carve one of these for each of her daughters.”  She held it out for Alice to see.  “It is always of the finest jet, and it’s layered with the serpents that represent the birth of our people.  We will have time later to explore our mythology, which is as rich as anything on this Earth.   A mother will perform this ritual with her daughter when she attains adulthood, at the age of twenty-five.  Only women can do this, and only in certain conditions.  Just as menstruation in human women is ruled by the waning of the moon, so peshcalo in Silarri women is ruled by the moon as it waxes to the full, but only when it is in a proper alignment with Venus.  I will show you the calendar for this later.

 

“The Orb has no magic of its own, but it will allow you to focus your own abilities.  No Silarri man can do this.  For renewal, a man must depend on his mother, his sister, his lover.  If he has none of those, a man must continue to age, until he can find a woman to share her power with him.”

 

She faltered for a moment.  “And no human can benefit from it.  My son was due to come here, to me, for this night, not to become younger, but to maintain the human appearance that he had.  His scales were appearing, just as yours have, and Mary could not help him.  Nor can I help Mary.”

 

She suppressed a small sob, and then recovered herself.  “The power is in you, Alice, and I will show you how to find it and use it.”

 

Cecilia stood up, graceful despite her apparent age.  She put a small bowl of frankincense by the side of each futon and sprinkled a mixture of herbs and spices over the smouldering pieces.

 

“Now, do as I do.”

 

She undressed, laying her clothes carefully aside, and Alice did the same.  Then, she lay down.  When Alice had done that, too, Cecilia placed the Orb between them.

 

“Now,” she said, “place your hand on the Orb, with me.  Make your decision, and then focus your will into the Orb.  All your will.”

 

Alice conjured up a picture in her mind, the picture of herself that Ian Collins had seen, and tried to follow Cecilia’s instructions.

 

+++++

 

Summerdown House was empty now of all but its human complement – well, its normal complement plus human friends might be more accurate.  The day had brought a steady stream of quiet strangers collecting their kin, alive or dead.  Now, they were all gone, but it was a sombre gathering that met in the family room.

 

Nick had set out in such a hurry the night before that he hadn’t brought a change of clothes.  For now, he’d borrowed jeans and a shirt from Angel, to replace his own bloodied garments.  He accepted the glass of wine that Giles poured, and then waited for another, which he carried over to Lisa, and sat down next to her.

 

“It doesn’t make you look like Angel,” she murmured, with a smile, as she sipped her wine.

 

“Naughty tease,” he chided, and then they both relapsed into silence.

 

Buffy curled up in an armchair, her fingers wrapped around the bowl of her glass, her thoughts a long way off.  She needed a lot more information than she currently had to make sense of what was happening, and she wasn’t at all pleased that she felt so much in the dark.  It didn’t help that none of the others knew a great deal more than she did.

 

John had arrived to collect Martha, and now stood shyly to one side of the room as Martha came in, rolling down her sleeves.  John was always shy in company, but Giles had almost frogmarched him in.  Giles poured another glass of wine for Martha and cast an enquiring glance at John, who shook his head.  With a knowing nod, Giles disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a glass and a bottle of beer.

 

Ian Collins sat on the opposite settee to that occupied by Nick and Lisa.  He gave a tentative smile to Angel, as he sat down next to him, leaning back comfortably into the arm of the couch.  The policeman in Collins automatically checked Angel’s glass.  Its contents were the same colour and consistency as his own, and so he assumed it was the rather good burgundy that Giles was dispensing.

 

Collins watched, as Giles filled his own glass, and tipped it towards the room in general.  “Another day, another disaster, I think one might say.”  Collins couldn’t disagree.  Neither did anyone else.

 

“I’ve arranged for representatives from the Court of Hundred – or perhaps the Commonwealth of Clans, I’m not sure what the difference is, yet – to come on Saturday night, when their funeral rites are over,” Giles continued.  “Hopefully, we’ll have a better idea of what’s going on, but I can see that we’re going to be busy for a few weeks.  I anticipate that we’ll have to track down the assassins and, perhaps, provide some protection for vulnerable leaders.  It might be a few weeks before we’re all together in the same place, so a drink together seemed appropriate.  And whoever wants to stay for dinner...?”

 

Buffy looked up.  “Just a minute, Giles.  We all have a date together soon...”

 

Giles looked confused.  Angel looked across at Buffy, his expression inscrutable to any but her.  ‘Leave it,’ was what he silently said.

 

“No, Angel,” she said, with determination.  “We’re doing this.”  She looked round at everyone.  “Angel’s birthday dinner.  It’ll be the first one he’s celebrated in centuries, and we’re having it.”

 

Remembering the birthday celebrations with Darla, Angel didn’t correct her.

 

“Well,” said Martha, quick to speak in her support, “why don’t we bring it forward?  Say, to Friday night?”

 

Giles nodded and looked at Angel.  “I think everyone could do with a convivial evening.  What do you think?”

 

Everyone, even Angel, agreed that it was so.

 

Ian Collins watched the people he now thought of as friends as they wound down a little from the tensions of the day.  He almost hadn’t come.  He’d taken Gavin Lincoln back to the sergeant’s own flat, to get some sleep and start to recuperate.  He’d preferred not to go back to an empty house and worry about what might be happening at save-the-world central, and so he’d come back to see what more he could do. 

 

He’d come back via Alice’s, though.  With all this talk of demon assassins, he’d worried about the old girl, and wanted to check that she was all right, especially after the break-in.  She hadn’t been there, and the house had had that indefinable air that spoke of temporary abandonment.  He wondered what she was doing, and whether she was safe.

 

+++++

 

“I’m sorry,” Alice said to Cecilia.  “I really am trying, but I can’t seem to find the depths that you’re talking about.”  Cecilia had told her to reach deep down inside herself, to feel her body carrying out its everyday functions, and then to go beyond those.  To find a whole new level of self.  She’d patently failed.

 

 “Don’t worry, Alice.  I hoped that you’d be in touch with your Silarri nature, but you’ve missed out on so much, for so long, that I more than half-expected this.  Once you’ve learned how to do it, you will never forget.  But for now, I need to help you pass the gateway of your conscious mind.”

