The mid-morning was beautiful, clear and quiet. The sun was high enough to be warm and the air cold enough to be crisp. And the only sound in the world was the crunch of the finely-packed gravel under their feet. Janet had insisted on a wool hat, duffle coat (buttoned to the neck), long wrapped scarf, and mittens, and Emily felt like a waddling bear — but this was the first time she’d been out in nearly two weeks, and it made her giddy. Dreyfus, on the other hand, wasn’t sure about the borrowed boots (they seemed a little big) so he was literally watching his step. At the end of the driveway, they crossed the road and went through a slight stand of trees into a huge winter meadow, still spotted with frost.
“Wow! This is fantastic,” Dreyfus said. “Is all this yours?”
“Mm-hmm. All the way past those hills to the airfield, and that used to be ours also, but my great-great somebody gave it to the government during the war. We used to run cattle here, but that was before my time.”
“And you’re the Duchess?”
Emily stopped and crinkled her nose at Dreyfus.
“I knew you were Lady something-or-other, but nobody told me you were royalty.”
“Royalty? We’re not royal. Who told you that?”
“Nobody. I just assumed. Duchess. Royalty.”
“Noooo,” Emily scoffed and started walking again, “It’s only a name. James I gave us the title in 16 – uh – I don’t know, because all the other families around here were Catholic. We’re not royal. Far from it.”
The path was wide enough for both of them, and they walked side by side.
“What about you, Sinclair? What’s your story?”
“No story. My family never heard of James I.”
“C’mon. The last time I saw you, you had a gun in your hand, and you were selling my finger to the highest bidder. Correct me if I’m wrong, but insurance adjustors don’t carry guns. They don’t barter body parts. And they sure as hell don’t scare the shit out of Russian gangsters.”
“You lost your accent.”
“Don’t change the subject. What happened there?” Emily asked seriously.
Dreyfus thought about it. “If you recall, I wasn’t selling your finger: I was negotiating a price – that started off with your head.”
“That’s true. I suppose I should thank you for that.”
“You did. Extravagantly.”
Emily looked puzzled.
“You don’t remember much about the loft, do you?” Dreyfus asked, carefully manipulating the conversation.
“No,” Emily shook her head ruefully, “Between the pain and the painkillers, not much. I remember those tall windows: they were gorgeous. And the fireplace and the soup. Oh, God! I remember the soup! That was the best soup, and I remember ….”
Emily eyes flickered, and she stopped talking and stopped walking. Dreyfus turned his head.
“We didn’t?” The question was real, “Did we?”
Dreyfus smiled and laughed. He put his hand up. “No. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my sex consensual.”
Emily tucked her chin into her scarf and slightly closed her eyes. (“Why not?” she thought.) “I would have consented,” she said evenly.
Dreyfus laughed again. “I was talking about me. You’re very aggressive when you’re stoned.”
“You bastard!” Emily swiped at him with her mittened hand, missed, took a step sideways to try again and tripped. Dreyfus grabbed her by the hips to keep her from falling.
“I beg your pardon?”
Emily twisted away from his hands and knelt down. She pulled a flat black lump out of the grass and held it like a prize.
“I knew it. The minute I tripped, I knew it.”
Emily looked around, trying to orient herself. Dreyfus just stood there, wondering what was going on. Emily turned back to the ground, wiping the grass with her mitten, and then reached down with both hands. Dreyfus jumped forward.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said, pulling her injured hand away. “What are you doing?”
Emily stopped. She looked at Dreyfus and laughed nervously. “I guess this looks pretty silly, doesn’t it?”
“Hmmm. It’s complicated.” Emily stood up and brushed off her knees. “One of my stupider ancestors was mad for tarmac – um – pavement – um,” Emily searched for the word, “Asphalt! He asphalted everything. All the footpaths, the fences, along the streams, random places for no reason. Anyway, Billie and I decided to get rid of it. We did the footpaths and all the obvious places, but it keeps coming back. It’s everywhere. It’s like a war, and every time we find it, we tear it out. This must be another overgrown pathway of some kind. I was just going to pull out a bigger piece so we’d be sure to find it again. But….” Emily held her hand in the air.
Dreyfus let go of Emily’s raised hand and reached down. He found the end of the pavement, steadied his feet, and — with both hands — pulled straight up. There was a snap as the asphalt broke, and Dreyfus stumbled forward with the effort.
“Big enough?” he said, regaining his balance.
“Perfect. Just put it on the path, so we can find it.”
