Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in Scapa Flow in 1943. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, are both pilots and members of SOE—Special Operations Executive. The two women explore a number of Neolithic sites on the Orkney mainland, and have a strange experience.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
This is the 7th 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
“Yes sir, Thursday, 10 a.m. Yeah, I got that, sir.” Zena held the phone tight against her ear. “One Walrus, ferried from Dundee. We'll be waiting. What's that sir? Oh, orders to follow via telegraph message on Wednesday. OK, sir. Yeah sir. Yeah. Goodbye.”
She replaced the receiver and turned to her companion, who was on tenterhooks at her side. If there was one thing guaranteed to annoy Gabrielle it was a one-sided telephone conversation in which she had no part.
“So? What was Graham sayin'?” Gabrielle couldn't keep quiet any longer. “What was that about a Walrus? Are we gettin' another plane? Are we?”
“Yeah, we're gettin' a new Walrus.” Zena grinned at her colleague. “It's bein' ferried up on Thursday.”
“Yippee! I've been on the ground too long. Can't wait t'get up in the clouds again. Can you?” Gabrielle was aflame with enthusiasm waving a long heavy spanner, which she was oiling, dangerously in the air. “The smell of the dope on the wings; the creaking in the hull; the thumping as we take-off. Bring it on. Four days away. Can't come soon enough for me.”
Zena was more reserved, shaking her head at the blonde girl's reckless outlook. Being the elder of the duo, if only by a couple of years, she felt it incumbent on her to take care of the younger woman; hard as this was, at times. Zena pushed the telephone across the table and sat back. This instrument had been installed in their private Nissen hut just a week previously, giving them for the first time personal unrestricted contact with their HQ in London; thus making their secret activities all the more secret.
The two women left the hut and walked over to the small truck sitting on the grass in front of the building. This too was a recent addition to their equipment, an Austin Utility truck with a canvas-covered pick-up rear. They had been giving it an engine tune and check-up and were now happy to take it for its first spin across the Orkney mainland. The question was, where to? Zena had the answer.
“Those two land-locked lakes, just north of Hoy Sound.” Zena smiled at her companion. As they leaned over the truck's engine. “Y'know. Loch Stenness an' Loch Harray. Where we saw those standing stones Prof MacDonald told us about.”
“Yeah. They're right beside the road, as I remember.” Gabrielle nodded. “We can drive straight there. Well, we've got all day an' it's only, lem'me see, 10.15 a.m. We could be there in an hour. What're you waitin' for, climb in? Who's drivin'?”
The Austin truck proved roadworthy and reliable, taking them along the less than perfect Orkney roads at a fair rate. Well, 25 miles an hour, which wasn't to be sniffed at considering the number of times they had to pull into the verge to let military vehicles pass; or were stopped by officious patrols who wanted to scrutinise their papers with microscopic intensity—this was Scapa Flow, after all.
Finally, in just over an hour and a half, they reached their destination; or at least the first part of it. Zena pulled the van into the side of the road, and the women stared through the windscreen at the initial manifestation of the ancient Neolithic people who formerly lived in this area.
“I took some notes when Prof MacDonald was talking to us about the history of this area a few days ago, you remember.” Gabrielle fumbled in her jacket pocket. “Brought them with me. Here we are. So, those things over there are the Standing Stones of Stenness. Neolithic, apparently.”
“An' what exactly does that mean, dear? D'ya know?” Zena gave her companion an ironic look.
“Er, no, if you push me!” The blonde shuffled in her seat, then gazed fixedly at the taller New Zealander suspiciously. “Do you? Come on, do you? God, I knew it. You don't, do you? Oh, very funny!”
They clambered out the van, Zena having the most trouble, as the doors were rear-hinged with the handle at the front—the door swinging away from the passenger when opened. But finally they stumbled out onto the wet grass by the side of the road, where they could survey their surroundings.
“That's unusual. Look'it this.” Zena pointed to the obvious features of the terrain. “There's one lake on the left, then a narrow causeway with a road, then the second lake—the causeway only keepin' them yards apart. Ain't that strange?”
“Yeah. Maybe it has something t'do with why these stones are where they are.” Gabrielle stepped forward across the road, or rather unsurfaced track, in front of her friend. “God, they're big, ain't they.”
They both jumped a small ditch and walked over the close-cropped grass to pause beside the nearest stone. There were three tall stones, with the broken remnants of several others, showing that originally there had been a wide circle of them in ancient times. But what remained was still spectacular.
“How big d'you suppose they are, Zena?”
“I'd say maybe 15 feet high.” Zena stepped up to the stone and ran a hand over its rough surface. “Very thin, though. It can't be more than a foot thick. An' the others seem to be the same.”
“D'you notice their tops.” Gabrielle pointed. “They're all sort'a slanted, angled to a point. Wonder what that means?”
Gabrielle gazed around the site, taking in the details of the historic remains; then she looked with more interest further away, shielding her eyes from the sun.
“Hey, Zena. Look over there. Just where the road bends an' goes onto the causeway.”
“Oh, yeah. I see.” Zena peered from under the shadow of her raised palm. “Another stone by the side of the road. Just by itself. Looks even taller than the ones here. Shall we go an' see?”
A short walk brought them to the single stone by the road's edge, though still well in view of the other Standing Stones and obviously connected in some way with them.
“This is all gettin' very peculiar, Zena,” Gabrielle looked from the tall stone to the far circle and back. “What does it all mean? I mean, what did the people who built them want?”
“Oh, it'll all be t'do with whatever religion they had then, I suppose.” The New Zealander stepped up to give the stone a close inspection. “It's taller than those others. This is around twenty feet high, I think. From the little I've read about it I think they worshipped Gods of the land and sea. Sort'a natural, geographical Gods. They felt the physical world all round them was controlled by the Gods. So maybe that's why they built these monuments here.”
“Yeah. Beside the confluence of the lochs, an' in these wide open rolling plains so they could be seen easily.” Gabrielle nodded, musingly. “Something in that.”
The women spent another few minutes examining the single stone, then returned to the circle. The tall stones were somehow eerie in their magnificent silence; harbouring memories of times long washed away by the tide of history. Eventually the women left and walked back to their van.
“Hey, Zena.” Gabrielle spoke as she scrambled back into her seat on the left of the cab, while Zena squirmed to get her long legs comfortably under the steering wheel. “There's still the other circle to see. It's called the Ring of Brodgar, according to my notes. An' Prof MacDonald said it was more imposing than these Stenness stones. What d'ya think?”
“We got plenty o' time. Where is it?”
“Well, according to this map it's only a few hundred yards past the end of the causeway over there. Maybe half a mile or so.”
“Easy, let's go.”
The causeway, when they drove onto it, was rather testing to the nerves. It was so narrow that, from their seats inside the van, it was impossible to see the edge of the road on either side. If they only looked out their side windows the water of each loch seemed to be washing at the wheels of their vehicle. Not a calming thought for a driver as yet unused to their particular mode of transport. Gabrielle spent the short space of time traversing the causeway staring intently at her driver, wishing she would drive even slower than the snail's pace at which they were actually travelling. Finally they were safely on the other side of the dangerous trail. But their travails were not over. At the side of the road was a small hut and a couple of Army lorries; and standing in the centre of the highway was a large soldier with a red flag, which he commenced to wave at their approach.
“Oh God! Another check-point.” Gabrielle was fed-up. “This'll be the fourth today. Haven't they anything better to do?”
“There's a war on, Gabs, an' this is a major base after all. Cut ‘em some slack.” Zena seemed ready to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The large soldier, now identifiable as a sergeant, strode up to Zena's window and impatiently shoved a bare hand through the open aperture.
“What papers, sergeant?” If there was one thing that annoyed Zena it was unnecessary impoliteness. “We got all sorts, an' all colours, too.”
“Oh, yeah! Out the van. Come on, out the van.”
“Sergeant, piss of! Or start bein' more polite.” Zena was not one to take this kind of bullying lightly. “Why don't you take a short hop into that lake over there—or find some manners from somewhere! An' while we're at it, don't I outrank you?”