 

She sat up, and reached out for her lidded basket.  This time, what she took from it was a small dull-coloured snake.

 

“This little girl has venom that’s lethal to humans, but it’s mildly psychoactive for us.  We use it often for young Silarri women who have difficulty finding themselves during their first peshcalo.  It’s more common than you might imagine, although for different reasons.  Are you afraid of snakes?”

 

Alice shook her head.  She really wasn’t.  Cecilia held out the little snake to her.  “Her name is Bera.  She knows where to bite.”

 

The serpent wrapped herself around Alice’s wrist, and, as Alice drew back her arm, Bera rose up, her eyes bright and unblinking.  Then she struck, burying her fangs in Alice’s breast.

 

Alice gasped at the sudden sting, but the pain passed almost as soon as Bera withdrew her fangs.  “Seems a bit Cleopatraesque,” she observed breathlessly.

 

“No, no,” replied Cecilia, with a gentle laugh.  “Cleopatra wasn’t a Silarri.  That was one of her attendants.  That’s why the asp was handy at the time.”

 

“Oh,” said Alice faintly.  She felt light-headed, as the toxin took effect, and she lay back against the pillows.  The slight weight as Bera curled up around her navel was a comfort.  Cecilia’s voice came to her, sometimes distant, fading and then growing, carried to her on the beating of her heart and the throbbing of her blood, talking her through her birthright.

 

+++++

 

As Alice gradually returned to normal wakefulness, she knew instantly that something was different.  Apart from the snake curled up on her belly, that was.  She’d never felt old, even though she’d looked it.  Take away the mirrors in the house, and she’d have felt just like... Alice.  Now, though, she understood the meaning of the word peshcalo.  Renewal.  She felt like the Alice who ran along the beach with her mother and father, who climbed trees, who raced her friends bareback on feisty Barbary ponies.  She opened her eyes, heavy lidded, long-lashed, and raised her arm from the bed.  Lost was the pallor of age, the liver spots, the wrinkled folds of empty skin.  The scales on her hand.  Instead, the skin was smooth, completely unmarred, a dusky rose, glowing with youth and vigour.  Her gasp hid the first notes of Cecilia’s amused laughter.

 

“Not bad.  Not bad at all, for a first peshcalo.”

 

“What do you mean ‘for a first peshcalo’?

 

“It’s a difficult process, my dear, and practice makes perfect.  Look in the mirror.  But it’s very good.”

 

Alice rose, handing Bera back to her mistress, and stood in front of the tall mirror.  What she saw was a slim young woman, sloe-eyed, long limbed and graceful, with a flawless cafe-au-lait complexion and long, curling hair, dark with a rich chestnut glow.  She was a true child of the Barbary Coast.  What had amused Cecilia was that she looked about eighteen.

 

She pouted, making Cecilia laugh again. “What were you aiming for?” she asked.

 

“Mid-twenties or so, like you.”  She turned to look at Cecilia.  “You look perfect.”

 

And Cecilia did.  She was an English rose, with a peach complexion, blue eyes and silken blonde hair.  Alice knew that this woman was considerably older than she was, and yet you’d swear that, despite her mature poise and self-possession, she wasn’t a minute older than twenty-five.

 

“Come and lie down again, dear.  You need to rest until the change is settled.  I’ll make us a cup of tea.” 

 

Alice, listening to the background chinkle of teacups, dared to ask a question.

 

“Cecilia...”

 

“Call me Cissy.  Everyone else will.”

 

“Cissy, what about your neighbours?  What will they think when they see you?”

 

“Oh, nothing, Alice.  I’ve already left here, as far as they’re concerned.  We’re handing this house over to our daughter.  Our actual daughter, although we have pretended to be the next generation, sometimes.  She’s getting married shortly, and she and her husband will live here.  We’re moving to a lovely new house down in Glastonbury.  We wanted to be in the West Country for a bit.”

 

She grinned mischievously.

 

“Edward is really looking forward to having a young bimbo as a wife...”

 

Alice was stricken with guilt.  “You’d have done this with him, if I hadn’t been here, wouldn’t you?”

 

“No, it would have been Gary.  But we talked it over thoroughly, I assure you.  And it will answer very well.  It will be something new for us, and we’ll both enjoy it.  There isn’t another good peshcalo date for a couple of years, but unless you need to remake yourself, then I shall, so far as the neighbours know, be trading him in for a younger model.  It will be such fun.”

 

She brought the tea over.

 

“Alice, what about your neighbours?  And friends?”

 

“I... haven’t told anyone...”  She thought she’d understood what she was doing, but the excitement had veiled the enormity of it from her.  “I... Well, I’m sure that some of my friends will be fine with it...  No one else need know.”

 

“My advice is to move.  Or pretend to have died and left your property to a young relative.”

 

As she spoke, a phone trilled.  It was Alice’s.  When at last she answered it, a message had been left.  Angel’s birthday party had been brought forward.  She would still be coming, wouldn’t she?”

 

What to do?  Especially since she’d overshot her age target... And the man she’d set her sights on, the good Detective Chief Inspector, didn’t look like a man to go in for cradle-snatching.  Drat.

 

+++++

 

Angel had only agreed to Buffy’s idea of an official birthday with reluctance.  For one thing, vampires didn’t set much store by celebrating birthdays.  They celebrated the fact of their existence every single day, in someone else’s blood.  They didn’t need birthdays.  Darla had been different.  She had indulged in any excuse for celebrating, and she’d done so with birthdays to the top of her bent.  His birthday had always been special for her, and there had always been something – someone – different.  His birthday as a vampire had been a true red letter day, drowned in the blood of those who were special. 

 

Darla’s last special present had been a certain gypsy girl.  Her people had added their own contribution, of course, with the restoration of his soul.  He could still taste her, if he tried, still remember how he and Darla had celebrated.  And he would never be able to forget the pain that had followed.

