This is an Uberfic set in Great Britain in 1943. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, both pilots and members of SOE—Special Operations Executive—are stationed at Scapa Flow. They decide to investigate the chakram they found and go to a nearby Neolithic site, where Gabrielle has another meeting with two women warriors from the past.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics, or whoever, own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
This is the 11th Story of the 'Mathews & Parker' series.
1. Anything To Anywhere
2. An Aerial Taxi
3. The Shetland Bus
4. A Brush With The Enemy
5. The Long Trip
6. A Rainy Sunday
7. The Ring of Brodgar
8. On Convoy Control
9. A Music Concert
10. A Series of Cyphers
“Adverse yaw, banking, rudder control, side-slipping, throttle.” Gabrielle mused half-aloud as she read the manual, open on her knee. “Blimey! All these instructions! Mind you, Zena, I wouldn't recommend a rookie try an' assimilate them all at once. I bet they'd only end up believing the foot-pedals operated the ailerons an' the wheel moved the rudder. Ha! Ha!”
“You're losing it, Gabs. Who'd ever think that? Not me for one.” Zena was scornful. “You'd have t'be an idiot to imagine that's the way to fly a Walrus. What're ya reading?”
“Basic Cockpit Control for Walrus Mk II. 1943 Edition, Updated.” Gabrielle closed the manual, to read the title on the cover. “By Squadron-Leader ‘Hermes'. That's a pen-name, Zena. He isn't really called Hermes.”
“I sort'a figured that, all by myself, darling.” Zena gave her compatriot a pained glance. “Like that guy who writes those stories in the Navy magazines—‘Taffrail'. He's really a Captain in the Navy, I believe. So, is this Hermes guy any good?”
”More than just good, Zena.” Gabrielle acknowledged the expertise of the author to hand. “Hermes is clear in his instructions; with a solid grip of technique; an' has a smooth style that let's you take it all in easily. Yeah, he's good. I can recommend his training manuals to anyone who needs a refresher course; an' don't sneer like that Zena, I ain't looking at you, sister.”
“Hah! So anyway, why're ya reading a training manual at all?” The dark-haired New Zealander sat forward in her chair, where they were relaxing in their Nissen hut. “Is there something new in the Walrus cockpit controls? Wan'na share it?”
“Nah.” Gabrielle sniffed refinedly. “I just like to keep up with the flow, y'know. This is our third Walrus in nine months, after all.”
“Yeah, don't remind me.” Zena grunted, somewhat despondently. “Don't I know it. People are beginning t'look at us as we walk around the base, Gabs. As if it were our fault!”
“I'm kind'a glad Group Captain Graham took the loss of our last plane so lightly.” Gabrielle puffed her cheeks out in a contented sigh. “He might'a grounded us for the duration, y'know.”
Zena finished pulling on her right boot; stamped her foot a couple of times on the floorboards of the Nissen hut, and stood up. Gabrielle, who was already fully clothed in flying gear, threw her manual onto her untidy bed; walked across to the table, and picked up her heavy gloves.
“So, you alright with me flying this new crate?” Gabrielle grinned at her companion, as if already expecting a positive reply.
“Yeah, I suppose so.” Zena tried to look doubtful as they both headed for the door, but failed entirely. “Sure your ribs are OK, now?”
“It's been four weeks. Yeah, I'm fine.” Gabrielle rubbed the right side of her flying-jacket tenderly. “Fit as a flea in a farmer's weskit. Let's go.”
Their Austin ‘Tilly' pick-up was running smoothly this morning, so the trip through the base took only a few minutes until they swung out in front of the row of great hangars situated right on the edge of the wide bay forming Scapa Flow, with a concrete apron running right down to the water's edge. There were four in total, though the fourth was used only for storage, warehouse purposes, and as a workshop. Hangar 3 was their destination; Zena running the small truck up close to the massive building and parking on the grass to the side. The concrete surface in front of the range of hangars extended to become a slipway running right down to the water's edge; allowing planes, such as their new Supermarine Walrus, to run straight from the hangar into the waters of Scapa Flow. Behind the hangars, connected by a sweeping approach way was a single concrete runway long enough for bombers to land and take-off from.
Being well-used to the operation, it took both women only a few minutes to climb aboard the plane; go through the ordinary pre-flight checks; make sure all was safely stowed and tied down where required; and all necessary equipment present and correct. A small tractor linked up to the hook on the nose, via a strong cable, and trundled out the hangar into the fresh breezy open air, the Walrus running smoothly behind. A mechanic ran forward, disconnected the cable, waved a hand at Gabrielle, and moved out of the way along with the tractor. Gabrielle flicked a couple of switches, pressed a button, and the huge Bristol Pegasus engine above and behind the cockpit roared into life.
The somewhat ungainly aircraft rolled across the concrete on its two low-slung main-wheels, with tail wheel enclosed in its rudder-like casing. The bow of the plane touched the water, ran forward, then the whole machine settled on the surface; quite in the same way as a duck taking to the water for the first time in the morning. Gabrielle flicked another couple of switches, and the wheels rose up to embed themselves in the undersides of the lower wings with a mighty thump that rocked the plane. She then pushed forward a handle a couple of notches on a curved geared ratchet to her left hand side; gripped the control-wheel firmly; pushed gently down on the starboard foot pedal, feeling the plane respond by turning to the right as the tail-rudder swung round; eased the wheel gently to starboard a fraction, the ailerons responding as the plane turned more certainly to the right. Then, with an encouraging glance at her navigator, Gabrielle pushed forward the throttle-lever, on its quadrant fixed to the port-side of the hull by her left elbow; and the plane set off across the water's surface. A minute later they left the water of the Flow beneath them, and roared across the rolling green hills of the Orkney Mainland. Two more minutes found them out over the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing but open water between them and Iceland.
Having climbed to 3,500ft Gabrielle now sat back and began testing the controls of the new machine. The control-column, with its three-quarter wheel, sat comfortably between her legs. A gentle push to port and the invisible port ailerons on upper and lower wings lifted up, with starboard ailerons simultaneously lowering slightly, as the plane yawed to port. Similarly when Gabrielle pushed the wheel to starboard, the starboard ailerons on both upper and lower wings came up with the port ailerons lowering in their turn, so allowing the plane to yaw to starboard.