“What's going on here? What's the hold-up, Sergeant Chambers?”
A young Lieutenant came across the road to stand by the NCO's side.
“This ‘ere lady won't show ‘er papers, sir.” The sergeant obviously thought that getting in the first word would clear his name in his officer's eyes. “Seems t'be very impolite an' snarly, sir.”
“Alright, I'll deal with this. Off you go.” The Lieutenant watched the man stamp off over the road till he was out of earshot, then turned to the occupants of the van. “Well, ladies, I'm sorry if my sergeant was, er, not quite polite. A man of the earth, y'know; the Black Country. They are , er, rather down to earth in those parts, I'm afraid; as I've come to realise over the last few weeks. So, may I see your, er, official passes?”
Reluctantly Zena shuffled around in the glove compartment and finally produced a set of folded cardboard cards. Gabrielle hunted in her jacket pockets and also produced a couple of similar papers. The Lieutenant scrutinised these carefully, then handed them back.
“Everything seems in order.” He gave them a thin smile. “Carry on. I'll give orders for my men to pass you through the check-point on your way back. Good morning, ladies.”
Zena gave him a watery smile, of no particular intensity, and drove off with a rather embarrassing screeching of gears. The army lorries were soon left behind and, after passing a farm building near the edge of the road, the women could see the grassy low-lying ground spreading out comfortingly again; at least on their left-hand side. On the right the road continued to hug the edge of Loch Harray unnervingly closely.
“That was a damned impolite sod, back there.” Gabrielle finally let her pent-up feelings free. “I had a good mind to get out and kick the idiot.”
“Good job ya didn't.” Zena laughed, as her companion squirmed angrily in her seat. “Either the other soldiers would'a shot you, or the Lieutenant would'a put ya under arrest and thrown you in the lock-up. Forget it.”
As they drove on Gabrielle suddenly leaned forward and pointed through the windscreen.
“Look over there, Zena, to the left. Just on the horizon.” She continued staring as Zena slowed down.
The land rose slightly in this area and the sky-line was, in fact, only around four hundred yards away on the left side. But standing silhouetted against the clouds were several more standing stones, these certainly forming a true circle. Fortunately the road passed right by, and the women were able to park their van immediately outside the ring. Leaving the van they set off over the intervening grassy heath. They then had to scramble up a short slope before finding themselves on a flat plateau with the ring of stones sweeping away before them.
“Now this is what I call an ancient monument.” Zena nodded in satisfaction, as she grabbed Gabrielle's elbow to stop her tripping over a half-buried boulder. “Steady! Yeah. This is a real stone circle, an' no mistake.”
“What did they use it for, d'you suppose? In those old days, I mean.”
“Haven't the faintest, Gabrielle.” Zena started walking round the circumference of the stones. “Could'a been a holiday camp, or a military training-ground, or a children's play-park. Who knows.”
“Play-park. Hah! You're losing it again, lady.” Gabrielle stepped up by the New Zealander's side, and carried on theorising on her own account. “It's supposed to be a religious monument. Y'know, singing hymns to the Sun God, or whoever it was they worshipped. It's surprising, when you come to think about it, just how much has survived here.”
At first sight the ring of tall stones seemed to be complete, with as many as possibly thirty relatively widely-spaced stones standing proudly in position, representing a circle with a diameter of around three hundred and fifty feet. It was only as the visitor walked round that they could see the broken remains of other stones, or the slight indentations in the ground at regular intervals where others had stood in the past. When first built there would have been sixty or so stones in the original complete circle.
“How tall d'you think these stones are, Zena?” Gabrielle paused to step close and place her hand on the nearest.
“I'd say about twelve feet, maybe. All quite thin again, though. Maybe just over a foot thick on average.” Zena too touched the stone, close to Gabrielle's hand. “A little smaller than the Stenness stones an'— aouch! What the hell!”
“ Jeez! Aargh! ” Gabrielle also let out a cry of anguish and staggered back a step or two. “God, that hurt!”
Both women wrung their hands for a few seconds, as electric–like tremors shimmered through their fingers and up their arms. Then the feeling seemed to disappear as quickly as it had come.
“Did you—you felt that too, didn't ya, Gab?”
“Damn right I felt it!” Gabrielle fell to rubbing her arm passionately. “Are you OK? Damn, that hurt. What was it? Electricity? Some kind'a defence the Army boys haven't let on to anybody about? God, if that's it I'm gon'na kill someone, just watch me!”
“What would the Army wan'na rig these stones with an electric barrier for?” Zena stepped back away from the stone, turning to make sure Gabrielle was safely distant too. “Nah. That ain't it. Must'a been some natural thing—like static, or something.”
“First time I've heard of stones giving off static.” Gabrielle was clearly not convinced. “I don't believe it.”
“Here, hang on a minute.” Zena turned to the road again and began walking back to the van, glancing over her shoulder as she went. “Stay there. Don't go any nearer. I'll be back in a jiffy.”
“Oh, thanks.” But the note of sarcasm in her voice was so weak even Gabrielle didn't notice it. “Like I'd step up an' hug the damn thing. Hey, Zena! Bring a pickaxe back with you. I got a plan.”
When the tall form of the flying-officer returned a minute later however it was only with two sets of leather gloves in her hands. Gabrielle was neither amused nor open to further experiments.
“If you think for a second, lady, that I'm gon'na touch that rock once more—for any reason whatsoever you can damn well think again, cos I ain't.” The blonde half of their duo made her stance plain as Zena came up.
“Hell, Gabs, what's life for if ya don't take chances.” Zena actually had a broad grin now. “Here, there's your gloves. Now, let's see if the charge goes through thick leather.”
“You first, Zena.”
Merely stopping to give her compatriot a mild sneer, the brave New Zealander walked up to the stone and stood contemplating its cracked and broken surface.
“Well, get on with it.” Out of danger, Gabrielle began to issue peremptory orders—as if her friend was simply undertaking a minor experiment. “If it happens again I'll wrap your hand in bandages. We've got some in the box in the rear of the van, y'know. Should I dampen them with water from the loch first?”
“Darling, you can go an' dampen yourself in the loch, for all I care.” Zena was feeling just a little anxious. “Right. I'm gon'na give it a quick tap, an' see if anything happens. Stay back.”
Gabrielle grunted in response, and casually hooked one thumb in the waistbelt of her trousers. Though she was by no means as relaxed, or indifferent, as she made out.
Zena, suddenly making up her mind, reached out and quickly tapped the stone's surface with the back of her gloved hand; jumping away as soon as she had done so.
“What? What? Did it happen again?” Gabrielle was nearly jumping up and down with excitement. “What happened, Zena?”
“Nothing.” Zena heaved a sigh of relief and shook her head, as she looked over at the blonde dancer. “Will ya calm down, an' stop gyratin' like that. You're givin' me a headache. I didn't feel a thing.”
“Oh. Oh.” Gabrielle joined her companion, and took a close look at the glove in question. “Humph. Not even a scorch mark. Oh, well.”
Zena slapped one glove across the other; took a square look at the woman beside her; and groaned in despair. It wasn't everyday you had a companion who was so concerned about one's health.
“I am so sorry I can't provide you with a burnt hand, with the flesh falling off in blackened cinders. Sorry.” She knew how to be sarcastic when it mattered.
“ Yeoow! That's nasty.” Gabrielle, though, didn't seem all that put out. “Well, if it didn't harm you, it won't harm me.”
With this she made an elongated drama of pulling on her right glove, then took three steps to stand beside the stone herself. Zena was appalled.
“Jesus! What the hell d'ya think you're gon'na do, woman?” Zena jerked a hand out to restrain the blonde. “We don't know what's causing this thing. Ya might be hurt.”
“Nah. If it didn't get through your glove, it won't get through mine.” Gabrielle just laughed as she pulled her arm away. “I have to check what's goin' on myself. I ain't afraid.”
“I know you're not afraid, Gabs.” Zena spoke with feeling as she watched her friend's preparations. “But I am. Don't do it.”