 

Celebrating the day that had seen him born into that welter of blood would be... blasphemous.  Celebrating the day his soul had been reborn into a legacy of pain and horror was... well, there just didn’t seem to be any words to describe that thought.  He’d told Buffy about the gypsy girl, but he’d never mentioned the fact of his vampire birthday.  He’d tried to be quelling when she’d raised the whole issue but there were other considerations... 

 

Celebrating the day that Liam had been born seemed futile.  What other days were left, that were worthwhile?  The day he’d been reborn from hell, as feral as a beaten dog?  The day he’d been reborn from his son, Connor’s, blood, and for all he knew, at the cost of Connor’s life?

 

No.  Just... no.

 

The only day he might have thought worth celebrating was the day he first saw Buffy.  That was true rebirth for him, and the truth about it was, he didn’t remember the date.  He remembered every single detail of that day, but he’d been disconnected from the world for a long time, and although he could never escape the precision of sunrise and sunset, and the slow changing of the seasons, the rest of the calendar had passed him by for years, decades.  He supposed that Whistler might know, but the little demon had been conspicuous by his absence, and so Angel couldn’t offer that date to her.

 

When she’d chosen 23 November, the pain had been almost too great to bear. For one fleeting instant, he’d wondered whether she might remember the day that never was, but a glance at her face had assured him that she didn’t.  For the world, that day had never existed, and even a detective as good as Ian Collins would never find a trace of it.  It was just another broken dream for Angel.  He had more now than he ever could have expected, but all-in-all, he was glad that, in the end, events had conspired to bring this night forward.

 

The other reason that he’d been reluctant was that he hated being the centre of attention, hated it as much as Angelus had loved it.  Hated it, perhaps, for that very reason, because the demon in him craved it.  Vampires loved being the centre of attention of their own particular circle, but otherwise they generally preferred to stay in the shadows, unseen until that last, dying moment...

 

He didn’t mind at all being the centre of Buffy’s attention, but that was different.  With Giles, he’d learned to be a full and contributing member of the team.  John was as shy as could stare, and so Angel felt comfortable in his company, and Martha was so matter of fact, treated him so much like any other person, that no one could feel uncomfortable with her.  The others who were invited tonight were becoming, in different degrees, friends.  And some of them were almost like family.

 

Vampires didn’t care about friends.  Close family was different.  They were blood.  Everyone else was a rival.  But, he’d found a mostly human family in LA, and now he wondered whether he could have a mostly human family here, in Westbury. 

 

That wasn’t the reason he’d agreed to Buffy’s absurd suggestion, though.  He’d agreed because he knew how desperately she wanted normal.  Having birthdays was normal.  And there were so many normal things he could never give her.  Marriage, children, growing old together...  He loved her to the point of madness, and so he’d been mad enough to agree.

 

But, he’d insisted on, not a party, but a small dinner with people he felt comfortable with.  These were the people he’d chosen to come; people he ought to be able to drink a glass of blood in front of, and not feel shamed.  Buffy and Giles, of course.  Martha and John.  Nick.  Lisa.  Ian.  Alice.  He’d been uncertain about inviting Alice because he guessed that she didn’t get out much, and she might feel uncomfortable.  He could relate to that.  But precisely because she probably didn’t get out much, he was glad she’d accepted.  And Gavin, who’d been the last to be included.  Angel didn’t know him as well as the others, but he’d seemed withdrawn since Lina had gone home.  Having a demoness with a prehensile tail as a girlfriend had probably spoiled him for other girls for a while, and Angel thought that there might be merit in reminding the boy that the world wasn’t entirely human, and it could be none the worse for that.

 

He finished shrugging himself into a change of clothes.  Buffy had, with clear exasperation, sent him to change into something less black.  He’d obliged with charcoal and white.

 

He caught sight of the full-length mirror, empty of everything except the room itself.  He felt a catch in his throat, as he remembered the day when he’d been warm and breathing and in love, when he’d had a reflection in a mirror, and could watch himself shave, and when he had decided to die again for her sake.  He prayed for the mercy of never having to make that sacrifice again.

 

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, a very human need that he never seemed to put behind him, he moved quietly onto the landing, and then he smiled at what he saw below.

 

All the books and fragments of scrolls and other tools of Giles’ trade had been firmly relegated to the study.  Martha shut the door behind her.  A brief inspection had revealed a couple of codexes and an armful of encyclopaedias on one of the dining room chairs.  She had instantly confiscated them and added them to the heaps in the study.

 

She ducked her head out of her pinafore, careful not to disarrange her hair.  A noise behind her alerted her to Giles’ approach.  When she saw him, he had his nose in another old and musty book.  Glaring, she opened the study door again, and pointed inside.

 

“They’ll be here in a few minutes.  Books - in there!”

 

Giles looked up, startled.  “But... but it’s Whittingham’s Assassins!”

 

“I’m sure it is,” said Martha, grimly, “but it’s also Angel’s official birthday.  Party now, read later.”  She took the book from him and added it to one of the piles on the floor.

 

“Thanks for everything, Martha.”

 

“Oh, Buffy’s done most of the work.”

 

Giles and Martha walked together into the kitchen, where Buffy, too, was stripping off an apron, and where pots were bubbling and the aromas were mouth-watering.  Giles stretched out a finger to a particularly tempting citron tart, only to have Buffy rap his knuckles.  He was saved any further punishment by a knock at the door.

 

Angel, behind them, said, “I’ll get it.”

 

It was Nick and Lisa.  Angel’s nose twitched, but he kept his face impassive.  He, better than anyone, understood keeping secrets.

 

“Congratulations to the birthday boy!” Lisa leant forward and gave Angel a kiss on the cheek.  Angel gave her a hug.

 

“Me, too?” asked Nick, in mock invitation.

 

“Get away with you.” Angel stood aside to let them in.

 

“Hey, guys!”  Buffy came up to greet them, and they both handed gift-wrapped parcels to her.

 

“My birthday!” Angel said, plaintively, then grinned.

 

“Your presents, but after dinner,” Buffy told him firmly.  To Lisa and Nick, she said, “John’s already in the family room.  He’s got the booze.  We’ll be there in a minute.”

 

“Be still my heart,” Nick said with a flourish, as they went down the hall.