Next came the vertical tail-rudder. Gabrielle pressed gently with her left foot; the rudder came round to port and the plane veered in that direction. She pushed down with her right foot; and the rudder came round to starboard, with the plane responding in kind. Then she gently pushed the wheel and steering-column forward; the rear horizontal tail-plane elevator moved down and the plane's nose dipped towards the sea's surface far below. She pulled the steering-column gently towards her; and the rear elevator moved upwards, with the nose rising towards the high blue sky once more. She levelled out again at 3,000ft and sat back with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Everything seems A-OK.” She grinned across at her navigator. “Flies like an eagle. I think she's the best we've had yet.”
“Let's hope we keep her, then.” Zena smiled in her turn.
“Time t'go home.” Gabrielle glanced out her side-window, and gazed ahead through the windscreen. “Nothing but empty sea, an' blue sky. Wish we could go for a jaunt, but duty calls, I suppose.”
Gabrielle gently applied pressure to her port foot-pedal, feeling the plane begin to swing round; then she eased the control-column wheel, with delicate preciseness, over to port. The ailerons responding to this command, the plane effortlessly veered to port and kept on in a wide turn. Keeping a close eye on her compass , close to her right knee, Gabrielle eased the control-wheel back to the centre position between her knees, and gently pushed on her right foot-pedal while relaxing her boot on the left pedal. Ailerons and rudder responded smoothly and the plane ceased its turn, flying directly back the way it had come. She pushed the throttle lever, on its quadrant at her left elbow, forward a couple of notches. Pulled the fuel-mixture lever behind it back a notch, and eased the wheel between her knees. They were flying comfortably, engine roaring smoothly, on a direct heading back to Scapa Flow.
“Home in time for a cup of tea an' a toasted crumpet, at the NAAFI.”
“At least they won't be burned to a crisp,” Zena grinned mockingly, “like they are when you make ‘em.”
“Hey! That ain't fair.”
The Nissen hut was looking spruce and tidy. From the outside it remained much as all the rest of the huts situated on the base; and scattered all over the Orkney Mainland, for that matter. The curved sides and roof, of corrugated iron, were their ordinary dark greyish selves; while the front and rear faces of brick, containing the door and a couple of windows, were painted light grey or white. Along the length of both sides the curved walls were interrupted by two windows piercing through and standing out proud a foot or two; these also being lined with small sheets of corrugated iron. At the beginning of the War there had been some attempt to camouflage each hut, but this had proved so time-consuming, and not particularly successful, that they had been allowed to go their own way.
Some retained their camouflage almost wholly; some were blotchy with the passage of time and weather; some were plain grey. Of course, the fact that a Nissen hut came in varying sizes, depending on use, also contributed to the colour-scheme of any proposed camouflage system. Some huts merely housed a squad of men; with others housing departments or offices; while a few were given over, as in Zena and Gabrielle's case, to only a few inmates. Other Nissen huts were so large they almost equalled a warehouse or small hangar.
Inside Zena and Gabrielle's hut everything went along as usual; that is to say, in a bit of a mess. Any self-respecting sergeant coming in for an inspection would have had a fit, and needed to be taken to the Medical Centre for recovery. But the women, being part of the mysterious SOE, were exempt from ordinary military regulations; most of them, anyway. So they lived in conditions which, while satisfying their laid-back attitudes, amounted in military terms to something approaching squalor.
But the sun was shining; the grass was dry; the usually rain-soaked roads had stopped reflecting light like mirrors; and the birds were singing. In this spirit of approaching Summer, and with nothing better to occupy them, Zena had instituted a late Spring clean. Gabrielle had complained; Gabrielle had grumbled; Gabrielle had tried to mutiny; but Zena had pulled rank, she having joined the Air Transport Auxiliary one month before her grumpy blonde-haired companion. The result being a clean-out of most of their rubbish-scattered quarters.
Everything had gone swimmingly through the morning. They had torn off the bedclothes on their separate bunks; covered the bare mattresses with new Army blankets; and cleared up most of the equipment thrown haphazardly around the far reaches of the hut. Gabrielle had opened the windows to let in the fresh bright air, and Zena had succeeded in sweeping the floors clean of accumulated odds and ends. The place was looking quite reasonable, if you compared it to what had been. Anyway, it was a vast improvement.
“Zena?” Gabrielle was standing beside a tall narrow metal wardrobe, which she had just opened. “Look what I've found.”
“I need another duster, here.” Zena, on the other hand, was occupied with the large table in the centre of the floor. “God, these tea-ring stains are hard to polish off. I blame it on you, Gabs.”
“Shut up, an' come over here.” Gabrielle knew how to handle irascible female ATA/SOE pilots by now. “I've picked up the chakram, from the bottom shelf of the cupboard.”
Zena dropped her duster, and stood by the side of her partner in a matter of seconds. They both stared at the circular object, still wrapped in its yellow silk covering.
“Is it wise to handle it?” Zena took the safe option. “Maybe you should, er, put it down. Knowin' what it can do, an' all.”
Gabrielle walked to the radio equipment desk, and placed the chakram on the wide table-top amongst sheets of coding materials and various notebooks.
“So, what are we intending to do with it?” Gabrielle scratched her chin, remembering the curious results gained by being at close-quarters with the weapon in the past. “Maybe givin' it to Professor MacDonald, for his collection, would be the best thing. What d'ya say?”
“Huh.” Zena wasn't impressed by this loose thinking. “He doesn't collect things like this. He's into rocks and ancient carvings, an' that sort'a stuff. He'd probably send it to the British Museum; or wherever they're storing their treasures at the moment.”
Gabrielle put her hand out, and slowly caressed the rumpled silk covering the object. She had been engrossed with the ring's power ever since first discovering it nearly two months ago. It had previously shown its latent power to both women, in no uncertain way; and they both wanted to find out the secret surrounding the ancient weapon.