For answer Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and gave Zena a wide mischievous smile. Then she turned away and placed her gloved hand on the stone, palm down. She kept it there for appreciably longer than Zena had done, then stepped back a pace.
“See! I knew there's nothing to fear.” Gabrielle grinned widely. “When it didn't harm you I figured its power had probably been dissipated. Y'know, like static. Probably nothing left of it now. Look!”
With this last word, and before Zena could do anything to prevent it, Gabrielle pulled off her glove and once more touched the stone with her bare palm. The result was far more dramatic than the first time each had experienced the mysterious power surge. She gasped in agony; crouched down as if in great pain, with her hand apparently stuck to the rough surface; groaned through set teeth like a soul in anguish; then seemed to break free from the stone's grip and collapsed on the grass, writhing in undisguised distress.
Zena was at her side in a second, and dragged her several yards away from the stone. Then, bending, she caught the light form in her arms and set off at a good pace for the road and their van. A minute later she was wiping Gabrielle's brow with a wet rag and anxiously looking for her eyes to open.
Gabrielle had fallen into a light faint, but with Zena's ministrations, she finally opened her eyes and made moves to sit up.
“God! I thought you'd been killed. Are ya alright?” Zena's voice betrayed the real fear she felt.
“ Aargh! Jeez! Jesus! ” Gabrielle sat up, with Zena's arm round her shoulders, and looked about with a strange expression. “Where are they all?”
“What? Who? Look, Gabs, you've had a terrible shock.” Zena spoke softly. “In a minute we'll get you in the van, then I can take ya to the Medical Officer back at the camp. He'll soon have you on your feet again. Just take it easy. Is your hand burnt?”
A quick inspection showed no sign of even the slightest scorching, which relieved Zena a great deal. But Gabrielle seemed to be suffering some kind of shock, all the same. She continued to peer around, as if expecting a large crowd to be standing close. But as Zena gave a quick glance about the grassy bank and the Ring some fifty yards away, she saw no-one else in sight.
“Where are they?” Gabrielle muttered this just loud enough for Zena to hear. “Have they all gone away?”
“Who? Where? Just rest for a while, Gabs.” Zena began to consider whether it might be concussion. “There's no-one here. Who did you see?”
“People. Lots of people, all dressed in animal skins and rough cloth.” Gabrielle seemed to be drawing on an actual memory of whatever had transpired minutes ago. “They were all round the Ring, an' there were priests. I saw us, too, standing to one side. But then, I realised, it wasn't us. Just two women. It couldn't have been us. They had short skirts on; you could see most of their thighs, an' they had weapons. The tall one, like you Zena, had a sword; an' the short blonde had peculiar knives strapped to her boots. She looked across at me an' said something, I think. That's all I remember. God, my head hurts.”
Back at the camp, two hours later, the women sat once more in their Nissen hut. The Medical Officer, after being told a story even he could hardly bring himself to believe, had examined Gabrielle and found no sign of concussion. He gave her a bottle of aspirin and told her to lie down for the rest of the day, then hustled the women out of his office; Medical Officers had lots to do on a Military Base, and his time was precious. Actually he was working on an article about heart disease, and the role of tobacco and cigarettes in its spread, which he was going to publish in the ‘ Lancet ' after the War. He fully expected it would cause a medical sensation.
“So, what's this all about, Gabrielle?” Zena handed a mug of steaming cocoa, liberally laced with whisky, to the invalid sitting on the edge of her bed. “What did you see back there, at that damned monument?”
“A whole different world, Zena, a whole different world!” Gabrielle sipped from her mug, gave a grimace, then took a deeper pull at its contents. “When I touched the stone, that second time, it was as if I'd been taken to the very time they all used to worship at that Ring. There was a large crowd; some sort of ceremony seemed to be going on; an' just to the side were those two women whom I mistook for us at first.”
“Why did you think they were us?” Zena sat on her own bed, and gazed intently at the invalid. “I mean, why should you think that?”
“Because I seemed to be focussing on them, rather than anything else that was happening there.” Gabrielle shrugged slightly. “I don't know, but I was just looking at them more than anyone else. I didn't feel any pain at that point from the—the energy coming from the stone. I was only interested in those women.”
“But why them, instead of—”
“Because they were us, Zena!” Gabrielle looked squarely at her friend, with wide open eyes. “They were about twenty yards away from me, an' I had a clear look at them. The tall one was dark, with long black hair, and had your features to a tee. The blonde was my height, had short hair, and seemed to be a mirror-image of me! It was us, Zena, I'll lay my month's pay on it. In another time, aeons ago, it was us !”
Zena wriggled uncomfortably. This conversation, probably based on a hallucination under duress, was becoming altogether too esoteric for her.
“You got'ta remember this is all a-a dream you had when that damn stone zapped ya.” She gazed at the blonde girl, whose nose was buried in her cocoa mug again. “It never really happened. Just a dream. Best t'let it go.”
“It seemed much too strong an'—an' intense for that, Zena.” Gabrielle shook her head firmly, after all she was the one who had experienced the incident at first hand. “Everything didn't just seem real—it was real! I'd stake my commission on it. An' anyway, the blonde woman spoke to me.”
Zena could see there was no arguing with her friend, so took the approach that it was best to let her talk the curious incident out—let Gabrielle have some relief that way, through words.
“OK. Tell me, in as much detail as you remember, exactly what happened. From the moment you touched the stone till you opened your eyes afterwards.” Zena smiled at the invalid encouragingly. “Don't worry, I'm not gon'na sneer or make snide remarks. I wan'na understand the thing just as much as you, Gabs.”
“It's just static, after all.”
That's the last thought that passed through my mind as I touched the stone. You remember, Zena, I'd just laid my gloved hand on it, an' nothing happened. So, I thought, I'll show you—it's only static, an' it's gone now, dissipated. So I took my glove off an' touched the damn stone again.
At first, for maybe a second, it was as if I was bein' electrocuted. A terrible pain shot up my arm an' seemed to vibrate through my whole body. I couldn't breathe or think or do anything. My muscles must'a been paralysed for a moment. Then that all went away, an' it was just as if I was standing there beside the stone normally—but at a completely different time!
I didn't feel any pain or discomfort. I was standing up perfectly naturally, an' there was a crowd of people milling around—like at a fair or open-air market. Then I realised they were all dressed in strange clothes. Time, by the way, seemed to be moving at a sort'a different rate. I didn't feel hurried or out'ta place or anything like that. I seemed to be in-in my natural element, if you know what I mean.
Then I saw the people were dressed in animal-hide cloaks an' rough cloth dresses an' leggings; an' their boots were heavy an' roughly made from thick leather. Most of them, including the men an' boys, seemed to have long hair. I mean really long hair, down to their necks an' thick an' wavy. Most'a the men had heavy beards an' moustaches, too.
I was just sort'a looking at all this in a general way—not thinking about anything in particular, just taking it all in. Over to my right, towards the centre of the stone circle, I suddenly noticed a group of men in long white robes, performing some kind'a ritual or chant. An' it just came to me that they were priests. I don't know why, but it seemed perfectly natural. Then I looked over to my left, an' there were two women standing a little apart from the rest who seemed somehow different.
They had the same height ratio as us, Zena, if y'know what I mean. The tall one had a darkish sun-tanned complexion an' black thick hair to her shoulders. Her forehead was high, but partly hidden by hair, an' her expression was sort'a off-hand an' distant—as if she was there as a friend, but still wary. She was dressed in a black leather outfit, with a very short skirt that seemed to consist of wide loose leather straps. You could see most'a her legs, an' she wore heavy boots nearly up to her knees. She looked exactly like you, Zena. I don't mean there were slight similarities—she was you exactly.