 

Angel had almost closed the door, when he heard the approach of another car.  It was Gavin.  He was nervous, fingering his tie, but Angel rationalised that perhaps he wasn’t in the habit of socialising with his boss.  He’d surely got over Lina’s pillow talk exposés, about vampires and slayers and watchers.  That was another reason for including him – he knew too much to stand apart from the group of friends.

 

By the time Ian drew his car into the courtyard, Martha had discovered that the bottles of white wine were still in the storeroom by the garage.  Buffy went with her, and Angel sauntered after them, to greet the new arrival.  Giles, standing in the doorway, wondered whether Buffy would be more offended if he offered to act as pack pony, or if he failed to offer.  Slayers or females could be strange that way.

 

Back in the house, John had also noticed the lack of the white wine and, unaware that his wife and Buffy were on the same errand, set off for the store room, to remedy the omission.  So it was that these five saw what happened in the courtyard.

 

It took Ian a few minutes to manoeuvre his car into place in the unusually crowded courtyard.  As he climbed out of the car, a taxi drew up.  Angel thought, with a brief pang of guilt, that this would be Alice, and they really should have thought to go and collect her.  Well, he’d make sure that he took her home.

 

And then Angel stood and frankly gawped.  The taxi driver helped his passenger out.  She was a lovely young woman, dressed in a simple but low-cut dress of midnight blue crepe de chine.  Her dark hair fell in waves down to her shoulders, highlighting the silver and lapis necklace that lay cool against skin the colour of warm honey.

 

An errant cat’s paw of breeze played around the courtyard, bringing her scent to Angel.  The perfume that she wore was patchouli, but it didn’t disguise the essential her, at least not to a demon’s nose.  He turned his head slightly, so that he could see Ian Collins in addition to everyone else.  Suddenly he grinned, from that same sense of whimsy that marked Angelus.  This was going to be so much fun.

 

Ian stood with a furrowed brow, as though trying to pull something important from his memory.  Giles and Buffy and Martha all looked to the amused Angel in bewilderment, seeking clues about this extra guest.

 

John stood stock still, rubbing his chin, as the woman, half girl, half grown-up, walked confidently towards them on her high stiletto heels. 

 

“Hello, John,” she said, her voice as smooth as dark chocolate.

 

John hesitated before he replied.  “Hello, Alice,” he replied, in a voice that everyone could hear.

 

“Alice?”  That was Martha, repeating what John had said with incredulity.  Alice?  She stared hard, and then her hand came up to her breast.  “Oh, by the merciful saints, is it really you?  That bracelet...”  She pointed to the bracelet that she’d seen so often on Alice’s wrist, a perfect match for the slim pendant drops in her ears, and the elegant silver choker necklace with its long rod of lapis hanging almost to her cleavage.

 

Angel began to laugh, softly, as the others gathered around this new and vibrant Alice.  Except for Ian, that is, who stood stupefied, like a man just poleaxed.  Oh, this really was going to be fun.  Best birthday present ever.  Well, almost.

 

+++++

 

“How did you know it was Alice?”

 

Everyone had heard the story now – or as much of it as Alice chose to reveal – and, fortified by the soothing application of alcohol, had largely recovered from the shock.  And, just as everyone had hugged Angel – except for those who settled for manly handshakes – everyone had hugged the rejuvenated primary school teacher, recognising that beneath that confident exterior she was wearing a worried frown.  It was Martha who quizzed her beloved, the man who had first recognised Alice.

 

John blushed a little.  “Well,” he told them softly, in his strong West Country burr, “t’were that snap that she keeps in that silver frame.  I did see it when I were over there after the burglary, and I remember remarking on it.  She’s the spit of that, ‘cept maybe a tad younger.  And you know, not much surprises me now.”

 

“Not much gets past you either,” Martha said, proudly.  That made him blush a little more.  He leaned over and kissed her cheek, and, unused to even small public demonstrations such as this, the flustered Martha declared that everyone must be positively famished, and it was surely time for dinner.

 

As the company filed out of the room, Buffy pulled Alice to one side.

 

“You look really amazing, Alice,” she told her.  “Whatever we can do about the practical stuff – you dropping sixty years under the noses of everyone else, for instance – well, you just have to say.  You know that, right?”

 

Alice nodded.

 

“I can’t get over it.  That’s a hell of an anti-wrinkle treatment...”  Buffy hugged Alice again.  “I really envy you.”

 

Alice regarded her with sympathy.  She understood only too well how Buffy would age, and Angel would not.  “You’ve got the possibility of your own anti-wrinkle treatment, Buffy.  I’m sure of that.”  She pinched the Slayer’s cheek, and then led her into the dining room.

 

Dinner was one of the most companionable that Angel could remember, full of excitement and laughter and animated conversation.  He leaned back in his chair, watching the others, his chest aching with contentment.  If ever there was a moment for losing his soul a second time, this was it.

 

It wasn’t lost on him that, from time to time, Ian Collins would fall silent, sipping from his glass of wine while staring across the table at Alice.  Angel rather thought he knew what Collins might be thinking.

 

Angel was right.

 

Collins could hardly take his eyes off her.  He would never be prepared to admit to himself that he’d fallen in love with the idea of Alice from a photograph.  In his mind, that beautiful woman had merged with the fascinating pensioner, a mélange spiced with the knowledge that she was a demon, an exotic alien.  And now here she was, as utterly exotic as that romantic dream, and yet utterly real.  And apparently less than half his age.

 

He ran his fingers over the deeply carved glass, shimmering with ruby wine, feeling the texture of it on his skin.  What he would really like to do was run his fingers over that honey-coloured cheek.  Now, he truly began to grasp what faced Buffy and Angel.  Buffy would age, and Angel wouldn’t.  How would they deal with that?  Did they have a plan?  Mary and Gary Elder had dealt with it because Gary Elder had grown older with his wife.  If she would even consider him, Alice would be a woman in the prime of life when he was a creaking old man.