“Who do you suppose those women were?” She glanced at the tall black-haired woman by her side. “The ones we saw in those visions. They both looked like us, didn't they? Could they really have been us; in earlier, er, lives?”
“Well, that depends on your religious outlook, to some extent.” Zena stuck the fingers of her left hand in her waist-belt, as she considered the matter. “I don't think re-incarnation figures as a concept in most Christian religions. More like the Far East; Buddhism, an' that sort'a thing.”
“Could they operate side by side?” Gabrielle frowned as she thought about it. “Remember, back in the day in Greece when this thing was made, they all believed in, er, Apollo an' Ares, an', er, Aphrodite an' suchlike.”
“Your point being?”
“Well, I'm just sayin',” Gabrielle cast an ironic glance at her partner, “they might operate in tandem. Like Christianity here; Buddhism there, sort'a thing.”
The tall New Zealander looked down her nose at the blonde woman; raising an eyebrow at the same time. Sometimes, Zena considered, keeping track of Gabrielle's intellectual leaps was not easy.
“So, ya wan'na burn your candle at both ends, eh?” Zena laughed, quite taken with the simile. “Sorry t'disappoint ya, ducks,—”
“Don't call me ‘ducks'. I don't like it.”
“Sorry, du—Gabs. Anthin' t'oblige. Where was I?”
“Candle; burnin'; both ends; sorry t'disappoint me—”
“Ah, right.” Zena grasped the line of her abandoned thoughts once more. “What I'm sayin' is—I don't think Christianity deals with re-incarnation. So that puts your theory right out the window, see?”
The two women stood in the peaceful quiet of the Nissen hut, staring at each other, glancing at the yellow-wrapped object on the desk, then back at each other. It was Zena, once more, who broke the silence.
“Doesn't work, does it?”
“As a theory? Nah, it don't work.” Gabrielle took the realistic outlook. “More holes than a colander. First, we got ourselves zapped at the Ring of Brodgar. By the way, I don't know who that ape Brodgar was; but I'd like just five minutes with him, that's all. Secondly, we got ourselves zapped at Maeshowe. That mound-grave, y'remember? And both times those women appeared and tried to tell us something; or make us go somewhere. Well, I mean, what're we t'do?”
“We at least figured out, with Professor MacDonald's help, that Amphipolis in Greece may be the place to start looking.” Zena shrugged disconsolately. “As much chance of us goin' there as goin' t'the moon.”
“But isn't there something we can do here?” Gabrielle frowned as she considered the matter. “The War'll stop us from visitin' Greece for years to come, maybe. Meanwhile we've got the chakram in our hands, an' it still seems capable of—of influencing us, in some strange way.”
“Do we want it to influence us, that's the thing.” Zena mused for a few seconds. “If we have t'get zapped every time we want to see those, er, visions or ghosts or whatever they were; well, I can live without seein' the women again, that's all.”
“I have a feeling we won't have a say in the matter.” Gabrielle looked glum, as she ran a finger gently over the covered object. “I figure, if those women want t'tell us somethin', they're gon'na find a way.”
“Just as long as it doesn't happen at 7,000 feet, in the Walrus.” Zena grunted at her joke. “That'd be somethin'.”
Gabrielle had been half-listening to her companion, and half-considering the covered chakram. Now, making a decision, she leaned forward and swiftly unwrapped the yellow silk headscarf. In a moment the dull metal ring was revealed, its etched golden decoration catching the light. The outer edge of the circular blade seemed to have a slightly sharper edge—something akin to a katana sword—and the weapon gave off a feeling of reserved but deadly power even in its motionless state. Moving carefully Gabrielle grasped the ring's inner edge, letting it rest on her palm, while her fingers ran out to the outer edge and her thumb lay along the curved blade. She lifted it to head height and looked at it intently.
“It seems t'be quiet at the moment.” Gabrielle turned the weapon in the air, watching the way light reflected from its surfaces. “It was active when we first found it at Maeshowe. D'you suppose, maybe, it's lost its power since then? Like a battery.”
“I don't think so.” Zena stood by her friend's left elbow, giving the object of their combined interest a cold glare. “It zapped you; an' it damn well zapped me. I don't take kindly to that.”
“Uum.” Gabrielle pursed her lips in thought. “It had its reasons, I think. It wanted to communicate with us. Just us, no-one else. Is there some kind of message it wants to give us? Or is it making, by its very presence, a—a kind of connection between those other women, and us? What do we do?”
“Should we do anything?” Zena shrugged. “Why not just leave well alone. Put it in a dark cupboard, an' forget it.”
“That'd be running away.” Gabrielle was definite on the subject. “We can't do that. This thing is magic. You do know that, Zena?”
Zena turned and walked to the table, where she picked up her gloves. Both women were dressed in heavy khaki shirts, strong jean slacks, and boots. Their regular wear around the base, and while flying. Neither of them found dressing in uniform skirts particularly enticing. They felt more comfortable this way.
“How about takin' a drive, across the island?” Zena glanced at the blonde girl in the corner of the hut. “Bring the chakram along. If we find another ruin or whatever we can see if anything happens. I've got somethin' in mind on that score, t'tell ya the truth. How does that sound?”
“OK.” Gabrielle nodded, then crossed to her bed where she laid the weapon down carefully. “Just lem'me change into my boots. You drivin'?”
“Right.” Gabrielle leaned over to tug at her left boot, gasping with the effort. “But mind, if anything happens, it's your fault.”
“Oh, that's nice.”
There was little vehicle traffic on the roads, or what passed for roads in Orkney. This was partially as a result of petrol rationing; part the fault of numerous military check-points scattered at unexpected distances all along the roads; also because cars, vans, and lorries had not yet become numerous among the Orkney citizens, most people still preferring horses and carts; and lastly because the roads everywhere were appallingly surfaced, those that were surfaced at all.