The girl by her side seemed completely different from her friend. She was gorgeously blonde. Her hair was much shorter than the woman beside her—a sort'a golden wheat colour. Her eyes were soft green, just like mine. I should'a said before the tall woman had deep blue eyes precisely the same shade as yours, Zena. Anyway, the blonde girl had a happy expression, as if she was enjoying herself. She was dressed far more strangely than anyone else there, though. She had a separate top an' skirt; if you could call either of them such. The top was more or less just a bra, with thin strings going under her arms. Her skirt was the shortest thing I've ever seen a woman wear in public. The waist-band was below her belly-button. An' the hem was high, I mean high , on her thighs. She turned away for a moment at one point an' I saw her back. It was completely bare, except for the strings of her bra. I've never seen anything like it, but she seemed perfectly composed as if it were her normal attire.
Both women were armed. The tall dark one had a sword. I could see the hilt above her right shoulder. It must'a been in a back sheath. The blonde had two long knives strapped to her boots by leather ties. They both looked as if they knew how to handle their weapons an' defend themselves. Then the blonde looked over at me, as if deliberately catching my eye, an' said something. They were about thirty yards away, with many of the crowd moving across between us, but I still heard her words as if she was standing right beside me.
“It's in the tomb.”
That's what she said, quite clear an' loud. Only that, an' nothing more. Then I felt a terrible pain shooting through my arm an' across my shoulders. I sort'a collapsed on the ground in agony, an' the next thing I knew you're bending over me with a wet cloth splashing water all over my face. An' that's it.
“Well, that's one helluva dream an' no mistake!” Zena was actually lost for words. It certainly seemed to have been a powerful hallucination. “An' ya say it felt real?”
“It didn't feel real, Zena, it was real. Take my word for it. I was there.” Gabrielle sat back on her bed and put the cocoa mug aside. “It wasn't a dream. It was some kind of–of-of echo. Something from the past, that came back. I think that girl, the blonde, was trying to give me a message of some sort. I got the feeling she was serious.”
Zena shrugged her shoulders. She still couldn't see light at the end of the tunnel. But she was willing to go along with her friend's needs.
“Serious? What about?”
“I don't know.” Gabrielle frowned as she went over the events again in her mind. “That remark she made about a tomb. Maybe she wants us to go to some tomb on the island somewhere. She said ‘ it ' was there, in the tomb.”
“Humph! What?” The New Zealander let her native caution come to the fore. “A pile of dust? A broken stone? Some tattered remnants of clothing or piece of jewellery from those times? Maybe a weapon. An old sword, or something?”
“Could be any o' those, or something else.” Gabrielle shook her head in decision. “But whatever it is, she wanted us to go an' find it. So, I think we should.”
Zena was dubious about the whole affair, and now a real difficulty presented itself.
“Gabs, there must be hundreds of tombs, of one kind or another, on this island.” She waved a hand despairingly in the air. “After all, as Prof MacDonald told us, this place is awash with ancient history. How could we ever pick one tomb, or old hole in the ground, from all the others there must be?”
The blonde pilot hunched forward, putting her cupped hands under her chin as she assumed a thoughtful guise. A slight frown puckered her forehead before she suddenly sat up straight again, clearly having had an inspiration.
“Zena, you remember what Prof MacDonald told us about all those ancient stones an' circles out at the lakes?” She nodded eagerly at the tall woman opposite. “Y'know, stones, circles,—an' tombs!”
“Er, I got'ta faint memory he said something about some tombs.” Zena, on her part, screwed her face up in concentration as she tried to cast her mind back four days. “I think.”
Gabrielle was having none of this tomfoolery and foggy outlook.
“Not tombs, Zena,—a single tomb!” She stood up to cross over to her friend and shake her by the shoulders in excitement. “One single tomb. A place called—what was it? Er, er,— I know! Maeshowe. Yeah, that's it. That's the place. I know it.”
Zena quietly untangled Gabrielle's hands from her second-best shirt, which had now lost two buttons in the melee, and stood up herself.
“Get a grip, Gabs. OK! OK! I believe ya. Maeshowe. Yeah, I do remember him sayin' something about the place. So, where is it?”
“I noticed it on my map when we were out at the stone circle, Zena.” Gabrielle looked up into the tall woman's eyes. “It's just about three-quarters of a mile from where we were, then. It was marked clearly on my map. So?”
“Oh God!” Zena saw where this was heading, but could think of nothing off-hand to oppose her friend's question. “OK! We'll go there tomorrow; it's too late today, what with all those check-points, an' all. It'll give you time to rest, an' get over that-that zap you took. Rest's what the Doctor said you needed, anyway. What we're goin' t'do now, lady, is spend a quiet evening listening to the radio; then you're having an early night. So, what's your poison? The Forces Programme, or the Home Service?”
“What's on the Home Service?”
“Arthur Askey, followed by Valentine Dyall in ‘ Death on the Racecourse, Part Three '.”
“And the Forces Programme?”
“A selection of Vera Lynn, an' Gracie Fields; followed by ‘ Tunes for the Troops '.”
The dawn, though tardy still, pulled out all the stops; bright blue unclouded sky, and a cheerful sun. It wasn't by any means warm, this still only being late March, but it at least contrived to give the impression of warmth. The two ladies rose from their beds in joyful anticipation—well, actually that's not quite true.
Zena opened one bleary eye, gazed at the cheap tin alarm clock on the rickety stand by her bed, groaned in agony, and threw the blankets back. There followed a period of deeply felt, and strongly worded, opposition to the fact that another blood—another day had dawned. Then she scrambled around trying to find all those bits and pieces that go to make up a lady's trousseau. This engendered more swearing before she finally felt fit to face the world. At the rear of the Nissen hut they occupied was an oil-fired stove, which she now bent to the task of resuscitating from its overnight rest. This finally accomplished, she put a coffee-pot on the top plate and turned to the other occupant of the hut.
Gabrielle was a deep sleeper. In fact Zena had on several occasions told her to her face that the blonde didn't sleep, she fell into an overnight coma which it would generally take medical equipment to wake her from. Such was the case this morning. Zena at first considered the merits of a cold wet rag gently slapped over the slumbering victim's face, but gave this up on remembering the attitude taken by the sleeper the last time Zena had tried that trick. Talk about wild tigers in lamb's clothing! So, with mealy-mouthed timidity, she simply shook the blanket-covered shoulder nearest her and hoped for the best.
“Graagh! Whassis? G'way.”
“Morning has broken, sweetness.” Zena decided to milk the moment for some reward, at least. “Coffee's brewing. Get your ass in motion. Your country needs you!”
“Damn the country, an' all who sail in her! Oh, alright. But I know it's a mistake.”
Breakfast over, they fell to working out their plans. With no mission to occupy them they had the day to themselves, so didn't hurry over preparations.
“Torches?” Gabrielle had jumped at the chance to be quarter-master.
“Tools? Pickaxe, shovel, two spades, crowbar?”
“Yeah, yeah. Check, an' ditto, ditto, ditto.”
“No need to be snarky this early in the morning, Zena.” The blonde organiser was in her element. “Truck tools. Spanners, wrenches, oil-dipstick, extra can of petrol, starting-handle?”
“God, yeah! Check to everything.”
“You're not showing the correct attitude of get-up-an-go, y'know.” Gabrielle allowed a touch of asperity to enter her voice. She so loved irritating the raw nerves of the New Zealander whenever she had the chance. “Paper-wrapped packet of eight beef sandwiches, an' six bottles of Bass?”
“Six bottles enough, d'you think Zena?”
“God, I ain't drinkin' them all myself, as you damn well know.” Zena snarled this through set teeth. God, that blonde could be so annoying when she wanted. “ You'll sink most of ‘em, like you always do!”
“No need to be personal, madam.” Gabrielle was completely unashamed, ticking off the next items on her list. “Our identity cards, an' official passes—for camp, for travelling anywhere on the island, for admittance to the airbases at Kirkwall, for high level A1-Green Security?”
“Er, er, high level A1-Green papers, Gabs?” Zena shuffled around in the many documents scattered over the table they sat at. “What colour are they, again?”
“Green, darling, green.”
“Are they? I'll be damned. Oh, here they are. Check.”
And so the litany went on till every last item, no matter how small its physical being or necessity, had been accounted for to the ruthless and pitiless blonde accountant. Finally they went outside into the bright sunlight and piled all the heavier or bulky material into the rear of the truck. As they returned to the cab Zena took her courage in both hands and suggested her compatriot take heed of Doctor's orders, and knock back a couple of aspirin. The answer was all she secretly expected.