 

When she looked at him, her eyes seemed to glow with warmth and life, but then she would turn that same warm look on any of the others at Giles’ table.  He decided, shrewdly, that the power that burgeoned within her was perhaps a product of the renaissance she had undergone.  Whether that remained with her, or gradually faded to a more normal level, she was larger than life tonight, and she was quite beyond his touch.  He would have to be content with admiring her from afar.

 

He knew that Angel was watching him, and gave an inward smile at the irony of it all.  If he could have foreseen this, a couple of years ago, he would have pronounced himself certifiable.  Totally certifiable.

 

He rubbed at his ear, at some undefined irritation in the eardrum, not unlike the change of pressure in an airliner.  Across the table, he saw Angel look away sharply, his attention riveted somewhere outside, across the courtyard.  Alice, too, faltered in what she was saying, her gaze following Angel’s.  Buffy swivelled in her chair, and looked backwards.  As the irritation grew, the others round the table fell silent.

 

Angel first heard the irritation as a buzzing sound, not unlike what can be heard very close to electricity power lines.  It grew until it was like a nest of wasps heard through a veil of cotton.  Then there was a soft thump, an implosion of air perhaps such as might be heard if the Earth said ‘b’.  And then a grinding, cracking noise, and the shuttering sound of sliding masonry.

 

Everyone in the company stood, pushing their chairs back in haste, but it was Angel who was first to the double doors out to the hall, with the courtyard on the other side.  He dragged the doors open and strode across the hall.  Through the outer door, he could see the courtyard, and the buildings beyond – the garage, with their flat above, and their new home, which had been planned as the first wing of a second courtyard, and was almost ready to move into. 

 

All of them lay in ruins.  Two figures moved through the courtyard, each with a hand raised, something glowing against their open palms.  As their raised hands were swept around in an arc, all things in the path of that white glow crumbled and fell.  Cars corroded into rusting wrecks, slumping to the ground as their tyres rotted.  Masonry fell into dust and shards, wood blew away as dust on the breeze.  There was only the main house left.

 

Cursing, Angel reached for the door handle, but the sound of shattering glass back in the dining room warned him of a nearer danger.  No one in there was prepared, no one had seen what he had seen.

 

He ran back in to see a dark-clad figure straighten itself from the leap through the window, glass sliding off its shoulders.  An ominous white glow leaked from its clenched fist.  There was no time to take in any more detail.

 

He upturned the heavy table, one of Giles’ prized possessions a Jacobean antique in dark oak, the crockery and glassware clattering to the floor, and in the same movement he threw it across the corner of the room, creating an enclosed space in front of the far window.  And then he was across the wreckage of dinner before the intruder could raise its hand, his fist clenched around its wrist, trying to stop whatever it was going to do.

 

“Buffy, you can’t fight this,” he gritted out.  “Get them all out.  Get them to safety.  There are at least two in the courtyard.  Don’t go that way.  Everything’s gone.  Everything...”  And then there was no more time for words as the demon drew a knife, and slashed it down into Angel’s arm, to make him let go.  He responded by trying to break its wrist.

 

Buffy understood little of what was happening, and less of what Angel had said about everything being gone.  But she understood very well the message in Angel’s voice.  This wasn’t some macho thing.  This was something he was sure even a Slayer couldn’t fight empty-handed.  And he’d given her the responsibility of keeping their friends safe.  She didn’t even need to think about it.  She trusted her lover, and started yelling for everyone to get behind the table.

 

It wasn’t a moment too soon.  The demon was very, very strong.  Even against his great strength, it had managed to force its arm upright.  Angel could now see that the glowing object was the heel of its hand, and that glow was brightening.  A swathe of food on the floor mouldered, decayed and became no more than a dark stain in a second.  In another second, the carpet beneath the stain crumbled.  He tightened his hold around its wrist with his left hand and punched it in the midriff with his right.  It barely flinched, and its hand opened, raking across the ceiling.  Timbers creaked and plaster sifted down.

 

Outside the room, more glass broke.  The demons from the courtyard were in the house.  Desperate now, Angel stood on tiptoe, for the advantage of height, and brought his forehead down hard on the demon’s face.  It staggered slightly, and with both hands, he yanked at the arm, trying to break or disable it.  Buffy had opened the window behind the shelter of the table, checking that the escape route was safe.  The demon tried to target her with its palm, raising its knife again to slash at Angel.  He yanked at its wrist again as he lifted one hand to knock the knife away, giving the demon the opportunity to swing its hand further round the room.  Furnishings crumbled and walls cracked.  It let out a bird-high keening cry that could only be a summons to the others.

 

And then the two others were in the room, fists upraised.

 

Summoning all his strength, Angel punched the demon on the temple as hard as he could.  The punch didn’t kill it, but felled it to the floor, the glow in its hand dimming.  He turned to the other two as Aristotle ran into the room, his tail fluffed out in a feline battle cry.  The ginger cat flew at the face of the nearest demon with a yowl of anger.

 

That act of heroism gave Angel one opponent rather than two, for just the briefest moment.  As he leapt across the room, the second demon turned its hand onto him.  He saw Aristotle, heard him scream in fear, and then the cat fell to the floor, no more than a dried and twisted scrap of skin and bone.  And Angel felt a chill, an icicle tingle spear through his own flesh, as he reached to grapple with both demons.

 

Only seconds had passed since they had been laughing and enjoying each other’s company.  As she pulled back from checking outside the window, Buffy turned to Angel, to see his clothes start to rot and dissolve into rags, although his body seemed untouched, and then she started shoving people out of the window.  John went first, pulling Martha through as Buffy pushed, and then Lisa.

 

“Hurry,” John whispered.  “We can go round the back, try and get to the weapons cupboard.”

 

Buffy wondered whether they’d get that chance, as stone cracked around them and the ceiling sagged.  She looked round quickly again, as she forcibly ejected Nick into John’s waiting grasp.  The first demon was clambering to its feet, shaking its head, its palm starting to glow again.

 

“Angel!” she yelled.  “Behind you!”

 

But Angel was unable to react, struggling with two demons both of whom were almost as strong as he was.  Buffy put a hand on the table, intending to join the fight with him, but Giles pulled her back. 