The small light Austin ‘ Tilly ' pick-up was just the vehicle for these hazardous conditions. Zena was enjoying wrestling with the large steering-wheel; stamping on the brakes to avoid on-coming traffic; and halting at the check-points, within an inch of the presiding soldiers' boots. She was in a good mood; not least because she had a plan. Before leaving the Nissen hut she had unrolled a map of the Orkney Mainland, most maps being restricted only to military personnel now of course, and revealed to her blonde companion the little treat she had cooked up over the last few days.
“ . . . and so you see, if we follow the route I've marked out, we can get to this place, Skara Brae, easily.” She smiled engagingly at her obviously doubtful partner. “The road leads nearly to its doorstep, y'see.”
“You thought this up all by yourself?” Gabrielle was frankly amazed. “I didn't think you could steer the old ‘ Tilly ' from the Base to Kirkwall, without I was at your side. Well, well. So, what is this Skara Brae, then? Another old ruin?”
There was a pause, as Zena carried on happily driving the pick-up along the narrow lane which served as one of the main roads. Scapa Flow lay spread out to their left, covered with the long grey forms of destroyers; the bulkier silhouettes of two cruisers; and the even larger mass of a mighty battleship, showing off its extremely incongruous multi-coloured Dazzle camouflage paint which made it look—well, like nothing on earth.
“Come on, gal.” Gabrielle was showing the first signs of frustration, as her driver blithely remained silent. “Details. I wan'na know what, where, why, who, an' is it gon'na be dangerous?”
“Questions, questions.” Zena sniffed derisively. “OK, it's another of those old Neolithic ruins that seem to clog the countryside all round these parts. Professor MacDonald told me it was a social village of stone huts huddled together. They're apparently built on sandbanks right on the seashore. The great thing about them, it seems, is that a whole lot of the original hut-rooms— complete with stone furniture items—are still there. What d'ya think of that?”
“I don't know what to think of it.” Gabrielle replied huffily. “I've never seen the place. I'll let you know. You driving in the right direction, by the way?”
“In front of you. Document shelf. Map. Green line-route.”
“Oh, very Elinor Brent-Dyer.” Gabrielle wasn't giving anything away. “Hah! This is complicated. Couldn't you have found an easier route?”
“Yes, but it'd have been forty minutes longer.” Zena glanced round, to give her compatriot a gleaming white grin. “Stop complaining. Ya might think about complaining when we get there, an' you get zapped. I ain't holding the damned chakram, dearie.”
Another pause ensued, while Gabrielle pored over the unfolded wide map. The route indicated seemed quite straightforward, though there were several turn-off's to take account of. But finally the blonde navigator mastered the set-up.
“OK, Zena.” Gabrielle gave her driver a poke in the ribs with her right elbow, just to gain her attention; a move that nearly sent them off the unfenced road into the Flow; the road being barely wide enough there for the small truck.
“Hoy? It's over to port, there. On the other side of the Flow.” The blonde one showed her evil sense of humour. “Can't miss it. See those enormous big hills?”
“Gim'me a break.” Zena snorted in derision. “Ya nearly had us in the water.”
“So, Skara Brae.” Gabrielle settled more comfortably in her uncomfortable seat, and scrutinised the map. “Here's what you do, darling. We're on the A964, so you leave Loch Kirbister on our right hand. Go North, till we can swing onto the A965. That'll take us due West, with good old Loch Stenness on our right. The road'll veer sharply South, till eventually the A967 appears on our right hand. This'll take us North once more, with Loch Stenness in the distance to our right. Then, just as we reach the top of Loch Stenness, we veer left onto the B9056. We go on till the road veers West, and Loch Skail appears. It's only a little loch, just about big enough to land the old Shagbat on, but it'll be directly on our left at the edge of the road; so be careful, dear. —”
“—just past this loch you'll see a small farm lane on the left.” Gabrielle carried on regardless; she was in her element. “By this time the sea'll only be about another mile further on. You follow the lane West, but don't turn off to the right at any point. Finally, we'll pass a small croft on the left hand side of the lane. You go on another hundred yards past the croft, and stop. Skara Brae is on the shoreline, on your right-hand, about one hundred and twenty yards away. Success!”
“You make it sound so simple.” Zena grinned, against her will. “Wonder what the catch can be?”
“The catch, dear, will be your driving.” Gabrielle frowned as she stared out her side-window. “Even these so-called main roads are hardly more than farm tracks. One slip, an' you'll be in the water; where there is water to be in, that is.”
“Never fear, I'm a professional.” Zena grunted contemptuously. “The truck, pick-up, car, sedan, or two-seater, hasn't been built that I can't control. Relax, you're in good hands.”
Zena pulled up on the grass verge at the side of the un-surfaced farm lane. A hundred yards behind them lay the small croft; thirty yards in front lay a pebbly beach and the sea; a hundred and twenty yards to their right lay a grass and sand covered mound which, presumably, was their destination. Both women clambered out of the Tilly and stretched their arms and legs. It did become rather cramped in the small pick-up after any length of time, not to mention the bumpy roads and lanes.
“Gods, it's true. You can smell the sea.” Gabrielle took a healthy breath, and expelled it in a huge sigh. “This is the life.”
“We've been smellin' the sea ever since we landed on this God-forsa—Orkney.” Zena wasn't in a romantic frame of mind. Her arms were aching too much. “One bit of sea's just like any other bit. Smells of salt, wetness, and decaying seaweed. Is that the place?”
They left the ‘Tilly', to stride over the tussocky grass till they came to the shore. The beach ran along the length of the curved bay, but was never more than thirty feet in width. The bay itself was quite small and semi-circular, seeming to have quite a relatively narrow entrance guarded by low but sheer cliffs on the points on either hand.
“Nice looking bay.” Gabrielle gave it her stamp of approval. “Nearly circular. An' I like those little cliffs, actin' like sentries on each side. Pity the beach isn't bigger, or sandier.”
“Ya wan'na sun-bathe, or take a dip?” Zena grinned, putting a hand up to control her long black hair tossing in the breeze. “Well, it seems lonely enough; you can just throw your rig on the grass here. I'll look after your clothes. No-one'll come to surprise us here, an' you don't need to worry about the people in the croft; they probably never come down to the shore here more than once in a blue moon. Well, hurry up?”