“Damn the Doctor, I feel great. Come on. You're drivin'.”
“You said earlier those two women you saw looked like us, Gabs?”
They were well on their return journey to the lochs and the adjacent ancient sites. Two check-points had slowed their progress, as had waiting at the side of the road to let a thirty vehicle army convoy grind slowly past. But finally they were nearly at their destination again. Zena was driving the light truck more carefully than usual, figuring Gabrielle would appreciate the gentler run.
“Yeah. I been thinking about that.” Gabrielle nodded in answer, while she kept a sharp eye on the map spread across her knees. “It wasn't wish-fulfilment or anything like that. I didn't want to see them as us—they were us! That's the only way I can explain it.”
“You see, Gabs, that opens up a whole new can o' worms, don't it?” Zena shrugged as much as was possible behind the wide steering wheel, and under the bumpy road conditions. “Things like re-incarnation an' suchlike. Did we have former lives? Have we had many other lives since? Is that why we've met nowadays? Gods, are we fated to always meet each other wherever an' whenever we live again?”
“Don't make it seem such a chore, for God's sake.” Gabrielle grunted disdainfully. “I wouldn't mind always knowing you'd be somewhere in my life, whatever that was. I mean—I mean, er—”
“I get it. Yeah, I know what ya mean.” Zena grinned across at her blushing navigator. “It wouldn't be a chore. Say, where are we? Anywhere close?”
The flustered map-reader scrambled around, the map having entangled itself with her legs below the knees. But a flurried minute's work restored order.
“Er, where are we? Ah, yes. Here.”
“Where's here, Gabs?” Zena's tone was mildly ironic, just mildly.
“A mile from the causeway, Zena.” Gabrielle had re-gained control of her environment. “Don't go on that far. We need to turn right in another few hundred yards, along a track. That'll lead us straight up to the tomb. Though how we'll recognise it, I don't know. It's marked on the map, so I'll tell ya when to stop.”
The entrance to the track, or what they both assumed to be the correct track, duly appeared and Zena carefully turned the truck onto it; driving on at a sedate pace. In what seemed no time at all Gabrielle punched her driver's arm with a closed fist and let out a triumphant yell.
“ Yaay! OK! Stop. Stop, I say, Zena.” The navigator shook her head critically. “You'll have t'react quicker than that when we're airborne again, lady. We're here.”
“Will ya kindly desist from attacking me, sister? What did I ever do to you, eh?” Zena looked through the windscreen at their surroundings, rubbing her elbow ostentatiously the while. “Well, another bleak spot in Orkney. Are there any other kind? So, what have we got here? A rough track that should be ashamed to call itself a road; poor-looking hedges or simply wire fences enclosing fields empty of any living thing; rolling landscape that cuts off any long view, except in the direction of that lake. Say, is that Lake Stenness, or Lake Harray?”
“That is Loch Harray, dear.” Gabrielle's voice held an infinity of superiority. “Haven't you got acclimatised to the language yet?”
“ Uur! Now, let's count the tombs we can see.” Zena was well launched on an Odyssey of sarcasm again. “Will we be alright with our fingers to count? Or should we break out pencil an' paper? OK, let's see. Er—er—er. Well, don't just sit there, point out any one single tomb in sight. Go on, I dare ya!”
This wasn't just peevishness on the driver's part. Indeed the surrounding landscape did indeed seem curiously lacking in any point of interest. The land on their right rolled away in slowly rising slopes holding absolutely nothing to catch the eye. Even down on what might be termed the plains near the loch shores there was nothing to break the monotony except a small hill in the middle distance. Apart from which there were only sheep and cattle enclosures, along with the odd farmhouse.
They both got out the truck, slamming the doors behind them, and considered the view. The loch; the rising ground on one hand; the hedges and fields around them; one small hill.
“Gabs, I hate t'break this t'you but there isn't anything at all t'see here; because there ain't anything at all t'see here!”
“Oh, very funny. You ever thought'a going on the stage.” Gabrielle could be sarcastic too. “You'd beat the Crazy Gang hands down.”
“You certain it was a tomb marked on your map?” Zena gave her companion a dubious look. “Sure it wasn't just a fly-speck your poor eyes couldn't focus on?”
“ Huurph! Idiot!”
But, nevertheless, Gabrielle unfolded the map and scrutinised it carefully, before grabbing the tall one's arm and pulling her closer.
“Look, Zena. See that sort'a squiggly ring at the edge of the track?” Gabrielle nodded in certainty. “The word Maeshowe is right next to it. So it must be the tomb.”
“But look around, Gabs, there ain't anything here.” Zena swung an arm in a semi-circle. “Fields, fences, a small hill; rolling slopes goin' up to the skyline; a lak—loch; nothing else. There ain't any holes in the ground, or stone slabs like in a graveyard. Only a few muddy tracks leading over the fields, like this one beside us that seems t'be goin' in the direction o' that small hill over there. Nothing else. There is no tomb. D'you suppose it's some kind'a cartographer's joke?”
While Zena continued with her contumely of the landscape at large Gabrielle had been considering, under a raised palm to shade her eyes, the small hill a few hundred yards away. Now the blonde explorer turned to Zena with a questioning expression.
“Zena, darling, shut up a moment. Thanks.” The blonde certainly knew how to halt a diatribe. “Y'see that hill over there. No, don't laugh, this is serious. Anything strike you about it?”
“No. It's a hill, so what?” Zena couldn't really spare any interest for the object in question. “What we want is a hole in the ground, where they used t'bury people.”
“I don't think so, Zena.” Gabrielle was not at all disconcerted, but carried on staring at the hill. “That hill has a circular ditch round it; this trail here leads straight to it; that hill isn't a hill, it's a mound—can't you see that? And it looks like no other hill I've ever seen in the Orkneys. How about you, Zena?”
The tall woman finally stopped to give the hill her full attention. An appreciable amount of time went by. Zena stared at the mound as if her life depended on it, while a full slow minute sauntered by. Then she came to a decision.
“God, you're right, Gabrielle.” She stared at her companion in amazement. “It ain't natural, once you really look at it. Ya mean t'say that hill is artificial? That people long ago actually built it from the ground up? God, it must'a taken years.”
“I don't know about that, Zena.” Gabrielle shrugged as they made their way to the narrow muddy lane, enclosed by wooden-staked wire fencing on each side. “But Prof MacDonald called it a chambered tomb, y'remember? And a chamber has to be inside something, doesn't it? Well?”
“God! This I can't wait t'see. I'll get the torches from the truck. Just a mo'.” Zena disappeared under the canvas screen lowered above the tailgate, till all Gabrielle could see was her butt squirming around. Then she emerged with the two long-cased torches. Zena proceeded to lead the way down the muddy path, taking long strides that Gabrielle had to work to keep up with.
“Slow down, can't you.” The blonde was puffing already. “Gim'me a chance. I ain't a cheetah, y'know. It ain't goin' anywhere.”
On reaching the outer ringed ditch which surrounded the structure it was at once apparent that the mound was artificial. On close inspection it appeared to be around twenty-five feet high and something over 100 feet in diameter. The wide circle of the ditch was protected by a steep grass-covered earthen rampart maybe ten feet high. There was a well-worn path showing the women where to climb up this defence and, on so doing, come face to face with the mound at close range. It was overpoweringly impressive at first sight, and both stopped to gaze at the mighty structure in awe.
Another path led round one side, and this the intrepid explorers followed till they came upon the entrance. This was protected by a low stone wall on each side and was about eight feet tall. A large wooden door, firmly closed, barred any further progress.
“How big d'you suppose the chamber is, inside?” Gabrielle brushed her chin with the hand holding her torch, which she now switched on. “Will we need to crawl along a long dirty dark tunnel, or what?”
“Scared of the dark are ya, Gabs?” Zena turned on her own torch, partially blinded herself by looking into the lens to see if it was working, and sniggered as she gazed at her fellow explorer with watery eyes. “Nah. I hope it'll be a little more manageable than that. Here, is this door locked?”