Dreyfus set the black lump down, and Emily placed the smaller piece beside it. She smiled at him as if they were now comrades in arms.
“Anything else I should watch out for? Dinosaur bones? Dragon’s teeth?”
“No,” Emily laughed again, “Let’s go get the dogs. Dilford Cottage is just beyond those trees.”
Dilford Cottage was straight out of a 19th century sketchbook – grey slate, thatched roof, bony fingers of hawthorn and ivy climbing the walls. Dreyfus had never imagined places like this even existed. There was a short wooden gate across the path, but no fence. Emily stopped a couple of paces up the path and put her hand up.
“You need to stay here for a minute. The dogs don’t know you.”
“There’s no fence.”
“Just, just stay here.”
Emily opened the gate and closed it behind her. She walked up and pounded loudly on the door.
“Mrs. Dilford,” she shouted and opened the door, “I’ve come for ….”
Three medium-sized black and white tornadoes erupted at Emily’s knees. They twisted and chased and dodged and darted, and Emily staggered back a little from the weight of them around her legs; but, Dreyfus noticed, they didn’t jump up or bark.
“Hello, dogs!” Emily took off one mitten and scratched and patted each one in turn — each one dancing and pushing for extra attention. One of them stopped, gave Dreyfus a suspicious stare, then went back to the hand that was scratching him.
An older, square-shaped woman appeared at the door.
“I just came for the dogs, Mrs. Dilford,” Emily shouted. “I hope they weren’t too much trouble.”
“No, not at all,” the woman shouted back. “They were good company.” She paused. “Our Billie said you had an accident, dear. Are you alright?”
“On the mend, Mrs. Dilford, on the mend. How are you?”
“Still good, still good. I’ll put the kettle on if you have the time?”
“No, I’m with someone at the minute.” Emily turned slightly so Mrs. Dilford could see.
“Ah, that’ll be your Mr. Sinclair. Pilot, is he?”
Emily laughed, “Insurance.”
“Hmm,” Mrs. Dilford considered that.
“Well, we best be off. Will I see you at the market?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll be there.”
“Alright, then. See you then, and thanks again for the dogs.”
“No trouble. Anytime. Mind how you go.” Mrs. Dilford disappeared back into the house, and Emily took the few steps to the gate – the dogs still around her feet. She opened it and stepped through. The dogs stopped and stood, anxiously waiting.
“These are my dogs. What do you think?”
Dreyfus raised his shoulders and tilted his head.
“No, you have to say something.”
Emily laughed “I don’t know. How about ‘Emily Perry-Turner is the sexiest woman in the world’?”
“You don’t think I’m sexy?”
“Of course I do, but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Dogs!” Emily’s voice was a command.
The dogs flew through the gate, and Emily closed it behind them. They ran out and back and danced around Emily’s feet.
“They just had to hear your voice,” Emily said as they came over to get a sniff of this stranger.
Dreyfus stood self-consciously still. He didn’t know much about dogs. “Are they vicious?”
“No, they’re pussycats.” Emily reached her hand into the neck of one and scratched, “Aren’t you. Yeah. Big suck.” Emily looked up, “But they’re very protective. Five or six years ago, one of our EU advisors thought it would be cute to shake the ladder I was standing on. I yelled, and he got 18 stitches. Since then, I’ve been cautious with visitors, but everybody else around here spoils them rotten.”
“Oh,” Dreyfus still didn’t move, “What’s the trick with the gate?”
“No trick. When they were puppies, Billie and I trained them not to leave Dilford’s yard. Collies are smart, and they love to learn things. Billie and I taught them all kinds of stuff. It was a long summer.”
“What are their names?”
Emily shrugged and shook her head.
“Dogs,” she said, off-handedly, and looked out into the clear sky. “Should we give them a good run?”
“They’re your dogs,” Dreyfus said, relaxing now that they seemed to have lost interest in him.
“See the hill over there? The highest one?”
“The one with the people building a-a-a-a house?”
“Those are pagans, and they’re building a Wicker Man to burn on the Solstice.”
“Yes, and I need to have a word with them. Want to come?”
“Sure. Maybe they’re the ones who ate Sydney.”
“Dogs!” Emily waved her hand forward, and the dogs shot across the meadow like three blur fur bullets.
“You needn’t worry about Sydney,” Emily started walking. “He spent last night in the village with Hannah and her sister. And if the rumours about those two are true, you might not see him for the better part of a week.”
“Sydney?” Dreyfus thought. “So, you’re not the nerd you say you are.”
The hill wasn’t steep, but it was long, and Dreyfus could see Emily was slowing down. “How you doing?”