The small blonde figure slowly examined the tall dark woman by her side, with a haughty look. Gabrielle then began to shake her head, with an expression which the young use when confronted by the elderly and not quite all there.
“Zena, if you think for a single moment I'm goin' to blithely throw my togs off an' run into the sea naked, singing' a happy tune, you can think again.” Finally she too broke out into a wide grin. “I ain't sayin' it ain't a good idea. No. No. But that water, as if you didn't know, is just above the temperature of ice. An' I ain't goin' t'freeze my fanny off for anyone, includin' you. So there.”
Zena turned the corners of her mouth down in an expression of disappointment, as they struggled over the thick grass towards their goal. The grass grew in heavy tall close-growing tussocks, with deep spaces between awaiting the unwary foot. So movement was slow and difficult. But finally they came to a harder surface where the grass was shorter, allowing them to stroll the last few yards to the edge of the ancient complex of huts.
“Oh, I see.” Gabrielle took in the situation with a professional eye. “They're all sort'a, er, underground—embedded in the sand-dune. God, they've worn well, haven't they. Everything's still there, in each room.”
“No roofs, though.” Zena made this percipient observation as they stood on the edge of the grass above the nearest hut. “Must'a been thatched, I suppose. Look, is that a sideboard, with shelves for plates an' things?”
“Made of stone slabs; but yeah, you're right.” Gabrielle whistled in astonishment at the perfect preservation all round them. “Is that low thing in the corner the sides of a bed? I think it is.”
For the next half an hour the women happily walked around the group of huts. There were six or seven in total, but all huddled together in a tight group; so the whole community was only some thirty yards wide by twenty yards broad. And it was built on the deep dunes just behind the stony sandy beach, with the sea rolling in barely fifty yards from the huts. And so it had been for something close on 4,500 years.
“How long?” Gabrielle was amazed at this revelation. “Who says so?”
“Prof MacDonald.” Zena was standing on the smooth flat stone floor of one of the larger rooms. “He says archaeologists think this place dates from about 500BC; but he's done some excavations here himself, he told me, an' he thinks it dates from much earlier. Maybe two thousand five hundred BC.”
“God.” Gabrielle bent to stroke the edge of a stone-lined cupboard set up against the wall of the room. “But look at everything. It seems as if everyone left suddenly, an' never came back. I mean, everything's still here. It's wonderful.”
“Well, we came here for a reason.” Zena brought the conversation back on track. “Where's the chakram? I suppose if we wan'na know if this place'll affect it, now's the time. Is this really a good idea?”
Gabrielle had a canvas satchel, on a shoulder strap, which had been bumping against her left hip since they left the ‘ Tilly '. Now she dragged the strap over her head and dumped the satchel on the stone floor. Bending, she undid the flop-over cover and extracted a yellow silk-wrapped object.
“Here we are again.” Gabrielle looked at her companion musingly. “What d'we do, then?”
“Unwrap it, I expect.” Zena gazed up at the blue sky; then around at the interior of the hut, with its many pieces of stone furniture. “This is as near the centre of the site as we're likely to get. No! Don't unwrap it. Give it to me.”
Gabrielle paused, frowned at the tall dark woman, then slowly and unwillingly handed over the covered object. Zena held it in a tight grip, staring at it with lowered brows; as if attempting to understand what power was inherent in the ancient weapon. Then she glanced at Gabrielle, shrugged, and pulled the yellow silk covering away to reveal the metal chakram. She held it in her right hand, gripping the blade round its interior edge, and raised it to eye-level. The sun glinted on the sharp curved edge and gold etched surface, sending sparks of light into the women's eyes. But nothing happened.
Gabrielle's voice sounded light and thin, in the open surroundings. The stones around them echoed her words slightly, giving them a silvery effect. And the sun's heat beat back warmly from the stone-lined pit in which they stood. Somewhere, far away, a peewit cried along the unseen shoreline.
“Let me have it.” Gabrielle held out her hand imperiously, with tight lips.
“Sure you wan'na?” Zena, on the other hand, was instilled with a sense of approaching danger. “I think maybe—”
Zena gave; reluctantly, but she gave.
“Nah. You're right.” Gabrielle spoke after having remained motionless, for more than a minute, in the stone hut with the chakram in a firm determined grip; while both women studied the circular ring of metal closely for any sign of activity. The high walls and sand dunes, all around, protecting them from the light breeze which blew along the shore. “Look's like it's lost any—”
“—power it had. I don't feel a thi— Jeesus! ”
The wood wasn't dense, the thin-boled trees rising thirty or so feet in the air, spaced about ten feet or so from each other; the ground being covered with them in every direction. Across the sparkling stony brook which ran across the little vale on the left hand side of this green grassy spot, where Gabrielle now stood petrified, rose a low ridge some fifty feet or so in height. The trees covered the gentle incline, though again not thickly. The cloudy, but still blue, sky was clearly visible all round. On the side of the stream where Gabrielle stood the ground was low and grassy for a good distance alongside the meandering water. But immediately behind the blonde woman rose a low but rough outcrop of rock, running in parallel with the stream but set back about twenty feet. It wasn't any more than fifteen feet in height, but acted as a good protection for the small campsite which lay before Gabrielle's eyes. Two horses stood quietly to the right hand side; a couple of thin blankets were tossed clumsily on the grass beside a saddle; a rough ring of stones enclosed a still gently smoking fire. While down at the stream's edge a small blonde woman; with short hair and a top fastened by thin straps, short skirt, and leather boots with daggers tied to the outer sides, bent to fill a water bottle of hard leather. On the other side of the fire, near the horses, stood a tall black-haired woman. She was dressed all in leather; much more so than her companion. She had metal decorations on her bodice which caught the light in flashing reflections, while her legs were bare from the tops of knee-high boots to the hem of her short skirt. As she moved slightly, to glance over at the woman by the stream, Gabrielle saw she had a sword strapped to her back.