A strong turn of the straight handle confirmed at once that whoever oversaw the historical site didn't worry much about thieves—the door gave way instantly at Zena's touch and swung wide; revealing a dim stone-lined passage leading into darkness. This was quite clean and un-cluttered by debris, but was only about three feet high. It was obvious that, as Gabrielle had suspected, a certain amount of crawling would need to be done after all.
“Oh, you were right, Gabs.” Zena stepped back and ushered her companion ahead with a polite gesture. “You first.”
“Thanks awfully!” Gabrielle sneered with intent, then stepped up to the low entrance.
A quick inspection with her torch, which shone on stone floor, stone walls, and stone ceiling, satisfied her that there were no obstacles. She crouched down, held her torch out ahead of her, and started to shuffle forward. She stopped for a moment as Zena joined her, coming up close behind and blocking most of the external daylight. Then Gabrielle carried on. She didn't try to hurry, taking things carefully instead. It soon became something of an effort, crouching so low, and moving along at the same time. The tunnel proved to be not far short of forty feet in length, by the latter stages of which Gabrielle could hear un-restricted comments of a crude and gruesome New Zealand vulgarity echoing from behind her. Eventually a wide space seemed to open up ahead and she struggled along the last foot of the tunnel and stood upright again; an instant later Zena was beside her. They both breathed a sigh of relief.
“Say, this place is bigger than I thought.” Zena flashed her torch around, then upwards. “Great God! Look at that?”
The women found themselves standing in a square chamber about fifteen feet on each side. Zena pointing her torch upwards had revealed the twelve foot high corbelled roof. The whole structure being built with slabs of stone of varying size. The corbelled roof, where stones on all sides were gradually set further and further in from the stone below, gave a sort of curved-ceiling effect; till the stones met high above to close the roof in. On either side of the low entrance, and at the far corners of the room, were tall restraining stones almost as high as the Standing Stones outside, and with the same angled tops. The stone floor, walls, and roof made the women sound, when they spoke, as if they were in a large cathedral or huge Hall.
“My God, Zena! This is nothing like what I expected.” Gabrielle was overawed by the grandeur of the room. “This is fantastic.”
It was quite dark and shadowy with the only illumination coming from two torches, whose opposing beams made the dark corners flicker and waver as if there were unseen entities hiding there. But the women took time to explore the large space with sustained interest. After all, they were there on a mission.
“Look, Zena. There are some side-chambers, through these square apertures on the three walls.” Gabrielle ducked low to stretch forward and peer into one, her voice echoing even more strangely. “There's a smaller chamber here. About five feet by maybe four feet. Stone walled again, an' flat-roofed.”
“The other two are the same, from what I can tell.” Zena called this information over from where she was leaning half-in the opposing small access-space. “I see these entrances are about two feet above main-floor level, an' so is the small chamber inside.”
The two women met again in the centre of the main room to compare results. The whole place was far more interesting, and yet mysterious, than either had thought possible.
“It's just amazing.” Gabrielle said what was on both their minds. “To think this is around, er, three thousand years old; maybe more. Unbelievable.”
“So, what d'you think about your dream, or vision.” Zena came back to the important purpose of their visit. “This whole place is great, but how does it hold up regarding what you saw?”
“Well, I don't know exactly.” Gabrielle swivelled round slowly, taking in her surroundings in detail. “There's a sort'a feelin', I can't really describe it. Kind'a like a partly forgotten memory. Something you know happened, but you just can't quite bring it back.”
“Take your time.” Zena regarded her friend intently; after all, what happened in the next few minutes might have a resounding effect on both their lives. “There's no hurry. I don't think we'll be disturbed by any other tourists, somehow.”
Gabrielle slowly walked all round the echoing room, returning to Zena's side with a thoughtful expression. Then her gaze switched back to the square aperture in the left-hand wall she had investigated earlier.
“There's something about that .” She stepped closer to the small entrance. “I don't know. A feelin'. I'm goin' in. Zena. T'take a look. Maybe there's something inside.”
“Be careful, then.” Zena felt unsure of the whole thing, but stepped forward to give the explorer a hand as she clambered up and in the opening. “Watch your step. Hold onto the edges tightly. Move your knees along slowly—”
“Enough, already!” Gabrielle's voice was full of complaint. “It's only a small hole. There! I'm through. Hey, I can stand up—that's something.”
“So, what d'ya see?”
“Nothing. It's just a small room. Flat roof, flat floor, flat walls; all smooth stone. Hold on, there's some scratches on one wall I can't make out. Lem'me see.”
A moment passed then Gabrielle's head appeared again on the far side of the opening.
“Some kind'a runic symbols, I think.” Her voice had a curious faraway echo to it; her words seeming to reverberate endlessly in the smaller chamber. “Y'know, Prof MacDonald said quite a lot about Vikings having been in Orkney. They must'a scratched their calling-cards on the walls.”
“Humph! Anything else?” The thought of Viking graffiti didn't affect the New Zealander as being significant. “No old bones, or bits of fabric, or rusty old weapons, or somebody's skull?”
“What you're looking for, Zena, is a miracle.” Came the echoing reply. “Wasn't it an old Victorian who first opened this place up? An' there have been hundreds of archaeologists through here since. Every last bit of the Neolithic people's dirty washing that may have been here is long gone, sister.”
“ Cruunch! Skraash !”
“Jesus! What's happened, Gabs?”
“It's OK. It's OK. A stone just fell out'ta one wall. Right on the floor.”
“I'm comin' in. Make room.”
An instant later Zena had more or less jumped through the narrow aperture leading to the smaller chamber and semi-crouched beside her friend. The roof was just too low for her to stand quite upright. On the far side of the chamber a small stone around six inches high and eighteen inches long had come free from its original position about two feet above the floor and crashed to the ancient flagstones. It was one of the smaller stones there, being only around a foot in depth. It had left a dark shadowy gap in the wall. Gabrielle was first to walk over and bend down to examine the stone.
“Just another like all the rest here, Zena.” She gently felt its surface. “The same kind'a stone. Don't know why it dropped out now.”
“Ya must'a disturbed it somehow.” Zena gazed down at the object. “It's small, but probably heavy. Good job it didn't land on your foot. The vibration when you clambered into this room must have weakened it.”
“Hey, I can see something in the gap it left. There's something there, Zena.”
Gabrielle, from her crouching position, could see right into the dark void left by the stone's fall. She peered closely, then stretched an arm into the space. Zena stood nervously behind her. When her hand came back out she was clutching a wide ring of metal. It was in the shape of a hollow circle with a diameter of about fourteen inches, the metal band being about three inches wide, yet remarkably thin; its outer edge almost sharp.
“What's that?” Zena looked over her friend's shoulder as she raised it to eye-level.
“God, I don't know. I'm not an archaeologist, Zena.” Gabrielle grumbled at this asinine question. “It might be anything. Look, there's decoration all round the ring. Sort'a interlocked squares. Is that gold engraving on it, too?”
“Gab, I think you've found Treasure Trove.” Zena nodded at her own perspicacity. “Yeah, that's what this is. That means it belongs to the Government; you'll have t'hand it over.”
For answer the blonde discoverer just gave her companion a pitiful look, and returned to her discovery.
“Finder's keepers, Zena.” She grunted with annoyance as she examined the trophy again. “Nobody gets to lay their everlovin' mitts on this till I know what the hell it has to do with that vision I saw. Come on Zena, let's get the hell out'ta here back to the camp. I wan'na think about this.”
Zena had been standing beside Gabrielle, as much as the small proportions of the room would allow. Now, unthinkingly, she stretched out a bare hand and gripped the ring's edge. Gabrielle was already holding the right–hand side so, for the first time, both women held the ring together. The result was even more dramatic than what had happened back at the Ring of Brodgar the day before.