 

“You can’t fight these,” he started, but she couldn’t afford to listen.  Another hand pushed her away, though.  Beside her, Alice vaulted over the table, performing a perfect cartwheel across the floor.  Buffy watched with horror as the handspring took her into the path of whatever power these demons were using, but then her foot connected with the demon’s chin, and it went down.

 

Ian, without stopping to think, leapt over the table, following Alice.  He snatched at her, one arm round her waist, and pulled her through the shattered door into the garden, turning them so that he stood between her and the house.

 

“You could have been killed,” he hissed.

 

“We might all be, tonight.  I’d rather go down fighting,” was her terse reply.

 

“Lucky you caught it on the chin.”

 

“Lucky?” she scoffed.  “I was a very good dancer.  I can put a high heel exactly where I want it.  Exactly.  Now, come on.”  She kicked off her remaining shoe.

 

Further down the wall, Gavin was the last to scramble out of the window.  A hurried backward glance showed that the two demons had thrown Angel off.  He’d landed hard several yards down the room.  Now, he was stalking up to them, in the open line of fire of whatever weapons they were using, just soaking it up as the glow in the demons’ hands grew to near-incandescence.  His clothes were gone, leaving him clad only in glorious barbaric nudity.

 

Her face pale, Buffy pulled Gavin away.  “Giles, John, get everyone up to the garden.  I’m going for the weapons.”

 

“Not me,” said John, his face set in the stubbornness that they rarely saw but knew to be absolute, when he so decided.  “I’m coming with you.”

 

There were murmurs of all-round mutiny.

 

Giles interrupted.  “They’re using time as a weapon,” he offered.  “They’re sucking time out, or feeding time in, I can’t tell which, yet.  That’s why Angel sent you away.  A Slayer will age and die as quickly as anyone else.  Only Angel... he’s changeless, eternal.  It won’t affect him...”

 

“Giles!”  Buffy almost screamed it.  “Run now, theorize later!”  Images of the Master, with his dreadful fruit-punch mouth, filled her mind.  Was Angel really changeless?  Were vampires truly eternal?  She so didn’t want to find out the hard way...

 

Giles ignored her.  “You’ll need the crossbows.”

 

“Too dangerous,” she snapped.  “I might hit Angel.  I want a sword or an axe.”

 

Giles took her by both arms, gripping hard.  “Then you’d better make sure your aim is good.  You’ll never get near enough for a sword, before you’re no more than a pile of grave dirt on the floor.”  His voice was harsh, to match his words.

 

Her throat worked, as she swallowed her anger, and then she turned and ran for the courtyard.  The others followed.  As she rounded the corner and saw the utter devastation, she understood what Angel meant by ‘Everything’s gone.’  And at the far end, the utility wing, with its precious weapons cupboard, was no more than a pile of flinders.  She had to do something.  Angel was buying them time, but it didn’t look as though he could defeat them all without weapons.  A serving spoon wasn’t going to be any good to him.

 

“Something must have survived,” she whispered to herself.  “A sword...”  She looked up at Giles.  “Swords last a long time, don’t they?”

 

He didn’t reply as they ran forward to search.  And then the house groaned in final pain.  Grey slates showered down, threatening to decapitate anyone beneath, as roof beams cracked and buckled.  Cast iron guttering, rusted to red lace, fell and shattered into flakes.  The chimney stacks twisted, and toppled.

 

Buffy felt movement at her feet, and bent to scoop up Zillah, cowering behind a faded terracotta pot.  “RUN!” she screamed at the others, as, with stony reluctance, the solid wall of the house finally gave way to the ravages of time and began a slow collapse.  The roof above sagged.  “RUN!”

 

It was all too late.  With the sound of an earthquake, the house fell around them.

 

+++++

 

John heard the grinding scream of tortured stone and then the shuttering sounds of sliding slates.  He couldn’t see a place of refuge.  There was no time for thought.  He pushed Buffy, with Zillah still in her arms, towards Giles, trusting to them both to run.  But Martha had stumbled in the darkness, and was down on one knee.  As the first of the slates hit the courtyard, preceding the avalanche of limestone blocks, John pushed his beloved wife to the ground, and covered her with his body.  If the stone hit him, broken ribs would mend, but she must be kept safe.

 

The wall toppled, and the roof slid down to the courtyard.

 

+++++

 

Inside, Angel picked himself up from where he’d been tossed, like a rag doll, by the combined efforts of the two.  They were strong, and seemed to be getting stronger.  Briefly, he wondered whether they were drawing strength from what they were doing, or whether they were sapping his.  But now was no time for wondering.  They were sweeping their open palms around the room and up into the ceiling.  He thought the stones cried out in pain.

 

Gritting his teeth, and stepping over the corpse, he stalked across the floor, his very clothes rotting off his back.  The two stood side by side, holding up their glowing hands, incandescently bright.  There was nothing else to see, no beams, no rays, nothing to connect those palms to what was happening to his body.  But he could feel it.  He was walking against a river of time, power washing against and around him, a wall of current trying to hold him back.

 

The chill of ice ran right through him now.  His body felt like marble, not like flesh.  He might never experience warmth again.  Still, he pushed on.

 

The demons seemed frantic to stop him now, ramping up the power even higher, but what they had done had already changed him.  He was... old.  With a vampire, that only meant one thing.  He reached out to one and snapped its neck with consummate ease, as the other one pressed its palm against his breast.  That one he dealt with in the vampire way, leaning in to its throat, his fangs gaping, tearing their way through solid flesh until his mouth filled with thick and sour blood, as he pulled the hand from where the demon had laid it over his heart, and broke it off at the wrist.

 

There was an explosion of white light, blinding and silently deafening, and then there was nothing but darkness.

 

+++++

 

Ian pulled Alice up from where he had thrown her, behind the wreckage of his car, pressing her backwards towards the shadows of the garden until he knew what was happening.  They were covered in stone dust and bruises.  Alice’s dress was torn, exposing a long length of thigh.  As he helped her to her feet, the moon, still at full, rode out from behind a bank of cloud, bathing the scene of disaster in a clear silver light.  And it illuminated Alice.