Gabrielle jumped at the mention of her name, then saw the dark woman was addressing her companion at the water's edge. It was only as this woman rose and turned, water bottle in hand, to face her that Gabrielle realised for the first time that she was back in the presence of the two women she had first seen in those earlier curious dreams or visions. The tall woman was indeed an exact replica of Zena, except she seemed much harder visaged and somehow colder; while the blonde, now approaching the campsite with no sign of agitation, was Gabrielle's own doppelganger.
The tinkling of the nearby stream could be distinctly heard, in the quietness surrounding the campsite. Every now and then a fly buzzed past, either with a low thirring , or louder zirr , depending on its size. There was a smell of damp grass, and the richer aroma of leaves and bushes. Now and again the scent of some unseen flower wafted across the open glade. Deep in the wood, some distance off, birds could be heard crying out sharply, or giving a sweet series of singing notes. The two horses shuffled and snorted where they stood patiently off to one side, knee-high in grass.
Gabrielle realised she could feel the warmth of the sun's rays beating down through the high canopy of over-spreading branches and leaves. She wondered momentarily if she could talk with these two apparitions but felt, somehow, this was not necessary. She wasn't there to talk, but to listen. The blonde woman, across the grassy dell, wore a short skirt which showed powerful legs with strong thighs. Her top was engagingly small, barely covering what was needed; and, as she turned to the tall dark woman for a moment, Gabrielle saw her golden-brown back was completely bare and shining with sweat.
Then the blonde woman turned to face Gabrielle again; her companion standing easily, with one knee bent, as if quite at home with the sudden apparition of an unknown woman into her domain. They both scrutinised Gabrielle with intense deliberateness, as if waiting for her to make the first move. Gabrielle, without thinking, raised the hand with which she held the chakram. The attention of the two women was immediately transferred to this weapon, as if it held some deep fascination. Slightly embarrassed, Gabrielle lowered the weapon to her side and watched the reaction of her audience. This was not long in coming.
The blonde woman, Gabrielle's twin, stepped forward lightly a few paces across the grass and indicated the chakram with a pointing finger.
“That chakram is the source of power. It energises its surroundings. You and your friend Zena are the keys, Gabrielle. No-one else; only you two. You don't have much time here, so listen.” The Amazon-like warrior, which was what she impressed Gabrielle as being, jerked her head to flick a strand of blonde hair away from her cheek. “It's like this, there's been a little contretemps up on Olympus. Well, not to draw a veil over the whole sorry matter, Aphrodite sort of—well, she called out Hera. A sort'a duel, y'know. They have a long-standing, er, disagreement—something to do with a golden apple, as I understand. You know what a duel is? Of course y'do. Right, so what happened was this—no, don't interrupt, you can't, anyway. It's one of the curious things about coming back from the future. You can't tell us anything, for fear of changin' History—so Aphrodite says.—”
“Facts, Gabrielle, facts.” The tall dark-haired woman spoke as she moved over to the horses a few yards away. She had a deep contralto voice whose tone had an underlying edge of danger, or even almost of cruelty. “She ain't goin' t'be here long.”
“OK.” The blonde woman ran a hand through her short hair, with a soft easy smile. “The heart of the matter's simple. Hera got so angry at Aphrodite she fired an arrow, a—a source of immense power,—into the future; your future, Gabrielle. This arrow; it's golden by the way, is imbued with immense enmity, rage, and hostility towards all Humanity. It's the source of, and on-going power behind, that war your society is presently in the middle of—”
“Ha!” The tall warrior woman left the horses again to stroll back to the other women, a curled lip showing what she thought of the subject of their conversation. “I said to Aphrodite—send me into the future, I'll soon knock those damned warlord's heads together an' get back the arrow—but would she listen? No.”
“It ain't our kind of a war, darling.” Gabrielle put her hands to her belt and eased the short skirt she wore. Then put out a hand to grip the forearm of her dark companion. “Even you wouldn't be able to stop what Aphrodite told us is happening in this lady's time. She an' her friend—you know, Xena, the tall dark handsome strong-willed woman, who's this lady's partner—now, why does that description remind me of someone?—have got'ta do the business alone.”
“Very funny.” But Xena grinned all the same, enclosing Gabrielle's hand in hers. “OK. Oughtn't you to tell this here gal—I mean, er, Gabrielle—where the golden arrow is? Gods, I think she's vanishing again. Hurry up!”
“ Dear Artemis! ” Gabrielle turned from gazing at her warrior companion, to the modern Gabrielle. “You only got a few seconds more. This is the thing. We know Hera's golden arrow is on that island you're both living on. It's imperative you—”
The chakram Gabrielle had been clasping tightly during the whole of this discussion now suddenly took the opportunity to unexpectedly begin slipping from her hand; catching momentarily, in its descent, on the belt of her trousers. Gabrielle looked down quickly, and put out her hand to grab it, just —
—as it started to fall onto the stone floor of the hut, above the beach at Skara Brae.
Gabrielle suddenly found her legs collapsing under her as if all the strength had drained out of them, like water from a tap. She sat on the stone floor of the hut; one hand splayed out to support her, the other still clutching the chakram. For a moment she felt incredibly light-headed, then this sensation vanished and once more she seemed to have regained control of herself. Zena though had instantly jumped forward to grasp her arm, ready to help the slight-framed blonde to her feet.
“Come on, up ya get.” Zena steadied her friend, with both hands on her shoulders, as she anxiously looked into Gabrielle's face. “Ya alright? What happened?”
“I was there again. I was with them again.”
“With who?” Zena stared into Gabrielle's eyes, a note of worry making her voice tremble. “You weren't anywhere. You were here the whole time. I was just talking to ya, then you looked sort'a funny and collapsed on the floor.”
“I saw them, Zena.” Gabrielle spoke excitedly, anxious to describe her strange adventure. “Those two women. The one's who look as if they're from the past, the far past. They were dressed oddly, in short skirts an' all dolled up in leather gear. They had weapons—”
“Weapons? What sort'a weapons? Like we saw the first time?”