There was no sense of pain, or electrifying shock. The walls of the small room just seemed to vanish in a mist. A mist which cleared as suddenly as it had arrived, to reveal a panorama of tall leafy trees on all sides and a long trail meandering away under them. A forest path, in fact. And on this trail were two riders with their mounts. The day seemed to be bright and sunny, with no breeze. There was a scent of grass and pine in the air. The leading rider was a tall dark-haired woman on a yellowish horse, while her companion rode a smaller brown steed. Although dressed in an exotic manner, with bare legs and heavy boots, both women were easily recognisable as mirror-images of Zena and Gabrielle. The tall woman, clearly displaying a somewhat more menacing attitude than her blonde partner, leaned forward and spoke to both amazed spectators.
“Take it back where it came from. Amphipo—”
The scene wavered, dispersing in a wash of scintillating light, then the two women were back in the small chamber inside the tomb again. With one impulse they let go of the metal ring, which dropped with an echoing clang to the floor. Zena and Gabrielle simply looked at each other, speechless for the moment.
But that didn't last long. Zena regained control of her vocal chords first, and made good use of them.
“What the hell! Did you see that?” She turned to Gabrielle, who was watching her with wide green eyes. “That was—was the damndest thing ever. What just happened?”
“You tell me, Zena.” Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders, and glanced at the ring lying on the floor at her feet. “But now you've had the same kind'a experience I had yesterday. What d'you think about that?”
“I think we're both gettin' out of here as fast as possible.” Zena turned to the small exit leading to the main chamber. “I've had enough of this for one visit. Bring the ring. I wan'na examine it later, back in camp.”
“Oh, yeah, let me do the dirty work.” Gabrielle mutinied immediately. “I ain't gon'na touch that thing again. Not after what it just did. I've had experience, y'know.”
Zena, who was already halfway through the square exit, paused and gave a sigh. Then, with some difficulty, she turned round and clambered back into the small annex.
“Oh well, if that's the way ya feel. I suppose if you got'ta do something, ya got'ta do it yourself.” She followed this sage advice by leaning down with hand outstretched. But Gabrielle grabbed her hand in a tight grip.
“Are you out'ta your mind, woman?” The blonde spoke with feeling. “Touch that again, an' who knows what'll happen.”
Zena thought about this for a few seconds, then straightened slightly and pulled her gloves from her waistbelt.
“Here we go again!” She made sure the gloves were on tightly, then turned to stare at the ring on the floor once more. “This is gettin' to be a damned difficult day, what with one thing an' another. OK, here's the drill, Gab. I pick up the ring; if nothing happens, great; if I go up in a blue flash, bury me at sea.”
Receiving nothing in return but an anguished groan, Zena bent again to grip the ring and stand up with it in her left hand. There was a pause while both waited for what might follow. There was only silence. Eventually Gabrielle came up close and looked first at the ring, then Zena.
“I think you're gon'na be alright. Must be the gloves.” She stepped back to give Zena space. “You go first, an' be careful. I'll be right behind you. Zena, don't make it do anything scary again.”
“As if I had anything t'do with it. OK, come on. Let's get the hell out'ta here. I never want to see Maeshowe again, ever.”
Their Nissen hut seemed the height of comfort and safety, when they returned sometime after midday. The only gloomy point being the presence of the ring. Zena had placed it on the wooden table, cleared of documents for the purpose, and both sat on the edges of their beds well away from it. The point under discussion, of course, was what to do.
“We can't just tell the authorities.” Gabrielle was going over the obvious no-no's. “They'll only want to know how we got involved; then ask what the hell we thought we were doing; then decline to believe anything we say about those vision things we had. Wouldn't put it past them t'lock us both up in strait-jackets for the duration.”
“Going back to the Ring of Brodgar doesn't seem feasible, either.” Zena shrugged disconsolately. “The stones'd just zap us again. Where's the profit in that? An' I ain't goin' back to Maeshowe.”
“Me neither, ducks.” Gabrielle contrived to shiver in disgust. “Beig zapped ain't the sort'a feeling I go out'ta my way for. So, what do we do with that thing there?”
They contemplated the seemingly inert metal ring on the table. Thin, unassuming, motionless; but giving off an aura of danger that was almost visible to the women.
“What's it made of, anyway?”
“Steel, I think.” Zena puckered her brow in concentration. “Iron would'a rusted to powder by this time. What d'you suppose it is?”
“God. I'm beginning to think it may be some kind'a weapon.” Gabrielle eyed her companion musingly. “Though how it works, I don't know.”
“Say, how about takin' it to Prof MacDonald? He'd know.”
“Good idea, Gabs.” Zena nodded in acknowledgement. “It's still only 1.45 p. m. I'll wrap the damned thing in a thick piece of blanket; you see if the truck needs more juice. You're drivin' this time; I wan'na have a doze on the way there. Got'ta keep my strength up.”
“A what?” Gabrielle was mystified.
“A chakra, or chakram.” Prof MacDonald, prised away from some esoteric examination of a piece of rock, had happily taken a look at their relic; though grumbling at both women's insistence he wear gloves. “They pop up all through Asiatic history. A weapon, you know. Thrown with violent force and intent at an enemy. Properly used they could be very effective. Arms cut off, as heads also. Massive fatal wounds to the limbs and body. Nasty things, actually. You wouldn't want to see one coming at you in a brawl.”
“Can you pinpoint the place it came from, Prof?” Zena looked intently at the academic. “Y'see, it's important we find out its origin.”
“Well, let's see.” Prof MacDonald raised it high to have a close look at its details. “It's certainly not a Chinese wind-and-fire wheel. They had dagger-like blades round the exterior, and hand-grips. Neither is it Mongol, they had outside blades too. I put Indonesia or Tibet out of the running; their weapons had a much more torus-like shape.”
“Torus, Prof?” Zena struck in with this request for information.
“Ah, sort of a complete spherical ring.” Prof MacDonald smiled as he scratched his chin in search of a clear explanation. “The edges aren't sharpened; they don't actually have edges, anyway. A typical torus would be, say, a doughnut. A round circle, with a hole in the middle, forming a blunt ring. A bicycle inner tube is again a torus.”
“Doesn't sound much of a weapon.” Gabrielle was scathing. “The Tibetans can keep ‘em.”
“Ahem!” The Prof showed no sign of being put off by these interruptions. “To continue. After due consideration, including examination of the metal, design, and engravings; and also because I've seen several just like this one in the British Museum, and can remember the contents of the explanation cards beside them, I can confidently state that this particular example is Grecian. Ancient Greece. The Hellenic Period, to be exact. Say around 300 B. C.”
Before either woman could stop the old man he peeled off his gloves and took the ring in his bare hand to run his fingers over the engraved flat surface. Nothing happened.
“Yes, a fine example.” He nodded in satisfaction, then offered it to Zena. “It would be the centre of a very fine collection. Or, contrariwise, it would sell for a reasonable price in London. There you are, Zena. A little light oil rubbed over it now and again; but don't try to scrub it with harsh detergents or anything like that. Must preserve the surface at all costs. Here, you can have it back.”
Zena grimaced at the offered weapon. She glanced at Gabrielle, who only grimaced back, then stepped forward and took the ring in a firm grip. Gabrielle closed her eyes and screwed her face up in anticipation of disaster. Again, nothing happened.
The Professor had already pottered off back to his mysterious piece of rock, so did not see the glances inter-changed between the women as Zena stood like a statue holding the weapon. Finally it was Gabrielle who moved. She took a step forward and gripped the opposite side of the ring from Zena, with her bare hand. The two stood together holding the ring between them. Nothing happened. Only silence, broken by faint cracks from the wainscot, the rustling of a curtain at an open window, and some politely muttered cursing from across the wide room as the Professor dropped a significant piece of oolite on his foot.
“Well, Gabs, seems like the damn thing's lost its mojo.”
“It ain't dangerous anymore.” Zena raised her eyebrows. “An' I can't say I ain't pleased. So, what do we do now?”
“Oh, I got a plan, baby.” Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically, as she eyed the weapon now being held only by Zena. “We wait till Thursday an' the arrival of our new Walrus. We take the bird up for a test flight. We fly way over the deep North Atlantic; open a side-window, an' deep-six the damned thing. That'll put an end to its machinations.”