“I can feel it,” she said. “I think we’ll go home after this.”
When they got to the top, they stopped to catch their breath. There were about two dozen assorted pagans, carrying and stacking and twisting. The dogs had been there and back at least twice, and they were wandering around uninterested. Several of the pagans kept working, but most of them were just playing at it, very aware of Dreyfus and Emily’s presence there. Emily blew out a big breath.
“Stay here,” she said and took a few steps forward.
“Who’s in charge here?” She didn’t raise her voice, but it was heavy with authority.
One of the men stood up, came forward and gave an exaggerated curtsy. “Raven’s Claw of Deene End, at your service, Your Grace.”
“Don’t you play silly bugger with me, Donnie Clifton. I knew you when you peed your pants in primary. This is a serious business, and if you don’t want to be serious, find me someone who does.” Emily clenched her teeth, “I’ll wait.”
Emily’s stare was a cold, unholy quiet.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I thought since you brought Mr. Sinclair, this was a social call.”
Dreyfus made a note that everybody seemed to know him.
“It’s not. And I will bring whomever I want to my hill.”
There was a sharp edge on Emily’s icy silence.
“Now, here’s a History Lesson. My family has allowed pagans to burn on Stride Hill since before Christ made corporal. There’s never been a problem — until last year, when you and your merry band of Wicca wankers turned this place into a rubbish heap. I won’t stand for it. If you choose to live like swine, do it at home. But don’t come here, and don’t call yourselves pagans: you’re not worth the name.”
An urban, gym-slim couple in conspicuous outdoor gear stood up. He had a branch in his hand. Dreyfus mentally measured the distance.
“Excuse me! You can’t ….”
Emily’s eyes didn’t leave Donnie’s face, but her voice cut through the crisp air.
The three dogs ran to her side. Emily pushed her hand, palm down, towards the ground. The dogs dropped into a low crouch, their backs bowed, their front paws outstretched, their muscles almost twitching and their eyes straight ahead, intent — waiting for the command.
Nothing moved. No one spoke. Finally, Emily blinked — and her gaze shifted to the half-built bonfire.
“You’ve got a good turnout this year, Donnie.” Emily paused, “Look, I trust you. We’ve known each other since we were children. We used to play on Wither’s Wall, remember. I know you understand your responsibilities.” Emily’s voice had softened, “But you need to remind your people.” Emily turned her head just slightly to the couple who had stood up, “Especially outsiders who don’t know our history. Stride Hill has been here since the time of the Druids, and it’s going to be here long after we’re all dead and gone. It’s our job to preserve it. And our families have always done that — for centuries. Now, I don’t think you want to be the one who mucks it all up. So, just tell me I can count on you to keep it tidy this year, and that’ll be an end to it.”
“Of course, ma’am,” Donnie said, without hesitation. “We’ll leave it the way we found it. And I’m very sorry about last year; it won’t happen again.”
“Alright. Good. Enjoy your party. I’ll have Billie bring up a couple of bottles from the Pyaridge cellars — with my compliments.”
Emily turned around. “Let’s go home, Sinclair,” she said and started down the hill. Dreyfus looked at the dogs. They didn’t move. He looked back at Emily who was already several steps ahead. He took a few big steps to catch up, and they continued down the hill.
“Let’s let them think about it for a little minute,” Emily said, anticipating Sinclair’s question.
Several steps later: “Dogs!”
A couple of seconds after that, the dogs were walking beside Emily like three satisfied soldiers.
“Very impressive. Are you sure you’re not related to the Windsors?”
“No such luck. Actually, the truth is, we’re an older family than they are: we’re in The Domesday Book. Perrys were here in Weldon when William the Conqueror was still called Billie the Bastard.”
Dreyfus laughed. “Speaking of? Who’s this Billie you keep talking about?”
Emily shrugged. “He’s just Billie. His father was my father’s estate manager, but he wasn’t any good at it.” Emily made a drinking motion with her hand. “Old Bill drank himself into a three car crash when Billie was a teenager, and Daddy kept him on to do odd jobs and such. Now, he’s just Billie. He does all kinds of things around the estate.”
“Like tearing up asphalt.”
“Yeah,” Emily laughed, “Like tearing up asphalt. You met him. He was the one who came and got me in London.”
“No, didn’t meet him. I wasn’t there. Mrs. Flynn left me a note. If I’d been there, I wouldn’t have let you leave.”
“That’s good to know,” Emily thought — and kept walking.
Tuesday – Part 8