“Yeah. Swords, an' daggers.” Gabrielle ruffled her hair as they slowly left the hut, through its entrance, and regained the higher grass-covered sand-dune. “They were in some kind of forest, at a camp-site with horses. They looked as if they were sort'a, well, warriors or soldiers.”
“So, what happened?”
“The blonde one—.” Gabrielle stopped to clutch the wrist of her companion. “Say, Zena, you realise these women are the exact images of us? The tall one is you to a T, an' the blonde is exactly like me.”
“Yeah, I got that figured.” Zena hunched her shoulders in thought as they walked back towards the pick-up. “So, ya think there's something in this reincarnation thing, after all?”
“I don't know.” Gabrielle spread her hands and arms out in a gesture of uncertainty. “Anyway, they look just like us. But they had more to say this time. They gave me some kind of story. Though I couldn't get the whole gist of it—I, I sort'a faded away before they finished telling me the details.”
“So, gim'me the whole thing.” Zena glanced down at her companion. “Every little detail. Leave nothing out. I know you're one of those kind'a people on whom nothing is ever lost, Gabrielle.”
“Well, it was like this—”
In the Nissen hut, back at base later that afternoon, the chakram lay on the table-top in front of the women. It sat on its yellow silk wrapping, looking innocent and incapable of causing any danger. But both Gabrielle and Zena were by now all too aware of its potential.
“Aphrodite? Hera? A golden arrow, with some kind'a power that's makin' the world go to war? Oh, God.” Zena snorted in anguish, and raised her eyebrows questioningly at her friend across the table. “What kind'a story is that? I believe ya, don't get me wrong. I've had experience of this damned thing, an' its powers, too. I believe everything you said about what happened back there. The problem is, no-one—an' I mean no-one —else will.”
“It is sort'a like magic, isn't it.”
“Too true.” Zena nodded gloomily. “We can't go to the Base Commander. Squadron Leader Markham would think we were crazy, an' have us both taken away to some nice quiet place where people in white coats look after you.”
“I don't suppose Group Captain Graham would be much better.” Gabrielle sighed heavily, elbows on the table and chin cupped in hands. “There's only three possibilities he could take note of; one, it's magic; two, it's supernatural, ghosts, I mean; three, we're both off our heads. Which d'you suppose he'd choose?”
There was a long silence. It was just past seven o' clock in the evening. The radio was on, where it sat on the small table at the head of Gabrielle's bed, playing soft swing music at low volume. Outside the usual activity of a major military camp went on. The roads dissecting the rows of low huts, brick office buildings, warehouses, hangars, and literally scores of various-sized Nissen huts, still throbbed with small cars, pick-ups, large heavily laden lorries, and numerous people finding their way around with bicycles. It was coming on for dusk, but was still quite light. Zena, however, had drawn the curtains of the two windows on each side of their Nissen hut; as well as the two in the brick front, one on either side of the entrance door. Privacy was what they required at this moment.
“This arrow.” Zena paused to consider the main aspect of Gabrielle's tale. “Seems a mighty small thing, to have the power to bring on a World War. I mean, how?”
“Huh.” Gabrielle shrugged, and stared at her friend. “Who're we to ask those kind'a questions. What is it the poet says—‘They also serve, who only stand and wait.'—If you see what I mean.”
“No, Gabrielle, I don't.” Zena sat up in her straight-backed chair and glanced from one side to the other, as if expecting comfort from somewhere. “One thing we ain't doin' is standin' and waitin'. We can't afford to. Remember what I said about the chakram zapping one of us while we were flying the old Shagbat? Can you imagine that happening?”
“No. And I don't want to try, either.” Gabrielle rose and took a hike across to her bed, then turned and came back to the table where she stood leaning down with hands on the table-top. “The arrow. Maybe it's, y'know, invincible. Immortal. Unbreakable. Doesn't age, or somethin'. Has powers, like this damned chakram.”
“Oh, that'd be just great.” Zena expressed her view in a tone of utter contempt. “One magic object is bad enough; two magic's is one too many.”
Another silence reigned supreme over all for a minute or two, as the women went over the events of the day in their minds. Then the quiet was disturbed by a buzzing noise, and the tiny flicker of a small red light on the short wave radio on a desk at the back of the hut. Gabrielle, whose duty it was to oversee their communications with HQ in London, rose once more and padded over to the chair at the radio; where she put the headphones on and leaned forward in front the machine. She flicked a couple of switches, listened intently, then drew a notepad and pencil to her and began writing swiftly. A minute later she dropped the pencil; tapped on her radio-key a few times; then switched off the machine and looked over to Zena, still waiting expectantly at the table.
“Looks like we got us another operation.”
The hangar, next morning, was alive with activity. Foremost in line, near the sliding door, sat the new Walrus; to its right-hand side, near the wall, resided the Avro Anson. It had appeared at Scapa quite gratuitously one afternoon two months ago, when a male ATA pilot delivered it for onward tran-shipment to a particular cruiser which shall remain nameless. The cruiser, having other things to occupy it, had as yet not made an appearance at the Flow. So the Anson sat disconsolate, gathering dust; on those days, anyway, when it wasn't being borrowed by various flying-officers on more or less official business. In the far left rear corner of the vast hangar sat a Westland Lysander, looking overbearingly bulky with its faired-over wheels, high nose, and large engine. This aircraft went out on nefarious night-time expeditions, to who-knew-where, crewed by a couple of male airmen who were generally based in Shetland; where the Shetland-Norway secret boat route operated—another side-branch of SOE operations. In the centre of the concrete floor of the hangar, in pride of place, sat a Vickers Wellington medium bomber. This remarkable machine was part of Coastal Command, specifically aimed at intercepting U-boats sitting on the surface at night re-charging their batteries. For this the Bomber had a powerful under-belly searchlight called a Leigh Light. Using aircraft-vessel radar the Wellington pin-pointed the U-boat, raced in and switched on the searchlight at the last moment—illuminating the enemy vessel for a surprise attack; the Light being carried in a retractable turret underneath the fuselage and pointing forward, a set-up which had proved highly effectual. At the moment the bomber was being given a complete overhaul and was thus festooned in scaffolding, being worked on by an army of ant-like mechanics. Sergeant MacQuarie, meanwhile, stood by the side of Zena and Gabrielle, with a thick bundle of work-notes in his oily hand, giving them a last minute briefing.