“Wow, Gabs, that's a big word.”
“Can it, sister. We're goin' home.” The blonde turned to the now limping academic. “Thanks for your help, Prof. G'bye. Zena says g'bye, too.”
The Austin Utility truck was tucked up for the night, under a wide tarpaulin stolen—liberated—from a nearby Army camp on the basis, as Gabrielle has said at the time, of who needs—takes. The women had made themselves comfortable in the warm Nissen hut, the stove giving off a fine heat. A solid dinner at the NAAFI had put them both in good moods, and the chakram was safely stowed away in a tin box at the rear of the hut. Everything was, in fact, hunky-dory.
“Well, it's been a day and a half, eh Zena?”
“Two days, actually.” Zena put a bottle of beer to her lips and took a hearty swig. “Mmph! That's good. Yeah, we both get zapped by a piece of rock; then you get zapped by the same piece of rock again. That stone really took umbrage at ya, didn't it Gabs. Anyway, then we both get zapped again today by that bloody ring.—”
“Say, Zena. Know what?” Gabrielle set her own bottle down on the table where they were both seated. “That means I got zapped three times, to your two. What does that make me?”
Both women considered each other over the table, then broke into loud laughter at the same time. Finally Gabrielle contained herself enough to reply.
“Ain't that just the truth, sister.” She swigged from her beer bottle again, then smiled at her friend. “We got'ta think about all this, y'know. I don't think we can get rid of the ring off-hand, like I said earlier. There's some hidden meaning to how an' why it was kind'a pointed out to us. There's something we need to do with it.”
“You may be right.” Zena nodded in agreement. “I saw those two women in that forest on their horses—an' they were as real then as you are to me now. It was something much more than a mere dream or hallucination. They wanted us to do something with the ring; the question is, what?”
“As I remember the tall dark dangerous woman said ‘ Take it to Amphy ', or something like that.” Gabrielle frowned as she shifted on her chair.
“I think it was ‘ Amphipo '. That's what she said. ‘ Take it back. To Amphipo .' I heard her clearly.” Zena pursed her lips in thought. “Question is, where's that?”
“We got a whole pile of Admiralty charts that Lieutenant gave you when we visited his destroyer a few weeks ago.” Gabrielle rose and went to the large cupboard behind her bed. “They're in here, rolled up. You know, the destroyer that was going to be de-commissioned, an' you said you had a use for the charts an' showed your security passes to the Captain? You never told me what you wanted with a crate-full of sea-charts.”
“I had a purpose, Gabs, I had a purpose.” Zena grinned. “So, where do we start looking?”
Gabrielle straightened up from the crouch she had adopted to reach the bundle on the floor of the cupboard, and staggered over to the table where she deposited her wares.
“Y'remember the Prof said the chakram was Grecian?” Gabrielle sat down and began searching through the separate rolled charts. “Come on, lend a hand. We want the maps for Greece. Then all we do is look for Amphipo, or somewhere similar.”
At this point Zena, who had taken a bundle of maps for her own, glanced at Gabrielle and frowned. The heart of the enterprise had now presented itself, in glorious two-strip Technicolor, to her deductive reasoning.
“Suppose we find the place, Gabs.” Zena spoke with quiet enquiring simplicity. “What then? I mean, so what? We can't go to Greece. There's a war on, y'know. An' a significant portion of it is going on in Greece right now.”
Gabrielle paused in her search; she dropped the map she had been scrutinising; then folded her arms on the table and gave her opposite number a subdued glance.
“Er, er. That's true, ain't it.” Gabrielle lowered her head to look vaguely at the map open before her, then raised her gorgeous green eyes to Zena once more with rekindled zeal. “We can wait. Yeah, we just wait.”
“Wait, Gabs. For what?”
“For the War to finish, of course.” The blonde pilot nodded, as if at a perfectly logical assumption. “We wait for the ceasefire; go out to Greece; find the place we want; an' —”
“An' what, darling?”
“An' we consider our options when we get there, That's what.” Gabrielle responded with the bright smile of one who was perfectly satisfied with the course of events. “What? Why're you lookin' so—so half-and-half? It's a plan.”
“Darling, Chamberlain had a plan to get Hitler's signature on a piece of paper at Munich. Look where that got him.” Zena was nothing if not realistic. “We need a plan, yes; but a better plan than that.”
“So what are we goin' t'do in the meantime.” Gabrielle gave in gracefully, but not without a fight. “That is, while you're searching for your perfect plan? I only ask.”
“What we do right now, girl, is down another bottle of beer each; listen to the jazz that's on the radio for an hour; then go to bed.” The tall New Zealander smiled and winked at her friend. “Everything'll look different in the morning. Or so my Grannie was always telling me when I was a little child.”
Gabrielle went over to switch on the radio and find the channel with the jazz. For a moment, as she turned the dial they heard the familiar sneering tones of Lord Haw-Haw giving one of his evening propaganda speeches. Both women groaned in unison.
“That man'll have t'go, y'know Gabs.” Zena shook her head in distaste. “If I ever meet him I'll sock him on the jaw. Bastard!”
“You, an' half a million other people, Zena. An' I'll be next in line behind you.” Gabrielle continued swivelling the dial, and was finally rewarded by the golden tones of Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke. “Here, this'll do nicely. Come over an' sit beside me on my bed, Zena. I like listening to the radio that way.”
Zena laughed, but accepted the invitation and sat down beside Gabrielle on the mattress. It was nice, and friendly, and somehow comforting to relax together so companionably. I could get to like this , she thought, I really could .
“Zena, what about the ring, the chakram?”
“Damn the chakram. Listen. Bix is goin' to do a solo. God, this is heaven, ain't it, Gabs?”
And Gabrielle leaned comfortably against the arm of her companion, and thought so too.
1. Loch Stenness is actually a sea-loch. Only Loch Harray is land-locked, though it flows into its neighbour.
2. The Standing Stones of Stenness, the Watch-stone, the Ring of Brodgar, and Maeshowe are all real monuments as close together as the story implies.
3. The Black Country is an area of the English West Midlands, north of Birmingham and south of Wolverhampton, noted for its heavy widespread industrialisation in former times.
4. ‘ The Lancet ' is a British medical journal, still published today.
5. The Forces Programme, and the Home Service were the two major radio channels run by the BBC during the early part of WW2. Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields, Arthur Askey, and Valentine Dyall were all famous at the time.
6. Bass was, and still is, a famous brand of bottled beer.
7. The Crazy Gang were a group of six male comedians who performed on radio and in films in the late thirties and war years. The most famous were Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen.
8. The landscape details, setting of the monument, and interior layout of Maeshowe are as accurate as I could make them.
9. Prof MacDonald's explanations of the various types & origins of chakrams are all correct.
10. Oolite is a sedimentary rock.
11. ‘Lost its mojo'. This phrase actually dates to the early 1920's, and would have been known to Zena in the 1940's.
12. Deep-six. The earliest references to this phrase also date from the 1920's.
13. Liberated tarpaulin. There was a widespread urban myth that a lot of light thievery went on in Army camps.
14. Two-strip Technicolor. An early process for colour film, mostly based on red/green filters.
15. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938. This allowed Hitler to annexe parts of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, to Germany. This was later seen as a failed act of appeasement towards Germany and Hitler (who secretly rejected and dismissed the non-aggression contents of the agreement while the ink was still wet on the document).
16. Lord Haw-Haw. William Joyce, American born and raised in Ireland, fled to Germany at the start of the war and became famous for Nazi propaganda radio broadcasts from Hamburg. He had a nasal drawl which contributed to the sarcastic nick-name given him by British listeners. He was hanged for treason in Wandsworth Prison in January, 1946.
17. Frankie Trumbauer was one of the leading jazz saxophonists of the 1920's and 30's. Bix Beiderbecke was a great jazz cornetist and pianist of the late twenties and early 30's. The two were great friends and recorded many discs together. Bix died in 1931 of alcoholism at the age of 28. Trumbauer died in 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 55.
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