 

The Alice of now was not the Alice of a few minutes ago.  “Giles was right,” he said softly.

 

She cocked her head slightly, looking for explanation.

 

What he saw was a svelte, voluptuous woman of about thirty.  Despite the bruises and smears of blood, and the covering of dust and dirt, she was infinitely desirable to him.  Perhaps putting off for a few precious seconds the task of searching the wreckage for his friends, and casting his fate at her feet, he leaned in and kissed her.  Her hand came up to his head, to pull him closer, and then she pulled away.

 

“Later,” she said, her voice husky.

 

He nodded and, with a deep breath, turned to see who else needed help.

 

He found Nick, blood running from a shallow cut on his forehead, crouched by the stumps of the courtyard wall, cradling Lisa in his arms, sheltering her with his body.  He looked up as he saw movement.

 

“Come on, old girl.  Looks like it’s safe to get up.”

 

They shook off masonry dust and pieces of brick and stone as they struggled to their feet.  “Ian,” Nick called, as he checked Lisa over for hurts, “how is everyone?”

 

Ian shook his head.  “Don’t know yet.”

 

On those words, they heard a cry of grief from further in the courtyard.  Martha knelt among the rubble, heedless of the sharp shards cutting into her knees.  In her lap, she cradled the head of her husband, and even in the imperfect light shed by the moon, it was clear that he was dead, a piece of roofing slate still stuck in the side of his neck. 

 

There was no blood coming from the wound.  There could be no blood left in his body, considering the amount of blood that had soaked into the ground.  Martha was weltered in it.

 

“It should have been me,” she moaned, silvered tears running down her face.  “He... he pushed me, but we couldn’t move fast enough.  He saved me.  Oh, John...”

 

Alice crouched down by her.  “Martha, we have to get out of here.  Give me your hand.”  But Martha didn’t seem to hear her.  Lisa knelt by her and put an arm around her shoulders.

 

A figure moving at the far end of the courtyard had Ian reaching for a baulk of timber, which crumbled under his touch, but it was Gavin, pulling pieces of wreckage aside.  When Ian and Nick got there, they saw that it was Giles that he was uncovering.

 

Giles lay unmoving, and deathly pale.  The blood on his forehead and the blood-stained chunk of masonry by his side told their own story.  Nick knelt down by him.  Giles’ pulse was thready and weak, his breathing shallow.

 

“We need an ambulance,” he said, simply.  No one argued.

 

Ian gestured to Gavin to follow him, and stepped carefully over the remnants of the house wall.  As he did so, he called out for Buffy.

 

She was in what was left of the dining room, the external walls gone, the floor above fallen, the ragged bits of roof canted drunkenly over the space beneath.  Tears brimmed on her eyelashes, but she swiped the back of her hand across them, refusing to let them fall.

 

“I can’t find Angel.”  They saw the breath hitch in her chest.  “I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t find him.”  She looked around the ruins.  “How would I know whether any of this dust was him?” she whispered.  A small sob escaped her.  “How would I ever know?” 

 

She shouldn’t have listened to him.  She should have fought side by side with him.  She could hear his voice.  Then we’d both be dead.  At least we’d be together, she thought.  You can’t know that, Buffy.  Oh, Angel, ever the doubter.  Of course we’d be together...

 

“Buffy.”  Ian’s voice, breaking into her silent reverie, was calm, reassuring.  “Buffy, if he’s not here, you have to come away.  This place could fall any moment.  We need you.  Giles needs you.  He’s hurt.”

 

With a small cry, she ran towards them, and even that small movement caused an ominous cracking from overhead.

 

“Quickly, Buffy.”  Ian reached out towards her, grasping her hand and pulling her over the rubble.  “Come on, Gavin!”  The three ran, as another piece of roof fell down behind them.

 

They took her to the living, first, to Giles.  Nick had checked him for further injuries, and straightened out his curled-up body.  He stood up when he saw the three of them approaching.  Buffy stood, biting her lip, and then crouched where Nick had been.

 

“I haven’t called the ambulance, yet,” Nick told her, “but I must, and quickly.”  Everyone knew why he’d hesitated.  There was no way to explain any of this to outsiders.

 

“Do it,” she said.  “Just... do it.  I’ll stay with him.”  She’d lost Angel.  She wasn’t going to lose Giles, too.

 

“No, Buffy.”

 

She looked up at Nick, confused.  He crouched down facing her, gripping both her arms in unconscious mimicry of Giles such a short time before.

 

“We have to play to our strengths.  You know that.  John is dead.”  Her face paled even more.  “Martha is in shock.  Giles has a bad head injury.  Angel...”  He looked up at Ian, who shook his head.  Buffy made a warding gesture, but Nick held on to her.  “I must deal with Giles and Martha, with help from Alice and Lisa.  Ian and Gavin must deal with the, ah, temporal matters.  You must deal with matters spiritual, if I can call them that.”

 

She seemed inclined to argue, but Nick didn’t let her speak.  “Buffy, you are the Slayer.  You are our Champion.  More of these assassins might come.  We need you to be the Slayer.”  He lifted her to her feet, and held her close.  “The time for grieving can come later, and we will all do it together.  But, you know Angel.  More lives than a cat.”

 

“Aristotle!”

 

She pulled away from him.  “Call the emergency services.  And I need help to shift the bodies of those demons.  They have to go somewhere safe.  It’s all we have to go on, to find who’s responsible.”  Now it was her turn to grip Nick’s arm.  “I’m taking the war to them!  I’ll need all your help.”

 

Quickly, she pulled away and ran into the building again.  She’d forgotten Giles’ cat.  She hadn’t seen what happened to him.  Some small, hopeful voice whispered that if she could find Aristotle, perhaps she could find Angel with him...

 

Outside, Ian reached for his phone.  “I’ll do it,” he said to Nick.  “I’ll be the investigating officer.  It’s irregular, since I was here, but we’re so short staffed, and the whole situation might be inexplicable, but at least the deaths aren’t suspicious, if the demons are removed.  No one will argue with me.”  He punched in the number, as Nick bent over his patient.