“—so you see, the wing-mounted bomb-racks can now carry a couple of two hundred and fifty pound bombs each.” He paused to consider this important upgrade to the plane, smiling to himself with pure Scottish satisfaction in a job well done. “Aye, you'll no find they give any trouble, ladies. And the dorsal gun-mounting's been replaced, an' a new Vickers K gun fitted. The port stabiliser's been sorted, with a bit o' re-building. Apart from that she's in good condition, bein' virtually new, an' all. She's all yours, ladies. Sign here, an' here, an' here, an', lem'me see—yes, here an' here too. Thank's. Takin' her up this mornin'?”
Zena cocked an eye at the sergeant—‘Careless Talk Cost Lives' after all, as the posters said.
“Oh, aye.” The Scotsman got the message. “Any particular needs? The guns are all loaded, fuel tanks full, an' all the equipment checked. She's ready t'go, certainly.”
“Nah.” Zena shrugged her shoulders in her heavy sheepskin-lined flying jacket, and stamped her heavy boots on the concrete. “It's damn cold this mornin'. Is it really summer?”
“As summer as it'll ever be, ma'am.” MacQuarie sniffed gloomily. “Glad I'm working in the hangar today. I'll get a laddie on the tractor, if you're ready.”
Fifteen minutes later the aircraft sat out on the calm waters of the Flow, with Zena in the pilot's seat; it being her turn to get to grips with the new machine. Gabrielle sat by her side, with a sheaf of maps ready.
“OK babe, hang on to the seat of your pants.” The New Zealander sniggered evilly. “How low d'ya think I can skim over the deck of that destroyer at the far end of the Flow? Reckon I can miss it by, oh, ten feet, easy.”
“If you try to shear the signal flags off their mast, like you did to that mine-layer five weeks ago, it'll mean time in the glass-house for sure.” Gabrielle made a rude noise between parted lips. “I'll probably have forgotten who you are, by the time you get out again.”
The bow heaved over the water, sending high white waves up to either side; the plane rocked unevenly from side to side, as was its usual wont; the Bristol Pegasus radial engine roared like a massed pack of lions; waves splashed against the side-windows and over the top of the cockpit, sending skittering sheets of water across the glass roof; then Zena adjusted the fuel mixture handle and pushed forward the throttle lever, on its geared ratchet fixed against the bulkhead beside her left-hand elbow; she pulled gently but firmly back on the joystick-wheel between her legs and, with a few bumps and groans, the aircraft left the surface of the water; instantly there was an immediate change, from bump and grind to perfect smoothness, and they were airborne.
“Look, Zena.” Gabrielle had glanced down through her side-window, just after they had left Stromness behind and below them. “That's Skara Brae down there. I recognise it. God, it is right on the sea-shore.”
“Take your word for it, darling.” The pilot was too occupied in managing the unwieldy plane, from her position on the left-hand side of the cockpit, to glance outside. “Can't see it from here. Did ya wrap that damned chakram up well an' put it back in the cupboard, by the way?”
“Too right, I did.” Gabrielle snorted in relief at the thought. “Inside the yellow silk headscarf; under a couple of your spare boots; with my other flying-jacket on top. D'you think that'll do the trick?”
“Let's hope so.” Zena now got down to the job in hand. “So, where're we goin' this time. Gim'me all the facts; just so I know you know ‘em.”
“Huh! I'll get you back for that jibe, lady, don't you fear.” Gabrielle ruffled through her notes; trying not to drop any at her feet, where their recovery would entail much difficulty and discomfort. “OK, Group Captain Graham, in his infinite wisdom, orders us to speedily and efficiently—”
“Will ya stop sounding like a legal document?”
“—head on a course due West to a point 59° Lat, 09° Long. Got that?” Gabrielle ignored the sneer this question engendered, carrying ruthlessly on. “Where, by the grace of God and my perfect navigating, we will rendezvous with a cruiser. One of ours, that is. We land, pick up two passengers, and high-tail it back here. But we don't land at Scapa; our port for this trip is Lunna Ness, Shetland.”
“The Shetland Bus boys?”
“Yep, that's right.” Gabrielle nodded, as she marked hieroglyphics on her chart. “We re-fuel there, take on another unspecified male passenger and bring him back to Scapa; where a Lockheed Hudson will be awaiting his arrival, to take him on to pastures un-named. That's all.”
“ ‘ That's all '. Ha! Ya sound just like Annette Hanshaw.” Zena laughed softly, amid all the surrounding noise of airframe creaks and rattles. “Must put one of her records on when we get back t'the old Nissen.”
“As long as you don't try t'sing along.” Gabrielle looked across at her pilot, sneering in her turn. “The last time you did that a stray cat outside the hut screamed in agony an' ran away, heading for Stromness. Poor thing.”
“Huh! Read your maps, lady!”
1. Squadron Leader ‘Hermes'. He knows who he is. Many thanks. :)
2. Skara Brae is a real ancient site on the Orkney mainland, just north of Scapa Flow.
3. Elinor Brent-Dyer. 1894-1969. A children's author, specialising in stories for girls; the most famous of her series being ‘The Chalet School' stories.
4. ‘something to do with a golden apple.' The Judgement of Paris. Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena all claimed possession of one of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Paris, a Trojan warrior, was placed as judge and awarded the Apple to Aphrodite. Hera wasn't pleased. One of the events leading up to the Trojan War.
5. ‘They also serve . . ' Sonnet 16, John Milton.
6. Annette Hanshaw. 1901-1985. Jazz singer of the ‘20's and ‘30's. She had an easily recognisable slow relaxed throaty delivery, and concluded many of her recordings with the softly spoken catch-phrase ‘That's all'.
To be continued in the next story in the ‘ Mathews and Parker ' series.
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