 

Inside, Buffy stood by the table that had saved their lives, the solid oak that had survived and hardened over four hundred years, now pulverized into tinder.  Scanning the tumbled ruins, she saw a tiny scrap of orange fur.  When she found him, there were a few decaying bones and untidy scraps of fur, and nothing more.   There was no Angel, and nothing that she recognised as vampire dust. 

 

She carried the remains out carefully, as though they had been the remains of her lover.  These would get buried, even if she had nothing of Angel to bury.  Then, before the sirens arrived, she helped the men carry out the demon bodies.  One of the demons had the high stiletto heel of a silver strappy sandal rammed up through its lower jaw and into its brain.

 

With the wailing of sirens in the distance echoing the screaming in her heart, Buffy looked around at the ruin of her life, her love, her home, her family.  Clenching her fists she raised her face to the coldly smiling moon.

 

ANGEL!” she screamed, at the top of her lungs, as though he might hear her.  ANGEL!

 

Then she knelt by Martha, and her arm joined Lisa’s around the stricken woman’s shoulders.

 

Whoever had done this, whatever they were, she would find them.  And she would Slay them.  Vengeance might be best served cold, but she’d take it at any temperature she could get.  Angel.  John.  Giles.  Even the cat.  Angel!  They would not go unavenged.  She squared her shoulders and stood up to make her plans.

 

 

The End(But to be continued)

November 2008

 

*

 

Author’s Notes

 

1          Bankers

Do bankers still pay well?  This story was started in September 2008, before banks began falling like ninepins, so let’s pretend that this particular Bank still has a bit of money to share with Giles and team.

 

2          Mr D’Eath

D’Eath, and variations on it, are unusual English surnames, but do exist, and date back to 1208.  It might be derived from a gatherer and seller of kindling, or dethe.  So don’t get carried away...  Or then again, you just never know, do you...

 

http://www.surnamedb.com/surname.aspx?name=D%27eath

 

3          Clifford Hall

This is based on a true story from 2008.  Names were changed to protect the innocent, and what you read is a very little fact and a lot of my imagination.  Having said that, here’s the true story.

 

 

4          Moroccan Civil War

A disputed succession to the Moroccan throne resulted in several princes fighting over it, and an inevitable civil war that ended in 1795.  I’ve probably stretched the duration of the ill will following the end of that war, but these things can go on for generations.

 

5          Domesday Book

There was a Great Domesday Book and a Little Domesday Book.  So, Alice is just adding to the oeuvre...

 

http://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/

 

6          Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates

In 1631, pirates from the North African Barbary Coast sacked the Irish village of Baltimore, carrying virtually every villager off to a life of slavery.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sack_of_Baltimore

 

France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships to the Barbary pirates, and long stretches of coast in Spain and Italy were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. Pirate raids discouraged settlement along the coast until the 19th century.  The Barbary pirates were such a menace that the European powers eventually got together to eradicate them.

 

It explains why there are a lot of light-skinned blondes and redheads on the North African coast.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbary_pirates

 

7          Jellicle cats

The cats that inspired TS Eliot Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which most of us recognise from the show Cats, and which he called Jellicle Cats, were a feral group living around the hotel where he was staying.  They had developed a particular look, with black coats and white paws.  Some years ago, well-meaning people from Cats Protection, trapped and neutered them, so there will be no more Jellicle Cats.

 

http://www.moggies.co.uk/html/oldpssm.html

 

8          Folies Bergere

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folies_Bergere

 

 

9          Moulin Rouge

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moulin_Rouge

 

10        Pier glass

Here’s the mirror (well, as long as it remains unsold)

 

http://www.jansantiques.com/Lot/jac097.html

 

11        Antiquarians

In Britain, the roots of what would eventually become archaeology can be found in the studies of 17th- and 18th-century antiquarians such as John Aubrey (1626-97) and William Stukeley (1687-1765). They observed ancient sites, speculated about their age and function, collected artefacts and even carried out basic excavations to try and prove their theories.

Website

 

12        Sadberge

Website

 

13        Wapentakes and Hundreds

 

The Shire and the Hundred

http://www.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/Shirehundred.htm

 

The Whorwellsdown Hundred

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=16109

The Whorwellsdown Hundred is still an electoral division

 

The Wapentake

http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/types/status_page.jsp?unit_status=Wap

 

14        Battle of the Nile and L’Orient

One of Horatio Nelson’s famous victories

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Nile

 

15        Palmyra and the Queen of the Bedouins

Lady Hester Stanhope, niece of a Prime Minister, was a fascinating woman, and a true English eccentric.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Hester_Stanhope

 

http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/197005/a.visit.to.the.lady.s.tomb.htm

 

16        William Pitt

The Prime Minister who introduced income tax in 1798 to pay for the Napoleonic Wars.  He’s got a lot to answer for.

 

17        Bungalow Town

Or Hollywood on Sea.  Shame it didn’t last.

 

http://www.mmhistory.org.uk/cce/2005/Margaret/index.html

 

http://www.glaucus.org.uk/Shorehm2.htm

 

18        Land Girl

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women's_Land_Army

 

19        Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

I made the picture up.  Sorry.  But they did some lovely, romantic ones.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Raphaelite

 

20        Darwin’s finches

All those wonderful little birds from Galapagos, that gave Darwin his ideas for evolution.

 

21        The Queen’s Official Birthday

Yes, the Queen gets to have two birthdays.

 

http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/royal/birthday.htm

 

22        Handsome Norman

Whoever named some of these ancient varieties of cider apple is an unsung hero.

 

http://homepage.ntlworld.com/scrumpy/cider/apple4.htm

 

23        Bratton Camp

 

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.16348

 

 

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=5065

 

and here

 

24        Martinmas Hiring Fair

Hiring Fairs took place twice a year, and the contract lasted until the next fair.  There were no resignations in those days.  Martinmas falls on 11 November.

 

Here’s a flavour:

http://www.cultrans.com/november-18th-1843/martinmas-hirings.html

 

http://www.aohg.org.uk/twww/farm1.html

 

25        The dragon and the alley

 

This story is only consistent with the TV shows, and takes no account whatsoever of the comics.

 

 

 



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